This one came about due to a conversation I just had with one of the single-managers I keep time for. It's a Simon/Jim story, with very little Blair, but hey, Blair's busy at the academy and Jim has an awful lot of leave to burn up. Oh, there are hunter warnings to go with this. Yes, they're going to kill deer, for dinner. If you don't like this idea, please don't read this. You've been warned, so if you're an avid anti-hunting person, I'd rather not hear about it. I have no problem with people who hunt for food. Even if they don't necessarily need the meat. Besides, if we didn't have the hunters, we would be first overrun with too many deer and then they would sicken and die, since their natural predators are so few. And I'd much rather the deer populations be controlled by hunters who pay taxes and buy hunting permits than have the animals starving to death due to overpopulation. OK, rant mode off. Sorry about that.

Well, the above is how it started, but Blair insisted that he needed some R&R, too, so...

As usual, they aren't my characters and I don't make any money at this. Many heartfelt thanks to Bilson and DeMeo who created the characters, and Paramount for producing them, and the actors for bringing them to life. Also, thanks to Debbie for the textbook, it's very much like the one I had in college, even to having many of the same pictures and stories in it, but it's by a different publisher. It certainly reads much like the original...(Oh, I used one of the 'case files' in the book for Blair to comment on)

Taking Leave


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"I'm sorry, Jim. They changed the rules. You have a hundred and ninety-seven hours of leave you have to use by the first of January. It's the middle of August and I need you to give me some sort of schedule that will clear the excess leave by Christmas, if at all possible. I know that you don't want to suddenly find out that you have to take off from Thanksgiving through New Year's and not have anything planned for that amount of time off. You have twenty-four days and five hours. You might think about taking some long weekends, or maybe a couple of days off during the week. Of course, you could take off a couple of weeks...OK, up to five weeks, which will take off three hours towards your use-or-lose next year." Simon Banks hated these personnel 'counseling' sessions. Particularly when it involved forcing someone like Jim Ellison to take leave.

"I know, Sir. I was thinking of taking off a couple of weeks in October and maybe going hunting. And the fall salmon run should be starting up in about another month, that might be a good time to take off for a few days, maybe a week." There was no enthusiasm in his plans. Both of them knew why.

"Too bad Sandburg's at the academy. Although, I doubt if he'd take very kindly to you going out and shooting Bambi, any more than Daryl did the last time I went hunting." Simon shifted back in his chair, wanting to help his friend, but uncertain how.

Jim grimaced. "Yeah, I know. 'It's not like we need food, man. There's no real reason to hunt, except for food, and think how nice it is to go out in the woods and see all the deer.'" Jim did a fair imitation of his roommate. "He just doesn't understand."

Simon chuckled. "Of course he doesn't. He's Naomi's son, after all. He doesn't understand why anyone would want to hunt. That hunters are the reason that we have so many nice, big, healthy deer."

"Well, he sure changed his mind about fishing, though." Jim countered.

"Of course," Simon agreed, "He likes to eat fish. Has he ever even tasted venison?"

Jim looked at his friend and superior with a rather speculative expression. "How's your leave looking, Sir?"

"I've got a few weeks I need to use up. You have something in mind?" A faint smile was gracing his normally stern countenance.

"Well Since Blair's stuck at the academy and we both have some use-or-lose vacation time we need to burn, maybe we could do a little hunting?" Jim looked almost hopeful. Somehow, over the past several years, he had gotten in the habit of including his partner in his downtime plans as well as their working and living relationship. With his partner at the academy, it left him having a lot of time on his own, and he didn't like it, not one bit.

"I think I could manage a week or two." Simon agreed, smiling with the knowledge that his ruse had worked. Hopefully, their hunting trip would be pleasant, without any of Ellison's normal luck turning it into some sort of major bust. "Why don't you check out with fish and game and figure out the best places to try for, then we'll pick up our licenses and tags and take off, when the time comes, OK?" Simon was relieved at the easy grin Jim replied with as he stood to go back to work.

"Sounds like a plan, Sir."

October 13, 1999

It snowed overnight in the upper reaches of the mountains, driving the deer down to lower, warmer climes. Jim awoke to the soft patter of rain on the roof of the tent. Stretching languorously, he reached over to gently nudge his companion to wakefulness.

"Hey, Simon." He spoke softly, not wishing to startle his friend awake. "Simon." He spoke a bit louder and pushed the body beside him a bit harder, eliciting a grunt of annoyance.

"Wha?" Simon grunted, shifting away from the annoying prodding. "Go 'way. Wanna sleep." He mumbled, snuggling deeper into his sleeping bag.

"Simon!" Jim laughed good-naturedly as he sat up to prod his friend once more, "Come on, get up. Bambi's waiting for us to go out and find him."

Hearing that reminder that they were actually supposed to be hunting, Simon grunted once more and forced himself to sit up, blinking in the near-darkness of the tent. "Wha' time izit?" He mumbled, scrubbing his hands across his eyes as he tried to bring himself further into the realm of the wakeful.

"Oh, about six. The sun's not quite up, yet. It's raining, which means that it's snowing up higher, so the deer should be coming down. It's a great time to be out hunting, so let's go."

"Coffee?" The older man asked, plaintively.

"After we hunt. If we don't find anything by nine, we'll come back to camp and fix a real breakfast. In the mean time..." Jim pulled his backpack over and fished out some granola bars, "Eat up. It'll keep you going."

Simon stared myopically at the little paper and mylar wrapped bars as he groped for and put on his glasses. "Berry or chocolate chip? You call this food? Looks like something Sandburg would eat." He grumbled, snatching up the chocolate chip flavored bars and tearing one open and taking a bite. "Not too bad, though." He continued as he chewed and swallowed.

"Sandburg hates this brand, says there's too much sugar in it." Jim unzipped his sleeping bag and pulled his camouflage pants on over his thermal underwear. "So, you coming? Or are you going to sleep all day?" Jim asked as he stood up, sliding his feet into his boots and bending over to lace and tie them.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm coming. Keep your shirt on." Simon grumbled once more, as he began to struggle into his own clothes. He was just pulling on his boots when Jim froze, his head cocking in that distinctive way he had when one of his hyper senses kicked into gear, his granola bar forgotten in his hand.

"What is it?" Simon whispered, tensing.

"Deer." Jim replied, opening the tent flap as quietly as he could, moving the zipper one link at a time to prevent the sound from startling the nearby deer. "Close. Come on." With which he quietly stepped out, pulling his rifle out with him, careful to keep the muzzle pointed away from his companion.

Moving quickly, Simon finished tying his boots, stood, grabbed his own rifle and followed his friend out into the cold, drizzly morning. There, visible through the trees, less than thirty yards away, stood half a dozen deer, two very nice bucks, getting ready to spar over the doe and her three half-grown spring fawns. Jim, never taking his eyes off the herd, merely pointed at his choice, the smaller buck that was further away. Simon barely nodded and lifted his own rifle.

"On three," Simon whispered, nearly silent, knowing that the Sentinel would be able to hear him and that the deer wouldn't. Jim nodded microscopically and took a deep breath, zeroing in on his prey. "One...two...three." Simon breathed, then fired.

The two shots sounded almost as one and a moment later, both bucks crashed to the ground as the doe and her three fawns abruptly dashed for cover. Bringing their rifles down, the two men looked at one another, broad smiles on their faces, they'd been up here for over a week, and these were the first deer they had even seen.

Placing their guns back in the tent, they hiked the short distance to their trophies and looked down at them. Both animals were good-sized mule deer, running a good two hundred fifty pounds for the larger one and about two hundred pounds for the smaller one. Simon looked over at Jim and asked, "So, you want to field dress them here and then drag them to camp, or drag them, first?"

"How about we butcher them out and then make several trips back to the truck? If we do that, we will be hauling them downhill to the truck, instead of uphill to camp, and then still have to pack them out." He looked out over the forest, "Truck's only about half a mile that way," he pointed downhill in the appropriate direction. "If we work fast, we can have it packed in the ice chests and be on our way in a couple of hours."

Simon nodded his agreement. "Sounds good to me, how about we hang them now and pack up the camp, then, by the time we get back here, it will be time to finish dressing them out?"

"Sounds like a plan to me." Jim agreed, reaching into his jacket pocket for some stout, nylon cord. He handed one bundle to his friend and took the other one and quickly trussed his deer's hind legs together and then flipped the loose end of the cord over a branch and then hauled it up until it hung suspended in mid-air. He then took out his hunting knife and slit the deer's throat and carefully slit it up the belly, quickly gutting it, so as to allow the carcass to cool in the chill morning air and prevent any dangerous microorganisms from growing. He carefully pulled the heart and liver from the entrails and prepared to carry those delicacies back to camp to be placed in storage bags for the trip home. Simon worked almost as quickly, they buried the offal and soon the two men were ready to head back and break camp.

The smell of the offal had killed both men's appetites, so they quickly rolled up their sleeping bags and packed up their gear. While Simon began to pack their frame packs, Jim took down the tent and folded it into its stuff-bag. Once that was done, they headed down the hill, past their kill and toward Jim's truck. The hike wasn't terribly difficult, although there were some rather slippery spots on the hillside, where they had to be careful or find themselves skidding along on their backsides (as Simon discovered at one point, suddenly losing his footing and slithering past his companion with a startled yell... which was met with derisive laughter, and deservedly so).

Simon's hands, butt and legs were covered with slippery, slimy, well-rotted forest duff, his expression one of shock and dismay. Jim's laughter didn't help. As the smaller man made his careful way past his fallen companion, Simon reached out one hand and tripped him.

Jim had the grace and agility of the big cat that was his spirit-guide, but even cats don't always land on their feet. As his foot was pulled out from under him, Jim threw up his hands to try and break his fall as he headed for the forest floor. His body automatically twisted into a martial arts style forward roll. Unfortunately, his framed backpack interrupted the easy, even flow of the movement, the top of the frame digging hard into the ground and sticking, causing him to fall hard to the side. His arms still tried to break his fall, which they did. He landed hard, flat on his backpack, knocking the wind out of him in a huge expulsion of air.

"Oh, shit. Jim? Jim? I'm sorry, man. Are you all right?" Simon struggled to his feet, anxiously scrambling down to the unmoving man. Jim lay there, eyes wide open, his unfocused gaze staring up into the trees, his body trying desperately to force his paralyzed diaphragm into working to draw much needed air into his starving lungs. "Jim?" Simon bent to look closer at his friend. As soon as he was within reach, Jim quickly reached up and pulled his worried captain down, reaching for a handful of muck from the forest floor to smear in his face.

Rolling away and to his feet, Jim started laughing again, the thick, brown mud providing an interesting contrast to Simon's dark brown skin, the bits of pine needles sticking out at all angles giving the tall black man a bristly look. Staring in shock at his friend, Simon slowly smiled and reached out for a glob of mud for himself. His grin widening, he took careful aim and threw it at his companion. Jim tried to dodge, but was only partly successful. Instead of hitting him in the face, it struck him in the chest. As Simon rose to his feet, both hands filled with more mud, he kept an eye on Jim, who had stopped to gather up some more ammunition of his own. Grinning, they both took aim and let fly, trying to dodge at the same time, which caused them both to miss their marks. Jim was a little faster, shifting his second clod of mud to his right hand and throwing it more quickly than Simon could, splatting him across one shoulder and down his chest, only to discover that Simon wasn't distracted and catching Simon's last throw in his face.

Both men laughing, they reached out to brush the mud off each other, smearing the wet, gooey stuff more than removing it. Finally, they gave up and, still laughing and smiling, Simon slapped an arm across Jim's shoulders, above the backpack, and urged him on down the hill, more cautiously, now; Simon trailed closely behind the smaller man.

Once back at Jim's truck, they unloaded their packs and picked up their supply of zip-lock bags. Returning to their deer, they began the onerous job of preparing the meat for transport. Fortunately, the weather stayed cool and they were able to cut up and package most of the meat into their backpacks. Rigging up the capes as drags, they prepared to drag the rest of their prizes to the truck.

Attaching their tags to the antlers, they headed down the mountains toward Cascade. In spite of their good night's sleep and their early-morning success, both men were tired as they traveled back into town. They were fairly quiet during the trip. As they stopped for gas about half way home, Jim asked, "So, Simon. What are you going to do with all that venison?"

"I've got a big freezer, just waiting for it. How about you?" Simon suddenly realized that Jim didn't have any place to store the over one hundred pounds of meat. "You want to store it at my place?" He offered.

"Thanks, but no. I figured I'd keep a couple of roasts and some steaks and give the rest of it to the mission." Jim replied distractedly, as he finished filling the tank and, after putting the gas cap back on, headed inside to get his change; totally unaware of the startled look that followed him as Simon thought about what Jim was planning. Thinking for only a moment, he stepped up on the rear bumper of the truck and climbed into the bed. When Jim came back out, he was rearranging the meat in the coolers. Jim stopped by the driver's side door and watched for a moment.

"What's wrong?" Jim asked, puzzled.

Simon looked up, a little guiltily, "Well, I liked your idea, so I pulled out some for me and enough for a barbecue at Joel's, and figured that the rest can go to the mission with yours." Simon admitted. He glanced at his friend, unsure what he expected to see in Jim's expression. He was pleasantly surprised to find his friend smiling.

"Whatever you want, Simon. I certainly don't need the meat, and I figured that if I gave it to the mission, Blair wouldn't have such a hard time trying it."

"Yeah, and if he likes it, he's gonna be pissed that you gave most of it away." Simon laughed. Jim joined him, shrugging.

"Hey, there's always next year." Reaching out to offer a hand to provide Simon balance as he jumped from the back of the truck, the two men climbed back into the cab of the truck to finish their trip.

The mission was grateful for the donation. They quickly followed Jim back to his truck and gladly unloaded the almost two hundred pounds of fresh meat. Refusing anything except the blessings offered, the two men continued on towards Simon's home, where Jim helped unload his friend's gear and share of the venison. Then, Jim climbed wearily back into his truck and headed for home, himself. Remembering the capes and heads still in the bed of his truck, he headed for a taxidermist's to have the hides tanned, and then made one final stop at fish and game to drop off the heads with the tags, telling them that he had no use for the trophies. By the time he finally got home, it was late afternoon and all he really wanted was a hot shower and bed. Lugging his camping gear and venison in, he was dismayed, but not surprised to find the elevator out of order. Nearly dragging his gear up the two flights of stairs to the loft, he unlocked the door, stepped inside and closed and locked the door behind him. Sighing with relief, he carried his venison to the kitchen where he placed most of it in the freezer compartment, leaving out a couple of packages in the refrigerator. He looked at his camping gear and decided that, just this once, he could leave it by the door until later.

His feet dragging, he headed for the bathroom, where he finally got a good look at himself. The sight brought a tired grin to his face. His face was smeared with mud, his clothing was coated with mud stains and spatters of blood. Shaking his head, he turned on the shower, then stripped and climbed in; luxuriating in the feeling of hot water sluicing down his tired, aching body. Of course, if he and Simon hadn't been horsing around, he probably wouldn't have as many aches as he did, but it had been fun. He chuckled, remembering the scuffling and the mud-ball fight. After scrubbing the caked-on dirt from his tired body, he washed his hair and then just stood there under the shower, letting the hot water pour down over him. As the water began to cool, he reluctantly turned off the taps and dragged himself out of the tub and picked up a towel and began to dry his now even more tired body. When he was dry, he snagged a dry towel, threw his dirty clothes in the hamper, hung the wet towel and wrapped the dry one around his hips. Even as tired as he was, he checked that the bathroom was clean before leaving and heading up the stairs to his beckoning bed.

Once he reached the top of the steps, he was too tired to do any more than pull the covers back, drop his towel and crawl between the cool, welcoming sheets.

Blair had had a lousy week, and it was only Wednesday. Jim and Simon had gone off on their 'hunting' expedition eleven days before. There had been jokes about shooting Bambi, to which Blair had foolishly risen to the bait and been teased unmercifully. He had adamantly stood his ground with his opinion that hunting was hardly necessary, since they could purchase any meat they needed at the local market. He ignored his friends' claims that venison was very different from beef, to which Blair had demanded "I suppose it tastes just like chicken? In that case, I'll take the real thing, thanks." His reaction had only heaped more laughter on his head, promising him that he would 'love' the venison. He simply shook his head and remembered some of the more primitive peoples he had lived among and wondered, yet again, just how far they hadn't come from their more primitive counterparts.

Turning onto Prospect, he looked ahead and was surprised to see Jim's truck in its usual parking space. He found himself pleased by the knowledge of his roommate's early return and hurriedly parked and nearly scampered up the stairs to their home. He'd managed to wind himself by the time he ran up the stairs, still in his full-dress uniform after leaving the academy. Suddenly thinking that maybe Jim was tired, he took the last half-dozen steps to the third floor to catch his breath. Quietly inserting his key into the lock, he silently entered the loft. Pausing just within the front door, he glanced around the loft. He spotted Jim's camping gear under the coat hooks, but no other obvious sign of his friend's return, he smiled with the realization that Jim was probably upstairs, asleep. Quietly placing his keys in the basket next to Jim's, he headed for his room to remove his uniform and equipment. He didn't really mind the uniform, but he hated having to wear the .38 S&W revolver on his hip in the holster on his Sam Browne belt. They'd kept him so busy at the academy that he still hadn't had time to look up to see who Sam Browne was. He was determined to do so over the weekend, providing Jim was still on vacation...unless his friend decided to go fishing., in which case, he just might have to tag along. Providing he didn't have ten tons of homework. Who'd have thought that after all his years in academia, he would be dismayed by heavy loads of homework? Chuckling dryly, he stripped out of his uniform and actually hung it up. It hadn't taken him long to realize that hanging the wool garment saved him time and money having to have it dry-cleaned. Grabbing a set of sweats, he headed for the shower. He hated the days when they had inspections. The heavy wool was nice outside when it was cold, but indoors, where it was heated...urk. Closing the bathroom door behind him, he finished stripping and took a nice, pounding, hot shower. Just the thing to relieve the kinks from the stresses of the day.

After his shower, Blair dressed in his nice, comfortable old sweats. Relaxing on the couch, he flipped on the television to watch the evening news. He'd gotten in the habit, this past week, of watching the news, then fixing himself a light meal for dinner, going over his lessons from the day, making notes and writing down any questions he might have, then reading a little and going to bed at an indecently early hour. He'd never, in all his years in academia been able to sleep through the night without having to study or research into the wee hours of the morning. It was rather relaxing, after all his years of scrambling to get everything he needed to do, done.

"So, what's happening in the world, Chief?" Jim's soft voice broke through his reverie. Blair jumped a bit, startled, but turned a wide smile on his friend.

"So, the great hunter returns. How'd you do?"

"We did fine. There are a couple of steaks in the refrigerator, if you're interested." Jim was careful not to antagonize his friend. Even though Blair had eaten many strange things, he still had a problem dealing with the idea of eating Bambi.

"Uh, OK, I guess. How do you cook them?" Blair asked, uncertainly.

"Well, if steak doesn't sound appetizing, there's always liver or heart."

Blair grinned. "Liver? I've got this great recipe for liver, it's got..."

"Do we have all the ingredients you need?" Jim interrupted.

"Uh, actually, I think we do." Blair stood up and headed for the kitchen and could soon be heard banging around preparing their dinner.

Jim wisely stayed out of his friend's way, letting the younger man have his way in the kitchen. When it was served, Jim was hard pressed not to remind Blair that the liver they were eating came from a deer, but the way Blair was chattering on about how he'd prepared it made Jim decide not to spoil the meal with belaboring the point. As it was, the meal was the best thing Jim had eaten since he'd left on his hunting trip. Of course, if he was honest with himself, and he tried to always tell himself the truth, it wasn't so much what he had eaten as the company he'd missed. He shook his head, a bemused expression on his face.

"What?" Blair asked, halting his lecture on the proper way to prepare liver. He'd seen his partner's expression and honestly wondered what had brought that particular expression to his friend's face.

"Oh, I was just thinking," Jim replied.

"Well, it obviously didn't hurt." Blair chided, with a grin. "What about?"

Jim looked at his roommate for several long moments. Blair started to squirm, unused to the intense scrutiny from his friend. He'd have started to worry, but Jim's expression was one of warmth and contentment.

"Well?" Blair pressed, his curiosity beginning to change to worry.

"I was thinking that as nice as the hunting trip was, as good company as Simon is, as relaxed as we were, not to mention successful, I missed you." Jim finally gave voice to his thoughts, his gaze steady on his friend.

"Y-you missed me?" Blair nearly choked on the words.

"Yeah. I missed you. I missed your voice, the way you always have something to say, the way you can speak on just about any subject, intelligently. The way you... well, the way you bounce. Although I've missed that a bit, lately. I missed your company, your... your presence. I've gotten used to having you in my space and I missed you when you weren't there." Jim watched as the emotions flitted across Blair's face.

"Oh." Blair was unsure how to respond to that. It was one of the longest, most emotive speeches he'd ever heard from his friend. He cleared his throat; breaking eye contact, he looked past Jim's shoulder and replied, "Well, I missed you, too, Jim," and he realized that he had. He'd missed talking to his friend about what was happening in their lives, how their days had gone. Hell, he'd even missed being ragged on about leaving wet towels on the floor... something he hadn't done in the week and a half Jim had been gone. He brought his gaze back to his friend's warm blue eyes. Odd, he'd always thought of Jim's eyes as being cold and laser-like. Yet Jim expressed himself as much with his eyes as he did with his hands, and he realized that he'd missed the gentle touches, the playful shoves and light slaps that Jim used to demonstrate his feelings far more than he used words. Blair smiled at his friend. "To tell you the truth, it's been kinda lonely here, all by myself, you know?"

Jim's mouth widened in one of his beatific smiles. "Yeah, Chief. I know."

Since Blair had cooked, Jim cleaned up. When he was finished, he joined his roommate on the couch to channel surf while Blair studied his homework. Finally finding a movie he was willing to watch, he settled back, but it wasn't long before his attention shifted from the movie to his friend.

He'd seen Blair study before. Hell, the kid did nothing but study, it seemed. Yet, this was different. This wasn't so much something that Blair had wanted, but had more or less fallen into. He watched as Blair frowned at the passage he was reading.

"What is it, Chief?" Jim asked, wondering what was bothering his friend.

"Oh, just this bit here. It's an example. Seems that a thirteen-year-old girl, home alone, called 911 to report a prowler. The 911 operator coded it as routine. The girl also called her mother at work, who rushed home, only to find the girl raped and murdered. It was forty minutes later, when the second call came in." Blair looked up from his textbook and pushed his glasses back up his nose, and then his hand through his short curls, "That sucks, Jim." Blair shook his head in dismay.

"Yeah, it does. But mistakes are made. There are a lot more instances where they treat a report like an emergency and it turns out to be nothing and the cops are kept from being somewhere else and someone else dies because they were tied up with something inconsequential. 911 operators aren't omniscient, Chief. They're human, just like the rest of us. They get jaded and complacent. It's sad and tragic, but it's life. We can't be everywhere at once, nor can we save everybody, as a very wise man once told me." Jim watched as his friend thought about his words.

"Wise man, huh?" Blair's expression turned to one of pleased surprise, as he recognized his own words being passed back to him.

"Yeah, one of the wisest men I've ever met." Jim said, a glint of humor in his eyes. "Wise, far beyond his years, actually. But wisdom doesn't necessarily mean common sense." He added, the glint of amusement widening his grin.

"Common sense?" Blair asked, puzzled.

"Yeah, wisdom and common sense don't necessarily go together."

"Uh, what?" Blair's puzzlement was obvious.

"Sure. You're wise, intelligent, but sometimes..."

"Sometimes, what?" Blair's brows furrowed down in consternation.

"Well, sometimes, you declare that you'll 'never' do something, but then you do it."

"Oh?" Still wondering where this was going.

"How did you like dinner?"

Blair shook his head at the sudden non-sequitor, "Huh?"

"It was venison, Chief. You know, deer meat? Bambi?" Jim's grin widened as he saw the shocked realization cross his friend's expressive face.

"Oh." The voice was small, embarrassed. "I liked it. But I happen to like liver." Blair admitted. "I didn't taste anything funny about it, though."

"That's because I soaked it in a solution of salt and baking soda and water, to help take the gaminess out. Then I rinsed it real well." Jim explained. "And if you've never eaten venison, how would you know anything about gaminess, hmmmm?" Jim had to stifle his desire to laugh at his friend.

"Well, I've heard about it. But you're right. It was good." He looked up at Jim, "So, are you going to rag me about it at the station?" Knowing full well that the rest of the members of Major Crime would tease him unmercifully about this.

"No. But you're going to have to tell them something when Simon has his barbecue. He's planning on serving up venison steaks."

Blair nodded, then he glanced toward their elderly refrigerator, "So, where did you put all the meat?" Knowing full well that the miniscule freezer couldn't hold more than a few pounds of meat, especially since he had stocked up on frozen vegetables, recently.

"I kept us some steaks and a couple of roasts." Jim admitted, "I figured that there was no reason to keep it all if it turned out that you don't like it."

"Oh, so did you give the rest to Simon?"

"Uh, no. We, uh, tookitdowntothemission," Jim mumbled, blushing just a bit.

"You took it where? Did you say you took it to the mission?" Blair asked, incredulously.

"Well, yeah. We certainly didn't need it all, and Simon decided to just keep some for a barbecue and some steaks and roasts as well, so we took the rest of it to the mission," his voice just a little defensive.

Blair gaped, then shook his head in wonder. "I thought the idea of hunting was to kill Bambi and brag about it over dinner?"

"If that's what you thought, then you thought wrong, Sandburg," Jim's voice hardened. Blair looked at him in surprise.

"Then explain it to me," he demanded.

Jim sighed, "Hunting isn't just about killing a poor defenseless animal, Blair. It's also part of good wildlife management. If no one hunted the deer, they would overpopulate their range and without their natural predators, the wolves, cougars, bears, and coyotes, there would be so many that the land couldn't support them. Then, come winter, there wouldn't be enough food for them all, and they would eat things they normally wouldn't, like trees, they'd kill the trees and still die because they didn't have enough to eat. Then, the next year, there still wouldn't be enough food, because of all the trees they killed, and it would only get worse, just like overgrazing cattle. Hunters pay a fee for a permit to hunt plus they pay for tags for certain game, like the deer. There are limits on game, just like on fish. By allowing people to hunt, they keep the deer herds manageable. Man takes the place of the missing natural predators. Poachers, on the other hand, are bad. They take game with no concerns for season and they don't pay the fees, which go into wildlife management."

"But, you didn't need the meat, so why do you like to hunt?" Blair was trying to understand, he agreed with everything Jim had said, just not the reason why he had to be a hunter.

"You like fish, Chief?" Jim asked.

"Yeah, sure. You know I do," his expression puzzled, wondering what fish had to do with killing deer.

"So, do you like to fish?" Jim prodded.

"Yeah. So?"

"Why? You don't need the fish. You can go down to the store and buy fish at any meat counter. Why do you want to go out and kill them yourself?" Jim pressed.

"Because it's fresher, because I like to fish, because it's fun, pitting myself against... oh." The light dawned on him, finally. "You do it because, like fishing, it's a sport, you and your gun against an elusive and intelligent prey, right?"

"Something like that. I like the taste of venison. I like being outdoors, hiking, using my skills to track, you know, we didn't even see any sign of deer until this morning. We stepped out of the tent and there they were, thirty yards away, two nice sized bucks, just waiting for us. We pulled out our rifles and managed to get both of them while the doe and her half-grown fawns took off." He looked away from his friend, then back, "You should know that both Simon and I only had a couple of granola bars for breakfast, Chief, we both lost our appetites when we dressed out the deer," he admitted, "Hunting isn't a pleasurable thing, once you've killed the animal. Sometimes, you don't kill them immediately and they run off. As a responsible hunter, you have to track them down and put them out of their misery, or they might linger for days until some predator finds them, or they finally die from infection. It's as much a responsibility as it is a sport." Jim wasn't sure which of them he was trying to convince, but he could finally see a sign of acceptance in Blair's expression.

"I think I understand. But why did you give most of it away? I thought the purpose was to put meat in the freezer?" Blair was having a little trouble understanding why, when they had worked so hard for their deer, they had seen fit to give it away.

"Because, you were right about one thing, Chief. We don't really need it. I mean, I enjoyed the camping and the hiking, even the actual hunting. In fact, I'd have been just as happy if we hadn't gotten anything, but with no place to store it and you not even sure if you'd like it, there was no reason to hang on to a hundred and twenty pounds of meat. So, I figured that I'd just give most of it to the mission. That way, they'd have some extra meat for their food locker and it wouldn't go to waste." Jim waited for Blair's response, wondering what it might be.

Blair smiled, "And you talked Simon into donating some, too?"

"No. He asked me if I wanted to put it in his freezer and I told him what I had planned. We were getting gas, on the way home, and when I came back from getting my change, he had rearranged his coolers and he said he liked the idea." Jim shrugged, "We stopped by the mission on the way in. They seemed happy to see the meat. Then I dropped Simon off and dropped off the hides, then I dropped the heads off at Fish and Game, then I came home."

"Cool." Blair sat for a few moments, chewing his lower lip and thinking, "You know, I guess that hunting's not so bad, after all."

"Oh?" Jim turned back from trying to figure out what was happening with the movie, "How so?"

"Well, you, and I guess most hunters, I suppose, at least the legitimate ones, are doing something good. If I can go fishing and eat what I catch, I can't see me complaining when someone else wants to hunt and eat what they catch. It's kinda the same thing." Blair looked earnestly at his friend.

"Yeah, it is." Jim picked up the remote and turned off the television, "So, if you're not busy this weekend, you want to go fishing? The fall salmon run is getting close to ending, and I really like the way you have of fixing it," his voice was hopeful, after all, he didn't have to go back to work until Monday, and he still had two days of his vacation left. He'd do a few chores around the loft, maybe paint Blair's room, it was overdue for painting, never having been painted since he'd first moved in. His voice following his meandering mind, "What color do you want your walls, Chief?"

Blair blinked, "What? I'd love to go fishing this weekend. What do you mean, 'what color do I want my walls'?" His puzzlement coming through in his voice and expression.

"Oh, I just thought I'd paint your room tomorrow or Friday, it's overdue. We've painted the rest of the loft, well, except for the bathroom; so, what color?"

"Um, how about that really light sea green we looked at a while back? It's kind of a bluish green? You remember the one?"

"Yeah, I remember. Is that the color you want your room?"

"You don't have to do that, Jim." Blair insisted.

"Blair, you've been here for more than three years, that room hasn't been painted since I moved in. It's due and I still have two days of leave to kill. You know me and down time. If I show back up at the station, Simon will kill me."

"Well, you could always finish that book you've been working on for the past six months, you know, kick back, relax and do nothing?" Blair offered, not really wanting to straighten up his room so that Jim could paint.

"Or, I suppose I could refinish the floor..." Jim looked down at the wooden floor, thinking.

"Or you can simply relax, go to the zoo, or something." Blair grinned when Jim gave him a puzzled look, "Jim, you're on vacation, man. You're supposed to have fun, not work, OK?"


"No buts," Blair could see that Jim felt that he should be doing something on his time off, something constructive... "You know, you could get things ready for going fishing, you know, go down for any special tags we might need, check out where the fish are running well, get supplies, stuff like that. That way, as soon as I get home on Friday, I can change and we can be on our way. Do you want to invite Simon?"

Jim just stared at his roommate, recognizing his misdirection tactics for what they were, simple avoidance of having to clean his room, not that it was dirty, mind you, but it certainly was cluttered. Maybe he needed to pick up some more of those plastic-coated wire shelves... except there was no place to put them... hmmmm. Maybe rig up some sort of shelving that could hang from the ceiling?

"Jim? Yo, Jim!" Blair reached out to grasp Jim's arm where it lay across the back of the couch, "Jiiimmmm," he sing-songed. His expression turning to one of concern, "Ji..."

"I'm fine, Chief. Just thinking. What did you ask?" He turned his gaze back to his friend.

"I asked if you wanted to invite Simon along to go fishing," Blair repeated.

Jim looked at his friend, seeing the lines of strain around Blair's eyes, the faint wrinkles in his brow that testified to the stresses he was under, probably from the academy. "No. I think just the two of us, this time. Hell, we just said that we missed each other this past week and a half, why would we want to share with even Simon? Is that OK with you?" Jim asked, suddenly uncertain.

Blair's brilliant smile was all the answer he needed, but the words brought a smile to his face as well, "Oh, yeah. More than OK, Jim. Thanks."

Jim looked at the clock, "Well, it's getting pretty late. Are you going to be studying much longer?"

"Nah, I was just re-reading the text and going over my notes for the test tomorrow. I should be all right."

"Well, in that case, I'm going to hit the sack, and I'll see you in the morning." Jim stood and turned toward the stairs, pausing as he passed his friend, one hand going out to lightly ruffle the shortened curls. As Blair looked up at him in askance, "Good night, Blair, it's nice to be home."

"Yeah, it is," Blair agreed, as a soft smile graced his features and some of the lines of stress eased from his face.

The following morning, Blair awoke at the first beep of his alarm clock. With a soft groan of protest, he dragged his still sleepy body from beneath the covers and lurched to his feet. Fumbling for his robe, he shuffled from his room toward the bathroom, only to be brought up short by the wonderful smell of coffee and the sound of someone in the kitchen. He blearily looked to see his roommate, already up and dressed, working on what looked suspiciously like pancake batter.

"Good morning. Breakfast will be ready in about fifteen minutes, so you should have time for a shower. Do you want coffee first, or after?" Jim's cheerful voice was enough to make Blair growl, just a bit, in frustration. How dare he be so cheerful and awake at five-thirty in the morning?

"How's about an IV for it? That way, I can get that caffeine jolt a little quicker," Blair replied, shuffling closer to accept the proffered cup of heavenly brew. "Oh, man. Thanks." He managed to smile after he took his first tentative sip. "I think I'll just take this with me, OK?"

"That's fine. Go on. It'll be ready when you are." Jim shooed the younger man toward the bathroom.

"So, what got you up so early, man? You're on vacation. You can sleep 'til noon, if you want." Blair asked as he sliced off a wedge of butter and maple syrup covered pancakes, and slid the first bite into his mouth, closing his eyes and sighing in pleasure.

"Yeah, but I woke up, so I decided to go ahead and fix breakfast. You have enough to worry about. Besides, I felt like it, OK?" Jim was trying to hide the fact that he'd deliberately set his own alarm in order to do this, but his expression gave him away. Blair smiled at him.

"Thanks, Jim. This is nice." He took another bite, and washed it down with a sip of coffee, then turned his full attention to consuming his meal, grateful that he could have this unhurried time to mentally prepare himself for his day. When he was finished, he sat back with a sigh and another smile for his friend when Jim refilled his coffee cup.

"So, Jim. What are you going to be doing, today?" Since he hadn't had to fix breakfast, he had a few extra minutes to relax before heading out the door for his day at the academy, a day that started at seven.

Jim shrugged. "I don't know. I thought I'd maybe do a few minor things around here, laundry and the like, then see about getting ready for this weekend."

"Cool," Blair agreed, hoping that his room wouldn't be disrupted by a fresh paint job while he was gone. Finishing up his coffee, he stood and carried his dishes to the sink, where Jim had already run one sink full of soapy water for the dishes. Quickly washing and rinsing his breakfast dishes, Blair placed them in the strainer and got ready to go, "I'll see you tonight, then."

"Have a good one, Chief." Jim said as Blair gathered up his gear and headed out the door.

When Blair got home that night, he was grateful to find his room undisturbed, although it was obvious that the rest of the loft had been thoroughly cleaned, including the carpet. Dinner was even cooking. He shook his head in wonder and thought that Jim needed a real hobby, something to keep him busy when he wasn't working... but that was so seldom that it was hardly worth it. Instead, he accepted his friend's domesticity with gratitude and without teasing.

"So, how was the test?" Jim asked over dinner.

"Oh, it was fine. Multiple guess, as usual. Most of the instructors have this interesting habit, if they say it once, fine. If they say it twice, write it down, but if they say it three times, it's going to be on the test." He grinned mischievously. "I figured that out in the first couple of days. They teach by repetition, but it's still up to the students to pay enough attention to recognize when it comes back."

"And, you having been a student for so very long, you've got that paying attention thing down to an art, right?" Jim chuckled with his friend.

"Yeah, I think maybe I do."

They again spent a quiet evening, comfortable in one another's company, making another early night of it, followed once again with Jim getting up early enough to fix Blair breakfast and coffee, so he didn't have to hurry to make it to class on time.

Blair groaned to discover that the elevator was still out of order. He really did not want to climb the two flights of stairs to the loft, but the promise of a hot shower and a comfortable bed forced him to drag his weary, aching body up. He'd just reached the hallway outside the loft when the door opened to reveal his roommate, who worriedly approached and took his gear from him.

"What happened?" Concern obvious in every muscle of the Sentinel as he scanned his friend for injuries.

"Oh, just another day on the obstacle course and hand-to-hand. I swear, some of those guys must hate me," he shook his head, wincing at the muscle spasm that shot from the base of his skull down through one shoulder and down the arm to his sprained wrist.

"Oh?" There was something ominous in Jim's tone. Blair looked up at him as he gingerly settled his sore, tired, aching body on the couch. He was even too stiff and tired to bend down and take off his shoes. Jim carried Blair's gear bag to his room and then returned. Recognizing how tired and sore his friend was, Jim knelt down and unlaced Blair's boots, pulling them off and placing them under the coffee table, out of the way.

"Tell me about it." It wasn't a request, but an order. Blair opened his eyes and he blinked rather owlishly at the larger man.

"Nothing unusual, man. There are a couple of guys who seem to think that I should drop out. Since they can't beat me down academically, they try to take me out in the physical training, is all. Nothing unusual there, man. Even with the shorter hair, they hear the name 'Sandburg' and decide that I don't belong. No big deal. I've dealt with it all my life." There came a wicked gleam to his eyes, "Besides, if you think that I look tired and sore, you should see Baker. Poor guy broke his arm," he shook his head in mock sorrow.

"Oh? And how did he do that?" Every protective instinct in him was shrieking that he needed to head out to the academy and knock some heads together. This was his partner they were messing with. He wouldn't allow it, but his reasoning managed to quell the instincts, knowing that Blair needed to be able to take care of this himself... but that didn't mean he had to like it.

"It was funny, really. We were working on hand-to-hand. Baker had me in a choke hold, and I used a little Aikido move I know of, only when he went sailing through the air, I forgot to let go of his arm, and he dislocated his shoulder and elbow." He saw the expression on his friend's face, a mixture of disbelief warring with delight. The delight won and they grinned at each other. "Anyway, Baker's out of the class until next session, since he can't complete the physical training. His buddy, Jenkins, seems to have backed off a little, too," he shrugged, "I'll just have to wait and see." He glanced sideways at Jim, "Um, you wouldn't happen to have any more of those moves and advice for me, would you?" he asked, hopefully.

"Yeah. I think I could show you a thing or two," Jim agreed, smiling proudly at his friend.

After a hot shower and a careful massage, where Jim checked out Blair's injuries, it was decided to go ahead with their weekend plans.

"Oh, man! Look at the size of this, Jim!" Blair couldn't help shouting as he fought the thirty- pound Chinook salmon. They'd already caught a couple of decent sized Coho, and now this beauty; Blair was ecstatic.

"Looks good, Chief," Jim called back from his spot just downstream from his friend. He'd seen the huge fish as it passed him and had told his friend to cast at a certain spot, which had resulted in the capture of the huge fish. Just then, Jim's line, which had been slack in the water while he watched Blair struggle to land his catch, started to wind out, drawing his attention back to his own hook. It wasn't as large as Blair's Chinook, but it was a credible size, nonetheless, and it turned out to be a female, as well, from which he took the unfertilized eggs to use as bait, until Blair saw them and mentioned a recipe he had for salmon roe...

"Fine, Chief. You can have the roe. It's cold enough that the ice in the ice chests won't be melting and they should keep very nicely until we get home tomorrow," Jim conceded as he finished cleaning his catch. "In the meantime, what say you fix dinner? The smallest Coho is only about six pounds, that should more than feed us," he hinted, knowing good and well that Blair's ability with cooking fish was something to be encouraged.

"Sure, man. I brought what I needed, even the pine nuts. Give me a few minutes to finish up here and..."

"I'll take care of that. You go ahead and start dinner, OK?" Jim's stomach was already grumbling in anticipation. Blair recognized the expression on his partner's face and, with a grin, complied.

"Sure, Jim. You get rid of the fish guts and I'll start dinner. I think I'll fillet them, this time. But I want to keep the heads and bones for soup, when we get home, OK?"

"Fine with me, Chief," Jim replied as he cleaned up the residue from their fish cleaning and carted it off far downwind from their camp, to deter any possibility of attracting unwanted wildlife.

"That was great, Sandburg. "Jim practically groaned, as he patted his overfull stomach and sighed in contentment. "Thanks."

Blair looked across the fire at his friend, "No, thank you, Blair said softly and insistently. At Jim's puzzled look, he continued, "Thank you for this weekend. I know you figured out that I needed this break, and that I didn't really want Simon along this time." He saw Jim's expression and hurried on, "Not that he's not a great friend and everything, but he's going to be my boss for real in the very near future, and I just needed, well, wanted to maybe have just a little of my best friend all to myself for a little while." He looked off into the distance, "That probably sounds pretty silly, considering how much time we already spend together, but it's how I feel." He stopped and waited, not looking at his companion. He heard Jim stand up, and looked up as the bigger man circled around to his side of the fire and sat beside him.

"Yeah. I can understand. I think it's probably that Sentinel/Guide thing. We need to spend time together, down time, not just work time. I think that maybe it's one of those things that's necessary, if you know what I mean," he glanced at his friend, "It's probably the most relaxing time of my life, when we're like this, out in nature, relaxed, no trouble, no danger. Just us, relaxing and having a good time. Sometimes, I want Simon along, and Daryl, and sometimes even the rest of the guys. But sometimes, I just want it to be us, kicking back and relaxing, strengthening the bond, I guess you'd call it."

Blair smiled at his friend and leaned against him, his head resting on Jim's shoulder, pleased when the older man didn't pull away. Even more pleased when Jim's arm seemed to automatically come around him, across his shoulders, to offer further support. Sighing contentedly, "Yeah. That's what I'd call it," and with that, Blair let go of all of the tensions of the past few weeks. Things were good, his new life wasn't easy, and it was very different from what he had expected, but his best friend still stood with him, acting as a bulwark against the outside world, when he could, standing behind him to offer support the rest of the time. Yeah. This was good. Just what they had needed.

Thus ran Blair's thoughts as he drifted off to sleep, his Sentinel watching over him and acting as a pillow. Feeling the weight of his friend relaxing against him, Jim smiled, grateful for this friend who provided the stability and protection he needed to function as guardian to his city. The backup and support for his senses, and the emotions he'd spent so much of his life denying and repressing. Before his friend was well and truly asleep, he nudged him awake and helped him up and into the tent, where he made sure he got safely out of his shoes and outer clothing and comfortably ensconced in his sleeping bag. Certain that Blair was down for the night, Jim returned to the campfire, to watch the sky for a while, listening to the never quiet forest, feeling the contentment and, well, happiness with his life. Sure, there were things he still wanted, but for now, he was satisfied. And that was something he had never thought possible, before. Banking the fire for the night, he entered the tent and went to bed as well, the sounds of his sleeping friend and companion lulling him to his own, contented sleep.

It was full daylight before either man stirred. Simultaneously, they shifted and stretched, smiled and mumbled their good mornings. Crawling out of their sleeping bags, they dressed, then slipped on and laced up their boots before stepping outside into the crisp, clear autumn morning. Looking down toward the river from their campsite, Jim paused and reached out to grasp Blair's arm, pointing at the scene at the river's edge, less than twenty yards away. On the far side of the river, a black bear was fishing for salmon, reaching in and scooping the fish from the water, closer, on their side of the river, a cougar crouched by the eddy where Blair had been fishing the day before, snatching at the passing fish, himself. Standing quietly, the two men watched as the two predators caught their breakfast and killed it, then picked up their catch and turning away, back to the woods from which they had emerged, seemingly oblivious of each other. As the cat turned away from the water, his gaze rested on the two still and silent men for a moment. His tail lashing once in warning, he met their eyes and then faded silently into the trees.

"Oh, man," Blair whispered, "Even if we hadn't caught anything, that made this trip worthwhile."

"Oh, I don't know about that, Chief," seeing the puzzled look on his friend's face, he continued, "I think that just being here, together, is enough. But seeing them, that was a little bit more that makes it memorable." Jim looked down into the upturned face of the best friend he had ever had and waited.

Blair studied his friend's face, thinking of what he had said, "Yeah. You're right. It's the icing on the cake, not the cake itself." Grinning, he turned away from where the cat had faded into the woods, "Well, back to more mundane matters, I need to go see a tree about a dog."

Chuckling, Jim headed in a slightly different direction, "Yeah, me, too. What say we have a little fishing contest today?" he called out.

"How about we just kick back and relax, instead?" Blair rejoined, "if we catch anything, fine, if we don't, that's fine, too. I really only came for the company and to get away from the academy, you know." Blair headed back toward camp as he continued, "Besides, do we really need to compete?" He asked softly.

Jim met him back at their camp. "No, I guess we don't. We're more of a team, anyway. Ready to take on all comers." He admitted with a smile.

"Yeah. We are." Blair agreed, slapping his friend on the back, he started stirring up the fire to fix breakfast.

So they spent the day relaxing and content with one another's company, fishing a little, talking a little, and simply enjoying the bond they had built. For once without any trials or tribulations to interrupt their tranquility, allowing them to recharge their batteries before returning home to face the continuation of their normal lives. Just a little closer, just a little more confidant in themselves and their abilities, their commitment renewed, to their chosen profession, to their colleagues, to each other.

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