Bound


***

“Einstein said the greatest experiences we can have are the ones with the mysterious. We are definitely there, my brother. Come on in, man. The water's nice.”

“Chief, I don't know if I'm ready to take that trip with you.”

- Blair and Jim, “Sentinel Too, Part Two”


***

“See, that’s the difference between you two. She lost her way.”

The moment hung between them in the still jungle air. Jim had a small smile on his face that should have seemed out of place under the circumstances, but somehow didn’t. Blair laid his hand on Jim’s shoulder. Jim’s shirt was rough and hot, somewhere between wet and dry as the jungle heat sucked the moisture from it. Blair let his hand linger for a split second longer than necessary, and then he said, “I’m gonna go make some rubbings of the temple walls. It’ll take maybe an hour or so. Think you can stall Simon for me?”

The faraway look in Jim’s eyes vanished for a moment as he focused his gaze on Blair.

“Sure thing, Chief.”

And then he was gone again, lost somewhere in the jungle. Blair waited a little while, until he realized he wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, and then he turned and headed up the steps.

The air in the rain forest was heavy, like breathing bath water, and his lungs weren’t handling it well. He hadn’t mentioned it to anyone, but he was surprised Jim hadn’t noticed. He was sure he was gurgling like a swamp monster.

Inside the temple, though, it was cool and dry. Blair took a deep breath and was greeted with the scent of mossy stones, long stagnant, sterile water, dust, and hundreds of years of solitude. It was quiet, too, and Blair got the feeling he couldn’t even begin to appreciate the depths of the silence in this place.

The sound of his backpack dropping to the floor seemed almost profane and he froze for a moment, almost believing some ancient deity would swoop down and drag him away for daring to enter this holy place. Then, the feeling passed and he played his flashlight over the walls. So many words. His heart began to beat faster. Who knew what secrets lay in this stone? It was a direct link to a world he had only glimpsed thirdhand through his well-thumbed Burton monograph.

He reached out and trailed just the tips of his fingers over the letters, shutting his eyes and just feeling the pattern of cut stone, reading it like Braille. Funny how it could mean everything and nothing to him at the same time.

He opened his eyes and reached down into his backpack without looking away from the wall and pulled out a notebook. He folded it back so that he could place the first page flat against the wall and began to lightly scrape the side of his pencil over the paper, watching as white ghosts of the characters on the wall appeared on the page. Once he’d finished with the first page, he turned to the next page and held it up, made sure he wasn’t leaving anything out, then pressed his pencil to the page again.

Two hours later he’d covered maybe a third of the first wall. His arms were beginning to shake from the strain of the strange position and his fingers ached from gripping the pencil, but he tried to convince himself that he barely noticed the discomfort. This was what he lived for.

Still, it would be nice if he had a couple of research assistants to help out.

He jumped when a hand fell on his shoulder.

“Shit,” he said, spinning around. Jim, Simon, and Megan stood behind him. “You scared me. Hey, look, I know this is taking a little longer than I thought... I swear, I’m almost-”

“Need help?” Jim said, the corners of his eyes crinkling with amusement.

“Oh. Uh, yeah, that’d be great... lemme see, I think I have...”

He dropped to one knee and dove into his backpack, then rooted out another notebook and a sheaf of notebook paper. He nearly dropped everything when he tried to fish the pencils out, too, without setting anything down; but before the papers could go everywhere, three pairs of hands reached down to help. He looked up at the three cops looking down at him.

“Hey, thanks guys.”

“Not a problem, Sandburg,” Simon said, peering down at the notebook he held like it was an alien artifact. “You’ve been playing cop long enough. About time we tried our hands at anthropology.”

Blair chuckled and stood up, handing out pencils and quickly explained the basics of the process and then dispatched Simon and Megan to work on the opposite wall, while he and Jim finished the first wall.

The room was soon filled with cheerful banter, which faded slowly back into a companionable, working silence. Blair let himself think, for a little while, at least, that things were going to be all right after all.

He slowed down his frantic pace, now that he knew no one would be leaving without him, and took a minute to examine the carvings on the wall. The text was divided in places by broad bands of relief carvings, which were filled with Olmec religious symbolism. The jaguar was, naturally, a commonly repeated form, as was a warrior figure. A sentinel, he assumed. The figure was always depicted in full traditional attire, and was almost always accompanied by another figure, drawn very slightly smaller than the sentinel.

Blair stopped in front of one particularly vivid carving and reached out to touch it again, tracing the lines of the ancient sentinel and his partner. The two figures were standing, facing each other, and the smaller man had his hands pressed against the sentinel’s chest. It was a posture that spoke of great familiarity and intimacy and Blair felt his heart tighten in his chest. They were always touching. In every carving he’ could see with both the sentinel and the other figure, they always were in physical contact in one way or another. There was clearly a powerful bond between the two.

Burton’s book had mentioned the sentinel’s partner, but only as something of an afterthought, like it could be just anybody. Looking around the room, Blair suddenly realized he may have been seriously underestimating his own role in this equation.

Jim came up alongside of him and tousled his hair, then left his warm hand resting at the base of his neck.

“What do you make of it, Chief?”

Blair shrugged.

“Hard to say, man. It’ll take some time to put this all together, if I ever do.”

He turned his head towards Jim and grinned.

“It’s pretty cool, though. You getting anything from it?”

Jim took a cursory look over the wall, and suddenly his eyes widened and his hand dropped off Blair’s shoulder.

“I don’t believe it!”

Blair pulled back in shock, already reaching for his notebook.

“What? What, you can read it?”

Jim’s eyes narrowed, and he pointed at a series of hieroglyphs just above the relief Blair had been studying.

“Wait, I think... I can just make it out... it says...”

“Well?”

Jim turned calm, serious blue eyes on him.

“Kilroy was here.”

Blair punched him in the arm.

“Asshole.”

Jim just laughed and ruffled his hair again.

“Sorry, Chief, it’s all Greek to me.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Blair raked his fingers through his abused curls and then shoved Jim back towards the section of the wall he’d been working on. “Go on, get outta my way. You’re disrupting my vibe, here.”

Jim walked away still chuckling over his own joke, and Blair turned back to the wall to copy the carving, muttering to himself about stupid sentinels and their dumb jokes just loud enough to be sure Jim could hear him.

He finished the rubbing and was about to turn the page to start the next one, when the picture caught his eye again. He held it up to the light filtering through the door and his gaze was drawn to the hands resting on the sentinel’s chest. Such a tender touch. Almost like a lover.

Blair shook his head, turned the page, and began the next rubbing.

***

Blair had been studying that heavy tome since takeoff. It was just “a little thing” he’d picked up at some hole-in-the-wall bookstore on the way back to the airport. Something to do with the hieroglyphs they’d found on the wall. Jim suspected Blair had some sort of sixth sense like a divining rod in his head that guided him to those little shops.

Blair had the armrests folded up and was sitting cross-legged in the seat, his knee heavy and hard against Jim’s thigh, but not an annoyance. The big book was propped on one leg, a notebook of the rubbings from the temple on the fold-down tray, and another notebook balanced on his other knee, into which he jotted an occasional note without taking his eyes off of the rubbing or the book. The whole precarious mess was lit by the glow from the small overhead light. The yellow light caught on stray strands of Blair’s hair and glinted on his glasses and left deep pools of shadow on his face and shirt.

Something about the lighting and his deep concentration made Blair’s eyes seem bottomless and dark. Like open water.

Jim looked away from Blair’s eyes and his gaze landed on Blair’s hand. He watched as Blair’s fingers tightened around his pen and wrote “’hoy’(?) - bless, purific. rite?”

He focused his vision in on those fingers, and he could still see graphite dust clinging around Blair’s nails and in the creases of his knuckles. The specks caught the light and sparkled, like a million tiny stars. He recognized the beginnings of a zone, but didn’t try to stop it when it came. It was peaceful, watching Blair’s hands move in the light. He couldn’t quite pull his attention away, but, then, he didn’t want to. He was still distantly aware of the rest of the plane, but it had faded into a distant roar that seemed completely detached from him.

Blair’s hand moved suddenly, flashing in the light, and Jim flinched.

“Jim.”

Blair’s hands weren’t quite as interesting anymore. They were out of the light now, gripping his arms. He wanted Blair to go back to writing.

“Jim, come on, man. We’re on a plane, here. Don’t do this to me.”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, it occurred to him that maybe he should be listening to Blair. Looking away would be so much effort. He wanted to see the sparkles again. Moving slowly, like he was underwater, or in a dream, he pulled his arms out of Blair’s grip and folded both hands around one of Blair’s, gently curling Blair’s fingers into a fist and turning his hand back and forth so that the graphite on his knuckles glimmered. It was the most beautiful thing Jim had ever seen.

Blair had become very still and silent.

Beneath Blair’s translucent skin, he could see the thin network of arteries pulsing faster, and that was even more fascinating than the graphite. He focused in as close as he could, finding smaller and smaller capillaries the closer in he got. It was like living lace. He wondered if he could see individual cells if he looked just a little closer.

But before he could find out, the source of his fascination abruptly vanished. His reeling mind was still trying to comprehend where Blair’s hand had gone, when it was suddenly back, poking him painfully in the ribs.

“Snap out of it, man.”

Jim blinked, and the outside world rushed back in: the passengers’ chatter, the engines’ roar, the steady rocking and vibration of the plane. He winced at the overwhelming sensory input and shut his eyes and turned his head away.

Blair’s voice filtered through the chaos.

“Ok, come on, take it easy. Just take a few deep breaths and get yourself centered. You know the drill. Relax.”

He followed Blair’s instructions, focusing on the flow of air in and out of his lungs, letting the background noise fade back to the background where it belonged. The first thing he was aware of when the world finally fell back into place was Blair’s hand on his back, rubbing gently up and down the lower half of his spine, as he gasped for breath.

“It’s ok,” he heard Blair saying, to someone, not him, “He’s just airsick... happens to the best of us, you know?”

All he could think was to thank god for Blair as he heard the other passenger make sympathetic noises and then turn back to their own seat mate.

He sat up slowly.

“Hey, man, you ok?”

He nodded slowly, still not quite sure of his bearings. He turned to see Blair gazing at him with grave eyes.

“I’m fine. I’m sorry. I just-”

“Hey, that’s why I’m here,” Blair said, with a genuine smile.

Jim felt himself smiling back, even if it was a bit weak. The feeling behind it wasn’t weak at all.

“I know.”

There was a moment of silence between them, and Blair started to turn back to his books.

“Blair,” Jim said.

Blair looked back up, startled.

“Yeah?”

“I think... we need to talk.”

“Uh... now?”

Blair twisted around in his seat, glancing at the crowded plane pointedly.

“You’re going to... come back home, right?” Jim asked.

“Home?”

“Yeah, you know, the loft.”

Blair looked away. He pulled his glasses off and wiped them with his shirttail.

“Look, Jim. I know I’ve majorly worn out my welcome, ok? I mean, this has been one hell of a long week. It’s about time I got my own place, anyway. You’re right, you need your space.”

“Blair-”

Blair lifted his head sharply, still not looking at Jim, just looking over his shoulder towards the window. His face was uncharacteristically tight and expressionless.

“It’s ok. It’s for the best, you know?”

“No. No, it’s not. Come on, Sandburg, it’s your home, too. I had no right... I’m sorry, ok?”

Blair turned his attention back to his glasses, turning them and watching them reflect the light.

“It’s not like I haven’t moved before, Jim. It’s not the end of the world. Besides, now you’ll never have to worry about me flushing the toilet after ten again or leaving strange food in your refrigerator. Think of how much simpler your life will be.”

“Come on, Sandburg-”

“What? If there’s one thing I learned from my mother, it’s how to know when it’s time to move on. It’s time, Jim. Ok?”

“No, it’s not ok. I made a mistake. I apologized. Why can’t you just accept that?”

“Why do you want me to?”

Jim shifted in his seat, his gaze drifting unconsciously up. He noted absently that the captain had turned the fasten seatbelt light on. Turbulence ahead. Hah, no fucking kidding, he thought. Of course he wanted Blair to move back in. He couldn’t imagine the loft without him.

“I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to you.”

“You’re used to me? That’s why you want me to move back in?”

“Well. Yeah. And you cook.”

Blair was looking at him now, with an expression of frank amazement.

“You’re used to me and I cook. That’s just great, Jim.”

“What the hell do you want me to say, Chief?”

“I-”

That first word was full of indignation, but nothing followed it. Blair pressed his lips together and slumped back in his seat.

“I don’t know.”

“Hey, come on. Come back to the loft. Even if you do want to find your own place, not that I’m asking you to, you’ll need somewhere to stay until then.” He paused, then added, “I like having you around.”

Blair turned his attention back to his book.

“At least that’s better than just being used to me...” he muttered.

“Oh for god’s sake-”

“Like I’m your favorite brand of laundry detergent or something...”

“Chief!”

The corner of Blair’s mouth lifted in a small smile and Jim smiled back.

“So, will you?”

“Will I what, Jim?”

“Come home?”

“Yeah, yeah, fine. But just for a week, then I’ll be out of your hair. And I mean it this time.”

Jim’s satisfied smile widened as he remembered the last time he’d heard those words.

***

“Shit,” Blair said as he pushed the door to the loft open and saw nothing but an empty room. On an intellectual level, he’d known the place would still be cleared out, but it hadn’t quite occurred to him that he wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep unless they hauled his futon back upstairs.

He heard Jim come in behind him and shut the door.

“Shit,” he said, echoing Blair’s sentiment.

Blair sighed and shrugged his duffle bag off his shoulder and dropped his sleeping bag. After hours on the plane, a quick, artery-clogging dinner at the airport Wonderburger, and a cab ride from hell home, he just wanted a shower and then sleep.

“How the hell’d you manage to *do* this, anyway?” he said, turning in a slow circle and taking in the barren loft. There was nothing but very faint faded outlines where the furniture used to be.

Jim was slowly shaking his head. He sounded shell-shocked.

“I can’t remember. It’s all kind of a blur, now.”

Blair dropped to his knees and started picking at the knot in the twine around his sleeping bag.

“Guess I can just camp out here. It’s better than sleeping on the ground, anyway.”

“No. No, Chief, you can sleep in my bed, it’s still up there. You need your rest.”

For some reason, the thought of sleeping in Jim’s bed made him uneasy.

“Jim, man, I don’t want to put you out of your bed, I’ll be fine-”

“There’s room for both of us. Hell, we’ve shared smaller tents.”

He looked up at Jim.

“You sure?”

“Sure I’m sure. Why not?”

“Uh. Ok.”

He left his sleeping bag on the floor and stood up, painfully aware that his palms were sweating. What was wrong with him, anyway? He was acting like some teenager on a date. This was nuts. It wasn’t like he’d never shared a bed with a male friend before.

But this was Jim.

“You ok, Chief?”

“Yeah. Yeah, fine.”

“You want the first shower?”

“Nah, you go ahead.”

Jim gave him a long look, then shrugged, and headed towards the bathroom. Blair listened until the water went on, and then he walked over to the balcony doors and looked out across the city. It was good to be home. Incredibly good, actually. Not just being back in Cascade, but being back in the loft.

He’d never let himself get attached to a place, mostly because he was never in one place very long. But he suddenly realized that somewhere along the way he’d fallen totally in love with the loft. Everything about it spelled home to him. The echoes off the vaulted ceiling. The way the moonlight fell through the clerestory windows. The view from the balcony. The scent of the place: familiar spices, faint wood polish, some other undertone that brought a flood of pleasant memories.

He smiled and his reflection in the window glass smiled back. He wasn’t going anywhere. Not unless Jim kicked him out again, anyway. The smile faltered at that thought. He still wasn’t sure why Jim had done that. He’d never gotten a clear answer. Hell, for that matter, he also wasn’t sure why Jim had wanted to fuck his killer, either. He felt a brief, hot flash of rage in his chest, and then it was gone, leaving behind only a tender, empty place inside him. Suddenly, he couldn’t face his reflection anymore; there were too many questions in his eyes he couldn’t answer.

He walked away from the window and knelt to dig into his backpack and dufflebag. He pulled out his notebooks and the book on Olmec hieroglyphs and settled down cross-legged on the floor, immersing himself in the ancient language.

When Jim emerged from the bathroom, he hardly noticed. It wasn’t until the book was gently lifted and set aside that he looked up. Jim looked back down at him, amused.

“I guess I’m not the only one who zones around here. Shower’s all yours.”

Blair gathered his stuff together and headed into the bathroom. He took a longer shower than usual, just allowing himself to enjoy being back in his own shower, with the water pressure and angle he was used to. After the crappy hospital and hotel showers of the last few days, this was heaven.

When the water finally began to run cool, he admitted to himself he wasn’t just enjoying the shower. He was stalling. He sighed and shut the spray off and stepped out, grabbing his towel and attacking the wet mass that was his hair. Sometimes it was more trouble than it was worth, and he wondered if maybe it wouldn’t be best to cut it after all. He rubbed it as dry as he could and considered blow-drying it. If he slept on it damp, it would be an uncontrollable mess the next morning. On the other hand, despite his strange misgivings about sleeping upstairs, he just wanted to get to bed. As soon as possible.

Then, he realized it was all a moot point, because his blow-dryer was with the rest of his stuff at the university anyway. He shook his head and again refused to think about why that was where all his stuff was. Now was not the time. He could drill Jim all he wanted tomorrow. Tonight, he just wanted sleep.

But a tightness still lingered in his chest as he finished his nightly routines and left the bathroom dressed in a T-shirt and boxers. The loft was dark and quiet, and he thought that maybe Jim was already asleep. He paused at the foot of the stairs and then climbed up, wincing when the top step creaked under his foot. He heard Jim shifting in the bed, and could just barely make out the shape of the bed and the lump under the covers.

“Sorry,” he whispered, “did I wake you?”

Jim shifted around again, and said, “Not yet. Just get in, Sandburg.”

Jim had apparently staked a claim on the side of the bed closer to the stairs, so Blair crossed to the other side, and then hesitated a moment.

It didn’t take Jim long to notice.

“Sandburg...” he growled, in his I-was-an-Army-Ranger-and-I-could-kill-you-before-you-could-blink tone.

Blair sprang quickly into action, grabbing the edge of the covers and scooting under them.

“Ok, ok, I’m in, see?”

Jim’s broad back was turned away from him, a dim, pale shape in the dark.

“Good for you, Sandburg.”

Blair dropped back onto his pillow and gazed blindly up into the darkness.

He was wide awake.

Damn, he cursed inwardly.

A couple of damp strands of his hair were sticking to his face, and he could feel the moisture soaking into the pillow. He should have tried a little harder to dry his hair. Of course, now he couldn’t. If he got up, it would only bother Jim more, and he knew how tired Jim was.

On the other hand, Jim probably wouldn’t appreciate a wet pillow, either.

He wanted to role onto his side, at least, but that would probably shake the whole bed. And he’d end up with more than his fair share of the covers.

Before he could make any decisions about anything, though, the bed bounced and suddenly, Jim was glaring down at him, propped up on one elbow over him.

“What?” he said, gazing up at Jim in wide-eyed, totally honest innocence.

“You’re thinking too loud.”

For a moment, this comment completely floored him. Then, he said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Jim, I’ve put up with a lot from you, but I absolutely refuse to believe I am capable of thinking too loud.”

Jim leaned back a little bit and said, “Fine, you’re not. But you’re laying there like some kind of corpse. It’s like you’ve got rigor mortis or something.”

Blair was still trying to think of a suitable retort, when Jim pulled away and sat up like he’d just been bitten. He rubbed his face with both hands, almost like he was hiding.

“Shit. Oh, shit, Blair, I didn’t mean- I wasn’t thinking-”

Blair didn’t know what he was apologizing for.

“Jim, what are you talking...”

And then it hit him.

“... about. Oh.”

He sat up and grabbed Jim’s wrists and pulled his hands down.

“Hey, Jim, come on, you didn’t mean it like that, I know that.”

Jim looked at him. In the dark, Blair could only vaguely make out his features, but his eyes shone in the moonlight, and Blair knew Jim could see him perfectly well.

“I know, I know that... It’s just...”

Jim pulled away from him and stood up on the opposite side of the bed. He didn’t go anywhere, though. He just stood there, turned three-quarters away from Blair, his muscles tensed like he wanted to move, but didn’t have anywhere to go.

Blair pushed the covers aside and got himself comfortably seated.

“Jim?”

“It’s just... you *died*, Blair. You were... I didn’t mean... I didn’t want that to happen.”

“God, Jim, I know that. You couldn’t have known-”

“I did,” Jim whispered.

“What?”

Blair leaned forward, shifting up to a kneeling position, as if getting closer to Jim might make him easier to understand.

“I knew.”

“What did you know?” Blair asked, his heart suddenly beating too hard.

Jim reached out and grabbed the railing in front of him, all the muscles in his arm tight with the strength of his grip.

“I had visions. Ones I didn’t tell you about. Because I was afraid... I was afraid they were true.”

Blair slid slowly across the bed and stood up, standing just behind Jim’s shoulder but not touching him.

“What was true?”

Jim let go of the railing and passed his hands over his face again. He took a deep breath, and when he let it out, his shoulders slumped.

“I kept having these visions... I was in the jungle, near the temple, and there was this wolf. It wasn’t doing anything, it was just there, but... but for some reason, every time... even after I *knew*... I would... I’d *kill* it. And then, when I’d walked over to it... it turned into you.”

Blair was stunned.

“Wow.”

He knew that wasn’t the most appropriate thing to say, but it was the only thing he could think of. This changed... well, not everything, but a lot.

Jim turned around roughly, and even in the dark, Blair knew he was glaring at him.

“Wow?” Jim said, “Wow? Is that all you can come up with?”

Blair raised his hands and took a step back.

“Whoa, hang on, man. Just give me a second to process this, will you? I mean, this is big.”

“Damn it, Sandburg,” Jim snarled, shoving past Blair and then throwing the covers up and getting back in the bed.

Blair turned around and found himself facing Jim’s back again.

“Jim. This is why you kicked me out, isn’t it? You wanted to protect me.”

Jim snorted derisively.

“That sure worked fucking beautifully, didn’t it?”

Blair took a step over to the bed and sat down on the edge, close enough to Jim to feel where the mattress dipped under his weight.

“Well, I mean, you could have talked to me... but I have to admit, things make a lot more sense now.” He paused. When Jim didn’t answer, he reached out and laid a hand on the covers over Jim’s arm. “It wasn’t your fault, Jim.”

Jim still didn’t say a word.

“Alex would have wanted to kill me no matter what. I knew too much. That was my own fault, if it was anyone’s. You didn’t kill me, Jim. You saved me. You brought me back. Remember?”

Blair’s mind was still bouncing around this revelation like a hyperactive puppy on a new bone, as they sat together silently. His best guess had been that Jim kicking him out was just another manifestation of his territoriality. But even that had hurt. They’d been through some tough times before, but Jim had always kept him around. The fact that Jim would toss him aside as easily as a piece of furniture... it wasn’t what he had expected. Now, Jim pushing him away out of some sort of misguided protective instinct... that made a whole lot more sense. And it didn’t hurt nearly as much. But the guy should have talked to him. Hell, Jim knew he sucked at interpreting his own visions.

He waited a long time for Jim to speak, but there was still nothing.

“Jim?”

He peered down at his face, wondering if maybe he’d zoned or somehow managed to fall asleep. Instead, he saw moonlight shining on tear tracks.

“Oh, god, Jim,” he said, and then, going on nothing but instinct, he crawled under the blankets. He pressed himself against Jim’s back and wrapped his arms around him. “It’s ok. *I’m* ok. I’m right here.”

Jim unclenched one of his fists and clumsily petted Blair’s arm until he found Blair’s hand and wrapped his own around it. He gripped it painfully tight, and a quiet sob shuddered through him. Blair pressed his face against Jim’s shoulder and continued to whisper a litany of comfort, his own feelings forgotten in favor of comforting his friend.

Gradually, Jim’s breathing became slow and even. Blair was warm and comfortable, far gone enough to wonder why he’d never considered sleeping cuddled against this living space heater before. He felt heavy and content, molded to Jim’s back and sunk deep into the mattress. Moving would have been far too much effort, so he just closed his eyes, sighed softly against Jim’s skin, and followed his friend into sleep.

***

The first things Jim was aware of as he woke was a warm weight, soft breath against his chest, and hair tickling his nose. He was still only half conscious as he tightened his arms to pull the other person closer. He pushed his face deeper into the tangle of springy strands and took a deep breath of the familiar, beloved scent that was strongest there. He kept his eyes shut and sighed, letting himself drift back towards sleep. Some deeper part of his mind toyed with the notion of sleeping 'til noon, then waking up and making slow, sweet love for hours.

He smiled slightly, until a cold, insistent spike of logic began to worm its way through his warm, sleepy thoughts. He’d just gotten back from Sierra Verde, he began to realize. When would he have found time to find female companionship, anyway? Was his companion even female?

The lull of sleep lifted away and he began to notice the feeling of the person in his arms. Curly hair, T-shirt, boxers... stubble...

Oh. His higher functions suddenly kicked in. Blair. He remembered the events of last night: Coming home to an empty loft, offering to share his bed, and then, later, telling Blair about the visions he swore he’d never mention.

Oddly, even though he now knew who was pressed against him, his morning erection still hadn’t given up hope. Neither had Blair’s, he noticed with a bit of a start. He could feel the hard length against his thigh beneath Blair’s boxers. It gave him a strange sense of unease. He tried to figure out why. It wasn’t like he was uncomfortable with male bodies. He’d seen plenty of them in the army as a medic, and in Vice, he’d seen a hell of a lot more. There wasn’t much a guy could do that would even make him blink.

Ok, he decided, so maybe it was a little unusual to wake up in the arms of his best friend. Especially when said friend’s morning stiffie was practically drilling a hole in his leg. And his own was returning the favor. Of course, it was perfectly natural, he told himself. It happened to guys in the morning. Hell, when he’d woken up, he hadn’t even known it was Blair, so he certainly didn’t know it was Blair while he was still asleep. Besides, that was what he loved best about their friendship. They had so few boundaries. They could touch each and talk to each other about almost anything. One night of cuddling might be a little abnormal, but it didn’t mean anything earthshaking. They’d both needed a little human contact last night.

Ordering himself to get with the program and just relax, he gently pulled away from his sleeping partner. He took great care not to wake the other man. Blair was still healing, miraculous recoveries notwithstanding, and he needed sleep.

Once he’d gotten himself untangled from Blair’s limbs, he sat back on his heels and looked down at the other man. Blair sighed heavily and then curled his arms close to his chest, like he was missing Jim’s warmth. Jim pulled the covers up around him and tucked them close. Blair relaxed a little, and Jim smiled. Blair probably would have preferred to stay in Sierra Verde... at least it was hot there.

On impulse, he reached out and stroked Blair’s wild hair back from his face. Blair was frowning in his sleep, and Jim wondered what dreams might be going through that brilliant, indecipherable head. He leaned a little closer, resting his hand next to Blair’s neck and tuning his senses on the man beneath him, taking note of his heartbeat rattling the air around him, letting the scent of him flow through him, strong enough to taste, as though just by being near enough to Blair, he could read his mind. He let his breathing slow to match Blair’s, and let his mind began to drift. The world faded around him, and he let his consciousness drift, remembering Blair’s words as he found the center where his senses converged, and pictured a dial in his mind, then, gently imagined turning the dial up, feeling the rush of sensation that accompanied the mental exercise.

Now, it was as though he were practically wrapped in Blair’s skin, feeling the air move with their breath, hearing the whoosh of blood in their veins, smelling their arousal and morning breath, seeing the muscles move in Blair’s throat as he swallowed and his eyes moving beneath their lids. He knew he was skirting the edge of a zone again, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. It was too nice to be here, practically lying on top of Blair, surrounded by both of their scents, knowing Blair was back where he belonged.

He probably would have zoned, if he hadn’t shifted forward slightly, just at the right angle for his erection to brush against the covers over Blair’s leg. The spark of desire was like sticking his finger in an electric socket, and he jolted away from Blair, nearly falling off the opposite side of the bed.

Blair flinched, and Jim found himself mentally pleading for him to not wake up as he teetered on the edge of the bed, his erection pushing at the fly of his boxers.

A moment later, Blair settled down, and it was clear even a freight train through the bedroom wouldn’t wake him. Jim got out of bed and dressed automatically. His mind stuck in a repeating loop on that sensation, just one touch but it felt like an orgasm. Granted, he’d never tried having sex with his senses fully dialed up. In fact, he tended to dial down for the duration, to make sure he didn’t zone.

But as he headed down the stairs, he realized that wasn’t entirely true. He’d been wide open when Alex had kissed him in the temple, and it had been pretty damn mind-blowing. The feeling this morning, though, had been a hell of a lot stronger than that. Of course, he rationalized, his lips and his dick were totally different things...

He stopped when he reached the kitchen and ran a shaking hand over his face. He wasn’t attracted to his roommate. He just wasn’t. He’d been dialed up, already a little turned on, just from the simple pleasure of having another body near his own. He shouldn’t even be thinking about this, now.

He forced himself to take a long deep breath and he thought about muffins. Muffins from the bakery downstairs. He could smell them. Blair loved them, even while he complained about the toll they took on their health. They didn’t have any food in the house, anyway.

Armed with a mission, he put on his shoes and headed out the door and down to the bakery. He forced himself to stay in the present as he picked out an assortment of pastries, making sure to throw in a couple bran muffins just to appease Blair, and chatted with the owner of the bakery, who lived down the hall from them.

By the time he got upstairs, he could hear that his efforts at keeping Blair asleep had proved fruitless. Blair was rustling around in his bed when he reached the third floor, and by the time he got back in the loft, Blair was on his way down the stairs. His hair was flying around his head like a flock of angry hornets, and Jim greeted him, “Morning, Ei-”

He would have said “Einstein,” but bloodshot blue eyes froze his throat.

“One word about the hair, Ellison, and I swear, they will never find the body.”

Jim raised his free hand in a calming gesture and headed over to the counter to set down the bag of muffins.

“I didn’t say a thing.”

“Keep it that way,” Blair growled as he grabbed his duffle bag and stormed past him towards the bathroom.

Jim raised his eyebrows and opened the cupboard, digging around for a bag of coffee. He had breakfast laid out on the counter when Blair finally reemerged from the bathroom, his hair wet and tied very firmly back. He snagged a muffin and leaned back against the stove. he peeled off the paper somewhat halfheartedly and then tore off a chunk and stared at it for awhile like he’d never seen such a thing before.

After munching on a blueberry muffin and watching Blair fiddle with his bran one for a few minutes, Jim finally felt the need to speak up.

“You ok?”

Blair looked up, almost seeming surprised, then quickly returned his full attention to the ravaged but uneaten muffin.

“Yeah, fine. Just thinking of all the stuff we have to do today. This sucks. And I need to start getting my notes back together. I’ve missed, like, two weeks of class. The University’s gonna be totally pissed.”

Jim frowned.

“What? You’re kidding. Hell, Blair, I think you have a pretty damn good reason...”

Blair just shrugged and abandoned his muffin on the counter, sending a scattering of crumbs across the surface. As Jim watched him walk and drop to the floor next to his backpack, he felt a pulse of anger, hot in his chest. If those bastards so much as mentioned Blair’s absence, he’d kick their ass.

Blair had *died* in their fountain, for crying out loud. The University was lucky they hadn’t sued their asses for the atrociously bad security they obviously provided for their staff.

Cross-legged on the floor of the empty living room, Blair was pulling a notebook and pen out of his backpack. His hair was already slipping out of the ponytail. He’d just gotten up, and already he looked exhausted. As though it were contagious, Jim felt tired too. And he felt something else, something close to the despair he saw in Blair’s slouched posture and the lines around his eyes. He felt like he was missing something, something vitally important, and terribly wrong, and he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

He turned away quickly, trying to shake the sudden unease, and poured his attention into cleaning up the mess Blair’d left on the counter and putting away the rest of the muffins. He wasn’t hungry anymore.

After the kitchen was clean, he clenched his jaw and glanced back at Blair out of the corner of his eye. The other man seemed deeply entrenched in his work. His hand was flashing across the page. Jim didn’t want to bother him, and he didn’t want to watch him, so he put on his shoes and headed out of the loft and down the stairs.

Their stuff was all down in the basement, taking up way more than their fair share of the storage space. Looking over it all, it seemed almost hopeless, and Jim half wanted to just call a moving company and be done with it.

He wondered again how the *hell* he’d done this as he walked over.

He glanced around, decided he had to start somewhere, and grabbed a floor lamp that was nearby. At least Blair could have a little more light while he worked.

An hour later, he was even more convinced that a moving company was the way to go. In fact, he was beginning to suspect that was how he’d done this in the first place. He was standing there, staring at the couch, when he heard footsteps behind him.

“Hey,” Blair said.

He looked over his shoulder to see Blair standing, silhouetted in the light of the doorway to the storage area.

“Hey. Aren’t you working?”

“Well, yeah. I’m taking a break. Thought I’d see if you needed a hand.”

“I think I need a professional.”

Blair laughed once, softly.

“Well, you got me. Not quite the same thing, I know, but...”

Jim frowned, looking again over the collection of heavy objects before him.

“I don’t know, Blair... are you sure you should be...”

“Come on, Jim, I was just running around the rain forest. Besides. I want to get the done. You know, the place looks... wrong, the way it is now. If we try to call movers, they probably won’t be able to get her for a day or two. I kinda just want things... back to normal.”

Jim found he couldn’t argue with that sentiment. Normal. Besides, he’d know if Blair needed to take a break, probably even before Blair himself did.

“All right, then, let’s see what we can do about this couch.”

“Cool,” Blair said, moving around to the opposite end of the couch, “ok, on three...”

***

Five hours later, they had the living room and kitchen haphazardously reassembled, and had given up for the day on moving anything else any bigger than a box. They headed for Rainier to pick up Blair’s stuff to bring back to the loft.

“Man,” Blair said, as they walked into his office. “I am so looking forward to clean clothes. You have no idea.”

“Actually, Chief, no one could want that more than me right now.”

“Ha ha,” Blair said, waving his middle finger over his shoulder. “Very funny, man. Don’t quit your day job.”

He walked around the end of his desk, intending to pick up a box on the other side, but when he reached his chair, he stopped, caught in a sudden wave of fear. Right here. he’d been right here when Alex came into the office. She’d been so calm, so reasonable. He’d known he was dead the moment she stepped through the door, and it was a strange feeling. Being so sure of your own imminent demise. He’d always thought he’d go quickly, and in a blaze of glory, the way he lived his life. But at that moment, when her calm, crazed blue eyes had fallen on him as steadily as the aim of her gun, he’d known this was it. he was going out with a whimper, not a bang.

He’d done what she’d asked, stood up and walked out of his office calmly. At the same time he knew he was going to die, he also was sure he could get away. He just needed to wait for his chance, and stay alive 'til it came.

They’d walked out of the building together as they had so many times over the past few weeks, it felt almost ridiculously normal, except for the gun at his back. The air was chilly, and the sky was a flat steel gray, lit uniformly by the sun that had not yet risen. There was a gentle breeze blowing, and it was very quiet. Early morning was the one time it could be guaranteed there would not be students around. It was like every other morning he’d ever walked out of his office before a class to pick up a cup of coffee at the student union.

When they reached the bottom of the steps, he wasn’t even afraid. Not because there was nothing to fear, not even because he was numb, he just... wasn’t afraid.

His fatal error was expecting to be shot. He was sure they would walk out to the parking lot, go somewhere and leave him in some ditch where he wouldn’t be found until it was way, way too late. His last thought was to wonder how long it would take anyone to even notice he was missing, and then the cold gun metal hit him at the base of his skull, and the world exploded in stars and darkness.

He didn’t remember drowning. He didn’t even remember water. He was unconscious before he hit the ground, he supposed, or maybe the blow to the head had just erased those memories forever. In any case, the next thing he knew was four legs and fur, and running through the woods, feeling a glorious sense of freedom. Ahead of him was bright white light, warm and beckoning, and he ran towards it without hesitation, joyfully.

But then, something made him turn back.

The woods behind him were dark, nothing like the white light. Dark, except for a single strand of light leading back, the last thing that bound him to that world. He found himself looking into the eyes of a lonely panther.

He waited for a moment, expecting something, not knowing what, but the panther just watched, with sadness in its eyes. Behind him, the light beckoned. He tilted his head to the side, asking, but still receiving no answer.

With a mental shrug, he turned away from the silent panther and trotted again towards the light, feeling the warmth begin to fill him. But just before he let it engulf him, he stopped and looked back one more time. And froze.

The panther was running towards him, panic replacing the sadness in its eyes. He knew it could not come into the light with him. It knew it could not come into the light with him. But it was trying. And that was what counted.

Suddenly, the same joy he’d felt when he first saw the light filled him again, and he wheeled around running full out towards the big cat. At the last moment, they both leapt, and where they should have collided, they flowed together, creating their own light, finding themselves where they’d always belong. For a moment, they were one.

And then, the world was cold, and there was a horrible taste in his mouth, a horrible ache in his head and his lungs, and there were people around him, grabbing him, pulling him around, and distantly, he could hear Jim saying that it was all ok.

“Blair?”

He looked up and realized he was looking into the eyes of the panther again.

He turned away from Jim and bent down to pick up the box, trying to shake the memories.

“Sorry. Just... thinking.”

Jim patted his shoulder and backed off.

“Ok. What do you say we hit that Chinese place on the way home for dinner. I was thinking takeout sounded good for tonight.”

“Sure Jim, sounds great,” he said, heading out of the room and thinking about how the next thing he’d heard out of Jim’s mouth after the ambulance ride was a crack about meeting nurses. Followed by that strange comment about owing rent when, number one, he’d never paid rent in the three years he’d lived at the loft, and number two, as far as he’d known, he didn’t live at the loft anymore. And then, to make matters worse, after Jim had admitted he’d had the same vision, he’d said something flippant about not being ready to take that trip with him. Well, as far as Blair was concerned, they’d already taken that trip and bought the T-shirt.

Then Jim had sat down beside him on the bed for awhile, and they’d given up on the awkward small talk. But ironically, more was said in those fifteen minutes than they could have said in a thousand conversations. A few minutes in, Jim had reached out and laid his hand on Blair’s arm, and he didn’t move it the whole rest of the time. That warm connection had lingered with Blair for the rest of the day, even after the nurses and Simon had shooed Jim out the door and left him alone to rest.

Blair dropped the box into the truck and trudged back towards the building. He was more tired than he’d realized. He tried not to think about the class he had to teach tomorrow. He also tried not to think about death, or resurrection, or the fountain he was currently walking past. Between all that trying not to think, he almost ran into Jim, who was on his way out of the building, halfway up the steps. Jim’s strong hand caught him by his upper arm in a nearly-bruising grip as he almost fell.

“Whoa there, Chief.”

Blair looked up and found himself pinned by Jim’s ice blue eyes again. This time, he didn’t look away, caught by the look in those eyes. A little annoyance, concern, fear. Most people would describe Jim’s eyes as cold. But right now, to Blair, they were warm. Like the white light.

“Hey,” Jim said, softly, loosening his grip on Blair’s arm. “Let’s go eat, huh? We can come back for the rest of this stuff later.”

“Actually, that sounds great. I’m starved,” Blair said.

It was a strange reversal, he thought, as he followed Jim back towards the truck, because it was usually him pointing out that Jim was human, not Jim noticing that Blair was on the verge of collapse, and hadn’t eaten anything since maybe a bite or two of muffin. Halfway to the truck, Jim slowed down to fall in beside him, and laid his free hand in the middle of Blair’s back. Blair leaned back slightly into the touch and smiled when out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jim glance at him.

A moment later, Jim’s hand slid up his back to his shoulder, and he unexpectedly tugged him in close to his side. Blair chuckled softly and wrapped his own arm around Jim’s shoulders. They made their way back to the truck in a companionable embrace, and for a little while, all the confusion and doubt of the last few weeks seemed far away. Blair leaned against Jim’s side until he had to detach and walk around to his side of the truck.

Neither one of them spoke as Jim guided the truck off campus and through the streets of Cascade, until Blair noticed they weren’t headed for their usual Chinese take-out joint.

“Uh, Jim? China Palace?”

Jim didn’t take his eyes off traffic, prompting Blair to thank heaven for small favors, and said, “Nah. That place you wanted to try is open now. You know, the one on Third? I thought we’d give it a try. If you want.”

Blair blinked.

“Yeah, I want. But man, that’s not your usual fair...”

“Sandburg, I was in the army. I lived with the Chopec. I’ve eaten grubs.”

“Well. I guess tofu is better than grubs.”

“I didn’t say that,” Jim said, as he blithely turned through two lanes of traffic into the parking lot without so much as tapping the brakes. Nobody honked, but then, they probably didn’t have time to react much beyond the standard unconscious panic reactions. Increased heartrate, sweaty palms, sudden intakes of breath. Things Blair was all too familiar with. He glanced over his shoulder after they’d pulled into a space, and was relieved to note there was no smoldering wreckage behind them.

“You know,” he said, in a cheerful conversational tone, “you should look into a defensive driving course some time, buddy.”

Jim opened his door and hopped out of the truck.

“What? Where did that come from?”

Blair trotted around the hood to catch up with him and they crossed the parking lot together.

“I’m just saying there’s a reason people in the other cars start that whole frantic praying thing after you go past. And it ain’t your stunning good looks, either.”

“Hey,” Jim said, pulling open the door and letting Blair through ahead of him, “Are you saying I’m a bad driver?”

“I’ve been saying that for the past three years.”

Jim frowned, as though the thought had actually never occurred to him. A waitress greeted them as soon as they were inside. She shot a flirty smile Blair’s way and he made an effort not to return it. Ever since he’d started dating Katie-

For a moment, his world stopped.

“Oh, fucking shit,” he muttered, as quietly as he possibly could, given his sudden horror.

Katie. He had to call Katie. She’d be worried out of her mind. He hadn’t even thought of her until now. The last time he’d seen her had been when she’d dropped by the hospital just before he’d been released. He’d told her he was flying down to Sierra Verde, but he hadn’t been able to explain why without saying more than he’d felt comfortable saying. She’d been pretty upset that he was heading off to South America in his condition, and demanded he call her as soon as he got home. Which, of course, had been last night. Fuck.

“Something wrong?” Jim asked after the waitress had left them to peruse the menus at their table.

“I gotta call Katie. She’s gonna kill me.”

“Ah,” Jim said, looking skeptical.

“What?”

Jim picked up his menu and began to eye it.

“I didn’t say anything.”

Jim had been acting this way about him and Katie almost since the day he met her. Some kind of disdainful sarcasm. He looked at them like there was some kind of inside joke he was party to, and he wasn’t sure whether to laugh at them or pity them for their ignorance.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Jim. What is it with you and Katie? I like her, ok?”

Without looking up, Jim said in a monotone, “Yeah, sure.”

“What, am I not living up to the table-leg humping standard you expect of me or something?”

Jim threw down the menu and looked up at him. There was what seemed to Blair a disproportionate amount of passion in his eyes.

“I like Katie, too. I just don’t think she’s right for you.”

This time, it was Blair ducking his head to hide his feelings in the menu. He and Katie got along well. They watched movies together, had the occasional intelligent conversation. The sex was... well, nonexistent at this point. They’d been working up to that. Granted, he wasn’t in much of a hurry, which was unusual for him. He’d been telling himself it was because he honestly cared about her. He wanted it to be special. And he did want it to be special. It was just a different sort of relationship than he was used to.

“Hey, no one’s perfect.” He continued to inspect the entrees as he spoke, trying to keep his tone light. “I guess my standards have always been too high. It was just... time to get realistic.”

“You planning on telling Katie that?” Jim said, with a hint of sarcasm weighing down his voice, “That you couldn’t find what you wanted, so you’ll settle for her?”

It wasn’t like that, Blair thought, feeling a slight frown tug at his brow and lips. He tried to convince himself he wasn’t trying to convince himself.

“Jim, it’s none of your business, ok?”

His tone was a warning. Drop it, Jim, he thought, as though the man’s abilities might now include telepathy.

“Chief... I’ve been there. It doesn’t work.”

Blair opened his mouth, then closed it again. Then, he said, “I don’t think I need to be taking advice on my love life from the guy who spent the last two weeks trying to fuck the woman who murdered me.”

Jim gaped at him.

***

If Blair had kicked him in the gut, it would have hurt less. His stomach muscles clenched and the room seemed to tilt around him. He muttered, “Excuse me,” as he stumbled to his feet, only half aware of what he was doing, the simple formalities coming automatically when his mind couldn’t handle anything more complex.

Somehow he made it to the men’s room, which was, lucky for him, a single room. He shut the door and locked it and then fell back against the wall. The tile was a cold shock against his back, and every deep breath he took brought with it scents he didn’t want to be smelling on an empty stomach, but neither of those things could disrupt the chaotic swirl of his mind.

The last few weeks had been a blur for him, even while he was living them. He’d spent much of the time half-feeling like there was someone else in control of his body, and at the same time, insisting he was in complete control. He’d done what he’d done. Somehow, it helped to not blame it on instinct. Even if he had done terrible things, even if he didn’t understand why, he wanted to believe he’d been in control of his actions.

But if he had been in control, why the hell had he done it?

He heard Sandburg approaching the door long before the other man reached it and knocked, but he didn’t react until Blair said, “Jim? You ok?”

Without thinking, and god, he’d been doing things that way a lot lately, he snapped back, “I think I can piss on my own, thanks Sandburg. It may have slipped your notice, but I’m a fucking grown man.”

There was stillness on the other side of the door. Sandburg’s distress was belied only by his racing heartbeat. After a moment, Blair said, “Hey, ok. Sorry.” And then he retreated back towards their table.

Jim shut his eyes and buried his face in his hands. What the hell was wrong with him, he wondered. It scared him.

He was always pushing him away. So far, Blair had always pushed back, never letting Jim’s act fool him. But lately, he felt like he was beginning to go too far. Like the next time he pushed, Blair would just throw his hands up and walk away. Walk to Katie maybe, throw his life into a mistake of a marriage. Devote his heart and soul to it, the same way he did everything in life, and then end up devastated when it failed. Because it would. Jim could see that as clearly as his own hand in front of his face.

And where the hell would he be without Sandburg? He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about why he didn’t want to think about it. He’d never needed anyone, but he had a sneaking suspicion he needed Sandburg. Paradoxically, he thought that might be precisely why he tried so hard to push him away.

The problem was he had been pushing people away his whole life. He wasn’t sure if he could stop.

Back at their table, he could hear Blair stalling the waitress. Resigned, he pushed himself away from the wall and walked back out into the restaurant, making his way back to their table without looking at Blair. He sat down and ordered the first thing his eyes fell on from the menu. Since whatever it was seemed to be heavy on the bean sprouts and hummus, Blair was no doubt shooting him one of those “who are you and what have you done with Jim” looks, but he didn’t risk looking his way to check. He scowled down at the nice wood grain of the table and an uncomfortable silence reigned over the rest of the meal and continued well into the trip back to Rainier.

He could see Blair glancing his way, looking all apologetic and puppy-dog eyed, and it only made him angrier. Not at Blair. He wasn’t sure who he was angry at. Maybe just the world in general. Blair had been perfectly within his rights to say what he said. Hell, he had been following Alex around like she was a bitch in heat. Blair had *nothing* to apologize for, and he felt the strongest urge to scream that at him. To just yank the truck over to the side of the road and-

“Stop looking at me like that!”

Shit, he thought. He’d said that aloud.

Blair jumped.

“Whoa. Sorry.”

He turned his head towards the window and his shoulders slumped a little more. Jim’s scowl deepened. He slammed on the brakes just in time to avoid running a red light. Horns blared.

“Dammit, Sandburg, I said cut it out.”

“Cut what out?”

Now at least there was a little righteous indignation in his eyes. That was better than self-deprecation by a long shot.

“That whole- thing you’re doing.”

“What thing? Jim- the light’s green.”

Jim huffed in annoyance and squealed through the intersection.

”That-” he once again found himself at a loss. “That whole kicked puppy thing.”

Blair raised his eyebrows.

“I have a kicked puppy thing?”

“You know damned well you have a kicked puppy thing, Sandburg. You’re doing it right now.”

“I am?”

“You know, if you actually were sorry, you wouldn’t be so damned obnoxious.”

“Sorry? Excuse me, Ellison, but I don’t think I have anything to apologize for. At least, nothing that I haven’t already apologized for.”

Jim jerked the truck into a tight parallel parking space in back of Hargrove Hall. Well, damn, he’d just been *thinking* that, so how was it the tables had turned like this? This was getting way too complicated for him.

“Then cut it out with the puppy thing,” he grumbled as he got out of the truck.

Blair sighed in a manner clearly intended to convey the full force of his vexation on Jim, then he said, “You are such an asshole.”

They walked up to the back entrance of the building in silence. Yup, Jim thought. That’s me. An asshole who kicks puppies.

“What can I say?” he said, out loud, flippantly, as he pulled one of the doors open and waited a moment. Blair went in through the other door. Jim shrugged and walked into the building after him. “It’s a gift.”

Blair ignored him.

They moved the rest of Blair’s stuff to the truck with a minimum of communication. Even the drive home was cloaked in silence. Jim’s chest felt tight, and ached. He wanted to say something, but he was fairly sure anything he said would just make things worse. In the end, all he did was grip the steering wheel hard enough to hurt, and stare out the windshield, trying not to look at Blair’s reflection.

As soon as they got everything moved up into the loft, Blair called Katie. Jim occupied himself pushing the furniture around to it’s proper places in the living room. The activity could have waited until tomorrow, but at he did it because it made enough noise to drown out the quiet conversation in the kitchen.

Blair hung up the phone and wandered over to stand behind the couch that backed up to the kitchen. Jim had been trying to get the coffee table back to it’s former exact spot, slightly obsessively, perhaps, when he realized Blair was waiting for something. He looked up and found Blair’s eyes on him, calm and distant. Blair was resting his hands on the back of the couch, standing very still.

“Something wrong?” Jim asked, still bent down, gripping the edges of the table.

A moment passed with no answer. Jim stood up. Blair looked down at his hands, which he was twisting together, now.

“She dumped me,” he said softly. “Guess you were right about us, after all.”

Then, Blair turned and walked into the bathroom. Jim could hear him running the water, fiddling with his toothbrush. The ache in his chest sharpened. He felt dizzy, and so he sat down on the couch, and propped his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands. He didn’t know how to feel about it. Blair had cared about Katie and Rachel deeply. Especially, Rachel. He’d felt a bond with Katie’s daughter, and apparently Rachel had felt it too. She had come over to the loft several times after school. Blair tutored her occasionally, but mostly, they just talked, about school, and life, and Rachel’s father.

When Maya had left, Blair had been devastated, but it had been the devastation of young love. Immature love. Puppy love, he could venture to say. This, this was different. As much as he’d been unwilling to admit it, Blair had been looking for commitment with Katie. He’d even acknowledged the sacrifices it might take to maintain that commitment. It was the most energy Jim had ever seen Blair put into any relationship. Outside of this whole sentinel thing, anyway.

He felt a pang of regret. Blair deserved it. Happiness. He deserved someone who would love him till the day he died. Someone who would love him the way he loved. Intensely, without reservation.

Katie hadn’t been that person, but she’d come closer than anyone else Jim had ever seen Blair with, and he knew that losing her would hurt Blair. And even if it was for the best in the end, he hated to see Blair hurt.

***

The next few weeks passed. Blair had been feeling like time had stopped, but when he walked into his office and glanced at the calendar, he realized there were now two months standing between him and the day they’d returned from Peru. Two months since Katie had tearfully told him she thought they were better off apart. Two months since his life was supposed to have gotten back to what passed for normal. Two months during which life had decidedly not returned to normal. In fact, now it seemed like the whole universe was completely off its rocker.

He grimaced and slapped Brad Ventriss’s alleged term paper on top of the clutter on his desk.

“Damn you, Sidney,” he growled as he flopped down in his chair and shut his eyes. University politics had always ticked him off, but this was beyond anything he’d ever expected. A student had been raped, and then used the crime to strong-arm a respectable grad student into writing a paper for him, and he was going to get away with it, just because his father was some bigwig who’d donated money to the University.

He opened his eyes just enough to peer at the offending manila envelope, and then made his decision. The bastard wasn’t getting away with it. Not as long as he still worked for Rainier University. He could check the PD computers to see if the kid had a record. If not, maybe Jim would be willing to help him out. And if Jim decided to continue being the asshole he’d been the last two months, well, then, Blair would deal with this on his own. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t dealt with things on his own for the entire rest of his life.

Bound and determined, he left his office and drove to the PD. Jim wasn’t around when he reached the bullpen, so he started the search on his own. Brad’s name didn’t come up in the search, so it seemed he’d only been charged with the rape charge, which had been dropped. He shook his head. Why would she do that? Drop the charge? He couldn’t understand it, and he was still staring at the screen as though it might somehow yield the answer when Jim showed up.

“Chief. It's nice of you to beam down. What are you doing here?” Jim said as he came up alongside him. Blair didn’t look up from the screen, even after he abruptly remembered he was supposed to have joined Jim earlier to question a suspect. He continued to eye the vexing dropped charge.

“A kid in my class tried to pass me a plagiarized term paper. Daddy's money's bought off my department head and probably the whole school. He threatened me when I said I'd fail him.”

“What are you doing with this?”

“Well... He also drugged and raped one of my students.”

“Drugged and raped a student.”

Jim sounded incredulous. And a little impatient. Blair began to suspect his partner would be no help to him.

“Yeah.”

“Was there a report filed?”

Blair hit the scroll button a few times, flipping through the V’s in a vain hope that maybe Ventriss’s record had been misfiled.

“Yeah, but she changed her statement, so I'm checking to see if the kid's got a rap sheet. Maybe this isn't his first time.”

Jim craned his neck and peered over his shoulder as he tried the search again.

“This is the kid?”

“Yeah.”

“Brad Ventriss. Looks clean,” Jim said, and Blair could hear in his tone that he felt this conversation was ending.

“I know. Where else can we look?”

“I don't know, but, uh, anyplace other than right here.”

And with that, he shoved Blair’s chair away from the computer and pulled another chair up to sit down in front of the machine himself.

“What's going on? What are you doing?” Blair protested as he rolled away.

“Look, Chief, what would you like me to do? Kid's got no charge. I got names to run in a murder case. I'd love to help you out, but my hands are tied with nothing else to go on. It's just the law.”

Fuck it, Blair thought. He also thought that Jim never would have acted this way three months ago.

“It's just the law. Just the law,” he said, numbly. Who was this guy?

By now, Jim was completely focused on the computer.

“Yeah.”

“Just the law. That's great to hear you say that. What about what's right?” He stood up, and grabbed his jacket. “How many time have I heard you say that?”

Jim barely glanced at him.

“Why don't you take it easy? Don't let your anger take you out of the game. One of your better lectures, remember?”

“No,” Blair said, angrily. What the hell had happened to Jim’s sense of justice, anyway?

It was obvious to Blair he wasn’t going to get anymore help here, so he left the PD and drove back to the University. Once he was there, he tracked down Jill and spoke to her. He’d hoped to at understand what had possessed her to drop that charge and that much he had learned. He hadn’t been able to convince her to file it again, though, but at least after she left his office, she’d seemed a little bit less afraid. So, even if Mr. It’s-Just-The-Law wouldn’t deign to do something about that raping asshole, Blair felt like he’d helped. Even if it was just a little.

He carted all the essays from his Anthro 101 class back to the loft with him. He dumped his stuff on the coffee table first thing and then headed into the kitchen. The loft was quiet, and it felt good to his frazzled nerves. Over the years, Jim had made this place a sanctuary, not just for Sentinel senses, but against the outside world. Blair had always been comfortable when surrounded by a mess. He often had joked that it matched his personality. But after living with Jim and his house rules, he was beginning to appreciate it. Outside, there was chaos, a world where bad things happened every day, and very little of it made sense. In here, in their home, there was order, peace. And especially on days like this, Blair could appreciate that, even if it did mean he spent a good chunk of most Saturdays dusting. Just being in the loft was like meditating.

He pulled the fridge door open and peered at the contents. That they needed to go shopping was his first conclusion. His second was, though they had all the fixings for it, Jim was pissy today and probably would not appreciate a hot, steaming bowl of ostrich chili. He glanced at the clock and decided he probably would have just enough time for a batch of lasagna. That might soothe the savage beast. Or at least earn him enough peace and quiet to grade papers for a few hours that evening.

He got the sauce bubbling on the stove and headed into the living room. He scooped the first paper off the top of the stack and flopped backwards on to the sofa. “An Analysis of Inequality in Our Society.” Well, it was a promising title, at least. He fished a red pen out of his backpack and started reading in earnest. Promising title, awful essay. He sighed as he scrawled a C- at the bottom of the last page and reached for the next paper. Too many students with too little interest. Rainier offered Anthro 101 as a gen ed class, so most of the students who took the class were slackers trying to avoid what they thought were more difficult--in other words, thought-requiring--social sciences courses like US History. The next essay made the first one looked good. Blair had a sudden mental image of this student gobbling Tylenol like candy to fight back his hangover as he typed this atrocity an hour before class.

Blair dropped the paper back on the top of the stack and sat up, pinching the bridge of his nose, suddenly fighting a headache of his own. Every other day, he walked into that room, to have the same set of 150 pairs of glazed-over, listless eyes stare down at him. He used to feel energized when he got in front of a class. He used to feel the same passion for teaching that he still felt for learning.

That had lasted about a semester. He’d figured he’d just gotten a bad class... He’d been new, so they’d foisted the eight am section off on him. But the next semester, his eleven o’ clock class had given him those same bovine looks. No one cared. That was what hit him hardest. When he’d been a student, he’d drank in everything his professors had said. These kids, they wanted their tickets punched so that they could move on to the next class they didn’t give a crap about. Now, all he felt in the classroom was tired. He got by on the few, the very few, students who truly cared.

The timer buzzed, so he had an excuse to leave the dispiriting stack of essays behind while he finished preparing the lasagna and stuck it in the oven to bake. When he got back to the living room, he sat down on the couch and stared hard at the essays. They didn’t go away. He lay down on the couch and threw one arm over his eyes. His head throbbed. He closed his eyes, just for a second, and woke up again when he heard the jingle of Jim’s keys in the door.

*shit,* he thought, sitting up quickly, which didn’t help his aching head any.

Jim opened the door and tossed his keys in the basket.

“Hey, Chief,” he said. He was carrying a bag of something.

Blair rubbed his eyes and stood up.

“Hey, Jim. Dinner should be done in a couple of minutes.”

“Yeah,” Jim said, softly, stopping and setting the bag on the table. “Smells good.”

He slowly took off and hung up his jacket. Blair ducked around him into the kitchen, and cracked the door of the oven open to check on the pasta. A wave of warm, lasagna-y air wafted up to him, and he felt a pulse of comfort at the scent. Inside, the cheese was burbling cheerfully. It hadn’t burned yet, luckily, but it was ready to be taken out. He flipped the timer off and pulled the dish out and set it on the hot pads on the counter.

Jim was lingering over his shoulder holster.

“Something wrong?” Blair asked as he retrieved a bag of salad from the refrigerator.

“Nah. Just- long day. Here, let me get that, Chief, you did the rest of it.”

“Sure, man, knock yourself out.”

He handed the bag off to Jim. While Jim was handling the salad and table-setting, he went into the bathroom and splashed a handful of water on his face and took a couple of aspirin. When he looked up, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. God, he looked like hell, he realized. He shook his head. Long day. Maybe he’d just let himself catch up on sleep tonight. He’d been spending most nights working on his diss. Ever since they’d gotten back, his advisor had been leaning on him to get it done. There was a hint of a threat in his advice. Blair knew the school’s patience was wearing thin.

By the time he left the bathroom, Jim had already finished preparing the food and setting the table. Blair sat down in his usual chair, across the table from Jim. he noticed the bag had been shoved in his direction.

“What’s this?” he asked, gesturing towards it with his fork.

Jim glanced up briefly from his food, and then concentrated on spearing a few pieces of lettuce.

“Printer ink. That little light on your printer’s been blinking for two weeks.”

“Printer ink?”

“Yeah. You know. The store isn’t that far out of my way.”

*Yeah,* Blair thought, *only about *fifteen minutes* out of your way.* He wasn’t arguing though. He could recognize an apologetic gesture when he saw one.

They ate in a mostly comfortable silence for a few minutes, until Jim said, “This is good.”

“Yeah,” Blair agreed, “New recipe. Jenn, you know, my research assistant, she gave it to me.”

Jim just nodded and said, “We should add it to our collection.”

Blair was impressed. No snide comment about his young, pretty research assistant. Jim must really be having a bad day.

“Yeah,” Blair said, “we should publish that sucker someday. The Sandburg/Ellison Cookbook. We could make millions.”

It was an awkward attempt at humor, but Jim smiled, just a little, as he chewed. Blair hesitated a second, then said, “So, this is that new case, right? What was the name? Chung?”

It was obvious Jim was trying not to meet his eyes.

“Yeah. Dennis Chung. Sounds like he was a pretty good guy.”

Behind those simple words, Blair could read a world of pain. Jim was far more sensitive to things than he liked to let on, and seeing an innocent hurt or killed tore him up. Sometimes, Blair suspected, it hit Jim harder than it even hit him. He watched Jim toy with his food.

“Sorry I wasn’t there today. Got caught up with some stuff.”

“I figured. Not a problem, Chief.” He paused, then added, “So I guess you’re gonna be grading papers all night?”

That sounded like a leading question.

“Well... I could be persuaded not to, man. Easily. Why, you wanna do something?”

“Nah. Just chill out, watch the game.”

“Sounds good, actually. I could use a little chilling out, I think.”

Jim looked pleased, and Blair felt warm deep inside at the sight of that half-smile. The warmth stayed with him as they finished their meal and washed the dishes together. Jim turned on the game and adjusted the reception while Blair copied the lasagna recipe onto an index card and alphabetized it into the rest of their collection.

“Filed it under ‘Jenn’s Lasagna,’” he said as he joined Jim in the living room and dropped down on the opposite end of the couch from his friend.

Jim nodded, but he was already mostly focused on the game. The Jags were off to a good start this season, and every game was a tense one, since no one wanted their winning streak to break. Within minutes, they were both on the edges of their seats, shouting at the screen.

The stack of essays on the coffee table spent the night completely unnoticed.

The next morning, after his eight am class, Blair filed a grievance against Ventriss. He was about to leave to head home and then to the station, but just before he walked out the door, something else on his desk caught his eye, and he turned back. It was another manila envelope, postmarked New Haven, Connecticut. He backpedaled and returned to his desk. He picked up the envelope with shaking hands, and almost dropped it as he flipped it over. He quickly tore away the tape that closed it and pulled out the paper. A brief cover letter was the first thing he saw. It was signed by Catherine Freier, an old friend of his. A few days after they’d come home from Sierra Verde, he’d sent her copies of a few pages of the rubbings he’d made at the temple. He knew he could trust her to keep complete confidentiality, and she was one of the world’s leading authorities on Olmec hieroglyphics.

He’d sent her pages that contained more of the common glyphs, in hopes that she could give him a hand with them so that he’d be able to translate the rest of the rubbings on his own.

He sank down into his chair and flipped to the first page of rubbings. Cathy had scribbled notes beneath each of the glyphs. Some were simply direct translations, while others had slightly more text beneath them. Blair scanned along the line until his fingers rested on the one symbol that had caught his attention. There was a great deal of notes under it.

“This one’s an interesting one, Blair. I’ve never seen it before. The first thing that strikes me is the similarities to the symbol for ‘Shaman,’ in fact, at first glance, that’s what I thought it was. But when I looked closer, I noticed there were a few facets that were different. Overall, it seems to bear the most similarity to two other glyphs, ‘Shaman,’ like I said, and ‘Leader.’ My guess would be this is some sort of spiritual advisor, or a guide.”

Blair felt a mix of dread and awe as he remembered something Brackett had said, years ago: “Well, you are his guide, so to speak.”

Maybe it was a coincidence. On the other hand, over the past few years, Blair had become less and less inclined to believe in coincidences. He moved his gaze back to the beginning of the page, flipping between the carvings and the translations. He flipped through the pages and found she’d included her translation on separate papers near the back, but all the rubbings had notes on them. He spent a few minutes looking over the rubbings, and then he was drawn back to the translations.

He’d given her enough of the rubbings for her to get a feel for the context of the symbols, so she’d managed to translate about a paragraph. His heart was pounding as he began to read.

“When [the guide] goes beyond, one joined must bring [the] one alone to this place. Here shall [the] one alone be blessed, and given to another to no longer be alone. This is the way of things, and must be so.”

He read the paragraph over again, and then one more time. “Goes beyond.” He flipped to her notes.

“Goes beyond: a common euphemism for death, and I feel like that is the context it is being used in here.”

Death, huh. Well, that was interesting. When this “guide” died, the sentinel went to this temple. The sentinel, and someone else, it seemed. So, who else would it be? Someone joined to someone, apparently. He raised his eyebrows, feeling, for the first time in two months, a rush of excitement for his research. There was clearly a whole facet to this sentinel thing he hadn’t even begun to explore. A facet that he was actively involved in. He packed all of the papers back into the envelope and stuck it in his backpack, then headed home.

After he’d dropped everything off in the loft, he remembered that one of his journals was due to come today, so he walked to the post office at the end of the block. He walked back down the street with the his head already buried in an article.

The first punch caught him completely off guard.

By the time the second came, the first giant bruiser had his arms trapped behind his back. He wasn’t sure exactly how he wound up on the hard concrete of the garage. He struggled to get up, and made it to his knees, pressing his hand against the ache in his head. He glanced up just in time to see one of the thugs, standing over him, drawing a baseball bat back, preparing to swing. His life flashed before his eyes. Shit, brought back from the dead only to have his head smashed in less than three months later.

But then, something else flashed before his eyes. Jim. Suddenly, all three of the thugs were backing off. Baseball man had a gun trained on Jim as the three of them got into the car. Jim was standing over him, like a grizzly defending her cubs. The cuffs of Jim’s khakis, his white socks, his hikers, were the most beautiful things in the world.

The car squealed away, and Jim was instantly turning, reaching down to help him up.

“Chief, you all right?”

His grip warmed Blair’s arm, and through a haze of pain, he reached up and grasped Jim’s arm. Jim gave a tug, helping him to his feet, his arm coming quickly around Blair’s shoulder to steady him when he wavered. Jim’s other hand hovered just over the cut above his eye, like he wanted to see if it was serious, but he didn’t want to hurt him.

“Let me see. Let me see,” he said, his voice a soothing balm for the pain and the confusion. He must have made a good medic, Blair thought, aimlessly. His hands were so gentle. He suddenly had a ghost of a memory of being cradled in Jim’s arms in another garage, hearing that voice murmuring softly that it would be all right.

“All right, let's get you cleaned up. Come on,” Jim said, when Blair was steady on his feet. Jim steered him out from under the overhang and over to where a bag of groceries was scattered across the sidewalk. Their groceries, Blair realized when Jim reached into the bag and tossed him a bag of frozen peas.

“Peas,” Blair commented, before pressing the bag to his forehead. The cold only made the pain worse, but at least it might keep the swelling down.

“Yeah,” Jim said, his voice suddenly distant, and cynical. “It was the only thing I had that was frozen. Maybe it’ll help cool off your love life.”

*Fucking asshole!* Blair thought viciously, not even noticing the complete 180 his feelings towards Jim had taken between one thought and the next.

“Cool off my love life?” he said, disbelievingly. He hadn’t even thought about dating since Katie. “This wasn’t some jealous boyfriend, Jim. It wasn’t even a mugger. It was that Brad Ventriss. he saw me talking to Jill yesterday, the girl that he raped.”

He was as sure that it had been Brad as he was sure of his own name. Which, given the potential for head injuries in an assault like this, was something he was damn glad he was sure of right now.

“We have nothing to go on. You know that. You just have to back off.”

His shoulders slumped as he felt a hot pulse of rage building inside him. Damn Jim and damn rich kids who had the world on a platter. He just wanted to kill something. March right up to that asshole Brad and just punch him in the face. See how he liked it. And what was this whole “back off” thing, anyway? What was with Jim?

Before he could stop himself, he was asking the question out loud, “What do you mean, ‘back off’? When have you ever backed off?”

“If I had backed off on certain things in my life, they would have gone down a lot easier.”

*Well, that’s my point, you asshole! You don’t back down, you never give up, that’s what makes you... you... that’s what makes you the hero and me the fucking sidekick. What if I wanna be the hero now and then, Jim? How about that?* Blair thought. He settled for changing the subject, slightly.

“I can’t stand these kids, think they can get through by just buying and scaring off...”

He was so pissed, he was literally sweating, and at the same time, he felt completely helpless. It was like a dream, trying to catch something, but all of his limbs were slow, like he was stuck in molasses. His own uselessness only served to make him madder.

“He's got you so angry you couldn't even think straight,” Jim said, and then apparently couldn’t resist adding, “Why don't you try using your head for something other than a punching bag, all right?”

That was rich. Jim was telling *him* to use his head.

“Yeah, that’s funny, Jim,” he muttered darkly, and then, Jim’s cell phone rang.

After a brief, terse conversation, Jim hooked his hand around Blair’s arm and said, “Let's get going. Why don't you throw on some shades, huh? I don't want you to scare any little kids.”

By the end of the day, Blair had been fired from his job, jumped out of a helicopter, and finally, gleefully, gotten to watch Brad Ventriss tossed into a holding cell. By the time the paperwork was finished, it was nearly eleven, and by the time they both finally made it to bed, it was midnight.

Blair tossed and turned until two in the morning, and then finally, gave in and got up. His head was throbbing and there was still way too much adrenaline in his veins. He crept out into the dark and quiet loft. The city lights fell through the balcony doors in long, slanting rectangles in the living room, and the whole apartment seemed completely still, liked it wasn’t real, just a painting. He knew it was almost impossible to get up without waking his sentinel roommate, but still, it seemed like the place was deserted.

He turned on the light after he’d gotten the bathroom door closed, and had to quickly shut his eyes against the glare. As he squinted at the mirror and willed his eyes to adjust, he wondered if this was how a sensory spike felt for Jim.

Eventually, the light faded to a tolerable level and he opened the medicine cabinet. He picked up the bottle of pills as slowly as he could and winced as the contents shifted and rattled. It sound like gunfire against the silence. He sighed and figured the damaged had been done, so he twisted the cap open and dump a pair of the pills onto his hand and dry swallowed them, then replaced the bottle, turned off the lights and walked back out into the hallway, swathed in seemingly deeper darkness.

The lights of the city drew him over to the balcony doors, and he managed to only run into one couch before he reached the doors. He laid his hand on the glass and stared out. The essays were still on the coffee table. He couldn’t see them, they were behind him and in the darkness, but he knew they were there. What was he supposed to do with them anyway? Who was going to take his class?How did he feel about all this anyway?

Simon had said he’d see about getting Blair a position, and in spite of his jokes about “if I’m here next week,” he’d sounded sincere. Blair wasn’t sure quite how he felt about that.

He pulled back his focus from the city to the glass in front of him, and studied his ghostly reflection. He looked very serious, and the cut above his eye was ugly. No doubt he wouldn’t be able to open his eye in the morning... that is, if he could even get it to close tonight.

He looked at the city again. It seemed so peaceful at night, especially from here, where you could watch the lights dancing on the bay. Of course, in reality he knew that there was probably a minor drug deal or two going on down there on the docks. Maybe even a shipment of weapons coming in.

It was a never-ending battle, fighting crime in Cascade. On the other hand, never-ending or not, it was a battle that needed to be fought, and every now and then, you had days like these when you knew a scum bag was going to be put away for a long, long time.

He liked it. Aside from the pulse-pounding roller-coaster ride, there was this sense of satisfaction, of knowing that you were doing the right thing. And he was really into that. His whole life he’d been following Naomi around, to protests, and rallies, and recovery efforts. As a four year old, he could remember being declared the mascot of a group of anti-nuke protesters in DC. They had a picture of him somewhere, holding a sign almost bigger than he was, standing in front of the White House. At five, he’d trailed her into the wreckage of a tropical storm, helping her hand out sandwiches and water.

That same feeling he’d had then, he had now, knowing that he’d helped put Ventriss away. In some ways, it wasn’t different at all.

Of course, he knew why his mother disapproved. There were plenty of times the cops had broken up their protests or vigils, sometimes with more violence than was necessary. He had a scar on his knee from one such occasion. He remembered Naomi had been so angry at the officer who’d knocked him down, he could have sworn there were actual sparks coming out of her eyes. He smiled at the remembered image of a twenty-six-year-old Naomi, skinny as a rail, standing up to a towering cop in uniform and mirrored sunglasses. And by god, she got that man to apologize, too.

He sighed. No one he knew personally at the PD was like those cops, and he wasn’t sure if it was because they were all genuinely different, or if it was because he had adopted their mentality, and become blind to their flaws.

All moral issues aside though, he had bills to pay, and no job. Well, he could always go for a job at the museum. He was well-qualified, and knew the curator. A job like that could even be the basis for an actual career, even if he didn’t finish his doctorate. He would love it, too, spending the day pouring over ancient artifacts, holding human history in his hands.

Even as he had the thought, though, something inside him felt wrong. It wasn’t what he truly wanted. Though he had once seriously considered it, the idea of working all day in a dusty old archive just dragged on his soul. He was built to be out in the world, surrounded by people, interacting with them, helping them.

He was built to be Jim’s partner. To do the work they did. To back up the Sentinel and protect the tribe. For the first time, he recognized that instinct in himself, instead of just seeing it in Jim. Protect the tribe. Jim’s tribe. His tribe. Their tribe. Even if Jim was being a jerk.

He focused on the glass again, trying to find his reflection.

The wolf stared back.

***

It had been a long week. The kind that gathered like storm clouds in that spot just between his shoulders at the base of his neck and tied a tangled knot in the muscles there. The kind that left him so tired he couldn’t see straight. Jim leaned against the back wall and pinched the bridge of his nose as the elevator shuddered hard and then lurched upwards. It did manage to continue the ascent, but it vibrated spasmodically and hesitated every few seconds. It was clearly going to give in again, and soon.

The overhead lights flickered. The damn thing hadn’t even made it to the second floor yet. Jim groaned and pressed the button for the second floor, hoping he could at least jump ship before the damn contraption gave up the ghost.

With one more jarring lurch, the elevator heaved itself up a few more feet and stopped. Jim waited for one tense moment, and then the doors wheezed open. He scowled as he stepped out into the hallway of the second floor. By Blair’s karma theory, he was sure as hell due some small favors. After all, he’d met up with a good old friend just last week after ten years of separation, and said friend, Alan Archer, had managed to get himself killed just days later. Jim didn’t even want to think about why these things kept happening to him.

He pushed through the door into the stairwell, thinking about it in spite of himself. Alan had been a good man. Certainly one of the best in his unit, and a crack shot to boot. Jim would never forget the day that Alan had saved his life. Or how good it had felt to have a true friend after so many years of pushing himself to excel in his career at the expense of his personal life. Alan had reopened his eyes to the simple pleasure of not being alone; he’d dragged him to bars, kept him up all hours playing cards and shooting the bull. Introduced him to Veronica.

He could hear Blair easily by the time he reached the landing between the second and third floors. His breathing was steady and he was shuffling papers. Jim caught the scent of pepperoni pizza. So, Blair was at it again, it seemed. For the past month or so, since he’d been rehired after the Ventriss fiasco, he had been spending almost every spare second with his research, tapping away on his laptop late into the night, or pouring over thick tomes and the rubbings he’d made in the temple. The home cooking Jim had become accustomed to was becoming a distant and pleasant memory.

Not that he minded pepperoni pizza, of course, he thought as he reached their door and fished out his keys to let himself in. Blair probably wouldn’t even notice when he walked in.

To his surprise, though, Blair did notice. In fact, he’d barely gotten through the door before Blair bounced off the couch and scurried into the kitchen, tossing a suspiciously enthusiastic “Hi Jim!” over his shoulder as he went. Jim slowly his own movements to a cautious crawl, gently closing the door behind him, laying his keys in the basket and hanging up his coat. He watched Blair all the while, as the other man retrieved a pair of beer bottles--the good kind from the local microbrewery--from the fridge and carried those and the pizza box over to the table. Jim eyed the pizza box as he realized ruefully that it contained not the expected innocent “Blair was working too hard to make dinner” pizza, but instead, the deadly “I want Jim to do something for me, so I’m going to butter him up with greasy foods first” pizza.

Jim sighed and approached the table, trying to keep his shoulders straight, like a man going to his own execution.

“Bad day?” Blair chirped, his voice full of oh-so-sincere concern.

Jim pulled out his usual chair and sat down as Blair plopped a plate in front of him.

“You might as well just go ahead and ask, Sandburg.”

“Ask what?” Blair said, because over the years this whole routine had played out many times and they had it down to a science. Well, Jim thought, at least it got him some hot gooey cheese and some unapologetic, blissfully processed pepperoni.

Blair even went so far as to open the beer and serve him a slice. Then, he was silent through a bite or two, until he was sure, Jim supposed, that the grease was taking effect, and he said, “Uh, well, now that you mention it...”

Jim gave him his best skeptical look. Blair’s eyebrows lifted for a moment and his eyes widened innocently.

“There is something...”

Jim finished chewing and said, “Ok... and this something would be?”

Blair looked down at his plate, as though he didn’t already have his speech all planned out, and then looked up and said, “Well, you know how I got fired about a month ago...”

“Yes...”

“I mean, I got my job back and everything, but... well, for a few days, you know... I had... freedom.”

Jim raised his brows again. That was an odd way of looking at it.

“I mean,” Blair continued quickly, “For a little while, I actually thought that I might not ever teach a class again. And man, that was like, the coolest thing ever.”

Now, that, Jim wasn’t expecting.

“Sandburg... you love teaching!”

Blair grimaced.

“No, Jim, I love learning. I enjoy teaching when I’m talking to someone who wants to listen. I’m getting sick and tired of shoveling processed BS to dull, uninterested young minds.”

“So, then, don’t.”

“It’s not that simple!” Blair said, gesturing expansively with his beer bottle, “I mean, I don’t have much of a choice.”

“Ok, so? What exactly do you want me to do about this?”

Blair set the beer bottle down. This was probably a wise decision. Jim had been fearing for his hardwood floors.

“I’m getting to that.”

Jim rolled his eyes.

“I wait with breathless anticipation, Chief,” he said, and took another bite of pizza.

“Ok, so... basically, this teaching thing covers my whole tuition thing and stuff, plus a stipend, so I need to keep doing it until I finish my dissertation.”

Jim nearly dropped his beer. Finish the dissertation? Finish... the... dissertation... His mind went blank. He turned his gaze towards Blair. He, too, had stopped moving. His eyes were dark with concern, and he had obviously noticed Jim’s reaction. There was a long moment of silence, and then Blair suddenly and gamely pressed on. But now his hands were uncharacteristically motionless.

“I can’t face the thought of another whole semester of this shit, so I’d really like to be done by December-”

“December?” Jim said. Nearly yelped it, if he was completely honest with himself.

“Yeah. The problem is I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting those rubbings figured out, and I thought... well, I mean, you said Alex could read ‘em in the temple, so I thought maybe if we could get you in, you know, the right... mode... maybe you could read them too.”

Blair took a deep breath, and managed to continue just in time to cut off Jim’s protest.

“Look, if it doesn’t work, that’s fine, I’ll let it go, I swear. I just want to give it a try, cause man, that could totally help me out...”

Jim let out a breath and looked down at his plate again. The half-eaten wedge of pizza gleamed in the light, and he could see little rainbows in the pockets of oil on top of the slowly congealing cheese and the shockingly red pepperoni. The scent of it seemed to fill his nose abruptly and oppressively and he could almost taste the remnants of the slaughterhouse on his tongue. His stomach twisted.

“Sandburg-”

He looked up just to get his gaze away from the pizza and found himself hit full-force by Blair’s begging face. He’d never been able to resist that face. Not even three years ago, when Blair had first used it to draw him to his tiny office in the basement of Rainier.

He pushed his plate away and sighed again.

“Fine, fine. What do you want me to do?”

Blair lit up like the sun coming from behind a cloud. The stunning smile Jim got was almost worth the agony he was sure he was about to suffer.

“Great! Great! Ok... nothing you haven’t done before. I though, maybe some meditation exercises, stuff like that...”

Blair had gotten up out of his chair and was carrying his plate and bottle over to the sink. He paused when he reached the sink and turned back to Jim, like something had suddenly occurred to him.

“Uh, you want to finish eating first?”

Jim glanced at the pizza out of the corner of his eye.

“Nah. Had a late lunch. I’m not that hungry.”

The thought of taking even one more bite made his stomach churn dangerously.

“Right, ok,” Blair said, and continued to babble cheerfully as he cleaned up the kitchen. Jim wandered into the living room. He kept one ear tuned to his friend’s chatter as he eyed the mess on the coffee table. One very large book, copious amounts of loose-leaf notes and spiral bound notebooks, a softly humming laptop. As he sat down on the couch, he kept his eyes on the papers. It was odd how, on one level, he knew that all this was all about him, and yet, at the same time, it meant absolutely nothing to him. Even the parts that weren’t in Blair’s obscure shorthand meant very little to him, like the anthropological jargon was an actual foreign language.

He stared at one line in particular in one of the spiral notebooks, and wondered if Blair *was* writing in some kind of code after the incident with the first chapter. That thought sent a pang through Jim. Had he managed to shake Blair’s trust that badly?

Before he could get too deeply enmeshed in those thoughts, Blair came around the couch surrounded by a light cloud of the scent of vanilla and candle wax. He set the candles on the other couch and scooped the papers and notebooks into a haphazardous pile, which he picked up, looked around, and then, apparently not finding location he deemed suitable, he dropped the pile on the floor under the coffee table. Jim inwardly shook his head. Still hadn’t managed to house-train the kid.

Blair quickly shoved the book and laptop aside and then set up and lit the scented candles on the table. He looked around again, nodded and then sat down on the arm rest of Jim’s couch, one leg bent up on the cushion, the other foot on the floor, his body turned towards Jim as much as possible.

“Ok.”

He was radiating excited energy and his eyes were shining. It was a familiar sight... or at least, it used to be. Actually, when Jim thought about it, he hadn’t seen Blair this excited about anything in a long time. He was surprised Blair wasn’t bouncing up and down.

Still, he gave him his best bland look and said, “So? What do I do?”

Blair inclined his body forward a bit more and said, “Just relax, get comfortable. You know the drill.”

Jim did know the drill. If someone had told him three years ago that he would become an expert in the art of meditation, he would have either laughed at them or punched them, but here he was, leaning back into the soft couch cushions and closing his eyes.

The first step was long, deep breaths, and he began the breathing exercises even before Blair prompted him. Every inhalation brought with it the scent of vanilla, underlayed with the usual scents of the loft. He tuned out the less pleasant scents one by one, starting with the pizza and beer, the trash under the sink, the sulfur from the matches Blair had used to light the candles. Eventually he was left with only the soothing smells, like the candles, and the scent of Blair, comforting in its familiarity.

Once he’d finished with that exercise he was relaxed and loose, almost melded to the sofa, and feeling heavy and content. He could hear a barrage of sound, and let the sounds of their bodies drown out the rest of the cacophony for the moment. The snap-whoosh of their heartbeats, and the rush of air in their lungs was steady and soothing.

The image he’d found that worked best for him while meditating was a tree in autumn, covered with dry leaves rattling in the breeze. Every leaf represented a thought, or a sound, or a sensation, something clamoring for his attention. Gradually, he let the wind loosen each leaf from its branch and sweep it away, until all that remained was the bare tree, standing still against a grey sky, untouched by the chaos around it.

Behind him, he heard a soft snarl and turned to find the panther there. Its head was lowered and its tail was twitching. It looked up at him, and then turned and loped into the jungle.

Without a thought, Jim followed it. He ran effortlessly, only half obeying the laws of physics as he floated over falling logs and under hanging vines. Occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of black fur ahead of him, but mostly, he just ran. The panther was guiding his unconscious mind, and he followed his instincts, not his vision.

He wasn’t surprised when his trail ended at the temple. It was just as he remembered it, with proud old carvings guarding crumbling stones steps. The panther already awaited him at the top, so he climbed the steps and then followed it into the cool darkness of the inner sanctum.

The big cat was gone by the time he reached the center of the room, but that was unimportant. He didn’t need its guidance now. He stopped directly between the two pools of still water. The silence here was absolute, as though the ancient architects had actually found a way to completely block the sounds from the outside world even from sentinel ears.

For a moment, he just enjoyed the comfort of true quiet, something he hadn’t experienced in a long time, and then he turned to look at the wall. He could see the carved symbols on the wall, but it was as though he were viewing them through some kind of film. He couldn’t quite make them out. He turned around slowly, hoping that maybe taking in the whole room would make things clearer, but he stopped when he’d made a complete one eighty.

He saw a flash of grey, and heard paws on stone, and then, a figure stood in the doorway, ringed in blazing sunlight. He couldn’t see its face or even fully see its form until it reached the bottom of the stairs and stepped into the sanctum.

It was Blair. He paused for a moment just inside the threshold, looking around with his lips slightly parted and amazement in his eyes, and then he continued to walk towards Jim.

Jim tried to say something, and that was when he realized he was no longer in control of his own lungs. He struggled for a moment, but then Blair reached him, stopped mere inches in front of him and laid his hand over Jim’s heart. Jim forgot even the concept of resistance.

Blair looked up and Jim looked down and he felt a shock run through him at what he saw in Blair’s eyes. Power, pure power, so much that looking at it burned like staring into the sun. But he couldn’t look away.

Then, Blair spoke, in a voice that was startlingly gentle considering the strength that Jim could see.

“My Sentinel.”

Jim lifted his own hand and pressed it over Blair’s. The skin beneath his palm was soft and cool.

“My Guide,” he answered.

And then, he leaned forward and kissed Blair Sandburg.

***

Between one blink and the next he was in the jungle. Hot, wet air coiled around him like a snake, and his ears were filled with the sounds of insects and birds, and a breeze through leaves. The transition was abrupt, but perfectly natural. Blair did not feel the slightest sense of unease or confusion at the transition. A distant, logical part of his brain suggested that he may have fallen asleep, but the rest of brushed it off like an annoying mosquito. Inconsequential.

He felt stiff fur and solid warmth against his leg. He glanced down and found the wolf there by his side, waiting.

He noticed the jungle was quieter now, as though his appearance had disturbed some balance, or was, in some other way, noticeable. Whatever it was, it had stopped even the breeze, and everything was a still, muggy green haze around him. His muscles tensed. Not in fear, but anticipation, and he could feel the hairs on his arms standing up. He felt as though he were standing under high intensity power lines.

The feeling energized him, and without a conscious thought, he began walking. The jungle seemed to part in front of him. Nothing noticeable, except when he thought about it, he realized that he never needed to push aside a branch or step over a ditch. The way was smooth.

The wolf never left his side, not to precede him or follow him. It was there constantly, brushing against his leg with every step. It did not guide him, but its very presence told him that he had not strayed off the proper path.

He didn’t hesitate when he reached the temple. He just continued up the steps at the same steady pace he’d maintained all the way through the jungle. He reached the top and then walked down into the cool, inviting darkness. He felt the wolf leave his side, but he knew that it had only left because he had reached his destination, not because he had gone astray.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. When they did, he could see he was inside the inner sanctum of the temple. It looked just as it had when he was actually physically there. Two pools, walls covered with carvings, all lit by only a hint of sunlight creeping through the door.

Jim was standing between the two pools, facing him. Watching him.

He approached Jim slowly, each step filled with the confidence of knowing one is dreaming. When he reached him, he let instinct guide him, and raised his hand, laying his palm flat over the center of Jim’s chest. He could feel Jim’s heart jumping to meet his hand, feel each inhalation as it filled Jim’s lungs and lifted his strong chest, feel each exhalation as Jim’s chest fell.

He could feel Jim’s very life beneath his hand, and understood that this was the way it was meant to be.

He looked up and Jim looked down, and he only understood more. Jim’s eyes shone with trust. Naked vulnerability. His life was in Blair’s hands, and he knew that and accepted that. Three years ago, that would have terrified Blair, but it didn’t now. Now, it just filled him with awe.

It also filled him with strength. That someone would trust him with such a responsibility only made him more confident that it was a burden he could bear.

As he stared up into Jim’s eyes, he felt so much for the man, he couldn’t imagine ever being able to express it all. Friendship didn’t even come close to defining everything they were. Jim was the embodiment of everything he’d sought all his life. And not just because he was a sentinel. He was his friend, his best friend. He was his home. His brother, his soul mate, his partner, in every imaginable sense of the term. Blair felt all this build up inside him until finally the dam burst, and he had to speak. He expected his usual flood of chatter, but somehow, it all came down to two words.

“My Sentinel.”

Jim’s own hand fell softly over his own, and that tender touch shook him so much he could barely breathe. He still felt fragile, like he was made of fine glass and trembling on the very edge of a precipice. In the soft sunlight, Jim was unbearably beautiful.

“My Guide,” he whispered, just the barest edge of his voice catching on the words and roughening them.

And then, Jim leaned forward and kissed him. It wasn’t much of a kiss, as kisses went. Just a dry brush of lips and then Jim pulled away again. Could have been an accident if it wasn’t so clear that it wasn’t.

Blair felt like he was falling.

They stared at each other. It wasn’t that it was exactly surprising. Nothing in this dream world surprised Blair. After it happened, he felt like he’d known all along that it would. But still, he couldn’t help staring at his friend for few moments. It felt more like he was memorizing him before everything changed.

Jim’s heart was racing under his hand. He felt him take a long deep breath, and it was the only real warning he got before Jim edged forward again and ducked his head down. This time, Blair shut his eyes, awaiting the kiss before it reached him. When he did feel Jim’s lips again, he took a small, shuffling step forward, close enough to feel the heat of Jim’s body all along the length of his body, and then opened his mouth beneath Jim’s at the same moment the tip of Jim’s tongue nudged between his lips.

Neither one of them moved, but both of them were blown away. Like a loop on a roller coaster, where it still feels like you’re sitting upright in your seat, but you know that you’re actually upside down. A disconnected kind of realization that things may seem the same, but in fact, nothing is. Blair knew that he was no longer fragile, he’d shattered. The first kiss had been almost a benediction... this... this was nothing that could be called that.

This was Jim’s tongue in his mouth, Jim’s hand curling roughly around his shoulder and hauling him against him. This was him, grasping one-handed at Jim’s back because the other hand was trapped between their chests, this was him forsaking oxygen because this kiss was so much more vital.

This was *sex.*

Maybe somewhere there was a part of him still conscious enough to protest, but if there was, it was being completely drown out by the roar of blood in his ears. Not to mention the sound of Jim panting as he tore his mouth away from Blair’s and began mouthing a wet trail across his cheek to his ear. Blair made a small sound as Jim sucked his earlobe into his mouth, then nipped it with gentle, hard teeth.

He was so strong. Big, solid. The grip on his shoulder had to be strong enough to bruise. It was so tight it was painful, and that turned him on beyond belief. Not the pain... the power.

He found Jim’s neck bumping against his lips and gave in to the urge to kiss it. The skin was rough against his lips.

Their clothes melted away, an unnoticed reminder of their dream state, and they were naked against one another.

Blair was suddenly as hard and needy as he would be after hours of foreplay. He knew what he wanted, and nowhere in his mind was there any doubt that Jim wanted exactly the same thing. He wanted to be inside him, wanted to claim him, bind them. He wanted to obliterate the damn walls that stood between them, and what better way was there than to actually physically breach the boundaries, get so close that they would be actually joined together, and leave a part of himself, a part of his body and a part of his soul, behind so that he and Jim would never again be apart.

In between all this, they had somehow backed up to one of the pools. Jim smiled down at him, a private smile, that softened his hard features into something that Blair had never seen before, and yet, somehow felt he’d always known.

He stopped breathing as Jim slipped away from him and sat down on the edge of the pool, then looked up at him, holding his gaze deliberately as he slowly laid back. His body seemed to melt over the stone, one arm resting across his chest, the other trailing down to the floor, one foot up on the side of the pool, the other on the floor. The only parts of Jim’s body the weren’t relaxed were his cock and his neck, as he continued to hold his head up enough to watch Blair’s eyes. And then, he took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he closed his eyes and let his head fall back gently and slid his foot off the side of the pool into the water, so that he had one foot on either side of the stone. Total surrender.

Blair approached the pool, feeling like the rest of what passed for reality in this dream was fading. He straddled the edge of the pool, one leg in the water, the other out on the dry stone floor, and he sank to his knees. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did, and this didn’t surprise Blair. He edge forward until his thighs were pressed against the insides of Jim’s, their groins so close together now, he could feel the heat of Jim’s erection against his own.

He swept his gaze up Jim’s body, over familiar rippled abs, strong pecs, everything he’d seen before, but not like this. He watched in rapt fascination as Jim’s throat moved as he swallowed, dislodging a small bead of sweat and sending it rolling a few centimeters over the stubbly skin Blair had kissed earlier. Almost without realizing what he was doing, he let his body down over Jim’s and opened his mouth against Jim’s neck, making small circles with the tip of his tongue just to taste the sweat he’d seen.

Jim made a small sound, and shoved his hips up, and Blair froze as all his attention fled from his tongue and headed south. He could feel Jim’s balls, and the smooth skin of Jim’s dick. Against his own erection. The feeling hit like a physical force, and all the breath rushed out of him, only to rush back in in a startled gasp when Jim threw his legs around his waist and locked their bodies together. And then shifted just enough so that Blair’s cock was no longer pressed against his own. Instead, it was pressed against something infinitely more arousing, and simultaneously, infinitely more terrifying. Blair lifted his head.

“Jim?”

“Please,” Jim gasped, and Blair knew that this was actually going to happen, because he would never refuse Jim something he--they both--so obviously and desperately wanted. He propped himself up on his elbows, so that he could keep his eyes on Jim’s face, and then he gently pressed his hips forward, feeling a single first twinge of resistance and then nothing but acceptance. His cock slid into Jim’s body like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, a perfect fit, that makes the whole picture finally make sense. Jim’s lips parted and Blair could hear him breathing harshly... and feel him too, in the shifting of Jim’s body around him.

“Jim,” he gasped again, needing to move, but needing to hear it, hear Jim say that he wanted it, needed it-

“Yes, yes, want, need-” Jim gasped, his brow furrowing, obviously forcing the words out with all of his considerable willpower, and Blair didn’t take the time to wonder if he’d spoken out loud or if Jim had simply read his mind, he just went with what his body was screaming for him to do and began to thrust, and the combined pleasure of the instinctual rut combined with the explosive thought that *this is Jim, this is Jim, this is Jim!* twisted together inside of him like a cyclone of flames, raging through every part of his body and mind.

Jim was wordless, but not silent. His head was thrown back, back arched, shoulder and head pressing into the white couch cushions as he gasped openmouthed for every breath, and his hand was buried in Blair’s hair, pulling, hurting, even, but that didn’t bother Blair one bit, because the heavy legs still knotted around his waist were urging him on with every thrust even if Jim couldn’t find the words to say it anymore. Blair could feel both their climaxes building, in the hot pressure of the blood in his temples, in the way Jim’s hand was shaking against his scalp, in the way the sunlight in the loft was taking on a brighter edge. He gasped as it washed through him in a shuddering wave, burying himself as deep as he could inside Jim, deep enough so that Jim would never get rid of him, would always remember this moment, would always be able to close his eyes at night and remember the feeling of Blair’s seed inside him...

And then it ended, like those seemingly timeless moments always manage to do, and he dropped, trembling, down onto Jim’s chest.

Then, he blinked. No temple. No stone. All he saw was the creamy white expanse of the back of the couch. But he was lying on top of Jim. His chest hair was sticky with something. And for a moment, his mind completely refused to allow him to realize what. And then, a tentative thought slipped through: *not a vision*.

But it had certainly started in a vision. That he was sure of. He was also sure that right now, he was lying on top of Jim. On their couch. In the loft. In plain old, everyday reality. He didn’t move his eyes from the blurry view of white fabric. He held perfectly still as his cock instantly softened and slipped out of Jim’s body. Slipped out of... *Holy shit*.

“Jim?” he said, very softly, as though if he held still and spoke very quietly, this all might go away, “Please tell me I didn’t hurt you.”

There was a pause, and no movement from the body beneath him. And then, in a very still and controlled voice, quieter even than Blair’s own inquiry, Jim answered, “I’m not hurt.” He paused briefly, again, and then said, “Sandburg. Stand up. Go to your room. And close the door. Because I can’t talk to you right now.”

Blair braced his hands on the cushions on either side of Jim, and levered himself up onto his hands and knees. His wrist brushed Jim’s bare side and he grimaced when something inside him stirred eagerly at the contact. Jim had his head turned to his side, his eyes shut, jaw clenched. His hands were folded in white knuckled fists. Blair turned his eyes away and slowly crawled backwards off of him, then hopped to his feet. He walked around the end of the couch, keeping his eyes fixed on the door to his room, acutely aware of the cool air caressing his naked body. It was like being trapped in a nightmare.

He barely felt the door under his hand as he walked through it and pushed it shut behind him. He didn’t stop until he’d reached the edge of his futon. Once he was there, he just stood there, swaying slightly back and forth. His mind was reeling. Sex. They’d had sex. He couldn’t quite comprehend it. It was like his first calculus class... sitting there at his desk and watching the professor scrawl numbers and symbols across the chalk board and knowing that there was some kind of pattern there, but completely failing to understand it. It was like the carvings on the wall of the temple.

Outside, he heard Jim’s footsteps cross the loft. The bathroom door opened and then shut, and after a second or two, the water turned on in the shower.

*Great*, Blair thought, *I’m the one standing here with come drying in my chest hair, and he grabs the first shower. Not to mention the fact that I just had my dick up his-*

The dizziness overtook him unexpectedly, and he just barely managed to turn around and sit on the edge of the bed rather than just falling flat out on the floor. He looked down at himself. Naked. Hands on his knees, thighs Cascade-pale, his cock, flaccid and shining, slick with something. He reached down and cupped it in his hand, so he could inspect it closer. No sign of blood, thank god. The slippery stuff felt like something familiar, maybe moisturizer. He just barely managed to choke back a hysterical chuckle as a vague thought that at least he’d be silky smooth and vitamin enriched for awhile flitted through his mind.

It wasn’t funny.

No condom. Not that he had anything. He hadn’t slept with a woman in months, and he’d always been careful before. He couldn’t remember who Jim had been with last, but the man struck him as the type who’d be very anal about that sort of safe-sex thing.

Anal.

Another chuckle pushed at the back of his throat, aching like tears.

As he eyed the strands of semen gleaming among the coils of hair on his stomach and chest, he felt a surge of hopelessness. Like things hadn’t been complicated enough already. How the hell was he supposed to fix this? He dropped back onto the futon with a sigh and stared up at the ceiling of his room. He could smell it: Jim’s come, and the sweet smell of the “unscented” lotion.

He squeezed his eyes shut. He was trembling again. All he’d wanted since Alex was to get things back to normal. This was clearly a giant leap in the wrong direction. He was terrified. He didn’t think Jim would kick him out again. He was a surprisingly open-minded man. But the blow to their relationship, which had already been on shaky ground, that could be fatal. The last remnants of their comfort in each other’s personal space, both physical and mental, their easy camaraderie and teasing... Their friendship was sacred to him, closer than any he’d ever had. He had volumes of acquaintances, but so few real friends. And of the small circle of real friends he had, Jim was dead center. Hell, Jim was dead center in his *life*.

He heard the shower go off, and practically held his breath until he heard Jim walk out of the small room and up the stairs. He listened as Jim moved around above him, then headed back down the stairs, across the loft, and out the front door. He breathed out, and sat up. Probably, he was going out for a walk, or to the gym, or maybe a bar. Anywhere other than the loft.

And that was ok by Blair. Anything they said to each other now would doubtlessly only make it worse, and he was glad for the extra time alone to sort out his own thoughts.

After a few minutes of nothing but silence out in the rest of the loft, he heaved himself out of bed and padded naked out of his room and into the bathroom.

The steam from Jim’s shower still lingered in the air, catching at a few stray tendrils of Blair’s hair and sticking them damply to his face. The heavy, hot air reminded him of the jungle. It caught in his lungs, and he felt for a moment like it was choking him. The essence of Jim seemed to cling to every microscopic drop that coated his nose and throat. He felt another wave of dizziness and waved his hand behind himself blindly til it hit a wall switch and the overhead fan turned on with a comfortable hum and began to drag the tainted air from the room.

He sighed with relief and stepped over to the shower, then reached in to turn the water on full cold. The stream roared down onto the ceramic and he could feel the chill of it even outside of the tub. He tensed his muscles and told himself to get in. For a moment, his body disobeyed and stayed stock still, unwilling to face the cold water, but then he steeled himself and stepped over the side of the tub and into the spray.

The cold shock became his world. His skin tightened, his hands clenched, and he let out a soft, involuntary yelp. And for that moment, he was blissfully oblivious.

When the initial shock wore off, he reach for the soap and began to scrub himself, systematically, easily. The ritual of bathing was soothing to his nerves, even while the continuing assault of the cold water kept his body and mind focused on the present. He didn’t want to think. Right now, he had only one goal, and that was destroying the evidence. Didn’t mean the crime hadn’t happened, but at least he’d have a small degree of plausible deniability. He was beginning to think that maybe repression wasn’t all that bad a thing.

Unfortunately, the mindlessness of the shower couldn’t last forever. After ten minutes, he had to admit he was clean and if he didn’t get out of the freezing water soon, he’d be flirting a little too closely with hypothermia. And as regretful as he may have been at that second, suicidal he was not.

He shut off the water and stepped out, then grabbed his towel off the rack and dried himself roughly. He tied the towel around his waist for the dash back to his room, even though he knew he was alone. He dressed in new clothes in his room, even though he knew he’d probably only be in them for a few more hours before bed, and then he ventured back out into the main room, stopping with his hands resting on the back of the couch where they’d...

He glanced down. Clearly, Jim had made no effort to clean up here, which in itself said quite a bit about his mental state when he left. Blair suddenly hoped that he hadn’t tried to drive anywhere.

He walked around the couch, taking in the scene slowly for the first time since he’d lost all rationality.

It was clear just from a glance exactly what had happened here. Clothes were scattered across the room, mostly on the floor, except one sock, Jim’s, that had somehow wound up on the couch catty-corner to the one they’d been on when... and one shirt, Blair’s, that was hanging over the edge of the coffee table like a frozen waterfall of fabric. The couch cushions were slightly askew, pushed out of alignment, like tectonic plates after an earthquake.

And that was just how it looked. Blair could have closed his eyes and still known. It smelled like a damn orgy.

Shaking himself out of his shock again, for the who-knows-how-many-ieth time that night, he entered the living room with small steps and watched his hand reach out and pluck his shirt off the coffee table. Then Jim’s shirt off the floor. Then Jim’s jeans. He repeated the procedure until he’d gathered up all the clothing on the floor, then he headed promptly down the stairs and shoved the whole armload into the washing machine, dumped in some detergent, slammed the lid, and started the cycle.

With a satisfied nod, he left the machine to its quiet sloshing and headed back upstairs.

His next order of business was cleaning the living room. He straightened the cushions, doused the area with Fabreez, and capped the bottle of moisturizer and dropped it firmly in the kitchen trash. He even dusted and vacuumed.

By the time he was done, the living room was cleaner than it had been in weeks, and he needed another shower.

Instead, though, he gathered up his stuff and carried it back into his own room.

He shoved the detritus off his desk with one elbow and dumped his notes and the heavy book on the now-cleared surface. Tonight had started with these symbols. There was an answer in here somewhere. Maybe not an answer to the questions he had right now, but somewhere in this ancient text was something that he needed to know, even if he didn’t know he needed it yet. And clearly, he was going to have to find that something the old fashioned way. Plus, it would give him something to do until Jim got back from wherever he was.

He grabbed a pencil, flipped open the book, and started to work.

At first, he just stared at the rubbings. The yellow lamp light lay still across the page, catching on a few stray bits of graphite dust and sparkling. He’d stared at these pages almost every day for several months. Here and there, he had made a few marks with various writing utensils - a note about syntax up in the corner, a few lines connecting symbols that seemed similar, a couple of words below symbols that he’d found in the book.

He sighed in frustration. This wasn’t his area. He was an observer of people, not a cryptographer. Sure, he liked to play with this stuff as a hobby. But he wasn’t a professional. People like his friend Cathy devoted their entire academic lives to learning one or two languages like these. He supposed it was just arrogance that had made him think he could do this on his own in the first place.

And possessiveness.

Yeah, he decided, leaning back in his chair and eyeing the papers from a distance, a good deal of possessiveness. This was his find, his lifelong obsession. He wasn’t about to let someone else in on it. He was the one who’d believed in the Sentinel project. He was the one who’d fought through ranks of professors begging him not to throw away his intelligence and his career chasing a fairy tale until he’d finally found someone who would approve his dissertation topic.

Well, he’d caught his fairy tale, and he wasn’t about to let those skeptics take over now. The Sentinel thing was his. Jim was his.

He shut his eyes and groaned softly. What the hell was he thinking? This fierce sense of ownership would not do him or anyone else any good. When he’d been younger, he’d always been stunned that scientists could be so competitive. All scientists had a common goal, after all. They all wanted to pursue knowledge, learn new things to advance mankind, and benefit everyone. So, why not work together?

Then, he’d gone on his first field expedition, and suddenly, he’d understood. Research wasn’t just reading books, having conversations, observing. Research was life. Research was sitting in the rain in the hottest weather you’d ever experienced in your entire life, stumbling through a See Spot Run style conversation with a person you’d never met before, who didn’t really trust you or even want to talk to you, who may even want to kill you. Research was years of sweat and blood and tears.

And in the end, someone may publish before you. And history never, ever remembers the guy who came in second place.

Blood, sweat, tears. Hell, he’d certainly shed copious amounts of all three over this Sentinel thing. Still, he squeezed his eyes shut tighter and tried to really think clearly. What did he want? Did he want to publish the diss, maybe get rich and a little famous? Did he want to spend the rest of his life lecturing to admiring colleagues? Or did he want to help Jim understand who he was?

He sighed again and sat up, opening his eyes. Ok, so, he’d send it all to Cathy tomorrow. As long as she didn’t know about Jim, there’d be no danger to him if Cathy published about the rubbings. Granted, it would steal a little of his thunder... especially since he’d have to tell Cathy where he got the rubbings from, so there’d probably be a team on their way to the temple by next summer.

But realistically, he was dealing with way more than just a dissertation’s worth of information here. The rubbings alone could qualify him for his Ph.D.... as could the temple, the discussion of Jim’s visions, any one of the countless facets of the Sentinel experience. For the good of Jim, he could hand a few of these things off to someone else.

But then, just as he leaned forward to gather his notes up, he noticed something. A pattern.

He grabbed up his pencil again and hunched over the first sheet of rubbings. Yes, he could definitely see it. Syntax, grammar. He looped his pencil quickly around a group of symbols. A prepositional group... “of” or “by” maybe. Another loop drew together a sentence, a complete idea. He could see the nouns, the verbs. It was all so simple, so logical, he didn’t know why he hadn’t seen it before. Suddenly filled with the spirit of inspiration, he began to flip through the rest of the pages. Sure enough, he could see the same patterns there. Still, the specific meanings weren’t clear, but he could feel it, like a switch had been thrown in his mind, all coming together.

He could barely keep up with it at first, the understanding. It wasn’t magical. It was just the results of hours of study, of constant exposure. Finally, finally, it was that ah-hah moment where all the pieces fall into place.

He downed two pots of coffee and had about half of the rubbings diagrammed and ready to be translated by the time he finally fell asleep at his desk. The sunlight was just beginning to filter through the curtains over the french doors to his room. Jim still hadn’t come home.

***

The first thing Jim noticed when he woke up was that something wasn’t right. The sheets felt scratchy, the air smelled wrong. The body in his arms was too slight, the hair tickling his cheek was too straight.

He opened his eyes and levered himself up on one elbow and glared down at his bedmate. Veronica. Right.

She stirred then, the back of her thigh brushing against his cock, and that was one part of his body that had no problems with the situation at all.

For a moment, he searched his mind for a good excuse to leave, but all he found were reasons to stay. It was a Saturday, he had nowhere to be, and he had a warm, willing woman here in bed with him. The more awake he got, the harder it got for him to figure out why exactly, he would *want* to leave.

Then Veronica rolled over onto her back and smiled up at him.

“Morning.”

He smiled back, because to do anything else would be unexpected and may provoke a request for explanation--at least, it would if this were Sandburg--and then gently stroked her hair out of her face.

“Hi,” he said.

She squirmed against him again, and he went with the instinct, shoving aside rational thought. He shifted til he was over her, supporting himself on his forearms, and stared intensely down at her. He told himself she was beautiful as he rocked his hips against her, the head of his cock brushing against her wet heat.

She tilted her hips up and moaned softly and he slid easily inside of her. It was the most natural thing in the world, he thought, like a key in a lock. Her muscles clenched around him and he gasped some meaningless platitude and pulled partway out. As he pressed forward again, he felt a dull twinge from his lower back, and his world shifted on its axis again. God, yesterday. Why wouldn’t it just leave him alone?

If Veronica noticed the flash of emotion across his face, she didn’t comment.

He clenched his jaw and plunged back into her, suddenly setting a fast, hard pace. Veronica said his name and gripped his arms, then wrapped her legs around his waist.

Just like he had. When Sandburg was... fucking him.

“God!” he gasped out loud, and not because of Veronica, and not because he was horrified by what he’d done, but because the memory alone was enough to send shock waves through his body.

Blair’s dick, moving inside him, Blair’s hair, swaying with the motions of their sex just above him, the scent of it, semen and lotion and sweat, the sound of Blair’s deep, husky voice saying his name, looking into Blair’s dark eyes and knowing it was desire for him that made those pupils dilate.

He was panting harshly now, driving into Veronica, looking down without even seeing her. He shouldn’t be thinking this now. Shouldn’t be getting off on it for god’s sake. He should be freaking out. Well, he was freaking out, but at the same time, it was so good, so good to just remember the way it felt when Blair pressed inside of him. So full, so big. It was a sensation impossible to ignore, especially once Blair had started to move. It was like his body had become an ocean, his whole being pulsing like the waves against the shore. Only his tides obeyed not the moon, but only Blair.

Beautiful, beautiful Blair.

He came, hard and unexpected, and just barely managed to break a cry of his partner’s name off into a meaningless sound.

He rolled off of her and flopped flat on his back, his arms splayed across the sheets. He could hear his own heart thundering in his chest, feel the early morning cool air whisking the sweat off his skin. Veronica was panting softly beside him.

He hoped she’d come, because he really hadn’t been paying attention.

At least she was still smiling when she leaned over him and dropped a quick peck on his cheek.

“I’m going to take a shower in here... there’s another bathroom down the hall... if you want? And you’re welcome to anything in the kitchen.”

Then, she slipped off the bed and vanished through a door. He heard the water come on, and then tuned the sounds from the bathroom out.

His heart was still a little fast, and he could feel it clearly, hammering in his chest.

“Shit,” he said. He liked the way it felt rolling off his tongue, so he said it again, a little louder and more forcefully. “Shit!”

Lying here, alone in the bed, the endorphins and other sex hormones clearing from his blood, his rational side kicked in. What the hell was going on with him? It was one thing to say it was just a vision, and then blow it off. But it wasn’t just a vision. It had happened. And the feelings he’d felt, were still feeling, seemed pretty damn real.

But, god, he didn’t want them to be real.

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed with a groan, and then buried his face in his hands. His ass was aching again. It wasn’t a bad ache, at least in the sense that he could tell nothing was physically wrong, anyway. But the it was persistent. It refused to let him forget.

He really wanted to forget.

His life was complicated enough. His relationship with Blair was complicated enough. He didn’t need to add this to the mix. He was too damn old to be having sexual revelations about himself. Plus, if he ever wanted his partnership with Sandburg to go back to what it once was, adding something as powerful and unpredictable as sex to the mix sure as hell wasn’t the way to go about it.

He stood up, and briefly considered attempting to join Veronica. Then, he decided against it and walked out of the room and down the hall. He wasn’t in the mood, and the last thing he needed right now was to allow his hormones to influence his judgment any more than they already had.

He walked down the hall, secure in his nudity as he always was. He found the bathroom easily and stepped inside. The small room was all cool grey shadow and a faint hint of Windex.

He flicked on the light and immediately staggered back a step and threw his arm up over his eyes. The light flared bright. It was hot pools around the bank of bulbs above the mirror, and cold sharp reflections off the white tile, like winter sun on snow banks. There was no way to look away from it, and it crept around his arm as though it wasn’t even there, gouging into his eyes and settling in his temples like needles.

The zone hit him swiftly and inevitably, like they had at the beginning, before he’d learned how to stop most of them before they started. The white light filled his eyes and his mind, and he vaguely felt his arm fall to his side. It was agony, but at the same time, it was fascinating. All the millions of tiny points of light reflecting back and forth on tile and ceramic, gleaming chrome adding sparkle to the heady mix. There was too much, way too much, and he knew that he should give up trying to process it all, but knowing and doing were two very different things.

*Come on, Ellison. It’s not that interesting. Just close your eyes, just stop looking,* he cajoled himself. But he didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Looking away just wasn’t an attractive enough option. God, where the hell was Sandburg when he really needed him?

Time ticked by and a strand of fear began to coil inside him.

*Get with the program, man, what would Sandburg say?*

The desperation only seemed to be making it worse. He could feel his grip on the rest of the reality fading. Every time he tried to look away, he only ended up focusing more. The bathroom had suddenly become a house of mirrors. He’d lost track of what was real and what was a reflection. His eyes flicked from surface to surface, chasing ghosts, closing in tighter and tighter as he got lost on dimmer and dimmer reflections.

The fear in his chest was rapidly bordering on panic.

*Make it stop, god, please, make it stop. Blair...*

Then the next thing he knew was a sharp shock of pain as he fell to his knees on the tile. He gasped a deep heaving breath and realized with terror that he’d stopped breathing. He fell forward, caught himself with one hand and panted. The whiteness still wrapped around him, like a deadly cacoon. He squeezed his eyes shut, and that helped a little, although some of it still seeped through his lids.

He stayed like that, on his knees and one hand on the floor, until he heard Veronica call through the door, asking if he was finished.

If he remembered correctly, she’d never taken a short shower in her life, so he figured the correct answer was yes. He forced his breathing to slow down enough to make it sound calm and convincing, then waited until she’d walked away before he opened his eyes.

The tiles were not just white anymore, he noted, with shaky detachment. There were smears of red around his hand. Blood.

A moment later, he figured out why when he realized his other hand was still clenched into a fist so tight, his short nails were digging into his palm.

*Get a grip,* he told himself, and with a conscious effort, uncurled his fist.

Slowly, he pulled himself to his feet, and mechanically washed his hands, and then grabbed a washcloth to clean the blood off the tiles, trying the whole time to not really look at what he was doing.

The medicine cabinet in this bathroom was empty, so he ducked into Veronica’s when he got back to the bedroom, quickly treating the cuts on his hands with and antibiotic, and then dressing. His mind was numb. He hadn’t zoned that badly in ages... if he ever had.

He pulled on his clothes without really paying attention, and had to stop himself twice on the way downstairs, once to zip his fly, and a second time button his shirt cuff. Veronica was already in the kitchen, looking perfectly coifed and dressed. She was stirring a cup of coffee and holding a page of the morning paper, her eyes drifting over the lines of text with the usual look of only half-interest that she seemed to give everything in life.

She tilted her face towards him when he walked in, and her lips tightened briefly into something like a smile, but her eyes didn’t leave the paper for more than a millisecond.

It was just her way, always had been, even back in their Army days, but it still ruffled him a bit. he’d gotten too used to Sandburg, he supposed. Sandburg had a way of making you feel like you were the only person in the universe, the way he could focus on you so intently. Jim had rarely seen those big blue eyes of his looking completely passive.

As he walked over to the counter to pour a cup from the pot of coffee there, his footsteps suddenly faded down to next to nothing. He had less than a moment to brace himself for the spike that he knew was coming next, so he was still under-prepared when Veronica’s spoon clinking against the sides of her cup suddenly rang through his ears like an alarm klaxon.

It took all his willpower not to cover his ears. He reached out with a shaking hand and picked up the coffee carafe. The jet-engine-like roar of the coffee hitting the cup was a terrible counterpoint to the high-pitched note of the spoon scraping against ceramic, one sound like a constant jackhammer in his skull, the other like tiny shards of crystal in his eardrum.

He stopped pouring just a moment before the liquid reached the top of the cup, and set the carafe aside, and then it ended, as abruptly as it had begun, and his hearing subsided back to what passed for normal. He felt a small measure of the tension leave his taut muscles. He grabbed an apple from a bowl on the counter, ran it quickly under the water in the sink and then carried both cup and fruit over to the table.

For a little while he just ate and sipped, trying to ignore the aftertaste of the off-brand coffee and the chemical overtones of the obviously not organically grown apple. It soon became apparent that Veronica had no interest in morning conversation, so he grabbed the sports section and they finished the meal in silence.

Jim glanced up from the paper breifly when Veronica got up from the table and carried her plate over to the sink. The rush of water was not abnormally loud, not in a way that would indicate his hearing was spiking again anyway, it was just startling against the stark silence that hung in the bright sterility of the kitchen.

Veronica leaned forward slightly, tilting the plate under the flow of water, and the winter sunlight caught suddenly and unexpectedly on many things at once: the sparkling arc of spray, countless drops and countless rainbows, dancing for a single, desperate moment against the whiteness; the golden bracelet that slid down her slim forearm, pale skin that looked cold and dead next to the vibrant aliveness of light on worked gold; a lock of Veronica’s long, straight hair, that slipped from behind her ear and fell down to bisect her profile, drawing a clean line across her cheekbone and lips.

Jim caught his breath, not in awe, but fear, certain he was going to zone again, terrified what that might mean, and for a moment, even in this place that was so full of light it literally burned his eyes, the cold darkness of those early days returned again, and he could feel those fears as close as they’d ever been, feel their cold breath on his neck. How could he ever be normal again? How could he survive if he couldn’t even trust his own senses?

And then Veronica shut the sink off, and the thunk that echoed through the pipes in response was enough to snap him out of it.

He swallowed hard and turned his eyes back to the page, but instead of focusing a conscious effort on the words, he turned his attention to his own breath. A slow, deep breath in, feel the diaphram expand, breathe from your center. Hold it, feel the comforting pressure of air in your lungs, life in your body. Then, slowly, slowly release it. Control. It was all about control.

A few breaths and he was able to return to the artical. There was no doubt he was having a bad morning, but this was nothing he hadn’t handled before. Usually it just meant he was coming down with something, and while it was bad that he was probably going to spend the next week or so battling sinus pressure and body aches, it didn’t mean he was going to die.

He sighed. Three years, and he still hadn’t fully recovered from this alarmism.

While he’d been breathing, Veronica had vanished into the living room with half the newspaper. He could easily hear her, and for a moment, he tuned into her sounds, like the soft rasp of her fingertips against newsprint, and her foot, tapping lightly against the floor, the constant, quiet rustle of her hair against itself. It sounded like water over stone. Sandburg’s hair always sounded like the quiet crackle of a campfire on a cool evening.

Jim smiled to himself, and then closed the newspaper and gave it a firm shake to fold it. He was in control. His senses were still functioning more or less normally, and the fact that he still had enough control to focus in on and sort out specific sounds was a litmus test that told him he was really doing fine.

He stood up, took a moment to be pleased with himself because the high-pitched squeal of the chair against tile did not send him staggering into the counter, and then walked into the living room. Veronica was settled on one of the couches, completely absorbed in the business section. He pondered whether he should sti down on the same couch, or the one across the room until he finally decided that he’d been hovering in the doorway to the room long enough and compromised by sitting down in the armchair that was halfway between the two couches.

He tried to read, but he had trouble focusing. Veronica’s presence was strange to him, unfamiliar. He couldn’t read her the way he could Sandburg, and that kept him constantly on edge, wondering if he was, or already had, offended her in some way, or he was doing, or not doing, something that displeased her. He perched stiffly in the armchair, unable to convince his own muscles to completely relax, and he was reminded again of why he generally did not like to spend a lot of time around people.

For some, like Sandburg, for example, being around people was energizing. He had seen it happen with Blair, at department events and at some of the mayor’s gala’s they’d been roped into doing security for. Blair came alive in a crowd. His eyes would sparkle, his hands would dance, and he would inevitably utter the phrase “Man, I am *pumped*!” at some point before, during, or after the evening. While Jim always did secretly enjoy watching this display in his partner, he couldn’t for the life of him, truly understand it.

Whenever he was in a room crowded with people, while it could be enjoyable for a while, he would eventually find himself feeling more exhausted than he did after a ten mile run.

Kind of the way he was feeling now. Edgy. On full alert. Completely unable to focus on the latest stats on the sports page.

Thankfully, after just a few minutes, Veronica stood, said she had some errands to run, and asked what he wanted for dinner. He assumed that meant he was invited to return that evening, but not until then, so he decided that he might as well run a few errands himself, maybe stop by the gym. And, of course, he had to somehow find a change of clothing. Well, he did keep one at the station. And he kept a tank top and shorts at the gym, so he decided with relief that he could at least avoid returning to the loft for a few hours. That would give him enough leeway to avoid meeting up with Sandburg at all today, provided Blair kept to his normal Saturday schedule of late, which was to sleep in until about ten, and then vanish off to Rainier for several hours.

He finished the artical he was reading a few minutes after he heard Veronica’s car pull out, and then folded the newspaper and dropped it on top of the stack on the kitchen table. A simple keyring with one key was lying next to the newspaper, on top of a brief, handwritten note: “Back around eight. -V”

He tucked the key into his pocket and headed out the front door. The first touch of cool, damp air was like freedom, and Jim found himself drawing a deep breath of it. The day seemed, for a moment, at least, full of possibility. It was warmer than usual for this time of year, so it would have been a nice day for a game of basketball down at the park. The only problem with that, of course, was that he could hardly walk into the loft right now and casually ask Blair if he wanted to play.

The memory of last night’s events sobered Jim as he climbed into the truck. As his butt hit the seat, he felt that twinge again, like an echo of the feelings of last night. Now, when his hormones were not actively in control of his mind, the feeling provoked not arousal, but pensiveness anger.

He reached out without looking and fumbled the key into the ignition, but he didn’t turn it. He just sat there, with his hand on his keychain, staring unseeing out the window as the memories overtook him again.

Meditating, finding the temple, looking down into Blair’s eyes, and seeing the power there. Power, that, honestly, he’d always known was there. Well, no. Not always. He’d been too blinded by his own pain and fear to see it in the hospital. All he’d seen was an obnoxious kid who couldn’t even pronounce his own name. No, not always. But, he had known since that moment in Blair’s office, when something Blair said had finally coalesced all the anger and fears into a moment of concrete reality and he’d flung the poor kid against the wall. That moment, seconds after the wall had shaken from their combined mass, as he felt Blair’s body go still under his own, as he thrown all his fire and brimstone at this... this child, pinned him with the same gaze that had made seasoned Army Rangers cower back, as he’d done all that, his level best to put the Fear of Ellison into this puny nonbeliever, Blair had been afraid, no doubt, but he had looked right back into Jim’s eyes and told him the truth. Told him that he needed him. That was when Jim had first seen the power, and known that next to this man, he was nothing but a little boy, shaking his fists at a giant.

The vision. Leaning forward, pressing his lips... Lips against...

He took a deep breath and abruptly focused his vision, and found himself staring at Veronica’s mailbox. It was unadorned, he noted, except with a set of white on black address stickers.

He turned the key and held it a little too long, just to hear the gears grind. Immediatly, he regreted it. The truck hadn’t done anything wrong. Poor thing had already been through way more than an old lady should have been.

“Sorry, sweetheart,” he muttered, and shifted into drive and pulled out from the curb with no real idea of where he was heading.

*I should be freaking out,* he thought to himself. The suburban road here ran parallel to the shore of the bay, with his considerable peripheral vision, he could see the sunlight flashing off the surf between the bright houses. *I should be. I am. But not for the right reasons.*

*What?* he asked himself, startled by the thought.
The sloughing sound of water and rock caught at his ears, mingling with the vision of waves, and he braked at the next intersection and turned into the small parking circle that was nestled in the stand of pine trees there. It was a ridiculously short distance to drive, but he hadn’t known he was going to end up here, he rationalized, as he parallel-parked the truck and climbed back out of the cab.

He walked past the weathered sign declaring “Boulder Point” without seeing it, and followed the rough trail that wound perilously down a steep incline to the beach. For a few minutes, at least, the slight mental and physical stimulation of navigating jagged rocks and loose sand was enough to keep his mind away from the thoughts that had brought him here in the first place, but once he’d reached the water’s edge and settled down on a large, relatively smooth rock, it all came rushing back.

Not freaking out for the right reasons... why was he freaking out, then? The obvious answer, the one he immediatly supplied to himself, was he was freaking out because last night he’d been fucked by his male best friend.

Funny thing was, that wasn’t it.

He tried again. *Blair... fucked me.*

Nope. Not panicking.

Unconsciously, he jumped to his feet and paced a couple of yards away from his rock. Then, he stopped and walked back. Sat down. Noted again the persistant twinge. Also noted the lack of panic.

His heart began to pound. Ok. So, maybe this wasn’t a surprise.

As soon as he thought that, he felt something inside him relax. Score one for the conscious mind, apparently. His subconscious appeared to agree with the statement that this was not a surprise. Not for his subconscious anyway.

Which essentially, had to mean one thing. He’d known before. He’d felt this before. The question was, what exactly was this? Attraction? Yes. Love? Certainly.

He was attracted to Blair. He loved Blair. He was, in fact, IN love with Blair.

Given the fact that these personal revelations were not quite having the earthsahking effects that he really felt they should be, they only served to confuse him further. Clearly, there was something driving him away, into the arms of a very old flame who’s husband had just died mere *days* ago.

He’d had some damned fucked up relationships in his life, but even he was usually slightly more respectful of boundaries like that.

Relationships. Could he have a relationship with Blair? He pictured coming home from work to Blair, dropping a quick kiss on his lips, a ‘hi honey, how was your day’? The mental picture startled a brief laugh out of him, and then he sobered. Ridiculous. The last time he’d had thoughts like that was before he’d married Carolyn. It had all seemed so simple. Marry a woman you love, live happily ever after. Hell, they’d dated, they’d lived together. How hard could it be?

Hard. Terribly hard. The kind of hard where you work eighteen hour days just so you don’t have to come home and face the screaming, the crying, or worse, the silent, constant, heart rending tension. The agony of watching everything that was so damn right suddenly become so damn wrong, and all because of nothing big, nothing important, just a thousand tiny little pinpricks that finally sink the ship.

He couldn’t do relationships. If there was one good thing that came of the madness that was the dying days of his marraige, it was that. It was also a fact that Carolyn had cheerfully and constantly brought to his attention during the divorce, and even afterwards when she was feeling spiteful. Countless small failures on his part. Granted, there were plenty on her side, as well, but it takes two to make a relationship last, and if he wasn’t able to hold up his end of the deal, it didn’t matter if Blair was the most perfect mate in the universe. It would never take.

And Blair was far from perfect. Anyone was.


Jim stared out across the bay, and watched the seagulls float above the waves.

***

Blair sighed as he braced the grocery bag in one arm and unlocked the door with the other hand. He pushed the door open with the key still in the lock, and stepped inside, expecting to find the place deserted as it usually was these days... ever since... Yeah. He pulled his key out of the lock and tossed it in the basket and then started in surprise. Jim was standing by the windows, a silent, dark form in the dimly lit room.

“Hey,” Blair said, ”Long time no see.”

Jim turned from the windows, and muttered something about being busy. Blair shut the door and headed for the kitchen, thinking. Well, Joel had been leaning on him to talk to Jim, get him to see that Veronica might not be as innocent as he seemed to assume. Now was as good a time as any, he supposed.

”Any closer to finding who killed Archer?” he asked, trying to sound casual as he dropped the bag on the counter. Jim had wandered over to the kitchen, and Blair felt a moment of frantic hope, and reveled secretely in the fact that they still felt that draw to one another. He watched Jim out of the corner of his eye as the detective spoke.

It was still there, he noted. The attraction.

In the past month, he’d been brutally honest with himself, and that was what he’d found: A warmth that spread through him when Jim stood near him. An appreciation for the way Jim’s shirts streched across his impressive chest. A deep, painful ache, that begged him to stand a little closer, to touch the other man, some way, any way, just brush against his arm, or say something stupid that would make Jim ruffle his hair or poke him in the side. Anything.

Jim stopped talking and Blair steeled himself. Now or never, this had to come out.

“Ever thought about looking closer to home?” Meaning for a murder suspect, but thinking idly of romance.

Jim’s eyes narrowed.

“What are you trying to say, Chief?”

Oh, god, he was sexy when he got all intense like that. Blair firmly told his hormones to behave themselves, and continued, stammering something about motive, opportunity and method, while trying to think of anything except how good Jim looked in those jeans. it had been *way* too long since he’d gotten a good, long look at the guy.

“My point is, three million dollars and an abused wife--motive--and she certainly had opportunity.”

Now, Jim was catching on, and beginning to get seriously pissed. Shit. He pushed aside his random lustful thoughts and focused on making it through this conversation alive.

“So she goes and puts a bomb in his car?” Jim said, his voice soft, and almost reasonable, but there was a deadly cold fire behind his words.

“It’s possible,” Blair said, equally softly, careful to keep his voice neutral, his body language unchallenging.

“Maybe I need to clue you in. Forensics said the explosives was D-13. That’s a linear-shaped charge used in demolition. It takes a highly technical, precision knowledge to handle it, ok? Now, there goes your method.”

“She could have had help,” Blair pointed out, while wondering where this particular suicidal streak had come from and why it was the Major Crimes gang had thought that *he* should be the one to attempt to impart this particular idea. Hell, he’d barely even been in to the station in the past month. First, there was the whole awkward situation with Jim. Then, there was the missing heroin thing, and Simon thought he should lay low ‘til that passed by. Then, of course, there was the fact that he’d been spending a whole lot of time working on the translations. In fact, he’d translated nearly a third of the rubbings.

And yet, the rest of the gang still thought that he was the one who would be best suited to tell Jim something he totally didn’t want to hear.

Jim, who was looking at him with fire in his eyes, and all Blair felt now was deep, deep regret.

This had been his chance, the first time Jim and he had really been at home together in almost a month, and he’d blown it big time by bringing up Veronica. He felt like Jim was standing on the other side of chasm, and he’d just cut away the last bridge across. Why couldn’t he have just said something like “how ‘bout them Jags?” Too late, now.

“I- I think you’re the one who needs help,” Jim said, “I’m going to bed. I’m tired.”

Blair turned back to the groceries as Jim stormed away.

“I’m sorry I brought it up,” he said, and meant it with every fibre of his being.

Then, he heard Jim’s footsteps stop, and then return towards him.

“You know what I think, Sandburg?” Jim said, and his voice was still low and angery.

Blair didn’t turn around.

“What’s that, Jim?”

“I think you’re jealous.”

Well. That was certainly--blunt. Blair stood there, holding a pepper in his hand, and trying to get his mind to shift gears as quickly as possible, which, given how many gears he needed to shift, wasn’t all that fast.

“I think you just don’t like the fact that I’m with someone now.”

Blair put down the pepper.

“Jim...” he turned around, and found Jim standing next to the support post, with his hands curled into fists, his muscles standing out in sharp definition, rife with tension. “This isn’t about me. It’s not even about you. This is about a murder.”

Jim just shook his head and turned and walked away. Blair followed him with his eyes as he crossed the loft and climbed the stairs to his bedroom. And then, he shook his own head, and started off after him.

It felt vaugly strange to climb those stairs. He rarely ventured up here, it was Jim’s space. And really, he shouldn’t be going up here now. Jim was edgy and unpredictable right now, and was no doubt in serious need of safe territory. But he couldn’t let this go. Not again. Not now.

He reached the top of the stairs and found Jim, naturally, waiting for him. He was standing at the foot of his bed with his arms crossed across his chest, and a scrowl written across his face.

“What now, Sandburg?”

Blair stopped just inside the bedroom, trying not to push the boundaries anymore than absolutely necessary.

“We need to talk about this, Jim. I know you don’t want to, and, you won’t believe this, but I really don’t much want to either. But we need to.”

“Fine, then,” Jim said, not budging an inch, keeping his sheilds up and his arms crossed, “Talk.”

Blair found himself gripping the stair rail tightly.

“Look, I--I had no idea that--that THAT was going to happen, but--” he took a deep breath. Fine, time to plow right ahead, damn the torpedos and all that, “Jim, meditation serves to get you in touch with your inner self, your subconscious mind. This--this may not be easy for you to hear, but what happened... it couldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been what we wanted, at least on some level. And... and in the past month, I mean, I’ve... I’ve thought about it a lot. Uh, not... in a, uh, pornographic sense, I mean, I’ve thought about what I’m feeling, what I want--Jim... That... wasn’t just some isolated thing. I mean, I... I... want you. I guess I have for awhile now. And I think... I think that this vision pretty much means you--want me too.”

Jim’s voice, when he finally spoke, was ice.

“Well, isn’t that convinient for you.”

Blair’s eyes widened.

“Convenient? You think sudden and totally unsolicited revelations about my previously unquestioned sexuality are *convenient*? Hardly! God, Jim, I know that you have a certain opinion about my sex life, but-”

“It doesn’t mean it applies to me.”

Blair stopped, stared hard at Jim, and felt a twinge of real fear.

“Whoa. What are you talking-”

“I *mean,* Sandburg, that I know all about meditation, and I know all about hypnotic suggestion. And I also know that I went under and everything was perfectly normal until *you* showed up.”

The shock was like novacaine, instant and numbing. He felt a sudden sense of vertigo and gripped the rail harder than before, but it seemed he could barely feel the metal under his hand. God, Jim couldn’t be saying-

“Jim... Jim, man, whoa, hold on-”

And then Jim was approaching him, slowly, a big cat on the prowl, and there was murder in his ice blue eyes.

“For god’s sake, Blair, for all I know, you talked me into that whole thing. I was completely vulnerable. You know what that would be? That’s what they call-”

“Don’t.”

Blair said the word softly, but there was steel in his voice. Don’t cross that line. Don’t.

“- rape, Blair.”

The numbness had changed to a sort of calmness. Resignation. Jim had stopped a few feet away, poised for a fight, and clearly not caring whether that fight was verbal or physical.

In that moment, Blair was certain, complete, horribly certain, that something was broken that could never be repaired. These last few months had been agony, a seemingly endless dark tunnel. He’d kept waiting for the light, he’d always been so sure that there was always a light. But now, it was like that final hope, that last pinprick of bright hope, had been snuffed out as well, leaving him in complete darkness.

He looked at the man standing before him and he saw a stranger.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Jim,” he said, softly, not even bothering to try to hide his broken heart. He knew that the words would come out flat and dead and unreadable.

He let go of the railing, turned, and calmly, silently, walked out of the loft.

The instinctive fugue state that he’d slipped into didn’t end until he looked up and realized he’d been driving aimlessly around Cascade for hours, and it was nearly midnight. He realized he needed a place to stay, and after thinking for a little while, he headed to Megan’s place.

She was probably asleep. Probably wouldn’t be too thrilled to have a bedraggled guy showing up on her doorstep begging for sanctuary. Blair sighed. Hell, this was his life. Had been his life. Before Jim. An endless series of people, places, the delicate mathmatics of hospitality. How long could he stay in one place, how long would they have a place for him?

He stopped in front of the door to Megan’s building and shoved his hands in his pockets against the deep night chill. And then he laughed softly.

Thought he’d found somewhere permanent. Whatever. Jim had already demonstrated once recently just how impermanent his place in the loft was. Why was he surprised to find himself here, on a friend’s doorstep in the the dead of night?

Like mother like son, he supposed, and then reached out and pressed the buzzer.

And breathed a sigh of relief when a moment later, Megan’s voice asked who it was.

“Uh, it’s me. Blair. Can I-”

“Sandy? Sure. Come on up.”

So he did, and megan opened the door to her unit as he approached, dressed in pajamas and a dressing gown, but looking awake, and concerned.

“Come in,” she said, stepping back to allow him entry. “What’s happened?”



***