All at Sea

by Jane Davitt and Wesleysgirl

 

Written for the Moonridge '08 edition My Mongoose ezine, The Many First Times of Jim and Blair.

Many thanks to Mab Browne for beta reading.



"You did what?" Blair said.

He'd just come out of the bathroom, one towel around his waist and the other, which he'd been using to dry his unruly hair, now clutched in his hands as he looked at Jim. There had to be water in his ears or something, because he couldn't possibly have heard what he thought he'd just heard. Not in this lifetime.

"I booked us that vacation we were talking about," Jim repeated casually. "
Cape Cod. There's supposed to be some really great sea fishing, and the sunsets are legendary. At least, that's what the brochures say."

"You got brochures." Blair leaned against the counter and blinked at Jim in disbelief.

"Is there a law against reading brochures?" Jim raised his eyebrows, looking amused. "I don't think so, Chief. I don't believe everything they say, and I'm damn sure we're more than a three minute walk from the beach, but I got us rooms with an ocean view and breakfast is included." He took a deep breath as if he could already smell the seaweed and then gave Blair an inquiring look. "You said that I'd get to pick where we went this time. It's no monastery, but it's going to be peaceful, and after the last few months, I'd say we've earned that, wouldn't you?"

That wasn't the point, Blair thought. "That's not the point. You seriously arranged for us to take a vacation?" This was the kind of thing Jim talked about, then never did. It was an idea, a pretty fantasy wrapped in police-blue paper and fueled by an after-hours beer, nothing more. "On the east coast," he added, because that made it seem even less believable.

"You said that Sentinels needed to recharge their batteries from time to time." Jim shrugged. "You didn't specify a zip code."

"No, but --"

Jim put his mug of coffee on the kitchen table and then walked over to Blair. "If you don't want to go, that's fine, Chief. Some time alone might do us both good." Before Blair could tell him just what he thought of that idea, Jim disarmed him by patting his face, not briskly, but gently, the brief contact leaving Blair's face feeling warm. "But you look tired, too. Maybe it's not just me in need of a break?"

"Oh, don't get me wrong," Blair said. "I'm not opposed to the idea of a vacation. I just didn't know... I mean, I didn't think... well, let's just say I'm surprised and leave it at that." If he didn't shut up soon, he was going to say something stupid and risk offending Jim. "Where are we going, exactly?"

Jim smiled. "Let me get the brochure." Blair tossed his wet towel in the hamper as Jim began searching through a stack of magazines and made sure that the one around his waist was fastened securely. Flashing Jim now and then was inevitable given the way the loft was laid out, but he never did it deliberately. Too risky. If Jim's gaze dropped down, Blair knew he'd react and really give Jim something to stare at.

Jim sat down at the table and Blair joined him, peering curiously at the brochure, all blue skies and smiling faces.

"I tried to get into this guest house," Jim said tapping his finger on a photograph, "but they were fully booked. The man I spoke to suggested another place run by a friend of his, though, and when I checked it out, it looked perfect."

"Provincetown," Blair said, reading the town's name off the address at the bottom of the glossy page.

He wondered if Jim had the slightest clue that Provincetown was well-known as a gay resort town, and decided after the briefest consideration that Jim couldn't possibly know, because why would he have chosen it if he had? He'd probably just picked it off a map because it was at the tip of the
Cape or something. Well, better not mention it; Blair had always thought it would be a neat place to visit, and if Jim found out he'd maybe call off the whole vacation, or at the very least decide they should go somewhere else, and now that Blair had the idea of a vacation, an actual vacation, with Jim, in his head, he didn't want to put it off any longer than absolutely necessary.

"It sounds great," he said, letting some of his enthusiasm creep into his voice. "Fishing, huh? Oh, hey, what about work?"

"Bass, bluefish…" Jim said, with an anticipatory gleam in his eyes. "Going to be reeling them in, buddy."

"Work?" Blair prompted.

"Simon took a bit of persuading, but there wasn't much he could say; if I don't start using some of my leave, I'll lose it. We can leave Friday and spend a week there; fly back from Boston on Sunday." Jim cleared his throat. "And, Sandburg, this was my idea, so I'm paying for it, okay? I know a vacation wasn't something you'd budgeted for."

Blair wasn't sure what to say to that. Protesting that he could pay his own way would be a lie, and Jim knew it, but just letting Jim pick up the whole tab wasn't something that he could do as gracefully as he might have liked. Jim probably knew that, too, if the way he was shifting his weight had anything to say about it. "I'll pay you back," Blair promised recklessly. It might take years, but he'd figure it out somehow.

"No." Jim met Blair's eyes calmly. "I want to do this and I want you to come with me." His gaze didn't shift, but there was a hint of color in his face. "Pure selfishness on my part, Chief, so there's no reason for you to feel under an obligation. Pay for the beer and bait, if it makes you feel any better, but as far as I'm concerned, you're my guest."

Jim took a sip of coffee. "And if I zone out when I'm fishing and fall overboard, it'd be nice to have someone there to haul my ass on to dry land."

"I think you're overestimating my swimming abilities," Blair said, grinning and letting himself focus on how great this was going to be. "You might want to invest in a good life jacket."

A smile curved Jim's lips. "You wouldn't let me drown," he said with certainty, and then changed the subject with a firmness Blair had learned not to fight. Jim got stubborn sometimes. "Today's Tuesday; plenty of time to pack and spread the word you're going to be out of town."

There was a faintly questioning tone to Jim's words. Blair's duties at the university were minimal now that the students had scattered for the summer, so Jim had to be asking if Blair had a current girlfriend. Not that Blair kept them a secret, but sometimes they came and went too quickly to make it worthwhile introducing them to Jim -- who treated them all with a cool courtesy that rarely warmed to friendliness.

"Are you kidding?" Blair said. "For a real vacation, I could be ready tomorrow."

Although now that he started thinking about it, there were things he should probably take care of in the meantime. He should make a list. He should... He was already heading for his room, half a dozen thoughts warring for attention.

At the doorway to his room, he paused and turned around. "Thanks, Jim," he said, with real feeling. "This is going to be great."

Jim nodded. "I'm hoping so."

*****

Three days later, they were standing in the lobby of White Dunes Inn, a huge old house that had been remade into a bed and breakfast. The front desk was an actual antique desk, as opposed to a countertop, and the man standing on the other side of it was the owner, Stuart.

"This place is beautiful," Blair said.

Stuart glanced up at him and smiled. "Thanks. You should have seen it when I bought it -- it was a wreck. A wreck with incredible potential, but definitely a wreck."

"How long did it take you to fix it up?" Blair asked as Stuart handed Jim his credit card back.

"A little over two years." Stuart opened a drawer, took out two keys, and gestured toward the staircase off to the left. "Come on up and I'll show you where your rooms are. You can drop off your luggage, and then if you want I'll give you a tour."

"Thanks," Jim said, as he returned his wallet to his jacket pocket. He sniffed the air, an appreciative smile spreading across his face. "Something smells good. You serve food here in the evening as well as doing breakfast?"

Stuart looked a little taken aback. "Uh, no, that's probably whatever Dan, my partner, is cooking for our supper." He gave a cautious sniff. "I can't smell anything, but I can believe it smells good; he's a great cook. Wait until you taste his waffles." He reached over to a small rack of leaflets on the desk and took one out, passing it over to Jim who, to Blair's eyes at least, was looking faintly chagrined. Either he was really hungry, or he was kicking himself for his slip-up. Maybe both. "Here's a map of the town with the main restaurants marked on it; there's a list of them on the back telling you what they specialize in."

Jim took it with a nod of thanks and picked up his suitcase, leaving Blair to do the same with his own single piece of luggage. They'd rented a car at Boston's Logan Airport, and although the size of the town meant that it would probably stand idle most of the week, it gave them somewhere to leave the unwieldy bundle of fishing rods they'd brought with them, and their tackle boxes. Which was a good thing. The inn was welcoming and cozy, but it was spotlessly clean; their tackle boxes were gritty with sand and redolent of fish.

They followed Stuart upstairs and he led them off to the right. The hallway wasn't particularly wide, and Blair bumped his overstuffed bag into a bookcase, then stumbled and bumped into Jim's arm. "Sorry."

Jim gave him a curious look. "Jet lag setting in already?"

"Oh, that's right, you're from the west coast," Stuart said, pausing and unlocking a door. "You might want to try to get to bed early tonight -- that way you can live tomorrow as a more or less normal east coaster instead of in a fog." Inside the room, he gestured at another door, one that was propped open and offered a partial view of tile and a sink. "Bathroom's there, and this other door leads to the adjoining room. They're mirror images of each other."

Adjoining rooms. It hadn't even occurred to Blair to ask what Jim had arranged on that front -- in fact, he wouldn't have even thought an older inn like this one would have adjoining rooms, although the extensive renovations were probably the explanation for that.

He glanced around the room, taking in the mellow tones of the plastered walls and the rich gleam of the wooden floor. Nice. Really nice. The bed was huge, covered with a handmade quilt in russet and green, corner posts rising up, topped with finials in the shape of conch shells. He turned to look at a painting on the wall by the door, a vibrant splash of color that drew the eye, and saw the discreet notice hanging on the back of the door. Along with the usual instructions about what to do in case of a fire, it listed the room rates. Ouch. He multiplied it by the number of nights they were staying and winced.

Stuart began to lead the way through to Blair's room and then paused, fumbling in his pocket as his cell phone rang.

"What's the matter, Chief?" Jim said into his ear as Stuart stepped over to the window, with an apologetic grimace toward them, and began to talk in a low voice.

Admitting that he felt guilty wasn't going to go over well, Blair knew, though he wasn't sure he could pull off a lie very effectively. Jim knew him too well for that. Still, maybe a partial truth... "Maybe it is jet lag," he said. "Did you know that studies have shown crossing multiple time zones can actually cause a significant enough disruption in circadian rhythms that the temporal lobe is actually damaged?"

Jim, predictably, rolled his eyes. "A good night's sleep and you'll be fine," he said. "Now tell me why you're suddenly on edge. It can't be that you don't like your room, because you haven't even seen it yet."

"No, of course it's not," Blair said, glancing at Stuart in case the guy was paying even the slightest bit of attention to their conversation. He didn't seem to be, though. "Look, it's just -- this place is really expensive."

"A little," Jim allowed, his voice low enough that there was no chance of Stuart hearing him. He grinned, a quick flash of amusement lighting up his face. "The waffles had better be spectacular."

"They'd better be orgasmic," Blair said, but he wasn't sure Jim had even heard him; he had that distant look suddenly, like he was concentrating. Blair frowned and glanced around the room, but there wasn't anything to see that would have garnered that much of Jim's attention, except...

Except Stuart, whose tone of voice, still low, had grown more agitated. Normally, Jim would never have listened in on a private conversation, unless he was on an investigation, but someone in distress seemed to trigger an automatic response from him.

Blair raised his eyebrows in a silent question, but Jim shook his head and mouthed, "Later," his expression not unduly concerned.

Stuart ended the call, a frown puckering his forehead, and then tucked the phone away and rejoined them, a smile replacing his frown. "Sorry about that. So, that's your room, through the door, Mr. Sandburg, and if you like, I can show you where breakfast is served and the patio out back. We're not licensed to sell alcohol, but you're welcome to a corkscrew and a couple of glasses if you see a wine you like in one of our shops."

"We're keeping you from your meal," Jim said, his most charming smile in place, "and we'll follow our noses tomorrow, don't worry. I think we'll just unpack and then go and walk around a bit. Stretch our legs and find a place to eat."

Stuart bit his lip but looked tempted. Blair hadn't felt any urgency from Stuart to leave them before, but after that phone call it was clear that the man wanted to cut the tour short. "Are you sure?" Stuart asked.

"I'm a detective," Jim said. "The day I can't find where the coffee is kept is the day I retire."

Stuart gave him a smile that looked more natural and less polite. "Well… okay. Enjoy your stay here with us, and if there's anything you need, just call the desk and we'll do our best to help you."

With a final nod, he left them, closing the door behind him with a soft click and then walking away quickly, his footsteps cushioned by the carpet that ran down the hallway.

"Okay, you want to tell me what that was about?" Blair said as soon as the other man was gone.

"I didn't catch it all," Jim said with a shrug. He looked a little embarrassed at admitting that he'd been listening in. "He was talking to a friend, some guy called Carl, and trying to get him to calm down." Jim's gaze slipped away from Blair's face and fixed on a clear glass vase filled with polished pebbles. "Carl's boyfriend left town and got a job in Boston, courtesy of, and I quote, a rich fucking tourist fifteen years older than him looking for some arm-candy to walk around with." Jim made a sound that could've been a snort. "Carl's not happy about it, though it sounds like he's better off without him."

Blair's brain offered half a dozen things he could say. Despite the fact that he'd wished many times for such an opening, he found that this wasn't one he could take. "At least he's got a friend to talk to about it," he said finally. "Sometimes that's all you can do, you know? Be there for somebody."

He didn't think he was imagining the fondness in Jim's eyes, but Jim's reply was off-hand rather than meaningful. "It's good to have someone like that," Jim said. "So what are you in the mood for? Steak? Or should we go for the catch of the day?"

"Man, I don't know if I care," Blair said, heartfelt. "After whatever that was on the plane, I'd probably eat cardboard if it came deep-fried with some tartar sauce on the side."

They found a place within easy walking distance of the inn; it had an outside patio overlooking the beach and served sangria in huge wine glasses. With one of those glasses next to his hand, drops of condensation beading like jewels against the red of the wine, Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Hungry as he was, Blair hadn't even opened the menu yet. He was just... basking. The ocean was incredibly blue, the sand stretched out for miles, and the sense of peace creeping into him felt right in places he hadn't even realized had been off-kilter for too long.

Beside him, Jim stretched out his legs and gave a sigh that sounded content to Blair's ears, long since attuned to Jim's moods. "We should have done this a long time ago, you know that?"

"You mean in all that free time we have?" Blair asked, grinning. He picked up his glass and took a slow sip of sangria, letting the fruity tones play over his tongue before he swallowed. "But yeah, you're right. This place is fantastic."

Their waitress, leaving a nearby table, glanced at them, and Blair shook his head ruefully to let her know they weren't ready to order. He did pick up his menu, though, and started to look through it. As soon as he read the first description, his stomach grumbled audibly in anticipation.

"I heard that." Jim grinned and flipped open his own menu. "Oh, yeah. I could go for this… and that…" He glanced at Blair. "I guess it's true what they say about the sea air giving you an appetite."

Before Blair could retort that Jim's appetite seemed pretty constant in any climate or location, Jim turned his head as if someone had called his name and stared at the beach, where two men were walking by, arms slung over each others' shoulders, watching the changing colors of the sky as the sunset washed the blue with gold and red. The couple paused, turned to face each other, and kissed, the embrace unhurried and relaxed, and then broke apart when a wave swept up to break over their bare feet. The sound of their voices, laughing as they walked into the ocean to paddle, floated up to the patio, and Jim closed his eyes for a moment, his expression unreadable.

Another set of questions flickered through Blair's mind, and he might have, again, refrained from asking them. But several mouthfuls of wine had loosened his tongue -- or maybe that was just an excuse -- and he found himself saying, "Does it bother you?"

Jim opened his eyes and looked at Blair with the barest hint of a frown, obviously asking for clarification.

Unsure if the need should reassure or concern him, Blair gestured at the now-swimming couple. "Um, you know. Guys and, um. Public displays of affection."

Jim shrugged. "I'm off duty and out of state. And even if I wasn't…" His gaze returned to the couple. "They're not doing anything wrong." He turned his chair so that he was facing Blair. "I'm a little insulted that you felt you had to ask, Chief."

It wouldn't make any difference that Blair managed to suppress the worst of his flush at the chide, gentle as it was -- he knew that Jim would see it. "I didn't mean it as an insult," he said, looking up and meeting Jim's eyes so Jim would know he was serious. "I just -- I wanted -- sorry, man. I guess I should just keep my mouth shut." Suddenly hovering on the edge of misery, he picked up his glass again and took a long drink from it.

When he put it down again, with a clink of glass against the wooden table that sounded very loud in the silence between them, Jim reached out and captured his hand, a warm, brief clasp that was infinitely reassuring. "Blair -- relax, okay? There are plenty of cops we both know who would have rolled their eyes or made some sort of sneering comment, and that would have been their tolerant reaction, but I'm not one of them."

Blair nodded, but didn't say anything. Not yet.

"And I'm so used to you knowing everything, well, nearly everything, about me, that it came as a surprise that you didn't know that," Jim continued, a smile replacing the earnest look on his face. "I mean; you know the combo for my locker at the station, the name of the first girl I kissed -- hell, I could let you order for me off this menu and you'd nail exactly what I would've chosen, you're so… so --" His voice faltered. "You know me," he finished.

Swallowing around a sudden and unexpected lump in his throat, Blair nodded. "Okay. Okay, yeah. I get that. And you're right. Mostly. I do know you, just like you know me. I guess maybe it kind of comes as a surprise that there's still stuff left to learn." He offered Jim a hesitant smile.

Their waitress, apparently having noticed that they'd taken their attention from their menus, chose that moment to come over and ask brightly, "Have you two decided what you'd like?", and Blair had to fumble with his menu and make a quick decision while Jim was ordering.

Once their order had been taken, the waitress came back with a small flowerpot containing a loaf of bread, hot from the oven, and three spreads in small pottery bowls, one a spicy hummus, the other heavy with garlic, and a third cinnamon butter. "Enjoy," she said with a bright smile.

Jim tore a chunk off the loaf and winced, juggling it from hand to hand. "Hot." He blew on it and then scooped up some of the garlic dip and took a small bite. "Wow. This has quite a kick to it."

"Are your senses acting up?" Blair asked, feeling a twinge of concern.

Jim shook his head. "I don't think so, Chief. It's just hot and heavy on the garlic; you try it and see what you think."

He was right -- the garlic was sharp and mellow at the same time, causing a pleasant burn in the back of Blair's throat. He chewed thoughtfully, then tried the hummus. "Oh, I like this one, too. More garlic, though." The breeze blew past, ruffling his hair, and he automatically reached to his neck to tame it. "Man, smell that salt air. If I wasn't so hungry, I'd say we should go down and dig our toes in the sand."

"If I wasn't so hungry, I'd race you down there," Jim said. "If it isn't too dark when we've finished eating, maybe we can take a walk along the beach before we head back?" He reached over and tucked an errant strand of Blair's hair behind his ear, the gesture seemingly unthinking rather than intimate as it would've been from someone else. Blair was used to the way Jim touched him now -- if 'used to' was defined as something that left him feeling tingly, as if the touch had affected his entire body. "Or do you just want to hit the sack?"

Blair figured suggesting that they hit the sack together -- something he'd long hoped for but begun to despair of ever coming to fruition -- wouldn't go over well. Being accepting of PDAs between two men was a far cry from wanting to participate in that kind of affection, public or not. "A walk sounds good," Blair said.

While Jim ate some more bread, Blair took advantage of the momentary distraction to study him. They had been working pretty hard, and God knew Jim deserved a real vacation more than anyone. He looked tired, the little lines around his eyes deeper than usual.

"You're staring at me. Do I have butter on my face?" Jim went momentarily cross-eyed trying to look at his own chin and then looked oddly intent for a moment. "Yes, I do. I can tell. And, no, before you ask, I'm not going to answer twenty questions about exactly what butter on skin feels like. If I'm on vacation from work, so are you." He picked up his napkin and scrubbed it over his face, taking care of a smear of butter so small that Blair hadn't noticed it. "How do I look now?"

"Good," Blair said honestly, still staring because he couldn't look away no matter how much he knew he should. "You look good."

The setting sun was giving everything a glow but he didn't think that was the cause of the color in Jim's face. Jim opened his mouth to speak but seemed to be having trouble choosing his words. They were both saved by the arrival of their food, halibut steak for Jim and baked stuffed sole for Blair.

"Thank you," Jim said, smiling up at their waitress and getting enough of a response from her that Blair was left in no doubt about which way she leaned. He had to fight back a possessiveness he thought he'd conquered a long time ago, when he'd realized that women were going to flirt with Jim all the time and -- most of the time -- Jim was going to let them, either because he didn't notice or because he wanted them to. Blair wasn't sure which reaction was worse. When Jim remained oblivious, some women took it as a challenge and started moving in closer, putting their hands on his muscled arms, cooing up into that handsome face…

"Sandburg," Jim said patiently. "For the third time; could you pass me the salt?"

He hadn't even heard the first two. Jesus. Blair grabbed at the salt, knocked it over, and somehow managed to fumble it upright and into Jim's hand -- even the touch of Jim's skin against his own was electrifying -- before pushing his chair back and standing up. "Sorry," he said. "I'm just going to -- bathroom. Be right back."

And he fled inside before the startled look on Jim's face could turn into something worse.

*****

Left alone, Jim stared at the white spill of salt blankly and tried not to listen to the conversations around him, most of which were variants on a theme of 'did you see that? Do you think they're fighting?'.

He wasn't sure what had freaked Blair out like that, but he was starting to wonder if seeing the two men kiss -- something that had given him a fleeting pang of envy, no more -- had troubled Blair. If it had, Jim had missed his chance to ask Blair about it. Nothing new there; when it came to Blair, missed chances seemed to be all he had. They were both like pinballs loose in a machine, ricocheting from one crisis or one woman to another, their paths never crossing at a time when their lives were quiet and they weren't dating anyone.

Until now. He'd booked this vacation and hoped that as soon as Blair found out where they were going, he'd say something, react. Hell, Jim had hoped that Blair would have done the math and they could have arrived here as a couple, but no. Blair had looked thoughtful, then pleased at the idea of a vacation, no more than that. Jim sighed. He and Blair were so close that it made working and living together easy. They'd gotten to the stage where they could finish each others' sentences, anticipate each other's moves; as a partner, Blair was proving to be the best Jim had worked with, untrained though he was.

When it came to a more romantic relationship, though, Blair was an enigma.

Jim took a pinch of the salt, threw it over his shoulder for luck, and went in search of Blair, resolutely not homing in on Blair's breathing in case the man had just gone to take a leak. Some things he really didn't want to hear up close and personal.

The men's bathroom was small, two stalls, two sinks, and a urinal along one wall. Blair wasn't using the facilities, though; he was standing facing the mirror, his hair damp and his hands clutching the sink as if it was all that was keeping him from falling over.

"Sandburg, are you all right?" Jim demanded, concern roughening his voice.

"Well, it's not like you're going to believe me if I say I am," Blair said. He didn't turn to look at Jim, who stepped closer in behind him so he could at least see his face clearly in the mirror. "And it's not like I'd blame you. But before you go off on some crazy tangent thinking there's something really wrong, no, there's not, except for, apparently, in my head, and I'm hoping we can maybe just agree to blame that on jet lag and over-excitement." Letting go of the sink, Blair turned around. He was flushed, his eyes bright and nervous and his heart racing a mile a minute. "Because if we can't agree to that, then I have to do this thing."

"This thing," Jim repeated slowly.

Blair nodded. "This thing. This thing that I've been thinking about, this thing that I can't get out of my head, only I've been too afraid to do it, or even to say anything, because, well, you're the best friend I ever had, and I don't want to do anything to mess that up. Or to make you uncomfortable. But I don't think I can stand it anymore, the, the waiting, and the wondering, and... oh, please don't let me screw this up." This last seemed to be directed at the ceiling, or maybe to some higher power, and then Jim found himself with an armful of Blair, solid and a little bit sweaty and with full, warm lips pressed firmly to his.

He couldn't help flinching backward, just from the shock of it, just from Blair's weight against his body, and the pressure of Blair's mouth on his eased off as if Blair was taking that as a rejection.

No. No. He would have said it aloud if Blair wasn't still, mercifully, kissing him, but maybe it was as well he didn't, because that really would have sent the wrong message. So instead, he tightened the arms that had automatically risen to grab Blair, and pulled Blair to him, his leg sliding between Blair's because he just couldn't get close enough.

Blair tasted of butter and spice and beneath that, like buried treasure, just of himself, the taste both new and familiar. Jim's senses latched onto it and stored it away, then added to it as his tongue swept past Blair's lips (God, so soft, just the hint of roughness along the top one where Blair's razor had missed a spot) and into the heat of Blair's mouth.

Blair clutched at him with both hands and inhaled sharply, the rush of air short and cool against Jim's tongue before it went down into Blair's lungs. Blair kissed him fiercely, a little bit desperately, as if he'd been waiting for this just as long as Jim had -- which couldn't be true, because Jim had been waiting for this forever.

He slid a hand up into Blair's hair and tilted Blair's head to a better angle, deepening the kiss. Blair made an anxious sound and pressed closer; Jim could feel Blair's erection against his thigh, eager and hot through the fabric of his pants. The thought of what it might feel like against bare skin made Jim groan. He caught Blair's lower lip between both of his own and sucked at it. Blair rocked his hips forward, and Jim pulled back just a little, just far enough to get a hand between them, to give Blair his palm and fingers to push against, when the bathroom door opened, the sounds of the restaurant beyond suddenly loud in Jim's ears.

They pulled apart the rest of the way, Blair's expression dazed as Jim stepped them both to the side to make room for the man passing by. The guy gave them a knowing grin and a lifted eyebrow before entering one of the stalls.

"Oh, man," Blair whispered. His eyes were wide and shocked, his lips shiny. Jim wanted to taste them again. "Tell me I'm not dreaming this."

"You're not blaming this on jet lag," Jim told him, and heard how shaky his voice sounded. "Blair --" He ran his thumb over that lush, damp lip and felt a sweet ache deepen as Blair's mouth pouted forward the barest inch to kiss it.

A toilet flushed and Jim shook his head, suddenly desperate to get out of the small room. "Let's get out of here," he said, pitching the words for Blair's ears only. "Back to the table or just -- just away. Somewhere we can talk." He fitted his palm to the angular thrust of Blair's jaw and left it there for a long moment, loving that he could, that he wasn't counting off seconds in his head to warn him that his hand had lingered too long. "Somewhere we can do that again."

"We can't just walk out," Blair said reasonably. "We can talk here. It might -- maybe it would be a good idea to do that. Talk, I mean, before... before we do anything else." Still, his hand stroked along Jim's side in a hopeful promise, and, as always, Jim let Blair guide him, this time back to their table, where their meals were still waiting for them.

Their waitress came back to the table as they did. "I wondered if you two took off on me," she said, playful. "Is everything okay?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, everything's fine. Thank you."

Their meals were still warm; they hadn't really been gone for long, but to Jim it felt as if the moments with Blair had been so crammed full of significance that they ought to have lasted hours.

He sat and pushed his fork into a fluffy heap of potato and then let it fall with a clatter to the plate. He was still hungry, but he couldn't just eat as if nothing had happened. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For doing something I didn't have the guts to do." Jim gestured around them. "I brought you here… but I couldn't do any more than that. I was waiting for you to make the first move." He reached out across the table and slipped his fingers into Blair's hand, gripping it tightly and then, from force of habit, releasing him. "All this -- God, Blair, do you have any idea how long I've been waiting for this?"

Blair was watching his hand on the table's surface, and slowly, deliberately reached for it, entwining their fingers. "If we can't, here," he said in explanation, "then where can we? And believe me, I know. A long time. Me, too, even though I don't think I really realized it at first. It kind of snuck up on me. But I didn't think you, you know, leaned that way."

Jim looked at their hands, linked and connecting them, and sighed. "Not surprising. It's something I've kept quiet for so long, sometimes even I forget what really works for me." He shrugged. "I like women. I just… I can't -- It's never enough. But the rest of it -- someone to be with, a relationship that can last -- I've never had that with a man." He grimaced. "If I was still in bed with them the next morning, that counted as deep and meaningful. And before you ask, the last time was about three years ago, just after Carolyn left and yeah, I was safe, like always, and I'm clean." He smiled wryly. "Just frustrated." He rubbed his thumb over Blair's knuckles. "How about you?"

He didn't bother assuring Blair that he could share as much or as little as he wanted to; he knew Blair too well for that. Blair was good at babbling until someone's eyes glazed over without actually telling them anything. Jim knew that people considered him taciturn but in some ways, Blair's ready flow of speech boiled down to even less.

Blair hesitated, then shook his head. "Not until you. I thought about it, since, a couple of times. But I knew anyone else would just be a substitute for the real thing." He smiled in a strained sort of way. "It didn't seem fair, to anyone, to do that. So I just --" He shrugged. "Well. You know. Lots of women."

Pulling his hand away then, Blair picked up his fork and pushed his food around on his plate. It seemed like he was getting ready to say more, and Jim wanted to give him whatever time he needed.

"I know I talk a good game," Blair said finally. "Or try to. But I'm walking in uncharted territory here; I don't know what I'm doing."

And I know too much, Jim thought with an inward wince. He might have been safe as far as using a condom went, but the risks he'd taken and the places he'd found some of his partners… He repressed a shiver, half distaste, half a dark excitement. He didn't want to remember any of that when he was looking at Blair, his body quiescent now but primed and ready. One kiss and Blair owned him more completely than he'd thought possible. The idea of that scared him, but trusting Blair went too deep for it to make much of an impression on the lust-spiced haze of happiness he was in.

"My turn to have all the answers, Chief?" he said, smiling when Blair rolled his eyes. He picked up his fork. Outside, with an evening breeze blowing off the sea, his fish was getting a little cool, but since he wasn't really tasting what he chewed and swallowed, it didn't matter. "And it's not uncharted; it's just somewhere you haven't visited, but plenty of other people have." He indicated the beach, still dotted here and there with people, mostly couples. "See?" He took a sip of his sangria, enjoying the tartness of the fruit. "Which reminds me; you knew what this place was like as soon as I said the name, didn't you?"

Blair flushed. Just a little bit, but Jim saw it. Heck, it wouldn't have surprised him if he'd been able to smell it -- the rush of blood just under the surface of the skin, hot and metallic. "Yeah," Blair said. "I knew. I wasn't sure if you did, and I didn't want to say anything in case you didn't and you'd change your mind. I kind of thought, if we could just get here, maybe it would, I don't know, spark something."

Jim groaned, unable to help it. What a waste of time, both of them circling warily, too unsure of the other to take a chance. "For a detective, I missed one hell of a lot of clues. And you're not much better, you know that?"

"What do you mean?" Blair's eyes lifted to meet his, Blair's expression anxious.

"You're an anthropologist," Jim said dryly. "You study human beings. More specifically, you study me. How have you missed the way I am around you? The way you get me to do anything just by looking at me and saying 'please', the way I can't keep my hands off you -- and let's not start on the way I wander around the loft half-naked hoping that one day I'll catch you looking --" He rubbed his hand over his eyes, which were stinging with tiredness; in order to leave a clear desk behind, he'd been working late and it was catching up to him. Had to be, for him to be spilling this much, but Blair always had been good at getting him to talk, to confess. "Pretty pathetic, I know."

"Jim," Blair said, hitching his chair closer to the table until their knees bumped together. "No, not pathetic, not at all. I just thought it meant you were comfortable with me. I thought -- I thought it meant you saw me as, you know, a member of the family. Something like that. And let's face it, our relationship -- the whole Sentinel/Guide thing -- is pretty unique. I didn't want to assume it was anything more than that. Realizing that it is -- that it could be -- is... well, I think I've kind of been thrown for a loop."

"I feel the same way." Jim studied what was left on his plate without enthusiasm. He didn't want to eat. He wanted Blair. "I think I'm done with this. Do you want dessert? Or maybe that walk?"

"Yeah, let's get out of here," Blair said, looking around and then lifting a hand as he caught the waitress's attention. "A walk sounds good."

The waitress wisely didn't comment on the fact that neither of them had eaten much, just took their plates away and came back with the check, which Blair reached for with a stern look at Jim that told him he wasn't to argue about paying.

"How do we get down to the beach from here?" Blair asked her as he dropped some bills onto the table.

"Oh, if you go down to the corner around the bar, there's a gate," she said, gesturing at the mostly decorative fence that surrounded the patio.

"Great, thanks," Blair said, and within a minute they were pushing the gate open and walking down a few stone steps onto the sand, which shifted beneath Jim's shoes.

He thought about reaching for Blair's hand, but hesitated. He'd done that with Carolyn sometimes, walking down the street with their hands linked, but he'd felt self-conscious and vaguely bothered by the fact that his hands weren't free. He didn't exactly go through life expecting to get attacked, but instincts that military training had honed and the jungle had put an even sharper edge on hadn't been blunted when he'd become a cop. In Cascade he needed to stay alert.

Here, though, with the pale sand soft under his feet and the shush of the waves filling his ears, he felt safe. He reached out his hand and gave Blair a hopeful look, feeling awkward, but determined to do this right. Lovers held hands.

Blair didn't hesitate, just slipped his hand into Jim's trustingly. Blair's fingers were slightly calloused, roughened by the pens and pencils that were the tools of his trade, and Jim felt a surge of affection and lust and disbelief so strong that it threatened to overwhelm him. He tightened his hand on Blair's, and Blair squeezed back, looked at him, smiled.

"I don't know about you, but I'm getting sand in my shoes," Blair said.

"So take them off," Jim said, made reckless by happiness. He toed his off and, letting go of Blair's hand momentarily, peeled off his socks, too, making them into a neat bundle he tucked under his arm. The sand felt cool and almost alive against the soles of his feet, each grain gritty and distinct, shifting with each movement he made.

"Oh, man, that's so much better." Blair sighed happily after he'd removed his own shoes and reached for Jim's hand again as they started walking. The clasp of their hands seemed natural but exciting at the same time. Jim considered just kissing Blair, imagined both of them dropping their shoes in favor of wrapping their arms around each other, uncaring of who might see.

A Frisbee suddenly flew past directly in front of them, missing them by less than a foot. "Sorry!" a young boy shouted, running past them to retrieve it.

"No problem," Blair said. The kid didn't so much as blink as he paused in front of them and took in the fact that they were holding hands. "Better this way than in the ocean, right?"

"Right!" the boy said, and grinned before throwing the disc off toward a woman who was standing nearer the water.

"Blue, not red, this time," Jim said, following the Frisbee's path with his eye. Blair chuckled and started walking again, leading them down toward the ocean. Jim was in no danger of zoning as he had done on that other Frisbee the day they'd met. Too dark for the color to really attract his attention now that the sun had almost disappeared.

And too many distractions closer at hand -- literally.

"I feel -- I don't know how I feel," he admitted, pausing for a moment and turning to face Blair. "This is going to make a huge change in our lives." It struck him that he might be reading too much into a kiss and he chewed his lip for a moment, wondering how to ask Blair how far he wanted to take this. In the end, he just asked. There had been too much silence between them on what mattered. "Unless you want it to be just here, for this week away? Do you?"

He waited for Blair to reply, feeling a painful anxiety. Short-term just wasn't going to work for him, not with Blair. That kiss had told him that. He'd walked away from it with his senses craving more as desperately as he'd craved coffee in the jungle for the first few weeks.

Blair kept walking, backwards, now, towing Jim along with him toward the water's edge. "Are you crazy?" Blair said. "One week, and then I'm supposed to go back to pretending I haven't wanted you for years?" He didn't stop walking until his feet were in the wet sand; a wave came up and washed over Jim's toes, the cold of it making them curl involuntarily, but he was too fixated on what Blair's words to feel it as more than a vague annoyance. "Wow, that's cold!"

Looking up at him, Blair's eyes were clear blue, open, happy. What had been the top button on his shirt had slipped free of its button-hole, baring a few inches of skin that Jim had seen a hundred times but which had never looked so appealing as it did right then, with the promise that he might be able to do something more than just look hovering all around them.

"Of course I don't want it to be just here," Blair said. "One week?" He shook his head. "That's no time at all. Nowhere near enough for what I want. I want it all, man. I want forever."

Jim felt the word hit him just as the wave had done, felt it splash against the barricades he'd placed around himself and reveal them as sand, not rock, sand that could be washed away easily, broken down. He breathed in sharply, an involuntary gasp, dropped his shoes behind him, where they'd have a chance of staying dry, and then walked forward a single pace and closed the gap between them so that he could kiss Blair again and remember how to talk after that.

Sea spray and dampness were frosting Blair's hair but it was an illusion of cold; his face was warm under Jim's palms and his lips were even warmer. Jim let his hands slip up and anchor themselves in Blair's hair, the heavy, silky mass flowing over them like water.

To be able to do this felt dreamlike. He'd had dreams like these; beaches and kisses and always an awakening and a sharp stab of disappointment. This was real. His numb toes, the shell digging into the ball of his foot; he welcomed each minor irritant as proof that this was real.

And Blair didn't pull away, didn't offer up a reason they should stop. Instead, Blair tossed his own shoes blindly toward the dry sand behind Jim and clung to him, one hand gripping Jim's shirt. He parted his lips for Jim, pressed close to him, made pleased sounds into Jim's open mouth. He kissed as if there were nothing else he'd rather be doing, as if kissing Jim was the only thing he wanted to do. It made Jim, to be honest, a little bit crazy -- he held Blair more tightly, kissed him harder, and Blair was with him, giving, every step of the way.

Jim had been aroused before at times and places where there was no way to satisfy the need that had taken over his body. In church once, at a wedding, with the woman across from him bending forward to get something out of the purse at her feet, her hat tipping forward to shade her face so that all he saw was the lush curve of her breasts as her jacket gaped open. Her skin had been glazed gold by a ray of sunlight and it looked velvet soft, edible as a peach. He'd pictured himself kneeling down and biting gently, roughly, whatever she wanted, at the ripe dangling flesh, and he'd emerged from his reverie achingly hard and flushed scarlet as if everyone had around him had heard his thoughts. The woman had been married and much older but he'd watched her all day, sidelong glances, trying and failing to recapture the perfection of that moment.

This, here, now, was so much more of a temptation. Blair was hard; Jim could feel it, and it seemed such a waste, so cruel, not to give Blair what he wanted. Jim wanted to spoil him, be indulgent, lavish attention on him, sink to his knees and suck Blair's cock with tormenting slowness until Blair was crying out, soft, bewildered sounds, his hands tight on Jim's shoulders, his head thrown back, exposing his throat to be kissed and bitten, marked in red with visible kisses.

From first kiss to this in less than an hour… Jim had done this before -- and not bothered with the kiss -- but it didn't feel like those anonymous encounters. He'd been so close to Blair for so long that this just felt right.

And he couldn't. They weren't alone here on the beach and it wasn't full night; they were in public, and if a kiss wouldn't raise eyebrows, what he wanted to do definitely would.

Reluctantly, he gave Blair's mouth one last kiss and drew back an inch. "I can't do this without wanting more," he confessed, punctuating his remark with just one more kiss, dusted over the corner of Blair's mouth. "You're driving me crazy, you know that, sweetheart?"

Blair shuddered and moaned softly, not letting go of him. "Crazy? Yeah, I think I know what that feels like." Laughing shakily, Blair leaned in for another kiss that Jim wouldn't, couldn't deny him, then suggested in a low voice pitched for Jim's ears alone, "Let's just go back to the inn, okay? All I can think about is touching you."

They made their way up to the street and then the two blocks to the inn, holding hands most of the way. Jim could feel the excitement and nervousness radiating off Blair, and told himself firmly that he wouldn't let his own eager libido get the better of him. He was going to make this good for Blair, not push him into anything he wasn't ready for.

Upstairs, Blair's hands were trembling as he unlocked his door. "You want to come in?" he asked, grinning because he knew what the answer was going to be.

Jim responded with the slowest, sexiest smile he could manage. Blair smiled back, his eyes narrowing appreciatively, and then walked through the door to his room. Jim closed the gap between them automatically, wondering if he was going to be able to let Blair get out of arms' reach the whole vacation. Probably not.

Someone had come into their rooms while they'd been out; Blair's bed had been turned down, a single lamp was shining in a corner, and there was a foil-wrapped chocolate glinting gold on the pillow.

Jim closed the door behind him and locked it with a decisive twist of his wrist. "I'm in," he said.

"So I see," Blair said. "Not changing your mind?" He sounded anxious; he looked anxious, though Jim could still sense arousal.

"I'm in," Jim repeated, and sighed out a relieved breath when Blair's stance relaxed infinitesimally. Blair was the talker, not him, but there were other ways to get a message across. He stroked the back of his hand over Blair's cheek, needing that point of contact and wanting to see how Blair would react. He usually gave Blair privacy when it came to using his senses to learn more than Blair was willing to reveal, but now, with the best of intentions, he went deep. This was what Blair had taught him to do; to read each quiver of muscle, each pulse of blood, each breath. It went far beyond that, too; Jim could, as readily as any animal, smell fear and desire and he opened up to Blair and found nothing but willingness, spiced with the faintest apprehension.

Blair wasn't scared about doing this; just about not doing it well, which, from what Jim had seen so far, wasn't anything Blair had to worry about.

"Let me sleep with you tonight?" he said, asking for what he wanted most of all, even more than the chance to come, pressed up against Blair's body, with Blair's hands on him. With difficulty, because he'd been taught not to ask, not to reveal what he wanted so that it couldn't be used against him, he added, "Please, Blair?"

And Blair, fantastic, incredible Blair, who understood him in ways he'd never imagined he might be understood and had loved him in every possible way but one until now, said, "Yes. God, Jim, yes."

Blair stepped closer and wrapped both arms around him and just... held him. The side of Blair's face pressed to Jim's chest, the scent of his shampoo in Jim's nose, his arms solid and secure and safe. It was a surprise to Jim to discover that there was a part of him that wanted to feel safe like this, a part that relaxed and urged him to hold onto Blair just as securely.

"Is this weird?" Blair asked finally.

"It's us, so I'd have to say probably, yes," Jim said, just to see what it felt like to have Blair laugh when he was this close. He smiled into the tickle of Blair's hair as he felt the vibration of Blair's chuckle against his chest. "I can live with weird these days, and no, that's not a dig at you." He smoothed Blair's hair off his face and Blair obligingly tilted his head so that they were staring at each other. "What's weird is how long it took us to get here when it feels as if this is where we've been heading since day one, looking back."

"Maybe it all happened when it was supposed to," Blair said, looking up at him. "Maybe we needed this much time, for whatever reason. Anyway, we're here now -- that's what matters." He slid a hand up along Jim's chest and around to the back to his neck, pulling him down the few inches required for their lips to meet in a kiss so open and honest that it made Jim ache. This time, he knew, there was no reason for them to stop, no reason for them not to do anything they wanted to do.

Blair's other hand had somehow slipped under the hem of Jim's shirt and settled on the bare skin of his lower back. It felt just slightly warm there, half a degree or so warmer than Jim's own skin. That realization made Jim want to map out every inch of Blair's skin, to learn from experience which spots were softer and which rougher.

"I really want to get this off you," Blair said, tugging at Jim's shirt. "Can we do that?"

"You want it gone, babe, it's gone," Jim said, surprised, himself, by the truth of that. He wanted to rearrange the world to suit Blair right then. Removing a shirt was nothing. He didn't step backward, but sideways and then forward, toward the bed, as large as his, though the quilt was three different shades of blue, with some white and yellow in there, a summer quilt. He thought of Blair spread out naked on the bed and his fingers got busy dealing with the buttons on his shirt. "Just the shirt?" he threw back over his shoulder. "Because I'm on a roll here."

"Hey, you think I'm going to stop you if you want to get naked?" Blair sounded amused. "Maybe I should join you."

Instead of doing that, though, Blair waited for Jim to drop his shirt to the floor, then pushed him down onto the bed. The mattress was firm, but Jim didn't have time to bounce before Blair was on top of him, straddling him, leaning down with a hand at either side of Jim's head.

"Hi," Blair said, and rubbed his nose against Jim's endearingly. "Sorry -- just didn't want to chance you getting away."

"I'm a highly trained professional," Jim said without moving a muscle.

God, did Blair realize how good he smelled this close? Jim's mouth was watering. He'd thought once his senses kicked in that he'd walk around in a world of sweat and stinks, and sometimes, yeah… but when you got down to it, people smelled okay when they were clean; it was the gunk they spritzed and sprayed and rubbed all over themselves that clogged Jim's sinuses and closed his throat. Blair didn't do that. Soap -- carefully chosen -- and water and under that his own rich spicy smell, that was all. Catnip, and Jim was one giant pussycat.

"If I wanted to," he continued, "I could be through that door in under three seconds. Four if I stopped to put my shirt back on." He kissed the tip of Blair's nose and tried to remember the last time he'd gotten playful in bed, especially when he had a dick that was getting dizzy from standing at attention for so long. "Or I could be well past my glory days and bluffing; it's a risk you'll have to take."

"Four seconds," Blair scoffed. "Man, you're fast, but you're not that fast. Which is not, I feel the need to point out, me calling your bluff, because I don't want you to go. I want you right here." He brushed his lips over Jim's so lightly it couldn't possibly be considered a kiss, then shifted his lower body further back, his thigh making firm contact with Jim's dick. Jim held back a groan, and Blair did it again. Definitely not an accident. "I want to touch it," murmured Blair against Jim's lips. "Nothing between you and me, just your skin and my skin. It's going to be so good. What about you, Jim? What do you want to do?"

"That sounds good to me," Jim said. "Just don't expect me to last long. I don't feel very controlled right now." To prove it, and because Blair's eyes gleamed as if that wasn't exactly the worst news in the world, he surged up, bit -- fairly gently -- at the side of Blair's neck, and turned them, all in one smooth movement. Oh, yeah. He still had it. Blair made a soft, pleased sound and arched and rubbed up against him, which nearly ended it right then for Jim. There was something about the way it felt to have Blair's flesh like that, in his mouth, vulnerable, with Blair trusting him not to hurt, just to make it feel so fucking good…

He lapped at the skin his mouth had reddened and then kissed it. "Hold that thought," he said and, with an effort, moved away and stood, stripping with a speed the army had taught him. Blair lay and watched him for a second, licking his lip again, unconsciously, and then followed his example.

Jim had seen Blair naked before but not like this, not revealed in stages, Blair's hands fumbling eagerly to complete their task.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Jim watched as the last of Blair's clothes fell away. Blair ran a hand across his own ribs and lower, beside his navel, down the crease between groin and thigh. Blair's cock, thick with arousal, gave a heavy, slow twitch as Blair's thumb brushed his balls, and a clear bead of fluid formed at the reddened tip. His eyes on Jim were dark with want, and Jim couldn't help but think of the women who'd been on the receiving end of similar -- but hopefully not equal -- looks. A swell of jealousy, of possessiveness, rose in Jim's chest.

He had to restrain himself from saying the word that rose to his lips: mine. He succeeded, but maybe something of his emotion showed in his eyes, because Blair reached out and his hand traced a matching path on Jim's body; ribs, to stomach to -- Jim heard himself groan, felt that light touch reverberate through him as he waited for it to reach its destination. His balls were tight already, and he couldn't remember a time, outside adolescence, when arousal had been so swift and devastatingly complete. Blair's fingernails raked over Jim's stomach, low down, payback, maybe for the bite, and Jim gave an inarticulate cry and captured Blair's hand, interrupting his game, not caring if that made him the loser, if it meant he could tug Blair's hand lower to where he wanted -- needed -- it to be.

"There," he gritted out, pressing his hand against Blair's and Blair's hand against his cock, hot and hard and screaming out for just this touch. "Need you to touch me there -- oh God --"

"I've got you," Blair said, and he did, in more ways than his fingers closing around Jim's hardened flesh and squeezing. Jim's hips lifted involuntarily, pushing himself into that perfect, delicious touch, every muscle in his body tight with desire. "I've got you, Jim. No worries. I'm right here, and I'm going to take care of you, gonna give you everything..."

Blair had to stop talking when his mouth met Jim's, both of them easing back onto the bed, sideways, not that it mattered, not when Jim had Blair's hand on him. Not when he had Blair kissing him, and touching him, and stroking him, so slowly, like Blair was learning him millimeter by millimeter.

Jim let his hand travel over familiar places -- Blair's face and hair, his shoulder and back -- and discovered that they were new to him now, as if he'd only ever touched the surface before. He'd tousled Blair's hair and felt the strands rough or silky against his fingers, depending on how wind-tangled it was, but he'd never wound it around his fingers, or combed through it with a slow, delicate care. He'd patted and squeezed Blair's shoulder and arm in encouragement or approval, in full view of just about anyone, but he'd never gripped the swell of Blair's bicep and felt the buried strength there, never brushed his knuckles over the smooth skin, sensitizing it so that on the next pass Blair shuddered, pressed closer, goose bumps rising.

He was shivering, too, like a horse before a race, eager, strung-out, ready to explode, but Blair's hand was calming him as much as it was arousing him, and every breath Jim took was slower than the one before it, until the frantic beat of his heart was back to normal.

No rush. We've got all night. Not going anywhere.

He wasn't sure if Blair was saying the words to him or if they were in his head, but he listened and believed.

"Anything you want," Blair said. "Anything."

Bending his head, Blair pressed a wet, open-mouthed kiss to Jim's shoulder, then another to his collarbone. Traced the line of the bone under the skin with his tongue, worried at it with sharp teeth, while nimble fingers abandoned Jim's cock and instead slid across Jim's chest to one nipple. Blair pulled his head away to watch as he touched it, the pad of his finger rubbing back and forth softly until the flesh tightened, drawing in on itself and creating a small peak Blair could pinch between thumb and finger. It sent a jolt through Jim, who'd never had all that much attention paid to his nipples, and he made a soft sound, a wordless request for more.

His own hand found its way to Blair's hip and held on. Blair's erection was snug against Jim's thigh, hard and insistent, and a gentle tug on Blair's hip encouraged him to rock against it. "God, Jim," Blair said, barely louder than a whisper.

"I just want to see you come," Jim whispered back, the words escaping him as he exhaled, dizzy with sensation and the dawning realization that yes, this was happening, this was Blair in his arms in his -- well, in Blair's bed, technically… "But not yet, not yet -- I don't want this to be over."

Blair rubbing off on him like this, using his body to get off, riding his thigh, the hot, slick-tipped cock leaving Jim's skin smeared and, given how sensitive it felt, almost scorched was so arousing. Jim thought about Blair's come striping his skin with wet heat and how the richly heady smell of it, that indefinable salt-tang, would linger, marking him, and wanted it as much as he wanted to capture its taste in the back of his throat. He didn't have to choose one option and lose a chance at the other; this wasn't some nameless pick-up from a seedy bar or discreetly expensive club; this was Blair, his Blair, and he'd be here in the morning and every morning after that.

His hand slipped around to cup Blair's ass, the skin downy to the touch for him, incredibly soft, taut skin over flexing muscle. He fit his hand to one cheek and squeezed it, urging Blair to continue to rub off on him, then ran a single finger lightly down the cleft, wondering if even a non-invasive caress like this would make Blair tense up. He didn't want to push Blair too far, and he'd respect any limit Blair set, but he wanted to get to know him with every sense he had.

If Blair would let him, once they'd both taken the edge off, Jim thought he could spend an hour or so exploring every inch of Blair with his eyes, then his fingers, and finally his mouth, capturing each sound of pleasure Blair made in his memory. It wasn't necessarily a sexual impulse, though it would probably feel that way to Blair; Jim just wanted to get to know Blair.

Thoroughly. Completely. Finally.

Blair didn't tense at the intimate touch, though his breath caught in his throat, stuttered in his lungs. He writhed against Jim, seeking Jim's mouth with his own for a kiss that barely lasted. "You're -- I want --" He didn't seem capable of finishing a thought; a shiver ran through his body, his hands clutching at Jim's shoulder and arm as everything tightened up. Blair's heart rate sped up even more, and for a long, long moment, he stopped breathing entirely.

"Come on, sweetheart," Jim murmured encouragingly, shifting his thigh to meet the next eager shove of Blair's cock.

The cry that escaped Blair's lips as release rushed over him was hot against Jim's jaw; he sounded surprised, as if he hadn't been expecting it.

Jim had said he'd wanted to watch, but instead he cradled Blair's head against his own, feeling Blair's face contort and soaking up each guttural cry, ecstatic and lost in pleasure, that came from him. The slippery warmth of Blair's come against his skin pushed at the edges of his control and then he breathed in and moaned, helpless, caught in a visceral reaction. The smell wasn't unfamiliar; Blair jerked off in the shower and his room and Jim had caught the lingering traces of it in the air, or on Blair before now, but this was new, fresh, and compelled a response.

When Blair had calmed down enough to press a shaky kiss against Jim's neck, Jim rolled them so that Blair was under him and braced his weight on his hands, giving Blair room to breathe.

He didn't say anything, but Blair's sated, sleepy eyes widened as if he had, and Jim nodded at him as if Blair had asked a question. He wasn't aware of anything around him in the room; his world had narrowed to this bed and the man lying on it, his foot rubbing restlessly along Jim's calf, his half-hard cock sticky-sweet on his belly.

Jim put his first kiss on Blair's mouth, his tongue flicking against Blair's lower lip in a demand for entrance and then teasingly doing no more than licking briefly inside once it'd been granted.

He'd meant to wait, take his time, proceed in an orderly fashion… but he couldn't do it. With a muttered groan, he slid down the bed and lapped avidly at the pooled wetness on Blair's skin and then the source of it, suckling the tender, soft skin with as delicate a touch as he could manage for a moment or two, knowing that Blair wouldn't appreciate anything more intense so soon after coming.

"Whoa," Blair said, but it didn't sound like a protest. "That was..." His cock, softened now, twitched in Jim's mouth; Jim could feel Blair's pulse beating in it, faint and under the skin, but noticeable to him nonetheless. "What about -- what about you?"

Jim eased his mouth off Blair and grinned up at him, running his tongue over his lips. "I'm getting there. You taste good, you know that?" He buried his nose in the wiry thatch of hair at Blair's groin and nuzzled it. "Smell good, too," he reported.

Blair's hand stroked Jim's head awkwardly, as if he still hadn't quite recovered his coordination. "Well, not to interrupt, but I didn't get the impression that smelling me was at the top of the list of things you wanted to do with me."

Jim sighed with contentment and felt a throb from his dick that suggested it was on Blair's side. "You have no idea how much it turns me on, but, yeah, I guess I've gotten a little, uh, side-tracked." Blair gave a soft snort of laughter and Jim grinned up at him, then ran a finger through the residue of come on Blair's skin. His own stomach was feeling on the cool and clammy side, too, but he didn't really care. "Since we're both in need of a shower, I could just get us both even messier?" he asked, making it an option, not a decision.

"God, I hope so," Blair said fervently. "I want --" He flushed suddenly, then said, sounding shy, "Do you have any idea how long I've been wanting to see you come? Wondering what -- what you look like, when you do that? Because it's been a really, really long time, and I don't want to wait anymore."

Jim felt an impulse to say 'no' fuelled by an unexpected shyness, followed by a capitulation so swift that he hoped Blair hadn't noticed the brief internal struggle. It was Blair. Blair who'd seen him zoned and drooling or out of his head in an allergic reaction to something, Blair who'd weathered the storm of Jim's anger and -- Jim could admit it to himself -- his daily pettiness. He wouldn't do this for anyone else, but for Blair, he'd let him inside, let him see.

He lay on his back and put his hand on his cock, the movement as automatic as inserting a toothbrush into his mouth. Blair rolled to his side and gave him an encouraging smile, clearly prepared to enjoy the show.

"Oh, no," Jim said firmly. "You can watch me pull funny faces all you like, Chief, but I'm damned if I'm jerking off with you in bed with me." He raised his eyebrows, glanced down pointedly at his cock and took his hand away. "Help me out here?"

Blair hitched himself closer, chest hair brushing Jim's side, and trailed his fingers down along Jim's chest to his abdomen, then just beside his dick without actually touching it. His fingertips moved lightly, teasingly, over Jim's inner thighs; Jim instinctively parted them and Blair touched his balls.

A glance at Blair's expression made it clear that he was experimenting, not deliberately teasing. "You look so good like this," Blair said. "I wasn't sure -- I didn't know if I wanted you because you were you, or because it turned out I liked guys, or maybe both."

"Well, which is it?" Jim asked, gasping as Blair's questing hand palmed his shaft.

"I don't know," Blair said. "I don't care. It doesn't matter -- I want you." He curled his fingers around Jim's cock and stroked, concentrating on the bundle of nerves up near the head, and it was all Jim could do to keep his eyes open, the pleasure so intense that it begged for darkness to be fully appreciated -- but he wanted to see Blair, to know that it was Blair touching him, bringing him off.

"You're -- you're good at this," he said, wanting Blair to know that, stumbling over the words because Blair chose that moment to run the ball of his thumb over the head of Jim's cock in a circle Jim's lips mimicked a second later, a soundless, breathless 'oh' of pleasure. He was the one being watched, but he had to forget that and the easiest way was to turn it around and watch Blair, whose gaze was flicking between Jim's face and what his hand was doing to Jim's grateful, blissful cock.

Blair chewed his lip, concentrating, and Jim heard Blair's breathing speed up, a match to his own. This was getting Blair off and that made it easy, somehow. He spread his legs wider and then bent his knees, planting his feet on the bed and tilting his hips up a little in a mute invitation Blair was welcome to take or leave. Blair wanted to look; Jim wanted to give him plenty to look at. He didn't plan to let Blair's body keep any secrets, so it was only fair to return the favor.

"Tell me how you like it." Blair looked at Jim's face again. "I can't read you the way you can read me; you have to tell me. Faster?" The movements of his hand sped up and Jim groaned an answer.

"You can't read me, Chief?" he managed. "That's gotta be the stupidest thing you've ever said. You -- you read me just fine."

"Yeah?" Blair's hand slipped lower and tugged at Jim's balls very gently. "What about slow? You like it slow?" He illustrated with a stroke from balls to tip, so deliberate and leisurely that Jim's feet flexed.

"I like slow," Jim said, "but fast or slow, unless I dial it down, this is going to be over soon." He tucked his hands behind his head to stop himself from joining in, and deliberately flexed his muscles, posing for Blair, who gave him an appreciative, if amused look. "So what do you want me to do?" he said. "You're the expert, Chief; you know my limits. I dial touch up high and you don't have to lift a finger; just leave your hand there and I'll come from the weight of it, knowing it's your hand, not mine. Or I can turn everything down and you'll get to play as long as you want to. What's it going to be?

Blair's eyes lit up as he thought over the possibilities. "Well, I don't want you to dial it down. Kind of defeats the purpose. How about this?" He hitched himself up onto his elbow and pulled at Jim's hip, rolling him onto his side so that they were facing each other. "Yes, just like this. And then..." Blair moved so they were face to face and reached between them, settling Jim's cock beside his own softened one. "Now turn it up -- way up -- and let's see if you can come just like this. No moving, just kissing. What do you say?"

"God, Blair…" Heat swept over Jim in a tingling wave at the very idea of that. "That's… yeah. Okay."

Blair smiled and began to kiss him, their lips touching lightly at first. Jim closed his eyes and let himself experience the brush of soft skin against his mouth and, lower down, the drum-taut stretch of his cock as it met the warm, damp skin of Blair's. The twin sensations intensified as his awareness expanded. A gloss of saliva smoothed the slide of Blair's mouth over his and he could feel the infinitesimal scrape Blair's teeth had left in the lower one when he'd bitten it a few minutes earlier.

Not moving -- that was difficult. The head of his cock nudged the hollow of Blair's hip and it would have been so easy to ride that perfect shallow groove as Blair had done. Jim concentrated on the kiss and opened up to everything his senses were telling him about Blair. How aroused Blair was, despite the spent, lax state of his cock, how eager for Jim's kisses. The tickle of Blair's chest hair against Jim's smoother skin was a welcome distraction, a continuing caress.

Jim eased the senses back; too much detail and nothing made sense in some ways. He didn't need to know which molecules of the spit in his mouth belonged to him and which to Blair; he just needed to know that he was tasting Blair with every swallow.

"I love you, you know that?" Blair murmured between kisses. His hand settled on Jim's hip, fingertips lightly touching Jim's ass. The next kiss was long and slow, the tip of Blair's tongue stroking over Jim's; with every nerve singing, Jim made a small sound suspiciously like a whimper into Blair's open mouth. That mouth which had argued with him, comforted him, guided him.

He tried to say it back, but just then Blair turned the touch of his fingers into a scratch. It wouldn't have left an impression on sand, it was so barely there a contact of nails and skin, but to Jim it was a striking match, and it set his skin on fire, the burst of pleasure verging on pain until the urgent lap of Blair's tongue against his cooled him off enough to enjoy it.

And then there was nothing left to do but come, no avenue left open to him but the one that led into a spark-filled darkness with his body locked in the safety of Blair's arms as his climax rolled over him, powerful, gentle, inexorable.

He felt each spurt of come rise up and spill out, felt his muscles quiver and tighten… felt a thousand nerve endings report in to his brain with assurances that yes, this was pleasure, this was good. He was dying, it was so fucking good, but right then he didn't care. He dragged his mouth away from Blair's, not to breathe, but to cry out, Blair's name exhaled on the back of a wordless groan.

Blair continued kissing him through it, gentle passes of his lips over Jim's cheek, ear, jaw, light as a butterfly's wings. Jim was sure Blair meant the kisses to be soothing, but because his sense of touch was dialed up, each brush of Blair's mouth against his skin caused another shudder of nearly unbearable pleasure to wrack its way through him.

"Enough," he begged, shifting away and then going to his back, though he kept one hand on Blair's arm. God, if it was like this when they'd done nothing more than hug, a blow job would be -- He thought about what it would've been like to have had Blair's tongue against his cock a minute earlier and whimpered, half wanting it, half terrified. Too overwhelmed to say anything meaningful, he took refuge in flippancy. "Do you always have this effect on people in bed? Because it explains a lot about your success rate."

"Being easy is pretty much guaranteed to give you a high success rate," Blair said. He sounded flip, too, but Jim suspected that was also a way of hiding from a more significant conversation.

He stroked Blair's face, loving the way Blair leaned into the caress. "Easy? No. Just… willing to take a chance on people. You always struck me as someone… someone looking for something. Someone." He swallowed, the next part hard to say. He wasn't used to this bone-deep ache of possessiveness cloaking need, and he wasn't sure if it would scare Blair off if he clung too tightly. "If I say I hope you've stopped looking, is that too soon?"

"If you say you hope I keep looking I'll have to hit you," Blair said seriously, eyebrows drawn down but not quite frowning. "I think -- I don't know, I think maybe we were always looking for each other. We were made for each other. We... we fit together. Don't even try to pretend you don't feel it." He was sitting up now, looking earnest, hopeful.

Jim screwed his face up with an instinctive rejection of that idea. "You know how much I hate it when you get all mystical on me," he said. "We fit, sure, but don't make it a sentinel thing, okay? I feel this way about you because I -- because I do, not because it's some predestined, genetic deal." Blair looked like a kicked puppy and Jim softened his voice, which had gotten on the snappy side. "You know what? It's been one hell of a day. Want to grab a shower and get some sleep? With a three-hour time difference, if we don't, we'll sleep through breakfast."

Rubbing the back of his neck under his hair, Blair nodded. He kept his gaze down on the mattress somewhere around Jim's hip. "Yeah, sure. You're right... it has been one hell of a day."

Jim knew that Blair wasn't happy with what he'd said, but he had a feeling that trying to explain his thoughts would dig the hole deeper. Weariness replaced the warmly sated languor in his body and he yawned widely and heard his jaw crack. "At least we don't have to fight over who gets first shower," he offered, massaging his face. That had hurt; he was tensing up again. "I'll go back to my room and take one, then." He hesitated, but when Blair just nodded, Jim slid off the bed -- which Blair was going to have to remake -- and went through the connecting door into his own room.

He didn't linger in the shower, focusing on being as quick and efficient as possible because he was genuinely tired. He was still rinsing the shampoo from his hair when he heard Blair call out, "Jim, man, I'm dead on my feet -- I'm gonna hit the hay. I'll see you in the morning, okay?"

And the sound of the connecting door between their rooms being closed.

Jim leaned his head against the tiled wall and let the water rain down on him. It'd taken him eight months to screw things up with Carolyn badly enough that they'd slept separately.

With Blair, it hadn't even taken that many hours.

*****

The thing was, Blair knew that Jim loved him -- that wasn't something he doubted. What he did doubt was if Jim believed a relationship between them had the slightest chance of lasting. Seriously? Asking him if it was too soon to hope he'd stop looking for someone else? If Jim thought Blair could be genuinely interested in anyone else, well... that didn't bode well for the future, did it?

Which put Blair in a hell of a situation, because he didn't think he'd ever be interested in anyone else again. But if Jim didn't have even that much faith in him, maybe it was better for both of them that they not take this any further. They'd been friends, partners, long enough that Blair hoped they'd be able to put this one night behind them.

Oh, who the hell was he kidding?

Sighing, Blair stopped leaning on the closed door between his room and Jim's and went to take a shower. Not long afterwards, he crawled into bed, doing his best to ignore the less-than-pristine sheets, and, to his surprise, fell almost immediately to sleep.

In the morning, when he opened his eyes, the events of the night before swept over him, leaving him feeling miserable and confused. This was all his fault -- he never should have kissed Jim. If he hadn't, none of this would have happened. He groaned and rolled onto his side, pulling a pillow over his head.

Before he'd had chance to even begin to sort out his tangled thoughts and emotions, there was a tap on the connecting door. "Sandburg? Breakfast ends at ten and it's nine-thirty now."

That meant that it was six-thirty for Blair's body; no wonder he felt like rolling over and going back to sleep.

"I -- uh, I'll see you down there," Jim continued, his voice casually friendly, but with an oddly tentative undercurrent to it which made Blair feel better. If Jim had been business as normal after what had happened, it would've been unbearable. "I've been up a while. I don't suppose they do algae shakes, but I'll order you a coffee, okay?"

"Hang on," Blair said suddenly, surprising himself. He was up out of bed, wearing nothing but his boxers, but Jim had seen him in his underwear a thousand times, right? He opened the connecting door and there stood Jim, looking like he always did, except maybe a little more tired and a little less certain. "Hey. Just... wait for me, okay? Could you?"

Now that the door was open and he could see Jim's face, it was clear that the boxers thing had been a mistake. Blair turned away to grab some shorts before Jim had even answered, stepping into them hastily.

"Well… yeah, sure," Jim said and he was retreating, Blair could tell, both physically, stepping away from the open door, and emotionally, and shit, being on the outside looking in with Jim hadn't been easy before, but after last night, it was a hundred times worse, because he'd seen him, all defenses down. "I'll be in the hall."

"Just wait," Blair said desperately, snatching up a T-shirt and yanking it over his head. He dashed through the open doorway and caught up to Jim as he reached the other door, the one that led to the hallway, bumping into Jim and knocking him into the wall. Jim grunted, but reached to steady him automatically, and even that small favor made Blair ache so much that he felt overwhelmed, didn't know what to do. "Please," he said, not knowing what he was asking for. "Just -- Jim, please."

"There's no need to get worked up over it," Jim said, his voice cool. "If you don't want to go down there without someone to hold your --" His words broke off, leaving a ragged silence, and for a moment Blair could feel the warm strength of Jim's hand in his the night before. He watched Jim visibly regain control and waited for Jim to finish his sentence, braced for a rejection.

"You need shoes, Chief," Jim said with a smile that hurt more than anything else he could have done because it was so fucking distant and polite. "And it's probably not a good idea to leave your wallet in your room."

Devastated, Blair stepped back and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Maybe... you go ahead. I'll see you later. I guess -- I guess we could both use a little time."

It was the longest day Blair could remember. He wandered the town, which would have been fun with Jim but now, without him, was lonely. He was dimly aware of the attention of other men on him at times; twice, one of them tried to start a conversation with him, but he was such a mess emotionally that he could barely respond, and they quickly took the hint and left him alone.

In the late afternoon, he found himself in a book store, fingers running idly over the spines of some travel books focused on the eastern shore. He chose one and slipped it free of the others, opening it and paging through the photographs in the center. If Jim were here, they'd --

But Jim wasn't, and that was the problem, wasn't it.

Sighing, Blair put the book back.

"Doesn't sound like you're having a good day," a deep, man's voice said, and Blair turned to see a guy who had to be in his seventies standing there watching him.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess I'm not."

"You ought to be down on the beach getting some sun. That's what most of the tourists do, instead of poking around my little store. Edward Tillman." The man held out a hand, and Blair shook it.


"Blair Sandburg."

"People on vacation are supposed to be having fun, Blair," Edward said solemnly. "What went wrong?"

"It's kind of a long story," Blair said.

Edward looked doubtful. "Fight with your boyfriend?"

"Maybe not so long." Blair smiled a little bit. "Except he's not really my boyfriend."

Patting Blair's shoulder, Edward nodded. "Whatever he is -- you should talk to him. Don't let it stew. Get it all out in the open. Take my word for it, you'll feel better."

"I'm not sure I could feel worse," Blair admitted. "Thanks." Impulsively, he bought half a dozen books, including a couple about deep sea fishing. No matter what happened, it wasn't like he and Jim would stop being friends, right? He hoped. The day before he wouldn't have hesitated to buy Jim some books he thought he'd like. He couldn't let last night change everything.

He went back to the inn to drop off his purchases, and even knocked on Jim's door, but there was no answer. Deciding going out again was better than staying in and driving himself crazy with circling thoughts, he walked down the block until he reached a restaurant similar to the one they'd eaten at the night before, right down to the patio/bar overlooking the beach.

"What can I get you?" the bartender asked as he sat down.

"Um, huh. I don't know. Something tropical?"

The bartender smiled. "Umbrella?"

"Why not?" Blair looked out at the crashing waves as he sipped his drink, which seemed to have half a dozen kinds of fruit juice. It warmed him from within -- it must have more alcohol in it than it seemed, he thought, the tightness in his chest loosening for the first time that day.

He was at the end of it and contemplating ordering another when his attention was caught by a familiar figure on the beach. Jim, fishing rod in one hand and a tackle box in the other, was making his way through the sunbathing couples with his head down and his attention clearly wandering. As Blair watched, his heart thumping uncomfortably with a mixture of relief and resentment that Jim had gone fishing alone, Jim kicked over a drink that someone had left beside them.

The man it belonged to reacted with a predictable yell as it flooded the towel he was lying on; Blair couldn't hear him, not from this far away, but it wasn't difficult to read the body language. He winced. Jim could take care of himself, but even lying down, the guy looked big. The man scrambled to his feet and, yeah, he was a few inches taller than Jim, with muscles to match and light brown hair curling over his head. Jim, jolted out of his fog, looked down at the spilled drink and then up at the man.

Blair tossed a twenty onto the bar and stood. The patio had a small gate leading to a path through the sand, but he could just jump over the low fence and that would be faster.

He was about to do just that when the man threw back his head and laughed, patting Jim's shoulder. Feeling vaguely ridiculous -- and really, what use would he have been if the guy and Jim had started to fight? Jim wouldn't have appreciated the implication that he couldn't handle the situation himself -- Blair began to sit back down, and then changed his mind. They couldn't spend the whole week like this.

He made his way through the gate and down to the beach and then waited for Jim to finish talking to his new best buddy.

"Oh yeah? Where from?" the guy was asking.

"Cascade," Jim said, then turned his head toward Blair as he neared them. "
Washington state," he added. "Hey, Chief."

Well, at least Jim was still speaking to him. That was something. "Hey, Jim. Hi. Blair Sandburg."

"Carl Sanders." The man, who was even bigger close up, shook Blair's hand, then shielded his eyes from the sun. "You two here together?"

Carl. The name seemed familiar without Blair knowing why, until he remembered the conversation Jim had overheard the night before. It didn't follow that this was the same Carl, of course; just one of those meaningless coincidences life threw at you.

Like your nurse friend being on duty when a bona fide Sentinel walked in, except no matter what Jim maintained, for Blair that wasn't chance, but fate.

"Carl lives here," Jim said before Blair could answer. "And he knows some good places to fish off the rocks."

"Oh. Cool." Blair knew that he should sound more excited than he was managing to; he was just so wound up that he hardly knew what he was doing.

"Yeah -- if we can get our hands on one of those maps that all the tourists end up with, I can show you," Carl offered.

Sheepishly, Blair produced one of those maps from his pocket and unfolded it. "They're everywhere," he said in explanation.

He stood there while Carl showed Jim the best places to fish, trying to feign interest but painfully aware of Jim's arm beside his. Jim could probably feel his body heat. Was he as aware of Blair as Blair was of him? God, was it going to be like this forever? Blair didn't think he could handle that.

"Well, thanks," Jim said eventually, when the chances of catching a fish from every single outcrop for ten miles in either direction had been, as far as Blair was concerned, discussed to death. "Appreciate the help."

"Hey, we fishermen have got to stick together, right?" Carl said, his words addressed to Jim, but his gaze flickering to Blair and lingering for a long moment.

Somehow, Blair got the idea that Carl thought he and Jim had more in common than a hobby of killing fish. Well, of course he did. Given where they were, and the fact that Jim had come here with a male friend, Carl was going to assume Jim and Blair were gay and either a couple, or friends wanting a vacation somewhere they could relax and maybe meet someone for a brief, casual fling.

Maybe more than one someone. Blair's budget hadn't stretched to many vacations like this, but he'd had friends who'd come back from them, male and female, with some lurid stories. He'd smiled, but for all that he'd dated two women at a time now and then, the idea of that kind of frantic fucking, drunk, sunburned, and temporarily inhibition-free, didn't appeal.

"You know, if you two want to see some action, there's a place I know. I won't say the tourists don't know it, because they do --"

"We're tourists," Blair said, annoyed by the dig.

"Easy, Chief," Jim said, sounding mildly amused. "What kind of a place?"

Carl shrugged. "Bar that doesn't close until late, dancing, some food in the back -- but most people are there to… dance."

Again, Blair picked up the layered meaning in Carl's words and he was about to tell him thanks, but no, when Jim said smoothly, "Sounds like a plan; where is it?"

Carl pointed to a place on the map and smiled, his brown eyes twinkling. "Can't miss it. The Zodiac's lit up on a Saturday night."

Great, Blair thought morosely as he and Jim headed up toward the street, Jim carrying the fishing gear. A gay dance club. Just what he needed, when it was obvious that things between he and Jim weren't ever going to work out, not the way he wanted them to, not with Jim refusing to see that they were like two halves of the same whole. He'd always known Jim could be stubborn -- that stubbornness had even been directed at him on more than one occasion -- but he never would have imagined Jim would be stubborn about this. Not when it was so clear to Blair.

It made him doubt everything he thought he knew, and it was possible that a little part of him even hated Jim for that.

At the street, Jim paused for passing traffic, then crossed to the sidewalk on the opposite side. "Thought I'd ditch this stuff back at the car, get changed, and then grab some dinner somewhere. Some people down at the pier said the Cockleshell is good. You want to come?"

Actually, Blair didn't, but since the alternative was either eating alone or going back to that bookstore and seeing if Edward Tillman was interested in going out with someone half his age, he agreed.

Thirty minutes later, they were waiting for their food at the Cockleshell, where Jim, as if to make up for not catching anything, ordered a meal consisting of nothing but seafood and, with the air of a man on holiday, a bottle of white wine. Blair, feeling contrary, opted for the single vegetarian item, a spicy goulash, with a side salad and a beer. He kept his hands out of reach. If Jim wanted to hold hands tonight, he was damn well going to have to grovel first.

"You're quiet tonight, Chief," Jim commented after their drinks had arrived. "So what did you do with yourself? Sightsee? Write postcards?"

He wasn't sure how he was supposed to respond to that. Make it sound like he'd had a great day, hadn't missed Jim at all? Or tell the truth, that he'd wandered the town barely aware of his surroundings? "Oh, you know," he said finally, compromising somewhere in the middle. "Explored the town. There's a really great little bookshop just up the street." He wouldn't mention that he'd bought books for Jim, not then.

"That's great," Jim said, nodding his head with the same look as -- Blair tracked back through his memories. God. The same expression Jim had worn, minus the pod-person smile, when Blair had said he might be disappearing on an expedition for a year.

Whatever was going on in Jim's head, Blair didn't think it was anything as simple as a basically straight man freaking over a night of sex with another man. Not given Jim's past experiences. And he doubted it was Jim thinking ahead to the problems their relationship would cause at work. This was Jim Ellison; his issues had issues.

Strangely, that helped. Jim might be auditioning for asshole of the year on the surface, but underneath…. What had Jim said? It feels as if this is where we've been heading since day one. Last night, Jim hadn't been panicked, or withdrawn; he'd been all over Blair, attentive, loving, committed…

Jesus, Blair realized with a shock. Things going south for them had been just as much his own fault as Jim's, hadn't they? Reassured by the idea, he sat up a little bit, took a sip of beer, and smiled at Jim, determined to do what he could to turn this around. There had to be a way to do it. He'd convinced Jim about the whole Sentinel thing, after all, and look how far they'd come with that.

"So what do you want to do tomorrow?" he asked. "Try out that deep sea fishing?"

Jim looked taken aback, as if he hadn't expected Blair to want to do anything with him. "Sure. Or… did you say you wanted to go whale watching? I saw a place running charter boats out to where you can see them, with one leaving every three hours."

It was clearly a peace offering of sorts. Blair couldn't see Jim getting too enthused about the sight of a whale in the distance, no matter how thrilling Blair found the idea.

"Maybe in a couple of days?" he said. "I don't know about you, but I think at least a day on dry land in between boat rides might be a good idea. The last way I want to spend this vacation is getting seasick." Actually, he would have taken seasickness gladly if they'd been able to maintain the incredible intimacy of last night, but it wasn't like he could say that. "What kinds of fish do you think we might catch?"

He listened as Jim waxed poetic about fish, most of him just grateful that things between them didn't feel so strained. That was what mattered most, Blair told himself, although that didn't keep him from wanting more.

By the end of the meal, things were almost back to normal., although Blair couldn't quite forget -- not that he was trying very hard -- what it felt like to have Jim Ellison naked and aroused on top of him. Put like that, it sounded like a fantasy, a jet lag-fueled dream that hadn't actually happened. Except his body knew it had. When Jim licked melted butter off his finger with the unselfconsciousness of a man who could wear black tie and look at ease in it and never forget that he'd spent eighteen months living in the jungle, Blair bit back a sound that was as purely carnal as it got. Jim had licked him like that last night. Licked him, smelled him, his hands busy…

The napkin in his lap hid his inevitable reaction to the memories he was conjuring up but Jim paused in his story about a fish that had dragged Simon a few yards downstream, spluttering all the way, and gave him a startled, hungry look.

Blair flushed what he was sure was a bright red and muttered an apologetic, "Sorry." He knew he wouldn't need to say anything else -- Jim would understand. "If it's any consolation, I'm not going to run for the bathroom this time."

Jim continued to stare at him, glassy-eyed as any of his piscine victims.

"Don't zone," Blair said, and kicked Jim's ankle under the table. It might not have been the approved way of getting a Sentinel out of a fugue state, but it worked. Jim blinked and then took a gulp of his wine.

"I wasn't zoning," he hissed, his voice lowered. "I was just --" Jim looked wretched enough for Blair to feel a stab of pity. "Blair -- last night -- I don't know why you changed your mind, but if it was something I did, then I'm sorry." He fiddled with his knife, placing it at a precise angle and then knocking it askew, his handsome face -- and God, he was good-looking -- flushed with embarrassment. "I know we disagreed about the whole destiny thing, but there had to have been more to it than that and I've spent the whole day trying to work it out." His gaze met Blair's and the awkwardness dropped away. "I wanted to sleep with you," Jim said quietly. "That was all."

"Yeah, well," Blair said, swallowing around the sudden and enormous lump in his throat. "It's not enough. I want it all. The whole shebang. If we can't have it, I can learn to live with that, but you're gonna have to give me a little time, because you're a hell of a thing to have to give up."

Bewilderment passed over Jim's face which made him look younger, somehow. "If you wanted that, then why wouldn't you let me sleep with you?"

"Because we can't just pretend we're like everyone else." Blair said it softly. "I know you wish we were, but we're not. And that's not a bad thing -- think about how many more people you've been able to help because of your senses. But it's something we have to both be willing to acknowledge, or there's no chance of things working out for us."

Jim shook his head stubbornly, a familiar impatience in his eyes. "I don't agree. I am what I am, I get that, but this, with you; that's separate. It's not about the fucking senses, it's about us." An equally familiar insecurity disguised as suspicion replaced the impatience and Blair sighed inwardly. "Or are you only interested in me because I can do tricks? Because I can use the senses to make the sex good?"

Before Blair could decide just how to answer that without giving way to the urge to punch Jim, which wouldn't help, Jim rubbed a hand over his forehead, his shoulders slumping.

"Sorry," Jim said. "I didn't mean that. I'm just -- I was happy, okay? It was all going so well -- and don't think doing this, coming here, was easy, because it wasn't -- and then you just -- you slammed the door in my face." He smiled, a twist of his lips with no humor showing. "Literally."

"I'm sorry," Blair said, meaning it. "And I know I'm not supposed to follow up an apology with a 'but'... but I couldn't chance us getting in any deeper if we're not on the same page, and we're not. It's like I'm standing here on one side of this... this chasm between us, and you're on the other side --"

He was gesturing wildly now, the way he always did when he was worked up about something. Their waiter, who'd been headed toward their table, took one look at Blair's expression and veered sharply off in another direction. Blair didn't blame him.

"And until we can get this sorted out, I really think, and I hate to say this, man, you have to know I do, that it's better that way. Because this thing we have is too good to fuck up with misunderstandings and screwed up expectations, and I'm sorry I hurt you but I don't want to hurt you worse somewhere down the line when you suddenly decide that this was just like all your other relationships." He stopped, spent.

There was silence for a long moment. Jim's expression was, well, expressionless as he processed what Blair had said. When he spoke, it was a relief, even though Blair knew he wasn't going to like what Jim had to say.

"What I have with you isn't like any other relationship I've ever had, even before we screwed it up last night." Jim gestured between them. "You know me, I told you that. And it's because I've let you get closer than anyone ever has before, including Carolyn. That means something, even if you're treating it as if it doesn't." He met Blair's eyes with the same finality Blair felt. "I don't see a chasm. I see a wall. And you built it."

Jim drained his wine glass and refilled it from the bottle. "So, we move on. Or go back to where we were before this." He raised his eyebrows. "Or is that out of the question now, too?"

"God, I hope not," Blair said. "And it does mean something that you let me get that close to you. It means everything." He leaned his elbows on the table and dropped his head down into his hands, trying not to let his emotions overwhelm him. Was Jim right? He honestly didn't know anymore. Lifting his head again, he said, "I don't know what to do. I don't even know how we got here."

Jim shrugged. "We followed our instincts?" He grinned wryly, and relaxed a little. "Basic instincts, that is. Last night…" He glanced off to the side and then back at Blair. "It was good -- but it wasn't worth losing you over. So we forget it and we just -- well, I suppose we enjoy the vacation. At least this time no one's shooting at us, and there's cable in our rooms, so it's still better than St. Sebastian's."

Part of Blair wanted to protest that the night before hadn't just been 'good,' but the rest of him pointed out that doing so would be counterproductive. Instead, he decided to do what Jim was doing -- focus on the positive. Maybe the rest of it would fall into place later.

"So, fishing?" he asked, and they talked about that until Jim had paid for dinner -- Blair was going to run out of funds long before the vacation was over if he continued on as he had been, so he didn't argue. Outside on the sidewalk, Jim studied Blair for a moment, then said, "Come on, Chief. Let's check out this Zodiac place."


The last thing Blair wanted to do was spark off another argument; he went along, figuring he could always come up with an excuse to leave after a little while if it turned out to be a nightmare. He definitely didn't think he'd be able to handle seeing other men hitting on Jim.

The club was as popular as Carl had told them it would be, but although Blair noticed Jim giving the small crowd around the entrance a professional, assessing glance, he seemed satisfied by what he saw, and by the time they were inside, Jim was blending in better than Blair felt that he was. He'd been to a few of the clubs in Cascade that had a reputation for being gay-friendly, but always in a group, both male and female, observing more than joining in. He knew that Jim's short time in Vice had been spent mostly taking down a ring of drug dealers targeting schools, but the lazy confidence Jim was showing spoke of someone on familiar ground.

Jim wasn't dressed to attract; he was wearing jeans and a plain gray short-sleeved shirt that buttoned down the front, but the body inside the casual clothes was drawing glances and Blair couldn't blame the people staring; he wanted to do more than that himself.

They got drinks, the people at the bar moving aside for Jim, which was something Blair was used to. Even off-duty, Jim projected an air of authority. A beer in hand, they wandered around, the noise of the music making conversation impossible; Jim could hear Blair, but the same wasn't true for Blair, who quickly got tired of Jim yelling in his ear.

After they'd seen all there was to see, Blair was ready to call it a night, but just as he opened his mouth to suggest it, Jim nudged him and nodded toward a quieter corner, mouthing the word, 'Carl'.

They made their way over to the table where Carl was sitting, top three buttons -- one too many, Blair thought -- undone, leaning back in his chair like he owned the world. He was talking to a younger man with a shock of almost white-blond hair and a deep tan.

"Jim, Blair," Carl said as they stopped at the table. "Glad you could make it." He glanced at his watch. "In another half an hour, this place is going to fill up like you wouldn't believe."

As if on cue, the DJ turned up the music, the bass thumping in the pit of Blair's stomach. Jim winced and Blair, unthinking, reached out a hand and touched the small of Jim's back as a reminder to adjust his senses if he needed to.

Jim leaned back into the touch, the movement too small to be noticed in the dim, crowded room, but Blair felt the shock of the connection pulse through him. Through the thin cotton of Jim's T-shirt, Blair could feel the warmth of his skin, along with a memory of how smooth it was. He kept his hand in place until he felt the tension seep away from Jim's expression, and then broke the contact.

"It's not exactly empty now," Jim said, smiling.

Carl grinned and waved at the empty chairs. "Grab one while you can," he suggested. "Unless you want to dance?"

Jim gave the dance floor an indifferent look, which, given the fact that many of the men dancing were bare-chested, tanned skin on show, sweat-glittered and muscular, Blair found comforting. He liked dancing, but he was too on edge tonight. The chaos of the dance floor, bodies close, hands touching, partners changing randomly, unless the couple kept a tight hold on each other, didn't appeal at all.

"Not right now," Jim answered with a tact Blair admired.

They sat down and Jim nodded at the blond man before introducing himself and Blair, giving the impression, in a subtle way, that they were together. Blair wasn't sure how he felt about that, but Jim did it so often when Blair went with him on a case that he supposed it could have been automatic.

Somehow, Jim knew how to talk about not that much at all, and managed to subtly side-step Carl's more curious questions. Blair was starting to think about suggesting they call it a night, or at least bowing out himself -- as gracefully as possible, of course -- when Jim jerked his thumb towards the men's room and said, "Be right back."

"So," Carl said, about a minute after Jim had gone. He hitched his chair closer to Blair's and leaned in. "You and Jim, you're a couple? Yes or no? Doesn't seem like he knows."

Blair hesitated, then shook his head. "No," he said.

"Good." Carl set a hand on Blair's knee, thumb rubbing back and forth. "Because I like you. I think we could have a lot of fun together."

The club was loud, but they were close enough that the conversation seemed intimate anyway. Blair wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he knew there was something about Carl that he didn't quite like. "You know, we're just here for a few more days," he said, hoping this would work as an excuse.

Carl laughed. "That's plenty of time for fun, don't you think?"

"You know," Blair said, standing up abruptly, "I'm just going to --"

But Carl was already standing up with him, slipping an arm around his waist and squeezing his ass with the other hand. Blair froze, a little bit shocked, and Carl said, into his ear, "Come on. My place isn't far -- come with me. I'll show you a really good time, I promise. You won't regret it."

Carl was pressed close enough that Blair could feel the man's erection against his hip; it made his skin crawl. "No," he said firmly, and looked up and locked eyes with Jim, who was headed toward them.

Jim looked startled, a frown appearing on his face. Even from this far away, Blair could see the moment when Jim focused his senses on him, sight and hearing, probably, though from the way Jim's chin tilted up, maybe scent as well. It was like being caught in the sweep of a searchlight; Blair willed his discomfort to subside. He was in no danger; Carl was bigger than him -- in most departments anyway -- but it wasn't as if he could physically make Blair go anywhere with him.

Blair shook his head at Jim, a warning to stay calm, and then put his hand on Carl's chest and pushed him away -- or tried to; Carl didn't budge. "No," he repeated. "Sorry, but I'm just not interested."

Carl didn't seem drunk, but there was no comprehension in his face as Blair finished speaking. It was as if he hadn't heard a word of it. He grabbed Blair's face in one large hand, his grip painfully tight, and kissed him, his mouth landing squarely on Blair's, his tongue pushing urgently against Blair's closed lips.

Even more shocked at Carl's behavior, Blair couldn't, for a few seconds, move. Then he tried to pull back and away, but Carl was insistent, didn't let go, even bit at Blair's lips in an attempt to make him relent and give in. Blair made a muffled sound of protest against Carl's mouth and pushed against his chest, but the guy was built like a linebacker. Blair's only comforts were that they were in public, where Carl could only take things so far, and that Jim was there, not far away.

The next thing Blair knew, Carl was releasing him. Blair stumbled, caught his balance, and watched with wide eyes as Jim snarled in Carl's face. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" Jim asked the man, giving him a shake.

Carl smirked. "What you'd like to do, apparently."

"Chief, you okay?" Jim said it without taking his eyes off Carl, which was strangely reassuring.

"Yeah," Blair said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and grimaced, realized he was trembling slightly, adrenaline surging through him in the aftermath of the incident. "Yeah, I'm okay."

Jim didn't seem inclined to let go of Carl, but the blond man, who'd responded to Jim's introduction with a one-word answer of 'Andy', and who'd watched Blair struggle with a faintly amused look on his face that had now been replaced by one of concern, stood and put his hand on Jim's arm.

"Leave it," he said. "He doesn't mean anything by it, he's just out of his head right now." He rolled his eyes. "Love does that to you, which is why I keep it strictly physical myself."

"I don't need you fighting my battles," Carl growled at Andy. He shook free of Jim's slackened hold. "And you can keep your fucking hands off me. You're not my type."

"But he is?" Jim inquired acidly, with a jerk of his head at Blair. "Forget it."

What Blair wanted, right then, was to get the hell out of there, but that didn't keep him from noting the possessive tone of Jim's voice.

"So, what, all of a sudden he belongs to you?" Carl said. "You might want to tell him that. He said you're not together."

Jim didn't look at Blair even then. "He's wrong about that." There was a strength of conviction behind the words that made the combativeness drain from Carl's face, to be replaced with a desolation Blair found himself empathizing with. "But I'm willing to give him time to change his mind," Jim continued, "and all the space he needs. You, on the other hand, were pushing, and touching him -- fuck, you kissed him --"

The relative calm Jim had shown up until then was shredding, as if what had happened was just sinking in and setting off a chain reaction that would end only one way; with a fight. Blair tried to imagine Simon's reaction if they called him from a cell in Maine, and cringed.

"Jim," Blair said hastily, stepping closer and touching his arm. "Let's just go, okay? It was a misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding?" Jim echoed. "Did you give this jerk some reason to think he could touch you?" His voice was so intense Blair felt like he was on a witness stand, and answered accordingly.

"No."

"Did you tell him he could kiss you?" Jim asked, turning, finally, to look at Blair.

More quietly, and with a small shake of his head Jim wouldn't have needed, Blair said, "No."

Jim swallowed. "Did you want him to kiss you?" When Blair didn't answer immediately, he repeated it. "Did you?"

"No," Blair said, caught in the blue of Jim's eyes.

Jim nodded. "I didn't think so, Chief." He swung around and gave Carl a look that Blair wouldn't have wanted to be on the receiving end of, though Jim wasn't doing anything overtly threatening. "Are we done here?" Jim inquired politely.

"Fucking tourists," Carl said, and shouldered past, momentarily between Blair and Jim, and then gone.

Jim rubbed his hand over Blair's arm, the brief touch comforting. "We'll give him a minute or two, then get out of here," he said. "You'll have to show me your moves on the dance floor another time."

"Yeah, okay," Blair said, suddenly weak with relief. "You know, I think -- I'm just gonna go outside and get some air." He was hot and overwhelmed and he could still taste Carl on his lips; the thought was enough to make his stomach churn.

Jim glanced toward the exit, his eyes distant, his hand back on Blair's arm, holding him in place. "He's gone," he reported a moment or two later, for Blair's ears only. "I can hear the bouncer talking about him; he knows Carl and he's worried about the mood he's in." Jim's hand dropped away. "Let's go."

Andy stepped forward. "Look, about what just happened --" he began.

"Save it," Jim said dismissively and Blair, remembering how the man had stood by and watched him get mauled, shook his head. Andy bit his lip and let them go, his face twisted with indecision and regret.

Working their way through the crowd was a challenge, even skirting the dance floor, but it was worth it -- the air outside had to be a good ten degrees cooler at least. Blair walked around the corner of the building and then leaned on it, bending down and bracing his hands on his knees. He could feel prickles of sweat cooling along his hairline, but he felt like he might be sick and had to swallow back bile, breathing in slowly through his nose until his stomach settled.

Jim stood beside him, giving the impression of being on guard, his demeanor fiercely protective, but not touching Blair as if he sensed that right then Blair just wanted to be left alone until the nausea had passed. "Chief? Are you okay?"

Blair managed a nod and straightened. "Yeah, I'll be fine." It wasn't a lie, phrased like that.

"This was my fault," Jim said. He reached out but drew his hand back before it made contact with Blair. "You didn't even want to come here tonight, did you? I don't know why I thought it would be a good idea." He shook his head and muttered, "Hands all fucking over you --" under his breath.

"Don't remind me," Blair said faintly, and closed his eyes. This time, Jim apparently decided that touching him would be okay, because he could feel Jim's hand, warm, on his shoulder. He turned toward Jim blindly, leaning his forehead against Jim's forearm. "I just -- God, I can still taste him." He said it miserably.

"Don't." Jim's voice was tight. "You say things like that and I want to -- I want to..."

"What?" Blair said listlessly, expecting Jim to come up with something painful and imaginative that he'd like to do to Carl.

"This," Jim said, and tilted Blair's face up.

Blair expected a kiss, but that wasn't what he got. There was a moment when Jim flinched back, as if he could taste Carl on Blair's mouth like lemon juice, sour and bitter, but it didn't last long. With the same careful thoroughness that Jim would have used to clean a wound Blair had suffered, he swept his tongue over Blair's lips and then drew back just long enough to dry them with a slow, sweet pass of his thumb. Then the expected kiss came, a brief, light touch that was accompanied not by a flinch but a long sigh, Jim's breath warm against Blair's face.

There was nothing else Blair could do; he held onto Jim with both hands and initiated a second kiss, then drew his lips along Jim's cheek to his ear. "I'm sorry," he murmured. "Please, Jim, I'm so -- I'm sorry, and I love you so damn much. I can't give this up. Anyone else, maybe, but not you. I promise I'll stop arguing semantics if you -- if you --"

"If I --?" Jim asked, his voice hoarse. "Tell me what you want me to do." He wrapped one arm around Blair in a hug and then slid his hand up Blair's back and under his hair, only stopping when he'd found bare skin. As Blair waited, his breathing slow and shallow in case he disturbed the moment, Jim ran his fingers over the back of Blair's neck, a caress that left Blair shivering with reaction to a sudden flare of arousal. Jim paused, and grunted something that might have been an apology as he picked up on Blair's response and clasped Blair's neck in a warm, strong grip before releasing him. "Tell me?"

"Turn back time?" Blair suggested, and laughed a little bit, but it didn't sound like amused laughter even to him. "I just want to go back to last night, when things were -- I don't know, the way they should be. The way they're supposed to be, between us, and... I don't think it's possible for us to be close enough, but last night was the nearest we've been. Don't you think? Wasn't it... it was good, right?"

Jim gave him a rueful smile. "Any better and I'm not sure I would have survived. You just -- you overwhelmed me. And that isn't how it usually is with me." He put his hand over Blair's where it rested on his shoulder, as if he couldn't go long without touching him. "Are we swapping sides in this argument? Because I'm starting to wonder if you were right and there is something more to what we have than just --"

"Look, I'm sorry to interrupt, but I really need to talk to you."

Jim gave an impatient, annoyed hiss and turned to look at Andy, who was standing a few yards away. "Not a good time."

"It never is, but this is serious," Andy said.

Blair could hear the genuine fear in Andy's voice; he was sure Jim could, too. "What is it?"

"Carl is -- I know it this might not come as a surprise, what with how he was acting and everything, but I think he's losing it." He saw the expression on Blair's face. "I mean really losing it. I think he might, you know, do something."

"He already did," Jim pointed out.

"I mean to himself," Andy said, exasperated. "He just went back into the bar and had three shots of tequila on top of each other, then when I tried to talk to him, he mumbled something about how pretty soon none of this would matter. It's not the first time he's said something like that, but this time... I don't know, it's different."

Blair straightened up, frowning. "Different how?" He glanced at Jim and paused, taking in the way Jim's eyes had narrowed, like he was looking at something far away. "Jim?"

*****

Jim heard Blair and Andy, but only vaguely. Carl's breath, choked with tears, Carl's heartbeat, pounding because he'd broken into a stumbling run, the odd word that escaped him -- they were what was real and immediate.

He tugged Blair's hand. "I know where he's going," he said. "To the beach."

Andy frowned. "How do you --?"

"He's a cop," Blair said, which wasn't any kind of answer at all, but Andy took a step backward -- a reaction Jim was too used to getting to read any guilt into -- and then nodded.

"Right. Okay, I guess you -- you've had experience with this kind of thing?"

"Right," Jim echoed, most of his attention on the fading thud of Carl's footsteps. He spared a moment for Andy. "What's the matter with him?" he demanded. "Why is he acting like this?"

"What? Oh…" Andy scrubbed at his face. "His boyfriend left him. Sick of hanging around a small town like this, so when he saw his chance he got out." His mouth curled in a sneer. "Damian didn't even tell Carl face to face; sent him an e-mail from Boston and then closed the account so Carl couldn't reply to him."

Boston. So it was the same Carl their landlord had been talking to. Jim wasn't too surprised. As Andy had said, this was a small town, and now that he thought about it, he recognized Carl's voice from that overheard conversation, especially now he had a firsthand sample of what Carl sounded like when he was worked up to compare it with.

"If he's going to do something rash, we've got to go after him," Blair said, looking up at Jim with anxious eyes. God, it was no wonder he loved Blair so much -- even in the midst of their own complicated relationship, Blair was willing to drop everything to help someone else.

It wasn't their problem. It wasn't even his city. It didn't matter. Jim gave Blair a nod and then glanced at Andy. "Want to come with us? Would he be likely to listen to you?"

Andy chewed his lip. "I don't think so. I didn't hold back telling him what I thought about Damian and he didn't take it too well." His gaze drifted to Blair. "He'd listen to him."

Jim really didn't like the sound of that. "Why?" he asked sharply. "Because if you think I'm going to let him --"

"You don't 'let' me do anything," Blair said, giving Jim a determined look to go along with his firm tone. "It's not up to you. And if that jerk isn't really a jerk, but a guy in pain, then I think the right thing to do is to help him. And if that includes me, then I'm in."

"I meant let him hassle you, Chief," Jim said, recognizing that he'd crossed a line. Blair didn't take well to being shielded, even from bullets. Not when Jim was using himself to do it, anyway. "And I'm not arguing with you; I want you there."

Leaving Andy to look after them, his expression far from relieved, as if he wondered whether he'd done the right thing, Jim began to walk to the beach, Blair beside him.

"He's saying things," he told Blair. "Muttering to himself about his boyfriend and second chances. I can hear the waves; he's got to be close to them."

"What kind of second chance is he going to get if he just swims out into the water?" Blair asked, then went silent, obviously realizing that Jim was straining his senses to figure out what was going on, what Carl might have planned.

They stepped out onto the sand, and as soon as they were past the stone retaining wall on their right Jim could see him -- far away, but there he was. Carl was out on a short pier that seemed out of place; there were no boats attached to it, at least. Carl was standing at the end, hands on the splintered wooden railing, looking out to sea. Jim couldn't see his face.

"We need to get to him," Jim said, breaking into a ground-covering jog that wouldn't leave him breathless the way a sprint would have. He wanted to reach Carl able to talk without gasping. Blair started to run, too, the increase in his heart rate momentarily distracting Jim. The sand shifted under Jim's shoes, filling them with grit, but he ignored the discomfort for now.

By the time they got to the end of the pier, they'd slowed to a walk. Jim didn't want to sneak up on Carl, but he didn't want to give him too much warning of their approach, either. He compromised by waiting until they were a few yards away to say Carl's name, which brought Carl's head around with a jerk.

"Hey, Carl," Jim said and kept his voice easy, friendly. "Taking a look at the water? Looks like it's going to be a good day for fishing tomorrow. I was thinking of going out on a charter boat; you know any of the skippers?"

"Fuck off," Carl said with a disturbing emptiness behind the words. "Just leave me alone."

"We don't want to leave you alone," Blair said. "Look, why don't we go somewhere quiet? We could have a drink and talk."

"You don't want to talk to me." Carl's face had a very thin layer of salt across it, as if it had been tear-stained and he'd wiped away the moisture, leaving only the salt behind. No one but Jim would have been able to see it. "Not that I blame you."

"Forget about that," Blair told him, and stepped half a step closer, slowly, unobtrusively. "That doesn't matter."

It was the wrong thing to say; Carl's expression darkened. "Yeah. Nothing does."

"He won't care," Jim said.

Carl frowned. "Huh?"

"You fall into the ocean and let the water take you, and Damian -- that's his name, right? -- he won't care. He'll say he does; make a sad story out of your death to tell all his new friends, but he won't care."

Blair cleared his throat in a subtle warning, but Jim continued, feeling a connection between himself and Carl. He'd lived with the fear that Blair would get bored of the Sentinel research and leave him for a long time now. It wasn't, when he looked at it closely, a rational fear, but it still kept him awake some nights. He'd manage without Blair, but it wouldn't be much of a life until he got used to it.

"He would! He'd care -- it'd hurt him."

"I can see why you'd want that," Jim said. "Payback's all you've got now. You know that even if he's broken things off with you, he's kept in touch with some people here. Has to; no point in a fancy new life if you can't boast about it to someone, isn't that right? Do you want him to see what a state you're in? Drunk and picking up strangers just because --"

"Because he looks like him," Carl said, his voice breaking on the final word. He turned his gaze onto Blair, his eyes glossed over with tears. "Like he used to do before he cut his hair and started wearing fancy clothes, like he was a -- a fucking lawyer or something." He smiled at Blair, a pitiful twist of his mouth. "Put you next to him and I guess you wouldn't, but your eyes…and that mouth of yours. I wanted to see if it felt the same as his, that's all."

Blair waved a hand to dismiss an apology that hadn't even been spoken. "Seriously, forget about it. It's fine -- I understand. But you know, Jim's right. You have to focus on the future. There are dozens of other men out there who could be even better for you than Damian; all kinds of happiness you haven't even dreamt of yet."

"I'm still in love with him," Carl said pitifully.

"I know," Blair said. "But that can change."

It wasn't going to change for Jim, and he hoped that it wouldn't for Blair, but in general, he agreed. There were a lot of people in the world; assuming only one of them would match you perfectly as a partner was a little pessimistic.

Unless, Jim realized, you were a Sentinel, and Blair Sandburg was your Guide.

"I don't want it to change," Carl snapped, and there was some life to his voice now, which was ironic, since before he'd finished speaking, he turned, scrambled over the low railing and jumped into water that, at high tide, as it was now, Jim estimated to be about fifteen feet deep.

That didn't matter; five or fifteen, Carl could still swim in it, and it wasn't dangerously cold at this time of the year. As gestures went, it was dramatic, but unless Carl had the willpower to sink -- not easy -- or to swim out until his exhausted body made returning impossible, he wasn't going to come to much harm.

Then Jim heard a crack as the waves took Carl and slammed his head against one of the support posts of the pier. Heard that, and the chopped-off cry of pain Carl gave before his mouth filled with water and he went under.

"Fuck." He kicked off his shoes, feeling as if he was already underwater, every movement too slow, dragged out, and headed for the barrier. "He's drowning. Hit his head. I've got to go after him. Call for help, okay?"

He heard Blair stammer out an agreement, then Blair's feet in the sand as he ran back up the beach. At that point, Jim had to tune out Blair's shouts for someone to call 911 -- he was too focused on finding Carl, and that required all his attention as he jumped into the water, the fall longer than it looked, the shock of his body striking the surface of the ocean surprisingly hard. The water felt colder than he'd expected, too, and he had to gasp for breath for a few seconds -- too many -- before he was able to figure out where Carl was.

Carl was a good eight feet below the surface, floating, not struggling. Jim dove down, grabbed onto his shirt, and started for the surface again. Despite the buoyancy created by the water, Carl was heavy, slowing Jim down. He was close to being out of air when his head broke the surface, and then a wave smacked him in the face and he inhaled water, choked and sputtered. It was hard to drag Carl up the rest of the way, to turn him onto his back, with the undertow tugging at him, but Jim managed to get them moving toward the shore. It wasn't far. Just a little farther...

"Jim!" Blair was there suddenly, hip deep in the water and grabbing onto Carl and Jim both, helping. Between the two of them, they got Carl up onto the sand. "He's not breathing," Blair said, and immediately set to work, mouth covering Carl's in a sick parody of their earlier kiss as Jim fumbled to feel for a pulse.

There was one, thankfully, and a few seconds later the small crowd of people who'd been rushing down from the street joined them. One of them, a woman with short, violet-dyed hair, dropped to her knees beside Carl. "I'm an EMT," she said.

"He's got a pulse," Jim told her. "He's just not --"

Carl coughed, gagged, and the woman helped Blair roll him onto his side so he could expel the water he'd inhaled. "That's it," she said encouragingly. "You're okay. Cough it up."

Falling back onto his ass in the wet sand, clothes clinging to him and the air colder than he remembered, Jim sighed with relief.

"You okay?" Blair asked, moving closer. His hands touched Jim's face, lifted it until their eyes met.

Jim nodded, too exhausted to do more than that. Blair's hands were like sunlight on his face, a blaze of heat. He wanted Blair to touch him all over, thaw him out, but reality dragged him out of picturing that, and he realized he'd lost some time, lulled by the comfort of Blair's body heat.

"I just want to go and get dry," he said. "Shower. Sleep. God, I want to sleep."

"Okay," Blair said. "Just give me a minute and I'll take you home."

Jim was dimly aware of Blair moving away, talking to the woman EMT and the other paramedics who'd shown up a minute later, explaining about Carl so there wouldn't be any misunderstanding regarding what had happened. He latched onto Blair's voice as he sat there with his arms wrapped around his knees, each word a tiny beacon of reassurance. He was almost startled when he felt Blair's hands under his arm, urging him to stand up.

"Do you want us to look at him?" one of the paramedics asked, and Jim shook his head.

"I'm fine."

They took him at his word and let them go. It wasn't until they'd reached the street, the pavement rough under Jim's bare feet, that he realized Blair was holding his shoes. "You want to stop and put these on?" Blair asked.

"Sure." Jim looked around for a bench and then just sat down on the edge of the curb and fumbled his shoes onto his feet. They still had sand inside them, clinging to his damp skin and chafing it.

He let Blair help him up and they walked the relatively short distance back to the guest house in silence.

Stuart was behind the reception desk, talking into the phone and jotting down details of a room reservation. It was late for someone to be calling, but Stuart's voice didn't betray any impatience as he wished his future guest a good night and hung up.

"Oh, God," he said, taking in their bedraggled appearance. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"We're dripping, but not bleeding, so it could be worse," Jim said, attempting humor. "Sorry about the mess."

He hoped that Stuart didn't keep them talking; he could feel the water running off him still and to be this close to a place where he could peel off his clammy clothing was torture.

"Don't worry about that," Stuart said, still gaping. "Can I get you anything?"

Blair shook his head and guided Jim toward the stairs. "We're just going to change and call it a night. Thanks, though." Somehow, that kept Stuart from asking any more questions, and they made it upstairs without running into anyone else.

In Jim's room, Blair toed off his own shoes and gestured toward the bathroom. "Go on, get yourself into the shower and warmed up." But Jim stopped where he was, struggling with his shirt buttons, and Blair made a soft sound -- not frustration, more like sympathy -- and helped him. His hands weren't that cold; he wasn't sure why he was having such a hard time. When his pants were unfastened, too, Blair said again, "Go on," then added, "I promise I'll still be here when you get out this time."

Jim patted Blair's face in a wordless acknowledgement and finished undressing in the bathroom, where his wet clothes wouldn't matter on the tiled floor. He got under the shower, sighing with pleasure as the heat soaked into him and the clean water and soap sluiced away the stickiness of the salt water. He could hear Blair doing the same, an echo, separated from him by a few walls, which meant that for Jim, Blair might as well have been in the shower with him.

He let his hands move slowly over his body, not really needing to clean his skin, just needing the familiar routine because that saved him from thinking about what he was doing. He could hear the sound the water made as it struck Blair's skin; if he concentrated he could separate out the difference between it meeting hair or skin or the tiles surround. He could hear Blair sigh as he had done, out of sheer, physical enjoyment, and the sound recalled ones Blair had made the night before, his body pressed close to Jim's, his eyes hazy with desire.

Tired as he was from a day spent walking more than fishing, dealing with the chaos of emotions Blair had stirred up in him, he still got hard remembering that. He'd told Blair that he'd been overwhelmed and it was no more than the truth. If he hadn't known that Blair would start babbling excitedly about primal forces and spiritual bonds, he would have told Blair how complete he'd felt when they'd climaxed, their come on each other, smeared on skin, like an invisible claiming, a mark.

Carl didn't know how lucky he was to have escaped Jim's fist against his mouth. It wasn't that Jim thought Blair couldn't handle the punching himself; he'd seen Blair fight and the man was inventive and surprisingly effective. No, he'd just reverted to the caveman Blair had once called him and wanted to eliminate a rival.

He knew that when it came to character flaws, one of his was possessiveness, rooted not so much in selfishness and an unwillingness to share but in fear of being abandoned. It wasn't hard to work out why that was; he didn't need a therapist to direct him to his issues with both his parents.

Whether Blair could accept that side of him was another matter, but right then, Jim heard the silky slide of Blair's hand over soap-slick skin and he couldn't listen from a distance any longer.

Shutting off his own shower, he rubbed a towel hastily across his skin, then padded through the open doorway between their rooms and into Blair's. Blair's bathroom door was open, too, and Jim stepped into the room. "Hey," he said, suddenly awkward, but still determined. "I just -- um. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Blair said, on the other side of the thin plastic shower curtain that was the only thing separating them. Well, that and chronic stupidity. After a second or two, he added, "Are you okay?"

"Uh-huh."

Another few seconds, and Blair tugged the edge of his shower curtain back, peering around it without letting too much water escape. He blinked but didn't look surprised when he saw that Jim was naked. "You want to come in?"

"I'm clean," Jim said. The shower wasn't big enough for both of them to do what he had in mind. "You want to come out?"

"Okay." Blair disappeared again -- though his shadow was clearly visible through the curtain -- and shut off the water before stepping out onto the bath mat. Wet, his hair slicked back, he looked younger than usual, and the trail of water making its way down across his chest and through the line of hair that led to his cock was mesmerizing for longer than Jim should have allowed it to be. There was a pinkish hue to the skin of Blair's arms and across his cheekbones -- evidence of the sun he'd gotten that day.

Or maybe, Jim thought as Blair raised his eyes and looked at him, it was evidence of something more.

"You sure you're okay?" Blair asked, reaching for a towel.

Jim took the towel from Blair's hands, which released it without a struggle, Blair puzzled, but trusting. "Let me?" he asked. "I need -- I want --" The words sounded so self-centered as he heard them spoken and he tried again. "Would you like me to dry you?"

Okay, now he sounded like fucking Jeeves…

Blair moved closer, close enough to touch. God, Jim wanted to touch him; he didn't know if he could bear it if Blair turned him away. "Yes," Blair said.

Jim sighed out a relieved, anticipatory breath. He had always touched Blair a lot, something about the other man drawing him closer, but after last night, it was more of a craving, as if denied access to Blair's body in the way he wanted, he was compensating. He hoped that he was reading the messages correctly from Blair, that they were going to try again, because he wasn't sure he could cut himself off and this was one case where he'd starve on half a loaf.

The towel wasn't much barrier to his sense of touch, but it was enough of one to make him want to drop it to the floor and pull Blair to him, wet as he was. He concentrated on his self-imposed chore, blotting the water from Blair's hair and then rubbing him down with a care that verged on worship.

He found himself on his knees a moment later and it felt right, the towel forgotten, his tongue tracing the path of a single droplet, meandering down Blair's stomach to his stiffening cock.

"Tell me to stop and I'll try," he said and waited for Blair, his hands on his thighs, clenched into fists, the taste of water and Blair's skin filling his mouth.

"I don't want you to stop," Blair breathed. Looking down at Jim the way he was, his hair fell to either side of his face. The light behind him lit the wisped edges of his hair, making it glow like gold, and Jim leaned in and pressed a gentle, sucking kiss to the impossibly soft skin near Blair's balls.

Blair inhaled sharply, and his cock gave a throb that Jim felt echoed in his own erection, heavy between his legs.

"Please," Blair said.

It was more than Jim needed; permission would have been enough, but to hear a yearning in Blair's voice that matched his own was enough to make the final vestiges of chill leave him in a wash of desire and love.

He put his hands on Blair's hips, fitting his thumbs to the grooves there, and pulled Blair to him with the smallest of tugs. The head of Blair's cock nudged his jaw and he let it, making no attempt to guide it into his mouth yet. Silk over steel. He rubbed his cheek against it, cat-like and close to purring, the crisp hairs around its base dry whispers against his lips. He could feel the dampness daubed on his skin and smell it, too, the ripe, fresh musk of Blair's arousal. When he couldn't wait any longer to taste it, he opened his mouth and Blair smiled down at him and slid home in a slow, steady push, taking Jim's mouth and drawing a groan from him, heartfelt and husky.

Blair shuddered, the ripple of it running through him all the way to the skin under Jim's hands. "God, yes," Blair said. "Don't stop, please, Jim. You have no idea how amazing this feels. Seeing you like this --"

He seemed to lose words then, and Jim's mouth was busy with a far better task. The slick movement of Blair's cock between his lips, the way his cheeks hollowed when he sucked -- which made Blair gasp every time -- the awkward bump at the back of Jim's throat on the deeper strokes; it was all so good.

"Jim," Blair said finally. "Jim, I'm --"

I know, Jim wanted to tell him, but couldn't because that would mean stopping and if he had, he didn't think Blair would have forgiven him. He'd known as soon as Blair did, the minute changes, that final, impossible hardening of the flesh he was coaxing, teasing, pleasing, as easy to read as printed words. He slid his hands around to cup Blair's ass and urged Blair forward, holding still so that Blair didn't have to worry about what Jim was doing. He wanted Blair to take what he needed, and if sometime in the future he'd like to do this with a slow, building sweetness, tonight maybe they needed it just a little wild, a little rougher. He was on his knees for Blair and for once he wanted that to be more than a convenient position.

Blair made a sound in the back of his throat, desperate and ragged, and his hips thrust forward jerkily, driving his cock into Jim's mouth once, then again. He stopped, trembling so much that it was a wonder he stayed standing; Jim felt the surge deep inside Blair's body, then the throb of Blair's cock between his lips as he came. There was no sound -- Blair was holding his breath, shaking. The taste of him, slick and bitter at the back of Jim's tongue, was like a revelation. As the last of it left Blair, Blair breathed, only it was a long, relieved moan that ended in a sigh, his hand settling on Jim's head and stroking his hair.

"Jim," Blair said, voice hoarse and filled with wonder. "Jim."

Jim took his mouth off Blair with a reluctance he'd never felt before, drawing back slowly, using his tongue to leave Blair's cock wet with no more than saliva. He picked up the discarded towel and used it to blot the final droplets clinging to Blair's stomach and then, carefully, smiling, he dried off Blair's cock. "There," he murmured, and dropped a kiss on the head of Blair's cock, still hard for now.

He was hard himself, but it hadn't seemed all that important while he was sucking Blair; that had aroused him but he'd been so absorbed in the taste and feel of Blair's cock in his mouth that the demands of his own body had faded to a whisper.

Now, looking up at Blair's dazed face, the whisper became a shout, and without taking his eyes off Blair, he grabbed his cock in one hand and his balls in the other, with none of the care he'd shown Blair, the tight squeeze of his hand all his cock needed. He moaned and began to work himself, not caring how desperate and wanton he must look. His vision was graying out at the edges and he could hear the harsh sound of his breath as he panted, open-mouthed, riding the edge of his climax and knowing he wasn't going to last long.

"Oh, no," he heard Blair say, determined. "No way. That's mine."

It is, Jim thought. I am, as Blair grabbed him, pushing him backward with one hand behind his head to cushion the fall, though they got lucky and Jim's head -- and Blair's knuckles -- missed the tile and hit the carpet on the other side of the doorway instead. It was still a jolt, the cool tile against the back of Jim's shoulders and the feel of Blair's other hand, warm from the shower, on his cock. He shouted, his body arching as he hung painfully on the edge of release.

There was the brief, hard press of Blair's mouth to his, then Blair slid down, chest hair brushing softly along his pelvis and thigh, and Blair's lips closed around the head of his cock. The palm of Blair's hand cradled Jim's balls tenderly as he sucked, awkward, a little too much teeth, but it was exactly what Jim had wanted, what he needed, and the flickering thought that his was the first cock in Blair's mouth ever was what shoved him suddenly over, falling, crying out, coming.

He couldn't make his mouth say what he wanted it to right then, his body trembling, aftershocks sparking randomly along nerve ending like fireflies under his skin. Couldn't say Blair's name or, 'I love you' but as he met Blair's eyes and gave one last, exultant groan, it didn't seem to matter.

He could tell Blair later. They had plenty of time now.

*****

Back in Cascade the following week, Jim was strangely cheerful despite the nagging headache that he was pretty sure was the result of jet lag, not to mention the fact that he was back at work. He didn't want to admit, even to himself, that there was something new and enjoyable about being at work knowing that that morning he'd woken up in bed with Blair, with Blair's bare skin pressed to his.

"So." Simon paused at Jim's desk. "I'm wondering how it's possible that you just came back from vacation and I haven't been regaled with stories of the amazing fish you caught."

"There were some pretty amazing fish," Blair said, glancing from Simon to Jim.

"I think whales are mammals," Jim said, and kept his face straight with an effort as Simon snorted in disgust.

"If I can't hook it, land it, and preferably eat it, I don't want to know," Simon declared.

The whale watching trip had been interesting. Jim had heard them, long before the equipment on the boat had located them, and the strange, unearthly song was one he wished he could've shared with Blair. He hadn't been sure it was worth three expensive hours of being in a boat, wave-tossed and cramped, to see vague shapes swimming ponderously a long way from them, but then one had surfaced close enough for them to all catch a startled breath at the size of it. Blair's eyes were bright with excitement, and even the subsequent drenching they'd gotten when the whale cleared its blow-hole hadn't dampened their mood.

They had fished once or twice, but somehow their planned early starts kept getting derailed by early morning sex that meant they missed breakfast and once lunch as well.

Lost in memories of that particular day, it took a sharp nudge from Blair's elbow to bring Jim out of his reverie. Simon was staring at him, a frown creasing his forehead.

"You know what?" Simon said. "I don't care that you didn't bring me anything back --"

"We did," Jim said. He fumbled in his pocket and brought out a bright red plush lobster and put it on Simon's desk. "It's a fridge magnet," he said helpfully as Simon's mouth opened on a question.

"Great." Simon picked up the magnet and turned it over, looking at it. "Exactly what I needed. How did you guess?"

"Oh, you know," Blair said, grinning. "Jim's really perceptive."

"Right," Simon said. "Anyway, what I was going to say was, I wonder if you should have taken a couple of extra days. You two don't look like you've been getting any sleep at all."

Blair, who'd just taken a sip from his Coke can, choked, nearly spraying all of them. Jim clapped him on the back, hiding a smile, and said, "I can't imagine where you'd get that idea."

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