Boundaries



banner


This story was written for Ponders Life, whose very generous donation to the Sweet Charity auction made this story possible.

Many thanks also to T Verano for a painstaking and wonderfully helpful beta reading.


***


"Jim?" Blair waited for Jim to give him more than an abstracted look and then continued. "You're staring out the window, staring at me; staring out the window, staring… well, I think we both get the pattern. Something bothering you?"

"If I say there isn't, you'll accept that and go on with grading those papers, will you?"

Blair returned Jim's skeptical look with one of his own. "No, I think we both know that's when I start pushing for an answer, so why not just tell me?"

Jim sighed, and ran a hand back over his hair. "Yeah, I'm starting to think I need you in on this, as it happens."

Blair choked. "Excuse me? You cave that quickly and then say you want to talk about it? Getting worried here, Jim."

Jim took a final troubled look out at the city and walked over to the couch. He leaned on the back of it. "When we met you were pretending to be a doctor, remember?"

"Of course I do." Blair frowned. "White coat and a name tag… it shouldn't have been that easy to get away with it," he said with austere disapproval. "I could've been a criminal after drugs or something."

Jim smacked the back of Blair's head lightly. "Save the outrage, Chief. I know you; it didn't bother you at the time and it's too late for believable guilt now."

Blair chuckled. "I guess." He tilted his head back and waited for more. "Doctor," he prompted eventually.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah." Jim frowned. "You and me; it's kind of like a doctor/patient thing, right?"

"Totally," Blair agreed amiably. "Except for the part where it's not, which would be all of it."

"I mean," Jim ground out, "all the Sentinel stuff; it's confidential, and you run these tests, and I tell you things -- God! I've told you more about my body and the way it reacts than I've told my doctor." The frown became a glare. "I don't know how you get me to do that."

"I need to know," Blair said reasonably. "It's not idle curiosity; it's research."

"Sometimes it's research," Jim said darkly. "And sometimes you're just crossing lines like -- no, forget that. I don't want to go there."

"Where do you want to go?" Blair slipped off his glasses and patted the couch. "Sit down, will you? I'm getting a crick in my neck."

Jim sat down by Blair, and leaned forward, his hands linked, elbows on his knees. "There's something I need. Something I feel I've got to do and it's like… it's this itch in the middle of my back I can't scratch, you know?"

Smiling, Blair reached out and gave Jim's back a vigorous rub with his knuckles. "Only had to ask."

"Wish it was that easy," Jim muttered. He arched his back away from Blair's hand in a mute protest and Blair relented, giving Jim a final pat before his hand fell away.

"Narrow it down; give me some details," he urged, his voice gentler than his hand had been. "I'm no Incacha, but --"

"It's since then that it's happened," Jim blurted out. "Since he died. It's connected with what the Chopec warrior told me."

"About being the Sentinel of the city?"

Jim nodded, his gaze going to the windows again. "Yeah. It was like there was this… transfer of responsibilities. A click, a -- a -- it's different now."

Blair put his hand on Jim's shoulder without thinking too much about it, and kneaded the bunched muscles as he tried to feel his way through this latest maze. "If you've got an itch, you know where it is and what you have to do to make it go away," he said, working through the puzzle aloud. "So you must know what you have to do; you just need to admit it to yourself; be more receptive to the message."

"I think I do know," Jim said heavily. "It just sounds stupid."

"I don't think it will to me."

"When we met --"

"Is this the doctor thing again?"

"No!" Jim gave a long-suffering sigh and shook Blair's hand away. "I meant in your office. When you told me what a Sentinel did." He took a slow breath. "Patrol the border."

"And you want to do that?" Blair asked. "Jim, I'm not sure in your case it's something to take literally, you know."

Jim stared ahead, his mouth set in firm lines. "I think it is, Chief. I don't mean it's something I'm going to want to do every day, but I want to see where that border is. I want to know what's mine to protect."

"But if you were outside Cascade, you'd still do what you do," Blair argued, more to coax Jim into spelling it out than because he was against the idea. "You wouldn't walk on by if someone was getting robbed, no matter where you were."

"No, of course I wouldn't," Jim said. "But that's because I'm a cop. And because helping stop a crime is the right thing to do. It's not related to being a Sentinel. Cascade's different. Cascade's mine."

Blair blew out an astonished puff of air and sat back. "Wow. Way to go with the territorial thing there, Jim. Are you going to tell the mayor, or shall I?"

Jim hunched his shoulder irritably and didn't reply.

Something stirred in Blair's memory and he concentrated, tracking down the elusive thought until he captured it. "Beating the Bounds," he said, blurting out the words triumphantly.

"Huh?"

"It's this British tradition, old, really old," Blair explained. "Couple of thousand years, at least. A way before maps of establishing a perimeter and safeguarding it from incursions. People would walk around the village limits stopping at special markers -- trees, walls, mostly -- and hitting them with a stick." He grimaced in sympathy as more details surfaced in his memory. "Or sometimes they'd use the sticks on the young boys of the village. I think the idea was that the boys would remember the places better when they were the ones responsible for keeping the border safe if it was literally beaten into them where the boundaries were. Or they'd be turned upside down and their heads bumped…"

Jim waved him to silence, his face screwed up in thought. "They do this on a special day?" he asked finally.

"They might have," Blair said, "but I'd have to look it up. I don't think it would matter when."

"I want to do it," Jim said. "Without the ritual. It'd be your head getting bumped and your brains are scrambled enough as it is, Chief." He stood up and stretched, silhouetted against the setting sun, a dark, giant figure. Blair looked up at him and felt a momentary flash of awe, as primitive as Jim's own possessiveness about his city had been. He forgot sometimes just how, well, how strong Jim was. The man didn't bulge with the grotesquely enhanced muscles of a bodybuilder but it didn't mean he wasn't, as Blair could appreciate on a few different levels, an impressive sight. Jim rolled his shoulders, looking relaxed now and ready to leap tall buildings.

Blair shook off his unexpected reaction and stood. "It's going to take a while to work out a route. We'll need maps, the exact location of the city limits…"

"Yeah. Get that for me, would you?" Jim wandered over to the window. "And I'll tell Simon we'll need a day, maybe two, off work."

Blair blinked. "It won't take that long to drive around the city," he said. "We can probably just do it the next time you finish early and I don't have classes."

"Drive?" Jim shook his head. "We can drive out to a starting point, sure, but I've got to do this on foot, Blair." He pursed his lips. "We start at dawn and we should be able to complete the circuit in a day…"

"Hey, now, Jim." Blair protested. "That's…. I'm not sure how… and isn't some of it out at sea? Huh? You want to go out on a boat? A boat, Jim? Jim?"

Jim wasn't listening.

Jim was staring out of the window again.

"I'll go to the library and get the information we need," Blair said. He gave up on his attempts to change Jim's mind and detoured to pick up a notepad and pen before he headed to the door. "I'll be back later."

"Mmm."

Still staring out of the window.


***


Blair pulled the sheet smooth and gave Brother Marcus a smile. They didn't talk much these days, the rapid, exuberant chatter they used to exchange replaced by this drowsy, peaceful waiting.

Death was being patient and so were they.

But sometimes Brother Marcus liked to hear Blair speak, using it as a way to lull himself asleep, and then Blair would talk himself hoarse, his voice low and his words spoken slowly, the memories he recounted tinged with a faint nostalgia, no more.

It'd been a while now, after all.

"And we went out a week later to walk the boundaries, and, man, you wouldn't believe how big the city is when you're on foot. I told Jim, never again, and Simon backed me up because he said if he had to hear me whining about my blisters…" Blair paused and took a sip of lukewarm coffee. Brother Marcus was snoring now, the homely sound loud in the infirmary. He was the only patient and the whitewashed walls, bare of everything but a crucifix and a clock, soaked up the gentle hum of the monastery, never a noisy place anyway.

It still felt strange to tell someone about Jim, no secrets hidden, but the serene acceptance of what Brother Marcus saw as a God-given gift, and the lack of reaction to the news that Blair and Jim had been lovers, made it easy. How much he'd given away over the years, Blair didn't know and never asked, but he had the feeling that neither revelation had been more than a confirmation of a theory.

"I spend my life praying to be free of sins of the flesh," Brother Marcus had whispered, his mouth curved in a smile. "I'm somewhat of an expert now. Don't think you can shock me by telling me you were in love, Blair. You'll need to do better than that --" He'd broken off to cough, his body convulsing, and the discussion had been dropped.

Blair stood and walked to the window, glancing down at tidy flowerbeds and green, lush grass with the mountains in the distance promising rain, their summits shrouded in ragged gray cloud.

It had looked like rain the day he and Jim had set out to walk the boundary of the city but it hadn't stopped them from leaving the loft in the thin, washed-out light of dawn, Blair silent because he was sleepy, Jim simply silent.

Blair didn't think anything, up to and including earthquakes and tornadoes, could stop a determined, driven Jim Ellison.

Or change his mind.

***


"We'll leave the truck here," Jim said. The parking lot was empty and he chose a place in the middle of the emptiness and slotted the truck between two faded white lines with a casual competence Blair admired without envy. He usually backed and filled a time or two before giving up, and sometimes returned to find a new ding in his door, courtesy of whoever he'd parked too close to.

To avoid a sour comment on Jim's needlessly authoritative tone -- what, like Blair was going to argue or demand that they use that space two rows over? -- Blair took out the map he'd bought and sighed. He'd folded it to a neat square in the loft, a red circle marking their starting point, a blue line their route, and it had been refolded into its original shape, the cover outermost.

"Jim," he muttered through clenched teeth. "I had this the way I wanted it, man." He fought the tightly creased paper in a reverse origami, expanding it and then reducing it to a misshapen bulk. He needed a table to do this properly.

"Give," Jim demanded.

"No." Lack of sleep had placed a thundercloud over his head. "I'm navigating. The map's my responsibility." He shoved it between his knees and fumbled for the minirecorder he'd put into his jacket pocket. He'd planned to dictate notes into it and then write them up later. Knowing it would aggravate Jim, he thumbed it on and murmured, "Reached starting point at 5:23 a.m. Subject seems eager to begin but is exhibiting signs of -- hey!"

Jim's hand enfolded the recorder in a cage of long fingers and white knuckles. "Blair. Don't. Please."

Robbed of words, Blair stared at Jim and saw the lines of tension etched into the familiar features. Capitulation and surrender were inevitable. He couldn't refuse Jim anything when he asked for it with that much intensity and naked need. He nodded and slipped the recorder into the glove compartment.

Oh, well. Paper and a pen plus memory; they didn't often let him down.

Subject showing atypical levels of agitation and a growing urgency to begin this self-imposed task…

"Chief!" Jim's voice, sharp with impatience, snapped the thought cleanly in two, leaving Blair flailing to grab at a loose end, tether it down safely. "Can we go?"

Blair squinted up at the warming colors of the sky, and the fingernail curl of moon hanging there, translucent in the dawn light. "Sure."

***


"Are you going to see him? Cascade isn't that far away, you know. You could be there in an hour since Brother Jeremy's let you keep your car here for once."

"You asked me that already," Blair said, the small cruelty slipping out, regretted as soon as spoken. Marcus didn't need to be reminded of the way his mind wandered now, between two lives, a dozen different times. He swore sometimes, the words shocking against the benevolence of his round face, fringed still with a white fluff of beard, and then frowned, puzzled, as if hearing the echo of the words and wondering who had spoken.

That question had hurt, though, a swift stab Blair had instinctively answered with a matching thrust.

"I know." Marcus smiled. "I remember not liking the answer so I'm asking again."

"It doesn't work that way." Blair stayed by the window, hoping the sunlight streaming through it hid his expression. Succumbing, he said, "For all I know, he's moved. It's been a long time."

"Blair."

The mildly reproving tone tacked onto his name stung. "Fine. He hasn't moved and yes, I check now and then." And hated himself for doing it and the illicit, shameful thrill of relief at seeing Jim's name, alone, unadorned, the sole occupant.

Not that it meant much; Jim could have someone in his life and not have them living with him, but it gave him something to hold onto.

"Of course you do." Marcus' voice was comfortably benign again. "Old friend. Natural that you'd want to know." He tilted his head. "Don't wait for me to die before you visit. I want to hear all about it."

"I can tell you what will happen and save myself the trip." Blair shrugged. "I'll knock, he'll know it's me; he won't answer. I'll knock again, hell, I'll hammer on the door, but he won't open it and I'll give up and walk away."

"You sound certain about that."

"I am." Blair felt his mouth twist with remembered humiliation. The first time he'd gone to see Jim after being asked to move out he'd knocked out of politeness and then tried to walk in. When he'd found the door was locked, he'd used his key. A full, desolate comprehension had come with the skid of metal on metal as the key failed to find a purchase in the shiny new lock. He'd heard the scrape of a chair and quick footsteps, but they'd retreated, not advanced. He'd left the key on the ledge above the door, knowing Jim would find it and get the message, just as he had. "And it's not as if I can sneak up on him."

A handful of criminals had managed it when Jim was distracted, but not him, never him. Ironic, as he would have just whispered a mischievous 'boo!' not hit Jim on the head, shoved the barrel of a gun into his ribs, disarmed, drugged, or dragged him away.

They'd led a busy life. He supposed Jim still did. His own life had returned to the mundane, no longer lit up by explosions, torn apart by bullets singing past his ears.

Those were part and parcel of Jim's world, not his.

"When did you last see him?"

"See? Face-to-face?" Blair shook his head and attempted a casual tone as he gave a purposely vague answer. "Oh, man. A long time ago. Years. Six? Seven?"

"Phone?" The word rasped out from clumsy lips and Blair crossed the room to pat Marcus' hand.

"I call on his birthday every year. He doesn't even say his name; just waits for me to wish him happy birthday, then he hangs up."

Jim? It's me, Blair, but you know that. Just calling to wish you a happy birthday and see how you are. I'm fine. I could go into details, but, hey, short and sweet, right, because any minute now you're going to -- Jim, fuck you, okay? Just fuck you."

And even Jim wouldn't have heard those last two sentences because Vancouver was a long way from Cascade and he'd hung up as Blair's mouth had been shaping the final 'o' of 'to'. Blair had tried not saying the actual words, 'happy birthday', but Jim just gave him thirty seconds or so to spit it out and then ended the call whether it'd been said or not, leaving Blair feeling restless and irritated for days when he thought about it.

Letters were returned unopened and e-mails were blocked. No fucking way Jim knew how to do that without help and the idea of him asking for it, the words he'd use to couch his request (crazy ex who won't leave me alone…) burned. He'd stopped using those routes -- any routes -- after a few months.

Just the phone calls, once a year. He needed those.

Blair picked up the glass of water by the bed, a flexible straw poking out of the top, and held it for Marcus to suck on, the prickle of pity at the small indignity dulled through repetition.

"It doesn't matter," he said, knowing it still did. "We've moved on."

"Marching on the spot isn't moving on." Marcus sounded acerbic. "I think…" He cleared his throat, the thick choke of congestion painful to hear. "You need to shit or get off the pot."

Blair made a sound of protest that ended up caught behind his closed lips because between one moment and the next, his old friend had gone, the monk replaced by the racketeer, the eyes staring up at him colder, hostile even.

The door opened and Brother Jeremy appeared, his face somber, a rosary hanging from his finger, the black beads lustrous with handling. "Blair," he said by way of greeting, his gaze going immediately to the man in the bed. "Why don't you go to supper? There's a bowl of stew being kept for you in the kitchen."

Marcus was muttering under his breath, giving orders to men long dead. Blair nodded and left without looking back.

He could do that with everything and everyone in his life but his mother and Jim -- and Naomi was the one who'd taught him how, by example.

After supper, he went to his cell and lit a candle, plain and white, the fat golden flame a warm splash of light against the bare wall. He sat and folded his legs, crossing them, a move that, in his mid-thirties, still came easily enough. Parts of his body ached in the damp; the long-healed bullet hole in his thigh especially, but he was still more than limber enough for this. A little heavier, though, and there was gray showing at his temples and, as his last partner had told him unkindly, at the back of his head here and there, single strands amongst the short dark hair clustered thickly still. He hadn't been called 'cute' for a long time, though 'distinguished' was still in his future. Mostly when he looked in the mirror, he thought 'tired'.

The candle held nothing but flame and then, as his breathing slowed and steadied and his sense of self slipped away, it held the world.

Jim. It held Jim.

***


"My feet. I can't feel them. No, wait, I'm in agony; I can feel that."

Jim chuckled. "We've covered fifteen miles, Chief. That's nothing. We could have finished today, you know, just pushed past the pain barrier and made it back to the truck and gone home."

"Fuck you," Blair said distinctly. Walked back to the truck, parked miles away? Was Jim insane? "And fuck your weird Sentinel traditions, which, by the way, I'm supposed to come up with, not you. I'm getting a cab home first thing in the morning." He eased his second boot off, followed by the sock, sweat-soaked and rank, and then whimpered, half in ecstasy at the loss of the weight, half misery as the air-conditioned chill of the motel room nipped at blistered, steaming flesh. "Ow, ow, shit."

Jim had the grace not to wrinkle his nose. "You can have the first shower," he offered.

"It's going to take me ten minutes to hobble across the room."

Given that the motel room measured fifteen foot by twenty, including the bathroom, that was a gross exaggeration, but Blair felt in that kind of a mood, wanting to salve the actual woes of the day with a thickly slathered layer of inflated detail.

Stupid; Jim had been there, every step of the way. He'd trodden the same hard sidewalks, breathed in the same exhaust-fume-laden air, suffered the hell of retracing their steps for an endless mile and a half because of a missing street sign that had taken them off their route.

And for Jim, a lot of the petty annoyances had to have been major, given that the act of patrolling meant he was on a self-imposed full alert the whole time.

Blair lay back on his bed, the thin pillow unwelcoming, the garishly patterned bedspread rough against his skin, and heaped coals of fire on Jim's head, which was what his feet felt as if they'd been walking on. "You know what, Jim? You go first. Really. I insist."

"Okay." With an acquiescent shrug, Jim sauntered across the room, stripping off his T-shirt as he went. He dropped it on the single chair beside the bathroom door, where it draped in obediently neat folds (if Blair had done that, it would have slithered promptly to the floor), and Blair closed his eyes, managing to capture the image of the swoop of shoulder blades and the slash of spine behind them so that they were all he could see.

He had to stop doing that, but in the years he'd known Jim, he'd never been able to and the scavenging had become habitual. He had a score of images in a mental scrapbook, sometimes used to get off with (and the guilt about that was something he didn't want to lose, the garlic in the dish, a piquant, lingering added savor), sometimes just a comfort. Here was his love life, a random scatter of quickly changing faces, bodies, names; there was Jim, refreshingly, astonishingly permanent.

And so very much what Blair could go for given the chance.

They just didn't talk about that. Blair knew that Jim knew; Blair guessed that Jim knew that Blair knew that Jim had guessed… it was as if they'd had hours of conversation when neither of them was aware of it, recognizing that, yes, both of them were attracted, sometimes, to men, had acted on it, in the past, not now, not currently, no, and that, yes, that buzz, that spark, that tingle was there between them, very much so, yes, but they weren't going to…

No.

Blair sometimes wondered idly if one day they'd just fuck anyway and the hell with the consequences, but the odds of that lengthened with every passing month. They'd settled into a comfortable groove of flirting with touches, looks, the odd double entendre; more of a safety valve than an accumulation of straws to break the back of their unspoken agreement.

Flirting that was totally separate from the rare touches, looks, and words that were motivated by concerned affection, deep enough that Blair wanted to call it love but never quite dared.

Too close to dangerous territory.

He stripped down to shorts and closed his eyes, the sound of the shower bringing him more images. A wet, soap-slicked Jim, eyes closed against the spray, blind face tilted back, that long line of throat exposed -- God, if he ever had the chance to get his mouth on Jim, he'd start there, not with a kiss, but a bite.

He tried to distract himself from a nascent arousal that would be difficult to conceal by considering the history and lore of vampirism but got nowhere. His hand drifted down to cup the swell of his erection and squeeze it reprovingly but that sent entirely the wrong message and he made a muffled sound of frustration and resorted to running his heel hard against the bedcover. The sharp, bright sting of abused, abraded skin overrode ill-timed lust, and by the time Jim came out, unfairly naked, using what Blair suspected was one of only two inadequate towels to dry his hair, Blair's cock was as limp as the rest of him.

Jim stood at the foot of Blair's bed and toweled the back of his neck. "All yours."

Blair stared through half-closed eyes at what was on offer and suffered a resurgence of interest, as abrupt and graceless as a sneeze. He made no attempt to cover the poke and prod of his cock as it straightened and stiffened under the thin cotton of his shorts.

Let Jim see. And let Blair see what effect… ah. Grinning openly, Blair got off the bed and headed for the bathroom, snatching the towel from Jim as he went by and getting in one perfect snapping flick at Jim's ass.

He didn't feel tired now. Watching Jim's cock fill and Jim's eyes darken was like a double espresso, sweetened by revenge.

He jerked off in the shower, knowing Jim would be breathing in the scent of his come and sweat and how much it wouldn't be helping Jim to deal with his own not-so-little problem. Feeling merciful, he made the shower last long enough to let Jim follow his example if he wanted to.

It wouldn’t be the first time they'd done that, either, another allowed, never spoken of indulgence. Jim got the better end of the deal, assuming he cranked his senses up high when they were both beating off in separate rooms, stifled gasps echoing back and forth. Blair was dying to ask for details of how much it turned Jim on to hear him and knew if he did Jim would simply stop.

Silence was painful but better than losing the closest thing to sex with Jim he had.

By the time he limped out of the shower, there was a telltale handful of Kleenex in the trash and Jim was dressed and halfway down a beer, ice-cold, and as moisture-beaded as Jim's chest had been, from the over-priced six-pack they'd picked up at the small store beside the motel.

Blair got his own beer and a soggy slice of lukewarm pizza, dripping sauce, and settled on his bed. "How do you think it went today?" he asked through a mouthful.

Jim gave it some thought, the silence stretching like the cheese string Blair was nibbling at, salty and chewy, leaving his lips slick with grease. Sinful and delicious. "I felt better as soon as we started."

"No more itchy back?"

Jim gave him a familiar look, blending impatience with tolerance. "Something like that."

Cursing himself for making a joke, even a mild one -- nothing shut Jim up faster than thinking he was being laughed at -- Blair set about repairing the damage.

"When we went off track that time could you tell?"

"If I could, don't you think I'd have said something?" Jim hesitated. "Maybe. I was too busy tracking down the smell from that dumpster."

Blair made a face and tossed his pizza crust in the trash. Decaying flesh; a dog, not a human, but it'd been gross enough to leave him fighting back nausea, breathing shallowly through his mouth as Jim called it into the sanitation department. "Maybe tomorrow we can test you at junctions."

"Once."

"Three times."

"Sandburg…"

"More would be better."

"Three, then."

Jim always caved. Always. Blair tried not to abuse that power and failed miserably. Too much of a kick and besides, it wasn't really abuse. He needed to know.

Jim needed to know. He couldn't control his senses without knowing their limits, their parameters.

Blair finished his beer and lay back, giving a groan as his body protested even that much movement. "It's going to feel worse tomorrow."

"Yeah." Jim came over and took the bottle from Blair's slack fingers. "Want a rubdown?"

Safe enough now they'd both come to have Jim straddling him, strong fingers working his bare skin... "Sure. My shoulders are killing me, and my calves."

"You had your backpack unbalanced. I'll take a look at it before we leave tomorrow. Roll over, will you?"

Blair let Jim lecture him as his tight, stressed muscles eased under Jim's ruthlessly efficient hands. Let Jim ease him down into a sleep-hazy fog, ears buzzing, brain disconnected.

Let Jim plant one teasing kiss on his head before the bed across from his creaked under Jim's weight, signaling another lost opportunity.

He hadn't wanted it tonight, anyway. Too tired. Just too fucking tired.


***


Fever-bright eyes stared up at him. "Blair --"

"Right here."

Until the end, which wouldn't be long. Brother Jeremy was praying, head bowed. Slow tears trickled unheeded down his face, and painted it with salt and sorrow.

Blair leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, wishing for some of the fierce faith that would let him watch a friend die without feeling it was goodbye.

For a man who'd died once, he really hadn't done as much with that experience as he should have.

But there hadn't been tunnels and bright lights. Just Jim and the jungle.

"Waited too long to ask you this…"

Blair resisted the urge to tell Marcus not to talk; to save his energy. Kind of pointless and the grip on his wrist was painfully tight; Marcus needed to do this, he could tell.

Incacha had held his forearm like that, blood, sticky and wet, left behind on Blair's skin as Incacha's hand had fallen away. Flecks of it had still been there the next day, caught in the fine hairs, clinging stubbornly after several attempts to scrub it away.

He'd wondered if Jim could smell it and couldn't bring himself to ask.

The similarities between that deathbed and this occupied one part of his mind but he gave Marcus most of his attention. "What do you need me to do?"

"I need to make amends." Brother Jeremy's head jerked up, his gaze going to Blair, who shrugged helplessly, confused. "You know who I was, what I did."

"You have confessed and been absolved," Brother Jeremy said firmly.

"Need to do more…" Marcus coughed. "Loose ends," he said vaguely.

"Okay," Blair said cautiously, knowing he was about to be put in a position where he had no choice about saying yes. "Be specific."

"My cell. Locked box."

"I have the key to that box right here," Brother Jeremy said with a return to his busy efficiency, his hand going to his neck and pulling out a key on a thin chain. "I have it safe, as you see."

Marcus nodded. "Give it to Blair. Explains it all in there. One last letter to you, eh, my friend? Go and get it now."

"Can't it wait until --?" Blair subsided at the glare he got from both men. "Okay."

He took the key from Brother Jeremy's hand, and stood irresolute in the doorway before turning away.

The low cadences of the two men praying followed him as he walked along the corridor, one voice strong, the other stumbling.

Brother Jeremy was crying again.


***

 
"We should do this again," Blair said as they walked through the door.

Jim gave him an amused look. "You said if I even suggested it you'd hand me the map, all sharp corners and rammed --"

"Yeah, I know," Blair said, heading for the fridge. Beer. He needed beer. "The blister on my left heel had just popped; it was the raw agony speaking."

"I don't need to do it again," Jim said. He threw open the doors and stepped out onto the balcony, taking in a deep, satisfied snuffle of Cascade air. Blair rolled his eyes. Exhaust fumes, pollution, and the faintest trace of ozone, but Jim thrived on it. "Not now I know where the lines are."

Blair joined him and held out a beer. "Lines change."

Jim pursed his lips and shrugged. "Then I'll know and I'll walk them again."

"By the pricking of your thumbs?"

"Itching of my back."

Blair ran his hand down Jim's spine, taking advantage of the turn in the conversation to touch Jim. He made it slower than it should have been, verging on a caress, and watched Jim shiver. Hell, he could see Jim's nipples harden against the white T-shirt he wore, the breeze flattening it to the broad chest.

For a moment he tensed, waiting, ready… but Jim, turned, smiled, and tapped his bottle against Blair's, all comradely affection. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." Blair took a gulp of beer. "Any time," he said around the fizz and bite of bubbles.


***


Cascade PD hadn't changed much. Blair stripped away the trivial details of walls a different color and an optimistic attempt to have plants growing in one corner, and walked up to the reception desk without hesitating.

Familiar ground; but an unfamiliar face behind the desk.

Well, that made it easier.

He gave the woman looking at him expectantly, if not welcomingly, a friendly smile. "Hi. I'm here to see Detective Ellison of Major Crimes."

He knew that Jim had never been promoted; he'd gotten to the place where he was best able to do his job -- both his jobs -- and stayed there. A Sentinel in a watchtower… well, it was one way of protecting the tribe, but not the most effective, and Jim knew that, or he had, at least. And it wasn't as if his file wasn't scattered with disciplinary charges as well as commendations; Jim was demonstrably not the ideal type to handle the daily compromise and debt-shuffling a captain needed to do.

"You have an appointment?" She pushed back a strand of hair, tucking it in firmly, and then tapped at her keyboard, presumably bringing up a list of expected visitors.

"No."

"Well, if you give me some details, I can direct you to the department you need."

"I need to speak to Jim Ellison," Blair said. "Could you call him, please?"

Whether it was the use of Jim's first name or the calm determination he was projecting with some difficulty, he didn't know, but she sighed and picked up the phone. "Name, sir?"

Blair hesitated. Give his name and he might as well turn and walk out of the building, but he didn't want to lie. He didn't know the names of any of Jim's current snitches or friends to use as a bluff anyway.

"Tell him Brother Marcus from Saint Sebastian's needs to confess," he said finally.

Her eyebrows rose. "Is that supposed to mean something to him?"

"Just tell him," Blair snapped. He put his palms flat on the counter and stared at her. "Look, I used to work here and I know it wasn't this hard to get to speak to people back then."

"Times have changed," she said dryly. "Step back, sir, and I'll see if Detective Ellison is available."

He was, and, if what Blair had picked up from listening to one side of the conversation was accurate, Jim was annoyed at being interrupted and given cryptic messages, but too conscientious to refuse to see him.

Blair went though a metal detector -- another change -- and allowed himself to be shepherded into Interview Room Three by a uniformed officer, a young woman with a self-important, anxious air. Rookie.

The room was bleak and impersonal, a windowless box furnished only with a table, two chairs, and a phone, but he didn't care. He was going to see Jim soon and the anticipation had his mouth dry and his hands damp. He had a sudden awareness of the flurried beat of his heart, disconcerting and hard to shake free of.

It took longer than he'd expected, but eventually the door opened and Jim walked in. He came to a halt, his mouth tightening as he saw Blair. The uniform gave Jim a puzzled glance, but responded to his jerk of the head, stepping around him and disappearing out of the door.

Jim stayed where he was, one hand still on the door handle, framed in the open doorway, his gaze -- oh, God, he couldn't look away either, could he? Blair swallowed, and watched Jim struggle, equally caught.

It'd been so long. He couldn't take all the changes in, not then. Couldn't get past the familiar blue of Jim's eyes, the clear lines of his mouth. I've kissed that mouth, fucked it, he thought, the memories swirling around him like wind-tossed leaves, difficult to grasp. Heard it murmur my name, scream it -- God, smile, Jim, will you? Look glad to see me.

"You need to leave," Jim said by way of greeting, his voice a harsh rasp. He licked his lips, deliberately enough that Blair knew it wasn't a sign of nervousness but an automatic sensing of the air. He watched Jim frown an instant later and wondered what Jim had picked up out of the chaos of his emotions.

Jim shifted his weight as if he was about to turn and walk away and Blair abandoned any idea of keeping this at an impersonal, friendly level. It had never really been likely to happen that way.

"Brother Marcus is dead," Blair told him.

"I know. I just called the monastery to check."

"I thought you would."

"He was buried yesterday," Jim went on, "so I don't see --"

Blair took out the notebook he'd been carrying for two days now, and placed it on the table, tapping it with his finger.

"Jackie Kozinski needs burying, too."

Jim's gaze traveled to the notebook and back to Blair's face with an indifferent flicker. "It's been thirty years since Kozinski was a player. Any information he had is long cold."

Jim turned away, his hand moving from the outer handle to the interior one, his fingers cupping it. He pulled the open door wider and Blair made a sound that was never meant to be a word because the word didn't exist that could encompass everything he wanted to say to stop Jim leaving.

He thought he heard Jim sigh and then the door was pushed closed and Jim walked over to him and slammed his hands down hard on the table. "What the fuck are you doing this for, Blair?"

"Not what; who," Blair countered. He fed the spark of his anger until it blazed up to meet the ice of Jim's eyes. "Brother Marcus asked me to do something for him and I said I would. That's all."

"Why does it involve me?"

Blair could see some the changes the years had made now, his dazzled eyes clearing. Where Jim's hair was very short -- above his ears, the nape of his neck --gray shone cold amongst the brown. He was still a powerful man, broad-chested, his rolled up shirtsleeves exposing muscular arms. Still good-looking.

He just looked older and Blair had missed it happening.

"Come on, Jim! I get given something that needs to be handed over to the cops and you think I'd go to anyone but you?"

Jim nodded slowly. "Fine. So give it to me and get the hell out of here."

He reached for the notebook and Blair slammed his hand down on it, and pinned it to the table. Jim's thwarted fingers brushed the back of his hand, leaving a sensation intense enough to make Blair suck in a quick breath. Well, that answered one question; yes, he was still physically attracted to Jim in a way no one else had ever matched.

And he'd tested that theory.

Shame it was the one question he already knew the answer to.

"It's not going to work like that," he said, staring up into Jim's face, which was tight with anger, storm clouds gathering. Jim had one hell of a good poker face but Blair had been able to read it from very early on, until Jim refused to play with him, even for fun.

He'd made studying this man his life's work; open book. Always, still.

Jim exhaled sharply. "No? How is it going to work?" He was still bent over, his hands on the table, close enough to smell, all warm skin and soap, familiar scents, catnip-captivating. Blair tried to organize his thoughts when all he wanted to do was grab hold of Jim and soak himself, drown himself in rediscovering him sense by sense, inch by inch. He transferred his gaze to the notebook captured under his hand, Jim's hand close by, the nails bitten short, a new scar across one knuckle

Jim edged closer, his breath intimate, warm, on Blair's neck, his voice calm, even amused now. He'd seen Jim do this in a dozen interrogations; the friendly air of menace was surprisingly effective. "What do you see happening, Blair? A change of heart for me? A reconciliation? A happy fucking ending?"

A single finger stroked down Blair's cheek, the first deliberate touch he'd had from Jim in seven years. "It's not going to happen. I've moved on. Met other people. Forgotten you, except once a year when you remind me and ruin my fucking birthday like the selfish little shit you -- you--"

Blair turned his head and looked directly at Jim, silencing him, although Jim had been on the verge of running out of words anyway, his voice shaking, the murmured words slowing, the tremor in Jim's voice robbing them of their spite. "Want me to tell you I forgive you again?" he asked Jim. "Because I will. Want me to beg for a second chance I've been willing to give you for years? I'll do that, too. I don't have much pride left where you're concerned. But don't call me selfish."

"Don't do this."

Blair raised his hand and placed it on Jim's face, feeling the jerk and grind of muscle and teeth. Tense as hell. "God, I've missed you."

Jim closed his eyes, swaying. "Oh, fuck, no." He dragged the other chair out and sat down, resting his head on his hands, his breathing fast and labored. "I can hear -- God, I can hear --"

"Hear what?" Blair asked, bewildered. Understanding came with the look of dull resentment Jim gave him. "Your senses -- they went away again? How long? They're back?"

The door opened as he spoke and Simon answered for Jim, an imposing figure in the doorway, his face impassive and unwelcoming. "They've been erratic since you left him, Sandburg. Pretty much gone altogether for the last few years."

"And it hasn't stopped me doing my job," Jim said, standing up, the vehemence in his voice making Blair flinch, the momentary confusion he'd shown replaced with a hard calm. "Has it, sir?"

"I can't say that it has," Simon answered after a moment's deliberation. "You always were a good cop, Jim. I've never doubted that." His gaze settled on Blair, who straightened where he sat in a remembered response to the authority Simon projected. "So you're back."

"For now, yes."

"Took your time," Simon said with a dismissive grunt.

"Well, it's not like I had much choice --"

"Ever occur to you that Jim might have needed your help from time to time?" Simon always used a generous hand when he was ladling out sarcasm; some things hadn't changed.

"Simon," Jim said, a clear warning in his voice.

"No, Jim." Simon stabbed the air with his finger, his attention fixed on Blair. "Do you know how long he spent looking for you?"

"What?" Blair looked between the two men, unable to keep the incredulity off his face.

Jim covered his eyes with his hand and sighed. "Look, Simon --"

"He always knew where I was," Blair snapped. Protecting Jim, covering for Jim -- there were limits even to that ingrained instinct. "When I got settled, and every time I moved, I sent him my new address." He swung around to glare at Jim. "On a postcard. So you couldn't avoid reading it. They never came back like the fucking letters so I assume you got them, right?"

"What?" Simon gave Jim a bewildered look. "You knew where he was?"

"What's my address, Jim?" Blair asked. "Go on; tell me."

Jim rolled his eyes and then, when Blair glared at him, recited it in a monotone, his face unreadable.

"I see," Simon said ominously. He looked at Blair. "Vancouver? Not that far away, then."

"Not that far," Blair agreed. He hadn't been able to fool himself for long that he'd broken away from his old life by moving to a new country; as the crow flew he was close, always had been.

Just in case.

"And you're back now, because?"

Blair's fingers curled around the edge of the notebook. "Brother Marcus died."

Simon's forehead furrowed and he gave an exasperated sigh. "That's supposed to mean something to me?"

Jim stepped forward. "Simon -- he was a close friend of Blair's. You remember; the monastery? Jackie Kozinski?"

"Oh, right," Simon muttered, giving Blair an apologetic glance. "Sorry, Sandburg."

Blair raised his hand in acknowledgement and let it fall back to the table. The two men loomed over him, filling the small room, leaving him breathless, lost.

No. He was close to having a panic attack. Fuck. He ducked his head down and concentrated on breathing, hearing Simon's worried voice at a distance through the buzzing in his ears.

Then Jim's hand stroked over his hair and down to cup his neck. "It's okay, Chief. Just take it easy."

"Fuck you," Blair said with as much clarity as he could muster. He straightened, feeling gloriously angry and clear-headed, and directed his words to Simon, shaking Jim's hand off. "He gave me this notebook. It's an encoded set of directions to around three million in cash buried in the woods north of the city and a list of who he got it from. It's from bribes, hush money, extortion… he saw it as tainted so he never used it but he said that he couldn't just leave it there."

He stood, pushing the chair back. "I don't know who gets to decide what happens to it but he wanted me to be there when it was found." He hesitated and then continued, "And he wanted me to work with Jim on this one. He trusted him because of what happened last time they met."

"That's not going to happen." Jim was back to the way he'd been when he'd walked in, coldly unapproachable, even hostile. "Hand the notebook over and we'll take it from there."

Blair smiled, not all that nicely. "Coded, Jim. And though I'm sure you could break it in time, by then I'll have found the money -- did I mention I'd made a copy of what's in this book? -- and let me tell you, I wouldn't hand it over to the government; I'd make sure it did some good."

"Hard to go treasure hunting from a jail cell, Chief."

"You're going to arrest me?" Blair demanded. "On what grounds?"

"Oh, try an admission of conspiracy to defraud, failure to cooperate with --"

"I want to cooperate," Blair told him, his voice rising. "It's you who's being so damn pigheaded -- God."

"That's enough!" Simon's bellow was as impressive as ever. "You two; button it." He eyed Blair for a moment and then nodded decisively. "Go and find it. Both of you. Take backup if you need it."

"We won't," Blair said. "Just some camping supplies, a compass, and two shovels. One day out, camp, find it, one day back."

Simon smiled. "Just like the old days, eh? The two of you off on a fishing trip."

Blair gave Jim an uncertain look. "Yeah," he said in a subdued voice. "Just like them."

Jim was going to kill him and bury his body deep if his expression was anything to go by.

"So why don't you take the rest of the day off, Jim," Simon went on. "Catch up on things with Blair here. Pack. Head out tomorrow."

"I won't do it," Jim said softly. "You can have my resignation, if you need it, but I won't go along with whatever scheme Blair's cooked up to -- to --"

Simon's hand landed on Jim's shoulder, gripping it tightly for a moment. "To get you back?" he said, his voice gentle. "Jim, I don't know what happened between you two and what I thought I knew turns out to be a lie -- and believe me, we are going to be discussing that -- but I do know you used to be a damn sight happier than you are now."

"Sir, with all due respect," Jim began.

Simon grinned. "I know. Butt out of your private life." He cocked his head at Blair. "I did. For all the good it did you."

"You knew about us?" Blair said blankly.

Simon snorted. "Of course I knew. Hell, I wasn't blind, was I? But I couldn't know officially and I hoped to God you never told me any other way because ignorance was bliss." He glanced at them warily. "You're not going to hug, are you?"

"No, Simon," Jim said in a low growl. "I'm walking out, remember?"

"Won't accept it," Simon told him affably. "Blair; are you going to compromise on this? Hand the notebook over, or go with another officer? Hell, I'll make the trip with you, if you like, as long as I get to take my fishing rod with me."

"No. Jim or no one."

Simon shrugged, looking resigned and not surprised. "I can make it an order if it makes you feel any better, Jim, but we need that list and that money. Assuming it's still there… it's been a long time."

"It doesn't make it better, sir."

"Then how about this." Simon pointed at Blair. "You respect Jim's wishes and you keep this professional all the way, okay? No reminiscing, no crawling into his sleeping bag --"

"Simon!" Blair protested.

"Your word, Blair."

Blair looked, not at Simon but at Jim. "You've got my word I won't push you on anything personal. We go there, we get it, we come back."

"You get it and you signal for backup," Simon corrected him. "That's a lot of money to carry through the woods; too risky. I can have a chopper pick you up within the hour once you radio in that you've got it."

He looked at Jim and raised his eyebrows. "Well? Are you in? And so help me, you threaten to resign again and I'll bust your ass down to uniform and you'll be directing traffic."

Jim's mouth closed in a firm straight line and then he nodded once.

Simon beamed and clapped Blair on the shoulder. "Good to see you again, Blair. Been too long."

Blair smiled back. "Glad enough to give me a hug?"

He thought he was going to get bellowed at but Simon just scowled and then hugged him briefly but warmly, and let him go. "That didn't happen," Simon told them. He shook his finger at them in a warning. "I don't hug."

"Yes, sir," Jim said politely. "Didn't see a thing." He yanked open the door with a force that didn't match his tone. "If you'll both excuse me, I need to clear my desk if I'm going on a wild goose chase tomorrow."

"Let him go," Simon said as Blair started forward to follow Jim. "I'll make sure he doesn't get a chance to change his mind, and he needs the space."

"He can hear you, you know," Blair reminded Simon.

Simon gave him a pitying look. "Not anymore, Sandburg. Not anymore."

Blair opened his mouth to tell Simon that Jim's senses had returned and then subsided. It might not be more than a temporary resurgence; no sense in discussing it.

"So tell me," Simon went on, leaning against the table. "What the hell happened to you?"

"Long story," Blair said uncommunicatively.

"I bet," Simon gave him the smile that promised pain if he didn't get a straight answer. "So when exactly did it start?"

"When did what start?" Blair eyed the door. He wouldn't make it. Gray had frosted Simon's hair but the man was still powerfully built.

"You. Jim."

"Aren't you being a little nosy, Simon?"

Simon's smile disappeared. "No, Blair. I'm being a lot nosy. And I'm entitled. I find out two of my friends have lied to me; Jim to my face and you by omission, and I'm entitled to some answers." He hooked his foot around the leg of the chair nearest to him and pushed it away from the table. "Sit. Let Jim get over the shock, and sit. And talk." The smile returned. "You were always good at that."

Blair capitulated and sat down, glancing up at Simon. "When did what start? Me wanting Jim? Or me getting him?"

Simon's eyes widened, as if he hadn't expected that amount of frankness, and Blair held back a smile he knew would be on the smug side. "Both," Simon replied after a moment. He sat down in the other chair and folded his hands across his stomach. "Both."

"Day one for the wanting, and, oh, about two months after I became his official partner for the doing." Blair raised his eyebrows. "You look like you don't believe me."

"Four years and you never made a move on each other?" Simon shook his head. "I was way off…"

"I didn't say that we didn't want to. We just… huh. Okay, this isn't as easy as I thought it would be. We knew there was all this… this -- but we knew just how much it could fuck up everything we had. Jim's job, my diss, our working and social relationship." Blair paused. "Our friendship. And it's not like either of us had the best track record with relationships, you know? So we just -- didn't."

"You got that right," Simon muttered without being specific. He gave Blair a sidelong glance. "No, he's not seeing anyone. I'd know. He isn't."

"I didn't ask."

"But you wanted to know." Simon gave him an inquiring look. "How about you?"

"No one serious," Blair said awkwardly, faces and names flitting across his mind, sometimes not matching. There had been some wild nights he regretted later, when, driven by anger, he'd gone out, got drunk, got laid. Not many, but some. "I'm teaching at a college in Vancouver; go on the occasional expedition; write a couple of articles a year; you know; publish or perish. I'm busy."

"No, you're getting old," Simon told him. He looked satisfied. "Now, me, I'm with someone. Lorna, her name is. We're talking about getting married -- and Daryl is. I'll be a grand-daddy by fall; I'm not letting life pass me by."

"Simon, you old dog," Blair said, grinning, relieved that the conversation seemed to have moved on. "Congratulations. Tell me more. And bring me up to speed, will you? What about everyone else? How have they been?"

"Well…" Simon took a deep breath. "Rafe's running his own security firm these days…"


***


"Two months on the streets and I shoot someone," Blair said, knowing he was being unreasonable and not caring. "You told me some officers put in their twenty years without shooting anyone, and I do it after two months."

He leaned back against the couch, noting with an irritable familiarity that with his hair short it didn't get caught between his shoulders and the furniture. He didn't want to notice that. He was bored with noticing that, but it didn't stop him doing it every single fucking time.

Jim sat down on the coffee table facing him and patted his knee reassuringly. "It's not like he's dead, Chief. You shot him in the arm."

"And the bullet shattered his shoulder and he'll never use that arm again."

"He'll never use it to fire a gun at an eight-year-old kid whose only crime was riding her bike on his yard and ruining his precious fucking grass," Jim said. "Blair, the guy was a nutcase, hopped up on drugs, seriously unstable; if you hadn't shot him his next bullet might have hit her."

"You," Blair muttered.

"What?"

Blair lifted his head and met Jim's gaze. "It might have hit you," he said, making it clear because sometimes you had to be honest or hate yourself in the morning. "Tanya was safe; she'd gotten out of the line of fire; he was aiming at you and that's why I shot him." He stared up at the distant ceiling of the loft. "And I was aiming for his heart, going for the kill. I just missed."

"Chief…" Jim murmured, sounding shaken. "That's not what you said in your report."

"Well, no," Blair said with a bitter sarcasm, dragging his gaze back to Jim with an effort. "It wasn't. Somehow, I thought putting it in black and white that when it comes to you I've got a protective streak a mile wide, and God help anyone who tried to hurt you, might be misunderstood."

Jim was gaping at him, thunderstruck and speechless, his throat working as he tried to swallow.

"And it doesn't matter that we don't do the deed; we're still fucked even if we're not fucking," Blair went on recklessly, flinging words against the silence, bullets against glass. "Because you matter more to me than anyone I'm supposed to be out there protecting and you always will and I'd never put anyone before you."

"Not even Tanya? Or any other kid, any other citizen?" Jim asked, his voice quiet enough that Blair had to concentrate to hear him.

Citizen. It was an oddly formal word to use, one Blair knew the history of and Jim most likely didn't because he didn't need to. Jim knew what it meant at a simpler level; people he was sworn to protect by profession, by nature, by choice. That was a good enough definition for him.

"I can give you the proper answer, the textbook one," Blair said tiredly. "I can even say honestly that I'd be willing to die myself to keep her safe -- anyone safe." He smiled, a crooked smile, one that bent his mouth in ways it didn't want to go. "I'm just not willing for you to do it."

"That's not your call."

"No. I know that. Doesn't change anything."

"Why? And don't give me crap about it being a shaman thing; a true shaman knows there's no greater honor, no better death, than to go out protecting the people of the tribe."

"It's nothing to do with the Sentinel thing." Blair sighed. "You're going to make me say it, aren't you? I love you. I fucking love you and you die and I'm lost. Man. I'm just --" he sliced his hand across the air. "I'm gone. You brought me back; I can't do that. You probably wouldn't let me, even if I knew how, and I don't know, don't have a fucking clue."

"I didn't know, either." Jim's face was flushed now, his eyes darkening. "And what, you think I've got some sort of death wish? You bring me back, you hear me, Sandburg?"

He could hear him; no trouble hearing Jim when he was yelling at him from a distance of about a foot.

"Okay," he said, the single, inadequate word all he had to offer.

Jim gave an incredulous snort and shook his head, repeating the word under his breath. "Sandburg, only you could make resurrection sound as mundane as getting takeout."

"Whatever," Blair mumbled, feeling exhausted. He closed his eyes. "I shot someone."

"This where I came in."

Jim's voice was amused now, relaxed. Blair wasn't sure whether to be grateful Jim had accepted his declaration so calmly or insulted. Though, thinking about it, it wouldn't really have come as much of a surprise, after all.

"This love thing…" Jim's fingers brushed Blair's knee lightly as if in warning. "It's the friendly, brothers in arms, best buds type still?"

"Always," Blair affirmed. And then, because he could be a vicious son of a bitch at times, the kind you really didn't want mad at you, he cracked his eyes open and added, "And it's the want to fuck you raw, wake up wrapped around you, lick whipped cream off your six-pack type, too. And that love came first, and man, has it gotten to be a habit."

'That's love?" Jim sounded thoughtful, not shocked. "Sounds like something from below the waist, not behind your ribs, Chief."

"You got a problem with good old-fashioned lust? When it's attached to everything else I've got in my head and my gut when it comes to you?"

Jim pursed his lips and then shook his head slowly. "Can't say that I have."

The hand on Blair's knee was a heavy weight now, an anchor.

"Chief?"

"Mmm?" Blair managed to say through the beat of blood, racing, rushing, changing direction. "Yes, I do."

"You answered the question before you even heard it." Again with the considering purse of the lips. "But that's okay. I don't mind you being in my head or any other part of my body."

"You think I can read your mind?" Blair chuckled, the sound a little shaky to be amused. "No. Lucky guess. Extrapolation of where the conversation was going based on how well I know you. I skipped to the bit where you asked if I wanted to have sex to save time."

"Sometimes it feels that way. Like we've got this telepathy thing going on." Jim pulled a pained face. "Not really. I can't hear you or anything, Chief. It's just… this connection."

Blair looked at him. "Do you mind?"

"Used to." Jim's hand rose and Blair felt Jim's finger draw a wavering line from his temple to his chin. "Not now. Sometimes with you I lose sight of where the lines are between us. If there even are any."

"The anthropologist in me says there are," Blair told him. "Two males, sharing a home, a job; forget the Sentinel stuff; the power dynamics between us as men are fascinating as hell."

"Lines can get erased." Jim's expression was serious, even abstracted, all his attention seemingly concentrated on the route his finger was taking, the light touch of that single fingertip imbued with so much intimacy that Blair's throat ached from it.

Jim. Touching him. Doing something that was a world away from flirtation and seduction. Making Blair hard without him even noticing it happening, a side-effect, not a goal, until his confined erection protested, alerting him, and he dropped his hand automatically to ease it into a more comfortable position.

Jim's gaze went to Blair's lap and he smiled, a bare twitch of lips Blair had once spent a whole sleepless night obsessing over, allowing himself feverish fantasies from the romantic to the raunchy, vanilla to kinky. Kinky enough, in fact, that he'd gotten up early, staggering with weariness, dick chafed, head swimming, and let himself out of the loft before Jim woke. It had been worth the early start because he'd have babbled blushing apologies and Jim would have wanted details -- maybe -- and they weren't, oh, God, they really weren't, anything he wanted to share with a man scratching his ass sleepily as he waited for the coffee to brew.

"I suppose." Blair drew in a deep breath and tried to snatch some oxygen from the air because clearly Jim was hogging it all, if Blair's lightheadedness was anything to go by. "If we wanted to."

Jim's smile grew and the cock of his eyebrow as he glanced up at Blair was so deliberately lecherous that Blair grinned back, losing his doubts and, for the moment, setting aside his distress over the day's events.

Which, genuine though it was, was tempered by the fact that Jim was in one piece and that was never going to be something Blair regretted, no matter how dearly bought.

"I can see yours; want to see mine?" Jim offered, his gaze returning to the outlined thrust of Blair's erection.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Blair said dryly. "Anyone ever tell you that you've got an exhibitionist streak, Jim?"

"I thought you were going to say 'sadistic'," Jim answered. "Though it sometimes felt more like masochism. You may have thought I was showing you what you couldn't have, but it was the other way around."

"I wasn't the one wandering around in my shorts."

"No. you were the one looking at me in my shorts and coming close to tripping on your tongue." Jim went from the coffee table to his knees in a single, graceful slide and pushed Blair's legs apart casually so that he could shift even closer. Staring down into Jim's face, not up, was novel, but Blair barely spared it a thought. That act of unthinking possessiveness, as if Blair's body was Jim's to move, pose, position -- that should have been a line that needed to be erased, and it had taken him this long -- years -- to realize that it had never existed between them. It had always been this way and he did it, too, every time he pushed Jim's senses to their limits and then manipulated Jim's strung-out body to a quiescent calm with words or touch.

Jim's hands came to rest on Blair's hips, his fingers spread, his thumbs describing small circles in the shallow hollows there, the warmth of his hands tangible even through a layer of denim. "You looked at me as if you had this list of things you wanted to do to me."

"Well… not a list exactly. I may have given it some thought from time to time."

"In the shower?"

Jim's head ducked before Blair could admit that, yes, the shower and thinking about Jim had often gone hand in hand. A low murmur, verging on a growl, came from Jim's throat, and sent a shiver through Blair.

"Jim?" he asked uncertainly.

Jim mouthed the swell of Blair's balls, the damp heat of his breath soaking through to Blair's skin a moment later. Or maybe Blair's body had flushed hot; it didn't really seem important. Blair gave a high, shocked whimper even as he was arching his hips and grinding against that open, eager mouth.

Jim looked up at him, a brief, swift glance. "I need you to get out of these jeans. Or just push them down."

"That's not very romantic --" Jim made a frustrated snarling sound and rubbed his forehead against Blair's thigh, clearly making an effort to stay calm. "Screw romance," Blair decided. "Sure."

He unzipped and pushed his jeans and shorts down with a wriggle he tried to make sensuous and spread his legs as wide as they could go. The tough fabric dug into his thighs but he didn't care. Jim nuzzled the bared skin of Blair's leg and bit down, sucking hard enough to leave a mark on the skin.

It hurt and Blair threaded his fingers through the soft, short hair on Jim's head and tugged, remonstrating with him silently and getting a penitent kiss on the stinging skin.

"Sorry," Jim whispered. "Sorry --"

Blair leaned forward and used the hand in Jim's hair to angle Jim's head and expose his neck. "Don't apologize. Just let me get even."

This close he could smell Jim, the familiar scent concentrated, intensified. Blair took one approving snuffle, moaned, and licked at skin, marking his territory, claiming his spot. Then he let the kisses he peppered over it get harder, wetter, until without using his teeth -- much -- he'd left a patch of reddened skin.

He drew back, feeling the ache in his untouched cock, and surveyed the mark with satisfaction. It would fade before anyone else saw it, but for now it was there.

"Why are you in such a rush?" Blair asked softly. "Years of not doing anything, and you decide it has to happen now, in the next thirty seconds? And that's all the time you'll get before I come, just to warn you."

"I didn't decide; you did." Jim rubbed his hand over his marked neck. "When you told me all that stuff."

"Still not getting the connection between me telling you something you already knew and wham-bam, Blair gets a blow job."

"You said it," Jim said doggedly. "You've never said it before. It made a difference and I just -- Sandburg, I'm fucking hurting here. Let me do this or say no and I'll go and jerk off in my room."

Blair scowled at him. "Just try leaving me like this and see how far you get. Jesus, Jim, do it. Just go easy on the teeth, that's all."

He got a surprisingly sweet smile and then Jim wrapped his hand around the base of Blair's cock and rubbed the head of it over his closed lips, once, twice, three times. By the third pass, Jim's mouth had relaxed enough that Blair could feel the smooth, damp skin of his inner lips but it wasn't enough. He tried to push inside that waiting haven and Jim's free hand smacked down on his hip and held him in place.

"I can make it last longer than thirty seconds," Jim said, the words a caress because he didn't move his mouth away as he spoke. "Two minutes, at least."

"Okay, okay. God." Blair dug the fingers of one hand deep into a cushion lying beside him and stroked roughly, awkwardly at the back of Jim's head. "I can't believe you're doing this. Really can't. We were just talking, three minutes ago, talking, and now --"

"You're still talking." Jim gave him a look so annoyed, so exasperated that Blair relaxed. Not everything had changed. Jim waited until Blair had been silent for long enough to suit him and then nodded. "Thank you."

It didn't sound sarcastic.

Blair leaned back and let his hand drop to Jim's shoulder and then away in as clear a message as he could send that he was done interrupting.

Jim sighed with relief and went back to what he'd been doing.

***


Simon glanced at his watch. "Damn. I'm supposed to be in a meeting… Look, just go down to the lobby, will you, Blair? There isn't anyone on duty you know upstairs and I don't think it's a good idea to make Jim deal with you in front of people he works with."

"He's not going to hit me, or yell," Blair protested.

"Hit you? No." Simon showed his teeth. "Not while I'm there, he won't. Yelling at you is a different story and if he says something in the heat of the moment and lets more slip than he means to… well."

"Fine," Blair said, sighing. "I'll wait down there."

"He won't be long," Simon assured him. "Clearing his desk -- you know him; there's never that much on it. He works hard. Too hard, sometimes. He lost a week's leave last year because he didn't use it."

"Sounds like Jim." Blair stood. "Simon… I thought you knew. What had happened, where I was; Jim knew so I thought he'd tell you."

"Does that sound like Jim, too?" Simon asked dryly. "He didn't say anything much, Blair. Just came in one morning looking like hell and an hour later I got the call from admin. that you'd handed in your resignation, effective immediately. I had him in my office right away and all I got was that blank stare of his." Simon looked rueful. "Took me the best part of ten minutes yelling to get a few details out; you weren't happy being a cop, the trip away and all that happened out there had made you re-evaluate your life's direction… Got to hand it to him, he had your line of bullshit down. It rang true."

"Thanks," Blair said, not hiding the bitterness. "And I thought I was doing okay as a cop. Guess I was wrong, huh?"

"You were doing fine," Simon said. "Not sure how well you'd have made out working with anyone but Jim, but no one expected you to swap partners. But are you going to tell me you don't like it better where you are? Teaching, writing, researching?"

"I like it," Blair said. "I'm probably even better at it than being a cop. But it's not where I chose to be. And it's not -- Simon, I miss him."

"Hold it right there." Simon raised his hand, palm out. "Don't want to know if you've been crying into your pillow for seven years."

"I miss him," Blair repeated through his teeth. "This is all so fucking stupid but he wouldn't listen to me."

"That must have been a shock."

"Yeah, actually it was," Blair admitted. "Sometimes it took a while to get through to him but I always managed it in the end. Not that time."

"Mmm." Simon walked to the door and paused. "Think you'll do better this time?"

Blair smiled brightly. "Count on it."

"Huh." Okay, he hadn't really expected Simon to buy that. "Just as long as he remembers he's supposed to use his shovel to dig up the money, not hit you over the head with." Simon nodded at the notebook. "You know how to decode that?"

"I already have."

It had been easy enough; a cipher based on Brother Marcus' favorite psalm.

"So you didn't really need Jim at all?"

Blair looked at him. "I wouldn't say that, Simon."

***


"Didn't we go through this once before?"

"It's not the same, Jim! I'm not going for a year and you know I'm coming back. It's not the same at all."

"You still won't be here. You're supposed to be my partner, dammit."

"Megan knows what to do. I've discussed it with her and she's going to be fine. You haven't zoned in months, anyway."

"You just can't fucking wait to go, can you?"

"I can't --? Jim, what the hell is this? It's three months. Three. An exchange program, not an expedition. I'll be working in a city with access to phones, e-mail -- we can talk every day."

"I don't need you to hold my fucking hand, Sandburg! I just don't see why they're sending you."

"Because I volunteered. Because it's going to be fascinating to see how the infrastructure of a foreign police force compares to ours. Because it's Peru and I feel a connection to that place because of you, because of my own trip there."

"Because you can't wait to get away from me."

Blair stared at Jim, refusing to back down although Jim was looking pretty intimidating, his face reddened, his jaw muscle jumping. "It's looking more appealing every moment. Jesus, what's gotten into you? Think I'm going to hook up with someone tall, dark and handsome? Because I've --"

The planned, half-formed words 'already got that covered with you' were lost in the red haze of pain as Jim's fist collided with his gut, driving in, knocking the breath out of him in one undignified grunt and gasp.

He doubled over, fighting to drag air back into his body, flashing back to the time he'd drowned and the world had narrowed, collapsed to the atoms of oxygen held within the shell of his skin, the fragile dying flesh.

Even then, even knowing who'd reduced him to this, his hand groped out for Jim, needing something to hold on to because he was damned if he was going to his knees. Jim allowed his arm to be grabbed but that was it. No words of apology, swift and flurried, no encircling hug, no anxiously rubbing hand.

Blair glanced up through watering eyes and saw the shock in Jim's face, a mirror for his own expression a few moments earlier.

Well, at least Jim didn't look satisfied with himself; if he had, Blair would have been tempted to hit him back. He didn't fool himself that a few months of training made it likely that he'd manage to connect his fist with Jim's jaw, but male pride demanded some response.

"Are you going to hit me again?" he said thickly through the pain.

Jim stared at him and then shook his head, a slow, heavy movement.

"You're insane, you know that. I wouldn't screw around on you, Jim. I just wouldn't."

"Why am I different from everyone else you've been with and fucked over?"

The insult, and the judgment implied, was as much of a blow as the actual one had been. Blair saw himself briefly through Jim's eyes, remembered every shared confidence about the women he'd dated, realized just how he must have appeared. He'd always assumed Jim's occasionally sarcastic comments about his love life were Jim's way of joking, based maybe in envy; finding out that they'd been no more than the simple truth hurt.

"You are, okay?" He was standing straight now, his hands curled into fists by his side. "And yes, I've had trouble committing, but you of all people should know I haven't left a trail of broken hearts. I've dated for fun, for sex -- never serious and they knew that. Hell, apart from Sam, name me one who holds a grudge; I could pick up that phone right now, call any one of them and get --"

"A date?"

"A conversation," Blair said, his anger seeping away like water into sand. "Jim, I'm going. I'm not turning this trip down. It's got nothing to do with anything going on between us, or the job --"

Even as he said it, he knew it wasn't true. The job, the day in, day out stress, the long hours, traumatic scenes; they were getting to him. He wasn't allowed to wander away, face screwed up in nauseated pity, when they were called to a scene with a dead body, flesh mangled, discolored. No, he had to squat down by Jim and study the crime scene, his lungs filled with tainted air, his vision clouded with horrors.

None of that was entirely new, though, and he hadn't thrown up yet; he guessed in time he'd get used to it all. It was a concern, but not a worry.

Jim's insecure possessiveness was both.

It wasn't, like the corpses, a total surprise. Blair knew Jim's issues through observation and a process of piecing together a mosaic of clues. Jim had shared stuff with him charily, sure, but there had been sharing, and Carolyn had been brutally frank when he'd interviewed her over the phone. He should have been prepared for what would happen to a Jim Ellison in a long-term relationship.

Which, for both of them, meant one that could be counted in months, not weeks.

Should have, but hadn't been. Too blindsided by lust and love, too giddy with the opportunity to get his hands on Jim and give him every touch he'd been storing up, the chance to share Jim's bed, wake up beside him, too happy to discover what a mushy sap Jim turned into when he'd had one beer too many.

Every single warning sign had gone unheeded for the first month or so.

Like the time he'd been in a bar talking to Andy, an old friend from the Rainier Art department, and Andy had leaned in close, laughing, as he semi-seriously asked Blair to pose for him. Jim had materialized at Blair's shoulder, his hand duplicating a move that naked, in bed, always made Blair mewl and shudder but which he really could've done without experiencing in public, and Andy's eyes had widened with a knowing, wicked amusement that had made Blair blush.

One incident, repeated, variations on a theme, until Blair got the message; Jim didn't like sharing him unless it was with a select, trusted few.

He thought, given time, that it would wear off, but he wasn't sure his patience was adequate to the wait. He didn't like it. Hated feeling suffocated, mistrusted.

And he should have realized how Jim would see this exchange program as soon as Simon had brought it up. Simon's friend from the Lima police department, Captain Sandoval, had proposed it. He was sending over one of his new detectives to Cascade and he wanted one of Simon's in return. The exchange was being funded by the Peruvian government and Blair was the obvious choice.

Obvious to everyone but Jim, who had thrown out objection after objection until Simon had flat-out ordered him to shut up.

"It's not us," Blair repeated. "I just want to do this and you know what? I don't need your fucking permission."

Jim stepped back and held up his hands palm out. "Hey. You go, Chief. Have fun. Bring me back a souvenir, huh?"

The door slammed behind him a moment later.

"You didn't say you were sorry for hitting me, you asshole," Blair said clearly, knowing it would be heard. "Thanks for doing it where it doesn't show. Saves me explaining it away tomorrow."

And the classic move of an abuser, but he didn't bother saying that aloud.

Jim already knew that.


***


Blair turned from a desultory study of the notice board in the lobby to see Jim striding out of the elevator doors, his face dark with anger. He was willing to bet Simon had improved the shining hour with a few comments but it didn't really matter. You couldn't wet water.

Jim walked past Blair without slowing, giving an ill-tempered jerk of his head in an invitation to follow him.

Blair fell into step beside him, matching Jim's raking stride without difficulty, and they walked around the building to the parking lot.

"You don't have the truck?" he commented as Jim paused by a nondescript pickup and fumbled in his jacket pocket for the keys.

"Rolled it in a chase. Totaled it," Jim answered briefly.

"Oh, man." Blair allowed himself a moment of regret -- he'd liked that truck and it'd had some good memories attached -- and then said, "Were you hurt? I mean, that sounds kind of --"

"I'm not made of glass, Sandburg. I was fine."

Blair watched the aborted move of Jim's hand, tracking its original destination to Jim's collarbone. He'd probably broken it, lurching hard against the seat belt.

"Sure," he said with a sigh. "Take more than that to put a dent in you, right?"

"Just get in the truck, will you?"

"Where are we going?"

He knew. Only one place Jim would go after a shock like this. Retreat to his lair. And, on a more mundane level, unless Jim had put it into storage, it was where his camping gear was and he'd want to look it over.

"Back to the loft." Where else? hung in the air.

Blair got into the truck which, like all of Jim's rides, smelled of coffee and gun oil with a faint whiff of fries. Interesting that Jim had assumed they'd drive off together. Blair had left his car in a long-term car park two blocks away but he'd been prepared to retrieve it and tail along behind Jim all the way to the woods.

Old habits or a need to keep Blair close, where he could see him? Blair didn't know.

Jim pulled away with a screech of rubber and Blair hastily fastened his seat belt. Seven years hadn't improved Jim's driving any.

***


"Jim? It's Blair. Look, the plane's about to board but I just wanted to say -- you know what I want to say. Miss you, okay? I haven't even left and I miss you and I -- I love you -- I told you that last night, right? -- and if you're there and not picking up so I can hear you wish me a safe trip -- Jim? Damn."

***


"Are you going to keep this up for much longer, Jim? The not talking, not even being halfway civil?"

"As long as it takes to get the message through that you're wasting your time coming back here."

"I'm doing something for a friend; I don't think that's a waste of my time."

"Brother Marcus is dead and I doubt he knows or cares what you're doing." Jim spun the wheel, taking the same route home he always had, from what Blair remembered. "You're doing this for yourself."

"I'm not going to pretend I'm not glad to see you," Blair said quietly. "It's -- I can't -- it's good." He stared at Jim's profile, glutting himself on the sight, hungry, avid. "God, I've never stopped loving you, you know that."

"I can't do this," Jim said softly. It sounded as if the words were directed at himself, not Blair. Jim turned his head for a moment and looked directly at Blair. "Blair. Don't. Please." He turned his gaze, if not his full attention, back to the road. "You promised."

"Yeah." Blair looked out of the window, absently noting the changes. " I did, didn't I." He drew in a long breath and exhaled. "So, how are the Jags doing?"

"Don't make conversation, either," Jim said. "It's too…" He took his hand off the wheel and waved it aimlessly. "Surreal. Weird."

"So what can we talk about?" Blair snapped.

Jim's mouth curved. "Not a lot left, so I guess you'll have to button it."

"No," Blair said firmly. "There's one thing we can talk about."

"And what's that?"

"The case."

"Hardly that," Jim objected, but he shrugged. "Okay. Fill me in on exactly what Marcus told you."

"Sure," Blair said, keeping the elation out of his voice. Within three blocks, Jim would be talking with him, not at him, he just knew it.

Old times. Good times.

Mostly.

***


"Blair? Ah, you're opening your eyes! That is good, my friend."

Eyelids had never seemed heavy before. Now his were weighted down, no, stuck down with something hard and crusty. Blair tried to reach up and knuckle the sleep from his eyes and cried out as the slight movement wracked his body with pain, minor shockwaves continuing after he'd frozen in place.

"Lie still," the soft voice commanded.

Blair sorted through memories and attached a face to it. Captain Sandoval.

"Wha -- what happened?" he said thickly. "Eyes… can't see."

Tell me I'm not blind, he begged silently.

"Blood," Sandoval said matter-of-factly. "Dried. It trickled down from the cut on your forehead and they were too busy stitching it to wash your face. I have a cloth and a bowl of water here, if you will permit?"

"Thank you," Blair whispered. He submitted to the discomfort of water trickling down his face and neck -- Sandoval was careful but not all that skilled -- and managed to prize open his eyes a few moments later.

Hospital. But he'd known that from the smell and the sounds and the crinkle of stiff sheets.

"What happened?" he asked again.

Sandoval's eyes narrowed. "What do you remember?"

Blair stepped back through his memories; breakfast, no, forward a little… leaving the small apartment in Santa Beatriz he'd been given for the duration of his stay… the blue sky overhead hazed with faint, high wisps of cloud, the streets bustling and noisy… walking down Tacna Avenue --

"Yes," Sandoval told him. "You were. You do not recall more…? No? No matter. You remember enough!" He struck his hands together in an emphatic gesture of approval and Blair winced. "You were run over. Or, rather, a car driven by a drunk who even now is in my cells, spun out of control and would have hit you but you jumped away."

"I jumped?"

"According to eye witnesses, you gave a mighty leap." The twinkle in Sandoval's dark brown eyes indicated that he, too, found this hard to believe. "It matters not; you avoided the car, which crashed into a lamppost, and you struck your head sharply on one of three steps leading up to a coffee shop."

"Huh." Blair cautiously experimented with his extremities and found they were all attached. "I didn't do anything else?"

"You have minor bruises, a sprained ankle and a cracked rib." Sandoval gave him a sympathetic grimace. "The lower of the three steps, I think."

"Could have been worse," Blair murmured. "Sorry."

"My friend!" Sandoval clucked his tongue. "It is I who am sorry that you have come here and been so shamefully mistreated. I apologize on behalf of my city."

"You're different than Simon," Blair murmured through the blossoming headache. "He'd have blamed me."

"Captain Banks --" Was that a hint of reproof at Blair's familiarity? "I do not know what I will tell him when I send you home. You will assure him that the miscreant will be dealt with to the full extent of the law?"

"Home?"" Blair blinked at him. "I don't go back for another seven weeks."

"Not after this," Sandoval said firmly. "As soon as you are discharged you will return to Cascade." He spread his hands wide. "What will you? It is a matter of insurance. Liability."

"Politics," Blair summed up. "Right."

Fuck. All that arguing with Jim about making this trip -- the effects of which had been shown in the very few stilted phone calls and e-mails they'd exchanged since he'd arrived -- and it'd only lasted five weeks. And his list of places to visit had very few items crossed out; he'd been kept busy at work and wiped out by the humidity. Total waste of time.

"I have spoken to your doctor and she tells me two days and you will be able to travel. Today is Wednesday; I have a flight out of Jorge Chavez airport booked for you on Saturday morning. All will be taken care of; your luggage, your transportation there, all. Do not trouble yourself to raise a hand."

"Thanks." He couldn't make it sound enthusiastic.

Sandoval stood. "And now you must rest, eh? Your partner, Martin; he will visit later to wish you a safe journey. He was most distressed to hear of your misfortune."

Martin had been kind; a softly spoken man, a year from retirement, his hair gray, his eyes tired. Blair had never felt much connection between them; Martin's English had been basic and Blair's Spanish not as fluent as he'd thought it was, but he'd gotten on with the man well enough.

"Thanks," he said again, unable to shape anything more complex. Shit, his head was pounding. And there was something not right about the explanation he'd been given. Too much of a coincidence for him to be the random target of a drunk driver. The time of day alone made it unlikely. His thoughts turned to the case he'd been working on with Martin, and he frowned, trying to piece together shattered fragments into a whole, his suspicions growing.

He gave up after a particularly vicious stab of pain. He'd think about it later. And after all, it didn't matter much now.

Saturday.

He'd be home.

A sudden longing for gray skies and soft rain, for Jim telling him it was okay, they'd be fine, he'd been missed, sprang up. It was waking in a hospital bed and not seeing Jim there; it'd made him feel homesick.

Closing his eyes, he snuggled down as best he could under the crisp sheet.

Going home.

***


"Tell me more about your senses going." Blair gave Jim a sidelong glance. "That had to suck, huh?"

"Not really. Made it simpler. I didn't have to worry that I was doing stuff I couldn't explain away." Jim's jaw set. "I didn't miss them."

"So you're not glad they're back?"

"They'll probably just go again." Jim, probably as tired as Blair of continuing a two-level conversation sagging under the weight of its own subtext, nodded at a row of shops. "That friend of yours; Marsha. She opened an aromatherapy therapy place there."

"I don't see it," Blair said. He craned his neck to look back. "Which one?"

"Closed down after six months," Jim said briefly. "I guess there weren't as many suckers in Cascade as she'd hoped."

"Nice, Jim," Blair murmured. "Real nice. She was the one who tracked down a source for that organic soap you liked when the shop on Salisbury stopped carrying it, remember?"

Jim's fingers tapped restlessly on the wheel and then he nodded. "Right. I remember." He shrugged. "Sorry."

It wasn't a convincing apology and Blair lapsed into a resentful silence for the rest of the journey to the loft.

***


Blair dropped his suitcase and flexed a cramping hand. He'd gone overboard on the souvenirs he'd accumulated, definitely. Unless whoever Sandoval had gotten to pack his case had thrown in the iron, toaster, and kettle from Blair's apartment. He hadn't checked the contents; it'd been packed by the police department after all. He'd been ushered through Customs like royalty, smiles and effusive best wishes ringing in his ears.

He transferred his backpack to his other shoulder and picked up the case.

No one was coming to get him and a thirty-minute wait was twenty minutes too long. Hurt pushed against the tiredness walling him off from anger and made a dent, enough that he didn't head toward the bank of phones. He was damned if he was going to call Jim or Simon and beg for a ride; if they'd wanted to see him, they'd have been waiting for him.

And maybe, just maybe, something big had come up. This was Cascade, after all. Stuff happened.

He got a cab and drowsed through the journey, fighting back alternate waves of hunger and nausea and a disconcerting tendency for the vision in one eye to gray out.

Tired. Four hours worth of jetlag added onto an eight-hour flight… and no restful sleep since the night before his accident.

He needed a shower and one of Jim's hero sandwiches, layered and thick, imaginative as Jim's hot food often wasn't.

And he needed Jim. Blue eyes happy, hands gentle, kisses urgent and -- well, okay, sex was the last thing Blair felt like doing, but lying down naked with Jim would feel good. Their bed, their sheets, the low rumble of Jim's voice lulling him into a sleep uninterrupted by the clatter of bedpans, his bed getting bumped, the lights which, even lowered, soon became intrusive. Just Jim. Restful, solid Jim.

He paid off the cab driver with all the dollars he had -- barely enough, and he had to haul his suitcase out of the trunk by himself by way of penance -- and then caught a glimpse of himself in the side view mirror and flinched. Pallid face, bruised and cut… he hoped Jim didn't start yelling when he saw him. It would be based in concern but he really didn't think he could cope with that.

Once outside the door, he fumbled for his key and let himself in, not bothering to call out, but a little surprised Jim, whose truck had been parked outside, hadn't heard him coming and opened the door.

It smelled funky. As if the windows hadn't been opened for days. It was only eight in the evening, the summer sun still setting, but all the blinds were closed, making it feel claustrophobic, not cozy.

He dropped his luggage and walked forward, uncertain, faltering, and then turned and saw Jim's feet appear at the top of the stairs.

Bare feet. Bare legs.

Jim had been in bed, maybe, and oh -- he'd woken him from a post-stakeout nap or --

"I'm sorry," he began to say as the room spun around him in what was becoming a distressingly familiar way.

Jim's feet, which were all Blair could see because he couldn't seem to tilt his head, pattered quickly down the stairs. He thought he heard Jim say his name.

Blair. Yes. That was him and yes, of course he was back.

Then a second pair of bare feet appeared at the head of the stairs and Blair frowned because he was seeing double and that wasn't good.

Jim thought so, too, because he was saying 'no' over and over.

Blair bit down hard on his lip, something one of Naomi's boyfriends had taught him; a sharp pain can ground you, clear your head.

It allowed him to focus on the man -- wearing Jim's robe which really, really pissed him off -- who appeared beside Jim, his hand laid familiarly on Jim's arm. Good-looking, tall, buff. A Jim-clone.

"Babe? Who the hell is this? Your kid brother?"

"Fuck you," Blair said distinctly. He stared at Jim, whose face was a shamed, defiant mask. A stranger's face. A wall.

He tried to break it with his fist and Jim's head jerked back, a red mark rising, but his expression didn't change, not even when Blair staggered back, one step, two, out of reach of Jim's outstretched hand, and crumpled to the floor .

"Sorry," Blair mouthed into the two faces above him -- too tall, both too tall, both so high; when did Jim get so tall? "Thought that would work."

He turned his head, feeling the cool wood of the floor press against his face and realized that he'd been right to be suspicious about Sandoval's facile explanation of his 'accident'. Strange how clear it all was now when everything else was formless and gray.

And Sandoval had spoken a partial truth. He'd taken care of everything he needed to do to get the inconvenient, in danger, foreigner out of his city before the drug dealer Martin had been investigating desultorily and Blair with enthusiasm did a better job of killing him at his next attempt.

But he hadn't troubled to call Simon to tell him his officer was returning and that meant that Jim, well, Jim had had no warning at all.

"Sorry," he murmured one final time.

***


The loft looked barren. Clean, tidy, empty of personality. And the walls were white again.

When Blair had first moved in, Jim's belongings had been dotted around in an attempt to fill the space two people had once shared. It wasn't entirely successful, but it had still felt like Jim.

Hell, the gutted space Jim had made of it when he was dealing with Alex Barnes' presence in the city had felt homier than this.

Blair looked out at the balcony, devoid now of plants, swept bare, a single chair in one corner, and rolled his eyes. "Love what you've done with the place."

"What?" Jim stared around. "It hasn't changed much. I don't have time to fuss with it the way you used to."

"I didn't fuss."

"You spent an entire weekend obsessing over where to hang that tribal mask. You make feng shui seem sensible."

Blair opened his mouth to refute that and paused, feeling the momentum of the banter slip away from him before he'd grasped it tight. Jim stared at him, his expression mirroring Blair's, loss and confusion twisting his features.

"Jim…"

"I'm going to take a shower," Jim said abruptly. "If you need a drink, you know where everything is."

"Make myself at home?" Blair said to Jim's retreating back.

Jim didn't break stride. "What for? You're not staying."

The bathroom door slammed and Blair frowned. Had that sounded like Jim regretted the fact that, yes, Blair had a life -- and a job -- to go back to? Or was it a reminder, a dig?

The shower hissed and Blair counted to twenty to make sure Jim was under the water, wet and naked -- and did his best not to picture it -- and then walked up the stairs to Jim's bedroom, not troubling to be overly stealthy.

If Jim's senses were back, stealth was impossible; if they weren't, well, out of fairness he was giving Jim a chance to hear him and stop him.

Sort of.

He hesitated at the head of the stairs, his hand gripping the metal rail. This was snooping and he should have felt shame but he didn't. Just an aching need to see this space again.

He'd been happy here. In this city, in this apartment.

In this bed, in this fucking white-sheet, antiseptic, bounce a quarter, military corners bed that had once been rumpled and messy and full of the two of them, wrapped around each other, murmuring endearments and laughing at themselves for being sentimental, until the punctuating kisses grew too close together and silenced them.

He took one last look, noting changes -- not many, not enough; there should have been changes -- and turned to retreat.

Jim was at the foot of the stairs, dripping wet, a towel around his hips, loosely hitched, another in his hand.

His gaze flicked past Blair and then back. "I wouldn't have let you come here if there was someone waiting."

"I wasn't looking for signs of my replacement." Blair took a steadying breath. The light on Jim's shoulders was delineating muscles with a broad brush, a swoop of shadow. "I was just… remembering."

Jim began to walk up the stairs, slowly, each step taken with a deliberate care. "I replaced you a long time ago. The last person in that bed was a woman. And she was replacing…" Jim paused, two steps below Blair, which brought their heads level and close. "Someone you once dated; how's that for irony? Of course, she waited until after I'd fucked her to share that piece of information." Jim inhaled sharply, his mouth twisting in a lemon-sour smile. "She wondered what had happened to you. Got your last name wrong, and was sure you had brown eyes, but hey, it's been a long time and I bet you can't even do that well with her."

"Not even going to try," Blair said evenly.

"No?" Jim jerked his chin up in a clear signal. "Going to try and get the hell out of my way?"

"Sure." Blair stepped to the side and allowed Jim to finish climbing the stairs, getting a heady whiff of clean, wet Jim as he brushed by.

With a slightly self-conscious air of nonchalance, Jim walked to the middle of the room and put his hand on the tuck of the towel. "You've seen my bed. That's all you get to gawk at, Chief."

"Right," Blair said, nodding as he spoke. "Because your bare ass is just such a treat. Get over yourself, man. You're what -- forty-five? -- and I bet the last time you dated was months ago. You, this place -- they stink of loneliness."

Jim turned, a flush rising in his face. "I'm doing just fine, thank you for asking."

"Liar," Blair said recklessly, spurred on by the sick regret that Jim was there, right there, and he couldn't go to him, lick that damp skin wetter, run his hands over the water-sheened skin and feel it warm his palms, heat his blood.

He used to love fucking Jim fresh from a shower, imprinting the clean skin with a myriad scents, raw and rich.

"You want to give me a pity fuck, is that it?"

Jim had tried to make that sound like a sneer but to Blair's hopeful ears, it came over as a plea.

"No." The towel slipped and Jim grabbed at it. Blair watched a flash of skin, a curve of ass, disappear as Jim fastened the towel in place. He dragged his gaze up to Jim's face. "I don't have much pity to spare these days. Sorry. And what I want from you -- well, sex is a part of it, sure, but seven years of waiting -- oh, you're going to have to put a lot more on the table than that."

"I'm not asking you to come back."

"I don't want you to ask." Blair walked the three, four, five steps needed to get him close enough to touch Jim. Jim didn't move, his breath uncontrolled, harsh, loud in the quietness around them. Blair drew his hand down from Jim's throat to the telltale tilt of the towel, keeping his palm from making contact through an effort of will, an inch of space between it and Jim's skin. "I want you to beg. I want you on your fucking knees, Jim. I want you…"

He shook his head and stepped back. "I want you," he repeated flatly. "I always will. But it's time you stopped thinking you've got any right to the high ground here and it's time you stopped punishing me for your fuck-ups and insecurities. I don't care that you're flawed and a mess emotionally. I'm not much better myself. Doesn't matter. We fit. We work. Or we used to."

He leaned in, hands by his side, tilted his face, and kissed Jim's cheek, faking casual and doing a better job of it than Jim was with indifference. He felt a shock of remembrance, vivid as a summer-blue sky, and had to step back quickly to stop himself from accepting what was on offer.

It wasn't enough and it wouldn't help.

"I'll be back in the morning at seven, okay? We need to be on the road early but there's no need to start at the crack of dawn."

"You're going?" The words sounded jerked out of Jim's mouth, unintended.

"If I stay it won't go well," Blair said. "I'll probably forget all my good intentions and end up sobbing on your shoulder or something and hate myself in the morning."

Jim smiled at that, a quirk of his lips and a brief lightening of his expression. "I can't see that, Chief, but I -- yeah, probably for the best." He frowned, with a belated realization. "Your car…You need a ride somewhere?"

"I've got some things to do," Blair said evasively. He didn't. "Seven, okay? And I'll grab something to eat so don't bother cooking breakfast."

Jim was still frowning. "Okay…"

"Great. I'll see you, man." The stairs were behind him. He turned and ran down them, feet finding their rhythm on the second step. "Tomorrow," he called without looking back.

God, he had to get out, had to just get the hell out.

And Jim's senses were back. He could tell. That distant look in Jim's eyes as he processed data, that air of listening to ghosts.

He had to get a long, long way from Jim now lying to him wasn't an option.

"'On your knees'," he mimicked savagely under his breath when he'd reached a safe distance. "You pathetic, delusional --"

***


Waking up in a hospital again gave Blair a strong sense of déjà vu which, when added to his headache, made him close his eyes after a very brief glimpse of a room mostly filled with Simon.

"Blair?" Simon's voice was pitched low enough not to grate but still made Blair's face screw up in a reaction. "Sorry," Simon went on, in a hoarse whisper. "I'll find the nurse."

"Jim?" Blair asked, futilely, because if Jim had been in the hospital he would have been where Simon was sitting.

"He brought you here." Simon cleared his throat and Blair forced his eyes to open and stay that way. "Don't you remember?"

Blair thought it through. Floor. Jim's hand on his face. A phone call for an ambulance. Slam of door as Jim's date left, good-looking face sharp with temper, his clothes tugged on haphazardly. Jim staring at him intently, shame and contrition pushed aside, a calm, professional concern in the questions he asked as his cool, shaking fingers explored the injury on Blair's head, ran over Blair's body, assessing, totaling every bruise.

The jolting hell of the ambulance ride, Jim silent beside him and then fading out of the picture once Blair had been admitted.

A gray and white picture by then, painted by Escher, muted, subdued, senseless.

"Now?"

"He left," Simon said reluctantly. "They've been running all these tests on you --"

He didn't want to remember them. The prick of a needle, the squeeze of a blood pressure cuff… the machines that had photographed him inside and, well, yes, inside mostly.

"I fell asleep."

Simon snorted, his hand groping toward the pocket of his coat for a cigar and then falling away as he glanced at the No Smoking sign. "More like passed out."

"What's wrong with me?"

Jim needed to hear that question, not Simon. He needed to know the answer from Jim. What was wrong with him that he hadn't been worth waiting for, for a lousy fucking five weeks…

"Low-grade infection," Simon said, ticking off ailments on his long fingers. "Probably something in the water --"

"Stomach flu the first week," Blair said. "Never really got over it."

"Exhaustion and mild dehydration…"

"Couldn't sleep in the hospital. Couldn't eat on the plane."

"Long-term exhaustion," Simon said sternly. "And before you waste your breath, I've spoken to Sandoval." Simon's face tightened. "Kept you busy, didn't he?"

"It was interesting," Blair protested.

"I'm not going to talk about it now," Simon said. "But he's getting his officer back on the next plane out of here. All she's done is shop and flirt, anyway."

"Simon…"

"Oh, all right," Simon snapped. "She's fine but she's still going back. This exercise is over." He shoved an unlit cigar into his mouth and clamped his teeth down on it. "Head injury."

And they were at the good part now.

"They're going to operate. Piece of your skull pressing on a piece of your brain." Simon took the cigar out of his mouth and gestured with it. "Vision blurry, headaches?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair said fervently.

Simon nodded. "You'll be fine."

"After a spot of brain surgery."

"Want me to tell them to stir in some actual brains while they're in there?" Simon smiled at him sourly. "Going after drug lords by yourself in a foreign city…. Tchah."

"I'll never do it again," Blair mumbled, half meaning it.

"Oh, you can do it all you want here in Cascade," Simon went on. "With Jim to help you, not some tired old man counting down to retirement."

Blair closed his eyes at that, and Simon, after a brief pause and a clumsy pat on Blair's hand, tiptoed out.

Jim's partner. Technically he still was, but really, looked at dispassionately, it just wasn't going to work out, was it?

Four years of avoiding temptation; two months of reveling in it, and now it was payback time.

Being used as a pawn in a foreign country.

Brain surgery.

Jim cheating on him.

Payback like that, it had to have been one hell of a two months... but he wasn't even sure of that now. Distrust and suspicion were spreading backward, staining every memory.

He felt tears gather and spill and let them fall.

Some things were worth crying over.

***


Sleep, when it came, which was late, left Blair bleary-eyed and sluggish at six in the morning. He checked out of his hotel room after making himself a pot of coffee; black, which he hated, but not as much as he hated the powdered creamer. The taste of the coffee lay acrid and sour at the back of his throat, combining with his toothpaste to make him feel sick to his stomach.

Or maybe that was just nerves because he was on his way to see Jim, and the drama of yesterday seemed ridiculous in the morning light. He blushed to think of what he'd done and said, even as his fingers curled tightly inward, a reflexive need to hold and take burning within.

Jim. He'd wanted Jim. Wanted to rip that towel away -- no, tug it gently, watch it fall -- no, use his teeth to -- oh, fuck.

He was just too used to fantasizing about the man; faced with the reality he still couldn't break the habit.

In his head, he'd made an agreeably compliant -- mostly -- Jim have long, involved, intense conversations with him, conversations the real Jim would have reduced to a single, disbelieving, incredulous stare. Jim could be eloquent and Jim could be insightful, but there was no way he was Laura Rossner, Blair's therapist from the age of fifteen to seventeen. When he'd put her words in Jim's mouth once too often he'd realized what he was doing.

The Jim in his head had reverted back to something approaching realistic after that, which meant Blair lost more of the arguments than seemed fair.

He'd come to conclusions; had insights. Seven years of working on one problem had squeezed it dry of meaning, a husk, empty and hollow.

Oh, it hadn't been all he'd been concerned about, no. Life had a way of making sure you were distracted from misery from time to time by the mundane and the necessary. He'd also been lucky to have found a job that was both absorbing and familiar, one he could lose himself in.

No. Naomi had found him a job. Still gentled with guilt to a dim reflection of her usual exuberance when she was around him, she'd shaken her tree of contacts and a rosy, sweet apple had rolled to Blair's feet.

He'd been at Bellingham College in a British Columbian town not far from Vancouver long enough to feel settled there, which was an odd feeling. Had finally gotten his doctorate, had published papers and one thin book, to a kinder reception than he'd expected. Had he set the academic world alight the way he once dreamed of doing? No. He'd settled for less.

He supposed he should feel ashamed of that; see it as a failure. Maybe it was, but he tried to see it as maturity. Only the young really thought fame and fortune was theirs for the wishing and Blair didn't feel young anymore.

Which left him knowing Jim better. There'd always been a gap between them, not so much of actual, counted years, but of experience. Jim had done all the adult, responsible things; had a career -- two, in fact -- had gotten married, had owned property, had a savings account, retirement plans…

Blair had owned boxes, filled with stuff, and had been perpetually poised on the brink when it came to work, neither fish nor fowl at Rainier, lacking credentials.

Well, he had them now. And he owned a small house, with a tiny yard whose size didn't matter because behind it was a wood, wild and rambling for miles, and he had a circle of friends, a routine of sorts, the occasional expedition to break the… No. It wasn't monotony. It was life and he was living it.

And if he was living it alone for the most part, that was by choice. He wasn't celibate and he rarely felt lonely.

There was just something missing, a void he'd learned to navigate expertly around, skirting the edges, even in his dreams.

Jim.

Jim was missing and it was all so fucking stupid.

Blair parked his car where he always used to and stared up at the lit windows of Jim's loft.

Seven years' worth of stupid.

***


Complete success, hair will grow back soon, yes, there's a bit of fuzz showing, I can see it, here let me show you with this mirror, oh, look, time for your pills, don't you want to finish your Jell-O, do you need a vase for those flowers, no, no calls from a Detective Ellison, no, but someone named Megan sent you this stuffed kangaroo…

He'd stopped asking Simon where Jim was, and why, in the two weeks of his hospital stay, his partner, his so-called fucking best friend, hadn't called or visited. Watching Simon fumble through excuses about pressure of work, big case, maybe he called and you were asleep, he asks after you, you know, wasn't all that amusing.

And Blair was fairly sure Jim wasn't asking because he wouldn't need to, would he? People would update him because everyone else he knew had tiptoed in to visit him, anxious, bright smiles mellowing to relief when they saw him sitting up, not dying.

Of course, they'd expect Jim to know about Blair's progress already, but Blair could see Jim letting them chatter and gleaning what he needed to know, allowing his taciturnity to be put down to his concern.

Only Simon knew that Jim hadn't visited; everyone else assumed he had, because why wouldn't he? Megan had told him how tired Jim looked; Joel how snappy he was. They'd put it down to worry and they were probably driving Jim crazy by being very, very kind to him.

Jim deserved that. He deserved worse. Blair put himself to sleep at night counting, not sheep, but painful ways for Jim to die.

Simon came in the night before Blair was due to be discharged, a bag with a change of clothes in his hand. He'd been to the loft, then.

"Got a meeting tomorrow morning," he said. "Won't be able to take you home." He scowled and finally asked the question Blair had been waiting for. "Just what's going on, Blair? Where's Jim?"

Hearing his own question echoed back at him was strange. It forced him to acknowledge that he knew the answer and hadn't needed to ask it.

He'd gotten a halfway truth rehearsed and ready.

He let his eyes show some hurt and bewilderment -- not much, Jim was his friend, just his friend, nothing more, just a friend -- and met Simon's gaze as he settled into the chair by the bed.

"I don't know!" Simon opened his mouth and Blair cut him off. He didn't want Simon making guesses that might come too close to the truth. "But you know it's been a hell of a year."

"You died," Simon said with a grunt. "I'd say that was a fair description."

"Yes… and then all the fuss about the diss and the book deal…" Blair spread his hands. "Jim and me, we're solid. We're friends. But it left us in a weird place, you know? And when this trip came up, well, he didn't want me to go."

"Worried about you?" Simon asked shrewdly.

Blair gave him a nicely judged rueful smile. "You know Jim. He takes the big brother thing seriously. I'm a rookie cop in his eyes and, well…" He let his smile fade. "He's lost partners before, Simon. More than one. I think --"

"I get it," Simon interrupted, with a sharp nod of his head. "So knowing you two, you left with a few words said on both sides you regret?"

"Hell, yes," Blair said fervently. "I've got a badge, done my training… it's not like I don’t know what it's like out there, now is it? And a trip to Lima; God, I wasn't going to turn that down! Fascinating city."

'Yeah," Simon said dryly. "I've been, remember?" He chewed his lip. "Okay. So you get back, collapse, and what? He's feeling guilty because he thinks he shouldn't have let you go, should have tried harder?" Simon stabbed his finger at Blair. "And we -- Jim and I -- we know what went down over there now. All the details about your little accident and who was behind it." Simon smiled, thin and cold. "Thought Jim was going to yell loud enough that they'd hear him in Peru the way he was carrying on."

Blair filed that proof of caring away to think about --gloat over -- later, and gave Simon an approving smile that wasn't at all fake. Perfect. It was Simon's theory so he'd want to believe it, and it was mostly true, so it felt right. "You know, I think that's it, Simon." He shook his head, moving from hurt to fond exasperation. "That overprotective big jerk. And if he thinks he's gotten out of buying me grapes, he can forget it. I'm going to send him out for a big bunch of them." He smirked. "Or maybe I'll make him treat me to dinner at that new Thai place on Second; the expensive one."

Simon grinned back at him, looking supremely relieved. "You do that. Now, while I'm here, I might as well sort out your sick leave. Rhonda sent over these forms…"

***


Blair raised his hand to knock on the door, dealing with the memories of doing this seven years earlier and getting turned away, and let it fall again. In a bare thread of a whisper he said, "Jim? I'm here."

The door swung open a moment later. "I heard you from when you left the car," Jim said. "Every footstep, the time you coughed, you saying hello to that stray cat." He spoke slowly, wonderingly. "I'd forgotten…"

"Yeah, well," Blair said awkwardly, relearning the way a Sentinel could make you feel like a specimen under a microscope. "Good. That's good, Jim." He smiled, a quick twitch of his lips. "Can I come in? Or do you just want to go?"

Jim stepped back. "I've got more than I can carry, so I'd appreciate a hand."

"I've got my own backpack in my car," Blair said. He eyed the stack of equipment dubiously. "I think we need to leave some of this behind. It's not like when we used to drive right to the fishing spot; we're going to be hiking in."

"Oh." Jim rubbed his hand over his chin in a well-remembered gesture. "Yeah, you mentioned that yesterday but I wasn't --" He shrugged. "You showing up like that; my senses coming back -- I wasn't really paying attention. Sorry."

He sounded indifferent, not apologetic, and Blair was willing to bet there were two tents in the pile of equipment.

"Leave the tents," he said. "Forecast is for warm and dry and it won't be the first time we've slept out. Same for the cooking stove; we can pack in enough food and build our own fire if we need it." He walked over to examine the gear more closely and then snorted. "And you can forget the fishing rod."

Jim's mouth tightened. He picked a backpack with a rolled sleeping bag attached to it out of the pile and raised his eyebrows. "Then I'm ready."


***


Blair made it to the loft door without stopping to catch his breath but his heart was pounding. Shit. He hated feeling this weak but he'd been told he could expect to feel this way for a few weeks while his body recovered from the stress it'd been under. At least the headaches had gone.

He got out his key and then slid it back into his pocket as the loft door opened.

Jim looked like hell, but at least he was home.

"Hey," Blair said, as neutrally as possible. "Simon tell you I was coming home today?"

Jim nodded, his gaze flickering over Blair without meeting his eyes.

"Can I come in, then?" Blair asked impatiently. "I want a shower and then I'm going to crash. Man, I'm wiped out just from the cab ride."

Jim stepped aside, a frown creasing his forehead.

"And you can start talking any time now," Blair told him, walking in and noting that it smelled a little fresher than the last time. Which he wasn't thinking about.

Jim cleared his throat. "I thought Simon was going to give you a ride. Blair --"

"Yes, I know," Blair said hurriedly, interrupting him. "Got a lot to talk about, I know, but God, I don't think I can right now. Can we just --"

"No."

Blair sighed and turned to face him. The words of complaint got stuck in his throat. His room was empty. He hadn't been sleeping in it much; with Jim waiting for him in their bed upstairs it didn't hold much appeal, apart from the odd time when he woke restless and hyper and padded down to his own bed where he could toss and turn without feeling that he was disturbing Jim.

Now it was empty. And the contents weren't in the loft because, spinning around slowly, he could see that nothing of his was.

"You’ve kicked me out again."

"Yes." Jim walked over to the table and picked up a form and some car keys. "It's all in a van parked outside. Here's the rental agreement -- I've paid for a week, unlimited mileage -- and here are the keys. I figured that would give you time to find somewhere." He tapped a stack of newspapers. "I've found some places that look good and circled them, but obviously, it's up to you. If you need help moving, I'm sure Simon or --"

"Tell me, Jim," Blair said, his voice shaking because so help him he was close to committing a major crime of his own right then. "Whole wheat or white bagel? Navy socks or black?"

"What?"

"If you're organizing my life, don't stop with the big stuff; go all the way." Deliberately crude, he patted his groin. "Want me to dress to the left or the right?"

"For God's sake, Blair!"

"Why have you kicked me out?"

"I knew you'd be leaving and I was trying to make it as easy as possible," Jim said. "I was trying to help."

"Help?" Blair heard his voice crack. "Help would have been coming to get me so I didn't have to spend twenty minutes waiting for a cab. Help would have been showing up at the hospital so I didn't spend two fucking days convinced you'd died and no one wanted to tell me."

"Died?" Jim looked incredulous.

"Yes. You're a cop and cops can die. We both know that."

"Everybody can die," Jim said. He looked at Blair directly. "You came close again, didn't you?"

"But not close enough to get a visit."

"I came once," Jim said. "I just didn't get close enough for you to see me."

"Nice," Blair said bitterly. "Very man of mystery."

"Don't make this harder than it has to be."

"Why? Why shouldn't it be hard? Why shouldn't it hurt?" Blair was yelling but he didn't care. "You're kicking me out again." He spaced the words. "Again. And I didn't do anything. Tell me what I did to deserve this."

"Nothing," Jim said with a terrifying gentleness. "I did. I fucked it up and it made me see that I can't do this. That I don't want this, not with you."

"So what about work? Huh? You going to ask for a new partner?"

"No. I'm going to go back to working alone."

"And what about me? You expect me to put in for a transfer?"

He wouldn't get one. No one would want him.

"Well, you don't have to -- I mean --" Jim was stumbling over the words. "If you're not with me, you don't need to be a cop anymore. You can get on with your life. Chief, this isn't a punishment, this is a second chance for you."

"Fuck this," Blair said. He stalked forward and jammed a finger into Jim's chest. "Unpack the fucking van. Get my stuff back in here where it belongs. And then tell me what the fuck you think you're doing screwing around on me like that with that stick up his ass loser -- oh, wait, did he have something more interesting up there? Like your dick?"

Jim closed his eyes. Looking sick. When he opened them again, they were cold and distant. "Sometimes, yes."

"Sometimes? You saw him more than once?" Blair choked over the outrage he felt. He'd been prepared to forgive a one-night stand. He knew how it could happen, regretted even as it was in progress, and he'd been prepared to be magnanimous, man of the world about it.

After ripping Jim a new one and some brutally hot make up sex.

Finding out that his own two-month old relationship -- if you didn't count the weeks abroad -- was threatened by one possibly half that length was a shock.

"I met him before you left," Jim said.

"Are you lying to me?" Blair asked after a long moment had gone by and those words still didn't make any sense.

Jim shook his head. "I'm not lying, I swear. Blair, you need to go. I'm late for work."

Blair walked out of the door Jim was holding open, a new set of keys jangling in his pocket, and down the stairs, holding back the emotions, refusing to give into the desire to punch walls, scream, vent.

Let Jim hear him walk away with some dignity.

He drove away, carefully, slowly, and didn't throw up until he was inside a motel room, crouched over a toilet, the sweet, chemical stink of the cleaner prompting his stomach to try and turn itself inside out.

The next day he found out that his key didn't work in the lock on Jim's door and by nightfall he was miles away from Cascade and heading south.


***


"Pull over here," Blair said, touching Jim's arm.

"Why?"

"Just do it."

Jim sighed and turned, bringing the truck to a halt in the middle of a parking lot, half empty since it was close to a row of shops, none of which would open for a few hours.

"Well?"

"You don't remember this place?"

Jim shrugged. "Driven past it a few times."

"It's where we left the truck when we did that boundary walk," Blair reminded him.

After a disinterested glance around, Jim nodded. "Yeah, I recognize it now. Don't see why you wanted to pull over, though."

"Since I left, have you ever done that walk again?"

"No."

"Ever felt you needed to?" Blair persisted.

"Where are you going with this, Chief?"

"Where am I going with it," Blair muttered to himself. He shoved his hands through his hair, a gesture he'd never lost even now, when there was nothing much to push back. "Jim -- just work with me here, will you?"

Jim sighed and turned the key, silencing the engine. "Five minutes and then we hit the road, okay?"

Knowing that the time limit was flexible and the difficult part was getting Jim to agree to listen -- or it always used to be -- Blair relaxed and chose his words without too much care. He was out of practice at this brand of persuasion and debate, but it was all coming back to him.

"You worked out where the boundaries were, but it's not really the place you protect, as much as the people." He watched Jim absorb that and give him a grudging nod. "Right, right; because if something happened and the tribe had to move; a flood, a drought, whatever, the Sentinel would move with them."

"Sure."

Okay, that had been easy.

"And so, if someone, one of the tribe, crossed the border, I'm guessing you'd still feel a responsibility toward them?"

"You mean you," Jim said, a not entirely friendly smile on his lips. "You need to work on subtle, Sandburg. You never used to be this easy to read."

"Yes, I mean me, " Blair snapped. "And I wasn't trying to hide where I was going." He took a calming breath. "What I'm asking is this; do you still think of me as one of the tribe?"

Jim turned away, staring out of the window at nothing Blair could see. "I guess."

It was better than nothing. He'd hoped for something a little more positive, a little more certain, but it wasn't no.

"So when I went away, the boundary shifted," Blair went on, talking fast, which he'd learned to do to keep people's interest, a habit he'd refined into a trademark.

An irritating one, according to a lot of his lecturers and Jim himself, but he'd sooner be annoying than ignored.

Jim glanced over at him at that, a familiar, 'what bullshit is this?' expression on his face.

"It shifted to encompass me," Blair said, aware that he sounded egotistical but the hell with it.

"If you say so." Jim yawned pointedly. "One minute."

"The hell it is! Another three at least," Blair said. He gathered his thoughts and let Jim have them. "Simon said you looked for me, and I dropped you in it by saying you didn't need to, but that's not quite true, is it? There was a time when you didn't know where I was. I was too pissed off at you to get in touch for a while, until after I'd settled down at Bellingham."

Jim gave him a terse nod without speaking.

"And that had to have killed you," Blair said steadily. "You built up your own tribe, people you were close to -- hell, no single Sentinel can know a whole city -- and I was part of that inner circle from the moment we met. And you didn't know where I was, did you? You'd forced me away, convinced yourself it was what you had to do to keep me safe, happy, but you needed to have a -- a focal point. You needed to know where I was."

His voice was gathering strength from Jim's silence and he was exulting in how right this felt, tumblers falling into place, a lock yielding.

"And you found me, didn't you, Jim?"

He hadn't known that before, but it made sense now.

"You looked for me and I wasn't hiding, not really, so you found me, you had to have found me."

The color was rising in Jim's face now and his fingers were clutching the wheel convulsively, flexing, squeezing.

"Oh, my God," Blair said, riding the revelation. "You came to see me, didn't you? You fucking walked the boundary and put me back inside it."

He felt breathless, winded.

Jim sighed, the tension leaving him. "Yeah. Not literally walked this time. But I went to -- I saw your house. I didn't see you, but I -- I heard you. It was enough."

"I'm trying to find the words here to describe just how much you suck," Blair said coldly. "Just drive, will you? Get us out of here."

"You've still got a couple of minutes to talk."

"I'm done."

"Maybe I'm not." Jim's hand turned Blair's face toward him, the tips of his fingers light and warm against Blair's jaw. Jim waited until Blair sighed, surrendering to the inevitable, and let his hand fall away.

"I didn't go in because you were with someone. A man. You were -- it was late and you were having sex. Laughing. Happy. I didn't plan to knock at your door anyway, but that kind of sealed it. I just needed to know you were okay, Blair. It was -- yes, it was killing me not being sure --" Jim gave him a pained smile. "I wasn't really in a good place right then. Wasn't sleeping, eating -- senses all over the place… I sat in the truck outside your apartment, across the road under this oak tree --"

"Suffolk Street," Blair said, remembering that tree. Shouldn't he have known Jim had been there? Had a dream, a fucking vision? Hell of a shaman he'd turned out to be. "I was only there a month; too far away from campus."

And the man he was with, well, that could have been one of half a dozen. It'd coincided with one of his manic, fuck anyone who smiled back phases.

"I don't remember the street name," Jim said. "I just remember falling asleep listening to your voice, then you sleeping. I was so tired. I'd been there a few hours when a cop tapped on the window. I didn't want it to get complicated so I didn't flash my badge, though I bet he ran my plate, and once he'd made sure I wasn't drunk he let me drive away, didn't pull me in." Jim sighed, contemplating his fingernails and then picking at a loose thread on the seam of his jeans. "Didn't want to go. Every mile, I felt the weight of it all settle back down on me. Everything on my shoulders; no one to help --"

"Whose fault was that?" Blair demanded. "Not mine!"

"None of it was your fault, Blair." Jim turned the key. "We should get going."

"Wait." Blair grabbed at Jim's sleeve. "Jim --"

"It's too late now." Jim sounded gentle but certain. "Whatever mistakes I made, I made them; it's done. I'm glad we can talk and you're not -- you don't hate -- but we can't make this right, so don't think anything's changed. It hasn't. And it won't."

"And you're happy with that?"

"I haven't been happy about much of anything since you left."

"At the risk of repeating myself, you kicked me out, remember?"

"Since you left for Peru," Jim clarified. "And, yes, that I do blame you for, Chief, partly, at least. Leave it now, will you?" He pulled out of the parking lot, his hands steady, his expression distant again. "I can't drive and argue at the same time."

"Since when?" Blair said incredulously, but he let it go as they left the city and drove north.

***


The woods welcomed them like water greets a stone, parting for them, a shoulder's width wide, and then closing around them. Within a mile, Blair was lost, the rough map he'd made and handed over to Jim a fading mess of pencil lines in his head.

It didn't matter. Once Jim got them to the clearing, Blair knew just what to do.

The sun was warm on his head, filtered through leaves and robbed of power. He trod softly on the ground, each snapped twig, each rustled leaf, a rebuke.

Jim was noiseless, drifting, lost in thoughts he wasn't sharing.

It had been a quiet drive.

Blair had a lot to think about. After years of nothing new, wearied to the point of nausea of going over old ground, he wasn't quite sure what to do with what Jim had told him.

If he'd known back then that Jim had been out there, outside his apartment, he'd have left his bed, and whoever was in it -- hell, he'd have stopped mid-fucking-orgasm -- and gone to him. He'd have made Jim see reason, explain -- which was why Jim hadn't given him the chance.

He still didn't get it. Oh, the initial reaction that had led to Jim packing up his stuff, sure. Jim was feeling guilty and overreacting. The man had a way of doing that which had sometimes made Blair marvel that he was seen as the dramatic one, the emotional one.

But to keep it up for years; to even now hold out no hope of a reconciliation -- Blair didn't get it. Didn't get it at all.

And this time he wasn't leaving until he did.

He couldn't force Jim to take him back, but he could get him to explain why they'd both spent seven fucking years apart.

Jim had better have a good reason because seven years was -- Blair frowned. Jim had paused, as he'd done before, but he wasn't scanning the trees and the sky and the compass in his head and then striking off a few degrees to the west or something.

No, he was standing still.

Zoned.

Blair eased his pack off his shoulders with a sigh and put it down. Rubbing at sweaty, chafed skin where the straps had dug in, he walked up to Jim and around him.

"Jim? Snap out of it, man. What is it this time?" He shut up and listened; couldn't hear or smell anything out of the ordinary, so that left sight. Unless Jim was zoning on something subtle, in which case, he'd have to dig deeper. He followed Jim's blank gaze to a wind-blown leaf tapping against a branch in a deceptively desultory rhythm. Why it'd caught Jim's eye, he didn't know, but it didn't matter. He moved to block it from Jim's sight and continued talking about nothing until, in a fit of exasperation, he went for a more traditional way to waken Sleeping Beauty and kissed Jim, full on his parted lips.

He'd meant it to be a quick peck, as brief and as impersonal as a kiss could be, and knew before their lips touched that it wasn't going to happen that way. Jim hummed at the first contact, a low, vibrant sound, caught in his throat, and Blair echoed it, his tongue flicking against Jim's upper lip, making Jim open wider for him.

Jim shrugged off his pack and it fell to the forest floor with a muffled thud. Freed of its weight, he pulled Blair closer, his eyes still hazy, and Blair let himself be taken and held cradled against Jim's chest even as he planted his feet wider, making sure he wasn't off-balance. He wasn't entirely sure Jim knew what he was doing, which meant he couldn't let this go far, but he wasn't going to step back.

He needed this. And he could quell any rising guilt with the conviction that Jim did, too.

How long since Jim had been touched, hugged, held? The most basic of comforts -- ask any crying child -- and it was withheld from adults as if it was something you grew out of, when you didn't, you never did.

He let his mouth move away from Jim's in a gradual way, punctuating the sweep of his lips down to the place where shoulder and neck met with light, dotted kisses. Then he stood and breathed in the scent of Jim's skin, the thin, clean cotton of his T-shirt and the waxy smell of his light jacket before nuzzling into Jim's neck. His hands moved over Jim's back in slow, soothing strokes.

Really needed this.

Jim sighed and turned his head. Blair felt the deliberate press of Jim's lips against his temple and then he was standing alone, his arms empty.

"We can break for food at the top of that ridge," Jim said, nodding off to the left. "Think you can make it that far, Chief? You're looking a little tired."

Blair retrieved his backpack in silence and waited for Jim to shrug his back on before replying.

"You know that promise I made Simon?"

Something flickered in Jim's eyes, a wary expectancy. "What about it?"

"I'm not going to break it until you ask me to."

"I'm not going to ask."

Blair smiled. Dangerous to taunt Jim; the guy was stubborn as hell. But sometimes he just couldn't help it.

"You need to practice saying that like you mean it, Jim."

"And you need to stop fucking pushing me," Jim snapped. "Jesus, Blair, what do you think this is doing to me?"

"I don't know. Tell me."

Jim licked his lips and then bit down on the lower one until Blair saw the skin turn white. "It's making me wish I could tie you to a tree and come back for you later."

"Well, you fucking can't," Blair snapped back. He felt his cheeks burn, humiliation and frustration building up. "You need me to find what we're here for."

"Not really." Jim hitched his pack higher and began to walk away. "You've told me where the clearing is. I can probably take it from there. See where the ground was disturbed… smell the metal of the box…"

"Zone again and get eaten by a bear…"

Jim grinned. His back was to Blair, but he just knew Jim was grinning. He picked up a pine cone and threw it at Jim's retreating head.

It missed.

Jim glanced back.

Oh, yeah. Grinning.

***


They reached the clearing in the early evening, with the sky darkening around them. Jim suggested that they make a start on locating the buried box but he did it half-heartedly and accepted Blair's exhausted, 'you're fucking kidding me, right?' without argument.

It had been a long day.

After eating and washing at a stream a short walk away, the cool water a delicious shock against Blair's hands and face, they settled down beside a fire, built less for warmth than for light and a deterrent for the bugs.

Blair knew that they were going to talk and he thought that Jim had accepted that inevitability, but there didn't seem to be any real urgency to start.

The wind rose, sending last year's leaves skittering over the tumble of rocks that lay across the eastern end of the clearing -- Jim had given them a speculative look and then raised his eyebrows at Blair, who'd summoned the energy to smirk and shake his head. Blair wondered what else Jim could hear, and how it felt after going without the senses for so long, and then shrugged and asked him. Why not?

Jim was there. He could reply. Not a conjured figment, a puppet.

"It's like waking up," Jim said, the prosaic words given a deeper meaning by the way he spoke them, slow, considering, certain. "And it… hurts. I'm stretched out. Spread thin." Too dark now, and the flickering flames and rising sparks of the fire were between them, but Blair could see the blue of Jim's eyes, translucent, light, captured behind his own eyelids, every time he blinked.

"I'm everywhere," Jim finished, his voice quiet because it didn't need to be loud out here, with nothing to fight but the crackle of fire and a distant breeze.

"No boundaries…"

"No place to hide, you mean. Not for either of us." Jim's gaze held Blair's. "It's been getting stronger since we came into the woods. My senses -- they don't just feel back online; they feel… intensified. I can control them but my range is just --"

He closed his eyes, and inhaled slowly and then released it, his expression peaceful but intent. Blair had seen too many people meditating not to recognize that look.

"I can hear your blood flowing, the beat of your eyelashes as you blink." Jim's voice was assured, strong. His lips curled upwards. "Your belly rumbling. Hell, I can hear your hair growing." His eyes opened. "And it's not because I've forgotten what it's like, Chief, so don't say it. You know my range, across the board. Test me all you want and you'll see I'm right."

"Tomorrow," Blair said. "If you still want to. Now dial it back and just listen to what I'm saying."

Jim picked up a stick and prodded the fire, making it burn higher for a moment. Through the transient trickery of the firelight Blair saw Jim's face as he remembered it, not as it was, and felt his throat close on a choking wave of love.

He bowed his head, riding it out, and prayed to whoever was listening that Jim had pulled back his awareness.

"I can't listen if you don't talk," Jim said mildly.

"Just give me a moment, will you?" Blair managed to say. He found a pebble in the grass beside him and picked it up, the hard, smooth lump cool against his palm. Using a stress management technique he'd picked up from his mother, he pushed all of his excess emotions into the pebble and then threw it away, as hard as he could.

Jim tracked it with a quick turn of his head and then glanced over. "Is that a test? You want me to find it in the morning?"

"Could you?" Blair asked. That would be way beyond anything Jim could have done in the past. The pebble -- hell, even he didn't know what it looked like, although he thought he'd know its weight and shape -- had gone a long way and fallen into grass, littered, as his body would probably discover firsthand once he tried to sleep, with similar pebbles.

"Think so. You held it, so it'll smell of you, and I remember where it went and what it hit on the way that changed its trajectory." Jim looked pleased with himself. "I'll do it when it's light. It'll be harder then because your scent will have faded."

"Over-achiever," Blair muttered.

"Yeah, yeah…" Jim waved his hand in a lazy dismissal. "Look who's talking, Doctor Sandburg."

"You know about that, too?" Blair demanded.

Looking as if he was regretting his words, Jim glanced away and then sighed and rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. "If it's in print or online about you, I know it. I've kept track of you."

"That doesn't make sense," Blair said. "You cared enough to do that and every time I called you wouldn't even talk to me? Not even to say 'fuck you, Blair' in words instead of letting me get the message when you hung up on me?"

"If you'd needed me, I'd have answered," Jim said, looking surprised. "If you were in trouble. But once a year, on my birthday… hell, I make those phone calls to people, too, and they're never to anyone I care about much."

"If I'd needed you?" Blair repeated, barely able to get the words out past his rising anger. "You thought I didn't?"

"You never sounded sad," Jim told him. "Just pissed off. I gave up on you getting over hating me and I just hoped you were dealing with life better than I was."

"I never hated --" Blair paused. "I never stopped loving you," he amended. "Yeah, there were moments when I'd have applied to be the president of the 'we hate Jim Ellison' club but I was usually drunk or drowning in loneliness and wanting to see you so much I --" He took a steadying breath. "That promise about not pushing is broken the hell and back, isn't it?"

"You haven't crawled into my sleeping bag yet," Jim said.

"True." Blair cleared his throat. "You're, ah, lying on it. Makes it tricky."

There was a lot he wanted to say to Jim. A lot of questions. A lot of persuasive, logical pointing out of the obvious.

Jim reached out, took the zipper of the bag in his thumb and forefinger, and tugged. The zipper ran smoothly down, exposing the pale lining. Jim shifted back, off the bag, and folded the top layer back invitingly. "All yours, Chief."

"I'm not crawling."

"I don't want you to. If you want me to, well, I'll --"

"I don't."

"Good." Jim's hand closed around the soft fabric, hard enough that Blair could feel the tension in his own hand and realized he'd made a fist, too. "Blair… I haven't changed my mind about us getting back together no matter what happens out here. We can't -- it's too late. We've moved on. You've got a perfect life, everything you wanted, everything you deserve -- and you do deserve it, Chief, you deserve every bit of it."

"God, will you shut up?" Blair muttered. He went to work on his bootlaces. "You just don't get it, do you? Everything I want I had for two fucking months and you know when they were."

"No, you didn't." Jim sounded surprisingly calm. "Selective memory. We were fighting all the time."

His boots came off and he hoped Jim got hit with a noseful of stink because he deserved it. "No, we weren't."

"Fucking to make up, not because we wanted to," Jim went on.

He skinned out of his jeans but left his shorts and socks on. "Speak for yourself, little buddy. I was in lust with your body, worshiping at the shrine. I'd have bent over for you or fucked your brains out any time you wanted it, anywhere we could get away with it."

"I was so fucking possessive. God, the way I acted when you looked at someone -- I knew what I was doing and how sick and fucked-up it was, I just couldn't --"

Jacket, shirt, leave his T-shirt on. Jim might have an access all areas pass to his body but it didn't mean the mosquitoes did. "Typical behavior of someone not used to a long-term relationship, and when you add in all the crap we'd gone through with Alex and your need to keep me close because of all the freaky Sentinel stuff… bound to get messy. You'd have calmed down, or I'd have smacked you around the head until you got the message I wasn't going anywhere --" His voice faltered. Shit. Two mistakes in one sentence. Shit.

Jim eyed him sadly. "Except I was the one who hit you. And you did go somewhere. You left me when I'd asked -- when I'd begged you not to."

"Because you were being unreasonable! And I don't give a fuck about you hitting me. Not when it was just once. Not then. I know you wouldn't have done it again -- and I've come close to punching you often enough to know it's a line that's easily crossed."

"Except you didn't." Jim's mouth twisted. "Okay, maybe the night you came back from Peru, you tried, but you weren't really yourself, were you, Chief?"

"I'm not programmed to fight the way you are. Forget it. I have." Blair decided that crawling actually wasn't a bad way of closing the distance fast and scrambled around the fire and into the cocoon of the sleeping bag. He put his hand on Jim's arm. Warm skin, tense muscles. "Why did it matter so much me taking that transfer? You didn't trust me out there? You didn't trust me to come back? What?"

"I'd been having visions of you dying," Jim said tiredly. "Every night. Those dreams where everything's blue and you're a fucking wolf."

"And you didn't tell me?" Blair said, too stunned to even feel angry. "Jim? Jim? You had a vision I was in danger and you didn't even --"

"I told you not to go."

"Not the same, man, that is just not the same." Blair kicked his way free of the sleeping bag and knelt up beside Jim. "I thought you were pulling more of the insecure crap! If you'd told me you were having visions, I'd have listened."

"Would you? I doubt Simon would be impressed by that as an excuse when it was all arranged, and you were all about being his blue-eyed boy those first months. You’d have decided forewarned was enough and you'd have gone."

"You didn't tell me," Blair said numbly, trying to process that betrayal. "You let me go --"

"I let you go," Jim agreed. "And I deserved to lose you for that."

"You already had," Blair said, bitterness from an old wound rising up, sour and acrid. "That guy you were with when I came back; you were already --"

"No." Jim swallowed. "I didn't -- I let you think that I was, but I wasn't."

"You swore that was true," Blair said tensely, leaning forward, getting in Jim's face. "You had to know it was the last fucking straw --"

"Of course I did," Jim said, sighing. "And I didn't lie. I said I met him before you left. I did. As a lawyer on a case I worked when you were at the academy. He made it plain he was interested; I made it really clear I wasn't, without admitting anything. When you went… I was drinking one night, trying to pass out more than anything, and he called and… I just, I --"

"There aren't enough words in the language to describe how I'm feeling right now," Blair said calmly, from the emptiness that had hollowed him out. "How much I want to --"

"Hurt me?" Jim shook his head. " No need, Blair. All taken care of. I did it for you."

And it was that simple in the end. A few minute's conversation and a few words and he knew why Jim had turned his back and stayed that way.

"Seven years. Seven fucking years --" His voice rose from a whisper to a tortured, anguished scream that ripped at his throat, on his feet by the time he'd finished, instinct taking him there to the higher ground, his body responding to the thick, heady musk of lust and violence swirling around him.

He wanted Jim's blood on his knuckles, wanted to rip and punch and tear at the man who'd done this to him -- to them both. Wanted it enough that he was sick with it. He was breathing in hoarse, ragged gasps, his heart pounding, his body shaken with fury.

And Jim sat there, his hands loosely clasped on his bent up knees, his head lowered, the bare, cool nape of his nape exposed.

It was as close as Jim would ever get to showing his belly in supplication to a predator and it sliced Blair's anger away from him cleanly and left only the vast sorrow at the waste.

He doubled over, going to his knees, and then his stomach, pounding his fists against the grass and earth and stone, tears and snot and noise pouring out of him, lost in the space around them, the miles of emptiness.

No one listening who cared, who understood, but Jim, and Blair was mourning for him as much as for himself.

He felt the skin on his hands shred and bleed, felt the jarring thud of each blow he dealt the earth, breathed in wet salt in place of air, and only stopped when his exhausted body betrayed him.

A hand fell onto his head in a clumsy caress and he rolled to his back and stared up through tears at Jim's face. "Blair --"

Jim was crying, too. He'd made Jim cry. Jim never cried.

"Please don't -- that was enough, please don't -- don't, Blair, don't. Don't hurt yourself, don't --"

The words were junk, garbled, stumbled over, broken syllables that reformed in Blair's mind, translated, comprehended.

Jim was touching him, hands on his face, wiping away tears and worse and not doing a good job of it, then cradling Blair's hands in his, which hurt, hurt like hell.

"Up," Blair said, as clearly as he could. "Help me up."

His hands were released and Jim pulled him into a sitting position with one arm around his neck and a fistful of Blair's shirt.

Then he put his forehead on Blair's shoulder. "I'm sorry."

The words were muffled but Blair heard them. He just couldn't answer them in any honest way. He settled for murmuring, "I know."

Because he did.

He just wasn't sure it was enough.

They stayed in an awkward hug, Blair's arms around Jim, his hands stuck out stiffly, throbbing painfully, Jim's head heavy on Blair's shoulder, unbalancing him, until Blair sighed.

"We need to get cleaned up. Emotional catharses -- well, the aftermath's a bitch."

Jim lifted his head and sniffed, a prosaic, necessary sniff that did as much as anything to draw a line under what had just happened. "You're still talking to me, then?"

"Looks like it." Blair unwound his arms from around Jim's body and examined his hands in the inadequate light. "Ow."

"Will you let me take care of them for you?"

"Sure." Blair frowned. "Why are you even asking?"

Jim picked away a pine needle clinging to the base of Blair's thumb. "Because it's going to hurt like hell."

"Oh." Blair looked away from the damage he'd inflicted on himself and watched Jim empty his backpack in search of the first aid kit. "It was that or hit you."

"I got that. Thanks, I guess."

"You guess?"

"You'd have hurt yourself less hitting me."

"Why is that?" Blair demanded. "Think I wouldn't have got past your guard?"

"I wouldn't have tried to stop you." Jim came back to him and dropped some supplies into Blair's lap. "I'm going to get some water. I'll be right back."

"Why would it have hurt less?" Blair persisted.

Jim glanced at him as he straightened. "I like to think you'd have stopped sooner."


***


The fire had died to embers, the wood breaking apart only to flare red and then smolder to gray. Blair lay on his side in his sleeping bag and watched it, the painkillers Jim had pushed past his protesting lips with his thumb working with the exertions of the day to lull him into a drowse.

Jim lay nearby, already asleep, just out of reach.

Finding accidental symbolism in the placement of a sleeping bag had to be a new low for him.

Jim stirred, muttered something, and went back to sleep, if he'd ever really woken, and Blair closed his eyes. If being stared at was disturbing Jim, then he'd be considerate and not stare. Jim needed his rest; any digging to be done in the morning was going to be done by him; Blair's bandaged, swollen hands weren't going to be much use.

He rolled to his back, wriggled out of the way of something prodding him in his shoulder, and tried to go to sleep.

Right. Like that was going to happen when he was this worked up. His face was still stiff and stretched from crying, his throat still raw from screaming. It'd been years since he'd done either and it wasn't something he planned to do again soon. It was supposed to make you feel better but all it had done was add a myriad of physical pains to the emotional ones and make him feel vaguely ridiculous.

If Jim hadn't been right there with him, leaking tears, it would've been worse, though.

Except he didn't want to feel grateful to Jim for anything, not the crying, not the picking out, patiently, carefully, of every speck of dirt and shred of skin from the scrapes on Blair's hands, not the cold bowl of water that had numbed and cleaned and brought fresh tears welling up as his stressed-out body protested the initial pain.

Nothing.

No gratitude.

Jim had deliberately wrecked their lives on the basis of a few misconceptions and a whole lot of guilt. Hadn't discussed it, hadn't explained. Just kicked him out and spent seven years of self-flagellation being a martyr.

He wondered what Brother Marcus would have thought of that as a way of dealing. Not a lot. Marcus had been more practical about his penitence. He'd shut himself away from the world, sure, but he'd found peace and he'd been part of the small community.

Jim had, from the little Simon had said, alternated between moping, sulking, and snapping before settling down into a studied grayness.

And he'd lost his fucking senses and Blair didn't think it was egotistical to connect that loss with his own disappearance from Jim's life; not when his return had brought them back.

Jim didn't need him? On what fucking planet did Jim not need him? How many people had died because there was no Sentinel to save them? Okay, now he was starting to feel guilty…

"Stop it," Jim said drowsily. "Trying to sleep here, Sandburg, and you're muttering and I can hear you."

"Good." Blair remembered the digging. "I mean, sorry. I'm just --"

"Thinking. Loudly. Yeah, I know." Jim sighed. "I really don't want to talk about it. There's nothing to say. You know it all now and you think I was wrong. I get it."

"'Wrong' doesn't even begin to cover it, but, yes, that's about it."

"And it changes nothing, so go to sleep." Jim's voice softened. "Your hands hurting?"

"Little bit but I'll live." Blair turned his head and decided to give the bubble insulating Jim from reality a sharp prod. "Did you spill your guts because it was that or have sex with me? Hell of a choice to make, wasn't it? Think you made the right one?"

To his surprise, that got a chuckle out of Jim. "Honesty or sex and I went for honesty. Feels like a bad choice to some parts of me, but, yes, I think I did. Don't you?"

"If I say yes I'll feel older than I do now, which is about ninety."

"I hear that," Jim said with a groan. "I'm going to ache tomorrow. Let myself get out of shape."

He'd seen Jim's body. No way was that accurate.

"You let a lot of things go."

Jim grunted impatiently. "I've told you why when it comes to you and if you mean the senses --"

"Yeah, I mean the fucking senses! God, Jim…"

"I couldn't help that. They just… faded." The sleeping bag rustled as Jim turned to his back. "I thought -- I mean, you going, yes, and I guess that was partly it --"

"Partly?" Blair felt vaguely insulted. "What else could it have been?"

"I was getting older," Jim said simply. "Maybe Sentinels weren't meant to stay Sentinels when that happened. Maybe I should be passing the senses on or something, hell, I don't know. That was always your thing."

"They're not like a secondhand car," Blair said coldly. "And didn't Incacha tell you you'd always be a Sentinel if you wanted to be?"

"So I'm on my deathbed and I can still hear someone sneezing two streets away? What good is that to anyone?"

"I don't know." Blair felt tired now. "I just know the senses are yours. Part of you." He rolled over, facing away from Jim. "And so was I."

"Was?" Jim said after a pause.

"Happy now? I give up. We do this retrieval deal, we shake hands -- or maybe not -- and I walk away and this time I stay gone. No phone calls, no -- gone." Blair closed his eyes against the darkness. "Because you're right. We can't go back and I don't see a way forward. I thought I did. Had it all planned out. But I didn't know what you'd done and -- yeah. I do now, don't I?"

"You know everything," Jim said across the space between them. "I don't know what to say to make this better. I didn't think you were still missing me. All this time? You've been unhappy all this time? God, Blair, I never meant --"

"Yeah. And that ends now. Tomorrow I get on with my put on hold life." Blair hunched his shoulder irritably. "Now let me get some sleep, will you?"

***


"Looks like it's there," Jim said, rubbing a dirty hand across his sweaty forehead and making mud.

Blair peered into the side of the hill at the corner of a metal box. "Yeah," he said unenthusiastically. "So get it out."

"Yes, sir," Jim muttered. "Look, Sandburg, this isn't easy. The supports for the shaft have rotted and it's in deeper than I can reach but the hole's too small for me to crawl into."

"So make it bigger."

"It'll all collapse." Dirt was raining down into the space Jim had excavated, a gentle patter of it. "See? As fast as I get it out, more comes down. It's a miracle we can even see that corner."

"There has to be a way."

Jim pursed his lips and gave the hillside a long look. "Not seeing it. You try and blow it and the whole side comes down; not to mention that box is metal but it's not built to take stress like that. I'll radio in, tell them to send in a construction crew, but we're done."

"I can get in there."

"No, you can't."

"I'm smaller --"

"No. You're just shorter," Jim corrected him. "You're as wide in the shoulders as me and you're not going to go in there. If it collapses, I wouldn't be able to dig you out in time and you're sure as hell not dying for some loose change and some out of date intel."

"We have to get it out," Blair insisted. "Us. You and me."

"Why?" Jim stared at him, his expression puzzled. "Why it is so important to you?"

"Not me." He'd been in a foul mood all morning which made being an asshole automatic. "I've given up on the whole idea of an us, remember? Brother Marcus. He made me promise we'd do this. He matters to me even if you don't."

"Blair." Jim shook his head, sweat drops flying. "I get that you're pissed and I get that you want this over with so you can leave, but can you save the bitchy comments for your next boyfriend, huh? Because I'm getting sick of them."

"Give me the fucking shovel," Blair said through his teeth. "And get out of my way."

"Your hands --"

Blair snatched Jim's work gloves from the back pocket of Jim's jeans and pulled them on. They were hot and damp inside, gritty with dirt, and his palms stung fiercely. He'd taken off the bandages to let air get to the scrapes, which had seemed like a good idea at the time.

"Blair --"

"You lost the right to tell me what to do a long time ago."

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Jim threw the shovel to the ground and gave Blair a look of utter disgust. "Knock yourself out, kiddo. I'm going to radio in and then we're leaving for the rendezvous site. Damned if I'm walking out of here with you."

He walked away, favoring one leg. Blair frowned. Wrong leg for any injury he remembered Jim getting… but then, how many had Jim sustained that he didn't know about? And it might just have been a pulled muscle from the hike or the digging. He bent and picked up the shovel, hissing as his abraded skin protested.

He'd watched Jim do this and had a few thoughts on the project that he hadn't shared. Yeah, that'd been immature, but he'd woken up feeling like hell and determined to spread the misery. Every reconciliation scenario he'd dreamed up had always included the basic premise that he'd been fully committed to doing what it took to get Jim back.

With that central support knocked away, all that was left wasn't worth thinking about and so he wasn't.

He'd been on enough dig sites to know that Jim was right about the difficulties, but a higher shaft, angled down… yeah, that might work. He scrambled up above where Jim had been digging and looked around. Solid rock there, too close to the edge there…okay, here would do.

He began to dig into the soil, cutting through a thin skein of grass roots, and made sure to make the hole wide enough to crawl down. A space that large took time to excavate and he wondered idly after a while why Jim wasn't returning to yell at him. He paused to catch his breath, the hole a meager six inches deep, and scanned the clearing. No Jim.

Maybe he'd needed to go somewhere to get a better reception on the radio? Blair knew that the message was going to the closest park station and would be relayed to Cascade, but he was hazy on the details.

Or maybe he was taking in a dip in the stream. Blair dragged his mind off what was still an enticing image no matter how he felt about Jim as a person -- as a deceitful, high-handed, insane person -- and gave the disturbed earth a peevish jab with the shovel.

With what felt like an equal level of spite in response, the hillside shook, quivered, and caved in under his feet, a formerly buried piece of wood scoring a line along his thigh and ribs as he fell before the jagged tip tore through his shirt, missing his armpit by a whisker.

He screamed, but it had a name in it.

***


Blair spat soil out of his mouth, the taste one he knew from childhood when an older boy had convinced him earth was brown because it was made of chocolate and watched him eat some with a smirk on his freckled face. He was standing on the box, from what he could see when he looked down -- not much -- and praying it didn't get dislodged because if it did he wouldn't be standing, he'd be hanging, and until his shirt surrendered to gravity and tore completely, he'd be held up by what was left of a support beam and that wouldn't be comfortable. He was bleeding from what he hoped was a shallow gouge running up the side of his body and he probably had splinters in every place his jeans and shirt had been ripped.

For the fourth time he worked up some spit by thinking about lemons, moistened his lips, and howled Jim's name.

It bounced off the earth around him and clearly failed to rise the distance needed to reach the open air as no Jim appeared, breathless and panicked.

Except it didn't need to. Hell, he didn't even need to shout; Jim was back online, better than ever, capable of hearing him swallow from a mile away, let alone yell.

"Jim, you asshole, I need you," he said, as loudly as he could without straining his voice. "Cave-in and I'm trapped. Do the whole hero thing, will you and pull me out? And, yeah, I know if there's an asshole around, it's me, not you, but let's put that away for later. Bleeding here and yeah, I can breathe, and it's stupid because I'm not even in that deep, but I'm trapped and I'm scared. I don't do trapped real well, Jim, and it's cork in a bottle time. Did I mention I'm bleeding?"

No Jim. No sound of Jim charging to the rescue, not that he could hear anything but his heartbeat, rushing and receding. He was getting dizzy and seeing floating black spots now. In fact, he was going to pass out. He tipped his head back and stared up at the patch of sky above him, mentally reciting from the only part of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' that he could remember, something about a little tent of blue and clouds with sails like silver.

Which triggered the memory of another verse about each man killing the thing he loves and that -- no, he wasn't going there.

Hanging. The poem was about that and that was what he was doing and that was why he'd thought of it and he was trapped, just like the man in the poem, trapped, helpless, held down, pinned down, no escape, no reprieve, and Jim had left him, walked away, and he didn't want that, not really, and he loved him, and he didn't really think Jim had believed what he'd said last night but it didn't change the fact that it'd been said and Jim hadn't tried to change his mind and he was fucked, they both were, and it was all such a fucking terrible mess and Brother Marcus could take his stupid, fucking box and --

Blue.

***


He was lying in the jungle, his foreleg trapped under a fallen log. And, he supposed, his other body was dying, or he wouldn't be here, even though he couldn't really see why that would happen this fast unless he was going to panic to death. Maybe the damage from the piece of wood had been worse than he'd thought, and he was bleeding out?

He waited for Jim to show up, as human or cat, whining and nuzzling at his fur-covered leg as he squirmed in frustration.

After an endless while he threw back his head and howled, long and loud.

I'm here. Come and get me.

And he was answered by a weak growl, plaintive, mewling.

He snuffed the air, and found the scent trail, blood-marked and fresh. He wasn't sure how this worked exactly, and Jim had always been reticent when it came to describing his visions, but Blair knew who he was. Human. Scared. He also knew, with an equal certainty, that he was a wolf and opposable thumbs weren't included in the package. So he was trapped, Jim was off that way, hurt badly enough that he couldn't come running, walking, limping, or crawling to the rescue, and yeah, well and truly fucked covered it nicely.

The jaguar was purring now. Cats did that when they were in pain, as well as when they were getting their bellies tickled and their heads stroked. He didn't remember where he'd read that but it'd freaked him out because way to send a confused signal.

The purring was a low, exhausted, end of the line rumble and the message Blair was getting was coming through loud and clear.

He twisted his body and began to scrape a hole under his trapped limb, his claws clogged with dirt in a matter of moments, breaking off as they struck pebbles. It hurt and the ache from the crushed foreleg was a solid thump with every beat of his heart but it didn't matter.

He made a space big enough to give him room to ease his paw free and lay there, tongue lolling out, panting hard for a minute before scrambling to his feet.

Then he followed the trail in an ungainly three-legged scamper, yapping Jim's name, barking it out, knowing he'd be heard.

The jaguar lay still at the base of a tree, a green snake slithering in a sinuous wave over the dull black pelt. Literal or figurative a danger, it didn't matter. Stiff-legged and growling deep in his throat, Blair stalked the still figure of his mate, his eyes fixed on the snake.

Then he pounced, teeth meeting in a crunch and snap, and shook the creature until it hung limply from his jaws.

He let it fall and lay down beside the jaguar, whining and nosing at it, waiting for something to --

Blue.

***


Still stuck in the hole. Blair felt like complaining about that to some nameless someone, but decided petulance was a luxury. He had two choices; up or down.

Up, with nothing to hold onto as one arm was pinned by the wood and the other trapped against his side, would be tricky. Down didn't seem to lead anywhere; the tunnel Jim had dug had almost certainly collapsed and Jim had been right; it was too small for either of them to use.

Had to be up. He needed to get free of the wood and to work his other hand up over his head, then grab the edge of the hole.

Assuming it didn't crumble. Assuming he didn't bring more soil down on himself and suffocate with his head so close to the surface, as ironic a death as drowning in a bowl of soup.

He fought back sheer, unreasoning terror and began to talk to calm himself down. "Jim? Going to assume you can hear me, Mr. I can hear a worm burp a mile away. I just had a vision and you were in it so I guess you did, too. We get out of this and we're talking this through. You'll owe me that because I'm about to save your life. Just got to… uhn. Okay, that was me ruining a perfectly good shirt and ow, ow, fuck, God, when does a splinter get an upgrade, because there's a piece of wood in my arm and it's six inches long, maybe more… I'm not looking at it. I'm getting out."

He stopped talking for a while as he began the painstaking process of moving his hand a lousy three or four feet up in the air, something he did a dozen times a day to scratch his head, pick his nose, rub his eyes. Of course, he wasn't usually hampered by a ton of earth...

His arm got stuck, doubled up uncomfortably, and he felt the panic sweep back, inexorable, huge. In the moment before it struck he heard Jim's voice whisper 'Chief', faint and weak.

Hallucination, had to be, but it steadied him and he took a series of deep breaths, soil silting into his nose, his eyes, God, his ears, and then, when he was stuffed full of oxygen, giddy with it, every cell suffused, he did what every animal in a trap did and went berserk, fighting, kicking, biting, squirming.

Up, up, up to the light. The dimming, disappearing light…

Do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage, against the dying of the light…

He was raging, a silent scream, a final desperate scrabble and kick off with the steel beneath his feet holding steady and his body straining to be free.

His head emerged and he ran out of strength, one arm still hanging down, his other arm resting against the soft, turned earth around the lip of the hole.

Jim was a few yards away, dragging himself toward Blair, a makeshift tourniquet of a handkerchief and a stick wrapped around his ankle.

Blair blinked and shook a scatter of soil out of his eyes. "Stay there," he croaked. "I'm coming to rescue you, dammit."

Jim stared at him blindly, grunted, pulled himself along another hard-won inch, and then collapsed, sprawled out on his belly, his labored breathing infinitely reassuring because breathing was something corpses rarely did.

"Stay there…" Blair repeated and this time meant 'don't go'.

***


"I've used the anti-venom kit, Sandburg," Jim said irritably. "And the snake didn't get a chance to do much damage. Glancing strike."

"Which is why you were crawling, not running." Blair batted at Jim's hand. "Let me do it, will you?"

"You can't reach." Jim's hand -- Jim's trembling, shaking hand -- moved closer, tweezers glinting between his thumb and finger, and Blair snarled at him.

"You're not getting my splinters out when you can barely hold your hand steady. Forget it. We'll get picked up soon and whoever's flying the chopper can do it."

Jim studied his palsied hand, sighed, and put the tweezers away. "I could suck them out," he offered.

"I'll pass, thanks."

Blair stood up and swayed giddily before getting his balance. "I'm going to wash. I've got dirt in every crack and crevice."

Jim leaned back against the tree behind him, his face drawn and pallid. "I can't believe we took something this simple and fucked it up so badly. Simon's going to have my ass for breakfast."

"Yeah, he probably will."

"Thanks for the sympathy."

"You don't need it. He'll yell, you'll be reasonable until he really loses it and it'll be over a few minutes later."

Jim grinned sourly. "That was the old Simon. The softened up by Sandburg Simon. These days he just writes something nasty in my file and lands me with enough paperwork to bury an elephant."

"No yelling?"

"Not much."

Blair considered that. "Doesn't sound like Simon."

"Maybe if I ask nicely and remind him I almost got a civilian killed he'll go back to yelling."

Blair studied the hillside. "It would help if we had what we came for."

"Chief, as far as I'm concerned that box can stay there for another thirty, forty years, until I'm dead and buried."

Suppressing the shiver that gave him, Blair walked over to the hillside and picked up the shovel.

"Blair, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Jim called.

"What I came here to do."

"You fall in again and --"

"You can save me this time."

He dug carefully, with a strength born of sheer stubbornness, each spadeful of earth lifting a weight from him. He wasn't worried. Jim had his back.

And maybe somewhere Brother Marcus was watching as the box he'd buried was brought out into the light. Blair wasn’t sure about that but it couldn't hurt to believe it was true.

The beat of the chopper's wings came with the triumphant clang of metal on metal as the blade of the shovel struck the box.

***


"So, when will you be back this way again?" Simon inquired. He took a gulp of beer and looked expectant.

Blair glanced around the bar. Still a cop bar, and he was still getting curious, unfriendly glances, even with his hair cut. They knew he wasn't one of them.

"Oh, you know how it is, Simon. Someday. Nothing planned."

Not after the ride back in the chopper had seen his optimism and determination seep away, water into sand, as Jim had steadfastly refused to meet his eyes. Conversation had been impossible over the clatter of the engine, but he'd been prepared to wait. He hadn't expected Jim to bark out some terse orders to the security detail waiting for them when they landed, and then walk away after the briefest of nods to Blair. They'd been interviewed separately and Blair had been told he could leave whenever he wanted to, with enough force behind it to make it more than a suggestion. Maybe they'd thought he was angling for a finder's fee. Maybe word had gotten around about who he was, and the ranks were closing, excluding him, protecting Jim.

"You're only a few hours away," Simon objected. "And, hell, we arrange to met in the middle to go fishing, and it's even less."

"Sometime," Blair said flatly.

Simon gave him a shrewd, not unkind, look. "Jim's still digging his heels in, is he?"

"Not Jim. Me." He supposed Simon was owed an explanation but Jim would have to give it. He wasn't going to put himself through that. "I came here thinking I could just step back into something and it turns out it doesn't exist."

"Blair, if I was any good at discussions like these, I wouldn't have gotten divorced. I don't want details and I won't give you my advice --"

"But," Blair prompted dryly.

"But you and Jim need to face the fact that no one else wants you so you're stuck with each other." Simon laughed, the heh-heh of his chuckle unchanged. "Now, me, I loved Joan and I'm going to be just as happy with Lorna, but you two…"

"He pushed me away, Simon. For seven years."

"So you keep saying." Simon rubbed his thumb up the side of his glass, interrupting the downward slide of a bead of condensation. "I know that. I just don't know why you let him."

"I had no choice. Phone calls, letters; he wouldn't listen."

"They were easy to ignore." Simon's expression was pitying. "Why didn't you come back if you wanted him that badly, Blair? He would have listened if you got in his face."

"He wouldn't open the door," Blair said, frustrated by the need to explain.

"How many times did you knock?"

"What?"

"How many times did you go to that door and knock? And why didn't you wait for him at work, by his truck, in this bar? Get him to look at you; hell, if you'd asked me for help, I might even have cuffed him to a chair and made the stubborn son of a bitch give you ten minutes to talk sense into him." Simon sighed. "You gave up. Not like you."

"Gave up? I didn't -- I've been waiting -- I called him, once a year, I --"

"Jim's good at waiting. You're not. He'd never have gone to you, Blair. You know that." Simon drank from his glass. "You weren't sure, were you?"

"I'm not now," Blair said. "He told me stuff -- he made choices for me, Simon. Didn't ask me, just went ahead and rearranged my life…"

"Meant it for the best?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Ouch," Simon said, not unsympathetically. "You're both fools."

"I love you, too, Simon," Blair muttered.

"He'll be here soon and I'll have a drink with you both and then fade," Simon said. He patted Blair's arm, a smugly certain Cupid. "It'll work itself out, Blair. Count on it."

Blair stood and tossed some money on the table. "I can't wait any longer, Simon. Tell Jim I'm sorry I didn't get to say good-bye."

"He'll be here soon," Simon protested, visibly jolted out of his complacency . "The Feds have had him all day and it's not like he can tell them more than you did. I expected him to be here an hour ago."

"I don't think he's coming," Blair said. He held out his hand and then, as Simon got to his feet, looking bewildered and upset, pulled Simon to him for a one-armed hug. "Thanks, Simon. Take care."

"Blair, wait…"

He didn't look back and the crowd at the bar parted easily to let him leave.

***


Blair found himself wanting to pick up the phone after he'd returned home -- they could talk, couldn't they? Now they'd broken the years of silence, they could have a simple, friendly conversation -- but he didn't.

Better this way. A clean break.

Except gnawing your leg off to escape a trap left a bleeding, gaping wound, left you crippled at best.

He buried himself in work for the upcoming semester and watched the summer wear itself out in a series of hot nights and wild storms, rain lashing down on baked earth. He was dreaming in blue and forgetting the substance of the dreams within moments of waking, walking restless through the day.

And he was flashing on Jim's body, wet from the shower, every time he came, Jim's name mixed in with the hoarse, sharp pants and moans accompanying his climax.

His body had forgiven Jim easily, would have welcomed him back with a traitorous warmth, opened to him, pierced him. He dreamed of that solid, smooth body beneath his hands, hard-muscled, strong; rubbed his shoulder where Jim's leg had rested, slung high. He woke with the taste of Jim's come breaking like a wave across his lips, pungent, earthy, male.

Dream-fucked, ghost-ridden, and lonely.

This wasn't a new beginning; it was stasis. It was hell.

And he wondered, with a dull curiosity, if Jim's senses had gone again.

***


Blair stared down at the table. A bright piece of metal. A key. A piece of paper, a single sheet, folded once, and marked with a single line of writing followed by Jim's signature.

This one fits, Blair.

He stroked his finger across the inked letters of his name on the envelope, remembering dozens of notes to him Jim had left on tables, stuck to the fridge, tucked in his current book; once, as he slept off a hangover, placed in his hand without waking him.

This one fits…

He added it to his key ring and watched the circles of metal snap back into place as the inserted sliver of his fingernail slipped away, holding the key safe.

And wished adding himself back into Jim's life was that simple, but it wasn't.

It'd been so much easier when he thought it was Jim's fault they were apart.

***


Jim opened the door when Blair knocked, the space of time between the two long enough for Jim to have crossed from the window to the door. Blair pictured Jim standing there, staring out, maybe watching him cross the road.

"You knocked," Jim said, a question in the words.

Blair held up his key ring with the loft key hanging from it and nodded down at the small overnight bag he carried. "I'm visiting, that's all. Just passing through, so I thought…"

Jim stepped back and when Blair walked in he gave him a slow, grave smile, bewildered but happy. "It's good to see you."

Blair smiled back and put his bag just inside the door. "Yeah." He gave Jim a hug, wanting to close the final distance between them, and found that he hadn't because it had ceased to exist when he'd crossed the threshold.

Whatever happened, they were friends again, a gulf bridged by an inch or two of shaped, purposeful metal; and that realization, when it had finally come, had made this visit something he had to do.

Jim held him for a moment, his breathing quiet and steady, his heart pounding in a contradictory beat against Blair's chest, and then stepped back. "You hungry, Chief?"

"Later, I could eat, sure, but not right now. I've been dreaming of a beer for the last fifty miles, though."

"One beer coming up. And you know where the takeout menus are when you're ready."

They moved across the room and sat down, Jim on a chair, Blair on the couch, beer in hand. Silence settled around them. Blair was used to silence now. It didn't need painting over with words and it didn't need filling. It had a color and a shape of its own.

"Are you staying the night?" Jim asked finally.

"Long drive back."

"So are you staying?" Jim persisted.

Blair nodded but that still wasn't enough.

"Are you staying here?" Jim's fingers tightened around the slippery glass of the beer bottle he held. "With me?"

No room for mistakes, misunderstanding… Blair could appreciate the need that drove Jim to be that precise.

"For the night? Yes. Maybe two?"

He watched Jim relax, and then followed Jim's gaze up to the railing, and beyond it, Jim's bed. "That's not inevitable," he said. "If it's more than you want, I'll understand. But, yes, I'd like to sleep up there. With you."

"It can be however you want it to be," Jim said, leaning forward, hands on his knees. "When I gave you a key the first time, I gave you your own space, too." He nodded toward the small room Blair had used. "It's yours. Whenever you want it. Whenever you visit. But you're welcome in my -- you're always --" His voice faltered. "Blair?"

Blair relaxed against the couch cushions and tilted his head back, exposing his throat. They hadn't had time to build up the shorthand of a relationship, the understood cues and unspoken messages, but that gesture had always worked and he let Jim's intake of breath stand as an answer to a question he hadn't really asked.

The walls were still white, but the setting sun was painting them gold.

There was something green in a pot on the patio and next time he'd use his key.

Jim was walking over to him, kneeling in front of him, his hands warm and heavy in Blair's clasped fingers, talking in a hurried stumble of words Blair didn't need to remember because they were ones Jim would say again, often.

Blair had a key to give him, too. Later, afterwards.

There was no rush now and seven years had taught him patience.

He stood, took Jim's hand, and they walked over to the stairs.

Still not rushing.

Just moving quickly.



Return to Home

Click here if you'd like to send feedback