Rite of Passage

Summary: After "TS by BS", Blair's decided to join the Academy but he's unsure of the direction his life's taken. Jim helps him move forward. Blair/Jim friendship and hurt/comfort (or can be read as pre-slash if you tilt your head).

Rating: PG (minor mention of alcohol over-use)

Spoilers: through the series finale

Author's Note: I actually wrote this a few years ago and thought I'd lost it to a computer virus. Found it on an old flash drive, ready to post. Now to see what else was on there :D Can read like friendship or pre-slash, although I've never really been sure if I slash these two or just see the relationship as so profoundly spiritual and connected that they belong together in any way they chose to be (if that makes sense?).

Rite of Passage

Jim had found an audiotape of a bugler blowing reveille, and he used it at full volume to wake Blair up. Moaning, Blair launched his pillow at him. Bad move, since he now had nothing to cover his head with to block out that damned trumpet.

"Go to hell, Jim!" he groaned, clamping his hands over his ears.

It was too early for him to care about being polite or diplomatic. He was hung over and Jim knew it. The Sentinel was being plain cruel. And, while Blair might have deserved every second, that didn't mean he had to like it.

"Rise and shine, Sandburg! You've got a long day ahead of you!"

"Do not!" Blair answered, rolling over and stuffing his fingers into his ears. "Academy doesn't start until Monday. Now go away!"

The awful recording stopped and, when Blair looked, Jim was hunkered down next to the bed, his expression not without compassion as he wordlessly proffered two pills and a glass of water.

"Thank you," Blair whispered, sighing. "I'm sorry I yelled. It's just that was really loud and my head hurts."

"I'm not surprised, considering how late you were up last night and how much you had to drink. I nearly came down two or three times. You have to stop doing this to yourself, Chief," he sighed. "You'll wash out of the Academy before they can even give you a fair chance."

"Like they will? You think I haven't heard what people at the station have been saying about me?"

"They'll get over it," Jim answered, shrugging and pressing the pills on him. "Take them, then get ready for breakfast. I'm taking you to the range today."

"Why? Firearms training is part of the Academy curriculum."

"Doesn't matter. It's about the only thing you'll do there that might not come naturally. I'm not letting you look like an ass once you get there. I know you've technically handled a gun before, but you're probably the only Cadet who's never taken a basic course." He climbed to his feet. "Take your pills and get dressed. I made all your favorites. There's gingerroot extract in the bathroom."

Blair watched him go. Jim would probably never be able to say the three words Blair really wanted to hear: I forgive you. But making breakfast and taking him to the range was a peace-offering, Jim Ellison style.

So he hauled himself out of bed, chewing the Excedrin like the overachieving grad student he had been until so recently, and carried his clothes with him to the bathroom. He wanted to give the ginger a chance to work before he did all the wiggling around and bending over that it would take to get into them. Normally he would have eschewed the Excedrin considering how huge a hepatotoxin Tylenol was, but today he just hurt.

"Twenty minutes 'til the food is done," Jim told him as he walked past the kitchen. "Time for a nice shower."

"Thanks, man."

Blair nodded gratefully and entered the bathroom. He helped himself to a double-dose of the gingerroot before dimming the lights and climbing into the shower. Between the steam, the pulsing throb of the water against his scalp, the Excedrin, and the ginger, he felt almost human again within fifteen minutes.

Jim had not lectured, but he had not really needed to, either. What his expression and manner this morning lacked in judgment, they had more than made up for in quiet pain. It had been fairly ineffectual, but Blair had been self-injuring with the amount he'd been drinking. It was just so much easier than dealing with the pain and the guilt and, so far, Jim had let him get away with it, even if he obviously didn't like it.

But, with Police Academy starting in a few days, enough was enough. He could deal with falling flat on his own face and looking bad in front of others, but he could not have lived with himself if he made Jim and Simon look like idiots, too. He would just have to find some other way to get to sleep and stop thinking about everything he had nearly cost Jim, about nearly losing Jim...

The gingerroot was strong and he had mega-dosed in anticipation of the fact that Jim always fussed if he did not eat enough. 'Enough', by Jim's standards, being an amount that could keep a small hunter-gatherer tribe running all day.

"Just in time," Jim greeted him as he emerged from the bathroom, still damp but feeling worlds better.

The Sentinel slid a few pancakes from the griddle onto a plate and gestured for Blair to come help himself from the condiments set out.

"Smells good," Blair admitted, smiling weakly.

"It's that stone-ground 3-grain flour you picked up the other week. Figured it was worth trying out. Not sure how it'll actually taste," he admitted, looking dubious. "The batter was a little dense."

"Girl at the store swears it'll be fluffy anyway," Blair answered, adding some maple syrup and diced pecans. "Says it's deceptive like that."

"They work on commission at this health-food store of yours?" Jim asked.

"No, man, and they only carry product they use themselves."

"Would you not call it 'product'?" Jim demanded, giving Blair a good-natured glare. "You make it sound like they're supplying you with a few ounces of the leaf."

"A few pounds of pot would have been cheaper than last month's credit-card bill from them," Blair answered, reaching around him for the strawberries.

Jim swatted him on the head. Which was probably the most spontaneous move he had made towards Blair since the dissertation fiasco. He smiled at his partner, only a little shyly, and helped himself to a few slices of the low-fat, organic bacon and a glass of OJ. The gentle thump had hurt, but it was more than worth it.

"Eggs, too," Jim directed, pointing at the pan full of scrambled eggs. "Don't worry. They're the organic ones Naomi left. Apparently this means that they no longer qualify as 'cholesterol bombs'."

"It's the good kind of cholesterol," Blair explained, spooning some eggs onto his plate. "Besides, they're full of vitamins and minerals because of their diet and the fact that the hens are free-range."

"Whatever," Jim answered, loading up his plate.

Blair hesitated. "Thanks for all this."

"I make breakfast a lot, Chief. It's no big deal."

"Feels like one to me."

"Sit down and eat," Jim ordered, but there was no ill-will in his tone or expression.

Shrugging, Blair went to sit down and enjoy the really excellent-smelling food. Jim joined him and the two ate in almost oppressive silence. The pancakes were as fluffy as promised, but incredibly filling. He stared down at his still half-full plate, sighing and wishing he had room for more.

"Done?" Jim asked, rising and reaching for his plate.

"No, it's my turn to clean up," Blair countered, snagging the plate from him. "Jim? Do we need to talk?"

Jim sighed, staring down at his empty plate. "I think we both know there aren't words. It was bad there for awhile. Things were said and done that can't be taken back, not even if we wanted to. We can't go back to the way we were and it would be wrong to try. All we can do is our best to go forward from here."

"What, pretend it never happened?" Blair asked, frowning as he cleaned off his plate.

"No, of course not. Just… There's not a lot to talk about. This whole situation, it should have killed what we have. Then you did something I didn't imagine you were capable of, and... I misjudged you. And I'm not sure I can apologize for that yet, but..."

"You don't have to. I understand," Blair answered quietly. "I was an idiot."

"We both were. We walked into this four years ago without the first clue what we were doing or what the consequences might be. You didn't foresee this, I didn't, not even Simon did. No one else who knew would have been able to, either; it was too remote a possibility to even consider. Face it, after the first few months, neither of us really thought your little 'project' would ever really be over. Publication wasn't on either of our radars. But there it was and what happened happened and now nothing can ever be the same."

Blair swallowed the lump in his throat, clearing his throat before offering, again, "Do you want me to move out?"

"No!" Jim was on his feet in an instant, glaring at Blair. "How can you..." He shook his head, turning away. "No. Things have changed, but not that much. And you, you shouldn't decide until after you've finished the Academy and settled into your new job. There's no hurry."

"What if I can't do it?" Blair whispered, unable to voice the horrible fear any more audibly than that.

This being Jim, the lack of volume hardly mattered.

"You can. If you want. Or, if it's not what you want, that's fine, too. I've talked to Simon about keeping you on as a consultant if you decide making it official isn't your thing."

Blair's head shot up and he stared at Jim, stunned. "You did that for me? After everything?"

"This hasn't been easy, Chief, not for either of us, but it doesn't change certain things any, either. You have a place, here and at the department and even in Major Crimes if that's what you want. Nothing's ever going to change any of that."

Blair turned back to the sink, blinking hard and clearing his throat repeatedly. "Thank you, Jim," he managed finally.

"Leave the dishes," Jim directed, climbing to his feet and going to retrieve his jacket. "I'll get them when we get home. Our time at the range starts at nine. We should move out."

Blair lifted both hands to his face, knowing that, even from behind, Jim must have known that he was wiping his eyes and struggling to compose himself. He couldn't help it. He was not just miserable, guilty, and hung-over. He was emotionally exhausted and he missed having his best friend to talk to when he was upset.

That unbridgeable distance from Jim was like nothing he had ever experienced before and he certainly wanted to feel nothing like it ever again. No matter how many times you apologized, or how hard you pretended that nothing major had happened…

He was honestly surprised that Jim had not thrown him out on his ass yet, and now, this morning, it seemed like he might decide not to at all. Blair was not sure whether to feel relieved by this or ashamed. Jim deserved a chance to get back to his old life, his real life, that time before the prying academic with his books and his notes and his experiments and exercises and his habit of drawing all the wrong kinds of attention.

"Let's go, Chief," Jim said finally, but only after Blair had managed to pull himself together.

Jim ignored the puffy eyes or occasional hitched breath as they walked down to the truck together, and seemed content with silence as they drove. Blair was feeling a lot better or, at least, a lot more comfortable, by the time they reached the range.

"Morning, Jim," the attendant greeted him from her cage. "I have number three all set up for you. Your friend need a piece? Nine mil or do you prefer a thirty-eight?" she asked Blair.

"Uh, whichever. Doesn't matter."

She frowned but shrugged, ducking behind the counter and coming up with a handgun and a box of bullets. "You boys have fun today."

"Will do," Jim answered, shouldering his bag and nodding to Blair to take the gun and bullets.

"I know Detective Ellison always brings ear-protection," the attendant said as Blair took the weapon. "You covered?"

"Uh..."

"Got the supply issue under control," Jim assured them. "Come on, Chief."

Blair nodded politely to the attendant and jogged after Jim into a room where more than 18 inches of concrete and a 3 inch steel door separated the two from anything on the outside. The separateness was nice, being alone with his friend in a place where no one could see or judge.

Jim spun around, grabbing him by the wrist holding the gun, his expression irritated as he wrested the gun from Blair's hand, made sure the chamber was clear, then passed it back.

"Right, gun safety 101," he sighed as they approached the gallery. "Always assume the things are loaded."

"Sorry. She handed it to me, so I just figured-"

"No." Jim shook his head. "You never trust anyone but yourself when it comes to weapons. For that matter, never trust yourself, either. Even if you distinctly remember unloading and clearing the chamber, you check every single time you pick a weapon up. We'll get to when it's appropriate to have a round chambered later. For now, you always want the chamber to be cleared. Understand?"

Blair nodded, feeling his cheeks color. One more things that a real cop would have known. "Sorry, Jim."

Jim's hand shot up, looping around the back of Blair's neck. "You'll learn," he promised, locking eyes with Blair. "If it kills me bringing you there, we will reach that place."

Yes, but why do you even care anymore?

"Thanks, Jim."

Blair nodded weakly and walked over to one of the high platforms which stood in a row before the gallery itself. He ejected the clip from the gun as he had seen Jim do so many times and started to open the box of bullets.

"No." Jim shook his head, gently taking the gun and clips from his hands and setting them on the long, low table in the back of the range. "Not with that."

"Oh, come on. I know you aren't going to let me use yours."

"Of course not," Jim agreed, opening his duffle-bag and searching through it for a moment before coming out with a box. "I was saving this for your birthday, but you've got a new kind of rebirth thing coming up, so..." He trailed off, looking embarrassed as he held the box out. "Like one of your, uh, rite of passage things or something."

"Jim?" Blair asked, taking the box curiously. Jim talking about metaphoric rebirths and Rites of Passage? What the hell?

"Just open the damn thing," the Sentinel answered, still not looking at Blair.

Blair took the lid off the box and caught his breath. There was a gun sitting there on the crumpled tissue-paper, but not just any gun. It was a plain handgun, but of a style unfamiliar to him. Definitely nothing any of the other cops carried. And, in what could not have been a factory touch, a bounding she-wolf had been engraved on the grip.

"Oh, Jim…" he breathed, biting back tears.

"I figure, with the amount of trouble you get into, you could use the extra backup. It's a modified Berretta, used to be used by Italian anti-terrorism units, not exactly standard-issue, but it has a bigger clip and a more stable grip than a lot of handguns. I think you'll find it more comfortable to handle and easier to aim."

Blair looked up at the Sentinel, startled by his almost-hopeful tone.

"Jim, it's gorgeous! I... I love it!"

The older man relaxed at once. "You'd better, since it's of production and I had it customized. Couldn't return it if you wanted to, Chief."

"I wouldn't want to," Blair answered honestly, carefully removing it from the nest of tissue.

Remembering Jim's earlier injunction, he checked to be sure the chamber was clear, earning himself a complacent nod from Jim, who looked thrilled. Well, as thrilled as Jim ever looked, which was to say happily smug in an exceedingly understated sort of way.

"You'll find it a lot more comfortable to use than that M-16 back on Storm Island."

"I hope so! I couldn't type for a week after I fired that thing!"

Jim smiled and steered Blair to one of the front platforms. "That's because you didn't brace it properly so your shoulder got banged up. Sorry I forgot to warn you about that."

"Not a problem. It was a crazy day."

He gave a snort of agreement. "Okay, before we get started." He picked up the gun and held it out for Blair's inspection. "Safety," he said, pointing. "And here's the selector switch."

Blair frowned blankly.

"It's capable of single shots or three-round bursts," Jim said, showing Blair each position. "You always want to check and make sure it's set to single-shot. Bursts kill your accuracy."

"Gotcha," Blair answered, nodding and throwing the switch a few times before setting it back to single-shot. "And this one's the safety?"

"Right. Ready? You've seen me load up often enough. Need the walkthrough?"

"Uh, I don't think so. Just keep an eye, let me know if I do anything wrong?"

"You got it," Jim agreed, watching attentively as Blair loaded bullets into the clip and then slid it into place. "Very good. Now, just work the slide to chamber a round. There you go," he agreed as Blair complied. "The rest should come easily to a guy who spends as much time on the computer as you do. Just... point and click."

"Uh, right," Blair agreed, raising the gun.

Jim grabbed his hand before he could fire, shaking his head faintly. "Not like that, Chief. Both hands, like this." He repositioned Blair's hands on the butt of the gun. "There you go."

"Right, sorry."

Blair nodded and griped the gun firmly. Perhaps a little too firmly. His hands trembled and Jim covered them with both of his, shaking his head.

"I need you to relax, Chief. I know your last not strung-out experience with a gun wasn't good. Storm Island was crazy and I didn't have time to tell you everything I should have, and you bruised yourself up pretty good as a result. But this is not an M-16. You don't need a death-grip to control it. Think... driving a car. You want to hold the wheel firmly enough to control it, but not so tight that it can't move through your hands when you need to steer. Got it?"

Swallowing, Blair nodded, waiting for those large, warm hands to release him so he could adjust his grip. Jim had a way of making him feel tiny sometimes, but that wasn't always a bad thing.

"Like this?" Blair asked, holding it with what he hoped was in-between force. But his damned hands kept shaking.

"No." Jim took the gun from his hands and ejected the clip again, unchambering the round before handing the empty weapon back to Blair. He gestured towards one of the room's empty stools. "Sit down. Just get used to the feel of it in your hands. Don't think of it as something designed to kill people, Blair. It's just another tool of law enforcement, like a fingerprint kit or a wire."

"Naomi would freak out if she could see me like this," Blair sighed, sitting down and rubbing his thumb over the engraving on the weapon's butt.

Jim looked ready to say something heated, but contained himself with visible effort. "Naomi doesn't want you being a cop," he said finally, clearly struggling to keep his voice steady. "That's her right. And it's your right to decide what you want to do with your own life. If you want to be a cop, that's going to mean accepting that guns aren't automatically evil."

"No, of course not. It's just..."

"Uncomfortable as all hell for you, I know." Jim nodded. "I can hear your heart racing, smell your anxiety."

He tensed. "Oh, sorry, man. I've got some deodorant in the car. I'll go grab it."

"No." Jim shook his head. "You're fine. I wasn't complaining. I'm just worried about how you're taking this."

"It isn't the gun, not really," Blair sighed, staring down at the gorgeously-engraved wolf. She was beautiful. "It's what it symbolizes, what it means for my life."

"Blair, if being a cop isn't what you want-"

"No, man, I'm not saying that." He shook his head. "I'm starting to feel like maybe my whole life's been leading up to this. But I'm scared, too. Which is ridiculous but, for the first time in my life, I catch myself worrying about what other people think of me. I walk into the Precinct and the whispering starts. People stare, they point, they don't even bother hiding it. And I know it's only going to get worse at the Academy because I've never had a chance to prove myself to those people like I have at the station."

Jim drew another stool close to Blair's, sitting down opposite him and resting his hands on the younger man's knees. "That what all this moodiness lately has been about?"

"Well, yeah." He frowned. "What did you think?"

"Thought you missed school, teaching, your students."

Blair shook his head. More than a few students had emailed or written him that they didn't believe him capable of academic fraud. Somehow, that made it a little easier. But the cops...

As if reading his mind, Jim informed him, "No one in Major Crimes believes a word of your retraction. Not one of the cops in other departments we've worked closely with in the past believes that bull. The people who count still respect you. And who gives a crap about anyone else?"

"I don't know why I do. I just do." He shook his head, staring down at the wolf engraving. "This is really beautiful, Jim. I can't tell you how much it means to me."

"Like I said, you could use the backup." Jim smiled at him, grasping his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. "The gun reminded me of you anyway. Kind of has a retro look going on. The wolf just felt like a natural touch." He shrugged, looking a little embarrassed.

"In some tribes," Blair told him, "a young man coming to adulthood is trained by an older one, a proven and experienced warrior. And the bond between them becomes just so, um, so intense that there isn't even a word that works for it in English. And, at the end of the training, the experienced warrior presents the new initiate with a shield and a spear..."

"Well, the Shield is Simon's to give you at the end of your training, but you earned the weapon a long time ago," Jim told him, gently patting the hand holding the gun.

"Thank you."

A faint nod. "I'm going to tell you something now that I expect you to keep quiet about. I don't want anyone else knowing this."

"Sure. Exchanging confidences is a recognized form of male bonding in literally hundreds of cultures."

Jim rolled his eyes at a habit that Blair realized with a pang he was probably going to have to give up now.

"Shut up and listen, will you? This is something that I hope comes to apply to you, too. Or some variant because everyone needs something like this. You know how sometimes I get really worked up and there's just no way to defuse mentally?"

"Yeah." Blair nodded to encourage him to continue.

"And you know how at times like that I eventually end up here?"

"Sure. Sublimation of anger. Perfectly common. Some men hit a punching bag or go for a run and some men shoot a paper target."

Jim shook his head. "It's not about the anger. After I take my first shot, there is no anger. It's just gone. You know I joined the military pretty much to piss my father off?"

"Yeah."

"Well, there was this recruiter, older guy, and he just really took a shine to me. And he'd bring me to the range and we'd just talk for hours while we shot. I won't say he was like a father to me, because he wasn't, but he listened to me and accepted me the way I was and that meant a lot right then. It was something I hadn't gotten too much, not after Bud died."

"And, smell being so strongly tied to memory and emotion, burnt gunpowder now has a soothing effect on you? When you shoot, you remember those times with your recruiter?"

"Pretty much," Jim agreed, not looking at him.

"That's pretty cool."

Jim did look up then, expression startled.

"It's pretty common." Blair shrugged. "For some people, it's a certain perfume or the smell of fresh-baked bread or sawdust or motor oil. For you it's burnt gunpowder. Same difference."

Jim still looked guarded. "You don't think it's stupid?"

"No!" He shook his head fiercely. "In fact, I want to thank you for being willing to share that with me. To a guy like me with no real family to speak of, it means a lot."

Jim abruptly pulled him into a bruising hug. "You don't need her, you have us."

"I know," Blair answered, returning the hug and doing his best to ignore the physical discomfort of Jim's crushing grip. It was tighter than a standard hug, but the embrace was too meaningful for him to complain. "I don't bear Naomi any ill-will, but our paths started to diverge a long time before any of this started."

Jim let him go and stared at him thoughtfully for several long minutes before speaking again. "Think you're ready to try this again?"

"Uh, sure." Blair nodded and reloaded. "You really check the chamber every time you pick up a gun?"

"Absolutely. Can't be too safe," Jim answered. "Besides, it would be just like you to shoot yourself in the foot with a gun that's been 'unloaded' for the past six months."

Blair grinned, unable to dispute that. "Okay, so my hands go like this?"

Jim moved to stand next to him, repositioning his hands marginally. "There you go. Now stay relatively relaxed, but keep your wrists nice and rigid."

"Like this?" Blair asked, glancing at his friend for approval.

"Yeah, that's good. Now just stay relaxed. Remember who's in charge. Take a deep breath, don't twitch, don't blink. Inhale. Exhale. And squeeze the trigger. Don't hold your breath, just control when you breathe."

Blair pulled the trigger and stared down at the gun in his hand, startled. It was nowhere near as bad as he had thought it would be. And he had actually hit the target. Not a bull's-eye or anything close, but he had hit the target on his first try! He placed the gun down on the shelf and let out a whoop of exhilaration. Jim chuckled and ruffled his hair.

"Not bad for your first try, Chief."

"That was... not that horrible!"

Jim smiled and shook his head.

"I could, like, get used to that!"

Another smile, another nod. More hair-ruffling. For once, Blair was willing to let it slide that Jim was treating him almost like a kid. In fact, today it felt wonderful.

"I could get good at this!" he laughed, delighted. As much as shooting meant to Jim…

"Just like anything else that needs studying," Jim agreed. "Make sure it wasn't beginner's luck. Give it another try," he advised.

Blair did so, emptying the clip into the target and finding, to his delight, that his aim actually seemed to get better with each shot. He ejected the empty clip, checked the chamber, put the gun down, and turned to face Jim who was watching him with an expression of unabashed pride.

Blair took a quick step backwards, staggered by what he felt in response to that look. It was more than 'best friend,' more than 'brother'...

"Good," Jim told him, either not noticing or choosing to ignore his friend's emotions. "Let's do one or two more clips and then I'll let you go home and sleep off the rest of your hangover."

"It won't happen again," Blair promised, meaning it. Now that he actually stopped to think about it, he felt like crap. Physically, at least. Emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, he was feeling pretty damned good.

"It had better not," Jim answered, giving him a stern look. "Okay, reload," he directed.

Blair piled fresh bullets into his clip and then slid the clip back into the butt of the pistol, chambering a round.

"Starts to come natural," Jim told him.

"It does," Blair agreed, smiling up at him. "This isn't so horrible. I figured it would be louder and more painful and just generally not cool."

"And now you think otherwise?"

Blair shrugged. "It's not so horrible," he repeated.

Jim smiled and inclined his head once.

Blair grinned back at him. He focused on the target, remembered Jim's earlier advice, and slowly emptied his clip. He made a very satisfying little cluster of holes on the target. Hardly dead-center or anything, but promising. With work, he thought he could become a pretty decent shot. He at least had promising consistency of aim.

Jim smacked him on the back, gave him some advice for his next try, and fell back to let him get to it. The gun bucked in his hands with every shot, but not painfully and it actually felt nice once you knew what to expect. And it was exciting to try to improve upon your own performance; the feedback was instantaneous and even tiny self-corrections made a notable difference.

Not only could he see why cops liked target practice, he could see why Jim had fond memories of learning to shoot. It did feel good, in a warming way that had less to do with the practice than the feelings behind it. Bonding with Jim felt good, period. That Jim actually cared enough to go out of his way to teach him instead of letting him learn on the fly at the Academy? That felt great.

And as comforting as all hell.

Jim cared. He had gotten past the dissertation fiasco enough to want Blair to do well, to want other people to think well of him. To want Blair to feel good about himself again…

After a few more clips, Jim had Blair unload his gun and drove him back to the loft. He spent the drive back telling Blair what to expect from his Academy training. When Blair expressed some uncertainty over the martial arts training, Jim said that one of the instructors owed him a favor and he'd have him come over in the next day or two and show Blair the ropes in private.

"Thanks, man," Blair said, shaking his head and letting out an incredulous chuckle.

"What?" Jim wanted to know.

"You really do forgive me, don't you?"

"Stupid question, Chief."

They were guys and, in modern Western society, that meant certain modes of behavior were expected and others were frowned upon. So neither elaborated on that short-but-meaningful exchange. Not that either had to.

They spent the rest of the drive in comfortable silence. Blair felt like the silence itself was bringing them closer. At the very least, Blair felt the last of the rift between them heal. It never had to be mentioned again if that was what they both wanted. He suspected, with time, they might be able to talk about it without bringing up any of the horrible doubt, fear, anger, and confusion the idea brought up now. But, for now, nothing more needed to be said.

They were good again.

When they got home, Jim brought out his gun-cleaning kit, brought Blair out on the balcony, and showed him the basics of gun maintenance, muttering darkly about chemicals in closed spaces.

"Just be careful with the cleaner," he warned Blair, handing over the aerosol can. "I got it in my eyes once and it hurt worse than getting tazed."

"Thanks for the warning," Blair answered, careful not to lean too close as he sprayed it down the barrel. "This one?" he asked, picking up one of the rods in the kit.

At Jim's nod, he wrapped a swatch of cotton around one end of the rod and slid it down the barrel.

"Keep switching out fabric until a piece comes out clean," Jim directed.

"And you do this every time?"

"Every time you fire it and once every week or two even if you haven't. Gunpowder's plenty corrosive, but the metal'll start to pock and pit even without it. Oiling it regularly helps," he explained, pointing to one of the bottles before Blair. "It also gets to be kind of relaxing." He smiled. "You know, like a ritual."

Blair grinned back. "Rituals are important," he lectured. "They help us establish our identity, our place in the world. Reinforce our roles and beliefs."

Jim smiled and shook his head. "They do, don't they?"

"Thanks for today. It made me feel a lot more confident about facing things at the Academy."

"You'll be fine," Jim assured him. "I scheduled us sessions at the Range every day between now and your first day at the Academy."

Blair looked up at him, touched. "Jim, I can't tell you how much that means to me."

"Friends do these things for each other," he answered with a dismissive shrug.

Blair did not challenge this assertion. It was enough that Jim wanted to help him. He grinned at his friend and bent to finish cleaning his new favorite possession. God, that she-wolf was gorgeous!

Jim watched in silence, occasionally nodding encouragement. When Blair was done, he said, "Think you can put it back together without help? Just reverse what you did to take it apart in the first place. You should be able to handle that."

"I think so."

"Go ahead, then. I'll let you know if you get anything wrong."

Blair nodded and started to reassemble the gun, aware that Jim was watching him like a hawk but not remotely uncomfortable with that fact. If anything, it was comforting.

"Not bad," Jim said when Blair was finished. "Now, test the safety and the trigger, making sure they both work like they should."

Blair clicked on the safety and pulled the trigger. When that didn't produce a dry-fire, he thumbed the safety off and pulled the trigger again. This time it did dry-fire.

"Great, now just hold the trigger down all the way and make sure your slide's functional and you're done."

Blair did and it was. As he put the gun down, Jim smiled.

"And it's back together like it should be. Congratulations, Chief. Today you are a man."

"Actually, in most cultures, wider tribal acceptance is required in addition to the actual Rites of Passage while, in some cultures-"

"Blair," Jim interrupted quietly.

"Sorry, Jim," he answered with a sheepish grin. "Could take me awhile to break the Professor habit."

"No one's saying you have to break it completely."

Blair stared. "You like it when I spout off anthropology!" he accused.

"I never said that." Jim shook his head.

He grinned. "You think all that information's interesting, don't you?"

Jim scoffed. "It's boring and never has anything to do with anything."

"Then why don't you mind if I keep doing it?" Blair challenged.

"Because, over the years, I've gotten really good at tuning you out, Sandburg. No skin off my nose if you want to waste your breath."

He smiled, knowing better. Cops who did not listen to their anthropologist buddies didn't randomly start talking about Rites of Passage and Coming of Age at the shooting gallery.

"If you say so."

Jim just scowled at him for a minute. "You still look like death warmed over. Why don't you go get a few more hours of sleep?"

"Think I'll do that," Blair agreed, nodding.

Jim nodded.

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you. Today was nice."

"Not a problem."

Blair sighed, for once at a loss for words. How did you tell a guy he had changed your life, radically and for the better? How did you express your gratitude for years of love and respect and affection, years of putting up with you? How did you explain that you were a different person than you used to be? For no other reason than because someone actually gave a damn about you?

"Everything. Just thanks for everything, man. I mean..." He trailed off, shrugging helplessly.

Jim regarded him thoughtfully for a long moment, then smiled gently. "I understand."

"Really? Could you explain it to me then?"

"Come here, Chief," Jim directed.

Blair stepped into the offered hug and spent a minute just clinging to the best friend a guy could ever have. Blair would have sworn under oath that he felt some of Jim's strength flow into him during the embrace.

"This hasn't been easy, for either of us," Jim said as they broke the hug. "But what doesn't kill you..."

"Yeah," Blair agreed quietly.

"Go get some rest," Jim directed. "We'll go catch a movie or something after you get up."

"That sounds nice. Thanks, man."

Blair hurried to his bedroom before Jim could see his tears. There had been a lot of tears lately. But, today, for a change, they were good tears.

Before there had been a lot of fear, a lot of doubt, a definite sense of inadequacy. Uncertainty about the future, about his place in the world, about where he stood with the one person in his life who really mattered.

Today, it was different. The Academy would be tough, but it was nothing to fear. He was smart, strong, determined, had people who wanted him to succeed and would support him. He could do it, and it was the right thing. Not just right for everyone else, but right for Blair Sandburg.

Everything was going to be okay. Not easy, not by any means, but okay. He would be fine because he was not alone: he had a home, friends. He had Jim. Jim, who had made it quite clear today that he was not going anywhere. Jim, who had been right at the shooting range. Today had been a Rite of Passage for Blair.

Because, today, everything was different…

The End