Disclaimer: No they are not mine. They belong to Pet Fly, UPN & Paramount. No copyright infringement is intended.

Thank you: as always to Bobbie and StarWatcher for your amazing beta skills, wolfpup for housing my stories, and to Arianna for letting me run past some of the medical details with you. I have absolutely no medical training, but have tried to be as accurate with these details as I could. Hopefully I'm not way off base.

Notes: This story was pulled off line quite some time ago. It was given an extensive re-write, plus some additional scenes and then put up at the Moonridge 2008 auction. A heartfelt thank you to all those who contributed.


Jess Riley

Jim Ellison dragged his weary body from the cab of his truck and stretched his tired muscles. Rotating his shoulder until it made a slight popping noise, he tried to focus his thoughts on the two weeks ahead of him and not lament about the two months just past. Hell in a hand basket was basically what they'd been; it was the most fitting phrase he could think of to describe what both he and his non-official partner had been forced to endure, courtesy of the criminal element of the fair city of Cascade. But this morning at exactly five-thirty they'd hit the road and hell in a hand basket was starting to give way to just a little glimpse of heaven. Giving his partner a quick glance through the window, Jim turned and unscrewed the cap to the gas tank. While he'd never been one to lavish unnecessary praise, Sandburg deserved to be given credit where credit was due.

With Ellison's exhaustion reaching dangerous levels and the prospect of his sentinel senses becoming more of a hindrance than a help, Blair had really come through. He'd stuck by Jim's side every spare moment he'd had, even if that meant doing double shifts to catch up on his own commitments at the university. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel and they were driving straight toward it. Blair was now on spring break, and it appeared that a large percentage of the criminal element had also decided to take a vacation from the rat race. When Simon had ordered that they both take some time off, Jim had immediately jumped at the opportunity and contacted an old friend who had the perfect location for them to take some serious downtime.

The further they got from the bright lights of Cascade, the bigger Jim's view of paradise became.

"Hey, Chief!" With a couple of hard whacks on the roof of the passenger side cab, as the gas gurgled its way into the tank, Ellison only had one aim in mind. Sandburg had slept long enough and he was bored. More importantly, he was hungry.

Startled awake, Blair's chin shot up from where it was resting on his chest and his head slammed back into the cab's rear window. "What!" he exclaimed, recognising only oblivious urgency, rather than any real understanding. Another bang on the roof brought his brain cells online; he now had a culprit to blame for the lump forming on the back of his skull.

"Jim," he began, grumpily pushing the truck door open. "Was that really necessary?"

"Probably not," Ellison answered with a wry smile, "But it was kind of satisfying."

"Right," Blair drawled. "So giving brain damage to another human being leaves you satisfied."

With his smile growing wider, Jim replaced the gas nozzle on the pump and capped the tank. "First off, Darwin, you need to have a brain to give a person brain damage. As for the human being part, mind if I get back to you on that one?"

"Funny, man. Regular rodeo clown." Still rubbing the back of his head, Blair took note of their surroundings for the first time. "We there?"

"Not quite."

"Where are we then?" he asked, even though the town name and location was impossible to miss on a sign a few feet to his right.

"This quiet little one-horse town, Chief," Jim began, "is our last stop before we leave civilization completely behind." He tapped Blair lightly on his non-existent lump, and pointed in the direction of a handful of shops that made up the main street of the town. "And you see that quaint little diner over there? Well, you are in for a treat, my friend, because they just happen to make the best burgers west of the Mississippi." His eyes suddenly took on a glazed look. "Thick, juicy patties, dripping with cheese, deep fried onions and this homemade sauce that is truly to die for."

"Sounds like you could die by just eating one of their burgers," Blair muttered, knowing full well that the quaint little dinner was exactly where they'd be eating lunch. He plucked his wallet from his jacket pocket. "I'll get this," he said, turning away. "I'll meet you over there in a few minutes."

As Blair sauntered away to pay for the gas, a twinge of unease ignited deep inside of Ellison's gut. Blair was 'off' somehow, but he just couldn't quite put his finger on what was wrong. Lowering his weary body back into the cab of the truck, the logical, rational side of his personality spoke up, telling him that all that was wrong with Sandburg was sheer exhaustion.

The intuitive side of his nature wasn't so sure about that, however, and remained on alert.

A small bell tinkled above the door of the diner, alerting all and sundry to Blair's presence. Two elderly men looked up from a game of checkers to give Blair the once over and he responded nonchalantly, greeting them with a half-hearted smile. Spotting Jim in a booth at the far end of the room, he nodded to the men as their eyes, along with several other patrons, followed him with an intense interest. Jim, on the other hand, appeared to be the only one who hadn't noticed his entrance. By the sounds of the animated and somewhat flirtatious conversation the detective was having with a middle-aged waitress, Blair wasn't surprised. Sliding into the seat opposite, he remained quiet, watching the interaction between Jim and the woman with interest.

"I still don't believe it," she said, her hand appearing quite comfortable with its position on Ellison's shoulder. "You haven't changed a bit." She drew closer, leaning down until she was a hair's breadth from Jim's ear. "Still as handsome and as buff as ever."

"And you're still as vivacious as ever," Jim responded, a slight twinkle cast in his eye.

"Ever the charmer," she laughed, her attention shifting from Jim to Blair. "And who, may I ask, is this?"

Ellison glanced at Sandburg, and rolled his eyes. He may have had the waitress's undivided attention, but it was well known around town that her attention was often divided amongst the many. "Mary, meet Blair Sandburg -- anthropologist, police observer, and way too young and innocent for you."

"You mind your manners, James." She gave Jim's shoulder a hefty whack. "It's nice to meet you, Blair," she said, extending her hand. "And don't you go listening to a word he says."

Blair accepted Mary's hand and flashed her one of his award-winning smiles. "I never do."

"Sandburg, stop flirting."

"Um, you can talk," Blair shot back.

Somewhat reluctantly releasing Blair's hand, Mary turned her attention back to Jim. "So, Jimmy, what brings you back out our way?"

Jim shrugged, "Things have been kinda manic at work lately and when we finally got the opportunity to grab some time off, I decided to call up the Doc and see if he could stand having a couple of houseguests."

"Why go all the way up there?" she asked. "There's nothing up there but a whole heap of nothing."

"Oh, I don't know," Jim replied. "The idea of a whole heap of nothing sounds pretty appealing right about now." Tapping the table soundly with his hand, Jim flashed her a smile that equally matched Sandburg's. "Now Miss Mary, how about two of those world famous burgers to settle a couple of manly appetites."

"Actually," Blair interjected. "I think I might pass, if you don't mind."

"Sandburg," Jim sighed. "One burger's not gonna clog your arteries and send you into cardiac arrest. And besides, we're about to head off into the wilderness. A man's gotta eat hearty if he's gonna survive."

"Jim, from all accounts, we're heading to a cabin that's more luxurious than the Hilton. I'm sure I'll survive foregoing lunch."

Jim picked up the menu. Blair, of course, was a grown man and responsible for his own decisions, but in the midst of their hectic lifestyles, Blair's tendency to skip meals had registered on his radar. At the risk of being labeled a mother hen, he liberally pushed the point when he felt the necessity arose. "How about something lighter, then? There's a chicken salad on here."

"It's awfully good, honey." Mary added.

"Alright," Blair conceded. The headache he was sporting, combined with the queasy feeling in his stomach, didn't bode well for starting a conflict with a very stubborn Jim Ellison. He'd learned very early on in their relationship when to pick his battles, and today wasn't a good day to go to war.

As Mary took their orders to the kitchen, Jim studied Blair with a more intrusive eye. "You feeling okay?"

"I'm fine, why?"

"You look a little pale." Without thinking, he leaned over the table and felt Sandburg's forehead.

"Will you quit it?" Blair retaliated, immediately batting Jim's hand away. "I'm fine, and could really do without the mother hen from hell on my back."

"Well excuse me for caring, Sandburg," Ellison threw back tersely, a neutral expression now masking his face.

Blair sighed and scrubbed his hands wearily over his face. Without meaning to, he'd unintentionally fired the first shot and it was now his responsibility to play medic and patch things up. "Jim, look, I'm sorry, okay? I am tired and I'm wound up and I didn't mean that the way it came out."

Jim's mask remained in place and, after about five minutes of complete silence, Blair decided that diversionary tactics were needed. "You know, you've hardly said a word about this friend of yours. Pete, isn't it?"

Jim simply nodded.

"How'd you two meet?"

Appeased, not only by the sight and the aroma of Mary placing his order in front of him, but also by the fact that Sandburg really did look like he could be cast as a credible zombie in any horror movie, Jim let his mask slip, a little. "I first met Pete in the army."

"And," Blair said, poking at his salad, "a little more information?"

"He's a doctor, by trade, if you could describe it that way, but was also one of the finest commanding officers I've had the pleasure of serving under. He taught me a lot." Jim paused for a brief moment. "Pulled me through a lot."

"In what way?"

"I wasn't exactly at peace with the world when I joined the army, Chief. I was on a path of destruction and hell bent on leaving a trail of damage and ruin behind me that'd make a tropical cyclone look like a summer breeze."

"And Pete took you under his wing?"

Jim laughed. "Kicking the shit outa me until I towed the line was more Pete's style."

Blair raised his eyebrows.

"Hey, it worked," Jim said flatly. "I learned more from that man than I've learned from anyone, and it was actually him that had me qualifying as a medic." Jim's expression took on a faraway look for a brief moment. "I owe that man a huge debt. He saved my life in more ways than one."

"How so?" Blair asked.

"Some history doesn't bear repeating, Junior."

From the expression on Jim's face, Blair knew that this topic, for the time being, was closed. "So you stayed pretty close after the army, I gather?"

"I stayed with him and his wife, Emily, for a while after I got back from Peru, but after that, he permanently retired up here and I was so busy with the department, that we kinda drifted apart."

"Does he have any idea about your enhanced senses?"

"No, at least I don't think to any great degree. I mean, there were times after Peru when things would act up, and looking back I might have even zoned a few times, but like me, I'm pretty sure he just put it down to stress." Jim picked up his napkin and wiped his mouth in a measure of satisfaction. "You really don't know what you missed," he said, eyeing Blair's barely-touched meal. "You finished, or just starting?"

"I'm good," Blair replied. "You wanna hit the road?"

"Sounds like a plan to me." Jim pulled out his wallet and fished out a fifty.

"That's mighty generous."

Jim smiled. "I'm a generous guy."

"Obviously," Blair replied. "You want me to wait outside while you say your goodbyes?"

"A little jealous there, Romeo?"

"In your dreams, Ellison." Pushing himself up from the booth, Blair headed toward the front door, with a trail of the same eyes following his footsteps. "We need anything from the store before we head out?"

"Yeah, we do." Sauntering up behind Mary, Jim trapped her in a smothering hug. "I'll meet you there in a minute."

"Want me to add condoms to the order?" Blair muttered, quietly amused at Ellison's flirtatious behavior. This was a side of the other man that he very rarely saw. Jim, in his view, was mostly pragmatic. Practical, no-nonsense and down-to-earth and, even though his partner appeared to be having a momentary lapse into 'randy land', his view of Jim Ellison was reinforced when he got to the store and discovered their order had been pre-placed, pre-packed and prepaid for. "Yep, that's pragmatism for you," he said, dumping a packet of laxatives onto the counter and pulling out his wallet.

"I thought you said you were fine," a voice behind him said, before he'd had a chance to pocket the goods.

Blair simply gave Jim a sheepish look and grabbed one of the parcels. Bowel movements, no matter how close the friendship, wasn't a topic that needed to be verbalized.

Grabbing the remaining bags, Jim followed Blair silently to the truck. The subject may have been dropped, but it had been duly noted and stored away for future reference.

After two hours of rough riding on a trail that had seen better days, and after so many sideway glances from Jim that Blair had lost count, two weary travelers finally arrived at the front door of Doctor Peter Mitchell's mountain hideaway.

"Wow," was all that Blair could say as he took in the magnificent, three hundred and sixty degree views that engulfed his senses.

"Pretty spectacular, hey, Chief?" Jim remarked, breathing in a deep lungful of non-polluted, country air.

Closing his eyes, content to just let himself feel nature around him, Blair's private little garden of Eden was interrupted when a booming voice shattered the silence.

"Ellison, how the hell are you, you big idiot?"

The voice carried a surprising warmth and Blair instantly opened his eyes, not wanting to miss the expression he envisioned that came with it.

Then, without hesitation or any hint of reserve, Jim moved forward, wrapping Peter Mitchell in a hug so intense that it left Blair feeling slightly envious. The action spoke of familiarity and ease, and was one that Blair didn't often see coming from the detective.

A bit uneasy at both the display and for not knowing exactly why, Blair attempted, rather pitiably, to introduce himself. "So, I guess you guys know each other?"

Pete gave Jim's back a last squeeze before breaking the embrace and looking at Blair. "You could say that," he laughed, extending his hand. "Welcome to the wilderness, Blair. Jim's told me a lot about you."

"He has?" Blair found himself looking into the eyes of a man who could have been easily mistaken for a member of Jim's family. While Pete's hair was tinged with a dusting of grey and the lines on his tanned faced had begun to reveal the passing of time, his height and stature were on a par with Jim's and his muscle tone, even at fifty, was quite remarkable. Studying Pete for a few more seconds, Blair finally extended his hand. "That's funny, because he's told me hardly anything about you."

"Well, son, anything you want to know, you just ask, and that includes any dirt you want on the big fellar over here."

"Cool," Blair smiled, beginning to feel slightly more at ease. "I could use some more blackmail material."

"Now, Pete," Jim interjected, "don't you go filling Junior's head with any of your nonsense stories. He's already got enough rubbish rattling round in his brain to last him two lifetimes."

"So, how'd you do that?" Blair asked, referring to the cast that covered Pete's left arm from the tips of his fingers to his elbow.

"Fell off the roof."

Blair looked over at the house, taking note of the pitch of the roof. "Wow, that must'a hurt."

"Not as much as the lecture I got from the good wife."

"Speaking of good women, where is Emily?" Jim asked.

"Flown the coop. She had a last-minute offer to include her work in a photographic exhibition in Washington, and the opportunity was too good to refuse. She sends her love, and hopes that Blair can at least cook." Pete slapped Jim on the back. "Because lord knows, Ellison, you can't!"

"Hey, enough with the insults, already. I cook just fine, don't I, Chief?"

"Jim, we're on a mountain that's pretty damn close to heaven's door. It'd be a sin to lie with God's ears just up above. I think I'm just gonna take the fifth."

"Some backup," Jim muttered as he rounded the truck to get their gear. He tossed the heaviest bag to Blair. "Well, since you're having such a godly moment, Darwin, you may as well start by going with the grace of god and lugging the rest of these in."

"Ellison," Pete drawled in a tone that Jim had heard many times.

Jim didn't even bother responding. He simply grabbed two more bags and slung them over his shoulder. Pete slapped him on the back, before retrieving the grocery bags. "The old man still has the touch," he laughed.

As Jim and Pete continued to laugh and banter, Blair readjusted the bag he was carrying and headed toward the cabin. Jim's aim had been deadly accurate and hit him right in the midsection. The moment the bag had connected, a sharp pain flared through his gut, and he had to fight the urge to double over. He was constipated, badly, but it wasn't a subject he intended on sharing to any degree, with anyone. Once they got settled and his body started to de-stress, he was certain that nature would work its magic, in more ways than one. And if not, then he always had the laxatives as a last resort.

After stowing their gear in one of the rear bedrooms and excusing himself for a bathroom break that, once again, brought no joy, Blair made his way back to the main living area of the cabin. While he was expecting 'comfortable', he wasn't expecting comfort on such a grand scale. The cabin was more like the Cartwright's Ponderosa, with all the amenities, rather than a little hideaway in the woods. "Pete, this place is fantastic," he said, his eyes immediately drawn to a row of Native American pottery that graced the mantle.

"Yeah, it's shaped up well, but it wasn't always that way. It's taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get it to this stage."

Accepting a beer, Blair took a seat on the sofa next to Jim, who already looked like he intended to turn relaxation into an art form.

"When Em and I first came up here, it was a very basic, very rustic little cabin with no electricity or running water. Over the years, we've renovated. We've put in a pump, a combined generator and solar electricity unit, and even added a few rooms here and there. I've actually now got a fully-equipped surgery, if you want to have a look."

"Surgery!" Jim lazily lifted his head from where it rested on the back of the sofa. "When did you wangle that, and more to the point, who on earth would you get to operate on out here?"

"If you're able to drag your lazy butt off that sofa, Ellison, I'll show you. I actually have a patient in care at the moment."

"A patient... here, right now?" With curiosity fueling a surge of new-found energy, Jim clambered to his feet. "This I have to see."

Following Pete to a room that led off the kitchen, Jim's curiosity, along with the relief that his senses were working, was satisfied. He couldn't sense another human presence in the house, but he could, and rightly did, sense that of an animal. "Well who would have guessed," he laughed. "The great Doctor Peter Mitchell has turned into Doctor Dolittle."

"Once a doctor, always a doctor," Pete replied. "And just because I don't always have human patients to care for, doesn't mean there aren't others who need my help. Take Rockafellar over there, for example. Found him in a trap a few weeks back and the wretched thing had broken his leg clean through. So I bought him here, fixed him up, and now he's nearly as good as new. The little guy should be ready for release in a few days."

"Hey, fella." Taking pity on the little raccoon, Blair poked his finger into the cage, aiming to show the poor creature some sympathy.

"Chief, wild animal, not a pet, don't touch." As quick as a flash, Jim reacted and pulled Blair roughly away from the cage. "You know, sometimes I really worry about your ability for logical thought." He poked Blair's forehead with his finger and then repeated the same action on his chest. "This is for thinking, not this!"

Pete watched Jim's display with interest. You can talk, was his immediate thought. Ellison was a critical thinker, there was no doubt about that. He analyzed, evaluated and acted. Under pressure, you could always rely on Jim to get to the root of a problem by moving straight forward, never sideways. But 'never' couldn't seem to stand up to the test of friendship where Ellison was concerned and it was these friendships that let the critical thinker move with his heart, not his head. He'd witnessed it in varying degrees over the years, times when Jim would move sideways, away from the objective for the sake of a friend. He knew quite a bit about Blair from the conversations he'd had with Jim and was keen to actually observe their interaction with one another first hand. He'd always been an intuitive man and, if his intuition served him correctly, Jim's friendship with Blair was an important one. The big brother element was there, that was a no-brainer. But there was also something else, something he'd suspected about Jim for quite some time, and he now suspected that Blair just might hold the missing pieces to the puzzle.

"So tell me, Pete, ever have any human patients in here?" Blair asked, drawing Mitchell from his thoughts.

Even though Blair had been pretty much manhandled and insulted by Ellison, Pete noticed, with interest that the kid hadn't moved out of Jim's personal space. "Quite a few, unfortunately," he finally said. "This area is renowned for rock climbers and hikers, and a while back I was approached by the local rescue authority to be the first port of call if they were unable to transport a patient safely to the hospital. Hence, I have a fully-operational surgery, stocked with medical supplies to treat both animals and human patients."

Blair was now on the move again, fiddling this time with bottles of specimens that lined the shelves. "So, have you had to do any gory operations, like amputations or that sort of stuff?"

"Okay, Junior, enough questions." Jim latched on to Blair's shoulders and steered him out of the room. "Since you're the only one around here who appears to be able to cook, I think it's about time you made yourself useful in the kitchen."

"Hey, that's hardly fair," Blair grumbled. "I was being righteous. The righteous shouldn't have to do the chores."

"Ah, well, Chief, you should know by now that it's the sinners who have all the fun." He positioned Blair in front of the gas stove before letting go of his shoulders. "Knock yourself out, Martha. Hey, Pete, you want another beer...?"

Blair's cooking skills lived up to his reputation. Flamed grilled Texas T-bone's, baked potatoes with all the toppings and a salad for good measure had left at least two occupants of the kitchen table with bellies so full they were barely able to move. Blair, on the other hand, seemed to be honing his skills of surviving on meager rations and it hadn't gone unnoticed by Jim. Not wanting a repeat of the scene earlier in the day, he conveyed his concern simply by eye contact. They'd known each other and lived in each other's pockets long enough to communicate without words and a 'what's up' look was answered with a tired, and somewhat exasperated, 'Jim, I can't do this right, now, okay,' look thrown back in his direction.

Pushing his chair back, Ellison started to collect the plates. "Chief, why don't you go and put your feet up by the fire? I'll take care of the dishes."

"You sure?"

"He's more than sure, son," Pete replied, gathering up the condiments. He hadn't missed the look Blair had given Jim and hadn't failed to notice the waxy pallor of Blair's skin and the distinct lack of luster in eyes. While fatigue was his first, rudimentary diagnosis, if Blair's energy levels and overall vitality didn't start to pick up over the next few days, he'd consider having a word or two with him. The more Blair relaxed and the more comfortable he became around him, then the more amenable he just might be to conveying any concerns, health or otherwise, he was having. Either way, between Jim and himself, he was certain the kid was in good hands.

"Hey, Pete, you got any tea?" Jim asked quietly.

"Yeah, black and herbal. It's in the container by the kettle."

Jim flicked on the electric kettle before rooting around in the jar. Seeming to be unable to make a decision, or simply looking for an excuse, he walked into the lounge and stood behind the sofa. Ruffling Blair's hair slightly, he placed his hand on Sandburg's forehead, pressing Blair's head back into the cushions, forcing him to look at him -- albeit upside down. To a bystander, the gesture indicated that Jim was doing nothing more than gaining the younger man's attention, but to Blair and to Pete, who was watching discreetly, it was obvious that Jim was checking for any sign of a fever. "You want chamomile or peppermint?"

"Chamomile," Blair answered. "And are you satisfied?"

"Marginally." Blair's skin felt warm, but it was more likely caused by his close proximately to the fire, rather than from the beginnings of a fever.

The whistle of the kettle and the sound of dishes in the sink had Jim reluctantly breaking contact and heading back to the kitchen.

Blair left his head where it was and closed his eyes, content to warm his body by the fire and listen to the domestic sounds on the other side of the room. I could get used to this, he thought, as he felt himself falling into a light doze. While he still felt overfull and his stomach was still tight, the pain he'd been experiencing on and off didn't feel as bad, giving him hope that, come morning, nature just might take its course.

Nudged gently awake a few minutes later, Blair opened his eyes to find Jim standing over him. "Chief, why don't you hit the sack?"

"Tea first, then I'll turn in."

"Jim, interest you in a drink?" Pete had already fished out a bottle of fine malt whiskey from the back of the liquor cabinet.

Handing the tea to Blair, Jim lowered himself onto the sofa, kicked off his shoes and wiggled his toes in front of the open fire. "Don't mind if I do."

"How about you, Blair? Care to join us?"

"No, I think I'll just stick with the tea, thanks."

As Pete settled down, and the whiskey began to flow, conversation inevitably turned to recollections of the past. While Blair endeavored to listen, if only to get an insight into a part of Jim's life that was very much a blank to him, his eyes and his ears just didn't seem to want to cooperate. As the minutes ticked by and words turned from articulate sounds of conversations to a mellow hum of incoherent mutterings, the fight was lost. Sleep had won and Blair was quite content to let the familiar sound of his sentinel's voice lull him into a full and complete slumber.

"You think you should wake him?" Pete asked, as the conversation paused.

"Not yet." Jim reached over and rescued the mug from Blair's hand before the unfinished contents spilled onto the floor. "There's an art to this," he said. "Wake him too soon and he'll get a second wind; but on the other hand, if you leave him too long, then you'll practically have to throw him over your shoulder and lug him to bed. Timing is the key."

"I must admit, he does look pretty worn out," Pete commented.

"You don't know the half of it." Reaching over, Jim picked up the bottle of whiskey and poured them both another shot. "The last two months nearly did me in and I was only doing one job."

"Why didn't Blair forego his time with you at the station if his university studies were kicking him around?"

This was a topic of conversation Jim didn't want to get into, not only because of the sentinel issue, but because it was a raw subject. He did feel guilty about taking up so much of Sandburg's time, especially when the kid really didn't have any spare time to give. Plus, needing Blair in the way that he did made him feel like he was physically inept in some ways -- like he couldn't function as the whole and complete person he used to be before his senses came on line. But needing Blair also made him feel more mentally complete than he'd ever felt in his life. Blair had become a part of who he was and when it came down to it, it was as fundamental and as uncomplicated as that.

Deciding to change the subject, Jim diverted to Pete's area of expertise in an effort to throw him off the trail. "Pete, I know that he's totally exhausted, but I get the feeling, and I get the feeling that you get the feeling, that there might be something else wrong with him. Do you think maybe tomorrow you could give him the once over, just in case?"

"Good red herring," Pete chuckled, but let it slide. "Look Jim, apart from a case of fatigue, I'm sure Blair's fine. Give him a couple of days of doing absolutely nothing and I bet you'll start to see an improvement. Besides, I'm not going to start poking and prodding him unless he specifically asks for my opinion." Unerringly being able to read the expression on Ellison's face, Pete smiled. "No, Ellison, being tied down and threatened at gunpoint does not constitute giving willing permission."

"I could always knock him out," Jim laughed jokingly. "He'd never know a thing."

"Yeah, nice one. Give the kid a concussion for the sake of his health."

Pete poured them both another drink and, as the night wore on, the art of waking Sandburg in a timely manner was shot to hell. By the time two slightly inebriated men were ready to hit the sack, Blair was well past the point of no return. Like the blind leading the blind, Blair's room was as far as they got. As soon as Sandburg's head hit the pillow, he was totally gone again and Jim was left with the task of stripping off his shoes and jeans and tucking him in. Eyeing the single bed on the other side of the room, Ellison used his intoxicated state as an excuse to spend the night. He could have easily made it further down the hall to the room next door, but something was telling him to stay. When it came to Blair, giving into that instinct seemed so very natural. Stripping down to his boxers and pulling down the covers, he decided to check Blair over, just one more time -- just in case. The kid was dead to the world and, since he didn't exactly have to follow the rules of ethics that bound Pete, his examination could be a little more thorough. Resting his hand on Blair's forehead and satisfied that he wasn't running a temperature, Jim moved the blanket down and lifted Blair's shirt. The kid's breathing sounded normal, but his hand lingered on Blair's chest, checking the rise and fall, listening for any rattles or congestion. Again satisfied, his hand moved lower, pressing gently on Blair's belly. Blair stirred and Jim stilled his actions. It was only a soft palpitation, but it had exacted a response. Blair had now turned on his side, drawn up his legs and had his arm unconsciously wrapped around his midsection.

Watching for a few minutes longer, the laxatives Sandburg had purchased crossed Jim's mind and maybe that was the only problem. They had both forgone nutrition in favor of expediency of late and, while his system didn't have a problem coping, Blair was more of a balanced-diet kind of guy. Pulling the blankets back up, Jim decided that he'd wait it out a couple of days before making an issue of it. Maybe all Sandburg needed was a few nourishing meals under his belt and nature, hopefully, would take care of the rest. Pushing himself off the mattress, Jim lightly squeezed Blair's shoulder before heading to his own bed. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he joined Blair in a deep and sound sleep.

"Morning," Blair yawned, stumbling into the kitchen, pulling a sweatshirt over his head. "Where's Jim?"

Pete looked up from the research paper he was reading, giving Blair a good head to toe visual. Although, by the state of his hair, Blair looked like he'd had a rough night, his cheeks were sporting a little more colour and he didn't look quite so exhausted. "I've sent him on the egg run. He should be back soon." Pete pulled off his reading glasses. "You sleep okay?"

"Like a log," Blair responded, pulling out a chair. "And you have chickens all the way up here?"

Pete nodded. "Yeah, we lose a few to coyotes and whatnot, but the coop is fairly secure. Besides, if the beasts don't get 'em, and once they stop laying, they make a pretty good meal."

Blair scrunched up his nose. "Remind me to stick to the beef."

"Well, if it isn't Lazarus." Juggling an armful of eggs, Jim kicked the stop out from under the door and let the wind do the rest. "Thought you were never going to rise." Just like Pete, he gave Blair the once over. "You sleep okay?"

"Fine," Blair answered, suddenly feeling as if he were at a sleep study centre. "Although I'm not sure why everyone is so concerned about my sleeping pattern."

With the eggs now safely in a bowl on the counter, Jim snuck up behind Blair and wrapped him in a rough bear hug. "It's cause we love you, little buddy," he teased.

As Blair wangled out of the hold, he managed to give Jim a sizable whack on the arm before pushing him completely away. "Well love me from over there," he said, indicating the kitchen counter. "While you're making pancakes."

"Children, children, children." Putting the paper back onto a neat stack and then back into a folder, Pete got to his feet. "You two feel like a bit of trout fishing after breakfast? Could help work off some of that rambunctious energy."

"I thought the whole idea of the next few days was to preserve energy," Jim responded, an underlying meaning evident in his voice.

"Fishing sounds great," Blair added. While fishing did sound like a doable plan, his curiosity at what Pete was reading got the better of him and, oblivious to etiquette, he dragged the folder across the table.

Striding up beside Ellison, Pete kept his voice low, although by the way Blair had his head stuck in the folder of research papers, he didn't think the kid was paying attention to what they were saying anyhow. "He looks a lot better this morning."

"Exactly, and with a few more days rest, he just might stay that way."

"Jim, you know how easy the hike to the lake is. It's not exactly an endurance trail. Besides, being outdoors, taking in the mountain air, has got to be better than being cooped up in here all day."

"I suppose," Ellison muttered.

Pete squeezed Jim's shoulder. "He'll be fine."

With the pancakes well underway, Pete pushed himself away from the counter and discreetly removed the papers from under Blair's nose. He didn't mind that the kid was reading them, but if he let him go for too much longer, Blair would no doubt stumble upon a paper he wasn't quite ready to share yet. "Breakfast's up," he announced. "Coffee or tea, Blair?"

"Coffee, but I can get it." As he prepared to get to his feet, Blair felt Pete's hand on his shoulder.

"That's okay, son, I got it. You sit and relax."

The next thing he knew, Jim was at his side placing a stack of blueberry pancakes in front of him. "Thanks," he said, feeling a little bit spoiled.

Jim ruffled his hair. By now, Blair had become well attuned to each and every ruffle, and what each one meant. This one was light, but lingered a little longer than normal. It was the one that came with uncertainty and a small measure of concern. Narrowing his eyes, he looked from the stack of pancakes to the coffee and then over to both men, who appeared very much to be hovering. He tried to push his memory back to last night. He remembered drinking tea in front of the fire, and he vaguely remembered dozing off, but he had no recollection of anything after that. Not even how he got to bed, and the missing part of his memory had his alarm bells ringing. He was quite aware of the fact that he had done some stupid things when exhaustion forced him to sleep. He'd talk, or sleepwalk, and once he'd even pulled all the cushions off the sofa, stripped himself naked and made a nest for himself on the floor in front of the fire. Closing his eyes for a moment, Blair took a deep and uncertain breath. "Okay, guys, what do you know that I don't know?"

Jim took a seat next to Blair and started tucking into his own breakfast. "Chief, now that's a loaded question, if ever I heard one."

Blair lowered his voice. "Jim, I'm being serious." His thoughts diverted to the fact that the other bed in the room had been slept in. "Did I do something stupid or embarrassing last night?"

Taking pity at the serious look on Blair's face, Jim decided not to rib the kid. "No, why do you think that?"

"Ah, because you slept in the bed next to me, that's why, and while I'm well-versed with your mother hen moments, you still don't do things like that unless there's a good reason."

"I was drunk," Jim admitted, although that was not the real reason he stayed the night.

"You were drunk?" Blair questioned suspiciously. "Jim, I've seen you drink and even when you're drunk, you're never that drunk."

"He was smashed," Pete confirmed, deciding to help Jim out. They'd both had a fair bit to drink, but Blair was right; even when he got drunk, Jim never got completely out of control. "Rotten, sodden... a total and utter crapulous malt louse."

Ellison flashed Pete a dirty look. "Thanks for the character assassination," he deadpanned.

"You're welcome," Pete smiled.

The hike to the lake, while both peaceful and relaxing, still hadn't solved Blair's problem. He had hoped that external exercise might get a bit of internal exercise happening, but so far no results were forthcoming. If anything, he was beginning to feel a little worse. Trying to keep his mind off his problem, he rattled Pete's ear about anything he could think of about the local area. Fauna, flora, the local people and even a bit of spelunking made the list and, while Pete seemed genuinely interested, Blair's mind was focused more on his nauseated stomach than listening to the answers.

Jim, being Jim, had taken point and was out of sight on the trail somewhere up ahead. While Blair had no doubt that the sentinel was keeping an ear tuned in on him, all he really wanted at the moment was some privacy. Privacy from Jim, privacy from Pete, and privacy to heave his stomach contents into the bushes. Unfortunately for Blair, that privacy never came.

Even though he was several yards up the trail, Jim reacted at the exact moment Pete did. Dumping his gear in the middle of the trail, he took off in a jog, back up the hill toward Blair.

"What's wrong?" he asked, skidding to a halt and nearly stumbling over both Pete and Blair in the process.

"Give him some room, Jim," Pete ordered. Blair had stopped retching, but he was pale and shaky and needed some space to get the air flowing around him.

Although finding it nearly impossible, Jim reluctantly did as he was told and took a step back.

"Just try and breathe through it," Pete soothed, rubbing small, firm circles on Blair's back. "Long, deep breaths will help settle the nausea. Jim, pass me a bottle of water."

Realizing that he'd dumped his own pack back down the trail, Jim began rifling through Pete's until he found what he was looking for. Unable to stay back any longer, he didn't hand over the water, but moved to sit on the log where Blair had his head buried in his arms. Shuffling closer, he maneuvered Blair's upper body off the log, replacing the cold, mossy surface that his partner was leaning on with his own legs. Blair didn't baulk or attempt to sit up any further. Instead he latched firmly onto Jim's thigh. Adding his own hands to the mix, Jim rubbed long, gentle strokes across the width of Blair's shoulders. "That's it, kiddo, just relax and let it pass," he soothed.

After what seemed like a lifetime, Blair finally broke the silence. "Well, that was fun," he croaked.

"Just like a rollercoaster, hotdog mix at the fair, Chief." Jim increased the pressure of his touch. "You think you're up to drinking some water?"

Emerging, like a turtle from its shell, Blair lifted his head and unfolded his arms. Swiveling around, he continued to use Jim's legs as support as he leaned back and faced Pete, who in turn had placed a hand on his clammy forehead. "How you feeling now, son?"

"A lot better than a few minutes ago," Blair reached back to take the bottle of water from Jim. "I don't know what hit me. One minute I was fine and then the next minute, whammo, I was fertilizing the ground." Cautiously he took a few small sips of water. "Maybe I'm coming down with the stomach flu, or maybe it was something I ate."

Ellison jiggled his legs slightly. "Hey, don't you start blaming my breakfast, Sandburg." Feeling the need to assess the kid for himself, Jim resorted to his stock standard trick -- he ruffled Blair's hair slightly, put his hand against his forehead and pressed his head back onto his lap.

Blair looked up at him, from an upside down angle and asked his stock, standard question. "Satisfied?"

"Less than marginally," Jim answered. He looked over at Pete. "As soon as he's feeling a little better, we should make a start back to the cabin."

"No," Blair said, forcing his head off Jim's lap. "I'm feeling a lot better than I was a few minutes ago." He made an attempt to get to his feet. "Maybe all I needed was a good old fashion upchuck to clear out whatever it was down there making me feel sick."

"He's got a point, Jim." Pete conceded. The colour had returned to Blair's face and he didn't look as bad as he had a few moments ago. "Besides, considering that the lake is just beyond those trees and the cabin's a couple of miles back, I think it would be prudent to head for the lake and let Blair rest up for a while.

"See, I told you," Blair said triumphantly.

"There does happen to be a little condition that comes with that option, though," Pete interjected.

Accepting the doctor's hand, and with Jim's support from behind, Blair clambered slowly to his feet. "What condition?" he asked reticently.

"We continue onto the lake on the condition that you let me check you out when we get there."

"Oh man," Sandburg whined. He turned around, hoping for some rational support from Jim, but as soon as he saw the expression on the sentinel's face, he knew there was no hope of getting that. "This sucks," he continued to complain. "I told you I'm feeling better and I'm quite capable of deciding whether or not I need to be checked over. I don't need to be babied."

Pete's expression remained stalwart. "I guess we should start heading back then." He shouldered his pack. "What do you think, Jim?"

"Now I know exactly where he gets that look from," Blair ground out before Ellison had a change to answer. He pushed angrily past Pete. "Thanks for teaching him that, by the way." Heading in the direction of the lake, Blair didn't bother looking back. "And thanks for treating me like an adult." In his heart, Blair knew that both Jim and Pete had his best interest in mind, and he also knew that he was probably sounding petulant, but he was tired of being treated like a kid. Considering that he'd just thrown an entire month's worth of stomach contents up into the bushes, he felt he had every right to be irritable, unwarranted or not.

"Well, that didn't go exactly as planned," Pete muttered. "Maybe I was a little too heavy-handed with him."

"You were no harder on him than you were on me." Jim injected.

"Yeah, but you deserved it. You were a pain in the ass."

"Now that's love," Ellison huffed.

With a straight face, Pete reached over and pinched Jim's cheek. "Exactly," he said.

Leaving Jim standing alone on the top of the hill, Pete called over his shoulder. "Give me a few minutes to talk to him before you come barreling down. I'm gonna try plan B."

"Hey," Taking a seat on a boulder next to Blair, Pete hoped at the very least that the kid would make eye contact with him.

"Hey," Blair muttered, staring straight out into the water.

"Blair, can we talk?"

Blair shrugged his shoulders lethargically. "Guess so." Although he'd had some time to cool off and wasn't exactly angry any more, he did feel at times like his life was spiraling out of control, and that with every spin he was losing just a little more of himself.

"Blair, I know I bullied you into making a decision back there and I just wanted to say I'm sorry. It's your body and your decision, son. I had and have no right to force you to do anything you don't want to do."

Sandburg simply nodded.

"Having said that, however," Pete continued, hoping he was reading Blair's body language right, "I would like you to think seriously about letting me have a look at you. Chances are you've just picked up a bug and you'll be fine, but I would like the chance to make a diagnosis instead of just an educated guess."

Having no more anger reserves left to draw upon, Blair wearily scrubbed his hand through his hair. There was no malice behind Pete or Jim's behavior, only concern, but that was a major part of the problem. Turning his head, Blair met Pete's eyes. "I'm sorry, as well. I had no right to speak to you the way I did back there. I know you were only trying to help."

"You feel like telling me what's really the matter?"

"I don't know," Blair shrugged. "I guess the crux of it all is that I just feel so crowded -- like I'm a kid who's not capable of making his own decisions."

"And Jim makes you feel like this?"

"Not just Jim. Simon, the guys at the station, a couple of my professors, although I seem to be able to handle them better."

"But Jim mainly?"

Blair was finally brutally honest. "Yeah, mainly Jim, and the hard part is I know he only does it because he cares." Blair's brilliant blues eyes bored straight into Pete's. "How do you tell someone that cares about you that they're stripping away your independence?"

"You don't, because he's not," Pete answered. "Your independence is still there, son, it's just that the boundaries of that independence have changed."

"How do you mean?" Blair asked, a little confused as to what the doctor was getting at.

"They've been made more secure."

"Yeah, by Mother Henning," Blair said, rather flippantly.

"Security has a lot of meanings, Blair, but unfortunately, I get the impression that at the moment you only see it as smothering."

"What other meaning is there?"

"Okay, why don't we turn this scenario around for a minute and focus on you. Apparently, from what Jim's told me, the reason you're so fatigued, so exhausted, is because you've been working two jobs. Your own, at the university, plus you've been doubling up with Jim at the station."

"Yeah," Blair replied cautiously, having no intention of going anywhere near the topic of Jim's sentinel abilities.

"So why was that?" Pete asked. "Jim's no rookie and he has more than enough experience, both as a cop and a ranger, to handle the streets of Cascade without you by his side."

"Where exactly is this conversation leading, Pete?" Blair asked, immensely curious to find out whether the doctor did know more about Jim than he was letting on.

"It's leading to the fact that even though Jim's a cop, an experienced cop who has worked alone for a good many number of years, you still felt the need to work yourself into the ground just so you could be by his side, just so you could be out on the street with him. Now what I want to know, is why? Over-protective streak maybe, smothering urge, perhaps?"

The revelation hit and the penny dropped and, to Blair's relief, it was coming from an angle that had nothing to do with enhanced senses. "I've done the exact same thing to him, haven't I? I've stripped away just as much from him as he has from me."

"Not quite the right answer, kiddo," Pete replied. "Let me take you back in time for a bit, for a little more clarification. Back to the time when Jim got back from Peru." There had been other times in Jim's military career that Pete could have cited, but Peru was what he wanted to focus on because Peru, he was certain, was the key to their relationship.

"Okay," Blair drew out, back to being cautiously curious again.

"When Jim came back from Peru, he was what I can only describe as 'emotionally dead' and while I have no doubt he was dealing with post-traumatic stress, there was something else about him that I just couldn't quite put my finger on." Pete looked over at Blair who, to his credit, remained silent, not offering any input into the conversation at all. "We lost contact for a short while," Pete continued, secretly relieved that Jim at least had Blair's confidence. "His doing, I might add. But then one day, out of the blue I get a phone call. It was a couple of weeks after you two met actually, and for the first time in a long time I could actually hear hope in his voice. I could hear a touch of the Jim I used to know. Now while you could argue that it was simply time that had worked its magic and brought Jim back, it wasn't. The reason Jim is the man he is today, is because of you; and I suspect the man you are today is because of him."

Blair continued to stare at him without offering anything in return, so Pete went on. "Friendships, Blair, intense friendships like the one you share with Jim, are very much like a marriage. You decide to give up a part of who you are for the sake of the other person; that person doesn't strip it away from you, no more than you strip it from them. Jim's overprotective because he cares. Because he considers you important enough to fight for, and whether he's fighting with or against your wishes, he can't see the difference. But," Pete clarified, "if you turn those tables around, you act in exactly the same way. Where do you think Jim would be right now if he had been the one leaving his breakfast spread across the mountain?"

"Back at the cabin with me making you give him a thorough head to toe," Blair answered meekly.

"Exactly! So, now do you see what I'm getting at?"

"Actually, I'm feeling a little stupid for being so blind."

"Well don't. Change is never easy, but if you give yourself a chance to step back and look at it from another perspective, sometimes it's worth the sacrifices that come along with it."

Blair finally dared to glance over at Jim, who was skimming stones across the water further down the inlet. Pete had hit the nail right on the head. Independence, total and complete independence like he used to have, was really nothing more than a label for being alone -- a ticket that gave him the right to do whatever he wanted, when he wanted, because he had no one else in his life to consider. But given the choice, given the option of having complete independence or having Jim in his life, there was no contest: Jim was worth the sacrifice and he couldn't imagine life without him.

"I think I've got some more apologizing to do." Blair pushed himself off the boulder, his eyes still on Jim. "Hey, Pete," he said, turning back. "I was wondering if, when we get back to the cabin, you wouldn't mind giving me a general check up? I'm sure it's nothing more than a stomach bug, but I guess it doesn't hurt to be sure."

Pete's smiled. "You just say the word son and my expertise is yours." Pushing himself up from the rock, Pete added. "And Blair, anytime you need to talk, I'm always available to listen."

Blair nodded, appreciation shining in his eyes. He now knew why Pete was so important to Jim and he found it somewhat comforting to be included in the older man's circle of friends.

"Jim, I'm sorry!" Blair knew that Jim was fully aware that he was standing directly behind him. He also knew that, despite having the capability to, the sentinel would not have been listening in on the conversation he'd been having with Pete. As he shuffled from foot to foot, Blair half wished that, just this time, Jim had broken his own rule. If he had, it would have made what he needed to say a hell of a lot easier.

"I'm sorry if I treat you like a kid, Chief." Jim said before Blair had a chance to say more. Picking up another stone, Jim flung it across the pond. "I don't mean to."

"I don't mean to either, Jim."

A little perplexed, Jim turned around. "You don't," he answered.

"Well, not as a child, per se, and when you get down to the nuts and bolts of our relationship, the intrinsic wheels that make it spin and turn, you don't technically treat me as a child either; it's just that the boundaries have changed, man, and I don't think either of us really noticed. I mean we spend so much time..."

"Whoa, hold up there a minute, Tex." Jim gestured for Blair to stop babbling. "Easy speak, if you can manage it."

"I was blaming you for my own failure to adjust and in the midst of this blame, I had also failed to realize that I was doing the exact same thing to you as you were doing to me." Blair blurted

"Which was what?" Jim inquired.

"Stripping away our independence."

"Is that what you think has happened, Chief?" Jim responded, feeling a little hurt by Blair's revelation. "That hooking up with me has taken away your independence?"

"I did," Blair answered honestly, "but I was so off-base, man, it wasn't even funny."

"How so?" Jim asked, a little coldly.

"Because when I look back on my life, I realize that for the most part, I wasn't independent, I was just alone." Blair wandered down to the water's edge to stand by Jim. "Even when I was a little kid, I only ever really had two rules: don't talk to leery old men, and make sure I wash my privates. The rest was up to me. From an early age, Naomi encouraged me to make informed decisions, to work things out for myself -- to be an independent person. She probably thought that she was doing me a favor, and in a way she was, because by the time I went away to the university, I was completely my own man -- or kid," he laughed, lightly. "And even then, my mentor was no different from my mom. He was a person who kept encouraging me to be that independent thinker, that independent learner. But you know what, Jim? With all this independence being thrust my way, I never once realized what I was missing."

"Which was?"

"I missed having a relationship." Blair picked up a stone of his own and tossed it up into the air, trying to muster up the nerve to actually say what he was thinking of saying. Taking a deep breath, he finally threw caution to the wind. "Pete was right, you know. Friendships, intense friendships, are just like a marriage. There has to be give and take on both sides to make them work, but what I failed to see was that I wasn't the only one who had given something up. You gave up a part of your independence to accommodate me. It couldn't have been easy for you, either."

Jim gave himself a few minutes to take in and process what Blair was saying. He knew at times he had a tendency to be a little a overbearing, but that's just the way he was -- the way he treated everyone he really cared about. Unfortunately for Blair, when it came to caring, his name shot straight to the top of the list. But that having been said, having Blair in his life hadn't really been much of an adjustment at all. Sure he'd lost a room, and there had been times he'd wanted nothing more than to shove a gag in Sandburg's mouth and lock him in the basement, but at the end of the day, Blair had not only become a part of the furniture, but an intrinsic part of his life -- a part he didn't want to live without.

"Hey," he said, giving Blair a little nudge with his elbow. "In all fairness to yourself, Chief, what I had to give up wasn't really that hard, because I never really had it in the first place. As far as childhoods go, I think that ours are so far at the end of each spectrum that it's not even funny, and independence -- I didn't have to give up my independence to accommodate you because I never had a great deal of it to begin with. I went from living with an overbearing, stifling father, straight into the army." He shook his head at the memory of those first few years. "Hell, I couldn't even take a leak unless I was given permission to, so I don't exactly think that having you on my case occasionally is stripping away my independence."

"I guess you're right," Blair answered, not even being able to imagine what army life would have been like.

"Question now though, Sandburg, is whether or not you can handle it for the long term."

"Longevity is my middle name, man... or," he smiled, "since Pete thinks that we're kinda married, maybe Ellison would be more fitting."

Jim laughed and roughly hooked Blair around the neck, dragging him close to his body. "Well, since we appear to be hooked up, Junior, this leery old man wants to know if you've washed your nether regions today."

Blair punched Jim playfully in the ribs and pulled away. "You're an ass, you know that, don't you!" He began to dart back up the hill and back toward the fishing rods, but Jim grabbed him by the jacket and pulled him back. "I know I'm broaching a touchy subject, but I am worried about you, Chief."

Blair patted Jim reassuringly on the chest. "I'm fine. It's just a touch of the stomach flu, nothing else, okay?"

"Just promise me that if it gets any worse, you'll tell me and you'll let Pete take a look at you."

"Already a done deal," Blair answered. He patted Jim once more. "Come on. Let's go catch some fish before Pete empties the pond." Blair threw a look in the doctor's direction. "If he's anything like you, and I suspect he is, we'll never hear the end of it if he catches the big one."

"Hey, Chief," Jim said, as Blair started to move away again. "Do you really think our friendship is intense?"

Blair turned back around. "Yeah, I do," he answered.

"But, that's a good thing, right?"

Blair smiled. "Yeah Jim, it's a good thing." A very good thing.

As the day at the lake progressed in a fairly uneventful manner, Blair divided his time between fishing, napping and playing referee to the two great white hunters. Although he was feeling a lot better, he was still constipated, and wondered if that was the root of his problem -- that the blockage was causing his stomach pain. Deciding that he really needed to get things moving along, he took two laxatives while they were packing up the gear, hoping and praying that he would have plenty of time to get back to the cabin before nature called.

The trip back ended up being at a much faster pace than the trip down. There was a storm brewing and being stuck out on the trail in the rain and the lightening wasn't a prospect any of them wanted to entertain. With luck on their side and a little bit of army double-time, they made it back to the cabin just as the heavens opened up -- and just as Blair's stomach decided that enough was enough.

The pain was intense, like nothing he'd ever felt before. It was almost like someone had taken a white hot poker and sliced their way through his skin, melting away tissue and muscle until the only obstacle left was his backbone. His knees gave way, sending him crashing to the floor, but amid it all, the only thing that crossed his mind, was, please God, not here. But god wasn't listening and he vomited all over the floor -- all over the polished, solid oak that had taken months of Pete's blood, sweat and tears to lay. A trickle rolled down his cheek, adding to his mortal embarrassment and he attempted to wipe it away before Jim saw, but Jim was already there, looking straight at him with a shell-shocked expression on his face that made him scared. He wanted to talk, to apologize, to say how sorry he was and that he'd clean it up, but he had no voice.

His stomach was revolting again, but this time Pete's floor was saved. A towel was thrust in front of his face and he was dragged backward, away from his mess and away from his transgression. Arms wrapped around his chest and he melted into their familiarity. Jim had him; everything was going to be okay.

"Move him to his side," Pete ordered as he attempted to clear the remaining vomit from Blair's mouth. "Just a little bit more, kiddo," he soothed, working to make sure that Blair's airways weren't compromised. He glanced quickly at Jim, in an effort to gauge how he was coping and how he was going to cope. Given any other situation, the thought wouldn't have even crossed his mind, but this was Blair, and this wasn't any other situation.

"Just concentrate on him, not on me," Jim snapped and Pete knew that, for the moment at least, Ellison would hold up.

"Think you can lift him?" Pete asked.

Jim didn't even bother answering. He simply maneuvered Blair's body until he was lying lengthways in his arms. Wiping the remaining vomit from the side of Blair's face, Pete spoke softly. "Son, Jim's going to lift you up and get you into the bedroom, okay?"

Blair blinked sluggishly, but he still couldn't find his voice. He wanted to tell them, tell them both, that he didn't want to move. That his stomach was too sore, too fragile, but there was no time. He felt himself being lifted off the ground and he didn't even have the energy left to cry out in pain. His eyes fluttered shut and he felt no more.


"Steady, Jim." Pete was fully aware that a vulnerability hovered just below the surface of Ellison's stony facade -- a vulnerability that was caused by Blair. He needed to cap it and cap it quickly. "His vitals are still strong and we need to get him into the bedroom so I can check him over." Pete held up his left arm, emphasizing his injury. "I can't do this by myself, Jim, you understand."

Jim took a deep breath and nodded. "Which bedroom?" he asked.

"The first one on the right." Lending a steadying hand until Jim was up and stable, Pete broke away. "I'm going to the surgery to get my bag. Once he's on the bed, I need you to strip off his jeans and unbutton his shirt."

With Blair now safely in his arms, Jim followed Pete's orders precisely to the letter. Laying Blair on the bed, he unbuttoned his jeans and stripped them off in one fluid motion, before moving to the buttons on Blair's shirt.

Sandburg groaned and Jim was quick to react. "Hey, hey, easy kiddo," he soothed, palming Blair's forehead gently.


"Yeah, Junior,"

"My stomach."

"I know. Pete's gone to get his bag. He won't be long."

"Need to lie on my side."

"You going to be sick again?"

Blair shook his head. "Just hurts. Hurts to lie like this."

"Where does it hurt, son?" Pete was back and his hand settled immediately on Blair's abdomen.

"My stomach."

"I know, but I need you to be a little more specific." He gently palpated the area around Sandburg's belly button. "Here?" he asked.

"Before," Blair muttered. "Not now."

"How about here?" Pete moved his hand to Blair's right side and pressed gently.

Sandburg groaned in pain. "Stop!" he cried out.

Jim immediately grasped Blair's flailing hand. "Shhh, it's okay, it's okay." His hand continued to stroke Blair's forehead with the whimsical hope that maybe his actions, his touch, could take away some of Blair's pain. Without taking his eyes off Blair, he whispered dully, "Appendix."

Pete's hand gently squeezed his shoulder. "I need to see you outside."

Pete's response had just confirmed what Ellison didn't want to hear.

Jim left his hand where it was, just for a few moments longer, for just a few more seconds of connection -- a few more seconds of precious time with a man who had become more than his best friend. Blair was his missing link; Blair was his life.

Finally and reluctantly he lifted his hand away. Blair's skin had warmed his palm and now the cool air made him feel strangely empty. The younger man turned restlessly to his side and drew up his legs. His eyes remained closed and he let out a small puff of air. "I'll be back in a minute," Jim promised.

Blair just nodded his head and clasped his arm more firmly around his stomach, praying that the sentinel would keep that promise.

"No!" Jim shouted. "Waiting out the storm is not an option. His life's at stake here, Pete, and I have no intention of playing a game of Russian roulette with it."

"And you think I do?" Pete retaliated. The moment he'd stepped into the hall and taken in the expression on Ellison's face, he'd made the decision to ditch the bedside manner and go straight to the commanding officer. Ellison was ranting and pacing and he wasn't thinking. He was moving sideways, not straight ahead. "Okay, so we both know that a chopper's out of the question in this weather, so what do you want to do, Jim? Lug him down a road that will be nearly impassable in this rain? What are you going to do if it is his appendix and it bursts halfway down? How are you going to save his life if that happens?"

"And what are we going to do if his appendix bursts here?" Jim spat back.

"We operate."

Pete's answer brought Jim up short. He pulled up just inches from the doctor and gave him an incredulous look. "You have a broken arm, remember, and just in case you've forgotten, it's the left one. The one you use to hold a god damn scalpel."

"I won't be holding the scalpel -- you will."

Jim's look went from incredulous to shell-shocked. "Now I know you've completely lost your mind," he said, shaking his head in utter disbelief.

Taking advantage of the fact that Ellison had stopped pacing, Pete took a firm hold of his shoulders. "Jim, it's not the first time you've had to cut a man open to save his life."

Ellison's anger surged forward again and he knocked Pete's hands away. He couldn't quite believe what he was hearing, couldn't believe that the man he respected above any other could make such a stupid and asinine comment.

"I was a medic!" Ellison yelled. "Not a doctor and certainly not a surgeon."

Pete lowered his voice in an effort to try and defuse the situation. "But I am, son, and if the need arises, I'll be right beside you every step of the way."

Time came to a standstill, filling every fiber of Ellison's being with the horror and dread of what he might have to do. His resolve broke and his voice cracked. "Pete, I can't. I can't do it."

Although Pete Mitchell's heart was breaking for a man he considered more than a son to him, he stood firm. "You don't have the luxury of saying no." Without a second glance, he moved away -- he had to. He knew Jim better than any man alive and he also knew the signs. If he didn't control every decision, every move from here on in, then Blair would be in dire straits.

Making his way back to the bedroom, Pete flicked off the overhead light and switched on the lamp beside the bed. Blair felt warmer than before, but at least he was sleeping. Appendicitis was an unpredictable son of a bitch, and even with the latest, state of the art technology, it was one ailment that was hard to diagnose. He'd draw some blood and do some tests, but again, it wouldn't tell him one hundred percent what he needed to know. "Let's just pray you can hang on until the morning, kiddo," he whispered, gently brushing Blair's hair away from his face. While he had every confidence in Jim as a medic, the fact remained that he wasn't a doctor and operating by cue card was a hell of a risky business.

"Pete." Jim's voice was so raw and wounded it literally sent shivers down Pete's spine. Jim was standing in the doorway, blocking out nearly all but a flicker of light from the hallway outside. "I found these. Two are missing."

Ellison tossed over the packet and Pete caught it in mid-flight, looking immediately at the label. "Are you sure?"

Jim swallowed hard. "If it is his appendix, then they'll cause it to perforate, won't they?"

"They could," Pete answered honestly. He got to his feet, his own stance matching that of Ellison's. "Are you with me?"

"Yes," Jim whispered.

"Good," Pete replied. "That's all I needed to hear." Bending down, he covered Blair with a sheet. "You'll need to monitor his vitals."

"Where are you going?"

"There's a few things I need to get ready."

"You think it'll come to that?"

Pete squeezed Jim's shoulder on his way out the door. "I hope not, son. I hope not."

Blair woke with a start, his whole body hot and clammy. He turned over, rolling onto his back, and a cool hand was placed on his brow. "Hey, man," he muttered.

"Hey yourself, Darwin."

Turning his head to the side to look at Jim, Blair held out his hand and mumbled. "You wanna help me up?"

Although immediately taking Sandburg's hand in his own, Jim made no effort to lift him up.

"Chief, I don't think up is the best position for you at the moment."

"Yeah, well, tell that to my bladder, because it's got other ideas." Blair kicked off the sheet and squeezed Jim's hand. "Time is of the essence, man."

Feeling like he didn't have much of a choice, Jim tightened his hold and slowly pulled Blair up off the mattress, supporting his back as he did so.

"Blair, maybe you should wait here while I go get Pete?" He wasn't feeling at all comfortable with Sandburg getting out of bed.

"No," Blair said, swinging his legs around and dropping his feet to the floor. "I'm good." With one hand clutched around his stomach for support and the other one still clasped in Jim's, he attempted to stand. "Guess it's now or never."

"How 'bout we make that never, at least for the moment." Already on his way back to check on Blair, Pete slipped further into the room and squatted down by the side of the bed. "How about we use this instead," he said, holding up a plastic urinal pot.

Blair immediately raised his eyebrows. "Um, how 'bout we not," he stated emphatically.

Having no intention of repeating the same mistake he'd made earlier in the day, this time Pete turned on the bedside manner. "Blair, I'm not trying to embarrass you in any way, but the tests I did on your blood were inconclusive and it'd really help me out if I had a urine sample."

"Blood test?" Looking down at his arm, Blair noticed for the first time a small patch of gauze stuck to his forearm. "What's wrong with me?" he asked, a hint of nervousness now creeping into his voice.

To Pete's surprise and great interest, the question wasn't directed at him, but to Jim and, by Ellison's immediate response, it appeared that to him it wasn't a surprise at all.

"Chief, we're not sure." Jim's eyes darted quickly across to Pete, then back to Blair. "It could be a stomach bug or a urinary tract infection... or," he said, squeezing Blair's hand a little tighter, "it could be your appendix."

"My appendix." Blair let go of Jim's hand, running it through his tangled hair. "Oh, man, that can't be good."

"Hey," Jim stated firmly, now down on haunches right next to Pete. "Let's not go counting chickens, okay? If it does turn out to be your appendix, then we'll get the medivac chopper up here at first light." He took the bottle from Pete and placed it on Blair's lap. "In the meantime, you've gotta help us out, okay?"

Blair just nodded, still feeling a little bewildered and confused.

Jim patted Blair's knee. "You give us a yell when you're done."

Pulling the bedroom door closed after him, Jim let out a tired sigh and leaned against the hallway wall. "He's gonna be fine."

Leaning on the wall opposite, Pete met Jim's intense blue eyes with his own. "No question about it."

"So not cool," Blair muttered as he finished up his task and capped the plastic bottle. Looking around for a spot to place it that would, at least, be a little discreet, he pushed himself off the side of the mattress, aiming to place it down beside the dresser. As he rounded the end of the bed, his journey came to a sudden and devastating end. His stomach exploded, figuratively and literally. The bottle slipped from his fingers and all he could think of through the blinding pain was Pete's solid oak floor.

Unable to stop himself, Blair stumbled forward, falling against the dresser and accidentally sending a jeweled vanity box crashing to the ground. He heard the door slam back on its hinges, and only through past experience did he have the presence of mind to hold up his hand. "No," he ground out. "Just no." Knowing, also by past experience, that it was a stopgap measure, he concentrated and focused on breathing and making his own way through the pain.

As the seconds ticked by, Jim's resistance turned into a struggle and little by little, Blair felt the sentinel's presence -- first at the outer fringes of his personal space, then closer, more intimate, and then the touch. Gentle at first, fingering across his back, and finally, as all resistance broke down, an arm wrapped completely around his body, giving him strength -- giving him all that was Jim.

"I'm okay," he breathed. "It's easing." He patted Jim's hand, not missing the tension in spring-loaded muscles. "The pain's subsiding." He stretched out his back, testing the waters, surprised to find them extremely calm. The pain had all but gone and Blair dared to stand a little straighter. "I think whatever just happened has done the job," he said. "I actually think I feel pretty good."

No sooner had the words left his mouth, than Blair found himself flat on his back, his head in Jim's lap with Pete's hand practically down the front of his pants. "Guys," he squeaked in surprise. He attempted to push Pete's hands away, only to find himself reined in and captured in an Ellison stronghold. "Okay, I think I'm getting pretty close to violating mom's first rule, here fellas."

"Be still," Jim snapped roughly. He threw an anxious look Pete's way. "Well?"

"His belly's distended."

"Guys," Blair tried again. "I don't think you're hearing me. I don't feel that bad anymore." He squirmed against Jim's hold and gave himself an internal high five when he managed not only to become vertical, but was able to swivel his butt around so his back was resting against the bed, and not Jim's chest. "Really, I think I'm on the mend." Then he caught the look on Pete's face and his hope took a sudden nosedive. "Aren't I?"

"Son, it's burst."

Blair shook his head, not quite believing. "But I feel fine."

Pete scooted up Blair's body, placing his knees on either side of Blair's legs. He needed to get the kid's attention and he needed Blair to listen to him -- really listen to him. Hooking the side of Blair's neck with his right hand, he spoke firmly and resonantly. "Son, the reason you're feeling fine at the moment is because the pressure in your gut has been released." He tightened his grip. "Your appendix has burst, Blair and it needs to come out." Drawing in a steadying breath, Pete continued. "I don't know if you realize this, kiddo, but I'm left handed. I can't do the operation."

Blair's brow creased, trying to process what Pete was actually saying. "Who then?"

Jim's touch was back, wrapping around his hand and squeezing it tight. Blair closed his eyes for the briefest of moments. "Okay," he whispered. "I guess we better do this."

Pete simply nodded and squeezed his neck hard. "I'll be back in a minute."

The pressure on Blair's hand became intense. "Chief, I..."

"No," Blair stated firmly, stopping Jim dead in his tracks. "Don't you do this, man. Don't you doubt yourself for one single second." He couldn't look Jim in the eye, he didn't dare. All he could do was to stare straight ahead. Stare at the stupid, god damn pee bottle lying in the middle of the floor. "You can do this, I know you can do this."

Jim's voice was nothing more than a broken rasp. "How can you have so much faith?"

"Because I've seen how you fight for the people you love," Blair stated, simply.

He was pulled in. Pulled sideways, against Jim's chest and held tighter than he'd ever been held before.

"God, Chief." A single tear rolled down Ellison's cheek, its moisture captured in the tangled curls of Blair's auburn hair.

Ellison had held lives in his hands before, but never a life like this.

The bliss of Blair's pain-free utopia didn't last long. Breathing heavily through his mouth, he tried to fight off the nausea and keep his mind off the fact that he was lying on what very much felt like a mortuary slab. Pete and Jim's conversation hummed in the background, like discreet elevator music, their words washing over his senses without making any kind of lasting impact.

"Blair, Jim's going to start an IV line. You might feel a little sting." Pete watched as Jim tapped Blair's vein and inserted a needle. Jim's hands were rock-steady, which was exactly what Pete expected; Jim had done the same thing so many times when he'd been a medic.

Blair nodded, fighting as hard as he could against the numbing effects of the pre-op needle but, after a few moments, he felt himself fading into a haze. "Jim?"

"He's just scrubbing up, son." Pete hoped that the familiar routine of inserting the IV would demonstrate his capability, encourage Jim that he could successfully perform the necessary surgery.

Forcing himself to focus, Blair concentrated hard on what he wanted to say. "He's not unbreakable," he whispered. "I know he looks tough, with that chiseled jaw thing he's got happening, but when it hits, it hits here," Blair clumsily raised his hand and slapped it against his bare chest. "He hurts hard... so hard."

The kid might almost have been reading his mind. "I know," Pete replied, with full and complete understanding. He knew Jim better than any other, and knew exactly how far and how deep he could fall.

"Don't let him do guilt, Pete. If anything happens, promise me you won't let him do guilt."

"Nothing's gonna happen, kiddo, but just to ease your mind, I promise you that I won't let him fall."

"Thank you," Blair whispered.

"Now, close your eyes."

As if on command, Blair closed his eyes, determined to fight as long as he could against the drugs pulsing through his veins. He could still hear the sounds of familiar voices and feel the touch of familiar hands on his body as he was rolled onto his back. He felt the cold air hit his skin and the soft, cotton touch of his boxes as they traveled down the length of his legs. He felt the strange sensation of metal, scraping with short, precise strokes against the top of his pelvis and he even heard the sound of his own voice, soft, but eerie with clarity. "Think this constitutes a definite violation of mom's number one rule."

Then Jim's voice was added, up close, in his space and tickling his ear. "Well let's just hope you obeyed mom's second rule, Junior."

And then he laughed, the sound of his own voice now echoing with Jim's, filling the sterile room with life. And finally, right on the fringes of consciousness, at the very moment before his memory stopped, he felt a kiss. It was light and it was chaste, and tickled his forehead, making him feel strangely whole.

And then there was no more -- only sleep.

Pete watched silently, as Jim finished shaving the lower quadrant of Blair's abdomen. According to those who now wrote papers and did the research, it wasn't a necessary step, but he was from the old school -- from the field. He'd seen infections cripple even the strongest of men and he didn't intend to start implementing change when the patient under his care was as important as this one. As Jim finished, he swabbed the area with disinfectant and then double-checked Blair's vitals and adjusted his oxygen levels. Finally, he turned to Jim and handed him a scalpel. "You ready?"

Ellison nodded, accepting the scalpel in a hand that he refused to let shake.

"The first thing is to make a small incision here." Pete drew an imaginary line on Blair's skin. "Not too deep though, just through the muscle at this stage, so I can retract it."

The first incision was the hardest cut Jim had ever had to make. The wound and the amount of blood seeping from it may have been minuscule compared to some of the injuries he'd seen over the years, but not one of those injuries came anywhere close to stacking up to the horror of this one. This was Blair's skin he was cutting and it was Blair's blood that was flowing. Causing harm to Blair went against every instinctual fiber of his being.

"Jim, you still with me?" Pete asked, as he soaked up the blood with a swab.

"Yeah, I'm here."

"Good," Pete replied. "Because now you're going to cut through his peritoneum and expose the appendix and this needs to be precise."

With a hand steadier than he'd ever had before, Jim cut through Blair's peritoneum and exposed his appendix -- his ruptured appendix. He bit back a sharp breathe as the putrid smell of infection assaulted his sense of smell. Blair's intestines where red and inflamed and his bowel was covered with what Jim could only describe as a shimmering film of green.

"It's okay," Pete assured. "We knew what we were expecting." He nudged Jim gently with his elbow. "You got it under control?"

Jim flashed Pete a fleeting, questioning look before giving his sole attention once again to Blair. "What next?" he asked, his voice not giving away the dire uncertainty he felt inside.

"Now we need to suture the arteries and veins leading to the appendix before we go any further. Just a basic suture, Jim, nothing fancy."

After tying off the veins and arteries, Jim watched as Pete applied a clamp to the base of Blair's appendix. "Okay, Ellison, let's get this little sucker outa there."

Two precise snips had Blair's appendix detached and ready to be lifted free of his body. "Looking good, looking very good," Pete reassured. "Now you need to invert the stump of the appendix into the cecum. We're going to use purse sutures for this. You remember how to do those?"

"I remember."

"Excellent," Pete stated, carefully watching Jim's every move. "Now all we have to do is cleanse the area with saline to remove any material from the bowel and we're nearly home free." After rinsing the area thoroughly and suctioning off the excess, Pete handed Jim a needle. "Deep layers first, clean and precise, and then the upper layers of muscle. Same suture as before, okay?"

Following Pete's instructions to the letter, Jim finished closing the upper layer of muscle. "What now?"

"Because his appendix perforated, we're going to leave the subcutaneous layer open and pack it with moist dressing. I'm also going to insert a drain which will help reduce the risk of infection and let me monitor the amount of bacteria leaking from the wound. In a couple of days, it should be safe to remove the drain and packing, and then a few more sutures and he'll be as good as new." He watched as Jim followed each instruction, then smiled behind his mask. "Think you just earned your stethoscope, doctor."

Ellison pulled off his bloodied gloves and threw them onto the floor. "Yeah, well you can keep it, because I can assure you, I'm never doing this again."

After checking Blair's heart rate and respiration, Pete began to prepare Blair to be moved. This time Jim was now monitoring his every move.

"His vitals are stable, Jim. He's doing really well."

"Pete, it ruptured. What are the chances of him developing peritonitis?"

"Very minimal, actually. We got it out fairly quickly and the antibiotics I'm pumping into him should knock any infection on the head." Covering Blair with a sheet from the table, Pete kicked off the brakes on the IV pole. "I want to get him settled before he comes around but, unfortunately, the paramedics took off with the stretcher last time they were here, so that means we're gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way." Making sure the lines weren't tangled, Pete took hold of the metal pole. "You think you can manage his weight?"

"It's not the first time I've had to lug his unconscious butt around," Jim muttered. Slipping his hands under the sheets and lifting, Ellison hoped to hell that it would be the last.

"There's clean towels in the linen closet and a bucket under the sink in the surgery. You wanna grab both, just in case." Blair had been taken from the surgery to Pete's bedroom without incident. The king-size bed was the most comfortable in the house and, with an en-suite, the room provided the closest proximity to the bathroom. Adjusting Blair's lines and making sure he was comfortable, Pete worked on bringing him around.

"Blair, hey, time to wake up, kiddo." He rubbed Blair's arms briskly. "You're sleeping through all the fun."

Sandburg stirred, his eyelids fluttering open for the briefest of moments.

"That's it, keep trying." Pete kept up his stimuli until Blair's eyes stared blankly at him. "Do you know where you are, son?"

Blair only nodded a response.

"You think you can tell me your name?"

"Chief," Blair muttered.

Pete let out a low chuckle. "Close enough, I guess." He brushed a hand against Sandburg's cheek. "The operation went well and I'm expecting you to make a full recovery."


"He did fine -- better than fine, to be exact."

"Well, if it isn't 'Suzi Sleep A Lot'." Dumping the towels on the end of the bed, Ellison moved in quickly to assess Sandburg's condition for himself. "How you feeling, Junior?"

"...ine." His eyes struggled to stay open, and then, he finally gave up any further attempt to try. "got... kissed," he muttered.

Ellison smiled, brushing his hand against Blair's cheek. "You did, Princess, but you know what? You still look like a frog to me."

Pete dozed and Ellison monitored. Monitored every movement, every sound -- every single rise and fall of Blair's chest. Despite assurances that Blair was doing well, he still monitored. That's just the way things were and how they would stay until Sandburg was up on his feet and driving the world crazy again.

And thank god, I am, he thought, as Blair started to cough. His reaction was immediate, but he really did have to give Pete credit because, despite dozing in an arm chair on the other side of the room, the doctor was by Sandburg's side and barking orders before Ellison even had a chance to lift Blair up.

"I've got this. You get behind him and carefully raise his knee up toward his stomach." Encouraging Blair to roll onto his side, Pete placed a towel on the pillow and worked to get Blair to spit up as much mucus as he could. "Jim, place your hand on his incision and bear down gently. It'll help give his stomach and the sutures some extra support."

Positioning himself directly behind Blair, Ellison pulled down the blanket, placing one hand on Blair's stomach and the other on the back of his thigh as he gently raised Blair's leg. "That's it, Chief," he encouraged, his thumb rubbing incessant circles on the skin of Sandburg's thigh. "Clear out as much as you can."

"He needs to be raised." Pete never seemed to get harried. His actions may have displayed a sense of urgency, but it was never reflected in his voice. "We need some more pillows."

"I got it." Scooting up the bed until his back hit the headboard, Jim lifted Blair up until he was positioned between his legs and more or less cradled in this arms. He replaced his hand over the incision and applied a small amount of pressure. "I've got you, Chief," he said, unconsciously squeezing Blair tighter. "I got'cha."

While Sandburg's coughing eased at the change in position, the bout had caused the pain to flare in his side. He groaned, attempting to draw his legs up, but stopped when his knee banged against Jim's. He groaned again and Pete took over, guiding Blair's leg up until the joint of his knee rested on Jim's thigh. "You okay with him like this?" he asked, getting a strong feeling that the question he'd directed at Ellison was a stupid one.

"I'm fine, but he needs something else for the pain."

"I'm just about to take care of that." Plucking a needle off the tray on the dresser, Pete meticulously measured a dose before injecting it into the line. "It'll only take a few minutes." A shiver ran through Blair's body and Pete drew the blanket back up. "He should sleep for a while now." He patted Jim's leg gently "You should try and get some rest as well."

"I will," Jim answered.

"You need anything?"

Ellison shook his head, "I'm good."

"Alright, then. I'll just be out in the living room. Yell if you need me."

"Pete." Ellison said, just before Pete disappeared through the door. "Thanks." His eyes diverted briefly, taking on a vacant look, before finally coming back to meet Mitchell's. He pulled the blanket up further, tucking it more firmly around Blair's body. "Thanks for understanding."

Pete nodded. He did understand. How could he not; they'd been through too much together for him not to understand. He'd followed Jim down to the pits of hell, fighting the devil himself to drag him back out, so yeah, he understood exactly how Jim felt.

Watching as Jim cradled Blair in his arms, Pete's emotions surged, flooding him with memories of a time long since past. A time that mimicked the scene in front of him; a time when it had been Jim in his arms, fighting for his life and fighting for his sanity. Their eyes locked, and Pete nodded. He understood -- understood, more than most men, the strength of friendship and the power of love; but last and most important of all, he understood Jim Ellison. "He's worth it, you know," he said, quietly. "You're worth it."

"So are you," Jim whispered back. "So are you."

The heavy drapes that kept the chill of the mountain night at bay also kept the room in near darkness. The clock on the bedside table clicked over. It was ten forty-five. "Shit," Ellison swore. It had been well after midnight before Blair had settled, so ten forty-five meant that it was morning and it meant that he'd slept too long. Blair should have been well on his way to the hospital by now.

Still asleep, Blair was now stretched out on the right hand side of the bed and, while Jim couldn't remember moving either of them, he now found himself lying on his side with one arm snaked under Blair's pillow, and his body practically curled around kid. Carefully sliding his arm out from underneath Blair's head, he paused for a moment as Blair stirred. "Just relax," he soothed, lifting his hand from Blair's chest and placing it on his forehead.

"Jim," Blair rasped groggily.

"It's okay." Ellison soothed again. "You need to sleep."

"You... 'kay?"

"I'm fine." Jim trailed his finger lightly across the top of Blair's eyelid, encouraging him to go back to sleep.

Keeping up the slow, rhythmic motion, Ellison's thoughts soon drifted, making him think about his connection with Blair and how very natural it all seemed to be. As their relationship grew from acquaintances, to roommates and finally blossomed into friendship, their boundaries also expanded. Two men, both with hectic and often conflicting timetables, sharing one bathroom, meant that lack of privacy and personal space, especially in the mornings, had become more of the norm than an occasional occurrence. While he wasn't unaccustomed to seeing Blair naked, the act of sharing a bed in this same manner gave rise to another facet of their relationship. He was a sentinel and Blair was his guide, and when Blair was sick, or injured, or in danger, it was force he found difficult to control, and one that every fiber of his being screamed at him to obey. As a sentinel he knew that ultimately he would give all that he had to give to his guide -- no compromise, no limitations -- only complete and total intimacy.

Finding himself unable to break contact until Blair completely settled, Jim shifted even closer and waited. His fingers continued to dust across Blair's face until finally Sandburg's breathing deepened and his eyes remained closed. Once satisfied that Blair was asleep, he slid his arm out the rest of the way, and sat up, the movement causing the blanket to dislodge and exposing Blair's raw wound. Leaning over, he flicked on the bedside light and worked on dialing up his vision. The bandage was fresh, which meant Pete had come and gone, most likely more than once, while he was sleeping. With a feather-soft touch he dabbed the tender region of Blair's stomach with the tips of his fingers, relieved to find no abnormal heat coming from the incision. A quick glance at the IV showed it dripping at a steady and consistent pace. He pushed himself off the bed, taking care as he pulled up the blanket again. Adding a quilt from the bottom of the bed, his hand once again brushed lightly over Blair's head. Blair didn't move. He remained still, content and settled in a pain-free sleep. Moving to the door, he located Pete in a matter of seconds, and his tirade began.

"Damn it, Mitchell, why did you let me sleep so long?" There was anger in Jim's voice and, while these days it was very rarely vented against Pete, at this moment the doctor sported an Ellison-sized target on the centre of his back.

Unperturbed, Pete looked up from the pot of soup he was stirring. "Well, if it isn't little Miss Sunshine."

"Not in the mood," Jim warned.

"Obviously," Pete fired back, having no intention of backing down to Ellison having one of his moments. "But I'd also get a handle on that mood, if I were you."

"Hey, in case you've forgotten, Blair's in the bedroom with half his insides missing. He should have been in a hospital hours ago, not still in your bed."

"Jim," Pete said calmly, giving the pot another stir. "I've already spoken to the hospital and it's been decided that Blair is better off here."

"By who?" Jim snapped.

"By me, for starters." Tapping the spoon on the side of the pot, Pete placed it on the counter. "Look, Ellison, the operation went smoothly, without any complications, and at the moment Blair's resting comfortably with no sign of infection. My medical opinion, and that of the ER doctor, just in case you need a second one, is that it would cause Blair unnecessary pain and discomfort if we attempted to transport him now. He'll be monitored closely and at the first sign of infection, or anything else untoward, he'll be transported, ASAP." Crossing his arms casually against his chest, Pete leaned back on the counter. "And aside from the fact that he'll be stuck with your ugly mug hovering over him all day, I do think it would be better for his recovery if he got to do it around familiar faces and in an environment that's a little more pleasant than that of a hospital."

Ellison pinched the bridge of his nose before pressing the palms of his hands against his temples.

Well versed in the signs, Pete moved in and took Jim gently by the shoulders. "Sit," he said, pulling the chair out with his foot.

Jim complied without an ounce of resistance, leaning unconsciously back into the nimble fingers that were now massaging the tension from his shoulders. The speech, the advice, the common sense would follow shortly, but for now, all he needed was Pete's familiarity and he relaxed into the security that came with it.

A gentle slap on his back gave warning that the touch would be lost and Jim drew in a deep breath to try and anchor himself. A spoon, a bowl and a plate of sandwiches were placed in front of him and he waited for part two to begin.

"So, when are you planning on filling me in?"

Jim raised his eyebrows in surprise. Part two never started with a question. It may have eventually headed that way, but good, sound advice always began the routine.

"Filling you in about what?" he asked, cautiously.

"About what's going on between you two? It's obvious that your relationship with Blair is based on more than just friendship."

Ellison's hackles rose and he found himself feeling uncomfortably defensive. "What exactly are you driving at?"

"You're a Sentinel and Blair is obviously your Guide."

Okay, Ellison thought. I missed that turn in a major way. Pete's statement was just that. It wasn't a conjecture, a speculation, or even good old-fashioned guesswork. Pete had stated exactly and precisely what he knew.

Jim's silence began to build an uneasy wall and, having no intention of allowing him to put up a blockade, Pete knocked it straight down. "You know, Jim, I'm actually a little disappointed in you."

Ellison's attention was gained immediately and his eyes shot up, staring straight into Pete's with a flicker of guilt.

"Jim, everything we have, everything we've been through together, has been built on trust -- complete, absolute and total trust."

"I know," Jim whispered.

"Then why, son, after everything that you've trusted me with, do you feel you can't trust me with this?"

"Because I didn't want you to label me."

"Label you as what?"

"A freak, I guess."

This time Pete lifted his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose, not caring that his anger was about to implode. "Shit," he ground out, knowing exactly where that statement had come from. "If there's one man left on the face of this earth that still needs to feel the toe of my boot square up the centre of his ass, it's your fucking father."

There was no defense on behalf of his father leaving Jim's lips, because in his world, there was no comparison. Even tenfold wasn't enough to measure the difference between the man who gave him life and man who gave him a life.

"How did you know?" Jim asked, even though he knew the question was inane. Pete knew him better than any man did, even better than Blair.

Pete knew him to the centre of his core.

With his anger deflating as quickly as it had risen, Pete pulled out a chair. "I didn't, at first, but as I got to know you better and observed you more closely, your incredible ability for foresight got me curious, so I started digging a little deeper."

"You sound like someone else I know," Jim said, quietly.

Pete chuckled. "I actually see a lot of my youth in him."

Jim's expression remained neutral. "And for certain?" he asked. He closed his eyes briefly, not sure he was, even today, strong enough to hear the answer.

"For certain was when I saw you two together, although it wasn't, technically, a physical observation. It's more a sense of the chemistry between you. A sense of a perfect match, like a melding together, I guess." Pete leaned across the table and covered Jim's hand firmly with his own. He still hadn't answered Jim's question fully. "But my heart has known since Burma."

Jim's breathing grew a little ragged and he worked to get himself under control. They're only memories. They can't hurt you if you don't let them and they can't cripple you unless you grant them the power to do so. It was a speech he'd heard so many times from the man who had saved not only his physical being, but his soul. Clasping Pete's hand in return, Jim asked. "Why didn't you tell me? If you knew about sentinel abilities, then why didn't you tell me what was wrong with me?"

"Because one," Pete said gently, "what you have is not a disease. Two, you weren't ready, and three, to help you through this is not my job. That job belongs to the man you call your guide. The man who will, given time, become a part of your very existence." He ran his thumb across the top of Jim's knuckle. "A man who, eventually, will know you better than any other and probably better than you know yourself." He squeezed Jim's hand a little tighter. "But the kid needs a helping hand here, son. For him to do his job, he needs to know what makes the man, and that includes what happened in Burma."

Jim shook his head. "No," he said. "He can't. He can't ever know."

"Why Jim?" Pete questioned, gently "Why can't you trust Blair with your past?"

Jim's voice was now barely above a whisper. "Because I saw what it did to you. What I did to you, and I won't do that to Blair. You don't know the kid, Pete. If he knows, then he'll soak up my pain like a sponge and I won't... I can't burden him with that. The burden of what I put you through is a heavy enough guilt to carry around."

"God, Ellison, you are such a dumb ass sometimes." Pete pushed away the soup and plate, and grabbed hold of Jim's forearms, grasping them tight. "You have no burden of guilt to carry, because I never have and never will allow you to have that." He shook Jim firmly. "I came after you for one reason and one reason only and I'll be damned if I'm gonna remind you of that reason." He thumped Jim's chest hard, right at the centre of his heart. "And you know I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

"I know," Jim whispered, completely and fully aware of just how far Pete was prepared to go in the name of friendship. In a conflict that would never be written or documented in the history books, Jim owed more than his life to Colonel Peter Mitchell and a tightly knit unit of men, who had risked everything they had to fulfill the unwritten code of never leaving a man behind.

"Good." Scraping his chair across the floor, Pete got to his feet, but not before leaning across the table and grabbing Jim roughly by the back of the neck. "In a heartbeat, you idiot," he whispered again.

Pushing the bowl back in front of Jim, Pete's hand traveled down Jim's neck, and settled at junction of his shoulder. He squeezed hard. "You need to eat and I need to go check on Blair."

Jim just nodded, thankful for the time alone to get himself back together and thankful for the faith of a man who he knew was strong enough to carry them both.

Blair was sleeping soundly; even the intrusion of Pete's hand on his brow didn't disturb that. Removing his hand, Pete tucked the blankets around Blair more securely. "You know, kid, you have one hell of task ahead of you." Feeling a certain spiritual connection with Blair, and needing to ground that feeling with a physical touch, Pete reached under the blanket and took hold of Blair's hand. "There's gonna be times, Blair, when he's gonna push you so hard that you'll wonder why you bother sticking around, but once you realize why he does it, you'll learn how to push back and if I've got you pegged right, kiddo, Ellison won't know what hit him."

A small smile graced Pete's face, before drifting away at the recollection of Blair's words. "I know you've already worked out that he feels and when he does it hits hard. In time, I have no doubt that you'll also work out the reason behind it. He may never actually come out and tell you, but if you read the signs, son, it'll take you down the road you need to be on." He dusted his fingers over Blair's wrist, settling on his pulse point. "I also don't have to tell you that's he's worth loving, kid, cause you've already figured that one out, but love by itself is not enough. He's a fear-based man, Blair, and while that may sound like he's tainted with cowardice, nothing could be further from the truth. His fears are connected directly to the ones he loves. Although he may sometimes go about settling these fears in ways you won't understand, never doubt the meaning behind his actions."

Giving Blair's arm a final pat, Pete reluctantly withdrew his hand and re-adjusted the blankets. "Why don't I see if I can rustle you up some PJ's and after you're awake we'll try and organize a bit of washing." Getting to his feet, Pete pulled the drapes aside to let the morning sun filter in. Taking one last look at Blair, he turned and silently left the room, closing the door gently behind him.

As soon as the soft click of the lock was heard, Blair opened his eyes. Pete had said a lot of things he didn't yet understand, but he'd been deadly accurate on one point. Jim was worth loving -- no matter what the consequences.

"Chief, what exactly do you think you're up to?" Before he'd entered the room, Jim already knew that Blair was awake but, like the times before, he was expecting Sandburg to be flat on his back, not sitting on the side of the bed with his feet settled on the floor.

"I'm naked." Blair's attention was firmly fixed on his crotch, not on Jim. "Completely naked."

"Kinda comes with the operation territory, Darwin," Ellison replied, moving closer. "You just had your appendix out, remember?" He shot Blair a concerned look. "You do remember having your appendix out, don't you?"

"I don't mean I'm naked, Jim," Blair responded, ignoring Ellison's question. "I mean I'm naked."

"Okay," Jim gently took Blair by the shoulders. "Why don't we just lie back for a while and try and get some more sleep."

"Jim, I don't think you're listening, man." Blair waved his hand over his groin. "My manliness is all but gone."

"You have to be kidding me," Jim stated in disbelief. "Here I am, on the verge of thinking that you're having some sort of post-operation stress-related flip-out, and it turns out the only problem you're having is with some missing pubic hair!" Ellison took a quick glance at his handiwork. "And I wouldn't exactly call it gone. It's just had a bit of a tidy up."

"A bit of a tidy up!" Blair still couldn't seem to take his eyes off the lower part of his body. "That's alright for you to say, given that you're practically a founding member of the 'Friends with Alopecia' society, but I happened to like... no I happened to treasure my pubic hair, just the way it was."

Ellison rolled his eyes. "Chief, why don't you put that away before someone loses an eye, and then maybe you can fill me in as to why you're sitting on the edge of the bed?" When Sandburg didn't react, Jim picked up the corner of the blanket and flipped it over to cover Blair's naked front. "Come on, Darwin, I know you can do it. Just start thinking with your upstairs brain, and forget about the downstairs one for a minute."

Blair suddenly paled. "You know what. I don't think I feel so good." He leaned forward, expecting and finding support in the way of Ellison's body.

Squatting down, Jim guided Blair's head down onto his shoulder and gently rubbed his neck. "Pain or nausea?"

"A little of both."

"You gonna be sick?"


"Okay," Jim let his hand drift down to rub Blair's back. "You still haven't told me why you were trying to get out of bed."


"You think you can hang on while I go get Pete?"

Blair shook his head. "Not the pee bottle. I hate that thing."

"Well sorry, kid, but you're clean outa options here." Jim ruffled Blair's hair, just lightly. "Lean back against the pillows for me."

Without resisting, Blair let his body be guided by Jim's hands. His back hit the pillows, his feet were lifted off the ground and his legs were placed back in the bed. Jim's fingers dusted over his stomach, checking bandages and tubes before moving to his arm to check the IV. The blanket was pulled up and Jim's hand was back, carding though his hair. "I'll be back in a second, Chief."

Closing his eyes, Blair sank further into the pillows, feeling suddenly weighted and extraordinarily tired. Unable to stop himself from slipping back into sleep, he had the vague notion of the blanket being pulled back down and a hand pressing down gently on his stomach. But despite the intrusion, the only thought he could muster was the hope that he wasn't causing any more damage to Pete's Ponderosa.

Pete took the bottle from Jim's hand and capped it tightly. "I'll get rid of this." Picking up the tray with the discarded needle he started to make his way out of the room, knowing that Ellison wouldn't be following. "He'll probably sleep for the rest of the afternoon, Jim."

"Yeah," Jim breathed.

"Maybe you should think about doing the same."

"Yeah," Jim answered, again.

As Pete closed the door behind him, Jim made his way over to the armchair by the window. While the view over the mountains was breathtaking, it didn't hold his attention for long.

In the blink of an eye, he was asleep, joining Sandburg in some much needed rest.

A quick sponge down and a meager bowl of vegetable broth had Blair feeling like a new man. "When can this come out?" he asked, poking at the drain sticking out under a swathe of bandages.

"Tomorrow, if you don't tear it," Impatiently Ellison pulled Blair's hand away. "And same goes for the IV," he said, knowing that would be the very next question.

"But I don't need this anymore." Blair pulled at the IV, only to have his hand once again pulled away. "I'm not in any pain."

"That's because Pete keeps topping you up," Jim answered, again impatiently. He adjusted the pillows behind Blair's back so he was sitting more comfortably. "Besides, you need at least another twelve hours of antibiotics to make sure you don't get an infection."

Sandburg sighed and Ellison rolled his eyes.

"Hey, look what I found in the study." Plucking a book off the side table, Jim waved it in front of Blair's face. "This should be right up your alley." He thumbed through a couple of pages. "It's all about this geeky archeologist, linguist-type guy, who goes off to the jungles of South America in search of ancient temples."

Blair let out another sigh. He'd already attempted to read the book, but frustration had him taking it back to the library after the first few chapters. "It think you forgot to mention the part about the general destruction of priceless artifacts, plus that fact that one unit of soldiers was more well-equipped than the whole United States army."

"Aw, you've already read it." Jim put the book back down, sounding genuinely disappointed.

Feeling like he'd just kicked Jim in his olive drabs, Blair lied. "No, I haven't read it, only heard about it."

"You want me to read you a couple of chapters?"

"Yeah man, that'd be cool."

Ellison scooted around to the other side of the bed adjusting the pillows behind his own back. "Okay, Chief, hold onto your regimentals, because you're in for a ride."

"Jim," Blair interrupted. "We're close, right?"

"Of course we're close. Why are you even asking?"

Blair shrugged. "I guess it's just that we've been through a lot in the last twenty-four hours and I want to know how you're doing."

"Sandburg, you're the one lying flat out in the bed. I should be asking you that question."

"I'm not talking physically, Jim. I'm talking about being close enough to be able to open up to one another, being able to share things."

"Such as?" Jim asked with a small measure of caution. The thought that Pete might have let something slip wasn't one he entertained, even for a second. What he and Pete shared in confidence stayed precisely that way, and the devil himself wouldn't have had a chance in hell of changing that; but Blair was no idiot and the closer he let the kid get to him, the smaller the gap which he'd intentionally put between himself and his past became.

"I don't know," Blair replied nonchalantly. "Just things." He turned his head to the side, taking in Jim's expression. Don't push, Sandburg. When he's ready, he'll tell you and if he's not, then he won't. Either way, you need to respect his decision.Resigned to following his inner voice, Blair tapped the cover of the book. "I thought you were reading?"

"I was until I was interrupted."

As Jim began to read, Blair's concentration wasn't up to really taking in the details of the story. He just let the resonant sounds of the sentinel's voice waft over him, taking comfort in the fact that, if Jim trusted him enough to share even a part of his life with him, then he was indeed a lucky man.

Ellison smiled when Sandburg's head finally drooped heavily enough to close the minute gap between them. Adjusting Blair's head to rest comfortably against his shoulder, Jim kept reading. While he wasn't ready to bridge that final gap with Blair, he was certain that, no matter what, Blair would stick around until he was.

"Okay Little Joe, you ready to bite down on the bullet?" Ellison leaned down and dusted his fingers over Blair's exposed ribs.

Intervening, Pete battered Jim's hand away. "If you just ignore him, son, he'll eventually get bored and go away." With a warning glance thrown in Jim's direction, Pete picked up the syringe and measured out a dosage of local anesthetic. "Just a tiny prick and in a few minutes you won't feel a thing."

"What about the other one?" Blair asked gritting his teeth. "Will that go away as well?"

"Hey," Jim ground out in an indignant tone. "Remember I'm the one gonna be doing the stitching down yonder, buddy boy. If you don't watch yourself, the lack of pubic hair will become the least of your problems."

In an action that portrayed nothing more than pure self-preservation, Blair cupped his hands over his groin. "Pete," he squeaked.

With his arm folded across his chest, Jim stood smugly by, until a firm wallop landed against his thigh. "Ow, what was that for?" he asked, attempting to rub the sting out of his muscle.

"Take a wild throw and see if you can hit the kewpie doll," Pete answered.

"But he started it," Ellison muttered, somewhat childishly.

"And I'm finishing it." Gloving up, Pete moved the sheet down a little further on Blair's abdomen and removed the packing and the drain. He inspected the area carefully, adjusting the light as Jim's hovering frame cast a shadow.

"Is everything looking okay?"

"Everything's fine, Jim." Indicating to the gloves and the threaded needle, Pete glanced up. "You okay with this?"

Ellison nodded.

"Okay, then. Same closing sutures as before."

"I know." Although Blair seemed calm, he now had his arm thrown over his face, blocking Jim's ability to read his expression. "You okay, Chief?" he asked.

"I'm good," Blair answered quietly. "But can you just hurry this along, man? You know how I get around needles."

"I know that too, Junior," Jim answered, this time without a hint of teasing in his voice. With neat, careful stitches, he worked to join muscle to muscle and close skin against skin. "Nearly done, partner," he soothed, breaking through Blair's skin with the last stitch.

With a final tie and quick snip, the wound was closed, and Pete moved back in to inspect and bandage the incision. "Son, I'm going to leave the IV in for a bit longer. You might get some cramping and the line will give you faster relief."

As if Pete's words deemed it so, the next hour saw Blair curled in a ball, once again battling pain.

And as if a sentinel's code deemed it so, Jim lay curled around him -- and that's where he would stay until the guide felt no more pain.

Removing the IV from Blair's arm and placing a small piece of gauze over the vein, Pete patted Blair's leg. "Okay, you're free."

"Where's Jim?" Blair cocked his head to the side to see if he could trace the whereabouts of the sentinel.

"I put him to work on the wood pile."

"Driving you crazy, eh?" he chuckled.

"You don't know the half of it," Pete replied, pulling the blanket down. "Verandah or living room?" He swung Blair's legs gently over the side of the bed. "But whatever you decide, you better make it quick before the big guy gets a whiff of the plot."

"I am so down with that, my brother." Blair accepted Pete's supporting hand. "Can we try the verandah?"

"Good tactical choice, soldier. That way we can slip out the side door and he won't know what's hit him until you're flat on your back on a sun bed."

"You add a beer into that scenario and it almost sounds inviting."

"Can't help with the beer, but I can help with this." Pushing open the French doors that led from the bedroom onto the verandah, Blair was confronted with an almost picture-perfect view of the mountains that had become not only Pete's home, but his sanctuary.

"Man, you must never get tired of looking at that." he breathed out.

"Actually, sometimes I do take it for granted and I have to stop and remind myself how fortunate I am." With a tap to Blair's elbow, Pete encouraged Blair on and over to the sun bed. "You alright by yourself for a minute?"

Left alone, Blair settled back, determined to enjoy the tiny window of privacy he'd been given. While he owed both Jim and Pete his life, it was nice to be able to finally sit back in relative peace and quiet and start to experience what he'd come up here to enjoy.

"So?" A splinter of wood went hurtling past Pete, barely missing his head. "How's he doing after his little excursion?"

"Enjoying the solitude, I think."

Picking up another log, Jim sent the axe flying back down, splitting the wood with one hit, straight down the middle. "You really think he should be outa bed so soon?"

"Guess that's why I get to wear the bigger pants," Pete replied. "Good at making those little decisions."

Jim ignored the comment, deciding instead to take the anxiety he was feeling out on the wood. "What you got there?" he asked, not failing to notice the folder in Pete's hand.


"About me?"

"No, but it is about sentinels."

"Then it is about me." Another piece of wood went flying in Pete's direction.

"You were never a research subject and you know that." In a move that belied his half century spent on this earth, Pete wrapped his hand around the axe handle, preventing its downward motion and forcing Jim to level his frustration at what was really bothering him.

Ellison snatched the axe back. "Yeah, well how come I feel like one now?"

"Are you sure that's what you're feeling?" Pete questioned. "Or does it have more to do with the fact that letting Blair see what I have here will make you feel that your relationship with the kid is held together by nothing more than the bond between sentinel and guide -- that your relationship, if left to stand on friendship alone, wouldn't be up to par?"

Jim turned his back on Pete and ran his hand over his short-cropped hair. Pete's revelation was exactly what he was afraid of. He knew Blair cared about him and he knew the strength of their friendship, but the part of him that was always there to remind him of his past, would never let him truly believe.

"Listen, Jim," Despite the tone in his voice, Pete reached out to squeeze Ellison's shoulder. "I want you to listen to the conversation I'm about to have with him and I want you to listen to his response without any of those preformed judgments that you're so good at making." Pete squeezed harder. "And while you're listening, I want you to take to heart what he says in return."

"How can you be so sure that it'll be what I need to hear?" Ellison asked, his back still facing Pete.

"Because he loves you as much as I do, you stupid ass, and it's about time you took that for what it's worth."

Slapping Jim's shoulder, Pete turned away and sent up a silent prayer. He prayed that the kid's youthful exuberance at finally being able to reach out and grasp another piece of his precious holy grail, wouldn't overshadow what was the most important issue.

He prayed that Blair would see the sentinel as second place to the man.

"Thought you might like something to read?" Handing Blair his glasses, Pete somewhat reluctantly placed his research papers on Blair's lap. "Can I make you some tea?"

"You don't have to bother," Blair answered.

"It's no bother." Heading down the length of the verandah and toward the kitchen door, Pete felt the bristles on his neck begin to rise. What if he'd been wrong? What if Blair wasn't the man he'd judged him to be? What if the kid was just along for the ride and Jim was nothing more than a study subject? Knowing that his train of thought was now tipping at the ridiculous end of the scale, a part of Pete berated himself for being so absurd. But the other part, the part that had protected and would protect Jim, no matter what, scared the hell out of him. Had he, by trusting Blair, just set them both up for a mighty fall?

Boiling the water and making the tea, Pete collected his thoughts and made his way back out to the deck. As he got closer and took in the expression on Sandburg's face, he let out a small, but audible sigh of relief.

"Where did you get this stuff from, Pete?" Blair took the tea and immediately placed it down onto the decking. "And why are you showing it to me?"

Pete pulled up a chair. "Why don't you tell me?"

"I have no idea." Blair closed the file and handed it back. "As interesting as it sounds, it has nothing to do with my line of study."

"So you're not interested in sentinels at all, then?" Pete asked

"Not really," Blair answered. "Is there a reason I should be?"

Pete shrugged. "I just thought that considering you were living with one and that you just happened to be his guide, you might have shown a little interest as to what's in the folder."

"Okay enough with the bullshit." Blair said, coldly. He pushed himself forward. Although Pete had to fight the urge to reach out and stop him, his insides were screaming for Blair to let loose with all he had and really prove to him what kind of man he was.

Blair's voice was still cold and he leveled Pete with a matching stare. "It's obvious that you know Jim very well and you've also worked out what he is, but I swear to god, Pete, if you use any of that information in there against his wishes, or if you in any way do anything to hurt him or harm his reputation, I'll..."

"Hey," Pete said, holding up his hand. "It's okay, just settle down." He placed his hands on Blair's shoulders, only to have them roughly shoved away. "Jim's fully aware that I know he's a sentinel and he also knows that I intended on sharing the information with you."

"Then what the hell was that little charade all about?" Blair snapped angrily.

"It was about protection," Pete answered.

"Protection from what?" As soon as Blair asked the question, he found himself regretting it, because the answer was etched in the very fabric of Pete's face. "You have to be kidding me! You think Jim needs protection from me? You think I'd actually willingly and knowingly cause Jim harm?"

No, Pete wanted to respond, but he couldn't. He'd set this up with the hope that he could pave a new path. That he could lay a road which would keep Jim moving forward and not let him stumble back and become waylaid in a wasteland of insecurities and uncertainties. After everything Jim had achieved in his life, and after everything he'd overcome, Ellison had no right to doubt his self-worth. If testing Blair was necessary to achieve this goal, then he felt no guilt and no remorse. "I had to be sure," Pete answered. "I had to be one hundred percent sure that you were with Jim for the right reasons."

"And are you?" Blair asked.

"Yes," was all that Pete said.

Needing to pace, needing to process his thoughts in the most expedient way, Blair got to his feet, pushing away the offer of help. Once upright, he began to move; although it was slow and a little painful, he needed to be on his feet if he were going to think this through with any kind of clarity. "You know," he finally said. "I was a little envious when we first arrived and I saw the obvious connection you had with Jim. I only knew you by name, and since Jim barely spoke about you, I figured that you were just an old friend, a casual acquaintance." Blair stopped pacing and turned to face Pete. "But you're not, are you? You're not just a casual friend, an old army buddy. Whatever past the two of you have shared, it goes a lot deeper than that."

"Well, son, if you've already worked that much out, then you also should have the answer to your next question."

"Okay?" Blair responded, taking up Pete's challenge. "The answer is, just because the two of you have shared a history that goes way beyond my depth of experiences, it doesn't mean that my friendship with Jim is any less important than yours."

"No, it doesn't." Pete replied, thankful that Blair was on exactly the track he wanted him to be on.

Blair stopped pacing, knowing that he still didn't have the complete answer. "Then why?" he asked. "If I know all that, then why do I still feel so empty? Why do I feel that he's keeping his past from me because he can't trust me with his secrets?"

"He's not keeping his past from you, Blair, he's keeping it from himself." Pete prayed that Jim was still listening -- really listening, because no matter how many times he'd said it, it was still a point that needed to be drummed home. Jim's past was his stumbling block. It was the one thing that, even years after the fact, had the ability to stop him in his tracks; the one thing that had the ability to derail those who managed to get close enough to him to make an impact. "Blair, I don't know for certain if Jim will ever be able to reconcile his past, but I do know that unless he does, he's always going to struggle with trust -- and to some extent, struggle with love. I just hope that you're strong enough to stick by him, no matter what he may throw your way."

Blair's own insecurities bubbled to the surface, letting his own fear of rejection lead him away from the target Pete had in sight. "He has you," he whispered.

"Yeah, you're right, he does, and while I'll always be there for him, you're the one he needs."

"Why?" Blair asked, struggling to understand. "Why does Jim need me more than you, when you know more about him than I ever will?"

"Because I'm not his guide, son. You are."

Blair shook his head, wishing so very desperately that the older mans words were true -- that being a guide was an exclusive occupation. "Pete, I don't know what you've been reading, but I'm only Jim's guide because of my knowledge of sentinels. Don't you see?" he said. "A guide is just another word for someone who offers support and help. Anyone, if he has the right training and the right knowledge, can be a guide."

Leaning down, Pete picked up his folder. "Read, Blair. Read and understand, and once you do, you'll know why that statement is so wrong." He urged Blair to take the papers. "And you'll discover why he needs you so much."

A little afraid of what he was actually holding in his hands, Blair's anxiety peaked to another level when Jim hand's brushed against his shoulder. "Hey, Chief, why are you on your feet?"

Feeling like a naughty child caught peeping at something that was for adult eyes only, Blair clutched the folder to his chest. "You heard?"

Jim hooked Blair by the elbow. "You need to sit." His eyes captured Pete's in a look of uncertainty. While he had taken in the context of everything Pete had conveyed to Blair, he also knew that the journey along Pete's road would have to be done at his own pace. This was a passage that couldn't be crossed until the bridge to do so was placed there by him and him alone. Pete was right. He needed to reconcile his past and, although he could gather strength from the friendships that were offered to him, neither Pete nor Blair could defeat the fears that had become his personal demons. His journey was a journey for one, but he could now take comfort in the fact that Blair wouldn't be far behind him and that the reasons Blair had for following were the right ones. Their friendship, if left to stand alone, would be up to par.

"You look like you could do with a beer, Ellison." Pete took a chance of his own and met Blair's eyes. Although still holding onto a look of doubt at what he was holding in his hands, there was a renascence in Blair's eyes. Although it may have lingered beneath the surface, Pete took solace in the feeling that he had been right. Blair Sandburg was essentially a good man and a man with the right intentions.

"You okay?" Jim asked as Pete moved away and headed down the verandah.

"Yeah," Blair replied. "How 'bout you?"

"Marginally, but I'll get there."

Reaching over, Blair lightly brushed his fingers against Jim's arm. "You need some company while you're working out how to get there?"

Ellison smiled and ruffled Blair's hair, lightly, but for just the right amount of time. He dropped his hands to Blair's shoulder and drew him into a hug. "It could be a long journey, Chief."

Blair returned the intensity of Jim's hold. "I'm good for it."

"I know you are," Jim whispered. I just hope to hell that I am.

As Jim's touch warmed his body, an air of contentment warmed Blair's soul. It may have taken some guidance and a lot of Pete's wisdom, but for now, he felt at ease to sit back and simply accept whatever Jim could afford to offer. While their relationship may have begun under the guise of Sentinel and Guide, it had grown into a friendship that was intense and intimate. While he had no doubt that Jim loved him, Blair was also certain that, if left to follow its own path, their friendship would also be gifted with the one thing he was so very hopeful for -- Jim's trust -- his complete and unconditional trust.


"Well, I guess eviction time has come at last." Tossing the bags in the back of the truck, Jim tried to quash the empty feeling always associated with this particular goodbye.

Blair flashed a half-hearted smile at Pete, feeling exactly the same way. "Bet you never thought you were in for this much trouble when we landed on your doorstep."

"Oh yeah, he did," Ellison chimed in. "I'd already warned him that you were a trouble magnet."

"Ignore him?" Blair asked, holding out his hand.

"It pays to," Pete smiled. He knocked Blair's hand away and drew him into a hug. "Take care of the idiot for me," he whispered.

"That's a given." Reluctantly pulling away, Blair was unable to stop the knot he found forming in the pit of his stomach. Pete had opened his eyes up to so much and, while his new-found knowledge had left him with more questions than answers, he couldn't ask for a better man to help lead him through the minefield that lay ahead than Doctor Peter Mitchell.

Moving away as Jim closed in, Blair found himself once again staring at the scene that had left him feeling envious on the first day. Now, on the last day, it left him lingering with sense of loss for what they were both going to miss.

"Take care of yourself, you big idiot." Although Pete considered himself a strong man, the bond he shared with Jim ran deep and this depth had open cracks to his own resilience. He had never technically been a father, but he had experienced the volley of emotions that came with the title. He had literally watched Ellison be reborn; like generations of fathers past and yet to come, he felt not only the excitement, but the nervous anticipation of what lay ahead when those first tentative steps toward independence were taken. And he also felt a loss for every goodbye that came with this independence. With a last, final squeeze and a rough kiss to a cheek, Pete pulled away. "You know," he whispered.

"I know," Jim simply replied.

"Then get outa here." Controlling his emotions, Pete pushed Jim toward the truck. "And remember, the kid's got my number, so behave yourself."

As if on cue, Jim grabbed Blair by the shirt and pulled him into a headlock. "Or you'll do what?" he asked.

"Or I'll climb down off this mountain and come kick your butt."

Managing to free himself easily from Jim's loose grip, Blair feigned a couple of quick punches to Ellison torso, before scooting around to the other side of truck. "You know Pete, now might be a real good time to start."

"Get outa here, the both of you." Waving them away, Pete's smile faded, overridden by a father's nervous anticipation. "And whatever you do, just take care of each other," he whispered.

"So," Jim said, as the truck pulled away from the house. "You gonna tell me what was in that folder Pete gave you?"

"Case studies mainly," Blair answered honestly. He wasn't quite ready to take the extent of Pete's research at face value and reveal to Jim all the information that had been given to him. But if Pete was right, then their relationship as a sentinel and guide, if they both committed to it, could quite possibly brings two lives together as one. But that was a commitment that belonged to the future. Right here and now was a time to simply immerse themselves in a friendship and embrace all that it had to offer.

As Pete's silhouette faded from view, the knot in Blair's stomach was back. "He really did give you back your life, didn't he?"

"He did a lot more than that, Chief," Jim answered quietly.

"Then remind me to thank him." Returning his gaze to the passing scenery, Blair knew that he owed the good doctor far more than words could ever express. Doctor Peter Mitchell had entrusted him with the greatest gift he could ever hope to receive. He'd entrusted him with Jim Ellison.

The End.

This story has only lightly touched upon the bond between Jim and Pete and my follow up story, "Forever" explores their relationship more fully. While this story probably won't ever be put back online, if you wish to read it, please just drop me a line and I'll be happy to send it along as soon as I'm done with the rewrite. Be aware though, that it does contain violence, h/c and comes with an extreme smarm/angst warning, and at this stage, I'm not entirely sure were the Sentinel/Guide relationship will lead. I will however make sure that I give all the relevant ratings before forwarding it. *g*

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