Disclaimer: All the usual disclaimer's apply: I don't own these characters, and no money has exchanged hands in the writing/posting of this story. It was just cheaper than therapy.

Author's Notes: This was originally written for the "In the Woods" Challenge. It's my first attempt at this, so be gentle. My sincere thanks to a wonderful beta-reader, Kareila, for her "Guide"-ance, encouragement and suggestions.

The Gift
K. Ryn



Blair Sandburg slid his room card into the door as quietly as he could, flinching at the soft click of the lock as it sprung open. He peered around the door, scanning the interior of the room. There was a jumbled pile of clothes on one of the beds and he could hear the running water from the shower. Beyond that, there was no sign of his roommate. Smiling, he moved inside, easing the door shut with another soft clicking noise. He crossed to his own bed and dropped his backpack. Glancing at the other bed he saw his partner's suitcoat and tie balled into a tight wad. His smile faltered. No doubt about it, Jim Ellison was in a bad mood.

Normally the signs of Jim's temper would have sent Blair scurrying off to his office to find refuge in the unending stacks of term papers and assignments that littered his life; or into the kitchen, hoping that the fragrant smells of lasagna might lighten his roommate's bad mood. At the moment, neither was an option.

You have a plan, remember? All you have to do is set it in motion.

The smile returned, quickly turning into a wide grin that reached his twinkling blue eyes. Excitement channeled through his body and he found himself bouncing in anticipation. From the bathroom, he suddenly heard an exclamation of disgust, followed by the sound of the shower being shut off—rather forcefully shut off.

Blair allowed himself a knowing smirk. Now you know how I feel when I run out of hot water at home. Forcing as much of the excitement out of his face as he could, he quickly plopped down onto a chair, pulling one of his books into his lap.

He looked up with what he hoped was his best expression of innocence as Jim stormed into the room, dripping water, a towel wrapped around his waist.

"Hey, Jim."

His partner flashed him a look that would have frozen ice from across the room, grunted something under his breath, grabbed a shirt and jeans from the closet and stomped back into the bathroom.

Blair let out the breath he'd been holding. A really bad mood. Must have been an incredibly awful day. Maybe this surprise wasn't such a good idea. Blair's gaze shifted to the window. He could see the twinkling of lights coming up all over the city—well, in Las Vegas they never really went down, not even for a second, but they were certainly more obvious now. Somewhere in the distance he knew there were hills, purpling in the sunset. Maybe he would just make a run for them...

He shook himself. No, he had a plan. He'd expected some resistance anyway. Jim's bad mood would just make it more of a challenge.

Even without Sentinel senses, he could hear his partner stewing in the bathroom and he sighed, his eyes flickering to the window once more.

Five days in Las Vegas. It had sounded so good two weeks ago. A special police convention, all expenses paid for the top ranking team in the department. That had meant Jim and Blair, although Blair's observer status had initially raised a few questions about his eligibility. Surprisingly, it had been Simon who'd gone to bat for him. Blair wasn't sure what his motivation had been—if it was the opportunity to get the aggravating neo-hippie out of his hair for a few days or Simon's desire to make sure that Jim got the recognition that he deserved. Either way, after a month where the rain had never seemed to stop falling and the caseload had been worse than normal, five days in the sun of Nevada sounded like paradise.

Had sounded. Sun, sand, stimulating seminars, no psychos targeting them, a chance to see whether Jim's Sentinel abilities had any bearing on the craps tables... what could be better? Perception had quickly turned to reality. What had seemed like a perfect break for a weary Sentinel and his Guide had turned out to be the assignment from hell.

His partner was miserable, and he knew it. The hotel was like a living nightmare of sensory complications. The air conditioner in their room wasn't working right—it either turned the room into an igloo or didn't function at all—and Jim claimed he could smell a freon leak. The beds were lumpy, the TV got one channel and the in-room movie selection... well, best not to go into that at all.

The hotel brochure boasted that the olympic sized swimming pool was "designed to maintain a perfect balance to the Las Vegas climate". Blair's skin still tingled with the dose of chlorine he'd gotten from the quick dip he'd taken the first day. Jim hadn't even gone near it. The complimentary morning coffee tasted like burnt rubber and the food seemed to carry the same subtle tang.

Even mother nature seemed to have it in for them. The desert winds had been blowing since they'd arrived, kicking up dust and sand storms that had Jim sneezing every time he walked out the door. Which had pretty much trapped them in the hotel. The one convention-arranged outing that they'd attended had left Jim wheezing and Blair contemplating the location of the nearest oxygen tank.

Topping off everything was the convention itself. First of all, there was a dress code, and Jim had made it clear when they'd packed that Blair was going to follow it. Blair had gotten him to compromise on a pair of black jeans, a red woven shirt and his better leather jacket—too hot for the Las Vegas heat, but it was the closest thing to a suitcoat that Blair would agree to. He'd hoped to escape the whole tie issue, but Jim had plunked two of them down in his bag before he'd had time to close it. The jeans, shirt, coat and tie had been his uniform for the past three days and Blair was eagerly contemplating burning them in celebration the minute they hit Cascade. Not that Jim was anymore comfortable in his suit. Blair had seen him pulling at his tie and easing his fingers under the button-down shirt collar more than once.

Uncomfortable as it was, the dress code was something that he could have lived with if the sessions themselves hadn't been so terrible. Familiar with the whims of academia, Blair had been through his share of maddening seminars, but they were nothing compared to this. The speakers would have put everyone to sleep if it hadn't been for the torture devices that the hotel called chairs. Absolutely nothing ergonomic about those things. They would have been more comfortable sitting on the floor. Blair had threatened to make that his position of choice more than once on the first day. A stern look from Jim forbade it, although Blair was certain that he'd eyed the floor longingly himself. They'd sat through three days of discomfort, Jim's knees knocking against the seat ahead of him, with no room to stretch his longer legs; Blair trying to contain his normal energy level to sit still and find a balance point on what he swore were chairs with only three legs.

As a teacher himself, Blair found it excruciatingly painful to listen as ill-prepared presenters fumbled through their notes. The malicious spirit that seemed attached to the hotel affected the sound systems as well, reducing some of the speaker's comments to bare whispers with intermittent bursts of blaring sound. He'd seen Jim wince in pain several times and his own eardrums hurt even now.

By noon on the second day Blair was ready to call it quits. After all, there were museums to visit, research libraries at the University to bury himself in. He'd suggested it cautiously as they'd picked through an unappetizing lunch, and he'd run smack into the Jim Ellison "do your duty" wall. No, Jim was uncomfortable, but he was intent on sticking it out, and as his partner, Blair was going to stick it out with him. The look in his eyes and the set to his jaw told Blair that there would be no moving Jim on this issue.

So they'd suffered through it: Jim with a face that turned grimmer by the hour and Blair trying to sit still and not embarrass his partner. Pure torture. On the third day, Blair had tried to sneak in some of his own books, hoping to catch up on his reading, but the look he'd caught from Jim made him stuff them back under his chair.

It wasn't until that night, after they'd returned from having a few beers with some of the other attendees, that Jim had relented—making a grumbling comment that "one of us might as well get something beneficial out of this trip." Blair had been ecstatic, feeling as if Jim had just commuted a life sentence. He'd started to babble excitedly, but Jim had just growled "turn off the light, Sandburg," and rolled over to sleep. Blair had sat awake in the darkness for hours, planning his next day.

The long night had finally given way to this morning. Sensitive to the reprieve his partner had granted him, Blair had been up and moving early. No late sleeping if his partner had to go back into the seventh level of Hell. He'd held his breath, certain that the wrong word would change Jim's mind, but the big man only nodded and muttered "See you tonight" through gritted teeth as he'd left.

Packed and ready, Blair had practically bolted from the room, flagging down a cab at the entrance and heading across town to the University. He'd spent the first few hours happily engaged in hunting through the stacks of the anthropology library, dragging out a dozen ancient books to a study table. He was halfway through the second book when his thoughts began to stray back to his partner. He pushed back a strand of long curly hair, took off his glasses and gazed out the window.

Jim would be sitting through another one of the lectures right now, he realized guiltily. Blair could almost imagine his partner's jaw clenching, his teeth grinding together as he toughed it out. Blair grinned at the thought. The man was going to give himself an ulcer, or at least make some dentist very rich if he kept that up. Blair's smile started to fade as he flashed on the image of Jim's face—tension lines across the brow, dark circles of fatigue under eyes squinting against the intense sunlight. He had a sudden glimpse of just how very miserable his partner must be, especially with his Sentinel senses heightening even the smallest discomfort. Blair looked down at the books in front of him and shook his head. Jim's sense of duty was all well and good, but he needed a break.

What kind of a break? Jim thrived on green space; on the quiet of the forest, the softness of a gentle breeze shifting down off the mountains. Blair had seen it rejuvenate him. He'd never said anything to Jim, but his own opinion was that the need to reconnect with nature was an instinctual healing mode for a Sentinel. It certainly was for his Sentinel.

Okay, green space. Blair looked out the window again and shook his head. Las Vegas was as far removed from anything resembling nature as you could get. Neon and concrete. Yellow-brown desert and dust. In the intensity of the blazing sun even the leaves on the palm trees looked brown. Discounting the plastic foliage in the casinos, there was not a trace of green in sight.

His gaze flickered down to the table and he sighed. Just once he would like to do something for Jim. Something that really mattered. Give him something he really needed. Usually it was Jim doing things for him—letting him move into the loft, putting up with what were major life-style changes, even dealing with Blair's, at times, completely opposite belief system. Granted, he got Blair's help in exchange. Help dealing with senses that were right now driving him crazy, although Blair knew he'd never admit it out loud. Stoic. Just that jaw clenching, teeth grinding stuff that Blair had learned to watch for. Little clues, and right now there were a lot of them.

Green space. That's what he needed. A forest, preferably, but Blair would take anything that came close. With a decisive thud he closed the book he'd been looking at and pulled out the map of the University that he'd picked up earlier. Scanning the legend he started to smile, the beginnings of a plan forming in his mind.

Sounds from the bathroom alerted him to the fact that Jim was nearly finished. He shifted out of the chair and pulled a cold beer from the small refrigerator—one of the few things that actually seemed to work as designed. Placing it on the night stand next to Jim's bed like a peace offering, he managed to settle into his chair again just as his partner reentered the room. Jim sent a quick glare in Blair's direction, then swiveled his head as if he'd picked up a strange scent. Blair saw a shadow of a smile as Jim picked up the beer and took a long pull, acknowledging the gesture with a nod and a soft "Thanks."

Blair watched as Jim stared at the wrinkled clothes on the bed, shook his head and pushed them aside. Grimacing as he sank onto the lumpy mattress, Jim leaned back into the headboard. He closed his eyes and took another drink.

"I take it I shouldn't ask," Blair murmured after giving his friend a few minutes of quiet.

"You're right," Jim answered flatly, his tone implying that no discussion would be forthcoming.

Blair swallowed hard. He'd heard that sound in his partner's voice before. Those hills were looking better all the time... No, the plan. Stick to the plan, remember?

"So, you have anything going tonight? Dinner? More tales of the force with the other guys in blue?" Blair almost winced as the words left his mouth. Great Sandburg, get him even angrier. That'll help.

Jim's response was surprisingly calm, which made Blair even more determined.

"No. I'm just going to stick around here, try to get some sleep, I guess."

Blair rubbed his hands nervously on his jeans. Just keep calm. This will work.

"Out with it Sandburg." Jim's comment caught him off guard and he almost choked on the deep breath he'd been taking.

He looked up in surprise to see Jim staring at him suspiciously. Pasting his best look of feigned innocence on his face, he forced himself to meet Jim's gaze. "Out with what?"

"Chief, you're like an open book. Even with my senses dialed down I can tell you're up to something," Jim replied evenly, never shifting his gaze.

"Hard to operate in this environment with your sensitivity level, huh?" Blair responded curiously, his face still maintaining what he hoped was his "concerned Guide" look, while inside jumping up and down at the opening he'd gotten. Stick with the plan...

"Don't try to change the subject, Sandburg."

"Well, actually, I'm not," Blair hedged. "I was just thinking..."

"I knew it," Jim groaned.

"I was just thinking," Blair continued, unfazed. "Since you don't have anything planned for tonight, and since we're checking out tomorrow, that this would be a good time to do that experiment you promised me."

"I never..."

"Oh yes you did," Blair interrupted him, letting some of his excitement animate his features. "'ONE experiment and ONE only,' that's what you said. I sit through the third degree with you in that monkey suit you pushed on me and you do one experiment of my choosing."

"You didn't sit through the whole thing," Jim pointed out smugly.

Blair stared at him wide eyed for a moment, then his eyes narrowed angrily. "That's why you let me... Oh man."

He rocketed off the bed and stalked to the window. His back to his partner, Blair almost smiled, but he knew if he did it would ruin the effect. Oh Jim, sometimes you're so easy... He forced the smile away and pasted his "disappointed" look on his face as he turned around.

"You gave me your word, Jim."

He could almost hear the mental groan from his friend. Got ya, big guy.

"Look Chief, I'm tired and I've got a headache that's ready to take off the top of my head. This trip has been..."

"Ugly," Blair interjected. "I know. That's why I think if we do this experiment..."

"I'm not some lab rat for you to run tests on, Sandburg. Do you understand that? Can you keep that babble quiet for five minutes and listen to me for a change?" Jim snapped angrily, slamming the beer onto the side table with enough force to send it foaming all over the surface. Blair bit back an angry retort as Jim physically winced at the noise.

"I do listen," he said very quietly, the tone of his voice drawing Jim's startled attention back to him. "I have been listening. I know the housekeeping staff uses enough disinfectant to 'take out a small army.' I know that the noise level here must be driving you crazy, 'cuz it never stops. I know the sun and the lights in the hotel hurt your eyes. I know that the food here sucks and you'd 'kill for a halfway decent cup of coffee.' I know you're not sleeping because the sheets feel like they've been dipped in starch—I've heard you tossing and turning all night for the past three nights. And I know that you're putting up with all of these discomforts and sitting through what I've irreverently called the 'convention from Hell' because it's your job and you always, always man, do your job."

He paused and took a breath, the genuine concern and understanding he held for Jim softening his voice even farther.

"I'm listening to you now. I know what you've got to be going through if you're constantly trying to keep your senses dialed down. I mean, if I've been uncomfortable, you've gotta be in serious pain here, man."

Jim held his gaze for a moment, then looked away, his face softening a bit. "Guess I have been a little hard to live with the past few days. You're right. This trip has been ugly. At least you got out of today's session. On a scale of one to ten this one ranked at about minus fifty."

Jim looked up and gave Blair a wry smile. "How'd it go at the University? Find anything interesting?"

"Yes, I did, but now you're the one who's trying to change the subject," Blair reprimanded him gently. "We're talking about the experiment you promised me."

Blair held his breath, wondering if he'd pushed this too far, too fast. Jim closed his eyes, jaw muscles spasming. He almost gasped in relief when the older man took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, as if in surrender.

"Okay. What's it going to be?" Jim asked, his eyes flickering open to lock on Blair warningly. "Thirty rounds with the roulette wheel? Listening to a hundred tosses of the dice on the craps table to see if I can hear snake eyes when they roll?"

"Wouldn't do any good to hear them as they roll, Jim. You're supposed to place your bets before the dice leave your hand."

Shaking his head in mock dismay, Blair pawed through his backpack, pulling out a small brown bag. "Actually I've been working on this idea for a while, but I hadn't come up with the right motivation to get you to try it."

Jim handled the bag as if it was a live bomb. Pulling out a pair of sunglasses, he looked up at Blair in confusion.

"We're going see just how far you can dial everything down. Without making you catatonic of course," Blair explained.

"I've been trying to do that," Jim objected.

"Without my help," Blair countered. "And in the middle of extreme sensory chaos. Let's try it with me guiding you through the steps. That's worked before. We'll start with one sense at a time until we've got them all off-line. You choose which one you want to start with."

Jim eyed the glasses and Blair uncertainly, finally nodding in reluctant agreement.

"Great! Let's start by getting you comfortable," Blair gestured to the chair he'd been sitting in earlier. Jim eased off the bed and folded himself into the seat, his hands resting lightly on the arms. Blair pulled another chair closer so that he could sit facing Jim, their knees almost touching.

"What's it going to be? Sight, hearing, touch...?"

"Might as well start with these." Jim put on the glasses. They wrapped around his eyes completely, blocking out all light, even from the sides. "These are completely opaque!"

"Good," Blair answered, nodding excitedly. "I bought them from one of the arcades down on the strip. They're guaranteed to be absolutely light-proof, but I wasn't sure if that applied to Sentinels."

"You didn't ask?" Jim asked dryly. "I'm surprised."

"Give me some credit here, will you, Jim? Now relax. You know the drill," Blair's tone became persuasive, but firm, slipping automatically into his Guide persona.

Jim nodded, releasing the last traces of anger and resentment that he'd felt toward his young friend. Blair had been sensitive to his increasing discomfort and he was trying to help. The thought flickered through Jim's mind that if nothing else, he'd get a halfway decent sleep out of this—and he would have made good on a promise that he'd forgotten about.

"Jim, you're not concentrating," Blair gently admonished him. He took a deep breath and pushed the distracting thoughts away. The familiar, soothing tones of his Guide's voice began to clear away the accumulated tension and discomfort that he'd been feeling for the past four days, easing him into an almost buoyant, peaceful state.

Blair kept talking, his voice soft and controlled, although it was hard to keep his growing excitement contained. One by one he led Jim through the steps to take all of his senses down to a minimum. When he was satisfied that the older man couldn't go any further and still walk on his own, he stopped. Easing out of his chair, he crossed over to the dresser that Jim had claimed for his own. Rummaging through the drawers he extracted a few "necessities" and stuffed the hastily assembled items into his own backpack.

He returned to Jim's side and stood staring down at his friend. This was a deeper trance state than he'd ever attempted before, and he wasn't sure if Jim would have been so agreeable if he'd known what Blair had planned. The thought that he'd been just a little dishonest with his Sentinel worried at his Guide sensibilities, but he shook it off. This would be worth it. After all, part of his responsibility as Jim's Guide was to protect him. And that's exactly what he was trying to do. Already, Jim's body was relaxed, the stress of the last month gone from it as he sat easily in the chair. Although he couldn't see his friend's eyes through the glasses, he guessed that since his partner's face no longer looked like it was carved in stone, that some of the stress lines would be gone from there, too.

"Okay, Jim. You're doing great. Let's see how this holds up. It's just another part of the experiment. We're going to take a little walk."

Blair gently eased Jim to his feet, grabbed the pack and led the way out of the room.

"Great, Jim. This is going really well." Blair altered the timbre of his voice, pitching it with strong tones of encouragement and reassurance. "You've had everything dialed down way below normal, so we're going to bring things up slowly, one sense at a time. Just like we shut them down. Do you understand?"

Jim seemed to take a long time responding, but finally, there was a small nod.

"Good. We'll start with the tactile. Let the dial come up, slowly, and tell me what you feel."

He watched closely as the older man's body shifted slightly, as if his very skin were responding to his Guide's vocal suggestion. Jim's head twitched to the side and Blair saw the familiar tightening of his partner's facial muscles.

"Cool... soft... there's moisture in the air..." Jim murmured. "The air's moving... feels like a breeze..."

"How far are you?"

"Approaching the base level..."

"Take it up a few more steps then hold it there," Blair ordered. When Jim nodded a few seconds later, his head twitched to the side again.

"Doing great, big guy," Blair assured him. "Let's try taste next. Come up to the same level."

Jim felt the smooth texture of the ceramic cup that his Guide raised to his lips. Warm steam rose into his face with a feather-like touch, warning him that the liquid was hot. A smile immediately sketched across his face as he sampled it cautiously.

"Coffee... real coffee..."

"Yeah, you'll probably have a caffeine buzz now, and blame me," Blair grinned. "Go ahead. See if it smells as good as it tastes."

"It does..." Jim responded, the smile widening.

"Let's try something else besides the coffee," Blair suggested, pulling the cup away and putting a lid on it. "You already knew what was coming there. Tell me what else you're picking up."

He could see Jim's face frown in concentration. Again, the sideways twitch of the head.

"Not hearing yet, big guy," Blair cautioned. "Just smell right now."

"Can't get past the coffee..." Jim objected.

"Yes, you can. Filter it out. See what else is here."

"Earth... moisture... tangerines...

"That's my shampoo, Jim. I'm trying out something new. Keep going."

"Something sweet, like pollen... kerosene..."

Blair saw Jim's nose wrinkle as the tension in his body increased.

"Don't go beyond the level we want, Jim. I don't need a zone-out here."

"But there's something..."

"One at a time. Focus on my voice and concentrate. This is a test, remember?" Blair said soothingly. "You're doing fine. Now go for hearing."

Jim tipped his head, the familiar signal that he was "tuning in". A puzzled look filled his face and he focused in the direction of his Guide. Puzzlement changed to a look of concern. He suddenly reached forward, his hand locking on Blair's arm.

"Easy, Jim., What is it? What do you hear?"

"Your heart... It's beating fast... and it's loud..."

"You always tell me that. That's what lets you pick me out of a crowd. And I'm excited because I finally got you backed into a corner on this experiment. That's all. Nothing's wrong."

"It's loud," Jim repeated, shaking his head in confusion. "It hasn't been this loud since we got here. Something is wrong."

Jim started to remove the glasses, but Blair grabbed his hand. "No. Nothing's wrong. It's just quiet here."

"Here? Where are we?"

"You tell me..."

Jim concentrated, then shook his head. "It feels like a forest... but that can't be right."

"Last one," Blair directed, releasing Jim's hand as he settled back to observe his friend's reactions. "Take off the glasses and open your eyes. Don't worry about the light. It's pretty dark here. I can hardly see a thing."

Brows furrowed in confusion, Jim pulled off the glasses quickly. He had to blink several times as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. The first thing he saw was the face of his Guide, peering at him anxiously.

"How are you feeling, man?" Blair's voice was tinged with concern. "No overloads? Everything on the same level?"

Jim started to nod and then froze as he caught sight of something astonishing just beyond his Guide. Trees. Green trees. Even in this light, to his eyes they were green. His gaze flickered back to Blair's face and then away, sweeping over the strange setting. Disoriented, he lurched to his feet, dragging the younger man with him.

"Easy, man. Easy..."

Blair's voice registered on his consciousness, but his senses were surging, reconnecting with each other and sending a flood of information to his brain.

"Come on big guy, talk to me," he heard Blair pleading, his voice anxious. Jim gripped his friend's arm tighter in response, unable to communicate in words what he was feeling.

And he was feeling. He felt more alive than he had in months. Clean and refreshed. Reborn. He drew in deep breaths of the sweet, lightly moisture-laden air, filling his lungs with it, feeling his pulse pound as if every drop of blood in his veins had been rejuvenated. He sensed the tingle of moisture on his skin, the coolness of the air, the hint of a gentle breeze caressing his face. He could still taste the coffee in his mouth—really taste it—and he couldn't keep his eyes off the freshness of the green, growing things that surrounded them.

Where were they? Where had his Guide taken him? How could he have found such a garden of Eden in the midst of the desert? He caught the scent of growing things; the small odors of decay that were part of the cycle of renewing life. He smelled tangerines again and smiled, knowing that was his partner. As his senses heightened even further, he became aware of the unique distinctions that were an intrinsic part of the complex being that was his Guide.

He shifted his gaze to Blair, watching the light and energy of his Guide emanating from the deep blue eyes.

"Jim, come on!"

There was an urgency in his Guide's voice that he didn't understand. He listened intently, suddenly aware of the pounding of Blair's heart, his rapid breathing, the touch of fear that colored his words. Jim shook himself, dialing back his senses to a level where he could finally speak.

"Thank you," he said softly, his voice thick with emotion.

The look of concern on Blair's face shifted to a tentative smile, and then to a wide grin that lit his eyes even further.

"Blair... I don't know how you knew... but thank you," Jim murmured, pulling his partner into a gentle embrace.

Speechless with delight, Blair returned the hug, absorbing the strength and well-being that seemed to flow into him from the Sentinel. He grinned like a fool, his face pressed to Jim's chest. He'd done it. He'd managed to pull it off.

Still smiling broadly, he eased backward, Jim's hands resting lightly on his shoulders. He looked up into his friend's shadowed face and sensed the peacefulness there. Yep, he'd done good. "Maybe next time I suggest an experiment, you won't give me such a hard time."

"Don't count on it." Jim's expression was stern, but his voice was light and full of good humor. He draped his arm over the smaller man's shoulders and let his gaze sweep their surroundings again. "Where are we?"

"At the University. I told you I'd found something interesting. This is a special forestry research dome that the Ag department has going. I managed to find a transplanted Northwesterner on the staff who was very understanding about my need to find some green space. We'll need to be out of here before classes start in the morning, but it's ours for the night."

"For the night?"

"Well, it's the best I could come up with," Blair explained, an edge of doubt creeping into his voice. "I mean, I know it's not a real forest, and there really isn't a breeze, it's just a specialized circulation system. No trout stream or wildlife or anything, but... well, you looked like you needed a break and I really wanted... I mean..."

"It's perfect," Jim interrupted, eager to reassure his young friend. "It's just what I needed. It's a gift."

"Yeah. Finally found one that I could afford," Blair burbled happily. "Come on, I've got a spot set up for us over here." He pulled a flashlight out of his jacket pocket, pointing it at the ground and adjusting it to it's dimmest setting.

"I don't need that," Jim objected.

"Well, I do," Blair laughed, leading the way. "How do you think we got in here earlier? You may be able to see in this light, but I can't and I didn't want to trip over something in the dark. That would have put an abrupt end to the surprise. Good thing those glasses really are Sentinel vision-proof. Maybe they can add that to their guarantee. You could give them an endorsement."

"Wait a minute. Just how DID we get here, Sandburg?"

"By cab, Jim. Even if we'd had the truck, you were in no condition to drive."

Jim's eyes narrowed suspiciously at the "Who me? I'm innocent!" tone of his partner's voice. "The last thing I remember was sitting in the hotel room. Just how far down did you take me?"

"Far enough to get you here without your knowing it."

Sure enough, there was a mischievous twinkle in Blair's eyes. "So that's how it is, huh? I give you my trust and you turn me into a walking zombie?"

"Hey, it's not my fault you're an impossible man to surprise," Blair retorted. "I was desperate, so I resorted to extreme measures. Besides, I never said that we were going to stay in the hotel. No healing properties there, man."

Jim's laugh echoed softly in the quiet space as he followed his Guide to the campsite he'd prepared for them. Blair reached down to turn on a lantern and Jim glanced away for a few seconds to let his eyes adjust. When he looked back, he found the younger man settled cross-legged on a small tarp, surrounded by sleeping bags, a small cooler and a small stove—kerosene fuel, he realized, finally placing the one smell that had seemed out of place earlier.

"We can't light a fire, but we can use the stove for coffee in the morning," explained Blair with a smile as he pulled out a bag of freshly ground beans. "And I brought treats." A dozen chocolate bars and a bag of marshmallows tumbled out of his upended pack.

Jim chuckled as he eased himself to the ground. "No tofu and trail mix?"

"Nah, I didn't have time to make it to the healthfood store." Blair shrugged and handed Jim the coffee he'd sampled earlier. "Next time I'll plan this better..."

As the younger man's soft voice rambled on companionably, Jim smiled, flipped the lid off the cup and took a long sip, opening up his senses a bit more to savor both the taste and the moment. In the warm glow of the lantern, Blair could see the sense of renewal and peace on his friend's face and he fell silent, feeling the connections between them—Sentinel and Guide, police detective and observer, friend and friend—strengthening in the soothing silence.

The Sentinel relaxed, at peace once more; drinking in not just the coffee, but the feel of the growing things around him—the rejuvenating energy of the life of the forest and his Guide.

~ End ~

E-Mail K. Ryn at kdkm@aol.com
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