Crossroad Blues

by Jane Davitt


Written for Moonridge 08; thank you to the bidders, to Mab Browne for a wonderful beta reading and to T Verano for cheerleading.


"So it's back to Cascade?" Linda asked, her gaze traveling between the three men.

Jim looked her over. Smart, competent -- and content to be stuck in this dying town as its vet and makeshift doctor. Most people wouldn't understand that, seeing it as a lack of ambition, but he did. She was staying where she was needed; the sentinel in him responded to that choice with approval. He smiled warmly at her. "Well, actually, I thought we could all do some fishing tomorrow."

Jim watched Blair cover his face with his hand, acting out dismay, but ignored him. He'd said that he'd come here to fish and by God, that was what he was going to do.

"I'm in," Linda said brightly. "I'll spring for breakfast."

The length of time since he'd eaten made Jim's response wholehearted and sincere. "Great."

Simon chuckled wryly. "No, thank you. I think I prefer the mayhem of the city." He nodded at Linda. "Nice meeting you."

Jim watched Simon walk away and gave Blair an inquiring look. "Uh... I think I'm down with the mayhem," Blair said. He paused and then, when Jim didn't reply or try to stop him, turned and followed Simon.

"I finally shook them," Jim said, and heard the satisfaction in his voice.

Linda stared at him, her expression tinged with bewilderment. "'Shook them'?" she repeated. "I thought you were all up here together?"

"Not exactly," Jim replied. He saw that she wanted more of an explanation and sighed inwardly. "Simon's my boss and a friend, which means we see a lot of each other. We fish together plenty, but this time… this time I wanted some space."

"And what about Blair?" Linda was frowning now. "I didn't get chance to talk to him much, but he seems really nice. You were -- you seemed so worried about him when he got sick."

"Well, of course I was." Jim shrugged and tried to keep his impatience from showing. His stomach was growling and Blair was the last person he wanted to discuss with a relative stranger. "Sandburg's a friend, too. A good one. But when it comes to time apart, well, we just don't have any. When he can, he rides with me as an observer --" He saw her lips part on a question and cut her off. "For a paper he's working on for his doctorate. So I see a lot of him at work, and we live together, which means I see him at home, too."

"You live together?" Her eyebrows rose and then she shook her head. "Sorry. None of my business. You just seem a bit old for a roommate."

There was nothing in her voice to make him think that she was implying that Sandburg was more than that, so he threw her a bone. "His place blew up -- well, the drug lab next door did -- and took his digs with it, so I offered him a place to stay."

Her eyes widened. "He just lost his home? God, poor Blair! And now this…he's not having much luck recently, is he?"

"Oh, it wasn't recent," Jim said dismissively, without thought. "Couple of years back now."

She glanced away, trying to hide a smile. "Ah. Got it."

"No, you don't," he said, too used to this reaction to mistake her meaning, and feeling a familiar annoyance at the assumption. "He has a room at my place. A room with a bed in it. His bed. Not mine. We clear on that?"

Irritation flared in her eyes at his sharp words. "Crystal clear," she said crisply. "What's not so clear is why you see two friends as encumbrances, but that's your business. And you know what? I think you'll have to take a rain check on fishing and breakfast; I'm going to be busy helping out my friends. Like Blair, they're still suffering the after effects of that virus."

She turned on her heel and stalked away, leaving Jim to stare after her, stubbornness holding his guilt at bay. He'd driven up here for a break. He'd told them that he didn't want them to come with him. He was entitled to some peace after --

He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with pine-scented air to clear the ghost of Lila's perfume from them.

Lila… Her death had left him grieving, but the vague hope that one day he'd meet up with her again had faded long ago. Even before she'd been shot, he'd known that it wasn't going to work between them a second time. Too much had changed for him. He'd had the million to one chance of bumping into her in the street, but that had been it; their luck used up in one random collision of bodies.

Fresh from the jungle, she'd been as much of a delight as hot showers, cold beer, and a change of clothing whenever he wanted it. Her hands had been like sun heat on his skin, arousing him again and again, her body welcoming, the distance in her eyes interpreted by his male ego as a challenge, not rejection or a warning. He could no more have stopped himself from falling in love than he could have let himself be sent on another mission.

And she'd disappeared one day and left him with nothing to do but go home. Start over -- and tuck away his memories of a few days with her like something precious that was nothing of the sort, a child burying a treasured toy in the garden and finding it years later, rusted and misshapen.

He'd made love to her in his bed when she'd come to the loft and when she'd gone, he'd stripped the sheets and thrown open the patio doors, letting cool, damp air swirl through and cleanse the loft, while Blair shivered and pointedly donned a thick sweater.

He'd enjoyed it at a basic level, sure. She was -- had been -- a beautiful woman. But looking back at that night in the loft, it felt like an echo, not a new beginning, and it wasn't hard to work out why.

He breathed in the scent of the forest again and closed his eyes. He needed this time alone. Needed it.

***

He pitched his tent in a clearing on the edge of the lake, where the waves lapping languidly against the rocks lulled him to sleep and woke him in the morning. His senses were never in danger of stranding him in the no man's land of a zone; too many distractions from the town on the other side of the lake, not so far distant at all. The occasional boat passing by underlined the fact that this was hardly uncharted wilderness.

Quiet, though.

He didn't need uninterrupted solitude; from time to time he hiked the few miles into the town and ate a hot meal at the diner and picked up some bait to save himself digging for worms. He just needed peace.

Toward the end of his stay, with two more nights under canvas before he headed back to Cascade, he set his fishing rod aside, walked to a small cove, where the water lay deep and cool over sand and pebbles, and stripped. With his clothes in a heap on a flat rock, he plunged into the water, a shallow, racing dive, and emerged with a yell at the chill of the water on his sun-warmed skin, his body trying to tear itself free of the liquid ice.

His skin stung, burned, but he let himself feel the sensation fully, repressing the instinct to ignore the signals his skin was sending, and turned, striking out for the center of the lake with powerful strokes. He wanted to wear himself out in a simple, natural way. Sleep these days was a fitful affair, with long hours spent wakeful and yet exhausted, searching for the perfect position that would bring him rest. Being out here had helped a little, but the forest was noisy at night and each rustle of leaves, or crack of bark, each stealthy scuffle of hunter and hunted, brought him out of sleep into a confused drowse that sapped his strength.

He swam until the water felt warm and was lapping against his mouth because he couldn't keep his head up. Time to turn back. Overhead, the sky had darkened, a storm rolling in. It struck him that he was wet already, so who cared, and that thought made him chuckle, a mouthful of lake water his reward for overlooking the danger of being out on the water in a storm. He choked, turned his head, and spat, tendrils of saliva floating like clouds in the clear water.

Clear… but he was too far out to be able to see the bottom of the lake. Even for him, vision ended and darkness began a few feet down. Fear, primal, atavistic, struck and for a moment he actually jerked his legs in toward his body, his brain screaming 'sharks!'.

Reason took its own sweet time in returning, but by then he was heading back to shore, fast, splashy strokes churning the water, blind panic lending his tired limbs a spurious energy.

By the time he dragged himself onto land, a few hundred yards away from his clothes, with a lot of stony ground to cover and the mosquitoes humming, his arms and legs were heavy and trembling and his heart was thudding. Shit. That had been -- shit. He'd really lost it out there.

The first raindrops splashed down, striking him with an impersonal accuracy. His clothes would be damp when he got to them and he'd forgotten to bring a towel.

By the time he got back to camp, he'd been bitten three times, the ball of his right foot was throbbing, courtesy of a sharp stone on the trail, and his clothes were a clammy, ill-fitting weight on his body. The only potential gleam on the horizon was the memory of two beer bottles left to cool in the lake, wedged between two rocks.

Discovering that they'd been washed away would have been one cruelty too many; the universe had kindly, considerately, left them in place and he scooped them out while the thunder rumbled across the sky, and headed for his tent. It was warmer inside and he stripped again and stretched out, bare and shivering, on top of his sleeping bag, waiting to dry off enough to be able to crawl inside it.

A beer disappeared while he was waiting, the cool tingle on his tongue followed by a pleasant buzz, courtesy of an empty stomach and all that adrenaline.

He set the empty bottle aside, stared up at the canvas, with the rain drumming down steadily onto it, and let it all go.

All the crap, all the tension, all the lying. This was why he'd needed this break. He wanted to break free and if the freedom would be welcome, the breakdown that preceded it was going to hurt which was why he'd been putting it off. Blair wouldn't have let him do this -- well, he wouldn't have let Jim do it alone. And Jim didn't want witnesses, especially ones with anxious blue eyes that saw too fucking much at times and too little when it mattered.

The last time he'd felt this…. full, this close to bursting like a rotten fruit, pulp oozing out, he'd been surrounded by trees in a different forest and Incacha had been the one he'd tried to avoid. He'd failed then; his friend had tracked him down with a patient persistence and found him on the third day slumped against a fallen tree, after willing death to take him. He licked water from Incacha's fingers, suckling on them, greed replacing apathy, as his treacherous body overrode his suicide wish, and then graduated to trickled droplets, funneled down a glossy, wide leaf.

When he'd been capable of speech, he tried to tell Incacha something that even now he wasn't sure would have been a thank you, and damp fingers had silenced him. Incacha started to chant, his body swaying, his eyes unfocused, and Jim realized that what he'd been drinking wasn't just water.

Fever dreams took him and he'd woken clearheaded, focused, empty, to find Incacha smiling down at him, his hands gentle on Jim's body, grounding him.

His senses had returned to him, as Incacha had told him they would, and he'd accepted them without complaint, used them.

Now, his turmoil wasn't about betrayal or loss, or even the weight of his responsibilities. Work had made a convenient excuse to use with Simon and Blair, but if a few more days off would be nice, he could handle his caseload just fine.

There was only one burden too heavy to bear and that was his feelings for Blair.

A friend. A good friend. No more than that. How could he say that and be believed? He spoke the words sometimes and waited, expectant, for the laughter, incredulous and scathing, and got nothing but nods and smiles. Idiots. Blind as -- blind as Blair.

I love you.

He'd said that to Simon and Blair in the hotel lobby and he'd only looked away from Blair as he said it because he didn't trust himself to keep his voice steady.

And they'd both taken it as a joke to relieve the tension, one buddy to another, allowable because it was general, not specific. I love you, Blair -- and Simon, you're a good friend, the best, and I respect you more than anyone I've ever served under… that would have killed the conversation dead. Sentimentality first thing in the morning? No, thanks.

No one wanted truth from him.

Truth was a burn of lust for Blair that had died down, the fire unfed, to a banked warmth needing only a focused breath to send flames leaping high. Truth was a baffled, rejected love that Blair accepted the outward manifestations of without recognizing the source. Jim did so much for him, from the trivial, like a ride into work, to Blair's nominal-rent-only stay at the loft, and so much of it went beyond what one friend would do for another. Single acts, maybe, but added together, the sum total of his caring exceeded friendship.

Truth was fear of rejection and loss -- and God, pity in Blair's eyes; he couldn't -- no, he couldn't handle that. Ever.

But he couldn't continue like this, either.

When Blair had offered to move out, shift his stuff to the apartment on the floor below, Jim's heart had hurt for the space of a beat, an intense stab of pain that had left a dull ache behind. Blair sleeping directly beneath him, the hush of his breath a lullaby and a siren's call, was still too far away.

Practicality told him that it'd been an empty threat; no way could Blair afford the rent, but it didn't stop him wanting to keep Blair close by any means possible.

Of course, reducing it to a grim bottom line, if he didn't get his hands on Blair soon in more than the brief, friendly -- God, he'd grown to hate that fucking word -- touches he allowed himself, he'd go not-so quietly insane, and then the only person he'd be close to would be a six-foot rabbit or similar.

He lay and listened to the rain and let the second bottle of beer convince him that when he returned he'd tell Blair. Tell him everything.

***

"You're going out?" Jim dropped a tangle of fishing line into the trash, too tired suddenly to even contemplate unraveling it. "But I just got back."

He tried to censor the whine in his voice, but dammit, he'd only walked through the door fifteen minutes ago, after being gone the full week he'd said he was going to take. He'd never spent that long away from Blair since the man had moved in.

The drive back had been spent with him rehearsing a conversation with Blair that would end up with them heading to bed together a few hours later. Failing that, a hot shower, a meal that didn't have fish as the main ingredient, and Blair beside him on the couch making acidly amusing comments about whatever was on TV would do.

Blair dressed in the male equivalent of fuck-me pumps and a tight, short dress, announcing his intentions to go to a party and sleep there, just didn't fit into the picture Jim had drawn.

"Jim, you'll want to crash early, and get up at the crack of dawn to see what's happened at work," Blair said, all sweet reason. "If I stick around, I'll keep you awake tonight and you'll wake me in the morning. This works best."

"Got your toothbrush and clean underwear?" Jim asked with just a little too much edge to it.

Blair flushed and then closed his mouth on what Jim suspected would've been an equally tart reply. "Got all the supplies I need right here," he said and patted a pocket in the front of his tight, asset-framing jeans too flat to contain anything but a condom. Jim eyed the pocket until he'd mapped out the square shape for himself and said nothing and did it loudly.

"Well… goodnight," Blair offered, already halfway to the door.

Jim sketched a wave and then, when the door had closed, stabbed his finger with a fish hook just to have a valid reason to swear bitterly and at length.

***

If it had been just that night, Jim might have gotten past it. Blair was owed some sulking time -- Simon was sure as hell taking it, piqued still by Jim's comments about being his pit bull. The excitement at Clayton Falls had brought about a temporary truce, but back on home ground, Simon was aloof and cool, passing over cases with mock-solicitous comments, all variations on a theme; the theme being Jim's supposed inability to handle anything too distressing. It was petty and Simon would get over himself and feel guilty pretty soon -- equally wearing, in some ways -- but until the cloud passed, Jim was suffering, with no one to vent to.

Blair wasn't out every night, no, but the nights he was in mysteriously seemed to coincide with Jim on a stakeout or a late shift. Impossible not to suspect that Simon was tipping him off; Jim certainly hadn't shared his work schedule with Blair; they didn't get chance to do more than murmur good morning at each other when they passed in the kitchen.

It wasn't that Blair was sulking, either; if he had been, Jim would've owned the high ground free and clear. Blair was courteous, pleasant, all smiles. He just wasn't around enough for Jim to look behind the façade to the hurt that he was sure lay under the surface.

He tried twice to get Blair to himself for a few hours and was foiled both times. The drink after work he proposed turned into a Major Crimes outing with Blair sitting too far away from Jim to make conversation of any kind possible, and his tickets to a Jags game were accepted, only for Blair to bow out at the last minute, claiming pressure of work. Jim had given both tickets to Simon and bought forgiveness from his boss that way.

The Jags lost. Jim couldn't bring himself to care.

On Thursday of the third week, Jim cracked. He hadn't touched Blair since Clayton Falls. No hair ruffles, no shoulder pats, no brush of arms. His hands felt starved, empty. Ridiculous, but there it was. He felt them clench into fists every time he walked into a pocket of air that smelled of Blair and then open imploringly. He'd found himself drifting casually into Blair's room one night when Blair was out and then lying face down on Blair's bed, nuzzling the pillow, glutting one sense secondhand while his hands kneaded the covers.

He was just glad he'd had enough control to make it back to his own bed to jerk off, come spilling, spurting after his hand had closed tightly around his erection and worked it once, twice -- and there hadn't been any need for a third stroke.

Then he'd gone back downstairs and smoothed Blair's bedcover with hands that shook because that hadn't helped at all. In fact, it'd just made sex and Blair have the same definition as far as his brain was concerned.

You dammed things up and sooner or later, walls broke and the trapped water came crashing down, obliterating anything in its path. Nature didn't like being hemmed in and contained and his feelings for Blair were elemental, fuck, yes, they were.

Jim was drowning in need and Blair was standing on dry ground and watching him sink and splutter.

He stood at the kitchen counter, drinking coffee in slow, careful sips. Blair came out of the bathroom and began to walk to the coat rack, his hand outstretched to grab his jacket.

"I need to speak to you," Jim said, keeping his voice level with an effort.

Blair froze in place, half-turned, so that Jim could see his profile emerging from the wavy line of hair cloaking most of his face. "Sure thing, Jim, but not right now, okay? Busy day. Catch you later?"

"It's Thursday," Jim said. "The one day of the week when you don't have anything to do at Rainier and you ride with me." He knew Blair's schedule as well as his own. He'd made a point of memorizing it. And Blair kept finding things to do on Thursdays, but not this one.

"Normally, yes," Blair began, and suddenly Jim had had it with Blair's particular line of bullshit.

"You're staying and you're listening to what I have to say."

Blair turned to face him, his mouth twisting in anger. "Don't order me around, Jim. I've done what you wanted; I've given you space. If you're about to tell me it's not enough and you want me gone, then fine --"

"It's not," Jim interrupted, stumbling over the words in his haste to speak them. God, had Blair been avoiding him so that he never had chance to deliver a get out speech?

"No?" Blair said skeptically.

"No."

Blair considered that for a moment, rocking back and forth, heel to toe. "Okay," he said eventually with a nod of his head. "See you later, then."

"We still haven't talked," Jim said, his momentary softening well and truly over. God, would Blair just sit the fuck down and listen?

"Later," Blair said with finality, before he grabbed his coat, and opened the door.

Jim could move fast when he needed to and he was walking forward as soon as Blair reached for his jacket. His hand slammed against the door as Blair tugged it open and it closed with a slam that vibrated through Jim's bones. His teeth ached as if he'd chewed ice.

"What the hell? Jim!"

"I want you to listen to something I have to say," Jim insisted.

"This isn't like you," Blair said, his forehead creasing in an anxious frown. He hung his coat up again. "Is it the senses? Are they spiking?"

"My fucking senses are fine, Sandburg." Jim clenched the hand flat against the door into a fist and saw Blair flinch visibly, not the muted reaction only a sentinel could decipher, but a full-body jerk. "Oh, for God's sake --"

"I didn't think you were going to hit me," Blair said just a little too quickly. He gave the nervous laugh that Jim hated because he needed Blair certain, confident, competent. "You're not, right?"

"Of course I'm not." Jim forced his hand flat again and then took it away from the door, watching Blair warily in case he grabbed the handle. "I just wanted to tell you --" He realized how doomed any discussion was that began this way, with a reluctant, resentful Blair bludgeoned into listening, and sighed in defeat. "Never mind. Go."

"No, I'm curious now." Blair gave him an engaging smile, the concern in his expression having dissipated like morning dew in the sunlight once his escape was clear. So much for him being busy. "What I had to do can wait -- but you're going to be late for work."

"That doesn't matter." Jim saw Blair's eyes widen in surprise and recanted. "No, it does matter; it's just that we won't be all that late."

Blair shrugged amiably, the way he would have done a month or two ago, shrugged as if he hadn't spent the last two weeks avoiding Jim, and walked over to the couch to prop himself up against its back. "Shoot."

"Will you just sit down?" Jim said, the irritation he felt leaving his throat rasped raw from the sharp words. Blair's mouth tightened, but he nodded and walked around the couch and sat, not quite perched on the edge, but giving that impression.

Jim joined him and then found himself with nothing to say.

"Jim?"

"I want you," Jim said, every planned speech forgotten, every rehearsed preamble skipped over. Blair hadn't given him much warning before telling him that he was a sentinel; maybe this was payback for that long ago shock.

Blair's expression didn't alter. "Want me to…?" he prompted.

"Just want you," Jim said, the awkwardness of the moment making him sweat, hot prickles of it at his forehead and under his arms.

Blair shook his head. "I still don't get it. Want me to do what?"

"It's more of a 'how'," Jim clarified. Light-headed with tension, he felt an absurd impulse to laugh and knew that if he did it would be the end of anything like rational conversation. "How do I want you, I mean."

"How?" Blair repeated, perplexity dulling his eyes to gray in the dim light given by an overcast sky outside, grudgingly admitting that it was morning, but not much more than that. "Now I really don't get it."

Jim opened his mouth to explain and then caught something, he wasn't sure what, some hint, some tip-off, that Blair knew exactly what he meant and was stalling. The hunch of Blair's shoulders, the tautness of the muscles in his cheeks… the knowledge of the man Jim had built up over the years told him that. Blair was quick to comprehend, always. He knew.

He just didn't want Jim to cross this line between them.

The near certainty of rejection should have been all it took to make Jim stop to spare both their feelings, but he was tired of being considerate. It had worn him down to raw nerve endings and skin that sung and stung with every flick of dismissal Blair had administered recently.

"Would it help if I showed you?" he asked, smoothly, calmly enough that Blair didn't react at once. Then he did, springing up with an alacrity that confirmed Jim's suspicions.

Oh, yeah. Blair knew.

Blair darted toward to the door, his shoes skidding on the wooden floor, his hand grabbing at the couch for balance. Jim, moving in the cusp of the moment, every sense preternaturally clear -- an unfair advantage that he had every intention of exploiting -- stood and walked around the couch to meet him, grabbing Blair's arms.

"Let go," Blair said, without much hope but with plenty of angry intensity. "Get your hands off me, Jim."

"Not until I've shown you how I want you," Jim told him, listening more to the beat of blood in his ear and the hammer of his heart that Blair's protests. He spun Blair around and pulled him close, fitting the squirming wriggle of Blair's body to his own and subduing it with an arm wrapped tightly around Blair's waist and a hand thrust into the thick, loose weight of Blair's hair.

Then he bent Blair over the back of the couch and kicked Blair's feet wide.

"Like this," Jim said into Blair's ear, almost sweetly, and allowed himself one long moment to remember what this felt like; to have the strength of Blair against him, the thrust of Blair's ass fitting into the curve Jim's body had made for it.

He breathed in the scent pouring off Blair, wild, angry, spiced faintly with arousal, but no more than that, and then stepped back reluctantly. Blair lay there, catching his breath, legs spread, holding the position Jim had forced on him, and then straightened. Without turning, he spoke, his words soft and careful, trembling with what Jim guessed was an effort to keep his voice quiet.

"I don't have anything to say to you. I don't even want to look at you. That was -- that was unforgivable. You know that?"

Blair's voice broke on the words, his distress seeping out like blood from a reopened wound. Jim swallowed. "I didn't mean -- I just need --"

"Sex?" Blair turned then, his face contorted, flushed, his eyes like dry stones, flat and opaque. "Well, sure, Jim, all you had to do was manhandle me and treat me like shit and you know I'd put out for you, right?" He smiled. "Want me to get naked now? Blow you right here?"

"Stop it."

"No!" Blair was yelling now, not at the top of his lungs, but loud enough for Jim to want to tell him to lower his voice, except that wouldn't go down well at all. "No, you don't get to do that and then tell me to be quiet. That wasn't playing around; that was just fucking scary. You scared me. You --" Blair caught his breath on the last word, as if he'd just heard himself. "Fuck, look what you've done to me --"

"I didn't mean to --" Jim stopped. "Okay," he amended, "I did. I meant to do that. I -- you wouldn't listen--"

"So this is my fault?" Blair demanded incredulously. "I don't listen and you humiliate me?"

"It wasn't -- I didn't see it that way," Jim said and hoped that it was true. "Humiliate? No."

"Yes," Blair insisted. "What the fuck would you call it? You bent me over the fucking couch. You made me spread --" Blair choked, his face pale. "You bastard."

"Blair --"

"No!" Blair stepped aside and pointed at the couch, his arm shaking. "You do it. Go on. See how you feel bent over like that and then tell me it wasn't exactly what I said it was."

Jim gave an uneasy chuckle that he regretted immediately as Blair's expression hardened. He held up his hands in a placating gesture he'd learned from Blair. "Okay, okay…"

It was difficult turning his back on Blair, which was a wake-up call all of its own. He trusted Blair more than he'd ever trusted anyone and now his spine was crawling with a warning of danger. He took a deep breath and put his hands on the couch, his feet apart for balance.

"My hands were on the cushions," Blair said coldly. "And I was bent right over."

Jim slid his hands down until they were resting on the seat of the couch and felt his back curve and his ass lift. Heat washed over him, shame and a dark thrill of exposure. He didn't wait for Blair to order him to move his feet apart but did it himself and felt the muscles in the back of his thighs draw tight.

"Well?" Blair demanded.

"I don't feel humiliated," Jim said. He took a moment to reconsider and then shrugged. "No. Really don't. It's not like this position is unfamiliar."

"Is that so."

Jim craned his neck and caught Blair's eye. "Yeah. I've done this for men before when I've wanted to. They were usually in a better mood than you, though."

Blair sucked in a breath. "You have got to be fucking kidding me."

"No." Jim arched his back and turned his head to stare, unseeingly across the room. "Look all you like for as long as you like. Touch me. Tell me to get naked and get back in this position and I'll do it."

There was a long pause and then he heard Blair's footsteps approaching him and tensed, waiting for a blow, suddenly keenly aware of how vulnerable he was. Blair walked around the couch and sat on the coffee table, facing Jim.

"Tell me why you're doing this."

"You told me to," Jim pointed out.

"And you're always so obedient," Blair said. "I don't think so. Try again."

"Can I get up?" Jim inquired. Obedient? He'd been dancing to Pied Piper Sandburg's tune from day one; was he the only one who saw that?

Blair shrugged as if he was bored of the whole argument. "Sure."

Jim straightened and in a delayed reaction, felt the awkwardness that he should have experienced when he was bent over, with Blair staring at his ass. "I'm sorry," he said, the distress in his voice plain even to him. "It's just -- Blair -- you've just -- since I got back, you haven't --"

"Haven't what?" Blair prompted as Jim's stuttered words came to a jerky halt.

Jim turned away from that searching gaze and pushed down the urge to yell or hit something. He wasn't a teenager, all anger and emotion. Forcing himself to a calm that was all surface, he went to sit on the couch, opposite Blair.

"This is going to sound flaky even to you."

"Go on." Blair's voice was neutral, which wasn't really an improvement on furious.

"You're not letting me touch you and it's driving me crazy," Jim said, aware of how abrupt and accusatory it sounded, but unable to come up with a better way of phrasing it. "I can still see you and hear you, can still smell you -- and I'm used to not being able to taste you -- but the no touching is new and I feel… I need to do that. Need to be able to touch you." He gave Blair a pained smile. "God, listen to me. I sound nuts. Like I should be locked up."

"You would to most people," Blair agreed, "but you know I'm not most people, any more than you are." He sighed and held out his hand. "Okay. Touch -- no!"

Jim gaped at him, his hand hanging in mid-air as Blair got off the coffee table in an ungainly scramble and backed away from him. "What the hell are you playing at?"

"We need to find out more about this."

"We really don't," Jim snapped. His hand ached as if it'd been held in freezing water.

Blair stared at him. "And after all," he said, "you touched me plenty a few minutes ago. You know. When you were bending me over the --"

"That was different." Jim took a deep breath and moderated the volume of his voice. "That was me taking, not you giving. And it wasn't for long, and it wasn't bare skin --"

"Whoa." Blair looked shocked. "Jim, you don't touch my skin usually. You pat my arm, or my shoulder -- but I'm wearing clothes when you do it. I suppose you touch my hair, now and then, but mostly, well, you just don't."

Jim avoided Blair's gaze. "You'd be surprised," he muttered. Hard to believe that Blair didn't notice the number of pats on the arm he got when he was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt… "And anyway, it didn't matter when I was close to you and you were letting me -- not moving away -- it was enough. Then I spent a week away and when I came back -- you've closed me out, you know you have."

God, he sounded pathetic.

"You're addicted to me?" Blair's voice skidded up higher than a choirboy's and he stood as if to catch up to the words. "Is that what you're saying, because it sure as hell sounds like it? Fuck, Jim, just -- fuck. That's insane."

"Not addicted, just…" Jim searched for a way to tell Blair something that he'd worked out for himself months ago. "You make everything easier. You're supposed to do that and you do a really good job of it, Chief." He hoped that the rare praise would push past the barriers Blair was almost visibly building, but something told him that he was going to have to do better than that.

"So send me flowers," Blair said, sarcasm slathered thickly. "Or, I don't know, just tell me that once in a while. Just don't expect me to believe you when it's not that long since you were telling me, in front of Simon, that I was smothering you."

"I didn't say that," Jim said quietly. It was one of the tactics for talking down an angry, potentially dangerous criminal; talk softly, calmly and they'd automatically mirror you, or something. Jim thought that personally, it would piss him off, but he was willing to try it with Blair.

He was willing to try anything to make this right.

"Those exact words? No. But it was what you meant."

Jim leaned forward and let his head drop into his hands for a moment, welcoming the respite from meeting Blair's intense, confrontational stare. "Part of me did," he admitted. "Put yourself in my shoes; I'd arranged a week away and you two followed me. Tracked me down, crossing so many goddamned lines. Monitoring my credit card charges? What the hell was that all about?"

He glanced up and caught a sheepish look on Blair's face.

"That was Simon's idea," Blair admitted. "All of it. I wasn't going to do anything when you left, but he seemed to think it was a good idea to follow you and then I got to thinking that maybe there was something wrong --"

"There was nothing wrong," Jim began and then paused. "Well, that's not strictly true -- and I swear, Sandburg, if you say 'a-ha!' I'll brain you -- but what I needed to fix it was time alone. Which I got. Eventually."

"So what was wrong?"

Good question.

"I'm not sure I want to tell you," Jim said.

"I'm damn sure you will if you want me to stay within reach."

"Blackmail, Chief?" Jim gave him a hard stare. "Don't try and use what I have told you against me, okay?"

Blair sighed and had the grace to look ashamed of himself. "Sorry." That was just a word, easily said, but Blair proved that he meant it by walking over to sit on the couch beside Jim, still tense, but less wary.

"I wanted to sort through how I felt about you," Jim said bluntly. "I couldn't do it with you close by. You -- you're kind of distracting, you know that?"

"Distracting in a good way?" There was the hint of a smile in Blair's eyes, as if a compliment flicked on a switch and he began to flirt back automatically.

"Not really," Jim said. He didn't want to be one of Blair's flirtations, ephemeral as male mosquitoes and about as annoying.

"Oh." Blair absorbed that, his expression serious again. "Distracting to your senses, you mean?"

Jim wanted to get the senses out of this altogether; to make Blair see him as a man, a potential lover, but he had to admit that it would be as tricky as scooping water with a sieve. His feelings for Blair were based on the man himself being attractive physically and someone Jim just simply got on with and trusted, but he couldn't deny that as a sentinel, he responded to some signal Blair was giving off.

That discovery was one he'd known subconsciously from day one, but he'd only realized it fully in the last month or so. Sharing it with Blair…well, it had never seemed to be the right time.

"You could say that."

Sometimes, he spent the day with Blair's scent in a cloud around him, hours working alone breathing in the rich, complex smell, arousal sharpening his awareness in some areas, dulling it in others. It couldn't be a real scent, infusing the molecules of air; just a memory, but it felt real enough.

And sometimes when Blair was close by, he couldn't help mapping his partner with every tool at his disposal, obsessively snooping on his conversations, the subtle changes in his pulse, his breathing, when a pretty woman -- or good looking man -- walked by.

Once, deeply ashamed of himself, he'd stayed linked by hearing as Blair took a leak, unable to break the connection between them, choking on the chemical reek of the industrial cleaner the department used in its rest rooms as smell piggybacked onto hearing.

"You screw with my senses," he said, the words bursting out shattering the brief silence between them. "Fuck, Blair, you screw with me."

Blair stared at him, serene as a Buddha now. "You say that as if I do it deliberately."

"Do you?" He watched Blair's tongue sweep across dry lips and leave them shimmering for an instant until the spit evaporated. Revelation time, but certainty brought with it a reluctant admiration twined around his anger. Blair was so damn sneaky sometimes. "Oh, you do, don't you, you manipulative son of a bitch."

Blair met his gaze without looking away. "Sometimes," he admitted. "Anyone would. You're -- well, it's easy, you know? And part of my research involves --"

"No," Jim said thickly, through a choking hurt, because he'd been waiting for a flash of guilt and he hadn't seen it. "Don't make this about your project. If you've been using me like that, it's your own version of pulling wings off flies. A sadist does that, not a scholar."

He watched the flush that stained Blair's cheeks spread down to his throat, charting the change in appearance and temperature of each inch of skin with an idle fascination. Blair had taught him to do this; live his life as normal, talking, laughing, eating, sleeping -- and underneath it all, the sentinel never rested. Blair had woken him once, deliberately, in the middle of the night by simply murmuring, "Jim? I need you." He'd found himself outside Blair's room a few moments later, trembling with an adrenaline rush -- the residual effects had taken hours to shake off -- his shoulder bruised because in his swift, headlong rush down the stairs, his sleep-dazed brain and body in overdrive, he'd slammed against the wall. He'd raised his hand to open the door, watching it lift with nightmarish slowness, and Blair had turned over in bed and called out that he was fine; go back to sleep; I'll explain it in the morning.

Blair had tried. In the face of Jim's incredulous glare, his words had stammered to a halt and he'd flushed then, too, his animated expression stilling, his hands dropping to his sides.

"Don't do that again," Jim told him, his words hard as stone, as bullets. "Ever. Unless you don't want me to come running when you really do need me."

"I wasn't crying wolf," Blair said quickly. "Really wasn't."

"I need to be able to trust you, Chief," Jim said more gently, and Blair had nodded, shame-faced, repentant.

And now, Blair was ashamed again, the bright flame of his enthusiasm, his optimism, wavering, about to be snuffed out. Jim used that flame to warm himself when the world turned chilly and he felt a clutch of panic in his gut. Blair, crushed, small, quiet, wasn't Blair at all.

Suspicion replaced panic between one breath and the next. "Chief, are you -- is this --?"

"Oh God." Blair pushed his hands though his air with resigned exasperation. "No, Jim, this isn't me working on your better nature to buy a pass on fucking up. This is me feeling shitty and wondering how I can make it right." He gave Jim a narrow-eyed glare. "Not that you're off the hook, either, in case you're wondering."

"We're both assholes," Jim agreed readily and watched Blair's embarrassment and residual annoyance dim and fade as amusement took their place. They were talking again, sitting close and talking; this was good. This was balm and surcease from the fight.

"Oh, man, we can be." Blair exhaled in a long, noisy blow of air. "We deserve each other."

"We've got each other," Jim said, correcting or agreeing with him; he wasn't sure which.

Blair nodded, his gaze fixed now on the gray mass of clouds through the windows. "That's so. For now, at least."

"'For now'?" Jim swallowed dryly. "You planning on moving?"

"I don't know what the future holds," Blair said abstractedly and, Jim thought, a little pompously. "I've been here with you longer than I've stayed most places."

"The novelty may have worn off but your welcome hasn't," Jim told him with as much effort put into keeping his voice casual as he'd used walking across three miles of jungle with a sprained ankle and an injured child -- Incacha's nephew -- slung across his shoulders. "I'm used to having you around."

"Maybe too used to me."

"Chief, the cryptic sound bites get old fast." Jim nudged Blair's leg with his knee. "And I'm going to have to go into work soon; talk to me."

"No." Blair shook his head, a decisive shake that sent two hairs drifting free of the wavy mass to float, buoyed on air, dragged by gravity, to the floor. Jim watched their journey; parts of Blair, their loss unnoted or mourned.

Except he'd noticed. He could have bent, retrieved them, and handed them back, but what would be the point? Blair didn't want them and wouldn't miss them.

And now he was creating metaphors and meaning out of something so trivial he gave serious thought to his mental state. This wasn't like him. Something was wrong.

"No," Blair repeated. "I've got to think about this. You've thrown a lot at me and I just need to do some research."

"What?" Jim felt the skin across his forehead tighten, as if the headache that had started to throb behind his eyes was making his head balloon bigger. "There's a book about what to do when your sentinel flips out on you? Or are you going to be researching apartment listings? Huh? Is that it?"

Blair stood. "No, that's not it. Jim, we're friends; you need me right now and I'd never leave when you needed me."

"Then you'll never go," Jim said, staring down at the floor. The two hairs had landed together, one on top of the other in a skewed cross; a child drawing a kiss on a card. He'd spoken so quietly that he wasn't sure Blair had heard him until a hand, warmly familiar, cupped his cheek and tilted his head back.

"Maybe I won't," Blair said. His hand moved without ever completely leaving, caressing Jim's face lightly and leaving a trail of warmth behind it.

Jim gasped, a silent intake of breath as his body responded to the touch, waking, reviving, blossoming. Blair sank back down on the couch, his eyes startled as if he'd felt something, too, his expression so open, so damn vulnerable --

As Jim waited, prepared to brace himself for Blair's withdrawal, Blair raised his other hand and flicked open the top two buttons of Jim's shirt to expose his collarbone. Without pausing, he slid his hand inside, concentration furrowing his brow, and spread his fingers wide. It wasn't a sexual touch, but Jim felt himself harden, as if his relief and pleasure needed an outlet and that was an easy path to follow, well-trodden and familiar.

Blair's little finger brushed Jim's nipple, already raised and tight, and his body jerked, a spasm of sensation too intense to bear ripping through him. His cock was bent awkwardly, fighting to straighten and swell in a straitjacket of fabric, the metallic bite of the zipper tormenting him, but he couldn't move away from Blair. Reaching down to adjust himself seemed equally impossible, though Blair had to know what his touch was doing to Jim.

"Is this helping?" Blair asked, his voice a whisper, a stir of breath, no more. "Is it?"

Jim nodded mutely, and Blair licked his lips again and moved his hand from Jim's face to the back of his neck, stroking up and down slowly, from skin to hair, over and over, while his other hand traveled across Jim's chest, its reach limited only by Jim's buttoned shirt.

Because as far as Jim was concerned, Blair could touch him anywhere. He would lie quiescent under Blair's roaming hands; spread his legs wide to accommodate a push and shove of fingers, tongue, or cock into his ass; hell, if Blair wanted to count his teeth, Jim would open wide and say aah.

Jim didn't offer to undo more buttons, or to take his shirt off. If Blair had wanted more than two buttons undone, he would have flicked them open.

His other nipple was brushed by Blair's thumb, a more purposeful, intended encounter, the rub that followed firm enough to douse the flare of lust the fleeting touch had lit. This was the impersonal intimacy of a doctor examining a patient, nothing more, and in some ways it didn't satisfy Jim as much as a friendly pat from Blair would have done, but it was helping. After starving for weeks, he wasn't prepared to be fussy over leftovers placed on his plate.

"I can't --" Blair snatched his hands back, breathing heavily, his face pale, some limit reached, some trigger squeezed. Jim wondered, with the curiosity he felt about every facet of Blair, just what exactly it was. Had he moaned? He'd tried not to, but -- Or leaned forward, shifted position, eager to get those deft fingers against virgin skin… "Later. Tonight. We'll… I'll talk to you, I swear, but I have to go now."

Jim nodded, euphoric, floating. It hadn't been what he'd thought that he wanted; his hands, sentinel hands, on Blair, learning him, absorbing the minutiae of each inch, but in some ways it had been better. His hands weren't the only part of him that could feel more than the average human and Blair's hands -- oh God, what they did to him! Capable, strong hands willingly placed on his body because Blair had seen how much he'd needed that… "Sure, Chief. Whatever you say."

The door slammed shut a moment later as Blair left without the formality of a farewell and Jim let himself moan and palm his cock, let himself move, released from the frozen immobility he'd forced on himself to keep Blair close.

He didn't want to come; this arousal had been created by Blair's hands, shaped and fashioned by him and Jim was willing to wait for Blair to finish what he'd started.

It still felt good to clutch and squeeze at himself, though, the faint pungency of precome filling his nostrils as he eased his cock into a better position and waited for it to soften so that he could go to work.

***

The day passed, minute by minute, with jerky, disconcerting lurches; time sometimes dragging, then racing by. Jim found himself watching the clock; something that he never did at work. He liked being there, surrounded by people he understood, the stale, airless room busy and bustling. It was rare for his senses to be overwhelmed by the constant shrill of phones or raised voices; or for him to drift away on the night shift, when a waiting calm settled over the room and the phone ringing always spelled trouble.

Blair didn't show up or call. His absence wasn't noted, or it was, nobody commented. For all that he was tolerated, even liked, Blair wasn't accepted the way even a rookie cop would have been, not really. Observer. Civilian. Ellison's shadow. He'd been adopted to a certain extent by Jim's closest friends, but Jim knew that if this whole thing between Sandburg and him blew up and Blair disappeared, off to follow the trail of another sentinel or something even more fantastic, he wouldn't be missed for long. Blair caused problems, made waves…saw the world differently. Not everyone found that attractive.

Once, that side of Blair had annoyed Jim, too. He'd found his cop impulses, trained instincts, thwarted by Blair's idealism, that came backed by a steely pragmatism. Jim didn't do thwarted well, but when it came to Blair, he didn't have much choice.

From day one, he'd put himself into Blair's hands, helpless to deal with the chaos of his senses, clinging to Blair, sometimes literally, as his world broke and shattered, waiting for Blair to piece it all back together again.

And now, after months when he really thought that he was getting a handle on the sentinel situation, this happened and he was left lost again, blinded by a baffled love and an ache of need.

Tick-tock, Blair. Tick-tock. Hit the books and then make this right for me. For us.


***

"I don't date men."

Jim kept his exasperation from showing with an effort. "But you have sex with them, right?"

"I don't see how that's your business." The lush, ripe curves of Blair's lips straightened and clamped together, as if he was scared to open them and let the betraying words escape.

"I know you do," Jim said wearily, not in the mood for games. "Do you think I'd ever have told you I wanted you if I didn't know that about you? And did I ask you to date me? Did I?"

"No," Blair allowed, "but you're heading there."

"We can't openly date," Jim said. "I'm not in denial about what I am --"

"Bisexual," Blair said, separating the word out into a lot more syllables than it should have had and still sounding faintly incredulous.

"But that's going to sound like gay to everyone I work with; they're not big on subtle, and it's not going to go down well."

"Nice choice of words."

Jim slammed his fist down on the kitchen table. "Sandburg, I swear to God, if you don't take this seriously --"

A moment later, Blair's fist landed with an ever heavier thud. "Seriously? My best fucking friend attacks me, my sentinel flips out, my formerly straight cop roomie tells me he's got the hots for my ass -- oh, you bet I'm taking this seriously, Jim." The legs of Blair's chair scraped against the wooden floor, a wild screech of sound that assailed Jim's ears. "I am losing it here, Jim."

"I didn't attack you, I'm not flipping out, and you knew damn well I wanted you, so save it." Jim's hand was still clenched in a fist. He tried to relax it, but he felt like the Tin Woodman before the oil. "Lie all you want, but not to me. It's pointless."

"I know it is," Blair shouted, the increase in volume another fingernail scrape down a chalkboard for Jim's ears. "I still have to do it. I still have to be able to pretend that I'm not open to you, 24/7 --"

"God, I wish you were," Jim said involuntarily.

Blair turned and walked away to the windows, his back stiff, his averted face sending a clear message that Jim ignored.

He followed Blair and stood behind him, close enough that if Blair had wanted to lean back on him, he could have. "I'm not asking for a commitment in a -- a romantic sense."

"Good." Blair's voice was a stubborn mutter, echoing off the pane of glass.

"We don't even have to have sex --"

Blair swung around to face him, his eyes hard. "Sex wouldn't be a problem. If that was all you wanted, hell, yes, we could start fucking. No strings, a good way to unwind with someone safe instead of both of us out there in a bar or a club when we get the itch -- it would have been an ideal solution." He finger poked Jim's chest. "But you don't want the sex as much as you want the connection."

"You make it sound dirty," Jim said with his lip curling in distaste. "Thanks, Sandburg. You're the one person who's always said I wasn't a freak, but I guess that was before I needed you to cross the line you keep pushing me over."

"What?"

"I'm the one with the visions," Jim snapped. "I'm the one with the crazy senses, the zone -outs -- the fragile one. You're the rock, right? The one with all the answers."

"Your shaman," Blair said. "That's what Incacha wanted me to be."

"Don't you say a fucking word about him," Jim warned, his temper fraying. "He kept me safe when I was falling apart. He never backed away from me the way you are."

"He let you touch him, you mean?" Blair inquired snidely. "Let you put your hands on him, unlike mean old me?"

Jim pushed Blair back with a rough shove that sent Blair staggering, too close for safety to the glass. He reached out and gathered a handful of Blair's shirt and steadied him, giving back the stability he'd taken. "Yeah, he did. We weren't lovers, but we slept together now and then, just slept, and we -- he was part of me. Close." Anguish tore at him as he remembered what it'd been like in the soft, thick heat of the night, Incacha's bare body beside him, his shaman's level breathing filling his head like the rush of waves on the shore.

He jerked Blair away from the windows and released him, wiping his hands down his legs. "On second thought," he said, "I'll get by without bothering you. You've made me remember how good it was with him, and --"

"And I can't compete with a dead man," Blair interrupted. He shook his head. "Man, you're just never going to settle for my best, are you? It's always going to be second best."

The silence that followed was, for Jim, filled with nothing but confusion, ebbing away like the tide to reveal a dawning certainty.

"You're jealous of him."

Blair's gaze flickered away, only for a moment, but coupled with the drum of his heartbeat, it was enough.

"You -- Chief, that's ridiculous," Jim said helplessly.

"Is it?" Blair's chin came up, his attitude pugnacious. "I've read a book, Jim. One book. Written by a man who was as much an observer as I am, no matter how much he tried to immerse himself in another culture. Incacha was…sentinels were normal to him, as real and known as a cop is to me. He was trained -- knowledge was passed down --oh, fuck, Jim; he was a pro; I'm an amateur."

"You're doing a damn good job for an amateur."

Blair shook his head. "No, I'm not. I'm making it up as I go along, juggling what I know and what I've guessed at and trying not to miss a single catch." He gave Jim a despairing look. "Because if I do, it could get you killed." He blinked as if a possibility that kept Jim awake at night had only just occurred to him. "Hell, it could get us both killed."

"Blair, you've saved my life," Jim said. He wanted to put his hands on Blair reassuringly, the way he had so many times before; a ruffle of Blair's hair, a pat on the arm or the back, but he kept them by his sides. "And my sanity, on that very first day when you made me see that I wasn't going nuts and offered me a way of dealing with everything."

"You'd have worked it out eventually," Blair said, refusing to accept any comfort Jim could give him. "You had the senses as a child and in the jungle; those memories were buried, not lost; they'd have surfaced eventually."

"Oh, for God's sake!" Jim took a deep breath. "Listen to me. Will you do that?"

"I am --"

"You're blocking me," Jim said. "Putting up walls because you don't want to accept that you're wrong." He smiled ruefully. "Isn't that supposed to be one of my bad habits?"

"It is one of your bad habits, Jim." Blair bit his lip. "Okay. I hear you. I'm being hostile and closed off. If I accept that, I can move past it."

"You're not going to disappear into your room and meditate, are you?" Jim asked uneasily.

"Tempting, but I'll settle for some herbal tea and maybe moving this discussion to the couch?"

Jim smiled at him, a tentative smile that grew as Blair smiled back. "We can do that."

"You want a tea, too?"

"Hell, no."

Once they were settled on the couch, the steam from Blair's tea curling up like an elongated question mark -- appropriate enough -- Jim began to talk. Blair was the persuasive one, the manipulator, but Jim had something better than baby blue eyes and a don't kick this puppy look; he wasn't planning on saying anything that he didn't believe sincerely was true. The truth had a power all of its own.

"You think I see you as second best?" he asked bluntly. "Is this why you're giving me a hard time?"

"Not wanting you pawing at me --" Blair broke off. "Oh, who am I kidding?" he muttered. "I do want it."

"'Pawing'?" Jim let his affronted tone say it all. "All this time, that's what you've been thinking --"

"No!" Blair shook his head. "I'm still working through a lot of anger here. Ignore me. I like the way you touch me. I don't have a problem with it." He gave Jim a thoughtful look. "It doesn't help to keep the gossip down, though."

"Screw 'em," Jim said succinctly. "I said I wasn't coming out; it doesn't mean I'm going to let bigoted assholes dictate my behavior."

"Right," Blair murmured, enough skepticism showing that Jim glared at him. "Okay, you asked a question. Yes, I feel that way since I met Incacha. It's not reasonable, but I do, and you telling me that you needed space…"

"Space to work out how to get closer to you, not further apart."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Jim Ellison on retreat, seeking enlightenment? I'd have paid good money to see that."

There was no real mockery in his voice and Jim grinned. "See what a bad influence you've been?"

"My mission in life. So you went out there, did your own version of communing with nature, and decided to -- what?"

"Just to ask you if you wanted -- if you were interested --" Jim's words faltered and dried up for a moment. "Okay, I guess I wanted us to, uh, not date, but maybe have something like it. I knew you wouldn't care about me being a guy, but it doesn't mean I took anything for granted. I don't have a clue what you go for in a man and I was prepared for you to say no, let's just keep it as we are. It would have hurt, but I'd have handled it. Then you walked away and I realized I had more to lose than I thought."

"You're too used to being rejected," Blair said. "It's like you didn't expect me to say yes; you were prepared for it, expecting it."

"No, I --" Jim grimaced, recognizing how on the money Blair was. "Shit. Okay. Maybe a little."

Blair leaned back. "We don't communicate very well, do we?"

"Guy thing."

"Oooh, yeah," Blair said dryly. "Let's blame it on our balls."

"Works for me." Jim cleared his throat and returned to the attack. "Blair -- Incacha died telling you to take over from him. There's no way he'd have done that if he'd seen you as inadequate. He wouldn't let me get away with anything but the best efforts I could give when he was teaching me and he'd have told me to look for someone else if he hadn't thought that you could do it."

"Maybe." Blair sounded doubtful, but Jim thought that he was wavering, just a little. "It's not like he knew me. If he'd lived, if he could've trained me, showed me what to do…"

"I don't know if it would've helped," Jim said honestly. "You're not like him, Blair, but Cascade isn't like the jungle, either. Incacha couldn't have tracked down suppliers for toothpaste that didn't make my teeth itch --"

"Gums, Jim. It was your gums. The laurel sulfate content in most of the brands irritated them."

"They're my teeth, Sandburg; I know when they're itching." Jim ran his tongue over his front teeth, shuddering as he remembered how it'd felt to have hot, itchy teeth for two days of hell. "And my point remains. For where I am now, here in Cascade, you're the best helper I could have. Hell, if I was at the North Pole, you would be; you suit me. I loved Incacha, he was the best, but in some ways we didn't connect."

"What ways?" Blair asked. "Don't give me generalized pats on the back, Jim; I need specifics."

"Are you after details or fishing for compliments?"

Blair smiled, a flicker of amusement leaving cracks in the wound-up tension. "A bit of both?"

"One way we didn't connect -- and even if we had, the tribe wouldn't have liked it -- was that Incacha didn't get hard when he watched me walk around with just a towel on." Jim saw the convulsive bob of Blair's Adam's apple as he swallowed. "Thanks for that, by the way. It was a nice boost for my ego."

"Like you don't know you're hot," Blair muttered. "Okay, he didn't lust after your body, but that's separate from the shaman/sentinel partnership, and I can keep you happy in bed, I guess, but so could a lot of other people if they knew how to handle the obstacles your senses create, and if I'm failing you where it counts as your shaman, then I'm failing in the most important part."

"I'm not sure it is." Blair raised his eyebrows questioningly, and Jim continued, finding his way through the maze they'd gotten trapped in. "The sex -- that wouldn't have been traditional between a sentinel and a shaman, unless I was missing something when I lived with the tribe, or maybe other villages had different customs."

"Or it was a female/male team?"

Jim shook his head. "Incacha never said anything about female sentinels or shamans."

"It doesn't mean they don't exist," Blair said and there, he was relaxed completely now, his hands partnering his voice, gesturing with a fluid grace. Jim had never learned sign language, but he could read the message Blair's hands drew in the air with no problem at all. Blair was about to launch into a lecture about gender-specific roles, Jim knew it.

"I don't want a female shaman, I don't want a Chopec one; I want you."

Blair's hands stilled and he locked them together in his lap, the knuckles pale. "I pushed myself onto you."

"Literally," Jim agreed, remembering the grit and heat of the road against his hands and Blair's body covering him like a blanket. "You threw yourself under a moving truck to save me minutes after I threw you up against a wall. I haven't forgotten."

"I forced you to take me in, and I never got around to moving out," Blair continued doggedly.

"No one forces me to do much that I don't want to. Ask Simon. And you even try to pack and I'll --"

"What?" Blair asked. "What would you do, Jim?"

If his life was a movie, Jim knew that his next line would be, "This" followed by a scorching, searing kiss, but Blair still looked as if he'd shy away from an advance and it wouldn't have been Jim's first reaction anyway.

"I don't know." Jim met Blair's eyes. "I'm not very good at asking people to stay. I tried with my mom and after that, well, if people wanted to leave, I held open the goddamned door. But if you left, it'd -- I'd miss you more than I -- God, you're not going to go, are you?"

Blair shook his head slowly and slid his hand into Jim's, clasping it firmly enough that their palms kissed, but without the painfully tight squeeze Jim was used to enduring from men with something to prove. "Not now."

It was like being connected to a power source or lying chilled in the sun and feeling its heat seep comfortingly into his bones. Jim held onto Blair's hand, dreading the moment when Blair would withdraw it with an excuse, but Blair sat quietly, allowing Jim to touch him with the same controlled lack of impatience that surrounded him when he meditated.

Their breathing slowed and gradually matched, each exhalation synchronized, their hearts beating in time, loud in Jim's ears, as if their linked hands connected them on a deeper level than skin on skin.

Sweat formed, slippery at first, then forming another bond. Jim's fingers ached with the need to do more, and after a while he gave into the impulse and began to play with Blair's hand, running his thumb over the blunt bump of knuckles until Blair's fingers loosened and parted invitingly.

Easy to slip a single finger between Blair's, one by one, following the shape they made spread out, easy to see-saw lightly across the webbing at their base, and see Blair suck in a breath that somehow didn't break the unison of their breathing. Blair's lips were a shade darker, his eyes wide, the pupils huge.

"That feels…that feels so fucking good," Blair said, his words spreading out to fill the silence around them, singing, echoing words that Jim felt thrum through him as if he were a struck tuning fork. "Jim."

It felt better than anything that Jim could remember in a long time, but he knew that it could get much better if Blair would let him -- God, what would Blair allow him to do? He had plenty of ideas, but this thing between them felt both as fragile as a snowflake and as remorselessly powerful as an avalanche. From nowhere, he recalled Blair's look of awed delight when he'd discovered that Jim could tell the difference in weight between individual flakes of snow when they landed on his face, his skepticism pushed aside because he wanted so much to believe that Jim could do it.

Taste. One sense that had been starved when it came to Blair. Jim had drunk from Blair's beer bottle, once by accident, after that on purpose more than once, swapping it with his own when Blair went to take a leak or refill the chip bowl. Muted, diluted, the taste of Blair's mouth still had the power to make him shudder with need.

Slowly, giving Blair chance to signal 'no' anyway he chose, Jim raised their joined hands to his mouth and ran his tongue across the pad of Blair's middle finger. The faintly salty taste of Blair's skin filled his mouth, made it water, made him moan far back in his throat. He swallowed, drawing the taste deeper, taking it inside him, and licked again, this time finding less salt and more of his own saliva, mingling with Blair's scent and taste in a way that was as arousing as a kiss.

"You can taste me, can't you?" Blair eased the tip of his finger between Jim's lips. "Taste yourself on me, too."

Jim sucked at Blair's fingertip without replying, his tongue lapping against the swell of flesh, his teeth scraping over the fingernail.

"God, your mouth…" Blair gave a choked sound. "It feels like that's my dick in there."

Jim smiled inwardly without changing the shape his lips were making and drew Blair's finger in deeper, swirling his tongue around it. He endured a moment of loss when Blair withdrew it, leaving it resting against Jim's lower lip, followed by a surge of gratitude when Blair slid it back in, a deliberate push, followed by another withdrawal, another push inside.

Jim was only supporting Blair's hand now, providing a cradle for it to rock in as Blair fucked his mouth with a finger that might as well have been a hook, capturing him beyond hope of freeing himself. Not that he was fighting it. He was so hard that he had to keep absolutely still to avoid coming in his pants and each breath brought him the heavy musk of their aroused bodies, as strong and unmistakable as garlic.

Blair wanted him. Blair was getting off on this drawn-out tease that had stopped being medicinal and merciful with the first thrust of Blair's finger.

When even Jim could only taste spit, he relaxed his jaw and Blair tugged his finger out, the skin sucked pink and glossy, and lowered his hand to Jim's thigh.

They stared at each other, Blair's expression pensive, his teeth worrying at his lip.

"Touching with no sex involved," he said. "That’s what you said. I can't see that working for us, you know?"

"Maybe not."

"So we need to reevaluate this situation. Work out some guidelines."

Jim made a sound of agreement and picked up Blair's hand before curling his feet underneath him on the couch and then leaning over. He put his head in Blair's lap and closed his eyes. Somewhere the world was busy and dangerous and needed him, but right now he was tired, a bone-deep exhaustion from weeks of stress fighting the buzz of his arousal.

Blair said his name, surprise putting a lilt into it, but when Jim didn't move except to tuck Blair's hand against his chest, he felt Blair relax and settle back against the couch. A moment later, Blair's free hand began to stroke Jim's hair, his fingers sliding through the strands, playing with them, his scent left behind like dust on wood.

Jim sighed with uncomplicated pleasure and stropped his cheek against the swell of Blair's erection. He'd take care of that soon, if Blair wanted him to, but now, right now, he just wanted to lie here until his cramped legs protested too loudly to be ignored, and feel welcomed not shunned.

"You're killing me here, you know that?" Blair whispered. The cadences of his voice when he was happy had been as rare as his touches in the last few weeks. Jim listened with his attention split between the meaning of the words and the way they felt on his skin; not a vibration, the plangent song of a struck bell, but a stir of air and a tickle. Blair sounded sincerely worked up, but his hand moved with metronome regularity. Slow and soothing. Not words that Jim usually associated with Blair, and yet, and yet…

"I'm going to assume this is doing as much for you as it is for me." Blair's nails scratched over Jim's scalp with the perfect amount of pressure to be toe-curlingly pleasurable on a primal level and then found a place behind Jim's ear that sent chills down that side of Jim's body. If he could have forced sound past the open-mouthed gasp he gave, he'd have howled at the moon -- or whimpered for more.

"Oh, yeah," Blair said. "It is." The quiet satisfaction in his voice was tinged with wonder, as if he hadn't expected Jim to react quite like this. There were, still, after all the time together, gaps in Blair's knowledge of him.

Jim sighed and turned his face, nuzzling against the mounded, stretched denim of Blair's jeans, tasting the precome already permeating the thick cloth.

"Suck me?" Blair said, like a child asking for a treat he was sure would be denied. "Right here, just like this?"

It didn't seem worth wasting time telling Blair that he would do that for him any time that Blair asked; easier to show him. Jim released Blair's hand with a loving pat and thumbed open the button on Blair's jeans.

Blair shifted under him, eager, spreading his knees wide and reaching for his zipper, his other hand curled loosely around the back of Jim's neck. Jim smacked his hand away with a reproving grunt and took care of easing the zipper down himself. No shorts. Just bare Blair, which Jim had known from the moment Blair walked out of his room that morning, and the knowledge that a single layer of cotton lay between the world and Blair's dick had triggered what had happened to a certain extent.

It didn't take a sentinel to see the shift and jiggle of cock and balls when Blair walked, an erotic display that was tempting and challenging. Jim, who had come to terms with his possessive side a long time ago, freely admitted that he hated the idea of Blair drawing admiring glances when those glances were directed south of his waist.

The thrust of hard hot flesh jutting up from a patch of hair a shade darker than the cloud of curls on Blair's chest was all his, though.

He drew Blair's jeans down to the top of his thighs and then cupped Blair's balls and rolled them in his hand. He'd listened to Blair jerking off and interpreted the sounds of hand on dick into his own porn movie, ashamed and excited at the same time. Blair had liked this…

Blair's hand tightened, clamping down on his neck, and Jim shivered, loving the sense of being claimed that it gave him. Looked like Blair still liked it.

He took his time exploring the hollows at Blair's hips and the pattern of hair on a stomach softer than his own with his mouth and fingers until Blair murmured a protest and a plea and arched up so that the head of his dick nudged Jim's jaw.

"Hey. Weren't you doing something?" Blair demanded, his voice breathy, shaky.

Sex once his senses were supercharged tended to be mind-blowing or anticlimactic in every department; it was risky and Jim had fallen into habits he'd learned in the army; keep your hand busy and wait for leave. Except for him leave never came.

With Blair, the risks of disaster were just as high, but the anxiety wasn't there. Blair would understand if Jim failed to perform or lost himself in a single caress repeated over and over because he couldn't get enough of the complexity of folds of wet-silk skin.

"Get your mouth on my dick," Blair said tightly. Jim could see the sweat popping up out of his pores, tiny flecks of moisture, beading the hairs clustered thickly around the base of Blair's dick. His hair was tugged sharply and he blinked and glanced up. "After I come, you can zone on my belly button all you want, but I'm hurting here, Jim."

Jim smiled lazily and stroked his tongue across the slippery head of Blair's dick with a flick of his tongue at the end.

"Feel better, babe?"

Blair's free hand struck the couch with an emphatic thud. "God!"

Jim's head swam, his body warmed through and shaky as if he'd just taken a long, hot bath. He licked the rounded smoothness repeatedly, coaxing more fluid from it, slicking it with his spit. Under his tongue it flushed with heat, a change no one but he would have noticed, and Blair squirmed, whimpering. "Enough there…"

With a last slow suck at the crown, a final flick of his tongue, an open-mouthed kiss, Jim turned his attention to Blair's balls, still snug in his palm. He blew at the soft, wrinkled skin there and watched it tighten, licked it wet and blew again to make Blair shiver. He picked up a stray hair in the process and absently removed it from his mouth without taking his eyes off Blair's groin. Impossible not to compare Blair's dick with his own, and he liked the results. He was longer by maybe an inch; Blair was thicker. He clenched his ass as if that blunt arrow of flesh was sunk deep into it, splitting him, piercing him…The metaphor was violent but Blair would be so careful, his lip caught between his teeth, too much lube making Jim's crack slippery. He'd end up pushing back impatiently, greedy for that first fiery rush of pain because what would follow would feel so fucking good.

Mindful of Blair's impatience, manifested in a low chant of swearwords that would've gotten Jim's mouth washed out with soap if Sally had heard him use them, even today, Jim abandoned his assessment and took as much of Blair's dick in his mouth as he could, lowering his head until he gagged, his throat muscles convulsing. Oh, God, he'd missed this…choking on a dick owning his mouth, fucking his mouth, silencing and filling his mouth…Eyes watering, he eased up a little and began to work Blair, his jaw aching pleasantly after a few minutes, his lips turning numb and rubbery. Out of practice…but he was still making Blair sweat and writhe, a jumble of appreciative words spilling down on him, with some instructions mixed in, because this was Blair and he always had suggestions.

Jim went along with some of them, but not all. Blair was asking for things that his body didn't want and Jim couldn't give them to him; it felt as wrong as missing a target on purpose at the range. So when Blair hissed out a plea for faster when that would've left Jim dealing with a mouthful of come a moment later, he eased back, licking lightly where he'd been sucking hard, and made Blair whimper and jerk his hips desperately, the flush across his belly telling Jim how much Blair was enjoying this.

And when Blair reached the point when his body was showing signs of stress from too long on the cusp, his dick softening just a little, Jim ignored Blair's fervent, "Don't stop, oh God, don't --" and finished Blair with a well-timed combination of tight hand and wet mouth.

The unforgettable, indescribable taste of come engulfed his mouth, overwhelming his senses so much that he knew he'd be tasting Blair for hours, smelling him, too. He could brush his teeth, but it wouldn't change anything. As he slept, the tripped circuits would reset themselves, but for now at least two of his senses were stamped indelibly with Blair's mark.

Hell, the way his cramped hand was locked into the shape of Blair's dick, maybe touch, as well.

He rolled to his back, his head in Blair's lap, and stared up at Blair, licking his lips to clean them.

Blair groaned, one hand dropping to wipe feverishly at Jim's mouth, light brushes of his fingers. Jim pursed his lips in a kiss and felt muscles twinge in his cheeks.

"You --" Blair shook his head. "That was so good, Jim."

He'd reduced Blair to brevity, stark and unadorned; as accolades went, it was a good one.

Blair's hand skimmed Jim's chest, heading south. "I want to take care of you now," he said, with no suggestion that he was simply returning the favor in his voice. No, he sounded anticipatory.

Jim put one foot on the floor and hooked the other over the back of the couch, spreading himself wide open for Blair. "It won't take long."

Blair smiled, all teeth, a predator's smile, and Jim realized that maybe he wasn't entirely forgiven. A frisson of excitement made his balls tighten painfully. Danger didn't turn him on -- that was a bad habit for a soldier to acquire -- but thinking about the form Blair's revenge would take did.

"Oh, yes, it will." Blair's palm settled snug and warm over the mound at Jim's groin. "You wanted me to touch you; I'm going to touch you a lot. Go ahead and come if you like; hell, cream your pants; I don't care…but I'll keep on touching you until you've had enough."

Jim smiled up at him and ground his dick against Blair's hand. Even through his clothing it felt incredible, stimulating his body in a way another person would've had to work for. "Never going to happen."

"We'll see," Blair told him and shoved his hand down the front of Jim's pants, scrabbling for a hold on a dick that had stiffened and jerked at the first brush of Blair's fingers. Startled out of his complacency, Jim grunted sharply and sucked his stomach in just enough to allow Blair's hand to slip a crucial inch lower.

He came in a warm, wet rush, his body not caring that it wasn't getting the tunnel of Blair's fingers to fuck or the succulent heat of his mouth. One scrape of Blair's fingertip over the ice-slick slipperiness of the head of his dick and he was lost.
Blair pulled out his hand and licked Jim's spunk off one of his fingers before wiping his hand dry on Jim's shirt. Jim was too occupied with the aftershocks to growl at him. Jesus, he felt better than he'd done in months, clear-headed, relaxed, hyped up and calm at the same time.

"You really were ready to pop, weren't you?" Blair sounded amused. "I hope you're good for another round, man, because I wasn't joking about having plans for you."

Jim closed his eyes and savored the moment. "Do your worst."

***

Some hours later, they were both naked in Jim's bed, sweat drying on his back but a shower unappealing because he liked smelling of Blair's come and sweat and spit and a combination of all three substances was adhering to his skin.

Blair was stroking Jim's chest lazily, his head pillowed in the hollow of Jim's shoulder, curled against and around Jim like a supple cat.

Touching him.

"I love you," Jim said without thinking.

Blair's hand paused. "No. You need me. It's not the same thing."

Shit. "I need you because I love you, not the other way around."

"Sorry, Jim, but I have trouble believing that." Blair propped himself up on his elbow. "'S'all right. Love's not required to get me to put out; ask any of my girlfriends."

"You say crap like that to hurt me?" Jim inquired, and kept his voice mild with an effort that became impossible to maintain very quickly. "If I tell you it worked, will you shut the fuck up and get over being mad at me for what I did earlier?"

"I don't want to piss you off or hurt your feelings," Blair said. "I just think that you're confusing something you need from me as a sentinel with an emotion that's just not connected to that requirement." He took a deep breath. "And I think you said it to make me happy and get me to say, oh, that I'm cool with all this, and that I think we should be exclusive, and yes, oh, mighty Jim, I love you too, and that's just not going to happen."

"Any of it?" Jim said with difficulty. Catching the scent of another lover on Blair was going to be immeasurably harder to deal with now that he knew what Blair smelled like after making love to him…

The pause that followed was long enough for Jim to wonder if Blair was ever going to answer. The silence between them rang in his ears.

"I can -- I can stop seeing people," Blair said slowly. "Having sex with them, anyway. I can't stop dating; people would notice. I'll try that and see if it works for me."

Jim couldn't thank him for the concession with words; just too fucking weird to do that, but he patted Blair's arm and hoped that Blair could translate it into gratitude.

"And I'm not down with this reliance on me deal, at all," Blair said decisively. "What if I need to go somewhere? What if you do? What if I die?"

"Don't say that."

"It could happen," Blair said. "The lives we lead…I could die every time I go out on a call with you, and, no, I don't want to stop. Beside you is where I belong, but I might not always be there -- hey!"

Jim pinned Blair's wrists over his head with one hand, pressing them into the pillow as his other hand cupped Blair's face. "If you die, I will drag you back," he said. "Or follow you. They're about the only two choices I see me having, so think about it when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, huh, Chief?"

"Arrogant, self-destructive --"

"Schmuck," Jim finished.

"Do you remember all the times I insulted you?"

"Every one," Jim assured him and dropped a kiss on Blair's kissed-soft lips. "I don't have a death wish; I'm just not up to training another puppy, you know?"

"'Puppy'?" Blair shook his head. "That one, you'll pay for."

Blair twisted his hands free and ran them down Jim's back to his ass, which might have changed the conversation an hour ago, but Jim's dick was on strike for the time being.

"That's two things," Jim said. "The exclusive bit and the being cool with this."

"Hmm?" Blair bit at Jim's shoulder, avoiding his look.

"You didn't say if falling in love with me was going to happen." He felt that he was pushing Blair too much, but he wasn't going to be able to sleep with all of this circling in his head like sharks around a lifeboat.

Blair sighed. "Jim, I've been in love with you for years. Years. It's not going to happen because it already did. It's why I know you're not on the same page as me yet."

Uncertainty gripped Jim, the way it always did when Blair was so…definite. Was this just a conditioned response? Was Blair ringing a bell and he was drooling? It didn't feel that way, but how would he know? Hell, Blair could be as much a victim as he was, though even now, fucked stupid with his brains leaking out of his ears, he wasn't crazy enough to put that idea into Blair's head.

He settled for kissing Blair again. "Okay, but I'm a fast reader, Chief, so don't turn that page. I'll catch up."

"I'll wait," Blair said, his gaze steady now. "Not for ever, but for a while."

***

Summer heat shimmered the air around the lake and Blair turned his face up to a cloudless sky and grinned appreciatively. "Beautiful. It's hot, it's actually hot. I'm outside and I'm sweating, man."

"If that's another hint that your pack was heavier than mine…"

"It was," Blair insisted. "And you're the one who packed them."

Jim swatted Blair's ass playfully, feeling equally content with life. Blair yelped and gave him a punch on the arm and an indignant look. "Mosquito," Jim said blandly. "About to take a big, juicy bite out of your behind. And I'm the only one who gets to do that."

"Right," Blair muttered. "Through denim? I don't think so."

"Me or the bug?" Jim asked, surveying the clearing. His tent had been over by that tree in April and it'd worked okay, but he needed to scope out room for two more tents. Simon wasn't far behind them, traveling in his own car as he had to head back to the city on Sunday for an early morning meeting on Monday. "Because if you bend over, Chief, I'll show you just how sharp my teeth are."

"Promises, promises." Blair slipped his arms around Jim's waist and tilted his head back, inviting a kiss Jim was only too willing to give. Blair's mouth was warm, his tongue a teasing flicker against Jim's.

"Last chance for this," Jim said regretfully, breaking the kiss but tightening his hug to compensate before releasing Blair reluctantly. "Simon's going to be here soon."

"You hear him?" Blair raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "Come on; use a bit of that sentinel magic and tell me if we've got time for a blow job right there against that tree."

Jim eyed the tree that Blair was pointing at. Bark wasn't comfortable to lean against and the ground around it looked green and soft but was most likely littered with stones, roots, and other objects designed to dig into knees, so no matter what position he was in, it wouldn't compare to their bed, but what the hell…

He listened, ears at full stretch, as Blair called it, which always made him picture himself as Dumbo. Nothing…just the background noise of a living forest. A distant crack as a branch snapped under a boot forced him to re-evaluate his conclusion.

"I hear him," he reported. "Has to be Simon; I can smell his cigars a mile away."

"If he's parked where we did, it's more like a quarter of a mile," Blair said with a sigh. "No time, huh?"

"Well…" Jim was tempted, God, very tempted, but to his sensitized ears, Simon sounded so close that his ardor was easy to control. Getting caught in the act wasn't a turn-on for him, though Blair had a streak of the exhibitionist in him. "I want to," he said, "but…rain check?"

Blair looked horrified. "Don't say the 'r' word, man! Blue skies all the way this weekend."

The expression on Blair's face was so comical that Jim started to laugh, spluttering with amusement.

"God, I love you," he said, speaking the words for the first time in months, so sure of their truth that when Blair just nodded and smiled back at him looking uncomplicatedly happy, it wasn't a surprise or even a relief. He wrapped the thick fall of Blair's hair around his hand and then pulled his hand free slowly, feeling the hair cling and tickle, bright with static.

"Yeah," Blair said softly and Jim had to kiss him again, just one more time, with Blair screwing sun-dazzled eyes closed and arching up against him, pliant and familiar.

He jerked back a moment later, his enjoyment of the kiss curtailed by a mutter of curses about brambles and paths made for rabbits not men.

"Do you hear --"

Blair winced. "Yeah. He sounds pissed."

"There's a six-pack of his favorite beer in the cooler; get him one out," Jim suggested.

"The cooler I carried had Simon's beer in it?" Blair shook his head. "Man, if I'd known that --"

Simon strode into the clearing, his pack bowing his shoulders slightly, his face sweaty. "Next time you say you're going fishing alone, I'm going to let you go," he called out. "Call that a trail?"

"Hello to you, too, Simon," Jim said, walking over to him. He helped Simon take his pack off, marveling at the weight. "Sandburg's got a beer for you, nice and cold."

Simon gave Blair a baleful look that softened to a smile once he'd swallowed half of the bottle in three long gulps. "So what do you think of Jim's little slice of heaven? Worth hiking through a mile of trees for?"

"Sure," Blair said, diplomatically refraining from correcting Simon with an effort only Jim could see. "Look, Simon; the lake's right there. You can practically fish from your tent."

"It's a nice spot," Simon said after a moment's study of the clearing. "So why don't you two get the tents set up and we'll have time to get a few hours of fishing in before nightfall."

"And what will you be doing?" Jim asked. Simon's delegation skills were all well and good at work, but they were off-duty now.

Simon grinned. "Getting my rod set up and checking my flies; what else?"

Jim stared pointedly at Simon's crotch for a moment. "Looks like you're all zipped up to me, Simon, so why don't you go and look for some firewood? Unless you've got a taste for sushi."

"Very funny." Simon drained the bottle and stood. "Fine. I'll do that and you deal with the tents." He glanced around and then pointed at the spot where Jim had pitched his tent in the spring. "That looks like the perfect spot for my tent."

Jim opened his mouth to argue and then subsided. There were other places just as good, after all.

Simon cleared his throat. "So, how many tents did you bring?"

"Huh?" Jim exchanged a puzzled glance with Blair who shrugged minutely. "Two; why? Did you forget yours, or something?"

"Just wondered," Simon said. "Sure be nice to have a spare tent for all the gear in case it comes on to rain, but as we'll be using all three of them, I guess we'll have to hope it stays dry." He paused and when neither of them replied, gave a sharp nod. "Firewood. I'm on it."

Jim watched Simon head for the trees and sighed. "He knows."

Blair came up beside him, staring at Simon's retreating back. "Oh, yeah. He knows."

"This place is unlucky," Jim said with conviction. "If we catch anything, which I doubt, we'll probably choke on a bone, or get food poisoning, or --"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Will you shut up? Simon knows, which was kind of inevitable; we didn't need to have an awkward conversation about it with the two of you going between silence and yelling, and he's not freaking. Much. I think knowing how freaked we are, is making him feel better about it. So what about all of that is bad?"

"Well…" Put that way, Blair had a point. Jim was less sanguine that the matter had been shelved for good, but Simon seemed to have decided to not let it spoil the trip. He wondered what had given them away and realized that Simon's approach had been just a little too carefully noisy; he'd probably seen them kissing, backed away quietly, and then given them a polite warning of his presence.

Some sentinel he was, letting even a friend get that close unnoticed.

"Exactly. It's all good. Well, apart from the fact that we'd decided not to tell anyone about us to keep it simple, but we trust Simon with most things; this is just one more secret, right?"

"If we tell him any more of our secrets, we'll have to kill him," Jim said dryly.

"Jim!" Blair backhanded Jim's chest. "Behave."

Jim ran his hand over Blair's ass in a promise of good things to come. "Until Sunday night, I'll be a perfect gentleman, babe, but after that…"

Blair smiled, a small, complicit smile that made Jim wonder if he could really wait that long. "After that…" Blair echoed.

The surface of the lake broke as a trout leaped out, dripping silver as it snapped at a fly. Embarrassment, thwarted lust, and vaguely melancholy memories all lost their power in an instant.

"Simon!" Jim called out, already heading for his tackle box. "Forget the firewood and the goddamned tents; they're biting."

It really was the perfect spot.


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