Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Back To Back

by Arianna

For PatK, in response to your
Moonridge 2007 'Back to Back' Challenge
Thanks for your donation!

********************

"Simon, I'm telling you, he needs a break!" Blair raked his hair back and made a visible effort to calm down and lower his voice. Holding up his hands in an appeal for reason, talking a mile a minute, he went on with urgent intensity, "You know what it was like in that prison. Well, actually, you don't, and I guess that's the point. None of us do. But he was in bad shape when we got him out of there - and not just physically. You did see that, right? He could hardly stand and, and he couldn't put more than a few words together. He was desperate for some air, some space - to get outside and stand under the stars alone and just … just breathe. His senses had to be all over the map and, well, he was hurting bad. He still is. Oh, sure, he won't complain and he'll keep doing his job, but when was the last time the man had any time off, huh? He's burning out, Simon. He needs … he needs some time."

Banks studied the younger man, and noted the lines of strain around Blair's eyes and mouth, the unhealthy pallor, and he didn't need to be a sentinel to see the slight tremor in the kid's hands. Rubbing his mouth, he thought that it wasn't only Ellison who could use a break. "So, why tell me?" he asked. "All Jim has to do is put in for some leave and I'll sign it. No big deal. Lord knows, the man's got enough accumulated credits."

Blair heaved a sigh. Though he slumped back in his chair, Simon noted that one heel kept tapping a quick beat and his hands moved with ceaseless restlessness. Blair shook his head as he grumbled, "He won't ask. Why do you think he's got so much time accumulated? The man won't ever admit he can't keep going. Stupid ass thinks he's superman, or something." Looking up at Simon, pinning him with those wide, puppy dog eyes, Blair leaned forward in his chair. "I thought … I thought, well, maybe, since the two of you are friends, you could ask him to go on a vacation with you - you know, a week of fishing, maybe? Just fresh air and quiet. You don't take enough holidays, either, Simon. I worry about you, too."

"And you figure if he was with me, you wouldn't have to worry all the time about him having trouble with his senses, because at least I have some idea of what to do if he zones," Simon charged, knowing manipulation when he heard it.

Looking away, Blair grimaced and raked his hair back from his face. "He … I don't think he should go away alone when his senses are so volatile, and yeah, you'd know what to do if he got into trouble," he admitted, his voice strained.

"So why don't you just go with him?"

Blair's mouth twisted and he studied the floor. "I'm not exactly his favorite person right now. I think he's still pissed at me for talking you into letting me go into the prison." He sighed and returned his gaze to Simon's. "I think he probably needs a break from me, too. I mean, between living together and the amount of time I usually spend with him on the job, well …" His voice fell away. "The point is, he's wound up so tight that it's not healthy. I can tell by just looking at him that he has a bitch of a headache that just won't quit. He's surly and antisocial, hardly talks even at home. Just spends all his time at work, and only when he gets to the point where he can barely stand or think straight, he collapses. Man, he practically stumbles up the steps to his room. But, as tired as he is, I don't think he's sleeping very well, and he's not eating," Blair's tone grew distracted and a bit distant as he rambled on, "which fits with the research on highly sensitive people, actually, so it's not really a surprise that -"

"Highly sensitive people?" Simon interjected. "Research? I thought there wasn't any research on sentinels."

"No, no, not sentinels," Blair supplied with a sharp shake of his head. "I read some research a couple years ago that demonstrated that about twenty percent of the population is 'highly sensitive', which means they are more affected by their environment, things like noise, lights, crowds, and they notice more, you know, like facial expressions and voice tones, picking up on nuances other people miss. They're people that are sometimes called 'intuitive'. And another twenty percent score as more sensitive than the majority of the population."

Leaning forward, well into what Simon thought of his 'lecture mode', Blair continued to enlighten him, rattling off a flood of information with his usual rapid-fire delivery. "Anyway, they get overloaded by all the stimulation in their environment - they can seem restless and anxious and some people interpret that to mean they're shy or neurotic, but really they only need downtime. And some, the ones that aren't coping well, can resort to alcohol or even drugs for relief. When they're really over-taxed, they don't notice they're hungry and they have real problems with insomnia. Well, actually, they have trouble sleeping at the best of times, because anything can distract them and get them hyper-alert and, wham, they're wide awake again. People who are highly sensitive don't like a lot of change in their lives because change only adds to the stimulation they need to cope with. And you know how well Jim reacts to change." Blair rolled his eyes.

Simon's brow arched as he listened and, again, he had the troubling sensation that the kid was riding on the edge. Sandburg could be voluble at the best of times, but this rushing tide of words was notable even for him. As he spoke, Blair frowned in concentration and his hands flew, and that foot just kept tapping.

"I was serious when I said that I think a lot of law enforcement officers might be highly sensitive 'cause men don't, generally speaking, pick up on cues like expression and voice tone, or notice a lot of little details that cops, and particularly detectives, need to be alert to all the time," he rambled on, evidently oblivious of Simon's concerned scrutiny. "And, when you think about it, all the rules and regulations you have impose a kind of structure or degree of predictability in what could otherwise be unpredictable or chaotic situations, which could be unconscious but deliberate social mechanisms for coping with an environment that's very stressful. Even wearing uniforms could be seen as adopting a persona which helps a highly sensitive person cope with situations that might otherwise overwhelm them as individuals. All of which is why I think you and the others probably don't get enough downtime, either. Doctors, therapists, senior advisors in the government, people like that, also tend to be more inherently sensitive than the majority, which is why they have the jobs they do."

Blair stopped for breath, and his gaze skittered around as if searching for his next thought. He blinked and frowned and, evidently realizing he'd drifted a fair distance from the point of their discussion, he waved off the subject. "The bottom line of all this is that, in Jim's case, it's like, well, multiplying the stress from too much continuous input to the nth degree. Everything's just so much more for him, you know? Everything, like the perfume and cologne in the air, the noise of traffic and the suffocating stench of pollution, background sounds that most of us don't even notice, like air flow through the ventilation system, the glare of the overhead lights, and then you add in all the extra pressure he's been under and -"

Simon held up a hand to stem the flow of words. "Okay, okay, I get the picture. Not that Jim being surly is all that unusual," he muttered. When Blair opened his mouth to object, he hastened on, "But, yes, I'll grant that he's been growling more than is usual, even for him."

Blair threw up his hands and gave a sharp, twisting nod as he sat back, as if to say, ‘I rest my case.' "So you'll talk to him about taking some time off? Get him to go fishing for a week, maybe; some place peaceful, away from people?"

Shifting his gaze to the stack of files in his in-box, Simon idly drummed his fingertips on the desk as he thought about the situation. Even if he could spare Jim for a much-needed vacation, he didn't have the time personally to go away for a week. Besides, he saved his vacation time to spend with Darryl.

Once again, he studied Sandburg and he didn't like what he was seeing. Oh, not the concern for Jim. He'd gotten used to Blair being downright fanatical about ensuring Jim's needs were met and that the detective had the support that Blair was convinced the man needed, given his special skills and vulnerabilities. Despite Simon's initial doubts about the grad student, Sandburg had stuck with it and hadn't wavered in his commitment to give Jim the best backup he could. And, to give him his due, the kid was a pretty damned good partner, especially given he wasn't a cop and had never been trained. Though he rarely said so, Banks had long ago learned to trust and respect him, which was why he'd allowed himself to be talked into Blair's idea for getting into the prison to give Jim an 'inside' contact. Nor did Simon question Blair's advice when it came to Jim's senses; Blair had consistently proven that he knew what he was talking about. If Blair was so convinced that Jim needed a break, well, then, he probably did.

No, what bothered him now wasn't that Blair was taking care of Jim's interests, as usual, but that Blair looked so strung out, as if he hadn't had a good night's sleep in recent memory. If Banks wasn't mistaken, he looked like he'd also lost some weight; which, when Simon thought about it, shouldn't be surprising because Sandburg routinely forgot to eat.

Glancing at his calendar, he reflected that classes should soon be over for the semester. "What would you be doing while Jim's off fishing?" Simon asked as he looked up to meet Blair's eyes.

Blair's gaze dropped and he shrugged. "Oh, you know, basically just hang around. Maybe get a head start on planning out my lectures for next term. Maybe write a journal article. The usual."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted and frowned. "You look like you could use some downtime, too."

"Me?" Blair blinked, evidently surprised by the observation. "Nah, I'm fine. End of term is always hectic, what with marking papers and exams, and getting the grades in, but I finished the marking last night and submitted the grades this morning."

Which accounts for the fact that you don't look like you've slept much recently. Keeping his thoughts to himself, Simon heaved a sigh as he wondered when he'd fallen into the role of den-mother. "Okay," he said, coming to a decision. "No promises, but I'll see what I can do about getting Jim to take some leave." He glanced at the clock. "He should be back from court soon. I'll talk to him then."

Blair's weary countenance brightened with a relieved smile. He picked up his knapsack and, standing, slung it over his shoulder. "Thanks, man. I really appreciate your help on this." Pausing on his way to the door, he hesitated and then asked, "Uh, don't tell Jim I talked to you, okay? He probably wouldn't appreciate me, you know, bothering you about this." Once again, his gaze faltered and he hitched the backpack a little higher on his shoulder. "Well, I better get going. Thanks again, Simon. I really, really appreciate your help."

"You're not going to wait for Jim?" Simon asked, surprised.

"Um, no, no," Blair waffled, his gaze skittering around the office and then, his voice low and unhappy, he explained, "Like I said, I think I'm getting on Jim's nerves. He doesn't know that I was going to come in today. So, uh, yeah, guess I'd better be getting back to Rainier. Like you said, he'll be back from court soon."

Without waiting for Simon to comment further, he lifted his hand in a quick wave and was gone, loping across the bullpen and out into the hallway, where he pushed through the fire door and disappeared into the stairwell.

Sitting back in his chair, Simon scowled. Rainier? But didn't the kid just say that his work was done for the term? Why wasn't he going home to get some sleep, which he all too obviously needed? Just how aggravated was Ellison about Sandburg showing up in the prison? And, if he was so all-fired upset about it, why was Jim taking it out on the kid, but hadn't raised the matter with the guy who'd made the decision, namely yours truly? Grimacing, Simon rolled his eyes. Jim was probably still worked up over the fact that the kid had put himself in danger. As protective as Blair was with Jim, Jim was just as protective of Blair, if not more so because he carried the responsibility for keeping the grad student safe on the job. So why did Blair seem anxious about Jim finding him in the office? What else did the kid say? That Jim was surlier than usual, hardly talking even at home. And, come to think of it, Blair hadn't been around the office much over the past week or so, which was unusual, as he virtually camped out here when his presence wasn't required at the university. Something wasn't adding up.

Chewing on his lip, Simon thought about what Blair had said about people who were more sensitive than most to the stimuli in their environments. Simon didn't know about himself or other cops, but he began to wonder if Blair, himself, might not be part of that population group. The kid watched Jim like a hawk, never missing a thing and, come to think of it, he was an 'observer' by profession - someone who noticed details others would miss. Though he never thought about it much, Simon knew that Blair routinely burned the candle at both ends, meeting his obligations at Rainier as well as being available to support Jim at all hours of the day or night. Didn't sleep much, forgot to eat, apparently constitutionally incapable of keeping still, usually acted like he was riding an adrenaline rush, so tired his hands were shaking, and yet Blair hadn't seemed the least bit aware that he was teetering the edge of exhaustion. What else did Sandburg say about this sensitivity trait? Oh, yeah, that these people didn't like change. Well, that fit Jim but Blair had always seemed pretty adaptable. On the other hand, for a kid who was raised as a gypsy, as soon as he was old enough, he'd sure put down deep roots in Cascade, hadn't he? What if Blair was one of these 'highly sensitive people'? And, if he was, what did that say about the kid's need for a respite from everything that stressed him out?

Simon would bet that if he was noticing that the kid looked more careworn and, well, downright exhausted, than usual, then Jim had also noticed, and would be worried about Blair. Nodding to himself, he decided that things were beginning to add up and he suspected he knew what was really going on.

With a long-suffering sigh, he reached for the top file in his inbox. He sure wouldn't mind a week beside a quiet river with nothing to do but cast his line. Highly sensitive people, huh? he thought as he got on with his work. Would sure help if certain 'highly sensitive people' would talk to one another instead of making assumptions or acting unilaterally for the other's own good. Chuckling to himself, Simon decided how he'd broach the subject of leave with his senior detective.

Catching himself in a yawn, he thought about Blair's idea that cops might, in general, be more sensitive than most, despite how they were viewed by the society they served. Maybe the kid was right. God knew, when he got home at the end of the day, all he often wanted to do was shut out the world and sleep. That was one of the things that had always bugged Joan so much, that he never seemed to have the energy to spare, let alone the inclination, to turn around and go out shopping or to a movie, or whatever, with her. Given the divorce rates in his field, Simon wondered how many other cops had had marriages that failed for the same prosaic, even mundane reasons.

And then there was the problem of alcohol dependency that was an ever-present specter in his profession. How often did cops slip from having an occasional drink to take the edge off after work with their partners and colleagues, to drinking more and more on a regular basis because one, too often, just wasn't enough? Glancing at the ever-present cigar on his desk, he grimaced. And how many kept smoking despite knowing it wasn't good for them, because taking a few minutes to walk away and commune with the tobacco was a way of gaining some distance, some relief, from the pressure of the moment?

Damn. Maybe the kid was right.

Sitting back, Simon decided he'd ask Blair to give him more information on the subject; might be something in it that would be worthwhile addressing during in-service training. If Blair was right, then if cops had a better understanding of why they frequently felt like the world was crashing in on them, maybe they could manage the stresses in their environments differently. Smiling to himself as he turned back to the work on his desk, he reflected with fond amusement that he never knew what that kid would come up with next.

********************

Half an hour later, Simon looked up and saw Jim storm through the double doors from the hall. Ellison's suit was immaculate but his tie was askew and his pale countenance was stony. His shoulders were back and his chin was up as he strode across the bullpen, his stance and gait projecting an aura of barely contained belligerence that hinted at the threat of violence.

Yep, definitely surly. And then some.

"Jim!" he called and waved the detective into the office. "How'd it go in court?"

"Fine," Ellison replied with an irritable shrug. "Took too damned long, as usual, but no problems."

"Then why do you look as if you're ready to explode at anyone or anything that gives you an excuse?" Simon asked, careful to keep his tone and posture mild as he lounged back in his chair.

Jim blinked at the challenge, and his lips parted in surprise. His gaze sought inspiration from the window, and he rubbed the back of his neck with what looked like perplexity. With a sigh, he relaxed his shoulders. "Just tired, I guess," he replied as he looked back into Simon's eyes. "Nothing to worry about."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted and waved at a chair. "Take a load off. You want a cup of coffee?" Half-turning to the pot behind him, he smiled. "Apparently, the captain of the ship my cousin was cruising on along the Mexican Riviera said the best coffee in the world comes from Puerto Vallarta. So Pete bought a few pounds straight from a guy who deals directly with the farmers in the mountains, and he sent me a sample. Have to say, it's pretty good."

Jim sniffed and nodded as he sat down. "Yeah, sure. Thanks."

While he passed a steaming mug to the younger man, Simon looked around with a deliberate air of confusion. "Where's that partner of yours? Haven't seen him trailing along behind you for … what? Must be more than a week. Not since we sprang you out of that hellhole."

Jim carefully blew across the steaming liquid before taking a sip. "Sandburg's been busy at Rainier. It's end of term," he replied, his flat tone not inviting further discussion.

"I don't recall that being an issue before," Simon pushed. When Jim stiffened defensively, he allowed some of his concern to edge into his voice. "Have to admit, though, Blair was looking pretty frazzled when he was … when I last saw him."

Jim's gaze was piercing and aggressive but, when Simon didn't rise to the subtle attempt at intimidation that was entirely wasted on him, Jim's tone was hard but not argumentative when he replied, "He shouldn't have been anywhere near that damned prison."

"Maybe not," Simon allowed, "but it was my call and his idea made sense. He can handle himself pretty well and he was worried about you. So was I. The entire situation was far from safe, and it damned near got you killed."

"He's not a cop," Jim ground out furiously.

"I think we all know that - but it's easy to forget when he does such a good job of backing you up," Simon replied dryly. "And you have to admit, until recently, he's been here as much or more than any of us who are drawing a pay check."

"Yeah, and one of these days, he's going to wake up and realize that his research isn't worth all the damned risks he takes," Jim rasped.

"Oh, come on. You really think the research is what matters to him?" Simon chided in exasperation.

Jim swallowed heavily and looked away, his expression strained. "He pushes himself too hard," he finally allowed, worry creeping into his voice. "Doesn't have the sense to know when enough's enough. He's going to get badly hurt if he doesn't learn to back off." He flicked a glance at Simon, who schooled his expression into one of concerned interest. Sighing, Jim settled back in his chair. "I don't know when that kid sleeps, Simon," he went on, shaking his head. "And, yeah, frazzled is a fair description. He's exhausted. Too damned tired to think straight, and on this job, that's a recipe for disaster; too much can go wrong too fast. Working what amounts to two fulltime jobs for more than two years now and worrying about me every spare minute in-between has worn him down to the bone. He's in no shape to be out ont he street with me, at least not right now. I … I told him to stay away from the office so he could get caught up at Rainier."

"How did he react to that?" Simon asked, and had to rub his mouth to hide his grin. He could guess, and it probably hadn't been pretty. Sandburg wasn't known to react well to authoritarian or arbitrary rulings. And though he resisted saying so, he'd bet good money that Jim hadn't told Sandburg the whole point of the embargo on coming into the office was to give the kid a break for his own good.

Jim quirked a brow and the corners of his mouth turned down. With a heavy sigh, he leaned forward, cradling the mug in his hands. "From what I see of him, if anything, he's more strung out than ever. Hell, he's always had a lot of nervous energy, but … but he's starting to shake." He sighed again. "I don't know what to do to … to get him to relax."

Simon let the silence stretch between them. Then he suggested, "Maybe cutting him off isn't the way to go. Sandburg's pretty astute. He must see that you're wound pretty tight and that probably concerns him, especially if you won't let him help you."

"I don't need a babysitter," Jim snapped.

"No, but you do need the kind of support he gives you," Simon returned. "If you're noticing he's not sleeping, I have to wonder if that's because you're not sleeping, either. And you've been putting in some long hours. Could be he's worried about you pushing too hard without the right backup. Worried that your senses will start acting up at the wrong time."

Jim chewed on his lip; then nodded grudgingly. "He's always at me to bring him up to speed when I get home. But I don't want him worrying about that, so I've just waved him off."

"Jim, hasn't it occurred to you that he might need to hear how things are going to alleviate his concerns, and that keeping him in the dark only makes him worry more?"

"He's not my mother," Jim growled.

"Fine, but he is your friend and he's been a big help to you," Simon retorted, losing patience. When Jim just shook his head, his expression stubborn, Simon reined in his annoyance and tried another tack. "You've said you're worried about him, right? Well, instead of looking at this from your perspective, maybe try to see it from his. Jim, I don't pretend to understand this but Sandburg told me about a theory that he thinks might apply to cops in general, as well as to you. Something about when the stimulation in the environment is too much, some highly sensitive people react to it more than others … like not being able to sleep, or appearing anxious, or forgetting to eat because they don't feel hungry. What if Sandburg is one of those kinds of people? What if, oh, hell, I don't know, but what if he needs this information to help him manage his own world, to know where he fits in it, and to know when to worry and when to let things go? What if in trying to protect him, you're only making him a whole lot more anxious?"

Jim looked away, his expression frustrated. "All this touchy-feely stuff isn't me, Simon. I … I'm not the type to talk about how I feel and I can't be something I'm not just to make him feel better." He shrugged. "I'm giving him a break, right? Giving him space to do his own work. That should be enough. He needs to learn boundaries. Needs to know when to back off; when not to get involved. What's his job and what isn't. Like going into that prison. That was not his job."

"Look, I hear what you're saying, alright? I understand that you worry about him in situations like that," Banks temporized. "But, whether he's been paid or not, it has been his job to watch out for you for going on three years. And, by the way, it was because he was there, watching the place, talking to people and noticing what was going on that got me mobilized to get you out of there before it was too late. He might not be a cop, Jim, but he is your partner, and he takes that pretty seriously. I don't know about you, but I'm damned grateful that he does."

"That's not the point," Jim protested, stung. "And you know it. He could have been killed, Simon. It's not his responsibility to risk his life like that!"

Simon sighed and shook his head. Not that he was surprised to be proven right in his deductions about what had the two men at odds, but it really would be so much easier if they'd just talk to one another and not dance around the edges, worrying about what the other one thought. Leaning forward, he crossed his hands on the desk. "Sounds to me like you both need a change of scenery, maybe a chance to kick back a little and sort some of this stuff out between you. You've got plenty of time in the bank, Jim. Why not take a week, go fishing, get some fresh air? You don't have any court appearances next week. There's nothing so urgent on your plate that it can't wait."

Jim stiffened. "I don't know," he hesitated.

"Do it for the kid," Simon urged, knowing he'd get farther by pushing Jim's buttons about what Sandburg needed, than in trying to get the man to take the time off for his own good. "Pick up the tab. Tell him you know he doesn't get paid for everything that he contributes here and it's a way of, I don't know, expressing your appreciation for his help." When Jim still seemed reluctant, Simon frowned. Damn but the man could be stubborn. Fine. Time for the big guns. Make a suggestion that there was a fundamental, unfixable problem with Sandburg and then sit back and watch Jim come out in defense of the kid. "Unless you're tired of his company? You guys do spend a lot of time together. I guess I can see that he might get on your nerves. Maybe you're right. Maybe it's time to cut him loose."

"No, no, it's not that," Jim hastened to respond. "That's not what I'm saying here." A small smile played over his lips. "Sandburg's pretty good company." The smile faded. "Except when he's yammering on about my senses and wanting to do a thousand more tests on them."

Simon couldn't help the chuckle that escaped. God, these guys were predictable. When Jim shot a wounded look at him, he lifted his hands for peace. "Hey, I can understand how that would be a tad wearing. So make it a condition of the trip. No tests. That pretty much guarantees that he has to relax, right? As well as give you a break."

"You don't know him," Jim retorted, sounding disgruntled, though there was fondness in his expression. "He'll sneak tests in whether or not I try to define some boundaries. He's, uh, persistent that way."

"What kind of tests?" Simon asked, not sure he'd appreciate having to perpetually jump through hoops, either. "For his research?"

"No, no, not so much. Not at all, really. Not for a long time now," Jim allowed. "More stuff to help me keep focused on the job, stuff like that."

"Stuff that might help keep you alive?"

"Yeah," Jim agreed with a slow, thoughtful nod. "Yeah."

"So, when's the term finished? Must be sometime soon," Simon redirected, to keep the conversation on track toward his objective.

"I think so," Jim agreed. "He was marking papers until dawn and then he was inputting information into his laptop. Today, tomorrow?" He shrugged. "By the weekend, anyway."

"Well, tell you what. Put in a leave slip starting tomorrow and I'll sign it off. If he's done, you guys can take off; if not, we can always amend it."

Jim gave him a suspicious look. "You seem awfully anxious to get rid of me for a few days."

Simon gave him a deliberately long-suffering look. "I'm not going to order you off-duty because, so far, you're just damned miserable to be around," he said bluntly, deciding Jim had settled down enough to hear the truth without getting all bitchy about it. "But can you sit there and honestly tell me that Sandburg is the only one here who could use a break?"

Once again, his lips thinning, Jim sought refuge in the view outside the window. "No," he finally allowed. "No, I guess not."

"See, that wasn't so hard," Simon teased, relieved that the conversation had gone so well and his work here was done. "Go on; put in the formal request and get out of here."

Jim finished his coffee and stood to put the mug on the edge of the desk. "Why do I feel like I've been led down a garden path?" he charged, but without any heat.

"Better to be led than railroaded," Simon replied with a smug smile. But he sobered as he added, "Seriously, Jim, I think some time away will do you both a world of good."

"You wanna come along?" Jim suggested, sounding hopeful. "Help me tie the kid down and make him rest? Protect me from sneak test attacks?"

Simon laughed. "Nuh uh, you're on your own there, Detective. No, I've got plans with Daryl this weekend, and a big budget meeting next week. But thanks for asking. Next time, okay?"

Nodding, Jim turned toward the door, but he paused at the threshold. "Thanks, Simon," he muttered, and then strode away.

Blowing a long breath, Simon shook his head. "It's okay, you know, to let people worry about you sometimes," he murmured, his gaze on Jim. "You don't have to be superman."

Jim stiffened and looked back over his shoulder. His gaze dropped and, a wry grimace twisting the corner of his mouth, he nodded. Then he continued to his desk and filled in a leave form. As he dropped the paperwork off on Rhonda's desk, he looked up at Simon and waved a casual salute before he headed out into the corridor. The shoulders were still tense, but Jim no longer looked like he was spoiling for a fight.

"Damn, I'm good," Simon congratulated himself, well pleased with having achieved his goal of getting both Jim and Blair to take some time off for a while. They needed to clear the air between them, as well as lose some of the tension they were carrying around, most of it self-imposed out of some nameless fear that the other guy was at risk or, alternatively, that the other guy might pull the plug on their partnership. Hell, those two spent so much time back to back, each doing his level best to protect the man behind him from whatever threat the world might throw at them, they occasionally seemed to miss what nearly everyone else had figured out a long time ago: they were both damned lucky to have a partner who cared that much, and neither of them would ever have a better friend in their lives than the man standing right beside him. But, since neither of them was a fool, he had no doubts that they'd eventually work things out.

For just a moment, he thought longingly of clear, rushing waters, wind rustling through the trees, the clean scent of pine, the glint of the sun on the wings of a high-soaring eagle, and the lilting warble of songbirds.

Then he looked at the clock, poured himself another cup of coffee, and got back to work.

********************

Jim rapped on Blair's open office door. "Thought I might find you here, Chief."

Blair looked up from his laptop, his surprise at seeing his roommate written on his face. "Jim, hey! Is everything alright?" he asked as he pushed his glasses up on his nose.

"Everything's fine," he replied. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the doorjamb and frowned at the dark circles under Blair's eyes, the kid's wan pallor, and the slight tremor in his hands. God, he looked really beat. "You still working on end of term stuff?"

"Uh, no, actually, I finished all that this morning. I'm just playing around with ideas for the senior seminar I'll be giving next semester," Blair replied as he closed the electronic file and powered down the laptop. "So, um, things go okay in court today?"

"Yes," Jim replied but he was distracted by Sandburg's too-fast pulse and general air of nervous exhaustion. "You okay, Chief?" he asked, concern deepening the furrow in his brow.

Blair seemed disconcerted by the question. Looping his hair behind his ears, he nodded. "Yeah, I'm good."

Not entirely convinced of that but letting it go, Jim straightened. "So, feel like blowing this popstand? Thought I'd make us some spaghetti for dinner tonight. Maybe uncork a bottle of wine." He gestured vaguely at the desk. "We can celebrate the successful completion of another school year."

A smile split Blair's face. "Sounds great, man. I'm starved. Let's get outta here." He jumped to his feet and shoved the laptop in his backpack along with some files. After giving the office a quick glancing once over and evidently deciding nothing else needed to be done, he pulled on his jacket.

"Good," Jim replied and stepped back into the hall. After Blair had locked the door and they'd started down the corridor, Jim hooked an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Think you could tear yourself away from here for a week, Chief? I thought we might head into the mountains and do some fishing."

"Fishing?" Gaping up at him over the tops of his glasses, Blair's eyes widened in what looked like utter confusion. "Me?"

"Of course you, Darwin. Who else?"

"Well, I … that is …" Blair stammered as his gaze danced around the hall. "I didn't expect …" Taking a breath, he visibly regrouped and, this time, his smile was slower, almost uncertain, but pleasure glowed in his eyes. "Yeah. I'd like that, Jim. I'd like that a lot."

Pleased, Jim slapped him on the back as they went outside and skipped down the steps. Heading toward his vehicle, Jim looked over his shoulder as he called, "I'll see you back at the loft."

Blair was just standing there, smiling after him. And then Sandburg waved and turned to lope across the parking lot to his car.

Jim climbed into his truck and started the engine. Shaking his head, he thought that Sandburg was as jumpy as a cat on hot pavement; but Blair had sure seemed pleased about the fishing trip. Steering along the drive, he began to feel good about getting away for a few days. Simon's idea had been right on the money. The kid obviously needed a time-out.

And so, Jim had to admit, if grudgingly, did he.

********************

While Jim prepared the spaghetti sauce and salad for their dinner, Blair sat at the table, making a list of the supplies they'd need for a week away. From time to time, he glanced at Jim, and wondered how it had worked out that he was the one going fishing, and not Simon. Not that he wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth or anything, but … after more than a week of Jim keeping him at arm's-length and seeming pretty seriously irritated with him, this about-face was disconcerting. Was Jim over his snit about Blair going undercover into the prison? Had Simon said something? Obviously there had been some conversation between Jim and Simon - this fishing trip idea had to have come from Simon, right?

"I can hear the wheels turning all the way over here, Sandburg," Jim charged and looked up from the vegetables he was chopping. "Something on your mind?"

Blair considered the challenging tone. Despite the invitation to go fishing and Jim's offer to make dinner, his friend still looked and sounded pretty tense. No way did he want Jim knowing that he'd been discussing him with Simon. Or, God forbid, that this fishing trip had started out as his idea. "Uh, no, nothing special," he obfuscated. "Just wondering if you've checked the long-range forecast. What's the weather supposed to be like?"

Jim shrugged and dropped the peppers and mushrooms into the simmering tomato sauce. "What difference does it make? If it rains, it rains. It's just water."

Blair grimaced but refrained from complaining that standing around in the rain wasn't his idea of a particularly good time. Making a mental note to include extra sweatshirts and sweaters, as well as his rain slicker, he ventured, "Did you ask Simon if he might like to come along?"

"Yeah, I did," Jim told him as he stirred the pot. "He's busy with Daryl this weekend and has a big departmental budget meeting next week, so he took a rain-check." After a beat, he added, "It was Simon's idea to see if you'd like to go. Said he thought we could both use a break."

"Oh," Blair murmured and, conscious of a twinge of disappointment, he bowed his head to ostensibly make more entries on the grocery list. Simon's idea, not Jim's, to invite him along. So, did that mean that Jim was only taking him as a second-best, better than no one, alternative? Probably. Still, that was better than Jim not wanting him along for the ride. Or did Jim only invite him because it would be awkward, maybe, not to? Frowning, he chewed on the end of his pen. Better to find out now and not discover that Jim would prefer to be alone when it was too late to back out. On the other hand, he really didn't think it was a good idea for Jim to go off on his own, not when he was so tired, especially, and his senses could be unpredictable. What to do, what to do?

Jim stopped stirring and turned around to face him. "You do want to go, right?"

Well, that was an easy question. "Yes, I do," Blair replied. Okay, so he was going. He'd just have to be careful to not get on Jim's nerves, keep things low key, and let the man rest.

Maybe he should pack a muzzle?

Frowning, Jim's gaze narrowed as he studied Blair.

When the silence lengthened, Blair asked, "What?"

Jim seemed about to say something when his gaze dropped. "Nothing," he muttered as he started on the salad. "Just, uh, don't forget to put beer on the list. We're out and we'll have to pick some up with the food."

"Yeah, okay," Blair agreed, though it was already on the list. Damn, when had talking gotten so stilted between them? Was Jim still that pissed about the last case? Shrugging, he went back to detailing the supplies they'd need and adding up the approximate costs. "Oh, by the way, we need to stop by a money machine on the way. I'm tapped out of cash."

"Don't worry about it," Jim replied without looking up. "Consider the trip a thank you for all help you've given me, you know, with the senses and on the job."

Blair froze. Shit. 'Given'? As in past tense? Was this a kiss-off trip? A nice way of saying 'it's been a slice but we're done here'? Was that why Jim had decided to take him after he found out Simon couldn't go? He realized Jim was looking at him, expecting some response. "Uh," he stammered, his gaze flitting around as he tried to pull his thoughts together. "That's … that's really nice, Jim, but you don't have to do that, man."

Jim broke eye contact and, looking uncomfortable, he gave a half-shrug. "No, no, you've earned it. Simon pointed out today that you put in as many hours as the rest of us, only you don't get paid. It's only fair."

His throat tightened. Simon's idea. More and more, it sounded like Jim was only doing this because Simon had evidently pressured him into it. "You don't have to do this, Jim. I'm glad to help. You know that."

"Yeah, well, like I said, fair's fair, Chief." Jim turned away to check on the sauce and put water on to boil for the noodles. "Just no tests, okay?"

"No, no tests," Blair agreed, his tone distant as he tried to absorb what he thought he was hearing. Despite the delectable smells filling the loft, he no longer felt hungry. "Thanks, Jim," he forced himself to say. "I really appreciate that." And on one level, he did, very much. But this just felt too much like a settling of accounts and that left him distinctly queasy. Blair looked around the loft and thought about how very much he loved living there. The place had become a refuge of sorts and he'd long come to associate it with feelings of safety and respite and … just plain comfort. In spite of all Jim's rules, or maybe because of them, he knew when he mounted the steps at the end of the day that he was coming home to a place that would be soothing, predictable … peaceful. Man, he so didn't want to lose this.

But it wasn't his home. It was Jim's. And if Jim had reached the point where he felt their association had run its course, then there wasn't much he could do about it, was there? Or maybe there was. If … if the trip went well, if Jim had fun, then maybe Jim wouldn't mind if he kept hanging around. God, was this really it? Was it all ending?

He had to know, had to psych himself up to dealing with it, couldn't stand the idea of just wondering if Jim was giving him his marching papers. He loved working with the man. Hell, he loved Jim. Oh, surely, that's not what all this was about. Yeah, Jim had seemed irritated with him lately, but that was only natural. Blair didn't expect them to get along all the time, not when they lived and worked so closely together, and were such very different people. But he had to know. Had to have time to wrap his head around it, even if it was only the week they'd have on the trip.

Aware that his hands were shaking more than usual, he carefully set the pen down, pushed the list aside and crossed his arms in an effort to appear casual. "Okay, that's done," he said, conscious that his voice sounded brittle and he tried to relax. "You can check it over after dinner. See if I missed anything." He took a breath to steady himself. "I really am grateful to be treated to this trip, Jim. But, seriously, it really isn't necessary. Now that the semester is over, I'll be glad to get back to working with you downtown when we get back."

Jim was wrapping up the garlic bread in foil, and his hands stilled. "We need to talk about that," he said.

"About what?" Blair asked, and held his breath as he waited for the answer.

With a tight shake of his head, Jim resumed folding the foil. "Not tonight, okay, Chief? Let's just have a nice dinner and relax. Lots of time to talk on our trip."

Oh, God. Blair wanted to protest, but he couldn't seem to form words. All he could do was stare at Jim's hands and wonder how it had come to this? What the hell had happened? Things had been fine, hadn't they, until just a week or so ago? Had he missed something, some essential clue? He swallowed and blinked, forced himself to look away. When had he become so dependent on … on Jim and his life with Jim that the thought of it all ending made him feel as if a void was opening up and sucking him in? But he couldn't seem to think. His mind had stalled.

"Chief?"

Looking up, he saw Jim studying him in that way that told him that Jim was running an inventory on him, using his senses to check him out.

And he couldn't sit still for it. Couldn't deal with that right now.

Shoving the chair back, feeling a surge of anger, but far from sure if it was directed at himself for being such a fool or at Jim, not even sure if it was anger or desperation, he blurted, "Guess I should start packing."

Whirling away to hide his wince at the ill-chosen and hopefully not prophetic words, he hurried to his room and closed the door. As if that could shut Jim out. Yeah, right.

Feeling shaky, Blair sat on the edge of the bed and crossed his arms tightly. Closing his eyes, he focused on taking one slow breath after another. Exhaustion assailed him and he was scarcely aware of shifting to lie down. Curling in on himself, he concentrated only on breathing in and breathing out.

********************

Jim stared at the closed door and wondered what the hell was going on. Partway through their conversation, he'd begun picking up signs of distress in his partner. Blair's breathing had hitched and tightened, his knuckles had whitened on the pen he'd been holding … and the subtle tremor that had arisen in the past week had grown more pronounced. At first, Jim had thought that maybe Blair didn't want to go away after all, but there was no doubt Blair was telling the truth when he'd confirmed he wanted to go. But for someone who was being treated to the trip, he sure had seemed … what? Unsettled? Unhappy? Jim tilted his head as he ran through his impressions of Blair's behaviours and his body's reactions. Scared. He'd seemed scared.

Why the hell would going fishing scare him? Because it might rain?

Listening to the sounds from the other room, Jim couldn't help but notice that no packing was going on. Blair was deep breathing. Meditating maybe? Wouldn't be a bad idea. Might calm him down a little.

But when the breathing slowed even further, he turned down the heat under the pots and went to check.

Quietly sliding the door open, he found Blair curled as tight as a pretzel and sound asleep. Poor guy; he really was exhausted.

Carefully, Jim slipped off Blair's shoes and glasses, and eased the folded quilt at the foot of the bed out from under Blair's feet. Shaking it out, he draped it over his friend and tucked it tenderly around Blair's shoulders. Blair jerked and mumbled, not quite waking, and Jim laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Shh, buddy, it's okay. S'okay. Go back to sleep."

Relaxing, Blair made an inarticulate sound of trusting accord and slipped back into deep sleep.

Worried about his friend, Jim watched him for a minute and ran a thorough sensory check. Blair's breathing was clear, his heart okay, and there was no fever, no unusual scents, so he didn't seem to be sick. Just worn right out. Sighing with a mixture of relief that there didn't seem to be anything seriously wrong, and frustration that he didn't know how to stop Blair from pushing himself so hard, Jim lightly squeezed his friend's shoulder.

Turning away, Jim went back into the main room and picked up the grocery list. Circling around the island, he shut off the stove and then went to the door to pull on his jacket. If he got the shopping done now, they wouldn't have to leave as early in the morning and they could both sleep in. And the spaghetti? Smiling wearily as he headed down the stairs, he figured it wouldn't go to waste. They could take it with them for dinner the next night.

********************

When he woke, Blair was startled to see sunlight streaming through his window. He didn't remember going to bed. Then, realizing he was fully dressed, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling while his memories clicked into gear. Oh, man, he thought as he scrubbed his face, I really lost it last night. Sighing, he pushed off the quilt and sat up on the side of the bed … and noticed his shoes were neatly aligned and not helter-skelter like they usually were when he kicked them off; and his glasses were laying at an odd angle on the bedside table. Chagrined, he shook his head. Not only had he missed dinner, but Jim had tucked him into bed. How many times had Jim done that over the years? Too many to count, usually after too many late nights spent catching up on his schoolwork. And every time, he felt this same mixture of shy wonder at being cared for and slight surprise that he hadn't woken up, when he was usually a light sleeper.

He was going to miss this. This understated evidence that he wasn't alone, that Jim was there, quietly watching over him, caring about him. It had been nice to not be alone. To know he mattered to another living being. At least for a while.

And, hey, Jim still cared, right? After all, the big guy was taking him fishing … and had tucked him in. Yeah, even if things were changing and it was coming up on the time to move on again, to find a place of his own, that didn't mean Jim hated him or anything. The thought of leaving left him feeling sad, though; but he told himself it was no big deal, really. Not like he hadn't moved on plenty of times before. Life, his life anyway, never stayed the same for long. Still, he sighed as he pulled on his shoes; these past few years had been different, more settled than any he'd known. And he'd loved every bit of it.

In the silence of the loft, he could hear Jim snoring softly above him.

And he sure loved Jim.

He felt a tug in his chest that threatened a return to his feelings of the night before, feelings of overwhelming loss and sorrow. But he told himself he'd over-reacted because he'd just been so damned tired. The main thing was that they were going away for a while, and Jim would get the downtime he so badly needed. And, well, maybe they'd be able to restore some of the easiness between them.

Moving on didn't mean they would stop being friends, right? Didn't have to mean that. And if they could smooth things over, maybe he could keep working with Jim. Frowning with concern, he sure hoped that would be the case. Jim really did need someone to watch his back, someone who understood what was going on with him. Scratching his cheek, Blair wondered if he dared elicit Simon's help if Jim wasn't open to reason about that. Pressing his lips together, he decided that could be tricky, but that didn't mean it wasn't an option.

Feeling better for having reassured himself that his whole life wasn't on the verge of going down the tubes, he got up and quickly packed his gear for the week away. And then he went out to the kitchen to get breakfast started.

When he noticed that Jim had done the shopping, he shook his head. The guy just never quit, never stopped taking care of business. If there was a chore to be done, Jim was definitely the man to do it. Smiling fondly, deeply glad that he'd soon have Jim far away from chores of any kind, where his friend could just kick back and relax, Blair filled the coffee pot, turned on the machine, and pulled the fixings for a hearty breakfast out of the refrigerator.

Just in case … well, just in case they wouldn't be spending much time together after this, he wanted to do all he could to make sure the whole week, starting right now, was great.

********************

Jim smiled at the tantalizing scents of sausages and fresh coffee that teased him awake. Yawning, he stretched his arms and was deeply glad to know he didn't have to rush off to work but was, instead, going fishing with Blair.

"Morning!" he called as he trotted down the stairs. "Smells good."

Blair looked up and smiled. "You've got time for a shower, if you want, before we eat."

Nodding, Jim paused on the way to the bathroom. "You sleep okay?" he asked, though his senses showed him the evidence that Blair had. The shadows under his eyes were less pronounced and his color was better. There was still a slight tremor in his hands, but a whole lot less than the night before.

"Slept great," Blair assured him. Raking his hair off his face, he admitted, "Man, I was really bushed. Sorry I bailed on dinner."

"No sweat - you'll be eating the leftovers tonight," Jim replied with an easy shrug as he turned away, pleased that Blair seemed so much more himself.

Jim thought things were fine over breakfast, more or less back to normal. He laid out his plans for where they'd set up camp and Blair agreed. While he cleaned up the kitchen afterward, Blair showered and got dressed to go.

While they loaded up the truck, he noticed the wind off the water had a bite to it, and Blair shivered as he pulled up the collar of his jacket, but the kid didn't complain. Looking up at the clouds scudding overhead, and sniffing the air, Jim hoped the rain he smelled would remain on the coast and not follow them into the mountains.

When they got in the truck, he cranked up the heat and got a grateful look from Blair, who was huddled against the door, his arms crossed in an effort to hold in some warmth. They hit the road and, the further they got out of Cascade and into the peace of the forested mountains, the more Jim could feel some of the tension he'd been carrying bleed out of his muscles. So focused was he on his driving and the different scents, clean and refreshing scents, of the rural countryside and then of spruce and pine, he didn't notice at first how quiet it was in the cab. When he did, he glanced at Blair, who seemed content gazing out the window at the passing scenery. It wasn't like Sandburg to be so quiet for so long. But Jim recalled what Simon had said the day before, that Blair had no doubt noticed how tired he was, how tense, and he understood his partner was now giving him the quiet to help soothe his frazzled senses. It was a gift, in a way, a mark of how well Blair knew him and how, even in little ways like this, Blair tried to make things easier for him.

Smiling to himself, appreciative of Blair's intuitive sensitivity, Jim returned his attention to the road. The quiet was probably doing Sandburg good, too.

********************

Blair caught Jim's glance at him out of the corner of his eye and he was glad to see the small smile and the gradual easing of Jim's body as the miles hummed beneath the wheels. But part of him ached to know that Jim seemed so relaxed about this apparently last hurrah of their time together. Blair's throat tightened and he turned his face away, to stare sightlessly out the side window. Closing his eyes, he focused on his breathing and told himself that he could do this. He could invest all he was into making this a good week - hell, a great week - for both of them, so when they both looked back on it, the memories would be a fitting cap to their shared adventure over the past few years.

God, they'd been through so much together. So, so much. Letting a small sigh escape, Blair bit down on his lower lip and thought about all he'd learned about commitment and courage, about never giving up, no matter how hard it could sometimes be, or how frightening. When they'd started out, Jim had been a kind of icon to him, the embodiment of what he'd searched for, for so long - the actuality of an idea; a genetic miracle with a heritage that went back to the dawn of time. A sad, wry smile tugged at his lips. He'd had a lot to learn - and not the least of that learning was that the man, Jim Ellison, was so very much more than an intellectual idea or the composite result of inherited DNA.

Jim, by turns irascible and impatient and then dryly hilarious or … or gentle; a consummate warrior, who seemed fearless, but who had vulnerabilities like any man. Blair had learned when Jim was at his most stoic, his expression rigid and remote, that was the time to pay the most attention, because it was then that Jim was usually really hurting or worried. Helping him manage his senses in those stressful times was a big part of Blair's chosen responsibility, was why - essentially - he had become part of Jim's life. But, it was more than that. Jim … Jim had become the best friend he'd ever had. In a weird way, he was even more family to Blair in a daily sense than Naomi had been for a very long time. Was, in point of fact, the only family Blair really had. So when Jim was hurting, Blair wanted to help in any way he could. Not that Jim made it easy; he didn't. The man was so self-contained, so wary of relying on anyone else, so fiercely independent, that getting him to accept support and assistance could be a struggle. But Blair had taken a lot of satisfaction over the years in being able to lighten the mood, get Jim to laugh and relax and, when necessary - thank all the gods and goddesses - in being able to come up with ideas that worked to help Jim gain some comfort and confidence in his senses. And, where he could, he'd also helped as much with the actual casework as he was able.

He had to admit, leaving the loft, and maybe not being a part of Jim's life at work, was going to be, well, pretty much devastating. And what a shock that was. Blair had believed that he'd mastered the art of leaving as a lifestyle. His earliest memory was of packing up his affection and his sorrow along with his coloring book, crayons, and tinker toys when Naomi decided it was time to follow the wind; pulling on a smile along with his backpack as if it was okay to be moving on, as if it didn't hurt like hell. As if he hadn't been afraid of having to start all over, someplace else with new people. He'd been telling himself for as long as he had conscious memories that it would be okay, that strangers were just friends he'd hadn't yet met.

But, God, it had been a relief to finally be able to stop and know he didn't have to move on in a matter of days or weeks or months. While it had been hard to wave good-bye to Naomi, the hardest thing he'd ever done until that point of time at the age of fifteen, he'd also felt a mingling of relief and excitement that he could put down some roots, make a place for himself - actually develop friendships that might last. Rainier's gray stone and lush grounds had become the first stable home he'd ever known. The first place he felt he belonged and was part of. Where he happened to be sleeping hadn't been nearly as important as the university itself, as a symbol of a place of being and belonging.

Until he'd met Jim.

And home had become the serene security of the loft, the view out over the harbor, his room tucked under the stairs.

His work had so oddly become law enforcement, making a real difference, or at least helping, in the lives of so many people; the PD had developed into a place of camaraderie and friends, of challenge and growth, a community in which he was astonished and thrilled to find a 'place' - even if only by sufferance.

And family had become a complex, intelligent, compassionate, and driven man who did his best every damned day of his life.

Yep, moving on was going to be pretty much completely devastating this time around; telling himself he still had Rainier was astonishingly lacking in any comfort whatsoever. He'd been living a dream and that dream was ending. And, dear God, how much, how very much, he did not want it to end.

He stole a glance at Jim and wondered again at how sanguine Jim could be about wrapping it all up in a neat 'thanks for your help and have a nice life' trip that simply, all-too-starkly, spelled 'good-bye'. But then, Jim had never wanted it to go on, had he? He'd wanted, needed, help in understanding his senses, and he was, generally - being locked up in prison excluded - doing really well. Hell, he'd survived the prison, too, without any help at all. Guess that's how Jim had known that he was good to go on his own now. But he'd paid and was still paying a heavy price in broken sleep and poor appetite; in still being all locked down inside himself even if he was physically outside the prison walls. Blair was deeply afraid that Jim wasn't as ready as the man believed himself to be, to go it on his own, to risk what he did on his job without the proper backup. God, how could he leave, move on, when he wasn't sure Jim …? If something happened someday, something Blair knew he could have maybe prevented, how would he ever live with that, with knowing that he had been somewhere else when Jim needed him?

There had to be a way of buying more time. Had to be a way to convince Jim that … that he still had a part to play.

Blair became conscious that his hands were fisted and he was on the edge of exploding into sound and motion, blathering out all his reasons why Jim couldn't cut him lose yet, not yet … God, not yet.

Yeah, like that would be a sound way of proceeding, just when Jim was beginning to relax. After the way Jim had been completely shutting him out for more than a week now, and was clearly hoping for a nice, mature, congenial ending, bursting out at the seams would be a sure-fire way of shutting Jim right down. Blair had known things were bad, that Jim was royally pissed off, but he'd never dreamed how incredibly bad it was until the evening before; hadn't imagined that Jim would really cut him loose. This trip was a completely unexpected and unlooked for chance to make things right again before it was all too late and he could not blow it. No, no, he had to wait to hold this conversation. There'd be time in the week ahead. He'd find the right time and the words to sound reasonable, to make a solid case, and not simply sound desperate and scared about losing everything that mattered a damn to him anymore. Without sounding so terrified that Jim might get himself killed if he tried to do this on his own that he only raised all of Jim's defenses against any suggestion that he wasn't completely capable of taking care of himself.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his fingers to uncurl, loosened his shoulders and, swallowing all the words and emotions that bubbled inside him, he stared out at the winding road and the trees, the cloud-strewn sky, and the glimpses of Mount Baker rising above them.

********************

They stopped for lunch at a diner on the highway, but made it fast because even Blair could tell that the rain Jim had sensed that morning was chasing after them. Above them, leaden clouds were bunching up against the shoulder of the mountain and lowering, dark and threatening, over the high trees. The wind had picked up, and was blowing in ragged gusts by the time they parked under the trees at the campsite by the river.

"Not looking good, Chief," Jim observed as they got out of the truck and hurried around to the back to unload their gear.

"Tell me about it," Blair muttered with a bleak glance upward. "Let's get the tent up before everything gets soaked."

Working with the economy of motion bred of long acquaintance and the confidence that each knew what he was doing, they swiftly erected their two-man tent in the shelter of overhanging pines, and bundled their clothing and sleeping bags inside. Blair placed the cooler within easy reach outside the flap, in case they had to drag it in and hole up with basic supplies during the worst of the storm. Jim set up the Coleman stove and the metal chest of cooking utensils, dishes and cutlery a short distance away but still under the shelter the heavy branches would provide from the worst of a downpour. Then he readied the bags containing their food supplies for a quick pull up out of the reach of bears on a line and pulley he rigged to a tree trunk near the truck. Blair dug out a shallow latrine pit just inside the tree-line in the opposite direction behind the tent, close enough to be convenient and far enough away both to be hygienic and to be at least somewhat considering of sentinel senses.

By the time the first fat drops of rain struck their faces and shoulders, the camp was secure. When Blair scampered into the tent, Jim sighed, thinking that the kid was going to huddle inside until the rain passed - which might not happen for days. But hardly a minute later, Blair emerged and drew his long slicker over his safari hat and the extra sweater he'd donned. Bending, he picked up the tackle box and his pole.

"You're going fishing now?" Jim asked, frankly astonished.

Blair gave him a crooked grin. "What? You mean you aren't?" Gesturing toward the river, he went on, "There're countless fish out there, Jim, all wriggling their way close to the surface because of the weather and the chance to gulp down the all the delicious bugs the rain will pound into the surface. And, so far as I could see on the way in here, we're the only fishermen for miles around - the river is ours, man." He blinked as a gust of wind drove hard rain drops into his face and reflexively flinched but, evidently undeterred, he waved. "C'mon, man. It's only water, right?"

"Right, Chief. Only water," Jim agreed with a wide smile of approval for the display of dauntless spirit. Grabbing his own pole and pulling down the brim of his Jags cap, he followed his friend down the bank to the river's edge.

********************

Only water, Blair thought as he peered up under the brim of his hat, and through a steady stream of water, at the clouds that weren't showing any signs of running out of rain anytime soon. Two hours before, he'd belted his waterproof poncho to keep it from blowing up in the wind, so most of him - with the exception of his lower half - okay, half of him - was still dry, if chilled. The earth around his boots was a morass of mud that was slippery, if not downright treacherous, and he'd begun eying a nearby rock as perch to huddle on. Shifting his gaze, he squinted through the torrential downpour to try to discern the details of the trees on the opposite shoreline, but the best he could make out were dim, ghostly gray wraiths.

The weather was doing a damn fine job of mirroring his dismal mood, and he wondered if some completely depressing karmic twist had visited the deluge upon them as either a universal sign of disapproval for Jim's decision to terminate their partnership, or as a just penalty upon Blair for wanting to hold onto what was ending, regardless of Jim's wishes in the matter. Snorting at the human arrogance that could spawn such whimsy that individual thought could influence the weather, he reminded himself of the literary concept of pathetic fallacy, essentially meaning that only humans could be so pathetic as to delude themselves with such egoistic false interpretations of their power over the world around them.

Stifling a sigh, he swiped at the persistent drizzle of rain down the back of his neck. Maybe the rain was a gift. If it had been sunny, the air sweet and light, the water sparkling under the sun, he'd have to present a much more cheerful demeanor. As it was, Jim just seemed pleased that he wasn't whining.

Speaking of being pleased, he slanted a look at his friend and shook his head in bemusement. The man was actually whistling; okay, hardly loud enough to hear on the wind, but still. Whistling? In the pouring rain?

God, but being out here in the wilderness seriously agreed with that man. There he was, standing easy, his weight balanced on his long legs, cap pulled low on his brow, deftly casting his line despite the wind and rain, and … whistling. Blair's lips twitched as a smile of helpless amusement snuck up on him. It wasn't fair, dammit. This was supposed to be their farewell song, right? The end of the adventure, and the fun, and … and a salute to how well they'd worked together, what they'd achieved together. Jim's gift to him, to say 'thank you' for it all. Thanks for the memories. And here he was, cold, wet, and unbelievably miserable, while Jim was … was … was really relaxed for the first time since he'd staggered out of that prison. Was having a ball. And, to add insult to injury, was also catching all the fish!

Blair started to giggle at the sheer absurdity of his life. Before he knew it, he was humming the melody to 'Singing in the Rain' and then, unable to stop himself, actually singing the words under his breath. When he looked over and spotted Jim laughing at him, he grinned and shrugged. Waving at the fish Jim had caught, he called, "Could be worse, right? At least we won't starve!"

Jim tipped him a smug salute and went back to masterfully casting his line.

I really should be more careful about what I ask for, Blair thought as he rolled his eyes at the sky and reminded himself that this fishing trip had been his bright idea. Well, it was working, wasn't it? Jim was having a great time. Snickering at the sheer awfulness of the afternoon, he gave up trying to keep his footing in the buffeting wind and slogged over to the rock. Grimacing at the exceptionally unpleasant sensation of getting the seat of his pants wet clear through, he bit off the urge to wail the rhetorical question of why his world had to always be so damned cold and wet. He swiped the rain from his face, found himself again humming that wretched song, and gave in to the giggles.

Hell, might as well laugh.

The sky was doing more than enough crying for him.

********************

Jim's smile widened at the sound of Blair's laughter. That kid was something else. For hours, Jim had watched him patiently flicking his line and staring into space, apparently undiscouraged by his abysmal luck. At first, Jim had made a small bet with himself that Blair wouldn't last fifteen minutes before giving up and retreating to the tent, which would have been fine by him. They'd brought a deck of cards and some books, so they'd be able to amuse themselves, no problem. But after half an hour had passed, Jim had tried to imagine what Blair was thinking about. Planning out that senior seminar, maybe? Plotting out new tests to spring on him? Fantasizing about some girl who had caught his fancy?

When Blair had put his fishing pole down hours ago, Jim had been sure his partner was going to start raving about the lunacy of standing out in the rain. But, no. He'd just fumbled under the slicker and then had looped his belt around the outside, tightening the fabric against the depredations of the wind. And then he'd picked up the pole, cast his line, and gone back to staring at the water.

After a while, Jim had stopped worrying about it, and had let himself slide into the rhythms of the day: the subtle steady beat of the rain on the earth, the lighter splash of it against the trees and an even higher pitter-pattering on the water; the constant but ever-changing wash of the river against the rocks along the shore, and a deeper song in the currents under the surface that he couldn't quite find words to describe; the creak and crack and swish of the tree boughs in the wind; the snap of his line as he flicked his wrist and sent it sailing over the water; the low moan of the wind itself; and the sure thump-thump of Blair's heart, the soft susurration of his breath. The rain made the earth smell rich, a heady, life-affirming scent that filled him, adding a pungent counterpoint to the sweetness of the pines and the fresh, slightly astringent herbal scents he had long associated with Blair.

But still, he hadn't been able to really believe his best friend was actually enjoying himself until he'd heard Blair's sudden humming and then the low, very soft but melodic vocalization. And the sound of Blair's laughter was the best sound of all. It rippled like a benediction in the air, lending an extra measure of joy to the moments they were sharing that tugged at Jim's heart. God, he loved that kid. Loved that he could stand there - or, as he plopped down on that rock, sit there - probably cold, definitely wet, and most likely more than a little miserable, and still find the grace and good humor to laugh. Could find the fun in the day, just in being out here together. And he loved hearing the sound of Blair having a good time, giggling like some little kid when most anyone else would be bitching and moaning. "You're one of a kind, Chief," he murmured to himself with a fondness that ached in his chest.

Not that he had forgotten that they had to have a serious talk about Blair's propensity to take unacceptable risks or his tendency to forget to eat or sleep, or even hardly stop long enough to breathe as he raced through his days trying to fit in more activity than any given hour was ever designed to allow. Far from it. Next to getting Sandburg out of town to relax, that was the main purpose of the trip. They had to thrash this thing out, once and for all, before Blair burned himself out or, worse, far worse, took that one risk too many, that one chance that would be unforgiving.

Jim could not, ever, allow that to happen. There'd already been far too many close calls over the years and time had only made the worry he felt grow worse. They'd been lucky, thank God. But how long could a run of luck last? The odds had to be turning against them. Seeing Blair inside that prison had left him cold with fear because he couldn't protect Blair in there. And that had brought his friend's vulnerability home to him in a way he could no longer ignore.

When there was only one of a kind, you had to take good care of it. Real good care. You couldn't afford to get careless or take it for granted.

'Cause if you ever lost it, the world could never be as good again.

As good? Jim thought, his throat tightening. If he ever lost Blair like that, because something happened on the job, or because Blair was too damned tired to duck, there'd be nothing good in his world again, nothing good at all.

Who'm I kidding? he challenged himself. Lose him for any reason and it would be hell, pure and simple. But he couldn't, just couldn't even imagine trying to live with the responsibility if something happened that he could have prevented, should have prevented.

Glancing at his friend, Jim promised himself that before this trip was over he'd make damned sure that Blair finally saw sense and agreed to take a whole lot better care of himself. At least as good care as … as he always takes of me.

And then, taking in how huddled Blair was against the wind, looking closer and seeing the tremble of cold in his partner's hands, he snorted and shook his head. God, look at him. Doesn't have the sense to get in out of the rain. The day which had seemed unique and amusing for all the bitter weather - a kind of dauntless adventure of spirit against the elements - now seemed only wet and cold.

Jim reeled in his line and bent to pick up his string of fish. "C'mon, Sandburg, you win," Jim called. "I give up. Maybe it's only water, but I've gotten wet enough for the day. Let's get under cover before we both get pneumonia."

Blair looked up at him with an expression of utter gratitude - but it was the speed with which a cocky grin appeared and Blair feigned reluctance as he playfully whined, "Ah, sure, make me quit before I get a bite," that made Jim laugh. The brat. Too damned stubborn to call it quits, no matter how much he must've wanted to.

Jim elbowed him on the way up to their camp. "Hey, I lasted as long as I could to give you a chance, Chief. What can I say?"

Angling a sideways glance at him from under the dripping hat, his nose wrinkling, Blair replied, "Just don't say you want me to clean those fish. Gotta take the bad with the good, man. You caught 'em, you clean 'em."

"You ever heard of the Little Red Hen, Sandburg?" Jim growled.

"Don't make me pluck your feathers, Jim," Blair warned. "Think about it. Seven nights in the same tent with a man who knows how to carry a grudge."

Jim broke up, laughing so hard his eyes watered. Shaking his head, Blair looked to the heavens as if in a mute plea for strength, and then continued trudging toward the tent, muttering, "Thank God for he-man types who thrive on adversity. Me? I'm gonna go get DRY!"

"You're a good sport, Chief," Jim called, still chuckling.

Blair turned in a circle while continuing toward their shelter. Holding out his arms, fishing pole in one hand and tackle box in the other, looking like a sodden scarecrow, he quirked a rueful smile. Then, facing the tent, he dumped his gear, took off his hat to shake the water from the brim and, like a turtle shedding its shell, he hunkered down to ease out of his poncho, leaving the sopping garment by the flap before sliding backward into the tent, kicking off his muddy boots as he slipped out of sight.

"Took time, but I see I finally got you house-trained," Jim teased.

"Seven nights, Jim. Seven very looonnng nights."

Grinning at the idea of Sandburg being any kind of threat, Jim set about his duty of cleaning his catch.

********************

Blair shivered as he peeled off his wet jeans and boxers, and he quickly rummaged in his bag for dry clothing. Camping in the pouring rain was about as far down on his list of 'things I like to do' as skydiving or paragliding - as in, not on the list at all. Nor could he jolly himself along with the thought that it was only one day; he'd lived in the northwest long enough to know when the clouds hunkered down against the mountains, the rain could go on for days and days. Hell, there was a reason it was called a rainforest.

But, on the other hand, camping with Jim, regardless of the weather, was right up there with his most favorite ways to spend time.

Camping with Jim in the pouring rain on maybe their last holiday together was … a puzzlement, as the good King of Siam might say. He couldn't remember ever feeling more confused, nor more nearly overwhelmed by conflicting thoughts and feelings that numbed his ability to think. Shaking out his sleeping bag, he wrapped it around himself and then dropped into a lotus position. Closing his eyes, he sought to calm the clamoring, chaotic noise in his mind and deepened his breathing, with the hope of loosening the tight ache in his chest.

He loved Jim, he did; and he'd wanted what he was seeing in Jim, this release of tension and a return to balance. Blair had seen, had even felt, the change in Jim that morning. The further they'd driven from Cascade, the more the darkness and taut, nearly desperate control, revealed in the expressionless mask and the tight, constrained gestures and posture, had lightened. And this afternoon, standing in the pouring rain, Jim had seemed wholly within his element, a man who was one with his environment. His laughter just now, the crinkles around his dancing eyes, the ready smile, all assured Blair that coming out here had been exactly the right thing to do. The peace was working the magic of healing.

But … but how could Jim seem so cheerful about what was happening here? How could the ending of their years of working together, living together, be so welcome that Jim behaved as if he'd been set free of some immense burden? Did their friendship, or at least their partnership, mean so little to him? Had being around him, having to share a home with him, been so very hard for Jim?

And, if that was the case, how could Blair not have known? Not have sensed his presence was such a burden, tolerated but not desired and certainly not welcomed?

He felt as if everything he'd believed and treasured had been a lie. Felt used, as he never had in his life before. Felt like a thing, disposable; easily - even eagerly - cast off and forgotten. But how could he believe that? Jim was an honest man. Despite their occasional wrangles over the house rules or their different perspectives on life, Jim had never made him feel unwelcome. Not until the last week, when Jim had seemed to scarcely be able to tolerate his presence; had wanted virtually nothing to do with him. So had Jim simply repressed how much he resented the invasion of his privacy, buried it in the face of his greater need to learn about his senses? To have backup that understood them and his potential and his vulnerabilities? And now, only now, Jim felt he'd learned enough, and believed he could manage without his live-in support system.

Resentment curdled in Blair's belly and anger flared. Damn it, he deserved better than this. He'd earned better than this.

He didn't need this shit.

Fine, just fine. He'd moved on before. He was good at it.

But … but his treacherous heart caught on an inconvenient truth. Even if he didn't matter to Jim, Jim mattered to him. And he honestly did not believe that Jim could survive on his own. Oh, sure, his control of his senses was awesome - but they could still spike, could still be overwhelmed. When Jim was distracted or emotionally confused, his control slipped and if that happened, if …

Blair buried his face in his hands. He couldn't do it. He couldn't just walk away. He had to fight to stay; had to, because if anything ever happened to Jim that he could have prevented or mitigated, he wasn't sure how he could bear it. Only, how could he push to remain by Jim's side when he now understood how good Jim felt to think he would soon be gone?

The emotional muddle was too much. He couldn't think straight and, worse, he no longer trusted his judgment. Not if he'd been so fundamentally wrong about his place in Jim's life. Not if the friendship that had become the core foundational element of his world was built on nothing but the shifting sands of necessity and convenience. He'd trusted Jim. Had trusted that … that Jim cared about him, as family, sort of. Had believed he'd mattered to Jim as more than just another guy Jim worked with. How could he have been so wrong? Was he a complete and utter fool?

What the hell was he going to do?

Stiff and cold, surrounded by the soporific sound of the thrumming rain on the canvas, he longed to lie down and let everything slip away. His mind craved the oblivion of sleep.

********************

As he prepared their meal of fresh fish and leftover pasta, Jim cocked his head to check on Blair. The rain interfered with his ability to hear clearly, the dampening effects of the rush of water in the air much like a white-noise generator. But he could tell that Blair wasn't moving around much in the tent. Was probably reading.

Checking out the sky, his mouth turned down at the density of the clouds. Opening up his sense of touch, he closed his eyes to concentrate on the feel of the air pressure on his skin. Still dropping. The wind remained steady and that was his only hope that the storm system might blow past in a few days, as opposed to hovering over the area for a week or more. Hell of a time to be on a fishing trip.

Despite the weather, though, he was enjoying himself. Just getting out of the city, away from the noise and filthy air, was a relief; as was knowing that there was no possible deadly danger lurking around every corner, so he didn't need to maintain a constant level of vigilant alert that could be tiring. Most of all, he was glad the pressure was off Blair. With the term done and no immediate deadlines to meet, his friend could relax, rest, just enjoy life without having to dash from one thing to the next. There were no bad guys up here, no one to fear, no one who might pose a threat to either himself or his partner.

When their meal was ready, he loaded up two plates, grabbed utensils from their kit box, and carried the food into the tent. Blair looked like he was meditating, which accounted for the continuing silence after he'd disappeared inside. Jim rummaged in the cooler and pulled out two bottles of water. By the time he'd settled on the ground close to Blair, his friend was back in the world of the aware.

Or, mostly back. Sandburg looked a little dazed, his gaze not connecting, and the dark circles were back under his eyes, the lines of strain more pronounced again around his mouth. Jim frowned, his concern again aroused. Usually, meditation made the kid look better, more relaxed, not … not like he could barely sit up straight.

"Thanks, man," Blair murmured as he picked up the plate, his tone subdued and his eyes downcast. "Looks good."

Jim's eyes narrowed as he studied his friend and watched him pick at his food.

"Something wrong with it?" he asked. "Taste too bland?"

"Uh, no, it's fine," Blair replied with quick reassurance. "I guess I'm just not all that hungry."

"Yeah, well finish it anyway," Jim directed, pointing his fork at his friend. "Lately, you haven't been eating enough to keep a chipmunk alive."

Blair responded with a half-shrug and small nod. He dutifully plowed through the meal, but without any evident enjoyment. Jim felt a twinge of worry. His friend's silence on the way that morning had been welcome, a respite of sorts that had allowed him to start laying down some of the baggage he'd been carrying since being freed from that prison. And the lack of conversation out by the river hadn't been remarkable, given the weather. Blair had sucked it up and had tried to be enthusiastic, but he'd probably spent a good part of the afternoon biting his tongue to keep from whining about the rain. Jim had appreciated the effort, understanding that Blair was giving him space and time to unwind.

But this persistent silence didn't feel right. True, they hadn't been talking much in the last week, but that hadn't been because of any lack of trying on Sandburg's part. Up until last evening, Blair had been peppering him with questions about work and his senses, nagging him to open up, and Jim knew he'd been sharp more than once in shutting the kid down. He'd still been too angry with Blair for risking himself by going into the prison and, he had to admit to himself, still too tied in knots about what had happened in there to be able to talk about it. He'd needed to get some distance, so it didn't feel so raw.

Jim thought about what Simon had said and, for the span of about two seconds, he wondered if he'd come down too hard on Blair the last few days. But he rejected the idea. Sandburg was no shrinking violet. If he had something to say, he said it. And, over the years, he'd shown no tendency toward hurt feelings or taking Jim's moods personally, none whatsoever. Blair didn't encourage his occasional moroseness and had never been intimidated by a glare or cold tone. Nah, the kid was still tired, that was all. Once he got another night or two of solid sleep, he'd bounce back, just like he always did. One of Blair's strengths was his resilience. Another was that he didn't hold grudges. Jim smiled then, thinking about how Blair said that grudges were just asking for bad karma - not to mention, high blood pressure - neither of which Sandburg needed in his life.

Deciding there was nothing to worry about, when they finished their meal Jim gathered up the plates. "Why don't you read for a bit, Chief," he suggested. "And we'll call it an early night, okay? Get up with the dawn to catch our breakfast."

"Dawn, huh?" Blair grunted, rallying enough to give him a pained smile. "Sure, sounds like a blast, man."

Chuckling, Jim ruffled the curls on his way out of the tent.

They spent the evening curled in their sleeping bags, quietly reading - or, at least, Jim read. He wasn't hearing any pages turning behind him, and he wondered if Blair had dozed off. But when he turned out the lantern closest to him around ten, Blair set down his book and darkened the other one. They stretched out, lying back to back in the small tent. Jim listened to the rain beating on the tent and slapping into puddles outside, and sighed. "I'm sorry about the weather, Chief," he muttered, knowing full well that it took the edge off the fun for Blair.

"Despite common beliefs," Blair replied, his voice sounding distant with a hint of strain in the tone, "it's a myth that any of us have any control over anything, least of all the weather. The rain's not your fault, man."

In the silence that once again fell between them, Jim frowned. Was he imagining things or had he heard an unusual bitterness in Blair's voice? Grimacing, Jim punched his pillow. Had to be the weather. As hard as Blair had tried that day to pretend it didn't matter to him, throwing back his earlier comment that it was only 'water', maybe he was more discouraged about it than he'd let on. Knowing Sandburg, he'd be twisting it all into some kind of obscure karmic statement and feeling - if not saying - it was all unfair that the trip that was meant to thank him for all his contributions should start off so miserably. Well, Blair was right. It wasn't fair. But he was also right that there wasn't a whole hell of a lot they could do about it.

********************

Jim was still sleeping soundly when Blair woke the next morning. Yawning, he sat up, stretched and shivered at the damp chill in the air. Wasting no time, he donned two flannel shirts and a bulky pullover before hauling on his jeans. Taking care to be quiet, he unzipped the flap and peered out at the great outdoors.

The heavy rain had stopped overnight, but there was a thick mist twining through the trees and hovering over the river. It was so quiet, as if the world was holding its breath, and he realized the wind had also fallen away. He put on his boots and grabbed a light jacket before sliding out of tent. Standing, he looked up toward the mountain, but couldn't see anything but fog. Well, maybe the sun would burn it off.

"Like that's a hope," he muttered as he rounded the tent toward the improvised latrine.

Though he still felt bad about what was going on between him and Jim, getting some sleep had helped. Somehow, he didn't feel so weirdly overwhelmed by it all and he wondered why he'd gotten so bent out of shape the day before. Sure, he felt hurt and disillusioned but, hey, it wasn't like anybody had died, right?

Carrying a pail, he went down to the river and then set the water on the stove to heat. When he went back into the tent for bottled water to make coffee, and to get the eggs out of the cooler, Jim was still asleep but was making the small movements that usually signaled he was beginning to wake up. Watching with a wistful smile, Blair thought it was like his friend's senses came online, one by one. Jim plucked at the blanket and brushed at his nose, visibly swallowed and grimaced at the taste. A small furrow appeared between his brows as his eyes crinkled a bit - listening, probably, subconsciously checking out the environment.

"'S'okay, Jim," he whispered, sentinel-soft, "everything's okay, man." The small frown smoothed and the little signs of heightened awareness eased. Jim rolled over onto his side, and his breathing slowed and deepened again.

Resisting the urge to reach out and touch Jim, Blair sat back on his heels and, worrying at his lower lip, he contemplated his friend. This was far from the first time he'd seen this evidence that Jim experienced a kind of intrinsic comfort in his presence. When anyone else was around, including Simon and Jim's cousin, Rucker, Blair had picked up on Jim's inability to relax so completely as he did when they were alone - but even then, a few soft words or a reassuring touch had some impact in letting Jim get a little extra sleep. Depending on his mood, Blair usually found it either hilarious that his presence made someone as quintessentially formidable as the ex-Ranger, detective, sentinel feel reassured and safe enough to 'stand down' and rest or, more often, he was deeply moved and humbled by Jim's innate trust in him.

This time, as he went back outside, he pondered Jim's response to him from the perspective of their current situation. Though on a conscious level, Jim might be anxious to re-establish his independence, clearly at the unconscious, maybe even subliminal level, such evidence of trust signified a strong affiliation. And that meant that Blair hadn't been wrong, not wrong at all, to believe he mattered to Jim and that their friendship was important to both of them. Just knowing that was a huge relief; it meant he wasn't a complete idiot for starters, and it also gave him hope that there'd be a way to work this out. Maybe he would have to find his own place but the main thing, from the perspective of Jim's safety, was that they continue working together. Blair knew he wouldn't be happy to move out, far from it, but at least he wasn't imagining things, not inflating his significance in Jim's life out of perverse ego needs, or unhealthy emotional dependency, or whatever.

Basically, what he was probably dealing with here was Jim's virulent resistance to any kind of perceived dependency and a desire to reestablish dominion over his own turf. So, what else was new? Blair thought with a sigh. After more than two years together, he wished Jim would ease up a little and get used to having a partner.

And the fact that Jim could even think about cutting him loose so easily - and seem so damned glad about it - still rankled.

When the pot of water was hot enough, he took it off the grill and put on a pot of coffee to perk. Perched on a rock, he tied his hair back with a leather thong, shaved and washed the skin he could reach without taking off any layers. The fragrant scent of coffee rose from the stove and he grinned, knowing Jim wouldn't be able to resist its lure. Pouring himself a mug, he stood looking down at the misty river, and thought about the talk they had to have. Part of him, reluctant to introduce conflict into their holiday, resisted the idea of raising the issues sooner rather than later in the week. But, mostly, he felt an increasingly urgent need to clear the air between them. As soon as he heard the sounds of Jim stirring inside their temporary lair, he bent to put the frying pan over the flame. God, he was hungry this morning.

********************

"Morning, Chief," Jim called as he came out of the tent. Standing and stretching, he inhaled deeply and instinctively opened his sight and hearing to scan the area around them. Noting nothing more alarming than the heavy mist and the subdued rustling of small animals and birds, he nodded to himself and smiled as he moved to take the mug of steaming coffee Blair held out to him.

"Well, at least the rain stopped," he commented as he assessed his partner as quickly as he had the environment. Though there were still shadows lurking in Blair's eyes, his color was good and he looked like he'd slept well. Certainly, Jim hadn't been disturbed by any restlessness during the night. Some of the palpable moisture in the air had settled on his friend's hair and, even in the dull light, droplets twinkled like tiny rainbows.

"For awhile, anyway," Blair agreed, his tone easy, as he cracked eggs into the pan and then whisked them with a fork. "You want toast or bagels this morning?"

"Bagels," Jim decided. "You feel like a walk after breakfast?"

"Sure," Blair replied, looking up at him. "We can conduct a search for wood still dry enough to make a fire."

"You're not trying to sneak a test in here, are you, Sandburg?" Jim growled playfully.

Blair snorted. "Nah," he said with a grin. "I just felt like toasting some marshmallows later."

Jim smiled and nodded as he sipped on his coffee. Marshmallows and the occasional indulgence in s'mores were part of their camping tradition, one he enjoyed for the rare moments it gave him when he could still feel the uncomplicated satisfaction of a child. Once again, he inhaled deeply, this time with contentment. It was going to be a good day.

********************

They hiked for two hours through the forest, ranging up the slope until the mist got too thick for Blair to see much of anything, and then lower down, along the river, where they found sufficient dry deadfall close by to have more than one campfire. Once they'd carried enough back to the site to satisfy their need, they stacked it not far from the tent and Jim put a weighted down tarp over the pile, to protect it from the persistent damp weather. They made sandwiches for lunch and washed the meal down with beer, and then adjourned to the river, to fish for the afternoon.

Idly watching thin wisps of mist drift through the trees on the opposite shore, Jim reflected on his partner's continuing retreat into virtual silence. There were no stories of how the rain or damp reminded him of a time when he was camping in some obscure place with an equally obscure tribe, or even reminiscences of any of their earlier trips. No sardonic cracks about the possibility of poachers or bears lurking in the woods. No jokes. No mention, not one, about Blair's opinion about Jim's decision to go undercover in the prison or his subsequent refusal to discuss what happened in there - though Jim suspected Blair might be avoiding that particular subject because of the conflict that had resulted between them in the past week whenever Sandburg had broached the issue. There were no asides about Rainier, about the term past or the upcoming one. No tests. And nothing about the PD. Nada. Blair talked about what they were going to eat, and showed modest interest when Jim pointed out a deer or where a school of fish was lurking just under the surface, and he was civil enough, but … something was wrong.

More wrong than the kid just being tired. Blair had had two good nights of uninterrupted sleep, which was usually more than enough to leave him bright-eyed and bristling with energy. Blair's appetite had seemed good that morning but had waned again by lunchtime. And the silence itself had changed. There was a charged sense of something in the wind. Several times, he'd seen Blair open his mouth to say something only to close it again … and look away. As if … as if he was nervous or something. And there were those shadows in his eyes, sad shadows only occasionally lightened by a flash of irritation - usually just before he started to speak only to swallow the words.

Wasn't like Blair to hesitate to say whatever was on his mind.

At least Sandburg was having better luck with the fish and his success seemed to cheer him. When he reeled in the third good-sized trout, he chuckled, "I know, I know. I caught 'em, I clean 'em."

"You got it, Chief. And it's your turn to cook dinner, too."

The afternoon was waning when Blair gathered up his fish and ambled back toward the tent. Jim heard him making his usual squeamish noises as he cleaned his catch. And then there were the more customary sounds of potatoes being wrapped in foil and the chopping of vegetables for their salad. Jim decided to call it a day.

"You want a beer?" he asked, reaching into the cooler to pluck one out for himself.

"Yeah, thanks," Blair replied as he heaped the chopped peppers, mushrooms and tomatoes onto the pile of lettuce in the bowl beside him. "Food'll be ready soon."

"Time for me to clean my fish?"

"Uh huh."

Jim grimaced. Down to a couple words and grunts, huh? And we're into avoidance of eye contact now, too, he thought as he studied Blair's bowed head, and the way he'd angled his body slightly away after he'd accepted the beer. There was tension in the way Blair held his shoulders, a rigidity that said something was eating at him - and the damned tremor was back in his hands.

Pursing his lips as he cleaned and filleted his fish, Jim decided to find out what was on Sandburg's mind after dinner. Besides, he wanted to get some things off his chest, too. This evening would be as good a time as any.

They ate perched on two nearby rocks, the meal good but marred by the strain Jim could feel in the air. While he cleaned up the dishes and cooking utensils, Blair built a small fire within a ring of stones in front of the rocks that had made such handy benches. He was hunkered down, feeding kindling to the small flames when Jim got two beers and joined him.

"We need to talk, Chief," he said, cutting straight to the chase.

Blair flicked a look up at him and nodded tightly. "Yeah, we do," he agreed, his tone somber. The flames were going well, and he layered on two fair-sized logs before rising to sit on the opposite rock. Accepting the bottle of beer, he lifted his steady gaze to Jim's and asked, "So, you wanna go first?"

Reading a challenge he didn't understand in Blair's eyes, Jim nodded. "Okay," he agreed, crossing his arms. "I'm still pissed off about that stupid stunt you pulled, getting Simon to send you inside."

"Stupid stunt?" Blair echoed, his eyes widening. "Like you're one to talk. Going in there with no backup and nobody but me and Simon even knowing you were undercover."

"I was doing my job, Sandburg," Jim retorted, though he knew he was being defensive. Before going in, he'd figured he'd have no problems, but it hadn't taken long for him to realize just how incredibly dumb the setup had been. Not to mention that his senses had played hell nearly from the second he'd walked into the dank lockup. "You had no business being in there - and none hanging around outside, either, talking to the doctor, watching the place. You have any idea of how dangerous that was?"

Blair's eyes narrowed. "Yes, Jim, I knew it was dangerous," he said, his voice low and tight. "What? You think I'm an imbecile? The case was about people dying and maybe being murdered by the guards. I can put two and two together and figure out they might have been suspicious of me."

"If you knew that, then why did you go anywhere near the place?" Jim demanded in exasperation. "Talk about having no backup - what would you have done if something had gone bad?"

"I had a schedule for checking in with Simon on a regular basis," Blair replied, waving off Jim's comment. "And I was being careful. As to what was I doing there? I was doing my job, Jim. My job."

"You're not a cop!"

Blair rolled his eyes as he surged to his feet. "Do you have any idea of how sick I am of hearing that?" he challenged, holding out his arms as he glared at Jim. Wheeling away, he paced a few steps and then back again, as if trying to calm himself down.

"I don't particularly care," Jim seethed, remembering the fear he'd felt at the time. "You had no business being there - and it's not going to happen again."

"Well, if that means you're not going to pull such a bone-headed stunt again, then, yeah, you're right. It won't," Blair slammed back. "But get this straight, Jim. I may not be a cop, but I am your partner, and I am not going to be left on the sidelines, twiddling my thumbs, when you're in a situation of such monumental risk."

"You don't have anything to say about it," Jim told him. "It's not your call."

"It's not my …" As if at a loss for words, Blair raked his hair back and shook his head. "Where do you get that? Huh? Not my call. Give me a break, Ellison. I've been your backup since the day we started - and for damned good reasons. Those reasons haven't changed, man, no matter how much you wish you could go things alone."

Angry, Jim looked away. Much as he wanted to refute the statement, he couldn't. "Doesn't matter," he growled. "There are some things you just can't do, period."

"Damn it, if you weren't so pig-headed, you'd be damned glad I was there, because otherwise, you wouldn't have walked out of there, Jim. You'd be dead."

Pressing his lips together, Jim refused to acknowledge that fact, though he knew it was true. That wasn't the point. He was paid to take certain risks, trained for them, but Blair was a civilian. The fact that he'd survived unscathed was as much pure dumb luck as anything else. How glad could he be when he understood the risks Blair had taken? God, if anything had happened to him ….

"Okay, you had your chance to say you're still pissed off, well, so am I, man," Blair grated, drawing Jim's gaze back to him. "Aside from the idiocy of going into that prison alone, for days you have shut me out and refused to discuss what was going on with you. You ordered me away from the station and worked until you dropped all damned week, to avoid me, to avoid having to talk about any of it. You think I don't know that? You had a headache that wouldn't quit until we came up here. That's like ten days of unnecessary suffering, man. And you were a bear to be around - probably because your senses were all over the damned map. And you were having nightmares about what happened in there, when you were able to sleep at all. I think you were almost afraid to sleep, to close your eyes, because you knew what was going to happen. You can't keep repressing this stuff, Jim. It's not good for you, you know that. But I can't help you if you don't let me in. When you try to deny it or ignore it, things just get worse. And that's dangerous. You could lose it with no warning - and in your job, that could get you killed."

"You're not my mother, Sandburg. Not my wife. Not my therapist. I'm not obliged to tell you anything," Jim snarled.

"I'm your friend, Jim," Blair retorted, his voice rising to a shout. "I worry about you. And it's my job to help you with this stuff."

"You keep saying that. That it's your job," Jim argued. "There is no 'job', here, Sandburg. Your 'job' is at Rainier. And last week, you had more than enough to do there without spending half your time hanging around the PD, looking for a little action."

"Oh, don't give me that," Blair retorted. "I've been managing both just fine for years."

"No, you haven't," Jim said, his tone flat.

"What?" Blair exclaimed, gaping at him. "Where do you get off..."

"You talk about me not sleeping. What about you, huh?" Jim demanded as he stood to loom over Blair. "You don't eat. You run around in circles - hell, the pressure has gotten to you so much that your hands have started to shake. By the time you finished at Rainier the other day, you were a basket-case, so exhausted you collapsed as soon as you got near your bed."

"Basket-case?" Blair echoed as his gaze searched the darkness beyond the ring of their fire. "Yeah, yeah, you're right," he agreed, his voice strained. "Pardon me for giving a damn. For being worried sick about what was going on with you. About what was going down when you were at work for all those hours, coming in like death warmed over. For being afraid something would happen because you were too tired and too strung out and you wouldn't have the right support if something did go wrong."

He swallowed hard and looked back at Jim. "You keep telling me that what I do to help you isn't my job, Jim. Like you think that the only work that has worth is work that you're paid for. But regardless of what you think, I've taken my work with you very seriously. It matters to me. You matter to me. When you cut me off, it's like saying you think I'm superfluous. Like I'm an unnecessary and increasingly unwanted - and certainly not respected - encumbrance in your life."

"Sandburg, that's not what I meant," Jim protested, hearing hurt, deep hurt, in Blair's voice and not understanding it. How could Blair think that Jim didn't value his contributions? Or saw him as an 'encumbrance', for God's sake?

"Isn't it? You cut me down and shut me out for more than a week, then come around to say that Simon suggested you should take me fishing, and that it's your treat because Simon thought I deserved something in return for the help I've given. You tell me that it's not my job to back you up. You tell me that … that you're 'not obliged' to tell me anything. You accuse me of hanging around downtown to get some action? Like I'm only there to hustle up some dates? Well, fuck you, man. You may think you can do this alone, but you're wrong. And I'll go to Simon, if I have to, to make the case that you still need me to work with you because I am not prepared to screw around with your life, even if you are. And you know what? You didn't owe me this camping trip - I don't expect any thanks for what I do because … because I thought it's what friends and partners did. They help each other. But you sure in hell owe me more than a summary dismissal, a 'thanks but we're done here', with no warning and no discussion."

Jim gaped at him, stunned by the cold fury and the stark pain in Blair's voice and, even more, by the words. What the hell was Blair talking about? 'Summary dismissal'? 'We're done here'? 'Make the case to Simon that ….' "Hold on, Chief," he said, raising his hands in protest. "I don't know where you get the idea that I..."

But Blair waved off his words as he turned abruptly away. "You know what? I … I can't talk about this any more tonight. "I just … I just can't."

"Blair!" Jim called, taking a step after him, but Sandburg was already hurrying away, out into the darkness. "Chief!"

"Leave me alone, Jim," he shouted over his shoulder. "You've made your points, man. Just … just leave me alone."

Jim started to follow and then stopped, uncertain. Opening his sight and hearing, he could tell Blair hadn't gone far. He'd already stopped, just inside the edge of the forest, and was just standing there, staring into the night. He probably couldn't see well enough to go any farther in the dark and just needed some time and space to cool off.

Rubbing his mouth, Jim tried to make sense of what Blair had said. His brow furrowed and he shook his head. Somehow, Blair seemed to have gotten the impression that Jim was giving him his walking papers. Thinking back over the last week, and their heated exchange that evening, he regretted that he could too clearly see why. Damn it. All he'd meant to do was make the point that Blair couldn't keep risking his life, that that just wasn't on. And … and he'd been worried that Blair was too overloaded, that he needed a break to focus on Rainier. That was all, right?

But he snorted as his pathetic effort at self-deception. Blair was right. Jim had been trying to avoid him, avoid talking about what had happened in that damned prison. He didn't … he didn't want to talk about what it had been like. But it hadn't all been avoidance. Some of his decisions in the past week had been grounded in genuine concern.

Whatever. He couldn't leave things the way they were.

Slowly, he paced after Blair but, when he got close, Sandburg lifted a hand, as if to ward him off, and wouldn't turn to face him.

"Look," Jim said, his tone subdued but earnest, "some things have gone off the rails here. You're right about some stuff and but not everything."

"Not tonight, Jim," Blair murmured, a wounded plea for respite.

"Yeah, okay, we'll talk more tomorrow," Jim agreed. He lifted his hand, wanting to reach out and touch the kid, but he held back at the evident brittle rigidity in the way Blair was standing. "But you have to know this. You're wrong about the point of this trip, Chief. Dead wrong. It was never about me wanting to ditch you or thinking of you as some kind of unwanted encumbrance. You hear me?"

Blair didn't reply, but his shoulders lost some of their stiffness.

"Chief?"

"I hear you," he said with a tight nod, his voice thick.

"Good," Jim rasped. He waited a beat but when Blair still didn't turn to face him, he offered, "It's cold out here. C'mon back to the fire."

Blair sniffed and nodded. Turning, his face still averted, he led the way back but he stopped at the tent. "I'm … I think I'll turn in early," he said, and disappeared inside.

********************

Blair barely staggered inside before he dropped to his knees. Fisting his hands on his thighs, his head bowed and his lips pressed tight, he surrendered to the shudders of relief that wracked his body. He'd been wrong. Oh, thank all the gods and goddesses, he'd been so wrong! Silent laughter bubbled - spawned by joy - but warred with the humongous sob of relief in his chest, stealing his breath. So he could only rock until his chest unlocked and he gasped huge gulps of air. A tear trickling down his cheek even as a brilliant smile lit his face, he punched his fists into the air and threw his head back as his soul rejoiced.

Panting for breath, he could scarcely believe everything was alright. Nothing had changed. He didn't have to leave home. He was still Jim's partner. Still Jim's friend.

Maybe he should feel like a moron, a first-class idiot for having made such an unbelievable error in interpretation, for getting things mixed up so badly … but he didn't, he couldn't. He was too damned happy!

God, he'd never been so glad to be wrong in his life!

********************

Hands on his hips, Jim closed his eyes and hung his head. Damn. He'd caught the tang of salt in the air and deeply regretted the magnitude of the misunderstanding between them. Now he could hear Blair practically sobbing for breath. His first instinct was to pretend he hadn't noticed how broken-up Blair had been, or the emotional impact of his reassurance that Blair had gotten one big thing badly wrong. His second impulse was to follow Blair and … and what? Blair hadn't wanted him to see the tears in his eyes and, if he didn't push it, they could both pretend he hadn't noticed. Reluctantly, he went back to the fire and sagged down on the rock. God, he'd sure screwed this up.

Leaning back, he looked up at the sky, seeking stars, but there were only clouds. He hated this feeling of helplessness, of not knowing for sure what was the right thing to do. And he felt bad, real bad, he hadn't noticed that, for days now, Blair had been carrying around the belief that Jim didn't want him around anymore. Too wrapped up in his own preoccupations. Shit.

Standing, he doused the fire with what was left of the coffee, and kicked earth and damp pine needles over the sodden remains. Returning to the tent, he ducked to enter and then zipped up the flap from inside.

Blair was already rolled up in his sleeping bag, but he wasn't asleep. Carefully stepping over him, Jim undressed and crawled into his own. They lay back to back, the silence between them so much like a wall that Jim shifted to lay looking up at the roof. "I didn't know what you were thinking," he said, his voice low and full of apology, "or I would have said something sooner."

Heaving a sigh, Blair rolled onto his back. "Not your fault if I jump to wild conclusions," he replied, his voice still sounding raw with unsteady emotion. "I'm … I'm glad I was wrong."

"Oh, yeah, very wrong," Jim assured him with heavy emphasis. "Incredibly wrong. The epitome of wrongness. So wrong that..."

He was rewarded with a watery chuckle as Blair cut in, "I get it. I get it, okay? You can let it go now."

A sad smile flitted over Jim's lips at the absolution because he knew to his sorrow that it wasn't entirely deserved. "We still need to talk, Chief. You were wrong about some other stuff, too. But you were also right about a lot."

"Well," Blair said, "that's about par for the course. I can't be right all the time, about everything."

Jim snorted and his smile widened at the welcome sound of wry humor in his partner's voice. "G'night, Chief."

"‘Night, Jim," Blair returned as he curled back on his side and burrowed into his sleeping bag. "We'll toast the marshmallows tomorrow night."

Jim's throat tightened and he closed his eyes. Damn, what that kid didn't know about symbols and rituals - and all that they signified - wasn't worth knowing. Marshmallows and s'mores. Something you only shared with friends. Something that for years, since he'd been a little kid, he'd only shared with Blair. "Yeah," he managed to rasp and he reached over to squeeze Blair's shoulder.

Blair's hand covered his briefly, and then they both settled down to sleep.

********************

"Okay, so what else was I wrong about?" Blair asked, his tone curious, after they'd eaten breakfast and he was topping up their mugs of coffee.

Jim leaned his elbows on his thighs, and cradled the warm mug in his hands as he looked out over the mist-shrouded river. "Oh, just about everything," he replied. "Except, yeah, I was doing some avoiding last week."

"Some? Everything?" Blair contested. "You still don't think it's my job to..."

Jim lifted a hand, cutting him off. Straightening, he turned his gaze on his friend. "Chief, I think you know I appreciate everything you do to help me with my senses. That's not what we're talking about here." He paused; he had to get this right, had to be very clear. "Let's start with the easy one first. Like I said, I was avoiding you last week, that's true. But I was - I am - also concerned about the pressure on you, the sheer hours you have to put in to get everything done at Rainier and help me, too. It's gone on too long and it's not healthy, Chief. And it could be dangerous."

"Dangerous?"

"Yeah. People who are tired make mistakes. Given the things we get into, that could be very dangerous. For you, and for others," Jim said. "It's been over two years now and you hardly ever take a break. I know you have a lot of energy - wears me out just watching you sometimes - but, lately, the wear and tear has been showing. Chief, your hands shake, for God's sake. You're so far past exhausted, and so wired most of the time, running on caffeine and adrenaline..."

"Jim, I'm handling it, okay? I'm fine," Blair insisted.

"I don't think you are," Jim replied. "Take the last few days. Can you honestly tell me you would have jumped to such a crazy conclusion if you weren't stretched so far you can't think straight?" He waited, but Blair looked away, a frown on his face. "Chief, even Simon is worried about you. Said how strung out you've been looking lately."

"Yeah, well, having your partner locked up in a death house'll do that to a guy," Blair muttered.

"Okay, sure, fine, it's been a rough time … but it never slows down. You never slow down." Jim took a breath and wished he could figure out how to explain his concerns more clearly. "Look, Simon said something the other day. Something you mentioned to him about cops being highly sensitive people. You know what he was talking about?"

"Yeah, sure, about people who are more attuned to what's going on around them, so if they're not careful, they can be overwhelmed by all the stimuli. About twenty percent of the population has this kind of hyper-awareness. Uh, they're often considered to be intuitive. Sometimes, if they're not coping well, don't get enough downtime or rest, well, they can have real problems like persistent insomnia, absence of appetite, withdrawal to isolate themselves, emotional overload, sometimes dependencies on alcohol and drugs."

Jim nodded. "Simon thinks you might be one of these people. And I think he may be right."

"What, me?" Blair laughed. "I don't think so, man. People don't usually accuse me of being highly sensitive. More like oblivious half the time."

"Nah, nah, that's not true. Think about it, Blair. What do you call yourself? An observer, right? You observe people, whole societies … that has to require a capacity to see beyond the obvious, to understand and interpret what you're seeing. And how about the way you come up with ideas about my senses? You pull this stuff out of the thin air - isn't that 'intuitive'? Insomnia? Chief, you could write the book on that. I swear, half the time if I didn't remind you to eat, you never would. And the last few days? What's happened? You disappear into your room and crash; you stand around fishing in the pouring rain and don't say a word for hours. Now, if that was me, situation normal. But silence isn't normal for you. Last night, when the argument got too hot, you took off into the forest - Blair, you never retreat from a fight. I don't know, but that all looks like it could be withdrawal to me, Sandburg, when things got too much to handle. Am I wrong? You tell me how you've been feeling the last week or so - hell, try the last two years or so. Can you honestly say that … that you don't sometimes feel overwhelmed? Hell, I know I have."

Blair was staring at him, but his eyes weren't quite focused and that was a good sign. Blair was thinking about it, processing the idea. So Jim stopped talking and sipped on his coffee as he waited. A frown puckered Blair's brow and his eyes narrowed. Getting up, he paced a bit, shaking his head. "Why didn't I see that?" he muttered. "How could I miss it?"

"So, you think Simon and I might have a point?" Jim probed.

Looking troubled, Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah, actually, I think you might." Meeting Jim's gaze and then looking away again, he raked his fingers through his hair. "I … the other night? At home, before we left? And again the next night? I was … I really was a basket-case, Jim. I was so strung out that I couldn't think straight, and that, that scared me. All I wanted to do - and I do mean all - was sleep. Just, just sleep. And when you were inside that prison, man, I couldn't have slept if my life depended on it. I was so, so scared and it was driving me nuts that there was nothing I could do, no way to know what was happening to you, or if you were alright. I thought if I just kept watching, asking questions, trying to make sense of it all, I could get you out of there."

Jim cut into the rush of words. "Easy, Chief … easy. Take a breath." When Blair gaped at him and then threw up his hands, Jim asked, "So, if we're right, then it makes sense that you have to do a better job of not taking on too much. Not trying to do too much all the damned time. You need downtime, Chief. To, uh, process."

"Oh, good one, Jim," Blair jibed. But he held up a hand. "I've been trying to figure out how I never twigged to this myself. I guess, unconsciously, or maybe just out of luck, I've been doing some of the right things for years without even knowing it. Like meditation. I used to do that a lot - not so much, lately. And until I moved in with you, I've lived on my own, mostly. So when I'd get home, well, it would be quiet and I could regroup, sort of."

"Are you saying you think you should move out?" Jim challenged, not particularly liking the sound of that.

"No, no," Blair reassured him. "When I thought you wanted me to move, I was pretty upset. I love living in the loft. There's something serene about it."

"You mean it's orderly, neat, predictable?" Jim teased. "And you thought all my rules were a waste of time."

Blair huffed a laugh. "Yeah, I did, but maybe you're right."

"Chief, can you see that you have to slow down? That you can't keep being all things to all people and not take some time for yourself? Like to meditate, if that's what helps you?"

Reluctantly, Blair nodded. "But how do we do that, man? I mean, my responsibilities at Rainier aren't going to change and I need the income from that and the articles I write. And … well, your work …."

Jim looked away and thought about it. "Well, I guess we have to prioritize. You don't need to be downtown as much as you are now. I can keep you posted on case details, so you know what's going down when we're in the field. I think Simon and the others would miss your input on case conferences, but I can pass along your ideas." When Blair didn't look too happy with the suggestions, Jim shrugged. "What if I lowered your rent? Could you drop the articles or maybe one of the courses you teach?"

"Jim, I don't want to sponge off you, man," Blair demurred.

"Don't think about it like that," Jim countered. "Consider it a … I don't know, a barter situation, maybe? You trade your skills, your ideas, and the time you spend helping out at the PD and when I'm in the field in return for room and board."

"Barter, huh?" Blair echoed, and a slow smile spread over his face. "Yeah, I could accept a fair trade kinda deal. But just the room, okay? I can handle the board."

"Deal."

"Great, thanks, that would help a lot," Blair enthused but then he sobered. "I mean it, Jim. Thank you for noticing I was in trouble and for helping me work out how to balance everything better."

Jim waved off the gratitude. "Someone told me that that's what friends, partners, do, Chief. They help one another."

Blair gave a small shrug, looking almost embarrassed to have his words quoted back to him, but he nodded and smiled. "You, uh, you said that was the easy one. What's the hard one?"

"Huh? Oh, right, yeah." Jim sighed, knowing the next item on his agenda was likely to be a whole lot more contentious. "Any more coffee in that pot?"

"Sure," Blair said as he bent to fill Jim's mug and his own. "Quit stalling."

Jim studied him and nodded. "Okay, fine. I'll just say it straight out. I don't want you taking crazy risks for me, risks that could get you killed. The fact that it was stupid for me to go into that prison without backup was only compounded by the danger you put yourself in." When Blair looked like he was going to protest, Jim held up a palm. "I understand why you did it. And … and, yeah, Simon told me that it was only because you insisted he had to roll right away, that I … that I made it back out again. But …"

His voice fell away. He wasn't doing his case any good by admitting that Blair had pretty much saved the day. And the rest was going to be hard to say because it got into his feelings, the ones he very rarely admitted to, let alone talked about. Shaking his head, taking a breath, he went on, "I don't think you understand what it would mean to me if you got killed because of me. Usually, usually we're in situations where I can watch out for you. But I was h-helpless in that prison, Chief. If there had been trouble, I couldn't have done a damned thing to help you. And when you didn't show up again the next day, I didn't know … I didn't know if it was because you'd come to your senses or because … because they'd taken you down. And that just about drove me crazy. It was already bad in there, Blair. But that, that not knowing made it infinitely worse."

Blair studied his face and then his gaze dropped. "Like I said yesterday, if you start respecting your limits and stop taking on impossible missions like that, then I won't have to put myself in that kind of position again."

"Chief, that's not good enough," Jim argued, but gently. "You're a civilian. You're not trained. You don't carry a weapon. You're smart and resourceful and brave, but you're not indestructible."

"Neither are you."

"Sandburg, I want your word that you won't pull something like that again. I need to know you won't blindly put yourself in danger just because you're worried about me."

"No."

"Blair -"

"I won't make that promise, Jim. I won't," Blair cut in. "The best I can do is promise to think twice and to be careful. But I'm not a child and I reserve the right to make my own judgments about any given situation. Maybe if you finally realize you're not in this alone, you'll think twice before you take on something like that again."

Not at all happy with that, Jim shook his head.

"It's the best deal you're gonna get, so live with it," Blair insisted, and then sighed. "Look, I'm not trying to be unreasonable here. I understand that you worry about me. But, Jim, you can't ask me to make a promise that I know I might not be able to keep. I promise, I will be careful. I could ask you to promise the same but I don't think we have anywhere near the same definition about what that would mean. And … and I respect the fact that sometimes your job doesn't give you much choice. I'm just asking you to respect the fact that mine doesn't either."

Respect. That's what it comes down to, isn't it? Jim rubbed the back of his neck and struggled with his need to control this, to make Blair understand that he was asking too much, pushing too hard. "Chief, I …"

"You have to trust me, Jim, or none of this works."

"It's been working just fine," Jim objected. "You … Blair, I can't …"

"Respect me? Trust me?"

"Oh, don't be an idiot," Jim exclaimed as he leapt to his feet, aggravated beyond endurance. "You know better than that, dammit. And if you don't, you should. What the hell do you think I've been doing? Huh? I don't understand why this has to be so hard. You're not a cop, Chief. You should not be taking on responsibilities and risks that you're neither trained nor equipped to handle. This isn't rocket science, here." Trying to calm down, Jim paced around in a small circle. "I don't put many limits on you, Sandburg, and I've given up hoping you'll stay in the truck in dicey situations - but I can handle that. We both know that I need the backup you give me and I appreciate it, I really do. But I cannot take the chance …."

"The chance of what?"

"The chance of losing you, dammit!" Jim yelled. "You went into a place where the keepers were worse than rabid dogs. More dangerous than vipers. If they'd had a clue who you were, they would have killed you without even blinking, or maybe even worse," he added, his voice catching as he shuddered involuntarily and looked away, nearly gagging at the thought of Blair being their prey, of what they could have done to him. "They could have tossed you in a cage, thrown away the key, and - if you were lucky - left you to rot."

"And that would have been worse than being killed?" Blair probed, but his voice was gentle.

Jim swallowed to ease the tightness in his throat. "Yeah," he rasped. Slumping down to sit on the rock, he hunched his shoulders and bowed his head; closed his eyes against the memories that assailed him, but that didn't stop them from flooding his mind. "You can't imagine what it was like in there, Chief. You don't want to."

"Is that why you've refused to talk to me about it?" Blair murmured, leaning forward as he listened intently. "You don't want me to be able to imagine it? You've been protecting me?"

Crossing his arms, his nostrils flaring as he sucked in air, Jim wasn't sure he could answer. Fragments of screams, the sickening stench, fear and hate and cruelty filling the eyes around him, flooded his mind. Barely able to move, he tried to shake his head. "I … it's … too much," he gasped. "I couldn't … couldn't stop it. Couldn't do anything. I was h-helpless."

"Ah, Jim."

He started when he felt Blair's strong arms embrace him unexpectedly and tried to jerk away. But Blair wouldn't let him go, just pulled him in closer, until he was leaning on his friend, cradled against his chest. Jim shuddered as he fought for control. He hated this. Hated to be weak. Hated to need comfort, like he was some helpless kid too weak to take care of himself. The thought spawned more emotion - how could he say that about kids? They had no defenses. Kids needed comfort. But he wasn't a kid. He was a man. He was supposed to be strong. Supposed to be able to handle whatever the world did to him. Anger surged at his pathetic sense of helpless but, worse, under the anger was the aching, frightening, void of despair.

Amidst the jumbled thoughts, whirling memories of violence and abuse, and the terror and rage, he heard echoes of his father's voice mocking him, castigating him for being a cry-baby. For not being a man. Telling him to suck it up and be strong.

"I try," he husked. "I try so hard." Tears burned in his eyes, but he sniffed, desperate to not let them fall. Dimly, he was aware of Blair rocking him gently, of the weight and heat of Blair's cheek resting on his head. "I … I can't!" he moaned through clenched teeth, and he fought with all that he was to hold it together, to not let go and lose himself in the morass of memories and emotion.

"Yes, yes, you can," Blair crooned, his grip tightening, holding him so close. "Let it go, Jim. I've got you. Just let it all go, man."

His chest felt paralyzed. He couldn't breathe. Shaking so bad and he couldn't stop. Couldn't stop. The sob built deep down and got bigger and bigger, filling his chest until he couldn't hold it back anymore. He struggled to breathe and the sob rose and broke, bringing tears, more tears than he could blink away. Garbled words, fragments of thoughts, he was sorry. He was so sorry. "Screams, at night," he choked. "Beatings and …" He swallowed and clenched his jaw, trying to stem the flood, but the dam had broken and he couldn't keep holding it all back. "Couldn't stop it. Could only … listen. H-helpless."

"I know. I know," Blair soothed. "Worse than being beaten yourself."

Jim jerked against Blair's chest, tried to nod. God. Blair understood. "Yeah," he gusted. "W-worse."

"Not your fault, Jim. None of all that was your fault," Blair reassured firmly, though his voice sounded thick and wounded. "But because of you, that's all over now. All over. You did it. You … you took the beating, Jim. And you won, man. You won."

"Wanted me to kill. Kill or … or die," he stammered.

"But you didn't. You refused to play their sick game. You wouldn't kill another victim to save your own life," Blair told him, his tone now fierce. "You risked it all, Jim. They couldn't take your courage. They couldn't take your strength away, or your integrity. They couldn't make you something you're not. Couldn't break you. Couldn't make you be like them. You didn't give up, man. You never gave up."

He shivered, so cold; felt Blair rub his back, felt the warmth of Blair's sturdy body standing against him, supporting him. And he felt Blair's soft kiss on his forehead. And then he heard Blair whisper, "I'm so proud of you, Jim. I'm so damned proud of you."

"Ah, Blair." Jim drew in a shuddering breath and pressed his lips together to still their quivering. He unlocked his stiff, crossed arms and slid them around Blair's waist, hugging him, holding on to him, a lifeline in the midst of the tempest. God, he was a mess. Hadn't lost it like this ever before. Hell, hadn't cried since he was ten. Men didn't cry. That was weak. Shameful. That's what he'd been taught. Okay for other guys, maybe, just not for him. Never for him.

But … but Blair was proud of him. Proud. Of him.

The screams and horror that haunted him gave way to the ending of it all, when it was all over and those animals were surrounded by the police. Over. It was all over. Nobody else would ever stand in that ring again. Never be used for bloodsport again. Never be beaten to death with the cruel sounds of triumphant screaming in their ears. Never again. He hadn't played their game. They didn't win. They didn't break him.

Time flowed but lost all meaning. Slowly, his breathing evened out and the shakes abated, leaving him feeling wrung-out. Numb. Again he tried to pull away, his effort sluggish and awkward, as if his body was too heavy, too exhausted to move … but Blair wasn't letting go. So, anchored by their embrace, he gave up and leaned into his partner's support, rested against Blair's body. His eyes still pressed closed, he could hear Blair's heart beating under his ear and the soft sounds of his breathing. Inhaling deeply, he filled himself with all the scents that surrounded his partner, multi-layered, familiar, and so welcome scents. Scents and sounds that resonated inside, down deep, affirming and reassuring him. Making him feel safe. So safe.

Jim didn't know how long he sat there, how much time passed. He couldn't seem to think anymore; just felt disoriented and so tired. So tired.

But he could feel Blair stroking his back, soothing him.

Could hear Blair murmuring, "I've got you, man. You're okay, Jim. You're okay."

Gradually, after what seemed a long time, Jim became aware that he could hear the river and smell the pines that surrounded them, the pungent fragrance of coffee, and all the other scents of their camp. And he could feel the itch of tears drying on his face.

Heaving a breath, he sniffed and swallowed. For a moment more, he tightened his grip around Blair. But then he let go and eased himself back. Blair continued to hold him, but loosely now, in the circle of his arms, and he kept one hand on Blair's hip to steady himself. Jim scrubbed his face, brushing away the salt tracks, and sniffed again. "I'm okay now," he said, and felt humiliated by the rough hoarseness of his voice, lingering evidence of how far gone he'd been.

Blair's hands slid to Jim's shoulders, and he began to massage the muscles there and at the base of his neck. "You've always been okay, man," Blair assured him, subtle nuances of warmth and humor in his voice. "You're just a little tense."

Jim snorted, and then barked a humorless laugh. "Tense?" he echoed, and looked up at his friend.

Blair's lips curled in a slow smile. "Yeah, tense. You know, wrapped a little too tight? You just needed to let off some steam."

"Let off some steam, huh?" Jim muttered, and felt a sense of release at how easy Blair made it, how natural he made it sound, as if falling apart, losing it so badly, was no big deal. Unable to resist the wry, pained smile that lifted a corner of his mouth, Jim looked away and shook his head. "I, uh, I don't remember ever being quite so tense before."

Hunkering down beside him, Blair gripped his arms and looked up into his face. "You have every right to be as 'tense' as you need to be about this - and about anything else, for that matter, that hurts you as bad as being in there did. You were a prisoner in hell, Jim. And don't try to shrug it off by saying that the others were, too; that it was no big deal. It was worse for you, far worse, than for any of them. Your senses magnified the horror and there was no way to escape it, not even in your mind, because you couldn't shut it out. And your ethics, your integrity ate at you when you couldn't stop what was happening. Couldn't save the ones who needed saving. You're a protector who was unable to protect, and that had to have been the worst thing of all. You think anyone else in there cared about the others or what was happening to them? Took on that burden along with everything else? Huh? And you had to deal with all that alone. Give yourself a break, man. Of course it cut you deep. Only a fool wouldn't have been scared or overwhelmed by it all. Jim, you may be a stubborn and extraordinarily repressed sonuvabitch, but you've never been a fool."

Jim's brows quirked at that. Sniffing again, he brushed at his nose and, reluctantly, nodded. Maybe Blair was right. Maybe he hadn't lost something essential deep inside of himself when he'd broken down so completely. Taking a breath, he reached inside, seeking the self-contempt he'd always thought he'd feel if he ever lost his control. Ever let himself be so weak as to sob his heart out in front of another man. But he couldn't find the contempt, the self-loathing. Couldn't find anything but … but the warmth and gratitude he'd felt when Blair had said he was proud of him. And relief. Profound relief to not have to fight to keep it all bottled up anymore. He'd cried. Hell, sobbed his heart out … but he hadn't shattered. He was still whole.

Amazed, he lifted his eyes to meet Blair's steady gaze, and he searched for some hint that Blair pitied him or wasn't being straight with him - but all he saw was affection and concern for him, and admiration. The last of the fear inside loosened its grip, and he could feel himself relax.

Blair's smile widened as he squeezed Jim's arms and stood. He patted Jim's back and stepped away, giving him space. Then, glancing up at the sky, his expression turning bemused, Blair gestured at the river. "Feel like doing some fishing before the rain sets in?" Looking down at Jim, he went on, "'Cause, I have to tell you, man, once it starts pouring, this time I am not standing around in it, making like a duck. I'll be in the tent, playing solitaire or reading, and you can get soaked all on your own while you catch dinner."

"Sounds good, Chief. The fishing part, I mean. The getting soaked part?" Jim waggled his hand in 'not so great' gesture.

Blair grinned and held out a hand to pull him to his feet. They got their gear and ambled down to the shore, and Jim was immensely grateful for the normalcy of it all. But they'd been fishing less than an hour when the first splatter of rain hit, hard and cold and warning of more to come. Jim chuckled when Blair called, "Okay, that's it. I'm outta here," and immediately began reeling in his line.

Doing the same, Jim replied, "Think I'll join you in the tent, Sandburg. Maybe play some poker?"

Blair hooted. "Oh, so you're feeling lucky, huh?"

Crossing the distance between them, Jim gripped Blair's shoulder as they hurried up the bank to shelter, the wind and more rain chivvying them along.

"Don't just 'feel' lucky, Chief," Jim replied, the laughter in his voice in no way diminishing the sincerity of his words. "Today, I know for a fact that I'm a lucky, lucky man. Guess I've been riding a winning streak for, oh, nearly three years now."

Blair's gait hitched and he looked up at Jim. "Winning streak?"

"Yeah, Blair," Jim said, the laughter gone, but not the warmth that filled his chest. "If my luck holds, maybe the streak will never end."

Blair flushed, but he also smiled. A wide, brilliant smile. "Hold that thought, man. ‘Cause, you know, the Universe resonates with our thoughts and gives us back more of what we think about."

"It does, does it?"

"Yeah," Blair nodded emphatically. "You'd be amazed, Jim."

"I already am."

Blair blinked and seemed about to say something more, when the storm hit and the sky opened above them. With a yelp, he ducked and scampered for the tent, kicking off his boots as he dove inside.

Laughing, shaking his head, Jim hastened after him. "It's only water, Chief," he chided as he slid inside.

Already drying his hair with a towel, Blair snorted. "Cold water, man. Not my favorite kind."

Jim patted his partner's shoulder consolingly as he stepped around Blair, shrugged out of his jacket, and got settled on his side of the tent. Reaching for their grab bag of books, cards, poker chips, and a cribbage board, he pulled out the deck and the chips. Blair wrapped the towel around his head and dragged his sleeping bag up around his shoulders. Glancing up as he shuffled, Jim thought the kid looked like a disheveled swami, and couldn't help laughing.

"What?" Blair demanded, looking at him with wide-eyed confusion.

Jim just shook his head and dealt them five cards each. "Ante up, short stuff," he directed with a grin, as he set down the deck and gathered up his cards. "This is where we separate the men from the boys."

"You're only as old as you feel, man," Blair muttered in reply as he studied his hand. "Some people are born old and some never grow up."

Flicking a look at his friend, Jim wondered which group Blair thought they each belonged in. "Don't know about you, Mickey Mouse," he replied, feeling an unaccustomed lightness inside, "but I haven't felt this young in years."

Blair looked up at him through his lashes; his eyes flashing with amusement and an evil grin playing around his lips, he tossed a poker chip down between them. "And I am a child of the Universe," he drawled. "A very well-loved child from the look of these cards in my hand. I'm in and I hold."

"Can't bluff me, Chief. I'm a sentinel, remember?"

"Then I guess you must know I'm not bluffing," Blair riposted, looking smug. "You going to fold?"

Jim gave him a mock scowl. "This some kind of sneaky test, Sandburg?"

"I don't know, Jim. Is it?"

Snickering, Jim tossed in his ante, took two cards from the deck, glanced at them and tossed in two more chips. "I raise you."

"Well, I can meet that," Blair crooned. "And raise you five more." He waited a beat and asked innocently, "By the way, what're we playing for?"

"Winner stays dry while the loser goes out to cook dinner in the rain."

"Okay, I fold," Blair laughed. "That hand really sucked, man. Give me those cards. Time to get serious here."

Grinning, Jim scooped up his winnings and watched the beloved child of the Universe riffle and shuffle the cards like a riverboat gambler. "I'm always serious," he said with all due sobriety.

"Yeah, I know," Blair sighed with woeful forbearance. "But I'm working on that."

"Just deal the cards, Sandburg," Jim growled, doing his best to sound menacing … and rolled his eyes when Blair just snickered.

They played through the rest of the morning, while the rain pattered on the roof and Blair regaled him with stories that frequently reduced them both to howls of laughter. When they got hungry, they stopped and made sandwiches out of what they had in the cooler. A couple hours after that, Blair opened a bag of potato chips and waved his beer bottle at the pile of poker chips in front of him. "Any thoughts about what you'll be making for dinner?"

"Don't gloat, Chief," Jim warned. "The game isn't over yet." He wasn't worried. Win or lose, he could hear the rain lessening and figured the squall would be over long before anyone had to cook anything.

Blair's eyes narrowed suspiciously; maybe he'd heard the cockiness in Jim's tone. Looking up at the roof, he cocked his head and listened. "Not fair, man," he complained. "If it stops raining, we need a new bet."

Jim quirked a brow in amusement. "Uh, uh," he drawled as he dealt out the cards. "A bet's a bet."

Blair gazed at him and shook his head. "You are such a kid," he accused. "You just don't want to lose."

"I learn from the master," Jim replied with mock humility as he examined his hand and tossed in the ante for the next round.

Blair snorted, but couldn't hide his grin.

The rain stopped another hour after that. Tossing in his cards, Jim asked, "Want to fish some more before dinner?"

"Sure," Blair agreed with an easy shrug. "Hope you have better luck on the river, or we may starve before the end of the week."

"So you admit that I'm a better fisherman than you?" Jim teased as they moved outside.

"No, not at all," Blair contested. "But it takes a lot of fish to fill up a big guy like you."

Jim reached to swipe him lightly on the back of the head - or tried - but, with a cheeky grin, Blair ducked away with the expertise of long practice.

The rain had beaten off the mist that had hovered over the water for days and, above them, the clouds finally seemed to be thinning, giving an occasional glimpse of blue. Blair kept up a low-voiced but amusing monologue while they fished from the edge of the bank, a commentary - so far as Jim could tell - about fishing lore and legends down through the ages, and the archetypical commonalities shared by the various stories despite other social and historical differences in the people who lived next to water and drew their livelihood from it. Jim cast his line and listened, smiling in contentment.

And, that evening, they toasted marshmallows.

Finis

Author's Note: The information in this story about highly sensitive people was drawn from the book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, written by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D., 1996, Broadway Books, Carol Publishing Group, New York.

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