Well, I spent a nice weekend. Friday I did a little weedeating in the front yard, Saturday, I spent some time on and with my horses, and Sunday I finished mowing the front yard with the weedeater. My back hurts, my calves and ankles hurt from riding with too-short stirrups, but I got some sun, and my muses are back in force. Back in January (yeah, when I was in LA for the rally), Nickerbits asked for an adventure story. Now, Wolfpup has asked for a 'Jim/Blair/Simon' story, along the lines of 'Winter Break'. Well, since it never got very cold or wet here this winter, I think I'll send them on a little salmon-fishing trip.

The disclaimers still apply. This is using characters borrowed from others, to whom I am eternally grateful, not only for creating them for our pleasure, but for not suing me for borrowing them.

Thanks, as always, to Tonya for the home for all these ramblings.

Prepared (The Best Laid Plans Gang Aft Agly)


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"I'll pick you guys up at six tomorrow, all right?" Simon asked, finalizing their plans for the long weekend.

"Why so late?" Jim asked.

"Because I don't want to listen to Sandburg whine like Daryl over the early hour. We're taking my car, right?" The last said just a bit more forcefully; the six-foot-four-inch police captain had absolutely no desire to take a three hour trip in Jim's truck with the three of them crammed in the cab. It would be just too uncomfortable.

"Yeah." Jim agreed reluctantly, a little unhappy about not being the one who would be driving, but willing to give up that little bit of control to have both of his best friends with him.

"You ready, Chief?" Jim asked as he brought down the last of his gear and set it by the front door to await Simon's arrival. It was barely five-thirty.

With a yawn, Blair answered, "Yeah. I think I've got it all." His own gear was sitting by the door as well. Still yawning, Blair pulled his hair back and secured it with a rubber band, then shuffled off to the kitchen to get himself a cup of coffee.

Thirty minutes later, Simon arrived, just as he had promised. Jim had the door open before he could knock, as usual.

"Just once I'd like to actually hit the door." He grumbled good-naturedly. He saw the pile of gear and bent down to grab some. "You think you have enough junk here?" He asked as he heaved the heavy bags up.

"Well, I hope so." Blair declared.

"What's in here, anyway?"

"Well, one of them has the extra sleeping bags." Blair explained.

"Why do we need extra bags?"

"In case we get snowed in, of course." Blair retorted.

Simon decided to let that one go. "And in this one?" He asked. Jim looked up from where he was fastening the last strap on his duffel.

"That's the first aid kit." He replied.

Simon gawked "First aid kit? He nearly squeaked. This thing has to weigh fifty pounds!" He exclaimed. "What's in here?"

"Everything we might need, short of a field surgery, although, in a pinch we can do stitching."

Simon shook his head and lugged the two heavy bags down the stairs, followed by Jim and Blair, equally overburdened with the rest of their gear.

Down at the car, Simon popped open his trunk. He pulled out his own gear to rearrange things to fit. One rather strained-looking bag clanked when it was set on the ground.

"What's in there, Simon?" Blair asked, "It sounds heavy, and metal."

"Well," the taller man replied, blushing slightly, "Considering how these things usually go, I brought along some extra uh, frpr." He intentionally mumbled the last word.

"What was that, Sir?" Jim asked, thinking he had heard correctly.

Simon cleared his throat and glared, "Firepower." He repeated succinctly.

"Like in, guns?" It was Blair's turn to squeak.

Simon turned his glare to the much smaller man, pulling himself up to his most intimidating height, he narrowed his eyes and hissed, "Think about it, Sandburg. Why are you carrying extra sleeping bags and Jim a field hospital? It seems like every time we go anywhere together, something awful happens."

Jim and Blair exchanged looks and shrugged. Turning back to their friend, Blair replied. "Works for me. So, where are we stopping for breakfast?" Some of his normal bounce returning.

They stopped at the Denny's on the edge of town. The meal was uneventful and they took along a thermos of coffee for the trip, since Simon was driving and tended to get a headache if he didn't keep his caffeine levels up. With his travel mug in its holder, Simon pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the highway.

They had decided that the best fishing would probably be right where the Cascade River went sharply downhill by the hydroelectric plant. Due to the narrow, switchback nature of the highway to their destination, they planned on a good three-hour trip. Simon was in no hurry, and it was close to noon when they arrived. The area in which they planned to set up camp was thankfully deserted. No one to have to share this particular stretch of river with. They exited the car and stretched the travel-kinks from their bodies. All eyes were on the nearby river. Jim let out an excited grunt as he spotted several salmon already working their way up the rapids, their shining, silver bodies reflecting in the sunlight.

"Oh, man." Blair breathed, awed by the sight. He'd never been salmon fishing before and was looking forward to his first attempts.

"Well, we have three days, gentlemen. That's six fish apiece, limit of two per day." Simon reminded them. "If you catch a small one, throw it back and go for a bigger one."

"Let's get the tent up and the campsite cleared first." Jim suggested, champing at the bit with his own eagerness to get at the river.

It took them nearly two hours to get the campsite set up to Jim's satisfaction. They were about a hundred feet from the river, just at the edge of the trees. Jim had scraped the forest duff away from most of the area in front of the tent for fire safety, and had dug a fire pit and lined it with river rock. While he had been busy with that, Blair and Simon had gathered firewood and set up Simon's camp kitchen, which included a worktable, propane stove, and even a 12-volt cooler. When they were finally satisfied with their camp, they gathered their fishing gear and headed for the river.

Blair had his Cree fishing spear, insisting that he would do just fine with it. Simon admonished him that he wouldn't have the advantage of going after bigger fish, if he managed to stab one. Blair just laughed and headed toward a shallow eddy upstream from them, where the rapids paused before taking the final plunge toward the valley below.

Jim and Simon pulled on their chest-waders and headed for the area just at the base of the rapids, wading a short distance into the river and casting out their lines, staying about twenty feet apart. As the afternoon waned, they got down to the serious business of catching dinner.

Jim looked upstream as he heard his partner's cry of triumph. Seeing the size of the fish Blair was wrestling with, he whistled for Simon to hear and, when he had the larger man's attention, pointed.

Blair was struggling with one of the largest salmon either of the older men had ever seen. It was at least three feet long and even from a distance, looked like it ran a good fifty pounds. Blair had speared his catch and dragged the injured fish to him, bending over to pick it up. He was fine, until he got a good grip and lifted the monster from the water. It abruptly began to struggle and thrash, gasping in the air. Blair held on tight, wading toward the shore, the gyrations of his catch constantly throwing him off balance and nearly causing him to fall with every step. He finally made it to the shore and simply flung the huge fish onto the bank, climbing up and collapsing beside it, panting. He then picked up a rock and killed the still gasping and flopping salmon. He glanced downstream to see his companions laughing at him. He just smiled and held up a fist with the index finger up, indicating that at least he had caught something, unlike some people he could name. Simon gave him the bird in return and turned back to his own pole and bait. Jim gave his partner a 'thumb's up' and also returned to his own task.

"You know that we're going to have to go some to top him." Simon called out as he pulled in his line to check his bait before casting again.

"Yeah. But I'm not too worried about it. The important thing is to have some fun and get some nice fish." Jim replied, changing his bait to a brightly colored marshmallow and casting it out into the edge of the rapids upstream. He was rewarded with an almost instantaneous strike. Simon turned to watch as a good sized fish flashed out of the water, the afternoon sun reflecting off the silver scales and gleaming along the wet fishing line. Jim played the fish for several minutes until he finally landed the creature on the pebbled shore, where he decided that it was big enough to keep, it was considerably smaller than Blair's first fish, but, at thirty pounds, still a keeper.

"What did you use?" Simon asked.

"Chartreuse marshmallow." Jim replied as he killed his fish and removed the hook. "Don't make fun, who has a fish, and who doesn't?" He asked as he rebaited his hook, not having to turn to see his friend's grimace of distaste at his choice of bait.

"Well, I'm going to stick with my flies, thank you very much." At least for now. he thought to himself.

Jim caught a second fish, but turned it loose as too small to keep, since it weighed in at less than twenty pounds. Simon watched enviously as the lucky fish darted away with a splash and a flash of silver. A few minutes later, they were interrupted by a shout from Blair as he struggled with his second monster fish. This one was even bigger than the first one and wriggled just wrong, causing Blair to fall, submerging in the ice- cold water. He came up sputtering, but still hanging on to his prey. With a mighty heave, he threw the fish up on the bank, then struggled to crawl out beside it, gasping for breath.

Jim had seen the drama unfolding and had tossed his own rod to shore and splashed out to dry land and ran up toward his friend, nearly panic-stricken. Simon realized what was happening, reeled in his own line as he waded to shore and then picked up Jim's rod, just in time to reel in another thirty-pound salmon. He kept most of his attention on what was happening with his friends as he beached the fish and killed it. Then, taking both of Jim's fish with him, he headed for camp to prepare for the return of the others.

NOOOOOOOO!!!!! Jim's mind was screaming as he flashed back to the last time he had seen his partner immersed in cold water, cold as death, that was. His panic leant wings to his feet and he managed to run the fifty yards uphill in what would have been a record-breaking time, had there been anyone timing it. He arrived simultaneously with Blair's last efforts to hoist his bruised and exhausted body to shore, sliding to a stop and sinking to his knees beside the smaller man.

"BLAIR!" He shouted, gasping for breath, nearly in sync with the smaller man's own gasping inhalations. "Blair, easy. It's OK. Easy." Jim's hands reached out to check for any injuries. His expression one of horrified fear.

"I'm OK man." Blair panted. "Just cold, and wet, and winded. Man, what a rush." He turned his blazing smile up to the older man. Then he saw the expression on his friend's face and reached out to touch Jim's arm. "I'm OK, Jim. Really. Just got the wind knocked out of me. And dunked. I'm all right. Honest." His smile turning gentle.

Jim brushed the wet, tangled mass of curls back from his partner's face. "You sure, Chief?" There was a tremble in his voice, not to mention his hands, as he hovered over his partner.

"Yeah. Thanks. Where's my fish?" Blair sat up, accepting Jim's help, even though it was unnecessary. "Oh, man. Isn't that a beauty?" He murmured when he spotted his catch. It was at least a meter long, a perfect Chinook Salmon, also known as the King Salmon. It lay gasping beside them, the spear still sticking out just behind the gills, where Blair had struck it.

"It's beautiful, Chief." Jim agreed, finally starting to relax as the realization that his friend was all right started to percolate into his consciousness. "Here, let me give you a hand, there." He stood up and then reached down to help the younger man to his feet.

"Thanks, man. Want to help me carry them to camp?" He grinned up at Jim, his smile pleased and content.

"Sure. You take the 'little' one." He said, gesturing to Blair's first catch. Blair looked at it and laughed.

"OK. You take Gargantua, here, and I'll take his little brother."

They were nearly staggering under the weight of the two enormous fish, by the time they made it to the campsite, where Simon had the fire in the pit started. Jim's two fish were in the camp sink, waiting to be cleaned.

"Hey, you got one, Simon." Jim congratulated as he placed his fish with the others and turned to take Blair's as well. The little camp table with the sink and stove was nearly overloaded with the hundred and sixty plus pounds of fish on it.

"Well, it was on your line, though, Jim. I just landed it for you." Simon admitted. "After supper, I'm going to go back in to see if I can't catch something." He looked at the smallest member of their little group. "You OK, Sandburg?" He asked, seeing that the short man was starting to shiver from the cold.

"Yeah, just a little cold, you know? Let me get changed and I'll see about fixing dinner. I brought everything I need for that stuffed baked salmon. If that's all right with you guys?" He was suddenly uncertain and his expression showed it.

"No problem. Sounds good, to me. Jim?" Simon replied and then immediately turned the decision over to the third member of their group, who was still hovering over the smaller man.

"Sure, Chief. Whatever you want." He watched as Blair headed for the tent, pulling his wet, soggy clothes off as he went, to drop them outside before going in to change. At least he'd been barefoot To distract himself, Jim started in cleaning the smallest of the fish for Blair to cook for them. It was going to be too much for just the three of them, but that would be all right. Besides, once Blair was warm and dry again, who knew? Maybe Jim's appetite would return. Simon watched his friend as he worried over the fish.

"Jim." He said softly enough that Blair wouldn't be able to hear him fifteen feet away in the tent. "Jim, he's all right. He just got a little wet. He's not hurt. He didn't drown, Jim." His voice was low and soothing. Jim froze, the scaling knife half-way down the length of the fish. Jim closed his eyes and trembled.

"It was just " He shook his head, trying to shake the memories away. Simon stepped up behind him and lay a gentle hand between his shoulder blades.

"I know. Sudden flashback. I could see it when you started running. It's OK. He's OK. Just a little cold and damp. He didn't die, Jim. You don't have to bring him back this time." He could feel the trembling worsen. Stepping closer, he wrapped his arms around the smaller man, holding him against his chest. Understanding when Jim turned in his arms and buried his face against his chest, sobbing and clinging to the taller man.

The expression on Blair's face was one of puzzled worry when he came out to see his partner and friend being held as he cried. Simon had lain his cheek against the top of Jim's head and was holding him tightly as Jim's sobs shuddered through him. Simon was making soft, soothing noises as he gently stroked Jim's back and rocked softly.

"Simon?" Blair whispered, worry coming out on top.

"Shh, It's OK, Jim. Easy. He's fine. He didn't drown. Not then, not now. He's OK, Jim. Shh. Easy, baby. It's all right. Let it out." Murmuring soothingly as he answered Blair's unspoken questions. Blair paled at the realization that Jim had flashed back on the events at the fountain. He quickly stepped over to his friends and added his own embrace to Simon's.

"I'm fine, Jim. See? I'm right here. It's OK, man. It's OK." His own hands stroking the broad shoulders and down the arms. "See? I'm real. I'm right here. I didn't leave you, man. I'm here." Smiling a little hesitantly as Jim turned his red-rimmed eyes and tear-streaked face to him.

"Oh, God, Blair. I'm sorry. I-I-I'm sorry."

"Hey, it's OK, man. We're good. It's OK. Honest." Blair encouraged. It had been several months since he had drowned in the fountain in front of Hargrove Hall. They had talked about it, worked through their difficulties. At least, Blair had thought they had. Obviously, Jim still had some work to do on his feelings about the entire episode. Or maybe it was just a residual reaction to seeing him slip beneath the water, a flashback.

He didn't know what had brought it on, but he was grateful that his friends would probably just pretend that nothing had happened, once he could get himself under control. The warmth of his friends holding him eventually helped him to pull back, still sniffling, but he didn't try to avoid their concerned gazes. Taking a deep breath, he sighed. Taking a second deep breath, he spoke:

"Thanks, guys. Sorry about that." He waited as they let go of him. The removal of the physical contact chilled him and caused him to shiver once as he adjusted to the colder air temperature. "Flashback." He admitted, smiling ruefully.

"Hey, happens to all of us." Blair said softly, still looking in concern at his friend.

Simon gauged the other two and decided that the quicker they got things back to what passed for 'normal', the better. "So, Jim, why don't you get out of your waders and you two finish up the fish- cleaning, and I'll get the fire ready to cook on You were planning on cooking on the open fire, weren't you?" He asked Blair.

"Uh, yeah. I've got everything I need in a box over here." He turned and reached under the portable kitchen and pulled out a cardboard box full of his supplies, seasonings, vegetables, foil, everything he would need to fix dinner.

"Let me just go ahead and clean all the fish. I've already started." Jim volunteered. He got no arguments from Blair, who smiled at him, easing a little more of the stress for his friend.

Simon nodded and started building up the fire to cooking temperature.

Once their dinner was set in the coals to cook, Simon headed back to the river to try his luck once more. Jim had finished cleaning the fish and packing them in the cooler. He took the offal downstream a good quarter of a mile to dump where it wouldn't attract anything to their campsite.

In the near darkness, Simon was finally able to catch his own fish. Like Jim's they were close to thirty pounds each and he was satisfied enough to bring them back to camp, where he took his turn at cleaning and packaging them. Carting off the scraps, he passed Jim on his way back to camp. Instead of continuing on his way, Jim chose to follow his captain.

"I'm sorry about earlier." Jim murmured softly.

"It's all right, Jim." Simon answered, just as softly. "I'm surprised you haven't had any problems until now, to tell you the truth." He admitted.

"Well, this is the first time anything has happened to remind me about the-the fountain." Jim replied. "It really shook me up, you know?" He couldn't help but shiver at the memory.

"Yeah. As soon as I saw the kid hit the water, I knew what was happening. Man, you can really fly when you have to." Simon added. "It's OK, you know. Neither of us thinks any less of you for what happened."

Jim looked at his superior and saw the good friend he had become. With a faint smile, he replied, "I know. Thank you."

They finished dumping their garbage and Simon rinsed his hands in the river before they headed back to camp.

Blair had dinner ready and waiting for them when they returned. The delicate scent of wild onions, pine nuts, and other savory herbs and spices greeted them and set their mouths to watering and their stomachs growling in anticipation. They sat down at the table and dug in; too busy enjoying the food to have a conversation, at least until their first 'starvation' was staved off.

"Oh, man, Blair." Simon groaned, disbelieving how much he had eaten, "That was terrific." He said, leaning back and patting his stomach. "Maybe we should give you permanent kitchen duty." He teased.

"Hey, I can do that. Of course, that means that you two will have to do all the clean-up." Blair teased back.

"If it means eating like this every meal, I don't mind." Jim agreed.

After Jim and Simon had done the clean up and Jim had made sure that there was nothing to attract any wildlife to their camp during the night, they settled down before the fire. Blair was busily grading a batch of tests he had brought with him, Simon was tying a new fly, and Jim just lay back and watched the stars. The evening passed in companionably relative silence. When Blair had worked down to the end of his stack, he sat back, stretched up, hands reaching for the stars, his spine pulled up in joint-popping relief.

"Well, I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to bed, now." His friends smiled at him and with murmurs of assent, they headed for the three-room tent. Simon had the room closest to the fire, Blair had the room in the middle, and Jim had the room closest to the woods. They each had one of Blair's extra sleeping bags on the floor of the tent acting as additional padding beneath their regular bags. Simon sighed in bliss as he stretched out in remarkable comfort. Blair, as usual, snuggled deeply into his bag, burrowing deeply into the interior before he quickly dropped off to sleep. Jim simply crawled into his bag and lay there for a time, listening. He heard his friends settle down and the deep, even cadences, which indicated when they fell asleep. Once he was certain that they were asleep, he let his hearing roam further afield. He could hear the local scamperings of many small animals, the nearly silence of bats wings, punctuated with their piercing, nearly ultrasonic cries. Ranging further afield, he allowed the sounds of nature to lull him to his own rest and sleep.

The morning dawned cold and overcast. Jim awoke first. He lay quietly, listening and cataloguing the sounds of the morning. Birds in the trees, the sound of salmon splashing their way up-river, the chirp of insects, the growl of a bear His eyes snapped open. Bear? Of course. Upstream from them, a bear was fishing, taking advantage of the abundant supply of easily caught fish. Gauging the intensity of the sounds, it was at least a mile upstream of them. Not a problem. He relaxed and finished his tracking and cataloguing of everything in the vicinity. Smiling, he unzipped his bag and crawled out. Making his way outdoors, he paused just outside, inhaling the wonderful, fresh smell of the forest. Smiling, he then wandered over to Simon's fancy kitchen setup and lit the stove. Using bottled water, he prepared the coffeepot and set it to percolate. Seeing that the sun wasn't going to be up for at least another half an hour, he pulled on his waders and grabbed his rod, heading for the river.

This early in the day, he wasn't looking for salmon, really. He was more interested in trying to catch some trout. He was using his fly rod with one of Simon's hand-tied flies. He flicked his wrist a few times, letting out more line with each pass, finally settling the fly exactly where he wanted it, in a quiet eddy across the river from where he stood. He only let the fly rest there a moment before jerking it back, then sailing it again toward the far shore. Less than an hour later, he returned to camp with half a dozen very respectable trout for breakfast. The coffee was good and strong, just the way they liked it when out camping. He poured himself a cup and started cleaning his catch. He dipped the whole fish in a beaten egg, then into seasoned flour, back into the egg and back into the flour, double coating each fish before putting it in the frying pan on the stove to cook. When he had turned them, he went to the tent to waken his companions.

"Breakfast in five, guys." He called, loud enough to penetrate their sleep. Simon grunted acknowledgement, but Blair only groaned softly and burrowed deeper beneath his covers. "Chief, don't make me come in there after you. Get the lead out." He warned before turning back to his cooking. "Oh, the coffee's ready." He added, then grinned when he heard Blair squirm out of his sleeping bag and come shuffling quickly from the tent, his hands reaching for the extended, filled cup.

"Ohhhh, thanks, man." He mumbled, inhaling the fragrance of the strong brew. Taking a sip, he sighed. "Great, man. Sleep well?" Smiling up at his friend.

"Yeah. Thanks. You?"

"Wonderful. That extra bag makes a great cushion against the ground, you know?"

"Yeah, I do, Chief. 'Morning, Simon, sleep well?" He glanced at his friend as he handed him a cup of coffee.

"Oh, yeah. Slept great." He took a long sip of the hot beverage and smiled. Turning to Blair, he agreed with him, "Your idea about that extra bag was great, almost as good as a mattress." Blair nearly preened with the praise.

"Well, I'll stick with the foam pad when backpacking, but when you have the room for it, the extra bag is great, too." He smiled as he took another sip of his coffee. "What's for breakfast, Jim?" He asked, as Jim lifted the frying pan from the stove and carried it over to the table, which was already set.

"I woke up before daylight and caught us some trout for breakfast." He explained as he placed two fish on each plate, along with some fried potatoes.

"Great. You could have gotten me up to help, you know." Simon admonished, not really minding the extra sleep.

"Nah, it was fine. Oh, don't go too far upstream, there's a bear up there." He added as he sat down to dig into his breakfast.

Blair paused, his fork halfway to his mouth, "Bear?" His voice going up half an octave. "Like in bear?"

"Yeah, Chief. Bear, like in bear. He was fishing this morning, about a mile or so upriver. If we stay here, we shouldn't even see him." He added, shoveling a forkful of trout into his mouth.

"Good breakfast, Jim." Simon sighed as he finished his meal. "Perfect." He added, patting his now full stomach.

"Yeah, Jim. Great. So, do we fish this morning, or go for a hike?" He was a little leery of hiking, knowing that there was a bear so near.

"How about we clean up and then go for a hike?" Simon suggested. "We did pretty well fishing in the afternoon, yesterday. I'm fine with that."

After cleaning up from breakfast and sealing the trash in a resealable bag and hanging it high in a tree several yards away from camp, they changed into their hiking boots. Simon unzipped his 'firepower' duffel and pulled out two guns, with holsters, which he attached to his belt, underneath his sweatshirt. Watching him, Jim only smiled and filled his own backpack with parts of his first-aid kit. Just in case. Blair watched both men and just shook his head in bemusement.

They opted to hike into the woods, away from the river and any fishing bears. It was a beautiful, if overcast day. The trail was taxing, but not too difficult; just a lot of ups and downs and a few sideways. Jim led, following what appeared to be a deer track. It led up the mountainside, over a ridge, through a lush, green meadow, over another ridge, where they stopped and stared.

"Oh, man." Blair whispered. "Oh, wow." Awed. They had topped the ridge and there before them was a pristine valley, snuggled amongst the peaks of the surrounding mountains. There was a meadow that stretched across most of the valley, a rich, green ocean of deep grass, with patches of deciduous trees beneath which grew a riotous rainbow of various Rhododendrons.

"Wow, definitely describes it." Simon added, just as awed. Jim simply allowed his vision to take over, cataloguing and mapping the entire valley, until he froze, a puzzled frown on his face.

"There's a cabin over there, about two miles east-north-east. There's smoke coming from the chimney." He announced.

"How could they get here? I don't see any signs of any kind of road, do you?" Simon asked, puzzled. Jim shook his head.

"No signs of any roads. No airstrip. Not even a real trail, that I can see, anywhere."

"Uh, Jim?" Blair had a note of worry in his voice, which immediately brought the attention of both of his companions to him. "Jim, is that what I think it is?" He barely lifted a finger to point, for fear of attracting attention. Jim's eyes followed his pointing finger and saw it, a long, tawny cat, stretched out on a rock only ten to fifteen feet away. The big cougar was watching them, his darker tipped tail slowly flexing up and down. Simon followed his gaze and his own eyes widened in fear.

"Shit." The dark man muttered. "Whatever we do, do not turn your back on that thing." Jim just continued to stare at the big cat, his head cocked slightly to one side as they looked into each other's eyes. Jim's eyes narrowed slightly and he growled, softly. The cougar blinked, breaking contact, then stood up and stretched, never looking away from Jim.

As the big cat yawned, Jim moved. But instead of backing away from the wild animal, he moved toward it; never breaking eye contact with it. The cat froze and stared back at him, Jim growled again, a little louder, this time. The animal blinked again, surprise showing on his face. Staring at Jim, it made an odd, very oversized, meowing sort of noise. Sounding for all the world like an overgrown house cat. There was a question in the sound, and Jim growled again, more softly, this time, questioningly. The cat cocked his head at the humans, yawned, and turned to disappear into the forest.

"Jim, just what the hell was that?!" Simon nearly shouted. He had a pistol in his hand and had been prepared to kill the mountain lion had it made any move toward them.

"That was a cougar, Simon." Jim replied, mildly. "He was just curious. He won't bother us." He turned his back on the others and continued his perusal of the valley.

"Jim?" Blair asked, confused. He approached his friend and placed a hand in the small of his back, rubbing slightly to get his attention.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Uh, you want to explain what just happened? I mean, you growled at that mountain lion, Jim. And he backed down."

Jim turned to his friends and finally registered their concern and confusion. He thought back over the past few minutes and suddenly realized what he had done. He blinked and refocused on Blair. "I-I'm not quite sure. It's almost like I could well, talk to him. I-it's like he's seen people before, but doesn't feel threatened by us " He looked back toward the cabin that only he could see "Almost like he's someone's pet "

Blair and Simon exchanged worried looks. Simon came to a decision, "Well, since the cat's gone, why don't we head back, now? I'd love some nice salmon for lunch. Blair?" Wanting to double-team the distracted Sentinel.

"Yeah, sounds good, Simon. Let's head back, now. Jim?" They turned their gazes to Jim.

He'd much rather follow his senses out to that cabin, but he turned away to follow his companions, deciding that his curiosity just might be more of a danger than anything. After all, anyone who lived this far from civilization without any discernable connections to the outside world, well, there were stories about things like that. Considering his companions, yeah, it was just better to walk away.

Fortunately, Jim still had his hearing extended, so that when they neared the narrow pass they had hiked through, he was able to stop his friends from walking into the ambush. He simply reached out and grabbed them by the arms and pulled them to cover. Focusing all his senses ahead, he whispered, "Three people with rifles, up in the rocks." Accepting a gun from Simon, he turned to slip away to circle their ambushers to get the drop on them; only to find Blair blocking his way.

"No, Chief. I need to be as quiet as possible, and with you unarmed " His eyes were pleading with his friend.

"I know, Jim. Just, be careful and watch your back, OK?" His worried eyes looking up into his friend's.

Jim smiled and patted Blair's shoulder. "I'll be careful, Chief. You and Simon keep out of sight, OK?"

Blair smiled, "We'll take care of each other, Jim." He promised before turning back to Simon, where he took up his post, back to back with the taller man. Satisfied, Jim turned back and made a large circle around where his senses told him the ambush was waiting.

Creeping through the scrub, he slipped, catlike, up, around, and behind their stalkers. He was a bit surprised to discover that they were just young people, not yet out of their teens.

"Yer sure ya saw strangers, Becky?" The speaker was a tall boy, nearly Sandburg's height; lanky and thin, his clothes were made of buckskin, as was all of their clothing. All barefoot, as well. The tall boy looked to be about fifteen, at the oldest, probably younger. The other boy was no more than eight or nine, and the girl was somewhere in between. From their appearance, Jim judged them as harmless, except for the rifle that the oldest boy was carrying.

"They was three of 'em. One was even darker than Maw-maw." She insisted.

"Figure them's Snake?" The little one asked, a combination of fear and excitement in his voice.

"Ah don'no." Becky answered. "I ain't never seed one, so how could I?" Becky countered, a bit exasperated. "Whut'cha s'pose is takin' 'em so long? I know I seen 'em with Buttercup. An' he come back a long time ago." She was peering out anxiously around the boulder they were hiding behind.

Suddenly, the boulder shifted, tumbling down the cliff, the girl bouncing along in its wake, her high- pitched scream of terror abruptly cut off when her head struck an outcropping. The two boys stood up, the smaller one screaming,

"Becky! Becky! BECKY! he screamed, watching in horror as his sister came to a stop twenty feet below.

"We gotta get help, Travis. I'll " Both boys jumped when Jim rushed by them and swung over the drop-off and scrambled down to the still, silent girl.

"Simon! Blair!" Jim shouted. "Hurry, I need the first aid kit!" His friends running up before he was finished yelling. He crouched beside the still figure, using his senses to ascertain the severity of the girl's injuries. His long, slender fingers gently probing along her spine, relieved to not find any obvious break.

"She hit her head on her way down. I don't smell any blood, but " He carefully felt along her skull where he had seen it strike the rocks. "OK, no fracture that I can feel. But she's unconscious, heart and respiration are up." He ran his hands along her arms and then her legs. "OK, got a broken leg, here and a fractured wrist."

While Jim checked her out, Simon and Blair opened Jim's backpack, pulling out the medical supplies. They all looked up at the sound of scrabbling feet and falling pebbles as the two boys scrambled down beside them. Simon reached out to stop them from grabbing at their sister.

"Hold on, we don't want to try and move her just yet. We could hurt her more. Just stay back a little and let us help her, OK?" Simon's voice worked as well on these strange children as it did on his own men. The two boys just dropped down beside them, watching Jim closely and looking from their sister to the strangers.

"Uhhhhhh." Becky weakly moaned, shifting just a little. Jim's hand barely touched her back, urging her to remain still.

"Shhh, easy. Don't try to move. You've got some broken bones." Jim spoke softly, soothingly, as he finished his examination. "OK, Becky? Can you tell me where it hurts? I know your head hurts on the right side where you hit it on the rock, and your left wrist, where you landed on it, and your left leg, where a rock hit you as you came down. Does anywhere else hurt, honey?"

"Ah got a hurt in m' belly, raht here." She used her good arm to point at where her right hip rested on some jagged rocks.

"OK, that's all right. Can you wiggle your toes?"


While Jim was busy with the girl, Blair left Simon to set up Jim's medical supplies to go to the boys. "Hi, My name's Blair Sandburg. That's my friend Jim, he was a medic in the Army, and that's Simon, my other friend." When the two boys turned their attention to him, he smiled reassuringly. "Jim's going to take good care of your sister she is your sister, isn't she?"

"Uh, yeah. I'm Billy, an' this is m' brother, Travis, an' that's our sister, Becky."

"Cool. Uh, where are your parents?"

"Pa's off in the fields, plowin' fer spring crops, an' Ma's at th' house. We finished up our chores, and was out playin'. Becky said she'd seen strangers up the hill, so's we come up to take a look-see. I reckon it was y'all she seen." He looked curiously at Simon. "She said that one of ye was darker'n Maw-Maw, I reckon she was shore right."

Simon glanced up and smiled. "I s'pose that Maw-Maw is your grandmother?"

"Yessah. She's our Pa's ma."

"Perhaps one of you boys had better run for one of your parents?" Simon suggested, keeping his voice low-pitched and gentle. Despite his efforts, Billy jumped up, excited.

"I cain't leave 'em with strangers, but I kin be back a lot faster if I goes alone." He looked at his siblings, torn.

"Why don't I go with you?" Blair offered. "I can run pretty fast, although probably not as fast as you."

Billy looked at him, gnawing on his lower lip, trying to decide.

"Go on, Travis. I'll make sure they don't hurt Becky. Hurry." The smaller boy urged. Deciding, Travis jerked a nod at Blair and led the way.

"We'll be back as soon as we can." Blair promised before he jogged off after the boy.

Jim nodded distractedly as he kept his concentration on the injured girl. "Becky, what say we splint your broken arm and leg, then we can get you turned over without worrying about hurting you any more, OK?"

"Uh-huh." She agreed. Jim reached for two pair of portable splints that Simon had laid out for him. Careful to keep the broken wrist as immobile as he could, he placed the splints and wrapped the arm from her fingertips to up past her elbow.

"You're very brave, Becky." Jim encouraged, pleased that she didn't cry out or struggle.

"Thank you." She replied.

Jim gently stroked her visible cheek when he had finished splinting her wrist, then moved on to her broken leg. "Travis? Could you help me?" Jim asked, looking at Simon, who nodded and handed him the other set of splints and pressure-bandage tape.

"Yessir?" The small boy approached.

Jim smiled at the serious young man. "Do you think you can talk to Becky? I need to straighten her leg, so the bones are more in alignment." The boy paled and nodded, then moved to sit by his sister's head and held tight to her good hand.

"It's gonna hurt, Becky." He whispered to his sister. Becky just nodded. At the moment, everything hurt and she couldn't imagine it getting any worse. When Jim and Simon gently applied traction to the broken bones, she realized that there could be more pain. She squeezed her brother's hand, hard, and tried to suppress her moan, only partly succeeding. There was an audible 'click' when the ends of the bones slid back together.

While Jim held the bones in place, his senses helping him to avoid releasing pressure and allowing the bones to slip apart again, Simon applied the splints and began wrapping the injured limb. When Jim was satisfied with the splint, he and Simon gently lifted the girl and repositioned her in a sitting position, using his jacket for a cushion and Simon's jacket for a blanket.

Jim, now able to check the rest of her out, gently probed her right hip, pleased that there was no heat or inflammation. He then turned to check the small cut on her forehead, which had already discolored and formed a large, swollen knot.

"Does your stomach still hurt?" Simon asked, as Jim gently continued his examination.

"Nossir." Becky replied, looking curiously at the Black man, now that she could see them better. "Are you that color all over?"

Jim froze and glanced up at his captain, who had a surprised expression on his face. He smiled when Simon did and continued with gently cleaning the cut.

"Yes. Except for the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet." Simon replied, holding out his hands, palm up for her to examine. Travis leaned closer to see, as well.

"Maw-Maw's hands is the same color on both sides." Travis opined. Becky tried to nod, but Jim was holding her head still as he worked on the cut.

"Uh-huh." Becky agreed. And that was the end of the questions. Being children, they thought no more of it.

"That looks like it hurts a lot, Becky." Travis said, redirecting his attention to his sister.

"Not as much as m' leg does." She looked down at the splints on her arm and leg. "D'y' 'spose that it'll grow back crooked like Maw-Maw's leg did?" She sounded worried.

"Not once we get you to a hospital and get them put in casts." Simon promised.

"Whut's a hospital?" Travis asked, puzzled.

Jim and Simon exchanged worried looks at that. Wondering just how many generations of this family had been in this hidden little valley, cut off from the rest of the world and any advances in civilization. They had both read horror stories about 'hill people', and wondered just how true they might be.

"A hospital is a place where doctors help make people well when they're hurt or sick." Simon explained. The two children looked at each other, worried frowns marring their faces.

"Y' mean, in the city?" Travis asked, in horror.

"Well, yes." Simon agreed.

"Oh, we cain't never go to the city. Pa sez "

"Hush, Travis." Becky stopped her younger brother's chatter. Looking fearfully up at the strangers.

"Don't worry. We won't tell anyone about you being up here." Jim reassured the two children, blessing them with one of his broad smiles. They couldn't help smiling back. He finished cleaning the cut on Becky's head and covered it with a bandage to protect it. He sat back, looking at the children. "There. All done. You were very brave, Becky. You didn't even cry."

"Don't do no good to cry." The girl told him. "Won't make the hurt go away, none."

Jim's brow furrowed down in a frown, wondering just what was going on with these children. He exchanged a long, communicative look with Simon, whose expression matched his.

Blair had a little trouble keeping up with Billy. The boy had to slow down for him to keep up. At least it wasn't all uphill, only about half of it. By the time they got to the cabin, he was panting for breath.

The cabin was nestled amidst tall conifers, blending in so well with its surroundings that it was nearly impossible to see until you actually came up to it. Billy slowed down when they reached the trees, stopping long enough for Blair to catch his breath, as well as allowing him to catch his.

"I run in th' house all tuckered like this an' Ma'll have a conniption fer shur." Billy announced, panting.

"OK by me. I wouldn't want your mom to think I was chasing you, you know?" Blair smiled. Billy returned a serious look and replied,

"Yer right about that, fer certain shur." Billy smiled up at Blair, who returned the smile and patted his shoulder.

"OK, I've caught my breath, so, I guess I'm ready." Billy nodded and turned to lead the way to his home.

An elderly Indian woman was standing in the doorway, waiting for them.

"Maw-Maw!" Billy called out, "Becky fell, she's hurt bad. This's Mr. Blair Sandburg. Him an' his friends is takin' care of her an' Travis is stayin' with 'em," running up to his grandmother with Blair right behind him.

"Hi, one of my friends used to be a medic. He was taking care of her. She's got a broken leg and a broken wrist, and a cut on her head, she was unconscious for a while." Blair told the elderly woman, who just looked at him, her eyes hooded, no expression showing. When he finished talking, she looked at him, examining him. Satisfied, but not taking her eyes from the stranger, she said,

"Go fetch yer Pa from the field." Her words sent Billy off at a dead run. Blair smiled a bit nervously. The old woman remained blocking the doorway.

Blair, ever the chatterbox, did his best to engage her in conversation. "Um, may I ask which tribe you're from?" No answer. "You know, I've studied a number of different cultures and I was wondering, do you hold on to the customs from the past?" No answer; no change in expression. He tried several more gambits, but each was met with the same, stony, silence. Finally, "I guess you don't want to talk, huh?" which earned him a faint smile in return. "Got it. Shut up, Sandburg." Mumbling the last bit to himself, the old woman smiled, showing strong, yellowed teeth. Blair stood fidgeting while they waited the fifteen or so minutes it took for Billy to return with his father.

Knowing that the elderly Indian woman was this man's father, he was a bit surprised to discover that Billy's dad was fair-skinned, although, he had strong Indian features. He had dark hair and eyes, just like his children. The man wasn't much taller than Blair, and he had a worried look on his face.

Blair's biggest surprise came when the man spoke. His accent was decidedly British, at least to his ear. "What happened, is Rebecca all right? How did you get here? Where did you come from? How did you find us? Why did you come?"

Blair finally just interrupted him. "We were fishing, we went for a hike and found this valley. Your kids were watching us, I guess, and a boulder fell, with Becky right behind it. She hit her head on the way down and broke her left wrist and leg. My friends are doing first aid on her. She had regained consciousness before we came for you. Travis is fine. Oh, and my name is Blair Sandburg." He extended his hand to the distraught father, who absently shook the offered hand.

"My name is Michael. Let me get the wagon, and we'll drive to where you are." He glanced at his mother and mumbled a few word that Blair recognized as being 'not English' and understood why the old woman hadn't answered him she didn't understand a word he had said, or at least her English was minimal, he figured. Blair smiled at her and followed Michael around to the back of the cabin, where he was surprised to find an elderly Land Rover. Michael jumped into the driver's seat and Blair was even more surprised when the motor cranked right over and roared to life. He scrambled into the front passenger seat, while Billy climbed in the back. As soon as the doors were closed, Michael put the car in gear, released the clutch and they roared off back toward where Michael's injured daughter lay.

Blair looked curiously at Michael, wondering what had brought him to this remote location, but taking in his expression decided against asking. Instead, he decided to just sit quietly and give directions, if needed.

Luckily, it was only about two miles.

Simon had taken Travis with him to gather fuel for a fire, while Jim stayed with Becky and kept her awake, telling her stories about their fishing trip and the hike they were on. Blair and Billy had been gone just over half an hour, when Jim lifted his head to look down across the valley. There, cutting through the tall, green grass was an elderly four-wheel-drive vehicle. Concentrating, Jim could see that Blair was in the passenger seat, and Billy was in the rear. It would be at least another five minutes before they would arrive.

Simon and Travis set down their load of deadfall branches and twigs. Jim immediately set to work building a fire, even though he knew that help would be there very soon. There was just something so very comforting about the cheery flames of a campfire. By the time the flames were happily licking away at the fuel, Jim could hear them coming up the last few hundred yards, on foot. Billy was trying to explain to his father just why they had come up here, for which Billy honestly told his father that they wanted to see the strangers. When they crested the ridge, Jim could see that Blair was biting his tongue to keep from speaking to the man. Jim stood to greet them when they arrived.

"Pa, these'r the folks that took care of Becky." Billy announced.

Simon stepped forward, extending his hand. "Simon Banks, and this is Jim Ellison. You're daughter's got a couple of pretty bad breaks, but Jim managed to get them splinted fairly well." Simon's smile got wider as the children's father reached out to automatically shake his offered hand.

"Michael Townsend. However did you find your way here?"

"We've set up camp near the dam. We decided to go for a hike and this is where the trail led us." Simon explained.

"Trail?" Townsend asked, looking toward the ridge they had come down. "I was unaware of any footpaths here." "Well," Jim replied for his friends, "It was more of a deer track than an actual path." Smiling when he saw Townsend accept his answer.

The concerned father approached and crouched down beside his daughter. "Becky? How are you feeling?" He asked softly.

"I reckon I busted my leg and wrist. Leastways, I didn't break my head. I don't think." She looked past her father to check with Jim, who smiled encouragingly.

"I don't think you broke your skull, but you do have a concussion." He looked at the children's father. "It's several hours to get her to a hospital, I've got my cell phone and can call for an airlift " He offered it as a suggestion, based on Travis's mention of his grandmother.

"Actually, I have a helicopter in the barn. If we can just get her down there without causing any more damage, it's a pretty bumpy ride, I'm afraid, at least until we get to the valley floor." He looked helplessly up at the three strangers, seeking suggestions.

"Well," Simon began, "We could probably carry her down to where the land levels out." He looked at Jim, "Do you think that the splints will give her enough support from there?"

"Yeah. The seats have springs, which will offer support and padding, wrap her in a couple of blankets to stave off the shock and she should be all right until you can get her to a hospital." Jim agreed.

That decided, Jim gently scooped up the girl and cautiously followed her father back down the path toward where he had left the car, with the rest of the group following behind. As they approached the aged Land Rover, Jim came to an abrupt stop, Blair nearly running into him.

There, lying placidly across the hood of the vehicle, was the cougar they had seen earlier. The three visitors stared in shock, as Michael Townsend mildly called out: "Buttercup, not now. Go catch your dinner, or something." The big cat simply yawned his response, flicking the tip of his tail derisively.

"Buttercup?" Simon nearly spluttered, laughing. "His name is Buttercup?" He caught the eyes of his friends, who were both grinning broadly.

Travis scowled up at the adults. "Well, when we found him, he was this little yellow kitten, layin' in th' middle of a patch a buttercups " The boy explained how they had found the kitten as a tiny kitten, his eyes barely open. His mother had fallen victim to a bear, and of the two kittens, only this one had survived.

"We raised him like a housecat. He's never known anything else. Oh, he hunts, of course. But he has no fear of people, and thinks that everyone's his friend, don't you pet?" Michael was rubbing the cat's face with both hands, the animal's purr audible to everyone.

Eyes closed in bliss at the attention, Buttercup rolled over onto his back, offering his stomach for rubbing. Becky laughed. "He's always liked having his tummy rubbed."

"That's because we've rubbed his stomach since he was a tiny kitten." Her father reminded her, giving the huge cat's stomach a brisk rub, followed by pushing him from the hood of the vehicle. "Well, let's get you to the hospital, miss." Her father moved to open the rear door, where Jim gently settled her on the seat and her brothers climbed in beside her to help, bundling blankets around her to keep her warm.

Michael turned to the strangers, uncertain. "Thank you for taking care of Becky," he began.

"You're more than welcome. Do you need any help with getting her to the hospital?" Simon asked.

"I don't think so. It'll take us about fifteen to twenty minutes to get home, then another half hour to get the helicopter ready to go, and then we can be at the hospital in half an hour, or so. Is there someplace where I can return your splints to you?"

"Don't worry about it. Jim told him. We've got plenty." He wasn't about to admit that he'd talked the hospital out of them in the first place, with the explanation that he was just trying to make their job easier. The ER nurse he had asked had given him a long, appraising look, one where he could see her thinking about his partner and the number of times they had been through when she'd been on duty .and had gone and brought back an entire case of them. He'd tried to take only a couple of different sizes, but she had brought a doctor into it, who had agreed with the nurse. Jim still had the rest of the case in storage

"If you're sure." Michael was checking to see that all three children were buckled in, Becky well supported by her brothers, before he circled around and slid into the front seat. He looked at the three men, "I don't know how to thank you for taking care of her "

"Don't worry about it." Simon insisted. "Just go on and get her to the doctor." The three men watched as, with a smile, Michael Townsend started his car and slowly started off toward his home.

"Well. That was interesting." Blair said, looking up at his companions.

"Yeah, wasn't it." Simon agreed, watching the retreating vehicle.

"Uh huh." Jim agreed as well, crouched down and rubbing Buttercup's stomach, while the hundred pound cat purred loudly. Blair and Simon finally pulled their attention from the Townsend family and turned it on their friend.

"What are you doing, Jim?" Simon asked, not even trying to stifle his smile as the big cat wrapped his front paws around Jim, trying to pull him down to lick him.

"Just what it looks like, Simon. I'm trying to escape being bathed by this silly animal." He was enjoying it, however. It was only obvious by the expression on his face and the fact that he wasn't trying too hard to escape as he gently wrestled with the big cat.

Blair couldn't resist. He crouched down and began stroking Buttercup's head, the fur so soft to his touch. Simon gave up and crouched down as well, also stroking the cat. Buttercup was thrilled. Three people petting him at once sheer bliss. He reached out a paw, claws sheathed, and tried again to pull Jim down beside him, finally succeeding. The big cat was careful with his new playmate, running his rough tongue across Jim's face, from chin to crown, sinuously twisting to turn the man beneath him and pinning the surprised human.

Jim was startled when he suddenly found himself flipped and pinned beneath the cat. But the purr and gentleness of the animal relieved any fear he might have felt. He lay quietly for a moment, while the cat gave his face a thorough washing, then he tried to push the animal away.

Like most cats, pushing Buttercup was like pushing sand. Jim pushed harder, but the cat was so relaxed that his hands only moved one little section of cat, while the rest of the animal remained relaxed across Jim's body, successfully pinning his larger 'prey' beneath him.

"Come on, Buttercup. Get off of me, now." Jim said, pushing again. He cast a look asking for help to his two companions, who just stood and watched him, smirking. Blair was reaching into his ever-present backpack for his camera. "Chief, no. Blair?" Jim's voice held just a tinge of warning.

"Aw, come on, Jim. No one will believe that we even saw a cougar, let alone petted him. Smile " he caught the annoyed look on his partner's face, perfectly. Simon chuckled as Blair took several pictures, managing to capture Jim struggling to escape Buttercup's embrace.

Finally, Jim managed to push on the right spot and the big cat got off of him, glowering at him reproachfully as the man scrambled away and stood, wiping the cat slobber off his face. Jim's glare matched that of the cougar as he glared at his friends. "You could have helped." His voice nearly a whine.

"Where's the fun in that?" Simon asked, still chuckling. Blair merely smiled and put his camera away, watching his friends. Just then, they heard the sound of a helicopter starting up. They turned to look towards the cabin down below. After a few minutes, they watched as the helicopter lifted off and headed west towards the coast and the nearest hospital.

"Well, that's taken care of." Simon sighed. "I guess we better head back and get us some fishing done."

"Sounds good to me, Sir." Jim agreed, pulling his gaze back from the distant helicopter and turning to lead the way back. Blair gave Buttercup one last pat and followed his friends.

The trip back was completed mostly in silence, as the wind picked up and it turned colder. As soon as they reached their camp, Jim immediately started to work on building a fire, while Simon started the stove and put on some coffee to perk. Blair was shivering and ducked into the tent to pull out one of his sleeping bags to wrap up in while Jim built up the fire, waiting for the coffee to help warm him.

"Sandburg, It always amazes me how you can deal with so much, except the cold." Simon teased.

"It's only thirty degrees out here, Simon. That's freezing, in case you've forgotten." Blair shot back, his teeth chattering from the cold.

"Don't worry about it, Chief. The fire will be going in a couple of minutes and the coffee shouldn't be too far behind. We'll get you fixed up nice and warm "

"Yeah," Simon laughed, "Just in time to put on our waders and go after some more fish." Casting a sly glance at the shivering man huddled by the fire, he added, "Or are you going out with your spear, again?"

"Uhhhh, No. I think I'll try the pole, this time. Thanks just the same." Crazy, maybe; but he certainly wasn't stupid. The water had been ice cold in the warm sun the day before, no way was he going to immerse any part of his body in that same ice-water today with the air temperature at freezing.

"I thought you were into that spear fishing thing." Simon continued to tease.

"Seems to me that I caught the biggest fish yesterday." Blair retorted, finally warming up enough to be able to hold his own in the verbal battle.

Jim laughed. "He's got us both there, Simon." Jim defended his partner. "In fact, I'm tempted to call the weekend off early. I'm afraid it might just snow tonight." He added, peering at the sky in concern.

All three men looked around, seeing the clouds coagulating on the horizon, threatening some form of precipitation before morning. Blair shivered at the thought of snow. "But it's supposed to be Spring." He bewailed.

"Yeah. Spring, when the weather is unpredictable." Jim reminded him.

"I've got chains for the car. We shouldn't get stuck, even if it should snow." Simon tried to encourage them. "Besides, we have everything we need, even if it should snow. Extra sleeping bags, the stove and plenty of fuel, the fire We'll be fine." He assured them.

"OK," Blair agreed. "So, as soon as we eat something and get warm, we're going to go and freeze our tuches's off catching some more fish, right?"

"Sounds like a plan, to me." Simon agreed. Jim just smiled his concurrence and handed his partner a cup of hot coffee.

"Remember, Chief, ten to two. You're a clock "

"Analog or digital?" Blair quipped, as Jim attempted to once more show him how to cast. He'd had a lesson on an earlier fishing expedition, but it had been interrupted by some poachers and this was his first chance to try it again.

"Analog. Pay attention. You pull some line free, bring your right arm back, to the ten position and bring it forward to the two o'clock position. With each move, you let out some more line, until you let it go " Jim demonstrated, using Blair's arm and fly-rod. The line, with the hook and fly on the end of it, sailed out nearly to the other side of the river, gently settling in an eddy, where the bait was immediately snatched up by a good-sized salmon, which then attempted to leap up the rapids. Jim let go and coached Blair in his fighting and reeling in of the fish. As soon as it was netted, Blair asked,

"You're not going to make me put it back, are you?" Suddenly remembering the last time.

"Nope. You get to catch the next one all by yourself, though. I'm going to move upstream a little. Holler if you need any help." Jim moved off to another likely spot, not that there was anyplace that would be bad, now that the salmon were beginning to run in earnest.

Just downstream from Blair, Simon had also already caught his first fish, holding it up for the others to admire before turning back to begin casting for his second.

Jim had his attention focused on his friends and his own concentration on placing the fly precisely where he wanted it and didn't hear the annoyed growl until almost too late. He had just pulled his first fish from the river when he realized that the noise he was hearing wasn't the roar of the rapids

He turned, fish in hand, to see what had to be one of the biggest bears in the world, standing up on its hind legs and growling at him. 'Oh, shit.' Jim had time to think as the monster dropped to all fours and started his charge. Jim did the only thing he could think of to do. He threw his fish at the bear, hitting him on the nose. The bear stopped, roared in pained annoyance, but halted to sniff the fish, which gave Jim a chance to move further out into the river and slowly downstream.

The bear started eating the fish, gobbling it down like it was the first food he had had in months. From the look of the creature, Jim had no doubt that this particular bear hadn't been able to catch many fish on his own. Now that he was a bit farther away, he could see the remains of a steel trap still attached to the beast's right front foot, limiting the animal's ability to find and catch food.

Unfortunately, Jim hadn't been able to remove his hook from his catch before giving it to the bear. As the beast bit down and impaled his tongue on the barbed hook, he roared in his pain and fury, immediately blaming the human for his troubles, he charged into the water after Jim.

Simon had caught his second, quite respectable, fish. He pulled up his catch and walked out of the river and upstream to where Blair was busy untangling his line. "You forget to keep your cast smooth and even, Sandburg?" He asked, amused by the sight of the smaller man struggling to get the knots out of his line.

"Yeah. I guess. It looks so easy when you or Jim do it. I just need a lot more practice, I guess. I see you did pretty good, though." He added, looking at Simon's two beautiful fish, both in the twenty-five pound range.

"Yeah. I did real well, today. How's Jim doing?" He asked looking upstream past the younger man; gasping in horror at the sight that met his gaze.

Blair looked at him in concern, then turned to see for himself what had caught Simon's attention so completely. His own gasp echoed that of his friend.

The bear had just reached out and tagged Jim, forcing him under the water. The bear then pulled back and pawed at his mouth, trying to scrape his tongue, which only made him madder. Blair followed Simon out and back to the camp where Simon handed him a heavy .357 revolver, picking up a second for himself, instructing the smaller man in its use on their way upstream to attempt to rescue their friend.

It felt like a train had hit him, the force of the blow not cushioned at all by the water. All that did was increase his panic, as the air was forced from his lungs and his diaphragm tried to suck up water instead of air. When the weight was surprisingly removed from his back, he rose, sputtering and gasping for air. He could see the angry bear trying unsuccessfully to paw the fishhook from his tongue, roaring in his pain and rage, the remnants of the trap on his right front paw only making him angrier and more dangerous. When the bear looked at him again, their eyes met, pale blue and chocolate brown, both filled with pain and fear. Jim was surprised to see fear in the bear's eyes, but then considered the poor animal's futile attempts to feed himself, he understood. Not that he wasn't still in mortal danger, only that he understood.

The bear rose up again on his hind legs, towering over the man in the river, drawing his injured right paw back, he struck, catching the man on the left shoulder and knocking him deep into the river. The claws and trap remnants bruising and cutting into Jim's shoulder and raking across his chest, ripping through his coat and shirt and laying open the flesh beneath. He screamed in pain as he fell back into deeper water.

Blair held the gun tightly. Running with Simon to get to his partner. Simon shouted instructions, the gun was a double action, he didn't have to cock it to be able to shoot it. There was no safety switch. All he had to do was point and pull the trigger. Blair listened with half an ear, more concerned with his best friend. He did, however, hear Simon tell him to aim at the animal's chest and hope for a heart shot, as the skull was too heavy and thick to hope to successfully kill him that way, even with the heavy power of the .357.

The two men pulled up ten yards from the bear, twenty feet between them, staring in horror at the scene before them. Jim was well out in the river, braced against some boulders to keep from being swept down river. The bear was upright, roaring and alternating between pawing at his mouth and striking at Jim. Even from their distance, they could see the blood flowing from Jim's lacerated shoulder.

As the bear lunged again at Jim, Simon yelled to get the animal's attention and when the bear turned toward him, he fired. With an infuriated roar, the bear turned and charged the men on shore. Holding his position, Simon emptied his gun into the rampaging beast. Blair watched in awe, only realizing the danger when the bear was almost upon him. Raising the gun in shaking hands, he fired, his bullet grazing the animal's skull and whining off into the distance. His second shot tore out the animal's esophagus, spraying him with hot blood as the bear stopped and tore at his own throat as he drowned in the blood, unable to draw any air past the fountain of gore. Blair stood rooted in place as the bear, for the last time, rose to his most impressive height and then crashed down, pinning the shocked anthropologist beneath him. The wind howled around them, and there was a bolt of lightening followed by an ear-shattering blast of thunder, which presaged the rain and strong winds to come.

Simon stared in shock. Already he was soaked to the skin. He stared at the dead bear, not moving until he heard the soft, muffled voice calling to him.

"Simon? Come on, man. Don't you start zoning out on me now. Get me out of here. Simon? Simon? Please, man. Get this thing off of me. I can hardly breathe. Simon?"

Blinking hard and shaking his head to clear it, the tall black man rushed over to help the much shorter man escape the final embrace of the dead animal. Tugging at one front leg, he finally managed to straighten it out in front of the animal, then, he moved to the side and grasped the other front paw and heaved, trying to roll the creature off the pinned anthropologist. He wasn't having much luck, until a pair of blood-covered white hands grasped hold beside his and Jim leant his strength to pull the dead animal from his final victim.

Grunting with the effort, the two men got the bear rolled over onto his back, freeing their friend. Jim immediately sat down on the dead animal, dizzy and weak from shock, allowing Simon to pull his partner from the ground and check him out.

"I'm OK, man. Just got the wind knocked out of me. Well, a few bruises, too, I guess. Man. Was that wild, or what?" Blair simply couldn't help but vibrate just a little in the adrenaline rush brought on by their ordeal. "Oh, wow. Jim? Jim? You OK?" He turned to his partner to discover the man just sitting there, a dazed look on his face, smears of blood on his hands and his shirt and coat in tatters, his shoulder and its injuries visible. "Oh, Jim." Blair whispered as he approached his friend, carefully prying the tattered clothing from his friend's shoulder to get a better look at his injuries.

"Simon?" He looked up at the taller man, seeking his help and advice. There was some blood, but the cuts themselves didn't look life-threatening, at least, to him. The bigger man came over and took a look.

"It doesn't look too bad, but any cut caused by an animal's claw is potentially dangerous. Let's get him inside the tent and take a better look, OK?" He asked, just as worried about the younger man's shock.

"OK. Jim? I need you to stand up, now, OK?" He gently grasped his partner's right hand and tugged him, urging him up and leading him back to their camp. It was eerily silent as they got in out of the rain and Blair and Simon carefully stripped Jim's tattered clothing from him.

Blair kept up a gentle patter of conversation, talking just to fill the silence. Soothing himself and his friends with his chatter, bringing a sense of normality to the situation. Jim was shivering, whether from cold or blood-loss or shock, was anybody's guess. Once they got him out of his wet clothes and into warm, dry sweat-pants and nice, thick, warm socks, they started in to clean the slashes across his chest. There were some puncture wounds on his back from the bear's first attack, where he had simply knocked him down under the water, not deep, but badly bruised. The gashes across his chest were also quite shallow, four even furrows from the point of his shoulder to the middle of his chest, tapering to mere scratches.

Looking at Jim's destroyed clothes, Simon remarked "Good thing you were wearing the leather jacket, Jim. I think that's what saved you." Holding the destroyed garment up for the others to see where the trap and the claws had caught on the leather, preventing deeper penetration.

There was no missing Jim's shudder. "I don't think I've ever been quite as scared as I was when he lunged at me the second time. I was already hurting from the first blow and there was nowhere to go." He shook his head, shivering, more from shock and reaction, now. "Man." He looked up at his friends, "Great timing Simon."

"Hey, no problem. But it's Sandburg you need to be thanking. It was his shot that finally took him down." The two older men turned to the youngest, surprise and pride on their faces. Blair blushed.

"I didn't have any choice. Simon was out of bullets, I was scared that he was going to kill and eat us both." Blair murmured. His fear and concern for his friends easing the horror of having killed the animal. "Besides, Simon shot him six times, what makes you think that those two shots I fired had anything to do with it?" Hoping to push the responsibility away.

"Well, your first shot ricocheted off of his skull, but your second shot took out his throat. I guess that between us we stopped him." Simon agreed, willing to take some of the responsibility from the younger man's shoulders.

"Well, thank you both." Jim replied, still shivering.

"Let's get you cleaned up." Simon suggested, reaching for the betadine and some sterile gauze sponges. Blair nodded and began to carefully dab one of the soaked sponges on the puncture wounds on Jim's back while Simon dealt with the gashes on his chest.

Jim did his best to ignore the pain, his dials a bit out of control from the shock and adrenaline. He finally concentrated on the storm howling outside. "The wind's trying to bring the tent down, guys." He muttered, watching the tent walls flutter from the blasts of near freezing gale-force wind.

"Yeah. We should probably think pretty seriously about vacating the premises and get you down to a hospital." Simon suggested. His words were greeted with a nod from Blair and a negative headshake from Jim. Looking at the injured man, Simon asked, "Give me one good reason why we shouldn't break camp and head down the mountain right now?"

"Because we're in your car. With this wind, we'd be blown off the road and over a cliff somewhere. We're better off here. We have shelter, food, we can drag your stove in here to help keep warm, "

"I only asked for one reason, Jim. That's enough. OK, just as soon as we get you bandaged up, Sandburg and I will bring the stove in and put the table away in the trunk, so it doesn't blow away. Do you think this will turn to snow?" Simon continued dressing Jim's wounds while he talked, knowing that the distraction helped Jim maintain control of the pain.

"Yeah. The wind-chill is already down to freezing, I can hear some ice already mixed with the rain, If we're lucky, it'll turn to snow. If not, it's going to be pure ice on the roads and we'll be stuck here until it melts." Jim's jaw clenched as both Blair and Simon chose that moment to apply antibacterial ointment covered gauze pads simultaneously to two different wounds, drawing the Sentinel's entire focus to his injuries at that moment. Jim panted through the pain, his eyes squeezed tightly shut as he tried once again, unsuccessfully, to dial down his sense of touch.

"Easy, Jim. Focus on my voice. Let the pain fade into the background. It's OK, man. We're almost done. Easy, Jim. Shhh." Blair's soft, soothing voice eased him back from the near zone-out. Simon was just finishing putting the last piece of tape over the last of the bandages.

Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Jim opened his eyes and attempted a self-deprecating grin. "I'll be fine. See? The bleeding's stopped already." He pointed out. Simon just grunted and handed him a flannel shirt to put on, knowing that there was no way he would be able to pull on anything over his head without hurting himself. Blair simply maintained contact with his friend, anchoring him and providing a focus on something other than his injuries and pain.

As soon as Jim was settled, Simon and Blair went out and broke down the portable kitchen and, while Blair stowed the folding table in the trunk of Simon's car, Simon lugged the portable stove and propane tank into the tent. Jim cast a critical glance at the setup, pleased to note that the tank and stove were a single unit and that the tank was secured to a special dolly designed for that purpose.

When Blair returned, he and Simon drew back the dividing curtains and put the stove in the windward section of the tent, careful to set it up in such a way that even if the tent collapsed around it, it wouldn't tip over. They also piled their sleeping bags together, two bags atop each other on the floor, with four bags on the top, deciding to share their body-warmth through the night. They settled Jim in the center, zipping two bags together at the bottom to provide stability, careful to pack pillows around him to support him while Blair made some coffee and fixed something to eat. While Blair did that, Simon suggested he go outside to field-dress the bear, only Jim's insistence that the meat was tainted from the infection in the paw changed his mind, having grown up in a 'waste not' environment, he hated to see so much meat go to waste. Once they had warmed up and eaten, they simply settled down to wait for the storm to abate.

Along about midnight, the wind finally died down, and the sleet finally turned to snow, then back to a soft rain, as dawn approached and the world warmed. The three men slept like puppies, snuggled together like spoons, safe and warm, protected from the storm.

When the sky started to lighten with the coming of day, Jim was the first to stir. He awoke slowly, puzzled by the physical presence of not one, but two bodies sharing his sleeping space. Opening his eyes, he noticed the dark, long, curly hair of his partner spread out on the pillow beside him. Shifting slightly and stifling a moan of pain as his abused muscles protested his desire to move, he glanced over his shoulder to recognize the face of his captain, pressed up against his back. Seeing the bandages on his chest, he remembered the happenings of the day before and relaxed, content in the warmth provided by his friends. His comfort lasted only a short time, however, before his bladder insisted on being taken care of. Realizing that it would be impossible to wriggle out from between his friends without waking at least one of them, he opted for the simplest course of action by bringing his left arm up around Blair and gently shaking him.

"Hmmmm?" Blair's sleepy voice asked, trying to burrow further beneath the covers.

"Blair, I need to get up. Move a little and give me some room, OK?" Jim whispered.

"Wha?" Blair mumbled, shifting slightly to look at his friend.

"Blair, I have to go now. Jim insisted.

Blair turned to look at him, confused until he saw the bandages and remembered. Immediately he scrambled from beneath the warm cocoon of sleeping bags, freeing his friend to carefully rise up and slip out without disturbing the still sleeping Simon. Blair initially thought to just wait for Jim, but was too cold, so he quickly dove back beneath the covers, shivering from his oh, so brief foray into the cold of the tent.

Jim was gone less than five minutes, but it was long enough for Blair to start worrying about his friend. He was about to get up and once again brave the cold to seek his partner, but was saved the trouble by Jim's return. Blair watched critically as Jim eased his way back in and held the warm sleeping bags up for him to slip back beneath them and into the warmth. Their movements put Blair in the middle and Jim on the outside, but still warm, warm enough for both men to go back to sleep.

When next they stirred, it would have been broad daylight, had the storm passed. Unfortunately, the rain was pouring down like a firehose gone mad. Jim had stiffened up, some, but was feeling quite well, under the circumstances. Simon sighed gently and opened his eyes, checking on his companions, smiling at the sight of Blair burrowed deep beneath the covers, pressed tightly to Jim's back. Stretching, he glanced at his watch and noted that it was definitely time to be up and about, except for the raging storm, Simon would have rousted up his companions and headed back down the mountain toward the hospital without even making coffee. As it was, he quietly slipped out and started the stove, putting the coffee on to perk.

Deciding that he had no choice, Simon pulled on his rain poncho and headed outside to commune with nature. Upon his return, he noticed that Jim's eyes were open and tracking him, but his expression indicated that something else had most of his attention.

"What's wrong, Jim? You need help?"

"No. It's I'm hearing something. It sounds like a bear, only " he trailed off and shook his head in confusion. "I-I'm not sure. It's just I don't know." He looked up at his friend. "Maybe I'm just imagining it."

"Not with your hearing. How close is it?" Simon insisted, crouching beside the still sleeping anthropologist and gently reaching over to touch Jim's arm, reassuringly.

"Close. Maybe twenty yards?" He gestured in the direction he could hear the sounds coming from. "It's just " Suddenly, his expression cleared with understanding. "Oh, shit. That was a female bear, Simon. It's cubs. I hear bear cubs!" He struggled to sit up, trying not to use his left arm to avoid jostling his injured shoulder, causing him to bump heavily against Blair and waking him up.

"Wha?" Blair sleepily asked, prying his eyes open to see his struggling friend. He abruptly sat up and reached out to help him, "Easy, Jim. Take it easy. Don't want to open up those cuts again, man." He glanced up to see Simon's concerned face hovering over them. "Simon? What's wrong?"

"Jim thinks that the bear left cubs." He admitted, wincing as he watched Sandburg still, his face going pale.

"Oh, man. That sucks." The younger man declared. It was bad enough to have had to kill the animal in order to protect themselves, but to have orphaned her babies, as well .

"We need to go get them before another bear finds them." Jim insisted, just as worried as Blair was for the animals.

"What?" Simon asked, startled.

"You heard me. There are two or three cubs out there, who need to be protected from other bears, they'd never have a chance. I'm willing to bet that the mother had just come out of hibernation and with her injured paw, she couldn't find enough food. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time." He looked up at his friends, an almost pleading expression on his face.

"OK, Jim." Blair agreed. "Simon and I will go out and get them. Are there two or three of them?" Jim concentrated again

"Two, Chief. I think that there are only two of them." Now that Blair was concerned with the orphaned cubs, he was able to relax, secure in the knowledge that the younger man would see to it that they were cared for. Even over Simon's objections, if necessary. Blair rose and pulled on his parka and shoved his feet into his boots, preparatory to going out into the rain to search for the cubs. Simon shook his head in resignation, glared momentarily at an unrepentant Sentinel, and followed the much smaller man out into the rain to search for baby bears.

Finding them was easy. They had found their mother and were trying unsuccessfully to awaken her. Crying and growling; frightened and hungry. Blair simply walked up to them and scooped up the first one, it was very thin, a sure sign of its mother's inability to care for them, he handed the first one to Simon and stooped to scoop up the second one, which half-heartedly growled at him. It was then that he saw the third cub. It was pressed tightly to its mother, attempting to nurse, shivering with cold, it was little more than a sack of bones in a too-big skin. It offered absolutely no resistance when Blair scooped it up, as well.

Cradling the cubs in their arms, the two men made their way back through the rain to the tent and inside. While they had been gone, Jim had been busy. He had dug around through their supplies and found some canned milk, which he had mixed with sugar and water and put on the stove to heat. As soon as his friends came back in with the orphans, he tested the mixture for temperature and decided that it was warm enough for the cubs to be able to drink, once he could teach them to drink from the pan.

One look a the runt was all it took. Jim reached for the weak little creature, cradled it to him and dipped a finger in the milk mixture, and sticking it in the cub's mouth. It tried to suck on his finger, and Jim pulled it over onto its stomach and placed the pan under its nose and slowly encouraged it to lick the milk, first from his finger, and then directly from the pan. The other two cubs started to struggle when they realized that their smaller sibling was eating. Blair and Simon sat down and held them until the smaller one finally stopped, full. Jim gently moved the small creature under the sleeping bag beside him and then handed the still half-full pan to Blair, to work with the other two cubs. He watched, bemused as the two stronger cubs initially fought over the pan of milk, until Simon held one and Blair the other, on opposite sides of the pan, letting the greedy little beasts squall and drink until the pan was empty.

While Blair and Simon took care of the two larger cubs, Jim relaxed back down and cuddled the smallest cub against his chest, dozing along with his little companion. Once the other two ran out of milk, they clambered over to their sibling and snuggled against the warmth of the once again sleeping man.

Blair and Simon watched as the three cubs snuggled down with their sleeping friend. Blair couldn't resist and got out his camera and took several pictures of the sleepers, finishing off the roll. Taking the spent roll from his camera, he carefully put the film away and loaded a new roll, putting it away, as well.

Simon whispered, "I want copies of the entire roll, Sandburg."

"Why? Blackmail?"

"Of course." The big man grinned. Blair smiled back and shook his head.

"You're going to have to ask Jim. I wouldn't do that to him. Not even for you."

"Then why did you take them?" Simon asked, puzzled.

"Because, one, who would believe it? Two, it's a good memory." Simon nodded his understanding.

"All right, but if he says OK, I still want copies of the entire roll." He turned to the stove and took the coffee off and poured them each a cup. Then he sat down on one of the three folding chairs they had brought inside the night before and pulled out a pack of cards, moving the small TV tray beside him and looked up at Blair, watching him watch their friend and his bear cubs sleep. "You want to play some cribbage?"

"Huh?" Blair turned his attention to the older man, "I, um, don't know how to play." He admitted, sitting down across from him. "How about some gin rummy?" Simon grimaced, but agreed.

By the time Jim next awoke, the rain had stopped. His friends were quietly playing cards, and the three bear cubs were still snuggled up close with him. Stretching cautiously, he was pleased to discover that he wasn't as stiff as he had expected to be. His movement woke the runt, who started nuzzling against him, looking for food. He carefully picked up the small creature and gently repositioned him on his lap, as he sat up.

"Hey, guys?" Jim asked softly. "Seems like we need some more milk, here. Is there any more?" Blair and Simon turned their attention to him, then Simon got up to search their supplies, turning up one can of evaporated milk, which he opened and poured into the same pot as they had used earlier, Jim telling him how much sugar and water to add. When it had warmed up a bit, Blair passed the pan to his friend and both he and Simon watched as the little bear was once again allowed to drink his fill. When he was done, he made a worried little grunting moan and started searching for a place to relieve himself. Simon, recognizing what the animal wanted, scooped it up and carried it outside, where in almost immediately squatted and relieved itself, then wandered around a bit and then squatted again to finish it's business. Finished, it looked curiously around, seeking it's family. Simon scooped him back up and carried him back to his surrogate parents. When they re-entered the tent, the other two were again guzzling down what their smaller sibling had left them, after which Blair took them outside. Being larger and stronger than their sibling, they played a while before coming back in.

They found Jim gently cuddling the smallest cub in his lap, his hands carefully stroking the small, furry body. The other two immediately climbed in beside their sibling, the discrepancy in their sizes quite obvious, the little one being barely half the size of its siblings.

"While we were out taking care of the cubs, I called the ranger station and told them what happened. They're sending a truck up to take care of the mother, and they gave me an address for one of those wildlife sanctuaries, where they take in orphan animals and raise them to go back out into the wild, once their big enough." Simon announced, softly.

Blair flinched at his statement, but understood. Jim simply nodded, continuing to stroke 'his' baby. "How soon?"

"Well, we need to get you to a doctor, so I figure on our way out tomorrow, if that's OK with you?" Simon looked at both of his companions for acknowledgement.

"You don't think Jim needs a hospital sooner than tomorrow?" Blair asked in surprise.

"There's no sign of infection. He's using the shoulder, not much, but he's using it. No fever. Unless you want to head back today?" Simon knew that Jim had already bonded with the weak cub. It was already going to be hard to give them up, but he also knew that Jim would do the best for the cub.

"We don't have any more mile, Simon." Jim reminded his friend, looking up. "I ..I guess we should cut our vacation short by a day. The sooner these guys are in hands that can care for them properly, the better off they'll be." He didn't add that the little one needed special care, if he was to survive. Simon and Blair exchanged a look, nodded almost imperceptibly at one another.

"OK, then. Let's get everything packed up, and ready to go. The rain's lightened up a whole lot, so if we strike camp now, we can be ready to go as soon as we give our report to the game wardens." Simon said.

With a little help, Jim was soon up and dressed. One of the chairs was set outside for him, and the smallest cub was nestled in his lap with the two larger ones sprawled across his feet; while Simon and Blair struck the tent and finished packing their gear in Simon's car. It was another half-hour before the rangers arrived.

They took one look at the mangled paw of the bear and started asking questions. Jim explained what had happened, with Simon and Blair joining in when necessary. The rangers asked them to stop by before they left the area to sign their statements. Simon asked if it would be all right if they wrote up their statements back at the station and faxed the completed paperwork to them. Noting their identification indicated their status as police officers, they agreed. Then enlisted Simon and Blair's help in loading the bear into the back of their truck.

As soon as the rangers had left, Blair coaxed the two larger cubs away from Jim's feet to allow him to stand and make his way over to Simon's car, where he climbed in the back seat with the smallest cub, while Simon put the last chair in the trunk. He then helped Blair catch and lift the two larger cubs into the back seat with Jim, where then almost immediately settled down and went back to sleep, using him as a pillow.

Simon checked that they had left their campsite as close to how they found it as possible. Satisfied, he climbed into the driver's seat, fastened his seatbelt and checked that his passengers were also buckled in; then started the car and began the journey back toward Cascade, planning to stop first to drop off the bear cubs.

They didn't have any trouble finding the wildlife rehabilitation center. They had signs posted with arrows indicating the way from nearly ten miles away. All they had to do was follow the signs. When they arrived, the veterinarian who ran the place was waiting for them. The rangers had called to warn him of the coming of the orphans. She anxiously awaited the opening of the doors of the car, wanting to see the cubs.

The moment the back door opened, the two larger cubs scrambled out, romping and scuffling. The vet smiled, pleased at their apparent health and well being. When Jim carefully exited the car, the smaller cub cradled in his arms, she frowned and came close to take the animal from him. She could see the bandages, as he hadn't buttoned the shirt, due to the irritation of the fabric against his sensitized skin. The moment she took the cub, it began to cry and reach back for its surrogate mother. The woman looked askance at Jim.

"What did you do to him? He's bonded to you. I thought you only found them this morning? Oh! I'm sorry, I'm Louise Becker. I'm the vet, here. I guess you could say I'm in charge." She smiled at the three men.

"I'm Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD. These are two of my men; Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg. We were on a little fishing trip. Jim was attacked by their mamma last night, just about the time that storm hit. If the weather hadn't been so bad, I doubt if we'd have found them, because we'd have been out of there last night heading for a hospital." The tallest member of the group informed her.

"Why is he so upset?" She asked again, trying to cuddle the smallest cub, who wanted nothing to do with her.

"Jim's got a way with animals." Blair said in a slightly teasing tone of voice. Jim just glared at his friend, then turned to the lady vet and answered for himself.

"Probably because I fed him. I mixed evaporated milk with some water and sugar and taught him how to drink it. I also fed him first, so he could have his fill because he's so much smaller and weaker than the other two." Jim explained.

Louise nodded. "Very good. I have some special formula for orphan cubs, so I'll have him on a bottle soon. Would you like to come in and see the facilities?" She knew that most people dropping off orphans wanted to reassure themselves that they would be cared for. The fact that the cub had bonded to the big cop in such a short time indicated someone who was caring and good with animals. One of those most concerned that the animals they rescued would be given the love and attention that they needed. Unfortunately, with bears, the less human contact, the better. Otherwise, they ended up nuisances and having to be destroyed when they grew up. If she was lucky, she would be able to relocate these bears to some remote wilderness area where people were seldom around barring that, a zoo would be the next best bet.

The two uninjured men gathered up the two more rambunctious cubs while Louise allowed Jim to carry the little one. The moment Jim took him back, he stopped squalling, snuggling tightly against the man's chest. Louise couldn't help but smile.

"They're like stray cats, you know. Once you feed them, they want to keep you." The three men smiled at her and she could see that they would be teasing their friend about this for some time to come. "Really. That's why bears are such a big problem. Once they learn to find food where people are, they become lazy and annoyed when the food source is removed, which makes them very dangerous." She could see them agreeing with her.

"What about the trap their mother had on her paw?" Blair asked. "Not that I'm not grateful, mind you. Jim would have been dead had she been healthy."

"If she'd been healthy, you'd have never seen her. She couldn't fish with that trap on her hand and you were there, with fish. I'm sorry you had to kill her, but you didn't have any choice. She was hurting and hungry and had three babies to try and care for and only enough milk for two. I'm a little surprised that the little one has made it this far." She looked up at Jim, who had set his burden on the examining table and watched silently as she examined the small creature, who remained calm, since Jim was still holding him, keeping him steady for her. "You did exactly the right thing, letting him eat his fill before feeding the other two. They'd have left nothing for him." She smiled at the three men, turning to a cabinet and pulling out some syringes and going to a small refrigerator to get some medications.

"For the most part, he's just a little malnourished. Otherwise he seems perfectly healthy. Normal temperature, just hungry. I'll be putting him on supplements until he catches up to his sisters." Seeing their concern about the shots, she hastened to reassure them, "Oh, this is just a broad spectrum antibiotic and these are standard shots, Rabies, distemper, and the like. Just precautionary. We've developed them specifically for the various species that we get in here. We've had a few bears in the past, and haven't lost one yet. Including a newborn, once. These guys will be just fine. In a couple of years, we can hopefully teach them how to be wild bears and turn them loose far from civilization. Just so they don't accidentally become nuisances."

"What if you can't teach them to be wild bears. What happens to them then?" Blair asked.

"Then we try to find them homes in various zoos around the world. The grizzly is still very rare in the lower forty-eight. I'd prefer to set them free. Although, they can be trained, particularly when they're brought in this young. This little guy," She rubbed the little runt's stomach, making him growl and bat at her hands playfully, "Would probably make an excellent movie animal, since he's going to require more care and attention than we like to give them, but we'll see. He just might surprise us and take to 'Wild Bear 101' like a natural. If not, I'll make sure he finds a good home." Louise assured them.

"That's all we can ask." Simon agreed, watching Jim as he gently stroked the smallest cub one last time before letting go and stepping back. Simon and Blair exchanged looks. Both men remembered the previous summer, when they had come upon a man who had maimed a young bald eagle. Jim was showing the same symptoms now, the concern and 'connectedness' with the injured animal. Only this time, Jim didn't seem as concerned. Blair carefully reached out to touch his partner's arm. Jim looked up and smiled.

"You said something about a tour?" Jim asked, turning his attention to Dr. Becker.

"Yep. Let me just finish checking the girls and I'll show you around." She quickly checked over the two bigger cubs, gave them their shots and, with the help of Simon and Blair, placed the two larger cubs in a holding cage. Then, picking up the little male, she led the way out to the compound. The area was surrounded by buildings, with large outdoor cages backing up against the walls. Each enclosure had an opening into the building, permitting the animals a den-like feeling. The outdoor portions all had trees in them, providing as close to a natural habitat as possible. There was a cougar with a leg in a cast in a tree and another enclosure with two black bear cubs. They were all obviously well fed and cared for. There was no smell of dirty cages or sickness or disease. Jim smiled, satisfied. The animals all watched them warily. They may have been caged, but they were still wild animals, at least, not accepting of humans any more than absolutely necessary.

Louise began the tour with the cougar. "He was hit by a car one night. Fortunately, it's a male, so we didn't have to worry about trying to find any kittens. He's due to have x-rays in another week, then with any luck, he'll be taken up into the high country and turned back loose. He accepts being fed but we have to sedate him to work on him. Of course, it's better for him that way. He's more likely to head further from people now." She explained. Her visitors nodded their understanding and looked at the cougar, comparing him to Buttercup. This cat was smaller and had an angry scowl on his face, probably due to having to be restrained by both the cast and the cage.

"What about the bears?" Blair asked, crossing over to the two black bear cubs.

"Well, they're black bears. I know," She hurriedly added, "They're really brown, but the species is called black bear come to think of it, I have no idea why; I've seen more brownish colored black bears than I have black ones." She pondered for a moment, then shook her head, "Anyway, their mother was killed by a poacher when they were about four months old. A rancher found the carcass and the babies and brought them here. We'll keep them for a few more months and then send them to the rehab center, which is out in the middle of the Cascades Wildlife Refuge. There, they'll learn how to find food, what to eat, and then, when they're ready, they'll be released far back in the most inaccessible reaches of the refuge. They'll wear radio collars that will last about two years before the batteries give out. That way, we can keep track of them and it gives them their best chance for survival."

"That's what you'll do with these three?" Simon asked.

"That's the plan. So far, we've managed to raise fifteen bears and send them successfully into the wild. We did lose three because they were too malnourished and weak by the time we got them, and two of our released bears were killed by hunters, and one came back to civilization and had to be destroyed as a nuisance. But we're very pleased with our success rate."

"Hunters?" Jim asked, concerned.

"Well, that was before we got permission to place them in the refuge. We just turned them loose in the wilds, hoping for the best. Now, they have a much better chance." She watched the three men considering her words, pleased when they all started to nod in understanding and agreement.

"These three little guys, about how old are they?" Jim asked.

"Well, probably only two to three months old. Their mother has them during hibernation. They're usually from two to four months old when they emerge from the den. Mother bear needs to eat great quantities of food to supply the cubs with enough milk. His mother managed to find and catch herself in that trap," she gently ruffled the little bear's fur, making him grunt and reach for her hand with his paws, "making it very difficult for her to find food. The early salmon run is usually very important to bears, it gives them the high-powered nourishment they need just after coming out of hibernation. The fall salmon run gives them what they need to store up for their hibernation period." She explained. Jim watched his friends. Noting that both of them seemed fascinated by the lecture. He had only needed to see and smell the facilities to be reassured that the cubs would be well cared for.

"How many haven't made the transition to the wild?" Jim asked.

"Eight. So, we're more than fifty percent successful."

"Those sound like pretty good numbers." Blair noted.

"Those are excellent numbers for this type of operation. We've been in business only five years. We've also rehabed six cougars, forty deer, and sixteen raccoons."

"Thank you." Jim smiled reassuringly. "It looks like they'll be well cared for." He was careful not to reach out again to the little male cub, knowing that he was better off here. Besides, his cuts were beginning to bother him and he suspected that dispite their care, they had become infected.

Blair, sensing his Sentinel's need, smiled and added his thanks, as well. Then, with a meaningful glance at Simon, they said their good-byes and headed back to Simon's car for the trip home.

"Jim?" Blair asked, once they were underway."

"Yeah, Chief?" Jim was again in the back seat, stretched across most of it, leaning up against some of their gear, carefully arranged so he could do so comfortably.

"Are your cuts bothering you?" The younger man's voice showing his concern.

"A little, Chief. I think they're starting to get a little infected. I guess I'll be fine, once we get me some antibiotics.." Jim replied, leaning his head back and closing his eyes, thinking about dozing off.

"Do we need to find a closer hospital than Cascade General?" Simon asked, worriedly casting a glance at him in the rear-view mirror.

"Nah. I should be OK. It's not like she bit me and was rabid or anything. Just the normal we didn't get it quite clean enough, or maybe something like cat-scratch fever." Jim reassured his friends. "I'm just going to relax back, here. You call if you need me." Jim murmured, dozing off.

"Yeah, like we're going to do that." Simon smiled, casting a glance at the younger man beside him. Blair just returned his grin and settled back to enjoy the scenery.

Jim slept almost the entire trip down the mountain. He roused once when they stopped to stretch their legs and grab a bite to eat at a little roadside diner. He was more interested in drinking cold water than he was in food, which concerned his friends. When they got back to the car, Simon insisted on checking Jim's injuries. There was a little puffiness and redness at the site of the deepest puncture wound, just below his shoulder blade. When Blair gently palpated the area, it began to ooze pus. Exchanging a worried look with Simon, he pulled out Jim's first aide kit and applied more antiseptic to the wounds and then more antibiotic ointment and fresh bandages.

"Looks a little like you've got 'bear scratch fever', Jim." Simon commiserated with his friend. "You should be all right once we get you to the doctor for some antibiotics." He reassured.

"Uh, Jim? When was your last tetanus shot?" Blair added.

"The last time I got shot, why?"

"Just checking, man. That is not something you want to mess with." Blair put the last piece of tape in place and patted Jim on the point of his shoulder and then helped him put his shirt back on. Making sure Jim was comfortable in the back seat, they continued their trip back to Cascade, with Jim once again dozing in the back seat.

Once Jim was in with the doctor, Blair told Simon that he was going to see if Becky was still there. It was hard to believe that it had only been the day before when they had met up with the Townsends. Now, Jim was injured and in the hospital, as well. Going down to the pediatrics ward, he asked at the nurse's station if Becky was still there. Being given her room number, he headed down the hall.

He saw Michael Townsend just exiting his daughter's room. Spotting Blair, he looked surprised, but not at all displeased. "Mr. Sandburg." He welcomed him with an extended hand. Blair automatically shook hands, then,

"How's Becky?"

"She's fine, or at least she will be. They didn't have to reset her leg at all, but they had to perform surgery to repair her wrist. They were rather amazed at how good a job your friend had done with the splints. Almost as though he had had x-rays to work from." He smiled, then his expression turned puzzled, "What brings you here? Surely you didn't think that I wouldn't bring her in?"

"Oh, no. We were fishing last night and a bear attacked Jim. He wasn't hurt very badly, but it's showing signs of infection and we decided to come home this morning, anyway. We spent last night in that storm in the tent. This morning, we found the bear's three babies and called the park rangers, then dropped the cubs off at Dr. Becker's."

"Louise is a good woman." Townsend nodded. Looking at the smaller man, he asked, "What's wrong?"

Blair turned up an anguished gaze. Seeing his distress, Townsend guided the smaller man over to the empty waiting room and gently pushed him into a chair. Blair blinked several times, then began,

"Jim was upstream from me, and Simon was a little further downstream. He had just caught his second salmon, and had come up to show them off. I had tangled my line and was working to get the knots out. He was teasing me about snarling my line, and suddenly gasped. I turned to look where he was staring and saw the bear. It was huge. It reached out and shoved Jim into the river, then it grabbed up the fish Jim had just caught." he swallowed hard at the memory. "Simon grabbed me and we ran, first to the camp, where he handed me a gun and then we ran towards Jim, Simon explaining how to work the gun while we ran. When we were close enough, the bear swiped its paw across Jim's chest, from his shoulder, down. It was roaring and snarling, pawing at its mouth " He shuddered, then continued. "Anyway, Simon yelled at it, and it turned and charged us. Simon emptied his gun into it, but it didn't stop. I heard his gun click on an empty chamber and knew that I had to shoot, too." He lifted his horror-filled eyes to the older man, "So, I did. My first shot bounced off its head, but the second one " he trailed off and looked unseeingly into the distance.

"The second shot?" Townsend asked, understanding the younger man's distress.

"Caught it square in the throat. It stopped and tore at its own throat, gasping for air, sucking down the blood " He shuddered again. "Then, she just fell. I was so scared. I couldn't move, so when she fell on me, she knocked me down and I couldn't get out from under her. It took both Simon and Jim to get her off of me. Then the storm hit. We got to the tent and took care of Jim's injuries. Then, this morning, we called the rangers, found the cubs, took them in and then came here. Jim's got some infection from one of the puncture wounds. Like cat-scratch fever, I guess "

Townsend looked at the smaller man for a long time, silently putting together what he knew he needed to say. Finally, "What would have happened if you hadn't shot the bear?"


"If you had held your fire. If you hadn't shot her? What would have happened?"

"I don't know. I I guess, she'd have clobbered me, and then Simon "

"Do you think that your friends and you would still be alive?"

"Probably not." Blair straightened in his chair, his eyes finally meeting the older man's.

"So, by shooting the gun, you stopped the bear from killing yourself and your friends. Yes?"

"Uh yeah, I suppose."

"Then, you did the right thing. I know that it hurts, the idea that you had to kill something. But the alternative would have been much worse. Even if it hadn't killed you all, you probably would have died in the storm, unable to help yourselves. Let me ask you something. When you first saw Buttercup, did any of you want to shoot him?"

"No. We were just afraid he'd jump us. We just stared at each other, then Jim moved toward him a little, and he backed off and went away."

"What if he hadn't?"

"I guess I guess that we'd have stared at each other for a while, until he got bored and left."

"And if he had decided to attack? After all, you had no way of knowing that he was a pet."

"I think Simon would have shot him." Blair admitted.

"And If you had never discovered that he was a pet, would it have bothered you ? The idea that your friend killed a dangerous animal that meant you harm?"

"Well no I guess not." His puzzled frown marring his features, he worked through it.

"When the lives of people are in danger, it is never wrong to kill a threatening animal Even if it should later prove to have been safe, if you feel threatened, you have every right to defend yourself and your loved ones. That's how we got Buttercup. His mother was killing our livestock. I happened to corner her one day, and ended up killing her. I backtracked her, when I realized that she had kittens, and found Buttercup. His sibling had apparently been found by coyotes, he was such a tiny little thing "

Blair stared at the older man, processing it all. Finally, he sighed and nodded. "You're right. Doing what I did to protect my friends was the right thing to do. I don't like it, but I didn't really have any choice. As it was, I still nearly got clobbered by her."

"Yes. But you did the right thing as well, by making sure her cubs will live. That's the goal of most parents, to protect and nurture our children until they're grown and able to care for themselves." He watched as Blair nodded again, accepting his role in the entire situation.

"Yeah. You're right. Thanks." He smiled. He was still sad that the bear had to die, but he realized that if she had lived, she would have lost her smallest cub for sure, and probably the other two as well, as she had been unable to get enough food He looked up at the older man, "So, how's Becky doing?"

"Why don't you go see for yourself? I was just on my way out for a soft drink. She doesn't like the hospital very much, although, there is television "

"Yeah. Well, if it's all right with you, I'll just go and see how she's doing, OK?"

"You do that." Townsend rose and went in search of refreshments for his daughter while Blair slipped into her room to see how she was doing.

"Easy, Jim. You want upstairs, or the couch?" Simon asked, trying to help his friend. Jim just distractedly waved him away.

"Couch." Was all he could get out. His head was spinning and he was feeling a little nauseous.

Blair lugged in the first load of their gear. Cringing at what his absence from his side in the emergency room had meant for his friend. "Man, Jim. I'm sorry. It never occurred to me that they'd give you a shot for pain. How are you feeling?"

"Like I want to puke, Sandburg. What all did they give me, anyway?" He gingerly settled onto the couch.

"Something for the pain, and one of the biggest doses of penicillin I've ever seen." Simon couldn't help but chuckle. He'd heard Jim's roar clear out in the waiting room when the nurse had pulled down his pants and jammed the needle into him.

"Yeah, well, I hope I'm there next time you go in and get Brunhilda to give you a shot." But there was no venom in his voice, just weariness.

Blair dropped the bags by the door, under the coat rack. "Simon? Help Jim get his jacket off? Just relax, Jim. I'm going down for another load. Simon? Would you put on some hot water for tea, please?" He scurried back out the door and down the stairs.

"Simon, go help Blair. I'll be fine." Jim growled, leaning back on the couch and closing his eyes. Simon gave him a long, speculative look and then turned around and followed the smaller man down to help bring up the rest of their gear.

"I could have made a couple more trips, Simon." Blair complained. "You shouldn't have left Jim alone, man."

"Right. He didn't want me hovering and he knew that it had taken three of us to get all your stuff down there, so it was only fair that I help you get it back up. At least the elevator works." He watched as the overburdened Blair shouldered the door open and dropped his load next to the first pile, with Simon adding his own load to the stack. Straightening up, he turned to look, and found Jim sound asleep on the sofa. The injured man had managed to get his jacket off without assistance, but was now using it as a blanket. Simon met Sandburg's eyes and they shared a smile. While Simon gently removed Jim's jacket and hung it up, Blair took the afghan and carefully spread it over his sleeping roommate. Then he carefully removed Jim's shoes and lifted his feet onto the couch, as well.

"You guys going to be all right, Sandburg?" Simon asked, his voice soft so as not to disturb the sleeping Sentinel.

"Yeah. I got it covered, Simon." Blinking in surprise when Simon groaned at his unintentional pun.

"Well, if you need anything, call. Tell Jim to take it easy and not to push it. I'll see him when he feels like coming back."

"That'll be tomorrow, Simon. He may be a little late, but you know he'll be there."

"Yeah. I know. If it weren't for the city changing our benefits, he'd never take a day off." Simon smiled down at the sleeping man. "Take care of him, Blair. Call me if you need anything."

"I will. Thanks, Simon." Blair replied, following the tall black man to the door. "Drive safely, Simon."

"I'm not the one who has such a penchant for wrecking vehicles, Sandburg." Simon growled, but there was no heat in it.

"Yeah. But it's getting late and you're tired, too. I'll see you tomorrow. Say 'hi' to Daryl for me if you see him."

"I will. Goodnight, Blair."

"Goodnight, Simon."

He waited until the older man stepped onto the elevator and the doors closed, then he closed and locked the door and returned to his sleeping friend. He watched him for a while, contemplating their lousy luck with even weekend-long vacations. Satisfied that Jim was down for the night, he shuffled off to bed, putting off cleaning up their gear until the morning.

He startled awake, wondering what had awakened him. Heart pounding, he listened, there! A deep moan throwing back the covers, he slid from his bed and tiptoed to his door, quietly opening one of the French doors, he peered out at the figure sleeping on the couch. When the sleeper whimpered in obvious discomfort, he moved, first turning on his bedside lamp for a little light to see by. In near silence, Blair shuffled over to his friend. Kneeling beside the couch, he carefully reached out and patted Jim's cheek.

"Jim? It's OK, man. You're home. Jim?" He continued lightly patting his friend's cheek, wanting to wake him, but not wanting to either startle him or jar his injuries. "Come on, man. Wake up. You're dreaming "

The bear easily stood twelve feet tall, towering over him. The smell of sickness and disease combined with the natural smell of the bear was overpowering. His back was to deep water and there was nowhere to run. The snarling beast drew back a paw to strike him and he cringed in anticipation. As the bear struck, his eyes snapped closed, seemingly of their own volition, not wanting to see himself struck down. Amazingly, the blow, when it came, was gentle, like a child patting his face. Cautiously, he opened his eyes and instead of the huge Grizzly, he saw the concerned countenance of his roommate.

"Jim?" Blair softly called, his expression easing when he saw Jim's eyes open and focus on him. "Hey, it's OK, you were just having a nightmare, man. It's OK." The younger man shifted back a bit, balancing on his toes as he crouched beside his friend, watching as the older man slowly reacted to where he was.

"Yeah. 'm OK, Chief. Thanks. Sorry about waking you up." Jim rubbed his good hand over his face, still struggling with the dregs of his nightmare.

"No problem, man. You've done it often enough for me, the least I can do is return the favor." He shifted to sit on the coffee table, his knees and back protesting the cramped, crouched position. "The bear?" He asked, already suspecting the answer.

"Yeah. Only this time it was twelve feet tall and healthy. Man " He looked at his friend. "How are you holding up with having to shoot the bear, Chief?" He needed to know.

"I talked to Mr. Townsend. He had some good things to say. Like if I hadn't shot the bear, she would have killed me, you, and Simon as well. Hell, she landed on me anyway. I hadn't thought about that. I mean, if she hadn't died, she'd have killed me. I'm I'm going to be OK with this. At least, I think so. I'll let you know, OK?"

"OK, Chief. I can live with that. It's not like any of us had any real choice, you know?" He shook his head and struggled to sit up. Blair reached out automatically to help him.

"You want some help getting upstairs?" Blair asked, automatically couching the offer in the least confrontational form and tone of voice he could, knowing how easily his friend could take offense at the idea of his need of any help.

"Nah. I'm fine right here. Thanks, Chief." He sighed and leaned back, carefully favoring his left arm to avoid causing any stress to his injuries; his right hand still covering his eyes and rubbing his face. Resting his head against the back of the couch, he sighed. "I'm all right, Blair. You can go back to bed. Sorry I woke you."

"Jim. It's all right. Don't worry about it. I don't have to be at the university until one p.m. for office hours. No classes in the morning, so I can sleep as late as I want and don't have to worry about losing a little sleep making sure you're OK. Get it?" A faint smile as he offered the trite opening.

Jim removed his hand from his face and raised his eyebrows just a bit, a faint smirk forming on his lips. "Got it, Chief." His smile broadening as he waited for the final comeback.

"Good." Blair smiled, pleased that his friend had fallen into the old Danny Kaye patter. "So. You want some help up to your own bed? It's got to be more comfortable than the couch. Although it's a comfortable couch."

Jim stared at him for a minute., seeing the light from Blair's room forming a halo of his hair as he was back-lit by the soft glow. "Well, actually, I kind of like it here. There's plenty of support for the shoulder and it keeps me from moving around too much. I'd really just as soon stay here, Chief."

Blair nodded his understanding. "OK. You want something to drink?"

"Well," he paused, "Yeah. Juice, maybe, or just some cold water? But first, I need to go to the can." He leaned forward to rise. Blair stood up and reached out to help him. Jim smiled and let his friend help him stand and then steady him as he wobbled a bit from the dizziness of rising.

"Easy, Jim." Blair moved closer to help support the larger man. "OK, now?" Jim nodded and carefully shuffled off toward the bathroom, Blair's attention following him to make sure he didn't hurt himself. When the door closed, Blair shuffled toward the kitchen to get them each something to drink. Looking in the refrigerator, he was faced with bottled water, orange juice, and there in the back, the bottle of cranberry juice he'd bought last week. Smiling, he moved things out of the way and pulled out the cranberry juice. Not only did he like the flavor, he knew the juice had the properties to help cleanse the system and promote kidney and urinary tract health. Just the thing for an overmedicated Sentinel on pain medication. Pulling an ice tray from the freezer, he took two glasses from the cupboard and broke some ice from the tray into the glasses. Pouring the juice, he then remembered to refill the ice cube tray and put it back in the freezer. As he picked up the glasses, he watched as Jim shuffled back to the couch and started to sit down, then straightened back up, grimacing in pain.

"Hold on a sec, I'll be right there." He hurried to set the glasses on the coffee table, then took his friend's good right arm in one hand, and reached around his waist with the other. Bracing himself, he helped the larger man settle back slowly onto the couch.

Jim couldn't stop the hiss of pain as he settled back down onto the couch. Seeing the concern on his roommate's face, he forced a slightly pained smile. "Guess I stiffened up some." He admitted. Trying to hide the fact that his lower back was positively aching.

Blair sighed. "Even if I could get you upstairs, you couldn't get back down, could you?" He asked. Already knowing the answer.

"'Fraid so, Sandburg." Jim admitted, waiting to see what Blair was going to hit him with next.

"OK. You want to take my bed and I'll sleep on the couch? The futon's pretty comfortable, and it's a lot bigger than the couch. I've got enough pillows to pack you in so you've got the back support you need "

"Blair, it's all right. I'd be just as stiff and sore in my own bed or anywhere else I was. The couch is fine." He carefully shifted forward to reach for a glass of juice, but Blair beat him to it, placing the cold glass in his hand even before he had shifted forward more than a few inches. Sighing, he settled back, a wry expression on his face as he shook his head at his friend and then took a sip of juice. Sighing again, he glanced at the silent younger man hovering beside him.

"Chief, I'm OK. I don't need you hovering. If I need anything, I promise to call you, OK?" Jim watched as his friend struggled with his desire to sleep versus his desire to help. Finally, raising his dark blue eyes to meet his, Blair smiled.

"OK. But if you need anything you have to promise to call me, OK?"

"Fine, Sandburg. Just go back to bed now, OK?"

"OK." Blair stood. Jim finished his juice and sat staring at the glass for a moment

"Uh, Chief?"

"Yeah, Jim?" Blair turned back and tried to keep a straight face. "You need something?"

Sighing in exasperation, Jim nodded. "Yeah. Give me a hand here, would you?" He held the glass out for Blair to take and then allowed his friend to help him to lie back down. "Not a word, Sandburg." He admonished.

Chuckling dryly, Blair held his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, no problem man. Not a problem at all. I'm going back to bed. You sure you're going to be OK here, man?"

"Yeah, Chief. I'll be fine."

"OK, then. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Chief."

Blair had just crawled back under the covers and snuggled down to go back to sleep when the sleepy voice from the other room roused him once again.


"Yes, Jim?" Sighing and preparing to fetch his partner another drink or something.

"I I just wanted to say thank you. For everything. For yesterday. For today. For all the times you've been there for me. For tonight. For taking care of me, even when I'm not very helpful about it. Thanks, Chief."

Jim's voice was soft and Blair had to strain to hear it. He heard all the things that Jim hadn't said, as well. All the things he couldn't say to his face or in the light of day. Blair smiled, understanding. "You're welcome, Jim. That's what friends are for, man." Blair snuggled down into his warm nest and sighed softly, prepared for sleep, content with his life and his place in the world.

Jim lay awake for a time, listening to his friend as he nestled in his little cocoon of covers, smiling at the picture the sounds brought to mind. When Blair was once again asleep, he extended his hearing to check out the neighborhood, making sure that everyone was where they should be; his protective instincts not allowing his own rest until he was certain of the safety of his partner and Guide. Finally, satisfied, he allowed sleep to claim him as well. Relaxing, knowing that he didn't have to keep watch alone, that his companion was nearby, in case he was needed. Content with the knowledge that he had managed to put into words, at least partially, some of the things he had always needed to say to his friend but never had the nerve to speak aloud, he finally allowed himself to drift off to sleep as well.

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