Author's Notes: No profit, copyright laws bent but not broken; Graciously hosted by Starfox and beta'd by the talented Arianna; remaining errors are mine.

Warnings: Language.

Spoilers: TSbBS - Blair is a now a detective.

The Gift Of Youth

by Roslyn

********************
Wednesday, 7:10 A.M.; the Loft:

Jim was enjoying perfectly done toast with exactly the right amount of butter covering the warm surface, so that the fresh, slightly salted spread was fully melted. Fluffy yellow puffs of egg sat on a plate alongside three strips of well-done bacon. A similar plate sat on the table in front of Blair's chair, awaiting his return from the bathroom, where he was toweling off and dressing for the day. Needing to decide whether to wait for his partner or address his meal while still at the perfect temperature, Jim dialed up his hearing to check on Blair's progress. He next reeled in pain, hands clapped to his ears.

Blair ran into the dining area to find out whether the source of that incredibly loud alarm was their own smoke detector. By that time, Jim was on his knees by the table, stifling his moans. Blair crouched momentarily, to lay a concerned hand on the fallen man's shoulder. "Jim, bring it down to level two and I'll try to get rid of the source. Be right back."

He was out the door in record time and heading for their neighbor down the hall. Mrs. Oster was becoming increasing forgetful in her advancing years and sometimes left items on the stove until they burned and set off her smoke detector. Smoke was visible, curling delicately from beneath the closed door. She needs new weather stripping, came the automatic thought as Blair banged on the door, trying to be heard over the alarm. "Mrs. Oster! Open up, it's me, Blair from down the hall."

A harried looking, disheveled woman peered around the edge of the door as it was hastily opened. A relieved expression appeared on her face at seeing help arrive and she pulled the door open the rest of the way. Her quavering voice reflected her distress and she was waving a magazine around in a futile effort to clear the room. Blair took it from her on his way into the kitchen where a blackening kettle sat on a still hot burner.

At least it's turned off now. Blair moved it off the burner, the plastic coated handle still providing some protection from conducted heat. Moving to the center of the kitchen, he waved the magazine frantically under the alarm, regretting his lack of inches and inability to turn it off. In frustration, he finally leaped upward, the magazine an extension of his arm, and knocked it off the ceiling. It bounced twice and settled on the gleaming, polyurethaned floor. Squatting in relief at the restoration of silence in the apartment, he coughed a few times before hastening to open all the windows.

"Mrs. Oster, I'm going to bring you some kitchen timers tonight and you will use them. I mean, every time you put something on the stove and every time you open the tub faucet to fill your bath. They'll ring long enough to make sure you notice them and avoid these problems. No arguments or I'll call your son this time and let him know the problems you're having, understood?" Blair hated to be stern with the fragile woman but her stubbornness had already caused a flood and several smoke emergencies. "I also want the phone number of your doctor because there are some simple tests he can do to make sure you're alright." He smiled soothingly but was anxious to get back to Jim.

Tears tracked down the wrinkled cheeks as Mrs. Oster stood, ashamed of her lapses in attention. "I'm sorry ... young man." The tears fell faster as she realized she couldn't remember this familiar neighbor's name. "Please don't call my son; I don't want to be a burden to them. It's too soon..."

Blair's heart broke at her despair and he took her face in his hands. "No, it's not time and it's very likely something very simple to treat. Do you want me to go to the doctor with you?" He thought furiously of how to remind her of his name, tactfully. "After all, Jim and Blair of 307 are always at your service, ma'am."

"Oh, Blair, I would appreciate that so much if you could spare the time."

"Absolutely. Now give me the doctor's number and I'll call as soon as I get to work. You aren't to worry about anything for now. Leave the range hood fan on for a bit longer to help clear the smoke and make yourself a fresh breakfast. Use a saucepan to boil up water for a cup of tea and we can buy a new kettle when we go to see the doctor."

The relieved woman escorted him to the door and sent him on his way with a kiss to his cheek. Barreling down the hallway, he opened the door and anxiously looked for his abused sentinel. Seeing no sign of him, he called out. "Jim, where are you?" The absence of a response alarmed him.

The bathroom door was open and his own room was empty so he ran up the staircase. There, he could see the dejected man sitting on the edge of his bed, holding his head. "Jim?" A touch to the shoulder startled the man and provoked a defensive arm wave that might have knocked Blair off his feet, had it connected.

"You turned off your hearing completely?" Blair looked at Jim incredulously. Jim looked back blankly, confirming his deafness. Pain was evident in the pale eyes.

"Okay, Jim. Look at my hand here, see this finger? Come up to one." His mouth moved exaggeratedly, making the lip reading easier and the hand was a signal well known to them both for adjusting the 'dials', when voice directives were impractical on the streets.

Nodding, Jim made the adjustment with effort, taking in the small amount of auditory sensation with some trepidation. When his pain did not increase, he looked at Blair for the next step.

"Good, man. Up to two. Right, now three. Okay, I'm gonna keep my voice soft for now so don't use it to check on your increasing acuity. Go to four and leave it there until the headache subsides." He gently pushed the suffering man back against his pillows, raising his legs and removing the shoes.

Suddenly remembering he'd been getting ready for work, Jim's eyes widened and he made an aborted move to get up. "Hafta get to work."

Blair grabbed for the bedside phone, pushing his partner backwards and encountering little resistance. "You can go in later." He hit a '2' on the speed dial. "Yeah, hi Rhonda. We're gonna be in late today. Had a smoke problem here in the building. All taken care of but we won't make it 'til later. Figure right after lunch, okay?" Jim's eyes closed, deciding he could use a nap and he was out before Blair had hung up the phone.

Turning off the ringer in Jim's bedside phone, Blair also set up the white noise generator so he could move about without disturbing Jim's sleep. He then took up residence on his own bed downstairs and made a phone call he'd been alternately anticipating and dreading. When Professor Stoddard's answering machine came on, the message left for him was short and to the point.

"Hi Eli. You know, I still can't get used to calling you by your first name. Well, I mailed it to you yesterday, Priority Mail. If you think it's any good, you can submit it on my behalf to the committee. I know you talked to the lawyers about me but I still don't think they'll go for it. But thanks for trying even if ... Well, even if."

Gently replacing the receiver, he remembered the pride he'd felt when both Jim and Simon told him how much they'd learned from reading his dissertation about the police force as an example of a closed society. Simon already had half a dozen ideas to run past the commissioner and police academy director on that subject. Jim had been so quiet when asked to read the newly completed document. It had been the actual paper Blair had intended to submit to Rainier; not his real labor of love about sentinels. So those two men, heavily referred to throughout the study, agreed to its release, if submitted. Eli Stoddard had insisted that the University legal department would require the department to review it. Well, at least the PD would benefit from it, even if Blair never got to defend it...

********************
Wednesday, 1:15 P.M.; the Bullpen:

Simon stood in the doorway of his office, observing his men. Jim was settled at his desk while Blair was doing his impersonation of a dervish. He moved steadily around the Bullpen, ensuring his partner's comfort. Jim had hot coffee and assorted snack foods to hand. Conner's worry beads had been confiscated, as had other small, but irritatingly noisy, desk toys. Somehow, Sandburg must have contacted the communications officer because announcements coming over the PA seemed softer than usual. Banks wondered how that one had been accomplished, until he remembered the woman recently hired for that job was young and attractive.

Joel suddenly appeared by his side. "Blair looks like Jim has a headache."

Simon grinned appreciatively at that unique sentence. "The funny part is that I understood what you said. Well, guess I'd better find out the gory details." Deciding not to employ his usual bellow, a gesture was used to catch Blair's eye and the rookie detective was beckoned into the inner sanctum. Joel departed for the file room as Blair complied with the summons.

"Door open or closed, Captain?"

"You tell me, Sandburg."

"Right. Well, maybe closed."

"I was hoping not to hear those words."

"Not as bad as all that. Well, it might be. You know sometimes Jim just doesn't get the idea that his senses need to be managed, not just used and put away until he wants to play with them again. Always surprised when he gets..."

"Is there a short form for this report, like with taxes?"

"Oh. Well, I'm not known for brevity here, Captain. The story is larger than just the sum of the events leading up..."

"Sandburg!"

"Right. Smoke across the hall set off smoke alarm. Jim's hearing was wide open for some reason and he went down. Got it stopped finally and Jim needed to sleep off the effects." Blair smiled and wheezed simultaneously, triumphant at having gotten it all out in one breath.

"Thank you. Dismissed."

Blair pulled up a chair. "Simon, Jim turned off his hearing this time and that's something I've told him over and over again that he must never do. Like, ever kind of never. There's no telling what could happen if he can't start them up again. We can't get him hooked up to an EEG and sensory monitors to see what happens to cortical activity at 'off' levels. What if he couldn't get the nerve impulses going again? Not like we can call triple A for a jump-start, you know. We're damned lucky he got it working again but this can't be allowed."

Simon stared in shock, amazed at the weight of Sandburg's responsibilities as 'guide' to the sentinel. "What did he say when you confronted him about that?" The answer was written all over the rookie's face. "You didn't address it yet?"

Blair examined the tips of his shoes. "No, I decided to wait until he was feeling better."

"Well, thanks for telling me. I guess it's something I never really thought of as a possibility."

Blair rose, unhappily. "Right, Captain. I'll, well, go see to things now."

"You know, maybe some exercise program he can do when he works out might help. As in running up and down his 'dials' or whatever you call them until it's more automatic? Seems a shame he has to have all that pain until he gets them down from over-stimulation."

Blair looked up, as much excited by the fact that Simon was trying to help in this aspect of their relationship, as he was by the idea itself. His face broadcast his joy at having this support in the sometimes thankless task of nursing along the gifts of a sentinel. "That's a great idea, Si..., uhm, Sir! Thanks for the ear and the help."

He waved a cheerful goodbye and left. Simon mused on the less than military manner of the exit and laughed to himself. The manuals didn't cover the response of a Captain to his team when they committed breaches of protocol like ... turning off their senses! He would be eligible for a commendation for creativity - if it were ever made public.

Blair made his way back to Jim's desk, intent upon dealing with the issue before he worked himself up into a full-blown anxiety attack. Typing industriously into his computer, Jim was enjoying the absence of pain and figured he could probably turn his hearing up another notch or so when he felt a breeze behind him. Recognizing it as the usual whirlwind kicked up by his hyperactive partner, he looked up to smile his appreciation for the aid and comfort provided him that morning. Instead, a look of consternation met him squarely from the usually benign features. That solemn look didn't bode well for his aid and comfort this afternoon.

"What's going on, Chief?"

"I want to talk to you, Jim, but not here. Let's go into the interrogation room since no one's using it this afternoon."

"You got a problem?"

"We have one. Let's go" Moving in the direction of the private area he'd selected, Blair trusted his partner would follow. He didn't want to ask for confirmation since refusal wasn't really a choice. He wasn't disappointed. Entering the room, he sat in one chair and waited for Jim to take the other, across the table from him.

Swallowing nervously, Blair cleared his throat and began. "Jim, I had to talk to Simon about this morning. Not just about why we're late but how you coped with your pain. He needed to know about it in case it ever happens again and it seems like something is wrong - that you lost the use of one of your senses. Or more."

Jim shifted irritably in his seat. He had known Blair would take a dim view of his extreme actions this morning, once he'd gotten around to thinking about it. But it wasn't his guide's pain to deal with after all. "That didn't have to be made public, Chief."

"Yes, it did. You made a bad choice this morning. One that could cost you the use of a sense, maybe endanger your life or someone else's. No one will ever expect to find you completely unreceptive to a form of sensory input. That a sense can actually be turned off. How could they be expected to look for such an occurrence if it happens again?"

Jim rose and paced tensely. "You don't understand. It isn't that simple. I'm not a machine that can just perform tricks for everyone and not pay a price!"

Blair knew his partner's anguish reflected his continued lack of acceptance of his gifts. "No one thinks this is easy for you, man, least of all me - why the hell am I with you day and night? You're the one treating yourself like a machine, thinking you can turn your senses on and off like a light bulb. I'm here to help you manage your gifts, to make sure they aren't a curse the majority of the time. But it can't always be a picnic, especially if you keep thinking about them as gadgets instead of real body parts that can be trained. Just like your muscles are trained when you work out in the gym."

Blair paused for breath and to revise his approach. "Yeah, you get the pain but you also get the gain. Only you get the rush of seeing eagles soar a mile away or the tart taste of newly baked green apples on your tongue. You get to experience life in a way none of us can. You also get to do things that bring extraordinary benefits to many people. It won't always be fun but it is NOT a freakin' curse. I think that with practice in management, instead of damage control, you can ..."

"It's my burden and when I hurt, I have to do whatever is necessary at the time. You just help me clean up the aftermath - I don't see you sharing the pain!"

Blair stared up at the man who had just relegated him to the role of a therapist; hell no, a maid, with the job of cleaning up after him while he did his thing on his own. It clarified a trend in their relationship that had been so disturbing to him over the past year, and pretty much decided the way things were heading. Okay, if that's what was needed to keep a functioning sentinel helping the community, that was going to be his lot in life.

"My mistake then," Blair stated, quietly but at a pitch matching the level he knew his friend, no - make that 'charge', was able to hear. "Let's get back to work. Just tell me when you need me then to take care of you. Speaking of taking care of people, I 'd better call Mrs. Oster and make sure she remembers the time of the doctor's appointment I'll be taking her to tomorrow." Blair left ahead of his 'Grail'. Incacha never mentioned this was a shaman's role. I must not be cut out for it.

Jim watched the despondent man exit the room. It wasn't like that; Mrs. Oster was a different case entirely! Following in Blair's wake, he bumped into an imposing figure leaving the observation corridor next to the interrogation room. Annoyed, he glared at the seeming invasion of his privacy, only to back into the room he'd just left as his Captain advanced upon him.

"This was a private matter, Captain." Jim's manner basically dared his superior to deny it.

"Private, Detective? Tell me, do you employ your senses in the service of your job in the Cascade PD?"

Knowing this had to be a trick question, Jim knew of no way to respond other than with the expected answer. "Yes, Sir."

"And who employs YOU?"

"The department does, Sir, under your command," was the wooden response.

Simon proceeded relentlessly. "And how is it arranged so you can function optimally in this manner?"

Jim's jaw set. "I am assigned a partner, Sir."

"Just any partner, Detective?"

"Of course not Simon, you know..."

"ELLISON!"

Jim drew himself up rigidly at the barking reminder of his position here. "Yes, Sir!"

"Just any partner?"

"No, Sir."

"Do you need a handler, like in the K-9 unit?" Simon noted that the expression on the offended man's face suddenly resembled the snarl of an angry police dog.

Restraining himself with difficulty, Jim gritted a response through clenched teeth. "No, Sir. And I must protest the nature of the question you just put to me, as demeaning!"

"Couldn't be more demeaning than the role you just handed your partner a minute ago, Detective. An offering to the 'cult of Ellison'. I'd sacrifice a virgin to you, assuming there were any to be found around here."

Shocked by the statement, Jim lost the thread of his outrage and finally started to think about how he'd treated his partner. No, how he'd treated his best friend because of his frustration at needing the assistance of a guide. Weakly, he sank back into the chair he'd vacated earlier. The chair in which he'd wallowed in bitterness at the straw he'd drawn in life's lottery. How the hell did this keep happening to him?

Simon saw, with great satisfaction, that his point had been made. He'd realized Blair had been unusually reluctant to deal with this episode so, when they'd left the Bullpen together, he'd followed instinctively. Debating the ethics of eavesdropping, it had turned into a 'command' decision; both men were his responsibility. And likely a good thing, too. The price of having the advantage of a sentinel on board might be too high for him and his men to pay if this kept up.

Jim struggled to emerge from this excursion into, well, self-pity was the only way to label it. He'd have kicked the ass of anyone who'd treated his best friend like the servant he'd just labeled him. "Fuck."

"That pretty much covers it, Detective." Simon's tone was unyielding and unsympathetic. He sure as hell wasn't going to tolerate this kind of shit from any subordinate, no matter how talented. Or should he say, 'misguided?' Blair still had a lot to learn, but damned if he knew how the two of them would work this out in the end!

"Well, Jim? Where do you want to do your groveling?"

Jim dropped his head into his hands. "How can I face him? Again."

"Squarely, like you've faced every other challenge. I don't know the cost to you of episodes like this morning but you'd better figure in the cost of the collateral damage you scatter in its wake before you make your choices. You're not the only one paying for it."

Jim drew himself back upright. "Yes, Sir. Would you send Sandburg back in, please?"

"Ask him yourself, Ellison. I'm not your errand boy." Simon turned on his heel and left the room.

Jim thought about Blair going back to the Bullpen to call his 'other charge' and check on her condition. He stood and suddenly kicked his chair across the room, the violent act making a satisfactory impact against the sheet rock of the opposite wall. It wasn't going to get easier, only more difficult if he treated himself as if he had some condition like his poor neighbor. He didn't want a nursemaid. But a guide implied he couldn't manage alone.

And the truth was ... he couldn't manage alone. It was time to stop fighting that fact. The walk back to the Bullpen seemed endless. Finally reaching Sandburg's desk, he placed a tentative hand on the man's shoulder. It was shrugged off, although Blair looked up dutifully.

"You need me, man?" The disappointment in his eyes was appalling.

"God, yes, Chief. God help me, I really do." His eyes pleaded for pardon.

"I'm here," was the dull response.

"No, not like that. Please, come back to the room with me and we can talk about it."

Blair studied his partner's face. Jim looked every day of his 39 years and beyond. He stood obediently. "Sure, man, whatever." Jim winced at the resignation in the tone of the usually ebullient man. He placed his arm around the smaller man's shoulders, refusing to acquiesce to the slight squirming motion that Blair made to reject the contact. He firmed up his grasp and they moved, together, down that hallway once again.

Arriving at their destination, Jim noticed that the observation room had been closed and locked. At least he still retained some measure of his Captain's trust. The pair entered and sat in their previous positions, Jim knowing this was a crossroads.

"Fear-based responses."

That got Blair's attention. The hurt in his eyes was replaced by one of wary interest.

Encouraged, Jim continued. "You were right. I understand that now. The ultimate fear of being dependent. Like Mrs. Oster might be on her son. You know, Simon saw us earlier and asked me if I needed a handler like a dog in the K-9 unit."

Blair bolted from his chair like a miniature missile. "That son-of-a-bitch! He can't talk to you that way!"

Jim permitted himself a smile of immense relief that his best friend had not lost all regard for him. Still wanted to defend him. "No, but he did. And maybe you should have, too. I ... deserved it. It keeps coming back to my resenting that I can't do this alone. I'm not rejecting the friend, but maybe I'm rejecting the 'guide' because it's still a form of dependency. Like you said, we can get better control of it than I had this morning. I just have to stop fighting them ... and you."

Blair stopped in his nervous pacing and started putting the pieces together. Jim may have relapsed into old patterns but he, himself had caved in as well to habits established during years of padding after his nomadic mother. "Not your fau ... shit; yeah it's your fault! But I also make it easier for you to do that when I act like some 'groupie' or something. Sycophant Sandburg."

"No, not like a groupie. But, just maybe, like someone who doesn't want to be left behind. Fear-based responses, Chief?"

They stared at each other until grins slowly replaced these old anxieties, which should have been vanquished by now. Grins tinged with guilt at tripping over the same obstacles again and again.

"Well, I guess that leaves you with two choices, man."

Jim braced himself against what was to come. "Okay."

"Do you want to be Lassie or Rin Tin Tin?" Blair laughed outright at Jim's expression of relief at the humor, followed by outrage at the content.

Jim responded with the obligatory threat that statement deserved. "Do you want to live to see thirty?" He rose and approached his partner, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I just want my best friend back, my partner back. As for being guide or shaman - whatever you need to be or become for us to be complete is okay with me. I'm so sorry, Chief."

The recognition of his role, which he'd nearly relinquished without a fight, left Blair unable to speak. He settled for a smile of relief and acceptance.

*********************
Thursday, 11:30 A.M.; the Bullpen:

The partners were busy at their desks, occasionally glancing up at one another with self-conscious grins or shy smiles. Their evening had been spent shoulder to shoulder, Jim watching the game and Blair happily devising exercises for his mildly apprehensive partner. Still, Jim had enjoyed the playful way in which Blair had made a show of hiding his notes from curious glances, occasionally giving out a 'mad scientist' kind of laugh to rib him. It had been a good evening. They'd finally pinpointed a common Achilles' heel in their relationship, although it wasn't possible to alter the past events which had led to their insecurities. Still, they could be responsible for ensuring those events didn't cripple their futures.

"You gonna finish the Bayer report, Jim? I'm heading out for a couple of hours." At his partner's blank look, Blair supplied further details. "You remember. Mrs. Oster's doctor appointment?"

"Oh, right, I remember now. You sure her son shouldn't be doing this?"

"Nope. I know this woman ..."

"Of course you do, Chief."

"...who is a gerontologist. The elderly need different strategies for certain health problems than traditional doctors may have studied. So I called her son about seeing one but all he said was that his mother had a perfectly good internist who takes Medicare.

"Insurance issue, huh? That's kind of cold. Her son makes a good living, doesn't he?"

"Yeah but to be fair, I don't think Mrs. O has been really honest with him about her problems. She's afraid of what might happen if she can't take care of herself anymore. Not sure why they can't talk about it honestly."

"What do you think this visit is going to accomplish? And are you paying for it?" Jim looked sharply at his partner, knowing his new paycheck didn't go very far after school loans, car payments and living expenses were deducted.

Blair looked very busy all of a sudden. "Ah, there's my backpack! Gotta run, Big Guy. See ya later."

Jim expected to see skid marks on the floor where the sneakers had done a wheelie before carrying the kid out the Bullpen doorway. 'Sneakers? Simon will kill him if he sees those." Jim started at the ringing of the phone. "Ellison."

"Jim, how are you doing?" Naomi's distinctive voice was another shock.

"Just fine, Naomi. Good to hear your voice. Are you in town?" He tried his best to keep the instinctive wariness out of his tone.

"No, I'm in Santa Fe. Is Blair there?"

"No, he took the afternoon off to do a good deed for an elderly neighbor."

"That's my Sweetie. But I'm glad he's out because I wanted to talk to you about his birthday."

"Oh, right, the big three-oh is coming up for him in a couple of weeks."

"Yes, and I'll be coming in that evening but only for the dinner or party or whatever you're planning for him. I have a gift for him that kind of has to be delivered in person."

Warning bells began ringing that had nothing to do with the church bells starting their familiar cadence down the block. "Blair will be disappointed that you won't be in for longer."

"Well, I can come back for a full week in July but I have some commitments through the next couple of months. What do you have planned?"

"I was planning on talking to some of the guys here at work about a party for him. What do you think he'd like, Naomi? And what are you giving him?"

"Sorry, Jim. That's classified information for now. But he'll be very surprised, no doubt about that."

"Do you need to ship it in advance? I can have it go to Simon's to keep it a secret."

"No, it doesn't take up any space," was the vague response.

"Well, I'll tell Blair about your plans and let you know where the dinner will be. I'll be planning it this weekend." It was only May twelfth, plenty of time to make plans for the twenty-fourth.

"Great, Jim. Tell Blair I'm sorry this visit will be a rush job but I couldn't miss seeing him altogether this year. Gotta go, kiss him for me." The line clicked before Jim could express his preference that she wait to deliver the kiss in person.

*********************
Waiting room at Claren Geriatric Center:

"Please don't be so nervous, Mrs. Oster," Blair pleaded. "My friend is a doctor here and she's told me all about how some memory problems are signs of very correctable conditions. Your troubles sound a lot like those kinds of things. Even your regular doctor said this consult was a really good idea."

There were dark rings around the elderly woman's eyes. Blair knew she didn't sleep much because of a frequent cough. It had even been bothering Jim periodically. "I know it's foolish but I couldn't sleep last night for nerves about this. What if they tell me I have Alzheimer's?" Her chin trembled faintly.

"The results of the blood work your internist took in preparation for this exam will be in by now and it's most likely not going to be anything like that. You're not going anywhere. You think Jim and I would let our source for the greatest brownies ever made leave our orbit?"

Her answering smile faded as a nurse came in to usher Mrs. Oster into the inner offices for her examination. Blair stood to help her to her feet. "I'll be right out here and the nurse will let me know when to come in to be with you when the results of your exam are discussed."

**************************
The Bullpen:

It was lunchtime and Jim was enjoying some roast beef from the local deli, as he began working on the invitations to Blair's thirtieth birthday party. Blair's absence was made evident to all and sundry by the large plate of French fries sitting next to the club sandwich.

------------------
From: Ellison@CPD.net

To: MCGrp@CPD.net

Subject: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 12:10 P.M.

Hello Major Crimes group. An incredible milestone is coming up. Blair comes of age, at least chronologically. You have to help us celebrate. What say we get together at 7 P.M. on the 24th at Wei Sing's restaurant on Lambeth street? The variety of foods is wide enough for all your fussy appetites and the cost won't break a cop's budget. This way you can all save enough to get the rookie a special gift (hint, hint). Get back to me by next Thursday.

Ellison
-----------------

Jim settled back to make some serious inroads on his lunch. It wasn't long before his screen blinked at the arrival of an answering email. Most of the department checked their email around lunchtime.

----------------
From: S-Banks@NWBell.com

To: Ellison@CPD.net

Subject: Re: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 12:17

Jim, PLEASE don't use the departmental email system for personal topics. You can still access your home account via your computer during your breaks without leaving a record of personal messages on the drive that can be found in a departmental review. That is AGAINST our policies as I have explained patiently, time and time again.

You bet your ass I'll be there. My home account is listed above. What is your home account? I don't think I've ever emailed you at home before.

Simon
--------------------------
From: Panther@NWBell.com

To: S-Banks@NWBell.com

Subject: Re: Re: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 12:32

Sorry Cap, but I hate to use this email address. My own, dignified J_Ellison address was changed by a vandal at some point last week. He left a long brown hair on the keyboard as evidence and I was about to have it matched for DNA, when I was able to collar the perp and sweat a confession out of him. He hasn't changed it back yet though. I'd like to keep it off of these email exchanges if you don't mind. Glad you're aboard on the birthday thing. As for discussing departmental policies patiently, well that is another story altogether...

Ellison
---------------------------
From: S-Banks@NWBell.com

To: Panther@NWBell.com, Rhonda5@Verizon.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 12:45

What kind of trick is that, fooling with your email account? How will people be able to get you if Blair just up and changes your email address? I'd clobber Daryl if he did that to me! Well, anyway, if you need help with anything, Rhonda said she'd be available to organize matters. She can put together mass emails using everyone's HOME accounts for future exchanges on this among other things. Our luck, some cyber stalker will go after you! The brass and IA would enjoy going though your computer and finding birthday emails.

Simon

P.S. Too bad about the panther email address going public. Live with it.
-----------------------------
From: Panther@NWBell.com

To: S-Banks@NWBell.com, Rhonda5@Verizon.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 1:10

Simon,

Thanks, it would be great to have Rhonda's help with this. I want this milestone to be really special for Blair. And, well, no one actually has the panther email address - I don't use email at home. The little twerp is trying to set me up with some social groups or something like that and give me an interesting identity. He'll be lucky if I let him make it to 31.

Ellison
----------------------------------
From: Rhonda5@Verizon.com

To: Panther@NWBell.com

Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Blair's 30th Birthday Bash

Date: Thurs, 12 May 1:20

Dear Panther,

Got all the info here and will wrap everyone's email address within this group name - MCHome@Verizon.net The restaurant is faxing me their catering menu. If you take care of the finances/collections, I'll keep a tally of the acceptances as they come in. What do you think Blair would like for a gift? And BTW, I like your email address name, seems to fit you...

Rhonda
*********************
Claren Geriatric Center:

Dr. Regina Ferrier smiled gently at the woman sitting nervously next to Blair. His hand rested lightly, reassuringly, upon Mrs. Oster's shoulder. They sat before the physician's desk for this post-exam conference. The doctor was always glad to deliver positive news and be able to help stem the tide of aging whenever possible.

"Please relax, Mrs. Oster. I have only good news for you today." Blair patted a hand which relaxed suddenly, no longer tremulous with agitation. He beamed his own relief before taking out a pad and pencil from his backpack to take notes on the specifics.

Regina continued. "Your cough is a common side effect of the blood pressure medication you're taking. I'll call your internist to let him know it ought to be changed. And while there are always changes in our brains which occur as we get older and affect memory, you show clear signs of pernicious anemia. That is a fancy term for iron and folic acid deficiencies that are known to cause problems with concentration and memory. It can be treated with vitamin supplements and some dietary adjustments written on this sheet you can take home with you. I am also thinking your thyroid is a bit on the low side, although nothing serious at this time. Some natural aids to boost your production of that hormone will do the trick and might also help with your memory problems. Overall, you're quite healthy, Mrs. Oster, and your internist can monitor a lot of these things for you during your regular visits.

A single tear rolled down a lined cheek. The pleasures of a hard-won retirement were still there to be enjoyed. A steadier, veined hand was now placed atop the smooth, youthful knuckles of the young man beside her. The grip was strong and expressed a wealth of gratitude.

****************************
Friday, 6:15 P.M.; the Loft:

The long work-week had come to a close and both men were off for the weekend. Blair sat down to eat his half of a chicken he'd roasted with a coating of spices in orange sauce. Since Jim was going out for the evening, he'd made a side dish of vegetables that the older man generally rejected, not liking the smell or taste of Brussels sprouts. Jim wasn't crazy about any of the cruciferous vegetables, come to think of it. Perhaps there was some link to sulfur...

"Earth to Sandburg!" Jim watched his roommate start at the sound of his voice and drop some revolting specimen of a vegetable onto the floor. Something that was round, green and rolled a heck of a long way, leaving an odoriferous trail someone would have to clean up. Likely, himself.

"Klotz", he chided as he tore off a paper towel and stooped to track the traveling sprout.

"Huh?"

"I was commenting on your clumsiness." Jim's voice was muffled as he bent over the floor tiles.

"That's 'klutz', you linguistic lummox. It's a very commonly used word these days. And why are you washing the floor? You have a date."

"Just wiping up the trail from your stinky vegetable. You wouldn't be able to see it."

"I doubt I would even think to look for it. The cookbook said nothing about Brussels sprouts leaving pheromone trails like ants." Blair was the recipient of what he considered to be the 'evil Ellison eye', reserved for various and sundry household infractions.

"You know I hate the smell of Brussels sprouts."

"That's why I'm having them now - you aren't eating here."

"Maybe you'd consider eating them in restaurants instead of the house?" A hopeful look accompanied the request.

"Can't, because then you complain about it during your meal if you're across the table. You know, I've been thinking about how you seem to hate sulfur containing foods. We don't know if you're allergic to sulfa drugs, haven't come across them so maybe we could experiment with..."

"No tests this weekend, Chief. Just in case tonight's first, turns into a second." He hadn't told Blair the name of his date tonight. They'd agreed only to mention people who survived the first date rituals to make it into the second round. Too much material for teasing there and a mutually sore subject to boot. When a second date was vetoed by the woman in question, it was best to allow the customary 'crash and burn' blues to remain a private matter.

"Okay, but we need to look into this. I've been researching the problem which indicates ..."

"That you have too much time on your hands. Enough, Betty Crocker. I'll order some greens tonight in your honor, okay?"

Blair grinned, knowingly. "Sure you will. But green salsa for your nachos doesn't count as 'green' vegetable intake. And we WILL examine this, since certain aspects of nutrition might make it easier for you to maintain your senses in better order." Blair had had an informal consultation with Reggie the previous day over a late lunch, after taking Mrs. Oster home. "You're at the stage where you need to begin bolstering your anti-aging capacities."

The look directed at him did not bode well for a peaceful weekend. "Well, okay - another time, man." Blair attacked his orange chicken again. Since Jim looked at it approvingly, and he had cleaned up after the Brussels sprout airdrop, Blair graciously informed him that leftovers were already in the fridge for his lunch tomorrow.

"Thanks, Chief." Jim pocketed his keys and wallet, taking a last look at himself in the mirror by the entryway.

As this was only a first date, Blair refrained from commenting on Jim's choice of shirts, the pale blue one that matched his eyes and blended into the deeper blue of a rather expensive, V necked over-sweater. This indicated Jim had hopes for this rendezvous. It was generally his third date selection. Sheesh, we're spending way too much time together if I know that! "Have a good time, dear."

Blair wound up with a nose full of orange sauce as an unexpected head swat moved him forward into a fork full of his main entree. "Ugh!" Damn, the man moved fast.

"Be grateful you don't have a Brussels sprout up your nose, Darwin. Oh, almost forgot." Jim bent over and pressed a light kiss to a hair covered forehead. "That's from your mother," he said, dryly. They'd discussed Naomi's call and her impending birthday visit the previous day. "And for taking care of Mrs. Oster. You'd better freeze those brownies, Chief. Too many for us to eat before they get stale. Night!"

*****************
Monday, 10:17 A.M.; the Bullpen:

Jim relaxed into his boss's couch, a contented man. The weekend had been rewarding to say the least. A second date to come with a pleasant woman, a relaxed best friend and his new workout regimen was working out fine. It now boasted sensory tasks he could do while performing his arm curls, leg lifts and other assorted exercises. His guide had forbidden him to do any while bench pressing, given the risks of dropping something heavy on his chest if he became distracted, but otherwise the tasks had made the exercises more challenging. Obviously his sensory control would only get better if practiced while engaged in other activities. After all, a person's attention was usually divided between multiple tasks while sensory stimulation was processed automatically. Might as well try to make enhanced reception automatic as well. As he got older, sensory control would get harder if not honed carefully at this stage of his life.

His attention was abruptly re-directed to the lady in front of him when she nudged his knee.

"Let's go over this again, Jim." Rhonda's voice evidenced the patient tone women offer to children under all circumstances and to men, when discussing domestic issues.

"You want sweet and pungent shrimp as an entree, not an appetizer."

"Right."

"And you want lobster Cantonese as an entree along with garlic chicken?

"Right."

"That's mixing entrees from the Polynesian menu with the Chinese and Szechuan menus. You can't do that."

"Why not - they make them all in the same restaurant, don't they?"

"Not the point. You can have the shrimp as an appetizer along with another Polynesian dish and then shift to another menu for entrees but you can't mix entrees or the bill will reflect a la carte charges and..." She looked at the expression of mild puzzlement on the tall detective's face and sighed heavily. "The costs will be outrageous. Why don't you let me arrange how you can have all your preferences without breaking everyone's piggy bank, okay?"

"You're a doll to do that but it really is my responsibility."

"Please, let me take care of it, it's my pleasure." The tone was a bit more acerbic than the words would indicate but Ellison knew how to quit while he was ahead.

"Thank you, this will mean a lot to Sandburg." He smiled with a pretended air of abstraction and looked up as Simon entered the room. "We'd better break this up for now."

Rhonda gathered up the menus they'd been studying and retired to her own area to complete the task of arranging the catering for Sandburg's party.

As Simon poured them both coffee, he inquired as to the progress being made for the party. "Looks like you have a lot of people accepting, Jim. How was your conference with Rhonda?"

"Well, Captain, the selection of dishes is so complicated that I just couldn't get it all straight." Jim managed to get that out breaking into the smug grin he was wearing internally.

"And Rhonda is going to bail you out?" Simon mentally applauded the clever man before him.

"It is a great relief to me, Sir. She's a gift to the department." His eyes might have been crinkling a bit at the edges.

"Thank heaven they don't trust us to know how to take care of anything that doesn't involve a wrench and PVC pipes. Saves us a hell of a lot of time, doesn't it Detective?"

"Bless'em all, Sir." Raising their mugs simultaneously, they silently toasted the gullibility of women everywhere.

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

"Hey Rhonda, how are the party plans going?" Megan offered her a chip from a recent raid on the vending machines.

"About what you'd figure. Ellison played dumb about how to mix and match the various menus from the restaurant so I would effect his 'rescue'."

"Good on you, luv. He was the last guy in the place who didn't owe you a favor. So you managed to get him in debt to you and also ensured this party would come in under budget while avoiding too many identical, spicy dishes and bad beer."

They both crunched their chips in silent communion over the malleability of men everywhere.

*********************
Friday, 5:30 P.M.; the Loft:

Blair put his backpack and a bag of groceries onto the floor, so he could hang up the jacket that hadn't really been needed in the warm sunshine of this May afternoon. Turning towards the living room, he saw Mrs. Oster seated on the couch with Jim, laughing merrily at his dry wit.

"Blair!" She rose to greet the young man responsible for her newfound sense of well-being.

Delighted to see her looking so well, Blair hugged her warmly. "You look wonderful, Mrs. Oster! No circles under your eyes. Did you sneak out for cosmetic surgery when we weren't looking?"

"You know better than that! It's wonderful to sleep soundly again without that awful coughing. And I'm using the timers but haven't had to wait for them to go off to remember something's on the stove."

Jim had risen out of good manners when his neighbor had gotten up to greet Blair and came forward. "Well I can think of someone who's forgotten something." He nodded at the hazards still occupying the floor. "But Blair's going to be thirty years old next week so I guess it‘s no use making him stand in the corner."

"Would you like to come to my birthday party, Mrs. Oster? It's going to be at the Chinese restaurant on Lambeth on the 24th. You can bring your son with you." Blair hoped to meet the man and find out the source of his elderly friend's reluctance to acknowledge any need for help from her family.

"I ... I'll ask Gabriel if he'd like to go with me. It's been awhile since he was out this way. But I can't promise anything."

"That's fine. And thanks again for the brownies. We froze them so we could enjoy them longer. My turn to cook tonight. Wanna keep me company in the kitchen, Mrs. O?" Blair retrieved the items on the floor, winked at his roommate and went to start dinner.

Jim left them chatting amiably and jotted down a few additional names of people whom Blair might like to see at his party. Flipping the pages of the phone book, he looked up the numbers, still disappointed that many of Blair's former colleagues at Rainier continued to avoid him. Nonetheless, he'd had a good conversation with Professor Stoddard. It was the end of May and some semester-end decision making was ongoing. Blair had finished writing the paper that might still be his ticket to that PhD but he still avoided all references to the University. There was no mistaking the issues still hanging over him, adding unwanted pressures to his already full plate of novel experiences and responsibilities as a rookie cop. Jim went upstairs to his bedroom to make the additional calls in private.

The insistent ringing of his cell phone finally forced Blair to rinse and dry his hands in order to answer it. "I don't know why they won't leave a message ... Hello? Yes, this is Blair. Oh, Gabriel! Yes, your mom is with me and she's fine. Oh, sure, that's understandable. Hang on a sec - Mrs. O, your son was worried when he couldn't get you for the past two hours. Says you're always home by this time of day."

Taking her nod for affirmation of her son's claims and concerns, Blair returned to Gabriel. "She was just visiting with us and keeping me company while I cooked dinner... Okay, I'll tell her but you really ought to come by and speak with her about it yourself. Hey, my meatloaf will be ready in half an hour, come and have dinner with your Mom and me and my roommate. There's plenty." Blair turned away from Mrs. Oster's frantic gestures. "Great, yeah, 307. Okay, bye." Turning back to his neighbor, he encountered a delicate index finger waving right under his nose.

"Blair, that wasn't very nice." She was torn between her gratitude for his attentions and her righteous anger over his presumption. "I'm sure your mother taught you better than that."

"I wouldn't bet on that, Mrs. Oster." Jim's voice was disapproving as he entered the kitchen. Blair mentally kicked himself. Of course the guy had heard everything. Clearly a bit of backpedaling was in order.

"Hey, nobody likes old meatloaf so, like, the more the merrier for dinner tonight, right?" The audience appeared unconvinced. "Or not. It's time for us to get acquainted with Gabriel, invite him to my party next week and I have my notes from the gerontologist to give him ..."

"Please, Mrs. Oster. If you don't forgive him for this, he'll never stop talking. I can testify to that, so let's limit the damage now to our ear drums." Jim looked at her entreatingly. "And we can take away his dessert tonight for his bad behavior."

"Hey, I bought rugalach for us!"

Two sets of confused eyes fell upon him.

"It's this Jewish-Hungarian pastry cookie type thing, really good stuff."

Jim took Mrs. Oster's elbow and gently tugged. "Why don't we go into the living room and leave him to his own devices?" The exasperated woman smiled her consent and moved off with him, Blair still going on about ethnic pastries as he began to rinse the salad fixings.

As they left the kitchen, Jim tossed a last comment at his wayward pal. "Chief, consider yourself in 'time out'." He then choked at the outrageous remarks the kid whispered, regarding paternalistic sentinels, their antecedents and personal habits. Straightening his lips, Jim settled his guest into the most comfortable seat in the house. They conversed to ease her nervousness while awaiting her son's arrival.

Dinner started off somewhat awkwardly but Blair soon had everyone laughing over tales of his studies among various indigenous peoples of the Southern Hemisphere. He glossed over details of survival, often made difficult by harsh conditions and limited resources. Instead, he told stories about the extended families with whom he'd lived and studied.

Gabriel fell for it, hook, line and sinker. Blair was pretty sure Mrs. Oster was following things just fine though, and avoided direct eye contact with her. Jim made up for Blair's cowardice by increasing his own attentiveness to the elderly woman.

They then talked about the gerontology consultation over coffee and the infamous rugalach. Mrs. Oster made a show of relenting and allowing Blair to have his share. Now relaxed, she elaborated upon her new medical regimens and the early successes she was experiencing with them. Gabriel's happiness was entirely unfeigned, if somewhat mitigated by frustration.

"I just don't know why you didn't share all these details with me about your problems."

"Gabe, honey, every time we talked, it seemed another of your friends was placing one of their parents in some kind of home." Tears glistened in her eyes as she began to reveal her deepest fears. "We can't afford those fancy assisted living facilities and the other 'homes' are just places where people are stored before they die."

"I told you those stories so you would want to have more contact with me, Annie and the kids while we're all still strong and healthy. I couldn't understand why you didn't want me bringing the kids over so much anymore."

"I was afraid to baby-sit for them in case I forgot something important like the oven and someone got hurt. I was also too tired to take them out to the park and they would have been so restless cooped up in my place. It hurt me so much to say no, but I was afraid if I explained ..."

"Mom, it seemed like we would be intruding. I'm so sorry I didn't just come over and hash it all out with you. It must have been so frightening for you." Gabriel turned his chair towards his mother and hugged her firmly. "Listen, Annie and I were talking about adding on an extension to the house; you know, they call them 'in-law' apartments. We figured if you didn't want it someday, we could always rent it out for more income and it'll be there for the kids if they stick around locally for college. You stay here as long as you like and decide if, or when, you want to come to us. In the meantime, you tell us when you feel up to visits and sleepovers from the kids - we want them to know you. We don't want to be like the other families on the block."

*************************
Tuesday, May 24 8:00 P.M.; Wei Sing's Restaurant:

Blair was beaming at the sincere joy expressed by all who'd come to celebrate this milestone with him. His acceptance among these people was still a source of wonder to him but he was coming to feel it could be counted upon, for the 'long run‘. His mother was by his side and getting the opportunity to see for herself that he'd been blessed with real friends. They were all eating buffet style and groups mingled, broke up and reformed in relaxed enjoyment of everyone's company.

Blair couldn't recall seeing groups gather like this without some competition or sign of exclusivity developing...Knock it off, Sandburg. You're not studying societies this evening. The mental head swat broke off his reminiscing. He was still too young to be doing that! After checking on the comfort of Mrs. O and her son, happily sharing a plate of egg foo yung, he made his way back to the MC crowd.

"Hey Blair, any trauma here about hitting three-Oh?" Rafe had experienced some of that himself after reaching the age where youth mistakenly feels their best years may be behind them.

"Well, when I was young," Blair began, pointedly ignoring the snickers of his elders, "…I thought a lot of people over thirty lost their curiosity and well, flexibility of thinking. But I started looking at cultures other than Americans and found many revered elder members of the group or at least wanted to share their wisdom. So, no trauma. If anything, relief since CERTAIN parties, who shall remain nameless, will now have to accept that I am a mature adult and should be treated as such." He turned mock glares upon his partner and boss.

Jim ignored 'the look'. "Does this mean I can't call you 'Junior' any more?"

"That's a big ten-four, Big Guy."

"Right then." Jim approached the honoree of the evening and drew him close for a bear hug. Holding him back to view him at arms length, he gave one of his rarest, broadest smiles. "Happy birthday, Chief." A burst of applause had the subject of all this attention, blushing crimson. Embarrassed himself, Jim decided the moment was propitious to excuse himself to the men's room.

Naomi cleared her throat emphatically as people turned to engage in the small group conversations that parties usually broke into. "Blair, I have to give you your gift in private now - I really have to get going and this is very important." She held an envelope in her hand and drew him to a corner behind a curtain, which separated the rest rooms from the catering rooms.

"I'm all ears, Mom."

"Open this envelope, Sweetie."

The paper that emerged from the crisp, white envelope was somewhat smudged and yellowed with age and travel. It was titled, 'Birth Certificate' for one Blair Jacob Sandburg and dated May 24...1971.

"Happy twenty-eighth birthday, Blair. I am bringing you the gift of youth - another two years. I thought you would best enjoy them at this stage of your life rather than when you were twenty-one or so. You know they say youth is wasted on the young..."

"What?"

"I know this is a big surprise, but I had to see you tonight and let you know the truth. Few people get to do things over again but you get two years to do over!"

"What?"

Jim exited the men's room, encountering his partner looking as ... dumbfounded as anyone could ever be. That was not an expression he was accustomed to seeing on his friend's face. Unsure about his welcome to this tête-à-tête, he wavered between slipping away and offering help. Obviously, the latter choice would entail a trip into the Sandburg Zone. Maturation alone was not going to make such excursions disappear as long as Naomi was in evidence.

Confused at Blair's lack of delight in her gift, Naomi enlisted Jim to help bring her son around. Blair was unlikely to keep any secrets from him anyway. Wordlessly, she took the birth certificate from her son's hands and placed it in Jim's. He read the document carefully.

"What?"

Wondering if acquiring a badge automatically led to a decrease in vocabulary and abstraction skills, Naomi tried again. "Perhaps if I explained the history a bit more clearly?"

Two heads nodded in hope, simultaneously.

"Blair, honey, you were the best thing that ever happened to me, but you happened in 1971. It rapidly became clear that you were a bright star among babies. You spoke at eight months, walked at ten months and were reading by two and a half years, at least simple words in baby books. It was very hard to keep you adequately stimulated, particularly when I had to work. People just found it, well, exhausting. So, I had a copy made of your birth certificate and altered it by a year so you could go into preschool for four year olds when you were still three. And you entered kindergarten at four. You simply needed the enrichment and, well, I couldn't get most day care facilities to keep you for very long. It was all for the best, sweetie."

Jim did a bit of mental arithmetic and it still added up to confusion. "That only accounts for one year, Naomi. What about the next one? And which grades did he skip?" A glance revealed Blair still blinking at this sojourn into the alternate universe that had apparently been his life.

"Yes, well. Blair skipped third grade because of his test scores and skills without our having to play any age progression games. However, it was obvious he was headed for further skipped years in school and I was worried about his social acceptance. So, when he was in the fourth grade, and all the other kids were celebrating their tenth and eleventh birthdays that year, I held a tenth birthday party for Blair in May of 1979.

Blair looked up at his mother, suddenly seeing the truth in her expression. It was a mixture of sly enjoyment with a bit of guilt mixed in as well, if he read her right. "Oh, yeah, I remember asking you when I'd turned nine and you said I skipped that with the last grade. Or something weird like that." It sounded lame now that he'd said it aloud but hell; it had to be an upgrade from 'what?'

Jim turned an incredulous look upon his brilliant partner who appeared to have lost a year without comment.

Blair defended himself. "Hey! You think a kid is going to care about his age when he suddenly catches up with his friends? Well, okay, I might have wondered but it was an advantage. And we didn't have anyone asking questions about it because then we took off for Europe and I was home schooled that year. Naomi! That's when you altered the certificate again to 1969! We went back to the US the next year and you put me in sixth grade."

"How unfortunate that the records of your prior schooling had been lost on our trip."

"Meaning you re-created them for the next place."

"And then I took you to New York because they had that accelerated program, allowing you to combine seventh, eight and ninth grades all in two years."

"Right, and you were away for one of them. Hey, Jim - those were my 'respectable' childhood years. Or traditional if you will. I stayed with cousins and had like, a regular time of it. Weird."

When did I completely lose track of this conversation? Jim had the feeling the threads of time had just unraveled.

"Holy cow! I had my Bar Mitzvah when I was only eleven!"

Jim shook his head in confusion. "Can they revoke your adult status for that?" Am I really uttering sentences like this? "Never mind that question. So you were only fourteen when you started Rainier?"

Blair thought back and did the math. "That's right. I entered high school as a senior in September of ‘85 but we decided I might as well graduate in January. Just had to double up on my English classes since I'd taken everything else already and passed all the Regents exams." Blair was momentarily overcome by the incredible feat he'd been expected to perform - independence at fourteen. No wonder he'd been so small and so easily rejected by the crowd. Not different from Alec in a way. Thank all deities for Eli Stoddard's intervention.

Jim was thinking along much the same lines. The responsibilities thrust upon that poor kid. Naomi had provided him with the necessary supports for his intellect at the expense of his social and emotional growth.

Both men looked at Naomi solemnly, not sure they shared her enthusiasm for returning two years of Blair's life to him. Years that should not have been taken to begin with.

Old habits reasserted themselves however, and Blair hugged his mother.

"Naomi, I have to process this for awhile. It is a lot to take in and, oh shit Jim; I have to take care of the legal issues for the job, DMV - sheesh, is anyone going to be mad at me? And all the guys out there are here to celebrate my thirtieth!"

Hyperventilation threatened and Jim stepped in immediately. "Sandburg! It's okay, no one is going to care that your old birth certificate was found. Many copied documents confuse dates from blurring or stains, whatever. Besides, you never pretended to be someone you aren't. No foul here." A venomous glance at Naomi indicated he felt there had been a foul but no one commented on that. Blair's breathing returned to a marginally frenetic level.

"Well, Sweetie, I have to run. A cab should be waiting outside to take me to the red eye for the East Coast. I love you, happy birthday and make sure you use your years wisely." A glance at Jim, however involuntary it may have been, still indicated some disapproval. She recovered with a swift kiss to each man and then was gone.

Like a hit and run. Jim thought sourly as he and Blair stood and stared at one another. This was becoming a bad habit. Jim expressed it succinctly. "Somewhere, there are people living normal lives. We ought to go find some and just beg for entrance to their city. You know the 'We come in peace' line from every sci-fi movie."

"Yeah, sure, youbetcha."

The towering figure of their Captain approached them. Simon was looking jovial; no doubt the result of several beers. "Hey! Where's Naomi? And what did she give you, Blair, assuming it's not a secret?"

"Two years."

"What?"

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

The room was theirs until closing time and it was time to open the gifts. Blair was somewhat overwhelmed by the generosity of his friends, notwithstanding the gag gifts among them. Those were equally precious to him, indicating their fondness for him.

"Hey guys ... and gals! I want to thank you for coming tonight. It is so incredibly kind of you all. It will make for warm memories on cold nights when I'm twice this age or beyond. But I have to make a confession to you right now in case you want some of these gifts back - I just learned you are all here under false pretenses. Well, that's really redundant since there aren't any true pretenses but still..."

A light swat to the back of his head from his exasperated partner had them all cracking up. "Never mind that, Einstein. Just share your earlier gift with everyone and spare us the English lesson." The wide, genuine smile on Jim's face relaxed the company who were beginning to worry about making some side trip into the Sandburg Zone. However, Jim's manner reassured them this trip would be a reasonably harmless journey. Still, the room went quiet, in expectations borne of experience with this unusual young man.

"Gotcha, partner. Ladies and Gentleman, my mother just gave me my real birth certificate. It appears that I have been laboring under the assumption that I turned thirty today. In fact, tonight I have turned twenty-eight so if anyone here wishes to take back a gift and hold it for another two years, speak now or forever hold your peace."

A somewhat shocked silence gripped the audience until Jim broke the tension. "Which means, my friends, that I allowed a pipsqueak of twenty-three to boss me around when I first met this guy!"

Blair joined the crowd in their amusement at the mental picture that painted.

Jim continued. "And I can't imagine what my life would be like now if he hadn't barged in, full steam ahead, and taken it over. Of course, I've been in complete control of the situation since that time ...," Jim had to wait until the hysteria that led to died down, '... and hope to complete the housebreaking of my partner sometime within the next couple of decades." He hoped his comedy routine would let the speculation die down about the age confusion and eradicate Blair's continuing shock over the situation.

Blair opened the gag gifts first, which included an energizer bunny to grace Blair's desk. Next came a step stool with his name engraved on it for use in the file room, where he usually tottered alarmingly on chairs in order to reach certain records. A small parachute, to be worn when climbing on it, accompanied that gift. His fear of heights was also well known to these people, yet accepted.

A custom Kevlar vest was very welcome since it was hard to find any in his size. Covered in flannel, it matched his favorite shirt. "Now you have no excuse to avoid putting it on!" his boss growled. The vest was Simon's gift to the rookie, who was so often made uncomfortable by the department's ill-fitting, protective gear.

A genuine, Native American headdress appeared next with the word "Chief" emblazoned upon it. This was followed by several packages of assorted hair ties and a cap that resembled a bald skull. The accompanying card said, "For going undercover".

Jim handed Blair a package to open from him. The large square box turned out to be a set of elegant, leather desk accessories for use at the station and a gold pen with the inscription, "Today I am a Man - 30". "Just don't use the pen for another two years, Junior!" Blair covered his face in mock embarrassment as Jim added the aside, "I'm so glad I get to call him that for another couple of years yet."

A knock was heard and the assembled company turned to see an elderly man enter the room. He was tall and distinguished looking despite a slight, scholarly stoop to his shoulders.

"Dr. Stoddard!" Blair was beside himself with delight at the man's appearance. "I can't believe you came. Jim, pull over a chair for the Professor. Everyone, this is Professor Eli Stoddard from Rainier, my mentor, teacher and friend." Light applause followed that announcement and expectation built once again.

Eli beamed his approval of his young friend and settled his raincoat on the seat while remaining upright. "Happy birthday, Blair. I have an envelope for you, that I wanted you to have this evening."

Blair laughed uncertainly. "Not another envelope, Professor. I've had my fill for tonight!"

Eli laughed heartily when offered the explanation behind that odd statement. He was, however, a bit puzzled at the degree of hilarity raised by his surprised statement, "And to think I let a fourteen year old run me in circles." However, he allowed that noise to die down and reassured his student. "I think you'll change your mind about this envelope when you see the contents." It was duly handed over and Blair scanned it rapidly.

Tears rushed to his eyes and Blair feared he would be unable to read it aloud. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, the words grew clearer but his voice still failed him. Mutely, he handed the paper to his own 'guide', a man who had taken a frightened 14 year old and helped him become a scholar. Eli's wisdom, wrapped in simplicity, had been comforting and led him to intellectual independence. That beloved voice now read the contents of the letter to the assembled company.

"Blair Sandburg is requested to attend a meeting of the PhD committee of the Rainier Anthropology Department on June 1 at 3:00 P.M. in order to defend his submitted dissertation on, 'Municipal Police Departments as Examples of Closed Societies'."

Eli embraced his stunned student to rousing applause and hoots of excitement that brought the restaurant owner running in. Leaning in close to be heard over the noise, he whispered, "There will be more good news to come, Blair. They just need some more time to work it out." Blair's head nodded against Eli's chest before they separated.

Most of the people present only knew that someone had submitted a sci-fi novel that Blair had written about the PD, as his dissertation. Blair had felt he had to shoulder the blame for it for some reason that people didn't quite get. Henri called out the question guaranteed to distract every cop in the place. "Hey, Hairboy! If you get your doctorate, will the PD give you a raise?"

Simon fielded that bit of impertinence in order to give Blair a little more time to gather his wits. "Sure, Brown. And we'll take it from your salary!"

Blair passed a hand over his eyes and turned to the heckler. "Who cares, 'H'. I don't really know what people do with money anyway."

A chorus of familiar voices in the crowd called out in unison. "THEY PAY RENT!"

Mr. Sing rushed in once again to urge some control over the hysteria, penetrating to the outer reaches of his establishment. Blair and Jim collapsed weakly against each other in hilarity while Eli stood back, smiling indulgently at the changes time had wrought in his former prodigy.

Rhonda made a mental note to allow at least two years to elapse before planning any further PD events in this restaurant. Efficiently, she ushered the furious owner out of the room. After all, some of its occupants were armed.

********************
11:45 P.M.; the Loft:

The post-party adrenaline had run-down and the pair were getting ready for bed. Hot herbal tea in hand and wearing sweats, Blair sat on the couch with his bare feet folded under him. Jim padded downstairs in boxers and t-shirt to grab a cold bottle of water before bed. Seasonal temperatures had Jim ready for cooler clothing but it generally took Sandburg another month or so to adapt to the warmer weather. Polar opposites. Jim thought, sardonically. He marched into Sandburg's room, since the door was open, and came out waving a pair of socks.

"Great!" Sandburg caught the tossed material in one hand. "Thanks." The long-suffering loft owner slipped a coaster under the mug before it could hit the coffee table. Blair slipped the socks over his chilled feet and then reclaimed the mug of tea.

Jim sat down and looked at his exhausted, but happy, friend. "You okay, Sandburg?"

"Yeah, just a lot to process, you know?"

"I can't even imagine it. And nothing says you have to take it all at once."

Blair raised an eyebrow at the vague implications of that statement.

"Well, you have a couple of extra years now in which you can come to terms with ... mmphh." A throw pillow to the mouth had swiftly terminated that line of thought.

"You jerk," Blair complained, fondly.

Jim laughed softly. "I'm so happy for you, Chief. You've worked so hard and accomplished so much. It's time you got the letters that go with the achievements. Listen, are you okay with the age thing? I mean, that has to be a shock."

"Well, I've been learning a lot lately about how the past erupts into the present and, well, I'd rather figure it out sooner than later in my lifetime. You okay with having an even younger guy for a partner than you thought you had?"

"Of course, it's fine. Oh, by the way, did you want me to make you some hot milk before I tuck you in? Don't forget to brush your teeth now. Did you take your vitamins this morning? And about your curfew, mmphh!" Another pillow joined the first one at Jim's feet ... by way of his mouth.

Blair decided to turn the tables. "Just think about the advantages, man. I'll still be attracting the babes when you're, um, not drawing them on your own, you know? Think of all the rejects that might come your way ... Uh, Jim?"

Jim had risen to grab a tissue from the box on the coffee table so he could spit out some lint. He then reached down to pick up the two throw pillows. "We really have to beat the dust out of these things, you know?" He proceeded to do so, against the torso of his hysterical, twenty-eight year old friend.

THE END

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