Index Post

Sep. 28th, 2015 08:46 pm

This journal is dedicated to hosting StarWatcher's fanfiction for The Sentinel. My stories are gen, with a few (clearly marked) exceptions. Most are slice-of-life tales that focus on the friendship between Jim and Blair. Stories are listed in reverse order of writing, most recent at the top of the list. Each link will take you directly to the story, just as on a standard web-page.

Please note that "The Sentinel", as well as the characters of Jim, Blair, and the other members of the Major Crime Unit of the Cascade Police Department, actually belong to Pet Fly and Paramount. I'm playing in their universe for fun, not profit, and having a grand old time along the way.

For those who are new to The Sentinel, I have compiled background information for the show and characters, with pictures. Those with slow internet may prefer a text version of the background information, with only one picture.

If you're looking for more Sentinel fanfic, I have a list of fanfic resources for The Sentinel.

MY APOLOGIES! I thought I had this account set to allow anonymous comments, but the wrong box was ticked. I think it's fixed now, and I apologize to all those who couldn't get in to comment.

And now, on to the stories. Happy reading!

54   Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow   1.3 pages.   Sentinel and Guide are introspective.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

53   Through the I.U.I   12 pages.   Blair hasn't quite fallen through the looking-glass.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

52   By Another Name   7 pages.   Some words change our perspective.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

51   Necessity is the Mother...   4 pages.   Inventions R Us, Sandburg style.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

50   Pretty Ribbons to Say   .75 page.   'Trinkets' can be much more...
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

49   Just Another Sandburg Moment   8.5 pages.   It was supposed to be a simple trip to the bank.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

48   Unique and Unusual   10 pages.   Jim knows when something is important to Blair.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

47   Eye of the Beholder   30 pages.   Friends and family aren't always an easy mix, but maybe that can be changed.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

46   Kidnapped!   16 pages.   Who the heck is 'the boss', and why does he want Blair?
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

45   Spring Has Sprung   7 pages.   Kite-flying for fun and... fun.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

44   Need to Know   44 pages.   Blair's dreams after Incacha's death will lead him on a quest.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

43   Blame it on Garmina   5 pages.   Department of Stupid Excuses.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

42   Rain, Rain, Go Away   12 pages.   The rain is driving Blair crazy.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

41   Them's the Breaks   8 pages.   It can be surprising who's 'essential'.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

40   Story in progress.

39   Quacks Like a Duck   10 pages.   Blair and animals -- always more complicated than expected.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

38   Merry Christmas, Chief (gen)   25 pages.   Christmas = Friendship + Snow + Love.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

38   Merry Christmas, Chief (slash)   27 pages.   Christmas = Friendship + Snow + Love.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

37   All That Glitters   54 pages.   Jim and Blair are still learning to work together while dealing with a troublesome case.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

36   Zucchini, Tomatoes and Corn, Oh My!   13 pages.   Blair becomes embroiled in a tasty enthusiasm.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

35   Lucky Two Hundred   .3 pages.   Blair's mess is organized -- really it is!
                    Light style; black font on white page.

34   Bryd's-Eye View   12 pages.   A new detective is introduced to Major Crimes.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

33   One Bright Summer   63 pages.   Sixteen-year-old Jim is training for a steeplechase, and meets seven-year-old Blair hanging around the stables.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

32   ...Of the Plains   .25 pages.   Descriptive scene.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

31   It's About Friendship   32 pages.   Christmas + Friendship.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

30   Wreath of Friendship   .5 pages.   Christmas Challenge -- "Wreath".
                    Light style; black font on white page.

29   Just Desserts   9 pages.   What had he done to deserve this?
                    Light style; black font on white page.

28   Sentinel Haiku   .1 pages.   Series summary, in haiku.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

27   The Misty Solitudes   26 pages.   While camping, Jim and Blair meet a local legend.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

26   Years May Come, Years May Go   14 pages.   Major Crime celebrates with a friend..
                    Light style; black font on white page.

25   Ships that Pass...   8 pages.   A soldier protects a college student, just before a mission.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

24   For the Children   6 pages.   Blair's Halloween project grows bigger than he expected.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

23   Windsong   16 pages.   Jim is afraid Blair intends to leave, and Takes Steps.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

22   Stakeout   5 pages.   Blair is bored; Jim gets his man.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

21   Small Victories   5 pages.   Jim helps out with Blair's good deed.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

Interlude   Personality Questionnaire   4 pages.   Jim and Blair answer a few questions.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

19   For Services Rendered   2 pages.   Sometimes doing a favor pays off.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

18   Watching Him Sleep   2/3 page.   Late-night thoughts after a difficult case.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

17   The Honor of Friendship   4 pages.   Jim receives a letter that disturbs him.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

16   Unfinished snippet. Maybe someday...

15   Oh, Good Grief!   1 page.   Some people have wa-a-ay too much time on their hands.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

14   You Damned Well Better   6 pages.   Missing scene for TSbyBS.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

13   Of Rain and Rainbows   4 pages.   Post TsbyBS, a shared domestic moment.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

12   'Tis the Season   9 pages.   Christmas is a time for gifts and... senses testing.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

11   Lessons in Social Dynamics   2 pages.   Blair mixes Christmas and sentinel sensitivity.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

10   Spam Dealings (gen)   3 pages.   Blair vents, Jim reasons.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

10   Spam Dealings (slash)   3 pages.   Blair vents, Jim reasons.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

09   He Who Laughs Last...   4 pages.   Blair hatches a get-even scheme.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

07   Xena Studies   3 pages.   Blair finds sentinel clues in unusual places.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

"Letters" Trilogy

06   Letter to Blair   8 pages.   Jim writes an unmailable letter.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

08   Letter to Jim   11 pages.   Blair's letter tells Jim of his hopes and plans.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

20   Moving Forward   60 pages.   Resolution of the two letters.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

05   A Word from Our Sponsor   5 pages.   Blair snarks, but Jim is amused.
                    Light style; black font on white page.

04   Once More Into the Breach   14 pages.   It seems that our boys will never manage to have an uneventful camping trip.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

03   Cleanliness is Next To...   3 pages.   What happens when someone gets careless about cleaning?
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

02   Spreading the Word   6 pages.   What does a helpful grad student do for his friends?
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.

01   Glorified Calisthenics   5 pages.   Blair does a favor for Megan, and Jim learns that some things aren't as easy as he thought.
                    Light style; black font on white page.
        Also available at Artifact Storage Room #3   and at   Archive of Our Own.


Title: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
Summary: Sentinel and Guide are introspective.
Style: Gen
Size: 800 words
Warnings: None
Notes: Dues for March, 2013.
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-

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

by StarWatcher

Yesterday, I thought I was going crazy. I couldn't possibly see what I thought I was seeing, hear what I thought I was hearing. How could sunglasses not make a dent in the headache-inducing brightness of the sunlight? How could shirts that I'd worn countless times before start feeling like burlap -- if not sandpaper -- against my skin? My workplace, that I've had no problems with for five years, was becoming intolerable. The doctors could find nothing wrong, and referred me to a psychiatrist. Seemed like the only choice left was to become a hermit somewhere in the back of beyond.

Yesterday, I had an unattainable dream. I'd found people with one or two enhanced senses, but only rumors of people able to use all five at elevated levels. Those amazing individuals were always 'from my grandfather's time', or 'living with the tribe up the river', but I never found them. I wanted to believe, searched for so many years, all over this wide and varied world, but came up bupkis. I almost gave up looking; it seemed hopeless. When I met you that day, I was excited to think you might be my dream... but still expecting to be disappointed.

Today, I know I'm sane, but wonder if crazy would be easier. 'Dial it up' -- or down -- 'piggyback' this sense to that, 'split your attention so you don't zone'... it's not as easy as you seem to think. Did those early sentinels manage so easily, or did they struggle as I do? Could they handle their senses without a guide at their back? If I'm supposed to be able to do this alone, I don't know if I can. What will I do if you leave? There's a chasm in front of me; without your help, there's no way forward.

Today, I know my dreams were so much less than reality; I found not just a sentinel, but a truly good man. I'm blown away by the strength and compassion you demonstrate as you protect your tribe. I wonder if 'protective instinct' is a sense that can also be heightened, or if that's just who you are and always will be, sentinel or not. I didn't know I'd become your guide -- teacher, and backup for your senses -- but it feels 'right', even destined. I never suspected that, when I found my sentinel, I'd finally find a purpose for my life.

Tomorrow... 'aye, there's the rub'. How many 'tomorrow's can we sustain this... partnership? You decided against Borneo, but there'll be other expeditions, other opportunities to leave. If nothing else -- after your diss, when you're a tenured professor, I doubt you'll be able to follow a grumpy cop who's fighting his wonky senses. I imagine 30 years with your help, fine-tuning my sentinel skills, but I can't honestly see it. If you're gone, all I see is darkness, and my senses driving me to madness. I hate being dependent on another person, but I don't have a choice. Will you stay?

Tomorrow... is a realm of exciting opportunities. When you really develop control of your senses... the possibilities are dizzying. Cascade will become the safest city in America, because smart criminals will go elsewhere to find prey, and you'll catch the dumb ones. I want to be part of that, helping you figure out more effective and efficient ways to use your senses, seeing how far they can be expanded, helping protect our city. Yeah, I expect it'll take years, but I'm on board with that; I really think you need me. I am your guide, after all; can I stay?

"Penny for your thoughts, Chief; you look a million miles away."

Blair pulled his gaze from the infinity of the ocean, turning to the man beside him. "More like years away. I was wondering... where do we go from here?"

Jim shifted as his own gaze turned outward; the rocks on the bluff had been comfortable until now. "Back to the loft, I suppose."

"You're not that obtuse." Blair's voice was irritated. "I think we've reached a crossroads. Do we sign up for the long haul, or do we say 'good enough' and call it quits?"

"It's your life, Sandburg. Whatever you decide works for me."

Blair snorted. "It's our lives; we're a team. And you going all 'stoic' makes me think you'd rather I hang around. But you gotta actually say something."

The silence stretched before Jim turned to face him. "I have a feeling the guide is essential to the stability and functioning of the sentinel. Think you can do thirty years?"

"Not a problem." Blair's shoulders relaxed as a grin lit his face. "But don't write yourself off early; I figure at least fifty years."


"Oh, yeah."


Together, guide and sentinel -- friends -- watched the sunset.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: Through the I.U.I.
Summary: Blair hasn't quite fallen through the looking-glass.
Style: Gen
Size: 6,100 words, about 12 pages
Warnings: None
Dedication: To Dolimir, in gratitude for her permission to riff off her story.
Notes: A missing scene for Dolimir’s delightful Calvin and Hobbes story, The Last Frontier. December 2012 dues for SentinelAngst.
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-

Through the I.U.I.

by StarWatcher

From his position under the large oak tree -- an ideal spot to enjoy a warm, late-spring day while grading Anthro 102 essays -- Blair Sandburg watched the goings-on with fascination combined with feelings of inevitability. How come this always happens to me? he wondered. I didn’t used to get this much flak from the universe. Is hanging around with a sentinel causing some kind of probability bleed-through? Or was Incacha’s passing on the ‘Way of the Shaman’ more literal than I realized?

It had to be one or the other. How else to explain the sight of a large, bipedal tiger accosting various students as they crossed the University’s grounds? Since none of said students were screaming and running, even when the tiger grew so frustrated that its furious growling could be heard from where Blair sat watching a hundred yards away, apparently no one else could see it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. The tiger was targeting individual students, walking in front of them and waving its arms -- yes, it seemed to use the front limbs as arms rather than legs -- as it tried to speak to them. When it got no response, it tried mock attacks -- rushing forward as if to pounce -- guaranteed to elicit a reaction even if, for some inexplicable reason, the students had decided en masse to pretend that an actual occurrence wasn’t real. When one student utterly failed to notice anything untoward, the tiger used the same tactics with another student, then another and another.

Oddly enough, the tiger hadn’t tried to touch anyone, and it always moved aside when one of the students might walk through the space it was occupying. Blair wondered why it would care. If it was substantial, touching a student -- or allowing a student to walk into it -- would certainly elicit the notice it seemed to want. But if it wasn’t substantial, and couldn’t touch a student, why move instead of letting a student walk through its space? Was disturbed ectoplasm painful?

Or was Blair merely hallucinating? In which case, nothing had to make any sense, anyway.

Blair deliberately rubbed his hand over the rough bark of the tree against which he sat. It certainly felt real. He plucked a blade of grass from the growth next to his knee and bit into the broken end. His mouth flooded with saliva to wash away the slightly bitter taste. His bodily responses wouldn’t be so realistic if he were hallucinating, would they?

Okay, working hypothesis: the man-sized, bipedal tiger was real, possibly from an alternate reality, or a different plane of existence, or something like that. Get a grip and deal with it! he told himself, as his mind tried to skitter away from the implications. It worked for Star Trek, and ‘the spirit plane’ has worked for shamans throughout time. Treat it like it’s real, and worry about the fallout later.

Okay. Whether or not he was a shaman -- and Blair had thought Incacha passed on a title rather than an actual change in status (or abilities, or thought-patterns, or whatever) -- he was a teacher and a guide, and he tried to be a worthwhile citizen of the planet. In any of those roles, it was up to him to try to help a being in distress... and the tiger certainly seemed to qualify.

First order of business -- bring the tiger over here without attracting the notice of any of the students. Blair sometimes played up his reputation for being ‘quirky’; his students’ belief that nothing fazed him helped generate a more relaxed classroom atmosphere and wider-ranging class discussions. But he didn’t want anyone to notice him having a conversation with apparently thin air; his reputation could easily slide from ‘unconventional’ to ‘ridiculous’.

He essayed a four-toned whistle -- a sort of nonverbal ‘over he-re’ -- at a volume that wouldn’t carry more than ten feet, except to sentinels and animals. Sure enough, the tiger’s head swung around and focused on him; Blair gave him a subtle nod and a restrained thumbs-up. The tiger dropped to all fours to come loping over, then sat and regarded Blair hopefully. “You can see me?” it asked.

English. Not only did it usually -- or at least frequently -- use bipedal locomotion, it spoke normal, everyday, bog-standard English. For some reason, that was the most disconcerting thing so far about this whole situation.

“Uh, yeah,” he stuttered. “I’m Blair Sandburg.”

The tiger snorted. “That’s a sissy name. My name is Hobbes,” he declared with distinct pride.

“Oh yeah? Named for the British philosopher?” It seemed a bit incongruous, somehow.

“That’s inconsequential; I’m me,” Hobbes insisted. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll give it a shot. Help you with what?”

“I need to get home. When I came through, I thought I’d be in Calvin’s world, but he wasn’t here, and so far, you’re the only human who can see me.”

“Okay, let’s take it one step at a time. First, came through where? Second, who’s Calvin?”

Hobbes’s tail twitched in irritation. “Calvin’s my best friend since cubhood, even though we live in alternate universes. Now that we’re grown, he’s a brilliant scientist -- in fact, we both are -- and we’re working on a way to connect our universes. We thought we had it, but when I came through, he wasn’t here. And when I turned around, the I.U.I. was gone, and none of these humans,” the corner of his mouth lifted in a snarl as he turned to view the strolling students, “can see or hear me. I should have expected it, I suppose; none of Calvin’s people have ever seen me, either.” The snarl disappeared, and his whiskers drooped. “They all think I’m a stuffed toy.”

“Well I have to admit, talking tigers aren’t common around here. But I can see you,” Blair pointed out, “and you don’t look very stuffed to me. But it would help if I understood the rest -- what’s an I.U.I, and where?”

“How’s your math?” Hobbes asked with a decided sneer. “And your theoretical physics?”

“Passable on math,” Blair admitted, “but nonexistent on theoretical physics.”

“I have a PhT in both, and --”


“Tigrate of Philosophy,” Hobbes said impatiently. “And Calvin has matching PhDs. We could fill up ten pages with the formulas on our Inter-Universal Interface, and you still wouldn’t understand it, so why should I try to explain it?”

“Point,” Blair agreed. “So how about you just take me to where you came through your I.U.I?”

The tiger snarled softly to indicate... disbelief? Irritation? Blair wasn’t sure. “Oh, just what I need. I’m the preeminent theoretical physicist of my generation, and someone whose grasp is ‘nonexistent’ is going to put his finger on exactly what’s wrong with our I.U.I.”

“Up to you.” Blair shrugged with seeming indifference. “But since you can’t see it, and I can see you when no one else does, maybe I’ll be able to see something about your interface what will tell you how to fix it. Or I could take you to the physics department and let you discuss the problem with Professor Rogers. I’ll even translate for you; I’m sure he’ll understand that I’m just passing on the comments from an invisible talking tiger.”

“You wouldn’t talk so big if I pounced you,” Hobbes declared.

“Pounce away,” Blair said cheerfully. “If you don’t need my help, I’ll just go back to grading essays and you’ll be a great story to tell my partner when I see him.”

“Why do humans have to be so difficult?” The question seemed rhetorical. “Calvin always seems to have problems with his group, too.” Hobbes stood -- on only two feet, again -- and glared down at Blair. “Well, come on; you’ll have to hike.”

“Hiking works,” Blair said easily. He shoved the essays into his backpack and stood, noting that Hobbes was half a head taller. So why should he be any different than the other giants I hang with? he asked himself wryly. Aloud, he added, “Lead on, McDuff.”

The tiger huffed. “I told you, the name is Hobbes.”

“No Shakespeare in your world; got it. Just show me the way.”

Hobbes hadn’t been exaggerating. They left the University, traversed the mile or so of urban territory between the campus and ‘unimproved’ land, climbed a gentle hill, and strode into the forest. They travelled about two more miles before Hobbes stopped and waved his hand -- paw -- upper limb at the area in front of them. “This is it,” he announced.

Blair surveyed the section of forest they’d reached. He saw old pine needles laying in a soft, thick layer on the ground, tree trunks rising all around them while the upper foliage dimmed the light beneath, scattered saplings and wildflowers establishing a hold wherever sunlight broke through the cover of the larger trees. There was nothing at all to suggest Hobbes’s ‘I.U.I.’ “Are you sure?” he asked quietly. “I mean... at this level, one tree looks pretty much like another.”

Hobbes snorted. “Of course I’m sure; I told you, I’m a scientist. “Look; I marked the tree directly in front of me when I stepped out.” The tree he indicated had two sets of four parallel slashes in its bark, crossing each other to form a large X.

“And right here; see?” Hobbes pointed to an area of the ground that showed some scattering of the pine needles. “You can see where I stepped out of the interface; my tracks start in the middle of nowhere.”

Blair looked carefully, but he wasn’t a tracker. The disturbed pine needles might be tiger-tracks, but they might equally have been scuffed by a passing deer or bear. Besides... “Aren’t those tracks, on the other side of where you stepped out?”

“I swear, humans are as ignorant as a six-week-old cub,” Hobbes sneered. He seemed to do a lot of that. “Can’t you tell those tracks are going the other way? When I realized what had happened, I tried to jump back through the interface. I thought, even if I couldn’t see it, it might still be operating.” He shrugged, his tail lashing in agitation. “I hit nothing more than thin air, and landed right -- here.” He stabbed a forward claw into the pine needles.

“Did you hear anything?”

“No explosions, which I half expected if Calvin’s and my universe ever came in contact with each other. Just birds and bugs and other small animal life.”

“I kind of meant...” Blair gestured vaguely toward the space where there was no I.U.I, “ electronic hum, or buzz, or maybe your friend calling for you. Just... something to indicate that your interface was still ‘live’.”

Hobbes frowned. “Does this world even have computer technology?”

“It’s a growing field,” Blair admitted. “Most offices have desktop models, and smaller, portable laptops are becoming popular. They don’t hold as much memory as the bigger models, but they’re pretty handy for people on the go.”

“Sounds like you’re not too far behind my universe, or Calvin’s. So you should know that solid-state technology doesn’t ‘buzz’ or ‘hum’ or make any other sound effects. And no,” he forestalled Blair’s next words, “I didn’t hear Calvin calling. I couldn’t detect anything but ordinary forest.”

“Hm. Well...” Blair squinted at the invisible -- or non-existent -- I.U.I. “I suppose you tried this, but a good scientist checks to see if results are replicated, right?” He lifted a couple of pinecones from the ground and threw them, one after the other, through the supposed interface area. The results were anticlimactic; both sailed through the air until they hit the ground at the end of their trajectory.

“Of course I did!” Hobbes snapped. “Pinecones, rocks, beetles -- all with the same result.”


“In case the interface reacted differently to living versus non-living matter. And I jumped through three more times, but I’m still here.”

“Y’know, I was sort of joking earlier, but maybe we should talk to Professor Rogers. Since he knows physics, he’s more likely to be able to help you than I am.”

“Do you trust this man?” Hobbes demanded. “Enough that you think he’ll believe you about an invisible talking tiger? I know I’d have a helluva time explaining an invisible talking human in my world.”

That would be a problem, Blair admitted to himself. He barely knew the professor, but he suspected that trying to convince the other man he was passing on questions and comments from an invisible being -- he wouldn’t have to mention that Hobbes was a tiger -- would be an exercise in futility. Especially since he still wasn’t sure that he wasn’t immersed in an extended hallucination.

“You’re right; he wouldn’t believe me,” Blair conceded. “But I know someone who will -- and he might even be able to see you. And if we’re real lucky, your I.U.I. Hang on a minute.”

Blair reached in his backpack to pull out his cellphone, and checked the readout. “Nope; no service out here. We’ll have to hike back to that hill we climbed before we reached the forest, and I’ll call Jim. Let’s go.” He settled the backpack on his shoulders and started back toward the university, with Hobbes silently following.

When the phone rang, Jim stifled his exasperated growl. He and Blair had closed their last open case just yesterday; today had seemed the perfect time to tackle the backlog of paperwork, while Blair handled his own version at the university. There’d be another case soon enough -- he worked in ‘Major Crime’, after all -- but he’d hoped to make it to quitting time without having the next case tossed in his lap. Blair would probably blame it on bad karma; personally, he thought the universe had a sick sense of humor.


“Hey, Jim, chill, man. The sun is shining and God’s in his Heaven, and I’m not calling about a case.”

But he was calling; it could be as innocuous as a suggestion for dinner, or as troublesome as a flying saucer full of H. G. Welles’ invading Martians. “What’s up, Sandburg?”

“I have a friend who’s having a little problem, and I thought your special talents might help us work through it. Can you get away for an hour or so?”

Jim was already shutting down his computer. Of course he could get away; if he didn’t, Sandburg’s friend’s ‘little problem’ could spread to involve half the city and three branches of the military. Far better if he stepped in to prevent any potential disasters. “On my way, Sandburg; where should I meet you?”

“We’re on a hill about a mile from the university grounds. You start at the back of the Chemistry building, and head toward the forest on the other side of the Campion roadway...”

Jim parked the truck at a convenience store on the Campion roadway; no sense hiking from the university if he didn’t have to. As he approached the specified hill, he could see Blair in animated conversation with... empty space? No, there was a -- haze, or a waver in the air -- in front of Blair, where a ‘friend’ might sit.

It didn’t look as if Blair was concerned, but Jim needed all the information he could get before he was expected to deal with a hazy bit of air. He paused and recalled all the practice sessions he’d endured under Blair’s coaching. Reaching into his pocket, he rubbed his thumb across the jagged edge of a key while he extended his senses, one by one.

Hearing: Blair seemed to be comparing anthropological notes with his hazy friend, but there was no second voice; all he could hear was a... disturbance in the sound-field. It made no sense, but it was the only way he could describe it. Jim could still hear the wind, the birds, the rustle of leaves on the trees and blades of grass, but when the sound passed that area in front of Blair, they seemed ever-so-slightly distorted. Hunh!

Smell: Okay, something definitely different, there -- a kind of wild-animal smell, but without the musty undertones of animals that spent their lives outdoors.

Vision again: Still the hazy-wavery effect, but now that he concentrated, there was kind of... an outline? He and Blair had been experimenting with his ability to focus on different wave-lengths of light, allowing Jim to see into the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, but it was difficult. Jim pressed harder on the key’s edge to anchor himself and carefully dialed toward the short waves. Nothing in infrared. How about the longer ultraviolet?

A chill swept over Jim as he finally saw a tiger, so much larger than his friend, sitting on the grass in front of Blair. He ignored the peacefulness of the scene -- since when did tigers sit cross-legged on the grass in front of a human? -- as he drew his gun and tried to work out how to handle the situation. The tiger was turned three-quarters away from Jim’s position, so hadn’t seen him yet, but there was absolutely no cover on the open, grassy knoll to mask his approach. And if he came from the rear angle, when the tiger became aware of him -- and it would; it was a wild animal, after all -- it would run right over Blair if it tried to escape Jim, or maybe even attack Blair, as the nearest threat.

No, probably the best tactic would be to circle around, and go toward them on a line that would place him between Blair and the tiger. The animal would see him sooner but, if he needed it, he’d have a clear line of fire with less danger to Blair.

As expected, he had barely reached his approach trajectory before the tiger’s nose and ears twitched, and it turned its head to face Jim fully. Jim tensed, readying himself to react to any threat, but the tiger merely turned back toward Blair, while pointing in Jim’s direction.

Blair immediately jumped up and faced Jim with a big smile. When the tiger didn’t react to the sudden movement -- which any wild animal would see as dangerous -- Jim relaxed just a little, although he remained on high alert against any untoward move from the tiger. He would not allow Blair to be harmed by this creature.

Hobbs turned his head and pointed down the hill. “Is that your friend? He doesn’t look very happy.”

Blair jumped up, smiling in welcome and relief. Somehow, he just knew that his sentinel would be able to do something to get Hobbes through his I.U.I. “Hey, Jim!” he called, “can you see him? This is Hobbes, and he needs our help.”

“Yes, I see him, Sandburg, but I’m using ultraviolet wavelengths to do so. How can you see him? And what do you mean ‘his name is Hobbes’?” Jim asked as he came close enough for Blair to hear. His voice was testy, almost growling, and Blair rolled his eyes; of course the big guy would treat an unknown situation as dangerous before he even knew all the facts.

And of course a tiger would react to Jim’s growl, and the way he practically stalked toward them. Hobbes was standing beside Blair, ears pinned back and tail switching as he snarled, “He means my name is Hobbes, you ignorant human! If you can’t even get that through your thick skull, maybe you should go back to the trees your ancestors came from.”

“Time out, both of you!” Blair said sharply, while wondering idly if tigers had testosterone; Hobbes and Jim certainly seemed ready to engage in pitched battle at any second. “We have a situation here, and we won’t solve it by the two of you getting all alpha-male at each other. So, truce?”

“I will if he will,” Hobbes declared as he took a step backward, raising his ears and stilling his tail by what seemed an effort of will. “And if he puts his gun away. Is this how you treat visitors to your universe?”

“Hobbes has a point, Jim; he’s just looking for help, and he’s been perfectly peaceful, so put away your gun. I promise, you won’t need it.”

“What point? You mean he talks? And you can talk to him?”

“Well, yeah.” Blair looked between Jim and Hobbes. “You can’t hear him?”

Jim blew a frustrated gust of air. “No, I can’t. And like I said, I can only see him in ultraviolet. So how can you see and hear him?”

“My working theory is that Incacha actually changed something when he passed on the Way of the Shaman to me; no one else on campus could see him, and Hobbes was certainly trying hard enough to get people’s attention.” Blair shrugged. “I decided it doesn’t matter; I can deal with a talking tiger from another universe, or I can check myself into a psych ward. I prefer to deal. And Hobbes seems cool with it, so, you know -- ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’.”

“It’s easier for me,” Hobbes pointed out. “I already knew there was an alternate universe inhabited by humans instead of tigers; it stands to reason that there’d be more than one. Actually...” he smirked at Blair, “ that I think about it, you’re handling the information much better than I might have expected. Maybe the soft sciences have a few uses, after all.”

“That’s interesting,” Blair said. “In our universe, there’s a long-standing rivalry, sort of, between the hard sciences and the so-called soft sciences. An awful lot of the engineers, physicists and mathematicians tend to look down on the psychologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists. It sounds like it’s the same in your universe.”

Hobbes nodded. “Calvin and I have compared our universes. There are some differences, of course, but many more similarities.” He snorted softly as he crossed his arms. “And of course the hard sciences are more worthy of respect; specific actions lead to specific reactions, and results can be replicated and categorized. All you get from the soft sciences is a range of results, and nothing is ever the same twice in a row. They shouldn’t even be called ‘sciences’.”

“You’d be surprised,” Blair grinned, fully prepared to uphold his side of the argument. But then he shook his head, waving the discussion away. “But this doesn’t get you any closer to your own universe -- or Calvin’s, if that’s what you intended. We better head back and see if Jim can do something about your I.U.I.” He turned toward his watching friend. “Jim, you with us?”

Jim frowned as he watched Blair and Hobbes talking, hearing only Blair’s side of the conversation. He could see the tiger’s lips moving -- and how weird was it, to see the cat-mouth forming human speech patterns? -- but, regardless of how he adjusted his hearing dials, he got nothing from the big cat except that area of weird sound distortion. Loud, soft, low pitch, high pitch, it made no difference, and was pretty damned disconcerting. Every time he thought he was getting the hang of using his senses, something else would come along and rub his nose in his own inadequacies.

“Jim, you with us?”

“Only your side, Chief -- which tells me you can talk to anyone, anywhere, any time, under any circumstances. But no matter how much I try, I can’t hear anything from... your new friend.” Maybe if he tried really hard, he could bring this situation back toward the mundane. Spirit animals were bad enough, but at least they didn’t talk. Maybe whatever-it-was would sound better coming from Blair.

“Hobbes, Jim; it’s not that difficult.” But a thread of humor laced his voice; Blair must realize how reality was shifting uncomfortably under Jim’s feet. “But we have a couple of miles to hike. Hobbes, why don’t you lead the way, and I’ll explain to Jim as we walk.”

And this is why I was never a fan of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Jim thought bleakly, as he listened to Blair spin a tale of talking tigers traveling to and from alternate universes. He liked even his leisure-reading rooted in the real world, and this situation simply... wasn’t. But, apparently, if he could get... Blair’s friend... through his interface, he and Blair could get back to dealing with their own, highly-underrated, mundane universe. I swear, I’ll never complain of boredom again, he silently vowed.

And there it was, just as he hadn’t really expected -- a shimmering, silvery oval hovering about a foot off the ground, about three feet in width and six feet tall. Although it didn’t look opaque, he couldn’t see anything through it, and there were no strings or wires to hold it in place. Worst of all, when he paced behind it -- far behind -- to examine it from all angles, there was no backside. He had an unobstructed view through the trees: no silvery sheen, no oval, not even a visual distortion.

“Well, you’re both right, Chief; it’s there and I can see it,” he told them when was back in front of the thing. It was better to see an impossible thing that shouldn’t be there than to not see an impossible thing that should be there. “But it feels... I can’t feel any substance there. It’s like looking at a reflection, except then there’s the background solidness of the thing that’s doing the reflecting.”

The tiger was saying something; his body language was almost as expansive as Blair’s. Blair nodded and reported, “Hobbes says of course it’s not substantial, any more than a doorway is. What he wants to know is, can you get him through?”

Jim shrugged helplessly. “What can I do, Sandburg? Toss him through like a ball?”

The tiger nodded as it spoke, and Blair passed it on. “Hobbes says it can’t hurt to try.”

That was easier said than done; the tiger was as big as he was. After a little experimentation, Jim made a stirrup with his hands, and the tiger stepped in it and jumped, with Jim using a throwing motion to give it an extra boost. It worked, but wasn’t successful. The tiger went through the oval, but not into it, and landed on all fours on the other side.

“Hobbes says this time felt a little different,” Blair told him. “Like it was trying to grab him, but it couldn’t get a hold.”

“Actually, I felt something, too,” Jim admitted. “Kind of like a... disturbance in the force?”

Blair groaned theatrically. “You did not just quote Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars!”

“Why not? It’s an accurate description,” Jim said absently as he stepped closer, trying to get an angled view across the face of the oval. “Ask your tiger if it could suck me in if I try to touch it.”

“He says he can hear you, and that he’s not ‘my tiger’; his name is Hobbes,” Blair reported. “He also says it’s safe to touch; just don’t stick your hand through.”

Jim shrugged as he slowly, cautiously extended his index finger and touched what should be the surface of the shimmery oval. It was... weird. Even with his sense of touch dialed up, he felt no substance. But there was something... He poked it a few times, gently, then flattened his palm and brushed it across the almost-there surface. He felt information, knowledge teasing his mind, just out of reach -- and then he knew.

“It’s gone into a kind of hibernation,” he told them. “Your -- Hobbes -- just needs to wake it up, and then he’ll be able to go through.”

“Hobbes says he’s not mine, he’s Calvin’s. He also says he can’t wake it up without a lot of equipment that’s in his universe -- which he can’t get to, because he’s stuck here.”

“Sandburg, I don’t know what else to tell you.” He tried not to take out his frustration on Blair; it probably wasn’t his fault that he’d become involved with an improbable creature from an improbable place. “You can’t go through a door unless it’s open, and this one isn’t.”

Blair sighed. “Yeah, I get that. I just thought maybe you could, like -- nudge it, or something, with your sentinel senses.”

“No,” Jim said slowly, “this feels more like a job for Incacha.” He looked meaningfully at Blair. “Or for the one he passed his legacy to.”

“Me?” Blair squeaked. “But I’m not a real shaman; I haven’t studied or anything.”

“I bet you know more about it than you realize, Chief. And at this point, it looks like it’s up to you, or Hobbes is stuck here forever.”

Blair regarded Hobbes soberly. “Um, a shaman is a person who interacts with the spirit world, and who is able to use that connection to control some natural events. The thing is, I was given the name of ‘shaman’ a while back, but I haven’t really done anything with it. I know stuff through my studies, but...” He shrugged eloquently.

“So you’re saying not to expect too much,” Hobbes summarized. “I’d almost rather you can’t do anything; Calvin will never quit teasing if I’m rescued by the application of one of the soft sciences -- and this shaman thing sounds positively squishy. But it can’t hurt to try, so do your thing.” He waved a paw in haughty permission, then crossed his arms and twitched his tail expectantly.

“I can’t just snap my fingers,” Blair told him, stalling for time. “It takes a little preparation.” The power of belief couldn’t be discounted when trying to affect the natural -- or unnatural -- world; he’d need the boost of Jim’s and Hobbes’s belief -- or least a willingness to humor him -- so he had to make this look good.

Blair took a deep breath. “Okay, Jim find me a big flat rock. Hobbes, gather up just the pine needles your feet touched when you came through the interface. I’ll find some dry sticks to make a small fire.”

Hobbes gave him an inscrutable stare before he started delicately picking up individual pine needles. Jim headed off through the trees with a wave of his hand, and Blair went the other way. It seemed a little brighter in that direction; maybe he’d find a downed tree as a source of his dry wood.

Fifteen minutes later, he was back to see Hobbes clutching a handful of pine needles, and Jim approaching with a rock the size of a dinner plate. Okay, this might actually work.

Blair paced off the distance between the interface and the tree Hobbes had marked, and chose a spot halfway between. He laid his wood aside while he scraped away the forest detritus to reach bare dirt. “Okay, Jim, the rock goes right here.” When it was positioned, he laid his sticks on top, in a flat layer to form a miniature platform. “Now, Hobbes, I need your pine needles -- a nice, even layer.”

When it was arranged to his satisfaction, Blair reached into his jeans and pulled out his pocketknife. Pulling open the blade, he handed it to Hobbes. “Now I need a bit of your fur.”

Hobbes took the knife with a snort, and started shaving a small patch on his upper thigh. “You know, this shaman thing is getting squishier and squishier. What good will my fur do?” But when he handed back the knife, he also held out a small handful of fur and watched as Blair sprinkled it over the pine needles.

“It establishes a connection between you and your interface,” Blair told him. “And I need to be connected because I’m performing the ceremony.” He sawed the end off one of his curls, and dropped that on top of the growing pile, then passed the knife to Jim. “And Jim needs to be connected because he’ll provide some of the energy we’ll need.”

“You know I don’t have much to spare, Sandburg.” But he cut a small piece of hair from the nape of his neck and, getting a confirming nod from Blair, added it to the rest.

“Just be happy I don’t need to shave you bald. Now, sit over there.” Blair pointed at a spot toward his left. “Hobbes, you’re over there,” he added, pointing toward his right.

Satisfied with their positions, Blair reached into a pocket of his backpack and withdrew a match-book, then settled behind the little rock-pyre.

“I didn’t know you carried matches, Chief.”

“Never know when they’ll come in useful -- like now.” Blair grinned. “I can rub sticks together to start a fire, but this is a lot easier.” He pulled a match from the book and closed the cover.

“Now, I’m pretty sure there are no shamanic rituals for waking up an inter-universal interface and sending someone to another universe. So we’re just going to go with focus and visualization. Focus as hard as you can on the interface, and visualize it waking up and energizing, and Hobbes disappearing as he jumps through.” Blair held the match poised to strike the matchbook cover. “Jim, since Hobbes and I can’t see it, you’ll have to watch and tell him when to jump -- but be careful not to go too deep. Ready?”

Receiving nods from both of them, Blair took a deep breath, struck the match, and touched it to his miniature bonfire. He watched in satisfaction as it flared up, then stared into the flames as he made a mental picture of Hobbes jumping through a gleaming, energized interface.

As small as it was, it didn’t take long for the fire to burn down, and Jim still hadn’t given Hobbes the go-ahead. Blair clenched his fists, and tried to aim even more energy toward Hobbes’s I.U.I. It might look stupid to anyone else, but he was convinced that shamanic abilities were real. The problem was, he wasn’t sure he had any, but he couldn’t think of any other way to get Hobbes home; the universe just needed to get with the program.

Only a few tiny flickers were licking at the last of the bottom sticks when Jim cleared his throat. “Hobbes, get ready; something’s happening.”

With a bound, Hobbes was on his feet, poised in front of the still-invisible oval. He looked over his shoulder toward Blair. “Honestly? I didn’t think it would work; thanks for demonstrating that the soft sciences can occasionally be useful. I’ll tell Calvin he has to stop the teasing, at least for a few days.”

“Now, Hobbes!” Jim shouted.

Without hesitation, Hobbes jumped into midair between the trees, and disappeared, just as the last flicker died into nothingness in the ashes on the rock.

“It worked?” Blair could hardly believe it.

“It worked.” Jim’s voice rang with satisfaction. “And the interface is gone.”

Blair continued to stare at the empty space where Hobbes had vanished. “Wow. It worked. And I met a being from another universe; how cool is that?”

“I’m just glad we don’t have to write a report; even you would have a tough time making this sound normal.” Jim stood and reached down to give Blair a hand up. “Ready to head home?”

“Yeah.” Blair ground the ashes into the rock, making sure that no spark was alive, then shouldered his backpack. He turned to follow Jim, but stopped for one last look at the ‘scene of the crime’; this was definitely one for the books. “Do you think he actually made it home?”

“Hobbes?” Jim quirked an eyebrow and Blair nodded. “Sandburg, he’s a talking tiger scientist who jaunts between universes; somehow, I think he’ll land on his feet.”

“Oh, ha-ha-ha; you slay me, man.”

“Not yet, but the next time you decide to get involved with a furry universe-hopper, I might reconsider.” Jim slung an arm across Blair’s shoulders and urged him down the path.

“Yes, because dealing with the lowlifes of Cascade is so much safer than working with a scientific tiger.”

“But if you need to, you can outwit the lowlifes. Someone as smart as Hobbes must be, not so much.”

“But I don’t need to outwit the smart guys,” Blair insisted. “They’re not the ones with plans for threats and kidnappings.”

“I have an idea; let’s avoid the lowlifes and the smart ones, and order a pizza when we get back to town.”

“Now that’s a significant advantage to working with detectives -- they know how to move directly into problem-solving. Half meat-lovers, half taco pizza?”

“You’re not so bad at problem-solving yourself, Chief; throw in some garlic bread and I think we have a workable plan.”

Blair snickered. “Yeah, I’m visualizing it right now.”

“So let’s get out of here, and turn your vision into reality.”

“Right with you, big guy; right with you.”

The End

Author's Notes

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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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Title: Necessity is the Mother...
Summary: Inventions R Us, Sandburg style.
Style: Gen
Size: 1,710 words, about 4 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Secret Santa "Extravaganza" entry, 2011.
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-

Necessity is the Mother...

by StarWatcher

"Did you ever have a sled, Jim?" Blair had been hunched over his computer for twenty minutes, clicking site after site in search of an elusive goal.

Jim raised an eyebrow as he looked up from the newspaper. "I did, actually... well, me and Steven together. Didn't do us much good; Cascade so seldom gets a decent snow. I think I used it maybe half a dozen times before I outgrew it."

Blair groaned softly. "Yeah, that's what I was afraid of. I'll bet there are plenty of places in this country where the same conditions occur – where snow isn't reliable, but kids still want to go sledding. You'd think someone would've invented a conversion kit, but I can't find anything remotely suitable."

"Well, I'm sure you'll figure out something," Jim replied comfortably as he turned his attention back to the newspaper; whatever harebrained idea Sandburg was contemplating, Jim would learn about it soon enough.

After another twenty minutes of fruitless searching, Blair closed his laptop with an exclamation of disgust. "This isn't getting me anywhere; I need to do some on-site research." He shrugged into his jacket and grabbed his keys, then paused in the doorway. "Want anything while I'm out?"

"We could use the latest upgrade of our super crime-fighting kit."

Blair grinned. "Last time I looked, Home Depot was fresh out; you know how all the cops snatch them up as soon as they're available. I'll see if there are any new supplies." He chuckled as he closed the door behind him.

"I'll have you know I'm a genius!" Blair proclaimed as he crossed the room and dropped assorted bags on the table; they clanked as they hit the hard surface. "In fact, if I patent it, I could make a fortune – or at least pay off my student loans."

"Right up there with Einstein," Jim agreed from the kitchen as he sprinkled parmesan cheese on top of the mixture in the casserole dish. He slid it into the oven, then set the timer.

Blair chuckled as he hung his coat on its peg. "More like Da Vinci. I'm going beyond theorizing to inventing. It won't win me a Nobel Prize, but it will make a certain little boy – and his mom – very happy." Crossing back to the table, he upended the bags to reveal various pieces of hardware and four small, but sturdy-looking wheels.

Interested despite himself, Jim poked at the bits and pieces on the table, trying to guess what Blair planned. "Boy and Mom?" he asked, with a raised eyebrow. "You hiding a torrid love affair, Sandburg?"

"Absolutely. I can't expose an impressionable young kid to a grumpy old sentinel; I'd be hauled in for child endangerment." Blair snorted as he sorted the nuts, bolts, brackets and clamps into four identical groupings. "Between the university and the PD, when would I have time to maintain a separate household?"

Jim tried to recall any conversation over the past few months that might have mentioned a child, but there was nothing. "So... is this some kind of charity project?"

"Not exactly," Blair hedged. "Or maybe, kinda sorta?"

"Spill it, Sandburg. Why is this place going to be turned into a mad scientist's workshop?"

"Mandy – one of the librarians at Rainier – is a single mom; her husband died in a construction accident about eighteen months ago." Blair sighed. "Her son, Peter, really wants a sled for Christmas, but she hates the idea of how disappointed he'll be when he can't use it very often; kind of hard to explain to a seven-year-old why winter doesn't necessarily bring snow to Cascade. So I said I could find a set of removable wheels, to make it a kind of all-terrain sled."

Jim regarded Blair closely for several long seconds.

"What?" Blair's tone was somewhat defensive. "Did you miss the part about librarian? It behooves every grad student to be on good terms with the library staff. Otherwise, books you need to assign are already spoken for, or won't be back till next week, or whatever."

Jim smiled as he raised an eyebrow. "'Behooves'? Do you think the fancy lingo will hide your caring heart?" He reached out to tug on one of Blair's curls. "It's one of your best attributes, Chief; no need to downplay it."

"Theoretically, you're right. But when you're a guy with long hair and earrings, you learn to pick your moments. But thanks, man; I appreciate the support." Blair gave Jim a wide smile, then continued briskly, "Anyway, I told Mandy I bet there would be some kind of conversion kit available on the Internet; it just makes sense that someone has a dual-purpose sled – or maybe a dual undercarriage would be more accurate – whatever. I said I'd find her one, but there's no such thing. Can you believe it? Conversion kits for snowmobiles, but nothing for kids' sleds. But then I figured there was no reason I couldn't build it myself, and voilà!" He waved grandly at the bits and pieces spread out on the table.

It was certainly an innovative idea, but Jim suspected it would be more complicated to execute than Blair realized. "I don't think you can claim 'voilà' yet; you still have to build the thing. And how will you be sure it fits the way it needs to?"

"Got it covered," Blair assured him. "Mandy already has the sled; she's keeping it in the library storeroom until Christmas, so Peter won't find it. So tomorrow I can swing by after class, tell her about the plan, and bring the sled here to work on it. Just a couple of hours, Jim, I swear!" Blair hurried to alleviate the slight frown that had appeared between Jim's brows. "Or, you know, Murphy's Law being what it is, maybe four or five hours – but I'll finish by midday Saturday at the latest, and take it right back to Mandy as soon as I tighten the last bolt!"

Jim deliberately heaved a deep sigh, though a smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "Could be worse, I suppose; the loft could be ankle-deep in wood shavings because you decided a hand-built sled was the way to go." He winked at Blair's relieved expression, then turned into the kitchen. "But now dinner's ready; time to get your voilà-stuff off the table."

Fair enough. Blair quickly bundled the hardware into his room, then helped Jim set the table. They enjoyed generous portions of chicken-and-spinach casserole as they discussed the vagaries of the latest stupid criminals, and the chances of the Seahawks reaching the playoffs, recharging their batteries before facing tomorrow's routine of teaching, and combating crime.

Blair had moved the dining table to take advantage of the sunlight that shone through the balcony doors. The Flexible Flyer lay upside down on a pair of old towels to protect the table's surface as Blair muttered under his breath, talking himself through the complications of designing a system that would allow the wheels to carry the sled without interfering with the runners, and would be easy to put on and take off as needed. Jim took a break from his cleaning to wander closer.

"Need some help, there, Sandburg?"

"Maybe... how good were you in shop class?"

"Straight A's, of course."

"Of course; I should have known." Blair chuckled, then gestured with his chin to bring Jim closer. "This will clamp around the struts, and it's solid enough, but I can't get rid of the wobble." Pulling on the assembly of nuts, bolts, and brackets, he demonstrated a slight side-to-side movement.

Jim used a wrench to tighten it more, but the wobble remained. "You're right," he agreed. "That'll make the wheels unstable; it could be dangerous. Easy fix, though; you just need a size down in brackets."

"I thought of that," Blair argued, "but the smaller size won't fit around the struts."

"No problem; just bend the corners out a bit. Then the bolts will bend the sides inward around the struts, and everything will be nice and tight. But young Peter probably won't be able to put them on by himself."

"Didn't expect him to. As long as Mandy can use a wrench and screwdriver – and I know she can – it won't be a problem." Blair crossed the room and grabbed his jacket from its hook. "Thanks for the suggestion, man; back in forty-five."

"I'm impressed, Chief; it works as advertised."

The sled was on the floor; the wheels extending to the side gave the runners an inch clearance. It was sturdy enough to carry an adult, as both Jim and Blair had tested, sliding across the floor; it would easily carry an adventurous child as he rolled down every hill he could find – or those that his mother would allow him to try.

"Gotta admit, I'm rather proud of it," Blair said, trying not to sound too smug. "I'm pretty sure I'll be in Mandy's good graces for as long as I'm at Rainier." He put a foot on top of the sled and gently rolled it back and forth.

Jim shook his head as he walked into the kitchen. "Don't sell yourself short; regardless of your relationship with Mandy, you'd have done it just to make a little boy happy. People talk about the Christmas spirit, but your little demonstration definitely goes above and beyond."

"You know the old saying – giving makes the world go round." Blair picked up the sled and leaned it against the wall under the coathooks. "I'll call Mandy and see if this is a good time to bring it over."

"Yes, I know the old saying... it's love makes the world go round." Jim used a wooden spoon to stir the mixture simmering on the stove, then poured some into two mugs. "Though I suppose we could make an argument that giving is a manifestation of love. Regardless, I think anyone who helps a child have a happier Christmas deserves a reward." He handed a mug of spiced cider to Blair, then lifted his as if for a toast. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

Blair lifted his mug and clinked it against Jim's. "Since you helped, that means you also deserve a reward. Merry Christmas, Jim."

The End

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Title: Pretty Ribbons to Say
Summary: 'Trinkets' can be much more...
Style: Gen
Size: 500 words
Warnings: None
Notes: Secret Santa drabble days, 2011
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-

Pretty Ribbons to Say

by StarWatcher

"Why ribbon, Chief?" Jim sat at the table across from Blair and picked up a jaunty brown reindeer, examining it with interest. "I thought origami used paper."

Blair grinned as his fingers folded and shaped the strip of black velvet. "Origami techniques can be adjusted for lots of materials – paper, palm fronds, ribbon... Mostly I just like being subversive."

Jim manfully resisted complaining about the scattered bits and pieces as he studied some of Blair's other creations – a delicate pink rose, a serene little angel in white and gold, and a stiff but graceful bird of paradise in twilight-blue; Blair had amassed enough shades and colors to put a rainbow to shame. "Subversive?" With a teasing glint in his eye, Jim filched a length of purple ribbon, tied it into a giant bow, and perched it atop Blair's head. He studied the effect, then shook his head. "Fetching as it looks, it doesn't seem capable of bringing down civilization as we know it."

"Going way back, ribbons were a luxury item – so much that the English Parliament once tried to reserve the right to wear ribbons for only the nobility." Ignoring the purple strand curling near his ear, Blair made two careful cuts in the black ribbon with a pair of sharp scissors. "So when a commoner like me gets his hands on this much of it... the world might be coming to an end."

"It would be a colorful rebellion," Jim acknowledged, surveying the rich hues spilling out of several bags, "but hardly life-threatening."

Blair concentrated for a moment as he executed a delicate twist and tuck, then responded to Jim's gentle teasing. "Since I'm going for life-affirming, that's probably a good thing."

It didn't seem that a few ribbon trinkets could attain such import but, in favor of avoiding a ten-minute explanation, Jim didn't voice the obvious question. It seemed safer to ask, "So, where'd you learn to make all these shapes?"

"You should already know the answer to that one." Blair shrugged one shoulder with a wry smile. "I picked up different designs in various places; many cultures have some kind of folding-art that they're happy to teach an interested observer. And there are a bunch of patterns – and directions for making them – on the internet." He nodded toward the open laptop humming at the far end of the table.

"So what happens to them when you're done?"

"Some are for the tree when we put it up, but most will go to everyone in Major Crimes, and some other friends at the PD and university. Just a little something to say I appreciate them in my life, but nothing major that will obligate a return present, you know?" Blair carefully studied the object in his hand, giving it a few more tweaks. "It's like the song says – 'Pretty ribbons to say I love you'."

Blair turned the figure on his hand, and Jim was looking at a little, black, cat-face. "And I do. Merry Christmas, Jim."

The End

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Title: Just Another Sandburg Moment
Summary: It was supposed to be a simple trip to the bank.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,260 words, about 8.5 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: June, 2011.
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-

Just Another Sandburg Moment

by StarWatcher

As Blair Sandburg hurried into the bank, he evaluated the possibilities. There were only two windows open, and the line in front of each was equally long. Typical, he thought. Everyone wants to make a quick stop during their lunch hour... and that's when they close two-thirds of the windows. Then his conscience spoke up; tellers deserved a lunch-break, too. But, still, he argued with himself, why not divide the shifts into lunch at eleven or lunch at one, and have everyone here to take care of the noon rush?

Well, kvetching wouldn't get him to the front any sooner, and he needed to get this check in his account today; American Anthropologist had paid a tidy little sum for his article, and he had plans for the money. He stepped to the end of one of the lines – which would, of course, inevitably turn out to be the slower-moving of the two – and settled into his usual waiting-time activity: people-watching.

It was a pretty standard group – mostly businessmen or secretaries, with a sprinkling of college students and a couple of young mothers holding babies. Still, he mused, how can anyone really tell? Looking at me, who would guess that I'm a guide for a sentinel, or that I follow him into crime scenes?

Snickering internally, Blair amused himself by rewriting the life stories of those around him. That man was building a prototype anti-gravity device that would revolutionize the travel industry, and that guy was a master swords-smith for the local SCA, hiding his identity as an Immortal. That woman was the top instructor in hand-to-hand combat skills at the super-secret Spy School, and that one... was acting very strange.

Standing in line at a bank didn't usually make people nervous. Antsy, yes, in a hurry to be finished, but this was more than that. Blair noticed her chewing her bottom lip, and a faint sheen of sweat on her face – in a bank that, like so many public buildings, was air-conditioned too cool for comfort. Her eyes, as they flicked over the other customers, looked frightened, but when they shifted to a man at one of the writing desks, she looked positively sick.

That man didn't look particularly thuggish – clean-shaven, polo shirt, casual slacks, and light jacket, no visible scars or tattoos – but his eyes, when he glanced at the nervous woman, were positively cold. And he was a lot older than her; mid-thirties, Blair judged, while he'd bet the woman had barely reached twenty.

Shit! This wouldn't be the first time an older, dominant person had forced a younger, weaker one to be the 'front' for a crime. Blair had a sick, sudden suspicion that he was about to be caught in a bank robbery. Not good; there were far too many people around. Of course, people at the front of the line left after they'd finished their business, but others kept coming in; six more people had lined up behind him in the last five minutes. In the panic and confusion of a robbery, it was all too likely that someone would be hurt, or even killed.

Just his luck that Jim had stayed at the PD to work during lunch; they could use the big guy right about now.

There were only six people in front of the nervous woman; Blair had maybe fifteen minutes to deflect the robbery. Desperately trying to keep his actions casual – he didn't want to alert Mr. Cold-Eyes – he glanced around the room, looking for something he could use. Unfortunately, official buildings tended to be pretty sterile; all he could see were pens, chairs, and potted plants, none of which would make an effective weapon. Well... maybe a pen, if he could get close enough to poke it in the guy's eye, but he didn't have Jim's covert-ops training. Besides... pen in the eye? Eew.

And shouldn't there be a guard? Didn't they get someone to cover if he went to lunch? A big, tough, robo-cop-type guard might be able to prevent this whole thing.

Well... maybe he could just walk out; other people were leaving.

Blair ostentatiously checked the big clock on the wall, then took a half-step sideways to survey the people in front of him – eight. Glancing again at the clock, he frowned, shook his head, and headed briskly toward the exit.

Whoops! Bad move; Mr. Cold-Eyes tensed, and his hand shifted toward his jacket pocket – which was hanging suspiciously low. Folks who had finished their business were apparently a negligible risk, but someone who had stepped out of line wouldn't be trusted.

Okay. Blair changed trajectory and, pulling out his cellphone, stopped next to a wall, out of the traffic pattern. He was near enough to Mr. Cold-Eyes that the man should be reassured by hearing his carefully public conversation.

Blair punched in the number and waited impatiently. As soon as the other end was picked up, he started talking, using the slightly-raised voice of the cellphonically clueless. "Hey, Jim? I'm sorry, man, I know you'll think I left my brains at home, but I can't remember – did we decide that two hundred or three hundred dollars would cover the weekend?" Making a quarter-turn to hide his face from Mr. Cold-Eyes, he continued in sentinel-level tones, "Get someone down to the bank; I think it's about to be robbed!"

Jim Ellison shook his head as his cellphone rang. Sandburg always made such a production of things; what was so hard about going to the bank and then bringing back lunch? Snapping open the phone, he started, "Yeah, Ch-"

But Blair was already talking. "Hey, Jim? I'm sorry, man, I know you'll think I left my brains at home, but I can't remember – did we decide that two hundred or three hundred dollars would cover the weekend?"

"What?" They had no plans for –

The volume dropped. "Get someone down to the bank; I think it's about to be robbed!"

Jim snapped to attention. "Tell me what you can, Chief; we're already on it." He scribbled a note and passed it to Henri, whose eyes widened even as he carried it immediately into Simon's office.

"It's just that I think we'll need more; we'll need a nice present, and the prices are always jacked up at a wet bar."

Jim had never been so appreciative of Blair's obfuscation skills; he was obviously trying to divert suspicion of him talking on the phone. Sure enough, the next sentence was barely a whisper. "The bank at Third and Emerson. Two people, one male, one female. The male is mid-thirties, and I think he has a gun in his pocket. The female is young, and I think the guy is forcing her into it."

Simon was standing at his side while he scribbled the information on another note. As soon as he read it, Simon was on another phone, calling for uniformed personnel to be sent to the area. The bullpen was quietly active as his colleagues put on bulletproof vests and checked their weapons; no one wanted to make noise that would interfere with Jim gaining as much information as possible.

"Save the social work for another time; it doesn't matter why she's a participant."

"Yeah, well, I think it does matter," Blair argued, again in his public voice. "We expect this to last for a lifetime; it should be a nice gift." Jim could picture his free hand gesturing as he 'argued' with his listener, while his voice dropped again. "There's a boatload of customers in here – about twenty potential hostages – and I don't see a guard."

"Got'cha, Chief. We're on the way; ETA ten minutes." He heard a sigh of relief before Blair responded, again speaking for whoever was in the bank.

"Well, if you say so. Talk to you later, man."

As the connection ended, Jim felt a chill. If Blair was so concerned about putting on a performance, the bank robber must already be suspicious, and that was dangerous. Blair could be counted on to keep his head, but so much could go wrong in a situation like this. And 'keeping his head' didn't mean he'd keep his head out of whatever action ensued.

Jim stood and crossed the room to pick up his own vest, which was a signal for Simon to bellow, "All right, people, let's roll!" As Simon led the exodus through the main doors, Jim felt a surge of gratitude. Strictly speaking, bank robbery didn't fall under the purview of Major Crimes – but Sandburg was one of their own, he was in danger, and they responded.

Blair carefully didn't take a deep breath as Jim disconnected; he couldn't afford anything that would make the suspected robber suspicious. But, despite that, he really wanted to do something to sideline the unwilling – he was sure of it – accomplice. Didn't matter if Jim disapproved; it simply wasn't fair that she would end up with a record, just because she had hooked up with the wrong guy. Okay... showtime.

As he turned back to face the room in general – and let Mr. Cold-Eyes see what a harmless guy he was – Blair gave a thoughtful frown while surveying the people waiting in line. There were now only four people in front of the nervous young woman; he hoped the PD would get here soon... and not pull up with sirens screaming. Until then, maybe he could finagle her away from her 'post'.

Blair let a happy smile of inspiration show on his face – at least, he hoped it looked like that – as he approached. "Excuse me, Miss, may I ask your opinion about something?"

"Um..." she glanced toward Mr. Cold-Eyes, but apparently couldn't think of a way avoid Blair. "...yes?"

"Great, thanks. My name's Blair Sandburg, by the way; how do you do?" His smile was as open as he could make it.

She ducked her head and shrugged a shoulder. "Oh. I'm... Melissa."

"Pretty name for a pretty girl." Blair winked, but continued his impromptu story; if she was too nervous, she might stop talking. "Here's the thing... my niece is getting married, and I want to get her something really great, but I don't know what girls her age like. You look pretty close..." He let his voice trail off suggestively.

"I'm nineteen," Melissa murmured.

"See, that's perfect! My niece – she's my older sister's child – she's just turned twenty. Is there something that's really 'hot' in your group of friends – something every girl wants?"

Melissa cast another glance toward Mr. Cold-Eyes as she twisted her purse-strap in her hands. "Well... um... I guess I never thought about it. Don't most brides have a gift-list online?"

"Oh, she does, but I wanted to do something more personal than that, you know?" Blair leaned closer, trying to look as if he were making a confidential observation, but kept his voice loud enough to be 'overheard'. "The thing is, my niece is the sweetest girl ever – kind of like you – but her mother is real judgmental. If my present isn't 'good enough', she'll give me grief about it for the next twenty years." He dropped his voice to the quietest possible murmur as he urged, "Look, you don't have to do what he says; it's not worth getting a record and going to jail. There are people who will help."

As Blair stepped back to a more normal conversational distance, he risked a glance at Mr. Cold-Eyes. Yep, the guy was furious but, as Blair had suspected – hoped – he couldn't risk making a fuss; a disturbance would derail any plans he had to complete the robbery and get out quietly.

Raising his voice again – hey, if the other customers got mad enough to throw him out, that would also derail the robbery – Blair continued his obnoxious over-sharing. "Don't get me wrong; my big sis is great. I mean, she practically raised me 'cause my mom had to work such long hours, and she always went to bat for me when anything bad went down. But it kind of made her always looking out for the bottom line, you know? And that's a kind of sad way to live, I think. But she's married with two great kids, so who am I to judge? I mean –"

The main doors opened to allow a few more customers into the bank – two of whom were Jim and Rafe. Blair felt his tension dissolve; the professionals could take over. But should he 'know' them, or play dumb?

Blair juggled that question for only a second; Rafe strode to the writing desk next to Mr. Cold-Eyes to start filling out a deposit slip, while Jim walked toward Blair with recognition in his eyes.

"Hey, look, it's my friend Jim!" Blair told Melissa, with not-so-feigned delight. "He's coming to the wedding as my 'and guest'. Jim, meet Melissa; she's helping me with ideas for – Megan."

Jim raised an eyebrow, but stepped in smoothly. "I'm sure Megan will be properly appreciative. Pleased to meet you, Melissa. Has my partner, here, been burning your ears with chatter?"

Faced with another stranger who seemed determined to make conversation, the young woman looked ready to bolt. "Oh... um... he's been very... friendly," she stuttered.

"Hey, not cool, man!" Blair protested. "Just 'cause I don't need an Act of Congress to talk to a stranger. And what are you doing here, anyway? I thought you had to work through lunch."

"After that phone call, I thought you could use some help. His sister says he's always been a bit scatter-brained," Jim told Melissa.

Blair kept his sigh internal; Jim must've been outside for the last few minutes. Sometimes sentinel hearing is damned inconvenient, he reflected. He's gonna tease me about my 'big sister' for weeks – and probably bring the other guys in on it, too. Still, he'd help string this out as long as needed. They must be planning more police than just Jim and Rafe – they were probably just getting everyone into position. He could only hope that it wouldn't come to a standoff and/or tear gas.

"So what happened, Chief? You picked the slowest line, as usual?"

"Oh, well..." Blair met a few glares from the other patrons. "Sorry folks; didn't mean to cut." He deliberately made his way to the end of the line, while Jim walked alongside. "Actually, I guess I kind of... lost my place when I called you, and then I was talking to Melissa..."

"And you couldn't call while standing in line?" Jim grumbled. "Well, since I'm here, I might as well deposit my check while I wait. But you owe me for this; double-meat WonderBurger." He crossed the room to fill out his deposit slip; Blair was pretty sure it wasn't a coincidence that he chose the writing desk on the other side of Mr. Cold-Eyes.

The main doors opened again; Megan, Henri, and Dills were part of the group that entered, as well as three uniformed police officers. Mr. Cold-Eyes started sweating when he saw the uniforms, and Blair watched him sort of cringe when one uniform took a stance in front of the doors while another took up a position behind him. With his eyes darting around the room – probably looking for a way out, Blair supposed – he didn't notice Jim and Rafe moving closer from each side. He completely ignored Henri – an Hawaiian-print shirt really didn't scream 'cop', Blair acknowledged – until the big man stopped right in front of him and his genial voice filled the room.

"Well, if it isn't Howie the Heist!" Henri leaned on the writing desk, giving Mr. Cold-Eyes – Howie – a beaming smile. "Something you may not realize after your recent stint inside, Howie; in the past ten years, technology has exploded. We got your picture off the bank's closed-circuit feed, then checked your record. Six months out of the pen, and you've already bamboozled some innocent young girl into doing your dirty work for you – all for the sake of 'love'." Henri 'tsked' as he shook his head. "You give the concept a bad name, my man; no girl deserves the way you use 'em and toss 'em."

"This is an outrage!" Howie the Heist insisted. Blair recognized the move: when in doubt, bluff. "I was merely filling out a deposit slip; there's no law against that."

"No, but there is against bank robbery," Rafe informed him. He nodded toward where Megan and a woman police officer were pulling Melissa away from the line. "I'm sure that young lady will be anxious to explain exactly what you intended her to do. Hands, please," he continued as he pulled out his cuffs and closed them around Howie's wrists. "You have the right to remain silent..."

Ten minutes later, the bank was clear of all but actual customers. Outside, Blair stood next to Jim and watched as Howie and Melissa were loaded into squad cars and driven away. "What's going to happen to Melissa, Jim?" he asked. "I can't help feeling she was just caught up in something she didn't know how to get out of. I mean, she didn't even pass over the note –"

"And that'll be taken into consideration, Chief," Jim assured him. "Howie the Heist has a known pattern of using naïve young women and, like you said, she didn't actually begin the robbery process. She'll probably get a couple years' probation."

Blair stared after the disappearing squad cars. "Y'know, I kind of get the feeling she fell in with him because she doesn't have enough... confidence in herself, I guess. D'you suppose the judge could get her into... I dunno, a self-esteem class or workshop, or something?"

Jim snorted. "So now you want to add another hat to your repertoire? Anthropologist, teacher, guide, social worker?" He shrugged. "It's a thankless job, Sandburg, but if you feel that strongly about it, you could attend her hearing as a 'Friend of the Court'. And now, let's get lunch and get back to work."

"Thanks for the idea, big guy. I'll do that." He matched his steps to Jim's as they headed toward the truck a half-block down the street. "So, what're you in the mood for – Chinese, pizza, or deli?"

Three Days Later

"I'm just sayin', every little bit helps." Blair continued their discussion – or lecture, depending on who named it – as he and Jim walked from the elevator to the door labeled 'Major Crime'. "We already recycle; changing to compact fluorescents is just another tiny step of environmental responsibility."

"I'm not arguing, Sandburg," Jim replied. "But it's not very financially responsible to throw out all our incandescent bulbs unused. I think when they burn out is time enough to replace them; we don't have to change every lighting fixture this weekend."

"Okay, you've got a point. But I'm holding you to it; don't think I'll forget the next time we stock up on light bulbs," Blair warned.

Jim merely opened the door to Major Crime and held it for Blair to step through first – where he was met by whistles and applause. "There's the man of the hour!" Henri shouted, with a wide smile.

Blair stopped short, staring at the changes in the room – specifically centered around Jim's desk. A large serving platter on the desk held several dozen cupcakes, and a giant silver balloon bobbed in the air. It was tethered to the chair Blair used, and read, "Congratulations!" in rainbow-striped script.

"What?" Blair asked, bewildered. "I didn't do anything."

Jim chuckled and, with a hand on his back, urged him further into the room. "On the contrary, Chief; you do a lot of things – and they're finally coming home to roost. Captain, I believe this is your show."

"Sandburg," Simon boomed. Even standing in the doorway of his office, his voice filled the room. He continued as he strode forward to take a stand near the decorated desk. "The detectives of Major Crime wanted to congratulate you. You did a great job identifying the situation and alerting us to prevent a robbery." Whistles and applause from the detectives around the room filled the air again, each person seemingly trying to outdo everyone else.

Simon waited for the commotion to subside, then continued. "However, we've noticed the number of times you seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and decided that deserves some recognition. So... Rhonda?"

Smiling, Rhonda pulled a flat box out of her desk drawer and crossed to place it in Simon's hands. He removed the lid and held up the box for Blair – and everyone else – to see the small plaque inside.

"So, the personnel of Major Crime hereby present you with the first annual Blair Sandburg Trouble Magnet Award. Here's hoping that you don't win it every year."

Chuckling, Blair reached out to accept the box from the captain, while Megan and Henri demanded, "Speech! Speech!"

Blair shook his head. "You guys... thank you. I appreciate this – really I do – but, come on. I don't get in that much trouble. It could happen to anyone."

"But it doesn't," Jim pointed out. "It happens to you. I wanted to call it the 'Didn't Stay in the Truck' Award, but I was outvoted." The mock glare he threw his fellow detectives was met by more laughter, and catcalls.

"Well... who am I to argue against group consensus?"

Megan's smile was fond as she winked and said, "Why not, Sandy? You do it every day."

Blair allowed a thoughtful look to cross his face. "Come to think of it... you're right!" He grinned at the people gathered round. "But I suspect that you'd all rather nosh on cupcakes than listen to one of my speeches –"

"Thank you, Chief," Jim said, fervently.

"So, dig in, everybody." Blair waved at the platter, and watched as the detectives descended upon it. They really did resemble a swarm of locusts, he thought.

Simon cleared his throat meaningfully. "Ten minutes people, then back to work. This is a police department, not a frat house." He moved in to grab a cupcake with sprinkles on top and retreated to his office.

Blair dived in to grab two cupcakes, then passed one to Jim while he enjoyed his coworkers' good-natured teasing and returned it in kind. Soon enough, the others drifted away to their own desks, and Jim sat down and booted up his computer.

Blair tugged on the balloon string, watching the shiny laminar bob in the air, then sat next to Jim and planted his elbows on the desk, chin resting on one hand. "Well, that was a surprise," he murmured. "It seems a bit much for just making a phone-call."

Jim shrugged. "You're one of us, Chief. Don't you know that by now?"

"Really?" Blair's tone was hopeful. "I mean, everyone's been friendly, and I know the teasing is part of the group-bonding process, but I thought... they were just being nice because I'm your tagalong."

"Nope. We may think of you as a geeky little brother, but you're our geeky little brother. Believe me, an unwanted tagalong would get frostbite from the chill in the air, no matter how polite everyone was. Of course..." Jim looked up with an evil grin. "Geeky little brothers are expected to pull their own weight. How about you start obfuscating your way through the Clement report; I still can't sling the words like you do, to hide my use of..." He trailed off and discreetly tapped his nose.

Blair grinned. "You know, I expect my students to do their own homework. At your advanced age, don't you think it's time you learned?" He opened his laptop and logged on to the PD server. "But I suppose you use the tools at hand."

"Blair..." Jim's voice was troubled, and softly insistent. "Look at me." When Blair's eyes met his, he continued firmly, "Not a 'tool'. Never. We're friends sharing the load. If I ever made you feel differently... I swear I didn't mean it. I know I carp, but we are friends. Don't ever doubt it."

Blair searched Jim's eyes, then smiled and nodded. "Yeah, man, I know. It's just... I guess folks coming right out and saying it feels a little 'off'. It's usually me saying it, not other people, you know?"

"Well, of course not." Jim relaxed slightly when he saw Blair's acceptance. "No mushy stuff allowed; you're a de facto member of a police department, and we're macho, macho men."

"Even Megan?" Blair chuckled.

Jim snorted. "You do know the woman, right? Especially Megan."

Blair nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Of course, she wouldn't have it any other way." Then he poked an elbow into Jim's ribs. "So does that mean I get to be a macho, macho man, too?"

"Sorry, Chief; you don't meet the height requirements for 'macho, macho'. But you do qualify for a single 'macho'. Good enough?"

"Good enough," Blair agreed as he turned back to the Clement report. "Thanks, friend."

"You got it, friend," Jim said, settling down to his own work while he considered Blair's words. Should he make an effort to tell the kid more often how important he was? Jim pictured himself stumbling over a declaration of thanks while shoving a bouquet into Blair's hands, and shook his head. Nope; would never happen.

But he could get tickets to next week's Jags game, with reservations for dinner at Boyden's Bistro before the game. ... Yeah, that would work; one friend to another, just the way it should be. He hoped it never changed.

The End

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Author's Notes

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Title: Unique and Unusual
Summary: Jim knows when something is important to Blair.
Style: Gen
Size: 5,065 words, about 10 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Apparently, Bilson & DeMeo made up the "Onkatu tribe in Kenya"; the first reference in Google is to the episode "The Rig", and I can't find any information about a real tribe by that name. <g> Given that push, I've adjusted canon a wee bit; you'll see where.
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-

Unique and Unusual

by StarWatcher

Blair sighed as the truck crested the hill; in the gathering dusk, Cascade spread out below them as far as the eye – his eye, anyway – could see. "You know, a couple more days would've been nice. I feel like yelling like a little kid, 'I don't wanna go home!' and stamping my feet."

"Until one of us becomes independently wealthy, we have jobs to report to, just like every other working stiff," Jim pointed out. "And the river will still be there the next time we want to get away for the weekend."

"Oh, yeah. And Simon is going to have a cow when he sees the trout we got. Too bad his mom's birthday was this weekend."

Jim chuckled. "Better not let Simon hear you compare fishing to his mom's seventy-fifth birthday celebration. And I don't think he'll complain too much when we hand over those two beauties we saved for him."

"Probably not." Blair glanced at the cooler he was using as a footrest, which held six fine trout packed in ice. "Maybe we could even cash in on them – he might yell softer the next time he's pissed at one of us."

Jim turned onto Fairmount, which would take them past the PD to Simon's house. "In your dreams, Sandburg. He's more likely to yell louder, so he can be sure he's not showing any favoritism."

"Yeah, but –" Blair's words stopped short as Jim slammed on the brakes, then made a sharp-angled turn into a cross-street they'd almost passed. It was obvious Jim had seen something; he grabbed the magnetic police light and clamped it to the roof as he accelerated down Pretoria – a direct route to Prospect, Blair realized. Whatever Jim had seen didn't have to be on Prospect, of course, but experience suggested their building would be right in the middle of it. "What's up?"

"Something big ahead. Lots of emergency vehicles and some city trucks."

"A fire?"

Jim shook his head. "No smoke, either fresh or old. I don't sense any explosive residue, either."

"So we rule out fires and bombs; that's a relief," Blair muttered as he clutched the 'oh shit' handle above the window. Anyone would think that driving down a straight road, even at high speed, wouldn't be so hairy. But that 'anyone' had never experienced Jim Ellison behind the wheel.

"Bad news, Chief," Jim said, his mouth tightening into a grim line. "I think it's centered on our block. And it smells kind of... wet."

Blair deliberately leaned sideways to thump his head on the window. "Of course it is. Fate has decreed what we will never have an uneventful, relaxing weekend. I knew that not running into poachers, drug dealers, forest fires or orphaned Bambies was too good to be true." He paused, as his brain processed the second part of Jim's statement. "And what do you mean, 'wet'? We live in the rainiest city in Washington, and barely two miles from the ocean; doesn't it always smell 'wet' to you?"

Jim had been maneuvering the truck around clots of stopped vehicles, but the turn onto Prospect seemed clear. He pulled around one last cluster of randomly-parked cars and careened through the turn… into six inches of water. The speed created a bow-wave that was too much for the truck to handle; the engine sputtered, coughed, and died.

"I mean wet," Jim said, gesturing at the scene in front of them.

Blair stared through the windshield at the chaos in front of them. Emergency personnel were splashing through a street filled with water – curb to curb and stretching across the sidewalks to lap at the buildings. Police were knocking on doors – probably to check the safety of the inhabitants, Blair realized – and EMTs were treating a few people in the back of a couple of ambulances. But the biggest cluster of activity seemed to be at a spot about two hundred yards from their building.

"Can you tell what's going on?" Blair reached out to lay a hand on Jim's arm, grounding him to extend his senses through the swirling water and decreasing light.

It didn't take long. "Looks like a major water main break," Jim reported. "There's a whopping big hole in the middle of the street, and the road is cracked and buckled for half a block on either side. But they seem to have the water main fixed – or at least capped – for now; the water level is dropping pretty fast, and I don't see any more spilling out of the hole."

"Well, that's something, anyway," Blair muttered. "Man! I'll bet people thought a bomb had gone off."

"Very likely," Jim agreed. "But it looks like a lot of people may have been out when it happened." He gestured to a crowd of watchers on the far side of the yellow police tape.

Blair peered forward, but he could barely make out people at that distance, much less faces. "Are you sure they aren't just looky-loos?"

"Some are. But I see the Robertsons, the Delgados with their kids, Mrs. Kwong with her mother, and the Stavridis family. And others may be even later getting back from wherever they were than them and us; the police and EMTs certainly don't seem to be finding many people who need help."

"So when do you think they'll allow residents back into their buildings?" Blair settled back against the seat; might as well be comfortable while they waited.

Jim reached into the glove box, pulled out his badge, and clipped it to his belt. "Whenever it's certain all residents have been accounted for, and the water main is deemed safe. We can't help with the second, but the first is right up our alley. Let's go, Chief." He stepped into the water – now barely ankle-deep – and headed toward the center of activity.

Blair grimaced as he followed Jim; there was a big difference between wearing waders to stand in a river, and sloshing around with wet feet. If they did much walking, he'd be looking at blisters tomorrow. "Actually, you being you, I bet you could probably help with the water main. If you get close enough to get a direct look, you can probably tell if the repairs are going to hold or not."

"And if I think the repairs are sub-par, of course they'll believe an 'ordinary cop' over a man who has years of experience with water lines."

"If it comes to that, we'll think of something," Blair insisted. "Think about it. Do you want to ignore a weak spot, and be rousted out of bed in the wee small hours if it blows again?"

He had a point, but Jim hoped it wouldn't come to that. Some of Blair's 'obfuscations' were inspired, but some... not so much. The more tap-dancing they had to do around the sentinel thing, the more likely it was that someone else would eventually find out.

Shoving that thought away with the ease of long practice, he approached the coordinator to offer his help.

Three hours later, after Jim had discreetly verified that the repairs to the water main were solid, and the streets were clear – of water and most of the city vehicles – residents were finally allowed back into their buildings. The truck had dried out enough that it started with minimal sputtering, and Jim parked in his usual spot.

"That was a lot more work than I thought it'd be," Blair groaned as the elevator carried them upward. "I'm going to take a hot shower and not move for the rest of the evening."

Jim unlocked the door and they walked through, then stopped abruptly when greeted by a scene of disorder. CDs and books had been knocked to the floor, lamps and knickknacks were lying on their sides, and there was a long crack in one of the balcony doors.

"Oh, man! I guess it really did feel like a bomb went off."

"Looks like you'll have to put that 'not moving' thing on hold for a while."

"Somehow I knew you'd say that," Blair grumbled, as he headed for his room. "Just let me put on some dry sweats and socks."

Jim headed upstairs to change into dry clothes, himself. He frowned as he saw his bedroom; by his standards, it was a mess. But it took less than five minutes to put things back on shelves – fortunately, nothing was broken – and he joined Blair back in the living room.

"It's a mess in my room, too," Blair announced as he started picking up CDs.

"I'm surprised you can tell the difference, Chief." Jim pulled the duct tape out of a kitchen drawer and crossed to the balcony doors to reinforce the cracked pane; it would be ugly, but safer, until he could replace it.

"Real funny, big guy. Just because I enjoy a little freedom in my living arrangements doesn't make me a slob." Blair righted the lamp and the candlesticks, then moved to the other side of the bookshelves and speakers. As the floor came into view, he rushed forward. "Oh, no! How did I not see this?"

At the sound of real distress in Blair's voice, Jim turned to see him lifting his Onkatu devil mask from the floor – in three pieces. He looked forlorn, almost devastated.

"I'm sorry, Chief." Jim had crossed the room to examine the damage, and laid a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I know how much it meant to you." That was the reason that he'd allowed Blair to hang the ugly thing in the living room in the first place, but it had grown on him after awhile. It did lend a certain oddball cachet to the place and, in all fairness, Blair hadn't fussed about his Red Heron poster on the front door.

Blair ran his fingers along the broken edges, then held the pieces together and examined the join. "Kakami made this for me. It took him almost a month, but he said a storyteller with such strange tales of other lands should carry something to prove the truth of their land when I told their tales back home. You'd have liked him, Jim; he was this mixture of practical and humorous, and always looking out for the other members of the tribe. He laughed when he gave me this mask, but it meant a lot to both of us." Blair gave Jim a strained smile. "As big and cumbersome as it is, I've kept it around for seven years. And now... a few scratches or dents are no big deal, but I don't think superglue will fix this."

"You don't have to do it yourself, Chief. I'm sure there's a woodworker somewhere around that could fix it – Cascade is big enough to pull in all skill-sets. And wood is a pretty forgiving substance; I think it won't even be that hard, if someone has the right tools, and the expertise." Jim tried to project encouragement, although the damage was extensive. "Think about it – if Kakami could make it from scratch, someone else will be able to put it back together."

Blair shrugged, then shook his head and faced Jim with a more open smile. "Sorry, man. You're right, of course; if I look hard enough, I can find someone who can fix it. I'll just put it in my closet until the end of the semester; by then I'll know how much money I can spend on it."

He disappeared into his room while Jim realized – again – that, as generous as Blair was to everyone around him, he was chronically short of funds; putting himself through school on grants and a TA's salary didn't give him much spending leeway.

But Jim could do something about that. If called on it, he'd say it was reimbursement for all the unpaid hours Blair put in at the PD. While Blair went into the kitchen to sweep up broken glass, Jim returned to taping the cracked balcony door as he planned 'Operation Fix-a-Mask'.

Jim sighed as he set the broken pieces of mask – carefully wrapped in an old sheet – on the passenger-side floorboard. After he settled himself behind the wheel, he pondered his next course of action. A little research had turned up two carpenters who had experience with detailed craftsmanship. Either man should have been able to fix the mask – probably could fix the mask, if he were being honest – but neither one felt 'right'. The hell of it was, he couldn't solve the problem, because he couldn't figure out what was pinging him the wrong way.

He watched the passing traffic as he sat outside the second shop. It must be an adjustment for any creative person, Jim thought. Inspiration would probably be a whole lot easier in a quieter environment, but if they wanted to make a living, they had to be where customers could find them. He imagined Blair's Kakami had made the mask during long, lazy evenings while he watched friends and neighbors performing customary tasks, and listened to the sounds of the African wildlife outside the perimeter of his village.

Of course! Jim gave himself a mental head-slap. It made perfect sense; he should have headed there first thing. Now... Jim glanced at his watch while he calculated time and distance. Blair was spending the day at the University library, so wouldn't notice Jim's absence. And if he did get back to the loft later than Blair... well, Jim would've run into an old friend and forgotten the time while catching up. It wouldn't be exactly a lie...

Jim watched for a break in traffic, then pulled into the street. At least his truck was a lot more comfortable than a bus.

Two of the monks were working in the tiny cemetery when Jim pulled to a stop in front of St. Sebastian's. They watched as he walked around the truck to retrieve Blair's mask from the other side, then spoke as he came closer.

"Brother Jim. It's good to see you again. But isn't Brother Blair with you?"

Jim nodded a greeting. "Brother Theodore, Brother Frederick. No, I'm planning a surprise for Blair, so I snuck out while he's studying. I need to speak to Brother Jeremy and Brother Marcus, if I may."

"Certainly," Theodore said. "Brother Jeremy is in his office, and Brother Marcus is in his workshop. You know the way." He nodded toward the front of the building, then continued pulling weeds as Jim walked toward the door at the top of the steps.

The door to the abbot's office was open; his desk was covered with papers, and Brother Jeremy seemed to be filling out some forms. Jim knocked on the doorjamb and stepped in when Jeremy raised his head.

"Brother Jeremy; I hope I'm not disturbing you."

Jeremy graced him with a slight smile. "Not at all, Brother Jim. I confess, I find the paperwork one of the more onerous parts of my duties; a short break would be pleasant." He laid down his pen and gestured Jim to the chairs in front of his desk.

"I guess paperwork is always with us," Jim replied, as he sat down, placing the wrapped devil mask in the next chair. "It looks like you have as many forms to fill out as I do."

"Possibly, although I suspect mine are far less gruesome." Jeremy shrugged. "What can I do for you Brother Jim? You didn't arrive unannounced to discuss our various paperwork."

"No, sir, of course not. I was hoping to enlist Brother Marcus's woodworking expertise. I have – or rather, Blair has –" He stopped short, only now realizing the unfortunate contrast. "Forgive me, sir; I wasn't thinking. I have an African devil mask here, that needs repair, but maybe I should take it somewhere else."

Brother Jeremy's eyes twinkled. "We're not as hidebound as that, Brother Jim. A wooden mask is an artistic representation, not a true symbol of the devil's presence. Although, if it were... the grounds of a monastery would surely be an appropriate place to vanquish him."

Jim nodded. "Thank you, sir. It means a lot to Blair; it was a special gift from a friend, and it got broken. I thought Brother Marcus could fix it – for a suitable donation to the Church, of course."

The abbot regarded him thoughtfully. "I confess, Brother Jim, I have had some concerns about Brother Blair working so closely with you; your life seems to be a violent one. I am reassured that you would make such an effort for a friend; it tells me that you care for him."

"I do, sir. And I promise you, I'll do everything in my power to keep him safe."

"Fortunately, the Lord expects us only to do the best we can, so you won't be expected to perform miracles. Remember, Brother Blair has made several visits to Saint Sebastian's; we all know how easily he falls into scrapes. But it's good to know that your intentions are in the right place." Jeremy picked up his pen. "Forgive me, but I must return to my work. You'll find Brother Marcus in his workshop."

Jim stood; he had a job to complete, as well. "Thank you, sir."

Brother Marcus was humming – still? always? – as he worked, the doors open to the pleasantly warm day. Jim stood in the doorway and watched as Marcus planed a piece of wood, appraised the result with a knowledgeable hand running along the surface, then shaved off two more tiny slivers. Seemingly satisfied, he picked up a piece of sandpaper to further smooth the wood.

Yes; this was the place. Blair's devil mask would be comfortable here... and Jim would never tell Blair that such a thought had even crossed his mind. He cleared his throat and stepped into the workshop. "Brother Marcus? May I have a word?"

"Of course, young man; Brother Blair could tell you I'm always willing to talk. I was beginning to wonder if you thought I would bite you." He chuckled at Jim's raised eyebrows, but never stopped his sanding. "Did you think I was so oblivious as to not know you were standing there? I'm afraid our little unpleasantness last summer has reawakened my old wariness. I'm trying to leave it behind – it's inappropriate in this place of peace – but old habits are easily rebuilt and difficult to lay to rest." He hmphed, and smiled gently. "But you didn't come to listen to an old man ramble about payment for past sins. How may I help you, Brother Jim?"

"This," Jim said, laying the pieces of the mask on a nearby table and unfolding the sheet so that Marcus could see it. "It's one of Blair's treasures – made by a friend – and he was pretty upset that it got broken. I was hoping you could fix it."

Marcus picked up each piece and examined it carefully as Jim explained what had happened. "Certainly I can fix it," he agreed. "But why did you bring it to me?"

"Why?" Jim's response was cautious; it was too likely that a religious man would scoff at his belief that the mask would respond better if it was mended in a more rural environment, away from the clamor of the city. After all, it wasn't a living entity that could respond to stress or serenity as it 'recovered' from being broken. Still...

"I'm sure there are woodcrafters in the city who could take care of this, and it's a considerable drive out here. So I have to wonder, why did you decide to bring it so far? Not that I object," Marcus said, continuing his examination. "It's a fascinating piece of craftsmanship."

"Because... a friend of Sandburg's made it, and I think he'd like the idea of another friend fixing it." Jim shrugged uncomfortably. "Things like that... mean a lot to him."

Marcus cast Jim a sharp glance. "So our young friend is now 'Sandburg', as you try to distance yourself from showing how much you care? Tut-tut; I've seen too much of the world to believe that. But I'll allow you your little fiction – for a price."

"Of course," Jim agreed. "I told Brother Jeremy I'd make a generous contribution to Saint Sebastian's. Anything you want; I've always believed a workman is worthy of his hire."

"There is more than one kind of payment. Brother Jeremy considers monetary compensation because he needs to balance the monastery's books. But you..." Marcus raised an admonishing finger. "This is an opportunity for you to balance your connection with Blair."

"I... what?"

Marcus smiled. "To put it simply, I think it would mean even more to Blair if two of his friends worked together to fix what another friend once made. It's too late to start today; the repair won't be difficult, but it will be somewhat time-consuming. Shall I expect you next Saturday?"

For such a gentle, soft-spoken man, Brother Marcus had certain similarities to Jim's former drill instructor; he could definitely see how the man had made it to the upper echelons of the Mob. "I'm afraid... I don't have much experience with fine woodworking," he admitted. "I wouldn't want to do something to damage the mask more."

"You won't." Brother Marcus's voice was quietly certain – but then, he was a man of faith, Jim thought ruefully. "And the gift you'll present to Blair will be even more meaningful, because it will have come from your hands as well as your heart. In years to come, you'll both treasure that knowledge."

Jim bowed to the inevitable; he recognized an irresistible force when he met it. "I'll be here next Saturday, then, unless I'm working a case. Thank you, Brother Marcus."

"Think nothing of it, my boy. I'll see you then."

Marcus folded the sheet back over the mask and left it with a little pat, then returned to his original project and picked up the sandpaper again. As Jim stepped out the door, he heard the humming resume, as well. It seemed to weave together strands of peace and wellbeing, an assurance that the mask would be comfortable here.

Definitely time to leave, Jim thought, as he stepped into the truck and started the engine. If I hang around much longer, I'll turn even new-agier than Sandburg!

But truthfully, he was sort of looking forward to next Saturday – as much for spending time with Brother Marcus as for having Blair's mask whole again.

Jim was parked three blocks from the loft, where he could keep an eye on the building, but Blair wouldn't notice the truck when he got home from the library. Jim hadn't been able to think of any way to wrap or hide the mask, but he did want to surprise Blair. The simplest solution was to let Blair walk into an empty loft, then follow with the mask a few minutes later.

Blair was late, as always – he'd expected to be home by 4:30, and the hands on Jim's watch were already nudging 5:00 – but it hardly mattered. Jim was still basking in a glow of peace that had cocooned him during a day spent with Brother Marcus. He understood now why Blair was so fond of St. Sebastian's, and particularly of Marcus. Despite his past, Brother Marcus had apparently been a figure of stability to a genius kid who had started college very young. As Marcus had shared tales of a younger Blair – and Jim returned the favor with anecdotes of Blair's time with him – Jim got the impression that the monk had been a father figure to Blair. Even though the older man had not specifically made such a claim, it was evident that he cared deeply for Blair. It was good to know that, in the midst of traveling the world on various expeditions, Blair had had the certainty of someone who would be there when he returned.

Jim leaned forward as he caught the sound of the Volvo approaching from the other direction. He watched as Blair parked in his usual spot, hoisted his backpack over one shoulder, and disappeared through the main doors. As soon as the doors closed, he eased the truck forward and parked in the spot next to the Volvo.

As soon as he stepped inside, he stretched his hearing to monitor Blair's progress toward the loft. He heard whistling as Blair stepped off the elevator on the third floor; his day at the library must've been as productive as last week's. Jim grinned; he was sure he'd hear all about it, later in the evening.

As soon as he heard Blair close the loft door behind him, Jim slipped quietly into the stairwell and began to climb; using the elevator would alert Blair to his approach.

Jim waited outside the loft's door as he continued to monitor Blair's actions inside. The plan was to interrupt Blair at the most inconvenient time – either settled down or very busy – for maximum surprise effect. The whistling was replaced by the TV – something about the construction of the pyramids – and then Blair was in the kitchen, pulling out pans and utensils, and muttering about inconsiderate partners who didn't show up on their night to cook.

That was a cue if he'd ever heard one. Jim pulled the sheet from the mask, then knocked sharply on the door. As footsteps approached the door, Jim stepped back and held the devil mask in front of his face and body, watching through one of the eyeholes. When Blair opened the door, Jim pitched his voice to sound like a lost child. "I'm looking for Blair Sandburg. Can you help me find him?"

The reaction was everything Jim had hoped. Blair's mouth dropped open in stunned surprise, and then his eyes lit with pleasure as he reached out to stroke the repaired mask. "Jim? How did... when did..."

"Happy Saturday, Chief," Jim said. "I told you it could be fixed." Blair still wasn't moving, so he simply walked forward so that Blair automatically stepped out of the way. He set the mask on the couch and, with a careless wave, invited Blair to inspect it. "So, what d'you think? Personally, I think Brother Marcus did a bang-up job... and I helped." Marcus had been right; it felt good to have had an actual hand in reaching this moment.

Blair was examining the mask front and back, running a finger along the barely-visible break-lines, and scrutinizing the ingenious metal clasps that Brother Marcus had devised to hold the joins together from the back. "I never thought it could look this good again," Blair said. "Brother Marcus did a great job – but I would have expected that from him. I don't know why I didn't think of taking it to Saint Sebastian's in the first place. But what made you think of it? You were the one who was sure there would be suitable craftsmen here in Cascade."

"I actually found two," Jim admitted. "But it just seemed like the person who fixed the mask should care as much about it as you and Kakami. And since Brother Marcus knows you so well..." Jim couldn't resist a smirk, "...he seemed like the sensible solution."

Blair easily recognized that smirk. "Oh, man! It's not bad enough you pumped Naomi for blackmail material, now you're getting it from Brother Marcus, too? There's no justice," he grumbled.

"We had a... meaningful exchange of information." Jim sometimes found it useful to dress up his explanations in 'officialese' as a version of taking the fifth, even though Blair would easily decipher the hidden meaning.

"And you told him about what I've done on some of your cases? I'll never be able to show my face there again."

"Nonsense, Chief. Brother Marcus really lo– likes you. He's just curious about your life now, the way I am about what you did before you found a sentinel. Did you really suggest a herd of goats to keep the University grounds mowed?"

"Hey, it would have been ecologically and economically sound – the agriculture students could have managed them, and if they used angora goats, they could have sold the mohair as well as goat's milk, which is even healthier than cow's milk. It was just... goat-prejudice that administration didn't accept my idea. Well... that, and the test pair eating all the flowers in front of the Admin building."

Jim chuckled. "Only you, Sandburg. There's a reason Brother Marcus and I agreed that you're a unique and unusual person... and we wouldn't have you any other way. Kinda like your mask."

"Yeah, my mask." Blair carried it across the room and hung it in its former spot, then stood back to admire the fierce gaze. "I don't know how to thank you, Jim; there're a lot of memories tied up in that mask. And now there are two more to make it even more meaningful."

"Two? Only one fixit job, here."

"Two. A friend who conceived the fixit job, and a friend who performed the fixit job – along with the first friend, who helped." Blair waggled his eyebrows when Jim shrugged. "Did you think I wouldn't notice that little admission?"

Jim ran a hand over his hair. "All I did was hold it steady, Chief; Brother Marcus did all the work."

Blair shook his head with a wry grin. "Y'know, it's not an admission of failure to have someone know you did something nice for them." He threw a mock punch, and snickered as Jim deflected it. "You know how to handle that, but not how to handle gratitude. But you'll just have to suck it up and deal. This is one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, so... thank you, Jim. I really, really appreciate it."

"Okay, Chief, I got it. You're really, really welcome. Now..." he headed toward the kitchen, "...what's for supper?"

"Got'cha; enough of the emotional stuff." Blair followed Jim into the kitchen. "I was planning baked flounder with scalloped potatoes and green beans with onions. But we could go out for some kind of celebration – on me."

Jim started washing his hands at the sink. "Nope; sounds good to me. I'll start peeling the potatoes."

"You got it." Blair washed his hands, then pulled out the mushrooms and green onions that he would slice to cook with the flounder.

They worked quietly side by side, partners as always, while the TV droned in the background and the Onkatu devil mask surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Next week they'd be chasing down the latest criminal, but for now, life didn't get any better than good food shared with a good friend.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: Eye of the Beholder
Summary: Friends and family aren't always an easy mix, but maybe that can be changed.
Style: Gen
Size: 14,570 words, about 30 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Dec. 15, 2010, for Secret Santa. My thanks to Alyjude who helped me with some sticky points in the story, and to Ainm, who gave me a writing extension.
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-

Eye of the Beholder

by StarWatcher

December 18, 1998

Blair bustled through the loft door late Friday afternoon, his arms full of grocery bags and his mind full of ideas. "I think I got everything I need for the baking, Jim; can't wait till you taste the Springerle, and I guarantee you'll swoon over the Rumkugeln." He shoved the door closed with his foot and carried his bags to the kitchen, still talking. "Do you think we'll have snow for Christmas? I know the weatherman said it's unlikely, but with so much snow in the mountains, it makes sense that some of it would come our way. Have you gotten a heads-up from your senses?" He continued talking as he sorted through the bags and put some of the ingredients into the refrigerator. "I know I'm the first to complain about cold, but I haven't seen many white Christmases, and I think it'd be kinda cool – no pun intended – if we... oh..."

As he closed the refrigerator and turned to locate Jim, Blair found two pair of eyes watching him from the living room, one with amusement, the other with a kind of surprised wariness. He had the feeling he'd interrupted an intense discussion, but it was too late to back out now. "Sorry, man; I didn't notice we had company. Steven, right? It's been awhile." Blair's grin was disarming as he quickly hung his coat and hat on one of the hooks, then approached the other two men. He extended a hand in greeting, pausing as he saw the cast encasing Steven's right arm, from his palm to the middle of his biceps. "Oh, man, it sucks to have a broken arm. How did it happen?"

"I've been wondering that, myself," Jim said. "It must be pretty embarrassing, 'cause he's not talking. Of course, you know that means we just have to pry it out of you, Little Brother. 'Fess up; did you fall out the window when her husband unexpectedly came home?"

"What?" Steven seemed caught between affront and laughter. "What kind of a dog do you think I am?"

"Whoops! Wrong question," Blair advised. "I asked him that once, and you really don't want to know the answer. I'm thinking... this is Cascade, the most dangerous city in America. You valiantly fought off two – no, three – muggers, and escaped with only a broken arm, right?" He settled on the corner of the coffee table, establishing a circle with both Jim and Steven, who were separated on the loveseat and sofa. Eyes sparkling, he glanced between them, inviting them to share the fun.

Jim readily took up the gauntlet. "Chief, he's gotta live up to the Ellison genes! He interrupted a mob hit on one of the horses at the track, but in all the confusion, the horse knocked him down and stepped on his arm. Next time, call me," he advised. "Mob activity is police business."

'Laughter' was evidently overcoming 'affront'. Steven's eyes twinkled as he told them, "Close, but no cigar. A busload of schoolkids were visiting the track when a couple of thugs tried to kidnap them for ransom. I grabbed a pitchfork from a wheelbarrow of manure and bravely engaged in battle to save the kids. But then..." He paused, seeming to search for a suitable ending. "Then a third guy showed up and knocked me down, and they all took off. It was my misfortune to fall against the edge of the wheelbarrow, and here I am."

"You tell almost as good a story as Blair does," Jim said, "but the ending was a little weak. So what really happened? It can't be that bad."

Steven sighed, apparently disinclined to continue putting up a façade. "It really is that bad... or at least that stupid. Remember those wild winds last week?"

"Oh, yeah, they were rough," Blair said. "When I drove in from Rainier, I swear the Volvo flew most of the way."

"You wouldn't be the first to run afoul of the weather; just spit it out," Jim advised.

Steven shrugged. "Okay, okay. You're still a bossy big brother, you know?" His half-hearted glare morphed into a rueful smile. "Anyway, I was walking down one of the outside staircases at the track when a particularly strong gust hit; felt like a runaway horse had slammed into me. I went down half a flight, and feel damned lucky to have only broken an arm."

In an instant, Jim's attitude went from teasing to intense. His gaze sharpened as he said, "Are you sure you didn't also hit your head? Even minor head injuries can have consequences, you know."

"Yes, I'm sure," Steven huffed. "The doctor checked everything, and then ordered an MRI just to be sure. Both Dad and I have donated generously in the past; I suppose they don't want to stint on treating an Ellison."

"Glad to hear it," Jim said. "You and Dad are supposed to leave the 'getting hurt' part of the game to me."

Steven gave him a thoughtful glance. "Because you're a cop? Surely your captain isn't that laid-back about injuries in the department?"

"Nah, because he thinks he's Superman," Blair explained, then winked at Jim. "But that's an idea; you should trade on your name next time. Maybe they'll let you out sooner."

"More likely keep me longer because of it. I'd rather be a grumpy cop than a rich patron's son; less hassle all around."

"You've got it nailed," Blair assured him. "When they start handing out 'grumpy cop awards', you'll be the first recipient. Oh, hey, hey, it's really not that bad!" Blair waved off the concern he saw on Steven's face. "It's kind of a cop-bonding and male-bonding thing combined; it doesn't mean anything other than business as usual. Everyone in Major Crimes really has each other's backs; you just have to get past the verbal camouflage."

Jim snorted. "And Sandburg is the master of verbal camouflage; he's dying to know why you're here, but anthropologically speaking, he figures the discussion should be between brothers. Right, Chief?"

"See, I knew you had a brain under that 'stoic cop' exterior; my influence is finally having a civilizing effect." He grinned at Steven as he stood, trying to alleviate the thread of discomfort he felt beneath the brothers' banter. "Don't pay any attention to me; I'll be in the kitchen making lots of noise with the pots and pans while I start dinner. Are you staying? I make a great penne and sausage, with garlic bread."

"Sit, Sandburg," Jim ordered. "There's no big secret, here. My dad has the idea he'd like to 'get away' for Christmas, and wants us all to go up to his lodge in the mountains."

Blair was delighted; he'd been urging Jim to spend more time with his father and brother. "Hey, that's great! Away from the stimulus of the city, bonding with your family... sounds like the perfect downtime for a sen- stressed-out cop."

"Stressed out?" Steven's gaze sharpened on Jim's face. "You look okay."

"Because I am okay; Sandburg has a frustrated mother-hen complex. And not just me, Chief; you're included in the invite, too." Jim cast a meaningful look at Steven, which Blair easily deciphered.

"Hey, I appreciate the thought, man, but it's totally unnecessary," he assured Jim. "The last thing a family get-together needs is a fifth-wheel sorta-partner that your dad and brother barely know."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "There's no 'sorta' about our partnership, Sandburg. And frankly, I have an ulterior motive; I'm hoping a fast-talking anthropologist can help keep us from snarling at each other from our separate corners." His shrug was self-deprecating, but Blair thought Jim's eyes held a sort of nervous entreaty.

As Blair hesitated, Jim abruptly stood. "Excuse us a moment, Steven." With a jerk of his head, he strode toward Blair's bedroom, closing the door behind them as soon as Blair stepped inside.

Blair spoke first. "Jim, Christmas is a family thing; they won't want me there."

"I want you there," Jim told him quietly. "You know things are still rocky between me and my dad, and not much better with Steven. I've never seen you at a loss for getting along with people; I really think you being there will make it easier all around."

"Well..." Blair was torn; he wanted to help Jim, but – "You need some alone time with your family, man. Putting me in the mix will just drag out the reconnection process."

"No. Allow me to know my family better than you do, Chief. And besides – as far as I'm concerned, you're family, too. It would be different if you were getting together with Naomi, but she's off in Timbuktu or somewhere..."

"Sri Lanka," Blair murmured, a bit dazed. Jim considered him as close as family?

"...and my downtime will be a lot more relaxing if you're with me."

How could he resist? He smiled up at his best friend. "Okay, man, I'm in. But be prepared; we are packing every ingredient I can think of. If necessary, I'll cook my way into their hearts."

"Since I'll reap the benefits of that plan, I support it wholeheartedly. And we can start winning over Steven now; need some help with the penne?"

"You and Steven both," Blair insisted. "Might as well get started on that family-bonding thing."

"You got it, Emeril," Jim said, following Blair back into the main room. "Just tell us what to do."

Steven noticed the difference as they were coming back into the living room. Judging by the smile on his face, Jim's irritation with the proposed gathering had disappeared. Steven didn't understand why his brother wanted to include Mr. Sandburg in their group, but if that was what it took to overcome the initial hostility, so be it.

With no more warning than the overheard, "You got it, Emeril," he was swept into the kitchen to 'help' with dinner preparations. Although he'd thought it a polite fiction to keep them all together in the kitchen, Mr. Sandburg actually put him to work stirring the crumbled sausage – mixed with ostrich meat, of all things – to ensure even cooking without burning. It didn't take much concentration, even working left-handed, and gave him an opportunity to watch the interaction between his brother and... partner? Roommate?

Oddly enough, Jim actually followed Mr. Sandburg's – Blair; he'd insisted that Steven call him 'Blair' – directions instead of trying to take over; Jim diced onions and minced garlic while Blair chopped tomatoes, then cut open a French loaf and slathered it with the garlic butter that was warming in another pan. They shared tasks and moved around each other – and him – without ever getting in each other's way, like a well-rehearsed dance pattern. Through it all, Blair talked – about the University, Jim's work, Steven's work, the police department, seasonal highlights and preparations, celebratory customs in other cultures and countries. He never seemed to stop talking... except that he managed to include both Steven and Jim in his ramblings, soliciting their input and riffing off their answers as he wove them into a circle of companionship.

Steven paused in his stirring. Where had that thought come from? But it seemed accurate; Blair managed to exhibit aspects of master chef and scout leader, combined with news commentator and overlaid with the mantle of a skilled raconteur; he could easily have been a bard in earlier times. It all meshed in an effortless, comfortable gestalt that made him feel like he was sharing a campfire with a best friend. Steven hadn't felt so at ease since... since his mother left, he realized.

Was that why Jim kept the guy around? It wasn't likely he needed the rent money, but if he did, he could certainly find a more conventional housemate – a former army buddy, maybe, or a fellow police officer. On the other hand, Jim had always had a protective big-brother vibe going on, with just about every kid who was smaller or weaker than him. Blair didn't seem to need it, but he was enough smaller than Jim that it might be an unconscious, automatic reaction on Jim's part. Although that 'campfire-friend' feeling was a heady sensation; he could understand why his brother wouldn't be in a hurry to encourage Blair to find his own place.

But during dinner – which, for the record, was every bit as tasty as Blair had promised – Steven decided there was something else, undercurrents he couldn't decipher. They weren't lovers, he was sure of it, but Jim and Blair definitely shared some sort of secret. A few half-spoken phrases had been stopped short, after which Blair offered the distraction of another anthropological observation or story, using fluent storytelling to hide the earlier words behind a mask of obscurity.

A few of those half-spoken phrases stirred a spark of niggling familiarity in Steven's mind, but he couldn't bring it into focus. He was pretty sure it was something important, but the flow of conversation buried the spark before it could grow, and then the evening was over and it was time for him to leave.

Just before he stepped into his car, Steven stared at the lighted windows above him. He felt torn between pushing to find out what the secret was – Jim was his brother, after all – or letting sleeping dogs lie. Some half-formed instinct told him the secret might be dangerous... but Jim was his brother. And certainly Jim deserved his privacy... but there was still the brother thing.

And besides, Steven admitted ruefully to himself, he was damned curious. Maybe Jim would relax while they were at the lodge, and he'd talk about it. If not... well, the time together would be an opportunity for them to reconnect, enough that Jim might tell him later.

Satisfied with his plans – vague as they were – Steven slid into the driver's seat. He had a lot to do, with barely a week to get ready for Christmas and the trip. Maybe it wasn't too late to get a reservation at Carino's; they could get a head start on the family reconnection, and Dad could start adjusting to Blair in neutral territory. Snickering, Steven pulled into traffic. Dad wouldn't know what hit him.

December 21, 1998

On Monday morning, Jim resolutely relegated the upcoming trip to the back of his mind. Thank God Sandburg had agreed to join them; his presence would likely help prevent a rift that would have him not talking to his father for another twenty years. But it would be business as usual through Wednesday.

After showering, shaving and dressing, he rapped on the French doors as he headed into the kitchen. "Up and at 'em, Sandburg! Crime detection waits for no man!"

Sandburg moaned inarticulately before Jim heard the covers pushed back. "It should – if not for Christmas, at least for my school break. Is the concept of 'sleeping in' like, some kind of foreign language to you?"

"You just had the weekend; what more do you want?" Jim snickered as the bleary-eyed figure stumbled toward the bathroom. "Will blueberry pancakes brighten your outlook?" He pulled out the ingredients and started measuring.

Blair turned in the doorway, his expression hopeful. "With pecans added?"

Jim grabbed the container from the fridge. "Can do, Chief. You have fifteen minutes; chop-chop!"

The door closed on Blair's mutters about what he'd like to chop. Jim grinned as he mixed the flour, milk, and eggs. He was looking forward to some time with Sandburg not having to maintain his university schedule. Everything – from paperwork to planning strategy to, of course, using his senses – seemed to go more smoothly when his partner was in the vicinity.

Blair ambled into the kitchen, poured himself some coffee, and set out the jelly, butter, and syrup as Jim ladled the batter onto the skillet. Leaning against the counter while Jim monitored the cooking process, Blair asked, "So, what did I miss before I got in yesterday? When are we doing this, and are you sure you want me along? And what's the best way to get on your dad's good side?"

"I'm using my seniority this year to take off both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. We figured to drive up on the twenty-fourth; counting the weekend, that gives us four days – long enough to 'reconnect', if we're going to, and short enough that we can probably avoid killing each other." Jim shrugged. "As for impressing Dad, I dunno; you got any connections to Big Business? Waving around a hefty stock portfolio would probably do the trick."

Blair frowned. "Hey, I get that your childhood wasn't the greatest, but none of us grew up in a Norman Rockwell world. You should cut him some slack; he's your father."

Jim didn't answer as he served the pancakes onto two plates and handed one to Blair. Still in silence, they carried the food to the table and began to eat. Finally, Jim answered. "Chief, you've been hanging around the PD for over two years, now; you know some of the things parents do to kids. That relationship doesn't give them a free pass."

"Oh, come on!" Blair protested. "There's a big difference between being remote and clueless, versus being actively abusive. Everyone I know wishes their parents had done things differently – including me, sometimes. But what we have to remember is that most of them did the best they knew at that time. Your dad is trying – he apologized to you, right? And if this trip isn't an attempt at reconciliation, I don't know what is. But you've gotta meet him halfway."

"You want some more?" Jim asked, crossing to the stove and ladling more batter onto the skillet.

Blair stared at the stiff, uncommunicative back. "Yeah, might as well," he muttered. There had to be some way to make a dent in the thick skull across the room.

"Your men," he said, as Jim put two more pancakes in front of him. "I'll bet some of them screwed up a time or two. What was your reaction?"

Jim stared at Blair through narrowed eyes. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Did you toss them out of the army and lock the door behind them?"

"Of course not. I gave them KP, or extra PT, and made sure they had the training not to do it again. Then I put them in their jammies and tucked them in bed," Jim finished, strongly sarcastic.

Blair nodded vigorously. "You gave them another chance. Some of them more than one, right?" Jim shrugged halfheartedly. "So doesn't your dad deserve at least that much? He's a fallible human being, Jim, not a monster."

Jim stared at his empty plate for a few moments, then took a deep breath and relaxed his shoulders. "You're right, Chief." He raised his eyes to meet Blair's. "But that's why you've got to join us. I keep seeing a monster, and I'm too much like my old man – stubborn as an old mule. With you along, we might actually make it work. Us three Ellisons, alone together... probably not."

"Anything I can do to help," Blair assured him. "But you've got to throw out some ideas, so we can smooth over the awkward spots."

"Just like preparing for a mission," Jim agreed. He glanced at the clock. "But save it till later; if we don't get a move on, we'll be late to the PD."

December 22, 1998

Steven noticed his father's frown as he checked his watch. "Jimmy's late. Are you sure he's coming?"

Just like Dad to expect Steven to know the unknowable. "He said he would. But remember, he's a cop; he's probably tying up loose ends or something. He'll call if he expects to be too late."

Steven reached for his menu, hoping his old man would take the hint and calm down. As much as William wanted to be part of his eldest son's life again – not that he'd said it in so many words, but Steven could tell – their father kept defaulting to the habits and behaviors that had led to Jim leaving home so long ago. Steven was quite certain that if Dad started telling Jim how he should live his life, or expressing disapproval of his career choice, Jim wouldn't put up with it. He was trying to think of a way to suggest that their father should ease up and mellow out – even though he was pretty sure the old man didn't even understand those concepts – when he saw the waiter leading Blair and Jim to the table. Too late.

As soon as they were seated and had ordered drinks, Blair started taking. "Hey, Mr. Ellison, Steven; thanks for inviting me. I've been looking forward to talking to both of you." He grinned as he cast a sly look at Jim. "According to this big lug, nothing at all happened when he was a kid; I'm looking forward to any stories you care to share."

Jim lowered his menu to raise an eyebrow at his friend. "Don't forget, Chief, Naomi told me about plenty of your childhood escapades; in the interests of my family getting to know you, I might just have to share."

Blair groaned, even as he chuckled. "Mr. Ellison, what is it about parents? I know Naomi – that's my mom – dredged up the most embarrassing stories she could remember; she thinks they're 'cute'. So in the interests of fair play, surely you should share some embarrassing stories about Jim. Steven... you're his little brother; what kind of trouble did he lead you into?"

"Well... there was that time we went treasure-hunting down in the mud-flats." Steven was quite sure that Jim would retaliate, but the story was too good to pass up.

Maybe the tale of a triumphant return home – both of them covered head-to-toe in sticky mud and dragging a broken bicycle that Jim had been sure he could fix – wasn't the most appropriate for a dinner, but Blair seemed to enjoy it. He retaliated with a side-splitting account of helping to build mud-and-wattle structures in West Africa. Even as he roared with laughter, Steven suspected that Blair was enhancing the story for effect – no one could be as inept as he claimed to be – but it was effective; even Dad chuckled, while Jim thwaped him on the head before starting a story about a mud-based incident from his time in the army.

As dinner progressed, Steven reflected that he couldn't remember a more comfortable family gathering; odd that it seemed to be the non-family member who was making it so. He was impressed all over again with the depth and scope of Blair's knowledge and experience – and with his ability to find the commonalities of human interactions, connecting his adventures and insights to the more ordinary lifestyle that Steven knew.

Really, Blair was simply fun to be around. His vibrant attitude and general joie de vivre pulled everyone into his orbit and... well, he just seemed to make everyone feel good. He remembered seeing Blair at the racetrack's Benefit party, flirting with Pat and other attractive women; the guy had seemed like an inconsequential lightweight at the time. It was kind of comforting to realize that he'd underestimated Blair, and that Jim had such a solid friend in his corner.

On the other hand, Dad didn't seem terribly impressed with Blair's conversational offerings – he was still using the formal 'Mr. Sandburg' when speaking to him – but Steven definitely noticed the lightness in Jim's attitude. He remembered a big brother who'd been closed-down and angry before he left home, then an ice-cold authoritarian who'd suspected him of murder last year. Now Jim seemed comfortable and relaxed, chuckling at quips and stories from Steven or Blair and sharing his own, and even remaining civil toward their old man. Maybe this Christmas get-together would actually work without Jim and Dad blowing up at each other again.

William Ellison prided himself on being a gentleman, as well as a practical man. Despite his resistance to including an outsider in their family dinner, this was neither the time nor place to express his opinion. Steven had warned him that Jimmy wouldn't consider a gathering at the lodge – or even a family dinner – without Mr. Sandburg being present so, even though he'd been appalled when he'd realized who the man actually was, he had acquiesced.

When Foster attacked him and Jimmy last spring, William had assumed that the scruffy, undersized stranger who helped him out of the woods was some lower-echelon officer who happened to be available to join in the manhunt; the man wasn't worth a second thought. The recent information that Jimmy actually housed the man was disgusting; Jimmy shouldn't even be associated with this unkempt, hyperactive... student. And didn't that tell him everything he needed to know, that the man wasn't even beginning to build a career at his age. He was little better than the riffraff that Jimmy had to deal with every day.

He talked a good game, but William would be willing to wager that more than ninety percent of his stories were either made up, remembered from books, or retelling someone else's experiences; no one so young could have seen or done so much himself. Why the hell Jimmy hadn't long ago kicked him out was a mystery; how could his home be the sanctuary it should be, with such a babbling fool around?

But worse than that... Mr. Sandburg was a danger to Jimmy. If he found out about Jimmy's so-called 'gift' – and how could he not, sharing an apartment with him – there was no doubt he'd sell it to the media; Jimmy would be hounded as a freak, just as William had always feared.

Not that he could fault the young man; everyone had to watch out for his own bottom line, and that little nugget about Jimmy would probably net him thousands from the right news source.

Wait; that was worthy of consideration. He could pay Mr. Sandburg to not go to the news. Ten thousand – no. He evaluated the long hair and general antsy attitude. Five thousand would probably be sufficient; it was undoubtedly more money than the student had ever seen at one time. He'd make the payment in small bills, so it would look more impressive.

On the other hand, that would leave him open to blackmail; didn't most people who were paid off come back for more? Not that he couldn't afford five thousand a year, or even ten, but it was the principle of the thing. He'd pay any amount of money to keep Jimmy safe, but he wasn't about to be bled dry.

But maybe a payoff wouldn't be necessary. A man like this – all book-learning and little real-world experience, despite his overblown stories – might be too dim to realize how different Jimmy was. The way he acted, fawning over Jimmy like he was some comic-book hero... maybe he'd think Jimmy's special abilities were just him doing his job well. There was no sense giving the little sycophant ideas if he didn't already suspect.

Yes, that was a better plan. Four days at the lodge should give him enough information to determine whether Mr. Sandburg was a real threat, or the negligible nonentity he seemed to be. After that, he could finalize a plan of action.

So, he'd forego his attempts to talk Jimmy out of including Mr. Sandburg in their get-together, and use the opportunity to get to know the enemy. If the threat wasn't neutralized by the end of that four days – either by bribing Mr. Sandburg or, even better, by convincing him that he could do better than hang on Jimmy's coattails – his name wasn't William Ellison.

As soon as Jim had pulled out of the parking lot, Blair turned and demanded, "Two shopping days left; what kind of present do I get for a man who hates me?"

"I wouldn't exactly say 'hate', Chief." Jim's obfuscation skills weren't as well-honed as Blair's but, in recent years, he had learned by observing a master. "He just... doesn't know how to fit a non-businessman into his worldview."

"You're a detective! Don't tell me you didn't notice the equations being run behind his eyes; he was planning where and how to hide my body."

"It's not like he'd succeed, Chief," Jim said gravely. It was too dark for Blair to notice the twinkle in his eye. "And if he did, I'd solve the case and haul him in. I'd make sure you got justice."

"A lot of good that'll do my decomposing corpse. I'm serious, man! I mean, it's not like anything will make him like me, but something he considers a 'suitable' gift could at least raise me above the level of cockroach."

Jim paused at a red light and turned to face Blair. "What's the fuss? Dad knows you don't know him; he won't be expecting a gift from you. For that matter – four adult males, half of whom haven't interacted with the other half for twenty years – I'll bet he doesn't expect any of us to exchange gifts. This trip is just an excuse to hang out with his sons." The light turned green, and he moved forward with the traffic.

"And I'm not one of his sons!" Blair's voice grew more intense. "It's all about the correct social interactions, man, especially for the elders of a tribe. Your dad has a level of status, and... well, it's probably not a conscious expectation. But if I follow the proper protocols, he'll be more comfortable with my presence than if I don't. And more comfort means 'hate' might be modified to... oh, something like 'grudging tolerance'. I can work with grudging tolerance; even Simon doesn't bellow in my direction as loud as he used to. But proper protocol dictates that junior members of a tribe who are requesting closer-than-public interactions with the elders – that's me, in case you're not following – enhance that request with some kind of tribute."

Jim snorted. "You mean a bribe."

"If you want to be crude about it, yes. But no. It's basic tribal protocol. You've dealt with tribes – the army, the Chopec, the cops – you know this stuff, even if you don't want to admit it. So give me some ideas; what kind of things does he like?"

Jim shook his head in irritation as he parked outside the loft. "Chief, I haven't dealt with the man in twenty years, and before that, I barely paid attention to his life; I was too busy bucking his orders and expectations." He followed Blair into the building. "Maybe... a good whisky. He was always real proud of offering the 'good stuff' to guests. Get a bottle of the best you can find, wrap it up fancy, that'll work."

"Excellent! Excellent; I can research that." Blair didn't even shrug out of his coat as he entered the loft and hurried to boot up his laptop. "And what about Steven? Not that he's like an 'elder' or anything, but it would be pretty shabby to have a gift for your dad but not your brother."

Jim sighed as he sat on the couch across from Blair and watched him clicking through various internet sites. "You not going to let this go, are you? I know even less about Steven than about Dad; he was still a kid when I left home. Maybe..." Memories old and new collided. "When he was a kid, his favorite candy was jelly beans – and did you notice the dish on his desk at the racetrack? A nice assortment of gourmet Jelly Bellies would probably do the trick."

"No time to order," Blair muttered. "Do we have a source here in Cascade?" He clicked a few more keys. "Yes! Okay, I'm good to go; thanks man!" His fingers rattled across the keyboard with increased energy.

Jim sighed and leaned back against the cushions, contemplating the upcoming trip. Sandburg was right; Dad didn't like his partner. But their lives were entwined for the foreseeable future; he wasn't about to hide Blair away like some shameful secret. At least Steven's reaction to Blair seemed favorable; maybe his attitude could help convert Dad. If the old man would unbend just half an inch, he couldn't help but see what a worthwhile person Blair was. It might be possible; Dad had seemed considerably less – stringent – during the Foster case than Jim had expected.

On the other hand, Sandburg had a point with his anthropological ramblings – it wouldn't hurt to go bearing gifts. But he needed something that wouldn't outshine Blair's offering; the point was for Blair's 'tribute' to be the most impressive, junior to senior. Maybe...

Jim moved to sit right next to Blair. Might as well take advantage of those skills; as soon as Blair was finished his search, he could start one for Jim. After all, he thought, I deserve some sort of payment for the good advice I shared.

December 24, 1998

"Simon, don't they understand the concept of 'time off'?" Jim argued into the phone. "It's not like they'll do anything with the information before next week."

"Sorry, Jim; the DA insists," Simon said. "Look, it won't take long; you can be out of here by noon."

Jim barely avoided snarling at his captain; it wasn't Simon's fault. "Alright, tell him I'll be there in..." he glanced at his watch, "an hour and a half. I'll need to check with my dad, adjust our plans."

"I'll let the DA's office know when to expect you. But the sooner you get in, the sooner you'll get out," Simon reminded him.

"Fat chance of that," Jim grunted to himself as he hung up the phone.

"What's up, man?" Blair asked as he settled a dufflebag next to the boxes packed with the food he wanted to take to Jim's dad's lodge. He'd ignored Jim's mild observation that William would have made sure the lodge was well-stocked as he packed pumpkin bread, three kinds of pie, and an assortment of cookies, as well as the promised Rumkugeln and Springerle. A variety of cheeses, vegetables and condiments filled another box – they'd stay cool enough in the trunk of the car – although Jim had convinced him that he didn't need to include meat, eggs, or butter.

"The DA has decided, in his infinite wisdom, that if he has to work today, so does everyone else. He absolutely has to go over my testimony about the Tipton case before I leave town," Jim growled.

"I thought you already gave him your deposition about that case."

"I did. Apparently he needs to be sure I didn't forget to tell him anything the first two times we went over the information."

"So... do we tell your dad and Steven to go on ahead and we'll come up later, or do we all just get a late start?"

Jim surveyed the boxes and bags waiting by the door, juggling the logistics of load-up and travel time. "I think a better idea is that you go up with Dad and Steven, and I'll follow. It's not like you can sit in on the deposition, but you can help get things unloaded at the lodge, get everything squared away before I get there."

"I dunno," Blair said, dubiously. "The way your dad looked at me the other night, he'll blame me for you not being there. I mean, a two-hour trip will give him plenty of time to build up a lot of resentment."

Jim shook his head, chuckling his amusement as he put on his jacket. "Chief, you're acting like a nervous boyfriend meeting his girl's parents for the first time; that's not like you." He picked up one of the boxes, and the bag he'd packed earlier.

"I kind of feel like it," Blair admitted, shrugging into his own jacket. He picked up his duffle and one of the other boxes, preceding Jim out the door and heading toward the elevator. "It's – uncomfortable – knowing that your dad is predisposed to think the worst of everything I do or say. This buffering thing works both ways, you know?"

"You mean you want to tag-team my dad? Not exactly sporting." Jim stowed his bag behind the seat, and the box in the bed of the truck as Blair did the same on his side. "You wait here and watch the stuff while I get the last box."

Blair climbed into the truck and buckled his seatbelt while he pondered. Jim was right; it was ridiculous to feel so uneasy about interacting with William Ellison. It didn't make sense; Blair had always figured that he could talk to anybody, anytime, about anything. And when it didn't work, he understood it was because the other person was reacting to their preconceptions about the man in front of them – unfair, perhaps, but a facet of human nature. But somehow, he couldn't be that unconcerned about Jim's dad. Intellectually, he knew that the senior Ellison couldn't break up his and Jim's partnership, but it sure felt like a sword hanging over his head.

Blair startled as Jim opened the other door and slid into his seat; he hadn't even noticed when the last box was dropped into the pickup bed.

"Relax, Chief," Jim suggested as he headed down the street. "Dad won't do anything overt – it would be beneath his dignity. Besides, you and Steven get along well enough; he can be your buffer until I get there. And I think your anthropologist brain has figured it out; you'll give Dad all the perks due him as a tribal elder, and it'll be such a change from my teenage hostility that he'll start to think you're a pretty good guy. What can go wrong?"

Blair groaned. "I wish you hadn't said that! With our luck, one of the reindeer will break a leg on your Dad's roof, and we'll have to find a replacement."

"I'm a sentinel, remember? I'll be able to find Bambi, and we'll draft him as a stand-in. It'll all work out; you'll see."

Blair heard the underlying reassurance; Jim meant much more than Santa's reindeer. "Yeah, okay," he said as Jim pulled to a stop in front of his father's house. "I'll make up a batch of eggnog this afternoon; just be sure you're there to drink it!"

"The scenery around here is awesome," Blair said. "I can see why you built a vacation home up here." Trite, he told himself, absolutely banal, but after an hour and a half, he was finding conversation drying up. It seemed like Mr. Ellison threw cold water over every idea that could have led to a decent discussion.

"At the time, it seemed like a good investment," William said.

Yeah, just like that.

Thankfully, Steven had been complicit in not letting everyone devolve into a frigid – Ha! Bad pun! – silence. He half-turned in the front passenger seat to engage Blair, riding in lonely splendor in the back.

"We had some good times up here when we were kids," Steven said, with a gentle, reminiscent smile on his face. "There's a small lake where we could swim and fish, and lots of hiking in the forest. And imaginary hunting. Well, the shooting was imaginary – we weren't allowed to have guns, of course – but we almost always found real game. Jimmy was a wiz at tracking down deer, elk, wild turkeys... we even saw bear cubs a couple of times, if there was a vantage point where the mother wouldn't notice us."

"Lots of snow," Blair observed, eyeing some crystalline walls standing on cliffs above the road. "Did you do much skiing? I noticed you're not bringing any, but maybe you have some at the cabin?"

"We didn't make it up very often in the winter," Steven explained. "Seems like our Christmas breaks were filled with fancy house-parties at our place or Dad's business associates'."

"Connections are important." William's tone suggested that should be understood by anyone with a modicum of intelligence. "Steven recognizes that, even if Jimmy doesn't."

Blair just couldn't resist. "Oh, Jim absolutely uses connections to do his job. Like, when he needs information, he goes straight to his best snitch, Sneaks." He launched into a story that had Steven chuckling heartily, and even William's expression softened a little. Maybe.

The 'connections' discussion – Steven highlighting the vagaries of the horse-racing world, and Blair drawing comparisons between corporate executives and indigenous tribal leaders – kept them occupied until William pulled his car to a stop in front of – Blair classified it as a Swiss chalet on steroids. Jim was right; it was plenty big enough that four people could avoid meeting each other if they were so inclined.

Well, Steven seemed on board with everyone getting along. Hopefully, Jim would show up soon and help with the family-and-partner gathering. In the meantime, he had promised to make the eggnog before Jim got here.

It was a surprise, although welcome, to find the lodge already warm; they were high enough into the mountains with enough snow on the ground that it was cold. "I have one of the groundskeepers at the resort outside Rockport on retainer; he keeps the place up and makes sure it's stocked with supplies before I come," William said casually as he struck a match to light the kindling under the logs waiting in the fireplace.

"I am down with that!" Blair grinned at William as he headed back out to bring in more of their bags and boxes.

As soon as Blair had dropped his dufflebag in his assigned bedroom, he headed into the kitchen. The coffee was already brewing; Steven's doing, he assumed. The tangy aroma of coffee added to the piney scent of the burning logs in the fireplace; it created a definitely welcome, holiday atmosphere. Blair crossed to one of the counters to set out the goodies he'd brought. "Mr. Ellison? Steven? I brought some traditional Christmas desserts; would you care to have any?"

Steven wandered over to examine the selection. "Looks good," he said. "What are those?" 'Those' were the size of ping-pong balls, covered in chocolate sprinkles and slivers of nuts.

"Rumkugeln; rum-and-walnut balls common in Austria. And these –" Blair pulled out a platter of thick, square cookies, with a snowflake design pressed into the top, "– are Springerle, made in Bavaria. The red snowflakes are anise-flavored, and the yellow are lemon-flavored. The anise is traditional, but not everyone likes it."

"I'm game for anything," Steven said. He poured himself some coffee, then put one of each on a plate, as well as a piece of blueberry pie. "Where did you find them?"

"I made them – well, all of this. The owner of the Natural Foods store made some Springerle for her customers; when I started discussing recipes with her – a couple of Naomi's friends grew up in the old country and taught me how to make a lot of their favorite dishes – she let me borrow her snowflake press. Baking for the holidays is a great tradition; people develop and forge basic connections through the sharing of food. Of course, I don't always have the space to get fancy, but Jim has a great kitchen. He goes more for the 'comfort food' entries in the hypothetical cookbook – I don't think I've ever seen him follow written directions – but anything he makes will knock your socks off."

Steven slid a piece of banana cream pie onto another plate, and placed a fresh cup of coffee on the plate itself. "Funny, I never thought of Jim cooking. Should have guessed, I suppose; anything Jim ever tried, he did well." He used his left hand to pick up the plate, and stabilized it on his arm-cast as he carried it into the living room and set it on the magazine table at his father's side. "Here you go, Dad. Eat, drink, and be merry – we might as well enjoy the fruits of Blair's hard labors."

"Thank you, Steven. And you, Mr. Sandburg," he called into the kitchen as an afterthought. He picked up the coffee to sip it as he continued reading The Wall Street Journal.

"Hope you like it," Blair called back. "Listen, I brought a bottle of cream, and it looks like your guy supplied the other stuff I'll need. Do you mind if I use your kitchen to make a batch of eggnog? There's a carton in the fridge, but homemade beats store-bought every time."

"Certainly, Mr. Sandburg; make yourself at home."

Steven moved back into the kitchen. "Need any help? I can at least handle any stirring to be done."

"You got a deal. Here you go." Blair set a pan of milk, cream and nutmeg on the stove. "Keep stirring while this heats until it's just about to boil." While Steven did that, Blair beat the egg yolks with sugar.

Conversation was minimal; the noise of the electric mixer drowned out anything less than a shout. But Steven enjoyed the process as he and Blair worked together. It reminded him of his childhood, watching Sally in the kitchen. He'd felt safe and warm then, as he did now, which was silly – as an adult, he hardly needed a feeling of 'safety'. Probably just the effect of the season, he decided; might as well relax and enjoy it.

Following Blair's instructions, Steven slowly added the hot milk to the egg yolks while Blair kept the mixer running. When that was finished, Steven stirred the mixture as it heated again, while Blair beat the egg whites. Steven had never realized how – not complicated, exactly, but detailed and time-consuming it was to make eggnog; no wonder most people bought it ready-made. But the smell already told him that the real thing would be worth the effort.

Newspapers had always been useful for keeping others at arm's length. William could hardly believe the gall of that young man, taking over the kitchen like he was the owner of the lodge. Of course, William had given permission – his duty as a host made it mandatory – but it rankled. He intended to convince Mr. Sandburg to move out of Jim's life, not allow him to entrench further. And the way he'd lured Steven into working with him in the kitchen – it seemed that Mr. Sandburg was trying to worm his way into both sons' lives, as if he were deliberately solidifying his position with Jim and Steven.

William had to give him credit; at least the little hippie knew better than to try to suck up to him. But he suspected that this making-nice to Steven was a way for Mr. Sandburg to entwine himself more thoroughly in Jim's life and – by extension – William's. Although Jim had never asked for a penny from his father, Mr. Sandburg must have found out that Jim came from money, and expected to cash in. What other reason could a fatuous college student have to associate with a police detective?

He would find his plans thwarted; William would make certain of that. To that end... he should at least pretend to be sociable with the young man. Arguments made by an uncommunicative stranger wouldn't be very convincing. And it was probably better that he begin before Jim arrived.

William rose and carried his empty plate into the kitchen. "The pie was very good, Mr. Sandburg. Where did you learn to cook so well?"

"Oh, thanks. But, hey, call me Blair, okay? I'm 'Mr. Sandburg' to my students." He didn't even have the courtesy to stop his preparation of the eggnog while he spoke to William. "Well, I've learned from pretty much every corner of the world..."

William's ability to feign interest had been honed by years of corporate social gatherings. It stood him in good stead now as he half-listened to the long, rambling, trumped-up tale.

Mr. Sandburg finally finished his story at the same time he put the eggnog in the fridge to chill. William gave him no credit for immediately filling the sink to wash the dishes he'd used; it was undoubtedly part of his plan to get on William's good side, even though it made sense – Steven couldn't put his cast in water, and William hadn't washed dishes in over forty years.

In the midst of washing, Mr. Sandburg paused and raised his head. "Is that thunder? The weather report said clear for the next few days."

William glanced out the window while Steven went to the door. It was sunny, but they all heard the rolling rumble, and felt the vibration beneath their feet.

Then the lights went out.

Jim made a conscious effort to stop grinding his teeth as he finally – finally! – satisfied all the DA's questions and walked out of the office. How many times could the same information be covered before it was deemed 'adequate'? He glanced at his watch; apparently as many times as it took to drag the meeting an hour past the promised 'out by noon'.

He made mental calculations as he headed the truck out of town. He'd still reach the lodge by mid-afternoon, still have three and a half days there. And by the time he got there, the eggnog should be ready for its taste-test. Sandburg swore his recipe outshone all others for flavor and texture; Jim intended to hold him to it.

As he took the turn off Interstate 5 to Route 20, Jim settled into a Zen-like state that was every bit as good as the meditation Sandburg was always trying to foist on him. The day was sunny, the road was clear, and he had Santana in the tape deck. He could relax and enjoy just being 'in the moment'. Sometimes Sandburg's new-age stuff wasn't such guff, although Jim didn't intend to let him know that.

An hour out of town, he narrowed his eyes at the flashing lights ahead. This wasn't a logical place for a DWI or Immigration checkpoint, but it looked like the Highway Patrol was stopping all cars. Some passed through the checkpoint, and some made a U-turn, heading back this way.

Jim took his place in line and waited. As the HP approached, he rolled down the window. "Is there a problem, Officer?"

"Depends on how far you're planning to travel. There's been an avalanche between Marblemount and Newhalem. The reports are, it's extensive – almost ten miles of road are inaccessible. You can get to Marblemount, but not far past it."

Jim cringed internally; how many vehicles had been caught in such a massive event? "I'm a police officer and former Ranger," he offered. "Do you need any help with search and rescue?"

"As far as we can tell, we were incredibly lucky, with no vehicles in the area at that time. We have helicopters flying over the lower edge, looking for signs, but it looks clear so far."

That was a relief; no injuries, and Dad's group should have reached the lodge long before the avalanche occurred. But, from the description, it could well affect the secondary road that led to Dad's lodge. "What caused it? Doesn't seem like there's enough of a snow-pack yet for avalanches to be triggered."

The officer – her nametag read 'Daley' – glanced down the road. As yet, no cars had stopped behind Jim's truck, so she was prepared to satisfy a citizen's bump of curiosity. "Damnedest thing. Seems like a wheel fell off a private plane as it flew over the area; it landed on a high slope and started a chain reaction. They've got snowplows working from both ends, but it likely won't be cleared till morning."

That was hardly encouraging; even when the main road was cleared, it would be some time longer before the road to the lodge could be plowed – assuming it had also been affected by the avalanche. The only way to know for sure was to get to Marblemount and check the situation for himself.

"Thank you, Officer. I'm heading to a lodge past Marblemount. I think I need to get some first-hand information; it's possible that the avalanche is past my turnoff. If not, I'll put up at a motel for the night, so I can move out as soon as it's allowed." Marblemount had only two motels, but they were unlikely to be fully-booked.

"Sounds sensible," Daley agreed. "Good luck to you, sir." She stepped back, and Jim proceeded past the checkpoint.

He was already considering possibilities. Had the avalanche affected the lodge? Might he be able to walk in from Marblemount? It was about fifteen miles, but doable; maybe he could rent some cross-country skis.

All of that could be worked out later. Right now, the worst was not knowing what was happening with Sandburg and his family. There was no cell signal out here; he'd have to stop at Concrete, and call from there. With luck, they were snug at the lodge, without an inkling that anything had happened. But it seemed like his luck – and Sandburg's – rarely ran that way.

"Whoa!" said Blair, as the hum of the refrigerator died, and the only light was that coming through the windows. "Do you often get power outages?"

"Anyone in this area should be prepared for all eventualities," William pointed out. "There's a propane-powered generator in the shed out back; all I need to do is turn on the gas-feed and flip the switch." He pulled his coat out of the front closet before heading outside.

"Oh, hey, I'll take care of that for you; be right back." Blair stepped out the back door of the kitchen and jogged across the yard, deliberately bounding through the snowdrifts and laughing aloud as he went.

Steven watched through the window. "Have you noticed how much fun Blair has with life? Being around him is kind of refreshing."

"Have you considered he's pulling the wool over Jimmy's eyes?" William countered. "I wonder when we'll see under the mask – or if he's good enough to keep it up."

Steven stared at his father. "Dad... didn't you listen to Jim? He and Blair are friends, that's all." William merely compressed his lips, signaling his disapproval. "Oh, come on! Jim's a detective; how long do you think Blair could keep some hidden agenda secret from him? Whatever you suspect, it doesn't make sense."

"I can't take that chance," William said. "Jimmy's important to me; you're important to me. Maybe I haven't shown it enough, but I don't want to see either of you hurt."

Steven swallowed. "Thanks, Dad. I... you're... important to me, too. But, don't you see, part of a parent wanting good things for their children is respecting the children's decisions. If you don't give Blair the benefit of the doubt, I think Jim will draw a line between you and him."

Blair was trudging back from the generator shed; why hadn't the electricity come back on? "You might have a point," William acknowledged as Blair stood on the porch, stamping the snow off his shoes.

"We have a problem," Blair announced as he walked through the door. "No propane."

"What!" William thundered. "I gave specific instructions that it be filled."

Blair shrugged as he toed out of his wet shoes. "Well, either your caretaker-guy forgot, or there's a leak in the system. All I know is, the gauge reads 'empty'. I turned on the gas-feed and flipped the switch, just in case the gauge was wrong, but nothing happened."

William strode into the living room. "Let's see if the Sheriff knows what happened to the power," he said as he picked up the phone. He huffed in irritation as he replaced the receiver. "No dial tone; whatever took out the power took out the phone lines, too."

"I left my cellphone in my pack; I'll go get it," Blair offered, heading toward the stairs.

"Don't bother," William said. "No service out here."

The three men exchanged glances. "So now what?" Steven asked. "We have food but no power. Do we hunker down and wait for it to come back on, or get the hell out of Dodge?"

"Living with Jim has taught me that information is necessary before you can plan an operation," Blair said. "I suggest we pack our bags and head down to that last town we passed – Marblemount? We can find someone there who knows how long the blackout will last. If it's not long, we can come back. Otherwise, we head home."

"We'll have to watch for Jim if we head home, flag him down so he won't pass us and start a manhunt when he finds the lodge empty," Steven said.

"Jim's got great eyesight; he'll see us first," Blair said casually.

William shot him a look. "Perhaps I can get a propane delivery from Marblemount, and we can come back here. But I think Mr. Sandburg – Blair – makes sense. If we leave right away, we can make it to town and back before dark. If we come back."

Blair grabbed his dufflebag, which he hadn't yet unpacked, then banked the fire while William and Steven threw their clothes into their suitcases. They were in the car and driving away from the lodge within ten minutes.

Within another fifteen minutes, they faced the probable cause of the power outage – a massive river of snow crossing the road. William stopped the car, and the group contemplated the sight in silence.

"Well, that puts paid to getting a propane delivery today. I could climb a tree," Blair offered. "If it's not too extensive, maybe we could climb over and walk to town."

"Too dangerous," William decided. "None of us have warm enough clothing, and it's over ten miles to town."

"And somehow, I don't think Jim will be joining us later today," Steven said. "Unless he hitches a ride with Santa." Blair snorted, but William sighed.

"Surely they'll get the road plowed tomorrow. They're used to snow-removal around here." Steven and Blair nodded agreement.

After some maneuvering in the narrow road, William was able to turn the car around. As soon as they were inside the lodge, Blair took charge.

"Okay, look, we've got a lot going for us – we have food, shelter, and warmth. But we're going to have to make the most of the warmth. I think we should hang blankets to block off the doorways to the other rooms, and plan to sleep in front of the fireplace tonight. I mean..." he faltered for a moment, noticing the way William and Steven were staring at him. "Sorry, Mr. Ellison. It's just that I've lived in so many different cultures around the world, I know a bunch of survival tricks – from hearsay, as well things I've experienced myself. They might not all be necessary, but it'll be easier to get rid of excess heat than it will be to build up more heat if we don't have enough."

William nodded; perhaps Jimmy and Steven were right, and this young man was more level-headed than he had given him credit for. "Thank you, Blair. We'll follow your lead; certainly neither of us have been in a situation like this."

"Right. Okay..." Blair surveyed the room, making plans. "We'll bring some mattresses down from the bedrooms later and put them in front of the fire. Steven, you collect every extra blanket and sheet available; pull them off the beds we won't be using, as well. Mr. Ellison, I hope you have a toolkit around here; we'll need a hammer and nails, and maybe rope and a staple-gun if you have them. And then you can rearrange the furniture – move the chairs closer to the fireplace; just leave enough room to put the mattresses on the floor. I'll bring in as much firewood as I can, and pile it in that corner." He waved toward the area farthest from the fireplace. "We'll lose heat every time we open the door; once we batten down the hatches, we want to avoid that."

"We can do that," William said. "And, Blair – you can call me William." The open smile he received surely couldn't be faked; perhaps he really had misjudged this young man.

"Thanks, William."

Blair headed outside toward the woodshed at the side of the lodge, while Steven and William split up to accomplish their tasks.

Ninety minutes later, the living room looked like a cross between a Gypsy caravan and a laundry-yard. A huge pile of firewood filled one corner, while blankets or quilts had been nailed in front of every door and window to help prevent heat loss. Blair had hung ropes from the ceiling to hang sheets – pinned together end-to-end to make them long enough – around the stairs to the upper story. Three mattress, each piled with several extra blankets, were fanned out in front of the fireplace – which now held a newly-blazing fire – with the most comfortable chairs pulled into a semi-circle just beyond them. The kitchen table and chairs had also been moved into the living room, taking a place behind the easy chairs. The non-perishable food was clustered at one end; they would be able to snack on cheese, crackers, pie and cookies without venturing into the kitchen, now growing increasingly chilly. Several hurricane lanterns, which William had unearthed from some hidden storage, provided wavering, but adequate, light.

"I'm impressed, Blair," Steven said as he leaned back in a chair and stretched his feet toward the fire. "Short of having the power restored, I don't think we could be any more comfortable. And imagine the stories we'll have to tell when we get home, right, Dad? 'We survived being snowbound by the avalanche of ninety-eight.' Should be good for a few rounds of drinks."

"It's quite an innovative plan," William agreed. "Thank you, Blair; left to our own devices, we wouldn't have thought of many of these... enhancements." He resolutely ignored how tacky it all looked; their survival might well be at stake.

"Well, I have one more trick up my sleeve," Blair declared. "We deserve a hot meal. I can't cook a turkey dinner over an open fire, but goulash is doable. I'll be right back." He grabbed one of the lanterns, ducked around the blanket that blocked the kitchen doorway and returned a few moments later, carrying a large cast-iron skillet. It was filled with the ingredients he'd need, but apparently not everything. "One more trip," he promised, heading again into the dark.

Blair was soon chopping carrots and onions, and measuring spices. He refused offers of help – "Thanks, but it's a one-man job," – but started a freewheeling discussion about recipe variations around the world and memorable meals both good and bad. While the goulash burbled gently on the fire, they shared cheese and crackers, then finished the meal with generous portions of pie.

"That was excellent, Blair," William said. "I just wish Jimmy had been able to get here before the road was blocked."

"Jim doesn't let much stand in his way," Steven said. "I bet he'll be here about ten minutes after the snowplows break through tomorrow."

"Or before," Blair added. "I wouldn't put it past him to commandeer a dogsled if the snowplows aren't getting the job done fast enough." That produced a general chuckle in the group.

Conversation languished for a while, until Steven slapped the arm of his chair. "We need to wake this party up; anyone ready for a game of poker?"

The rest of the evening passed with raises and calls, Springerle and Rumkugeln, copious quantities of eggnog, and tales – undoubtedly enhanced – of Jim's, Steven's, and Blair's childhoods. Blair stored the best of them in his memory; he might need the ammunition someday.

When Steven was up by thirteen thousand dollars – which translated to thirteen cents – they called a halt, added more wood to the fire, and settled into their nicely toasty beds.

December 25, 1998

Morning started with Blair's scrambling sprint to toss a couple of logs into the fireplace, a quick poke to stir the fire to renewed life, and a desperate dive into the warmth of his covers. "Give it about half an hour," he advised when Steven raised his head to see what was happening. "Then we'll be able to move around without getting frostbite."

William's voice came from beyond Steven. "I thought parents didn't have to get up early for Christmas once the kids were grown. You boys go back to sleep, or Santa will take your presents back!"

Blair snickered and shared a glance with Steven – by golly, he felt like a kid – and followed William's orders.

An hour later, while Blair mixed pancakes for breakfast, Steven and William stacked the mattresses on the far side of the room. Depending on circumstances, they could be carried upstairs later, or moved back in front of the fire if they had to spend another night. They removed the blanket that covered the east window, to let in some sunlight, but left the others covered; the extra light wouldn't be worth the loss of heat.

William watched Blair kneeling in front of the fire as he cooked pancakes. None of them had attempted to shave this morning, and Blair's extra heavy beard-growth – not to mention bed-head that resembled the tattered remnants of a windblown bird's nest, despite having been finger-combed and ponytailed – made him look particularly scruffy. But William also noticed the muscles evident in the forearms below the rolled-up shirt sleeves, and the strong, capable hands as they proficiently dealt with iron skillet and open flames.

"You seem very adept at cooking over an open fire," William remarked. "I suspect I'd burn everything to a crisp."

"It's a useful skill," Blair agreed. "Anthropologists need to adapt to the cultures they're studying; sometimes being able to demonstrate the skills they take for granted is the best proof that you're actually a human being. Although I must admit, Ben Franklin had the right idea when he invented the stove." Blair lifted the pancakes onto a plate, and set it in front of William. "Yours is coming right up," he told Steven as he ladled more batter onto the skillet.

They were lingering over pie and coffee when they heard a truck horn outside, followed by the sound of a slamming door.

"Roads must be open again," Steven said unnecessarily as he moved to hold the blanket aside so it wouldn't tangle the opening door.

"And he didn't even need a dogsled," Blair said as he put the skillet back in the fire and ladled more batter onto the surface. "I should have known he wouldn't miss breakfast."

Jim spent the night at the Buffalo Run Inn, right next to the highway that passed through Marblemount. It didn't make for a very restful sleep; there was far more traffic than usual in this tiny town, as relief crews rotated in and out to keep the heavy machinery working. On the other hand, this end of the snow removal was less than five miles away; he could easily follow the progress from both sides of the avalanche debris. He was up, checked out of the motel, and first one in line when the plows met and the road was opened. A few persuasive words and generous tip convinced a weary driver to tackle the road to the lodge immediately, instead of leaving it for another driver on a later shift. He followed directly behind, passed the plow with a wave of thanks as soon as it broke through the blockage, and pulled up in front of the lodge at 9:05 – not bad at all.

He felt a surge of relief when he saw Dad's car in the parking area, and smoke coming from the chimney. He'd known why he couldn't reach them on the phone yesterday; the avalanche undoubtedly pulled down the phone and power lines – thank God Dad had a backup generator – and there was no cell service this far into the mountains. Still, the 'what if' scenarios had tumbled through his mind, and it was comforting to have proof that they'd been baseless figments of his imagination. He honked the horn to let his family know he'd arrived, and strode through the front door... stop, just inside, with his jaw dropping open. The place looked like a refugee camp – an impression that was reinforced by the unshaven faces smiling at him, and Sandburg hunched like a gnome in front of the fireplace.

"Hi, Jim," said the gnome. "Merry Christmas! Have a seat; your pancakes will be ready in just a couple of minutes."

"Merry Christmas, bro. 'Bout time you got here; you've been missing all the fun."

"Merry Christmas, Jimmy." William smiled his understanding of Jim's confusion. "There's coffee in the pot next to the fire."

"Coffee might help," Jim agreed. He filled a mug, then sat across from his father. "What happened here? Thanks, Chief," he added, as Blair set a plate of two golden-brown pancakes in front of him.

Steven seemed to be treating the situation as a big joke. "Funny thing," he quipped. "As soon as you lose electricity, you travel back in time about a hundred and fifty years. Who knew?"

"Blair knew. He organized all this to keep us warm overnight," William explained.

"And your dad didn't even flinch when we transformed this room into something that looks like a back-yard rummage sale." Blair grinned at William as he refilled his coffee mug. "You were a real trouper," he said as he set the mug in front of William.

"What happened to the generator? And is there any blueberry pie left?"

"I don't know; is there?" Blair ducked the crumpled napkin Jim tossed at him and slid the pie-pan across the table. "And either the propane tank is empty, or the generator is out of order, so we made alternate arrangements." He shrugged. "As your dad said, we handled it; no big deal." He reached for a Springerle, dunked a corner in his coffee, and started munching.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "You told your usual guy to get the place ready?" he asked William.

"Mark Hilliard," William replied. "He's always been reliable. But we won't be able to get a repairman or gas delivery today. Now that the road is clear, we should probably head back to Cascade."

That was Jim's cue to agree; he was still hesitant about enforced closeness with his family. But, under William's matter-of-fact tone, he caught a thread of disappointment. Dad did want this, and it looked like he'd tried hard to make it all come together... and it was Christmas.

"I'll go out and take a look," he said. "Maybe it'll work if I bang it a couple of times."

Blair sighed with mock sorrow. "William, I regret to inform you that your son – sorry, Steven, his eldest son – is a Neanderthal; he thinks every problem can be solved by hitting it with a bigger rock."

"That's because experience has demonstrated that eighty-seven point six-five percent of problems can be solved by using a bigger rock." Jim chuckled at the disbelieving expression on William's face. "Sorry, Dad; Blair brings out the worst in me." At the end of the table, Steven wasn't even trying to stifle his laughter.

Jim finished his pie and stood, reaching for his jacket. "You still keep a toolbox in the pantry, Dad?" At the affirmative nod, he tossed Blair's jacket into his hands. "C'mon, Chief; I'll show you how useful a rock can be."

"Then taking the toolbox is cheating, or overkill, or something against the man-code," Blair protested as he followed his partner out the back door.

"Didn't you know?" Jim's voice floated back to the men inside, watching through the window and shivering slightly in the cold air. "A wrench is just a specially-shaped rock."

Steven chuckled. "I can hardly imagine two more different people, but have you noticed how comfortable Jim is around Blair? I've haven't seen him so relaxed since we were kids; Blair is good for him."

"You may be right, Steven," William agreed. But Jimmy would be deeply hurt if Blair turned on him; as engaging as the young man was, he still could be a con artist. William had forgotten that, until Jimmy presence here had reminded him. He had to be careful, watchful – ready to support Jimmy if needed.

Jim rapped his knuckles against the propane tank, listening to the note it produced. "Well, the gauge must be defective, Chief; it's full. Let's see where the problem is." He ran his fingers along the exposed pipes and wires, then stopped. "I think this is it."

Blair couldn't see a thing; that section of wire looked no different from the rest. "What?"

"There's a dead zone right here; it breaks the power flow." Jim flipped off the circuit-breaker, then pulled a pair of wire-cutters out of the toolbox. Within minutes he had cut out the damaged section, spliced the wire back together, and wrapped it securely with electrical tape. When he flipped on the circuit-breaker, the generator hummed to life.

"All right!" Blair crowed. "But you realize you just blew your big chance."

"Chance to pay a repairman a hundred dollars for a ten-minute fix?"

"No, man; chance to bond with your family under extreme conditions."

Jim closed the toolbox and, together, they walked back to the house. "Your definitions are out of whack, Chief. Food, warmth, and soft beds don't qualify as 'extreme'. And personally, I want the oven working; it's time to put in the turkey."

Jim prepped the turkey and put it in the oven while the others began restoring the living room to its former status. It took less time to remove the hanging blankets than it had to put them up; they and the mattresses disappeared into the bedrooms upstairs. After a short discussion – Blair asked, and William agreed – the pile of wood remained in the corner; it was convenient and, over the next two days of keeping the fireplace supplied, the pile would be mostly depleted. The easy chairs were left in the semi-circle in front of the fireplace; the cozy grouping felt more comfortable than the previous arrangement.

Blair joined Jim to make the sweet potato casserole and the dressing while Steven kibitzed with unnecessary advice, claiming his broken arm as the reason he couldn't help.

"Actually, he managed pretty well last night," Blair told Jim. "I think your little brother is lazy."

"I know, but it's Christmas, and I should indulge him," Jim said. "I could break the other one for you, and then you'd have a good excuse to sit around and do nothing." Jim's tone toward Steven was oh-so-very-helpful.

"Not worth it," Blair pointed out. "I'd have to file a report for use of excessive force, and then you'd be dealing with the counter-paperwork till Valentine's Day. Just think how many trees that would kill."

"I approve of saving trees – and my other arm," Steven assured them through his laughter.

William sipped another cup of coffee and watched his sons and their friend. This Christmas trip had been a good idea; he hadn't seen the boys so relaxed since Jimmy was a teen. Blair was a big part of that, he acknowledged. If only he could be sure the young man didn't have an ulterior motive for staying so close to Jimmy.

With dinner in the oven, Jim and Blair made short work of washing the dishes. When they were finished, Jim put on a solemn expression as he spoke to the others. "You know, I think I'm being taken for granted. I fight my way here through adverse conditions, then immediately get put to work as a repairman, cook, and dishwasher. I deserve a little recompense – like pie and eggnog."

"And presents," Blair said. "It's not a big deal – and I don't expect anything in return – but I brought a few things I'd like to share."

"I brought some, too." Steven looked around the room, eyes narrowed in thought. "But if we're going to that, we need a tree.

William shifted uncomfortably. "I'm sorry, boys; I never thought of bringing a tree."

"If you had, it would be like coals to Newcastle," Blair chuckled. "Since Jim has been so overworked, I'll do the honors." He took the wire-cutters from the toolbox and headed outside, jogged to the nearest pine tree, and quickly returned with an eighteen-inch cutting from one of the branches. "A tree!" he proclaimed with a flourish.

"From the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Farm? Excellent choice, Chief, but it needs an appropriate tree-stand." Jim pulled a checkered dishtowel from a drawer, then gestured the others to follow him into the living room. He twisted the dishtowel into a rope and coiled it into a ring on top of the end-table next to the sofa. With a flourish, he waved Blair forward, and grinned as his friend stood the little branch up in the middle of the decorative towel.

It was cute. It was silly. "'It's not such a bad little tree'," Blair quipped, bringing smiles from Jim and Steven. But... they all felt it. Somehow, that small sprig of greenery made it feel more like Christmas.

Despite that, an uncomfortable silence fell.

"Well! This is awkward!" Steven said with forced heartiness. "I bet even Blair doesn't know of any traditions that cover gift-giving between estranged family members. So... anyone want to play Santa?"

Blair hadn't thought this far ahead. The last thing he wanted was for anyone – specifically, William – to feel embarrassment for not having given someone else – specifically, him – a gift. "How about we simply hand our presents to each other, and then we all just open them?"

"Works for me," Jim said.

In short order, everyone had pie and eggnog at hand, and a few boxes or envelopes on his chair. After a few exchanged glances, Steven took the lead. "Dad? We think you deserve to be first. Have at it."

"Thank you, Steven." As he opened the gifts, William seemed pleased by Steven's subscription to a new financial magazine, touched by Jim's gold and onyx cufflink and tiepin set, and... suspicious of Blair's Crown Royal. His 'thank you' was no more than correctly formal.

Blair thought he understood; William was trying to juggle two perceptions of Blair, and having difficulty maintaining a balance. Blair-the-man had proved himself capable in a difficult situation, and could be accepted. But as a friend of his son, Blair-the-anthropologist might be dangerous, and William's instinct was to protect Jim. It was perfectly natural; Blair just hoped that William didn't see the flash of irritation in Jim's eyes.

Steven tore into his presents next, as if he could hardly wait. When he opened Jim's package, Blair caught a glimpse of the young boy who had looked up to his big brother. Whatever was inside would have been acceptable, but the assortment of fancy coffee beans was a hit; Steven promised to share his "Organic Rainforest Blend" in the morning. He snickered when Blair's package of Jelly Bellies was revealed. "A little bird must've told you what I like," he said, popping one into his mouth.

"Something like that," Blair agreed, satisfied with this present, at least.

Jim's eyes gleamed at the Jags tickets that Steven gave him. "Nice to see you're suitably appreciative of your big brother." He spread fifteen tickets into a fan. "But do I need three tickets for each game? Me and Blair... and who else?" Steven tossed an orange Jelly Belly at him.

Blair held his breath as Jim tore the wrapping from the copy of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur that he'd found in the used bookstore. It was one of the few Kerouacs that Jim didn't own, but was that because he wasn't interested? When Jim smoothed his hand across the cover, Blair started to breathe again. "Thanks, Chief."

"I'm glad you like it."

Blair had two envelopes to open. He supposed Steven had asked Jim for gift suggestions, just as he had. But his jaw dropped when he saw the amount on the gift certificate to the Campus Bookstore. "Steven! This... I... Thanks, man! I mean, really."

Jim chuckled. "You turned Sandburg speechless; high praise, little brother."

The other envelope held two tickets to the Anthropology exhibit in Olympia next weekend. Blair felt an incredible rush at the indication that Jim had selected a gift so specifically to his tastes – and that he intended to accompany Blair to the exhibit.

"More high praise, man," he murmured. "I don't know what to say. 'Thanks' doesn't quite cover it."

"That's plenty, Chief. You're welcome."

"Well, that was nice," Steven said. He raised his eggnog. "I propose a toast: Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas!" everyone chorused, and drained their glasses.

"Now, that turkey smells mighty good," Steven added. "Shall we?"

Jim interrupted the suggested exodus. "Before we eat, I have one more present – for Blair. Something that's very important... and long overdue."

He waited a moment for the others to settle back into their chairs, and smiled at Blair's quizzical expression. "This one isn't wrapped, Chief; just listen.

"Dad, Steven... I know you've both wondered why Blair continues to live and work with me – why he would want to, and why I allow it, when it seems we have hardly anything in common. And I have to admit, in normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have given him the time of day; he basically forced himself into my life, and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. And for that, I'm incredibly grateful. I don't tell him very often..." Jim cast a wry look toward Blair, who was wide-eyed in surprise. "...more like, hardly ever, but I couldn't do it without him."

Steven's attention shifted between Blair and Jim, as if he might find a clue for understanding Jim's speech. "Do what? Blair's a nice enough guy, but he's not a cop. Sorry, Blair."

"Oh, I've heard it before." Blair dismissed the comment with a hand-wave. "It's nothing but the truth, after all."

William was also looking from Jim to Blair, his expression frankly dubious. "You mean your... 'gift', Jimmy?"

"Yeah, Dad, that's exactly what I mean." Jim focused his attention more fully on Steven; he might have to face Dad's disapproval later, but he was determined to do this. Blair deserved the recognition.

"About two and a half years ago, my senses went into overdrive – everything became fifty times more intense than normal. But when I can control them, it gives me a big boost in my work. That's where Blair comes in – he helps me refine that control, and figures out ways I can use my senses more effectively." Jim was relaxing now; it was a relief to let his family in on the secret. "Kind of like a combination athletic coach, piano tuner, and dog-trainer." That earned him a snort from said coach-tuner-trainer. "In fact, that's how I fixed the generator – I literally felt the short in the wires."

"That's amazing," Steven breathed. "Last year – is that how you knew where the weak spots were in the stadium?"

"That's it," Jim confirmed. "I could hear the weak areas in the concrete collapsing in on itself."

"And when we were kids? The animals we found when we were 'hunting' – that wasn't just luck, right?"

"Right. I had the enhanced senses back then; just didn't realize what I was doing with them. They kind of... disappeared when I was a teen, and when they came back, they hit hard, knocked me for a loop."

William spoke hesitantly. "How long before you finish your... training, Jimmy? Will you be able to control your – senses – by yourself?"

With a gesture, Jim passed the lecture over to Blair.

"We're not really sure, William; the information about people with Jim's abilities is very old, and not well documented. Theoretically, he should be able to manage the input easily – the same way we do with our average senses – but in reality, Jim finds it much easier to handle everything when I'm around. We're not exactly sure why, but we don't mess with a good partnership." Blair's eyes were shining; he had never expected to hear such validation from Jim.

"So..." William seemed to brace himself. "What's the bottom line, here? Jimmy's explained what he gets out of your partnership, but what about you?" Though unspoken, Blair read the next thought in William's expression: How long before you take off and leave my son to flounder for himself?

"I got a friend," Blair said simply. "Jim's right; under ordinary circumstances, we probably wouldn't have associated with each other. I basically called him a caveman the day we met. And at first, all I saw was the embodiment of a quest I'd been following for ten years – a sentinel, a tribal protector, someone who's genetically programmed to be better than the rest of us. But when I got the stars out of my eyes and looked at the man, I saw someone who's loyal, warm, trustworthy, and rock-solid. I... didn't have much of that when I was growing up; I want to hang on to it. But mostly, working with Jim just feels right. We've got a connection that..." Blair shrugged. He could try to explain, but suspected neither William nor Steven could truly understand.

A blazing smile crossed Blair's face as he turned from William to Jim. "That was the best present I've ever had, in my whole life. Thank you, Jim."

"Right back at'cha, Chief." Jim's return smile was as broad as Blair's. "Now, enough of this touchy-feely stuff. I don't need an enhanced sense of smell to know that dinner is ready; time to eat." He led the way to the kitchen, with Steven following, asking questions about Jim's use of his senses and Blair's contribution in dealing with them.

Blair hung behind for an opportunity to have a private word with William. "Mr. Ellison – William – I won't leave Jim high and dry; I'm in this for the long haul," he said softly. "I would never do anything to hurt him, and his secret is safe with me."

William regarded him silently for long moments. "I don't actually trust altruism, Mr. Sandburg. And although Jimmy has always had good judgment, people have been fooled before. But I'll accept that you're sincere. And... thank you for helping my son."

"It's my very great pleasure," Blair assured him. "Now, we better get to the table before those two leave us nothing but scraps."

As they stepped into the kitchen, Jim gave Blair a small nod, accompanied by a quiet smile. Of course he'd heard. William and Blair might never be fast friends, but cautious cordiality at least gave them something to build on.

Jim continued carving the turkey as his family – by birth and by heart – gathered around the table. Blair served the dressing while he traded quips with Steven, usually targeting Jim, and William poured a round of coffee for everyone. Although their get-together had been unconventional and haphazard, Christmas was working its magic of fellowship – forging new relationships, mending cracks in old ones, and encouraging people to see the joy in their lives.

"Dad? White meat or dark?"

"Both, please. ... Thank you."

Lively conversation highlighted the shared meal as afternoon settled into evening. It was shaping up to be a pretty good weekend, Jim realized. He really couldn't ask for more than that.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: Kidnapped!
Summary: Who the heck is 'the boss', and why does he want Blair?
Style: Gen
Size: 8,120 words, about 16 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: September, 2010. My thanks to Jess Riley for giving Megan's speech an authentic Aussie flavor.
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 StarWatcher

Some amorphous time between "The Waiting Room" and "Most Wanted",
when Jim and Blair are working well together before the final dissertation mess.

"So, Jimbo, why am I here instead of Sandy?" Megan Connor stared idly into the darkness outside the truck. They were depending on Ellison's eyes for the stakeout, not hers; she just had to make sure he didn't blank out if he used his senses too hard -- 'zone', Sandy called it.

Jim Ellison shifted in his seat as he tried to restrain his irritation at having her here. It made no difference that Connor was doing the best she could; she just rubbed him the wrong way. Blair had instructed him firmly -- ordered him, really -- to 'play nice', but it felt wrong to have someone else in the passenger seat.

"Sandburg calls it the 'Plight of the Lowly TA'," he sighed. "Between studying for tests he needs to take himself, and grading his students' tests, he doesn't have time to sit in the dark and do nothing. Hell, he barely has time to eat and sleep; I don't know how he does it."

Megan smiled affectionately. "If we could bottle Sandy's energy, we'd be able to run crime right into the ground. But at least it's not permanent; term will be over next Thursday, right? And then you two can get back to normal."

"It would be nice," Jim said absently, as he focused more intently toward the target. "Sandburg's already making noises about developing a new syllabus for the Fall semester -- which means checking lots of sources to see what he wants to include -- and writing two papers to submit for publication. He needs to clone himself, just so he can get everything done."

"Why not just drag him out of town on one of your fishing trips? Then he'd have to take a break."

"Sometimes Sandburg gets so focused on one idea, he can't see anything different. I've already suggested a sort of mini-vacation, but he turned me down. Thought it would be real good for me and Simon and Joel to get away, though."

Megan chuckled. "Maybe you could kidnap him; just sling him over your shoulder and walk off. But I don't think Sandy would appreciate the caveman routine any more than I would."

"You got that right. Sandburg's easygoing, but he can be ferocious when he -- heads up! Our guy is on the move."

Megan squinted in the direction Jim was looking, but could distinguish only a vague area of 'slightly darker'. "You're the sentinel, mate, not me. How do you want to handle it?"

"He's on foot. I'll follow him, and you follow me. Is your phone on vibrate?"

Megan pulled her cellphone out of her pocket and made the adjustment. "It is now."

"No telling how far he'll lead us. I'll hang back far enough that he won't see me, while you follow both of us. I'll give you a call when we need backup."

"Or I'll move in if something goes wrong."

Jim gave a disgusted snort. "I'm not an amateur, Connor."

"No, you're Sandy's partner... and he'll wear steel-capped Blundstones to stomp all over anyone who lets you get hurt. I'm not taking any chances."

"Give me a break," Jim muttered. "Okay, he's far enough ahead not to see me. Stay as far back as you can, while still keeping me in sight."

He slipped out of the truck, easing the door closed behind him, and moving forward into the shadows. Megan also exited quietly, keeping her eyes on the dark figure in front of her. She wouldn't be able to let him get very far ahead... a flash of white near ground-level caught her eye; Ellison's ridiculous white socks. Her part of this moving surveillance had just gotten a little easier. She gave it a count of ten, then followed her temporary partner.

When Jim walked in at two AM, he found Blair snoring gently on the couch, his glasses askew on his face and a red pen dangling precariously from a limp hand; he'd obviously conked out in the middle of grading.

Jim shook his head ruefully; waking Blair to send him to bed would probably be counter-productive. Once awake, he was likely to go back to his grading, operating on the theory that he could override his body's need for sleep.

Working carefully but efficiently, Jim removed Blair's shoes and lifted his legs onto the couch, then pulled the glasses off his face and the pen out of his hand and set them safely on the coffee table. The final step was to pull the afghan from the back of the couch and drop it over his sleeping friend. That would hold him till morning and, hopefully, Blair would sleep in. Jim certainly intended to do just that; after all, there was a reason for Saturdays.

As he climbed the stairs and undressed for bed, Jim pondered Megan's suggestion. Kidnapping wouldn't work -- Blair would see right through any disguise he came up with -- but there had to be some way to get him away from the university stress. Blair would relax and make the best of things if he had no choice, but how to get him to that point...

Jim woke with a plan filling his mind in glorious detail. Complicated though; it would take a couple of weeks to work out, and he'd have to ask his dad for a favor and dip a bit into his savings account.

Actually, quite a bit of savings. He calculated swiftly; round-trip air for... well, two people, maybe, and one-way for four. Some out-of-the way but comfortable place for him and Blair to stay for a week. No, call it ten days; might as well enjoy as much time off as possible. Hmm... this was beginning to look suspiciously like overkill.

Jim gazed over the railing to watch Blair still sleeping on the couch, his face scrunched into the cushion and his right hand occasionally twitching as if he were grading papers even in his sleep. This was a man who had so many irons in the fire he couldn't even count them: student, teacher, sentinel researcher, guide, on-call anthropological expert for information to crack some of Cascade's more esoteric crimes, untrained but incredibly creative partner to an active cop, and... best friend.

And Blair had been juggling all those hats for the better part of three years. Not overkill so much as finally getting his due.

Having satisfactorily disposed of any possible arguments, Jim dressed and went downstairs, where he stopped in the bathroom and used the john. After showering and shaving, he moved to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, then raided the fridge. They had enough leftover this and that to make a killer super-duper deluxe omelet for two. If Blair was going to study and grade all day -- likely -- he'd do it more efficiently with a good meal under his belt.

Two Weeks Later

Blair slid his backpack off his shoulders as he approached the Volvo in the otherwise-empty parking lot. The University Library was on shortened hours during semester break, but he'd found the books he needed before they locked him out, and he'd get a lot done on his new syllabus this weekend. In fact, he'd managed to do more than he'd expected in the week since the semester had ended; Jim hadn't needed much help with his cases at the PD. It was odd for Jim to have such a light load -- he tended to grab any new case that came along if he was anywhere close to finishing a previous one -- but maybe he was closing things down for awhile to take that mini-vacation he'd talked about... and none too soon. Blair sincerely hoped Jim would take Simon along; they could both use the break, and maybe the captain would bellow a little more quietly after some time off. Blair grinned to himself; he'd be sure to point that out to Simon when he and Jim got back.

He had just tossed his backpack into the rear seat when someone crowded him from behind -- where the hell had he come from? Blair hadn't seen anyone nearby -- and jammed a gun into his ribs.

"Don't turn around, kid," a low, threatening voice said, "and put your hands on the side of the car."

"You have got to be kidding me!" Blair exclaimed bitterly, even as he obeyed the orders. "Jim's not working on anything important, and all I'm good for is anthropological information. Tell you what," he babbled as a blindfold was tied over his eyes and handcuffs snapped over his wrists -- in front of him, thankfully, "why don't you take off the cuffs, and I'll keep the blindfold on until you get out of here. No harm, no foul; I won't even try to look, and you won't have a pissed-off sen- senior detective looking for you."

His captor said nothing as Blair heard a vehicle drive up, and then he was urged forward. "Honest, you're just asking for trouble. You know about Jim Ellison, right? He won't stop till he finds me, and then you'll be in a world of hurt."

"The door's open; sit down." His captor grabbed Blair's hands and put them on the seat to give him a positional reference, then placed a protective hand on top of his head and guided him into place. Apparently this guy had watched too many cop shows -- or been on the receiving end of this procedure a few times. Blair did not find the thought reassuring.

"Relax, kid." Now his seatbelt was being buckled -- probably to make it harder for him to escape, Blair thought bitterly. "Your great Detective Ellison won't find you where you're going. We've got orders not to hurt you -- unless you give us too much grief -- so just take it easy. A couple days in custody, we get what we want, and you'll be let go. Like you said, no harm, no foul."

The guy got in from the other side and sat down beside Blair, the engine revved, and the van -- he'd had to step up to get in -- pulled smoothly away. So at least two -- the talker and the driver -- and possibly three, if there was someone in the front passenger seat. Not good odds for escape, especially in handcuffs. But maybe if he acted suitably resigned to the situation, they'd let their guard down and he'd have a chance later.

Blair relaxed against the back of the seat as the road-sound and -motion changed when they hit a major highway; apparently, they'd be going some distance. Meanwhile, he pondered the workings of the universe. Did every sentinel-and-guide pair get so much shit dumped on them, or was Jim Ellison some kind of focal point?

And how was said Jim Ellison going to find him?

Megan -- using binoculars -- and Jim stood in front of her car, watching from a distant rise as Blair was forced into the van and driven away.

"You sure you trust them with Sandy? That one bloke is awfully big," Megan observed thoughtfully.

"Hudson and Dominguez served with me for four years until I disappeared in Peru; I know them as well as I know anyone in Major Crime. They'll follow the game plan to the letter." Jim slid into the passenger seat; Megan wouldn't let him drive. "Hurry up; I need to take Sandburg's car home and hightail it to the airport. They'll backtrack and circle to let me get there ahead of them, but I can't waste any time."

"Sandy will be mad as a cut snake when you tell him it was a fake kidnapping -- and that he spent almost seven hours worried about you and afraid for his life."

Jim chuckled. "I thought you knew him better than that, Connor. His heartbeat is at an alert level, but he isn't particularly frightened. The guys won't make any death threats, just tell Sandburg that he's being held for a few days. He's already planning an escape; I can almost hear the wheels turning. Fortunately, both men are experienced in controlling prisoners."

Megan pulled up beside Blair's car and turned a curious eye toward Jim. "You can still hear his heartbeat... even from this distance?"

"I'm good, but not that good." Jim showed her the wireless earpiece, then returned it to his ear. "There's a radio-transmitter hanging behind the front seat. Blair won't see it, and I can listen in and call a halt if things get out of hand."

"You better," she said, darkly. "If Sandy gets hurt..." She left the threat unfinished. "If it was two of us scarpering off with him, we'd be sure he was okay."

Jim grinned at her as he climbed out of the car. "You just want a chance at a paid trip to Hawaii," he pointed out. "Even if no one talked -- and it's kind of hard to give orders that way -- and you kept his blindfold on, he'd figure out who had him. This way it stays a complete surprise."

"You're a boof-head. You could have just asked the man; this is a crappy way to start a holiday. But I suppose Sandy'll have fun... after he kills you for your shenanigans."

"We'll bring back postcards to taunt you," Jim promised as he started the Volvo. "See you in twelve days, Connor."

He sped away, jauntily waving from the window... just to rub it in, Megan was quite sure. Jimbo was like a big kid, planning this 'operation'. Still, he already seemed more relaxed than she'd ever known him... and if anyone deserved a flash holiday, it was those two. She put her car in gear and headed back toward the PD; some people still had to work.

After an interminable drive -- it was damned boring to travel without being able to watch the passing landscape, and no conversation to distract him -- the van turned off the main road; their speed was slower and the pavement was rougher. A shorter interminable time later, Blair tensed as his mind caught up with the input his ears were giving him. Planes -- lots of them -- landing and taking off. Shit! Being taken away from the city was bad enough; if he disappeared into the wide blue yonder, Jim might never find him.

Blair made swift plans as the van rolled to a stop. He doubted an escape attempt would be successful, but maybe if he created enough of an uproar, there'd be someone close enough to notice and intervene. At least he'd be doing something, instead of going quietly like a lamb to slaughter.

The engine was shut off, and the driver's door opened and slammed shut. No sound from the passenger side; good, he'd only have to contend with two men. Blair flinched as, without warning, a hand was fumbling against his hip.

"Sorry, kid; didn't mean to startle you," the man beside him said as he unbuckled Blair's seatbelt. "Hang on a sec; I'll come around and help you out."

The other door snicked open; this was his chance. Blair quietly drew in a deep, centering breath. Wait for it; wait... With the shifting of the seat cushion that indicated the man was unbalanced, half in the car and half on the ground, Blair shoved his blindfold to his forehead, pulled open the door and launched himself outward. Hangar ahead -- maybe there'd be someone there who wasn't involved in this insanity.

He'd managed barely half-a-dozen steps when he was tackled from the side. Blair felt the breath knocked out of him, and he was going down, but his assailant twisted so that Blair landed on top of the other man's body. Huh? Ignoring the possible reasons for such a painless takedown, Blair slammed an elbow into the man's gut and scrambled upward -- only to be caught by the other guy. Big guy, even bigger than Simon; a damn giant. But it didn't slow him down; the giant easily spun Blair around and simply lifted him off his feet, so that his twisting and wriggling and attempts to kick were completely ineffective.

He threw his head back, trying to slam into the giant's nose, but only hit his chest; the man was so tall that, even though Blair's feet couldn't reach the ground, his head didn't even come up to the giant's chin. Damn! It ought to be illegal to grow that big.

Only one option left. Blair filled his lungs as deeply as he could, considering the iron bands masquerading as arms that were clenched tight around his torso, and gave it everything he had. "HE-E-E-L-L-LP!" he shouted. "Call the POLICE! I'm being KIDNAPPED! HE-E-E-L-L-LP!"

The giant simply chuckled as he pulled the blindfold over Blair's eyes again, then turned and started walking. "Shout all you want, kid. Everyone who can hear you has already been paid off. You're too important for the boss to leave anything to chance."

Now Blair was being carried up some steps -- he heard the metal clattering of the rolling stairs that were used when a plane didn't have access to an airport gangway -- and then the air, sound, and smells changed as they entered the plane. After a few more steps forward, the giant set Blair on his feet, then guided him to sit down.

"I told you we won't hurt you," the giant was saying as he buckled Blair's seatbelt. "If the way Carlos was so careful in taking you down doesn't prove that, I don't know what will. Good move with that elbow-strike, by the way. Carlos's gonna be feeling that for awhile, and if I hadn't-a been there, you might've gotten away."

Yeah, right, Blair thought bitterly. He flinched as a hand grasped his ankle, then he felt a metal band circling it, and heard the 'snick' as it was locked.

"Okay, kid, you're all set." A giant hand patted his knee, then he heard the 'whoosh' of the seat cushion across the aisle. "Your shackle is chained to the floor, so don't try running again; you'll just end up flat on your face. I'll take off your blindfold and handcuffs after we've leveled off; it's a long flight, and the boss wants you to be comfortable."

Blair heard the door close behind him, then the engines engaged and they were taxiing to -- a position in the take-off lineup, he supposed. He sagged in his seat as despair almost overwhelmed him. He hoped that his 'comfort' wouldn't be equivalent to the condemned man's last meal; right now, his situation certainly didn't seem overly encouraging.

'Jim, I don't know how you'll do it, but please find me!' he whispered deep in his heart. Maybe, if Jim's spirit animal was on duty, he'd get the message. Blair couldn't think of any other option.

Jim watched the escape attempt from the cockpit. Although he flinched when Dominguez used a flying tackle to nab Blair again, that protective roll made it probably the gentlest takedown he'd ever seen. Jim winced, then smiled with pride. Dominguez was a good man, and didn't deserve the elbow-strike, but Blair's short stature made too many people underestimate him; he was stronger and scrappier than expected, especially when the odds were against him. He might even have completed his escape if Hudson hadn't been on hand to grab him.

Hudson had carried Blair through the hatch; now it was a matter of waiting their turn to take off. After a quick word with the pilot and co-pilot, Jim entered the cabin, closing the cockpit door behind him.

He glanced at the temporary partition that had been built to separate the cabin into two compartments, making a quick check that the connecting door was securely closed. It would be, of course -- Dominguez was a stickler for detail, and had never let his Captain down -- but Jim couldn't not check. Satisfied, he sat in one of the luxuriant leather chairs scattered around the area and smiled at the women cozily settled on the sectional sofa that filled one corner. He'd met Emily Hudson and Magdalena Dominguez for the first time last week; their husbands had been part of his squad before he went into Special Ops, but they had met and married their wives while he was living with the Chopec. Visually, the ladies appeared to be complete opposites. Magdalena was as tall as her husband, with an athletic build and long, dark hair. Emily, with a cap of short blonde curls, also sturdy but barely five-foot-four, seemed positively tiny when she was beside her husband. The women seemed similar in attitude, however, both approaching the world with easy acceptance and general good humor. Right now, they looked like excited teenagers at their first school dance, enjoying the opulence with open appreciation, and nibbling on the selection of fruit and candy that decorated the coffee table in front of them.

"Well, ladies, the pilot tells me we'll be taking off in about fifteen minutes. Are you both okay? Have you checked out the rest of our provisions?" He nodded toward a well-stocked serving cart resting against the forward bulkhead. "If there's anything else you need, I'll send the co-pilot back to get it before we're in the air."

Magdalena giggled and shared a look with Emily; like their husbands, the women were long-time friends. "You hire Pete and Carlos for a few hours' work and pay them with free trips to Hawaii, and a place to stay! And you include us in the deal. What on earth could we need on top of that?"

Emily nodded confirmation of her friend's words. "Neither of us had a real honeymoon when we married our guys; you know what it's like getting time off when you're in the Army. For an opportunity like this, we'd ride steerage and eat bread and water on the trip; I think we can make do with smoked salmon and cream-puff pastries."

Jim chuckled. "The menu was my father's doing. I don't often ask him for a favor; he was tickled to be able to help me out, and went a little overboard. But it's in a good cause."

"Just to get your friend to take a vacation?" Magdalena asked. "Surely there would be an easier way... although I should shut up before you reconsider and cancel the flight." She giggled again, and mimed zipping her mouth.

"You don't know Sandburg; if he's decided something is for the 'best', it takes dynamite -- or a kidnapping -- to move him. All of this --" Jim gestured to their well-appointed surroundings, "-- was easier to arrange than getting him to change his mind about working straight through his summer break."

Emily shook her head fondly. "I know the type; Pete's just like that. But Mr. Sandburg surely won't like being treated as a prisoner till we land. I mean, I know Pete and Carlos won't hurt him, but... well..." She glanced doubtfully at the closed door between the cabins. "It just seems an uncomfortable way to start a vacation."

"Actually, Sandburg's kind of an old hand at being kidnapped." Jim chuckled again as both women's jaws dropped. "And your husbands know what to do. In a little while, they'll take off the blindfold and handcuffs, and Sandburg will have food and some movement in the cabin. Not salmon and pastries -- he'd get suspicious if Pete and Carlos were too nice to him -- but good enough."

He paused as the plane turned, the engines revved, and the plane gathered speed down the runway. Moments later, the plane banked, heading out over the ocean. Jim unbuckled his seatbelt, and moved to the serving cart. "Next stop, Hawaii. May I offer you ladies a drink?"

Blair felt the plane bank onto a new heading for wherever-the-hell-they-were-going and pondered karma as it applied to one Blair Sandburg. What had he done in some past life that he was paying for? The worst part of it was that whatever happened to him spilled out to other people; how would Jim handle his senses without Blair's support? Of course, Megan knew what to do -- in theory -- and she could help Jim avoid zoning. On the other hand, if Jim's senses were spiking, her best efforts were generally ineffective, despite following every coaching suggestion Blair had tried to teach her. Blair was reasonably sure it wasn't Megan; she'd make a pretty good guide for a sentinel... as long as it wasn't Jim. He still retained a faint -- and sometimes not so faint -- edge of antagonism toward Megan whenever he had to work with her. It definitely affected his responses to her attempts to guide him, just when he most needed the help.

And any problems Jim might have with his senses would probably get worse as time went on. Blair's captors had said he'd be let go in 'a couple of days', but that didn't square with an airplane flight; why go to so much trouble and expense just to turn around and repeat it two -- or even three or four -- days later? And when -- or if -- he was let go, would he be within reach of Cascade? Or, worse, within reach of a way to get to Cascade?

That way lay madness, Blair decided. Better to get his captors talking; they might let something slip.

"Hey!" he called. "Feels like we're level; you said you'd take off the handcuffs and blindfold."

"Yeah, the boss said you wouldn't sit quiet for very long." Blair couldn't hear footsteps over the noise of the plane, but then the voice was right next to him. "Hold out your hands."

A moment later the cuffs were removed, and Blair pulled the blindfold over his head and looked around. His jaw dropped. He'd assumed 'the boss' must be wealthy to hire a private plane, but this was... sumptuous. His body was nestled deep in a wide, cushiony seat covered in butter-soft leather. Two pair faced each other, spaced so far apart that even Simon could have stretched his legs to full extension without hitting another seat. On the other side of the cabin was a sofa, decorated with plush pillows, and long enough to sleep on. The place was a flying palace.

Blair turned his gaze toward the two men watching him and evaluated them. The big guy really was a giant, easily six-foot-six and built like a linebacker; he was watching Blair with relaxed hazel eyes under sandy hair, and a wry grin on his broad, friendly face. Blair would have tagged him immediately as a 'good guy' and been happy to meet him... if he weren't part of a pair of kidnappers.

The other guy was smaller, about Henri's height, but built like a greyhound, lean and muscular; Blair had direct confirmation of his speed and strength. His eyes and hair were dark, and his gaze more cautious than his partner's but, in other circumstances, Blair would also have pegged him as one of the 'good guys'. Maybe he'd have to get his people-meter recalibrated.

When in doubt, negotiate, obfuscate, but above all, keep talking. "Listen, are you sure you've got the right man? I mean..." he waved at the sumptuous surroundings, "I don't think either Jim or I have gotten on the wrong side of anyone this rich; your boss wouldn't like it if you bring him the wrong man."

"Blair Sandburg, Teaching Fellow at Rainier University, ABD, observer and sort-of partner to Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department, Major Crimes Division." The big man recited it like a well-learned lesson. His smaller partner spoke up for the first time to prove he had also done his homework. "You're well-liked at the University, popular with most of the personnel at the PD, and never lack for dating opportunities. You're a good poker player, inventive at self-defense," he touched his stomach with a rueful grimace, "and, when given the opportunity, never stop talking."

"Well, that certainly sounds like me," Blair acknowledged. "But maybe your boss mixed me up with whoever he really wants. I'm telling you, me and money like this -- we're so far apart that we aren't even in waving distance."

"The boss isn't wealthy himself," the giant admitted, "but he's... got connections. You're the right guy, so you might as well resign yourself to the idea that you're along for the whole ride."

Blair sighed. Yeah, might as well. "So, you know my name; what do I call you? Frick and Frack? Mutt and Jeff? David and Goliath?"

"Only if I get to be Goliath," the smaller guy said, while his giant friend snorted. They shared a glance, then the bigger guy shrugged.

"Can't hurt. I'm Pete, he's Carlos."

"Well, Pete, Carlos... can't say I'm exactly pleased to know you, but thanks. So now what? How long is 'the whole ride'?"

His captors exchanged glances again. "A few hours," Carlos said, noncommittally.

"A few hours?" Blair's voice rose in outrage. "And what? I'm supposed to just sit here and twiddle my thumbs? And just how many hours is 'a few'?"

"That information is need-to-know, and you don't," Pete told him. Funny; that tone of voice sounded a lot like Jim's when he was being similarly non-communicative. "It's not like you're in chains. Well..." he glanced at Blair's ankle and his lips twitched. "Not in a dungeon, anyway, and you'll find your -- tether -- is long enough that you can move around a bit. We have reading materials," he pointed to a shelf over the sofa, "and food." That gesture indicated a serving cart at the end of the sofa, piled with sandwiches, fruit, and carafes of whatever. "We'll even eat and drink what you do, to prove it's not drugged."

Blair eyed the serving cart with due consideration. "Well, I did miss lunch," he said thoughtfully.

"Say no more," Pete said, as Carlos brought the serving cart close enough for Blair to examine and choose from its contents. "And when we're finished --" From a shallow drawer under the sofa, he produced a deck of cards with a flourish worthy of a magician. "-- how about a hand or two of poker?"

Carlos handed his partner a sandwich, while Blair grabbed another from the same plate -- tuna on whole wheat. "Don't pay attention to him, kid. Pete's damn good; it'd be a shame for him to be censured for extorting money from our... guest."

Blair kept his surprise to himself. There were rules for the treatment of prisoners? Maybe among the police or military, but he'd never heard of such a thing among kidnappers. And -- 'extorted'? 'Censured'? Those terms certainly didn't fit the image of a band of criminals, of whatever flavor. These guys hadn't threatened him or made bombastic proclamations about the rightness of their particular cause, and they had treated him like a person instead of a tool -- or a pawn. In short, this wasn't like any kidnapping he'd ever experienced, or even heard of, and Pete and Carlos were acting suspiciously un-criminal-like. Maybe he could allow himself to relax a little... at least for the next 'few hours'. It wasn't like he could bail out at several thousand feet in the air.

Aloud, he said, "Don't let this boy-next-door façade fool you; I've taken my share of poker pots over the years. On the other hand, my wallet is in my backpack which, last time I saw it, was in the back seat of my Volvo." He reached into the pocket of his jeans, fished out a few stray coins, and made a show of counting them. "With a stake of eighty-seven cents, I don't think it'll be much of a game."

"What, you've never played for peanuts?" His eyes crinkling with humor, Pete handed Blair a large can of 'Gourmet Honey-Roasted Peanut Halves and Wholes'. "I think we've got enough here for several games."

Blair nodded, and swallowed before he spoke; the sandwich was excellent. In fact, it was one of his favorites from Dominic's Delicatessen, and if it hadn't come from there, he'd eat his shirt instead of the sandwich; Dominic's recipes for his sandwich mixtures were unduplicated by any other establishment and kept secret, known only to his family. And Jim, of course; teasing apart the ingredients had been one of Blair's early tests for his sense of taste. Blair glanced at the other plates; Philly steak, egg salad, and meatball subs were also staples on Dominic's menu. He'd have to taste them to be sure, but it was another point to add to the 'not the usual kind of kidnapping' column.

"You're on. I've experienced a severe shortage of peanuts lately; I'll be happy to relieve you of some of your no doubt ill-gotten gains." Blair reached for one of the carafes, discovered piping-hot coffee, and poured himself a cup.

Carlos groaned as he reached for one of the Philly steak sandwiches. "That's all I need, to sit in a game with two sharks instead of one. At least I can afford to lose peanuts."

"Yeah, yeah, you're so put-upon," Pete told his partner. "Ignore his whining," he advised Blair. "Carlos can hold his own with anyone in our --" He caught himself sharply, and finished with a lame, "-- group."

Blair wondered what term Pete had avoided. 'Team'? 'Unit'? 'Squad'? He was increasingly convinced that these guys were not the hired thugs they pretended to be. In which case, there were worse ways to spend an afternoon; sitting -- literally -- in the lap of luxury and passing the time with conversation and a good game of poker. And maybe one of them would let something else slip, to help confirm Blair's half-formed hypothesis about this abduction.

"I'm game," he said cheerfully, while reaching for one of the Philly steak sandwiches. "Just as soon as we finish lunch."

The afternoon passed in a sort of timeless Limbo. Most of the window shades were pulled down -- and stayed down, on specific orders from Pete -- preventing Blair from gaining any clues about the terrain they were flying over. The forward shades were left up, which provided some natural light, but Blair's leg chain didn't reach that far; all he could see was blue sky and the occasional cumulonimbus.

At least Pete and Carlos had abandoned most of the 'abductor' attitude, and become pleasant traveling companions. The three of them didn't so much play poker as dabble at it; betting was low-key, and the action frequently paused as they shared tales of past exploits. As Blair had thought, both Pete and Carlos were ex-military -- they wouldn't say which branch -- and each tried to top the other in recounting various off-duty capers in non-specific parts of the world. Blair suspected some of the stories were creatively enhanced -- training goats to race with monkey jockeys? -- but he easily countered with the peculiarities of undergraduate students, and adventures from his various expeditions. There was no need for Pete and Carlos to know that some of those escapades had happened to Blair's colleagues.

Despite the casual play, Blair had pulled considerably ahead -- a good handful of peanuts -- when they were interrupted by the pilot's announcement. "Prepare for landing; estimated time of arrival in twenty minutes. Please ensure that all loose items are safely stowed."

Carlos groaned as he tossed his final hand on the table. "Well, that's it. Not that I could have taken that pile away from you, but I was sure this hand was a winner." He began storing leftover food and drinks in locking compartments of the serving table.

"Not gonna happen; the kid's good," Pete said with a grin as he swept the cards and magazines into the drawer under the sofa. Then he sobered as he faced Blair directly. "Sorry, Professor; I'm gonna have to cuff and blindfold you again."

"Oh, you have got to be kidding me!" Blair exclaimed. "I promise you, I understand that I'm far enough from home that trying to make a break would be an exercise in futility. If you leave them off, I'll be a model prisoner." Until I see a chance to take off, he concluded silently.

Pete shook his head as he approached with the handcuffs. "No can do; the boss's orders are specific. It won't be much longer," he added as he closed the cuffs around Blair's wrists and tied the blindfold firmly around his head. "We'll be taking a car for the last part of the trip, and then you won't have to see us again."

Blair slumped deeper into his seat. "I appreciate the attempt, Pete, but that's not a whole lot of comfort right now."

The engine noise deepened and Blair felt the pressure as the plane descended for landing. He was not looking forward to meeting 'the boss'. Maybe he'd be lucky and the man would have died before Pete and Carlos delivered him to wherever. Right now, that looked like the only way he'd get out of this.

Blair sighed as Carlos -- even blindfolded, he could feel the difference in the bulk between him and Pete -- helped him into another vehicle, this time a car. At least the seat was comfortable, he thought as he leaned back when the car started moving along a smooth road, but he was getting damned tired of being hauled around willy-nilly every time a two-bit thug thought having a hostage was automatic protection from police retaliation. On the other hand, as kidnappings went, this was by far the easiest one he'd ever participated in. No bombastic threats, no injuries, good food, good company, comfortable travel arrangements... He'd like to put in a request that all future abductions would follow the same pattern. But if he had his druthers, he'd go with 'never again will Blair Sandburg be a hostage'.

He sighed again; this was boring. Pete and Carlos had reverted to their pre-plane silence; they didn't respond to a single one of his remarks, questions, or opinions. And with the blindfold on, he had no visual clues; they could be anywhere from Alexandria to Zanzibar. Hell, for all Blair knew, the plane had circled and they were back in Cascade.

The car turned, then traveled at a slower pace. Narrow road? Approaching their destination? Blair hoped so; he really couldn't plan anything until he knew what was going on. And he couldn't help but wonder who 'the boss' was, and what he wanted with Blair.

The car finally pulled to a smooth stop and the engine shut off. The driver -- Pete -- got out and shut the door firmly. Blair leaned to the side, expecting Carlos to unbuckle his seatbelt again, but he said, "Relax. Pete has to check with the boss, make sure everything's ready. It'll be a few minutes."

'Everything's ready'? Oh, that didn't sound good. Maybe all the easy-peasy 'we won't hurt you' camaraderie was just to soften him up for the kill. Blair winced, and hoped the gods wouldn't take his thoughts literally. He wondered if maybe the Fates could ensure that 'the boss' would never be ready. In fact, it would be outstanding if 'the boss' suddenly decided he didn't need a hostage any more, and told Pete and Carlos to turn Blair loose. That would be good. Very good. As long as he wasn't in the middle of the Sahara, he could hike to some kind of civilization. Then all he had to do was find a phone; one call and Jim would be on his way to end this travesty of human interaction.

Carlos shifted. "Pete's coming. Hold still; I'm gonna unbuckle your seatbelt."

They must have timed it. Just as Blair was loose, the door opened; with Pete standing right there, there was no sense in making another escape attempt. He accepted Pete's guiding hand on his elbow and moved forward with the other man --

-- only to stop short after a very few steps. Blair's senses weren't as good as Jim's -- they couldn't be -- but in working with the sentinel, he had learned to pay attention to what he could learn from other input. Right now, he didn't even have to strain to realize he wasn't in Cascade, unless 'the boss' was holed up in the Botanical Gardens. There were flowers growing nearby, many different varieties; the various scents mingled without competing, so strong that he could almost taste their nectar in the air. And there seemed to be as many birds calling as there must be flowers growing. Some he recognized -- there was a mockingbird, and there a house finch -- but most were completely new to him. If 'the boss' chose to live in such a paradise, maybe he wouldn't be such a bad guy.

On the other hand, Hector Carrasco had loved his daughter and grown prize-winning orchids as a hobby.

Pete had waited while Blair evaluated, but now nudged him forward again; soon enough he was being guided up a few steps and walking across a wooden floor. Blair heard a door open; he was guided through and, a few steps later, wooden floor gave way to a softer surface underfoot.

"Right here, Professor," Pete said. Blair stopped walking when he did, and then Pete was unlocking his handcuffs and pulling off the blindfold. "The boss wants you to look around for a few minutes before you meet him. Keep your nose clean and you'll be okay."

With those ominous words Pete was out the door, and Blair was surveying his new surroundings. On the surface the place could be mistaken for a 'rustic cabin', but the details proclaimed, 'High-End Resort'. The polished hardwood flooring was graced by a large woven mat in the center -- palm fronds, he thought -- and the cozy-looking wicker and bamboo furniture was enhanced with thick, colorful cushions. One wall was dominated by a full entertainment system -- large TV, stereo, and even a laptop. The opposite wall... wow!

Blair was stopped short in his clinical evaluation, standing in breathless admiration of sheer beauty. The huge picture window framed a vista of lush vegetation, trees, vines and bushes showcasing a riotous profusion of flowers. Within a short distance -- this cabin must be on a hill -- the land dropped away to give a view of the ocean, shining bright blue, far different from the grayer waters seen from Cascade. This place definitely met the criteria for 'Paradise'.

But even Paradise had a snake. Pete and Carlos were out of sight; maybe he could hightail it before 'the boss' showed up. Blair crossed to the outer door and had just turned the knob when a voice spoke behind him.

"Leaving so soon, Chief?"

Blair spun, and simply stared. Jim was standing in an archway that led to a short hall. He crossed his arms and cocked his head with a casual air, a broad grin on his face.

"Y'know, most people would look forward to a vacation in Hawaii," Jim continued. "I'm a bit disappointed that you'd want to walk away from it."

Blair prided himself on his flexibility and capacity to go with the flow, but he was having trouble processing this. "Jim? What are you doing here? I mean -- you're 'the boss'?" He quickly made the connection. "Let me guess; Pete and Carlos were in one of your units."

Jim chuckled as he moved into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. "Got it in one, Chief. But if they'd referred to me as 'Captain', it would've given the game away. You want a beer?" He pulled out two bottles as Blair walked forward in a daze, accepted one of the beers, and settled in a large comfortable chair, never taking his eyes from his friend.

"But... how? Why?" Blair sputtered.

"'Why' is easy; you were so determined to work through the summer that the only way I could get you out of Cascade was to kidnap you. 'How' wasn't much harder. Dad was happy to lend his corporate jet, and one of the vice-presidents has a time-share in these cabins; letting me use them for a couple of weeks got him big points with his boss. Add some incidental money from my savings and, voilá! We have the next ten days in Hawaii -- sun, sand, surf, native culture... take your pick."

"My pick? What's in it for you?"

Jim shrugged, with another easy grin. "I figured my best friend would share; I choose five days of activities, and you choose five. Every other day work for you?"

"I suppose your days will be surfing and golf," Blair said with a snicker. "And then some golf and surfing?"

"I can have you looking like a pro inside a few hours," Jim promised. "Haven't you always wanted to say you surfed in Hawaii?"

"Y'know, I really have," Blair agreed, his eyes twinkling. "And I'm sure you've always wanted to visit the State Museum of Cultural and Natural History, and listen to the legends of a native Kahuna... if he'll talk to a haole."

"Sounds like a blast. Although maybe I should keep my cop vibes away from the Kahuna, and go fishing or surfing while you talk."

Blair snickered again. After the worry about meeting 'the boss', relief brought snickering very close to the surface, and easily released. He took a swallow of beer before he said, "I figured you'd find a way to get out of talking to any kind of shaman-figure. But you'll have to catch enough for a good fish-fry."

"Count on it. But since that's at least a couple of days off, I think it's time to head out for some grub. It's late for Cascade, and those sandwiches were awhile ago."

"Those...? You were on the plane!" Blair accused. "Where? There wasn't room to hide."

Jim's expression proclaimed his virtue. "Sandburg, I'm hurt. You wouldn't expect me to take a commercial flight while you flew Executive Express. Magdalena and Emily and I were cozy and comfortable on the other side of the bulkhead. What you saw didn't lead to the cockpit; it split the cabin in half."

"Well I wondered why I was chained in the back half of the space. It wasn't like I'd try to jump out during the flight." He shot Jim an admiring glance. "Sneaky, man."

"Tactical, Chief, not sneaky; I was Covert Ops."

Blair shrugged. "Potato, potahto. And tell me about 'Magdalena and Emily'. Pretty?"

"Very. Also married -- Magdalena Dominguez and Emily Hudson." At Blair's blank look, he added, "Carlos and Pete? Your kidnappers?"

"You brought their wives to a kidnapping? Granted, I don't know the ins and outs of the criminal underworld, but that sounds a little hinky."

"Only from your end. From their end, it's payment for services rendered -- free flight to Hawaii, and a cabin for each couple, for ten days. The ladies were suitably impressed with my dedication to giving my best friend a vacation... and really looking forward to having belated honeymoons here."

Blair stared with raised eyebrow. "Jim Ellison; who'd-a thunk? Closet romantic softy."

Jim's level gaze dared Blair to contradict him. "Merely practical. I could hardly expect my men to do their best work if their wives knew they'd gone to Hawaii without them."

"Oh, yeah; I'm sure those two -- Pete especially -- are severely henpecked, and need the protection of their former captain." Jim nodded his confirmation, failing to suppress the quirk of his lips. "Okay, I'll give you that one, but you're not off the hook. You could've just said 'Hawaii', and I'd've put down my books. I mean, kidnapping is completely over the top, even for a gung-ho ex-Ranger. How did you even concoct such a plan --"

"Sandburg! Dinner! Magdalena and Emily want to meet you, and their husbands are pretty nice guys when they're not holding someone prisoner."

Blair paused, his rant barely begun. Jim's eyes were so hopeful... and, really, it was kind of stupid to complain about being in Hawaii for the next ten days.

"You're right," he acknowledged. "And I guess I really should offer Pete and Carlos a formal 'thanks'. That really was the best abduction I've ever had."

"I'm kind of hoping it's the last one you'll ever have," Jim said as he ushered Blair toward the door.

"I'm down with that," Blair agreed, fervently. He paused on the veranda to take another long look at the area. The sun was setting, casting shadows that birds flitted though as they headed to roost, while highlighting the jeweled tones of the blossoms that were closing for the night. In all of his travels, he'd never seen a lovelier view. "Jim?" he said quietly.



"You're welcome, buddy." Jim slung his arm over Blair's shoulders and, together, they headed out to dinner -- and the beginning of what promised to be a spectacular vacation, made even better by being shared with a true friend.

The End   This site is where I found the definition / description of Kahuna: "Below the chiefs in temporal power, but often far above them in spiritual power, were the kahuna, or priest craftsmen. They were specialists in professions such as canoe-building, medicine, the casting and lifting spells, and in other fields."

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Title: Spring Has Sprung
Summary: Kite-flying for fun and... fun.
Style: Gen
Size: 3,200 words, about 7 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Written March & June, 2010.
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-

Spring Has Sprung

by StarWatcher

Cindy is one of my biggest fans, and I've just learned that flying a kite from her wheelchair is one of her fondest childhood memories. This story is dedicated to her.

Jim paused on his way toward the door, his gym bag slung over his shoulder. "You sure you don't want to come, Chief?"

"Thanks, Jim, but I have too much to do; once in a while, school has to take precedence." Blair used his red pen to scribble a note in the margin of the essay he was marking.

"It's sunny and warm outside," Jim coaxed. "And a little time at the gym would help you keep up the next time we have to chase a perp."

Blair snorted as he tossed the finished essay onto the coffee table and picked up the next. "You fill our 'running' quota just fine; I'll stick to using my brains and an occasional walking stick or baseball. Besides, anything under sixty-five degrees doesn't count as 'warm' --"

"Whimp!" Jim jeered. "It's only three degrees off, and it'll hit sixty-five in another hour."

"-- and after I finish the grading, I have another project planned," Blair continued, ignoring his partner's interruption.

Jim shrugged as he snagged his jacket from the hook beside the door. "Suit yourself. Just don't blame me when you turn decrepit from lack of exercise."

"Keep tellin' yourself that," Blair retorted as he deliberately -- Jim was sure of it -- lifted his sock-clad feet to rest them on the coffee table. "It wasn't me who had to resort to using sentinel abilities to eke out the high score in our last basketball one-on-one."

Jim wasn't going to dignify that slander with a response. "Okay, Chief. I'll be back in a few hours. Think I'll hit the market after the gym, save us a trip tomorrow."

"Remember, organic --"

"-- is the way to go; gotcha."

Jim closed the door behind him, leaving Blair immersed in academia.

Jim manhandled the overfull grocery bags through the door -- why make two trips up the stairs if you could cut it down to one? -- and stared at the changes in his formerly pristine, orderly living room. The loveseat had been shoved aside, and the coffee table pushed up against the couch -- apparently to allow Blair to drag the dining table to a position in front of the balcony doors, where the shades had been raised to the top, to allow as much light as possible to enter. A frame of sticks and string lay on one end of the table, while an explosion of colored tissue-paper covered the other end, and the debris of bits and pieces littered the floor around the table like a meadow of wildflowers run rampant. Blair was engrossed in cutting several layers of deep-rose tissue into triangles.

"Sandburg! What in the name of --"

Blair didn't so much as twitch. "Relax. It's just paper; I'll clean it up and move everything back when I'm finished." He laid the rose-colored triangles aside and started folding a piece of bright gold paper into quarters.

"And the living room has been turned into a kindergarten art project because...?" Jim was wavering between irritation and amusement as he started putting the groceries away. In the year since Sandburg had moved into the spare room, his presence had made Jim's life fuller and more interesting. On the other hand -- Jim watched as a scrap of gold drifted down to the floor -- 'interesting' frequently had drawbacks.

"The first day of Spring is next week."

As an explanation, it didn't go far. "That would certainly explain the warmer temperatures," Jim agreed, "but not why the place looks like a tornado has passed through."

"In some parts of the world, Spring is traditional kite-flying time. Some of the schools have got together and are hosting a kite-flying festival and contest next weekend. I thought I'd make a kite and join in the fun." Blair pulled the sticks-and-string framework closer and started arranging triangles, rectangles, and parallelograms of colored paper on top.

"Wouldn't it be easier to just buy a kite? Certainly a lot less trouble." Jim wandered closer to watch as Blair moved the pieces of tissue around, apparently trying to devise a pattern he liked. The frame was made of flat strips of wood, three that were three feet long, and one that was four feet. They were carefully notched in the center and crossed over each other to form an eight-pointed starburst, with one arm that was a foot longer than the others. The sticks were grooved to hold four layers of string at regular intervals from the center to the one at the outer edge to hold the frame stable. The effect was that of a giant spider-web wearing a dunce-cap, and the farthest thing he could imagine from the traditional diamond-shape he thought of as 'kite'. "It doesn't look like it'll be stable enough to fly," he observed. "And what's with that extra-long piece?"

"Mostly for effect; I'll put folded paper on that line, and it'll hum in the wind. You'll see -- with a good tail and the string attached at the right points for proper balance, it'll outfly most of the store-bought kites, which is a good enough reason to make it myself. But the point of the exercise..." Blair paused as he stepped back to judge the effect of his design. "The point of the exercise is fun and creativity, and buying a kite just isn't creative. Besides, mine will be prettier. What do you think?"

"Well, there probably won't be another like it," Jim said, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. Somehow, all those bits of paper were laid out to form spirals in rose, gold, green and white. The spirals started in the center and curved around the kite till they reached the edge. The colors were pretty, but the effect was... loud. He suspected that Blair would consider it 'vibrant'. "That tissue paper won't stand up against the wind; get a few holes in it and it'll be bye-bye kite."

Blair spread newspaper over the one clear spot on the table, transferred the kite-frame to it, and reached for the nearby bottle of Elmer's glue. "Nope. With separate pieces like this, and each side glued down, any tears will be localized. They can't spread to ruin the whole kite, and the other sections will keep it in the air." He put a line of glue along the sticks and string that formed one of the center triangles, and carefully pressed a gold piece of tissue onto it. "It'll dry tonight, and I'll give it a test flight tomorrow. You'll see."

Jim snickered as he moved the coffee table so he could sit on the couch, then turned on the TV. "I'll see you head to the store after that thing crashes and burns. Just remember -- every speck of paper in the trash when you're finished." He settled in to watch some college basketball.

"One of these days, Jim, you'll learn that my talents are many and varied." Blair's lofty tone was counteracted by his own snicker; his mouth quirked as he quietly began to sing, "Let's go fly a kite..."

Jim simply turned up the volume on the TV a couple of notches.

Over waffles the next morning, Jim glanced at Blair's kite, which was leaning against the wall under the coathooks. "I'm impressed, Chief; it actually looks pretty good."

Blair nodded in satisfaction. "It'll look even better in flight, with the sun lighting it -- like stained glass."

"You're actually going to try to fly it?"

"Absolutely! And there's no 'try'; it will fly. The weather forecast is perfect -- sunny, highs in the mid-seventies, winds from ten to fifteen. I've got a few more essays to grade; I figured I'd do them this morning, then go out after lunch, when it's nice and warm. Care to join me?"

"Sandburg, I haven't flown a kite since I was eight!" Jim protested. "It's kind of a ridiculous activity for a grown man. On the other hand, I suppose you'll fit right in with the rest of the kids."

Blair snorted. "Oh, sure. That's why the contest will have child, teen, and adult divisions; they want to have openings for all the adult men and women who won't be flying." His eyes sparkled as he issued a challenge. "Since you're so sure it won't fly, you need to come watch; I don't want you to think I'm exaggerating when I report my success."

"Exaggerate? You? How could I possibly think that?" Jim studied his friend, noting the light of excitement and enthusiasm in Blair's eyes. Right now, he resembled a seven-year-old more than twenty-seven; it was a good look for him. Considering the schedule he maintained between Rainier and tagging along with Jim to help with his senses, Blair certainly deserved some downtime.

Well, he really had nothing better to do, so why not? "Tell you what, buddy. We'll stop at Sports World on the way, and I'm buying the best kite they have in stock. We'll have our own little contest to see which kite flies better and higher. Loser buys dinner for the winner."

"You're so on, man. Prepare your palate for dinner at Mama Louisa's, because winner gets to pick." Blair stood and carried his plate to the stove. "But in the meantime, I'm gonna cook another waffle; you want one?"

"Yeah, Chief. Thanks."

"Right; bring your plate."

A few minutes later, each man was sitting again at the table, pouring real maple syrup -- one of the perks of living this close to Canada -- over his waffles. Each took a share of the newspaper, and they settled into their normal, companionable Sunday morning routine.

"Satisfactory, Chief?" Jim asked as he pulled into the nearly-empty parking lot overlooking Banbury Beach. "No electric wires, no kite-eating trees, and a good, steady onshore breeze."

"Couldn't be better," Blair agreed. "There won't be many people around, since it's not warm enough for swimming." He slid out of the truck, and carefully pulled his kite from behind the seat, then waited patiently while Jim unfurled the big yellow-and-purple Delta kite, which the clerk at Sports World had assured them was the best flyer available.

"Doesn't matter what that guy said," Blair commented as he watched Jim attach the string and tail. "You are going down, my man."

"We'll see, Junior; we'll see." Side by side, they headed down the path toward the beach.

"So, can I assume one of Naomi's boyfriends taught you to make your own kites?"

Blair shared a wide grin with his friend. "You need to ask? I was eight, I think. His name was Tom Davidson, and he'd grown up in Bermuda. Kite-flying is a big deal there, starting in the Spring, and especially on Good Friday. Tom said everyone flies kites on Good Friday, and no one uses a store-bought kite. He said they even sell do-it-yourself books, teaching people how to make different styles of kites, but this one..." he lifted the kite in emphasis, "is the most common."

"Sounds like you liked him," Jim said, as they reached the sand.

"Yeah, I really did; he was a good guy." Blair shrugged. "But he didn't last long. Round about the middle of June, Naomi took us to the next wherever; I don't remember exactly which one."

Jim kept his frown to himself. Even though Blair seemed to think his childhood had been exciting, and that it had given him a pleasant exposure to different lifestyles and cultures, Jim sometimes thought the kid had missed some very important aspects... things like stability, and having a trusted person always around. Sally had been that for Jim, but he suspected Blair hadn't had a similar constancy, even from his own mother.

But this wasn't the time or place to compare childhoods; he was here to uphold the honor of precision-crafted materials assembled to exact specifications against homemade bits of string and paper. It would be no contest.

Although the day was sunny, the wind coming off the water was cool; the beach was empty, save for a couple of fishermen sitting on an outcropping of rocks at the far end. They could use the full length of the sand without needing to maneuver around people enjoying the beach and ocean.

Jim surveyed the expanse of sand. "How about you go that way a hundred yards or so, and I'll go this way a hundred, so we'll have enough room to fly without the kites interfering with each other."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed, and headed down the beach, his kite tugging gently in his hand, as if eager to be set free.

When he judged he was far enough away, he turned to see Jim holding his kite at the ready. "Oh, we didn't plan this part," Blair said in a normal voice, sure that Jim would hear him. "I guess we should send off our kites at the same time, huh?"

Jim raised his hand over his head in what Blair had to assume was assent.

"Okay, give me a second." Blair turned his back to the wind, holding the kite so the wind was pushing against it, and made sure that both tail and string were free and untangled. He looked toward Jim. "Ready?" Again, Jim raised his arm overhead. "Okay, on three. One. Two. Three!"

He tossed his kite gently into the air, taking a few running steps backward. The wind caught it immediately, lifting it upward as Blair played out the string, adding judicious tension to prevent it diving out of control.

Blair had forgotten how thrilling it was to watch a kite that he had made with his own hands dancing on the wind. It dipped and soared, responding to each tug or release he gave the string, climbing higher and higher, seeming to aim for the sun.

Time passed unnoticed as he became immersed in total sensation. Sound -- the buzz of the paper waving from the strings on the longer 'header' stick mixing with the rhythmic wash of waves retreating and advancing on the sand behind him and the screech of gulls in their eternal quest for food. Touch -- the warmth of the sun on this head and shoulders, the mild pulse of the wind against his back, the vibration of the string in his hands. Sight -- always, always the view of his kite playing in the sky, becoming increasingly smaller in his vision as it sought escape from the bonds of earth and gravity.

Finally, Blair had to stop paying out the line, or lose sight of his kite altogether. He felt a flash of envy -- not for the first time -- for Jim's senses. Jim would always see his kite, no matter how far it flew.

Jim -- distance -- they were supposed to be having a contest here, but he'd completely forgotten to keep an eye on Jim's kite. Blair searched the sky, and finally located a purple-and-yellow blot in the sky, about the size of a postage stamp. Pretty much the same apparent size as his kite; they seemed to be flying equally well, and there was no way to tell if one was higher than the other, especially from this angle. Maybe if he were closer to Jim's position, he could make a better evaluation.

Accordingly, Blair started to move toward Jim, now keeping an eye on the kites' relative locations; if one kite got caught in the string of the other, it would bring their impromptu 'contest' to a screeching halt. But the wind was steady, without the variable gusts that would cause erratic flight; it should be safe enough.

He stopped about seventy-five feet from Jim; close enough to view the kites from essentially the same angle, far enough that they shouldn't cross each other. Blair spent a few minutes refining his tension on the line, making sure his kite continued to fly high, then focused on both kites to judge if there was any difference.

He couldn't see anything that would give one kite precedence over the other. Both were flying steady and true, without needing any frantic attempts to prevent them plummeting toward earth, and... nope. He honestly couldn't say that one looked higher than the other.

"So what d'ya think?" he asked Jim, still in at a normal volume. "They look the same to me; how about you?"

"You're right, Chief!" Jim raised his voice to travel the distance. "I think it's a draw!"

Blair nodded. "Good enough for me. Shall we bring 'em in?" He started winding the line around the reel -- carefully. If his kite fell on the way down, he could still lose this contest. The trick was a smooth, controlled action, to keep his kite flying until he could reach up and grab it.

Jim was using the same controlled economy of motion; for a guy who hadn't flown a kite since he was eight, he sure hadn't lost the touch. Of course, it had been more than a few years since Blair had put a kite in the air, and he hadn't had any trouble. Must be like riding a bike; once learned, never forgotten.

Interesting that such observations applied to children's activities, and playful ones at that. No ever said 'Once learned, you never forget' about math, for instance. Maybe there was a paper in that...

As the kites came closer, another -- unspoken -- contest developed; could they keep their kites flying at the same height and bring them in together? Blair snickered when he realized what was going on, and Jim flashed him a grin, but both men kept an eye on the kites and each other until -- finally -- they reached out and plucked their kites out of the air at the same time.

Blair whooped. "Couldn't have done that better if we tried!"

"We did try," Jim pointed out, his tone dry. "And I don't think they pass out any awards for synchronized kite-flying."

"So you don't think we can start a trend?" Blair pulled a mock pout. "And here I was hoping to make the Guinness Book of World Records."

"I think you'll have to settle for greatest sentinel expert -- when we're both old and gray, of course." Jim turned to start back to the truck, and Blair fell into step beside him.

"I'll be gray; you'll be bald. But it sounds like a plan."

As they stowed their kites behind the seats and climbed into the truck, Blair asked, "So, since neither one of us won -- or we both did -- how will we handle dinner?"

"I think Mama Louisa's was a good idea. The only difference is, we each pay for our own meal."

"So, pretty much as usual."

"Pretty much."

Just before he turned onto the main road into the city, Jim added, "Except for the kite-flying. That was kind of special. Thanks, Chief."

"You're welcome, Jim."

Blair smiled as he turned to watch the passing scenery. What was 'special' was their friendship. Flying kites, or fishing, or chasing after perps... at the end of the day, that never changed. He hoped it never would.

The End

Bermuda kite in rainbow stripes

Posted under a Creative Commons license from Aodhdubh.
Found at Wikipedia.

Pictures of Delta kites:

Colorful Delta kite in sky.

Rainbow Delta kite.

Pictures of Bermuda kites:

Bermuda kite history, with picture of spiral design on kite.

Yellow and green triangles, with central floral design.

Varicolored spiral design on beach.

Purple and blue starburst design on beach.

Small starburst design with rainbow swirls on beach.

Large multicolored rainbow swirl design on beach.

Large geometric varicolored triangle design on beach.

Directions for making various types of kites. Good site, with history and photo gallery.

Directions for making the hexagonal kite.

Directions for making the high-flyer kite #1.

Author's Notes

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Title: Watching Him Sleep
Summary: Late-night thoughts after a difficult case.
Style: Gen
Size: 400 words, about 2/3 page in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written in October, 2004, for LJ challenge.
Feedback: Not necessary, but I every comment is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

Watching Him Sleep

by StarWatcher

As I watch him sleep, I can't help thinking about our last case. He was incredible, using his senses like I always knew he could. But I didn't get to see it; I had to hear about it second-hand. I'm told he was in the groove, hitting on all eight cylinders; he found the tiniest bits of evidence with ease, and wove the pieces into the pattern that led the gang to the perp. Our friends are amazed and baffled, but willing to overlook the mystery, because when they found the perp, they rescued -- me.

He didn't sleep for three days. Now, he needs me in his senses and... I need him. When I startle awake from the memories, it's a comfort to see him so close. That's how tired he is -- my waking doesn't wake him, though I know that if I whispered his name, he'd be with me in an instant. So I watch him in the sleeping bag next to my bed, and listen to his quiet little snores, and I hold on to the certainty that kept me balanced for those terrible days. He found me. He'll always find me.

I love you, Jim.

As I watch him sleep, I can't help thinking about our last case. I was afraid I'd lose him forever. Thank God the senses worked like he always said they could -- feeding me all the information I needed, no zones or spikes however hard I pushed. The rest of Major Crimes helped, providing backup for the senses as well as more mundane detective work. There weren't too few clues, but too many; the man was masterful at planting red herrings. But we did it; unraveled the threads and followed them to the end. To Blair.

I don't want to let him farther away than arm's length; I can barely let him take a piss by himself. So here I am. The sleeping bag is comfortable enough, and I only have to open my eyes to see his face, battered but whole. Even before I look, I can hear him, scent him; his presence is the safety net for my very being. As I am his. I'll never forget the look of trust in his eyes, underlying the relief that we had arrived. He knew I'd find him.

I'll always find him. The alternative is unthinkable.

I love you, Blair.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: The Honor of Friendship
Summary: Jim receives a letter that disturbs him.
Style: Gen
Size: 1,805 words, about 4 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Challenge story, written September 2004. Nominee for Burton Awards 2005 in the "Favorite Smarm Story" category.
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-

The Honor of Friendship

by StarWatcher

Blair started talking before he reached the door, knowing his sentinel would hear him. "Hey, Jim, it's your night to cook and I'm starved. Hope you have something filling planned." Shutting the door behind him, he set his backpack under the coathooks and tossed his keys in the basket. "Or were you planning to order out? Let's make it soon, because like I said..." He drifted into silence, finally noticing the dimness and silence of the loft; no lights were on, and no dinner preparations underway. Cautiously, he approached the unmoving figure on the couch.

"Jim? What're you doin' sittin' here in the dark, man? What's wrong?" The lack of response increased his concern; he sat on the coffee table and laid a gentle, but firm, hand on his friend's knee. "Come on back, Jim. Whatever it is, we'll handle it. Listen to my voice and --"

"I'm not zoned, Sandburg," Ellison broke in, a thread of irritation lacing his voice. "I'm just... thinking. And... remembering."

"Oh. Well, okay. Um... you want me to start making dinner while you think?"

A disinterested, one-shoulder shrug did nothing to alleviate Blair's concerns. He focused on the sheet of paper clenched in Jim's fist; the salutation, 'Dear Uncle Jim' was clearly visible. Uncle Jim? Casting about for more clues, he discovered that he was sitting on an envelope; the name 'Nakamura' was in the top left corner, with an address in Seattle. Tentatively this time, feeling a little awkward, he laid a hand on Jim's knee and patted gently.

"Um, is it bad news? Is there anything I can do to help?" When a half-hearted headshake was the only response, his voice sharpened with the beginnings of irritation. "C'mon, Jim, you can't just sit here like a lump. Whatever it is, it's thrown you for a loop, but it won't get any better if you don't face it. Talk to me man, and let me help."

"The daughter of one of my men is getting married." The tone was lifeless, more suited to announcing death than marriage.

"One of your men? You mean your team from Peru?" He waited for a short, confirming nod. "But that's... good news, isn't it? Why has it got your shorts in a twist?"

Finally, the stunned expression in Ellison's eyes was dissipating. The look he gave Blair was almost challenging as he explained, "She wants me to give her away."

Blair blinked in confusion. "And that's a bad thing? I suppose, if she doesn't have any male relatives, and you were her father's commanding officer, even if you weren't friends, she might think of you --"

"We were friends," Jim cut in. "Good friends. Sammy Nakamura came into my unit about four years before that last mission." The tension in his body eased slightly; he leaned back into the cushions as he continued. "Friendliest guy you'd ever want to meet; he'd give even you a run for your money. The first major holiday after he joined the team -- Fourth of July -- when he found out I wasn't going to spend it with family, he invited me to join his, and wouldn't take no for an answer. We had a picnic in the park -- fried chicken, homemade potato salad, the whole schmear. He had a wife who adored him, and three of the prettiest little girls you've ever seen, and about two dozen various relatives who were all as friendly as he was, and made me feel welcome. It was a good day; probably the best July Fourth I ever spent." He lapsed into silence.

Blair waited a few moments, but his curiosity overcame his patience. "And...?" he prodded gently.

Jim sighed deeply. "And after that, the family took me under their wing and invited me to quite a few Saturday barbecues and various holiday celebrations. The kids saw me so much that they took to calling me 'Uncle Jim'. And then I took their father on that last mission, and eighteen months later I had to explain to them that the light of their lives was gone forever."

Jim sprang from the couch and stalked across the room to stare out the balcony doors. "God, Sandburg! Maria -- his wife -- never said anything, but I knew what she was thinking... just what Veronica thought. Why should I come back alive when he died? I stood with them at the funeral -- Sammy deserved that respect -- and they invited me to come back to visit, but I knew how much they had to hate me. I just couldn't face that. And Veronica proved I was right."

"And you haven't seen them since?" Blair ventured.

"No. Not when the mere sight of me has to remind them of what they lost. And now Lilianna wants me at her wedding? I can't do that to them!" His voice was ragged with suppressed grief.

"Jim." Blair rose and followed his friend to the window, standing close in silent support. "If they hated you, they wouldn't ask. No rational person could blame you for what happened; apparently Maria was wise enough to recognize that, and strong enough to teach it to her kids. You said there are lots of relatives. That means you're not a 'last resort'. Lilianna specifically wants you. Probably as a link to her father, since you served with him, but also because she remembers you with affection -- 'Uncle Jim'. And I imagine she got her mother's permission before she wrote, which means Maria's okay with it, too. They're offering you an honor, man, not a reason to... to... immolate yourself."

Ellison's tension eased further as he considered Blair's words. "You're probably right," he conceded. "But... it's been so many years. How can they --"

"Years don't count if the friendship is real. Obviously they can, and that's the only thing that matters. Now what you have to decide is, will you do it, or not? But think about this, Jim." Blair's voice firmed, warningly. "They're willing to overlook the years of non-communication from you; they probably understood that you had to grieve in your own way. But if you turn this down -- don't at least attend the wedding -- that'll be an unforgivable slap in the face to the whole family. Do you really want to do that to the memory of the man who was your friend?"

He paused. "Right. I guess that's all I have to say on the subject. I'll leave you to think about it while I go out and pick up some dinner. Re-read the letter, Jim, and look at it from their point of view instead of yours." He grabbed his jacket and keys, and flipped on the light as he walked out the door; not even a sentinel would be able to read in the room that had become increasingly dark.

Jim wiped his mouth and tossed the napkin on the table. "Thanks, Sandburg, I needed that. Didn't realize how hungry I was." He regarded his friend soberly. "I also needed that little pep talk of yours. Thanks for that, too."

"So? You gonna do it?"

"Yes, I think so. It'll be good to see Maria and the kids again -- see how much they've grown, and like you said, lay some ghosts to rest." He hesitated. "Still, I could use a little moral support. The invitation is for me and a guest; I suppose they expect a wife, but... July twenty-seventh; you'll be on summer break. If you want to, that is," he finished uncertainly.

Blair beamed. "I'd be honored, big guy. I love weddings -- there's no stronger affirmation of man's hopes for the future. Hey, what about presents? Do you remember anything about her likes or dislikes? Do you want to pool our money and get one really nice one, instead of two ordinary ones? I know a place..."

Jim parked the truck and eyed the once well-known house uncertainly; maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all. But as he approached the gate, he heard excited squeals and the sound of running feet. "Uncle Jim! Uncle Jim!" He submitted to a group hug, listening with delight to the cadence of happy young voices.

The girls finally let him loose and stepped back, their words tumbling over each other as they welcomed him. His eyes sought Lilianna. She had grown into a stunning young woman with a bright, open countenance and -- he searched closely -- no shadows in her eyes when she looked at him. The knot in his chest loosened. Apparently Blair was right; she really didn't blame him for her father's fate.

He looked up as Maria stepped from the front door and hurried toward him. The years had been kind to his friend's wife; her face was serene and unlined, and only a sprinkling of gray dusted her hair.

"Captain Jim!" she called. "It is so good to see you again." She reached him and enfolded him in a careful hug, almost as if she would comfort a child. "Thank you for coming; your presence will honor our family." The smile she gave him showed none of the blame that he had felt burdened with for so many years.

His throat was thick as he answered, "Maria, I'm happy to be here; it's an honor to be asked. I'm just so sorry --"

"No," she said gently. "You have nothing to be sorry for. And we will not allow old hurts to shadow this time of joy. My eldest daughter is getting married. Her father will be watching from Heaven, and you shall stand at her side in his place. Now, come inside, sit; we have so much to talk about...

"I tell ya', Jim, your friends really know how to throw a celebration. And wasn't Lilianna a beautiful bride? You looked really good, too, in your dress blues. I thought it might be too stark for a wedding, but the contrast really highlighted everyone else's finery. And when Lilianna and Damien pledged their vows -- I swear, the love was palpable, man, damn near visible. It certainly gives us hope for the human condition, doesn't it? I mean..."

Ellison let his friend's words wash over him, a comforting background of sound as he drove homeward. It had been good, but even better was a new sense of peace he had gained. Maria's and the girls' acceptance had provided a healing balm that comforted his soul.

"Sandburg..." he started, but didn't know how to continue.


"Just... thank you." Would Blair know what he meant?

"No problem. That's what friends are for."

Blair did know. Thank God for good friends; his road was lighter because of them.

"I know. But thanks anyway."

The End

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Title: Oh, Good Grief!
Summary: Some people have wa-a-ay too much time on their hands.
Style: Gen
Size: 515 words, about 1 page in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written July, 2004. Snippet in response to an Internet picture.
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-

Oh, Good Grief!

by StarWatcher

Jim glanced up from the evening newspaper as he heard Blair's snort of amusement; his partner was ensconced at the kitchen table with his laptop in front of him. The snort had given way to soft chuckles.

"What's up, Chief?"

"I swear Jim, some people have wa-a-ay too much time on their hands. You know that old saying, 'Idle hands are the devil's playground'? Here's one cat that probably thinks so."

Picture is here.

His curiosity piqued, Jim ambled to the table and peered at the laptop screen over Blair's shoulder. He saw a dour-looking Persian cat, glowering out at the world from under a football helmet that had been carved from the rind of a lime; the animal certainly looked ridiculous. Jim grinned in tandem with Blair's reaction. "Well, you have to admit, it's... creative," he pointed out. "And at least it'll come off easily. It could be worse."

"Oh yeah? I know little girls like to dress up their pets, but shouldn't a grownup be above that sort of thing?"

"Nah; adults are worse than the kids. I remember when I was a kid, I was walking down an alley with some friends. We passed a back yard -- well-kept, green lawn, trees, flowers -- and barking at us through the chain-link fence were two little white poodles. Well, they had been white, originally. One was dyed pastel pink, and one was dyed pastel blue -- with matching bows in their top-knots, of course. We treated it like a huge joke, even me, but I felt kind of sorry for them; I always imagined the other dogs laughing at them."

"Oh, gross!" Blair muttered. "Some people have no couth."

"Couth, Chief? Is that an actual word?"

"If it's not, I just invented it. People are adding new words to the English language all the time; I might as well contribute my share."

"Well, I have a few words that might take your mind off the pets of people who lack 'couth'," Jim suggested.

Blair leaned back and glanced up at his friend. "Oh, yeah? What words are those, big guy?"

"Dinner. My treat. Lasagna at Marelli's."

"Hmmm..." A judicious frown creased Blair's forehead, then he nodded decisively. "Yep; I think those words just might do it." He grinned as he shut down the laptop and stood. "Gotta say, Jim, there are times when I really like your linear approach to problem-solving. I'm with you all the way."

"Thought you might be. A full belly makes the whole world brighter. I'll bet even that cat forgave his owner after a plate of tuna."

"Yeah, but man, ya' gotta wonder about the cultural mores or skewed thought patterns, or whatever, that leads to this sort of thing." Blair shrugged into his jacket and preceded Jim out the door. "You know, some other cultures occasionally dress their animals, but it has religious or ceremonial significance. In fact..."

Jim shook his head in fond amusement as he locked the door and followed Blair to the elevator. He'd probably learn more than he ever thought possible about people's decoration of animals in different cultures, but it would be informative, entertaining, and probably good for some tales in the break-room when Blair wasn't around.

Nope; dinner with Sandburg would never be boring.

The End

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Title: You Damned Well Better
Summary: Missing scene for TSbyBS.
Style: Gen
Size: 2,930 words, about 6 pages in MS word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written March 2004. My thanks to Arianna, for a super-fast beta and some very useful suggestions. Her input helped improve the story considerably.
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-

You Damned Well Better

by StarWatcher

"Captain Banks! How dare you have one of your bully boys haul me in here like some common criminal? I knew you were just like all the rest!" The redheaded whirlwind angrily shook off the hand of the officer who had 'escorted' her -- forcibly -- from the loft to Cascade PD, and glared at the man in front of her. She disregarded the little internal voice that suggested the man in the wheelchair still looked enervated from his stint in the hospital, and maybe she should moderate her reactions. "I won't stand for this; you have no right!" She expanded her glare to include her son's so-called 'friend', who was resting a hip on the side of the captain's desk, apparently in support of whatever the man intended to say. Naturally; pigs always shared the same mud-puddle. "If you think I won't --"

"Ms. Sandburg!" Simon thundered, slapping a large hand on the desk and effectively silencing her -- for a moment. "If you will listen for just a few minutes, we have a proposal we want you to consider."

"And you know, Naomi, if you'd simply come in as we asked, we wouldn't have had to send someone for you." Jim's tone was remote; he had promised Simon not to lose his temper, but he was still seething at the repercussions from her thoughtless, stupid actions.

"Jim! That's enough!" Simon ordered. "Now, Ms. Sandburg..." He moderated his tone with an effort. "...if you'd please have a seat, we'll discuss our idea."

Reluctantly, warily, she seated herself. Whatever these pigs wanted couldn't be good. "Fine, Captain, say your piece. I want to be there when my son gets home. He said he'd only be at Rainier for an hour or so."

He nodded. "Understood. But your son is what we want to talk about. Are you aware that the university fired Blair?"

"What? No! He didn't say anything..." She gaped at the men across from her.

"Well he wouldn't, would he?" Jim grated. "I had to find it out from Jack Kelso, a professor who's one of his friends. Frankly, you and I have done a pretty good job of trashing his life, Naomi, so we have to find a way to help him fix it."

She bristled, indignant. "How dare you! All I did was ask an old friend for advice."

"And support him instead of your son when he kept pushing harder against Blair's resistance, and support the university when they invited a pack of reporters in instead of mentioning that you knew Blair didn't want any notice taken of the situation, and work behind the scenes to bring the Nobel prize committee into the mess when -- again -- your son had specifically asked you to do nothing. Where was your head, Naomi? You couldn't have caused a bigger mess if you had tried!"

"Me!" she flared. "What about you?! You're the one who wouldn't let him explain, you're the one who told him you didn't trust him anymore! It was you he gave that dreadful press conference for."

Ellison's gaze bored right through her with all the warmth of an arctic iceflow. "Guilty," he growled. "And I'll be kicking myself for the rest of my life. But we can't go back; all that's left is to go forward."

"Exactly!" Naomi's voice dripped with satisfaction. "I'll persuade him to come traveling with me, and we can leave all this unpleasantness behind. I think Nepal; there's a commune there near a temple where people can visit daily for spiritual peace and enlightenment. He'll forget all this nonsense about running around with the -- police." Her lip curled with derision.

"'Nonsense'? Dammit, Naomi, he's the best partner I could ever want, and I told him so! Why do you keep belittling him? You raised a strong, capable, honorable man, and you treat him like he's ten years old. He's been standing on his own two feet for a helluva long time, but you refuse to see it! What the hell good is spiritual peace and enlightenment if you keep him tied to your apron strings and don't let him DO anything with it?"

"And I suppose being your shadow is so wonderful? Spiritual peace and enlightenment is better than being kidnapped or beat up or shot, however much it doesn't fit into your narrow little view of life." She was seething, her face reddening unattractively. "Believe me, the sooner I get him out of here, the better off he'll be!"

Ellison's voice was flat, final. "He can't go. I need -- we need him here."

"Can't? Of course he can! I'll --"

"Ms. Sandburg," Simon interrupted smoothly. He'd been content to let Jim ruffle Naomi's feathers with some hard-hitting truths; if she were off balance, she might be more receptive to their plan. Now it was time to play 'good cop' to Jim's 'bad cop'. "I understand that you want what's best for Blair; we do, too. We just want to offer him an option, give him a choice. But we wanted to discuss it with you privately, first, which is why I instructed Officer Donelly to watch for Blair to leave the building before he brought you here. If we can reach an agreement, it will help prevent any more stress for Blair."

Naomi's angry glare eased somewhat, and she relaxed slightly in her chair, but still maintained an air of suspicious alertness. She nodded for Simon to continue.

"The truth is, as I told you once before, Blair is a very valuable member of our team, and we don't want to lose him. We'd like to make him a paid member of the department, offer him an official position."

"My baby as a gun-toting pig? No way in hell!" she spat. "I'll never allow it!"

Jim stirred restlessly, but Simon silenced him with a hard glare before turning back to Naomi. "Ms. Sandburg, your son is not a 'baby'; he's a grown man, and not answerable to you -- or to us either, for that matter. This will be entirely his decision; we just want to make the offer, in the hopes that he'll accept it."

"And why should he?" she challenged. "All he's gotten around here is heartache and grief." She scowled at Jim. "He can't possibly want to continue working here!"

"He may not," Simon agreed equably. "But he does have friends here, people who admire him and respect him, and who want to support him. The university is closed to him right now, and we don't want to dump him like yesterday's trash. We just want to give him an option; whether or not he uses it is up to him."

Naomi snorted, inelegantly. "The option to do what? Work with that... that... Neanderthal who tramples all over his psyche and doesn't appreciate him? The option to wave a gun around and terrorize the populace? That's not Blair!"

"No, it isn't," Jim cut in emphatically, "and that's exactly why we want him. Do you know your son at all, Naomi, or do you only see him through your sixties-colored glasses? He's not falling under our spell; we're falling under his. By his very presence, he's... I guess in your view, he's humanizing us. He helps us see human beings instead of victims and perps. And the insights he can offer, the cultural connections that we may overlook, have helped us solve a number of cases. In other words, he helps us help the innocents, and put away the bad guys, just by being himself. We don't want another cop, Naomi; they're coming out of the Academy twice a year. We want Blair, just as he is."

"You say that now," she muttered bitterly, "but you'll eventually turn him into a cop-clone; it's inevitable."

Simon sighed deeply. "Ms. Sandburg, please try to put aside your preconceptions. Blair has worked with us for four years without becoming a 'cop-clone'. As Jim said, we don't expect to turn him into a typical Academy graduate; we want him to continue doing exactly as he has been doing -- but now with official sanction and a paycheck."

"Oh, sure," she sneered. "And I suppose the entire police force will welcome him with open arms after his press conference? More likely, your testosterone-laden, jack-booted thugs will slam him into a wall for daring to show his face here! Do you think I'll let my baby be cut down by 'friendly fire' when I could have prevented it? You've got another think coming, Captain!"

Simon rubbed his eyes for a moment, wondering why the painkillers that were so effective for the wound in his back weren't touching his headache. "We're not stupid, Ms. Sandburg, whatever you may think of us. We plan to release a statement to the Press -- and make sure it gets talked about among department personnel -- that Blair was acting for the good of the department, that his fraud admission was a carefully-constructed ruse to help us draw out and capture a cold-blooded assassin. Your son is well-known and well-liked around here; people will find it much easier to believe that he helped set up a sting, than that he's a fraud and a liar."

Naomi shook her stubbornly. "There's absolutely no reason that he should continue working here," she insisted. "He's so much better than that! He can get a job anywhere... unless you plan to withhold your precious 'statement to the Press' if he doesn't toe the line," she accused.

"Naomi," Jim said softly, "we are not holding out a carrot, or pandering to hurt feelings; we're trying to right a grievous wrong. You know that Blair is too honorable to have lied in his dissertation; we want to try and remove that cloud hanging over him. If he chooses to stay, fine. If not..." he swallowed heavily, and hesitated. "If not, we want to make sure he doesn't have this undeserved stigma following him around."

She stared at him through narrowed eyes. "You are!" she hissed. "First you let me think you're this 'sentinel' that my son calls you, then you let him deny it and tell me that you're an ordinary man, but you really are! So now what; you need to keep Blair chained to you so this... this... thing will work? You're just feeding off him like some disgusting parasite."

"No. I'm a good detective; Blair doesn't change that. But..." Jim shifted uneasily, but really, for all intents and purposes, she already knew. "But Blair helps me to be a better detective... and to be a better man. I don't feed off him, Naomi. It's a..." He cast about for an explanation that would resonate with her. "It's a... psychic symbiosis, a working partnership." He shrugged. "I was wrong to dismiss his help, and I'll tell him so. I can only hope that he'll be as forgiving as he's always been."

"'Symbiosis' means both entities get something. Apparently you get help with this sentinel thing; what does he get?"

"Not much," Jim acknowledged soberly, but his gaze was steady as he continued. "He gets my undying support, he gets my vow that I'll never turn on him again, he gets a home for as long as he wants it. He gets a job where he can make a difference for the better -- maybe not so much in the grand scheme of things, but it can be pretty damn big to the victims he helps. And he does help, Naomi; he's good at it. One door has been shut in his face; we're just trying to keep the other one open."

She turned a measuring gaze on Simon. "So, what, you don't expect your Press statement to make a difference to the University? You think he can't go back there?"

"I can't speak for them, Ms. Sandburg. We'll certainly help Blair fight his dismissal, if he wants to. He seems a bit disenchanted, right now, but that may change, and we'll support him if he needs our help to go back."

"Naomi," Jim urged, "we hurt him. There was wrong on all sides, but Blair is the only one paying for it. We're trying to fix that, and all we're asking from you is that you don't throw a hissy-fit. Blair knows how you feel about cops, and he may well decide not to stay. But let it be his decision, not something he does to appease your rantings about 'jack-booted thugs'."

She sagged in her chair. "I just want him to be happy, and I don't think this is the place that will allow him that." She had to hold on to that. Their arguments sounded reasonable, but there had to be a catch somewhere.

"That's perfectly understandable, Ms. Sandburg," Simon soothed. "I have a son, too; all we ever want is the best for our children. But I repeat -- we're not trying to force him. We just want to make an offer, and know that you won't subvert it."

"What; you expect me to smile happily at the idea of my baby staying in this soul-destroying place?"

"That's exactly what we expect," Jim asserted. "You will smile, and approve, and give him your whole-hearted support, so that he won't think he's disappointing you if he stays."

"Or what? You'll toss me in a cell? That'll really help convince him to stay, won't it? I don't give in to blackmail; I know several good lawyers with experience in civil disobedience cases. You can't hold me!"

Jim's patience snapped. "Dammit, Naomi, what is the matter with you? We're trying to help, and you're making it into two dogs fighting over a big, juicy bone! You want blackmail?" He stalked toward her chair, the cane clenched in a white-knuckled grip, and stared down contemptuously. "You better think long and hard over which life Blair would choose if you force it on him. You really shafted him, lady; what makes you think he'll automatically go in your direction instead of ours? If you fight us on this, the only one who'll be hurt is Blair. You damned well better get with the program, or you'll just end up tearing him apart. Is that really what you want? Will that vindicate you somehow, that your son is hurt even more deeply, but thank God he didn't become a pig?" His voice dripped with venom. "You're a real piece of work, lady -- allowing him to make his own 'choices' only if they meet with your approval. Is that the kind of 'personal freedom' you've been advocating all these years? What a load of crap!"

"Jim," Simon said softly, "stand down." He could hardly refute his detective's words -- he felt the same way -- but they couldn't crowd the woman too closely if they still hoped for her acceptance.

Jim straightened, shook his head briefly, and turned to the window, leaning heavily on the cane as the adrenalin subsided. He'd been too close to losing control; he hoped he hadn't blown it entirely.

"Excuse us, Ms. Sandburg," Simon continued, just as softly. "As you can see, we feel rather passionately about this. It should be obvious to you that this isn't some half-hearted attempt to assuage Jim's feelings of guilt; it is our fondest wish to have your son become a permanent member of our department, if he'll accept the position. So for the last time -- will you go along with this?" Mentally, he crossed his fingers. It wasn't the last time; he'd argue for another hour, if necessary, but had no idea how to persuade her if she wasn't already convinced.

Naomi stared thoughtfully at Jim's back, noting the tension in his shoulders, then turned a measuring gaze on Simon, finding only open sincerity in his face. She thought back; although she had only met them a few times, they seemed to be honorable men. And maybe they were right; Blair had never been a wimp who allowed himself to be pushed around. If he was still here after four years, he must have found something worthwhile, something that spoke to him. His life's dream? Her gaze returned to Jim, staring out at -- what? What could he see and hear that no one else could conceive of? No one except for her son. Did she really have the right to come between them, even if she was sure it was for Blair's own good? Mightn't he come to hate her if her actions shut him away from this? She couldn't bear that, really, she couldn't. With a deep sigh, she capitulated.

"You make a good case, Captain. I don't like it -- I certainly hope that Blair refuses your offer -- but I won't stand in his way. I swear," she grimaced slightly, "he'll never know that I disapprove. I did several years of theatre in high school; I'm a very good actress when I need to be." She stood, impatient to flee this confrontation. "And now, as I said, I want to be there when Blair gets home. Let me know when you plan to make your 'offer'; I'll be here, with the biggest damn smile you've ever seen," she finished bitterly.

She swept out of the office, still inwardly seething, but with dignity outwardly intact.

Simon leaned back in his chair, feeling utterly weary. "Thank God," he murmured. "We did it."

Jim turned haunted eyes upon his captain. "Not quite. We still have to convince Sandburg."

The End

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Title: Of Rain and Rainbows
Summary: Post TsbyBS, a shared domestic moment.
Style: Gen
Size: 1870 words, about 4 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written March, 2004
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-

Of Rain and Rainbows

by StarWatcher

Blair Sandburg hunched his shoulders, trying to prevent the water from trickling down his neck as he dashed toward the building's entryway through the drenching summer downpour. Naturally, all the close parking spaces were already taken. "I suppose I should be grateful it's only wet, not cold," he muttered sourly. Sometimes it seemed like Cascade's weather was nothing but rain.

His mood lightened and he grinned briefly as he stood just inside the main doors and vigorously shook his short curls -- his long hair had been sacrificed for the Academy -- imagining that he must look like a drowned poodle. Oh well, unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, he was in no danger of melting. He'd relax with a good hot shower, then start dinner. Maybe lasagna; he felt like creating something hearty and satisfying, and Jim would appreciate it.

As Blair slid the large pan into the oven and set the timer, he noticed the brightening light; the storm had passed and the setting sun, now dipping below cloud level, was shining through the balcony doors. He grabbed a beer and walked out onto the balcony to enjoy the freshened, cooled air, a welcome break from the earlier heat of the day. He listened to the faint rumble of thunder in the distance as the storm continued moving out to sea, then watched in wonder as a rainbow began to form, its colors dim at first, then glowing ever more brightly.

Jim Ellison had been following the enticing scent all the way from the parking lot. He closed the door behind him and tossed his keys into the basket, supremely grateful that Blair had started dinner; it would help him forget this long, frustrating day. His senses were workable without Sandburg by his side, but difficult. He was keeping a mental count. Just thirty-seven more days, and guide and sentinel would be official partners. He was looking forward to it, along with everyone else in Major Crimes.

As he hung his coat on the hook, Jim sniffed appreciatively. "Smells good Chief; when will it be ready? Do you need me to run out and pick up some garlic bread?"

When there was no answer, he looked around the loft, and finally noticed his partner on the balcony, unusually still. Wondering what was going on -- if he didn't know better, he'd think Sandburg was zoned -- Jim reached in the fridge for a bottle of beer, then went to join his friend.

"Hey, Chief, what's up?"

Blair started slightly, then relaxed. "Hey, Jim. Glad you're home. Nothing much man, just... contemplating."

Jim frowned thoughtfully and examined the area. Sandburg's skills as an observer, previously impressive, were now even sharper after some of his Academy classes. But the Sentinel didn't see anything suspicious. There were a few people walking in the late afternoon sunlight, a few cars splashing through puddles; nothing that seemed worthy of such deep consideration.

"Contemplating what, Chief? There doesn't seem to be anything too exciting to hold your interest."

"I've just been thinking what a miracle rain is." Blair waved vaguely outward, apparently encompassing everything within sight.

"Miracle? This from the man who hates cold and wet? I don't think I've ever heard you say one kind word about the rain."

Blair grinned a little ruefully. "Well, yeah, I don't like being wet, and I hate splashing through puddles and spending the day with damp feet, and it's a real pain in the ass trying to keep books and papers dry if they won't all fit in my backpack. But, just look at it, man." Another expansive wave outward. "The leaves are glistening and washed clean, the air smells purer; even the buildings look less grimy. It's refreshing, you know? And take a look at that rainbow; isn't it the brightest one you've ever seen?"

It was probably a rhetorical question, but Jim answered anyway, "Close to it, I guess. I saw some pretty spectacular ones in Peru."

"Yeah? This one is so clear and bright that I can actually see all seven colors, and I don't, usually; it's pretty damned amazing. Makes me wonder, though..." he cast a quick sideways glance at his friend, "...not running tests or anything, just curious; how many colors can you see with sentinel vision?"

"I don't know, Chief; I've never bothered to try." He focused for a moment. Sandburg was right; shades upon shades, and the deeper he looked, the more variations there were. And they kept shifting as the angle of the sun changed, fluctuating, brightening, dimming, almost substantial enough to swim in...

"Jim? Hey, Jim!"

Whoops! Enough of that. Jim shook his head slightly as he pulled himself back from the edge of a zone and gave his friend a reassuring smile. "I'm here, Chief. As to the colors..." he looked out again, "I really can't say. It's not separate colors so much as different shades. Or if each shade could be considered separately, there are no names for them. Like, you see indigo and violet, right?"

Blair nodded silently, intent on Jim's words.

"I know some people who can't tell the difference; to them they both fall under the heading of 'purple'. Right now, I see over a dozen gradations between those two, and really can't tell where 'indigo' stops and 'violet' starts." He shrugged. "Basically, I see more than the average bear, but you already knew that."

Blair nodded again. "Yeah, I know; it's just one more piece of sentinel amazement, I guess. Hey, did you know that rainbows don't have a backside?" He grinned at Jim's raised eyebrow. "Honest, man. It's all to do with angles of light striking the suspended water droplets in relation to where the observer is standing. I remember, Naomi and I were driving with some friends when I was a kid, and up ahead of us there was this huge rainbow that bridged the highway. I was so impressed as we got closer and closer; I just knew it would be so cool to drive between the 'legs' of the rainbow, and couldn't wait to see what it looked like from the other side." He bounced with his enthusiasm. "Well, we drove between the legs, all right, and God, Jim, it was stupendous -- these huge pillars of colored light on each side of us, seeming almost solid." He frowned briefly. "Of course, knowing now what I just told you about the light angles and such, I don't see how that could have really been. But that's the way I remember it." He shrugged. "Anyway, when we passed, I turned around to look out the back window, and there was nothing there; plain blue sky and open prairie. After I got over my disappointment, I started pestering Naomi about what had happened to it." He shook his head briefly and took a swallow of beer. "Come to think of it, that may have been the first time I got interested in the scientific aspects of the world; I was pretty young."

"Tell you another one, Chief," Jim offered. "If you're up in a plane, rainbows aren't arches, they're circles, suspended in the atmosphere." It was Blair's turn to raise an eyebrow, and Jim chuckled. "Sentinel's honor. Apparently we see the arch when we're on the ground simply because the horizon gets in the way. I've seen rainbow circles twice, after flying above or around thunderstorms."

"That is so cool! I wonder if it would be possible to charter a plane and go rainbow-chasing, to see that? Well," he snickered in self-deprecation, "maybe when I win the lottery."

Jim punched him gently on the shoulder. "Don't forget, it means you'd have to go up in a small plane. Is your scientific curiosity worth that?"

Blair considered briefly. "You're right. It's probably better -- certainly cheaper -- to just keep my feet right here."

"So, rainbow-gazing has kept you out here for..." Jim cast a quick, measuring look at the bottle in Blair's hand, "two-thirds of a beer?" He couldn't help the worry, never far from his mind, that maybe things weren't going as smoothly at the Academy as Blair claimed.

"Not entirely. When I heard the thunder, it just got me thinking -- where would we be without rain?"


"Not 'we' as in you and me," Blair snorted. "'We' as in all of mankind. I remember a quote I read once. 'Humankind owes its existence to six inches of topsoil -- and the fact that it rains'. That's just awesome, man. Did you know that the Sahara was once a jungle? The climate changed, it stopped raining and, voila! Uninhabitable desert. And the Anasazi -- they had the most highly-developed culture in what is now the American southwest, and then they just disappeared. No one really knows why, but the speculation is that the climate changed and repeated seasons of drought made it impossible for them to stay. When you actually think about it, it's just mind-blowing."

"Which is why I'll leave such thinking to you, Professor," Jim replied dryly. "I don't want my mind blown; it works much better in one piece."

"You are such a Philistine, man," he grumbled, good-naturedly. "How the hell did you make Cop of the Year if you don't use your brain?" Blair ducked the anticipated head-whap.

"It's because I use my brain for things that are really important. Rainbows and weather patterns won't solve crimes."

"I don't know; haven't you ever heard the theory that knowledge is never wasted? It might come in useful someday."

"Ri-i-ight. The next time a knowledge of rainbows helps me solve a case, I'll be sure to give you due credit in the report."

"And I'll get a blast out of saying 'I told you so'," Blair retorted comfortably.

Jim lifted his head. "The oven timer just went off, Chief. Is dinner ready?" He turned to follow as Blair strode toward the kitchen.

"Nah, that's the ten-minute warning," floated back over his shoulder. "Time to put in the garlic bread. Care to set the table while I toss the salad?"

As Jim pulled out the plates and silverware, listening to Blair's continued chatter, he reflected that the idea of rain and rainbows actually summed up their situation rather nicely. They'd passed through several stretches of personal 'rough weather', and a couple of storms so all-encompassing that it had seemed their world would be destroyed. But the storms had passed, their -- dingy -- connection had been washed clean, and the rainbow promised fair weather ahead.

He sat across from the man who was his best friend, brother, partner, and guide, and once again gave silent thanks for his continued good fortune. There might be more rough weather ahead -- life was never easy -- but from now on, he'd be aware of the gathering clouds. With forewarning, they might be able to avert the storm, or at least raise an umbrella against it. Never again would sentinel and guide -- or Jim and Blair -- face the elements alone.

"Chief ?"


"Thank you."

The glowing smile was all the benediction he needed.

"You're welcome, man."

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: 'Tis the Season
Summary: Christmas is a time for gifts and... senses testing.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,420 words, about 9 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Written December, 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-

'Tis the Season

by StarWatcher

Thursday, October 30th

"Hey, Jim, got any plans for Saturday?" Blair asked, oh-so-casually.

Ellison immediately felt the mental warning flags go up. Tests. Sandburg wanted to rope him into more tests.

He looked up from the newspaper he was reading and fixed the younger man with his most fearsome scowl, the one that always made the perps quake in their boots. "Cleaning. Shopping. Relaxing. That's what a 'day off' is for, Sandburg, or haven't you learned the concept?"

Sandburg seemed to have quit grading papers for awhile. He wandered to the fridge and extracted a couple of bottles of beer. There was no sign of boot-quaking as he smiled sunnily at his friend and handed him one of the bottles. "Oh, great. If we really work at it, we could finish the cleaning early, then swing by the Arts-and-Crafts Fair before doing the regular shopping." If anything, the scowl facing him deepened. "Think about it man. Booths of gorditas and burritos, Alaskan king crab legs, mooshoo pork, pad thai, elephant ears, caramel apples with nuts... you can chow down and I won't say a word, I promise."

"I am thinking about it. Echoing barn-like buildings filled with strange smells and crowds of loud people. Why should I subject myself to that? You go if you want; you don't need to drag me along."

"But it's a great opportunity, Jim; a chance to practice controlling your senses -- hearing especially -- in a realistically adverse situation, but it's not life-or-death hanging on your success. If it gets to be too much we'll leave, I promise, but some day you might be grateful that you had that practice." The gaze he turned on his friend was earnest and hopeful, and wide-eyed as a child's.

Ellison felt his resolve crumbling. "Sandburg, why bother? Shoving through crowds, looking at booths filled with ticky-tacky junk..."

"Jim! Not ticky-tacky! Hand-crafted art, and items that someone has put time and effort into. Okay, okay," he hastened to forestall another objection, "some of it is less 'polished' than you or I might like. But there's some good stuff too, man, at reasonable prices. It's a chance to appreciate individual creativity, the best of small-town Americana, even if you don't buy anything."

Ellison's eyebrows rose. "Small-town, Chief? In Cascade?"

"Hey, man, 'small-town' is an attitude as much as a place, and hand-crafting goes with that attitude." Blair waved off the comment airily, and fixed his partner with a considering eye. "Why the negativity, man? Did a toy train bite you on the ankle when you were a kid?"

Jim sighed. He was losing this battle, but he wouldn't go down without one last effort. "Sandburg, you still haven't told me why. Why should I go with you -- you're a big boy, now, you can go alone -- but also, why do you want to go in the first place?"

"Well..." He eyed the big man uncertainly, half-afraid of being laughed at. "Like I said, it's a chance to appreciate individual creativity and ingenuity. And if I buy something, I'm supporting a local artist, and that's always good." Jim was still waiting. "And I like to get an early start on Christmas shopping. Sometimes you can find some really unique gifts that will be a lot more appreciated than the same old stuff from a department store." Jim still didn't look convinced. Blair sighed. "And I like to get stuff for the Christmas Wishing Tree, and this way I can get more stuff on the same budget, and spread it around to more kids."

Jim blinked. Apparently they'd just crossed into the Sandburg zone. "You lost me, Chief."

"You know the Wishing Tree they have in the mall every year, the one they put up the first weekend of November?"

Jim didn't, but he nodded encouragingly. As usual, Sandburg saw right through him.

"Ah, man, you mean you never noticed it? It's this big tree, decorated with paper stars. Each star has the gender and age of a kid whose family can't afford Christmas presents. You pick a star, buy a gift that you think would be appropriate, and pass the star and gift over to mall management. They pass it to the group that's in charge, and those people wrap and distribute the gifts to the right kids in time for Christmas."

Jim had to swallow a lump. It never ceased to amaze him how giving his friend could be. He couldn't help but wonder if Blair had ever been on the outside looking in, hoping for a Christmas present that didn't come.

"That sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, Chief, but why not just do it at the mall? The toys will be handy; in and out and you're done."

"Like I said, more bang for the buck. I can buy probably three toys at the Fair for the same price I could buy one at the mall -- give three kids a little bit of Christmas instead of just one." He shrugged. "It's something I've been doing for the past five years. I just thought you might like to join in." Once again his gaze turned hopeful and beseeching.

Jim should have known that his surrender was inevitable, but he could still bargain for terms. "Okay, Chief, it's a date." He raised a cautionary finger. "And I'll even practice dial-control with you; you made a good point. BUT, fair warning... if it gets to be too much, I'm out of there, and you'll have to take the bus home."

"Oh, man, that's great! You'll have a good time, Jim, I promise!" The smile on his face could have provided light for every apartment in the building.

Privately, Jim still had doubts. But as he returned to his newspaper, he supposed that it wouldn't be too traumatic; nothing he couldn't handle. He hoped.

Saturday, November 1st

Jim woke as Sandburg's alarm went off below him, and frowned as he glanced at his own clock. Saturday was a day that they both enjoyed sleeping in, if possible, and it was barely 6:45. Maybe Blair had forgotten to leave his alarm off last night, and would turn over and go back to sleep? Jim focused his hearing on the room below his. No, the rustling of clothing indicated that Sandburg was getting dressed. More sounds told of a quick stop in the bathroom -- flushing toilet, hands being washed -- and then the light went on in the kitchen. Cupboard door opened and shut, pan placed on the stove, fridge opening...

He heaved himself upright and passed a hand over his face, then looked over the railing into the room below. "Sandburg! What's up?"

The answer was indecently cheerful. "I'm up, Jim, and you should be, too. Early start on cleaning today, remember? Breakfast in fifteen, buddy; get a move on!" Jim heard the eggs crack on the side of the bowl, and the whisk starting to beat them.

Oh. Right. The Arts-and-Crafts Fair. Oh well, Sandburg certainly seemed determined to get started and get finished; might as well take advantage of it. He pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, slipped his feet into the soft moccasins he wore around the house, made his own stop in the bathroom, and joined his friend in the kitchen. He made and buttered the toast, poured the coffee that Sandburg already had brewing, and sat down just as Blair brought two plates of scrambled eggs to the table.

Three hours later, the loft was spotless, and they were on their way to the fairgrounds. Ellison was feeling slightly stunned. Sandburg never shirked helping to clean the loft, but he had never approached the job with the energy he had displayed today. Apparently, this Arts-and-Crafts thing meant more to him than he'd let on.

Jim parked the truck at the end of a sparsely-populated row that was a considerable distance from the entrance. He didn't mind the walk, and the truck was less likely to get 'dinged', as most of the patrons would be searching for spots closer to the main gate. He grinned as he remembered a quote he'd read years before: 'As a nation, Americans are dedicated to keeping physically fit -- and parking as close to the football stadium as possible.'

As they reached the midpoint of the parking lot, Jim hesitated. Even from here, the noise and the smells were noticeable. He looked askance at the three large, Quonset-hut-like buildings, apparently ideally designed to amplify sounds while splitting them into so many pieces that there seemed to be no source. He really didn't want to do this. Maybe he should just leave Sandburg here and head home now...

The guide was in tune with his sentinel. Blair paused with Jim, and laid a grounding hand on his arm. "I really think you can do this, man. Just dial your hearing and smell down about two points below normal. When you're comfortable with that, we'll experiment with raising one or the other -- just a notch -- to locate specific items, then down again. When that's good, we'll see if you can go two notches up, then down. It's all about control, Jim. If you can do it, you've gained experience for similar situations. If not, we'll quit and go home. I can come back alone tomorrow and find what I want. Okay?"

Okay. He was a sentinel, and Cascade was his territory. Sandburg made sense; he had to learn to cope with all of his territory. He gave a short nod, then adjusted the mental dials as his guide had suggested. A quick scan into the fairgrounds and... yes. It was better already. He could do this. As he relaxed, he felt Sandburg relax beside him as well. Together they walked through the gate and into Building A.

For awhile they wandered the aisles at whim -- Sandburg's whim. Apparently, anything could attract his attention, although Jim noticed that he seemed to spend more time on the actual hand-crafted items, rather than ones that were simply re-packaged from other sources. Those also became the booths that Blair expected him to be able to 'mark' and recognize. "Jim, listen to the tone of these wind-chimes. Doesn't that hand-beaten copper make a distinctive sound?" He had to agree that it did. "Come on, Jim, this is hand-spun wool yarn and natural dyes. It's got to smell different than the usual commercial stuff." A cautious loosening of the scent dial proved Sandburg right again. "Hey, Jim, take a whiff of these carved boxes. Aren't the exotic woods more recognizable than the usual lumber from Home Depot?" They were indeed. "Focus on the falling of the water as it passes from one level to another; does each fountain have a unique sound, or are they all the same?" Each one was different, a soothing murmur that he'd never consciously noted before. Maybe he should get one for the loft....

But, despite the distractions, Blair kept a close eye on his friend. As Jim followed quiet suggestions to 'filter out the smell, it doesn't have to affect you', or 'turn up your hearing just a notch, but let the echoes shift to the background', he was pleased to discover that Blair's impromptu training session seemed to be working. By noon, he was completely comfortable, able to relegate the myriad sounds and smells to a balanced, non-invasive sensory backdrop -- one that didn't hamper his efforts to focus on specific items. And right now, he had one specific item in mind -- lunch. Of course, even that became a training session.

They paused in a quiet, sheltered area between two of the buildings. Blair looked up with a light of challenge in his eyes and a wicked grin dancing on his lips. "Okay, Big Guy; we've seen some of the food stands, but not all. So, use that nose to discover what our options are. You decide what smells the best, and that's where we'll eat."

Jim answered with a grin of his own. "So you say, Chief. What happens if I discover that WonderBurger has a stand here?"

"Fine. You can have WonderBurger -- after you point me to the homemade gorditas and shrimp-fried rice." A punch on the arm became a grounding touch.

Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on smell. It took a few minutes, as he needed time to note and discard the countless scents -- glue, wood, paint, incense, dye, fabric, leather, and so many others -- of the various handicrafts. Sandburg's earlier coaching paid off; all of these were now known and recognized, and he was able to shunt them to a mental storage bin labeled 'non-food', and ignore them. Very soon, he was identifying the various foods and cataloguing the ingredients that would enhance or detract from the flavors, peripherally aware of Blair waiting patiently by his side.

"Got it. Okay, Chief, hope you brought your appetite and don't mind mixing cuisines. We'll be having barbequed ribs with honey-mustard sauce, baked salmon patties, and shrimp egg-rolls, along with..." he paused to confirm his information, "some really excellent homemade bread, and a dessert of real, honest-to-god, old-fashioned handmade strawberry ice cream."

"Oh, man, it sounds like the heart-attack will be worth it. Lead on!"

After a self-indulgent second helping of the ice cream, Sandburg's whole demeanor changed. Gone was the carefree wanderer, replaced by the focused gaze of a dedicated hunter. "Okay, Jim, I deliberately didn't make note of where the specific booths are. You're going to use your senses to lead me back to the things I want. First stop -- the booth with the hand-carved boxes of exotic woods. I think one would be great on Simon's desk to keep his cigars in. Follow your nose and lead on, MacDuff!"

In short order, Blair had chosen Simon's cigar box (after consulting with Jim to be sure that the scent of that particular wood wouldn't adversely affect the cigars), one of the beaten-copper wind-chimes for Rhonda, and a hand-dyed, hand-knitted scarf for Megan, in shades that would complement her coloring.

Sandburg's enthusiasm was contagious, and Jim had to admit (privately) that Blair had been right -- many of the crafts were well-done and would make good gifts. And since he was already here, gifts purchased now would save him having to spend so much time in other stores... For Simon, he selected a pen-set in the same wood as the cigar box. Megan would get a sort of beret-thingie that matched the scarf Blair had chosen, and Rhonda would get a miniature table-top fountain. She might like to keep it on top of her filing cabinet.

But enough was enough; a little shopping went a long way, even though his senses had long since adapted to the crowds and noises and smells. Jim stopped Blair as he headed toward another booth. "Sandburg, the experiment was a success; the dials are working." He grinned slightly at the restrained bounce that expressed his friend's satisfaction. "So finish up; I'll give you another half-hour, then I'm out of here."

"Great, man, no problem. Just need to get the toys for the kids, and I already know which ones. So -- you remember that booth with the animal marionettes, and one was attached to a revolving arm that made it dance? You said the motor had a really annoying squeak. Where is it from here?" His eyes were alight with expectation; it seemed that the testing wouldn't be over until they actually left the building.

Sandburg was good. In the requisite thirty minutes, he had purchased two of the marionettes -- ("Hey, man, interactive toys that promote imagination; they're great!"), a set of hand-carved, unpainted, wooden vehicles -- ("Classic, man. A three-year-old can bang these around as much as he wants without hurting them."), and matching bracelet-and-necklace made of small polished chunks of semi-precious stones, undoubtedly the 'leavings' from making the larger, more formal jewelry. ("It doesn't matter, man. Some little girl will just see that it's pretty and shiny and enjoy showing off to her friends.")

Maybe Sandburg's spirit was catching. As they passed a booth displaying rag-dolls and plush animals, Jim paused to examine them more closely. The dolls were hand-stitched, without any small pieces to be pulled off and stuffed into an inquisitive mouth; their painted-on features had an individuality that commercial dolls lacked. The animals were engagingly fuzzy and squishy, just right for a young child to cuddle with in bed.

He glanced uncertainly at his friend. Were these toys too simplistic -- or maybe ordinary -- to be gifts for a needy child? Blair's beaming smile and encouraging nod assured him otherwise. Jim selected a brown-haired rag-doll in an apple-green dress, and a rainbow-colored, floppy kitten. As the booth-attendant made change, he warned, "But I'm not going in the mall, Sandburg. You can choose the stars for the kids that get these toys."

"Sure, Jim, no problem," he declared. "No sense duplicating our efforts when one can take care of the job."

As they finally headed toward the main exit, Sandburg stopped at one last display. His face was almost wistful as he examined the display of tree ornaments. These were made from simple, solid-colored balls, each with a tiny teddy-bear head, arms, and legs glued on. The ball was, in effect, the tummy of a teddy-bear at the same time it was a toy that the bear was clutching. Some had children's names on them, and a sign proclaimed that any ornament would be personalized free. Kind of kitchy, Jim thought, but Blair touched one with a tender finger.

"Wouldn't this be great for kids? Give them a visible connection to the tree and the holiday, something that's just theirs, but shared by everyone."

"I guess." Jim was a little uncomfortable with the note of -- longing? -- in his friend's voice. Where was this coming from? "Not very practical for an anonymous gift though; you wouldn't know what name to put on it."

Sandburg quickly shook off the little mood. "No, of course not. And it's not really something they could use or play with all year." He headed swiftly for the door, smirking slightly as Jim was left half a beat behind.

As they settled into the truck, Blair looked over at his friend. "Thanks for coming, man; it's always more fun to share with somebody. I know it wasn't your ideal way to spend a Saturday, but... well, thanks. And 'specially for adding to the toy collection. They'll make some little kids awfully happy on Christmas morning."

"No problem, Sandburg; I've had worse times, and the cause seems worthwhile. And the practice really did help my control. Of course, if you really want to show your appreciation..." He glanced over to see Blair with an eyebrow raised, waiting for the punch-line, "... you'll declare a no-testing period for the next two weeks."

"Two weeks! Man, you can't let your skills get rusty; three days."

"Ten days."

"One week, and I'll bake a blueberry shortcake."


They grinned at each other in perfect harmony, sentinel to guide, friend to friend.

Sunday, November 2nd

Immediately after breakfast, Blair grabbed his backpack and the bags of toys they had bought. "I'm outta here, man. I'll swing by the mall to pick some Wishing Stars to match these toys, then drop them off with management. After that, I need to do some work in my office. Should be back around three. You need anything while I'm running around?"

"I'm good, Sandburg. I think I'll go to the gym later, but I should be here when you get back. Dinner at Luigi's?"

"After the way we pigged out yesterday? How about vegetable stir-fry and blueberry shortcake?" He fixed his friend with a stern look.

Jim's grin was unrepentant. "Had to try, Chief. Yeah, sounds good. You gonna use canned blueberries, or do you think the organic market might have some fresh?"

"Why don't you check it out, Jim? At this time of the year, they won't be local; you can tell better than I can if the ones at the market are good enough. Otherwise, I'll just use canned." He watched Jim settle back with the morning newspaper, and was out the door with a careless wave.

As soon as Blair's car turned the corner, Jim's relaxed pose disappeared. Even on Sunday, the gym would be less crowded before noon. Going now would give him time afterward to swing by the Arts-and-Crafts Fair again. With the senses practice he'd done yesterday, he should be able to spend a short time with no difficulty, even without his guide. There was something he wanted to pick up without Blair knowing... He grabbed his gym bag and locked the door behind him.

Blair left the Mall Office with a sense of accomplishment. Six toys, six stars -- and six children that would have at least one present to open on Christmas morning. Every time he did this, he realized all over again that giving, not receiving, really was the best part of the season.

He glanced at the wall clock as he headed toward the main exit. He had plenty of time to stop back at the fairgrounds again before heading toward the office. It wouldn't be much -- little more than a trinket -- but he hoped Jim would appreciate the gesture.

Saturday, December 20th

The small, but well-shaped, living tree was standing in front of the far balcony doors, waiting for its lights, tinsel and ornaments. This had been Blair's innovation. Jim had explained, the first year Blair was in the loft, that he didn't like to put up a Christmas tree because he could smell the cut trees dying. Blair had been intrigued, but quickly suggested a potted tree from a local nursery. The smell would remain fresh and clean to sentinel senses, there would be far fewer dropped needles to clean up, the rental fee was comparable to the cost of a cut tree, and it would be returned to the nursery after Christmas -- no need to worry about disposal of a discarded tree. Jim had counseled him to, "Breathe, Chief; you've convinced me," and joined his friend in evaluating the potential 'candidates'. Both men had been pleased with the experiment, and continued the custom the next year.

Blair had been waiting all week for this. Decorating the tree was a cultural tradition that he hadn't always had the opportunity to participate in. He enjoyed it whenever he could, and sharing with his friend made the experience even sweeter. He'd been up early, working in the kitchen; they'd have fresh apple pie and hot spiced cider after the tree-trimming.

Jim positioned the lights -- small, so the heat wouldn't harm the tree, and unblinking, so the sentinel wouldn't risk a zoneout -- to his exacting standards, while Blair unwrapped the ornaments from their protective tissue and lined them up on the couch. From there, it would be easy to choose the 'correct' color and shape of ornament needed to 'balance' all sides of the tree. Privately, Blair thought that tree-trimming in accordance with sentinel -- or maybe it was 'anal' -- sensibilities subdued some of the spontaneous fun. On the other hand, the previous years had demonstrated that the final effect would be beautifully harmonious. So, when Jim 'adjusted' half of the Blair-placed ornaments a quarter-inch forward or back, it didn't make a dent in his good mood. He simply enjoyed spending some down-time with his friend while instrumental carols played softly in the background and the air was redolent with the delicious smells wafting from the kitchen.

Finally, all the ornaments were placed, and they both stood back to evaluate the effect before hanging the tinsel.

"What d'ya think, Chief?"

"Actually, Jim, I think it needs one more thing. Hang on a sec; I'll be right back," and he hurried into his room.

Jim took the opportunity to cross the kitchen and reach into the dark corner of the far cabinet's upper shelf. He grabbed the tissue-wrapped package and turned just in time to see Blair emerging from his room with a similar bundle.

There was an awkward pause.

Blair moved first, thrusting his bundle toward Jim. "Um... maybe it's kind of silly, but I wanted you to have this."

"You took the words right out of my mouth, Chief. This one's for you."

Blair grinned, noticing the similarity of the packages. "Is this a case of 'great minds' Jim?" He carefully opened the tissue to reveal one of the teddy-bear ornaments in a creamy silver. Inscribed in deep blue lettering was,

Blair - a Friend for all Seasons

"Oh, man," he breathed. "This is... this is just so cool. Thanks Jim; this is just... great!" His smile was incandescent.

Jim was touched; it took so little to make his friend happy. "You're welcome, buddy. So, can I guess what this is?" He unwrapped the paper to discover a teddy-bear ornament of blue. The silver-lettered inscription read,

Jim - Brother of my Heart

Jim smiled a slow, sweet smile, and didn't even try to resist. He moved forward, to bestow and receive a heartfelt hug. His voice was husky as he murmured, "You got it, Chief. Friend and brother -- it doesn't get any better."

Together, they walked back to the tree to find prominent places for both ornaments before they added the tinsel.

They waited until darkness fell to turn on the lights. Blair sighed contentedly as the tree shone in splendor. He and Jim sat on the smaller couch, sipping cider and contemplating the sight before them. One might think that the Menorah -- placed several days previously on a table in front of the near balcony doors -- would be overpowered, especially with only two candles burning tonight. Not so; the two icons of the season seemed to lend strength and meaning to each other.

It was a perfect representation of his heartfelt wish every year at this season -- peace to all the peoples of the world, whatever their belief system might be. Realistically, he knew that worldwide peace would be a long time coming. Perhaps it couldn't happen until every person had found a secure, comfortable 'niche' for his or her personality. He didn't know. But he did know that he was fortunate to have found his niche, at the side of his sentinel and friend... and he was never letting go.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: Lessons in Social Dynamics
Summary: Blair mixes Christmas and sentinel sensitivity.
Style: Gen
Size: 870 words, about 2 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None; conversation fic.
Notes: Written December, 2003. A snippet as "payment" for off-topic list-posting.
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-

Lessons in Social Dynamics

by StarWatcher

Blair spoke from his spot at the kitchen table, without looking up from his laptop. "Hey, Jim, I've found the answer to Christmas shopping for all the ladies on my list. There's this site --"

"'All the ladies', Chief? As in more than one?" Jim chuckled as he turned to the sports page. "I thought you were between girlfriends right now. And if you're not, talking plural could get you in trouble with some of them -- or all of them. Didn't Sam give you enough problems?"

"Ji-im! I'm talking friendship gifts, not girlfriend gifts! Little things like this help to lubricate the gears of social interaction, so to speak. It helps to stay on the good side of the people who can make my life easier, or a pain in the butt."

"You lost me, Chief. Who are these mysterious people?"

Blair shook his head pityingly as he clicked on another link. "Jim, Jim, Jim. I know you know that barking at people is not the most effective way to encourage cooperation. Other people may believe that glaring, Neanderthal façade you put on, but not me."

"Sandburg, I don't need a lesson in social dynamics. I'm just curious about who these 'ladies' are that you need to butter up."

"Well..." he leaned back in his chair and started enumerating on his fingers, "...there're the librarians, Donna, Linda, and Nancy. Of course it's part of their job to research materials and hold stuff for the TAs, but it doesn't hurt to say 'Thank you'. And Emily, the secretary at the Anthro department, and her assistant Charlotte -- it can make a difference whether my stuff gets handled and copied first or last. And Sadie the donut-cart girl; haven't you ever noticed that she always has at least one left of the banana-bran muffins for me and a buttermilk donut for you? That deserves recognition. And Rhonda and Megan, of course. And --"

"Okay, Chief, okay! It was just a general question; I don't need all the gory details. So, what's your great solution?"

"Like I said, I found this site, and they'll make soaps and bath salts and bath oils to order -- I can select shape, color and fragrance. So I can get a 'different', individualized present for each lady, but they're all on the same 'level' -- no hidden hurt feelings because someone else got a 'better' gift. And they're pretty inexpensive, too; I can afford to get a dozen or more.

"Come to think of it..." He reached out to click on another page. "It says here that the soaps are made with glycerine and Vitamin E oil. Maybe you should try a bar; it sounds like they would be sentinel-friendly on your skin. What scent would you like?"

Jim passed him on the way to renew his cup of coffee, while another click took Blair to the list of fragrances. "Of course, there aren't too many masculine scents, but maybe cinnamon orange or Hawaiian rain or juniper breeze... Wait! Here ya' go! Sage!" He turned to waggle his eyebrows and cast an evil grin at his friend just as Jim set a fresh cup of coffee within easy reach.

Jim offered the expected head-swat, which Blair avoided with practiced ease, but seemed intrigued. He peered at the computer screen over Blair's shoulder. "You may have something there, Chief. The unscented stuff I use has a scent -- the soap chemicals -- just no perfume. It's better than the perfumed stuff, but still not pleasant. You think maybe they would mix up a bar with half the usual amount of scent? It might hide the soap chemical smell without being too overpowering for me. What d'ya' think?"

"Good idea, man," he replied neutrally, manfully hiding his internal smirk. Yes! He took the bait! "Maybe get a couple of bars at half-strength and a couple at quarter-strength. Maybe even a couple at eighth-strength. I can use whichever doesn't work for you."

"Yeah, I think you've got something there, Chief. Show me that list of fragrances." He scanned the list as Blair scrolled down. "Citrus might not be too sweet. Maybe ocean? Or rain forest? Hell, Chief, this is no good. Ordering scents on the Internet, there's no telling what those names actually smell like."

"Hey, no problem, man. I'll e-mail them, explain that we want a very subtle scent that's not sweet. We can get several; whatever you or I don't like can be spread out among the ladies at the PD."

"Good; you do that, and let me know what my part of the bill is." He went back to the couch, but paused before he picked up the newspaper. "Chief?" He waited till Blair looked up. "You really didn't need to go through that little charade. Thanks for looking out for me."

Busted! He should have known that he couldn't really put one over on his sentinel. Blair shrugged and grinned. "No problem, man; all part of the service. We aim to please."

The guide returned to his computer as the sentinel returned to his reading, each taking comfort from the knowledge that the other cared. In this season of caring, this was undoubtedly the most precious gift of all.

The End

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Title: Spam Dealings
Summary: Blair vents, Jim reasons
Style: Very, very mild slash
Size: 1,125 words, about 3 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
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-

Spam Dealings (slash)

by StarWatcher

"Jim, you know the worst thing about spam?"

Jim looked up from the newspaper he was perusing while he waited for game-time; the Jags were playing the Bulls tonight. "Uh, Chief, spam is electronic junk mail. It's all a pain in the ass; how can there be a 'worst thing'?"

"Think about it, man. At least hard-copy junk mail can be transformed. Like, use the unprinted side of pages to write a shopping list. Or crumple it up and use it as kindling to start a fire. I know several people who use shredded junk mail as packing material when they mail stuff in boxes.

"But spam simply takes up my time as I have to weed through my messages, identify the unwanted junk, and delete it. And I'll bet it's offensive to a lot of people. Like, I keep getting stuff that guarantees an increase in my bust size. I wonder if women get stuff that guarantees an increase in their cock size?"

"Chief, how long does it take you to identify and delete a piece of spam?" Ellison folded the newspaper, laid it on the coffee table, and ambled into the kitchen. Extracting a couple of beers from the fridge, he crossed to the table and handed one to Sandburg.

"Oh, I don't know; maybe... two and a half seconds?" Blair accepted the offered bottle, and took a sip, staring thoughtfully at his open e-mail program.

"So, let's see..." Jim grabbed a calculator from the kitchen drawer and started punching in numbers. "If you delete twenty-four pieces of spam, you've wasted a whole minute of your day. If you practice, you could probably delete thirty pieces a minute, saving yourself a whole fifteen seconds." He shrugged. "Somehow, I don't think that a minute, or even two, will be missed by the end of the day."

"You're missing the point, man. Multiply that minute by days, weeks, months. Expand my minute to all the people sitting at computers all over the country. Productivity goes down, costs go up... I've read where spam costs the country several billion dollars a year! Not to mention that it's getting to be a major irritation to ME!" His voice rose as he expressed his frustration.

"Sorry Chief, I think you're stuck with it. I mean, what can you do to make it go away? Not your spam -- I've seen blocking programs, which will probably help -- you can pick one up tomorrow. I mean, what can you do to wipe out all the spam on the Internet?"

"Not a damn thing! That's why it's so irritating! That's --"

"-- why you should let it go and stop obsessing. Chief, it's not worth you driving yourself into an ulcer. In the greater scheme of things, it just doesn't make that much difference." Crossing over to his friend, Jim gently removed Blair's fingers from the keyboard and powered down the computer.

Blair's shoulders slumped. "I suppose you're right," he mumbled. "But I wish I could do something."

"Chief, you're the smartest man I know. If anyone can come up with something, it'll be you. How about --" Jim paused for a minute, wracking his brains for an idea that would lighten Sandburg's mood. He snapped his fingers. "Got it! How about you devise some suitably devious punishments for the perpetrators who get caught? Make the results so heinous that it will actually make people stop and consider before they get into that."

"Oh, right, Jim, like that'll ever happen! They get away with it because it's easy and cheap to do, and damned difficult for any law agency to find their hidey-holes."

"But that'll change. Didn't I read that California signed a law to prosecute the major corporations that allow spam to be sent out in their name? If they're hit on the bottom line -- their profits -- they'll give up the practice. Now what you have to do..." Jim's voice was encouraging, " to figure out something evil for the ones who actually set up the e-mail programs. They don't have billions of dollars to fine, but I know you can figure out a way to hit them where it hurts."

"Well..." Sandburg's irrepressible good humor was beginning to surface. He glanced over at his friend, noticing the glint of amusement in Jim's eyes. His own lips quirked upward in response. "Okay. Um... How about they spend their jail time with unlimited computer access -- on a computer that has a modem speed of only fourteen BPS, and a mere sixty-four K of working memory?"

"Sounds good," Jim admitted judiciously. "How about their sentence runs one week for every thousand pieces of spam they sent?"

"Oh, man, lots of them would be in jail for years!"

"Is this a problem?" Jim grinned as Blair's curls tumbled from the vigor of his headshake. "And if that doesn't deter them, then what?"

Blair frowned. "Well, for a computer geek, there's not much worse than a slow computer. Except..." His frown became an incandescent smile, and Jim congratulated himself on the success of this 'mission'. "Except a really fast computer, with tons of memory -- and the only sites they can access are made up of nothing but cheesy advertisements, and the only e-mail that they can get is spam. Five hundred pieces of spam per day, guaranteed!"

Jim chuckled and saluted his friend with a raised bottle. "Sounds like a winner, Chief. We convict a few people with that sentence, and the rest will be dropping the spam so fast, their keyboards will be lonely."

"I certainly hope so, man; I certainly hope so. But it'll take time. What'll we do until then?"

"In the long run? You get a spam-blocking program to deal with the worst of it, and get real familiar with the delete key to take care of whatever gets through. In the short run..." His voice changed to a seductive purr, "you can come upstairs and prove to me that your cock doesn't need any enlargement."

Blair closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then exhaled forcefully while shaking his head and torso, as if, Jim thought in amusement, he can just shake away the aggravation.

But maybe he could. Blair glanced up at Jim with a wicked grin. "Only if you prove the same thing to me, man." He sprinted for the stairs, shedding clothes as he went. "Last one naked is a rotten egg!"

Jim followed more slowly, chuckling to himself. His life-partner didn't have a one-track mind, but it was amazing easy to derail him from any other tracks onto this one -- and Jim loved him for it. He quickened his pace; he didn't want to keep Blair waiting.

The End

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Title: Spam Dealings
Summary: Blair vents, Jim reasons
Style: Gen
Size: 1,220 words, about 3 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
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-

Spam Dealings (gen)

by StarWatcher

"Jim, you know the worst thing about spam?"

Jim looked up from the newspaper he was perusing while he waited for game-time; the Jags were playing the Bulls tonight. "Uh, Chief, spam is electronic junk mail. It's all a pain in the ass; how can there be a 'worst thing'?"

"Think about it, man. At least hard-copy junk mail can be transformed. Like, use the unprinted side of pages to write a shopping list. Or crumple it up and use it as kindling to start a fire. I know several people who use shredded junk mail as packing material when they mail stuff in boxes.

"But spam simply takes up my time as I have to weed through my messages, identify the unwanted junk, and delete it. And I'll bet it's offensive to a lot of people. Like, I keep getting stuff that guarantees an increase in my bust size. I wonder if women get stuff that guarantees an increase in their cock size?"

"Chief, how long does it take you to identify and delete a piece of spam?" Ellison folded the newspaper, laid it on the coffee table, and ambled into the kitchen. Extracting a couple of beers from the fridge, he crossed to the table and handed one to Sandburg.

"Oh, I don't know; maybe... two and a half seconds?" Blair accepted the offered bottle, and took a sip, staring thoughtfully at his open e-mail program.

"So, let's see..." Jim grabbed a calculator from the kitchen drawer and started punching in numbers. "If you delete twenty-four pieces of spam, you've wasted a whole minute of your day. If you practice, you could probably delete thirty pieces a minute, saving yourself a whole fifteen seconds." He shrugged. "Somehow, I don't think that a minute, or even two, will be missed by the end of the day."

"You're missing the point, man. Multiply that minute by days, weeks, months. Expand my minute to all the people sitting at computers all over the country. Productivity goes down, costs go up... I've read where spam costs the country several billion dollars a year! Not to mention that it's getting to be a major irritation to ME!" His voice rose as he expressed his frustration.

"Sorry Chief, I think you're stuck with it. I mean, what can you do to make it go away? Not your spam -- I've heard about blocking programs, which will probably help -- you can pick one up tomorrow. I mean, what can you do to wipe out all the spam on the Internet?"

"Not a damn thing! That's why it's so irritating! That's --"

"-- why you should let it go and stop obsessing. Chief, it's not worth you driving yourself into an ulcer. In the greater scheme of things, it just doesn't make that much difference." Crossing back to his friend, Jim gently removed Blair's fingers from the keyboard and powered down the computer.

Blair's shoulders slumped. "I suppose you're right," he mumbled. "But I wish I could do something."

"Chief, you're the smartest man I know. If anyone can come up with something, it'll be you. How about --" Jim paused for a minute, wracking his brains for an idea that would lighten Sandburg's mood. He snapped his fingers. "Got it! How about you devise some suitably devious punishments for the perpetrators who get caught? Make the results so heinous that it will actually make people stop and consider before they get into that."

"Oh, right, Jim, like that'll ever happen! They get away with it because it's easy and cheap to do, and damned difficult for any law agency to find their hidey-holes."

"But that'll change. Didn't I read that California signed a law to prosecute the major corporations that allow spam to be sent out in their name? If they're hit on the bottom line -- their profits -- they'll give up the practice. Now what you have to do..." Jim's voice was encouraging, " to figure out something evil for the ones who actually set up the e-mail programs. They don't have billions of dollars to fine, but I know you can figure out a way to hit them where it hurts."

"Well..." Sandburg's irrepressible good humor was beginning to surface. He glanced over at his friend, noticing the glint of amusement in Jim's eyes. His own lips quirked upward in response. "Okay. Um... How about they spend their jail time with unlimited computer access -- on a computer that has a modem speed of only fourteen BPS, and a mere sixty-four K of working memory?"

"Sounds good," Jim admitted judiciously. "How about their sentence runs one week for every thousand pieces of spam they sent?"

"Oh, man, lots of them would be in jail for years!"

"Is this a problem?" Jim grinned as Blair's curls tumbled from the vigor of his headshake. "And if that doesn't deter them, then what?"

Blair frowned. "Well, for a computer geek, there's not much worse than a slow computer. Except..." His frown became an incandescent smile, and Jim congratulated himself on the success of this 'mission'. "Except a really fast computer, with tons of memory -- and the only sites they can access are made up of nothing but cheesy advertisements, and the only e-mail that they can get is spam. Five hundred pieces of spam per day, guaranteed!"

Jim chuckled and saluted his friend with a raised bottle. "Sounds like a winner, Chief. We convict a few people with that sentence, and the rest will be dropping the spam so fast, their keyboards will be lonely."

"I certainly hope so, man; I certainly hope so. But it'll take time. What'll we do until then?"

"In the long run? You get a spam-blocking program to deal with the worst of it, and get real familiar with the delete key to take care of whatever gets through. In the short run, you start popping the corn; the game's on in five minutes."

"Oh, right." After a startled glance at the clock, Sandburg rose to grab the popcorn pan and the cooking oil.

A few minutes later, he joined his friend on the couch, settling the big bowl of popcorn between them. He glanced over and murmured, "Thanks, Jim. Don't know why I let the little things get to me sometimes. I appreciate the boost."

"You're human, Sandburg," he chuckled. "We all have those days. Now forget about it and watch the game." Jim settled his feet on the coffee table, grabbed a handful of popcorn, and prepared to enjoy the game. His guide was close by, relaxed and at ease; all was right with the sentinel's world.

"From 'neo-hippie punk' to 'human'. Gee, Jim, it's big of you to admit it. Does this mean I've come up in your estimation?" He smirked at the mock-glare tossed his way. "Right, man, got'cha; shut up and watch the game."

He settled back and grabbed a handful of popcorn for himself, relaxing once again in the comfort and security of having a friend like Jim. The big guy was right; there was no sense in stressing over a little thing like spam, or even a big thing like a deranged psycho-killer. Jim and Blair, cop and partner, sentinel and guide -- nothing could stand against them. Life was good.

The End

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Title: Quacks Like a Duck
Summary: Blair and animals -- always more complicated than expected.
Style: Gen
Size: 4,015 words, about 10 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: I dashed off this bit of fluff, March 21-24, 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-

Quacks Like a Duck

by StarWatcher

"It's on the table, Chief! Get your ass out here before it gets cold."

"Hey, thanks, man." Blair kicked his overstuffed backpack under the table as he slid into his chair; just last week, Jim had threatened to burn it -- and its contents -- if he found it lying in the middle of the loft's traffic patterns one more time. Blair spread jelly on his toast, used it to scoop up a hefty portion of scrambled eggs, and took an enthusiastic bite.

He was experienced at the procedure; one piece of toast accounted for half the eggs on his plate, and he reached for another. Midway through spreading the jelly, he paused, examining toast, jelly, and eggs. "Jim, you've corrupted me, and I never even noticed!"

Jim shook his head as he reached for his coffee. "Well, you should have known better than to fall for it; it's a well-known fact that scrambled eggs will bring about the downfall of Western civilization. Or is it the jelly-toast that has your shorts in a twist?"

"Both of them. They're so... so... plebian! Do you realize I haven't had an algae shake in four days?"

"And my nose is grateful."

"But my arteries are hardening."

"Tastes good, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, that's why it's so insidious."

"Sandburg, even you should realize that man cannot live by algae shakes alone; do you really want to down one of those while you watch me eating this culinary delight? Besides, you're a growing boy; eat up, it'll give you enough energy to get through your day."

"But --"

"Besides, didn't Naomi teach you not to waste food?"

"But --"

"And didn't you tell me that it's customary to eat the local diet and learn to enjoy it?"

"But that's diff--"

"However, if it offends you so much, I'll cook my own breakfast tomorrow, and leave you to your algae shake. I'm planning buttermilk waffles with fresh blueberries, but far be it from me to force you to eat food that offends you."

"Hey, I didn't say I was offended, just..." Blair paused. "Wait a minute. What are we arguing about? And I thought I was supposed to be the fast-talker in this relationship."

"Got'cha!" Jim's smile was broad and unrestrained as he slid the miniature tape recorder onto the table and pushed the 'off' button. "I had a bet with Brown that I could talk you to a standstill just once. So I've been planning, and I admit I set it up, but there's a twenty in it if you don't contest the verdict."

Blair snorted. "And of course you couldn't pass up the chance for a little macho posturing. Okay, but you owe me, man. Today's my short day, and I'll be in at twelve-thirty. I expect you to use your winnings to buy me lunch at Soup 'r' Salad."

"It's a date -- always assuming we're not knee-deep in handling some madman's latest attempts to take over the world."

"Not the world," Blair objected, "just Cascade -- or maybe the western seaboard, if they're really ambitious."

"It's only a matter of time, Chief; bound to happen sooner or later. With our luck, it'll be sooner."

"In that case, you can save your ill-gotten gains for next week, or the week after. Not even Cascade's criminal element can keep up the world-takeover bid twenty-four-seven; there'll be a break eventually."

"In the short term, you're right. But in the long run -- I suspect they're working on their plans even as we speak."

"No doubt." Blair shifted stance and vocal tone, and became a caricature of a late-night announcer. "But Sentinel-man and his mighty super-senses, with trusty Guide-boy at his side, sees all, hears all, smells all. Together, they will protect the Mighty City as its denizens go about their day, unaware of their good fortune."

Jim chuckled as he carried his dishes to the sink. "Yeah, well, trusty Guide-boy better stop talking and finish eating, or he'll be late to his job; he needs to maintain his alternate identity as Super-Teacher-Guy."

Blair rolled his eyes. "You need to work on your titles; they're a little flat." But he took Jim's advice and, ten minutes later, he shouldered his backpack and was out the door, as a "See ya for lunch," lingered in the air behind him.

They were walking back from lunch, taking advantage of the warm, sunny April day, when Jim paused, hand half-lifted to stop Blair. He stared at a short row of low evergreen shrubs that filled a brick planter in front of the Dollar Store, two doors down from the PD.

"What?" Blair whispered.

"There's something moving in there, Chief."

Blair considered the closely-spaced shrubbery. "Man, you are too much a cop! There's no way a grown man could hide in there -- not if he expected to move quickly enough to get out in time to rob or threaten or whatever. Use your senses to tell you what's in there -- I bet it's just a squirrel or something."

The angle was wrong to see through the dense cover, even with sentinel vision, and hearing gave him only anonymous rustlings. But the scent was familiar from countless fishing trips. Jim smiled. "Close, Chief, but no cigar. Let's see if we can get a look."

He glided toward the end of the planter and cautiously pulled some of the branches away from the wall behind the shrubbery. A quick look confirmed his identification, and he motioned Blair forward, raising a hand to his lips to ensure silence.

Blair squeezed between Jim and the wall, looking into the gap his friend had created. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, but then he saw it clearly -- a large duck, mottled brown with an orange bill, crouched on the wood chips that acted as a mulch under the bushes. Blair thought she was aware of his presence -- she was looking right at him, and panting slightly with her bill half-opened -- but apparently he had not crossed the 'danger line' that would persuade her to leave her nest.

Blair backed out, a huge grin splitting his face. "Wow! How cool is that? Do you know what breed it is?"

"It's a mallard, Chief; the hens aren't as colorful as the drakes. The question is, why is she nesting so far from water? The closest is the pond in Maple Park, and that's three blocks away."

"Well, she can fly." Blair's voice combined amusement with sarcasm. "It'll take her, what, two minutes to get there?"

"Long trip when the ducklings hatch, though. But I suppose she'll manage." Jim filed the duck under 'mildly interesting, unimportant', and continued walking toward the PD. "You ready to go to work? I want to check out the Latelli warehouse again."

"Manage? Manage what?" Blair trotted to catch up with his partner's longer strides, and then they were in the truck and heading out, and the question got lost in the minutiae of ferreting out the information Jim needed to solve his latest case.

"I made some notes," Blair announced, wandering from his bedroom with a couple of pages in hand.

Jim glanced up from watching the evening news. "On?"

Blair sat down on the other end of the couch. "The life cycle of the Mallard duck. I figured one parent would keep the eggs warm while the other went to eat, but it turns out the male doesn't help with the incubating; she's on her own until the eggs hatch."

"The species has continued for thousands of years, Chief; I'm sure she knows how to deal with the whole situation."

"Yeah, the information I found says she lines the nest with down from her belly, and pulls it over the eggs to hide them and help keep them warm when she has to leave."

"Like I said; she knows how to manage." Jim clicked off the news and carried his empty beer bottle into the kitchen.

"Right, right. But now that we know she's there..." Blair shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I thought I might bring her some water and food, so she wouldn't have to make so many trips away from the nest."

Jim was now making his final check of windows and doors. "So, you're going to be pouncing on bugs to present to her, like some kind of ducky boyfriend?" He chuckled softly. "You're just trying to give the gang something else to tease you about, aren't you?"

"Nah, mallards eat mostly grain; I can probably get some kind of wild-bird mix at a feedstore. As for teasing..." Blair opened his eyes wider and let his shoulders relax, looking impossibly earnest and geeky, and softened his voice. "Aw, guys, you expect me to leave her all alone in the middle of the city? If she gets hurt or killed, what do you think will happen to her babies? Cats, cars -- they wouldn't last out the day. Do you really think I should just ignore her? Could you just walk away from helpless little ducklings? I mean--"

Jim was leaning against the kitchen island, laughing heartily. "Of course, the fact that you actually feel that way is beside the point, isn't it?"

"Of course it is," Blair said, matching his grin. "So I give her a bowl of water and another of grain every day; the eggs will hatch in four weeks -- less if she's been incubating them a while. No big deal, you know?"

"Ri-i-i-ight." Jim headed up the stairs. "And tomorrow, all the criminals in Cascade will lay down their guns and voluntarily surrender to the police. See you in the morning, Chief."

"Yeah, goodnight, Jim," Blair called as he headed toward his own room. It was inevitable that Jim would be the first and foremost teaser, he reflected as he changed into the old thermal shirt he used for sleepwear and moved a stack of books off his bed so that he could climb under the covers. But really, what better way to score karmic points with the universe? And what could be simpler?

It was as easy as Blair had expected. He bought a fifty-pound sack of Gamebird Scratch -- a mixture of wheat, barley, oats, and corn -- and a large metal trashcan to pour it in to avoid attracting mice. He installed it in Jim's storage area in the basement, which meant he had to make a trip down each morning to fill the plastic container now labeled 'duck food', but it was a small effort. Then, whatever time he got to the PD, Blair stopped to check on the duck. She was always there, looking settled and content as she kept her eggs warm; with his visits a daily occurrence, she had learned to ignore his peering in at her. He'd fill her feed bowl with grain, and her water bowl from his thermos, then go up and meet Jim for whatever he had scheduled.

The routine continued for three weeks and four days. Blair was getting impatient; the research he'd done had indicated an incubation period of twenty-eight days. Could the time needed be as variable as a woman giving birth? Or was the duck vainly trying to hatch unfertilized eggs? Did ducks even lay unfertilized eggs? As thoroughly as Blair searched, he couldn't find the answer to that one.

Jim printed out his report, signed it with a quick scrawl, and shut down his computer. "You ready to blow this pop-stand, Sandburg?"

Blair looked up from the blue-book he was grading. "Yeah, I'm ready. But I want to take a look at the duck again."

"You ever heard the one about a watched pot, Chief? I think watched duck-eggs obey the same natural laws." Jim's voice was amused as he tossed Blair's jacket to him, and slipped into his own.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's been..." Blair glanced at the clock, "...four and a half hours; a lot can change in that time."

Jim punched the 'down' button for the elevator. "So, do you have the names picked out, yet?"

"Like I could sneak a pet duck into the loft. Besides, I'm holding out for a bunny."

"Not unless you want hasenpfeffer the next day."

Blair pushed through the main doors and headed toward the Dollar Store. "Sure, sure, animals and kids run screaming from you in terror -- not!"

Jim cocked his head. "Got any cigars to pass out, Chief? Sounds like you're an uncle."

"Really? Cool!" Blair hurried forward and pulled the foliage away from the wall, and saw two small bundles of damp feathers lying on the mulch, peeping softly. He pulled back and turned a beaming face to Jim. "All right! Perfect timing!"

"What? Unhatched ducklings would have interfered with a hot date?"

"Tomorrow's Saturday; I won't have to call in any favors to cover my classes while I'm on duck patrol."

Jim strove mightily to hide the quirk of his lips. "I'm afraid to ask."

"You said it yourself; the closest water is three blocks away. The book says she'll lead the ducklings to water as soon as they're all dry. Since the sun's already going down, she'll probably wait till morning -- and last week I arranged to borrow a vest from Jessie in traffic patrol. Think about it, Jim -- three streets to cross; way too easy for drivers to miss seeing them, and then -- splat!" Blair's voice rose, and his hands waved wildly as he illustrated the danger. "But not if I'm there to stop traffic while they cross," he finished with satisfaction.

"She's a wild duck," Jim pointed out. "To be sure not to miss her, you'll have to get up with the sunrise. But you'll do it alone; I'm not giving up my sleep to drag your sorry ass out of bed. This time of the year, sunrise is just a little after five; think you can do it?"

"Love you, too, man," Blair retorted. "And for something this important -- just watch me." He turned abruptly and headed toward the parking garage. "Come on; I'll need to make an early night of it."

Blair slapped off the alarm, slipped out of bed as quietly as possible, and pulled on the clothes he had laid out the night before. Jim had undoubtedly heard the alarm but, knowing Blair's plans, he'd be able to ignore it and go back to sleep. Blair tiptoed into the kitchen and poured the fresh-brewed coffee -- courtesy of the automatic timer -- into his thermos. He grabbed his coat, shoved a couple of apples into its pockets, and was out the door. Realistically, he knew the duck probably wouldn't start the journey toward the pond until the day was more advanced -- and warmer -- but he didn't want to take any chances on being late. He could munch the apples and drink the coffee while he waited.

Thirty minutes later, everything was in order. After parking the car at the curb near the nest, he'd checked on the duck -- still there -- and put on his borrowed traffic patrol vest. Now, with the handheld STOP sign ready on the seat beside him, Blair poured a cup of coffee, munched on one of his apples and, keeping an eye on the bushes that hid the duck and her ducklings, settled in to wait.

Four hours into his self-imposed stakeout, Blair was fidgeting, realizing that he'd overlooked one very important point -- ingestion of coffee inevitably led to a need to, uh... drain the liquid. And with no one to keep an eye on things while he dashed into the men's room, it would be just his luck that the duck would start her long trek the moment he was out of sight.

He jumped as the passenger-side door opened, and Jim slipped into the seat beside him. "With your luck, I figured she'd sleep late after you got up early. And I figured you might like a little more sustenance right about now." He laid a bag from 'Dal Paso Donuts' on the dash, handed Blair a large cup of coffee, and opened the lid to drink from his own, hiding his grin at Blair's stunned expression.

"Oh, man, you are a lifesaver!" Blair proclaimed. "But first I gotta..." He gestured vaguely. "Keep an eye out; I'll be back in a few." With that, he hurried into the building.

When he returned, just as he had been afraid would happen, the mallard was ready to lead her brood to the pond. She was standing in front of the planter with -- Blair counted -- five ducklings around her, peeping loudly. As he watched, number six appeared at the edge of the planter and plopped down among its siblings.

Blair hurried toward the Corvair. Just as he reached it, Jim stepped out and handed him the STOP sign. "Here you go, Chief; showtime!"

Blair took the sign almost unconsciously. "Look at 'em, Jim! Aren't they the cutest things you've ever seen?" By now, numbers seven and eight had joined the group.

"Right up there with puppies and kitties," Jim agreed dryly. "You're just lucky they'll stick close to their mama; it'll be easier for you to protect them from traffic if they're all in a bunch."

"Yeah, well..." Blair glanced thoughtfully as the cars sped past, hurrying to a morning of shopping. "The drivers might not notice the ducklings, but a bright orange vest and a stop sign will get their attention; I think we'll be okay."

"I think so, too, Chief. But two are more visible than one; as long as I'm here, I might as well help out."

"Really? Oh, man, that is so cool! Thanks!"

"Don't get too bent out of shape; you'll owe me one."

"Hey, Blair!"

At the shout, Blair turned to see an attractive young woman with short brown hair hurrying toward him, also wearing a traffic patrol vest. "Jessie! What are you doing here?"

"Well, I had to make sure you treated my vest okay, and being here is the best way to do that. Besides, I wanted to get a good look at the babies." She grinned down at the fluffy balls of down in a medium brown color with yellow markings on their sides, and yellow faces with a dark brown stripe running across their eyes like a narrow mask. Now nine, they clustered around their mother, waiting for her direction. "Oh, they're so cute!

"Well, some of us think so," Blair said, casting a glance at Jim. "Whoops! They're on the move."

The duck was heading toward the street, her ducklings trailing behind. Just as she reached the curb, Blair stepped into the street, raising his sign to stop the flow of traffic. Jim took up a position a little beyond him, to prevent some bozo in the second lane thinking he might squeeze past. And Jessie stepped to the median, allowing traffic in the other direction to travel unrestricted for now, but prepared to stop the flow if the ducks moved faster than anticipated.

When the traffic in his lane was at a standstill, Blair turned his back on them to watch the little procession. The ducklings -- surprisingly well-developed for having hatched less than twenty-four hours ago -- waddled behind their mother with a workmanlike stride, peeping loudly as if to urge each other along.

But when they reached the median, forward progress was halted; the height of the curb towered over the ducklings' heads. But they were determined to follow their mother. As she sat in the grass and quacked softly, each one in turn pushed itself up the curb, digging into the concrete with tiny toenails and using the friction of chest against rough stone to keep from sliding back.

ducks crossing

By now, a couple of shoppers who had been walking by had stopped to watch the little drama. When all nine had conquered the obstacle, they broke into applause. Startled, the duck quacked and ruffled her feathers, but held her ground while the ducklings gathered around their mother, resting for the next leg of the journey.

"Man, that's harsh," Blair commented. "There'll be..." he paused, mentally counting. The next street also had a raised median, but the third, with only two lanes, didn't. "...uh, four more of those things to climb. And a long walk between streets, and from the last street across the park to the pond. They're going to be worn out."

"They'll make it," Jim assured him. "Mallards are tough little critters; as soon as they reach the pond, they'll be finding their own food."

"Yeah, but it'll be a lot easier if they're not so tired," Blair argued. "Maybe if we get a little closer to the mother, she'll move away from us and we can kind of angle her toward the wheelchair cut at the corner."

"You're in charge, Chief; have at it."

It worked. Somehow, Jessie took over using the STOP sign and, with Jim, held back the traffic while Blair persuaded the duck to move at an angle by walking carefully closer; he didn't want to spook her into leaving her babies. The little group walked up the incline of the wheelchair ramp without difficulty, and proceeded down the sidewalk.

More shoppers had come to see what was going on, and stayed to watch the impromptu parade. Several had cameras, and took the opportunity to take pictures; Blair figured one of them would be showing up in tomorrow's newspaper.

Slowly, the duck led her brood toward the pond, pausing occasionally -- at the grassy medians, and around a couple of trees planted in front of the larger stores -- to let the ducklings rest. As they traveled, more spectators joined the watchers, everyone taking the opportunity to enjoy a touch of wildlife in the middle of the city.

Three hours later, the crowd clapped and cheered as the mallard walked into the pond, her ducklings following without hesitation. She led them to an area of cattails, where they immediately began searching for bugs and tender plants, their little heads dipping under the surface of the water, and their little tails poking into the air.

"Look at that!" Blair breathed in awe. "No training or nothin'; they just know what to do."

"Yep; instinct's great, Chief. But instinct wouldn't have protected them from the traffic. It was your help and dedication that ensured they all got here; you can be proud."

Blair beamed. "I am, kinda. It just feels good, you know?"

The crowd was dispersing. Jessie walked over, grinning as broadly as Blair. "Well, that was the most satisfactory traffic patrol I've ever had; I never thought I'd be escorting ducklings to water. It'll be something to tell the grandkids."

"Don't you have to have kids, first?" Blair asked, unbuckling the vest and handing it to Jessie.

She glanced around ostentatiously and stepped closer, motioning Jim into their little circle. "Don't spread it around; Pete and I haven't told anyone yet. But the baby's due in November."

"Whoa! Congratulations!" Blair exclaimed.

After she'd left, Jim threw his arm across Blair's shoulders. "Your protégés seem to be enjoying lunch, Chief; how about you and I do the same?"

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed. "Those apples wore off a long time ago." They turned and headed back toward the PD to pick up their cars.

Blair sat down at the table as Jim set the plate of scrambled eggs in front of him. As he reached for the jelly and toast Blair remarked, "I still say you're trying to corrupt me."

"You wound me, Chief; it's not like I'm feeding you arsenic. And this is good stuff; you did all the shopping yourself at the organic market. It's whole-grain bread, natural jelly without preservatives and eggs from free-range chickens. You can't get any healthier than that and the bonus is, it really does taste better than the regular store brands; my palate thanks you."

"You have a point," Blair acknowledged. "But we're still having a nice healthy stir-fry for dinner tonight."

"Put some meat in there and you've got a deal."

"Oh yeah; God forbid you should go without your daily quota of meat." Blair just wouldn't tell him it was ostrich -- Jim would notice, but he'd eat it.

They split up the Sunday paper, each enjoying breakfast with his best friend. Blair's experiment in duck-care had reached a successful conclusion, they were looking forward to a warm, late Spring day, and the latest bad guy had yet to cross their path. Life didn't get much better than that.

The End

duck swimming

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Title: He Who Laughs Last...
Summary: Blair hatches a get-even scheme.
Style: Gen
Size: 2,115 words, about 4 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Loft, dialogue, no action.
Feedback: Not necessary, but every comment treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a note that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at-

He Who Laughs Last...

by StarWatcher

"Oh, HELL!"

Jim glanced up from the evening newspaper; he saw nothing unusual in the form hunched in front of the laptop. "What's the problem, Chief?"

"Hey, Jim, did you hear about the forgetful man and the Internet?"

"No, Sandburg, what about the forgetful man and the Internet?"

"Well, he was getting married, see, but he was very much like the original absent-minded professor. During the afternoon, his mother called to remind him that he had to be at the church the next day. His brother called that evening with the same message. But he knew how forgetful he was, so he sent himself an e-mail reminder. He figured, when he saw it in the morning, he'd be sure to remember. But his e-mail didn't show up the next morning. His bride-to-be married his best man on the spur of the moment. When the e-mail came through two days later, he dressed very carefully, drove to the church, and was astounded to find no one there. Now he's suing his ISP for mental anguish and alienation of affection."

Jim's brow crinkled; this was a little left-field, even for Blair. "Sandburg? You want to explain where this is coming from?"

"Yeah, man!" He ran his fingers angrily through his hair, tugging in frustration. "I just got an e-mail informing me that I have a very important, can't-miss-it-or-my-ass-is-in-a-sling junior faculty meeting -- yesterday! Dammit!"

"Come on, Chief, it can't be that bad; can't you just get the notes from somebody?"

"That's not the point, Jim. People who aren't present always get 'volunteered' for the scut jobs that nobody wants. Like I don't have enough to do as it is," he grumbled. "I just know they've tagged me to evaluate the optimum paper color for handouts, or something equally trivial. I tell you, man, I could easily develop a love/hate relationship with computers, no matter how useful they are; they suck us in by making things so much easier, then lose important pieces of information. At least a paper message would've been in my mailbox and I would've seen it when I went to the workroom to copy my quiz-sheets. E-mail that takes the long way around through cyberspace just sucks." He glowered at the monitor.

"I think you'll survive it, Sandburg," Jim retorted, folding the paper to the sports section. "If I know you, you'll just take a page out of Tom Sawyer's book and have everyone else doing the work for you." He returned to his reading, completely missing the thunderstruck look on his friend's face, and the calculating gleam in his eye.

"Tom Sawyer," he murmured. "Thanks, Jim. I'll be sure to keep that in mind..."

The next evening was Jim's turn to cook. Instead of offering his usual helping hand, Blair sat in front of his laptop; Jim heard the clicking as his friend apparently visited different webpages, interspersed with occasional chortling that sounded almost... evil, followed by the scratching of pen on paper. He wondered what Sandburg was up to; anyone who was on the receiving end of that imitation 'Beavis and Butthead' snicker would probably be most unhappy.

"Okay, close it up, Chief," he ordered, carrying the meatloaf to the table and setting it next to the salad. "Time to eat; you can finish your plans to take over the world later."

Blair set the laptop to 'sleep' mode and took his seat across from Jim, with a half-smile playing on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. "The world is a bit much, but if I work at it, I might be able to take over Rainier one day." He rubbed his hands together and affected a Boris Karloff accent. "They'll rue the day they volunteered me to find another source for the soft-drinks that are available in the machine in the teachers' lounge!" He smiled in sublime self-satisfaction as he put a large slice of meatloaf on his plate.

"You kids today," Jim mock-grumbled. "Can't you play nice? So when it's all over, will I have to haul your ass to jail, or just defend you from an angry mob?"

"Hey, man, nothing illegal!" Blair protested. "And some of them might even like the results. But -- well, maybe a small mob," he acknowledged. "I'll have to put it all together when I don't have to be on campus for about twenty-four hours afterward. Maybe Thursday; my class ends at ten, and I don't have office hours that day -- I can skip out until one o'clock on Friday." He nodded decisively to himself. "Yeah, that'll work."

"Sandburg, what will work?" Jim demanded, unable to contain his curiosity any longer.

Blair snickered as he chewed a mouthful of meatloaf. After swallowing, he took pity on Jim's outraged frustration. "It's like I said, Jim; when I wasn't at the meeting, I got 'volunteered' for the job nobody wanted. But thanks to your suggestion and Mark Twain's guidance, I've devised a fiendish plot to ensure that no one will ever again try to pull something like that on me." He nodded decisively as he speared another forkful of meatloaf.

"Fiendish plot?" Jim repeated. "I think you've been reading too many B-grade spy thrillers, Chief. So what've you got up your sleeve?"

"Just giving people what they want, Jim; you know what a helpful guy I try to be." But he quickly gave up his façade of wide-eyed innocence, letting the gleeful triumph show through. "It seems that some of our faculty want something a little less boring in the soft drinks machine, so I've been doing a bit of research. Not only will the new drinks not be boring, they'll be downright healthy. Now, really, how can they complain about that?"

Jim thought to himself that, as easy-going as Sandburg was, it was wise to remember that you really didn't want him pissed off at you; once he applied that amazing intellect toward getting even, you were doomed. "I dunno, Chief; if you're planning to load the machine with prune juice and V-Eight, I'll understand why you might have a mob after you."

"Oh, much better than that!" Blair assured him sunnily. "You know how I mentioned a love/hate relationship with computers? Forget about it, man; it's love all the way. Do you realize you can find anything you want on the Internet? Products from around the world are just a few key-strokes away, and it really is amazing just how diverse our planet it."

"So what diverse products are you considering, Sandburg?" Jim fortified himself with a large gulp of beer, wondering what could be worse than prune juice. Did algae shakes come in a can?

"Great stuff, man; look here." Blair grabbed the page full of notes from beside the laptop. "I think I'll start with 'Nature's Delight'; the blurb says it's a health drink made with apple juice, grape juice, and apple cider vinegar. That should get the taste buds tingling." He glanced down at his notes to refresh his memory. "And Himalayan Goji Juice sounds good, along with Asia Passion Juice. They're both full of vitamins and minerals, and supposed to be very healthy, as well as flavorful."

Jim didn't know whether to laugh or groan; trust Sandburg to stick to the letter of the assignment while managing to twist it out of recognizable shape. He shook his head slowly in disbelief, but Blair ignored the body language and carried on.

"I can't decide between the Korean Health Drink, made with garlic, onion, and cactus, or the XanGo Juice, made with the purée of the mangosteen fruit. They both sound interesting, but the machine can only hold six choices. And I gotta put in the Ginseng Green Tea and the Organic Green Tea Shake; the shake is supposed to be an anti-cancer and anti-oxidizer, and the ginseng is an energizer. That'll give everyone a nice range of choices, don't you think?" His gaze was innocence personified.

"Sandburg..." Jim felt peculiarly helpless in the face of this juggernaut. "If they want something different, why not just stock the machine with some of the weirder flavors of Snapple?"

Blair shook his head firmly. "No way, man! Why, Professor Martenson himself cornered me to put in a good word; he said, 'Mr. Sandburg, I know you'll do us proud.' As good as Snapple is, it's just too ordinary; you can buy it in any grocery store. I intend that my fellow faculty members get the best that money can buy." His voice dripped with firm self-righteousness.

Jim grasped at the offered straw, ignoring its frailty. "Speaking of money, how do you expect to pay for this, Chief? I'm not going to bail you out if you bankrupt yourself with this nonsense."

"What kind of fool do you think I am? No, don't answer that; I have a pretty good idea. But I do know how to do research. All of these drinks are available from West-Coast distributors; getting them here will be no problem at all. Of course, I expect they'll cost a bit more than canned soda; the machine will have to be set to a hundred-percent price increase, I think. But it's a small price to pay for health and good taste. I'm sure everyone will recognize that in a day or two."

"What they'll recognize is just what you intended, Sandburg. I'm sure they'll never tag you behind your back again. I just hope you can stand the fallout."

"Strangely enough, Jim, most of them can take a joke -- unlike some others I know, who shall remain nameless. But you're absolutely right; I think my message will come through loud and clear. Now eat up; your dinner's getting cold." He speared another forkful of meatloaf and chewed with evident satisfaction. "This is really good, by the way, but I bet it'd be even better with ostrich meat, or maybe a combination of ostrich and buffalo. When are you going to share your secret recipe so I can experiment with it?"

Jim grinned at the hopeful expression on his friend's face and gave a broad wink. "The key word is 'experiment', Chief. Have at it. I'll let you know when you're getting warm -- or maybe not."

"Oh, that's real grown up, man! I think you should consider -- I can experiment with your meatloaf recipe, or I can run some tests on your senses."

"Now who's being grown up?" Jim retorted amiably. "I'll see your senses testing and raise you extra cleaning duty; the bathroom's a mess, and it's mostly due to your long hair."

"Jim, to anyone but a sentinel, that bathroom would pass military inspection. How do you expect me to clean what I can't see?"

"I suppose I could stand over you and point out the areas you need to work on, but I can already hear the complaints. What d'ya say we call it a draw, clean up the kitchen, and watch 'Lethal Weapon Two' -- it starts in fifteen minutes."

"Popcorn with butter and cheddar?" Blair asked as he wrapped the leftover meatloaf for sandwiches the next day.

Jim was already scrubbing the dishes in the sink. "You're on, Sandburg. Nice to see you can be reasonable once in a while."

"Reasonable? I'll have you know that I'm the epitome of reason when I'm not dealing with a stubborn, hide-bound sentinel." Blair set the popcorn pan on the stove, poured a little olive oil into the bottom, and added a generous layer of popcorn kernels.

"Yeah, yeah, cry me a river. I may even care in five or ten years." Jim started shredding the cheddar to sprinkle through and over the popcorn -- none of that fake stuff in a jar for him -- while he kept an eye on the melting butter.

"Maybe instead of senses testing, I'll set up some sessions for practicing interpersonal skills." Blair was shaking the pan vigorously as the sound of popping corn rose to a crescendo. "You'd be surprised how far a little tact and diplomacy will get you, sometimes."

"I understand the concept, Sandburg, and can even use it when necessary. But when I'm shouting, 'Freeze! Cascade PD!', diplomacy just isn't necessary."

"Maybe not, but there're plenty of times you could use it, and don't. Maybe I could give you some pointers."

"Point your ass to the couch, Chief; the movie's starting." He carried the popcorn while Blair grabbed a couple of beers. They settled on opposite ends, with the popcorn bowl between them. Their bantering died as they watched the movie, each content simply to be spending time with his best friend. Chasing the latest perp and sabotaging the soda machine could wait for another day.

The End

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Title: Wreath of Friendship
Summary: Christmas Challenge -- "Wreath"
Style: Gen
Size: 300 words, about .5 page in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: Jim - Blair - wreath - talking.
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-

Wreath of Friendship

by StarWatcher

"What is all this stuff?" Jim asked, staring at the mess of pine branches, holly, pinecones and ribbon spread across the kitchen table, along with a gluegun and some heavy wire. Thank goodness Blair had at least covered the table with a layer of newspapers.

"Well, in an hour or so, it'll be a couple of wreaths -- one for us, and one for Major Crime."


"Why not?"

Why not, indeed. "Because it would be easier to buy a couple of wreaths, and a whole lot less disorganized; I don't expect to come home to a -- a -- trash-heap!"

Blair continued his work, hands busily twisting and turning, using the wire for stability, fashioning the pine branches into two circles. "If you hadn't come home early, the wreaths would've been finished, and the leftovers would've been down in the dumpster. And I'm making my own because I enjoy it, and because the symbolism is more meaningful if you put the work of your heart and hand into it." He carefully twined the holly around the circles of branches, the dark shiny leaves nestling in the dusky color of the pine.

"What symbolism?" Jim was intrigued; he sat across from Blair, watching the clever hands as they twisted pinecones into the developing wreaths, and glued them in place.

"Because the pine and holly are green all year long, they signify the everlasting life of the spirit -- or soul, if you prefer. The shape reminds us of the circle of life, of friends and family." Blair was tying red and white ribbons into small bows around one of the wreaths. Jim reached for the other wreath, and started to imitate Blair's actions.

"And then we hang it on the door to say 'Welcome' to all who would enter." Blair held up his creation, checking for flaws, tweaking a couple of ribbons until they sat just right. He shrugged slightly. "It's just something I like to do, if I can find any materials that are even remotely suitable. But I guess I did take liberties; I don't know how you like to celebrate Christmas. May I hang this wreath on your front door, Jim?"

As Jim returned Blair's steady, earnest gaze, he seemed to see a deeper meaning in his eyes. Blair was offering a circle of friendship. He'd known the kid such a short time; could he trust that offer?

Jim considered the help Blair had already given him, the changes he'd already made to improve Jim's quality of life. Blair had already gone far beyond the bounds of just researcher and subject, and there was every indication that he intended to continue for the foreseeable future. Difficult as Jim found it to trust, it would be stupid to reject such a generous, open-hearted offer.

"I don't think so, Chief." He rose and went to the tool drawer, then laid a hammer and nail on the table in front of Blair. "You may hang the wreath on our door."

The End

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Title: Lucky Two Hundred
Summary: Blair's mess is organized -- really it is!
Style: Gen
Size: 200 Words
Warnings: None
Notes: July, 2007. Double-drabble for Sentinel_Thursday's 200th challenge -- "200" in two hundred words.
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-

Lucky Two Hundred

by StarWatcher

Jim watched, arms crossed, as Blair rooted frantically through the papers on his desk. "Sandburg, I'd think you'd put something that important in a safe place, not where it could get buried under a year's worth of crap."

"Of course I put them in a safe place!" Blair snapped. "But that was two months ago, and I don't remember! Doesn't matter; I'll find them if I have to tear the room apart."

"In the next..." Jim checked his watch, "one hour and forty minutes? Otherwise, we'll miss the opening tip-off."

Blair straightened and surveyed his room, hand clenching his hair as he considered the best place to search. "You could help, you know."

"You're going about it all wrong. Stop and think; retrace what you did that day."

"Okay; the phone rang. It was a random radio-station call -- did I know when Napoleon's fleet was sunk -- and I won... oh, man!" Blair hurried to the wall shelves and carefully lifted the antique wooden tribal warrior. He triumphantly waved the tickets. "Duh! The answer was two hundred years, so I put them under my two-hundred-year-old Masai carving, and now we have box seats to Orvelle Wallace's two-hundredth home game. Let's go!"

The End

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Title: Xena Studies
Summary: Blair finds sentinel clues in unusual places.
Style: Gen
Size: 1,220 words, about 3 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: July, 2003. Challenge 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-

Xena Studies

by StarWatcher

The ululating cry filled the living room and wafted out to the balcony where the Sentinel stood, enjoying the early evening air while observing his city. He frowned in minor irritation, and walked through the glass doors to confront the culprit.

"Sandburg, don't you find that program just a little improbable? And yet you're taking notes! What're you doing, counting up the number of inaccuracies and improbabilities per minute?"

"What?" Blair looked up from the notes he was making on a yellow legal pad as he sat in front of the TV, watching 'Xena, Warrior Princess'. "Did you say something, Jim?"

"Yeah, Warrior Prince, I asked why you're so fixated on that crap. I can understand if you want to look at a lot of female skin, but it's hardly worthy of taking notes."

"Chill, big guy; just doing a little research on the possibility of Sentinels in non-indigenous cultures. It occurs to me that nuggets of sentinelism may be hidden in historically recent and current literature. Think about Sherlock Holmes for example -- finding clues where others don't see them, always in the company of Doctor Watson when he's on a case... even his reported opium use could have been to decrease the incidence of spiking senses."

"Are you serious?" Jim looked at the earnest gaze fixed so confidently on his. "You are serious." He shook his head in minor bafflement. "So what do you expect to gain by 'researching' the highly fictionalized accounts of what may or may not have been a Sentinel in nineteenth-Century England?"

Blair's tone was patience personified. "Jim, man, that's why it's called 'research'. I don't know what I might find, or what good it will be. As you suspect, it's quite possible that I'll find nothing." His grin showed that he wasn't the least bit bothered by the possibility. "But you never know... one phrase, or one story twist, could give me an idea that will simmer underground, then percolate to the surface of my brain when you need a better, more innovative way to make your senses give you the information you're trying to find. And if it doesn't give me anything..." he shrugged acceptance, "...there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than immersing myself in a good Sherlock Holmes mystery."

"Problem here, Chief." He crossed his arms and quirked an eyebrow at his friend. Maybe he could intimidate the kid into changing to a less offensive program. "You're not immersed in a good Sherlock Holmes mystery; you're fixated on a silly soap opera with strong Kung Fu overtones. You don't really see any sentinelism in Xena, do you?"

Blair was supremely unintimidated; he snickered at the disbelieving glare tossed his way. "Yeah, Jim, I really do. All the jumping and acrobatics she does suggest a hyper-aware kinesthetic sense to give her superior muscular control of her movements. I'll have to figure out a way to determine if yours is more highly-developed than mine, or another cop's." He ignored the long-suffering grimace that Jim directed his way. "In addition, she hears things nobody else can hear, and her vision must be phenomenal for her to aim and ricochet that chakram to hit her target -- and catch it without hurting herself, though that probably goes back to the kinesthetic awareness."

"Chief, I draw the line at tossing silver metal rings around; you stick to baseballs and I'll stick to my weapon. Want a beer?" He ambled into the kitchen and opened the fridge.

"Yeah, Jim, thanks." He accepted the cold bottle from his friend and took a long swallow while Jim sat on the other couch. "Well, I admit that the chakram-tossing thing is a little improbable, but I'm thinking of the possible factual nugget behind the hyped-up legend. So many times, if a person has unusual abilities, it's not enough for the storytellers to report those abilities -- they embellish and exaggerate to make the story 'better'. Then those stories are further exaggerated by the next storyteller, and the next and the next." He shrugged; the concept was one with which he was thoroughly familiar. "So, delving through the layers of enhancement, one can posit an individual with exceptional eyesight and exceptional kinesthetic sense, and at least above-average hearing; it's kinda hard to demonstrate 'exceptional' hearing through a visual medium."

Jim was caught; Sandburg might actually have something. "So you think that whoever thought up this Xena series was... what? Playing into old ideas of sentinel abilities?"

"Yeah, man, exactly! I think the idea -- or maybe the desire -- for a tribal protector resonates at a subconscious, maybe almost a genetic level. So we have Sherlock Holmes, and Hercules and Xena, and --"

"Wait a minute, Chief, Hercules was a half-god. You can't count that for sentinelism."

"Nuggets, Jim, nuggets. The half-god thing would be their explanation for the enhanced Sentinel abilities that they observed. They thought it couldn't be 'normal', so they ascribed it to something 'better' than normal, and assumed that the 'something' must have come from the gods.

"And now, when society as a whole doesn't accept the idea of actual, physical gifts given by the gods, science has become the method of explaining sentinel traits. We make our own, like the 'Six Million Dollar Man', or count it as an obscure inborn attribute -- which it is -- like 'Mutant X'."

Jim took a fortifying swallow of his own beer. "I guess I see your point, Chief, and it is somewhat entertaining, but I still don't see the use of it. I don't have implanted bionic senses, and you tell me I'm not a Mutant, so what good is this so-called 'research'?"

"I don't know, okay Jim? I already told you that. But it doesn't matter, man; knowledge is never wasted. We're still flying by the seat of our pants with making your senses work as efficiently as possible without any unpleasant side-effects for you. You've seen how my brain works --"

"Scary, Sandburg, very scary."

"-- and these ideas can become a hidden resource, waiting in my mental basement --"

Jim snickered. "Mental basement? That's deep, Chief."

Blair forged valiantly onward. "-- until a situation comes up where it might be useful, and I can maybe tie it in to other ideas and -- presto! -- another step in the control of your senses. Don't knock it, Jim; you know it works." With that, he turned his attention back to the TV, subject and conversation effectively closed.

Jim watched his friend for a few moments. It was amazing how much time and effort the man spent toward making this sentinel thing easier for him to handle. Jim knew that he wouldn't be half so comfortable with the situation -- might, in fact, be gibbering in a funny farm somewhere -- without the help and input of his guide always standing by his side. One of these days, he'd have to remember to thank him. With a small internal grin, the sentinel swallowed the last of his beer, then passed through the kitchen to toss the empty bottle into the recycling bin, and headed back out to the balcony. He would watch over his city, and his guide would watch over him; with backup like that, he had nothing to worry about.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: ...Of the Plains
Summary: Descriptive scene
Style: Gen
Size: 100 words, about .2 page in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Icon challenge, Feb 3, 2007
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-

...Of the Plains

by StarWatcher

They rode onward, toward the promise of a nighttime camp. Jim saw it first, then Blair. It stood on sturdy legs, stark against the summer-clouded sky.

Blair watched the whirling blades as they ate, listened to the wheel's creaking as it spun, the water splashing as it fell from the pipe into the stock-tank. "They remind me of you, Jim. They watch over the plains and protect the creatures around; their water sustains life and the trees that grow nearby give shelter. I wish I could paint a picture -- windmill, clouds, and trees. I'd call it 'Sentinel of the Plains'."

The End

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Title: Zucchini, Tomatoes and Corn, Oh My!
Summary: Blair becomes embroiled in a tasty enthusiasm.
Style: Gen
Size: 7,380 words, about 13 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Special thanks to LKY, who graciously gave me permission to mention her beloved Uncle Buck in my story. Written July & August, 2007.
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-

Zucchini, Tomatoes and Corn, Oh My!

by StarWatcher

Early March

"Hey, wow, did you see this?" Blair was curled up comfortably, carefully perusing every article in his section of the Sunday paper.

His friend didn't even glance up from mentally composing a scathing letter to the editor as he read of the proposed city ordinance that would limit the age of vehicles allowed to drive in downtown Cascade. "How many times have you insisted that the 'Lifestyles' section is more culturally relevant than the 'pompous arrogance of short-sighted, monkey-brained, alpha-posturing world leaders'? Since you see fit to grab that part first, no I haven't 'seen this'. I'll get to it eventually; today is perfect for staying put," Jim added, glancing at the cold rain beating against the balcony doors.

Blair folded the paper inside out and faced it toward Jim, tapping the relevant headline. "No, look," he insisted, "this is great news.

Jim easily compensated for the distance between his position in the yellow easy chair and Blair's in the far corner of the couch as he read, City to Allow Garden Plots on Vacant Lots. "So the city is conning a lot of would-be farmers into cleaning up vacant lots and planting pretty flowers without paying them a cent for their efforts. Sounds like a royal rip-off to me."

"You're missing the whole point, man! This will be vegetable gardening. Well, maybe a few flowers if someone is so inclined -- did you know that planting marigolds can help keep the bugs away from other plants? But lower-income families can rent a plot -- only three dollars a month -- and grow their own fresh vegetables, healthier and cheaper than what they get in the store. And it'll give kids something to do in the summer, help keep them out of trouble and give them a sense of self-satisfaction when work they've done with their own two hands benefits them and their families. You'd be surprised what a difference just growing things can make in people's lives. I've read studies --"

"Thanks, Chief, you've convinced me; I don't need chapter and verse." With a rustle of paper, Jim prepared to drop the conversation. The silence lasted only a few heartbeats.

"I think I'd like to do it," Blair mused, half to himself. "Just imagine the taste of home-grown tomatoes and corn, carrots and sweet peas; man, your taste-buds will think they've died and gone to heaven."

Jim raised a curious eyebrow. "Why? You already get most of our fruits and vegetables from the farmer's market, and you know which ones grow their stuff organically, or at least pesticide-free. You've demonstrated that food picked when ripe is far superior to the stuff that's picked early and allowed to ripen during shipment; my taste-buds and I thank you. But what difference will it make if they do the work, or you do?"

"Well..." Blair gazed around the room with unfocused eyes; his expression suggested he was seeing confinement instead of a comfortable, open living-space. "You're probably right that I won't notice a difference; but it'll be interesting to see if you do. But mostly I just... kinda miss it," he finished quietly.

"Miss what?"

"That connection with the Earth, man. There's something... elemental... about getting your hands in the dirt and nursing the seedlings to healthy crops, and protecting them from disease and predators, even if the 'predators' are just bugs and birds. Problems in a garden are a lot more straightforward and easier to solve than problems in a classroom -- or the PD."

Jim was mildly interested. "You sound like you're talking from experience, Chief. So, what -- you helped the women in the fields when you went on anthropological expeditions? I would've thought you'd be taking notes from the tribal elders."

Blair straightened, his brow furrowed in a slight frown, and lips pinched in apparent disapproval. He steepled his fingers almost prissily as he proclaimed in a monotonous half-whine, "'Every anthropologist should be a multi-faceted individual with a broadly inquiring mind; equally adept at speaking with, and gaining knowledge from, all members of a tribe, men, women, and children. Do not allow yourselves the preconceived ideas that one group or another has nothing of value to offer. An anthropologist who has neglected one segment of the tribal population has cheated himself as well as the subjects he studies, and leaves gaps in our accrued knowledge of the world and its peoples'."

In the face of Jim's expression -- composed equally of appalled dismay mixed with a sad certainty that his friend had finally slipped a cog -- Blair collapsed backward into the cushions, laughing heartily. "Sorry, Jim; if you could see your face..." He chuckled again, then explained, "That was Professor Gene Cordell, one of the most boring speakers I've ever studied under. But he did have some solid information, and I did pay attention. Surprisingly enough, it's not that difficult to work with the women in the morning, play with the children in the afternoon, and listen to the stories of the hunters or the elders in the evening; I think Professor Cordell would be proud of me, don't you?"

"That depends; were you graded on your obfuscation skills, or is that something you picked up on your own?"

"Hey, don't knock it; there are times when obfuscation is an important anthropological survival tool." Blair winked broadly, amid continuing snickers. "But I really did pay attention to 'women's work' -- it's interesting to see the similarities and differences in customs of cooking or gardening or whatever. That was later, though; I learned most of my gardening skills from Uncle Buck when I was twelve. At first it was discipline, and I hated it. Uncle Buck had a hoe that he named 'Old Guss', and it was the bane of my existence. Later, though, I really got into it, and when I bit into the first tomato that came off 'my' vine -- well, it was pure magic. Working in a garden is as good as meditation -- and you get something for it, besides. And the brothers at Saint Sebastian's have a large garden; I helped out there when I visited. For me, it's like... getting back to my roots." Jim snorted, and Blair shrugged. "No pun intended, man."

"Well, you certainly don't need my permission. If you think you can fit it in between school and the PD and the sentinel stuff, have at it. Just be sure you don't bite off more than you can chew." Jim retired discreetly behind his newspaper.

Blair groaned theatrically. "Oh, man, you've been waiting for that, haven't you? But I guarantee, you'll eat your words before the summer's over." He ducked the tossed pillow, caught it and threw it back, and went back to his own reading.

Ten minutes passed, and then Blair straightened and slapped himself -- gently -- upside the head. "Compost!" he exclaimed.

"Sandburg, you come home smelling like compost, and you're sleeping on the roof," Jim said, without looking up.

"Hey, I'm not that fond of the smell, myself; I'll have to make sure I handle it last, and stop somewhere -- the gym, maybe -- to shower and change afterward. But properly-managed compost only has to be turned every ten days or so, and that's only if you're in a hurry, but of course I am, kind of. If I start now, it'll probably be ready by the middle of May. And there's nothing better to enrich your garden soil than good compost. Do you suppose one of the dairies will deliver some manure? I'll only need a cubic yard or so; a bin bigger than three foot square is just--"

"Tell you what, Sandburg," Jim interrupted. "You refrain from inflicting me with the nitty-gritty details, and I'll refrain from saying 'I told you so' if your garden grows nothing more than a few weeds."

"Ha!" Blair retorted. "More like, I won't hit you with 'I told you so' when you're reaching for your third ear of grilled sweet corn and you bite into it with butter dripping down your chin."

"Loser cooks for the winner for a week -- takeout not allowed?"


Jim turned to the sports section while Blair grabbed paper and pen and started to plan the perfect garden. Tomatoes, of course, and sweet corn. Zucchini; he knew some killer recipes. Carrots and maybe sweet peppers. Squash? Couldn't hurt. Maybe...

"Hey, Jim, green beans or sweet peas?"


Blair scribbled a few more lines, then carried his notes to the computer. Hooray for the Internet; he wouldn't have to wait for seed catalogues to be delivered.

A few moments later, Blair stared at the computer screen. Who knew? Forty varieties of tomatoes? Nineteen of squash, twenty-six of carrots? And this was only from one catalog! How the hell was he supposed to choose?

Obviously, he'd have to visit a few of the local garden centers, and talk to people more knowledgeable than himself. But a little prior research would help him understand the suggestions, and allow him to discuss the pros and cons of different varieties. Blair reached for his pen, and soon had several pages of notes. This was gonna be so cool!

Early April

The day had started out mild, with warm sunlight suggesting that Spring had finally arrived, despite the forecast of storms tomorrow. Blair had left early, face split by an eager smile. "Leave my share of the chores and I'll do them tomorrow. Can't waste a day like this; gotta make hay -- or a garden -- when the sun shines. Besides, we've got a communal planning meeting scheduled; Saturday is the best day to get everyone together at once. Well, most of us, anyway. See ya' later, man." He was out the door like a gusty April breeze, swirling quickly and gone.

Jim finished a leisurely breakfast, then decided to clean all the kitchen cabinets; no reason he couldn't get an early start on Spring cleaning. With that out of the way, he and Sandburg might have time to wax the floors tomorrow. He put on a Santana CD and cranked up the volume; some music was best appreciated when it filled the room, despite sentinel senses.

By three, he was aware that the promised storm wouldn't wait till tomorrow to hit. Dark clouds were hanging low while the wind whistled viciously through the streets, and the temperature had dropped fourteen degrees. Jim built a fire and soon had it burning strongly; by the time Blair got home, his perpetually-cold friend would want all the warmth he could get.

The leading edge of rain was hitting the balcony windows when Blair blew in as precipitously as he had left, laughing and shaking the drops from his hair. "Ooo-WHEE! How changeable can the weather get, anyway? Still, April showers bring May flowers, and I don't suppose it matters whether they're on a rosebush or a tomato vine." He hung up his coat, toed off his wet, muddy sneakers onto the newspaper that Jim had spread under the coathooks, and headed into the kitchen. "After all that, I need a beer. How about you?"

"I'm good," Jim replied, lifting the half-full bottle by his elbow and relaxing into his book now that Blair was home safe.

"Oh, right, right; I didn't notice." Blair carried his beer into the living room, where he sank cross-legged to the floor with his back to the fire, almost close enough to singe his flannel. "Man, you are a prince!" he declared. "The past couple of hours reminded me of the reasons I don't want to be farmer; if gardening is more than a hobby, there's too many times you have to suck it up and keep working in the bad weather, regardless." He scooted a half-inch closer to the delightful heat.

"You're welcome." Jim hid his smirk; Blair was soaking up the warmth like a big cat. But maybe wolves also liked to bask when they weren't hunting. "So, did you have a good -- as in productive -- day?"

"Oh, man, it was stupendous! Everyone was there except for Big Al and Susanna, and they'd already told us what they wanted. So we got everything planned and staked out. It's gonna be so cool -- a real community effort, instead of each family separate." Blair set aside his beer and scrambled to his feet, hurrying toward his bedroom. "In fact, I need to make notes; there'll be a great paper in this by the time we finish."

He returned with a spiral notebook, grabbed his beer, and plopped on the couch. Balancing the notebook on his knee, Blair started sketching as he explained the proposed garden. "Okay, you know that block on Lavaliere, between thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth, with 'Big Ben's Carpet Warehouse' store on one end and the 'Rama-Dama Hardware and Lumberyard' on the other? That's our north boundary; the vacant lot is south of those walls. And the best thing is, all the buildings around the other sides are three stories or less, and except for those two big stores, everything is across the relevant street, which means plenty of sun can reach the ground. It's a great spot, and pretty central in that community; we couldn't ask for better."

"Sandburg, that's not the safest part of town," Jim objected, "and it's over ten miles away."

"That's why Henry Ford invented cars," Blair replied, still drawing on the page. "And people live there permanently, some of them right across the street; I think I can spend a few hours a week without risking life and limb. Okay, look. We've divided the area into four major parts, separated by paths through the middle -- north-south and east-west -- and with a path going around the outside perimeter. Then each big area is divided into eight sections, laid out four wide and two deep. So all of the plots meet a path on the short end -- no traipsing through someone else's plot to reach your own -- and half of them have another path on the long side. Those are for the folks who have mobility difficulties; hopefully, they can go more directly to the plants they need to tend, with less walking."

"'Mobility difficulties'? What, you have grannies with walkers trying to garden?" Jim's voice was challenging in his disbelief.

Blair shook his head in disgust. "Join the real world, man; gardening is highly recommended for the elderly, or someone with arthritis. It gets them out in the fresh air, it's gentle, low-impact exercise, and it gives them other people to socialize with. One of the salespeople at Rama-Dama -- Cindy -- is working a plot, and she's convinced management to donate a couple of those low, wheeled gardening seats, so everyone will be able to maneuver easily. And then there's Susanna and Caleb, who are both wheelchair-bound, so we're building a couple of raised beds right here." He used his finger to indicate the stretch of land next to the carpet and lumber stores. "First we'll put plastic over them to make cold-frames, so we can get an early start with tomatoes and peppers. When they're all transplanted to the garden proper, the plastic comes off and Caleb and Susanna can put in their main crops."

Jim was fascinated in spite of himself; the planning seemed almost as detailed as a military maneuver. "What's this block right in the middle? And that little square between the raised beds?"

"The big one in the middle is compost; we decided to make two bins, back-to-back. With that location, no one has to walk too far to get a load and take it back to their plot. The soil isn't in great shape; we'll all need to use the compost -- which, by the way, is already starting to look composty." Blair's voice was decidedly smug. "The one against the back wall is the tool-shed; we figured it'd be easier to lock them up at night instead of carrying rakes, hoes, and spades back and forth when we want to work. Everybody has a key to the padlock."

Jim snorted his disgust. "I give it two nights before some hopped-up meth-head who needs a fix breaks in to hock your tools for his next score. You'll spend more in replacing tools than you'll save in growing your own vegetables."

"Maybe," Blair acknowledged. "We talked it over and decided we're willing to risk it. We're banking on community feeling; about three-fourths of the adults are bringing their kids into it, getting them involved, and a bunch of those are teenagers. Hopefully, if they have a feeling of 'ownership', they won't let -- or help -- their buds steal anything. And like I said, several of the families live right across the street; they'll be able to keep an unofficial eye on things." He shrugged, and continued putting the finishing touches on his sketch. "If we're wrong, and someone does steal them, then we'll keep the replacements at home. But people generally live up to -- or down to -- what others expect of them, so we're just expecting them to be honorable."

"I think you're heading for a fall, Sandburg, but I admire your principles. I just hope that won't be another 'I told you so'." Jim lifted his neglected book and located the paragraph where he'd stopped reading.

"Jim, I know being a cop affects your world-view, but you could try being a little more open-minded. I'll be the one saying, 'I told you so'." Blair ignored his friend's dismissive grunt, and pulled his laptop out of his backpack. He started a new document, then sipped his beer as he considered a working title. Okay. 'Social Interactions Within the Paradigm of Community Gardening.' Yeah, that sounded suitably intellectual. He started typing.

Late April

"So, how goes the garden, Sandburg?" Jim asked casually. Not that he really cared, of course, but listening to the kid rattle on would help while away the tedium of this stakeout.

Blair's smile flashed brightly, even in the dimness of the cab. "Oh, man, better than I even expected! Next weekend we'll be putting in most of the seeds, and the weekend after we plan to transplant the tomatoes and peppers from the cold frames into the main garden. It's coming together just great!"

Jim snorted. "Most people wouldn't give the accolade 'great' until they started eating what they'd grown, but you don't even have any seeds in the ground. I think your definition needs work."

"That outlook is too narrow," Blair insisted. "If this was an experiment in community social interaction, we'd already have an A-plus. The kids have been staying after school to use the Internet, or going to the library to do research in organic gardening and pest management; they have all sorts of plans for getting the best growth possible from every square foot. And the adults -- everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, you know? Pete has a friend who's a farmer; on Friday he's coming with his tractor to spread the compost around. He'll use the harrow to work it into the soil, so we're spared the backbreaking work of doing it by hand. And Concetta knows one of the grooms at the riding stables out near the country club; after the seeds sprout, he'll bring a couple of pickup loads of used bedding straw so we can have a good mulch."

"I'm impressed, Chief," Jim admitted. "Do I detect your fine hand in persuading everyone to work as a team?"

Blair shrugged a shoulder and shook his head with a half-grin. "Not really. I've made a few suggestions to point them in a couple of directions they might not have thought of, but then they pick up the ball and run with it. I don't want to be the stuffed-shirt professor who just gives orders so everyone will do things his way, you know? I want everyone to be able to look back and know they did it themselves -- and they'll be able to do it again next year, and the next, and the next, no matter who's in the group, or who gets too busy to show up and help." He chuckled and winked. "Of course, that doesn't keep me from telling stories about methods used by the indigenous people in various parts of the world, that can be so easily adapted to our garden."

"Oh, yeah? Like what?"

"Like -- we can plant potatoes along with the corn. The potatoes grow deeper than the roots of the corn, and the top growth chokes out the weeds between the rows of corn. Since potatoes aren't dug up until after the corn has been eaten, we can get two vegetables from one patch of ground.

"Or like -- fish heads and guts make great fertilizer. We'll go to the fresh-fish market down by the docks, and bring back a couple of baskets of their trimmings; just drop in a bit of gooiness before you drop in the seeds."

"This 'we' better not include me, Sandburg," Jim growled. "And don't even think about asking to borrow the truck."

Blair threw him an exasperated look. "Like I wouldn't know what you'd say before I even asked. Not that I want that stuff in my car, either, even though it'll be fresh. I figure I'll set it on the trunk lid, tie it down real good, and just drive slow."

"Sounds like you really have it all planned out," Jim said, more intrigued than he wanted to be. He kept his eyes on the suspect house, trusting Blair to use the comment and keep running with it.

"Oh, yeah! Susanna -- I told you about her, in the wheelchair? -- she knows more about organic gardening than all the rest of us put together. We're planting dill next to all the tomato plants; it'll attract the tomato hornworms, and they'll be easy to pick off and squash. And everyone who drinks beer is donating one can or bottle." He waited expectantly; the question just had to come.

Jim didn't disappoint. "Let me guess. You pour it around the cucumbers and anyone who eats them gets pickled."

Blair chuckled. "That might be an interesting taste experiment. But if you set out beer in shallow bowls, it attracts slugs and they'll drown."

"Sounds like a waste of good beer."

"Not when you consider the damage they do," Blair argued. "A couple of cans of beer is a small price to pay for unchewed-on veggies."

Jim lifted a hand for quiet, head tipped to one side. "Hold on, Chief; I hear a car starting, and I think it's his."

A moment later, the garage door was eased carefully upward, with as little noise as possible. The blue Mustang backed cautiously into the street, then drove off slowly, running without lights. Jim let it get a block ahead, then eased the truck forward to follow.

Blair picked up the mic. "Shall I call it in?"

"Advise them that we're in slow pursuit up Connelly, but to wait until we call for backup. We want this guy to lead us to the source; can't take a chance on him running if he sees something suspicious."

In the subsequent successful capture, the question of beer and vegetable gardens was shelved until later -- or, for all Jim cared, till never.

Early June

Jim dragged himself wearily up the stairs. It was ridiculous how beat he felt, just from spending a day in court. He didn't feel like doing a thing. Maybe he could get Sandburg to order a pizza, then put a slice in his mouth for him. But Jim didn't know if even that was worth it; he'd still have to do his own chewing.

When he opened the door, he was struck by the light scent, kind of spicy but earthy. "Sandburg, what gives?" he demanded.

Blair saved the document on his laptop and pushed back his chair. "Hey, Jim, glad you're home!" He smiled at his partner and hurried into the kitchen. "I've got a treat for us tonight. Some of the early tomatoes and peppers are ripe already, so I've made green tomato soup with ham. Plenty of ham; I won't force you to eat a meatless meal," he added with a wink. "You go wash up, and I'll start grilling the cheese sandwiches to go with it."

Jim was too tired to argue, but once the bowl was in front of him, he stared doubtfully at the contents. "Green tomato soup? I thought you said they were ripe."

"We planted different varieties, so we'd have them ripening all summer long. I picked some ripe and some green; the recipe uses both. And don't give me that face."

"What face?"

"The face that says, 'I do not like green eggs and ham'. After all his fussing, that guy discovered he liked it after all. So save the complaints and give it a try; at least one bite won't kill you."

"Such reassurance," Jim muttered, but he swallowed a spoonful under Blair's watchful eye. Hmmm... interesting. He lifted another spoonful. Different... but not actually bad. He dipped his spoon again. And -- he picked up a golden-brown triangle -- it went real well with the cheese sandwich.

"That was good, Sandburg; thanks," Jim said when there was nothing left but crumbs on the plate and dregs in the bowl. It was amazing how much better he felt after a good meal; still tired, of course, but no longer at the 'rode hard and put up wet' end of the spectrum. "Think you can make it again some time?"

Blair chuckled, and waved a hand toward the large pot on the stove. "It's soup, man! Nobody makes enough for only one meal. We can save some in the fridge for later this week, and freeze the rest for the nights we're too late or tired to cook. But, yes, I can always make more -- one thing we'll have plenty of this summer is tomatoes."

"How?" Jim asked. "I mean, if you have so many varieties of tomatoes that you'll have some all summer, how did you have space to plant anything else?"

"I told you we were making a community garden, instead of each family acting alone." Blair shrugged easily. "You know, the output from just a couple of tomato or squash vines can feed six or eight families. So we planned it all out. Like, six of us are growing early tomatoes, six growing mid-season, and six have planted late-season varieties. Whatever's ripe, we all take home what we want or need, and if anything's left after that, we share it in the neighborhood. We kind of put in our orders -- what everyone wants more of or less of -- and planted accordingly, from corn to zucchini. It's working so well that Caleb and Miriam are already talking about doing the same thing next year, and getting more people involved." Blair rose and started carrying the dishes to the sink.

"Sounds suspiciously like Communism, Chief."

"Big surprise -- it is a form of communism. 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need'," Blair quoted. "The thing is, communism can work -- if the group is small, and everyone can see who pulls his weight and who doesn't. It's when you get past the 'neighborhood' level that it falls apart. As soon as things are complicated enough that you need supervision and leaders and people who know other people only as names instead of individuals, that's when some of them start working the system to their advantage -- which automatically disadvantages everyone else." He pulled down some freezer-savers from the cupboard, and began to pour the leftover soup into them.

Jim watched thoughtfully. "So, it doesn't matter what you're actually tending; you can have part of anything in the garden?"

"Pretty much," Blair said cheerfully. "Some things I didn't request -- never did cotton to broccoli, and I figure jalapenos would be too hot for you, no matter how little I used."

"Think you could bring home a couple or three good-sized green tomatoes for the weekend?"

"Not a problem," Blair assured him. "Why d'you want 'em?"

"Sally used to make fried green tomatoes; she got the recipe from Mrs. Delaney down the street."

"Raised in the South?" Blair guessed.

"Oh, yeah; her accent was pure cornpone. But fried green tomatoes were a real treat when I was a kid, and it's been a long time since I had any. Might have 'em with pork chops for dinner on Saturday."

"Sounds good, man. I'll pick some up Friday afternoon."

Mid July

Henri studied his cards while he dipped a tortilla chip in the garden salsa spooned onto his plate. "This stuff is damn good, Hairboy," he said, crunching happily. "What all's in it?"

"Oh, some tomatoes, green pepper and onions, mixed with a little bit of olives, basil and parsley -- and all from our garden," Blair boasted, grandly buffing his fingernails on his shirt. "Well, except for the olives." He discarded a card and nodded to Simon -- the dealer for this round -- who passed him another one.

"Nothing fermented or moldy this time?" Joel asked slyly.

Blair chuckled. "Not unless you force me. Fair warning; if I lose, someone else will pay the price."

"I like this pineapple-and-zucchini bread," Rafe said, cutting himself another piece. "Who would've thought they'd go together so well?"

"Nothing surprises me anymore," Jim said. "The kid had me eating carrot pancakes this morning -- and liking them."

"Well, I'm surprised," Simon rumbled. "I thought gardening would leave him too little time to fall into trouble." He stared meaningfully at the butterfly bandaids that closed the two-inch cut on Blair's forehead. "I know you're talented, Sandburg; couldn't you use a little of that talent to stay out of trouble?"

"Hey, it's not my fault the guy couldn't look where he was running!" Blair protested. "I was just walking with Sandra in the park and then boom! At least it slowed him up enough for the uniforms to catch him."

Jim shook his head. "Forget it, Simon. Talking won't help. I'm ordering complete protective gear for him -- shin- and knee-pads, elbow pads, helmet with faceguard, kevlar vest, the works. Maybe then we can cut the injuries down to once a quarter." He pushed two chips into the middle of the table. "I'm in."

"Says the man known to every EMT in the city," Blair retorted. "I hear they have laminated 'Jim Ellison Identification' cards so all the newbies will know who you are." He tossed his own chips onto Jim's. "Yeah, me too."

Gardening and casualties were forgotten as the group settled down to the serious business of poker.

Early September

"Hey, Jim, take a gander; tell me what you think." Blair handed him a sheet of paper, still warm from the printer. Jim closed the case file folder he'd brought from work, and acceded to his partner's request. Blair stood anxiously in front of him as he read:


We're having a big Harvest Picnic
and a Celebration of Life.
We'd like you to join our festivities.
Good food, good friends, and a few games.

Date: Saturday, September 21st, 1996
Time: 11 AM - dusk
Place: The Rama-Ben Community Garden
from Lavaliere to Sunderson, between 38th and 39th

The garden and its members will provide
a variety of hot and cold vegetable dishes.
Bring your own meat and drink.

For more information, call
Caleb Winters @ 555-3709
Concetta Garcia @ 555-2693

"So, how's it look? Do we need to put anything else in the invitation? Do you think people will come?"

"Who?" Jim asked. Sandburg usually ran ideas past him first, but this had come out of the blue. What was going on?

Blair was bouncing -- in excitement? In nervousness? "Everyone, of course! Friends and family, but we're going to invite the people in the area who didn't participate. And I want to invite the guys in Major Crime, and some of the other people from the PD. Maybe even pass the flyers around the precinct that covers that area -- the Thirty-Third, isn't it?"


"Well, jeeze, Jim -- citizens and police at the same party; it's bound to improve relations between the groups. Especially since it's kind of a spontaneous idea from the people themselves, instead of an official 'mixer' dictated by any kind of authority."

"No, I mean -- Labor Day was just three days ago. Why didn't you have your party then?" Jim felt as if he had missed a step, somewhere. "Whoever heard of an equinox celebration?"

Blair snorted. "Oh, the Celts, the Romans, the Saxons, the Druids, the Mayans, various Native American tribes... shall I go on? The equinoxes and solstices have been recognized by cultures around the world for thousands of years, and people have celebrated them all in various ways. The Fall Equinox celebrated the successful harvest, with its assurance that life would continue through the cold winter. The cycle of seasons was meaningful, and important. Stonehenge was aligned so that the solstices and equinoxes could be accurately determined. This is big stuff, man."

"Okay, but what makes it better to celebrate this instead of, say, the next full moon? And will you light somewhere? I'm not going to take your toys away."

Blair perched on the arm of the yellow chair, hands flying as he tried to express his enthusiasm. "Not better, just -- it's just a spontaneous upwelling of feeling, probably elicited by some primitive instinctual response. A good harvest is like a sign of good fortune for the coming year, and even the heavens are aligned -- equal light and equal dark -- to show their approval. Since it's common to almost all times and cultures, it must be practically hard-wired into the human psyche." He paused, looking thoughtful. "I should add that to my paper -- or maybe start another one. I could compare and contrast the activities used to celebrate the Autumn Equinox across the different cultures and eras." He bounced up as if to start immediately, but Jim interrupted.

"Hold it, Darwin; let's finish this first. There's going to be a party." Blair nodded. "Hosted by...?"

"Every single person who was part of our gardening project! And we're all bringing a couple of big pans of our best vegetable dish, to share with each other and all our guests."

"And those who bring meat, or something else that needs to be served hot will cook it on...?"

"Everyone who has a grill will bring it around ten, and get the charcoal started. I can take ours, right?"

Jim merely waved a hand in permission. "And plates, cups, ice, utensils?"

"Delegated, man. What, you think I have to do everything? The ladies of the community are taking care of that part of it."

A broad smile crossed Blair's face. "I've got it all planned. I have a killer recipe for a vegetable lasagna, and a tomato-and-zucchini fettuccini. I'm thinking about a ham-and-tomato quiche, too, but I'll have to figure out the logistics. Do you suppose if we cook it here, it can be heated up again on a grill? Maybe I should make it one night, and save it, and try heating it on the grill the next night. What meat should we bring? Pork chops are good, but they can be hard to cut on a paper plate with a plastic knife, but hamburgers are so ordinary. Maybe --"

"Fish," Jim said abruptly. "We'll go down to the docks and get some really fresh fillets. There's nothing like green tomato relish on fried or grilled fish; Mrs. Delaney taught Sally how to make it, and I used to watch. I'll make a big batch."

"Oh, yum!" Blair's enthusiasm was reaching Olympic heights. "And Susanna's bringing scalloped tomatoes, Caleb's bringing summer squash stuffed with pepperoni, and Cindy's talking about a really great zucchini dish she makes. She cuts it down the middle, cooks it, then mixes the insides with onion, tomato, Italian pork sausage, and croutons. She puts everything back in the rind, then puts it back on the grill. Right before it's finished, she sprinkles it with Mozzarella and waits till it melts before serving. I can't wait to wrap my taste buds around that."

Jim smiled tolerantly and reached for the discarded file folder. "Well, it sounds like you have your end planned out, and I don't have to do anything right now. Next time you go to the garden, bring back half a dozen big green tomatoes, and I'll make the relish; it tastes better if it's been allowed to sit for a week or two." He turned his attention back to the case file while Blair booted up his laptop, muttering to himself. "Recipes. Bet I can find a bunch on the net. We still have lots of carrots, and all those potatoes..."

Saturday, September 21

They couldn't have had a better day for an outdoor shindig if they'd ordered it, Blair thought. The sun shone from a cloudless sky, mild breezes kept the temperature moderate, and the former garden looked good as an outdoor community festival center. Several of the girls had asked that the dried cornstalks be saved after all the ears had been picked. Those stalks were now tied in a giant, teepee-like sheaf in the middle of the grounds, with a circle of squash and zucchini around the base; they'd light it at dusk, to form a giant bonfire that would signify the end of the festivities. The officers from the Thirty-Third had showed up with bunches of helium-filled balloons, which were now tied to the assortment of folding chairs and lawn chairs that people had brought; the brightly-colored globes bobbed gaily in the air currents, unable to escape their tethers.

In one empty garden plot, Joel -- Joel? Who would've thought? -- had gathered a group of teens for a game of horseshoes. In another, the group around Big Al was laughing uproariously as they tackled the fine old art of bobbing for apples. A bunch of pre-teens shrieked happily as they played tag, while others kicked around a soccer ball. Over it all floated the occasional strains of music. One of the older girls had brought her boombox, and had become the de facto disc jockey for the day. Fortunately, she kept the volume to reasonable levels -- perhaps to avoid draining the batteries too soon.

More than a dozen folding tables held an assortment of food -- not only vegetable dishes, but also bread, hot rolls, and chips of various kinds, not to mention cookies, pies, and cakes. The adults -- those not playing with the children, or manning one of the many grills -- mingled and chatted easily. Blair could discern no separation between gardeners and non-gardeners, or between neighborhood dwellers and police personnel. He felt ridiculously pleased. Certainly, he had had only minor input into bringing this celebration to life, but somehow it felt like a personal vindication. If met halfway, people could -- and would -- get along, instead of breaking into splinter groups.

Another laughing shriek split the air, and Blair turned again to be sure that Jim wasn't having difficulty with his senses. Far from it; Jim was holding court -- there was no other word for it -- at the grill they'd set up, teasing the women and joking with the men as he tended the fish they'd brought, serving each portion with a generous helping of his green tomato relish. Despite the ever-changing crowd of people, the chaotic activity and the rather high noise levels, Jim seemed to be handling the input with aplomb. Maybe being outside helped, Blair speculated; sounds could escape without bouncing back from enclosing walls, and Jim's senses could anchor themselves with the natural surroundings -- even if the area was limited to only part of a city block.

Blair allocated about twenty percent of his consciousness to 'keep an eye on Jim', another twenty percent to 'observe the interactions for inclusion in my paper', and used the remaining sixty percent to simply enjoy the day. He took a turn at horseshoes, winning that round handily, then dropping out to let others have a chance to shine. On the other hand, he was no more successful at bobbing for apples than anyone else, and wondered what evil genius had invented the game.

Enough playing. The delectable smells had been enticing Blair since he and Jim had arrived; it was time to do something about filling his complaining belly. He grabbed a pair of plates and moved along the tables. The variety of dishes made choosing difficult, but he soon had both plates filled with small helpings of a wide assortment of food, in an attempt to taste everything.

Blair carried the plates to where Jim manned the grill, gave one to his partner, and accepted a perfectly-grilled fillet onto his plate, to which he added a large dollop of the green tomato relish. A raised eyebrow asked if Jim wanted to join him; a half-shrug and a grin told him that his friend planned to stay until he had cooked and served all the fish they'd brought.

Blair looked around and, spying a cluster of his fellow-gardeners, crossed to join them. Susanna and Cindy were playing with Susanna's newest granddaughter, an alert six-month-old, while they traded stories of the trials and tribulations of raising children. He joined the conversation easily, with anecdotes that demonstrated similarities and differences in child-tending practices from cultures and countries around the world.

As dusk approached, the teen disc jockey turned the music louder, and several couples began dancing. The impetus spread, and Blair smiled to see what could only be described as 'mixed couples' as teens demonstrated and taught the current dance steps to younger children, or peers of their grandparents. Jim joined Blair, sitting shoulder to shoulder with him, watching as the dancing reached an instinctive crescendo. The music ended just after the sun sank below the buildings on the west side of the street. There was an almost breathless pause as Big Al moved to a vantage point where he had a view of the horizon between buildings. The gathering waited... and waited... until Big Al shouted triumphantly, "It's down!"

Everyone cheered. Then, by prearrangement, the eldest female -- eighty-eight years old and known to everyone as 'Grandma Perkins' -- and the youngest male -- Cindy's four-year-old nephew -- approached the central display of cornstalks. Grandma Perkins used a prosaic long-barreled lighter and, with little Cory's hand over hers, they lit an outer stalk and stepped back.

The dry stalks caught quickly, and the entire sheaf was soon burning vigorously as the crowd cheered again. Jim leaned down to speak quietly to Blair. "They've taken precautions against the fire spreading, right?"

Blair nodded. "Two hoses," he gestured to them, one to each side of the blaze, "both with the water turned on. All we need to do is twist the nozzle open if we need them."

The crowd grew quiet as they watched the bonfire burn down to ashes, and then several of the teens jumped gleefully on the hoses and doused the embers until they were safely cold.

It was over. With the sun down, the air was growing decidedly chill, and the day of festivities had left all participants pleasantly tired. People chatted haphazardly as they packed up the remains of the feast, and loaded tables and chairs to carry them home. Jim lugged the grill to the truck, while Blair juggled folding chairs, thermos and one last jar of green tomato relish.

Just before they climbed into the truck, Blair look back at the now empty garden. "You know, it was a lot of work -- more than I remembered -- but it was really worth it."

"Making new friends and working with people who share your goals is always worth it, Chief. I'm glad it lived up to your expectations."

Blair dropped his burden on the kitchen island. "Okay, man, you owe me, remember?"

"What are you talking about, Chief?"

"I promised not to say 'I told you so', but you're cooking dinner for the next week -- and no takeout."

"Sandburg, this is a bet I don't mind losing, and with all the goodies you've brought home lately, finding something to cook won't be a problem. What do you say to beef-stuffed zucchini tomorrow?"

"I say, red wine or white with that?"

"We're men, Chief. Beer, of course."

"It's a date, big guy. And maybe we should start making plans for next summer."


The End

My thanks to LKY, who graciously gave me permission
to mention her beloved Uncle Buck in my story.

Author's Notes

Back to Title List

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Title: Once More Into the Breach
Summary: It seems that our boys will never manage to have an uneventful camping trip.
Style: Gen
Size: 6,835 words, about 14 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written February 2003, Revised March 2006
              Apologies to William Shakespeare for the title. But he, if anyone, should understand the strange turns that a writer's mind takes.
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-

Once More Into the Breach

by StarWatcher

"So, Jim, do you think we should put something in the kitty before we head out?"

Jim paused in signing his newly-finished stack of reports and stared at his de-facto partner. "What are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"The betting pool, man. Here we are heading out for a weekend camping trip. If we work it right, we could clean up when we get back."

"Sandburg, where's your head? If you bet on us getting hurt, and then we get hurt, they'll figure we rigged it somehow and won't pay up. And do you really want to bet on us getting hurt? Don't you think that would be like taunting fate?"

"Give me a break, Jim. I'd bet on nothing happening, both of us coming back undamaged. I mean, it's got to happen eventually -- why not bet on 'now'?"

"Because, Chief, betting against something is the surest way to make it happen. I want at least the possibility of a relaxing weekend, without worrying about the universe waiting to get back at us for making stupid bets. No, I don't want to add to the pool, and you're not going to, either."

"Oh, come on, man, that's just superstitious nonsense. The universe doesn't care if we make bets on the outcome of certain actions. There's no way that making a bet for non-excitement can cause something to go wrong this weekend."

"Then it works both ways, Chief. Making a 'bet for non-excitement' won't ensure a peaceful weekend, either."

"Jeez, Jim, I'm not expecting assurances, just looking at the odds. The law of averages says that we'll have an uneventful camping trip sooner or later; I just think it's worthwhile making a small wager that it could be this weekend."

"Will you listen to yourself, Sandburg? On the one hand you're saying that we could have a peaceful camping trip, and on the other hand you're talking like it's our destiny or something to run into trouble every time. You just can't have it both ways. No," he interrupted as Blair opened his mouth for a rebuttal. "No bets. We're going to treat this like two normal guys planning a simple weekend of fishing, because that's what we are."

Jim gathered the files and went to deliver them to his Captain. He knocked, and entered after hearing the growled, "Come!" He barely registered Sandburg slipping in behind him; it was so normal that it didn't cause a blip on his radar.

"Here are the reports, Simon. My desk is cleaned off, nothing pending, and we're out of here."

Captain Banks leaned back, chewing on his cigar, and regarded the men in front of him. "So, gentlemen. You're heading out for a weekend in the wilderness, away from big-city crime, communing with Nature, right?"

"Yes, sir," they chorused.

"And you're both going to come back whole, without even one damaged piece between you, right?"

"Yes, sir," they dutifully replied.

"And you're going to avoid any emergencies that require me -- or any of us in Major Crime -- to rush to your rescue, right?"

Blair rolled his eyes at Jim, while Jim smirked at his Captain. "Yes, sir," they assured him once again.

"And you're taking both cellphones, fully-charged, and have left your itinerary and destination notes with Rhonda, right?"

"Simon!" Blair finally protested. "We're grown men, both with extensive camping and wilderness experience. Jim spent eighteen months in the Peruvian jungle, in case it's slipped your mind, and I've been on half-a-dozen anthropology expeditions in very primitive parts of the world. Why does everyone think we can't leave town without running into trouble?"

"Simple, Sandburg. Because experience has proven that you two can't leave town without running into trouble. I don't know if it's you or Jim, or maybe the combination, but 'expect the unexpected' must have been coined with you two in mind."

"Simon, that is so unfair," Blair complained. "And you know, it just might be all the negative karma that everyone generates that precipitates the trouble in the first place. Maybe if everyone held good thoughts about us not having any problems, it would come true."

"Fine. I'll think good thoughts. In the meantime, does Rhonda have the necessary information, in case we do have to ride to the rescue?"

Jim stepped in as Blair opened his mouth for another retort. "Give it a rest, Chief. It doesn't hurt to be prepared; if the backup plans are unnecessary, we'll all be relieved. But we might just end up being grateful for them. And yes, Simon," he continued, "we've taken every possible precaution, and we expect to be back safe and whole on Monday."

"Fine. Go. Enjoy your weekend. See you Monday."

As Jim drove toward the mountains, Blair stared out the window at the dry landscape. In the past four months, the area had received barely half its normal precipitation, and now it had been a record twenty-seven days since Cascade had last seen rain. He had reveled in the warm, sunny days this summer, but now...

"Do you think the fishing will be any good?" he asked his friend. "We've had so little rain..."

"Never thought I'd hear you complaining about the lack of rain, Chief." Jim sounded amused. "But we shouldn't notice anything different; the river we're headed for is deep, and it catches runoff from the snow-melt. We will need to be extra careful with our fire, though, and make damn sure we don't let any sparks escape."

"I hear ya', man. Umm... do you think it would help if we soak the ground before we set up the campstove?"

Jim shrugged. "It shouldn't be necessary; the fire itself will be contained by the stove, and wet ground won't prevent sparks. All you'll do is create a mud puddle to interfere with getting close enough to the stove to actually use it."

Blair returned to his observations of the passing countryside, noting tinges of faded green, and wilted edges on the vegetation. Thank heaven they'd decided on the little propane stove instead of a traditional wood-burning campfire; he would never forgive himself if a bit of carelessness on his part started a forest fire.

Blair thought that he would hold this time in his memory as the quintessential definition of a 'perfect day'. He stood in knee-deep water as he waited for a passing fish, with his Cree fishing spear poised to strike. He felt the chill even through his thick waders -- Jim must be right about the river being fed by snow-melt -- but it didn't matter. The sun was warm on his head and shoulders, and a gentle breeze kept it from being too hot.

Jim was downstream of his position. "It's simple, Sandburg," he had declared. "Every time you lunge with that spear, you'll scare every fish around. Since they tend to head upstream, they'll pass my spot before they get to you. After they're past, I don't care how they react to your stomping around."

Blair watched his friend expertly flick his rod to drop the fly next to a large boulder, a likely resting place for trout. When Jim cocked his head, Blair wondered what he might be listening to. Experimentally, he paid attention to his own hearing; how many sounds could he isolate with normal senses?

The river, of course, but with several variations -- a soft lapping of wavelets along the muddy shore, a subdued gurgle as the water swirled around protruding boulders, a cheerful chuckling as it bubbled through a narrower, rocky area. Animal life, too. A squirrel chattered at the intruders from a safe distance. He heard the distinctive knocking sound of a woodpecker in search of a meal. On the other side of the river, a mourning dove called softly, almost drowned out by the harsher, strident cry of a raven.

Briefly, he wondered how much more Jim could hear with his enhanced senses. How many more voices in the river spoke to his friend? How many more animals carried on their lives out of earshot of his normal senses, but not out of Jim's? Blair decided not to ask. He'd let Jim enjoy this quiet, rejuvenating weekend without the mention of even a hint of tests. The sentinel could relax and stand down for a while, and his guide along with him.

"Heads-up, Sandburg! A big one's coming your way!"

Jim's urgent call pulled him from his reverie. He scanned ahead carefully, and located the silvery shadow approaching. Yes... It was going to pass right by his leg. He shifted the spear's position minutely and... YES! Score one for 'primitive' methods. He'd caught the first fish -- a good four-pounder at least, he judged as he lifted it on the spear.

"So, Jim, are you going to help provide our evening meal, or are you going to leave it all to me?" Blair aimed a broad grin at his friend.

"Just wait Sandburg; we'll see who laughs last. Whoever catches the fewest fish has to do the cooking." The threatening growl didn't hide the twinkle of his eye, or the twitch of his lips; Jim was every bit as relaxed as Blair had hoped he would be.

With the shadows lengthening across the water, they decided that it was time to quit fishing and start cooking. After catching another fish, Blair had spent the rest of the afternoon lying in the sun while reading the latest Clive Cussler thriller and watching Jim's expertise with the delicate flies on the end of the gossamer line. Jim eventually caught eight fish -- one worthy of
a 'Simon, eat your heart out' picture, that Blair carefully captured -- but released all except two modest-sized trout for dinner.

While Jim fired up the stove, Blair prepared their dinner as he'd once promised Jim and Simon on an earlier trip. He used a deft hand with the herbs and garlic, keeping sentinel senses in mind, and moistened the maple leaves that he wrapped the fish in, to prevent scorching. The result was delicious -- the perfectly-seasoned fish flaked easily, and the leafy wrapping imparted a subtle, 'woodsy' undertone that highlighted the taste of the trout. Both men happily gorged themselves, then spent a peaceful evening under the moon and stars, sipping their beer as the camping lantern hissed quietly in the background.

Conversation was sparse, interspersed with long silences. They were comfortable and relaxed, each sipping a beer and simply enjoying each other's company and the whole 'weekend communing with nature' situation. Several times, Blair stifled idle comments unspoken; even he felt that the peaceful quiet should be savored, and none of his observations were so important or unusual that they couldn't be saved for another time. Eventually, still with a minimum of conversation, they crawled into their sleeping bags, falling asleep within minutes.

The following morning, Blair used a rod instead of his spear; they didn't need to keep any more fish, and he couldn't very well catch-and-release one if it had a spear-hole through its body. The day was a repeat of the one before, right down to the squirrel chattering from a nearby tree. Blair was supremely content. He realized that he'd become bored if every day were like this one, but decided that it would probably take a month or two.

Jim had already caught -- and released -- two fine trout, and Blair had caught a small catfish, when Jim stilled. "Chief, did you hear that?"

Blair looked around. "Birds and squirrels is all, man. Why, what did you hear?"

"A gunshot, but not close; several miles away at least." He relaxed, with an obvious 'standing-down' of his alertness. "I don't think the shooter will come close enough to bother us."

A frown marred Blair's face. "But what would he be shooting at? Hunting season's still three months away. Do you think we should investigate?"

"There's no season on pest animals, like rabbits, squirrels or skunks," Jim pointed out. "More than likely, it's a farmer disposing of a rabbit in his garden; the shooter is using a small caliber, like a twenty-two. Not the sort of weapon carried by your typical mobster or escaping con." He winked broadly, then went back to eyeing the water for a likely spot to drop his fly.

Blair carefully cast his own fly in a quiet spot; if Jim wasn't worried, neither was he. He let the peace of the day seep into his psyche once again.

Less than ten minutes later, Jim visibly tensed and froze, head cocked slightly to the side. Recognizing the stance, Blair hastily reeled in his line and waded over to support his friend.

"Jim? What's up, man?"

"I hear a running horse, Chief -- very fast, not a controlled gallop -- and there are no riding trails around here. The nearest town is about ten miles away."

"Can you tell how far it is?"

"I'm not sure; the trees muffle and distort the sound. It does seem to be coming this way though, if it doesn't change direction."

The question became moot as a wild-eyed horse, its hair darkened with sweat, bolted out of the trees. It plunged into the water without slowing, close to the men but ignoring them completely as it continued its urgent run. There seemed no chance to catch it, until it stumbled and fell, going completely under the water. Jim moved toward the animal when it went down; as the horse scrambled to its feet, he eased forward and caught a broken, trailing rein, uttering nonsensical platitudes in a soothing voice. The animal squealed and half-reared, but was too tired to continue the protest. It submitted to the coaxing, comforting tones of the man, perhaps expecting that a human could fix its troubles. It stood with wide-spread legs and heaving sides, ignoring the human while it keep a lookout for danger, head raised and nostrils snorting its uneasiness.

"Easy, fella, easy," Jim murmured as he stroked the tense neck, "You're okay now; easy." In a few moments, the horse had relaxed enough that he could lead it to dry ground while Blair retrieved his friend's dropped fishing rod and followed. Once out of the water, they quickly shed their waders and turned their attention back to the horse.

"What d'ya think, Jim, someone in trouble?"

"I think it's likely, Chief." Jim was examining the horse, stroking and soothing it as he evaluated the evidence. "This saddle has been scraped, probably against a tree. If it happened while the rider was up, she could be badly hurt."

"She? How do you know that?"

"Look at the length of the stirrups, Sandburg. The rider has short legs -- either a small woman or a young teenager. And..." he took a deep breath to confirm it, "...I smell perfume clinging to the mane and saddle. Ergo, a small female, age undetermined."

"What do you think happened?" Blair was watching the horse's reactions as Jim worked with -- he took a quick glance underneath -- her. The speed with which she had calmed down indicated a mellow personality, although part of that could be due to weariness. "Is there anything to tell you what might have spooked her?"

"Yeah, take a look. See here -- the river washed most of it off, but there's blood on her hip. It's a bullet wound; she was shot. It's a small hole -- maybe that twenty-two I heard earlier -- but something like that would scare a horse enough and hurt enough to cause it to bolt. The pain of running with the wound would probably act as a goad to keep her from stopping. The question now is, where is the rider and what shape is she in?"

"So, we call in Search and Rescue?"

"And tell them what, Sandburg? We have no idea where this horse started out."

"Hey, man, you used to ride. How far could a horse like this have run before it was too tired to keep it up?"

Jim stepped back and evaluated the situation dispassionately. "Well, she looks like a Thoroughbred, built for speed but not necessarily long stretches of stamina, and the weight of the western saddle would slow her up a bit. On the other hand, she'd keep trying to run away from the sting of that bullet wound. Hell, with nothing to stop her, she could have run all the way from that town ten miles away. For all we know, the rider was dumped in the stable yard and has already been taken to the hospital if she needed it. We'll just have to go find out. How are your tracking skills, Chief? Did you learn anything on those expeditions to 'primitive parts of the world'?"

"Well, I know the theory, of course, and have some basic skills, but I spent most of my time talking to the tribal elders and the women. Many times, they're the real keepers of the culture. I went on a few actual hunting trips, but... Oh, come on, man; you're pulling my leg! You hunted with the Chopec; you know all about this stuff, right?"

"Yeah, Sandburg; just gotta keep you on your toes. Let's get ready; we're probably in for a long hike."

They stripped the saddle and bridle off the horse; she would have to fend for herself until someone could come to lead her home. "What about these, Jim? Should we leave them on, or take them off?" Blair stared at what appeared to be rubber booties on the horse's hooves, crisscrossed in front by thin wire cables, with a big silver latch-thing holding it all together. "And are you sure we shouldn't tie her to something?"

Jim shrugged. "Whatever they are, it doesn't look like she's uncomfortable wearing them, and there's nothing to get tangled and trap her if something goes wrong. Just leave them. But tying her up could be dangerous; horses have a positive genius for getting in trouble sometimes. She's tired, and she has grass and water; she won't wander too far. We don't have time to deal with it, anyway; we need to get moving."

Blair put the large first-aid kit in his backpack, along with a good supply of trail mix and several apples and oranges from their provisions. Jim rolled up his sleeping bag, and added a couple of the extra blankets that Blair always brought. When they found the victim, she might well need the added warmth until medical personnel could arrive. They made sure that both canteens were full, and that each had his cellphone in his pack. Finally, Blair left a note detailing the situation and their intentions pinned prominently to his sleeping bag. If things fell apart and they needed rescuing, the searchers would at least know where to start.

They shouldered their packs and entered the trees where the horse had emerged. The sentinel was on the hunt, and his guide would provide backup and support.

The horse's rubber-shod hooves had left minimal markings in the dry ground, the trees were spaced far enough apart to provide few obstacles to a running animal, and the mature-growth forest had little underbrush. Consequently, the signs -- a tail-hair caught in rough tree bark, a slight scuff mark on the dry forest floor, an occasional broken twig, or a sporadic drop of blood -- were insignificant and widely-spaced; without Jim's enhanced vision, they might not have been able to follow the trail. But they made steady progress until the backtrail crossed a large outcropping of solid granite. Despite his efforts, Jim could find no visible sign of the horse's passage.

"Problem here, Sandburg; even I can't track that horse over this kind of ground."

"Umm... maybe we should just go straight across and see if you can pick up the signs on the other side."

"No, we'll lose too much time. Chances are that the horse didn't run straight across; searching the perimeter to find where she came out could take hours, unless we get lucky."

"Well, let's think about it for a minute. Vision is out, hearing... hey, what about hearing? If we're close enough to the victim, and if she's calling for help, maybe you can hear her. Give it a try."

Jim took the suggestion; with his eyes closed, he extended his hearing while Blair anchored him with a hand on his arm and occasional whispered directions. Finally he released a pent-up breath and opened his eyes. "No good, Sandburg. She's either too far away, or not making any noise."

"Well, okay. Then how about... smell?"

"Smell! Sandburg, even strong perfume doesn't carry very far. If I was close enough to smell her, I'd be close enough to see her."

"Not the woman, the horse! Think about it, man; she was panic-stricken, running all out, and she was really sweaty when she got to us. I'll bet some of that sweat splattered on the ground; maybe you could pick it up. Maybe even blood-smell from where she was bleeding." Again he rested a hand on Jim's arm to provide an anchor.

Once more Jim closed his eyes. He knew the drill; carefully he sorted through the various scents. Sun-baked rock, mouse droppings, drying vegetation... there! Horse-sweat and fear-scent mingled together. "Got it, Chief; come on." He led Blair across the outcropping at a forty-five degree angle from the straight-line trajectory; it was fortunate that they hadn't tried the 'straight-across-and-search-for-signs' method.

Once again under the trees, they moved more quickly. Now that Jim had identified a scent-track, he was able to use it to augment the visual signs. Vision and scent worked together to provide an easily-followed trail. Blair bit his lip and refrained from making any comments about human bloodhounds as he followed his sentinel's lead.

Over an hour later, Jim paused and held up his hand. "Wait, Chief, I think I heard something." He cocked his head, waiting for a repetition of the sound, while Blair took the opportunity to sit -- quietly! -- on the ground to rest.

They remained silent for several minutes. Blair was starting to worry about a zoneout when Jim stirred. "Got it, Chief; three hoots on a whistle. Not very strong, but definite. At least we know she's conscious and lucid. This way." He pressed forward now at a brisker walk, apparently abandoning the sight/scent trail to home in on the whistle.

Fifteen minutes later, Blair was able to hear the whistle himself. The faint hoots were so distant that he probably wouldn't have noticed them under normal circumstances. But since he could hear it with average senses, they were probably getting close to the victim.

"Hey, Jim, even my ears can hear her now. Does that mean we're close enough for you to get a visual?"

"We might be, Sandburg, if there weren't so many trees in the way. Even sentinel vision can't see through solid objects. But we should be there in about ten minutes or so."

They found the victim sitting at the base the tree that she had probably impacted when her horse bolted. Even Blair could see the scraps of cloth from the torn shirt and the smear of blood on the rough bark. The woman had apparently tried to make herself comfortable; she was leaning against the tree trunk instead of crumpled in the dirt. However, she was obviously in pain; although she was shivering, her face was shiny with sweat, and her breath came in shallow, gasping pants. The hand that she used to raise the whistle to her lips for another signal visibly trembled.

"Take it easy, ma'am, you've been found," Jim called across the remaining distance. They drew closer, and he and Blair knelt beside her. "I'm Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department, and this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. Your horse ran into the river where we were fishing. When we saw the state she was in, and the tree-scratches on the saddle, we decided to backtrack to see if the rider needed any help."

He catalogued the woman as he spoke. She was small, as he'd surmised -- barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, he judged -- with a silvery-white ponytail hanging beneath her riding helmet. She looked to be in her mid-thirties, despite the hair color; her face was mature but not yet age-wrinkled. Old enough to be sensible and -- apparently -- relatively calm in this difficult situation.

"Oh, thank God," she sighed. "I tried my cellphone but I can't get a signal, and they don't expect me back at the stables for several hours. I thought I'd have to wait for nightfall to be rescued, unless Astra ran back to the stables, or maybe even till morning. Oh! I'm Denny -- Denise Schoonover. So very pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Well, Denny, I have some basic medical training; let's check you out," he comforted. "Sandburg, we'll need a fire until S and R can get here; how about finding us some dry wood?"

"Gotcha, Jim." He started off, then paused. "Um, Denny, can I borrow your whistle? My sense of direction isn't as bad as Jim thinks it is, but these trees all look alike. I can blow it if I can't find my way back here. Okay, Jim?" He didn't want his friend to demonstrate his enhanced senses too obviously in front of a stranger.

"Good thinking, Chief. Just try not to break anything; one patient at a time is enough."

"Funny Jim, real funny. Hang on, Denny; we'll have a fire to warm you up in no time." He emptied his backpack, placing the precious first-aid kit close to Jim, and took the empty bag to hold the smaller kindling.

Jim turned to his patient. "Okay, Denny. I'll be as gentle as I can, but I'm afraid this is going to hurt a bit. But I need to see what you've done to yourself so I can make you as comfortable as possible until we can get the medics here." Jim's voice was as professional as he could make it; victims often drew strength from the calm attitudes of their rescuers.

"I understand, Detective; do what you need to. But I take exception to your terminology. I did nothing to myself; my horse bolted, smashed me against a tree, and knocked me out of the saddle."

"Why were you riding alone?" he asked as he began his examination. Apparently she wanted to talk, perhaps to distract herself from what he was doing. "People are advised to ride with a buddy to provide help in just such circumstances as this."

"Detective, I'm neither foolish nor stupid. I know the horse -- Astra is a sensible, well-mannered animal; I trained her myself. I know the territory -- we've ridden out here dozens of times, many times alone. Today I wanted a quiet ride without any companions, but I did leave my planned route at the stables, and I brought my cellphone with me. Unfortunately --" she hissed and tensed at the slight pressure of Jim's hands exploring her injuries. In a wavering voice she continued, "Unfortunately, there are no-signal areas around here, and it was my bad fortune to be in one when I got hurt. I hoped she'd run home and my friends at the stable would know I was down, but since she didn't... I didn't plan to return until three, so I don't figure anyone will become really worried till four or four-thirty. I knew I just had to tough it out for a few hours and wait for rescue, but... I'm really glad you found me before all that."

"So, do you have any idea why your 'sensible, well-mannered animal' suddenly bolted?" Jim wondered if she was aware of being shot at, and if she could provide any eyewitness information. "And, since the circumstances are hardly formal, you might as well call me Jim."

"Well... Jim... I think we were shot at." She interpreted his raised eyebrow as disbelief. "No, I didn't see anything, but Astra jumped like something had stung her. I thought it was a bee, and then she bolted, but... things were happening so fast that I'm not certain, but... I'm pretty sure I heard a gunshot."

"You're right," he told her. "She has a small bullet-wound in her hip. Damn-fool idiot probably shot at the movement without identifying what kind of animal was making it. You're lucky you weren't hit, or even killed."

"I know." She grimaced again in pain. "But right now I don't feel very lucky. I'm entered in a jumping competition next weekend. This certainly puts paid to that. But at least... you did say that Astra's all right?"

"She's fine," he assured her while he silently marveled. What was it about women and horses? Her face and voice were tight with pain, she couldn't speak an entire sentence without gasping for shallow breaths, but she was worried about the animal and irritated about missing a jumping competition. Maybe Sandburg could explain it, but it made no sense to him. "The pellet will have to be dug out, but I don't think it's big enough or deep enough to cause permanent problems. No other injuries that I could find, and she was running soundly when we caught her.

"As for you, you have a broken collarbone and your right leg is broken below the knee, which you probably already figured. It could be worse; at least the bone hasn't pierced the skin. And it's a good thing you're wearing a helmet; it looks like your head hit the tree as well, but it prevented what could have been a nasty head injury. When Sandburg gets back, we'll get you fixed up and make you comfortable while one of us goes for help." He could hear his partner coming now, but Blair wasn't within her hearing range yet.

"Great!" she sighed. "I was hoping it wasn't all that bad. I won't complain, though, if you've got some painkillers in that first-aid kit. Could I have something before you start messing with my injuries?"

"Well, I have Tylenol Three and Lortab Ten left over from times Sandburg or I have been hurt. Also aspirin and Advil and regular Tylenol -- not as strong, of course, but a little safer. Are you allergic to codeine or acetaminophen, or are you taking any antihistamines or antidepressants?"

"Oh my; I always heard that policemen have the best drugs." When she saw Jim's frown, she hurried to apologize. "Sorry, sorry! Please, I'm feeling a little spacey; no offense -- I didn't mean to insult you. Just -- oh, God, can you give me something? I've used Tylenol Three before with no problems; that should be okay."

Jim relaxed; he, more than anyone, understood how easily thoughtless words could escape in times of stress. "No offense taken, Denny; I know you didn't mean it." He pulled a pill bottle out of the first-aid kit and shook a capsule into her hand, then held the canteen to her lips for her to drink. He noted the time with a glance at his watch; medical personnel would need the information when they treated her.

"Thank you," she murmured. "I'll just rest until your friend gets back."

"YO, JIM!" they both heard a few minutes later. "Sing out, man! Which tree are you hiding behind?"

"Over here, Sandburg! You're about two hundred yards away!"

Blair appeared through the trees, backpack bulging with small kindling-sized sticks, and arms filled with larger, heftier branches. He dropped his load next to the tree, and squatted down next to his friend. "Okay, man, I made it back with the wood -- and without using the whistle, you'll notice. So, what's next?"

"She has a broken leg, broken collarbone, and some relatively minor abrasions on her back. I've just given her some Tylenol Three; we'll build a fire while it takes effect, then splint the injuries and put her in the sleeping bag. You can watch her while I scout out a place that an ambulance or 'copter can get to."

"All right; sounds like a plan." He started to scrape away the forest debris; Jim added his efforts, and they were soon down to bare dirt. They quickly had a small fire crackling merrily, placed close enough to Denny to give her some welcomed heat. Despite the mid-afternoon sun, it was cool in the deep forest shade, and Jim had noticed the minute shivers that occasionally passed over her body.

"All right, Denny, your turn." Jim opened the first-aid kit again. "You're in luck. Sandburg and I have been through similar situations so many times that we come prepared. No jury-rigged blanket-and-stick splints for you. This handy-dandy air splint will take care of you with no fuss at all. No jostling as we wrap the leg -- we'll just slip it on and blow it up like a beach ball."

Blair glanced at Jim with fond amusement as the soothing babble continued. Ellison showed the world a cold, stern 'cop' persona that prevented most people from trying to get close to him, but he knew that the tough outer shell covered an inner core of pure mush. The tender, crooning tone in his friend's voice was proof of that -- it demonstrated a large part of Jim's character, but was used almost exclusively for children, animals, and victims.

Working together, they splinted Denise's leg, strapped her arm to her chest to relieve pressure on the collarbone, cleaned the abrasions on her back and covered them with antibiotic salve, and finally slid her into the sleeping bag. Jim was pleased. He and Sandburg made a great team; they had accomplished the entire procedure with a minimum of fuss and -- thanks to the wonders of modern pharmacology -- a minimum of pain for their victim.

"Okay, Denny, Sandburg will stay with you while I go arrange a way to get you out of here. You said you've done a lot of riding around this area. Are there any roads close enough to get an ambulance in, or a clear space for a helicopter to land?"

"Umm..." Between the medication and the relief from the stress that had been caused by pain, she was becoming groggy, but she made the effort. "The nearest road is about five miles away, just two miles north of the stables. But there's a big clearing about half a mile east of here; a fire a few years back burned the side of a small hill, and the trees haven't grown back yet. Just some wildflowers and scrubby brush. I think that area is in cellphone coverage, as well."

"Sounds promising. I'll check it out, and call for a rescue copter with paramedics aboard. We'll have you out of here in no time. Is there anyone else I should call for you before I head back?"

"Umm... Call Molly at the stables. Five-five-five, six-five, six-four. If she can ride with them... you could lead her back to Astra? And she could ride her home."

"We'll work something out. You just take it easy till I get back." He patted her hand and rose, pulling Sandburg to one side.

"Chief, it's okay to let her sleep. Just keep her covered, and the fire going. Let her have a little water if she's thirsty, but only a little -- the stress and shock could make her prone to vomiting. If it takes too long to get someone here and she's in considerable pain, you can give her another Tylenol Three -- but just one, and note the time you give it; the paramedics will need to know before they give her more meds."

"Got it, Jim. Don't worry; I'll just sit here and vege till you bring back the cavalry."

"Since this is a dead area, I won't be able to get you on the cellphone; sure you can handle things for awhile?"

"Jim, I'm perfectly capable of watching one injured woman. Just go. We still have a long hike back to camp, ya' know?"

"Right, Sandburg. See you later."

Jim and Blair watched the helicopter lift into the sky. Denny was now safely in the care of professionals; their job was almost finished. They turned toward Denny's friend, who had indeed managed to hitch a ride on the rescue flight.

"Well, Ms. Campos, are you ready for a long hike and a longer ride?" Jim asked. Privately, he thought she looked capable; she was considerably taller than her friend, and appeared to be fit and muscular. But of course, looks weren't everything...

"Please, Detective, it's Molly. And I followed your instructions -- hiking boots, new reins, and a full canteen. This won't be the first time a horse-related mishap has caused a long walk." She grinned at both men. "At least this time I'll be able to ride home."

"Then it's Jim and Blair. So let's get moving. As it is, I'm not sure you'll make it home before dark. There's a full moon tonight, but you won't get much benefit under these trees."

"Ah, but I have a secret weapon!" She patted the backpack she carried. "Denny and I had special headstalls made that hold a battery-operated miner's lamp. We've both trained our horses for night-travel with that as a light-source. I just have to keep Astra's head pointed in the right direction, so she can see where she's going. No problem at all."

Blair stared at her, the astonishment plain on his face. Jim simply shrugged and led the way. Women and horses...

Jim walked toward Major Crime on Monday morning, determined to uphold the not-quite-fiction that nothing had happened. At least, as promised, neither he nor Sandburg had been hurt and, as Simon had instructed, no one had had to 'rush to their rescue'. The effort was doomed before it got started; as he entered the door, he was faced with a large floral arrangement on his desk, and the sound of Rafe and Brown snickering.

He opened the card and read, 'No damsel in distress ever had a sweeter pair of knights in shining armor. Thank you. May the Lord bless you, and keep you safe in your job. Denny Schoonover'.

"So, Ellison, it seems that the lady is very grateful," H grinned. "Which one made a date with her -- you or Hairboy?"

"No dates, Brown. The lady was a victim in need of rescuing. We assisted in that rescue. End of story. And how the hell did you find out about it?"

Simon couldn't allow his men to have all the fun. He strolled over to deliver the 'good news'. "As Brown said, the lady is grateful, Ellison. She called me, singing your praises. She called the Chief, to tell him what great personnel the Cascade PD has. For all I know, she's taken out an ad in the newspaper. You're stuck with it, Jim -- you and Sandburg are her heroes. Just one more notch added to the Ellison-Sandburg legend."

Jim groaned. "I swear, Simon, the next time we take a weekend off, I'll find an uninhabited atoll to camp on. There's gotta be some way to have an uneventful trip."

"In your dreams, Ellison. In your dreams." Simon grinned and headed back to his office.

That afternoon, Jim paused to grab a cup of coffee from the break-room. As he headed back to the bullpen, he heard Sandburg's voice raised in protest. This was strange; his friend had specifically said that he would be spending the entire day at Ranier. He stopped in the hallway, and extended his hearing to listen in on the conversation.

"What do you mean I didn't win the pool? Jim and I are both in one piece -- not a scratch between us!"

"But Hairboy, you didn't bet on you and Jim not getting injured," Henri pointed out. "You bet on 'nothing unusual happening'. Stopping a runaway horse and rescuing its rider definitely qualifies as 'unusual' -- for anyone but you and Ellison."

"He's right, Sandy," Megan chimed in. "But look at it this way. You didn't get hurt this time. Maybe you'll start a trend and come back without injuries next time, too. You just have to be more specific about what you're betting on."

"Fat chance," Blair groaned. "We've probably used up our non-injury quota for the next five years." He sighed. "Okay, okay, I'm out of here. I don't want Jim to know I made the bet. I'll see you guys later."

Jim drew back around the corner as Blair approached the elevator; he didn't want his friend to know that he had overheard. He would bide his time, and wait for the perfect moment to rub Sandburg's nose in the failed bet. He could be patient, and he would make sure that the lesson was sweet indeed. Jim grinned evilly as he sipped his coffee and headed back into the bullpen.

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: It's About Friendship
Summary: Christmas + Friendship
Style: Gen
Size: 15,750 words, about 32 pages in MS Word
Warnings: None
Notes: Written for Secret Santa 06 -- "Would really like to see Jim do something nice for Blair, that surprises Blair, and pleases him. Happy ending, and possibly a little h/c."
I guessed the recipient -- Merry Christmas, Arianna!
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-

It's About Friendship

by StarWatcher


As soon as the after-dinner cleanup was finished, Blair pulled out his laptop and a notepad. In just a few minutes, he was busily surfing the 'Net, pausing occasionally to scribble notes on the yellow pad beside him.

Seems like the kid hits the ground running every semester, Jim thought, absurdly smug that he didn't have any 'homework' hanging over his head. All of his cases were going well, and he had only a handful unresolved; maybe all the criminals were still on summer vacation. He settled in for a quiet evening with the latest issue of Field and Stream.

An hour later, Blair closed the laptop with a quiet snap of the lid and leaned back in his chair, stretching his muscles with hands raised over his head. He rose and ambled toward the fridge. "Hey, Jim, you want a beer?"

"Sure, buddy; thanks."

Blair grabbed two bottles, tossed the caps in the trash, then snagged his notepad as he walked past the table. After handing Jim one of the beers, he settled on the opposite couch with poorly-concealed excitement.

Jim recognized the vibes; he'd seen them often enough. Blair was waiting for the 'right' moment to propose some new test or use of his senses. Might as well get it over with; otherwise, his guide might well explode from the internal pressure. "Okay, Chief, spill it. What scintillating senses assessment have you dreamed up for me now?"

"Oh, I don't want to bother you, man," Blair assured him. "It can wait until you've finished that article and you're relaxed."

"Sandburg, if you make me wait, I'll start getting unrelaxed. We have a system that works; don't knock it." Jim's eyes gleamed with amusement as he ticked off the points on his fingers. "You propose, I growl, you wheedle, I give in." He winked at the stunned expression on his friend's face. "Depending on the time or difficulty needed to implement said proposal, one of us makes concessions to the other one, and everything's hunky-dory. So propose, already, and let's get the show on the road."

Blair shook his head, his amusement matching Jim's. "Oh, man, I was going to give you extra points for 'scintillating senses assessment', but 'hunky-dory' takes them off again. I can't believe those two phrases were conceived by the same brain."

"You're stalling, Sandburg. It can't be that bad, just spit it out already."

"You're no fun," Blair griped. "Okay, short version. Would you come to the lumber store with me tomorrow, and tell me which of several types of wood is least objectionable to your enhanced senses? Shouldn't take more than half an hour or so."

Jim made a show of thoughtful consideration. "Tomorrow. Tomorrow. I was going to drive over to Olympia and pick up my winning lottery check. But I guess I can help you out. So what's the long story?"



"Well, a friend of mine suffers from pretty bad chemical sensitivity. She's managing pretty well -- relocated out of the city proper, bought non-toxic furnishings and materials for the house, and works from home so she doesn't have to go out too much. She's a really great webpage designer, and her business is taking off. But finances are kinda tight -- that non-toxic stuff is a bit pricier than conventional furnishings -- and she's pregnant; the baby's due about the middle of January."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "And what does my checking out wood have to do with all of this?"

"She's going to need baby furniture -- crib and changing table as soon as the baby's born, and a highchair a little later. There are patterns on the 'Net for do-it-yourself furniture, but her husband's not much of a handyman. So I figure I'll do it; make everything myself with non-toxic materials. I can buy enough wood for one piece each month, and have it all ready for Christmas. And you -- you, my man, will be my insurance that I'm getting the least toxic possibility of the available woods."

"Sandburg, you're not turning the loft into a workshop," Jim objected. "Between the noise and the sawdust, I'd have to arrest myself for murder within a week."

"Hey, man, I wouldn't do that to you! Besides, neither one of us has the equipment for that kind of fine woodworking. I've arranged to use the woodshop at Hardesty High, after hours and weekends. Mr. Rosenbaum -- he's the shop teacher -- has even given me an extra key, so I don't have to track him down to get in. And I promise -- I'll brush myself off real well when I'm finished in the shop, and again down in the parking lot before I come up. I mean, it's hardly kosher to save one person from exposure to toxics while I'm inflicting it on another, is it?" Blair gazed earnestly at his friend. "I swear, Jim, it won't affect you one bit."

"Except for sniffing wood tomorrow," he pointed out.

"Well, yeah...."

Jim chuckled. "Don't sweat it, Chief. It's a worthwhile project you've set yourself, even though I think the sniff test is unnecessary. I've never had any side-effects from any kind of wood that I can think of."

"But imagine your sensitivity spiked and you can't dial it down," Blair suggested. "I mean, some woods are even toxic to non-sensitive people, like yew. And did you know that just standing in the shavings from black walnut can cause a horse to founder? It's not so far-fetched to think that some folks might be sensitive to things that most of us never even notice, is it?"

"Take it easy, Junior. Just because I think you may be going overboard doesn't mean I think you're crazy; that's already been established." He grinned at Blair's amused snort. "I'm sure your friend will be grateful that you care so much for her. I'll be happy to help you get started; it's not like I'll break out in big green spots by sniffing a bit of wood." He glanced at his watch. "So now that that's settled, turn on the TV. It's time for the news."

After a morning of housecleaning, they agreed to lunch at Big Cheese Pizza. Blair's noble proclamation that it was simply pre-payment for the favor Jim was doing him blithely ignored the fact that Canadian-bacon-and-pepperoni stromboli was one of his favorite dishes.

"What happened to 'healthy', Sandburg?" Jim teased. "At least mine has some veggies," he pointed out, digging into his Mexican taco pizza, piled high with lettuce and tomatoes.

"That's spicy taco meat under those veggies, not tofu," Blair retorted. "And it's my turn to cook tonight. I'm thinking of a nice alfalfa-sprout and bean-curd casserole; should clean the cholesterol right out of the old pipes."

"Aren't you overreacting a bit, Chief? The only ones who deserve the punishment of your sprout-and-curd casserole are convicted felons. My gut instinct is, if you want any wood-sniffing done, you need to come up with something a little less healthy for supper.

Blair heaved a martyred sigh. "Fine. Far be it from me to try to slow your headlong rush to a heart attack. Tuna-and-noodle casserole suit you?"

"Throw in garlic breadsticks and you've got a deal."

They shared a companionable grin, finished their meal, and headed to Bartlett Lumber. Both men preferred to support the local independents rather than big chain stores, and Jim could avoid the stress of the cavernous 'warehouse' stores on his senses.

Standing at the back of the store, they surveyed rows and stacks of lumber, of various widths, thicknesses, and lengths. "So, what's the plan, Chief?"

Blair pulled out a small notepad. "Well, according to my research, the best woods are oak, ash, maple, white pine, redwood, and mahogany. But any of them can be irritants for some people, and they're not ranked for relative severity. If you detect a difference, I'll go with the one you judge lowest. If not, I'll go with whichever has the most attractive grain."

"Won't a sealer take care of -- well, whatever comes off the wood that makes a person react?"

"Probably," Blair agreed. "And I've found a sealer that supposed to be non-toxic after it dries, with no fumes. But I might have to use oil instead of a sealer. Regardless, if I avoid as many irritants as possible, whatever slips through should be at low enough levels not to affect Bethany."

Jim shrugged. "Well, I guess all you can do is try. Which one is first?"

"In deference to my pocketbook, why don't we start with the cheapest and work up? White pine." He selected a straight, well-grained 1x6 and presented it for Jim's evaluation.

Jim turned up his mental dial for scent, put his nose close to the cut end, inhaled delicately -- and almost staggered at the surge of sensory input. Too many varieties of wood in too small a space; he was almost overwhelmed by the competing smells.

"I can't, Chief," he gasped. "There's too much here; I can't open far enough to get a true reading for you."

"Oh, man, I should've thought of that! Sorry, Jim; dial it back down for a minute." Blair laid a hand on his friend's arm to help ground him, while he chewed his lip in thought. "Okay, let's see if you can go out to the storage yard, out where they stack all the concrete blocks. If they'll let me bring the wood out to you, it should be easy enough to filter out the smell of concrete because it's so different, and let you concentrate on the wood."

A short discussion with one of the store personnel gained them permission. Jim sat outside on a convenient stack of concrete blocks, breathing deeply of the fresh air, while Blair selected a sample of each wood and loaded it onto a cart. He soon appeared, pushing the cart over the uneven ground.

"Here we go!" Blair announced. He waved a piece of sandpaper in the air. "I even got permission to sand an end -- lightly -- so you can really judge the effect of the fresh scents. White pine, comin' up!" He rubbed an end briefly with the sandpaper, then once again presented it to Jim.

The sentinel cautiously raised his dials, filtering out the scent of concrete as Sandburg had suggested. Yes, this was much easier. Feeling no effects, he raised the dials higher, and sniffed more deeply.

Hmm... was that a slight tickle in the back of his throat, and deeper in his lungs? Jim concentrated, trying to isolate and memorize the feeling. Yes, definite reaction there, although very minor -- to him, anyway; he wouldn't even notice if he weren't dialed up and looking for it. He didn't know about Blair's friend.

"Okay, Chief, I think you should write all this down or we'll lose track. For this one, my dial is on --" he checked it with his inner eye, "-- seven, and I'd peg the reaction at a four."

"Gotcha, gotcha," Blair murmured, scribbling the information into his notebook. "Okay, breathe deep, clean the scent and reaction out of your system." He waited while Jim obliged, then presented the piece of ash. "Now, what about this?"

After Jim had evaluated all the woods, the clear winner was maple; he'd given it a reaction level of one-point-five with his dial set on nine.

"But what if your friend has a reaction anyway?" Jim asked. "It'd be a helluva thing to build a bunch of furniture and then find she can't live with it."

"Got it covered," Blair asserted. "I buy one piece of wood, saw off each end -- that way I can use the middle for part of the crib, later -- then sand and finish each piece. One with something called 'acrylacq', and one with a mixture of tung oil, linseed oil, and something called 'varathane'. Then Bethany checks them out and tells me which one is best for her, or if they're both a wash."

"But then you lose all the element of surprise," Jim pointed out.

"Well, with Bethany's level of chemical sensitivities, she can't afford too many 'surprises'; a bad reaction can lay her up for three or four days, so I had to let her in on my plans -- kinda." Blair's eyes twinkled, highlighting his smug expression. "So I only told her I was building a crib; it'll officially be a 'baby present', and I'll give it to her as soon as it's finished. But the changing table and the highchair will be a complete surprise, and I'll give them both to her as Christmas presents." He grinned up at his friend. "Jim, you know how my mom gets into everything; by the time I was eight, I had master's-level training in how to keep surprises. After Naomi, everyone else is easy flyin'."

Jim raised an eyebrow. "Does this mean I need to be wary of 'master's-level surprises'?"

Blair winked. "That would be tellin'. C'mon, let me pay for this and we're outa here."


"Let's go, Jim! I told Bethany we'd be there at four; we need time to drive slow enough that the crib doesn't slide around and get damaged."

Amusement colored Jim's voice as he slipped into his jacket. "Sandburg, you've been working on that thing for a month; I don't think your friend will lock us out if we're five minutes late. And you have enough rope there to hogtie a couple of longhorns," he said, gesturing to the coils draped over Blair's shoulder. "I doubt that you'll let it move an inch."

"Yeah, but you'll let me drive, right? We're less likely to get into a car chase with me behind the wheel."

"In your dreams, Chief." Jim followed Blair into the elevator and pushed the button. "You should just be grateful that I give up my valuable time and the use of the truck to ferry your little woodworking project all over town."

Blair tossed the rope into the bed of the pickup and climbed into the passenger seat. "Yeah, yeah, like you have anything better to do on a Saturday afternoon. Like reruns of Bonanza are so stimulating."

"Better than the life habits of the Mumbo-Jumbo tribe at the back end of Nowhere," Jim retorted, pulling out into the traffic.

Secretly, Jim was pleased to be spending some time with Blair. The kid had been disappearing every Saturday and Sunday afternoon since he'd started the project, unless he had to help Jim with a case. In addition, Sandburg was teaching a Tuesday evening class from six to nine-thirty, and he frequently skipped out on Thursday evenings as well, to continue his woodworking. Jim felt a little disgruntled; much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, the loft felt -- flat -- without Sandburg's presence, oddly dissonant. It was ridiculous; he was a grown man, accustomed to being self-sufficient and alone, not a kindergartner who needed someone to hold his hand. But, almost unconsciously, Jim found himself counting the days until Christmas, when Blair would have completed his project and be 'his' again.

Jim followed Blair's directions to the far side of the High School campus, and parked outside the woodshop. Blair was out of the truck with a bound, almost vibrating with excitement as he quickly unlocked the shop door and pushed it open. "C'mon, man!" he called impatiently. "I want to see what you think."

Jim gave the crib, standing out of harm's way in a small room off the main shop, the consideration it deserved; Sandburg had put a lot of work into this. He ran a sensitive hand along the top railing and down the side-bars, noting that Blair had taken great care with the sanding, leaving no trace of roughness that might scratch a baby's delicate skin. The design was simple but attractive, with arched head- and foot-boards, and gracefully-tapered spindles for the side-bars; the wood gleamed softly with the wax that had been rubbed in to finish it. A discrete shake demonstrated that the crib was sturdy as well as beautiful; it would provide a safe sleeping place for any number of babies, and then be passed on as an heirloom to the next generation.

"I'm impressed, Sandburg," he finally said. "The craftsmanship is as fine as I've ever seen; your friend is very lucky to be getting something like this."

Blair grinned broadly. "Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I think you're right," he agreed, a trifle smugly. "Now, let's get this thing out to the truck."

As they lashed the crib into the bed of the pickup, Jim asked, "So, which one of Naomi's boyfriends taught you woodworking?"

"Jim, a lot of my growing-up years were spent in communes; you know, recycle, reuse, make your own? I learned and practiced with half-a-dozen men, over the years -- and Brother Marcus, of course."

"Of course," Jim agreed. "Didn't need to ask, did I?"

"Not really. Turn left up here on Vireo, then head straight out of town for about fifteen miles."

Once outside the city limits, with only intermittent traffic as a distraction, Jim gave in to his curiosity. "You said that Bethany is -- what? Hypersensitive? Is she someone you met when you were looking for sentinels?"

"No, she was one of the library-workers when I was an undergrad. She used to help me find the research I was looking for, and I told her a lot about sentinels; we got pretty friendly. And then one day she had an attack of acute appendicitis and needed emergency surgery. She had a bad reaction to the anesthesia -- almost died on the table. But when she was released and went home, she didn't get better, and then she started getting sicker -- unexplained rashes, difficulty breathing, shit like that. She finally talked to someone who knew someone with similar symptoms, and that clued her in; she started researching and finally figured out that the anesthesia had messed up her system so bad that she had developed major Chemical Intolerance. So now she's had to change her whole lifestyle to deal with it; her system is so sensitized that she can't even be around most of the stuff the rest of us take for granted."

Jim frowned in thought as he maneuvered around a slow-moving tractor. "You mean the heavy-duty stuff we all have to be careful with, right? Like pesticides and cleaning fluids; surely someone can avoid those without going to a lot of trouble."

"I wish it was that simple," Blair sighed, "but it's a big problem for a lot of people, and growing bigger. Some of the most sensitive people can be laid low by the chemicals left behind in new carpeting, or the varnish on new furniture, or a fresh coat of paint, or even a can of Pledge or a newspaper."

"So is that why you only rubbed the wood with bees' wax and didn't use that sealer stuff you were talking about?"

"Yeah, man, turns out that that stuff still affects a lot of people, even though they market it as something that won't trigger reactions. I knew I'd have to be careful for myself when I put it on, but I thought it'd be okay for Bethany once it dried, you know? But she said 'no', and you should've heard her tirade about deceptive marketing claims. I tell you, since it happened to her, Bethany's become a real activist; she says people've gotta be aware of this stuff, so they can protect themselves."

"I can see why," Jim agreed soberly, trying to squelch the niggling doubts. He was healthy, strong, kept himself fit; something like that couldn't happen to him. Could it?

Blair rang the doorbell of the modest bungalow, and waited for Bethany to come to the door.

He's as impatient as a kid waiting to see Santa, Jim thought, noting with amusement that Blair was literally rocking on his toes, unable to stand still. "Relax, Chief; I hear footsteps coming this way." A moment later, the door was pulled open.

"Burt! You made it!" the young woman exclaimed, giving him a fervent hug.

"Did you doubt it? I said I would, barring robberies, kidnappings, or acts of God; none of that happened, so here we are. Bethany, this is my friend, Jim Ellison. Jim, this is Bethany Roberts, who was very nice to me when I was just a 'little sprout'." He grinned at what seemed to be an old joke.

"Jim, nice to meet you," Bethany said, shaking his hand. "Burt has told us so much about you. Funny; you don't look like the bear he describes."

"I only show the bear-side to people who deserve it -- like certain hyperactive anthropologists," Jim replied, returning the handshake. He saw a woman who appeared to be a few years older than Blair, with swinging corn-row braids, a creamy café-au-lait complexion, good-humored brown eyes, and a wide smile. She was also quite obviously pregnant; Jim wondered if she might not deliver a few weeks before her mid-January due date.

Bethany mimed licking a finger and drawing a '1' in the air, winking at Blair. "I think he has you pegged, Burt. But since I'm not an anthropologist, and the baby has slowed down my hyperactivity, may I assume that I'll be spared your bear-like attributes?"

"Such a lovely lady may assume anything she wants, and a gentleman would never contradict her," Jim replied gallantly, while Blair elbowed him in the ribs and whispered urgently, "Cool it, man; she's married!"

"Which does not detract from her loveliness," Jim pointed out. "Or the fact that I won't act like a bear around her."

Blair stepped in. "Yeah, but you're wasting time. Are you ready for us to bring in the crib, Bethany?"

"Yes, I have the room all fixed up," she replied. "Head straight down the hall; I'll go open the door."

"So how did you turn into a 'Burt', Chief?" Jim asked as they unlashed the crib and carried it up the sidewalk.

"You're not the only one who tosses around nicknames, you know. Bethany was one of the few people who didn't mind me talking about Richard Burton's book, and about sentinels, so I guess I rambled on about the subject. Eventually, she started calling me 'Burton', and then shortened it to 'Burt'. At least it's better than 'guppy'," he chuckled.

They set the crib down in the small room at the end of the hall. Jim took note of the brightly-painted fantasy animals and characters on the walls; fine work, he decided, with a carefree attitude that was appealing.

"I have such good friends," Bethany said, following his gaze. "Jessie is in Rainier's commercial art program. Since I couldn't put up wallpaper, she bought non-toxic paints and called her work the baby's first present.

"But this... this is incredible," she continued, running a caressing hand over the crib. "You said you're a 'competent woodworker', Burt; I never dreamed you'd produce something so elegant. I can't tell you how grateful I am." She hugged Blair fiercely, seeming on the verge of happy tears.

"Aww, I'm just glad you like it," he said, gently patting her back. "But hey, I want to see the whole thing; where's that special mattress you were going to order?"

"It's out in the airing shed; Maurice hung it out there after it was delivered last month. Follow me."

Bethany led them into the back yard, toward a small, peculiar-looking building. It was about eight feet square, Jim judged, with very wide eaves. They'd be needed to keep the rain out, since the walls stopped a foot short of meeting the roof; the empty space was screened with a heavy, quarter-inch wire mesh, presumably to keep birds out. Lower on the walls, beyond the protection of the eaves, were numerous louvered vents; he counted eight on the wall he could see. It seemed that 'airing shed' was more than just a name; a free flow of air currents through this room was almost guaranteed.

"We put everything out here for at least a couple of weeks after we buy it, just to be on the safe side," Bethany said, opening the door. "Even if something claims to be non-toxic materials, I can't afford to take a chance -- unless it was made specifically for me by someone I know took great care to avoid exposing me to anything dangerous." She smiled at Blair, then waved at the small mattress hanging from ropes. "We ordered this from Non-Toxic dot com; it's guaranteed to be all-natural organic cotton over a filling of all-natural organic wool, but I'm leery -- better safe than sorry, you know?"

"I hear you," Blair said fervently, as he helped Jim untie the ropes. "It'd be outrageous if you couldn't even go into your baby's room without getting sick." Together, the men carried the mattress into the house, and placed it in the crib. It fit perfectly.

"And now," Bethany announced, "the workers deserve to be paid. I have some honey-nut bars fresh out of the oven, and Kona coffee in the pot." She led the way into the kitchen. "But just one, for now. Maurice will be home in an hour, and I expect you both to stay for supper. I've made a pot roast with vegetables. Burt mentioned that you have a few sensitivities of your own, Jim, so I went easy on the seasonings; he and Maurice can add more to their plate, if they need."

Their protests were perfunctory; the simmering roast smelled delicious, and it would be rude to refuse her, especially since she had already gone to the effort of preparation. They chatted over the snack and, after meeting Maurice when he came home, over dinner. The conversation ranged from politics to crime-fighting to living with chemical sensitivities.

Bethany was eloquent about the dangers of hidden toxics in common, household items. "The problem is, the manufacturers aren't required to list the chemicals they use, because they can claim it's part of their protected 'secret process'. So, even if the average consumer is trying to be careful, they can't avoid specific chemicals. Unfortunately, unless they're dealing with chemical sensitivity themselves, most people don't know the dangers; I certainly didn't. We expect to have to be careful around pesticides, for instance, but not furniture polish or dish soap; it's downright scary.

"Now I've learned that the PBDEs that are used to make children's bedding and clothing flame-retardant are every bit as dangerous as PCBs and DDT -- they accumulate in body cells and breast milk, and they can affect learning ability, memory, and behavior. PBDEs have been banned in Europe -- there are safer substances that can be used as flame retardants -- but the EPA, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen not to regulate them.

"And, dammit, it's affecting all of us! The schools are dealing with greater and greater numbers of 'special needs' children who have developmental disabilities, and a lot of it seems to be caused by the chemicals in their own homes, and parents don't even know; they'd never expose their babies to it if they had decent information. It just makes me want to line up the CEOs of all these companies that are using chemicals they know will have adverse effects on the human body, and bitch-slap every one of them until they agree to use safer methods!"

Bethany paused, struggling to control her irritation, and offered a strained smile. "Sorry," she said. "As you can see, I feel very passionately about this. But it makes me almost grateful that I did develop a chemical sensitivity; it's given me the knowledge I need to protect my baby from the day he's born."

"Or she," Maurice said with a fond smile. He gave his wife a hug, and gently patted her protruding belly. "I'm with you all the way, honey; this will be the healthiest baby in the entire state."

Jim was intrigued. He considered that being unable to tolerate certain substances was one of the 'cons' of being a sentinel, and sometimes chaffed under Blair's insistence that they not use various products. It had never occurred to him that ordinary people might have to live with the same restrictions, or even more stringent ones. At least he could 'dial it down' when necessary, and, unlike Bethany's experiences, seldom had to avoid going into a public place.

Thank God, he mused. I could hardly continue being a detective under such circumstances. He resolved to quit sniping whenever Blair declared that this or that item was unsuitable for sentinel use. He'd had no idea that ordinary household items could pose such dangers; the knowledge instilled a vague uneasiness. But Sandburg would be on the lookout; he really did have Jim's best interests at heart, and it was stupid to throw that back in his face.

The conversation moved on to other areas. Blair entertained them with improbable tales of his anthropological travels, and Maurice countered with stories of the vagaries of customers who called computer tech-support. Several pleasant hours later, Jim and Blair took their leave, amid assurances that they'd visit again, and would certainly make time to see the new baby after he -- or she -- had made his -- or her -- world debut.

Early November

Jim tapped his credit-card number into the computer and hit 'send'. He should have the plans for a build-it-yourself wooden rocking horse within the week. Every child needed a rocking horse, and he doubted that Blair would have time to build one. And it would give him something to do on Tuesday nights, when Blair was teaching his class. Assuming, of course, he could get access to the woodshop. What was the shop teacher's name? Oh, right. He looked up the number and reached for the phone.

"Hardesty High. May I help you?"

"My name is Jim Ellison, and I'm a friend of Blair Sandburg. I wonder if I might to speak to Mr. Rosenbaum?"

"Just a moment, please; I'll page him."

The 'moment' stretched to five, while Jim listened to Henri regale Rafe with the highly improbable details of his date the night before. Finally, he heard another voice on the line.

"Rosenbaum here."

Jim explained who he was and what he wanted, and heard the shop teacher's voice warm. It seemed that anyone who liked to do fine woodworking was part of a 'brotherhood', and a friend of Blair Sandburg was automatically raised in Mr. Rosenbaum's estimation.

After a short conversation, the plans were finalized. Nick Rosenbaum would let Jim Ellison into the woodshop every Tuesday evening at six-fifteen. Jim would be able to work till nine, clean up after himself, and be home before Sandburg.

Jim hung up with a glow of satisfied anticipation. He'd liked Blair's friend, and sympathized with her plight, but he was fully aware that he'd be building the rocking horse for Blair as much as for Bethany. Blair, more than anyone he knew, genuinely liked people and, when something good happened for his friends, was as happy as they were. It just seemed -- right -- to help his friend bring joy to other people.

Early December

Jim gazed at the clock above Simon's office door for what seemed like the hundredth time; Sandburg should have been here over two hours ago. Of course, he was most likely chatting with some gorgeous TA, or even helping a student with a problem, but telling himself that didn't ease Jim's concern. The streets were slick from last night's freezing rain and, even though Sandburg was a decent bad-weather driver, there was always some damn-fool idiot who drove as if snow and ice didn't exist. Jim had seen his share of multi-car pileups caused by careless drivers; he just hoped Blair hadn't been caught in one.

The phone rang, and he snatched it up, growling a curt, "Ellison."

"Jim?" Blair's voice sounded woebegone. "First -- I'm okay, man. Just two cracked ribs and a broken wrist --"

"What! Where are you?" Jim demanded.

"Cascade General; where else? But the car's at Rainier, and I shouldn't drive anyway because they pumped me full of painkillers, so could you come get me?"

Jim had been shutting down his computer as Blair spoke. "I'm on my way, Chief; you sit tight." He grabbed his coat and headed out of the bullpen.

Once on the street, Jim resisted the temptation to use the siren to clear the streets for faster travel. He wouldn't be much use to Blair if he arrived injured or unconscious from an accident; despite the weak afternoon sun, the streets were still dangerously slick in spots.

Jim strode past the bustling ER -- it looked like they were treating the victims of at least two traffic mishaps -- to the waiting room beyond. Blair had probably been stashed there to wait for his ride. He was right; as soon as Jim reached the doorway, his eyes located Blair. His friend was seated in the far corner from the doorway, perhaps to try to avoid the noise from the ER beyond. Blair's eyes were closed, with his head resting against the wall behind him.

Jim paused to observe and analyze Blair's condition. The kid's face looked pinched and drawn from pain, and he had the beginnings of what would undoubtedly be a stupendous shiner. His coat and flannel shirt had been removed from his left arm and draped over his shoulder; they wouldn't have fit over the cast that stretched from palm to elbow. Beneath his T-shirt, the bulk of the wrappings around his ribs was easily discernable. All in all, Blair looked like he had gone a few rounds with Muhammad Ali, and lost.

Jim crossed the room and laid a gentle hand on Blair's shoulder. "Your chariot awaits, Chief. Are you ready to blow this popsicle stand?"

Blair stirred and opened his eyes, casting a wan smile up toward his friend. "Oh, man, I am sooo ready; there's just something wrong about tongue-depressors and plastic syringes decorating a Christmas tree, you know?"

"Not to mention that Christmas pudding won't go through an IV tube; I hear ya', Chief. Upsy-daisy!" He placed a careful hand under Blair's right elbow and the other at the small of his back, to help him to an upright position, then quickly shed his own jacket and placed it around Blair's shoulders. He buttoned it closed over Blair's protests, encasing both arms in the warm cocoon. "You need it more than I do, Chief; you don't need any more shock to your system. The truck is warm, and I can dial down the cold if I need to."

Jim settled Blair in the truck and buckled his seatbelt, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed homeward. "So, what happened, Chief? If your car's still at Rainier, I'm guessing it wasn't a traffic accident."

"Slippery steps and bad timing, man; just one of those things." Blair shifted in his seat, and stifled a small groan. "I was coming down the steps from the Admin building, and a student a few steps above me slipped and fell. She slid into me and I couldn't hold on tight enough because the handrail was icy, too, and I went down with her; we slid right to the bottom of the steps." He shook his head wearily. "I can't even decide if it's good karma or bad. I'd rather have been somewhere else, of course, but at least my being there kept her from being injured too much; she got off with just a sprained knee."

"Sandburg, when are you going to learn that the ladies you run into are dangerous?" Jim's voice was gently teasing. "I swear, I'm going to lock you in a basement, where you'll be safe from all contact with the female of the species. That way, you might live to a ripe old age."

"Attic," Blair said faintly; he was starting to doze off as the painkillers took effect and the warmth of the truck soothed him. "Attics are always warmer than basements. And you better come with me; you've had your share of problems with dangerous females, you know."

Jim parked the truck and opened the passenger-side door to help Blair down, and support him across the icy sidewalk. "It's a deal, Chief. The next chance we get, we'll start looking for a comfortable attic." Blair sagged against him in the elevator, and Jim had to guide his faltering steps toward their front door. Once inside, he asked, "Okay, how does tomato soup and cheese sandwiches sound?"

"Works for me," Blair sighed as Jim unbuttoned the outer coat, and then pulled off the inner coat and hung both on the hooks. He wove his way unsteadily to the couch while Jim started supper preparations.

Blair barely managed to remain awake through supper. As soon as he finished eating, Jim helped him into a soft, oversized sweatshirt, and he settled into bed while Jim pulled up the covers. "Sorry, man," he mumbled, "don't know why a little fall should wipe me out so bad."

"You've had a shock to your system, Chief, and the painkillers are affecting you, too. No one expects you to be Superman; you'll feel better in the morning." With a last pat to Blair's shoulder, Jim turned off the light and closed the door behind him.

"Ow, ow, ow, dammit. C'mon, Sandburg, any three-year-old can get out of his own bed; surely you can manage it."

Jim was sipping coffee while he perused the morning paper when he heard Blair's muttered comments. He rose and stepped to the door of the small bedroom. "Need some help there, Chief?"

There was a silence from the other side of the door; Jim could almost picture the mulish set of Blair's jaw.

"Chief, you took a bad fall. Even without the cracked ribs, you're going to be stiff and sore. If you need help getting on your feet, just say so."

The silence continued for a moment, and then Blair capitulated. "Thanks, Jim. I'm stuck here like a bug on my back; I guess I could use a hand." As Jim entered the room, he continued, "Pathetic, huh? It's just that when I try to sit up, everything hurts and I can't keep going."

"You're not the first, Humpty Dumpty, and you won't be the last; don't sweat it," Jim said soothingly. As he spoke, his strong hands lifted Blair's torso off the bed, then turned him sideways so that his feet could meet the floor. "It'll just be a couple of days; then you'll be able to move more easily."

"Yeah, right," Blair muttered, shuffling into the kitchen behind Jim, and sinking gingerly into a chair. "In the meantime, I could be a stand-in for Walter Brennan -- the 'Will Sonnet' years."

Jim set a cup of coffee in front of Blair and moved to the stove. "You'll feel better with some food in your belly," he announced, reaching for the batter and the beaten eggs he had prepared earlier. "Pancakes and scrambled eggs, comin' up. Then after you eat, you can take another painkiller."

"Oh, joy; just what I need -- my brain on drugs."

"Scary as that thought is, Chief, you'll feel a lot better with 'em."

Blair dug into his breakfast with muted enthusiasm. The food eased his tension and lightened his mood considerably, which he was able to admit as he pushed his plate away. "Thanks, Jim; that really hit the spot. Sorry I'm such a grump this morning; it's just so damn frustrating!"

Jim poured them both more coffee and sat down across the table. "I don't see why. If you're not able to drive by Monday, I'll drop you off. You should be able to teach your classes."

Blair waved his cast angrily in the air. "Teach, yes, but I can't work on Bethany's present without full use of my hand."

"How much have you finished?"

"I got the changing table done, and the pieces are cut for the highchair. But they still need to be sanded, the chair put together, and then everything waxed. That kind of manipulation needs two hands, and the doc said I'd need to keep this cast on at least until the middle of January. Why couldn't I have waited another three weeks to do this?"

Jim snorted gently. "Sandburg, if you could pick your moments, they wouldn't be 'accidents'. Why don't you just give her the changing table for Christmas, then the chair for the baby's 'six week anniversary', or something like that? The baby won't even be able to sit up in it until it's something like four or six months old."

Blair sighed -- carefully, in deference to his ribs. "I s'pose I'll have to do it that way. It's just -- oh, I wanted it to be 'spectacular', giving Bethany both pieces at once. And I should probably tell her about the highchair when I take the changing table. Otherwise, she might buy one before I can get mine to her, but then that surprise is shot. It just sucks!" His tone was distinctly mournful.

Jim marveled. Blair was battered and bruised, but his biggest concern was that he couldn't finish a gift for a friend. "How about we do it together?" he suggested.


"I think we could make it work," Jim said, becoming enamored with his spur-of-the-moment idea; it would give him an opportunity to do something out-of-the-ordinary nice for Blair. "You've already done the complicated part -- cutting the wood to size, and making sure everything will go together properly. I could use the belt-sander on each piece, then we could rig a padded vice or something so that you can do some of the final hand-sanding. Then after I put the pieces together, you'd be able to rub in the bees' wax with just one hand. It'll still be your project, Chief; I'll just be giving you a little help with it."

Blair's expression lightened; Jim was reminded of sun peeking through clouds. "Wow, man, you won't mind? It'll take at least another couple of weekends. And what about the sawdust on your senses? I don't want to throw you into a bad reaction."

Jim leaned across the table, catching Blair's eyes firmly with his own. "Chief, 'mind' isn't even a factor; you do so much for me, I'm grateful to have a chance to give you a little back. As for the sawdust, I had to turn the dial up to nine to get even a minor reaction, remember? If I keep my senses at 'normal', I won't feel a thing. But if I do, I can always use a dust mask."

"Jim, I'm just..." Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "I'm just stunned. It's a lot to offer; all I can say is 'thank you'."

"You said it yourself, Sandburg," Jim said, rising and starting to clear the table, "it's about friendship. Call it an early Christmas present, if you like.

"But not today," he continued, as he washed the dishes. "Today you need to let your body rest and recover from the shock. However, I've just realized that it's looking a little 'un-seasonal' around here. I think this afternoon, I should put up the tree and decorate the loft; you can sit on the couch and make sure I do it right."

Blair stared at Jim's back, then closed his mouth firmly. "Jim, what do you think a Jewish boy, who grew up with a Pagan mother, knows about Christmas decorations?" he teased. "And if you're putting up the Christmas tree, will there be room for a Menorah?"

"I think an anthropologist who knows the ceremonies of half the indigenous peoples of the earth can certainly recognize the traditions he's been exposed to from childhood, even if he didn't participate." Jim grinned as he dried his hands on a dishtowel, then tossed it over Blair's head. "And of course there'll be a place for your Menorah. We're a team; the loft reflects that, and there's no reason it should change just because we have a few more frou-frous around."

"Mature, Jim, very mature," replied Blair with an answering grin, as he wadded up the dishtowel and tossed it back, watching Jim catch it one-handed. "Just wait; I'm gonna run your ass ragged, putting up every Christmas decoration that you own."

"Only if you've got an army for backup, Sandburg, and I won't go down without a fight."

Blair's face was split by a sudden, enormous yawn. "Wow. Sorry, man; I guess I'm still feeling the effects. S'pose I take a little nap on the couch while you go get a tree and bring up all the Christmas stuff from the storage room?"

"Most sensible suggestion I've heard all day." Jim supported Blair as he lay down so that he wouldn't strain his ribs, then pulled the afghan down to cover him. "Night-night, Chief," he said with mock tenderness. "Don't let the bedbugs bite."

The answering snort sounded decidedly sleepy. "Like you'd let a bedbug get one tentacle inside the loft. Go 'way, man; the sick kid needs his rest."

Jim did just that, grabbing his coat and keys, and closing the door quietly behind him.

Blair was indeed more alert the next morning, and gazed around the loft with mingled wonder and delight. He'd been so woozy the previous afternoon that he'd hardly noticed what Jim was doing. The transformation now seemed almost magical; he felt about ten years old.

Blair stood in front of the Menorah, gleaming with a gentle patina of age and loving care, which had been placed on a small table in front of the French windows at one side of the balcony. Above it, Jim had hung a large Star of David, which reflected the light coming in the windows.

"I didn't know the right kind of candles to get," Jim explained. "I thought we could pick them up on our way to the high school this afternoon."

Blair just nodded, then wandered toward the tree to examine it more closely. Jim had selected a five-foot, well-shaped spruce in a large planter, and placed it at the other end of the French windows. After the holidays, they'd donate it to one of Cascade's schools. For now, it gleamed softly with lights and tinsel, ornaments and bows, and even --

"Hey!" Blair exclaimed. "You used some of the keepsakes out of my memory box."

"You did give me permission," Jim said mildly. "And I wanted it to be yours as much as mine."

Blair reached out to stroke the miniature Kikuyu shield, given to him by the children of the tribe he'd been studying in Kenya. "I don't know what to say," he murmured. "The Menorah, and my things decorating your tree, it's so awesome, it's just... well, thanks."

"Like I said, it's our tree, Chief. If the two of us can share a space, I don't see why our holidays can't. The whole idea is about sharing, isn't it, for both Christmas and Chanukah?"

"Yeah, but... well, I guess I'm just so used to 'making do', you know?" Blair's initial awed surprise was giving way to enthusiasm. "This is just majorly cool! And I get to put the first present under the tree." He disappeared into his room, and returned shortly with a small box, gaily wrapped in red and silver. He placed it on the floor in front of the tree, announcing dramatically, "Do not open till Christmas! And for any sentinels around," he pointed a stern finger, "no feeling, shaking, or smelling, either!"

"You wound me, Chief, you really do." The attempt at an injured expression was hardly believable, given the broad smile on his face. "But just to keep me out of trouble, what d'you say we have breakfast and head for the woodshop?"

"You're on, man. With three good hands between us, we should get a lot done today."

Together, they headed into the kitchen, where three good hands would be equally as effective at producing sausages and hash browns.

December 23rd

Jim and Blair stepped back to admire their handiwork. The highchair and changing table stood next to each other in silent glory, gleaming with two coats of bee's wax, lovingly applied and then rubbed into the wood with the finest grade of steel wool.

"Chief, if those were paintings, they'd be hanging in the Louvre; they're masterpieces. You can be mighty proud, and I know Bethany will love them."

"Couldn't have done it without you, Jim; that padded vise you rigged up really did the trick. I can't tell you how much I appreciate all your help."

"'Tis the season, Sandburg; I can't be a bear all year." He winked at Blair's small snort of amusement. "And, in honor of the season, I have a little something extra; wait here a minute."

He crossed to Mr. Rosenbaum's office and slipped inside. Though Blair strained to see through the window, Jim kept his body between the glass and whatever-it-was. He gathered the thing up in his arms and carried it into the workshop, but it was covered by a white cloth; even now, Blair didn't have a clue what his friend was up to.

Jim set the fairly bulky object down in front of the changing table, still with his body mostly shielding it from Blair's view. Then, with a dramatic flair, he whipped off the cloth and stepped aside. "Merry Christmas, Chief."

"Jim!" Other than that, Blair was speechless. He moved forward to set the little wooden horse into a gentle rocking as he examined it. It was really rather realistic-looking, with shaped legs instead of straight poles, a distinct saddle, and a soft mane and tail.

"I did everything non-toxic, just like you did, Chief. The saddle is redwood, which was equal to maple in the sniff-test, and the yarn for the mane and tail is made from pure virgin wool from one of the non-toxic outlets, and the only dressing on it is the bees' wax."

Blair walked around the little horse, caressing each part. "God, Jim, this is incredible! If my stuff should be in the Louvre, this would be right next to it, with the ribbon for 'Best in Show'. I don't know what to say."

Jim shrugged dismissively, though he had a broad grin on his face. He didn't even need to see Bethany's reaction to his gift; Blair's was everything he had hoped for. "I had to have something to do with my time on Tuesday evenings, and every kid needs a rocking horse. I'm supposing you won't mind giving it to Bethany along with the other stuff."

Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "Jim, I've had some nice presents in my day, but nothing that compares to this. For the rest of my life, nothing will compare to this."

"Don't blow this all out of proportion, Sandburg. You're right, I built it for you more than Bethany, and I'm pleased that you like it, but it's just a few pieces of wood and a few hours of time. It doesn't begin to measure up to what you've given me -- control of my senses, and the ability to live with them without going stark, raving mad."

"And friendship," Blair said, regarding him steadily.

"And friendship," Jim confirmed. He stepped forward to enfold his friend in a swift hug, whispering huskily, "Thanks, buddy."

Blair fervently returned the hug. "It works both ways," he said softly. "Thanks, buddy."

"So," Jim said, finally releasing the hug, "you want to deliver these to Bethany tomorrow, right?"

"Yeah. Maurice's been out of town for a few days. He's due back tomorrow night, but I thought it would be nice to keep her company for a few hours. I figured you can do your own paperwork tomorrow." He chuckled at Jim's fierce glare. "We can deliver everything in the morning; I'll just stay with Bethany, and you can pick me up when you're finished for the day."

"Sounds like a plan," Jim agreed as he shrugged into his coat, while Blair did the same. "And here's another -- supper at the Sea Shanty." He watch as Blair locked the door behind them.

"Works for me," Blair declared. "Baked tilapia, here I come!"

December 24th

"Rise and shine, Chief," Jim called with a sharp rap on the bedroom door. "We need to get an early start. You can have the bathroom in five minutes." He returned to his shaving; it would be ten minutes at least before Blair was upright and ambulatory.

As if on cue, Blair appeared in the doorway ten minutes later, shoving tangled curls out of his eyes as he blinked drowsily in the bright lights. "Why? I thought you didn't have to be in till ten o'clock."

"Big ice storm last night. The salt trucks are already out, and the traffic seems to have kept the streets pretty clear, but it'll be bad once we get out of town. I'm going down to put the chains on the truck and scrape the ice off the windows; you can start breakfast after you finish shaving."

"Yeah, sure Jim," Blair replied vaguely as he watched Jim stride toward the front door. He shut the bathroom door firmly behind him. A few minutes in the shower would help him wake up and the extra time wouldn't hurt a thing. It might even give the sun time to melt a little more ice.

"You should probably turn down your hearing, Jim, maybe about halfway," Blair suggested as they got in the truck. "Otherwise, the chain-chatter will drive you crazy."

"Got it covered, Chief. And I'll bet you wish you could do the same."

"You'd win that bet," he grinned. "But I'll just chalk it up to the suffering that every true genius has to do for his art. It'll be worth it when Bethany sees what we're bringing."

Once they reached the woodshop, they carefully tied each piece separate from the others in the back of the truck, ensuring that nothing would shift or hit anything during the trip. Neither man wanted their careful work to be marred in transit.

Traffic was almost nonexistent after they left the city limits but, even with the chains on, Jim kept his speed slower than usual. Blair was able to observe the passing scenery at his leisure, and he marveled at the beauty as they drove through a virtual 'winter wonderland'. Each branch, late-hanging leaf, and sturdy weed standing at the side of the road was encased in a delicate sheath of ice. Now that the storm had passed, the sun shone from a cloudless sky, casting brilliant, coruscating flashes of light from every icy surface, tinged with all the colors of a rainbow. The sight was breath-taking; Blair could almost imagine a group of scintillating snow fairies dancing in the occasional open spaces among the trees. He didn't even try to resist.

"What d'you think, Jim? Would they be dancing a stately minuet, or a lively reel? Or would they put on their own version of the Nutcracker Suite?"

"Sandburg, I was taught never to admit defeat, but I've given up trying to understand your mental gymnastics. Before I can give an opinion on what kind of dance they would do, I have to know who or what 'they' are -- reindeer, snowmen, or cute little winter bunnies. Probably not Santa's elves, though; I imagine they're still finishing up the last of the toy-making."

Blair hid his satisfaction; Jim must be feeling the holiday spirit if he was willing to play along with such silliness. Now to provide the ammunition. "Snow fairies, man! Can't you just see them dancing in the groves? Although it would be gracious of them to invite the elves. Maybe a midnight celebration ball, once their job is finished and Santa's taken off on his trip around the world."

"Chief, just how long do you think my reputation would hold up if I saw fairies dancing in the woods? I'm not even going to try to see them. Besides, it's a new moon tonight; haven't you heard that fairies only dance on the night of the full moon, and one night before and after?"

Jim sounded so matter-of-fact that Blair was almost sucked in. "Really? In all the mythologies I've heard about, fairies never pass up an opportunity to dance." Then he noticed the quiver around Jim's lips and snorted. "Good one, Jim. You had me going there for a minute. But seriously, if fairies were real, isn't this just the kind of environment you'd expect to find them in?"

"If you're trying to point out that it's beautiful out there, I agree. But I'm a little busy driving right now; I promise I'll take a long, suitably admiring look around when we get out at Bethany's."

"I'm gonna hold you to that, man. Life's too short; we need to appreciate the good things when and where we can. And as you said, 'tis the season." Satisfied with Jim's answering chuckle, he went back to enjoying the pristine wonderland around him.

"Burt! I didn't think you'd make it with the ice on the road!" Bethany gave Blair a welcoming hug. "Come in, both of you; I have hot chocolate on the stove, and a batch of chocolate-chip cookies fresh out of the oven."

The men followed her in, opening their coats to the warmth of the house, drinking in the rich smells wafting through the air.

"Sit, sit!" Bethany urged, waving them toward the kitchen table as she grabbed a spatula and started moving cookies from the baking pan to a colorful Christmas platter. She placed the platter on the table, then poured three mugs of hot chocolate, dropping a handful of mini-marshmallows on top of each. She placed one in front of each man, then took her own seat. "So, is it as slick out there as it looks? It certainly is beautiful."

"Not too bad with chains," Jim answered, "But I wouldn't want to drive without them. Didn't Blair tell me you expect Maurice home this evening? You might want to call him and give him a heads-up."

"Already done," she assured him. "And he'll check the road reports before he heads out. I told him to hole up for another day if it's not safe. I'd rather celebrate Christmas late than have Maurice kill himself trying to get home."

"Wise woman," Jim declared, draining his chocolate. "I wish more drivers were as sensible. And in the interests of sensibility, I need to hit the road again, if I'm to be at work on time. But first--"

"But first, we have a Christmas gift that's too big to wrap," Blair hastened to jump in. "Will you wait here while we bring it into the living room? I'd like you to get the full effect, not seeing it in pieces as we carry it through the door."

Bethany cocked her head, her face lit by a wide smile. "What have you done now, Burt? You didn't think the crib was a grand enough present?"

Blair smiled back with a broad wink. "That was a baby present; this is a Christmas present. Besides, you know it's not polite to look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Okay, I'll be good. Call me when you're ready." Bethany settled back and started singing in a reedy, Chipmunks-like falsetto, "Christmas, Christmas time is here, time for toys and time for cheer."

Blair snickered and followed Jim out of the kitchen, listening as Bethany continued to sing, "We've been good but we can't last. Hurry, Christmas, hurry fast."

Once outside, they made short work of untying the furniture. Jim picked up the highchair, judging that the smaller rocking horse would be easier for Blair to handle with his arm in the cast.

Inside, they arranged both pieces facing the kitchen doorway. Blair called, "Hang on a couple more minutes, Bethany; we have a second trip to make."

"We can hardly stand to wait. Please Christmas, don't be late," she sang in answer.

Jim and Blair were still grinning as they set the changing table in a central position between the highchair and rocking horse, forming a semicircle of polished, gleaming craftsmanship. Both men took a stance behind the array, not wanting to obscure her first sight, and Blair called out, "Oh, Bethany! Allee, allee, incomefree!" Only Jim heard her soft snort and snicker as she pushed herself out of her chair.

As soon as Bethany reached the doorway, she stopped with an indrawn breath. "My God," she whispered prayerfully. She approached slowly, eyes drinking in every detail and, as Blair had done only the day before, reached out to caress the head of the little horse, and set it to rocking.

"Burt, I don't know what to say. 'Incredible' doesn't even come close, and 'stupendous' is only a fraction of what I'm feeling right now. I can't imagine anything nicer than these, even if I bought it from the classiest store the city." She moved around the display and grabbed Blair in a fierce hug. "Thank you sooo much!"

Blair smiled broadly as he returned the hug; Bethany's reaction was everything he'd hoped for. "I'm glad you like it," he admitted. "But it's not just from me. Jim made the rocking horse, and helped with the highchair after I got stuck with this thing." He waved his cast in demonstration. "It was very much a team effort, and we were happy to do it."

"Then Jim deserves a hug, too," Bethany declared, suiting action to words. "My baby will never have anything nicer than this; I can't tell you how much I appreciate it."

Jim cleared his throat, somewhat uncomfortable with so much emotion from someone he barely knew. "Well, like Sandburg said, it was a team effort and we enjoyed it. But, you're very welcome; use it in good health." He patted her shoulder gently, and extricated himself from the hug.

"But now I need to get going," Jim continued. "Since Sandburg insists he's on vacation today, I'm stuck with reports to write." He buttoned his coat as he spoke. "Pick you up about five-thirty, okay, Chief?"

"You got it, Jim," Blair answered, but Bethany shook her head.

"If you're going to be that late, you need to stay for supper again," she insisted. Seeing Jim hesitate, she pretended to pout. "If Maurice can't make it home, you wouldn't want me eating alone, would you? I'm planning baked chicken and scalloped potatoes," she coaxed.

Jim surrendered. "Well, we can't pass up that menu, can we, Chief? Bethany, do you drink?"

"Once in a while, for important occasions."

"I think we can classify Christmas, and the imminent arrival of a new baby, as 'important occasions'. I'll bring the wine." Before Bethany could protest, he closed the door behind him and headed toward the truck.

"Well!" Bethany turned to Blair. "Is Jim always so..."

"Dictatorial?" Blair laughed. "Oh, yeah. He was an eldest child, he was an officer in the military, and now he's a policeman. Three strikes; he really doesn't know any other way. But he means well," he assured her.

"Oh, I can tell that. I bet he's got a real soft spot for children, kittens, and puppies." Bethany headed back into the kitchen.

"And stray anthropologists," Blair agreed, following her. "I'm lucky to have him as a friend."

"I can believe it. But now that you're here, I'm going to put you to work. I'm planning to make two pumpkin pies, a mince pie, an apple-cranberry pie, and a pecan log roll. You game?"

Blair raised an eyebrow, but removed his outer shirt and started rolling up the sleeves of his second shirt. "Your wish is my command, milady. But should you be spending so much time on your feet? Isn't it hard on your back or the baby or something?"

"Burt, you told me you grew up in communes; how can you be such a fuddy-duddy? Here, chop these pecans," she said, placing nuts, knife, and chopping board in front of him. "Birthing a baby is a perfectly natural process, and it's good for the mother to get some exercise."

"I know, and I've heard other women say the same thing. I guess a man just can't help being concerned." He gazed worriedly at her very large abdomen.

"Don't be," she advised with mock severity. "It won't change a thing. Now, get to chopping while I make the piecrusts."

With two pies in the oven and two waiting their turn, Bethany and Blair sat down for another round of chocolate chip cookies, this time with coffee. Their conversation wandered down a number of intriguing byways as they renewed a friendship that had grown a little distant because of Blair's immersion in Jim's world and Bethany's seclusion from the city.

Blair didn't notice anything for awhile, but it finally occurred to him that Bethany wasn't really eating -- she had only nibbled at one of the cookies -- and she seemed uncharacteristically restless. Every ten minutes or so, she made an excuse to get up and do something, or just walk around the kitchen while she continued talking to her friend. "Are you okay?" he asked, again feeling that tinge of 'concern' that Bethany had earlier rejected.

"I'm fine," she assured him. "I'm just having some little contractions, and they're easier to ride out if I'm walking around."

"You mean you're having this baby now? We've got to call an ambulance, get you to the hospital!" Blair felt on the verge of panic, and much too far away from help, if it was needed. He jumped up and rushed toward the phone.

Bethany intercepted him, grabbed his shoulders, and forced him to look at her. "Burt, calm down!" she ordered.

Blair stared at her for a moment, then shook his head forcefully, took a deep breath, and visibly shoved aside his panicked reaction.

"That's better," Bethany said, approvingly. She led him back to the table, and they both sat down. "Now, in the first place, it's probably not true labor. Most women get Braxton-Hicks contractions -- sort of pre-labor pains -- that can last for several days before birth. It's very unlikely that I'll have the baby today. In the second place, I can't go to the hospital; can you imagine what exposure to all those chemicals would do to me? Maurice and I have been talking with a registered midwife to help when the baby's born."

"Then let's call her," Blair urged, half-rising to head toward the phone again. "She'll know if it's the real thing or not."

Bethany caught his hand and pulled him back down. "In the third place," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "Marcella's in Seattle, visiting her folks for the holiday; she won't be back until the twenty-ninth."

"But... but she can't!" Blair exclaimed. "You need her!"

"We didn't expect this baby to arrive almost three weeks early; it's not her fault the little tyke is so eager to get out," Bethany pointed out. "But in the fourth place, if these are Braxton-Hicks, it's likely to be another four or five days before anything actually happens. Maurice will be home by then, and he knows how to help me. And finally, I know what to do, which is mostly to just let my body take care of the process. It's natural Burt, you know that; there's nothing to worry about."

"Yeah, yeah, I guess you're right," Blair replied, nervously combing his fingers through his hair. "But if you think either Jim or I will leave you here alone while you're in labor -- or even 'pre-labor' -- you're crazy. I'll call him later and have him pack a change of clothes for each of us before he comes out. If Maurice doesn't get in this evening, you're going to have two overnight guests."

"Truthfully? I'd appreciate it," Bethany admitted. "If the baby does come, I know I can do it alone, if need be, but a support system would be very welcome. Now, how about hamburgers and clam chowder for lunch?"

Blair noticed that, once again, Bethany was eating very little; she didn't make a hamburger for herself, and had only a few spoonfuls of the chowder. Although she continued to chat comfortably -- still interspersed with the walking episodes -- he wondered if maybe her instincts were telling her something that her conscious mind hadn't quite registered.

They had finished lunch and were clearing the table when Bethany stopped, appearing startled. "Oh my," she said softly.

"What? What? This is not a good time to hear 'oh my'," Blair insisted. "That's only one step better than 'uh-oh'."

"My water just broke. I guess I really am in labor. This baby's even more eager than I realized." Seeing a flash of panic cross his face, she ordered, "Burt, don't wimp out on me now!" Bethany continued more quietly, "It'll still be several hours, at least, so just relax. There's a mop in the utility room. If you'll clean the floor, I'll wash the dishes, and then you can help me get the birthing area ready."

Blair closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. "I am -- relaxed," he intoned. He opened his eyes again and looked at the puddle on the floor. "Okay, but first I'm calling Jim. They must've covered this in police training; he could help."

"If you want to," Bethany agreed, calmly filling the sink with water.

Blair dialed and waited impatiently. He felt pathetically relieved to hear the brusque, "Ellison!" on the other end of the line.

"Jim, Bethany's in labor and her water just broke, and she can't go to the hospital and her midwife is out of town and I don't want to do this alone. Ditch the paperwork and get over here, ASAP!"

"Take it easy, Chief. How's Bethany reacting?"

"Her? She's cool as a cucumber, says her body knows what to do, but," Blair's voice dropped to a strained whisper, "I'm scared, man!"

Jim's voice was amused. "Normally, I'd advise you to keep the mother calm, but it sounds like she's got a handle on that. So, you keep calm, and just follow her lead. I'll close up here and be out as soon as I can. But I'll be bringing home the rest of the paperwork; if I'm going to deliver a baby, you can do the scutwork."

"Yeah, man, whatever; just get here!" Blair hung up the phone a little more forcefully than necessary and stared again at the evidence of impending birth. "Mop, mop," he muttered, and headed for the utility room.

With the kitchen clean, Bethany folded several dishtowels and placed them in a large crockpot, then filled it with water and set the dial for the lowest temperature. "I may need hot compresses during the later stages of labor," she explained. "Take this out and plug it in near that big easy chair in the corner."

After Blair had done so, she waved at the baby furniture which had been left in the living room in expectation of Maurice's arrival. "Okay, let's clear the area, get this stuff in the baby's room. You grab the other end," she said, stepping to the changing table, then gasped and leaned on it to support herself as she rode out a strong contraction.

When it had passed, she looked up at Blair's concerned face with an approving smile. "Well, now I'm certain that it's good, sturdy construction; just what I needed." She winked. "Life lessons, Burt; deal with it. It's no biggie; we just have to do these things between contractions. So grab hold!"

Together, they carried the changing table into the other room. Then Blair moved the rocking horse and highchair by himself, while Bethany got out a thick, wool-stuffed pad as well as two pieces of plastic sheeting and an old bed-sheet, which she cut in half. She placed the wool pad on the floor in front of the easy chair, then covered it with one piece of the plastic, and half the bed-sheet. The other piece of plastic and the rest of the bed-sheet covered the chair, tucked in so they would remain tight. "Having a baby is messy, Burt," she said, in answer to Blair's enquiring look. "The plastic will keep the blood from getting on my good chair and my kneeling pad, but the bed-sheet over the plastic will be more comfortable for my skin. It's old; I'll just throw it away afterward, rather than try to clean it."

"But... won't you have the baby in bed? In fact, shouldn't you be in bed now?" Blair was nervous; the baby couldn't just -- drop out -- could it? It was improbable, but he wished Bethany would at least sit down.

Bethany chuckled and shook her head. "I guess the women don't let boys in on the secrets of birth even in communes, do they?" Blair mutely shrugged. "Come on; let's go back to the kitchen, and I'll tell you all about it." On her way past the bookshelves, she grabbed a Scrabble game.

While Blair set up the game on the table, Bethany placed a small pair of metal scissors and a length of dental floss in a pan of water and set it to boil. As she worked, she explained, "Burt, bed births have been foisted on women by the lazy medical community; they want the mothers in bed to make it easier for the doctors. But it actually makes it harder for the woman; her body is working against gravity, and she's not in a position to push effectively when she needs to. Hang on; here's another one. Go ahead and pull out your tiles." She walked briskly out into the living room, making a few circuits before she returned.

"I wish I could walk outside, but I'm too awkward right now. I can't chance falling on the ice," she said as she came back and sat down, then pulled her letter tiles out of the bag. "As I was saying, I'm going to make gravity work for me. When I reach the later stages of labor, I'll kneel on the pad in front of the easy chair, using the chair itself to support my upper body. If you're still here, you can help by putting the hot towels on my back during each contraction; it'll ease the pain." Bethany examined her tiles, then spelled out 'STORIES'. "That's -- seven times two is fourteen, plus fifty points for using all seven letters. Ha! Your turn."

Blair felt that the whole situation was -- surreal. Bethany was in labor -- was having a baby -- and she was playing a game and chattering like it was just an ordinary day. How could she do it? How could a first-time mother seem so confident, almost blasé? Was Bethany really that confident, or was it a form of denial of what she might be facing? Or maybe... maybe she was putting on a front, pretending to be self-assured in an attempt to generate confidence. Were the chattering and the game just a distraction from her own nervousness, maybe even fear? Okay. If that was it, he'd do his damnedest to help distract her.

He perused his letters, and placed 'WHEREAS' above Bethany's first 'S'. "Okay, that's -- ten times two is twenty points." He dug in the bag to grab more tiles, grinning at Bethany's delighted crow. "You just wait; I'll catch up."

And so the game continued, past 'MOLLY', 'FAIL', and 'ANGLE', past 'STRAP', 'PONDS', and 'ZONES'. Occasionally, Bethany rose to walk through another contraction; after one of those, she turned off the boiling water. "These will stay sterile in the water; when it's time to tie off the cord and cut it, they'll be cool enough to use." Another time, she gave Blair a large slice of apple-cranberry pie and a steaming cup of coffee. "Nothing for me until the baby's born; don't want to be upchucking all over the place," she replied to his inquiring look, and then snickered at the fleeting look of distaste that crossed his face. Bethany won the first game by thirty points, and they started on another.

Blair was increasingly uneasy. Bethany was getting up to walk around at more frequent intervals, and the contractions seemed stronger; she often stopped to lean over the back of the easy chair, clutching hard at the sides of the headrest until the wave passed. Where the hell was Jim? Blair really didn't want to do this, no matter how confident Bethany appeared.

When his cellphone rang, Blair grabbed it frantically. "Is that you, Jim? Where are you, man?"

"I'm on my way, Chief, about ten miles from the house. Unfortunately, there's a semi jack-knifed across the road and hung up in the ditch; no way around it. I can't get there until the equipment to pull it loose reaches us, and that's likely to take a couple of hours. How's Bethany doing?"

"Like I know?" he hissed. "She's still acting like it's no big deal, but the contractions are getting harder and the intervals are getting shorter. Jim, she's having a baby!" His voice rose and cracked on the last word.

"We've already established that, Chief." Jim chuckled, but his voice was soothing. "Remember, women have been having babies for millions of years. Just let nature take its course; I'm sure everything will be fine."

"That's easy for you to say," Blair muttered rebelliously. "Just get here as soon as you can, okay? Maybe the baby will wait for a few more hours."

He closed the cellphone and turned back to the living room. "Bethany!" he gasped, hurrying to her side. She was kneeling on the pad, resting her torso on the seat of the easy chair while she groaned through another contraction. Blair was afraid to even touch her. "What should I do?" he whispered.

Bethany smiled gently, although sweat beaded her brow. After blotting her forehead on the sheet-covered arm of the chair, she said, "First, turn up the thermostat about five degrees." Blair quickly crossed the room to do so, then returned for more instructions. "Now, help me get out of these clothes."

"All of them?" Blair squeaked.

"All of them; clothes are constrictive and they'll just get messy." When Blair still hesitated, she winked. "I won't tell if you won't."

Firming his jaw, Blair nodded jerkily and helped divest Bethany of -- everything. And then he took off his own second shirt, remaining in just his T-shirt. He was pretty certain that he'd be doing some sweating of his own, very shortly. After a moment of thought, he went into the kitchen and covered the end of his casted arm in plastic wrap.

He returned in time to see Bethany leaned over the seat of the chair with another groan; Blair could see the contraction ripple through the muscles of her lower back. "Burt -- hot towel, please," she gasped.

Quickly, Blair pulled one out of the crockpot, wrung out the water, and placed it on her back. Bethany sighed with relief, and he felt a flash of gratitude that he could do something to help her.

Blair lost track of time as Bethany panted and groaned, struggled and sweated. God, he'd heard women talk about 'labor', but he'd never realized it was so -- physical. He helped as best he could, exchanging cooled towels for hot ones, wiping the sweat from her forehead, and offering ice chips when she felt able to take them. Finally --

"Bethany, I see the head! It's coming!"

"I know," she gasped. "Be ready to catch it." She pushed through another contraction with a visibly mighty effort and a long, protracted groan. The baby slipped into Blair's waiting hands, along with copious amounts of blood and other bodily secretions that he didn't even want to think about.

"It's a girl!" Blair crowed. "You did it!" Then he examined the baby more closely, still attached to her mother by the umbilical cord. "Uh, now what do I do?"

"Hang onto her for just a little bit," Bethany panted. In a few minutes she eased herself upward and sat on the edge of the chair, leaning back in a half-lying position. "Now, give her to me; lay her right here."

Blair laid the infant on Bethany's chest. She used a finger to clear a wad of mucous from the baby's mouth, wiping it carelessly on the already-stained sheet. Blair continued to watch as Bethany kissed her daughter's head and stroked the wisps of hair, listened as she crooned a wordless welcome while the baby made her first attempts to suckle. Amazing that something so -- messy -- could be so beautiful. But they weren't finished, yet.

"Uh... you said I have to cut the cord?" Blair asked nervously.

"In a little while, after my body expels the placenta. Right now, she's still getting nutrients through it, and that's important. But go get my robe from the bathroom and put it over us; I don't want her to get chilled."

Blair quickly retrieved the robe and draped it over the baby; he was relieved that it covered most of Bethany, too. Yes, the human body was beautiful and natural and all that, but... seeing his friend lying there exposed was just a bit too... personal. Bethany continued cuddling and crooning to her daughter, pausing occasionally as ripples of residual contractions passed through her muscles.

Finally, after about thirty minutes, the placenta slipped out and fell to the floor with a moist squish. Blair swallowed nervously; it looked so -- raw. Natural, he told himself, it's completely natural. Following Bethany's instructions, Blair tied off the cord and cut it. The baby girl was now a separate entity, a new life welcomed into the world. Blair's throat thickened. Despite his earlier misgivings -- Face it, he told himself sternly, you were totally in a blue funk! -- he felt incredibly grateful to have participated in this small miracle.

Bethany recovered her energy incredibly quickly -- at least by Blair's estimation. Together they cleaned up the baby and wrapped her in a blanket, then Bethany took a shower while Blair kept an eye on the child as he rolled up the bloodied sheets and plastic, and carried them out to the trash. Barely two hours after the baby had taken her first breath they were back in the kitchen. Bethany nursed her daughter while eating a large -- very large -- slice of pumpkin pie. "Hey, that's hard work; I'm hungry! And could you bring me some milk? Marcella said I can't have coffee until the baby's no longer nursing; otherwise, I'll be dealing with a holy terror that never sleeps."

Since Bethany was busy, Blair started supper preparations. He dredged the chicken in flour, sprinkled it with seasoning, and put it in the oven to bake. He was layering the sliced potatoes in a baking dish, the white sauce bubbling gently on the stove, when a car horn blared outside. Wiping his fingers on a dishtowel, Blair strolled to the door, completely unable to wipe the broad smile from his face. He opened the door to find Jim, as he expected, hand raised to knock. Behind him, Maurice was just getting out of his own car.

Blair shook his head with mock severity. "If this had been a real emergency, fat lot of help you'd've been. You can go back and finish the paperwork; there's nothing here for you to do. On the other hand," he continued, raising his voice a little as he watched Maurice coming toward them as fast as the slippery conditions permitted, "I'll let Big Daddy come in. He'd probably like to meet his daughter."

"It's over?" "A daughter!" Blair stepped nimbly out of the way as the larger men all but stampeded toward the kitchen. Jim pulled up short at the kitchen door, allowing the proud father a few moments alone with his wife and child.

Blair closed the door and crossed the room to stand beside Jim. As they watched Maurice hug Bethany and kiss the baby's forehead, they wore identical sappy grins, though each would have been quick to deny it.

"You did good, Chief," Jim murmured.

Blair vigorously shook his head. "Not even, man! It was Bethany all the way; I was just the water carrier."

"Well, it looks like you have a little more 'water' to carry; your white sauce is going to start burning in a minute."

"Oh, man!" Blair hurried to the stove, grabbed the whisk and started stirring the sauce. "Make yourself useful," he said over his shoulder, "and start grating the cheese."

Working with their customary efficiency, Jim and Blair soon had the baking dish filled with sliced potatoes, white sauce, and cheddar cheese. Blair slid the pan into the oven, next to the chicken, and glanced at the clock. "Okay, supper in one hour. And since Jim was conspicuously absent during the excitement this afternoon, he can handle KP while we wait." He made a show of serving slices of pumpkin roll to Bethany and Maurice -- with milk for her and coffee for him -- then took coffee and pumpkin roll for himself and joined the others at the table. With his best military air, he ordered, "Get moving, Private, or you'll be put on report."

"Up yours, Sandburg," Jim retorted amiably as he procured his own share of coffee and pumpkin roll and joined the group. "We'll do it together -- after supper. Meanwhile -- how are you, Bethany? Any problems?"

"Not a one," Bethany replied sunnily. "And Burt was a real trouper. But I knew he'd come through; he's been a good friend for a long time. So Maury and I have decided," she glanced at her husband and received a confirming nod, "this little girl's name is officially Elaina Blair."

December 25th

They'd arrived home very late after an evening of dominoes and Scrabble and good conversation. Consequently, it was ten o'clock by the time Blair wandered into the kitchen to find that Jim had been up for only a few minutes himself; the coffee had just finished dripping into the pot. "Hey, Jim." He poured two mugs, set one in front of his friend, and sat at the other end of the table.

"Have a snack, Chief. It's even better now that the flavors have had time to set." Jim pushed the last pieces of apple-cranberry pie, which Bethany had insisted they bring with them, closer to Blair. But the younger man seemed oblivious, gazing vaguely at nothing. "Those are mighty deep thoughts if they're keeping you from digging into this pie, Einstein. What gives?"

"Oh, just thinking how it all ties together."

Jim's eyebrows rose. "And 'it' would be...?

"Little Elaina, and the baby Jesus, and the little babies born all over the world every day. Christians consider the birth of Christ a Christmas miracle, but after seeing what Bethany went through yesterday, the birth of her little girl is just as much a miracle. And people refer to it all the time exactly like that -- the 'miracle of birth' -- but they're so casual about it. I think they've forgotten that it really is a miracle. I know I did, until yesterday. But that showed me..." Blair shook his head in slow wonderment. "There are no words for it, I guess. I just sorta feel...." He trailed off.

"Humbled before the universe?" Jim suggested. "Yep; been there, done that. I helped deliver a baby on New Year's Eve once; their car was stuck in the snow, and the baby came too quickly for an ambulance to reach them. I walked around next day feeling like I should be passing out cigars. The birth of a baby really is a gift."

They sat for a few moments, drinking their coffee, and then Blair shrugged slightly and reached for the pie. "Well, I suppose we can't sit around all day contemplating life, the universe and everything; gotta get on with the 'life' part." He took a large bite of pie and chewed slowly, eyes closed blissfully. "You're right; it is better the second day."

Between them, they finished the pie, Blair nobly restraining himself from licking the plate. "Well, that should hold us until the big feast at Joel's. Shall we open presents before or after we wash the dishes?" Blair asked. He was rinsing his plate as he spoke; he already knew the answer.

"You've waited this long, Sandburg; I think you can wait a few more minutes. I'll wash, you dry."

Shortly thereafter, they were seated in front of the Christmas tree, Blair with mingled anticipation and nervousness. Would Jim think he had gone overboard? Of course, Jim always thought he went overboard, but maybe -- too deep this time?

"You first, Sandburg." Jim handed him a small box, very light, wrapped in green and silver striped paper. Inside was a gift certificate from Jim's mechanic, for a complete checkup and tune-up of the Volvo.

"Oh, wow! Jim, thank you; this is stupendous. But I think you're going to lose your bear image if you're not careful. I mean, smiley faces?" He waved the certificate as if to an assembled crowd. "Four of them, no less!"

"It's Christmas, Chief. I think my image can handle dispensing a few smiley faces once a year; enjoy them while you can." He ignored Blair's snort and reached for the large package with his name on it. "Shall I try to guess what's in here?"

"You can try, but opening the box would make more sense."

Jim carefully opened the box and pulled out a thick, heavy-knit sweater in a shade of muted smoky blue. He ran a judicious hand over it, appreciating the softness and the lush sensation. "Chief, I'll see your 'stupendous' and raise you an 'incredible'. I don't think I've ever felt anything so... comforting, even before putting it on."

"I had it made specifically for you. I got to thinking -- as much as I've tried to limit dangerous chemicals, Bethany made me realize that the effects of a lot of stuff can be cumulative, and we'd be smart to cut out even more. So this is a special yarn made of a combination of organic hemp and organic cotton, and the color is a natural, plant-based dye, and it was hand-knitted by one of the teachers at Rainier; no machine oils or anything." He shrugged in self-deprecation. "We don't need to toss everything out of our closets, but if we look for non-toxic clothing when we buy new stuff, eventually we'll have a higher proportion of safer stuff." He was babbling, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"Sandburg," Jim interrupted gently. "It's okay. I appreciate the thought, and when it gives me a present as nice as this, I'm certainly not going to complain." He reached for an even larger package and passed it to Blair. "Here. This is your other present."

Inside, Blair found a thigh-length leather jacket, soft as butter, with a curly sheepskin lining. "My God, Jim!" he breathed. "What comes after 'stupendous' and 'incredible'? This is awesome!" He immediately stood, dumping the box on the floor, and tried on the jacket. It fit as if it had been made for him.

"Just covering all my bases, Chief. If you turn into a popsicle on some cold, late-night stakeout, you won't be able to back me up if I need it." Jim's fond smile contradicted his disclaimer of mere practicality.

"Sure, Jim, I believe you," Blair said. "Not," he added, with a wink. "And this is your other present," he continued, passing him a much smaller package.

Inside, Jim found a notebook, filled with computer-printed pages. It seemed to be a homemade -- recipe book? -- with a different heading on each page. Disinfectant. Soft Scrubber. Anti-bacterial Spray. Furniture Polish. Window Cleaner. Oven Cleaner. He raised his eyes to Blair's with a questioning look.

Blair shrugged. "Same thing. I was raised using homemade products with natural ingredients, pretty much, but I've let the old habits lapse because it was more convenient to buy stuff from a store. But seeing what Bethany deals with, I'm reminded all over again about how important it can be. That 'think green' vibe that Naomi taught me protected me from a lot of hidden toxics; I just never realized how much.

"I guess it's not much of a present, but I thought we could start making our own cleaners and using them instead of the commercial stuff, start cutting down on those cumulative effects, make the loft a place where your senses can relax even more...." Blair trailed off. Why had he thought this idea would be any kind of a suitable present?

"Blair." Jim spoke softly, but with heartfelt emotion. "This is great. It shows me that you have my back in more ways than I ever expected. Don't apologize for showing that you care. You've told me a dozen times if you've told me once -- it's what friends do."



Blair wandered to the French windows and stared out at the glittery world below. "You know, despite everything, it's been a pretty good Christmas, hasn't it?"

Jim crossed the room to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Blair, staring out at the same transformed city. "Not quite, Chief. Because of everything, it's been a wonderful Christmas. And don't forget -- big fancy dinner at Joel's with the whole gang, just to put the icing on the cake, or the whipped cream on the pumpkin pie. I couldn't possibly ask for more." He slipped his arm around Blair's shoulders and gave him a heartfelt hug.

Blair returned the hug, basking in the warmth of friendship freely given and shared. "You're right; after all, 'tis the season to count our blessings. Merry Christmas, Jim."

Hand-made Wooden Rocking Horse

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: Byrd's-Eye View
Summary: A new detective is introduced to Major Crimes.
Style: Gen
Size: 5,640 words, about 12 pages
Warnings: None
Notes: Written March, 2007, for Sentinel Secrets challenge.
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-

Byrd's-Eye View

by StarWatcher

"One last thing," Captain Simon Banks announced before he brought the Major Crimes' weekly staff meeting to a close. "Tomorrow morning, a Ms. Jolie Byrd will be joining us from Wenatchee. She was--"

"Where?" Megan asked.

"About two hundred miles southeast, on the Columbia River; look it up." Banks sounded testy at the interruption.

"So what brings her here?" Henri chimed in.

"I don't know, detective. Use your skills to find out. Now, as I was saying, Ms. Byrd was their lead detective, and comes highly recommended. I intend to have her work one week with each team, so she can get a feel for who we are and how we handle crime in the big city. I expect you all," he swept the group with an awe-inspiring glare that intimidated no one, "to be on your best behavior. Let her get used to us before you start in with your normal shenanigans."

"Shenanigans?" Blair affected wounded outrage. "Captain, you malign our reputations. Individually and as a unit, Major Crimes is the--"

"-- biggest group of ten-year-old clowns it has ever been my misfortune to work with," Simon finished for him. "However, you're a damned talented bunch of clowns, and your reputation as the best unit of detectives in the state is well-earned." He paused to let the self-congratulatory smiles sweep among the group. "All I'm asking is that you keep the antics low-key for a few weeks; give Ms. Byrd a chance to toughen up before hitting her with both barrels. If we want more people to share the load, we have to make sure they don't run away after just three days. H? No practical jokes. Connor? Remember you're no longer in New South Wales. And Ellison? No... growling," he concluded lamely, uneasily aware that he could neither enforce nor explain a directive of 'no zoning'.

"All right people," Simon barked, releasing the group, "you have criminals to catch, and sitting here won't help solve cases. Get out of here and get to work!"

"Oh, Blair!" Rhonda called as the young man breezed through the door. "Jim said he thinks he overlooked something at the McMasters' crime scene. He went out to check it, and he wants you to meet him there as soon as you can."

"What?!" Blair stopped short. "He knows better than to tackle a crime scene without me! With Jim's luck, he'll..." Glancing at the pretty, dark-haired woman who was sitting in front of Rhonda's desk, Blair continued, "...end up chasing the perps without backup, as usual. Why didn't he call me? I could've met him there."

"He tried," Rhonda told him. "Maybe your battery is dead?"

Blair yanked out his cellphone, and discovered that the readout screen was indeed blank. "Oh, hell, yeah," he sighed. "Okay, thanks Rhonda. If Jim calls, tell him I'm on my way."

He threw a quick glance at the stranger who'd been chatting with the secretary. "Are you Jolie Byrd? Welcome aboard. Sorry I gotta run, but I look forward to talking with you later." With a quick wave, he was out the doors, seeming to leave a sentence hanging in the air behind him.

"What was that?" Jolie asked, a scowl creating a vertical line between her green eyes. "And what zoo did it escape from?"

Rhonda stared for a second, slightly shocked. Even though not everyone in the police department was friendly toward Blair, at least they knew enough not to bad-mouth him around the members of Major Crime. Blair was such a charmer, Rhonda hadn't expected a negative reaction from another woman. Jolie must be one of those who thought they had to 'out-guy' the guys, who worked at being harder, tougher, meaner, and more cynical than any three men put together. If she turned that attitude toward Blair, the whole of Major Crime would close ranks against her; her stay would be short, but unpleasant for all concerned. Maybe a word to the wise would be sufficient.

"'That' was Blair Sandburg, our resident anthropologist and Jim Ellison's partner. He's extremely intelligent, very friendly, very capable, and extremely well-liked."

"How did an anthropologist get to be a cop?"

"He's not a cop; he's a grad student at Rainier who's riding along with Ellison while he does a study about the police department for his dissertation. But that's beside the point; he's as loyal to his partner as any cop on the force. You should get to know him before you make any judgments. In the meantime, remember what your grandmother probably told you -- 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all'."

Jolie appeared unconvinced. "And your captain lets him get away with looking like a hippie reject?"

Her caustic tone irritated Rhonda, who just now realized that maybe Jim Ellison's frequently-clenched jaw helped prevent him giving in to the urge to commit mayhem; she might have to try it herself. In the meantime, she drew in a deep, calming breath before she explained, "Haven't you ever heard that you can't judge a book by its cover? Blair's long hair and flannel layers don't change the effectiveness of his contributions to his partner and the whole department. And he IS a civilian; there's absolutely no reason he has to look like he just graduated from the Academy."

"Sounds unprofessional to me," Jolie muttered. "But I suppose I can ignore him for a couple of weeks till his ride-along's finished."

"And then there's the old saying about not jumping to conclusions. Blair's been riding along with Jim for about eighteen months, now, and no one in Major Crimes would object if it turned into eighteen years." Rhonda allowed a bit of 'caustic' to enter her own voice; what kind of detective needed a two-by-four across the head instead of taking a hint? She stood, and her voice was cooler as she said, "If you'll follow me, I'll take you to meet Captain Banks, now." Maybe he could straighten out this new detective.

"Come in, Detective Byrd; have a seat." Simon waited until she was settled in the comfortable chair, then opened the folder in front of him. "You have an excellent service record, and Captain Brunson gave you a glowing recommendation; he said he was sorry to see you go. So, why do you want to transfer to Cascade, and specifically to Major Crimes?"

Now that she was operating within expected parameters, Jolie relaxed. She tried to project 'capable' and 'sincere' as she answered, "I have family here. My mom and dad are developing some health issues, and I want to be close by if I need to help out. And, frankly, my job in Wenatchee was getting routine; I think I'll enjoy the challenge of working in Major Crimes."

"We could use the help," Simon admitted. "Sometimes it seems like Cascade is becoming the crime capital of the western seaboard. Which means that it'll be a bit of a culture shock from what you're used to, and of course, we probably do things different from how you did them in Wenatchee. Accordingly, I've assigned you to ride one week with each pair of detectives. After that's finished, we'll see about assigning you a permanent partner."

"Thank you, sir; I appreciate the opportunity to get to know everyone," Jolie replied diplomatically. "I am wondering, though, about -- I think his name is Blair Sandburg? Your secretary told me he's not a cop, so what's the department's official position? And will he be part of one of the teams I work with?"

"Sandburg's official position." Simon leaned back in his chair, rolling a cigar between his fingers. "Good question. 'Officially', his position is tenuous; he doesn't carry a gun and he certainly can't make arrests. But he's one of the smartest men I know. Half the time, his esoteric anthropological ramblings go right over my head. BUT, the arcane knowledge he spouts has given us insights that developed into leads that helped us close over a dozen difficult cases. Ellison was a good detective before Sandburg joined him -- Cop of the Year, last year -- but his closure rate has jumped twelve and a half percent since he hooked up with the kid.

"And Sandburg's not stingy with his input; he's interested in everything and everybody, and the closure rate for everyone else who's not his partner has increased almost eight percent." Simon chuckled, unaware of the fond look on his face, which his new detective noted with some misgivings. "I admit, he can drive me crazy; besides being able to talk the hind leg off a mule, he tends to jump into a situation first, then look for a way out. But he does it for the right reasons -- the good of his partner first, and the good of anyone nearby; he can't stand to see an innocent person hurt, and he thinks everyone is innocent."

"But doesn't his 'look' send the wrong message?" Jolie asked. Privately, she thought the captain and his secretary might be 'protesting too much'; the flaky hippie she'd seen couldn't be that good. "How can he get any respect with the image he projects?"

Simon chuckled again. "He argues that it works in his favor; since he doesn't look like a cop, victims and witnesses are more inclined to open up to him. And I guess you haven't seen Henri Brown, yet; there's not a lot of difference in degree of 'professionalism' between loud Hawaiian print shirts or flannel layers. Basically, Blair Sandburg is a positive force in my department, and I'd be a fool to ignore that." He winked, inviting his new detective to share a joke. "Don't tell him I said that; I don't want him to get a swelled head.

"But you'll see for yourself in a couple of weeks, when you ride with Ellison and Sandburg. I'm assigning you to Joel Taggart and Megan Connor first. Besides you, Connor is our only female detective; I thought you might appreciate her viewpoint on working in Major Crimes."

Jolie stood, realizing the interview was over. "Thank you, sir. I look forward to working with your people." She nodded formally, and exited the office.

"So, Byrdie, what do you think of Cascade and Major Crimes so far?" Megan slid into the front seat of Joel's big sedan, smiling with frank appraisal at the woman beside her.

"Megan, there's no need to tack the 'e' sound onto 'Byrd'," Joel replied from Jolie's other side, his reproof gentle, but firm. "It can sound... childish, which is hardly fair to a fellow detective.'

Megan flashed her broad Aussie smile. "Guilty," she acknowledged, without a trace of conviction. "But I think it's 'friendly' instead of 'childish'. Two syllables roll off the tongue easier than one -- Joel, Megan, Sandy, Byrdie..."

"Rafe, H, Dills," Joel countered as he pulled out into the traffic, "none of which need two syllables."

Megan shrugged. "Those wouldn't feel right. Ask Sandy; I'm sure he can explain it."

"Sandy?" Jolie asked. "Captain Banks mentioned those other names, but I don't recall that one. Is she one of the secretaries?"

"The rest of us know the man as 'Blair' or 'Sandburg'," Joel explained. "Megan tagged him with the nickname her first day here -- before she'd even left the airport, in fact. None of us can decide if snap nicknames are a 'Megan' thing or an 'Australian' thing, but whoever does will collect a fifty-dollar betting pool."

Megan shook her head as she winked at Jolie. "That's a man, for you. It never occurs to them to ask the closest person we have to an expert -- and Sandy could use the money for books."

"You're talking about that longhaired scatterbrain who's not even a cop, right? Civilians don't belong in the middle of a police department; what makes him so special?" Jolie was beginning to feel a bit hostile toward the young man that she'd seen for all of thirty seconds; she'd never liked 'fair-haired boys', regardless of coloring or gender.

"I think it's camouflage," Joel said. "Blair is so smart that a lot of people might be uncomfortable around him if they realized it, so he kind of keeps it undercover. And he's not 'scatterbrained', exactly; he just has so many ideas bubbling up that sometimes they fall all over the place. But even without that, we'd want him around because he's our only competent 'Ellison-tamer'." He heard Megan's snort, and tossed a wink in her direction.

Megan continued the explanation. "I didn't know Ellison before Sandy became his partner, but he had quite a reputation -- surly and antagonistic, with the worst attributes of lone wolf and loose cannon. That all changed when Sandy came on board... well, not all changed, but at least Ellison acts human now, most of the time. What I think is..." her voice dropped to a confidential murmur, "Sandy helps Ellison control his psychic abilities."

Jolie's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!" she exclaimed, at the same time Joel thundered, "MEGAN!"

Joel took a deep breath. "You shouldn't spread unsubstantiated rumors," he admonished his partner. He moderated his voice as he glanced at Jolie. "And you shouldn't listen to such claptrap. Jim Ellison is an excellent detective because he keeps up with all the latest innovations, and he's able to integrate them into his working methods. And Blair helps out with insights and conclusions that come to him from his background in anthropology. It's not necessary to suggest 'psychic abilities' to explain what they do."

"I've seen it," Megan argued. "Right in front of me, he divined the address that belonged to a burned key. But I've worked with other psychics in Australia, and controlling the gift can be a bloody pain. Somehow, Sandy helps Jim control the gift, or helps him be more consistent. Something like that. It can't be explained -- just accepted." She turned to the woman beside her and said, "But we keep it a secret within the department; Ellison doesn't want outsiders laughing at him or hounding him. So, mum's the word, right?"

"I should hope 'mum's the word'!" Joel sounded uncharacteristically grouchy. "Can you imagine Ellison dealing with reporters in his face, asking him to bend spoons and predict the next Kentucky Derby winner? He'd head for the hills, with Blair right behind him, and Major Crimes would be the poorer for it."

Jolie was rearranging the puzzle pieces. "So, Ellison brought Sandburg into the department, and the only reason Sandburg stays is because Ellison needs him, somehow?" Both Joel and Megan gave confirming nods. "Are they lovers?" Jolie asked, abruptly.

Joel chuckled softly while Megan hooted her amusement. "Not bloody likely!" she gasped. "No one would be surprised if Sandy swung both ways, but Ellison has a poker up his arse; he couldn't bend over and nothing else would fit in there, anyway. They only act like a married couple."

"They're brothers of the heart," Joel explained softly, while Megan nodded agreement. "Each of them fills an empty space for the other, and gives him roots. Friendship like that is to be treasured; to suggest that it couldn't exist without a sexual component cheapens it.

"But," he shrugged easily, "no one in Major Crimes would be terribly surprised if we found out differently. And if we ever do, someone will have a nice little windfall; the betting pool's up to six-fifty, the last I heard."

"Chief, I've been getting a sort of 'early alert warning' from Detective Byrd," Jim said as they drove toward the PD one warm, sunny morning. "She's disinclined to like or trust you, and since I hang out with you, she's doubtful about my competence as well. She could cause trouble."

Blair lifted a careless shoulder. "What's the diff, man? Coworkers don't have to like each other to maintain a professional attitude while working together. Besides, I haven't even turned on the Sandburg charm yet; chances are she'll fall for me like a skier in an avalanche."

"Sure she will; you and Casanova are blood-brothers, right? Dream on, MacDuff."

"Hey, it could happen!" Blair protested. "But that doesn't matter; I'm more concerned about her noticing if you use your senses at sentinel levels."

It was Jim's turn to shrug. "I'll be careful, but it shouldn't matter; no one else even suspects, even after all this time."

"Megan does; she just came up with a different explanation. And I think she noticed because she didn't know you before, and the same thing could happen with Jolie."

"You're losin' me, Chief; care to explain?"

"After people know us for awhile, they stop paying attention. If they have us filed under 'known entity', anything we do automatically becomes part of 'known entity' in their minds. It doesn't matter if they can't exactly explain everything they see us do, because as far as they're concerned, their friends are, by definition, 'normal'. So clues you find by using your senses happen simply because you're an 'amazing detective', or 'really sharp' -- like how Joel thinks the rest of Major Crimes could do what you do, if they just took the right courses.

"Conversely, a new person is trying to build a picture to place in the 'known entity' file, so he -- or, in this case, she -- is tabulating and analyzing our actions and behaviors to fill in the blanks. If we do something outside of normal human parameters, it's remembered, and our new person looks more closely for unusual behaviors, trying to decide whether it was an aberration, or part of the pattern."

Jim grunted with mild frustration. "I hear what you're saying, Chief, but I don't know what to do about it. I can't tell where the limits of 'normal' are, anymore. If I see something or hear something, I have no markers to indicate I'm operating at twice normal, or three times normal, or whatever."

"Yeah, and trying to keep the dials at a set point doesn't work. I've noticed, as soon as something goes down, your senses crank up automatically, to give you the information you need. Which makes sense -- if you didn't have that instinctive reaction, your responses would be too slow to be useful." Blair chewed a hangnail as he considered the problem. "I guess I'll have to turn off the Sandburg charm and turn on the hippie-dippie, fast-talking, geek-boy nerd persona. With any luck, Joli'll be so caught up in her irritation with me that she won't even notice you."

"Well, at least your fast-talking nerd persona isn't a stretch; it's so natural, you'll be able to keep it up indefinitely. And no one in Major Crimes will even notice it, so it's the perfect cover."

"Up yours," Blair replied without heat. "It's too bad; it's a lot more comfortable to be on good terms with one's coworkers. But maybe later I can tone it down and convince her that I've started to 'mature', and change her mind about me."

"Or you could make the supreme sacrifice and avoid hitting on one woman in the entire Cascade Police Department," Jim chuckled.

"Just because you can't get a girl, Ellison, doesn't mean the rest of us are required to limit ourselves. But if you behave yourself, I'll find out if Jolie has a friend that might suit you."

"Two years from now, when she finally deigns to talk to you?"

"Yeah, well, there is that."

After a morning of following up clues that forensics had given them, Henri and Rafe treated Jolie to lunch at 'Mama Beth's Diner'. "Best home-style cookin' this side of your own mama's kitchen," Henri assured her as they sat down. "Even GQ Rafe, here, doesn't turn up his nose at it."

Jolie chuckled and perused the menu. After placing her order of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn on the cob, she regarded the men across from her. Captain Banks might be right, she thought; there wasn't a lot to choose in sartorial splendor between Hawaiian print or flannel plaid. And, next to Rafe's tailored suit, Henri's loud colors were even more glaring.

"I bet everyone has asked you this, but I never claimed to be original," Henri said. "So, what do you think about Major Crimes now that you've been with us a few weeks?"

"I'm impressed," she admitted. "Major Crimes seems to be a very tight unit, and you all work well together. But I'm a bit surprised at how well some of the teams mesh. On the surface, for example, you and Detective Rafe have as much in common as oil and water. But your closure stats are very impressive, and that doesn't happen when teammates don't get along."

Rafe raised his water glass and saluted Henri. "Oh, H is definitely a diamond in the rough," he said after taking a sip and lowering the glass. "But the point is, he is a diamond. I estimate that, with ten or fifteen years of diligent effort, I'll have him suitably polished, and then people won't be surprised at how competent he is."

"And in the same ten or fifteen years, I'll have Rafe loosened up enough that people will be able to see the human being inside the starched shirt. That's my boy," Henri quipped, "a definite work in progress."

"But doesn't it bother you to have a civilian as part of the group?" Jolie asked. "I'd think it would be a bit... constricting, always having to explain or argue about procedure."

"You mean Hairboy? Nah, he's a cop in all but name. Hell, he even does half of Ellison's paperwork; handy kid to have around."

"I think it's because he's an anthropologist," Rafe suggested. "He's used to understanding different cultures, and doesn't argue about them, just accepts them and does his best to fit in."

"But if Sandburg won't carry a gun, isn't Ellison at a disadvantage, having a partner that can't back him up?"

Rafe shook his head while Henri laughed outright. "Hairboy doesn't need a gun; if he can't talk his way out of trouble, he can turn any object into a weapon. He's used vending machines, baseballs..."

"...A fire-hose, a walking stick, a crane..."

"Basically, Hairboy will back Ellison up no matter what it takes. He's making a real name for himself. Once he finishes his dissertation, we'll be sorry to see him go."

"Not least because somebody else will get stuck with partnering Ellison, and nobody can handle him as well as Sandburg does," Rafe concluded.

Jolie stabbed a piece of meatloaf and chewed angrily. "But why? I don't care how smart and talented Sandburg is, he's still a civilian, with limitations in how much and how well he can help a real cop. Why does Ellison let him keep hanging around?"

Henri and Rafe glanced at each other, exchanging unspoken question and answer. Finally, Rafe leaned forward and said softly, "Jim's got something special. We don't know what it is, or how it works, and we don't rock the boat with nosy questions. But he knows things, or finds things, somehow -- and Blair is a big part of that."

"I was part of the 'Switchman' investigation," Henri said. "Before Hairboy showed up, Ellison was about to self-destruct. After Hairboy, things changed, and Ellison was able to manage -- whatever-it-is -- ten times more effectively."

"Megan thinks he's psychic," Jolie murmured.

Henri shrugged, and Rafe shook his head. "It seems a bit far-fetched, but something's going on," Rafe agreed. "As I said, we don't ask questions. Whatever it is, it works, and that's all we need to know. After all, when it comes to catching the bad guys, all we care about is that the job gets done."

"And if Hairboy helps us do that, we don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Jolie nodded and finished her meal in silence, chewing over the information as she chewed her lemon layer cake.

Blair reached the PD shortly before noon. He and Jim had planned to have lunch together, then spend the afternoon tracking down witnesses and interviewing them. As he stepped into the elevator, Blair saw the new detective approaching from down the hall, and held the doors open. When she visibly hesitated, staring at Blair with narrowed eyes, he unleashed his most winsome smile. "Ah, com'on, Detective Byrd; I don't bite, and I showered this morning -- no BO. Surely you can stand to be in my presence for the two minutes it'll take to get up to Major Crimes?"

Jolie gave a noncommittal nod and stepped into the elevator without speaking... but Blair was almost certain he'd seen a tiny flash of amusement in her eyes. Encouraged, he rambled on. "Of course, for me, elevators fall under the heading of 'dangerous transportation, proceed at your own risk'. But I figure here at the PD is pretty safe -- unless the Sunrise Patriots show up again. On the other hand, they prefer threatening with guns instead of --" Abruptly, the elevator car shuddered to a halt while a loud warning buzzer assaulted their ears.

"Oh, man, you have got to be kidding me!" Blair exclaimed after the buzzer went silent. "What kind of karma do I have to have for this to happen to me twice?"

Jolie stared at him, then glanced around the tiny compartment. "Twice? Must be bad karma; maybe you were a jailer during the Spanish Inquisition."

Blair nodded. "You may be right; I'll have to do some meditation, see if I can cleanse my aura. Meanwhile, let's see if maintenance is on top of this."

He picked up the emergency phone and pushed the big red button. "Hello? . . . Yeah, we have two people here, and our elevator stopped moving. What's going on?" He listened to the voice that offered not-so-reassuring platitudes. "Well, we're not going anywhere, but make it as soon as you can, okay? In the meantime, call up to Major Crimes and tell them where we are -- Detective Jolie Byrd, and Civilian Observer Blair Sandburg. Ya' got that? . . . Okay, thanks."

Blair hung up the phone with a sigh and turned to Jolie. "Well, that sucks. The cable has frozen for reasons unknown. They're working on it, but it might take an hour before they get it fixed. No sense standing around all that time; might as well have a seat." He bowed and grandly waved Jolie toward a nonexistent easy chair, then crossed his legs and sank down to the floor.

Jolie followed suit, staring now with more curiosity than suspicion. "So, what happened the last time?" she asked.

"Oh, man, it was a nightmare! Some over-intellectual idiot with delusions of grandeur thought he'd rob the bullion exchange at Wilkerson Towers. He hijacked an elevator with me and three other people and a bomb in it as a diversion. Every once in awhile he'd drop it a few floors, and kept threatening to drop it all the way if he didn't get his ransom. At least this time, the waiting will be a lot less exciting. When it comes to elevators, I don't mind 'boring'."

Joli settled herself more comfortably; if the hippie could talk 'cop-shop', he might not be so bad after all. "I know what you mean. I'm always amazed at the methods the perps will use to try to force an issue. We had one guy last year, put steel plates -- bullet-proofing -- in the side and back windows of a bulldozer and threatened to destroy the power station and wipe out electricity for the whole town. But with the windows blocked, he couldn't see around him. While the negotiator kept him talking, we sneaked in from behind and under, and siphoned out the gas. When he got frustrated and tried to 'attack', he didn't get more than fifty feet before the 'dozer wouldn't move anymore. Then we just waited him out; eventually he surrendered without a shot fired."

"Great tactics," Blair said. "I think the average citizen is more inclined to trust the police when they see potentially dangerous situations handled without gunfire. If they know shooting is a last resort, they'll have more confidence in calling the police when they need them."

"Rhonda said you're doing your dissertation on the police department; is that part of it?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm trying to examine the police subculture, and how they function as a type of tribal guardians -- sort of Sentinels of the City."

As Blair waxed enthusiastic about the men and women he'd learned to know and admire, Jolie shared several experiences she'd heard about or participated in. Blair soon pulled a pad of paper out of his backpack and started making notes -- he might be able to use some of these ideas to help Jim expand his senses. Time passed unnoticed until a loud CLANG interrupted them, and the phone rang. Jolie reached it first.

"Yes? . . . Thanks; we'll be ready." She turned to Blair. "There's some technical glitch that they can't fix, so they've hauled a secondary winch up to the floor above us. They'll hook onto the cable and lower us to the floor below, then pry open the doors to let us out."

"Sounds good," Blair breathed. "I was gettin' tired of hanging around. Not that I have anything against the company!" he finished hurriedly.

"You're not so bad yourself, Sandburg. I might even classify you as -- tolerable." Jolie winked, with a half-grin.

"That's me -- satisfactory Sandburg. I aim to please."

The doors opened and, with another grandiose bow, he motioned her forward. They exited onto the fourth floor and looked around.

"Three more floors," Blair observed. "Stairs?"

"Stairs," Jolie agreed, leading the way.

Jim slipped out of the truck and took cover behind a rusted-out van, Blair and Jolie following close at his heels. He drew his gun and nodded toward the seemingly-abandoned warehouse in front of them. "I saw one guy pass a window; it makes sense that the others are with him. Byrd, you cover the front; I'll go around to the back."

Jolie could see the main door easily, but the windows were small, and high on the walls. "How could you see anything from here?"

"He's very long-sighted; one of the reasons he was picked for Special Ops," Blair said.

"Right," Jim agreed. "Sandburg, you stay here and stay down."

"No way, man; you need me!" Blair insisted.


"You wanna argue, or you wanna take those guys out?"

"All right. But stay behind me and keep your head down!"

Jolie watched as Ellison traveled a circuitous route to the back of the warehouse, keeping to cover to avoid detection, with Sandburg a single step behind. While she waited for Ellison to make his move, she rewound some mental images, and examined them closely. Sandburg was even more ubiquitous than she had expected -- always near Ellison, and always touching or being touched. Come to think of it, Sandburg had had a hand on Ellison's arm as the detective examined the warehouse -- and anybody who was that long-sighted wouldn't be able to read a simple newspaper...

Her grandmother had told her stories from the old country, passed on from her grandmother, and her grandmother before her. Jolie had always enjoyed the tales, but classified them as no more realistic than sprites or pixies. Could it be...?

At the sound of shots, she rushed forward. The two men who ran out the main door were unarmed; faced with a gun held in a determined hand, they followed directions to lie flat with their hands behind their heads. Jolie waited, somehow very sure that Ellison -- and Sandburg -- had the situation well in hand.

As they watched the last of the black-and-whites carry the seven perps away, Jolie gave in to her curiosity. "So, if the last two were hiding so well, how did you find them?"

"I'm a detective; I put two and two together."

"Yeah, Jim's got great instincts, and he's learned not to ignore them."

"Instincts and... something else?" Jolie asked quietly. "My ancestors come from the Isle of Mann, and my grandmother told me stories of the arreyeder and his cumraag. That would translate as 'sentinel', I think -- or maybe 'guardian' -- and 'companion'. That's just amazing!"

"That's just a kiddie fairytale," Jim growled. "You should have outgrown it years ago."

"Yeah," Blair agreed. "Jim's one of the best; he doesn't need to be this 'arreyeder' to do his job.

"Doesn't need to be, but he is. And now I know why he lets you hang around. The cumraag never leaves the side of his arreyeder."

Jim clenched his jaw and stared at the upstart in front of him, while Blair reached desperately for a logical explanation. "No, really, he's not that -- we're not that -- it's just... just..."

"Just a very important secret, and you can be sure I'll keep it." Jolie smiled her understanding. "We've left the small tribal units too far behind for you to be open about your abilities; you wouldn't be able to do your job if the media -- or all the perps running loose -- knew about them. I promise, I'll never let it slip. But I'll be honored to work alongside you -- both of you."

"So, detective Byrd, you've been with us for a month." Captain Banks leaned back in his chair to observe his newest recruit. "Everyone you've worked with has given you high marks; they approve of your skills, your professionalism, and your attitude. I think you'll fit in very well here, and I look forward to making you part of the team. But how do you feel about it?"

"I'm grateful Captain. You have good people, and I can't imagine a better team to join. I accept; I look forward to working with all of them, and I think I'll fit in very well, here. Thank you."

He stood and offered her his hand. "Well then, Detective Byrd, welcome to Major Crime."

The End

arreyeder (ah-rayeh-der)

cumraag (koom-raeg)

Author's Notes

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Title: All that Glitters
Summary: Jim and Blair are still learning to work together while dealing with a troublesome case.
Style: Gen
Size: 27,140 words, about 54 pages.
Warnings: Use of OCs.
Notes: Written summer 2008, for winning request of Moonridge 2007 auction
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-

All That Glitters

by StarWatcher

Dedicated to Gerri, for her generous donation to Moonridge,
and her faith in me as a writer. Thank you.

Wednesday, 9/4/96

"You're awfully chipper this morning," Jim remarked as he watched Blair bustle -- there was no other word for it -- around the kitchen. The coffee had finished perking; Jim poured two cups, as well as two glasses of juice, and carried them to the table.

Blair smiled sunnily as he turned off the stove and scooped the scrambled eggs onto two plates. "Yeah, man, I can't help it. It's like a drug -- the first weeks of school always get me high. He joined Jim at the table, slipping one plate in front of his friend, and reached for a piece of toast.

Jim's voice was amused. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Chief, but wasn't that you last spring, grumbling about the laziness of today's students, and the idiocy of any teacher who thought he could pound some kind of education into their thick skulls?"

"Well, yeah, but now it's a whole new year!" Blair's amusement matched Jim's. "You see, there's always the possibility that there'll be a few students -- or several -- who really 'get it', who love to learn and are enthusiastic about it. And it's a joy to nurse that along, and watch them spread their wings and take off. But then when they're soaring freely, the poor put-upon teacher -- that's me, by the way -- still has to deal with the earthbound dolts who expect to be spoon-fed, and then argue about your technique. So by the end of the year you're ready to throw in the towel. But hope springs eternal, and with the new year, anything is possible," he proclaimed as he spread his arms expansively. "So I'm ready to challenge the world -- bring it on! Neither fiendish freshmen nor supercilious seniors shall force me from the battlefield!"

Blair downed his juice and set the glass down with a decided 'thump', then shrugged as he shook his head and waved off his last statement. "Nah, ignore that guff; I told you I was high. But it's a cycle, man. Sometimes the positive aspects are stronger, and sometimes the negative aspects bite you in the ass, but it all evens out eventually, and in the final analysis I call it 'good'." His eyes twinkled as he continued, "Which doesn't mean I won't be bitching next March. But then in September I'll be high again -- and it's completely legal." He chuckled, inviting Jim to share the joke.

"Make sure you keep it that way, Junior; this nose will be able to tell if you pass within fifty feet of burning weed," Jim threatened, then stared thoughtfully at Blair over his coffee cup. And this crazy kid gave me the control to do that, he realized. He still wasn't sure why he continued to allow Sandburg to stay in his spare room; the 'one week' had passed months ago, and the kid's personality and presence were encroaching on the whole rest of the loft -- with the lone exception of Jim's own bedroom. Not to mention that his off-the-scale energy could be nerve-wracking at times. On the other hand, that same energy fed Sandburg's enthusiasm for helping Jim find ways to control his senses. You'd be up shit creek without that 'crazy kid', so don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Keeping his thoughts to himself, Jim observed, "I thought classes didn't start till Monday. What's so special about today?"

"Hey, the students need time to settle in and get their schedules sorted out before they actually sit down in class. And the freshmen need to go through orientation. Which means..." Blair glanced at the clock and carried his dishes to the sink, "...I gotta get a move on." He rinsed everything, stacking it for later washing.

"So, are you stuck on campus all day, or will you be in to the PD later?" Jim asked.

"I should be; things usually slow down by early afternoon. Let's say two, and I'll call if I can't make it, okay?" With a quick, "See ya," Blair slung his backpack over his shoulder and was out the door.

Jim shook his head with fond amusement as he carried his own dishes to the sink, where he turned on the hot water and added dish-soap. Even rinsed, the dishes would offend his sentinel senses by the time he returned to the loft after work, and he had time enough to wash them now. He hoped Blair would make it to the PD later; somehow, things -- his senses -- were just more... comfortable when the kid was around. But I should be able to manage on my own!, he thought, with a mental growl of frustration. I hope I reach that point sooner rather than later; God knows how long Sandburg will be willing to hang around. Finished washing the dishes, Jim grabbed his gun and badge and headed toward a day of witness interviews; maybe he'd get a break in his current case.

Desirée Kawasani pulled her red Dodge Caravan into the handicapped space at the corner of Bransfield Dorm and used the car's horn to initiate her distinctive 'recognition call' -- a long and two short beeps, followed by long, short, long -- her initials, tapped out in Morse code. Sure enough, a smiling, eager face peered through the window a few spaces down, a hand waved madly, and then the face disappeared abruptly -- which was exactly what she'd expected. Desirée just hoped that Summer wouldn't trample anybody as she dashed down the hall toward the main entrance.

Despite her facility with the procedure, it took a finite time to release her wheelchair from the driving position, maneuver it into the hydraulic lift, and ride it to ground level. Just as Desirée slid open the door, Summer rounded the corner of the dorm at a dead run and pulled up to wait impatiently, bouncing on her toes, until the lift had settled firmly on the pavement.

"Dessie! You made it!" Summer squealed in delight, bending down to give her best friend a heartfelt hug, which was returned with interest.

"Well, of course I did," Desirée assured her. "I couldn't let you hog all the fun for yourself."

"No fun without you," Summer replied with loyal sincerity.

"Because you don't try," Desirée pointed out in a faintly accusing tone. She raised her hand as if taking an oath. "But I promise to keep my evil influence under firm control... at least until you need a push," she finished, winking broadly. "Did you talk to any cute, unattached guys while you were home?"

Summer blushed and mumbled something inaudible while she busied herself pulling her friend's luggage out of the van. She dropped some small packages into the basket hanging from the handles in back of the wheelchair, balanced the vanity case on Desirée's knees, and extended the wheels of the large suitcase. "We'll have to make a couple more trips," she announced as she strode forward. "Or maybe we can borrow the janitor's big platform-dolly and get the rest of it all at once."

Desirée chuckled as she locked the van and followed her friend, pushing strongly against a slight upslope. From that reaction, she'd bet anything that Summer had met someone during the summertime break, probably been attracted -- and done absolutely nothing about it. As far as Desirée was concerned, the girl was way too shy around boys -- well, around people in general, but it was much worse around boys -- and it was so silly. Summer van Eisen just didn't realize that she was cute as could be, with a sturdy but curvaceous figure, bright blue eyes, curly brown hair, and engaging smile. Half the guys on campus would be swarming around her like bees around a flower, if she'd just give them a hint of encouragement.

Desirée kept her thoughts to herself as she wheeled through the door that Summer was holding open for her, and headed down the hallway, with her friend now following behind. They had three more years of college ahead of them -- four if they went for their Masters', which was likely -- and Rainier was a big university, with a lot of good-looking guys. Somewhere in that lot there must be someone that Summer would 'click' with, who was kind and caring enough to be worthy of her friend. Aloud, she asked over her shoulder, "So, which room did they put us in?"

"Fourth down on the left, right next to where we were last year."

Desirée stopped in front of the door, while her friend leaned around her to unlock it and push it open. "Home, sweet home -- at least for the next nine months," Summer announced as she followed Desirée into the room, and lifted the suitcase onto the unmade bed.

"Well, you've certainly improved the basic packaging," Desirée replied appreciatively. "Looks good."

It did. Summer had replaced the beige dorm curtains with a bright green, white and yellow print, and her green bedspread had flecks of yellow in it. They'd coordinate well with the green-and-white bedspread that Desirée had in her luggage. She felt a flash of gratitude that her friend had remembered such a detail while choosing the obviously new décor.

While they unpacked -- Summer working 'high' and Desirée working 'low' -- they caught up with what each had done during the university hiatus. Summer admitted that, yes, there had been a cute guy home from Washington State U, but nothing had happened. Of course not! Desirée thought with fond exasperation.

After everything was put away, Summer took the keys to the van and went in search of the janitor's dolly, declaring that, after Og's hard work in inventing them, it was senseless to ignore the power of the wheel. It was an old joke, and Desirée gave the expected response. "Of course, he only got around to it because his wife kept nagging him. You know what they say --"

Summer joined in like a chorus, "-- Behind every successful man is a good woman." Summer laughed, and Desirée grinned as her friend hustled out the door -- Summer hustled everywhere, except when she was walking with Desirée -- and then turned to survey their room.

As she looked at all the little touches that shouted 'Summer' -- the curtains, the posters on the wall that Desirée could never have put up, the throw-rug by her bed that Summer had gotten special permission to put down with double-sided carpet tape so that it wouldn't slip out from under Desirée's shaky legs -- she was struck, again, by how lucky she was to have met Summer last year. They'd 'clicked' instantly, and thirty minutes later it had felt as if they'd known each other forever. As different as they were externally, there was a rock-solid connection that reverberated between their psyches. Soul-sisters, Desirée thought with comfortable satisfaction. It was simply icing on the cake that Summer never made her feel 'handicapped'; Summer paid no more attention to her limitations than she did to Desirée's small, skinny physique, long, straight hair, or brown eyes -- it was, for Summer, just part of the package that made up 'my friend, Dessie'.

Although that wasn't exactly true. Summer did pay attention to her limitations, making thoughtful accommodations seemingly without noticing. Rather than each girl using a dresser on one side of the room, as most roommates did, Summer was using the top and bottom drawers of each -- because she could reach higher and bend lower -- while Desirée had use of the four middle drawers. The desk-chair on Desirée's side of the room had already been returned to Housekeeping, to leave room for her wheelchair. Summer walked slower when she was beside Desirée, and never seemed impatient to go faster. Summer's legs were at Desirée's disposal when she needed them, and her hands seemed an extension of Desirée's own. And every time Desirée tried to offer her gratitude, Summer seemed uncomfortable and confused; she seemed to think what she did was nothing special. Someday, Desirée might have to share some of her life stories, though she wasn't sure, even then, that Summer would truly understand.

It was a precious friendship, and Desirée intended to hold it tightly, dreading the day when they might go their separate ways. Three more years, or even four, simply wouldn't be long enough; she wanted a lifetime. Maybe they could find jobs in the same city after they graduated. But in the meantime, the only way Desirée could think of to thank her friend was to help her find a suitable boyfriend, someone who might become a loyal, loving husband. Summer would resist, of course, but Desirée might talk her into it if they double-dated. Maybe I could find brothers who suit both of us. If she's my sister-in-law, we'd always be connected.

Desirée heard Summer whistling as she approached, and hastily wiped the emotional tears from her eyes, smiling brightly as her friend opened the door. Summer carried baggage and packages into the room and tossed them on the beds, then quickly returned the dolly to the janitor. They both wanted to get an early spot in the registration lines after lunch so, in the hour before the cafeteria opened, they finished unpacking, busily planning their classes for the new school year.

Blair breezed into the bullpen at 2:15, hung his backpack on the coat-rack, and settled into the chair next to Jim's. Once again he marveled at how natural this routine seemed, after just a few short months; sometimes it felt like he'd been waiting his whole life to work with this man. He felt... comfortable, just being with Jim, sharing his life and his work. Of course, he couldn't tell Jim, but Blair had begun to realize that finishing his dissertation would not be an unmixed blessing if it meant he and Jim went separate ways. That would be some time in the future, though -- a long time, if Blair had any say in the matter. For now, he'd just concentrate on being the kind of partner Jim needed.

"Hey, man, how's it going?"

"Frustrating," the detective growled as he tossed a file onto the desk with a grimace of disgust. "I can't find one point of valid commonality in these robberies. You, however, look positively smug; how many cute co-eds have you already lined up in your sights?"

"Not even, man!" Blair protested. "Students are strictly -- strictly! -- off-limits. But there is this one new TA..." He winked, and then grinned as Jim deliberately rolled his eyes with a long-suffering air. "So, what about this case? You haven't mentioned robberies before today." He reached out and snagged the file, though he waited for Jim's assenting nod before he opened it and started reading. "And how come you have it? What makes it something for Major Crimes?"

Jim reached for a small stack of other files, and spread them on the desk like a poker hand. "Politics, of course. All of the victims are particularly wealthy, and all of them think their incident should have been solved within thirty minutes. Since it's been three weeks and Burglary hasn't made any progress, it got booted up here. I'm the lucky stiff that was in rotation for the next case."

Blair had been skimming the reports in the various folders. "Wow, I see what you mean. These incident reports are full of a whole lot of nothing. No commonalities?"

"They don't use the same jewelers, alarm systems, dry cleaners, banks, stores, maid service, delivery systems -- you name it, there's at least three different sources. And nothing's shown up at any of the pawn shops, and we've shaken down every fence in the city without results. And there's no pattern to the stolen items, either -- two were jewelry, which we'd expect, but there was also a coin collection, a set of jeweled knives, and some Fabergé pottery, for god's sake. Absolutely the only point in common is that they all have a kid or two going to Rainier."

"Yeah, but Rainier's a class-A university," Blair pointed out. "If you've got kids who're college-age, it'd be stupid to send them anywhere else."

"Exactly," Jim agreed. "It's like saying they all wear clothes when they go out in public; it's too ordinary to have any bearing on the case."

"Didn't you once tell me that even the ordinary has to be closely examined when you're trying to make a case?" Jim merely glared, jaw muscles clenching. "Yeah, yeah, you're right," Blair responded hurriedly. "A difference that is no difference makes no difference; got'cha." He was going through the files more slowly, reading names and details. "But I can see why the higher-ups are squawking; there are some big names here." He opened the next folder, and his eyes widened. "Hey, I know this guy!"

Jim was instantly on alert. "What? How?" He snatched the folder out of Blair's hands to take another look. "Where did you rub shoulders with a business-shark like Jonah Petersen?"

"Seemed kind of nice when I met him," Blair protested. "He's got a big estate on the east side of town. His doctor told him he needed some vigorous, non-weight-bearing exercise, so he's planning to put in a good-sized pool. But when the workers started digging, they found some pottery shards. Anyway, this guy seems real big on supporting the university -- said with four kids and two grandkids already, he better be. So he's offered to let the anthropology and archaeology students do a real archaeologic excavation on the site. Said he'd give us three months, and by the time we're done the ground would be so dug up that it'd make putting in the pool a lot easier. I'm going to announce it as soon as I know the class roster is finalized."

Jim leaned back in his chair and sighed. "That's great for you, Chief, but I doubt it has any bearing on the case. Unless you find a --" he glanced at the incident report to refresh his memory, "-- coin collection valued at sixty-five thousand dollars hidden under the bushes, I don't think your 'knowing him' will make much difference."

"Well, duh! How stupid would you have to be to hide something, and then invite a bunch of nosy kids to dig in the same spot? I was just surprised at the coincidence, is all. So, how do you want to get started? You think if you go over the scenes again, your senses will pick up something that forensics missed?"

"Not likely. People live at those scenes; any trace evidence is long gone, or would be worthless because it could have been dropped after the robberies. I think we'll have to wait for another robbery, and get there while it's still fresh."

"Oh, the brass will be thrilled about that," Blair remarked.

"Got it in one, Chief. But there's no help for it. In the meantime, we gotta go through the motions -- and sandwich the investigation in between our other cases. Maybe interviewing the victims again will turn up something that Burglary missed." Jim switched off his computer and stood. "Grab your gear, Chief; we're going fishing. We should be able to hit one or two before quitting time."

Thursday, 9/12/96

Blair was updating his notes for next week's class. There'd been some interesting developments in the field in the past couple of years, and his lecture needed to cover that information. He paused in his writing and frowned. Damn; he was having a brain-fart. There was something else he wanted to include, and it hovered just out of reach of his conscious mind. He stared around his small office. Okay. I'm pretty sure I saw it in the latest Anthro Quarterly, or maybe the one before that. And those would be... He closed his eyes, trying to visualize, then snapped them open. that pile, right there!

He crouched in front of the precarious stack of books and magazines propped against the end of the sofa and judiciously removed a hand's-thickness of assorted publications. Setting them to the side of the main stack, Blair began to work his way down the pile, and hit paydirt on the fourth one. Score one for the creative mind! he thought triumphantly, but not even sentinel senses would be able to 'read' his satisfaction, no matter how hard he tried to beam his thoughts toward Ellison.

"Professor Sandburg? Are you here?"

Abruptly, Blair realized that his desk and the sofa hid him from casual view of anyone in the doorway. "Right here," he announced, standing and tossing the journal on the desk. "Miss Kawasani, come in, come in!" He hurried around to move one of the visitors' chairs out of the way, so that she could use the space. "And when we're out of class, I don't need a title. Just call me Blair." He smiled charmingly at his student as he sat and faced her across the desk.

"Thank you, Blair. And I'm Dessie. 'Miss Kawasani' is my older sister -- she just passed the bar exam and is working for a big law firm." Her brown eyes twinkled merrily. "Better her than me, but it takes all kinds."

"That it does," Blair agreed. "So, what can I do for you Dessie?" Truthfully, he was surprised to see her; Desirée Kawasani was one of his better students. Even if she hadn't been, the day after the second class session was a bit soon to be seeking extra help.

"I came to ask if I could join the team working the Petersen dig," Desirée told him. Seeing the doubt begin to creep into his eyes, she added hurriedly, "I'll make a formal request in writing, if you need it, and also sign a waiver of liability. But I'd really, really like to be a part of it, if you'll allow it."

She certainly seemed sincere, but the logistics could be difficult. "It's really not necessary, you know," Blair said gently. "With a major in sociology, you can get an anthropology minor without going on any field trips."

"I know," Desirée agreed. "And if it was something out of the country, I wouldn't even ask -- between flying with my chair, and trying to deal with it in primitive conditions, it wouldn't be worth the effort. But something that's been dumped in our laps, that's close enough that I can drive my own van to the site -- it's too good an opportunity to pass up."

"'Close' doesn't mean 'easy'. Once you get out of your van, the ground is rough, with lots of tangled underbrush scattered around. And -- forgive me -- but can you get out of that chair to do any digging?"

"Professor -- Blair -- I've been chair-bound for over ten years; I know my capabilities, and they outweigh my limitations. I have a special 'roughneck' chair -- kind of stripped down, lighter and lower, with fatter tires for better off-road traveling. And yes, with someone to stabilize the chair for me, I can get out and down, and then back up again. And once I'm down, I won't be any different from anyone else -- we'll all be sitting on our butts, scratching in the dirt."

Desirée was accustomed to judging people's character, and their reactions; it was a necessary skill she'd developed to smooth out her interactions with the able-bodied. She recognized that Blair wasn't deliberately trying to prevent her participation; he was sincerely concerned about her safety. She pressed her attack.

"Besides, I figure I'd be a natural for the less active aspects -- like keeping the records. I could sort and catalogue and write the descriptions, give everyone else more time for digging."

"You could do that on campus," Blair pointed out, wondering, at the same time, why he was arguing with her. He had so many students who just went through the motions of learning, doing the bare minimum until they could get their degree. Enthusiasm like this should be encouraged, not squashed. Still, how dangerous might even a 'tame' dig-site be for a girl in a wheelchair? "We'll have to bring anything we find back here, anyway, and you could do the cataloguing and describing in air-conditioned comfort."

"But this might be -- probably will be -- my one chance to participate in an honest-to-god dig; it's too good an opportunity to miss." On the theory that 'all's fair', Desirée cast him a deliberately pleading glance and then pulled out the big guns. "Would it make a difference if I brought someone along who knows how to help me? I have a real good friend -- Summer van Eisen -- and she knows what to do if anything goes wrong, and she's strong enough to get it done."

"I don't recognize the name," Blair admitted. "Is she new?"

"Well, she's not actually taking the class. But I'm sure I can talk her in to it, and she's only missed two lectures; I can help her catch up."

"I don't give out easy A's," Blair warned. "If she wants to keep up her grade-point average she'll have to do the work, even if she's just along to help you out."

Desirée nodded decisively. "I'll make sure she knows, before she signs up. But if she agrees, will you allow both of us to join the dig?"

With a mental sigh, Blair capitulated. Desirée might be wrong about being able to work the dig site but, at the very least, she deserved an opportunity to try. Hopefully, if it became too difficult for her, she'd admit it and let him make other -- easier -- arrangements. "You've got a deal," he said, smiling warmly and finally relaxing. "Welcome to our dig team, Miss -- sorry -- Dessie. I think you'll find it rather more arduous than you expect, but you're right -- it'll be a helluva lotta fun. Just remember -- sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats are your friend."

Blair winked at her wide, bright smile and escorted her out of the office. He watched thoughtfully as she wheeled briskly down the hallway. She was so eager; he truly hoped she'd be able to participate as she wanted, and not be disappointed in the experience.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Okay, office hours were officially over; time to go meet Jim. They'd questioned two of the robbery victims last week -- Andrews and Cardenelli -- and learned nothing new. But Blair was beginning to understand that some policework -- especially for a detective -- was a lot like archaeology; you kept sifting through the layers until you found the one fact that became the key to putting all the puzzle pieces together.

Then they'd had to deal with the Angie Ferris case, and put the robbery investigation on hold. But now Weston was dead and Ferris was safe; it was puzzle-piecing time again. Today Jim was planning to descend on some of the other victims, and Blair would be with him to ensure that he didn't zone while listening to their heartbeats or other subtle signals.

As he locked his office door behind him, he just hoped that there'd be time for lunch somewhere in that schedule.

Desirée had to express her excitement somehow. As soon as she was outside the building and had room to maneuver, she popped a wheelie and spun in a circle, her delight bubbling out in a gleeful laugh. Yes! She was in, she was in, she was in!

After a moment, she grabbed control of her emotions and released the chair to settle back to ground level before she became dizzy and lost control. Falling backwards would be a pain in the butt -- literally -- not to mention how foolish she'd feel if someone came by before she could pick herself up and manage to get back in her chair. She drew a deep breath, instead, and started considering the practical aspects. Joining the dig wasn't a hundred percent certainty, of course; it wasn't very likely, but Summer might say 'no'.

Desirée twisted to reach into the backpack hanging from the chair's handles, pulled out her copy of Summer's schedule and considered it thoughtfully. Summer was majoring in Theatre and Drama; she really couldn't ask her to give up Acting 201, nor her costuming or set design classes. PE was also off-limits; fencing wasn't offered every semester, and Summer was so excited about actually learning to handle a blade. "If I ever get a part as a pirate queen, I'll be able to make the swordplay look real," she'd said, even though her smile had been self-deprecating. Desirée approved; being able to shine at something like that would help boost her friend's self-esteem. But... Music 201 or Woodshop could be taken at any time; maybe Summer would be willing to drop one of those.

Desirée glanced at her watch; ten forty-five. Summer's music class was at eleven; maybe she could persuade her to cut class and they'd go for an early lunch, and Desirée could explain her plan. It would work; it just had to. Desirée stuffed the schedule into her backpack, wheeled her chair in a tight circle, and headed toward the music building. She was pretty sure Summer used the south entrance...

Desirée was still some distance away when she saw her friend walking with another theatre student just as they reached the main doors. "SUMMER!" she shouted, with a volume that she had several times proven could be heard a block away.

Summer whirled instantly, her gaze quickly locating her friend. Of course, with sunlight flashing off the spokes of her wheels, Desirée could hardly blend into the background. Summer said a quick word to her companion, and then she was hurrying toward her friend.

"Dessie! Is something wrong?" she called anxiously, as soon as she was within range.

Desirée waited calmly till her friend was within easy talking distance. "Not wrong," she said, "right. But I need your help with it. I thought you could cut class and we could work it out over an early lunch."

Summer hesitated. Unlike Desirée, she never looked for minimal excuses to avoid class, claiming that making up the work was more hassle than the time was worth. "Lunch is only an hour away," she pointed out, "and we were going to meet then, anyway."

"I'm too excited to wait, and I want someplace more private than the cafeteria. We can go to the Grill-Tastic; it's on me," Desirée coaxed.

Summer regarded her friend thoughtfully. "When you resort to bribes, I know you're up to something."

Desirée grinned cheerfully, undaunted. "Of course I am. But I promise it won't hurt, and I think you'll even like it. And even if you don't like the idea, at least you'll get a free lunch out of it; what d'ya say?"

Summer surrendered. "I say life would be a lot duller if I'd never met you. But you are going to pay -- I'm ordering an appetizer and lunch and dessert. And probably an extra-thick chocolate shake. The condemned man eats a hearty last meal and all that."

Desirée laughed happily, allowing Summer to have the last word as they headed toward the lot where she'd parked her van.

Another round of questioning was proving no more productive than the first. As expected, going over the same ground that Burglary had already covered had gotten them nowhere; there wasn't a single clue to be discovered. But they needed to rule out the possibility that one or all of the victims were trying to instigate an insurance fraud. So far, no one had hidden their own items with a view to collecting the insurance and then selling said items on a collector's black market; Jim's analysis of heartbeats and voice stress as he questioned each member of the various households had assured him of that. And, contrary to popular 'whodunnits', the butler in each case was also innocent -- as were the housekeepers, maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, and various other hangers-on.

Of course they are, Jim thought, sourly. It would be too easy for someone to break into a sweat and start babbling a confession. But his face gave no hint of his irritation as he faced the tall, thin man in front of him, who looked far too bland to be the business-shark that Jim had heard he was. "I appreciate your willingness to answer these questions again, Mr. Petersen," he said smoothly. "Sometimes describing incidents again can shake loose a forgotten nugget of information." He waited, but the man in front of him merely shrugged and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, detective; there's nothing I can add. Brad forgot to turn on the alarm system when he took his little sister to her swim class. When they returned a couple of hours later, the front door was ajar, but nothing was visibly disturbed. It wasn't until I got home and checked the most likely targets that I discovered my coin collection was missing."

"And none of your household staff noticed a burglar traipsing through the house because...?"

"As I told the other policemen, Thursday and Sunday afternoons are the staff's days off. It was a nice day, and everyone was out; I don't pry into my staff's concerns."

No matter; Jim had already assured himself that the staff was 'clean'. "Then, sir, may we talk to Brad? Since he was the last one out of the house, and the first to return, perhaps he saw or heard something that might be helpful."

"I have no objection, Detective, but he isn't here. During the college semester, he prefers to share a house on 'Frat Row' with several of his friends. It gives him a little extra independence, and relieves his mother and me of the noise and rowdiness when he wants to entertain his friends. I'm sure you can find him there -- two thirty-four Appleton Way."

It had been the same with everyone he questioned; the college-age son or daughter preferred to room near campus rather than with 'mommy' and 'daddy', regardless of how accommodating the parents tried to be.

"I know it, Jim." Sandburg spoke quietly, but with assurance. "It's right across from the campus theatre."

There was no sense in continuing the questioning; the answers wouldn't suddenly change to something more useful. Jim stood, drawing the interview to a close. "Thank you, Mr. Petersen," he said, shaking hands as the other man also stood. "Again, I appreciate you giving us the time to confirm our information."

"Not a problem, Detective," Mr. Petersen said as he escorted them to the door. "If there's any chance it'll help lead you to the thief, and recover my coin collection, I'm glad to help."

Blair heaved a sigh as he settled himself beside Jim in the Ford-150. "I don't know how you do it, man," he complained. "They all remind me of Sergeant Schultz; 'I see nothing, I know nothing!'" His mimicry was a far cry from the original. "How do you keep doing it?"

Jim chuckled. "Keep your day-job, Chief; Rich Little you ain't. As for my job, even negative information is valuable. It lets us avoid wasting our time on a dead-end road. And it is very much like fishing, or hunting; you have to have patience -- which you, my friend, seem to lack. You should develop that," he advised, with mock-seriousness. "It could come in handy for a teacher or for an anthropologist. I'll be happy to teach you. Till then, are you ready to tackle Taylor and Colberg?"

"Y'know, those lessons would go down a lot easier on a full stomach," Blair suggested. "I know this place close to the campus -- The Grill-Tastic -- plenty of meat for you and veggies for me, and the atmosphere's pretty relaxed without being rowdy."

Jim chuckled again as he put the Ford in gear and headed toward Rainier. "You got it, Chief. Lunch first, then more hunting."

Over a hearty lunch, which both agreed beat the cafeteria food six ways from Sunday, Desirée explained her unexpected opportunity. Summer, although supportive, was puzzled.

"But why do you want to?" she asked. "It's not like working on a dig will help you counsel some kid who's in trouble."

Desirée chuckled. "Who knows? Maybe it'll impress some kid who's trying to be all macho-tough. But that's not the point, and you know it. After all -- who's saving up money to take hang-gliding lessons next summer? It's not like that'll help improve your acting skills."

"Guilty," Summer said, chuckling in her turn. "Okay, we have different ideas of fun, so I'll be a good friend and say, 'go for it'. But why should I rearrange my schedule to take a different class? You're quite capable of managing on your own -- and you'll have some of your classmates around if you need help."

"I know that, and you know that, but Mr. Sandburg doesn't know that. I had him last year, and he really cares for his students. Add in me being in a wheelchair, and... well, sometimes he could give a mother hen lessons in solicitous hovering; he's a sweetie, but a worrywart. He'll just be more comfortable if I have experienced backup, and I don't want to force the issue -- there's no quicker way to get on a teacher's bad side." Desirée winked conspiratorially and lowered her voice as she leaned toward her friend. "Besides, wait till you see him. He's probably only four or five years older than we are, and the best-looking teacher on campus, with the prettiest blue eyes you'll ever see. It's worth taking one of his classes just for the eye-candy."

Leaning back, Desirée looked around the room to signal the waitress for a refill of her tea. A hearty laugh caught her ear, and she glanced toward the source. Surprised, she reached out to clutch Summer's arm. "Look! There he is!" She spoke quietly but urgently. "Sitting at the table in the corner with the tall, buff guy."

Summer peeked circumspectly -- staring was rude -- then used the dessert menu to hide a longer examination. "You're right," she agreed. "He is cute. But not enough to make up being bored to tears in a class that doesn't interest me."

"I wouldn't do that to you!" Desirée feigned outrage, then grinned at her friend. "He really makes his lectures interesting, with all kinds of stories about different peoples and cultures. I bet it could give you insights into human reactions, that you could use when you're developing a character. And he's got a great sense of humor. Besides, haven't you been the one to tell me that knowledge is never wasted?" Desirée's eyes twinkled, laughing as Summer shrugged and gave in.

"Oh, all right!" Summer exclaimed, laughing with her friend. "It does sound like fun. But don't expect me to go all goo-goo eyes over him; I've got way more pride than that. And besides, it's likely that I couldn't get through the pack of other girls crowding around him, even if I wanted to."

"Likely not," Desirée agreed, "but it might be fun to try." At Summer's glare, she had the grace to back down. Her friend didn't play at flirtation as so many girls did, and it really wasn't nice to tease her about it -- at least, not too much. She became serious. "Okay, do you want to drop a class, or just add the extra three hours to your schedule?"

Summer pulled out her schedule and, together, they considered the possibilities. "Well, I'll have evening rehearsals for at least one play, and I'm making Mom a coffee table for Christmas, so I'll probably spend extra time in the woodshop. Three more hours wouldn't be a good idea. I think I'll just drop music; I can always take it later."

"Besides, you already have a good voice," Desirée assured her. "Okay, we'll stop at the registrar's office when we leave here. And -- thank you. You know I really appreciate you supporting me in this."

"Aww..." Summer shrugged uncomfortably. "No big deal. You're right; I think it'll be fun. Besides, it's what friends do."

Desirée shook her head. "Not all friends; not even most," she murmured too quietly for Summer to hear. Raising her voice, she said, "Still, I'm grateful. And what do you say to dessert before we leave; you're making me pay for the favor, remember? And then you can tell me why you're tackling something as ambitious as a coffee table." She looked around to catch the waitress's eye. "Apple strudel or key lime pie?"

"How about both, and we'll split each? And a coffee table's not so ambitious; at least it's flat. Dad's making a pair of matching end-tables with drawers; now that's tricky."

"But you said you'd been watching him since you were little."

"Watching's not the same as doing," Summer pointed out. "Dad wasn't comfortable with his little girl using the big, dangerous power tools. I need a little more experience with them -- and with fitting things together -- before I tackle that."

The waitress brought their desserts. As planned, they cut each in half and shared with the other, then lingered, too busy talking to eat as they discussed classes, boys, future life plans, and the upcoming fraternity / sorority mixer the following weekend.

Jim was halfway through his double-meat cheeseburger with home-fries. Blair was right; the cooking was excellent. He swallowed just in time to avoid a spit-take as he laughed heartily at one of Blair's more outrageous stories, then cocked his head and snorted softly. "Your ears should be burning, Chief."

"Hunh? Why?" Blair's fried chicken strips weren't all that much healthier than Jim's lunch; he'd already decided on making a nice stir-fry for dinner.

"One of the young ladies over there," Jim nodded toward the other side of the room, "has declared that you're the best-looking teacher on campus, with -- and I quote -- 'the prettiest blue eyes you'll ever see'." He pronounced the last with a delicate, tremulous falsetto, batting his lashes invitingly.

To his friend's amusement, Blair actually looked embarrassed. "Jim, I'm a healthy young male, and I enjoy dating -- if the woman is eligible. I do not hit on students. Not only is it all kinds of wrong, it'd land me in hot water so fast I'd be parboiled. Please tell me you're talking about one of the other TAs."

"Well, I don't know, Sandburg; is one of your fellow teaching assistants in a wheelchair?"

"What?" Blair turned to look. Fortunately -- as far as he was concerned -- the young women had already turned their attention back to their conversation, and didn't notice him ogling them. With a sigh of relief, he turned back to Jim. "That's Desirée Kawasani. She's in my two-oh-one class, and actually pretty level-headed. Maybe she's just teasing her friend?" he suggested hopefully.

"Seems like it," Jim agreed. "And I think you're off the hook; the other girl just declared that she has too much pride to 'make goo-goo eyes' over you -- although she does agree you're..." he switched back to the teasing falsetto, "...'cute'."

"'Cute' is good, 'cute' I can live with; it helps me get dates. But I was speaking with Desirée just before I met you; what are the odds that we'd have lunch at the same place?"

Jim surveyed the room judiciously. "Popular spot for the campus crowd, right?" Blair nodded. "And they -- and you -- are part of the campus crowd, right?" Blair nodded again. "And this place was your suggestion." Jim shrugged. "I'd say the chances are pretty high; I'd buy a lottery ticket with such odds."

"Yeah, but still..." Blair snapped his fingers as an idea hit him. "Maybe that's the friend Desirée was talking about, the one she wants to help her with the Petersen dig."

"Wait! You're requiring a crippled girl to participate in an archaeologic dig?" Jim seemed shocked.

"Hey, she requested it!" Blair defended himself. "And it's her right -- the ADA says we have to make reasonable accommodations. Besides, who am I to tell someone they 'can't' do something? You're the best example I know for 'you don't know what you can do till you try'. What gets me is, Desirée seemed absolutely certain that her friend would change her whole schedule to join my class and help her with the dig. If she's right, that's awesome; you don't see that kind of friendship every day."

Jim became very interested in dunking a home-fry precisely into the ketchup. "Actually, I do see that kind of friendship, Sandburg, every damn day," he said softly, addressing his words toward the table.


"You, Chief." Jim finally looked up, meeting Blair's eyes earnestly. "You've changed your whole schedule -- your whole life -- to be at my side as often as you can, making sure these senses don't knock me for a loop. You're right; it is awesome. And -- and -- I really do appreciate it," he finished awkwardly, dropping his gaze back toward the table. "I know you probably want to get back to your real life; I swear I'm trying to get a handle on these senses as fast as I can. But whenever you want to leave, just say the word; I'll manage with what you've already taught me."

Blair stared. Where was this coming from? True, he'd only known the man a few months but, for all his griping about his senses and the tests Blair subjected him to, Jim Ellison didn't strike him as a quitter. Hell, he sounded as if he expected to be kicked out in the gutter, when it was Blair who lived in his loft, and followed him around by his sufferance.

He'd have to examine this issue further but, for now, he had to snap the big man out of it; he couldn't stand to see Jim Ellison practically... groveling. "Man, you are such a doofus!" Blair announced, making sure to inject his voice with sufficient amusement.

"I know, Chief, and I --" Jim stopped, as the meaning of the words penetrated. He looked up, a frown creasing his brows. "What did you say?"

"You're a doofus," Blair repeated with relish. "Or would you prefer 'dunderhead', 'numbskull', or maybe 'chump'? What makes you think I'm itchin' to leave?"

"Well, it just makes sense that --"

"It makes no sense!" Blair cut in. "Not to be too sappy here, but this friendship thing works both ways; I get every bit as much from you as you get from me -- which doesn't matter anyway, because friendship isn't about making sure things are 'equal'. It's about being there for your friend, and Jim, you've got that in spades! Why would you think otherwise?"

"You've always been a free spirit, and I tie you down," Jim argued.

"I've always been a wanderer, and you've given me a home," Blair shot back.

"My work is dangerous."

"Your work is also interesting, and I learn new insights every day."

"I yell at you when you break my rules." Jim's eyes were beginning to twinkle.

"You pick me up when my car breaks down." Blair's earnest expression relaxed into a slight smile.

"I take a lot of your time."

"You give me so much of yours."

"I'm not going to win, am I?"

"We're friends, Jim," Blair insisted. "I know I use the word casually sometimes, but in this case I mean it all the way down to my toes. Friends... accept, and adjust, and it goes both ways. Believe me, I don't see any imbalance between us."

Jim glanced up as laughter drifted across the room. "Like them, huh, Chief?"

Blair followed Jim's gaze to see Desirée and her friend leaving the restaurant, still in animated conversation as they went. They should have made an odd couple -- one walking, one wheeling -- yet they matched each other as fluidly as a pair of ballroom dancers. Blair could practically see a psychic bond shimmering between them.

"Looks like it," he agreed. "Of course, I don't know Desirée well enough, or her friend at all, but if they have half the connection we do, they're incredibly lucky. Don't fight it, Jim. If a couple of young girls can manage it, surely we can do the same."

"You're right, Sandburg; you're getting sappy." Jim tossed a tip on the table and stood, picking up the check. "Let's go; we have more fishing to do."

A wise man knew when to let a discussion rest. Blair laid his own tip on the table and followed his friend toward the exit.

Saturday, 9/14/96

Desirée turned her van off the rough path pressed into the dirt by earlier machines and into a roped-off grassy area that already held an old Corvair, a battered white pickup truck, and an aged blue van with surfing decals on the side. She parked to the left of the blue van, carefully judging the distance so that the space would be too small for another vehicle to park, while leaving ample room for her lift.

The four classmates who had ridden with them hopped out, chatting happily together, and began the process of unloading and carrying their gear and supplies to the work area; someone -- Professor Sandburg? -- had set up a long folding table, which was half-covered in boxes and various implements. A short distance away, a four-foot stake topped by pink surveyor's tape stood in the middle of an area of raw dirt, the marks of the backhoe clearly evident. While Desirée made her way to the lift, Summer opened the rear doors and pulled out the 'roughneck' chair. When Desirée reached ground-level, she quickly made the transfer to the other chair. Then Summer plunked Desirée's bag of tools into her lap, shouldered her own bag, grabbed the small cooler that held their lunch and drinks, and they headed toward the knot of people clustered around the table.

As she traveled the path of crushed vegetation left by the backhoe -- and how had anyone found a pottery shard in a pile of backhoe dumpings, she wondered -- Desirée evaluated the area she'd be working in. The grass was about eight inches high -- this part of the estate must not get mowed very often -- and the ground was somewhat rocky, and littered with broken sticks of various sizes, the visible detritus of past storms. Rough, yes, but she wouldn't have nearly the trouble traveling over it that Mr. Sandburg expected.

As they reached the group, Mr. Sandburg acknowledged them with a glance, and made a couple of checkmarks on a pad held by his clipboard. "Okay, that's everybody," he announced. "And I really appreciate you all coming out on a Saturday. After we get the site measured and roped off and everybody's on the same page, you won't need to wait for the whole group; you can come out whenever you have free time, as long as you're working with a buddy. But that's for later; now is when we get this plan off the ground." He grinned widely, his eyes sparkling with excitement, and was answered by matching grins from the assembled students.

Privately, Desirée admired the view. Blair had his hair tied back out of the way, which was a shame, especially with that funky-looking hat on top, but he was wearing shorts and a T-shirt against the expected heat of the day, which showed off his body quite nicely. Desirée glanced at her friend to see if she was also enjoying the sight, but it was obvious that she was all business. After Summer had set their lunch cooler in the shade under the table with several others, she was clearly paying attention to what the man was saying, rather than the man himself. Ah, well, she should have known. With a mental shrug, Desirée also turned her attention to her teacher's instructions.

"Now, the pottery shard is estimated to be around three to four hundred years old, probably from the Tulalip tribe. At that time, villages were rarely more than two hundred yards across -- but we have no idea where in the village this pot might have been. If it was on the east edge, for example, and we dig eastward, we won't find a thing. What that means is, we consider this point the center, and the outer edge is two hundred yards in every direction -- and that's a little over a hundred and twenty-five thousand square yards that we might have to examine."

Heartfelt groans rose around him, and he chuckled. "I thought you all wanted to be archaeologists or anthropologists? This is part of the gig, people; you'll be doing more before you graduate. The archaeology students need the experience more than the anthropologists -- at least we can talk to our subjects. Personally, that's why I chose this branch of the science..." he paused to let a titter of laughter pass around the group, "...but you will all need some hands-on experience with a dig. Consider yourselves lucky that your first dig is situated so that you can go home each day, to a hot shower and a soft bed."

"And pizza for supper instead of grasshopper stew!" an unidentified voice -- at least to Desirée -- called out. But Mr. Sandburg wasn't stumped.

"Tony, you only think you're joking," he said. "Grasshopper stew can be quite tasty, and filling. But more than that, it represents hours of work from the women of the household or village, to catch enough grasshoppers and prepare them properly. And if you turn your nose up at what they offer, you risk offending the whole tribe."

Mr. Sandburg's gaze swept over the whole group. "I usually cover this a little later in the year, but since it's come up -- when you're in the field, working with the local people, it can be damned hard to be accepted; you are an outsider, and they have no reason to trust in your honor or good nature. If you are fortunate enough to be accepted into their community, you will eat what they eat without hesitation and with a smile on your face, and you will compliment the cook if it's appropriate in that culture. Take comfort from the fact that, if they eat it, it's unlikely to actually poison you." The titter of laughter seemed distinctly nervous, this time, and Blair winked at the group. "If you need something else to boost your courage, remember that sharing a meal is the easiest and fastest way to be accepted into a community, and you will gain an insight into gender relationships and community / familial status around their equivalent of the dinner table that will enhance everything else you learn."

Most of the students were nodding thoughtfully, and Tony Caletti -- Desirée recognized him now, a good-looking boy who usually hid his intelligence behind a brash, joking manner -- looked slightly abashed.

"But enough of that," Mr. Sandburg declared. "First order of business is the walkover. How about..." he looked at eager hands raised, "Amanda and Nathan." He reached into the cardboard box at his feet and pulled out two coils of bright yellow rope, two wooden stakes, and two medium-sized mallets. He handed one set to each student.

"Each rope is six hundred and three feet long -- just over two hundred yards. You will tie one end of the rope around the base of our center stake." He nodded toward the nearby stake, and waited while they did so and returned to the group. "Now, you will walk forward until you reach the end of the rope. Then you will turn to face each other, and maneuver sideways until you have a straight line between you, with no obvious bend at the center stake. Step toward the center stake one pace, drive your stake in the ground, and tie your rope to the stake. That line will be the main point of reference for our trenches. Nathan, you head that way, and Amanda, you head the other."

Nathan looked at the trees Mr. Sandburg had pointed him toward -- the edge of a small forested area, then at the rope coiled beside the stake. "Uh... Professor? I think those trees are closer than two hundred yards."

"Excellent observation!" their teacher proclaimed. "Ladies and gentlemen, take a look, and tell me how old you think this bit of forest is." He waited expectantly.

"Not very old," Summer whispered to Desirée. "Maybe forty years; fifty, tops."

"Don't tell me, tell him!" Desirée whispered back, fiercely. When her friend didn't speak up, Desirée did. "Summer thinks the trees are only forty or fifty years old."

Mr. Sandburg's smile was encouraging. "And how did you arrive at that conclusion?" he asked gently; his newest student looked like she wanted to melt into the ground.

Placed on the spot, Summer took a deep breath and answered strongly, "Their size. For this part of the country, their general diameter and height correlates to about forty or fifty years' growth. And also, I think this stand was planted, instead of occurring naturally."

"And your reasoning is...?" Their teacher's smile widened.

"Well... they aren't in rows, but the spacing is too uniform; there are no trees crowding each other, and as far as I can see, no gaps. Also, the trees themselves are too uniform; there's no size differential. There should be everything from seedlings just getting started to hoary old 'grandfather' trees, and there aren't." Summer shrugged. "Natural growth just isn't so... neat."

"Give the lady a gold star!" Mr. Sandburg announced. "It seems that the current owner's mother wanted to set up a nature preserve, so her husband decided to let her have her own bit of forest to play in.

"Which goes back to Nathan's question. If the trees weren't here fifty years ago, that means...?" He threw the question to the entire group.

"It would have been open ground three hundred years ago, and the Tulalip village could have included that area!"

"And a gold star for David, as well. Now, it isn't likely that we'll find artifacts there; otherwise, something would have turned up when they were planting the trees. Which means we'll be concentrating in the other parts of our search area, first," he assured them. "But if we don't find anything, we will move our search area into the trees; a good scientist doesn't let 'not likely' get in the way of doing a thorough job. So, Nathan and Amanda, do your thing." Mr. Sandburg waved the students onward, and the group watched as they carefully followed his instructions.

"Good!" their teacher said, when the ropes were in place. "Now, divide into four groups; each group needs a tape measure, thirty stakes, and a mallet." He waited while they organized themselves and collected the equipment. "Now, we need guidelines parallel to the center rope. You'll start from the end stake and move sideways, placing another stake every ten feet. Have at it."

Blair watched with carefully-hidden amusement and an analytical eye as his students sorted themselves out and decided how to proceed. He could have given more specific instructions, and even chosen four group 'leaders', but he felt it was more beneficial for the students to work through the logistics themselves. At this stage, there wasn't anything they could do that couldn't be easily corrected, if necessary, and they could start to develop a 'group dynamic' -- learning and adjusting to each others' strengths and weaknesses, recognizing those who seemed to be natural leaders, and those who were content to play supporting roles.

He kept an eye on Desirée in her wheelchair, but she seemed to have no difficulty with the terrain and, in fact, appeared to be the nucleus of her group. She carried the stakes on her lap, kept an eagle-eye on the measurements, and made sure the stakes were in a straight line, as well as being the requisite ten feet apart. Blair made a mental note; Desirée was certainly an effective leader, but he might have to suggest that she'd need to step back occasionally and give other people a chance to try the leadership role.

Stakes in place, the students straggled back toward him, and Blair smiled encouragingly. "Good work, folks! Now, some of you grab a ball of string," he pointed to another box, which held over a dozen large rolls of heavy sisal twine, "tie it to one stake, run it down to its opposite on the other end, and tie it off there, about six inches above ground level. You should be able to do about three lines before you run out." Again the students spread over the area, following directions without observable mishaps.

"Excellent, excellent!" Blair proclaimed when the guidelines were in place and the students back near him. "Now we can actually start looking. We'll each take a lane -- well, three lanes, but only one at a time -- and do a close ground-scan. We'll start at the open end of the row and walk slowly -- slowly, people! -- down the row, looking for anything that might have been manmade. Be sure you weave back and forth -- you need to cover the entire width of your lane -- and kick through the grass; you need to have seen the actual ground before you move forward. Let's start with the middle rows, and work outward from there." Blair waved them onward, waiting -- again -- while they sorted themselves out; he intended to watch everyone's technique while they did their first lane, rather than walking a row himself.

But Desirée -- and Summer beside her -- didn't immediately join the group. Blair watched discreetly as Desirée chewed her lower lip while she glanced between her feet, resting on the footrests of her wheelchair, and the ground in front of her. Her gaze moved over the equipment on and around the table, then she smiled. After a whispered request, Summer hurried to grab one of the unused stakes and, together, they hurried to catch up to the group. Choosing an empty lane, Desirée accepted the stake from her friend, and used it to start poking through the grass, while Summer started kicking through the grass of the next row. Satisfied that Desirée had solved her little problem, Blair turned his attention to evaluate the other students.

Two hours later, the last lane had been walked, and students straightened kinked backs with soft groans. Blair added a groan to theirs, then announced ruefully, "Well, nobody ever claimed it was a cushy profession, folks! But now let's take your exciting discoveries to the table and analyze them."

The variety of man-made objects found in a four-hundred-yard circle of supposedly 'untouched' terrain was amazing. They had a dirt-encrusted 1967 quarter, six links of a gold chain, a flattened and faded beer can, a cheap cigarette lighter, a bent and twisted glasses frame with no lenses, a short length of narrow-gauge plastic pipe, and something that was probably a camera's lens-cap. Other items, picked up just to demonstrate that a student had found something, included a broken mussel-shell, six feathers of various kinds, and a weather-beaten small animal skull -- possibly a skunk or 'possum. The students eyed the pathetic-looking little collection unenthusiastically, but Blair had a completely different view.

"Hey, this is great, just great! In the first place, it proves to me that you have eyes, and were actually paying attention. And in the second place, it demonstrates... what do you think, Edgar?"

Placed on the spot, the young man groped frantically for an answer. "Well, it demonstrates... a lot of people can't hold on to their stuff." Muted laughter swept through the group, though Blair smiled encouragingly.

"Well, that's certainly true... but doesn't have the archaeologic significance we're looking for. Anyone else? Yasmina?"

"Um... it proves that even very small objects can be found if you look hard enough?"

"That, too," Blair agreed. "Anyone else?" He was met by silence, which he broke with a chuckle. "It means that none of us are Indiana Jones, and we won't be discovering the lost Ark of the Covenant. But, it's also a kind of carrot to work toward; if you can find all this right on top, just imagine what might be hiding a few inches down. Even if it's quieter than the good Professor Jones's, it's an adventure, people!" He rubbed his hands together theatrically, while the young men and women around him regarded their 'finds' more favorably.

"And now, it's lunchtime. If you head into the trees, you'll find that Mr. Petersen has been kind enough to have a Porta-Potty installed back there, where it can't be seen. Handi-wipes all around," he nodded at a large container on the end of the table, "then pick a shady spot to sit and chow down. After lunch, we'll start digging our first trenches."

Monday, 9/23/96

"So, any more questions?" Blair asked. The discussion had been lively, but the class period had just two minutes left to run, and the students knew it; no one raised a hand. "Okay, read chapter five by Wednesday, and do a little research -- I want a list of ten items that the tribes-people of the region might add to their diet." He chuckled at the soft groans that met his assignment. "If you react like this at a ten-item list, you'll have to collapse on the floor to express your opinion when I require a five-page comparative analysis. Proportion, people, proportion!"

As the students moved toward the classroom door, it opened. Jim stepped inside, glanced around the room, and strode to the podium. "Proportion, Chief? Sounds too much like 'cheer up'."

Blair was startled. "Jim! What are you doing here? And how do you connect 'proportion' and 'cheer up'?"

"You never heard about the guy who was down on his luck?"

Blair shook his head, meanwhile gathering his lecture materials.

"Well, he was. He'd totaled his car the day before, his wife left him, his dog died, and then he got fired. He was grousing about it to a bartender, and the guy told him, 'Cheer up; things could be worse!' The unlucky guy thought about it and realized the bartender was right, so he cheered up. And sure enough, things got worse."

Blair snorted. "Oh, man, that's got to be older than I am! Let's go back to my first question -- why are you here?" He glanced around the now-empty classroom, but lowered his voice anyway. "Are you having problems with your senses?"

"No, but I'm hoping to prevent one; there's been another robbery, and I'd like you with me when I go over the scene. Can you get away?"

"Yeah, this was my last class for the day," Blair said, leading the way toward his office. "Let me just put a note on the door to cancel office hours and I'll be right with you." Reaching his cluttered little cubbyhole, Blair shoved a couple of textbooks and notepads into his backpack, scribbled a note and tacked it on the outside of the door, then slung the backpack over his shoulder. "Ready!" he announced, and followed his partner's long strides out toward Jim's truck.

"So what's the scoop?" Blair asked as Jim pulled out of the parking lot.

"A Mr. Charles Agonestes was in his safe earlier today, and noticed that some items had been disturbed. When he checked, he found that several rare stamps were missing from his collection. Just like all the others, there are no obvious clues; I'm hoping my senses will let me pick up some un-obvious ones, and I need you there so I don't zone."

"No problemo, big guy," Blair assured him. "I'll have your back." He settled against the seat-back with a thrill of pride. His sentinel was admitting that he benefited from Blair's help; that was so cool!

Mr. Agonestes himself, a short, rotund man with thinning hair and shrewd eyes, met them at the door and led them toward his study. "Thank you for coming, gentlemen. I haven't disturbed anything since I discovered the loss," he continued, waving toward a wall-safe, "but I don't think that will be much help. Except for the ledgers being shifted, I haven't noticed any signs that anyone but me has been in here."

"You can be sure we'll evaluate the scene very carefully," Jim said, "and our technicians are trained to find the tiniest pieces of evidence. But I need to ask some questions first; establishing a background can help us determine what does and doesn't belong at the scene."

"Certainly; have a seat," Mr. Agonestes said, waving them toward a pair of leather chairs and sitting behind his desk. "Anything I can do to help."

Jim nodded. "First, how many people know of your stamp collection?"

Mr. Agonestes sighed. "I'm quite proud of the collection, and I've shown it to all my friends -- several times over. And my family and household staff."

"And those would be...?"

"I have a wife, Mary, a son in college -- Kevin -- and two daughters; Candace in high school and Rebecca in junior high. Household staff includes a maid, a housekeeper/cook, and a gardener -- although the gardener rarely comes in the house, and never past the kitchen."

"How long has it been since you last confirmed that your stamp collection was intact?"

"Labor Day weekend; I'd just bought a couple of new stamps, and had the album open to mount them."

"But you didn't notice anything disturbed until today?"

"No, detective. I locked everything up on Friday, and didn't even come into this room all weekend; we had a big party -- one of your typical, keep-the-wheels-greased corporate shindigs -- and things were a bit hectic." His expression turned grim. "I don't want to think that one of my friends might have stolen from me, but it seems the most logical conclusion. On the other hand, I'm not a fool; I locked the door when I left the room on Friday, and it was still locked this morning."

"We'll check the lock for signs of tampering," Jim promised. "But before that, may we talk to your family and staff?"

"Certainly." Mr. Agonestes glanced at his watch. "The girls won't be home from school for about half an hour, but I suppose by the time you finish with everyone else, they'll be here."

"And Kevin?"

"He's gone back to college already; prefers to live in a Frat house on campus -- two-three-four Appleton Way. You can talk to him there, but he won't be able to tell you anything."

"Was he here this weekend?"

"Oh, yes, along with several of his friends. After all, the young people have to learn the social ins and outs of the corporate world if they expect to join us in business." Agonestes' smile was filled with pride. "Kevin's a good boy; I look forward to the day I can add a second 'Agonestes' to my logo."

Jim kept his shudder internal. His own father had had similar plans for him, which had helped form his decision to join the Military; in his opinion, being a businessman was a fate to be avoided at all costs. He wondered if Kevin actually wanted to join his father in business, or if he also was just paying lip-service until he could escape.

"If he was here, he could have seen something that didn't mean anything at the time, but might be a point of interest in retrospect. We'll try to talk to him tomorrow. In the meantime, I'd like to start with your staff."

"Of course, Detective. Shall I have them report here one at a time?"

Blair jumped in before Jim could speak. "Maybe someplace more neutral, like the kitchen, so they won't feel so much like they're being called on the carpet," he suggested.

Jim raised an eyebrow, but nodded his agreement. Mr. Agonestes shrugged and led them down a long hallway.

"What was that for, Chief?" Jim murmured as they followed their host. "Someone might have shown nerves being at the scene of their crime."

"Scent traces, man!" Blair whispered forcefully. "Once you know their scents, you can tell who's been in the room recently. But if they walk in now, it'll contaminate the scene; you won't know if the scent is old or new."

Jim frowned, but the kid had a point. Seemed like he was always thinking of ways that the senses could help Jim in his work. It was useful but... a little unnerving, he admitted privately. They were his senses, dammit; why couldn't he think of these things himself? It was kind of -- annoying -- that Blair's intuitive grasp of handling the senses seemed better than his own. He couldn't afford to depend on another person to help him control the senses; what would happen if they went haywire and Blair wasn't around? Somehow, he had to find his own control -- and soon, before Sandburg finished his dissertation and left.

The kitchen was a cheerful room in russet and gold. Everyone he questioned, from the daughters to the gardener, was cooperative. Jim detected no signs of nervousness; no one exhibited an increased heartbeat or sudden surreptitious sweating or pupil dilation. And, as expected, no one had the slightest sliver of useful information.

He wrote a final line in his notebook, then stood. "Thank you, Mr. Agonestes; now we'll do a thorough examination of the study... after we've taken a look at Kevin's room," he added smoothly, acquiescing to another of Sandburg's whispered suggestions.

Mr. Agonestes shook his head as he led the way up a staircase. "I'm impressed by your thoroughness, Detective, but you won't find anything useful, I assure you."

"Probably not," Jim agreed, "but no stone unturned." He leaned closer to Blair to whisper, "And we're turning over these stones because...?"

"You can't ask to sniff a piece of his clothing before you go back to the study," Blair pointed out, keeping his voice at sentinel levels. "This way, you'll recognize his scent trace, too."

Jim mentally chalked up another one for his some-time partner as he followed Mr. Agonestes into Kevin's room. It was surprisingly bland. Other than a number of sports trophies in a display case, there were no personal touches in view. A few questions elicited the information that Kevin had moved away from his 'teenage phase' a few years previously, taking down all his sports and movie posters, and putting away his video games and sports gear -- except that which he took to college, of course.

"Man, that's unusual," Blair said, shaking his head slowly. "Every teen I know makes it a point to display their interests; it's a way to signal their inclusion in the group, and to demonstrate their level of status quo. Do you know what caused the change?"

Mr. Agonestes' smile indicated nothing but pride in his son. "Young people do eventually grow up; some manage it sooner than others. Kevin is a good boy, never been in any trouble."

Or at least, nothing he's told his parents about, was Jim's cynical, though private, observation. Sandburg was right; there was something unnatural about this room -- overly controlled, calculating. But, other than making note of the boy's scent, there was nothing useful here, and he followed Mr. Agonestes back to the study.

Before Jim asked Mr. Agonestes to open the safe, he examined the outside minutely. It had not been wiped clean as he had feared, but the layer of prints on the heavy silver handle, just under Mr. Agonestes' opening from earlier in the day, was uniformly featureless and smudged. Great, he thought sourly, too many crooks these days know to wear latex gloves.

When the safe was opened, the smell of latex on the cover of the stamp album confirmed what Jim had thought. This was, if not a professional job, certainly a careful one. Unfortunately, all the scent traces in the room -- except for Mr. Agonestes, of course -- were several days old, indicating that no one other than household members had entered recently. But maybe some of them would be unlikely visitors. "Do you allow anyone else access to the safe?" he asked.

"My wife and son, of course," Mr. Agonestes replied promptly. He chuckled softly. "I've worked hard for my money, but I pride myself on not being a skinflint; if Mary or the kids need cash, it's right there." He gestured to a small stack of bills to one side of the safe. "But I checked; there's none unaccounted for."

"The thief would know that missing money would be discovered more quickly than the missing stamps. If the ledgers hadn't been misaligned, how long might it have been before you discovered the loss?"

Mr. Agonestes shrugged. "Anywhere up to a couple of months; I don't open the album that often."

"So it's possible the stamps were taken before this weekend."

"Possible, but not likely. Since nothing else is missing, there'd be no reason for the ledgers to be disturbed if the stamps had been taken some time ago."

Jim nodded his agreement. "Of course, that means we will have to check on your guests from this weekend, but we'll be as discreet as possible. Are any of them fellow stamp-collectors?"

"No, none; they're merely tolerant when I show off my latest treasure. I'll make a copy of the guest list for you." Mr. Agonestes sat down at his desk, pulled a sheet of paper out of the drawer, and started to write.

"Thank you, sir. While you do that, Blair and I will make our initial examination, then send the forensics people in later."

Jim prowled the room, looking for anything that seemed out of place, but found nothing. What kind of detective was he that he couldn't find the evidence -- even with the help of his senses -- that must be present? He pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger, trying to force back the incipient headache.

"Maybe you're pushing too hard," Blair suggested quietly. "Try to let your focus just sort of... float... and see if anything disturbs the virtual water. And dial up your sense of smell, see if anyone beside family has been in here lately."

"Already done that, Chief," Jim objected, "and the answer is 'no'." But sometimes it seemed like his senses reacted to Sandburg's suggestions like one of Pavlov's dogs; as his sense of smell dialed up automatically, he was almost overwhelmed by scents of leather, cleaning agents, and personal care products. Cautiously reducing the input, he tried to put a timeline on the freshness of the scents. Mr. Agonestes' was most recent, of course, then Kevin a couple of days earlier, then the wife a day or so before that. But --

"Mr. Agonestes, you said Kevin's been away at college. Do you know if he entered this room during the weekend?"

"Well, of course, Detective." Mr. Agonestes looked up from his writing and answered easily. "We had a nice long conversation in here Friday afternoon, when he got here early for the party. It's refreshing to indulge in man-talk without the women present; just don't tell Mary I said that!" he chuckled.

So, the presence of Kevin's scent couldn't be counted as overtly suspicious. Still, there was something... Jim tried again, focusing on the boy's scent and working to identify why it kept pinging at his subconscious. Nerves, he decided. The boy had supposedly had a 'nice conversation' with his father, but he'd been... nervous. Why?

Continued prowling elicited no further input. Maybe Jim could pin something down when he questioned Kevin. For now, all he could do was accept the guest list from Mr. Agonestes, promise that the forensics team would be in shortly, and take his leave.

"So, anything?" Blair asked as they climbed into the truck.

"Not yet," Jim answered shortly as he pulled out of the driveway. It was too nebulous at this point to share even with Sandburg. "Maybe after we question Kevin tomorrow. Right now, we might as well pick up something to eat on the way home; Thai or Chinese?"

"Chinese," Blair voted and, after a short stop at the 'Golden Dragon', they headed back to the loft.

Summer waited patently while the three books she'd selected were being checked out.

"Are you sure that's all you need?" Desirée asked. "If you're looking for a specific quote at midnight, you won't be able to get back into the library."

Summer shrugged. "I have to leave something for others who are writing the same paper. I checked; I'm pretty sure I have the most useful sources. And now that we have Internet access in the dorms, I could always try to find something there." She placed the books in the backpack already hanging from the handles of Desirée's chair and, together, they headed out into the soft, late-summer evening.

They traveled in silence for a few moments, taking the long way past the sunken gardens before heading toward the dorms. But Desirée couldn't inhibit her outgoing nature for long, and they were soon in deep discussion about their classes, their fellow students, their teachers -- particularly one Mr. Blair Sandburg -- and the Petersen dig.

"Speaking of which... you will be coming with me to the mixer on Friday night, right?" Desirée urged. "I've heard that Brad Petersen will be there; you and he really seemed to hit it off last time," she teased gently.

"He seems nice enough," Summer answered in neutral tones, hoping that her friend wouldn't notice the blush she could feel heating her cheeks. Truthfully, she was rather attracted to the tall, sandy-haired boy; he had a good sense of humor and was fun to be around. "But Brad's always hanging out with Kevin Agonestes, and he's just plain obnoxious."

"Yeah, some guys are just assholes," Desirée agreed. "But if Brad's talking to you, Kevin will probably go grab a beer, or home in on some other girl. Or both."

Summer shook her head doubtfully. "I don't know; it's too soon to be leading him on."

"Who said anything about leading anyone on?" Desirée allowed her exasperation to show. "You meet, you talk, maybe set up a study date -- he's in your math class, right?"

Summer nodded.

"The point is, it takes time to learn enough about another person to decide if you want to take it a little farther; that's the main reason for parties and dating. You can't expect a knight in shining armor to just burst out of the ground in front of you."

"I don't want a knight in shining armor!" Summer snapped. "That's so... fairytale-ish. I just want..." She trailed off, unwilling or unable to put her ideas into words.

"You want...?" Desirée waited. Summer rarely talked about guys; if Desirée knew what her friend had in mind as a dream-man, she could narrow the search to find the perfect dating prospect.

Summer shrugged self-consciously. "Well... you know... Honest, I guess. And kind. With a sense of humor." She shook her head sharply and increased her stride, as if she could walk away from the idea. "No, that's wrong! It's not like walking into Sears and evaluating the features of the different saws and deciding this one is better than the others and wrap it up to go, please!"

"Of course not," Desirée assured her, pushing strongly to keep up with her agitated friend. "But everyone has to have some idea of the kind of person they'd be comfortable with. Otherwise, they could just pair us off as we signed up for college, and we'd be stuck with that one man or one woman forever. And it's not like you're the only one who gets a say; you might be interested in a guy who isn't interested in you at all. Then you move on and start again."

"It all just seems so -- trial and error," Summer sighed.

Desirée grinned. "Yeah, and sometimes there's a lot of 'trial' before you find the right one... but it's fun! Don't think of it as looking for the right guy. Just have a good time with anyone who strikes your fancy. Then, somewhere down the line, if you really hit it off, that's when you decide what to do about it."

Summer chewed her lip as she walked in silence for a few moments, while Desirée waited patiently for her friend to reach some conclusion.

"Okay," Summer conceded. "I guess you're right." She smiled down at Desirée as she held open the dormitory door. "But you better stick close, in case I need rescuing."

"Well, duh! As if I'd throw you to the lions. I'll just run over their toes if they give you any grief. 'Oops! So sorry! Sometimes this chair just gets away from me!'" Desirée's smile was wicked. "Who's going to blame a poor crippled girl?"

Summer chuckled as she shook her head. "That's a laugh. If they only knew how lethal you are in that thing. You should register it as a dangerous weapon."

"And give away my secret advantage? Where's the sense in that?" Desirée continued suggesting ever more outrageous rescues as they headed toward their room. It would be impolite to gloat in her friend's face, but she was well satisfied; her plan to encourage Summer into more socializing was proceeding very nicely indeed.

Tuesday, 9/24/96

"You sure this is the right place?" Jim asked Blair as he parked across from the three-story, red-brick building with '234' over the elegant, carved front door. Despite its location across the street from the campus theatre building, it looked... well, too good to be a frat-house. It had a well-kept front lawn, with shrubbery next to the sidewalk, and there were no visible signs of damage or neglect.

Blair chuckled. "I know exactly what you're thinking, man. Yeah, this is it. Scuttlebutt has it that the kids living here pay an extra fee, and the money goes to cleaning-service visits twice a week, and gardening-service visits twice a month. All their fathers are rich, so what do they care? They probably spend more on a weekend party than they spend on the extra fees."

"And what does the scuttlebutt say about those, Chief? Any suspicions about shady dealings floating on the wind?"

"No, not really. Actually, it has a rep as one of the more restrained off-campus houses. From what I've heard, they pretty much limit their activities to beer, loud music, and a bit of weed -- there've been no complaints about any harder stuff."

"In other words, the rich kids are the good kids, huh?" Jim frowned at the façade across the street, wishing his sentinel sight extended to Superman's x-ray vision. "Gotta tell you, Chief, I grew up in that world; rich kids can be just as stupid and obnoxious as anyone else, and being born with a silver spoon in their mouths makes them think that their rights are more important than anyone else's."

Blair stared at the man beside him. Jim knew that world? Had he actually grown up with money, or had he taken summer jobs working for wealthy families? He shelved the question for later. "I thought cops tried to avoid pigeonholing people based on stereotypes. You know as well as I do that not all poor people are lazy trash, and not all rich people are arrogant assholes."

Jim shrugged. "Got me there, Chief. You know it, and I know it, but sometimes the early lessons are hard to unlearn. But since I'm only here to ask a few questions about a party, I don't think I'll have to lean on him too much. You ready?"

They crossed the street together, climbed the three shallow steps to the broad, covered porch, and Jim pressed firmly on the doorbell. After a few minutes' wait, the door was opened by a redheaded, gangly young man. "Yeah?"

"I'm Detective Ellison of the Cascade PD and I need --"

The kid's heartbeat increased dramatically, and Jim smelled the acrid tang of nervous sweat. "Hey, man, we've been keeping a low profile, just that one noisy party and that was last spring! Why d'ya gotta keep hasslin' us?"

Blair kept his amusement to himself -- seemed like college students had no love of police, whether or not they had a specific reason -- and stepped in to smooth the way. "No, no, nothing like that," he assured the young man. "I'm Professor Sandburg, right here at the University, and we just need Kevin Agonestes to answer a few questions about the party at his parents' place this past weekend. Is he in?"

The student's eyes shifted nervously and he half-turned, as if looking for support. Finding none, he turned back toward the obviously unwelcome visitors, cleared his throat and answered, "I guess. C'mon in and I'll go get him; I think he's upstairs. You can wait in there." He waved vaguely to the left and headed toward the stairs.

'In there' was a large open area that appeared, from the tasteful wallpaper and elegant accessories, to have once been a formal drawing room. The space was now dominated by a pool table and a foosball game at one end of the room, and a giant, wall-mounted TV screen at the other. Noting the cluster of comfortable easy-chairs and convenient snack tables in front of the TV, Blair wondered idly if the athletes among them taped their own games to watch later. "Man, if this is how the other half lives, I'd like to give it a try. I could --"

"Shh!" Jim whispered urgently. "They're talking!"

Blair immediately turned and laid a hand on Jim's forearm. They didn't have any firm data yet, but it seemed like Jim's senses functioned better, or more easily, when he was in physical contact with Blair. It seemed counter-intuitive -- shouldn't the touch be a distraction? -- but, so far, Jim had never complained. Maybe his touch functioned as an anchor or something; somehow, it just seemed right.

"Remember those dials we talked about?" He spoke on the merest breath, to avoid overloading the sentinel's system. "See if you can turn up the one for hearing, focus in on them easier."

Jim's head cocked to one side, a frown of concentration on his face... then he gasped and flinched, his hands raised to cover his hears. Even Blair could hear the loud, exuberant voices as several students entered another door and dropped sports equipment on the floor.

"Turn it down!" he whispered urgently. "Just... just bring your perception back to normal levels, pay attention to only this room." He seized one of Jim's hands and began a kind of massage, hoping that a different point of focus would help.

Jim took a deep breath, then another, and gently disengage his hand from Blair's. "Thanks, Chief; it worked. But I don't think we need to be holding hands when Kevin gets here." He turned to face the archway from the entrance hall, just as another student walked toward them.

"I'm Kevin Agonestes. You wanted to see me?"

Jim could almost taste the arrogance that oozed from the young man in front of him, though he seemed to be making an effort to appear accommodating. It was a thin act, belied by the cold black eyes that stared appraisingly.

Jim nodded toward the chairs in front of the TV. "This will take a few minutes. Would you care to have a seat?" He waited until Kevin had settled, then selected a chair facing the young man, nudging it forward as he sat, so that it was just a little too close for social comfort.

"Thank you. Did your father tell you he was robbed this past weekend?"

"Yeah, he mentioned it when he said you wanted to ask some questions. What's that got to do with me?" His tone suggested that the police were inferior beings that he spoke to only because his father requested it.

"We were wondering if you'd seen or heard something during the weekend -- something that you didn't pay attention to at the time, but that seems a bit out-of-place or unusual now that you know a robbery occurred."

"Detective, I had a guest last weekend -- a very lovely young lady. I assure you, my attention was focused exclusively on her." He brushed a hand over his thick, dark hair, and Jim was irresistibly reminded of a peacock in full display. "Besides, there were far too many people present to keep track of who went where."

Methinks he doth protest too much, Jim thought, noting a slightly -- but only slightly -- elevated heartbeat. If Kevin was involved, he was too self-possessed to be caught by referring to it, even by careless innuendo. That was of no consequence; intuition might point the way, but investigations were solved by attention to detail. Jim questioned Kevin fully about the entire weekend, until his answers became short, and his veneer of compliance began to fray around the edges.

"I don't know what else I can tell you, Detective. I went home, I ate, I partied, I came back to school. What more do you expect?"

Once again, Blair smoothly deflected an irritated bystander -- or possibly a witness. "Oh, hey, don't mind him; he just gets totally focused when he's working a case. Of course, that's good; gives him a much better chance of finding your father's missing stamps." He leaned forward, talking confidentially man-to-man. "The funny thing is, Brad Petersen's and John Taylor's and Hank Colberg's fathers have also been robbed of small, expensive items -- and those guys are all members of this fraternity; we talked to them a couple of weeks ago. It just seems natural that you'd all speculate, kind of kick it around, you know? You're all much closer to the source than we can be; is there anything, no matter how minor, you've noticed that the incidents have in common?" He glanced at Jim to make sure he wasn't overstepping the boundaries, but the detective looked relaxed and approving. Sometimes a civilian could get more in casual conversation than the police could in direct questioning.

"No, not a thing," Kevin replied. He seemed more comfortable and responsive, but the cold eyes had not warmed. "We've kicked it around, of course -- we sort of hang out together -- but we couldn't come up with a single idea between us. No disrespect to the police --" his eyes flickered toward Jim, "-- but I suspect that they might not be able to solve this one; whoever these guys are, they're awfully good."

"'These guys', Mr. Agonestes?" Jim asked. "What makes you think it's more than one person? Have you seen or heard something that you've neglected to mention?"

"What? Oh -- no! Just... it seems too much for a single person to handle, doesn't it?" Kevin quickly covered the momentary break in his image, and stood abruptly. "And now, if you'll excuse me, Detective, I think we're finished here, and I have class in fifteen minutes; I need to go. Let me show you out."

Jim allowed it; he wouldn't learn anything useful from Kevin Agonestes, no matter how long he continued the questioning.

Blair waited until they were in the truck to give voice to his curiosity. "So? What d' you think? Did you pick up anything useful?"

Jim's mouth was a grim line as he pulled into traffic. "Nothing I can use. But he's in on it; he wasn't as calm as he wanted us to think. And when that other kid went up to tell him we were waiting, the first thing he said was, 'Kevin, it's the cops! You said they'd never figure it out!' But then those other kids came in, and I couldn't hear Kevin's answer."

"Well... but it doesn't have to mean anything. The kid who answered the door isn't connected to any of the robbery victims," Blair pointed out. "It could have been the standard teenage freaking 'cause they toked up last weekend, or even used something harder."

"Could be, but not too likely; kids today just don't get that bent out of shape about the idea of getting caught at recreational drug use. Maybe the door-kid's been acting as a lookout, or maybe his father just hasn't been hit yet -- didn't you say that everyone in that frat-house comes from a wealthy family? Maybe his dad's next on the list to get hit."

"As spooked as he was? Even if there is 'a list', and his dad was next, I bet they'll skip him and go on to the next one."

"Could be," Jim agreed. "But we don't know that all of the victims' kids are working together. It could be just two or three, who are preying on their friends' families because they've visited the homes, and know their way around."

"But does it make any difference if it's just a few, or all of them? I mean, if they're scared of you getting close, they should pack it up and keep quiet; if the robberies stop, you'll have no new evidence to follow."

"That would be the sensible course to follow, Chief. But very few criminals are sensible, especially young ones. They'll make another hit."

"But what if they don't? The clues you have so far haven't gotten you anywhere." Blair was actually curious; he'd already learned that real-life police work wasn't like the cop shows, but this case was dragging on longer than the others he'd watched Jim work. How would Jim proceed if no new robberies occurred?

"Think about it; the stolen items won't do them any good just hidden away. Eventually, they'll try to pawn them, or unload them on the black market, or sell them to private collectors, and we'll have our feelers out. And now that I have an idea who's involved, I can dig deeper and more effectively. It may take awhile, but I'll catch them."

"Assuming it is them," Blair reminded him. "God, I actually hope you're reading the signals wrong. Imagine how all those fathers will feel if it turns out their own sons stole from them. Man, that's such a basic violation of trust and family."

Jim's voice was bleak as he answered, "Unfortunately, that's one of the first things you learn at this job -- there are good kids and bad kids, and the bad kids show up at every social level. The family they grow up in and how wealthy they are doesn't necessarily change anything."

Blair sighed and stared out the window. "I know. But I don't have to like it."

"None of us do, Chief; none of us do."

Friday, 9/27/96

Summer sighed as she glanced around the large, 'all-purpose' room of the Student Union Building, now decorated in autumn colors for the monthly student mixer. There was nothing wrong, exactly. The band -- a group of students who played semi-professionally in local nightspots on the weekend -- was quite good; they played recent and current music, and kept the sound levels loud enough for dancing, but not too loud for talking to friends. A sprinkling of faculty circulated throughout the room, ensuring that things -- the guys -- wouldn't get too rowdy. And it wasn't like she was surrounded by strangers; she knew at least, oh, twenty percent of the people here, from her classes and her theatre group. She'd been asked to dance three times already, so she couldn't complain of being a wallflower. Even the buffet table had a nice assortment of food that was actually tasty, instead of being disguised reconstituted cardboard.

But it was all too... just too. Too much noise from the music and conversation, too many people, too many smells from flowers and perfume and aftershave, too much movement and activity. And, unless she wanted to hide out in the restroom, no place to gain a few minutes' peace and quiet to settle her nerves. Even the sunken gardens, just outside the opened sets of French doors at the end of the room, hosted a number of dancing couples, and others who walked along the meandering paths, looking for a bit of privacy. Summer might find an uninhabited, shadowed little nook if she tried, but that sort of defeated the purpose of attending, and she had promised Desirée that she'd try to 'mingle'.

Too bad she couldn't be more like her friend. Summer watched Desirée, engaged in animated conversation with a group of half a dozen people, and tried to ignore the touch of envy she felt. Desirée was so vibrant and outgoing, and it was so easy for her to connect with people; Summer was willing to bet she'd never had a tongue-tied moment in her life. She was certainly comfortable this evening; her occasional laughter drifted across the room, and she'd even been asked to 'dance' several times, happily executing some intricate maneuvers with her chair in time to the music.

Summer sighed again, then gave herself a discreet little kick. Okay, enough of this pity party. She turned to get some more punch -- might as well try to look like she was having a good time -- and almost smacked into Brad Petersen; with the noise-levels in here, she hadn't heard him come up behind her.

"Oh! Hi, Brad!" she squeaked, then wanted to sink through the floor; couldn't she even control her voice around a good-looking guy? To make it worse, Kevin Agonestes was with his friend, staring at her with that sardonic half-sneer that she hated, probably snickering over hearing the break in her voice. She gave him a noncommittal nod, hoping he'd go somewhere else.

Brad gave her a large, expansive smile, seeming not to notice her discomfort. "Summer! I hoped I'd see you here! So, were you heading for some more punch? I could use some, too." Just like that, Summer was swept along in his orbit, answering questions about how her week had gone, and listening to Brad expound on his own classes and football practice. After a few minutes, Kevin did indeed disappear somewhere else, and the party quickly became a lot more fun.

Desirée was keeping a discreet eye on her friend. Summer really needed to find her own comfort-level in social gatherings, which she'd never do if she stayed at Desirée's elbow all evening, so Desirée had more-or-less pushed her out of the nest once the party became more lively. She couldn't be feeling too bad; Summer liked any kind of rhythmic movement, and she practically sparkled with pleasure each time one of the boys asked her to dance. Of course, in between dances, she looked a little lost, but Desirée was convinced that the guys would go for that vulnerable look; in just a little while, Summer would be having as much fun as anyone here.

Her expectations were confirmed when she saw Summer dancing with Brad Petersen, looking positively star-struck. They looked so good together, dancing close, Summer's long dark hair swaying with the movements of the dance, and Brad's blond head bent solicitously over her; Brad really seemed to like Summer.

The dance ended, and Brad and Summer headed toward the French doors and the gardens beyond. Desirée smiled in satisfaction, and turned her attention back to the ongoing conversation. She was pretty sure that Sam Liges needed only a little more encouragement to ask her to dance.

Desirée chuckled heartily over Sam's latest quip; he had a wicked sense of humor. "I'll go you one better," she said. "Last week --"

"Dessie, we've gotta go," Summer's voice announced unexpectedly from behind her.

Desirée hadn't seen Summer come in; she spun and stared up at her friend. Summer had been out in the gardens for so long that Desirée had assumed she and Brad were necking in some quiet corner. But she wasn't wearing a 'thoroughly-kissed' look; instead, she looked... the only word that came to Desirée's mind was 'shattered'.

"Now!" Summer insisted, reaching for the handles of Desirée's wheelchair and starting to push.

Desirée grabbed the wheels, resisting the forward movement. "What's wrong?" she asked, concerned. "If you feel sick, maybe we should go to the restroom here. I won't be able to help you if you collapse on the way home; maybe you'll feel better if you lie down on the couch in the waiting area."

Summer shook her head almost violently. "No, it's not that, it's just --" She stopped, staring at the small group around Desirée, who were watching her with varying degrees of surprise and concern. Summer took a deep, calming breath, and offered a weak, tremulous smile.

"I'm sorry; I forgot where we are. And I'm not sick, just -- upset; Brad and I had a little spat." Her attempted 'unconcerned laugh' was remarkably unconvincing. "So I'm not in the mood to hang around longer; I just want to go back to my room." Summer glanced at Desirée. "But I'm being silly; I really don't need you to hold my hand. If you want to stay longer, I can walk back alone; it's not that far."

"Not likely!" Desirée snorted. "There'll be other parties. Right now, I need to help my best friend give a verbal beat-up to what is obviously a stupid, idiot guy. I'll see y'all later, okay?" she tossed over her shoulder as she urged Summer out of the room and into the cool night air.

Summer walked silently beside her, seeming disinclined to explain what had happened. Maybe it would be better to wait; back in the room, Desirée would be able to give her full attention to her friend, instead of expending some of it on maneuvering her chair through the dark.

Finally within the comfort of their room, Desirée became brisk; she needed to help Summer get rid of that expression of lost misery. "Okay, get out of those duds and shower; you'll feel better. I'll make some coffee; I think we'll both need it."

Summer nodded and, still without speaking, stepped out of her dress and hung it in the closet with careful, mechanical movements. Desirée was growing increasingly alarmed; this reaction was so unlike her ever-practical, competent friend. She watched closely as Summer gathered clean underwear and a set of comfortable sweats; her friend didn't look disheveled, and her dress wasn't mussed, but still --

Desirée grabbed Summer's hand as she headed toward the bathroom. "Wait a minute! Summer, look at me." When she had Summer's attention -- as much as she thought her friend could manage, right now -- Desirée asked urgently, "Did Brad try something out there? I mean... do we need to call the police before you shower? Like -- not destroy evidence?"

"What?" Summer stared for a moment, trying to work out what her friend meant. "Oh! No, nothing like that; Brad's too much of a 'gentleman' to try to force himself on a woman." Her tone was contemptuous, which was better than the earlier emptiness, Desirée decided. "But we'll probably need to call the police later, anyway; apparently he's not too much of a gentleman to steal."

Summer pulled free of Desirée slackened grasp and, reaching the bathroom, shut the door firmly behind her. Desirée stared at the closed door for a moment, then headed toward the coffee-maker and reached for the canister. It sounded like they would definitely need a pot.

The coffee had finished perking by the time Summer emerged from the bathroom, hair wrapped in a towel, tying the belt of her robe. She accepted the cup that Desirée offered her, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed. She looked calmer, Desirée decided, but still troubled and serious.

"All right, tell me what happened," Desirée ordered.

Summer sipped at her coffee while she mentally ran through the sequence, then sighed deeply. "I don't know if you saw him, but Brad showed up and asked me to dance. And then when it was over, he invited me to walk in the gardens... so I said 'okay'."

Desirée nodded encouragement, but didn't speak.

"And we talked for a while, just normal stuff, and he was nice. But then he started getting all bragging -- you know how guys get when they're trying to impress you -- about how clever he was to get past the defense in the last football game, and how many points he scored, and the fancy car he got for his eighteenth birthday, and on and on.

"And, you know, it was kind of boring, and I guess I didn't hide it very well, 'cause he just kept piling it on, like he thought if he could come up with something big enough, I'd be all 'ooh' and 'aah'. Finally he said he was going to the casino pretty soon, and he had a surefire way to beat the house, and he asked if I'd like to go along when he went."

Desirée's eyes widened. "I thought you had to be twenty-one to gamble at the casino."

Summer nodded. "That's what I thought. And I know my folks sure wouldn't let me be gambling. So I just blurted out, 'Your dad lets you?' And he said, 'Dad doesn't know anything about it -- even if he is bankrolling it.' And he smiled this kind of smirky smile like he was so smart, but it kind of creeped me out." She paused, sipping her coffee while she stared into space.

Desirée waited for a few minutes but, as the silence stretched, she grew impatient. "Well, it sounds a bit weird," she agreed, "but how do you get from that to stealing?"

Summer shrugged. "He wasn't making any sense, so I said, 'Oh?' or 'What?' or something like that. And he said his dad had made an 'involuntary contribution' and as soon as they -- well, he said 'we', like it was him and someone else -- as soon as they 'figured out how to move the stuff', he'd have 'way more money than the piddling allowance my old man gives me'. And he smirked, like there was some big joke that he wasn't letting me in on."

Desirée's brow furrowed. "I still don't get it."

"Maybe you had to be there; it was in his tone of voice or something. But don't you remember reading about the string of robberies lately? There were a bunch of names I didn't know, but two of them were Brad Petersen's father and Kevin Agonestes's father; they stuck in my memory 'cause I know them."

"Oh my god, you're right!" Desirée exclaimed, then frowned. "Still, it doesn't sound like much; it's not like proof-positive or anything."

Summer nodded miserably. "I know. I feel like I should report it, but what if I'm wrong? And I can just see a policeman deciding it means nothing, and tossing my report in the trash." She shrugged, helplessly. "I don't even know who to talk to."

"Yeah, that's a problem." Desirée chewed on a ragged cuticle while she thought. "Hey! How about Professor Sandburg?"

"Our teacher?!" Summer squeaked.

"Sure! Don't you remember? His roommate is a cop. He could tell the cop, and the cop could pass it on and take it from there. Let's call him right now."

Summer's eyes widened with alarm. "It's late," she objected.

"Nine-forty-five," Desirée snorted. "Do you think a grown man will be in bed this early on a Friday night? Get out the Campus Directory and let's get it over with."

A few moments later, Desirée dialed the number and thrust the receiver into Summer's hand. She almost dropped it when she heard "Ellison!" barked over the line but, at Desirée's urgent gestures, took a deep breath.

"Yes... um, hi... May I speak to Professor Sandburg, please?"

Jim frowned as the phone rang. This late at night, it probably meant that something had come up that wouldn't wait till morning. As he stalked forward, he saw Blair lift his head from grading student essays, prepared to drop everything if he needed to back up his partner.


The voice on the other end of the line was female, young, and very timid. "Yes... um, hi... May I speak to Professor Sandburg, please?"

Jim stifled a grunt of relief. Good; his peaceful Friday evening wasn't going to be interrupted by some gory crime scene. "It's for you, Chief. Sounds like one of your students; she asked for 'Professor' Sandburg."

"On a Friday?" Blair's eyebrows raised as he reached for the phone. No one freaked out on a Friday night, especially when -- as now -- there were no big exams or research papers due. "This is Blair," he said pleasantly.

He heard a gasp, then, "Professor? It's Summer van Eisen. I... I heard something tonight, and I think... maybe I should tell the police."

Okay, definitely something more than dropping grades, and the poor kid sounded terrified. Blair snapped his fingers at Jim to get his attention, then pointed to the receiver as he pulled it a hair's-breadth away from his ear; this might be something he needed to know.

"I'll be happy to go with you when you talk to them, if that's what you need," he assured her in his most soothing voice.

"No... I mean, yes... I mean, I don't know if it's really important. I thought... I could tell you and you could tell your cop friend?"

"Of course I can, if it'll make you feel better. But you know how second-hand information can get mangled. How about if I put us all on the speaker phone?"

At her assent, Blair punched the speaker button while Jim grabbed a pencil and pad for making notes. Gradually, in fits and starts, Summer recounted the evening's conversation. Jim allowed Blair to carry the exchange; it was obvious this young woman was nervous enough without talking to a strange voice. But he did scrawl a couple of questions on the notepad, and let Blair pass them on to Summer.

Slowly, she reported the entire conversation. Jim interrupted her once. "Excuse me, Miss..." He picked up her name from Blair's sentinel-soft whisper. "Miss van Eisen, you say Mr. Petersen used the word 'we' when he talked about what was being planned. Do you have any idea who he might have been talking about?"

"Not really," she said. "But he hangs around a lot with Nicky Cardenelli and John Taylor. And Kevin Agonestes is his best friend; they're always together."

Jim nodded; Cardenelli and Taylor were two more of the victims. "Thank you; please continue."

"Well, that's really all there was," she said. "I know it doesn't sound like much, but it just seemed so... hinky. But I wasn't sure..." Summer trailed off uncertainly.

Her instincts were good, Jim thought. This would explain why they hadn't been able to find any evidence of outside intrusion.

"Miss van Eisen, you've done exactly the right thing." Jim used his 'reassure-and-calm-the-victims' voice. "Now that you've given us a direction, your part is finished. Now it's our job to investigate and determine whether there's any substance to what you heard."

"Thank you, Detective. I just... I wouldn't want Brad to get in trouble if I'm jumping to conclusions."

"I assure you, we won't act without finding solid evidence first. But we do appreciate your coming forward with this information."

"Well... okay. I hope it helps. Good night," she finished softly.

Both Jim and Blair wished her 'good night' as well, then Blair switched off the speaker button and hung up the phone.

"Well, that sucks," Blair remarked sourly. "Sounds like you were right that it's the kids who are doing it."

"At least some of them; we don't know how many are involved," Jim reminded him. "And hardly 'kids', Chief -- old enough to vote, and to know exactly what they're doing." He started his evening routine of checking the windows and doors.

Blair watched silently for a few moments, weighing the possibilities. "So, what's your next move?"

"Tomorrow morning, we invite the junior Agonestes, Petersen, Cardenelli and Taylor to the PD, where they will be questioned in depth while I monitor every breath and heartbeat." His thin-lipped smile was almost feral.

"Don't you need to get a warrant first?"

"Not if we're simply asking a citizen to help with our inquiries. But you're right; we need to avoid giving them a loophole that they can weasel out of. I'll call their parents first thing, tell them we have new information, and ask if I can question their sons again."

"They might lawyer-up," Blair warned.

This time, Jim's tight smile was definitely feral. "Let them try. A lawyer can't stop me evaluating their heartbeats."

Blair shook his head as he gathered the student essays into a pile, with the half-marked one on top. "And all because they weren't happy with the size of their allowances. That's just -- stupid."

"Most criminals are, Chief; stupid and arrogant. That doesn't mean all of them will have the same reason. But I guarantee you, none of their reasons will be any better. What it all boils down to is, they don't care for anyone's feelings but their own, and they're probably doing it for the thrills as much as anything else."

"That's kind of cynical." Blair carried his empty beer bottle into the kitchen -- carefully avoiding looking at Jim -- rinsed it out, and tossed it in the recycling bin.

"It's realistic. Sandburg, we both know that there are some people trapped by circumstance, some who do unpleasant things simply to stay alive, and we could have a nice intellectual discussion about where to draw the line. But these guys aren't even close to that line; they've had every advantage, but still chose to prey on others." Jim watched Blair, who was still carefully avoiding eye contact, and softened his voice. "But I know them being students makes it hard for you. You don't have to come with me in the morning, if you don't want to."

Blair looked up at that, his face firming in resolve. "No, you might need me, especially if you're going to be using your senses on them. And you're right -- if they've crossed the line for nothing more than kicks, they don't deserve my sympathy. See you in the morning, Jim; goodnight." He strode toward his bedroom and softly shut the door behind him.

Jim stared at the closed door, then shook his head ruefully. This was the hard part of police work, and there was really nothing he could say to make it easier on Sandburg; everyone had to decide for himself whether or not the benefits of protecting society were worth the slow eroding of the soul. But Jim still needed the other man's support for this sentinel thing; he simply wasn't ready to fly solo with the senses. He could only hope that this wouldn't be the case that would cause Sandburg to decide he no longer wanted to ride along.

Only time would answer that question. With a soft, "Goodnight, Chief," Jim headed up the stairs to his own bedroom.

Saturday, 9/28/96

When Summer awoke, it was obvious that Desirée, most uncharacteristically, had risen some time earlier; she was already dressed, and Summer could smell fresh coffee in the pot, and cinnamon rolls warming in the toaster oven. She yawned and stretched, and murmured a sleepy 'good morning'.

"Well, for another couple of hours, anyway; I was starting to wonder if I'd have to wake you for dinner this evening." Desirée's voice was cheerful as always, but Summer thought it sounded a bit artificial, like she was trying too hard. "You ready for breakfast?"

Was she? Summer felt fuzzy, with her thoughts in slow-motion. "Yeah, I guess. Just let me use the bathroom and wash up."

Desirée had the coffee poured and the cinnamon rolls waiting on a plate when Summer got back; they ate in silence for a few minutes. When Summer had eaten half her roll, and rose to pour more coffee, Desirée finally spoke.

"So... you feel better this morning?"

Better? What...? Memory kicked in, and the hovering cloud of anxiety descended. "Oh my god!" Summer sank back into her chair and stared at her friend. "I called the cops on Brad Petersen! What was I thinking?!"

"You were thinking you needed to report something suspicious to the proper authorities, and that's what you did," Desirée pointed out in tones of eminent practicality. "And you heard Detective Ellison; they're not just going to haul him off to jail. They'll check it out, first."

"But if they do, it'll be all my fault!"

"No, if they do, it'll be Brad's fault if he's done something illegal. Do you really think you should have not said anything just because he's a friend?"

Summer wouldn't meet her friend's eyes. "Well, no, but..." She trailed off, unable to define her scrambled thoughts.

"But you can't stop thinking about it. I was afraid of that. So I've got it all planned; we'll pack a lunch and spend the day at the dig."

"We will?" For the first time, Summer noticed that Desirée was wearing her 'grubbies', rather than her customary casual shorts-and-sandals weekend attire.

"We will. We'll both dig, and I'll catalogue whatever we find. It'll keep your mind occupied, and off whatever might be happening here -- or at the police station."

"But -- by ourselves?"

"Professor Sandburg said we could, and you know Amanda and Nathan have been going out most weekends; we might even see them there. But even if we don't, we know how to handle ourselves now; no problem."

Summer considered her friend's idea, and her face relaxed. "Yeah, I think you're right." She jumped up, her usual energy reasserting itself. "Okay, I'll get dressed and run down to get ice for the cooler while you make the lunches." She hurried to her closet, while Desirée smiled in satisfaction as she finished her coffee.

Fifteen minutes later, as they were heading out the door, Summer exclaimed, "Wait! What if Detective Ellison has more questions?"

"But you already told him everything; what more questions could he have?" Desirée's voice was impatient. She knew her friend; she had to get Summer away from campus, or she'd just fuss and fret all day.

"But he might need to... to... confirm it, or something."

"Then leave a note on the door, so he'll know where we are." Not that he'll even be here to see it, Desirée thought, but it wasn't worth arguing; Summer had not yet regained her usual calm self-control.

"Oh, good idea."

Summer hurried to her desk and used a green Magic Marker to scrawl, Gone to the dig. Back at 5:30. She carefully taped the note to the outside of the door -- top and bottom so it wouldn't accidentally get brushed off during the day -- then locked the door behind her, picked up the cooler and her bag of tools, and followed her friend down the hallway.

"What the hell were you thinking, Petersen?" Kevin Agonestes snarled as he wrenched his classic Mustang around a corner and accelerated sharply, weaving in and out of traffic. "Do you realize we could lose everything, just because you had to open your big mouth to impress that mousy little bitch? If she goes to the cops, that could be what they need to track us down."

"It wasn't like that!" Brad Petersen defended himself hotly. "We were talking, that's all, and it's not like I said anything specific, just --"

"Just let her know you're planning to go gambling without your old man knowing about it, that's all. I told you to stay away from her; the quiet, smart ones are always more trouble than they're worth!" Kevin's rage was barely contained. "She'll put that together with you talking about 'moving the stuff' -- how many old movies have you watched, for god's sake? -- and go running to the cops as soon as she figures it out. Jesus, if we'd known you were such an idiot, we wouldn't have let you join our group. And you, Cardenelli -- you vouched for him; that makes you an idiot, too."

Stung, Nicky Cardenelli leaned forward from the back seat. "Hey, don't blame me! Brad's always been solid till now; how could I know he was gonna jump in a whole pool of stupid?"

Brad was becoming nervous. Kevin was showing a violent side he'd never seen before, and Nicky seemed inclined to back him up. In self-defense, he argued again, "I'm telling you, Summer likes me; she won't go to the cops."

"The way she ran out of the dance last night?" Kevin sneered. "I'm not gonna risk my share of the take on the chance that she'll keep quiet because she likes you. We're just lucky it's Saturday; that Detective Ellison will be off duty. By the time that bitch works her way through the weekend shift and they call him in to talk to her, he won't be around to check us out till late this afternoon."

"But why do we have to move the stuff?" Nicky asked. "It's a good hiding place; I still say we should leave it there. They'll never find it; all we have to do is keep cool and when the cops question us, we don't know anything about anything. Whatever she tells them, they won't have any proof, and the cops will have to give up eventually."

Kevin braked sharply and turned onto an unpaved, rutted dirt track. "You didn't meet Ellison. He's a suspicious bastard; he'll tear Brad's place apart -- well, his old man's -- looking for evidence. And when he doesn't find anything, he'll look to your place and mine, because anyone'll tell him we hang together. Eventually someone will remember that old root cellar and tell the cops, and Ellison will be bustin' down the door to check it out."

Brad slumped in his seat. Kevin was right; he was stupid. And if a new hiding place had to be unconnected to all of them... "So, where can we move it to?" He hoped Kevin had an idea, because his brain refused to offer anything.

Kevin carefully maneuvered his car to avoid the worst of the ruts; with the need for concentration, his anger was fading. "I've been thinking. It has to be someplace that has no connection to any of us, and someplace where people won't stumble across it accidentally."

"It's all wrapped in plastic, and protected in the briefcases," Nicky pointed out. "Why don't we just bury them, someplace in the woods that's not on any of our parents' lands?"

"No good," Kevin objected. "Even wrapped in plastic, some moisture might affect the stamps, and they'd lose half their value. You can't imagine how fussy my old man is about that collection."

"You know, in the movies..." Brad began.

Kevin snorted. "Oh, yeah, pick a movie cliché for hiding; the cops wouldn't ever think to check out such an obvious place. Or you could paint a neon arrow with the words, 'this way to the loot'."

"I'm serious. We take the briefcases to the bus station and rent one of the storage lockers. It's anonymous, it doesn't have a connection to any of us, and it only has to be for a few days -- just until we think of something better."

Kevin considered as he slowed the car even farther and left the track, following a faint path through the trees. When he'd first planned these... episodes, he'd figured this 'back-door' approach to the root cellar was safe, even though they couldn't hide signs of a vehicle's passage, because no one would ever be looking for it. Now, he wasn't so sure -- but at least, if it was found, the cops wouldn't be able to tell which vehicle had used it. They'd still have plausible deniability.

"Huh. You might actually have a good idea, there. We play innocent until the cops realize they don't have any evidence and give up, then scout out a safer solution." Kevin parked in his usual spot, and shut off the engine.

It was still a half-mile walk to the old root cellar, but Kevin had realized from the very beginning that they had to leave as little evidence as possible. Not that he was worried; he was smarter than any cop, and he had watched enough crime shows to know what not to do.

"Okay, let's go get the briefcases and get out of here. We need to get 'em locked up and be back in our rooms, being all innocent when the oh-so-mighty Ellison shows up." Kevin turned and strode toward the root-cellar, with his cohorts following behind.

Nicky chortled and punched Brad companionably on the shoulder. "Yeah, we'll run rings around Cascade's 'finest', won't we?"

Brad nodded glumly. Somehow, being a cat burglar didn't seem so much like an exciting adventure, anymore.

To Blair's surprise, Jim didn't storm out the door in what he privately considered 'sentinel hunting mode' immediately after waking. The smell of waffles, scrambled eggs and coffee drew Blair from his bedroom. To his inquiring look, Jim replied, "Might as well, Chief; between the party last night and them being teenagers, it's not likely they were up at sunrise."

After breakfast, Jim put in the promised calls to the boys' parents. All agreed that their sons could answer more questions, with one caveat. "John Taylor's spending the day at home; his older sister's getting married," Jim reported. "But his dad says he's planning to go back to the frat house tomorrow morning, and we can 'interview' him then. We can pick up the other three today, though."

Blair's forehead creased in thought. It was true, he didn't know much about police-work yet, but -- "Won't that compromise the questioning?" he asked. "I mean, these three will tell him all about it tomorrow, and he'll be ready with his answers." He was surprised to see a faint smile on Jim's face; in fact, the man looked almost proud.

"You're right, Chief; normally, if suspects have been working together, we'd question them separately, and keep them apart until questioning was finished so we could compare their answers. But in this case, it doesn't matter; three out of four is enough to catch the inconsistencies. Either we'll have something solid, and a reason to pull Taylor in, or we'll still be looking for more concrete evidence, and we can question him at any time." Jim reached out to 'bop' Blair lightly on the head. "But that's a good question, Dick Tracy; keep it up, and we'll be pinning a badge on you before you know it."

"Not the hair, man!" By now, it was a standing joke between them. "And you know I'm strictly an observer. Me carry a gun? No way!" Blair watched as Jim tucked his gun in the holster at the back of his belt, then followed his friend down the hallway. "Besides, can you really see me as a cop?"

"It wouldn't surprise me, Chief. Your first day at the PD, you took out one of the Sunrise Patriots with a bathroom-stall door, another with a vending machine, and then you held off Garrett Kincaid with a flare-gun; you've got good instincts."

Wow! Really? Blair felt warmed by the praise, but he knew it was totally unwarranted. "Jim, that was simply sheer terror mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation. Hell, most of the time, I was just trying to get away."

"As any sane man would. But when you couldn't you did what you had to do, no matter how afraid you were, and your actions were effective. Like I said, good instincts."

Blair considered Jim's words during the drive to the University. Actually, since he'd started hanging out with Jim, he'd been tossed into situations that he'd never dreamed of, even in anthropology -- and sometimes he was kind of proud of his response to some pretty hairy circumstances. If he'd been just one second later busting in Beverly Sanchez's door and pulling her to the floor, she'd've been toast. But organizing Mrs. LaCroix and her friends to stand up to the gang had been cool, and not really dangerous; after all, who'd have the guts to shoot down a bunch of old folks in cold blood? And walking into Club Doom to get information for Jim hadn't been the least bit dangerous, despite Jim yelling at him; it was just a club for god's sake, a place for people to hang out and dance and drink.

So, really, it wasn't like he went looking to do cop-like things, and he sure as hell wasn't casual about the dangerous stuff. But, until Jim developed better control of his senses, he needed Blair's backup, a backup that no one else could provide. Sometimes the cop-like things were necessary, but his first priority was always Jim's senses. That term Brackett had used -- guide -- that felt right, made him feel important, kind of like he was part of this sentinel thing with Jim. But even if he wasn't really part of the sentinel stuff -- and sometimes it did sound like wistful thinking; they were Jim's senses, after all -- he was Jim's partner, no matter how much the big guy protested the term. And it was an unwritten, but consistent rule in every society he could think of -- a man did everything in his power to back up his partner, no ifs, ands, or buts.

So, yeah, he'd be the best partner -- and guide -- he could be, to the very best of his ability. And if it was dangerous sometimes, he'd keep his head down. But like Jim said, sometimes he just had to do what needed to be done. And then sometimes he'd freak out later, in private, but Jim didn't need to know that. But become a cop? Not in this lifetime!

Having settled that to his satisfaction, Blair looked up to find that Jim was parking the truck in front of the frat house. Okay, time to put this partner-thing into action again. He followed Jim to the front door.

But this time they were out of luck. None of the boys they wanted were on the premises, and no one seemed to know where they'd gone, when they'd left, when they'd be back, or even if they'd gone out together or individually.

Blair was sure he could hear Jim's teeth grinding together as they walked back to the truck. He waited till they were inside to ask, "Do you think they're there but hiding out?"

"I don't think so. The boys I talked to weren't lying; they really don't know where the others are. And the Agonestes kid is arrogant enough to face me; he's sure I won't be able to pin anything on him. He'd be in more danger by asking his frat brothers to lie for him -- they'd wonder why, and start speculating, and then it would hit the rumor-mill -- and he knows it."

"So now what?"

"It's a waiting game, Chief. His group -- whoever they are -- has to pretend everything is normal, so they'll keep to their regular habits. They'll be back; if I can't pick them up this afternoon, I'll try again tomorrow." He put the truck in gear and pulled into the street.

Blair frowned as he tried to figure out Jim's method. "So we just -- drive around for a couple of hours? Or go home and come back here later?"

"Neither. I think I'd like to talk to Ms. van Eisen again; do you know which dorm she lives in?"

"Yeah, I think she's in Bransfield dorm." Blair looked around to get his bearings. "Two blocks up and hang a left. But why? She told us everything last night."

"She told us everything about one particular incident. But if she's dating Agonestes's buddy, she may know something about their habits or hangouts, and I expect she'll be considerably more cooperative than his frat-brothers. You'd be surprised at the nuggets of information people don't know they know, until someone asks the right questions." Jim pulled into the visitors' parking lot in front of the dorm and shut off the engine.

The directory in the entryway read, 'van Eisen, Summer - 107'. A moment later, they were reading the note taped to the door.

Jim's voice held a note of surprise. "You let your students work on the dig without you there to supervise?"

Blair shrugged easily. "Sure. It's a minor site -- highly unlikely they'll find anything that hasn't been found dozens of times before in dozens of other places -- and I've checked everyone's technique; they know what to do and how to do it. At least here we have a time-frame; do we come back at five-thirty, or will you just question the boys cold?"

Jim frowned at the innocuous piece of paper, then pulled it off the door and sniffed carefully. "She's running, Chief," he said abruptly. "How far to this dig of yours?"

"Huh? About twenty miles. And what do you mean, 'running'?" Blair had to quicken his pace to keep up with Jim's long strides down the hall toward the front doors.

"The girl who wrote that note was -- or had been -- halfway between nervous and scared; her instincts were telling her to get out of Dodge. I need to know what information she has that kicked those instincts into gear, and the sooner the better; it could be the key we're looking for." Jim buckled his seatbelt and started the engine. "Which way?"

"Take a left on Stanton, then head east on Two-Forty-Six. We'll turn off about a mile before we get to Petersen's house."

They were old hands at this now. Desirée made the transfer to her roughneck chair, then settled the smaller bag of tools on her lap while Summer carried the larger tools and the lunch-cooler. They paused just long enough for Summer to put the cooler in the shade under the work-table, then headed toward the most recent trench. Barely eight inches deep, Desirée could easily reach the working area if she lay on her stomach and, if she wanted to sit in the trench to get even closer to her work, it was shallow enough that she could lift herself in and out with well-developed arm muscles.

Two hours passed peacefully as Summer and Desirée used garden trowels to scrape away one thin layer of dirt at a time, meanwhile discussing school, shopping, movies, books, future life plans, dreams -- anything except boys. They tossed the discarded dirt onto a plastic tarp they'd laid next to the trench. Whenever it developed a nice mound, Summer would gather up the four corners, sling it over her shoulder, and carry it to the big dirt pile that had been established outside the perimeter of the projected search area.

Summer finally sighed and sat up from her hunched position, stretching backward to work the kinks out of her spine. "Well, I'm about ready for lunch; how about you?"

"Okay," Desirée answered, "as soon as I finish this last little section." She inserted the side of the trowel a millimeter into the dirt, pulled forward -- and hit something solid.

Excitement swept aside all thoughts of lunch as they used delicate little probes to determine the size of the object, and miniature spoons to scoop away the dirt. A half-hour later, they had revealed a hand-sized piece of what seemed to be clay pottery. Summer ran to get the camera and an artifact box while Desirée lifted herself into her chair to get out of the way. Summer thrust the cotton-lined box into Desirée's hands, then took pictures of their find from every conceivable angle. Desirée watched in amusement; two establishing shots were customary, but her friend was forever trying to get that one perfect picture. Finally, Summer slung the camera over the handle behind Desirée's chair and delicately lifted the piece of pottery out of the dirt, placing it carefully on the cotton padding in the box while Desirée held it steady.

As they headed toward the work-table, Desirée realized that the excitement of their find had overshadowed something else -- her bladder was demanding relief. With a quick, "Gotta make a pit-stop," she headed into the trees, following the path to the Porta-Potty.

"Okay," Summer called to her retreating back. "I'll get started with the cataloguing."

Desirée had developed a technique for using the Porta-potty -- despite the hand-bars, they really weren't designed for people who had only marginal use of their legs -- but it wasn't exactly easy. She settled into her chair with a sigh of satisfaction; once again she had managed without falling on her tail and needing to call for help.

As she turned to head toward the work-table, she heard a sharp ~snap~ farther back in the trees. Maybe a deer foraging, or a porcupine scrambling over deadwood to reach some fresh bark? How cool that Summer had left the camera hanging on her chair; maybe Desirée could get some pictures. She twisted to grab the camera, settled the strap around her neck, and turned it on; if she actually found an animal, she'd probably have only a few seconds to point and shoot. Trying to choose a route that wouldn't take her over too many dead sticks, with their potential to snap loudly, Desirée rolled her chair forward as cautiously and quietly as she could. Luckily, there weren't many that she needed to avoid; the uniform spacing and age of the trees left few dead or dying branches to fall. Or maybe Mr. Petersen had gardeners who took care of this small artificial forest and kept it picked up. Whatever; Desirée was just grateful that the ground was covered mostly in a layer of old pine needles and moist, decaying leaves.

After several minutes' progress, it seemed evident that she wasn't going to find whatever animal she'd heard, but then there was a soft creaking noise off to her left. Probably just two branches rubbing together in the wind, but it might be the sound of an antler scraping along a branch, and she'd already come this far... Desirée turned and headed in the new direction.

A few more minutes' travel brought her in sight of -- a big hole in the ground, in the middle of a small area of no tree growth. Huh! It certainly didn't seem natural, and there were some wooden planks flattening the grass to one side; what on earth could it be? Animal photography forgotten, Desirée rolled forward to investigate.

She had covered about half the distance when a man's head appeared, moving smoothly upward as if climbing stairs. Desirée stopped abruptly, her common sense belatedly making itself heard. Somehow, this felt hinky, and if there was something illegal going on, this guy might be dangerous if he knew he'd been seen.

Fortunately, he was facing away from Desirée. She started rolling cautiously backwards; maybe she could move far enough that he wouldn't notice her, or maybe he'd keep heading in the other direction without turning.

No luck; maybe she'd unknowingly made a noise, or maybe he was just being paranoid, checking the area for intruders. The man turned his head, and Desirée had two new pieces of information: it was Kevin Agonestes, and when he saw her he wasn't pissed, or angry; he was completely and totally enraged.

"You BITCH!" he shouted, heading toward her with a murderous scowl on his face.

Desirée wasn't about to let him catch her; she turned her chair sharply and leaned forward to get as much speed as she could. In the long run, wheels were faster than legs; maybe she could keep ahead of him. But as she passed one of the trees, her left front wheel was stopped by a protruding root, hidden by the layer of dead leaves and pine needles. The sudden stop to her forward movement threw Desirée right out of her chair. She landed unhurt on the soft ground and rolled over to see Kevin closing the distance, and there were two other guys behind him. She searched frantically for some kind of protection -- a big, hefty stick would be nice -- but the ground here was just as unnaturally stick-free as it had been near the Porta-potty. "SUMMER!" she shouted.

Summer was immersed in their find, and unaware of time passing. Since starting the dig, she had discovered that she enjoyed the organizational details necessary for accurate archaeological record-keeping. Unfortunately, as she'd remarked ruefully to Dessie, it didn't carry over to keeping her room clean...

So, while she waited for Desirée to return, she grabbed the tape measure to make an accurate record of the depth at which their fragment had been found, then opened her laptop to write the description of their pottery shard. It was 26.5 by 9.8 centimeters, roughly oval-shaped. with remnants of black pigment from what had probably been a decorative design. Now that it wasn't shaded by the walls of the trench and could be seen in the sunlight, they'd need some closeup pictures. Summer looked for the camera, then remembered it was on the back of the wheelchair. No problem; Dessie should be back in a few minutes.

They'd need the meter stick for pictures, too, to make a standard comparison shot. Summer bent to the tools locker under the table, worked the combination of the padlock, and flipped up the lid. The meter stick was on top, a one-inch piece of PVC pipe, strengthened by a metal rod running through the center and marked with alternating bands of black and white.

She had just grabbed the stick when Summer heard Desirée's frantic shout. She surged up and out, ignoring the bump on her head as she clipped the edge of the table, and ran into the trees. But when she reached the Porta-potty, there was no sign of Desirée. Summer looked around in confusion; which way? Where might Dessie have gone, and why? Then the sound of distant shouts drifted through the trees, and she headed toward them at top speed.

"That's Desirée's van," Blair announced as Jim pulled into the parking area and stopped beside the red Dodge. He surveyed the area, bypassing the work table and focusing on the newest trench. "I don't see the girls, though; maybe they're taking a break under the trees. I'm sure --"

Jim stopped him with a raised hand as he opened the door for better listening. As he heightened his hearing -- what a useful image those 'dials' were -- he heard angry male voices, and the thud of swiftly-running feet. "There's trouble," he announced, jumping down from the truck and pulling his gun from its holster as he ran into the treeline. "Come on!"

Blair gaped -- what kind of trouble could there be out here? -- but didn't let his surprise slow him as he also jumped down and hurried to follow Jim. He gave a fleeting thought to calling for backup, but they wouldn't get here in time and, if he stopped to make the call, he'd lose Jim in the trees. Grimly aware that half-assed backup -- as in one enthusiastic but untrained anthropologist -- was better than no backup at all, he stretched his legs to keep Jim in sight.

"You fuckin' bitch, what the fuck are you doing here?!" Kevin yelled, face red with anger. "You just had to stick your nose in where it doesn't belong, didn't you? Too bad for you; I'm not gonna let you ruin everything."

He drew back a foot to aim a kick at Desirée. Desperately, frantically, she grabbed her fallen chair and drew it between herself and Kevin. It was a thin shield, at best, and Kevin ignored it, kicking out as if he could drive right through the fabric. Desirée thrust the chair forward; maybe she could knock him off balance. By sheer dumb luck -- hers, not his -- his foot impacted one of the metal supports. He howled in pain and rage, but didn't even pause; he wrenched the chair out of her hands and tossed it aside.

"Think you're so clever, you crippled bitch? I don't think so." Kevin pulled out a pocketknife and flicked open the blade. "I think you're gonna be real sorry you came snooping around." He grinned in satisfaction as Desirée's eyes widened and she tried to pull herself away, scooting backward under the trees, still searching for a stick, a rock, anything she could use for self-defense.

Then the other boys -- Brad and Nicky, she knew them, too, Desirée noted absently -- caught up with Kevin. Rescue? Probably not, if they'd been with Kevin. Desirée kept pulling herself backward as she kept an eye on him and, finally -- thank God! -- her hand landed on a stick, strong enough to whack his knees out from under him if he came close enough. She set her back against a tree-trunk, gripping the stick fiercely, and watched.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Brad had hold of Kevin's knife-arm and was yelling in his face. "You said even if we were found out, our parents wouldn't let us go to jail. But if you stick a knife in her, your ass is grass, and there's no way in hell I'm going down with you."

Kevin shoved Brad away, snarling, waving the knife wildly. "You want to join her? You think some crippled bitch is worth us going to jail?"

Nicky stood at a safe distance, eyes bugged out at the sight of the knife in his leader's hand. "Brad's right," he said urgently. "If we don't hurt her, they won't do anything to us; let's just calm down and think about this."

"I think you're a pair of pussy-whipped mama's boys," Kevin sneered. "I should've known you two'd be too soft if any trouble came up. I should've --"

A wild, inarticulate, howling screech cut him off as Summer burst into view. "Leave her ALONE!" she shouted, running toward Kevin, brandishing a long, black-and-white rod.

Startled, Brad and Nicky fell back while Kevin turned to face the new threat. He almost laughed; she was ten inches shorter than him, and waving a piece of plastic pipe. It was longer than his knife, sure, but PVC was light; even if she whacked him, it wouldn't do any damage. He braced himself, prepared to take it away from her and teach the bitch a lesson she'd never forget.

Summer was close enough; she set herself and swung at Kevin's head. But the pipe was unwieldy, and slower than her fencing rapier; he ducked behind an upraised arm, and the pipe impacted between his wrist and elbow. He cursed loudly as his arm dropped to the side, seemingly numb, and her eyes narrowed in satisfaction; obviously, he hadn't counted on the metal reinforcement hidden inside. She changed her grip and moved forward, keeping herself between him and Desirée, keeping him off balance with pokes to the chest, interspersed with downward slashes as she tried to knock the knife from his other hand.

But Summer wasn't able to land another good hit; her impromptu rapier was too unwieldy, and Kevin simply moved back from the poking, and managed to avoid the slashes aimed at his knife-hand. Then her foot landed on a fat pinecone, and her balance wavered, her pipe-sword shifting to the side. Immediately, Kevin's left hand, no longer numb, flashed out to grab the pipe, twisting it and wrenching it from Summer's grasp, flinging it to one side.

Shit! What could she do now? Summer backed up, panting heavily, eyes on the knife. Maybe she could circle around and grab the meter-stick again; it was better than nothing. She took a step sideways, wondering how long Kevin would wait before he attacked.

"Oh, you bitch," he breathed softly. "You are so going to get it now."

Summer took another step sideways as she heard Brad call urgently, "Kevin, you can't; it'd be murder!"

"That's right, Kevin; it'd be murder, and I'm here to prevent that. Cascade PD; drop the knife and put your hands behind your head."

Everyone stopped, stunned, and turned toward the voice. With an overwhelming wave of relief, Summer saw Professor Sandburg's cop-friend, looking all tall and official, and holding a gun pointed directly at Kevin. He was breathing heavily, but the gun never wavered, and Summer had never been so glad to see a cop in her life. The professor was standing a little behind and to the side of his friend. He was also breathing heavily, and he didn't have a gun, but he was a known, friendly face; just his presence gave her a feeling of safety. Thank God; it was over.

The release of adrenalin left her feeling weak-kneed. Summer made her way to Desirée's side and sank down beside her, throwing an arm around her shoulders, feeling Desirée's arm around her waist. Together they watched the professor's cop-friend put Kevin in handcuffs, heard him say, "Call it in, Chief. Tell 'em we need two black-and-whites, and give 'em directions how to get here." They listened to him recite the Miranda rights to the boys -- it was different than on TV -- and watched as he slid the knife into a plastic bag, and then opened two briefcases that the boys had dropped. Whatever was in there, the cop seemed satisfied, while Professor Sandburg looked at the boys with sorrow on his face.

They'd rest here just a little longer. Then Summer would fetch Desirée's chair and help her into it, and they could go home. In a little while...

Wednesday, 10/2/96

Blair was just hanging up the phone as Jim came down the stairs. "Isn't it a little early to be planning a hot date, Chief?" he asked, crossing to the kitchen to pour a mug of coffee.

"I think I know your problem, Jim. Turns out, most women prefer to be asked on a date with more than an hour's notice." Blair snorted as he reached into the oven to pull out the toasted bagels and carry them to the table. "But actually, I was inviting Desirée and Summer to lunch at the Grill-Tastic. Since they gave us the info that helped you catch those guys, I figure it's only fair to fill in the blanks and answer whatever questions they might have." He started to spread strawberry jam on his bagel. "Care to join us? You might need to make sure I don't spill any super-secret police information."

"You're right about that, Sandburg; you'd make a lousy spy. The way you run on, I think your mouth is always about two sentences ahead of your brain; state secrets would be lying all over the floor before you even noticed. But in this case, I really --" Jim paused, abruptly noticing the entreaty in Blair's eyes; for some reason, this was important to him. "-- don't think you should be let out without a keeper," he continued smoothly. "I'd hate to have pull you in on charges of high treason."

"Thanks; I appreciate it." Blair shoved the jam-jar in Jim's direction, and bit off a large piece of bagel, avoiding Jim's eyes.

Jim suspected he knew Blair's problem. "The girls are okay, Chief," he said gently. "Their statements were clear and concise, they had no trouble picking the boys out of a lineup, and they have us as witnesses that the Agonestes kid really did threaten them with a knife. They're done with it until the trial starts, and that'll be months away."

"I know." Blair regarded Jim soberly. "It's just that... well, I guess I want to make sure they have closure. Neither of them have family here. I can offer to talk if they need it, but I'm like... 'ordinary everyday', y'know? I think it'd be more reassuring to have closure from a real cop. And it doesn't hurt if it just happens to be the hero that came charging to their rescue." His eyes twinkled as he picked up his coffee, watching Jim's face turn a faint shade of pink.

It was Jim's turn to snort. "On my dashing white charger, I suppose? I'm not Lancelot, and just doing my job doesn't make me a hero."

"Jim, you saved them from a guy who was out of control; as you say, 'armed and dangerous'. If you hadn't been there, they'd have been badly hurt -- or worse -- and they know it. You're their hero, whether or not you want to be. But if it's any consolation, it probably won't last long." Blair grinned at the hopeful look on Jim's face. "They're young; it'll probably wear off in a couple of weeks."

"I'll hold you to that, Sandburg." Jim carried his dishes to the sink and ran them under hot water. "What time?"

"I told 'em twelve-thirty."

"I'll be there... unless our esteemed captain has an urgent case that he can't spare me from."

"Good point. I think I'll call Simon, and tell him no new cases for you until after one-thirty."

"You'll tell him?" Jim chuckled as he strapped on his gun. "You might want to rethink that. If you give Simon apoplexy, the new captain might pull your ride-along pass."

Blair shook his head sadly as he shouldered his backpack and followed Jim out the door. "Man, you should have more faith in my powers of persuasion. But I suppose you're right; I'll try to go easy on Simon. Too much yelling will damage his vocal cords and my hearing, and neither one of us needs that."

Desirée had purposely pushed Summer into arriving at the Grill-Tastic a little early; it would be embarrassing for both of them if she had to drag her friend across the floor to a table where the professor and his friend were already sitting. This way, all she had to do was keep Summer from bolting when the two men arrived.

They were still looking over their menus when Desirée looked up to see the cop -- Detective Ellison, she remembered -- approaching between the tables, with Professor Sandburg right behind. Desirée watched appreciatively. He was as good-looking as the professor, she decided; tall and built and buff, with a quiet strength behind his eyes. But kind of old, probably pushing forty. Not someone to get interested in, she decided with an internal sigh.

The men sat down and looked over their menus, followed by a flurry of ordering, with Desirée and Summer declaring they could buy their own lunches, and Professor Sandburg insisting it was his treat. Detective Ellison didn't seem to mind the professor taking over, though Desirée was sure she noticed a glint of amusement in his eyes.

Then an awkward silence fell. Desirée wasn't quite certain why the professor had invited them to lunch, and he didn't seem to know how to start. Summer wouldn't say anything unless asked, and the detective was still watching the professor with that smile in his eyes. But if someone didn't start, they'd still be sitting in silence when lunch was over.

"So, Detective Ellison," Desirée said brightly, "was all the loot in those two cases, or are you still looking for some more?"

Detective Ellison flashed a killer smile as he relaxed in his chair.

"First, ladies, we're very informal here, and I know Sandburg prefers not to be 'professor'," he said, trying to put them at ease. "So how about we all stick to first names? And to answer your question, we got lucky; all the loot is there, and none of it damaged," he assured them. "And, again, the Cascade PD is very grateful that you came forward with the information that let us break the case."

"I'm just glad you showed up when you did," Summer said, fervently. "A month of fencing lessons sure doesn't make someone expert in a fight, and a plastic pipe makes a lousy sword. What was I thinking?"

"You were thinking a friend was in danger and you could help," Blair said gently. "And you kept your head and used what you had available. As someone told me recently," he flashed a smile at Jim, "you have good instincts, and you did what you had to do. You can't expect more than that."

"But it was mostly just self-preservation!" she protested. "I wasn't even very good at it."

"Good enough to keep that asshole monster away from me until Jim and Blair showed up," Desirée declared loyally. "I, for one, really appreciate that. And you did pretty good for not having a real sword."

"It never occurred to me that those meter-sticks are hefty enough to make a good weapon," Blair said, "but I salute your creativity."

"Not like you haven't shown a bit of that yourself, Chief," Jim teased. "But what made you bring it along, Summer? In your statement, you said that you simply thought Desirée had fallen down."

Summer shrugged, embarrassed. "I was getting it out of the toolbox when Dessie shouted, and I just ran. I didn't even realize I had it, till I needed something to hit him with."

The waitress served their food, and conversation languished for a short time. After a few minutes, Desirée remarked, "I wasn't totally surprised about Kevin; we always knew he was a sleazy asshole. But it really pissed me off that Brad didn't try harder to stop him; he just let Kevin boss him around, even when he was threatening to... kill me," she finished, not quite steadily.

"Breaking out of the status quo isn't as easy as TV makes it look," Blair explained. "Brad was used to following Kevin's lead, and facing a wild-eyed man with a knife -- even if he's a friend -- is a scary thing. At least he did try. That extra thirty seconds gave Summer time to get to you, and us time to get to her."

"Well, I hoped I was a better judge of character than that," Summer complained. "I didn't want to date someone just because he had a pretty face. I thought he was a nice guy, and he turned out to be such a schmuck."

Desirée almost choked over her soda. "A schmuck? You're not Jewish!"

"Well... it's what he is!" Summer declared. "At least I never let on how much I liked him, so he won't be able to gloat about how he led me on." Her downcast expression suggested that she didn't take much comfort in that fact.

"We all get fooled once in awhile," Blair hastened to assure her, "even the best of us. Not even the police are infallible."

Jim caught his meaningful look and hastily cleared his throat. "Yes, we all make mistakes. The point is, we pick ourselves up, learn from them and move on."

"And Brad's just one guy," Desirée reminded her. "Don't you remember what you told Vanessa when Tommy dumped her? You said, 'boys come and go, but the only thing you need for real fulfillment in life is one good friend'. It's true, you know; you've got me and I've got you; it doesn't get any better than that, right?" She reached out to clasp Summer's hand.

"You're absolutely right, ladies," Jim agreed, catching Blair's eyes with a slight smile. "One good friend; it doesn't get any better than that."

The End

Author's Notes

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Title: The Misty Solitudes
Summary: While camping, Jim and Blair meet a local legend.
Style: Gen
Size: 14,050 words, about 26 pages in MS Word.
Warnings: None
Notes: The inspiration came from a poem -- "The Road through the Woods" by Rudyard Kipling -- which is posted at the end of the story.
          If the pictures don't show up, direct links are in the Author's Notes at the end.
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-

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The Misty Solitudes

by StarWatcher

Dedicated to the memory of Cindershadow,
a dear friend who was taken from us much too soon.

Ellison scowled in confusion as he stood in front of the door, swaying slightly with key in hand; he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do with it.

Blair was exhausted, too, but not quite at the point of mental shut-down. He hadn't spent the last thirty-seven and a half hours with his senses cranked up to maximum, tracking a killer through the cramped and congested back-streets and the stench of filthy alleyways. He'd only provided the care and backup so that his sentinel wouldn't zone, so that Jim could keep going forward long after any sensible man would have called it quits and headed home to a well-deserved rest.

'Only', Blair thought with a flicker of wry amusement; the trite word concealed hours of driving, walking, running, searching... Thank God they'd caught the man, or they would probably still be out hunting -- despite the fact that each had reached the end of his endurance. But habit would keep him going just a little longer. A few more minutes of giving care and support to Jim, and then they could both collapse.

Blair gently pulled the key from Jim's fingers and unlocked the door, pushing it wide. He grabbed Jim's hand and led the unresisting man through the opening, shutting it behind them with an absent-minded kick, then yanked his jacket off and tossed it in the general direction of the coat-hooks. When Jim simply stood mindlessly, Blair unzipped his friend's jacket, tugged it down his arms, and tossed it after his own. Bed. No food, no drink, no cleanup -- just bed, and sweet, heavenly sleep. Ten hours, maybe even twelve.

Blair started urging Jim toward the stairs that led to the bedroom loft, and then stopped. No. There was no way that either of them would make it to the top. He changed direction and stopped in front of the larger couch. Gentle pressure indicated that Jim could sit; three seconds later, he had collapsed sideways to lie with his head on a throw-pillow that Blair had hastily shoved into place. But his friend wouldn't be comfortable like that. With a last burst of effort, Blair lifted Jim's legs to the cushions, then pulled off his shoes to drop them on the floor. A twitch brought the afghan down from the back of the couch to settle over the sleeping man.

Blair nodded to himself as he regarded Jim. Yes. This was good. He'd taken care of his friend, and now it was just a few more steps until he could collapse on his own bed. He turned, and staggered as a wave of dizziness washed over him. Of course, this couch was a lot closer...

As he settled into the softness, he remembered at the last moment to toe off his own shoes. Jim's snores masked the 'thud' of them hitting the floor and, seconds later, Blair was also snoring, warrior and companion sharing a richly-deserved rest.

The following day brought little relief. Although they'd slept late, the pile of paperwork that adorned their desks -- ignored for several days while they had been investigating and chasing the killer -- was enough to give even Sandburg pause. Ellison frankly glowered at it, then shook his head in resignation and sat down to open the first file. "I'd rather chase down another perp than do this stuff," he griped quietly to his partner. "I just hope I can keep my eyes open."

"You and me both, man," Blair agreed as he took his own seat. "I predict lots of coffee today, for both of us. But I don't wanna chase any more perps. How about we help some little girl find her lost kittycat instead?"

"No good, Sandburg. We'd find the kittycat hiding in the middle of crates full of illegal weapons, be discovered by the owners before we could get the hell out, and get stuck in a pitched gun-battle. We would, of course, heroically save the day and capture all the gunrunners, but then we'd get back here to twice as much paperwork." He shook his head firmly. "No lost kittycats, no runaway horses, no escaped Barbary apes; it is never worth dealing with the repercussions."

Blair nodded thoughtfully as he grabbed another folder. "You may be right, man; the animal kingdom does seem to have it in for us. But have you noticed that it's just the warm-blooded animals? Fishing usually works out okay."

"You've got a point there, Junior -- as long as you don't count poachers, drug kingpins and their mistresses, train robbers or survivalist rejects, fishing works out real well for us."

"You're being deliberately obtuse; what, you want pistols at dawn?" Blair cocked a derisive eyebrow. "It isn't the fishing that's the problem; it's the people around -- all of whom are warm-blooded animals, by the way. If we got way, way out, with no people within... oh, about twenty miles... I think we should be safe. And I think we should do it soon; if we don't get more rest than a couple nights' sleep, we're going to start making mistakes." Becoming serious, he urged softly, "We can't afford that; in our line of work, mistakes can be deadly. So, what d'ya say; fishing this weekend? Maybe Simon would let us take three days."

Ellison took a moment to study his partner, noting the slightly grayed undertone to his skin, the uncharacteristic slump of his shoulders, and the thread of exhaustion that underlay his voice. Blair's personal scent was 'off', too, as if his body chemistry was unbalanced from stress and strain, coupled with too many inadequate meals on the run and too much missed sleep; they'd been working intense, high-profile cases for the better part of three weeks. This was bad. It was one thing to take liberties with his own health and well-being, but not fair to foist the same state onto Sandburg simply because the man insisted on 'covering his back', no matter what. And, now that Blair had an official position with the PD, Jim could no longer convince his partner to wait anything out; what one man endured, they both endured.

"You're right," he agreed quietly. "Let's see how much of this we can get done, and I'll talk to Simon about a few days off."

At 5:25, Ellison passed the last report to Sandburg for his corroborating signature, accepting one from his partner in return. An exchange of glances confirmed that each man was caught up with the files and paperwork -- at least for now. Ellison rose and approached his captain's office, to knock on the door.

"Come!" Banks called, and scribbled his signature before he looked up at his detective. "So, Jim, how's it going?" he asked as he waved the other man to a seat and rose to pour two mugs of coffee. He slid one mug across the desk, then sat and took a swallow of the fragrant brew. "You got the Bartolo case wrapped up?"

"Yes, sir, the report's on Rhonda's desk. We've also finished the Cumberland case, the Snipes case, the Fidelli case, and the partridge in the pear tree. And Sandburg can do a juggling act, if you'd like." Ellison closed his eyes as he shook his head; Simon didn't deserve such a smart-ass attitude. "I'm sorry, sir; I had no call to speak to you like that."

The captain stared at his friend and analyzed what he saw; after all, he was a detective, too. "You certainly didn't. But I'm going to file it under 'extenuating circumstances'; you look like you'd have to climb up a few steps to feel like shit."

"That's exactly where I am, Simon," Jim agreed, "and Sandburg's not much better. That's why I'm here, to request some time off. We don't want to reach the stage where we're a danger to ourselves and others."

"Reasonable," Banks acknowledged. "D'you have anything open that can't wait awhile?"

Jim shrugged. "The only thing open is the Graffen case, and we're stalled on that. Joel and Megan have the information, if anything comes up."

The captain nodded. "Good. Okay, take a week. I'll expect to see you back here next Thursday, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I don't expect to have some local lawman on the phone, needing information because you two have jumped into another 'incident'." He pointed an admonishing finger. "Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir; thank you. I'll keep that in mind -- bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by the time we get back. I'll handle the bright eyes and let Sandburg do bushy-tailed. On a normal day, he's already halfway there."

"Go on, get out of here," Banks growled. As the detective reached the door, he said softly, "Jim." Ellison turned, waiting silently. "All joking aside, you need this. Take care of yourself, and the kid; I don't want to attend either of your funerals within the next fifty years. You got that?"

Ellison nodded. "Got it, Simon. Thanks again." He slipped out the door to tell his partner the good news.

"So, Jim, where're we headed?" Blair asked as they skirted the national forest. He admired the towering trees, and breathed in the fresh scent of green growth and moist earth through the open window. "We can't take any fish from federal lands, can we?"

"Depends on the season and type of fish, Chief. But we'll be four or five miles outside the boundaries -- pick up supplies at Tonasket, then drive and finally hike till we get there. There's not even a road in anymore; I can pretty much guarantee that we'll see no one else, and it's a great place to fish -- basically untouched because it's so difficult to get to. But it'll be worth it."

Blair was interested; it sounded like Jim knew a lot more than he'd said. "What d'you mean, 'no road anymore'? And how did you find it?"

"Well... Sandburg, look ahead! To our left!" Ellison removed his foot from the gas, and pressed lightly on the brake before releasing it to let the truck continue quietly forward on residual momentum.

A broad smile lit Blair's face as he watched the doe and fawn grazing peacefully at the edge of the trees, unperturbed by the slow passage of the truck. Once they were past, he released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "That was so cool! We always know that there are animals in the forest, but we hardly ever get to see any -- except for you, with your senses. With those guys in the shadows, I probably wouldn't have noticed them if you hadn't pointed them out. Thanks, man."

"Think nothing of it, Chief. We'll probably see plenty in the next week -- deer, elk, possibly some otters, maybe a badger; could even see a bear if we're unlucky."

"You make it sound like Shangri-La," Blair said, intrigued.

"Pretty close. I've only been up there twice, and never told anyone -- too selfish. Of course, someone else could find it the way I did, with a little research."

Blair widened his eyes in pretended shock. "My God, Jim Ellison admits to doing research? The world as we know it may end." He chuckled, and leaned away from Jim's half-hearted attempt to whap his head. "So tell me about this miraculous place."

"Stoneville -- it's a ghost town now, completely abandoned. It was mentioned in a book of local legends I read when I was a teenager, and this one grabbed me and stuck in my memory. Used to be a mining town, with a bit of lumbering on the side. But the mines played out, and the lumbering wasn't self-sustaining; it was too far from major waterways to transport the logs. 'Round about the eighteen-nineties, people started to drift away. Then the Spanish flu epidemic of nineteen-eighteen wiped out three-fourths of the remaining population. There weren't enough survivors to keep the town viable; everyone picked up and moved away. The buildings have fallen in, and the road is all grown over, but the fishing can't be beat, and the peacefulness is so deep you can hold it in your hands." Jim cast a half-abashed smile toward his friend. "I think you'll like it Chief, and it's so close to the middle of nowhere that no one will bother us."

"With our luck, I'm not going to bet on it," Blair chuckled. "But it sounds good, man, just what we need." He went back to watching the passing forest, until his memory tossed up one of Jim's statements. "So, what was the legend?"


"You said you read about it in a book of local legends. What was it?"

"Oh..." He frowned in thought. "I really can't remember. At fifteen I was mightily impressed, but I guess I grew out of being impressed and forgot what it was." He shrugged. "You can check it when we get back to Cascade, if you want."

"Jim, I thought you understood the concept of 'forewarned is forearmed'," Blair protested. "I mean, it would be helpful to know whether we're supposed to look out for lake monsters or unicorns."

Ellison gave him the 'sardonic raised eyebrow'. "Sandburg, neither of us needs to worry about unicorns, and the lake is too small for monsters. Of course, you might have to avoid the wood nymphs that want to carry you away."

"Better wood nymphs than the hulking ogres that might want you to join them," he snorted. "But I guess as long as it wasn't werewolves or vampires you've forgotten, we're good. So... how long till we get there?"

"Sandburg, you're worse than a kid. Three more hours, and worth every minute of it. So be a good little boy and watch the pretty trees go by."

"Jim?" Blair waited until Ellison glanced his way, then stuck out his tongue, crossed his eyes, and thumbed his nose.

"Very mature, Chief; I'm impressed with how you're growing up."

Blair chuckled again and turned to watch the passing scenery. He could already feel the stress of the past few weeks being peeled away from his psyche and, judging by Jim's teasing, his friend felt the same. Yes, this week would be just what the doctor ordered.

The sign said,

Welcome to Tonasket,

A Town of 1,000 Friendly People (and three or four old grouches.)

Blair grinned; somebody had a sense of humor. "So, what're we here for?"

"This is the end of civilization, Chief," Jim answered as he pulled up to the pumps in front of 'The Old Country Store'. "Last chance to gas up and get the perishables we'll need -- eggs and bacon, maybe a jug of juice since you won't be able to make your algae shakes out here. Why don't you go in and see what looks good while I fill 'er up?"

"Sounds like a plan, Stan." Blair approached the store, his anthropologist's gaze taking in every aspect. Small towns like this could provide fascinating nuggets of human interaction, so different from a large city, yet so similar in many aspects. He pushed through the weathered screen door, listening in delight to the tinkling of the bell overhead. Spying a stack of hand-baskets, he grabbed one and set off on what felt like a treasure hunt, meandering through aisles that showcased everything from artichokes to zucchini, with side trips past chicken feed, gardening supplies, and sewing fabrics.

Shortly thereafter, he had Jim's stipulated bacon and eggs -- from free-range local chickens, the carton assured him -- as well as a carton of orange juice. He'd also grabbed three plump, ripe tomatoes -- organically grown in local gardens, according to the sign -- that would be delicious in a morning omelet. As Blair reached the check-out counter, Jim appeared beside him. "This too, Chief," he said, placing a blueberry pie next to the other items. "My nose tells me it's homemade, without artificial anything."

"You got it, mister," the cashier assured him cheerfully as she started to ring up the items. "Sally Ann picks them berries herself, and makes the crust from scratch. You won't find a better pie in three states."

"Only three?" Jim asked, a twinkle in his eye. "You're supposed to tell us that it's the best this side of the Mississippi, or north of Los Angeles. We might think you're slighting Sally Ann's expertise if you only claim three states." He deftly avoided the elbow that Sandburg aimed at his ribs.

"Ain't been in those places, and don't know nobody that has," she retorted, matching his teasing with a smile of her own. "'Sides, if people from more'n three states was to come lookin', Sally Ann'd be hard-pressed to keep with the demand." She winked as she counted the change into his hand. "We need to keep enough for the townfolk to have their share. You sure you got everything, now?"

"We're planning on doing some fishing, and we could use some new flies," Jim answered, "but I didn't see any in the store. Is there a place in town where we can pick something up?"

"Yep; Tom's Tackle Box, about a mile down the road. We got an agreement; we don't sell fishing supplies, and he don't sell drygoods." She smiled merrily at what was obviously an old joke, served up fresh to anyone new. "It's just before the turnoff to Oroville. Got a big ol' fish carving out front, kinda like a totem pole; ya' can't miss it. Tell 'im Hazel sent ya'."

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After stopping for lunch at 'Sarge's Burger Bunker' -- Jim had vetoed Blair's suggestions of 'The Udder Restaurant' and 'All Perked Up - Groceries and Dining' -- they resumed their journey, traveling a narrow road through dense stands of trees.

The turn-off had a warning sign: Unimproved Road. Suitable only for trucks and 4-wheel drive vehicles. As Blair bounced on the seat, he wondered what it must be like after a hard rain. Probably impassable even to the reliable 'Sweetheart'. As they hit another pothole and his head narrowly missed impacting the roof, he wondered if they'd even make it over the current dry surface.

Finally, Jim pulled into an open circular area at the end of the rough road and parked. Stout wooden barriers -- cut from whole logs -- prevented vehicles from going further, although the lack of anything resembling a road past this point should have indicated that motorized passage was no longer allowed. The trees around them towered to tremendous heights and, with the motor shut off, the only sounds were the rushing of the wind through the treetops, and the chittering of birds among the branches. They might have been the only people on the planet -- were it not for three other trucks parked around the circle, and the well-used path that led off to their right.

"I think we're in trouble, Jim," Blair declared with ominous tones. "It looks like someone else has done their research. Remember, we need to be twenty miles from other people, not two hundred yards or whatever."

"Relax, Sandburg; those guys are just weekend warriors." Jim waved at the trailhead with a careless hand. "There's pretty good fishing about a half-mile down that path, but my place is even better. We're heading about five miles that way." His nod indicated a spot almost directly opposite the only visible trail. "We won't be bothered, because no one will even know we're there."

"Five miles?" Blair squeaked. "With all of this stuff?" His backpack was already bulging with a change of clothes, plus extra underwear and socks, and several books to enjoy when he wasn't fishing or hiking. Jim's backpack wasn't quite so full, but there was still two sleeping bags, a tent, and their food to carry, as well as the fishing poles and his spear.

Jim snorted and shook his head. "Yesterday, you were all gung-ho for twenty. I thought you were an old hand at expeditions, Sandburg. This is nothing. I'll lash the tent and my sleeping bag to the bottom of my pack, and you'll carry your sleeping bag the same way. We'll split the non-perishable food between our packs, and I'll carry the cooler with the perishable stuff. You'll carry the fishing gear, and we're good to go."

A short time later, Blair announced, "I can't fit all my share of the food in my pack, man. Do you have any room in yours?" Jim looked over to survey the situation.

"The problem is all those books, Sandburg; this is a fishing trip, not a literary convention. Leave some of them in the truck.

"There are only four!" he protested. "And two of them are paperbacks. I need something to do when we're not fishing."

Jim ticked the possibilities off on his fingers. "Fishing, hiking, swimming, wild-animal watching, cooking, eating, sleeping... and I figured you'd probably like to explore what's left of Stoneville."

Blair's silence was stubborn. He'd leave his laptop locked in the truck, but he needed something to read.

Jim knew an addict when he saw one; there was no fighting the need. "Look," he said patiently, "you can't read them all at once. Leave two here. When you finish the other two, it'll be a nice hike back to trade them out."

Blair had to admit that it made sense, and soon had the remainder of the food stowed in his pack. He heaved it onto his shoulders, grabbed the fishing gear, and turned to follow Jim into the forest.

It had been almost a hundred years since any logging had been done in this area. Although the trees weren't the giants found in old-growth forests, they were substantial enough to prevent the development of most underbrush. Jim and Blair walked over a cushion of moist earth and fallen leaf detritus, welcoming the shade that protected them from the early-afternoon sun. Within fifteen minutes Blair realized that, if he tried to find the truck, he'd be hopelessly lost. "Hey, Jim, how are you finding your way?" he wondered.

"I've got a compass." Jim lifted a hand to show what he held. "But mostly, I just know."

Oh, now, that was interesting. "'Just know' how, Jim? What information are you using?"

"Chief, I've had a lot of experience with this stuff. I just took a compass bearing, got a bead on the direction we need to go, and I can tell if I veer off a straight line. It's just... a gut feeling," he finished, unable to explain any more clearly.

"Sounds good," Blair assured him, not wanting to push any harder. But he filed the information away, wondering how he could test Jim's directional sense. If Jim had taken a bearing, then was blindfolded and turned, would he be able to find the same bearing again, still blindfolded? They might be able to use that information, sometime.

Thirty minutes later, Jim said abruptly, "It's the waterfall."


"There's a small waterfall just above Stoneville, about fifty feet high. They used it to power a gristmill and sawmill. I've just realized that I'm following the sound; I must have heard it subliminally and locked onto it without noticing."

"Oh, man, that is so cool! So how far away are we now, and how far when we were at the parking lot?"

Jim paused, and turned in a circle, surveying the area. "About..." It seemed to Blair that he consulted some inner marker. "We're about three miles from the falls now, about five when we started." He pointed an admonishing finger at his guide. "And that's all the information you need; call it a real-world test and let it drop. This week is for relaxing, remember?"

Blair nodded reassuringly. "Got it, Jim; no tests," he promised. At least, not this week, he amended. He'd have to devise the bearing tests with and without distinctive sounds. But when you were dealing with a sentinel, could you find any place without distinctive sounds?

They walked on, Jim following his auditory marker, and Blair following his partner, marveling once again about the things the sentinel could do.

Oh, yeah, Blair thought, this place is absolutely worth all the trouble to get here. He flicked his rod and dropped the fly on the glassy surface of the water, next to a fallen log that provided perfect shelter for a weary fish to rest, hoping to be protected from predators. Not this time, pal; you and I have an appointment for a dinner date. He lifted the rod-tip and flicked it again, allowing the fly to make a new 'landing' on the water.

On the opposite bank, and slightly downstream, Jim was performing his own flick-and-drop ritual; his fly landed next to a good-sized boulder. The sound of rapids downstream was barely audible -- to normal senses, anyway -- and served to enhance the quiet of this spot.

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After having put up the tent, arranged the campsite, and gathered wood for a fire, they'd realized it was the perfect time to get in a little fishing before dark; with the lowering sun casting cool shadows across the water and bugs landing on the surface, the fish were rising to feed. Blair patiently played with his fly, and sent 'enticing' thoughts to any lurking trout. He hoped to gain a few more points in the unstated competition between him and Jim -- who would land the first fish, the biggest, the most, the shortest catch times? It amused him to play these games whenever he was engaged in a physical activity with Jim -- or any of the guys from Major Crime -- but he recognized it as typical male bonding behavior. Not that he and Jim needed any more bonding; their partnership couldn't be any more solid than it was. But maintaining an adequate level of 'BS points' helped him fit smoothly into the closed society of the Police Department. Besides -- kicking ass once in a while was just plain fun. He lifted the rod-tip again, and set the fly down in another promising spot.

With three trout between them -- enough for supper -- they had pulled in their lines and were headed back to camp when Jim stopped with hand upraised and head cocked. "Do you hear that?" he whispered.

Blair tried, but -- "No; what?"

"Wait here a minute; I'll put the fish in the river and be right back."

Jim disappeared silently into the shadows while Blair waited impatiently. He couldn't tell if Jim's actions were leading to a pleasant or unpleasant surprise. God, he hoped it wasn't gunrunners or poachers again; he'd turn in his Union card and drag Jim to Bora Bora with him.

Without warning, Jim was beside him again. Blair jerked, startled, but obeyed the caution of Jim's finger raised to his lips. "Don't say anything, and walk as quietly as you can," he instructed with the tiniest thread of sound. "Follow me." He turned and led the way into the shadows under the trees.

Although light lingered in the sky over the river, it was dark enough under the trees that Blair couldn't see clearly. He stretched out a hand to grab Jim's shirttail, ensuring that he'd be able to 'follow' wherever Jim led, and tried to step exactly in the ex-Ranger's footprints. If Jim could step without crackling sticks or dried leaves underfoot, then so could Blair.

Ten minutes later, Blair could hear high-pitched whistles and guttural chattering sounds; some kind of animal, obviously, but he wasn't sure what. In a few more moments, Jim tugged his arm to bring him down to the ground. They crawled forward, using a slight upthrust of the embankment as cover, then cautiously peered over the top.

Blair was immediately captivated. Below them, the river had widened into a small pool -- and that pool seemed to be a playground for at least a dozen river otters. They played with carefree abandon, strongly resembling children let out on the last day of school. Blair watched, entranced, as some of the animals took turns slipping down a mud 'slide' into the water, while the youngsters -- well, smaller animals, anyway -- played a fast game of 'tag' through the water and over some fallen branches. The scene was lit by the last rays of the setting sun, as if Mother Nature Herself had invited them to a critically-acclaimed theatre performance.

But this is better than any play, Blair thought, and settled down to watch until the otters quit playing, or it became too dark for him to see. Beside him, he felt Jim settle in to wait patiently, and he raised a thumb to silently thank his friend for giving him such a treat.

Blair was just putting his half of the third trout onto his plate when he noticed Jim cock his head and frown slightly. It couldn't be the otters; Jim had already identified and marked that sound, and would have dismissed it from 'alert status'. Blair closed his eyes to maximize his own hearing but, to his average senses, there was nothing unusual in the forest sounds around them.

"What've you got, Jim?" he asked quietly. "Whatever it is, I'm not getting it; you're hearing it at a sentinel level."

Jim seemed to hesitate. "It sounds like... a horse, moving fast. Not a runaway," he clarified. "More like a brisk canter. But it can't be; there's no roads out here. D'you suppose my hearing could be skipping over air layers or something, and picking up an echo from farther than I can usually hear?"

"Could be," Blair agreed cautiously. "Or maybe there's a road there now; it's been a lot of years since you were here, and there could be a new route from Tonasket to someplace else."

"I don't think so. If I can hear a horse from whatever distance it is, I could certainly hear any cars that would've passed this afternoon, and there's been nothing. All we have around us is uninhabited forest, all the way back to Tonasket." He stood and walked a few steps from the fire, still tracking the sound that Blair couldn't hear.

Blair looked around, evaluating the information Jim was giving him, as he followed his friend and stood close enough to prevent a zoneout. He trusted the sentinel's senses, he really did, but... "The moon is only three-quarters full," he pointed out, gazing upward to check the sky. "Can a horse go that fast under these conditions? It's not like they have headlights."

"Good point, Chief. They could do it if they know the area pretty well, but the rider would still be risking a bad fall if the horse put a foot in a hole it couldn't see in the ground-shadows." Jim shook his head and relaxed his listening pose. "Well, whatever it was, it's gone now." He returned to sit by the fire, pick up his abandoned plate, and put the last portion of trout on it. He chewed thoughtfully, then said, "What d'you say we hike that way tomorrow and see if there is a road I don't know about? If there is, it'll answer a lot of questions."

"And if there isn't?" Blair countered. He chuckled at the fierce glare Jim threw his way as he sat across the fire and grabbed his own discarded plate. "Hey, chill, man. Just trying to cover all possibilities. I'm sure it'll all be clear in the plain light of day; we just have to find it."

"You don't have to coddle me, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I know what I heard."

"I'm not! We've been through too much strange shit together; no way would I doubt your senses. You heard what you thought you heard. But just like always, we need to find the answers before we can be sure what's going on."

Jim grunted in acknowledgement. He hoped they could solve this little mystery quickly; they were supposed to be on vacation, dammit.

They crested the top of a small rocky hill and looked down the other side to see -- nothing. Or at least, no road. The same forest that they'd been hiking through for two and a half hours spread before them, with a few breaks here and there from small creeks, or clearings caused by downed trees, but absolutely no sign of a road, or anything manmade.

Blair threw himself under the nearest tree. "Time out, man," he gasped as he twisted the top off his canteen. "I need a rest." Neither man was heavily burdened, each carrying only a canteen and a few emergency supplies 'just in case', but Jim had set a strenuous pace. The tree-growth cut off any breezes that might have cooled them and, despite the shade, Blair was hot and tired. He upended his canteen and took several deep swallows, then capped it again and leaned back against the tree to catch his breath.

Jim prowled the length of the stony outcropping, occasionally stopping to extend his vision or hearing, desperately hoping for some sign that would indicate a hidden road, or even a wide foot trail through the forest. He knew what he'd heard, dammit, and a horse had to have some kind of open area to travel as fast as a canter. If there was no such open space, then... what? He'd heard an auditory 'mirage'? He was going crazy?

"Jim," Blair called quietly, "come and chill out for a few minutes. If you collapse on the way back, I won't be able to drag your ass to camp -- assuming I can find the camp without you, anyway."

"Sandburg, I can do five times this distance with a forty-pound pack," he snapped. "I'm not going to be collapsing any time soon." But he squatted next to Blair and took a hefty drink from his own canteen.

"So, how far have we come?" Blair asked as he used the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face. "And have you seen or heard or smelled anything that would indicate the presence of something manmade?"

Jim shook his head in frustration. "About eight miles. And nothing since we passed Stoneville. Hell, there wasn't even a road near there -- like I told you, it's all overgrown. But there has to be something I missed," he snarled, rising to stare down into the forest again. "Otherwise..." He shrugged helplessly, unwilling to put his thoughts into words.

"Jim, you're not crazy," Blair calmly assured him. "Whatever you heard, it was real. Just because you can't find it now, doesn't make it less real. If you hear it again, we'll just have to figure out a different way to search, that's all." The broad shoulders in front of him remained rigid, apparently unconvinced. Blair sighed and tried again. "Okay, look -- do you know where Tonasket is from here?'

Jim pointed off to Blair's right. "Yeah, it's about ten miles that way."

"Okay. If you focus your senses, is there anything that would tell you there's a town over there, if you didn't know?" As he spoke, Blair stood and walked to Jim's side, ready to ground the sentinel as he searched. He waited patiently, letting Jim explore the range of his senses farther than they'd ever tried.

"I think so," Jim finally said, uncertainly. "It's like... the air is different over the town, somehow -- dustier, and I can... feel the gasoline pollution in the back of my throat. I think. It's so faint that I might just be imagining it."

"Nope." Blair seemed utterly certain. "Your senses just aren't used to stretching that far, so they don't have different levels to compare. You could refine it with practice, but that's not necessary. Now, you mentioned a combination of touch / taste / smell. Can you hear anything, like maybe a tractor in the fields, or a car horn on the street? Try it with and without the piggyback effect -- if your eyes will zoom you five miles closer to town, you could, like, listen from there as well as from here." Again he waited patiently, his hand gripping Jim's shoulder to keep him from zoning.

"You're right, Chief. From here, it's so faint that I wouldn't notice unless I was specifically trying to hear. But when I piggyback -- it was about four and a half miles out, I think -- I can hear the town easily."

Blair bounced in excited satisfaction. "All right! So now we know that you can hear clearly somewhere between five and ten miles. We've already walked eight, without finding a source for the sound you heard last night. If it was just another couple of miles in front of us, you'd recognize it easily from here -- would probably already have it pinpointed from a few miles back. If it's more than two miles in front of us, it would be too far for you to have heard it from camp. In other words," he grinned up at his friend, "we've come far enough to prove what you thought -- there is no road that a horse and rider could travel along, close enough for you to hear it. So if it happens again, we'll know to look for another explanation."

Jim cocked an eyebrow at the energized man in front of him. "You make it sound too easy, Chief. I still think there's something hinky going on -- but I don't see a way to get a handle on it right now. So, you ready to head back?"

"Oh, yeah. I'm dying for a swim to cool off and get rid of some of the dirt; I think the otter pool will make a great swimmin' hole. Let's go!" He turned and plunged into the trees at the edge of the outcropping.

Jim chuckled as he headed toward another section of the forest. "This way, Hiawatha -- unless you want to end up in Oroville about a week from now."

Blair grinned sheepishly and turned to follow his friend back into the depths of the forest.

"Hey, Jim, can you tell how deep the pool is?" Blair asked as he shucked his clothing and left it draped over a convenient boulder. "I mean, is it deep enough to dive into, or just swimming depth?"

Jim paused in removing his own clothing and turned his senses on the water, letting himself feel the currents and movement. "It's pretty clear, about fifteen to twenty feet in most places. It's too shallow right here," he nodded at the muddy verge near them, "but if you go about a quarter way around that side, you'll be safe."

"All right!" Blair trotted over to make a visual check of the suggested area, then moved back about ten yards. "Cowabunga!" he shouted as he took a running start, then executed a cannonball into the sun-warmed pool, laughing delightedly at the resultant splashing explosion of water.

Jim shook his head; sometimes his friend was nothing more than an overgrown kid. On the other hand... "You're a piker, Sandburg!" he shouted as he started his own run to a cannonball jump. With his greater mass, the upward splash was considerably larger. He surfaced to find Blair still wiping water from his eyes. "Gotcha!" he chortled.

"Oh, I don't think so." Blair smiled sweetly, then rotated on his own axis and sent a surging kick-splash into Jim's face, immediately digging into the water to out-swim any retaliation.

Ah-ha! This was war. Jim was quickly in hot pursuit, following Blair as he dived and twisted through the water. But he soon discovered that his size didn't give him as much advantage as he'd expected. His greater arm reach and musculature let him move through the water more quickly than Sandburg, but the smaller man was much more flexible and agile, continually twisting away just when Jim thought capture was imminent.

Finally, after about fifteen minutes, they mutually declared the battle a draw, and ceased hostilities. Momentarily treading water, they grinned at each other in high good spirits. "Are you sure your animal spirit isn't an otter?" Jim asked.

Blair shrugged nonchalantly. "An otter would be a good spirit animal; it signifies a woman's healing wisdom -- no cracks, now! -- guidance in unmasking talents, which is useful for a recalcitrant sentinel, psychic awareness -- excellent talent for a shaman, you must admit -- and understanding the value of play. But as talented as otter is, he probably couldn't knock sense into panther's thick skull when necessary, so I better stick with wolf." He exhaled deeply, and let his body ease back into the water.

That looked like a good idea. Jim swam a few strokes to get out of accidental collision range, then he also lay back in the water. They floated quietly, supported by the buoyant water and warmed by the sun as breathing and heart rates returned to normal.

When the sun touched the treetops, Jim turned over and started swimming to the bank. "The fish are gettin' hungry, Chief," he called. "We need to be there if we want to eat tonight." He dried himself with his T-shirt -- it would dry before the air grew cool enough for him to need it -- and started to dress.

"Too bad we can't bottle this and take it with us," Blair said as he joined Jim and used his own T-shirt as a towel. "If we could sell it, we'd make a fortune."

"Sounds like a helluva karmic debt, Junior. What would Naomi say about you trying to sell peace? Shouldn't it be given freely?"

Blair turned and stared at his friend. "This is getting scary, man," he complained. "First you talk about research, and now you mention karmic debt. What's gotten into you?"

"Must be the company I keep," Jim suggested. "I've been hanging around with this real smart guy. He actually makes sense sometimes, and sometimes I even listen. Not that I'll tell him, of course." Although he kept his face sober, his eyes twinkled at his friend.

"Sounds about right, I guess. I, on the other hand, have obviously been hanging out with the wrong crowd." Blair shook his head mournfully. "You're right; selling peace is waaaay outta line. I'll have to do some heavy meditating and soul-searching when we get home. Still, it would be nice to have this when the job gets hectic."

Jim turned and led the way into the trees, back toward their camp. "I know exactly what you mean, partner. But we'll be able to swim again before we leave; no reason we can't do it every day. Then when we get home, we can hold it in memory -- and make plans to come back before the weather turns cold."

"It's a date," Blair declared firmly, "and I'll hold you to it; you won't be allowed to wiggle out of it."

"I'm counting on that, Chief."

It was a little earlier than the previous evening -- the sun had only just disappeared below the mountains, and there was still light in the sky -- when Jim lifted his head and turned to face into the forest. Blair went immediately to his side, laying a hand on the sentinel's arm. "Is it the horse again?"

"Yeah, exactly like last night. Except..." he frowned and seemed to be straining, if that were possible. "There's another sound with the hoofbeats. Something weird, like... I dunno. It's kind of a swish-swish thing; doesn't make sense at all."

"You're pushing too hard," Blair suggested. "Instead of you going out to meet the sound, pull back and let it come to you. Let it flow into you, relax into it, and then let your sight flow to the source so maybe you can see what's making it." He waited quietly while Jim took a deep breath and relaxed tense muscles. A few more minutes, and then Jim pulled abruptly away, breaking the connection between them.

"That's enough," he said brusquely, striding back toward the fire. "Let's get those fish cleaned and cooked."

"Jim? What --?" Blair hurried after him, but Jim didn't respond, seemingly absorbed with the supper preparations. All right; Blair would wait...

It was full dark, with stars shining overhead. They'd eaten and cleaned up, and now Jim sat staring into the fire, while Blair stared at his friend.

"Jim? I heard it too, this time. I swear," he went on hurriedly when Jim lifted his head to stare at him. "Maybe it was a sentinel-guide connection thing because I had my hand on your arm; it stopped as soon as you pulled away from me. I didn't hear the swish-swish you mentioned -- probably too soft a sound for my ears -- but I definitely heard the hoofbeats, man. It's not your imagination or you going crazy or something."

"Crazy might be better," Jim snarled. "These damned senses show me too much..." He took a deep breath and scrubbed his hands over his face, as if he could wipe away the after-image of what he'd seen, then watched Blair's face closely as he admitted, "It's a ghost."

Blair blinked; it was so unexpected. "A ghost? Like Molly?"

"A ghost, like Molly," he confirmed. "A lady riding sidesaddle, black habit, chestnut horse. I saw her as clear as I see you, but she wasn't quite -- solid."

Blair nodded. "Well, that makes sense. It explains why the horse doesn't need a road."

"Sense? Sandburg, you have a loose definition of the word." His voice sounded bitter, causing Blair to shift uneasily; the sentinel was hurting, and the guide would have to fix it. Jim continued, "They're probably using the old road, from before it got overgrown. But it doesn't explain what they're doing out here."

"Well, I suppose they lived in Stoneville, so of course they'd ride around here," Blair said reasonably.

"No, I mean, what they're doing here. Molly was trapped as a ghost because she needed her murder to be solved. So I have to wonder why this lady is still riding through the forest -- what's keeping her from finding her peace?"

Blair raked a hand through his hair. "That's a good question. Don't murder victims' ghosts usually hang around the place they died?"

"You think I know?" Jim growled. "But she could have been shot from ambush, somewhere around here. Or maybe had a bad fall and broke her neck."

"Death from a fall would be like natural causes," Blair objected. "It shouldn't precipitate -- 'ghosthood'."

Jim's frustration seemed to be rising toward the surface. "Well, whatever the cause, it happened," he snapped. "She's a ghost. And I'm a sentinel and you tell me the sentinel takes care of his tribe, but if that spreads out to ghosts, too, how the hell am I supposed to help them? It's too much, Chief; I can't do it all alone."

"You don't have to do it all alone," Blair gently reminded him. "The sentinel has a guide to help; whatever you need, man. And when we're in Cascade, you have the whole of Major Crime and the Police Department standing at your back. As for this ghost-rider," he shrugged and made his voice deliberately casual, "nobody says you have to help her." He gauged the effect of his words; would Jim rise to the challenge? "It's not really our problem; she can just keep riding until whenever."

"No, she can't." Jim's voice was firm, and he relaxed slightly as he made his decision. "Now that I know, I can't just walk away."

"I didn't think so, man. If you could ignore someone in need, you wouldn't be you," Blair said fondly. "But we need more information before we can make a plan. What d'ya say we go in to town tomorrow? I can check out the library, and maybe there's a local historian to talk to; I doubt we're the only ones to have seen and heard this ghost-lady."

Jim nodded and relaxed even more. Even so tenuous a plan as this gave him a feeling of control. "Good idea, Chief. And while we're in town, we can have lunch at Sarge's again."

"No way!" Blair protested. "You got to pick last time; now it's my turn."

"I warn you, Sandburg, I'm not stepping into that 'Udder' place."

"Yeah, yeah, no sense of adventure. But it's not that small a town; there has to be someplace we can both agree on."

They continued bickering amiably as they spread out their bedrolls. If there was to be time for research after hiking to the truck and driving into town, they'd have to make an early start. Jim made sure that the fire was completely doused, and soon a medley of very masculine snores rose to join the night noises of the forest.

The library was easy enough to find, situated just one block off the main street. Jim pulled into a parking spot directly opposite the front doors, and turned to his partner. "Y'know, Chief, that blueberry pie was so good, I think we need another one. And Hazel strikes me as the type that would be happy to share the local legends with anyone who'll listen."

"Jim, Jim, Jim." Blair shook his head sorrowfully. "You're doing research, talking to people -- you're going to ruin your reputation, man. What will Simon and the gang think?" He sighed deeply. "But since you're trashing your rep anyway, seems like maybe you should get Simon a fancy new fly. I'll bet Tom could tell you a tale or two, in between the fishing stories."

"Good thinking, Chief; I'll just bet he could. So I'll leave you to poke through the newspaper files and ghost stories in here, while I go talk to Hazel and Tom. I'll come pick you up in a couple of hours and we can go to lunch."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed. He grabbed his laptop -- he might want to transfer some of the information he hoped to find -- and hopped out of the truck, then watched as Jim headed off on his own fact-finding mission.

As he approached the library, he wondered if it served dual duty -- museum or cultural center, perhaps, as well as library. Many small towns had community buildings that encompassed multiple purposes, and this looked like it would fit the bill. It was a long, low building made out of peeled logs -- local timber, Blair supposed -- and had a totem pole sitting in front of lush trees to each side of the main entrance. He recognized traditional Coast Salish work, and paused to study each one; the workmanship was awesome.

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Inside, his suspicions of museum-cum-library were confirmed; Blair noticed displays of native baskets, weaving, pottery and carving. But he wouldn't find the answers he sought there; it was highly unlikely that a tribeswoman had donned a formal habit to roam the area in a sidesaddle.

Blair donned his 'friendly, eager grad student' persona -- not such a stretch, after all, and it would be more effective than a 'cop' demeanor -- and approached the comfortable-looking matron working behind the desk. "Hi," he said. "I wonder if you could help me?"

"I should hope so, young man," she said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. "That's a librarian's job, after all."

"And I think civilization would crumble without librarians," Blair declared fervently. "I'd probably have flunked out of college without the help of ladies like you."

She gave an unladylike snort. "And it's young men like you who make ladies like me old before our time. The soft soap isn't necessary; just ask your question."

"Right. Well, my partner and I are fishing in the area -- camping out -- and last night we got into the traditional 'telling ghost stories around the campfire' gig. And I need to write a paper for my Classic Americana class, and it suddenly occurred to me that local ghost legends would be just the ticket. So Jim dropped me off for a couple hours of research -- I'm Blair, by the way -- and I thought I'd dig into whatever material you have that deals with local legends. Or maybe Tonasket has an Internet page with that type of thing linked?"

"Good heavens, boy, do you ever breathe?" She smiled sunnily as she rose and headed toward the stacks, Blair following behind. "I'm Jonquil -- mama was a garden fancier; pleased to meet you, Blair. We don't have an Internet site, yet -- we figure maybe next year -- but you should be able to find what you want here." She handed Blair three thick volumes, and pulled down another three before leading him to a study table.

Jonquil lingered as Blair opened the first book, staring at him speculatively. She seemed to come to a decision, and said abruptly, "You spin a good tale, Blair, but I sincerely doubt that a young man would leave off fishing to research ghost stories. So I'm guessing -- you heard something out where you're camped? Maybe even saw something?" She watched his face intently, looking for any clue.

"Not really," he hedged. "It was probably just the wind, or something. We're city-folk, you know; not used to the noises of the deep woods." His smile invited her to share his mild embarrassment at being an awkward tenderfoot.

"Blair, I've been around the block a time or two; I know when someone's trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Would it help if I told you that you're not the only one who's seen or heard Miss Amelia?" Jonquil smiled at his drop-jawed expression. "I thought so; Miss Amelia is our best-known citizen." She pulled up a chair and sat facing him. So, you tell me everything you saw and heard, and I'll tell you all about Miss Amelia Featherstone."

"Now, this is the most popular fly I carry," Tom said as he handed Jim a bit of orange and green fluff to examine. "The fishermen around here won't use hardly anything else; the trout'll rise to it when nothing else works."

Jim inspected it closely; it was well-made, with a certain indefinable something... "Very nice," he said approvingly. "Is it hand-tied?"

"Yep. Benny Jones makes 'em; says he likes to keep busy now that he's retired. He was Sheriff here for almost forty years. You wouldn't think it in a little town like this, but some of the things Benny's run into would curl your hair." Tom chuckled. "'Bout ten years back, we had some folks come in and set up a religious commune about three miles out of town; they believed that the human body was sacred and should never be covered up. Of course, what folks do on their own land is nobody's business but theirs, but when they came into town for shopping, it flustered some of the ladies. Benny had to go out and talk to them; said later he didn't know which was harder -- talking to the naked women or the naked men."

"Eyes-up would be difficult in those circumstances," Jim agreed.

"That's what Benny said, but at least they promised to wear clothes in town. It wasn't a problem for long, though; when the weather got colder, I guess the 'not covering the sacred body' thing didn't seem like such a good idea anymore. They all packed up and left before Halloween."

Jim nodded. "I work with the Cascade Police Department, and I've found that if you wait long enough, some problems will just go away. And some things that seem really strange have perfectly logical explanations. A couple of years ago, for instance, we had reports of ghost lights in an abandoned house, and it turned out to be teenagers playing some kind of fantasy game; what people saw was their flashlights waving around." He chuckled, inviting Tom to share the joke. "So I'm betting there's a logical explanation for the horse I thought I heard cantering through the woods, last night about sundown. Is there some kind of natural echo effect around here, with distant sounds bouncing off the hills, or something like that?"

"Well, it's like this. I got an explanation, but if you want logic, it might not set too well." Tom regarded Jim soberly, trying to gauge how open-minded he might be.

Jim shrugged. "That's another thing you learn, working in law enforcement; even if you don't like an answer, sometimes you just have to accept it."

"Okay," Tom nodded. "Of course, if you don't believe it, it's no skin off my nose. What you heard was Miss Amelia on her horse. Lots of folks have heard her, and some have even seen her. She's been ridin' through here since eighteen seventy-two. But since eighteen eighty-six, she's been a ghost.

Deciding on lunch at the Maverick's Bar and Grill, Jim and Blair requested a quiet, out-of-the-way table, ignoring the speculative looks of the waitress. After placing their orders -- steak, salad, baked potato and beer for each -- they quietly discussed their findings.

"At least we know it wasn't foul play," Blair stated. "Amelia died of pneumonia in her own bed."

"So why is she a ghost?" Jim asked. "No murderer to be caught -- or brought to light, since a perp would be long dead by now -- and not even a violent accident to trap her spirit on this side. It doesn't make sense."

Blair buttered a hot roll while he considered his answer. "I've got a theory about that. I think she's still here because she's happy, and doesn't have a reason to move on."

"You don't need a reason," Jim objected. "You die, you move on to the afterlife -- and hope it's a good one instead of bad. Unless your spirit needs closure, like having your killer found. It's not like we get to choose."

"I did," Blair quietly reminded him.

"Chief..." A pained expression crossed Jim's face. "Are you saying you shouldn't have chosen, or you wish you'd chosen to go on ahead?"

"Absolutely not! I came back because it's where I want to be -- standing by your side." Blair spoke earnestly, trying once again to convince Jim that he hadn't given up anything important when he became Jim's permanent and official partner, guide to his sentinel. "What I'm saying is, if I got to choose, why shouldn't other people have the same possibility?"

"It still doesn't make sense," Jim complained, "unless she was afraid of going to Hell, and it doesn't sound like she'd be a candidate. Hazel and Tom both told me she was well-liked by everyone around. Even though her father was the richest man in town, she was about as far from a rich bitch as you can get; she helped people get food and medical attention if they needed it, even paying for it out of her own pocket, and she talked her father into improving working conditions and wages for the miners and lumberjacks. She instigated changes that most people didn't think about for another hundred years. Sounds to me like her afterlife should be pretty damn good."

Blair nodded as he cut into his steak. "You're right; she was generous and giving. But according to Jonquil, she was still Daddy's spoiled little pet -- and I think that's why she's still hanging around."

"Huh? You lost me, Chief."

"Okay, answer me this -- why does our spirit move on to the afterlife? Don't bother; rhetorical question. If you believe the major religions, most of the time, it's because we want to join with our loved ones who went before.

"But Amelia didn't really have any 'loved ones'. She never married -- and do you realize how unheard-of it was at that time for a thirty-year-old woman to not be married, especially one who was born into British gentry? She probably got away with it because she had brothers to carry on the all-important family name, but still, her father must've really indulged her. No marriage means she didn't have children. She wasn't close to her nieces and nephews, because her married siblings had moved too far away for easy visiting -- and she died before them, anyway. Because she died so young, even her parents outlived her." Blair shrugged, waving a hand as if it was self-evident. "No loved ones on the other side to draw her over, so she decided to just hang around and ride her horse."

"Tom did say it was her favorite activity," Jim agreed. He paused, thinking about it while he drank some beer, then continued, "But once her parents did pass on, why wouldn't she join them?"

"I think it's typical teenage behavior, sort of like a hundred years of saying, 'Later, dude'. Jonquil gave me the impression that Amelia never really matured; her mother ran the house, plenty of servants did the work, and Amelia did pretty much whatever she wanted -- which was mostly riding her horse all over this part of the country. When parents call kids to do something, for instance, how often do the kids say, 'In a little while', and the little while drags out for hours?"

"Not in my house, Chief."

"Well, not every kid or teenager; it depends on the home discipline," Blair conceded. "But I think Amelia was having so much fun riding that, when her parents died and she might have heard a call to 'come home', she said 'In a little while'... and her 'little while' isn't over yet. According to Jonquil, Amelia frequently said she'd like to ride forever. I think she just grabbed onto 'forever' and didn't let go."

"But how can we be sure? I hate to think of her wandering around because she doesn't know her parents are waiting for her to come home. That leaves Amelia and her parents just... empty."

Interesting, Blair thought. He cares so little for his family, and so much for other people's. He nodded, then shrugged. "Her parents, maybe, but not her. I think the town knows how she feels; I'll bet some people have actually met her, from time to time. Jonquil talked about Amelia like she's a favorite niece that everybody indulges. If they thought she was unhappy, they'd want her to move on, to find the peace she deserves. But they know she's already at peace, doing what she loves, so they don't worry about it."

"Tom and Hazel said the same thing. But what if they're wrong?" Jim challenged. "What if she's still here because nobody ever told her she could cross over? What if -- oh, I don't know -- maybe she doesn't even know she's dead, doesn't realize she's a ghost. Maybe that's the reason we're seeing her -- something wants us to step in and show her the way home."

Blair thought about it while the waitress refilled their water glasses and they ordered dessert. "What we have here is competing assumptions," he declared. "I think Amelia's happy, and we don't need to do anything. You think she needs to go home, whether she wants to or not. But neither of us can prove our assumption -- unless we ask her."

"And how do you expect us to do that, Chief?"

"Well, you talked to Molly," Blair pointed out. "But I suppose it would be tough to chase Amelia cross-country to talk to her. So I'm thinking maybe I could meditate my way onto the spirit plane, and talk to her there."

After the predictable objections, Jim had agreed with the idea. Before leaving town, they'd stopped at the local health food store so Blair could buy some organically produced bay leaves and -- after first checking with Jim to be sure that the sentinel didn't find the smell irritating or offensive -- some catnip. Both could be used in Wiccan rituals to enhance psychic abilities; Blair figured one or the other should help him reach the spirit plane and contact Amelia.

Now, with sunset coming on, he'd completed his simple preparations and sat cross-legged, relaxed in front of a tiny fire. Jim was sitting a short distance away -- upwind, just to be safe from traces of herbed smoke. He'd watch over his guide to be sure that nothing untoward happened.

Blair crushed a mixture of catnip and bay leaves between his palms, mixing the broken bits with the oils of his hands, then sprinkled them on the flickering flames. He closed his eyes and pictured Amelia as Jim had described her -- an attractive woman with laughing brown eyes and dark hair worn in a bun under a silk top hat, dressed in a plain, dark riding habit and riding a little chestnut mare. He leaned forward to breathe in the smoke and felt his mind start to drift; releasing control, he went where the spirits would take him.

Blair Sandburg rode his bay gelding out of Stoneville, heading toward the large house -- almost a mansion -- a half mile away. He had a riding date with Amelia Featherstone, and it wouldn't do to be late; the lady was highly independent and would ride off alone if she had no one to escort her.

Before he got to the house, he examined as much of himself as he could. Hunh! Had the spirit plane affiliated with Enterprise's holodeck? He was wearing tight white breeches and black knee-high boots. His black jacket had -- he turned to glance behind him -- uh-huh, long tails which fell to either side of the saddle. Underneath was -- jeeze, he'd get laughed out of Major Crime with all the ruffles and that particular shade of waistcoat. Salmon, his mind supplied helpfully, very fashionable in the eighteen-eighties. He sighed deeply and cocked an eye upward; yep, he even had a top-hat on his head.

As Blair approached the front of the house, he saw that he was barely in time. Amelia had just settled herself in the saddle. She looked like a period fashion-plate, wearing a simple but elegantly-designed riding habit in a deep green that contrasted well with her horse's copper-colored coat. Under the open collar -- good grief; his shirt was frillier than hers. He shook his head at the vagaries of fashion, grateful to be living a hundred years later. Blair watched as Amelia gathered her reins and nodded to the groom, who released his hold of the bridle and stepped back. With an encouraging cluck and a tap of her heel, she started down the drive.

Okay; showtime. He had to remember that he was a nineteenth-century gallant. As her horse approached his, Blair swept off his hat and bowed deeply. "Well met, Miss Featherstone! It's a nice day for a ride, isn't it?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Sandburg." Amelia smiled enthusiastically, revealing a dimple on each cheek. "After the rains last week, it's pleasant to see the sun again. Amber feels the need to stretch her muscles after being cooped up for so long, and I am in complete agreement with her." She leaned forward to stroke the horse's neck.

Blair turned his horse to ride beside her as they trotted down the road. He admired the way she sat the saddle, and her control of her horse. Amelia seemed as comfortable on horseback as she would be in her own drawing room; she obviously was not a weekend rider who mounted a horse only to impress prospective beaus. "And I agree with you both," he said courteously. "Captain is also eager to stretch his legs."

"Then we should stop dilly-dallying." Her smile was a challenge as a tap of the crop sent her horse into a free-moving canter.

Blair grinned and let her keep the lead, since he had no idea where they were going. They stayed on the road for a couple of miles, then turned into the forest. The trail was fairly open, but it was necessary to moderate their pace to a more collected canter as they wove through the trees, passing from sunlight to shade and back again.

Eventually Amelia slowed to a trot, and then a walk as they emerged into an open grassy area at the edge of a bluff. Below them wound the river, and on the other side was the vast northern forest, rising to snow-capped mountains in the distance.

"I come here all the time," Amelia said quietly. "I think it must be the most beautiful spot within a hundred miles. I imagine Heaven must be like this. If it's not, I'd rather stay here than go there." Her glance suggested she was testing him, to see if he'd be shocked by her heresy.

"It is truly awe-inspiring; I can see why you love it so. But since it was made by God, don't you think His own home would be even more beautiful?"

Amelia shrugged. "Perhaps. But it's a matter of taste, isn't it? Some people prefer apple pie, and some prefer cherry. One is not better or worse than the other -- especially since the good Lord gave us both apples and cherries. I just know that if I could choose, I'd spend eternity riding through these hills and forests.

"And I have chosen, Mr. Sandburg." She turned and looked directly at Blair while he gaped, trying to play mental catch-up. "I'll go home eventually, but Mama and Papa will wait until then. So you can tell anyone who wants to know, that I'm quite happy to be exactly where I am."

"You know?" Blair gasped.

"That I'm a ghost? Of course, silly boy. I also know that you're a visitor to this level of existence. I appreciate the concern that brought you here, but it is truly unnecessary. I can go home whenever I want; I'm simply not yet ready." She turned her horse and headed toward another path through the trees, with Blair riding beside her. "But you shouldn't stay here too long; there is a possibility of getting lost and not finding your way back to your own level."

"Jim would find me," Blair muttered, hardly aware of what he was saying; he was still trying to absorb this new information.

Amelia nodded agreeably. "Oh, I'm sure he would; friends like that are an incomparable treasure. But you don't want to put him to all that trouble, do you?"

Blair shook his head gently, then more firmly as he shook off his surprise. "Forgive me, Miss Featherstone," he said, giving her another sweeping bow. "I've been churlish to question your decisions, even by innuendo. I'm sincerely pleased that you're happy with this level of existence, and I'll make no more suggestions against it."

Amelia laughed in delight. "Oh, very prettily spoken, Mr. Sandburg; you might almost be born of my time." She winked to see him blush. "But I'll tell you something... I have a friend as close to me as yours is to you, but it's not yet time for us to be together. When my friend is called home, then I'll go to join her, and later we'll be born into new lives, together. Every end is a new beginning, Mr. Sandburg; sometimes it just takes a little while. And in the span of eternity, a hundred years is a very short time indeed."

Since her beliefs matched his, Blair could hardly disagree. As they turned onto the road back toward Stoneville they trotted side by side, sharing easy conversation until it was time for him to go back to his body, and to Jim.

Jim sat with Blair's spare shirt in his hand. He didn't want to touch Blair and risk breaking the meditative trance, so he used the scent on the shirt to help him stay grounded as he split his attention between listening for the ghostly hoofbeats and monitoring his guide's vital signs. So far, so good -- Blair's heartbeat and respirations were about twenty percent slower than normal, but rhythmic and steady.

It was a long wait; the sun was well down and the stars shone brightly before he heard the sound of trotting hoofbeats. Remembering Blair's instructions of the previous evening, he deliberately relaxed his attention to let the sound flow through him, then followed it outward with his vision. And there they were, Sandburg and Amelia trotting side by side down a sunlit road. Jim recognized the devilish tilt of Sandburg's eyebrows; he had just said something outrageous, and Amelia's peels of laughter floated on the breeze.

Jim laughed too, in mingled relief and amusement. The image of Sandburg with crisp white ruffles at his throat and a pink vest would stay with him for years to come. Too bad he couldn't take a picture, but even a verbal description should make good blackmail material.

He watched as the riders stopped in front of a large house on the outskirts of a town that was in considerably better repair than its present-day state. Sandburg dismounted quickly and helped Amelia down, then bowed over her hand as if he'd been born to it. Jim chuckled; it seemed that Blair could charm the ladies of any era. He glanced toward the man sitting by the fire and, when he looked back, the spirit images -- or whatever he'd been observing -- were gone.

About time, Jim thought as he hurried toward the fire; he'd been concerned that Blair had been out of body too long. But now his heartbeat and respirations were increasing to normal levels. Jim knelt in front of him with barely-controlled patience. Finally, Blair inhaled a long, deep breath and opened his eyes. There was no sign of disorientation as he smiled up at his friend. "Hey, Jim. I'm back."

Blair sipped at his cup of coffee while Jim 'debriefed' him. "Are you sure, Chief? She actually said she's a ghost, and she's okay with not going to the afterlife?"

Blair kept his sigh internal; as irritating as it was that Jim kept repeating the same points, he recognized it as simply an indication of how much his friend cared -- especially about someone who might be a victim.

"Yes, Jim, I'm absolutely sure. She's exactly where she wants to be, and she'll move into the afterlife when she's good and ready. I told you she was headstrong."

"You said 'indulged'," Jim pointed out.

"The two frequently go together," Blair retorted. "A kid who grows up indulged often becomes a headstrong adult. You didn't talk to her; Amelia has that in spades. But whatever; there's no crime here, and we certainly can't haul her off in handcuffs and shove her through the pearly gates." He hesitated to voice his speculations, but maybe his observations would help Jim accept the situation. "Besides, I think she has an ulterior motive. She's a guide who's watching over the person who will be her sentinel in the next life."

Jim glared suspiciously. "You said that herbal stuff only enhanced psychic abilities, not that it caused hallucinogenic trips. Where did you come up with that idea?"

"Several things she said. When I slipped and said you'd find me if I got lost on the spirit plane, Amelia agreed that you could; it's like she knew you have special abilities that most mortals wouldn't be able to use.

"And then there's what she said about the other person she's waiting for -- called her a 'special friend', and said her special friend is as close to her as you are to me. I know, I know," Blair said hurriedly, seeing the doubt cross Jim's face. "But it wasn't the words, so much as the innuendo. Amelia recognized an unusual connection between you and me, recognized that you have abilities that aren't common to most people, and as much as said that she and her friend have the same relationship that you and I have. Ergo, sentinel and guide."

"Don't you think she's too calm to be a guide who's separated from her sentinel?" Jim objected. "I mean, whenever I'm doing the sentinel thing, you'll plow through anyone or anything that gets in the way. And I appreciate it, I really do," he added quickly, forestalling the justification that Blair seemed about to offer. "I'm just saying, I can't see you observing from a distance and doing nothing when I need help with my senses; you'd go ape-shit crazy. So if Amelia's a guide, why is she okay with it?"

"I think her sentinel's abilities are dormant in this lifetime. If the sentinel never comes online, the guide is out of a job, so to speak. But whether or not a guide is needed, they're likely to feel better if they keep watch over their sentinel. Assuming they know they're guide to a sentinel, of course, which I think Amelia does." He shrugged, outspread hands signaling that this was merely supposition. "And maybe she's trying to make sure that she and her sentinel get born into the next life at the same time and place, so she's hanging around here until she knows the time is right -- like, when the person who's carrying her sentinel's