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.

Note: This story is a continuation of what might have happened after Simon and Blair left Jim to fish on his own, as he so desired to do at the end of Crossroads, and could be considered a 'prequel' of sorts to my story, 'Nothing Happens in this Universe Randomly….'

Gone Fishin'

by Arianna

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

The Captain of Major Crimes and the civilian observer were silent as they climbed into Simon's car.

Simon started up the engine and spun the wheel to steer the car into a U-turn, heading southwest out of Clayton Falls, back toward Cascade. Blair held his gaze on the old abandoned inn where Jim had crashed, then sighed as they pulled away. 

Banks cut the kid a quick glance but didn't say anything. Wasn't sure what to say. They'd started out in high spirits, thinking to surprise Jim, in a good way, by showing up to fish with him. Instead, they'd run into an unholy mess of conspirators who had taken over a whole town in their plot to commandeer a money train. Shaking his head at the complexity of the plot that required that virtually everyone in the town be poisoned, Banks could only be grateful that not only had they defeated the bad guys, but the toxin had been essentially innocuous and short acting. Feeling his gut roil a little in memory, Simon thought it was a good thing the poison hadn't been fatal. If it had been, Sandburg would either be dying or already dead.

Sighing, he glanced again to his right and noticed that Sandburg was staring out the window at the passing scenery. Quiet, too quiet. No doubt thinking about Ellison's remarks when they'd first arrived, when he'd begged them both to go away and leave him alone. Essentially, he'd told Simon that he felt his Captain overloaded him and took him for granted, working him into the ground. And, he'd told Sandburg that he was tired of being a lab rat. Nice. Very nice. Oh, he'd also said he loved them…but he'd still begged them to disappear.

Mixed messages at best.

Chewing on his lip, Simon wondered what he'd do for the rest of the week he'd taken off to join Jim on the fishing trip. Daryl was with his mother and he didn't have anything special to do…this had all been spur of the moment, but he didn't relish the idea of just going back to work. Truth was, he was tired, too, and could use a break. That was one of the reasons this trip had sounded like such a great idea. Sniffing, he wondered if Blair had any other pressing engagements or if he also felt suddenly at loose ends.

"So, Sandburg," Banks asked, careful to sound neutral about it all. "Where do you want to go? Any place special?"

"Huh?" Blair asked, frowning a little in confusion as his attention was drawn back into the vehicle. "What do you mean? Aren't we going back to Cascade?"

"We could do that," Simon allowed. But, then he glanced at Blair with a conspiratorial grin. "Or, we could go fishing. That's what we came up here to do, right?"

"What? Just the two of us?" Blair blurted, stunned, caught by complete surprise.

"Well, yeah," Simon drawled with a diffident shrug, turning his gaze back to the road. "No reason our week off has to be completely ruined just 'cause your cranky roommate, and my 'resident pit-bull', wants some quality time with himself. Unless," Banks looked back at Blair, "you'd just like to go home and rest. You had a pretty hard time of it."

"Oh, no…I'm doing okay," Blair replied, pausing briefly to think about Simon's suggestion. "It was scary, but I also slept quite a bit in the quarantine tent. I'm not up to climbing a mountain, but some quiet fishing by a relaxing stream…sure, I'm down for that. Do you know somewhere we could go?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Simon replied with a tone of great satisfaction. "When you asked back in Cascade what we'd do if Ellison didn't want company, I said we'd fish the other side of the lake…turns out, I know this lake as well as he does…and I know of a great little fishing spot on the other side. A sweet camping spot right by the water with lots and lots of fish just dying to be caught. Whaddya wanna bet we catch more than Jim does?" He smirked at Blair, the evil twinkle of the avid competitor in his eyes.

"Sounds like a plan, man," Blair grinned back, some of the twinkle back in his own eyes. "I am down with that!"

"Good man," Simon replied, taking the next cutoff back up into the mountains to the fishing camp he knew was not more than ten miles away, around the south end of the large lake.

While Simon drove, unconsciously humming softly in contentment, Blair sat back and again appeared to quietly watch the passing scenery. But he was pretty much oblivious to where they were or the countryside they were passing through. He needed to process what had happened…what Jim had said. Figure out what it meant.

He'd been amazed that Jim hadn't been glad to see them nor eager to welcome them with open arms. The surprise of their arrival had only too evidently not been a happy one. Memories tripped over one another as Blair recalled Jim's words about how he'd been used to living alone, how he felt like Blair was always in face, observing him…and when Blair had protested, he'd been told not to pull the 'hurt feelings number', Jim's tone harsh and disparaging. But there hadn't been a lot of time to deal with that. Before they'd known it, they'd been caught up in the fact that people were collapsing around them and the military had taken over Clayton Falls. A horrific virus, Ebola, was said to be the cause of the sickness, requiring immediate quarantine measures to be implemented before the highly contagious and deadly disease burned through the whole area, completely out of control, killing everyone in its path.

The military had cut off the phone lines, isolating them in the small mountain village. They'd all been frustrated, wondering if more than one agenda had been in play. Was the military trying a cover up? Blair knew he'd ignored the signs of illness, the growing fever, the sore throat and increasing roil of nausea. He didn't want to admit that he might be sick, too. It was too scary… 'way too much to deal with.

So, they'd tried to find a way to communicate with the outside world and, while searching for an old-style ham radio in one of the citizen's attics, Blair had felt the world tilt on its axis, get suddenly too hot, and he'd collapsed, too sick to stand and very, very scared.

They'd all known the disease killed almost everyone who came into contact with it, and it appeared that he had contracted it. Blair recalled being carried into the tent, away from his friends…wondering if he was dying, if he'd ever see Jim again. He couldn't remember ever having felt so scared or helpless in his life, except when Lash had him bound in chains and was forcing drugs down his throat.

Not a good feeling to believe you're staring death in the face.

Jim and Simon had both looked devastated, frightened that he was dying and they couldn't do a damned thing to help him. All of them trying so hard to be brave and positive, none of them saying what was in their minds or hearts, as events spiraled away out of their control.

Well, none of them handled being out of control very well.

Within the tent, Blair was suspicious of medication they wouldn't explain to him and concealed the fact that he wouldn't take it. Instead, he stumbled around when he could stand and stay conscious, to find out what he could learn, while Jim and Simon were figuring the game out for themselves. It didn't take any of them long to figure out that something else was going on. The men claiming to be military were frauds, but that didn't make the collapse of the townspeople any less scary. But, it turned out it was all an elaborate heist. Blair overheard enough to know that it all had to do with some train, and that everyone affected would recover, but was still too sick to do anything but collapse again on his bunk.

God, he thought, locked in silence as Simon drove, we can't even go fishing without tripping over a crime in progress. Blair sighed and shook his head. After Jim had rescued him from the tent, they'd been running flat out, literally, to stop the hijacking of the train and round up the bad guys. It was all a bit of a blur because his head was still a little mushy from the effects of the toxin he'd ingested when he'd chewed up those damned ice cubes. But, after a wild run through the forest, being locked in a meat freezer and a heart-stopping race in a locomotive while being shot at with an automatic weapon, they'd stopped the thieves and, as a bonus, had blown up and burned the out-of-circulation currency.

When they should have been celebrating an incredible success, not to mention the fact that he wasn't actually going to die, Jim had just looked at them and Simon had said something about the city being safer, like he cared about being 'safe', and the two of them had taken off. Jim sure didn't discourage them from going…in fact, Blair had heard him say to the pretty veterinarian that he'd 'finally shook them'.

Nice. Really, really nice. Just the thing your best friend could be expected to say. Right?

Sighing again, Blair wondered what he could have done differently so that Jim wouldn't have been left feeling so much like a 'lab rat', as Simon had so helpfully clarified when Jim had already been crystal clear about how much he felt confined and needed space. Damn it. How was he supposed to help if he wasn't supposed to 'observe' and figure out how the senses worked, what set them off kilter…what helped to focus them? Maybe he had overstayed his welcome. Maybe he should look into that apartment downstairs. Grimacing, he wondered if he could afford it, or if he'd have to move further away.

And, now, he was going fishing with Simon, just the two of them, on their own…how weird was that? But, in an odd way, it felt really good. At least someone didn't seem to mind having him around. And Simon had become a friend, sort of, over time, especially after all that craziness in Peru last year. So, this could be fun…right?

"You sure you're feeling all right, Sandburg?" Simon asked with a concerned frown. "You aren't usually this quiet."

Smiling softly, Blair nodded as he answered. "I'm a little wiped out, but nothing a good night's sleep won't cure…not to mention fresh air and the joy of fishing. Really, I'm fine. This is going to be fun."

"I certainly hope so," Simon sighed as he turned off along the narrow rutted road to the old campground. In Blair's silence, he'd had time to rethink his spontaneous suggestion. But, it would be fun. Why wouldn't it be? It wasn't as if Ellison was the life of the party. They could have a good time without him.

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

Jim watched them drive away, and then went to gather up his gear to head up to his secret fishing spot on the edge of the lake. It was quiet this time of year, and he was looking forward to the peace of it. Within two hours, he had his camp set up, and was fishing by the side of the pristine lake. He heard a loon call somewhere in the distance, and the plop of a fish. Birds chirped and sang in the woods around him, easy, soothing sounds. Taking a deep breath of the clean mountain air, he surveyed his peaceful domain.

And wondered why it didn't feel right.

Could a place be too quiet?

Too peaceful?

Nah, he snorted, reassuring himself. This is what I wanted, what I need. A chance to chill out and relax, all on my own.

But, when he hauled in his first fish, he sighed a little.

It wasn't as much fun when there wasn't someone else there to see how big the fish was, to share in the anticipation of fresh trout cooked over an open campfire.

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

Simon's memory was sound. Before long, they'd found their way into a small but well maintained campground. They stopped at the small grocery story at the entrance to pay their fees and pick up the supplies they figured they'd need, having left Clayton Falls without doing any of the shopping they'd planned to do once they'd caught up with Jim. Riffling through their wallets, they split the cost, paying cash for their purchases and fees.

Since it was only Thursday evening, not yet the weekend, they were able to pick out a choice spot, not far off the road, sheltered by trees with a small stream gurgling through the site and the lake at their feet. The day was just beginning to fade away when they hiked in with their gear. Both experienced in the outdoors, it took them only moments to set up the tent and arrange the camp, stowing their supplies in a mesh net away from the tent, suspended in a tree…in case of bears.

"Bears?" Blair repeated, his brows rising in mock alarm, but then he grinned. While he enjoyed teasing Simon, he didn't want the older man thinking he was a complete wuss.

"Why, are you scared, Sandburg?" Simon growled before he turned and saw the bright grin and relaxed.

"With you? Never," Blair replied staunchly. "The bears wouldn't have a chance!"

"Damned straight," his unofficial boss stated with a sharp nod. They were both teasing, both knowing if a bear turned up, they'd head for the nearest, tallest tree to get away from it, but it was fun to mock and posture. Fun to just kid around.

"So, what's for dinner?" Blair asked, gathering deadwood for their fire.

"Didn't you say you had some new tackle?" Simon asked, all innocent and wide-eyed.

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did," Sandburg replied, straightening, hearing the challenge in Simon's voice. "And you have that big, orange-eyed lure you made…guaranteed to scare off all the fish."

"Oh, you think so, do you? Shows what you know about fish! First one who catches our supper doesn't have to cook for the weekend," Simon challenged, moving to dig out his fishing gear.

"You're on, man," Blair accepted with alacrity, dropping the dried deadfall by the ring of stones and moving to rummage through his tackle.

Contented, they ambled down to the lake.

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

Night had fallen and he'd finished up his simple meal. Rambling down to the shore to rinse off his hands, Ellison caught the wispy scent of smoke on the light wind. Sniffing, he scanned the edges of the lake and spotted the tiny flicker of a campfire, far across on the other side. He tilted his head, but even with his hearing, he could only pick up the distant sound of laughter.

Sounded like they were having a good time, whoever they were.

Shrugging a little, he strolled along the shoreline, idly kicking at the odd stone and listening to the sounds of the night. The gentle lap of the water up against the rocky shore. The soft whisper of the wind through the pines. Rustling, small creatures back in the forest behind him. The hoot of a hunting owl and the crackling of his campfire.

It was peaceful, idyllic really. No responsibilities. No bad guys to be tracked and confronted. No bullets to dodge. No one in his face, studying him intently as if he was something alien and quite remarkable, a mystery to be solved.

Nope, this was great. Perfect. Just what he'd wanted.

Again, he heard the distant sound of bubbling laughter, echoing over the silent waters of the vast lake.

And wondered what Sandburg was doing that night.

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

"Simon, you have got to be kidding!" Blair roared in laughter.

"Well, it was just too good to pass up, you know?" Banks replied, half defensively, half in merriment. He'd just been recounting one of his more famous pranks while at university, as they'd been sharing experiences of their undergraduate years. Ripping off the rival football team's mascot, an amazingly docile and aging tiger, and substituting a pig, was an achievement that still made him smile with satisfaction.

Blair was in a particularly good mood. Hell, he was alive and not dying from Ebola, for a start. And the relief of that, once it had had time to sink in, was positively intoxicating. And, he'd managed to catch the first fish, much to Simon's disgust, so he didn't have to worry about cooking for the next few days. Not that he wouldn't do his share, but it was amusing to watch Simon pout a little in regret for his hasty bet.

Blair had his own tales to tell, and as the evening deepened into night, they found themselves comfortable in each other's presence, actually having a very good time.

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

It had been three days of self-enforced isolation, and Jim found that it wasn't all that he'd hoped it to be. Oh sure, it had been quiet, and relaxing…and had gone well past being dull as dust.

It hadn't helped to continually hear peals of laughter from across the lake, and he'd begun to wish he hadn't been quite so quick or smug about letting Simon and Blair head back to the city. He found himself missing their company more than he'd thought he would.

Irritated with himself, he went for a walk in the forest to use up some of his energy and wear off some of his restlessness. As he walked, he found himself remembering their faces, their delight in having found and surprised him by wanting to be with him. And he felt churlish, all of a sudden. How many men had friends who'd track them down, just because they wanted his company? He hadn't ever expected anyone to do that…hadn't thought anyone liked being around him that much. He knew he could be curt and more than a little prickly to be around for long periods of time. Hell, until this past couple of years, he'd been pretty much a complete loner. Oh sure, he was always surrounded by other people in the military, but because of that reality, he'd learned to be even more private, more jealous of his thoughts, more guarded with his emotions.

And, after the crash in Peru? Well, he'd lived on the fringes of the tribe, usually out on his own prowling the jungle when he wasn't learning the language from Incacha or working with him to organize the men into raiding parties. Once he'd gotten back to the States, he'd needed time to sort out what had happened, to decide what to do with his life. The military wasn't where he wanted to stay. And it had worried him, how vague and foggy his memory of those eighteen months had become, like some kind of dream…parts of it a waking nightmare.

Police work had seemed the natural next step. His skills wouldn't go to waste. It was physical, out door work that still required him to use his brain. There was a challenge to it and a satisfaction in making his community a little safer. But, he hadn't been interested in having a partner, not after his first one after the Academy had been blown away right in front of him with no warning, no chance to do anything about it but grieve. He was tired of caring for people and then losing them. It hurt with a relentless, ceaseless ache that he didn't want to know again.

Getting married had been a mistake, but at the time it had seemed the natural thing to do. Didn't everyone get married, sooner or later? And he wasn't getting any younger. He'd admired Carolyn, her intelligence and quick, dry wit. And, damn, she sure was sexy. She'd seemed enough of her own person, someone who wanted her own space, that he'd thought they'd do okay. He hadn't imagined that she'd want more from him than he seemed capable of giving. More words, or more 'sharing' of what he felt…it hadn't worked. Her desire to know him better, to understand him better, had only caused him to withdraw…so that gentle inquiries became more strident demands and then accusations that he was an emotional wasteland, incapable, maybe, of relationships, of love.

And he'd been scared that she might very well be right.

It hadn't been a surprise when she'd packed up and gone. The wonder of it, to her credit as much or more than his, was that they'd managed to keep working together with civility and even humour, until the hurt died with the passion, and they'd been able to salvage a friendship from the wreckage of their marriage.

Then he'd made detective and been assigned to work with Jack. Man, oh man, Jack was a piece of work. The cranky detective had taught him a lot, as tough or tougher, as little inclined to tolerate fools. They'd made a good team, much to everyone's surprise, not least of all their own.

But then, Jack had disappeared and until last year, Jim hadn't known what had happened to him.

Now he knew, and he mourned Jack's death…and bore the guilt of betrayal and failure to have been the partner Jack had needed. More of that hurt, that empty ache that he'd sought so hard to avoid ever experiencing again in his life. More painful memories to pile onto the load he already carried.

Pushing the dreary thoughts aside, ambling back to his campsite and picking up his fishing pole, Jim sauntered back down to the lake to catch his dinner. Flicking out the line, he remembered how much he'd always enjoyed coming up here. It was his place of escape, his sanctuary from the chaos and confusion of the city. Even more so now that his senses were 'on-line', he needed the solace of peace every now and then to soothe the constant frazzle of heightened awareness…needed a time for his energy to be replenished and his soul restored.

This place had always been special. Always been a guaranteed source of strength and quiet fulfillment.

Sighing as he hauled in his catch, he thought it had somehow changed.

Now, it just felt damned lonely.

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

Sitting on a large rock on the edge of the water, Blair found his gaze drifting again over to the far side of the lake. Sighing, he shook his head, then turned to look toward Simon who was standing about ten feet away.

"Simon," Blair asked, his voice a little tentative, "do I really treat Jim like a lab rat?"

For a moment, Banks didn't reply, though he wasn't surprised by the question. He'd been regretting those words for several days now, wondering if the kid would ever mention them. Reeling in his line, he shook his head as he turned to face Sandburg.

"No, not really," Simon replied finally. "I was just making fun, you know? Oh, I know Jim moans and groans about the 'tests' and we both tease you, but we also both know how necessary it is for him to understand and control these senses of his as well as he can. The tests help figure out the limits, help explore the possibilities…"

"That's it, exactly!" Blair exclaimed, so relieved to know Simon understood…and he seemed to be suggesting that Jim understood, as well. "I know it bugs him…and some of them aren't pleasant. I know he often has a headache after. But, it's important! I never wanted to…to make him feel like he's constantly under some kind of microscope…"

"Whoa, Sandburg, calm down," Simon soothed, raising a hand to cut off the defensive river of words. "He knows all that as well as you do. Hell, that's why you ride along with him…to observe, to be there, if he needs your help. That's why you're around, right? To be some kind of 'guide'?"

But, Simon's words didn't have quite the effect he'd intended. Sure, Blair knew he was 'around' to help with the senses. But, over the years, he'd come to believe that maybe he was also 'around' because he and Jim had become friends. Looking away, his shoulders fell a little, his head bowed and his face hidden by the mane of hair. Maybe he'd made too many assumptions. He could 'ride around' with Jim without living with him…the way it had been in the beginning, when he was still living in the warehouse.

Simon studied the picture of dejection perched on the rock, and wondered what was going through the kid's head now. "Blair, what's wrong?" he asked quietly.

Blair shook his head and shrugged, wondering how much to confide, how much to just hold inside. Looking up across the lake, he asked, his voice soft, "Do you think I should be getting my own place?"

Biting his lip, Simon shook his head. "That's not for me to say, kid," he replied. "That's for you and Jim to work out."

"Yeah, I guess," Sandburg replied unhappily. Turning to look at Simon, he still tried to get an opinion. "It's just that you've known him a lot longer than I have. When I first moved in, it was only supposed to be for a week, but that deadline passed and, well, I'm still there. I thought…I thought Jim kind of liked having me around. And, it's sure a great place to live. Even with the rules," he added with a low chuckle. "I don't know. If he feels crowded, like he has to run away like this to get some space…well, that's a pretty good signal that I'm in the way. Don't you think?"

"Frankly, I don't know what to think, Sandburg," Simon replied, his own gaze straying across the water. "I'm the one who treats him like my own personal 'pit bull', remember?"

Blair snorted and skimmed a small stone across the water. "That was a load of crap, man. He loves his job, Simon, and you know it," Sandburg reminded the older man. "Hell, on days off, you don't have to call him in…he drops by the station to see what's going on. Or he has a lead to follow up. Or a few calls to make. He never stops, you know? And he's proud of the fact that you trust him with the tough stuff. Makes him feel like he's doing something really worthwhile, making a contribution."

"He tell you all that?" Banks asked, more or less believing it, but open to the reassurance.

"Jim doesn't have to tell me, I live with him, remember?" Blair replied with a grin. "Most of the time, unless I'm at the university, he's dragging me along with him to see what's going on or to work on his latest case. When things slow down, he's, like, totally lost, and grouchy, without enough to do. And…you saw his face when he was named Officer of the Year. Oh, he tried to play it all humble, but he loved it… loves the fact that he's good at his job. He's proud of that…and he should be."

Simon rubbed the back of his neck while he thought about what Blair had said. Frowning he looked up at his young friend. "You see the problem here, Sandburg?" he asked.

"Yeah," Blair replied, looking away. "If he loves his job, and understands the need to get a better handle on his senses, then it's just us he doesn't want to be around."

"Uh huh," Simon grunted, then shrugged. "Let's not take it too personally. Jim's…well, Jim's an odd guy. Better since you've been around, frankly, but he really is a loner. Maybe it's just like he said. He felt the walls closing in and just needed some space."

"Maybe," Sandburg allowed softly.

But he still thought he'd check out that apartment downstairs.

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

Jim stared up at the stars, at the amazing universe that, as far as he knew, only he could see in quite this way. The beauty of it was breathtaking, and somehow, the vast majesty of it helped him gain some perspective. Too often, the stress of trying to cope with these senses, to just hold it all together when his clothing itched to the point of distraction, and smells assaulted him, overwhelming in their wretched intensity, and when he could scarcely eat anything more than bland, boring food…when sounds pierced his head and light knifed into his eyes…too often, the fear and frustration of it, the constant low-level noise of his life, wore him down. Made him so very tired and aching for peace.

And, the other pain…the losses he'd borne that haunted him in the night. The sense that loneliness was the best he could hope for in his life, that and the longed-for, merciful absence of pain. Too often, that too, left him reeling, uncertain, reluctant to accept the offers of companionship, let alone friendship.

Blair had helped so much, helped him find those dials that allowed him a certain control, the hope of making peace with his own body. And, Blair had offered friendship, years ago now, and continued being there, present, available, concerned when he was hurting, funny when he was irritable, offering warmth when he felt the ice inside. But…too often in the past three years, Sandburg's willingness to be there, on stakeouts or when they were chasing down criminals, or when other friends, like Simon, were also at risk…too often, the kid had paid a terrible price. Had almost paid with his life.

It was frightening to have the kind of responsibility he felt toward Sandburg. To know he was accountable for Blair's safety in situations that were too often out of control.

Scarier still, to know how much he was coming to rely upon the kid being around to back him up. It couldn't go on, couldn't be the way of their lives forever. How much longer could it last? Jim sighed and rubbed his eyes, chewing on his lip as he thought about it. Sandburg couldn't 'ride along' on a ninety-day visitor's pass forever. Couldn't keep putting his own life on hold…someday, that dissertation would have to be finished. Someday, he'd have to follow his own path, his own career, wherever that might take him. Someday, one or both of them would find love, real love, and want to have a family.

Though Ellison doubted that was the way his own life would go.

But, the kid…he had a driving need to have a family. Oh, he played it down. But there were enough signals. The appreciation of having a stable place to call home, when for most of his life he'd been some kind of gypsy, wandering the world on his mother's coattails, and then later, in pursuit of what he called 'the mysteries'. The occasional spark of poignant sadness Ellison could see in his eyes when the kid would see families together, like on the PD annual picnic days when everyone brought their spouses and kids and played ball in the park. His efforts to help Jim reconcile with his own family, because, as Sandburg would say quietly, 'You only get one family, man…and so far as families go, yours isn't too bad, you know?' And the constant pursuit of almost anything in a skirt…the guy wasn't a teenager anymore, a slave to raging hormones. He was a man, close to thirty, and Ellison thought the endless round of new women was, in fact, an increasingly desperate search for 'the right one'. Not that they'd ever talked about it…but the kid put a lot of stock in family. He was good with kids, and Ellison figured Sandburg deserved to have kids of his own.

So, more and more, James Joseph Ellison had had the feeling that he needed to begin learning to cope once again on his own; to be ready to face the inevitable separation that couldn't be far off. That day when Sandburg turned those wide eyes on him and told him it was time for him to move on. Just the thought of it made Ellison's throat constrict. Nobody, not even Sandburg, had a fine clue of how much he'd come to depend on having the kid around. Nobody but himself knew how frightening he found that dependency.

He'd had to find his own space again, had to go off on his own, to prove to himself that he could do it. That he could look into a campfire, or up at the stars, and not zone on the experience. That he could listen to the silence and find it welcome, not empty. He'd needed to do this, get away to be on his own again… but he hadn't found the peace he'd hoped he'd find.

Thinking back to what he'd said to Simon and Blair, he winced. Unable to admit to why he'd needed this time for himself, he'd made it sound like it was their fault that he'd wanted to get away. And, when Blair had reacted with his emotions on his sleeve, because he didn't always hide what he felt, at least not from his partner, Jim had slammed him back for pulling the 'hurt feelings number'. The look on Blair's face at that moment still haunted him. Like he'd just been smacked, and didn't have a clue what he'd done to deserve it.

No wonder he'd looked confused. He hadn't done a single damned thing to deserve it.

Jim sighed. This little experiment in self-sufficiency wasn't working. Not completely. Oh, he felt good about knowing he hadn't zoned. But every time he heard that distant laughter from the other side of the lake, he felt bereft. Growling to himself as he turned on his side, gazing at the burning embers of his fire, anchoring his sight automatically to the sound of the crackling wood, to keep himself grounded, he felt impatient with himself. Was he borrowing trouble before he had to? Maybe he'd be better just to enjoy the kid's company for as long as he had him, rather than spend the time he still had preoccupied with…with what it would be like when the circle of life turned again, and Blair finally moved on. And was gone.

For a moment, remembered fear gripped his heart. God, if there had been an Ebola outbreak for real, Sandburg could have died back in Clayton Falls. It would have been over, just like that…the kid gone, ripped from his life. Ripped from his own life. And why? Because he'd tracked Jim down, wanting to surprise him, wanting to spend time with him. The kid would have died with those ugly words between them, with the hurt Jim had seen in his eyes still unresolved…still believing that it was somehow his fault, that he'd driven Jim out of his own home. Ellison began to see that maybe those 'mysteries' Sandburg was always talking about, had maybe given him a warning and another chance. A warning that life was fragile and uncertain…that life was there to be appreciated, even cherished, while it lasted. He felt his chest tighten at the memory of watching Blair being taken into that damned quarantine tent…at what it could have meant if that had been the last time he'd ever seen the kid alive.

All of a sudden, being on his own, wasting what time they did have, seemed stupid and pointless. Worse, it seemed almost criminal. Damn…he'd let Sandburg walk away, feeling smug about watching him and Simon go, without even acknowledging that he might so easily have lost Sandburg, without signaling in any way how devastating that would have been. Blair always seemed to understand what was going on with him…would he have known how scared Jim had been, how helpless he'd felt, when the kid had fallen ill?

Rolling back to again look up at the stars, Jim sighed. This was a waste of time. He wasn't feeling any better about being on his own, and he didn't figure he was ever going to be able to get to sleep. He'd caught and released as many fish as he felt inclined to catch. He'd walked the bushland, listened to the silence, enjoyed the great outdoors and didn't feel like spending another moment in the splendid isolation of the wilderness.

It was time to go home. Time he started to appreciate what he had instead of being afraid of a future that hadn't happened yet.

Having made his decision, and feeling his tension ease for having done so, Jim rolled to his feet and began to pack up his camp. He'd be back home by dawn and they'd still have a couple days before he was due back to work. Maybe he and Sandburg could just 'hang out', enjoy the city or, maybe even do a few more 'tests' to make up for the comments he'd made back in Clayton Falls.

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

Listening to Simon's regular, low snores, Sandburg lay staring into the flames. He was struck by how close Jim was, just over on the other side of the lake. And, yet, how far away he was at the same time. Unreachable and somehow, unknowable. Sighing, he grimaced and swallowed. It was ever thus. He'd just start to think he was getting a handle on the enigma that was Jim Ellison, and then the world would shift again, and he'd feel as if he was living and working with a complete and perfect stranger.

Rolling onto his back, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders against the chill of the night, Sandburg stared up at the stars. There were so many more of them out here in the wilderness than could be seen past the glare of the city's lights. The endless, eternal universe, so wondrous and unknowable, so vast and mysterious. Everything a part of a whole, every atom, every dream. Each individual part seemed inconsequential in and of itself, yet without each single tiny part, the whole would be less, might not even exist…might somehow fall out of kilter and whirl out of control and into oblivion.

He smirked a little at his fanciful thoughts. As if one life, let alone one atom, could make any real difference to the great, inconceivably large whole of life's continuous experience over time. And, yet, if it didn't make a difference, why was it there, that single life…his life? Sandburg believed everything had a purpose, though he knew it was beyond his capacity to understand. There was a point to everything, even if he didn't know what it was. Nothing ever happened randomly. There was always a reason.

So, where did that leave him? For a good part of his life, he'd believed in the possibility of sentinels in the modern day world. Because he'd believed, he'd been listening, looking for clues, talking about his passion with anyone who would listen, in case they ever heard or witnessed something that would lead him another step closer to proving his possibility truly existed. And it had paid off. He'd found his sentinel…had found Jim. And just in time, too. The poor guy had been almost out of his mind, his senses so out of control that they were tormenting him mercilessly, challenging his belief in his own sanity.

Blair knew he'd made a difference, that he'd helped Jim learn valuable lessons about how to use and direct those senses, to control them and not be controlled by them. It had been scary, sometimes, to feel that sense of responsibility, to know how much Jim depended upon him, when he too often didn't have a fine clue as to what he was doing. But…he had helped. Instinct? Intuition? The application of everything he'd ever read, researched, studied, guessed at, dreamed of…whatever it had been, he'd always managed to find a way to guide Jim back from the edge of the abyss. Yes, he'd run tests; he'd had to. And, yes, he watched Jim, observed him, ceaselessly. Because he was interested, even fascinated…and because he was so afraid of missing something, something that might one day spell the difference between life or death for Jim.

But maybe he'd done as much as he could and all that was needed. Maybe that's what Jim was trying to tell him. That the time had come for some distance. They could still be friends, surely, and Blair would be available if he was needed, but maybe he didn't need to be underfoot all the time anymore.

Blair had to swallow hard and blink rapidly as his eyes burned at that thought. Jim had come to be such a big part of his life. Who would have thought, after the kind of upbringing that he'd had, that a cop would come to be his best friend? Who would have thought that living in a place where there were rules for everything, including how to hang the towels in the bathroom, would come to feel like home? But, he'd always known it couldn't be permanent, hadn't he? Always known it was Jim's place, and he was only a temporary fixture, right? That at some point, Jim would want his life and his space and his privacy back?

Looked like that time had come.

Well, that was okay, had to be okay. He didn't have any right to expect, let alone demand, more. Once he and Simon got home from this fishing trip, he'd check into that apartment downstairs. If it wasn't still available, or was too expensive, then he'd just have to look farther afield.

And he'd have to get serious about finishing the dissertation. Eli had been making noises that the committee was getting impatient. Who could blame them? It had been, what, five years almost since he'd obtained his master's degree. It was time to get that first chapter written, leaving an x in place of the name of his 'source', because so far he and Eli hadn't come up with any acceptable failsafe plan to protect Jim's identity. Sighing, Blair knew he was on thin ice. With only one Sentinel 'source', he couldn't extrapolate his findings, or provide corroboration of what he'd learned, what he'd observed. It might not be enough to earn a doctoral degree. Well, if that was the case, he had 'The Thin Blue Line' paper almost completed as well. After Eli had had a chance to review the first chapter, they could discuss which route to go.

Rolling again onto his side, Blair thought about how much he was going to miss riding around with Jim. Miss the others in Major Crimes. They'd all become friends over the years, and Blair had come to actually enjoy a lot of the work he and Jim did together. It was real, not just theory. It was out there, with people who needed help. But all good things must end, and this phase of his life really seemed to be winding down. He'd have to suck it in and not give any indication of how much it was going to hurt to let it all go. No way did he ever want Jim to feel any guilt about how badly Blair was going to miss him, miss their life together.

For just a moment, Sandburg felt a trace of sorrow at how easily Jim had seemed to cope with the threat that had loomed over him back in Clayton Falls. Nothing had come of it, right? It had all been a ruse. The real challenge had been to stop the bad guys and they had. By the time it was over, and it was clear he was going to be just fine, there was no reason to expect that Jim would give a second thought to those few terrible hours when he hadn't known if he'd live or die. So, he silenced that voice that asked plaintively whether his friend really cared about him at all, or whether he'd just been a handy lifeline, needed so long as the senses were out of control, but needed no longer.

Because, if that was the case, then the possibility of an ongoing friendship was also in doubt. And Blair just couldn't bring himself to consider that Jim wouldn't always be some part of his life.

Tired of thinking thoughts that only depressed him, forcing himself to focus on his breathing, slowing it, deepening it, he was finally able to drift off to a restless sleep.

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

When Jim quietly let himself into the loft just after dawn on Monday morning, he was surprised at the silence. He'd expected to hear Sandburg's heartbeat, and the snuffling sound of his breathing in sleep. Frowning, he dropped his gear by the door and moved down the hallway to Sandburg's room, knowing it was unoccupied, yet somehow having to see that fact confirmed.

The bed was made, the desk as neat as it ever was. Puzzled, Ellison looked around the room, his gaze freezing as he noted what was missing, other than the grad student himself. The corner where Blair stashed his fishing gear was empty, the new tackle box and rod gone. For a moment, Ellison stood absolutely still, his expression almost blank, refusing to think about what that could mean. Simon and Sandburg had headed back to the city days ago…why wasn't his gear here?

And then he was moving down the hallway as if chased by demons to the phone, and punching in the number for the State Police. God, maybe there'd been an accident! Maybe they'd never made it back!

But, after a few minutes of being referred from one person to another, he was assured there had been no accidents reported involving a Simon Banks or a Blair Sandburg, no accidents of any kind where the victims were unidentified.

Swallowing, Jim hung up the phone. Then he picked it up again and punched in Simon's number. He let it ring until the answering machine engaged, and then hung up again, frustrated. Next, he tried the same thing Simon had done to track him down. Using his sources, he tried to trace any credit card expenses to find out when Simon had last filled up the car or bought anything at all. Nothing. It was like they'd dropped off the map.

His mind drifted back over the road between Cascade and Clayton Falls, trying to think if he'd noticed any signs of an accident…if there was any place along the route where a car could have gone off the road and not have been noticed for days. He couldn't remember anything in particular, but then, he hadn't been watching for it either. His jaw tight, he headed back out of the loft, intent upon driving the road again, this time with his eyes open, searching for a sign of his missing friends.

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

Simon noticed that his young friend seemed unusually quiet that day as they fished along the lakeshore. It could simply be that the kid had finally relaxed and wound down, that the peace of their environment had tamed his normally almost frenetic perpetual motion and ceaseless chatter. But, sighing, Simon sincerely doubted it.

"You're awfully quiet today, Sandburg," he finally observed after they'd finished their noon meal, not sure he really wanted to pursue this, but finding that he really did care about the kid and was worried about him. "Anything wrong?"

Sipping his coffee, Blair's gaze swung to Simon's concerned eyes. Lowering his cup, he shrugged. "Not wrong, exactly," he replied.

One brow lifting in inquiry, Simon drawled, "Then, what 'exactly', is going on in your head?"

Smiling a little self-consciously, shrugging again, Blair looked away as he said, "I've just been doing some thinking…"

"Uh, oh," Simon teased gently. "Lookout, trouble is on the way!"

Snorting, Blair grinned, feeling a little amazed at how comfortable he now felt with Simon. It had been a good few days. "Oh, not trouble…in fact, you may consider it very good news."

"Maybe, but you'll have to clue me in, so I can decide for myself," Banks encouraged.

Nodding, Blair turned his gaze back to Simon. "I think, maybe, it's time to move on…that I've done pretty much everything I can to help Jim with his senses and that he doesn't really need me anymore. I think that's part of the message he might be trying to give me by taking off on his own this past week."

"What do you mean by 'move on'?" Banks asked, a slight frown creasing his brow.

"Just that…move on. Find my own place to live. Finish the dissertation. Get a job. Leave you in peace," Blair replied, smiling softly at the end, allowing a teasing tone to enter his voice. "You're the first one to remind me that I'm 'not a cop' and you've been good to cover for me all these years. I've had a good ride on a ninety-day pass."

Banks looked away, surprised by how the idea didn't thrill him. In fact, left him feeling unsettled. Sandburg was only too right. He wasn't a cop and never would be. The kid couldn't distance himself from the work enough, had never been able to build the walls of cynicism and aloofness from the pain and tragedy they encountered, to survive life with a badge. But…he was part of the team, dammit! And he made damn good contributions. It wouldn't be the same without him around.

Knowing he had to say something, to buy time, he replied, "This isn't something you can really decide on your own, is it? Don't you need to discuss it with Jim?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair allowed. "But I can't help but think that if he really feels like he's under scrutiny all the time, and that the tests irritate him even more than I'd thought…well, he shouldn't have to run away from home to find peace and sanctuary. That's what 'home' is supposed to be. If my presence there has ruined that for him, then I have to move on, Simon. And, he's got great control now. He hasn't zoned in months. I don't think there's much more I can do for him."

Banks sniffed and looked away. Shaking his head, he finally admitted, "I gotta tell you, Sandburg, much as I hate to admit it, I'd hate to see the last of you." He had to smile at the look of surprised pleasure that bloomed on the younger man's face. "Oh, I know, I'm often bellowing at you for one thing or another, but you've done good work, made real contributions. I guess I didn't realize it, but I've come to think of you as part of my team."

"Thanks, Simon," Sandburg murmured. "That means a lot to me."

"Yeah, well, don't tell anyone or I'll deny it," Banks drawled with feigned threat, winning another grin. "I know you have to move on someday, that you have a whole life out there in front of you. But…don't feel you have to rush it, just because of what happened in Clayton Falls, okay? Check it out with Jim. Don't make assumptions about what you think he's feeling or how well he thinks he's coping with his senses. Don't read too much into his need to just get away for a few days."

Blair thought about that and nodded. "Good advice, Simon…I appreciate it," he said finally.

"Of course it's good advice," Banks pretended to growl. "That's why I'm the Captain!"

"Yes, sir!" Blair snapped back, flipping a mock salute, as he chuckled and his eyes danced.

Laughing, Simon stood and reached for his fishing pole. "All right, enough of that," he drawled. "If you ever did start showing the respect I deserve, I think I'd faint dead away in surprise. C'mon. The fish are still biting and this is our last day to pay attention to them. We'll have to head back tomorrow."

"Right," Blair replied, also standing and picking up his rod. As he turned to the lakeshore, he paused a moment and then looked back as he said, "Simon…I really appreciate the chance to have spent the last few days with you…I've enjoyed getting to know you better. And, well, I'm sorry if I don't show you the respect I feel. You're a good man, and I've learned a lot from you. Whatever happens, I hope we can still be friends."

Touched by the unexpected seriousness of the words and tone, Simon shook his head, then moved to lay a hand on Sandburg's shoulder as they walked together toward the water. "You're a good man, too, Sandburg…and you've taught us all more than I think you realize. Of course, we'll still be friends. For one thing, Daryl wouldn't speak to me again if he thought I'd ever offended you or driven you away. That boy thinks the world of you."

"I think a lot of him, too," Blair replied sincerely. "He's a good kid. You can be proud of him, Simon."

"I am," Simon said quietly, a warm glow in his eyes.

Contented with one another's company, they went down to the lake for a last afternoon of tranquility.

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

As Jim drove the route to Clayton Falls, he kept a close watch on the sides of the road, but couldn't see any sign of a vehicle that had gone off the edge of the road, or even a place where it might have happened, leaving the car out of view. No recent skid marks, no tearing up of the earth on the side of the road, no broken branches or damaged trees. Nothing. Thinking back to the last time he'd seen his friends, he remembered that Sandburg had still been pale and shaky when they'd left, and he began to wonder if, maybe, the kid had a relapse as a result of the toxin, or all the running around they'd done while he was still weak, and had gotten sick again on the way home.

So, on the way back, he stopped in every community along the highway that had a clinic or hospital, to see if his friends had stopped along the way. He even checked the hospitals in Cascade when he got back that evening. Then he drove around to Simon's place, but his boss' car wasn't there and the house was dark.

Nothing.

Which was a good thing, right? No accident. No one in hospital.

So, where the hell were they?

Wearily, he went back to the loft, hoping that maybe Sandburg would have miraculously turned up during his absence.

But the loft was dark and silent, too.

Frustrated, Jim finally put his gear away and heated up a can of soup. Flipping on the television, he tried to distract himself, but the silence of the loft intruded, like a tangible thing that demanded his attention. For all that he'd complained about feeling like Sandburg was always in his face, observing him, he missed the younger man's presence. The place just seemed empty, somehow, without his vitality and energy, without his stream of consciousness chatter and perpetual good spirits that were as soothing as they were ever annoying.

Disgusted, still worried, but unable to think of what else he could do to track his friends down, he headed up to his bed, deluding himself into thinking he might actually be able to sleep.

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

Ellison woke feeling groggy, unrested, and unsurprised by that fact. In the last forty-eight hours, he managed, maybe, four hours of sleep. Restless, irritable, worried, he paced the apartment and finding it too confining, finally he went for a long walk. There was no evidence, no indication that anything bad had happened. There'd been no accident. Neither Blair nor Simon had sought any medical attention. So the Sentinel was busy telling himself that these two important members of his tribe were fine, just…not present and accounted for.

He'd been back in the loft for an hour by the time he heard the elevator and the distinctive step in the hallway. But then, having heard Simon's car pull up out front and the sounds of their voices as Blair had gotten out of the vehicle, he'd been waiting for his partner to finally walk in the door.

Unable to contain his impatience any longer, he yanked open the door before Blair got to it, demanding harshly, "Where the hell have you been?"

Sandburg stopped in surprise and almost backed up a step at the aggressiveness. "Uh, nice to see you too, Jim," he finally replied more than a little sarcastically, not impressed with the greeting. Pushing on, he shouldered past his roommate to enter the loft and dropped his backpack, rod and tackle box on the floor, and then pulled off his coat. All the while, he was very conscious of Ellison's unremitting glare. Hanging up his coat, determined to try to keep the exchange pleasant, he asked mildly as he turned, "Did you have a good time? When did you get back?"

"Answer my question," Jim demanded as he slammed the door closed, making Blair wince. "Where have you been?"

"What the hell does it matter to you?" Sandburg seethed back, his own temper now ignited. "You told us to get lost, so we did. So what business is it of yours where we went?"

"Lose the attitude, Junior!" Jim snapped back, moving to loom over his partner. "I've been up and down that damned highway to see if Simon's car had gone off the road, into every hospital or backwoods clinic to see if you'd had a relapse or something, called the State Highway Patrol, tracked credit cards…nothing."

Sandburg blinked at the litany and the rage, suddenly seeing it for the worry that it was. Shaking his head, he pushed past Jim, pulling his arm away when Ellison grabbed at him. "Why?" he demanded, turning back to face his best friend. "Why would you do all that, man? And when? You said you were going to be up at the lake for the week."

"Why? Because I got back here yesterday morning and it was only too clear that you hadn't ever made it home!" Ellison all but shouted. "The two of you headed back here last Thursday…what was I supposed to think?"

Blair pushed a hand through his hair, blinking to make some sense of Ellison's behaviour. Pushing his hair behind his ears, he held up a hand and then moved to the couch where he sagged down. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Jim, but you wanted space and privacy, right?" he said softly, striving for calm. "You didn't want either Simon or me around. Or did I mistake something up there? I was pretty sure you told us to take off."

Jim sighed and kneaded the back of his neck, moving stiffly to sit in the chair across from Sandburg. "Chief," he began, not quite knowing what to say, "I said stuff that I didn't really mean…"

Blair rolled his eyes, but then leaned forward, his elbows on his knees as he replied quietly, "Okay, well, Simon said not to take it all too personally." Biting his lip, he decided to continue, "But I have to believe there was some truth to it. I mean, you felt you had to get out of your own home to find some peace. I'm sorry if you feel like I always have you under a microscope or something."

"Sandburg, don't…" Jim tried to interrupt, but Blair shook his head, insistent upon having his say.

"No, hear me out, Jim," Blair continued. "You've come a long way since we started, and you have really good control of your senses now. I'm not sure you need to have me underfoot all the time. I…uh…I think it's time that I find my own place and give you your space back." His throat tight, his voice faded out as he stared at the edge of the coffee table, unable to look at Jim lest his friend read his eyes and see what those words had cost him.

Jim felt as if he'd had the wind knocked out of him. Whatever the hell he'd meant to accomplish when he'd decided to take off for some time on his own, it wasn't this. In the silence, Sandburg shrugged and stood, moving toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Jim managed to choke out.

"Down to see the building manager," Blair replied, pausing by the door, his back to Ellison. "There's that apartment downstairs, remember? I thought I'd check to see if it's still available. Put a deposit on it…"

Pushing himself out of his chair, Jim strode toward Sandburg, stopping a pace away. "Don't… " he said.

"Don't what?" Blair asked, cutting him a quick look. "Don't get a place in the building?" he managed to ask, his voice tight. "Well, yeah, I guess that's still pretty close…intrusive. But, I…uh…like the neighbourhood and I'd stay out of your way…"

"Chief, stop, just stop for a second here, and listen," Jim commanded, wincing against the headache that was hammering behind his eyes.

Sandburg sighed and, crossing his arms, turned to lean against the door as he looked up at his partner and waited. "Okay, Jim, I'm listening," he said quietly.

His gaze wandering the loft, avoiding Sandburg's eyes, Jim sought the words, wondering why it was so hard to express now everything he'd been thinking and feeling for days. "I don't want you to move out," he finally stated, bluntly, without varnish. "I…I just needed a little time to think, you know? To see how well I could manage on my own…a kind of test. You can understand that, right, Chief? Tests make sense to you."

Blair pressed his eyes closed and tried to make sense of all the messages contained in those words. Jim wanted him to stay…that was a good thing. But Jim had also been testing to see how well he could manage on his own. Well, that was okay, too. Blair didn't want Jim to feel dependent upon him, had never wanted that. The slight bitterness about the 'tests', well, he could understand that. Jim hated feeling like he was the subject of some lab analysis, somehow less than human. Who wouldn't hate that?

"Chief?" Jim's voice intruded into his thoughts and he nodded as he opened his eyes.

"Okay, Jim, I can understand that," he replied quietly. But then he frowned, as he asked, "So, why did you come home early? Did you run into some problems? You didn't zone or something on your own out there, did you? Are you all right?"

"Sandburg," Jim replied, holding up his hands against the barrage of concerned questions. "I was fine. You've taught me well how to anchor one sense with others. I didn't have any problems."

"Good, that's good," Blair replied, pushing away from the door, pleased to know Jim hadn't had any problems, but more convinced than ever that his reasons for intruding in Ellison's personal life were no longer valid. "But Jim, that just goes to prove that you don't really need me around anymore, not all the time anyway, right?"

Feeling as if everything was suddenly getting away from him, Ellison shook his head. Licking dry lips, focusing on the key issue, so far as he was concerned anyway, he reiterated, "I don't want you to move out, okay? I know that, eventually, well, you'll likely want your own place. But, don't go now just because… well, because I took off for a few days. I…"

But his voice trailed off. He really didn't feel like apologizing for the simple action of having gone fishing for a week on his own. But when he looked up at Blair and read the uncertainty in his friend's eyes, he realized it wasn't just about taking off for a week. It was about what he'd said in one, rapid, thoughtless moment. And what he hadn't said, about the fact that, for a while anyway, they'd all been afraid that Sandburg might die in that quarantine tent. Feeling infinitely weary, the apology sticking in his throat, he sighed. Moving closer, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder, gently as if he was settling a skittish colt, he said quietly, "Look, Chief, let's just let it go, okay? Can you just accept that I don't want you to move out? Will you stay?"

Allowing himself to relax, Blair nodded. "Yeah, sure, Jim," he replied, and then smiled tentatively. "I wasn't all that excited about going, you know? It was just that…"

"Yeah, I know," Ellison cut in, not wanting to hear again how he'd made his friend wonder if he was wanted, or needed. He just wanted this little episode to be one more minor disaster that was behind them and could be forgotten. "I'm tired," he said then, moving away toward the stairs. "I haven't had a whole lot of sleep in the last couple of days, so now that I know you're safe and Simon's safe, I think I'll go have a nap."

"Sure, Jim," Blair watched him go, murmuring quietly, "Thanks for being worried about us, man."

Hearing the words, Jim paused and turned back, a slight frown furrowing his brow. "You never did tell me where you were for the past few days…"

Blair looked away, uncertain for a moment, but then turned back with a slow smile. "Well, you'd gone fishin', so we thought we might as well go fishing, too."

For a moment, Jim wasn't sure he'd understood. "You and Simon? The two of you? Went fishing together?" he clarified.

"Yeah," Blair replied, the smile broadening to a grin. "We had a really good time, too! Simon's a really neat guy, when he forgets he's supposed to be the living, breathing embodiment of authority."

Finding the whole idea a little surreal, Jim asked, "Where did you end up? I checked the credit card trail, but there was no indication…no gas sales, no motels…"

"Oh, we had our camping gear in Simon's trunk, and we paid cash for our supplies," Blair explained, sorry that Jim had been worried about them. "We, uh, we fished the other side of the lake…"

"The other side…?" Jim repeated. And then he remembered the sound of distant laughter. The breath caught in his chest, and he was almost swamped by the memories of the loneliness he'd felt, made worse by that faint echo of laughter, the sounds of easy friendship drifting across the water. Blinking, he shook his head, feeling the ache of regret. He could have so easily been a part of those good times.

But he'd pushed them away.

And they'd managed just fine without his company.

For a moment, fear plucked at his heart again, and his mind played with this fresh evidence of how little Sandburg really needed him to be happy, to be complete in the friendship of others. Feeling a fool, he didn't know what to say.

"Hey, are you all right, man?" Blair asked with concern at Ellison's sudden pallor and odd expression.

"What? Yeah, I'm fine," Jim muttered. Cutting Blair a quick glance then turning away to climb the stairs, feeling old and tired, he said quietly, "I'm glad you had a good time, Chief."

Blair frowned as he watched Jim climb the steps slowly, as if he was hurting. Sighing, he thought that there'd been a time when he'd imagined that he knew what Jim was thinking and feeling, but now he could recognize that he'd only been deluding himself. The man was a mystery to him, more a mystery now than he'd ever been.

Turning, he picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder, then his tackle box in one hand and his rod in the other, he headed down the short hallway to his own room under the stairs. He put his gear away and then flopped onto the bed, staring at the ceiling, knowing Jim was just above him. Rubbing his forehead, he swallowed, embarrassed at the relief he felt that Jim didn't want him to move out, but concerned that there was something here that wasn't right. Worried that if he didn't find a way to get Jim to open up, that the rift he could feel developing between them would only get worse with time. But he didn't know how to bridge the distance…didn't know what was causing it, so he didn't know how to fix it.

"What's going on with you, man?" Blair whispered. "Why won't you tell me what's bugging you? I can't help if you won't tell me what the hell is going on…"

Upstairs, his hearing turned up to hear Blair's heartbeat, Jim couldn't help but hear the worried tone and the aching plea. Sighing, he swallowed and rolled onto his side, his arms crossed tight over his chest. How could he explain what was going on when he didn't fully understand it himself? How could he confess his fear of needing someone else so much, especially to the person he needed, without putting pressure on Sandburg to make promises to stay that he might not want to make or someday might not want to honour?

With another sigh, Jim closed his eyes, searching for sleep. This wasn't something Sandburg could help him with, however much the kid might want to. This was something he had to deal with himself.

Somehow.

Once again, Jim resolved to just appreciate the kid and enjoy the time, however much they might have, while it lasted.

Because nothing ever lasted forever.

And nobody knew that better than he did.

Finis

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