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Falling In Love

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"This wasn't, like, a typical day for you, was it?" the kid asked tentatively.

Jim chuckled and shook his head as he walked away, laughing when he heard Sandburg nervously call out, "Well, was it? C'mon!"

Pausing, he turned around, and waited for Blair to catch up with him. "I thought you said you wanted to be my partner?" he demanded, a challenging glint in his eyes as he looked down at the grad student.

"Well, yeah, I do, but ...." Blair's voice dropped away as he looked back at the helicopter; his shoulders sagged and he swallowed heavily. "But I'm not sure I'm, uh, up to the action, you know?" Uncertainty clouded the large indigo eyes that lifted earnestly to meet Jim's stern gaze.

Shit. Sandburg wasn't just kidding around - he was really shook and, well, that probably shouldn't be surprising. What if it was too much for the kid to handle? Then what the hell would he do? The last hour or so had made it plain to him that just the little bit Sandburg had taught him so far was already paying dividends in enabling him to use his senses effectively and not be overwhelmed by them. What were the odds of finding anyone else who had the slightest clue about what was going on with his senses, let alone ideas on how to keep them under control? Zero to none, that's what. If the kid bailed now, he was screwed. Ellison felt a shaft of cold ice in his gut along with a hot surge of impotent anger. Damn it. He hated, truly hated being dependent on anyone, let alone a wet-behind-the-ears college student. Swallowing convulsively, looking away in case the fear or self-directed anger showed in his eyes, Jim threw his arm around the younger man's shoulders and began walking him toward the door to the stairway off the roof. "You did great, Sandburg," he insisted with all the encouragement he could muster, meaning it.

"I did?" Blair asked, hope and surprise at the unstinting praise resonating in his voice, but he straightened and, when Jim looked back down at him, he was relieved to see gratitude shining in the young man's eyes. "You mean it?"

"Yep," the detective replied with a decisive nod. "But, then, I guess for any guy who's seen action in Desert Storm - well, this would've been a walk in the park, right?" he teased, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, relaxing with the sure knowledge that the kid wasn't ready to leave him high and dry. Holding open the heavy fire door, he waved Sandburg through.

"Oh, man," Blair laughed nervously, flushing with embarrassment. Pausing at the top of the stairwell to look back over his shoulder, he blustered, "I had to say something, you know? To get the pilot to turn around."

Nodding, Jim quirked a grin. "Like I said, you did just fine."

Though he shrugged diffidently, a wide smile lit Sandburg's face and the bright sparkle of enthusiasm returned to his eyes. "All right!" he exclaimed with excited wonderment and then, fairly vibrating with energy, he turned to skip lightly down the steps.

Trailing down behind him, Ellison reflected at how well the kid really had done, particularly given the fact that he was an untrained civilian with pronounced tree-hugger tendencies. He'd handled himself amazingly well with Kincaid and his murderous troupe of wacko warriors; he hadn't frozen with panic, and had stayed in the game. Sandburg had spunk and he didn't scare easily - or at least, he wasn't easy to scare off, and that counted for a lot.

And, frankly, Jim had to admit to himself, the kid's move to shove Kincaid out of the helicopter had saved his life. And how surprising was that? He'd grabbed hold of the skid with the vague notion of not only stopping Kincaid from getting away, but also of rescuing Sandburg - and somehow, it had all gotten turned around, with Blair saving his life and commandeering the helicopter to return them to the roof of the PD. No way would Jim have credited him with the determination to act so decisively or potentially lethally, but if Kincaid hadn't grabbed onto him when Sandburg pushed him into thin air, the killer would have fallen to his death. And where the hell did he get the inspiration and moxie to carry off the claim to have flown in Desert Storm with such tough credibility?

No doubt about it, the kid was more than big bright eyes and mangy hair, more than just a perpetual fountain of helpful if decidedly offbeat ideas. Maybe Sandburg would make a half-decent partner after all, despite his wide-eyed innocence and his inclination to talk too damned much. It wasn't like it would be for all that long. Learn a few tricks, take a few tests to satisfy Sandburg's curiousity, and they'd go their separate ways. It would be what? A month? Maybe two?

And, Jim thought, grinning bemusedly to himself, the kid was so damned eager it was a bit like having an ungainly puppy loping around his feet. Annoying as hell but, well, kinda endearing at the same time.

 


 

"Easy, Chief," Jim soothed. Leaning over the stretcher in Emergency, he tenderly combed the wild curls back from Sandburg's too pale, too cool brow.

Frozen into a rictus of immobility by the drug in his system, the grad student was staring unblinkingly at the ceiling; to a casual observer, he could pass for a corpse. Jim repressed a shudder at how close it had come to such a sickening reality. But, close up, a guy didn't have to be a sentinel to see the unmoving, seemingly sightless gaze was far from dead. A maelstrom of emotion flooded those eyes - residual terror, immense relief, shock, exhaustion, gratitude - and a tear escaped to trickle down the edge of Blair's face.

Wiping away the warm moisture with the pad of his thumb, he assured his partner, "Lash is dead, Blair. You're safe - you know that, right? We just have to wait until the drug clears your system and we can go home."

"How's he doing?" Simon rumbled with somber concern from the doorway behind him.

Turning, suppressing a wince at protesting muscles as he straightened, Ellison sighed. "I think he's aware, but he still can't move or talk. The doctor said it might be another hour."

Nodding soberly, Banks' gaze lifted from his solemn appraisal of his civilian observer to study his detective. "How're you doing? You get checked out?"

Waving off the concern, Jim rolled his shoulders and neck to ease the stiffness. "I'm fine. Just a few bruises," he replied wearily. "Soon as Sandburg gets his walking papers, we'll head home."

"He may need some time with the department's shrink," Simon suggested thoughtfully. "I'll set it up."

"Thanks, Simon," Jim agreed quietly, his grip on Sandburg's wrist tightening with unconscious concern and protectiveness. "He was holding his own when I got there," he went on reflectively, a frown furrowing his brow, "but he had to've been terrified."

"Mad bombers, international assassins, terrorists, serial killers," Banks mused, his expression clouded. "I doubt he had any idea of what he was getting into." Sighing, he flicked a glance at Jim. "After this, he might want to reevaluate his participation," he suggested, his tone carefully neutral.

Jim studied the floor, his expression guarded. "Maybe," he allowed reluctantly. "But the kid's resilient. He'll be okay."

The merest suggestion of a snort from the stretcher drew their attention and reminded them belatedly that Sandburg was probably taking it all in, and that they shouldn't be discussing him as if he were either unconscious or not present.

Looking down at him, Jim shrugged uncomfortably, embarrassed. "Sorry, Chief. It's got to be driving you nuts to not be able to talk, huh?"

Slowly, Blair's eyes tracked toward him, the first real sign that the drug was beginning to wear off. Sandburg's gaze was eloquent, filled with residual terror and dark with uncertainty, and Jim frowned when he thought he also read guilt in their depths.

"You did great tonight, Chief," he insisted, feeling a profound - even urgent - need to reassure his young friend. "You did everything - everything - right. You hear me? You fought with everything you had and you didn't give up. You showed a lot of courage, kid. I heard you, Sandburg. Your voice led me to you. I'm ... I'm proud of you."

Blair studied him for what felt like an endless moment, his features - still held in frozen thrall by the drug in his system - unnaturally flat and still, but his gaze was startled, disbelieving, full of questions and denials. He blinked heavily, and then closed his eyes, as if trying to retreat, to hide.

Jim's lips thinned. Behind him, Banks murmured that he was going to head downtown and deal with the paperwork, that he'd see them when they got in the next day. Glancing over his shoulder, Jim nodded, but his thoughts were elsewhere. What if Simon was right? What if this proved to be too much and the kid wanted out? His gut twisted, and he licked suddenly dry lips. He wasn't ready to do it all on his own. He still needed Sandburg's help. Reaching out, he gently cupped Blair's wan, cold cheek. "It's gonna be okay, Chief."

Sandburg didn't respond, didn't open his eyes; seemed as if he might be asleep. But another tear leaking out from under the long lashes gave him away. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Jim mutely wiped it away, and then clasped Blair's limp hand in his own, wishing he could so easily wipe away the memories and terrors tormenting his friend.

 


 

An hour and a half later, a very subdued Sandburg was pronounced good to go, though he was still shaky and he moved slowly, lethargically. Head down, his eyes avoiding Jim's gaze, he shambled out of the hospital and climbed stiffly into the truck. When he crossed his arms tightly and shivered as he stared into the night, Jim flicked on the heater, to warm him up. So far, beyond answering the questions posed by the doctor to prove he was lucid - his tones flat, his responses minimal to the need - he hadn't said a word.

All in all, his remote silence was making Jim distinctly uneasy.

"You need to talk about it," Ellison encouraged quietly as he drove along empty streets washed by the incessant rain. Sandburg nodded vaguely, but remained silent. Though he finally relaxed enough to uncross his arms, his hands were jumpy, his fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on his thighs or spastically clenching into fists. Jim, tired and aching in his own right, found his partner's twitchiness and mute withdrawal wearing and worrying.

"Chief?" he prodded, frowning in concern when Blair shuddered and hunched into himself, the arms again tightly crossed over his chest and his head down, as if it was all he could do to hold himself together. Sighing, Jim decided conversation could wait until they were back home, and maybe even until the next day after they'd both gotten some much-needed rest.

When they got home, Sandburg trudged up the steps behind him, but the kid hesitated at the door that was hanging slightly open, the frame and lock broken. Jim could hear his heart hammering violently though outwardly Blair was tight and unnaturally still, his eyes wide as he stared at the splintered wood.

"It's okay," Jim murmured, pushing the door fully open. "We can clean up the mess in the morning." He reached out to take Sandburg's arm but the grad student flinched and shook his head once. "C'mon," he urged, "it's late. We'll both feel better after some sleep."

Blair flicked an incredulous look at him that suggested that nothing would be better, maybe not ever. But then humiliation flooded his eyes and he flushed, visibly steeling himself to nod and then walk inside. However, after a few steps, he stumbled to a halt and simply stared at the wrecked devastation of the living space. Swallowing heavily, he backed up against the wall, as if he needed its support and crossed his arms again, his face a rigid, pale mask.

Jim dumped the keys in the basket on the little table by the door, and then moved to pick up a dining room chair to prop under the doorknob, to give them some degree of security. Just as he finished, he heard Blair rasp, low and strained, "I fought really hard. Really hard."

Turning back to face his roommate, Jim nodded. "I know." Gesturing around the room, he added, "I could tell that he didn't take you easily."

But Sandburg shook his head. "Yeah, he did, actually," he countered, sounding disgusted with himself. "Nothing I tried stopped him. He isn't ... wasn't a big man, but he was all over me. I ... I couldn't take him. Stop him. Get away. I tried. But ...." His voice dropped away and he looked stricken.

Clasping his shoulder, feeling the tension thrumming through Blair's body, Jim consoled, "He was nuts, Chief. It took five bullets to stop him. Hey, I've seen it take six big guys to subdue one tiny woman who was insane and was nearly as unstoppable. On your own, you didn't have a chance."

Sandburg shivered and he looked cold, though the loft was warm enough.

"You're still in shock, Chief," Jim said, concerned. "How bout I make you some tea?"

Blair thought about it, nodded jerkily, and then pushed himself away from the wall to walk stiffly toward the dining area. He slumped into a chair and sat there, shaking his head slowly as he stared at the top of the table. Jim put the kettle on and rifled in the cupboard, drawing out several different packets of tea. "What kind do you want?" he asked.

Again Sandburg was slow to answer, as if he was having trouble processing even the simplest bits of data, or maybe it was just hard to make a decision. "Uh, chamomile," he finally muttered, offering a belated, "Thanks."

"S'okay," Jim murmured, frowning. His lips compressed, he picked out a can of chicken soup and dumped it into a pot to warm it up. He had to keep reminding himself that Blair was a victim. But, though he'd certainly seen a lot of victims in his life, he'd never before been required to care for one beyond keeping them warm until someone showed up to claim them or they were taken away for professional treatment. He found it unnerving to think that he didn't really know what to do or say to make it easier on Sandburg, beyond what he knew as a former medic - that it was important to remain calm, get hot and sweet food or tea into the person and to get them to talk, to release some of the shock and inner tension that was tearing them apart.

"What are you thinking?" he asked Blair while he waited for the kettle to boil and the soup to heat.

Sandburg didn't answer right away. Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on the table and covered his face with his hands, and Jim could hear him working at slowing and deepening his breathing. Finally, he said haltingly, "A lot of things, I guess." Lowering his hands, fisting them now on the table, he swallowed and looked up at Jim, his eyes dark and haunted, his face chalk white. Jim just waited, trying to convey patience and concern, hoping it was coming across and that he didn't just look bored or distant.

Blair's gaze lost focus and he sighed as he raked his hands through his hair. "I thought ... I really thought he was going to kill me, you know?" he confided softly, his voice catching a little. Staring toward the bathroom, he shuddered. "He was, uh, choking me, and I couldn't break his grip. His fingers were like claws of steel, man. As I was losing it, knowing I was going to die in the next few minutes, I kept thinking about you coming home to find me in the tub, like, like Susan." He swallowed heavily, almost choking on the thought, the image; then more words poured out, like he couldn't stop talking now that he'd started. "And ... and the tub made me think of soap bubbles, and how my life was like this big, beautiful bubble, light and dancing on air, perfect, you know? Round and rich and radiant with mysterious colours and it was all going to just ... burst. Into nothing. Nothing."

Jim pressed his eyes closed and fought the gorge that rose from his gut to sour the back of his throat. He didn't know which image was worse, a dead, naked Blair with a yellow scarf around his throat in their bathtub or the empty, hideous pathos of the bubble being popped out of existence. But Blair was still talking and he struggled to focus his attention, to listen and to understand what his friend had gone through that night.

"But he didn't drown me in the tub," Sandburg mused, his tone detached, bemused, confused. "I woke up stretched out on damp concrete, all chained up and gagged. It was dark and cold, and I didn't know where I was or where he was, and I couldn't get loose. I was surrounded by dark, empty buildings and it was quiet. So ... silent. I wondered if maybe I was in hell, or something. But he came back and dragged me up into that chamber of horrors. And he told me ... told me that he was going to take over my life and nobody, not you, not Chris, nobody would notice that it wasn't me anymore. That he'd be me. So weird. So absolutely fucking nuts. I screamed but there was no one to hear. God, man, I'm such a wuss. Couldn't fight well enough to save my own life. Screamed my lungs out and all he did was laugh and scream along with me. And brag. About how he could be me."

"You told him he was wrong," Jim interjected firmly. "You pushed him out of control."

Blair snorted bitterly. "Yeah, like that did a lot of good. He was pouring the drug down my throat when you got there. In fifteen minutes, man, it would've been game over. I was dead meat, and I knew it."

Silence fell heavy between them, broken by the bubbling of the boiling kettle. Startled by the sound, Jim turned to the counter, made the tea and poured the soup into a bowl. He ferried the mug, bowl and spoon to the table, placing them carefully in front of Blair.

"Ah, man, I'm not hungry," Sandburg protested tightly, looking a bit green.

"You need to eat something," Jim insisted. "It'll help take the edge off and warm you up. Try, even just a few swallows."

Blair scrubbed his face and then picked up the spoon, but only stirred the soup before setting it down again. Instead, he reached for the mug, took a sip and then made a face. "Too sweet," he complained.

"You're shocky. You need sugar and carbs to help calm down and stabilize."

Sandburg gave him a baleful look but shrugged, not having the energy to argue, and forced himself to take another sip before again picking up the spoon, holding it tightly. His head bowed, he confessed in a broken whisper, "I keep thinking this is a dream, you know? My mind playing tricks just before it snuffs out, giving me something ... good to focus on, letting me believe that I'm home with you, and safe, when I'm not. But none of this can be real. Because ... because it was impossible to find me. There was no way to know where I was, so you couldn't really have gotten there in time to save me. So this really can't be real, even if it feels real and, God, man, I so want it to be real."

"Ah, Chief," Jim groaned and dropped down to one knee beside him, pulling him into a tight hug. "This is real. Honest to God, kid. You're home. You're safe. Lash is dead."

"But how?" Blair contested, his voice cracking as he held himself tightly, not leaning into the hug, not raising his arms to hug back, so sure he was caught in a dying dream that was about to burst with the bubble of his life, leaving him nothing to hold on to. "How could you have possibly found me? So fast? There were no clues, man," he argued, sounding lost. "I was hoping, you know? Hoping so hard that you'd find me, but I knew there was no way, there was just no way."

Jim tightened his embrace and leaned forward, to rest his brow against Blair's temple. "Listen to me," he rasped, his emotions barely in check. "I went back to Susan's apartment and found a bit of down - a tiny feather - in the drain. And Carolyn had discovered that the water in the victims' lungs was contaminated with waste. I made her break the seal on the evidence - Simon backed me up - and I figured out that it was bird waste. And I thought of Homer and knew it had to be duck waste. So we researched all the duck ponds in Cascade and found the only one that was both accessible and completely private. When I got there, I heard you yelling at him and knew we'd guessed right. You listening to me? This is not a dream, Chief. I found you because you taught me how to use my senses to find clues, to figure them out - and your voice led me straight to you. It's over, Blair. It's over and you're alive."

Blair closed his eyes and gradually the rigidity of his muscles eased. He shifted, his stubbled cheek resting against Jim's, and he sagged into the strong embrace, finally lifting his arms to hold Jim in return, his grip hard and desperate, as if he were holding on for dear life. "I thought he was going to kill you, too," he whispered, his voice tight and cracking. "I heard the crashing of you falling and falling. And the shots. I heard the shots and then ... then silence. And I couldn't move, Jim. I couldn't get out of that damned chair, couldn't help. Couldn't do anything. I've never felt so helpless, so useless, in my whole life. I was never so scared or ... or sick as when I thought he'd killed you, too. Thinking that you'd died trying to save me was worse than ... than knowing he was going to kill me next."

Tears prickled Jim's eyes but he blinked them ruthlessly away. One of them on the verge of falling apart was more than enough. For a while, he just held Blair, and slowly stroked one hand over his partner's back. "Everything's okay," he murmured, over and over. "We're both okay."

Blair sniffed and pulled away, blinking heavily, exhaustion weighing him down. Regarding Jim solemnly, he said with aching sincerity, "You saved my life tonight, Jim. I don't know how to thank you for that."

Conjuring a slight smile, Ellison replied, "You can start by drinking that tea and eating the soup I slaved to make for you."

The teasing evoked a ghost of a grin that flitted over the kid's lips before disappearing again. Nodding, Blair picked up the mug and took a healthy swallow. And then he actually managed several spoonfuls of the soup. But his hands were still trembling and he was spilling more than he was eating, so he set the utensil down with a sigh. "I don't know if ... I don't if I can keep doing this," he murmured hesitantly, not looking at Jim.

"Eating, you mean?" Ellison countered as he slid onto a chair at the table, staving off the fear that Sandburg might mean a great deal more than that.

Blair opened his mouth but no words issued forth; he flicked a look up at Jim and whatever he saw seemed to give him pause. His eyes narrowed and his lips closed, a small frown puckered his brow. Looking away, he shrugged, and then yawned.

"You're exhausted, Chief," Jim observed quickly, grabbing onto a lifeline that would haul him away from the brink of a discussion that he wasn't at all sure he was ready for. "You need sleep more than anything else right now. Let's pick up the conversation tomorrow."

Having retreated once again to silence, Blair nodded slowly, distantly, and then pushed himself away from the table. He started toward his room, moving with the stilted disjointedness of a marionette, but he paused and looked back over his shoulder. "I owe you, big time, Jim. I don't know if I can ever pay you back."

"You don't owe me a thing," Jim countered firmly. "Go on. Get some sleep."

Blair hesitated a moment more, and then detoured to the bathroom. Jim wasn't surprised to hear the shower start; as tired as the kid evidently was, he no doubt had a strong need to wash all trace of his confrontation with Lash from his body. Sighing sadly, Ellison cleaned up the kitchen and then attacked the worst of the chaos left in the wake of Sandburg's battle with the killer. The television was toast, but most of the rest of the upheaval was just messy - papers that needed to be gathered up, pillows and cushions returned to the sofa, the coffee table righted, the bookcase pushed back against the wall, and books and CDs that had fallen returned to their places on the shelves. Grimacing, he stoically added a new CD player to his mental list of what needed replacement. He kept his ear attuned to Sandburg and had to stop and close his eyes when he heard the muted sob. As time wore on, he glanced worriedly at the closed door, wondering if he needed to intervene and get Blair out of there before the hot water ran out and the cold chilled him to the bone. All the washing in the world wasn't going make the kid feel less violated.

But he heard the rush of water finally stop and he'd just flicked out the lights, about to head up the steps, when Blair finally came out of the bathroom. The kid's head was down and he was stumbling with fatigue but when he turned out the bathroom light and found himself in darkness, he froze, and Jim heard the tightness of his breathing and the acceleration of his heartbeat.

"It's okay, Chief," he murmured, very quietly, and yet he saw Sandburg jerk as if startled by the sound of his voice. "If you want, we can leave some lights on."

"Uh, um, no, no, that's alright," Blair stammered and continued on to his room. "G'night, Jim," he said softly before closing the door behind him.

"Good night, Chief," Jim called, loudly enough to know he'd be heard.

For hours, Ellison listened to Sandburg restlessly toss and turn, and to the subvocal mutterings that were too low even for him to decipher. Staring up at the skylight, he reflected that Blair wasn't the only one who was still unsettled by what had happened - more, by what had nearly happened. If he hadn't found that piece of down, if Simon hadn't okayed the destruction of evidence, if he hadn't been able to discriminate scent so well as to be able to pick up the duck waste in the sample, if there had been more duck ponds in the area, if Lash had chosen a pond outside of the city limits as his killing ground, if he'd been unable to hear the sound of Blair's voice, leading him directly to that obscene chamber filled with the memorabilia of death, if Lash had overpowered him ... if, so many ifs, and any or all of them could have spelled Blair's death that night.

His thoughts left him feeling queasy with residual anger and fear. Swallowing heavily, he rolled onto his side, and tried to sort out his roiling emotions. The anger was easy. He was furious with Lash for having gone after his partner. For the arrogance of the attack. For the sick cruelty that invested the killer's actions, not just against Blair but with all his victims. Oh, sure, poor little Davy had had a rotten life, but he'd been born a killer if his father's story was credible. First the pet duck and then his younger brother. How twisted was that? Lash was a monster, plain and simple. He'd only looked human. There were many instances when Jim regretted having to take a life in the line of duty, but he had no qualms about having killed David Lash that night.

But ... his anger wasn't directed solely at Lash. If anything, he was even more angry with himself, for having failed to protect Blair - for having placed the grad student in a situation where he'd come to the attention of a serial killer in the first place. And there was even more diffuse ire, mixed with helplessness that left him feeling impotent, because of the fact that there'd been little choice. He needed the kid's help. That's just the way it was.

The fear was easy to figure out, too, or some of it was. Fear that he'd not be able to get to the kid in time. God, more like near terror. When he'd gotten home earlier and realized what had gone down, he'd scarcely been able to think for the debilitating dread that rode him. It had taken every shred of self-discipline he had to get past the nearly mindless horror, to be able to function, to do what needed to be done, to find Sandburg before it was too late. He couldn't remember when he'd ever felt such an overwhelming degree of alarm before, been so shaken that he was trembling, nearly stuttering. It wasn't in his nature to panic. Hell, it wasn't in his nature to care that much about another human being, or at least he hadn't thought it was. But, apparently, he'd been wrong, because he sure in hell cared that much about that kid who was tossing sleeplessly beneath him.

Cared so much that it twisted in his chest and made it hard to breathe.

Why? Why did Sandburg matter so much to him? They hadn't known each other all that long, after all. Only a matter of a few months. Was it because he was so damned dependent on the kid for help with his senses? Because he was dependent. All that stuff he'd done the previous evening, using sight, scent, hearing - all of it was because Blair had taught him how to tame his senses, how to use them and not be overwhelmed by them. But his control, his skill, was still tentative, still fragile. No way could he imagine trying to marshal the senses and deal with overloads or sudden spikes, or even think of different ways to use them more effectively on his own. Not yet, maybe not for some long time yet. He ground his teeth and stiffened in resistance to the uncomfortable reality that his effectiveness, maybe even his sanity, was dependent on any other person. He'd been too long a loner to ever be fully comfortable with such awareness, to ever not have some degree of resentment for the need he felt.

Yet, as much as he resented the need, he found he couldn't resent the kid. Of course, Sandburg was getting something out of it, too; the research was important to him. Jim sighed as he thought about that. Much as he was uncomfortable with the reality of being studied, the fact that there was some kind of quid pro quo was the only thing that made his dependence on Blair bearable. But Sandburg contributed more than his esoteric knowledge and energy. Thinking about the last few weeks, Jim reflected on how often and in how many ways Blair went beyond the bounds of simply helping him understand his senses. The grad student had stood by him when he'd blown up over the Junos and Danny's death, and Sandburg had stayed with the senior citizens in a risky situation to confront dangerous gang members. Hell, even when he'd been expressly forbidden to do so, he had gone to that club the other night to help with the case. It was all a whole lot more than would ever be necessary to obtain the information he needed to support his dissertation. Nor was it as if Sandburg was getting paid to put in all the hours, or to face danger; he volunteered to make those investments of himself, his person, risking his wellbeing. Right from the start, the guy had chosen to place himself in hazardous situations for no evident personal gain - like when Blair had run in front of a truck to pull him out of danger, or when he got on the bus with someone Jim believed to be a bomber rather than let her simply drive off with dozens of potential victims who had no idea of the danger they were in.

When was the last time that anyone had backed him, with no hesitation, even with a clear understanding that what they were doing was, well, not just dangerous but bordered on being nuts? Answer: never.

Jim thought about that, wondered about it. Was that why Blair had become so important to him? Because the kid was loyal to him? Or was it because the kid was the sort of man who walked the talk, who lived in accordance with his principals? If he said he was going to be there for Jim, going to help him in every way possible, then he meant it, pure and simple. Jim respected that quality in a man. Valued it. Didn't see it often enough to ever take it for granted. But his mind flickered back to Blair's words just before he'd left the table. That he wasn't sure he could do it anymore. Closing his eyes, sighing heavily, Jim couldn't fault him for that. Even the best of men had to have some sense of self-preservation - and every man had his limits. A conscious reluctance to actively court death, especially when a man hadn't chosen that kind of life, in fact led a completely different kind of life, was a reasonable place to draw a few lines in the sand.

But what would that mean? Did Blair mean he wanted out of the whole deal? Or that he just didn't want to ride along anymore? Or, after having been attacked in his own home, because of his affiliation with the cop he lived with, did it mean he wanted to move out and move on?

Jim drew a shuddering breath, and knew he'd gotten to the heart of the fear that continued to dog him, despite the fact that Sandburg was safe and Lash was dead. He was afraid that Blair wanted to call it quits. He couldn't blame him, but the idea left him feeling hollow and ... bereft. As if he'd be losing someone irreplaceable. Someone who would leave a gaping hole in his life and his heart.

But that was just stupid. They hadn't known each other long enough to care that much or for him to need Blair's presence that much. He hadn't ever cared so much about anyone before. Hell, he'd been married to Carolyn and he hadn't needed her that much.

The unexpected juxtaposition of his ex-wife and his current roommate in his thoughts left him feeling ... uncomfortable.

Sighing, he thought about how much he just ... well, enjoyed Sandburg's company. The kid's bright eyes and smile lit up the dreariest day. Jim appreciated his quick wit and intelligence, the teasing, the easiness and odd comfort of having him around for breakfast and in the evenings; the way he brought energy and enthusiasm into the office every damned time he bounced through the door. Sure he was constantly rambling about the weirdest stuff - other cultures, other places - but he was interesting and funny. Jim frowned as he thought about how much, how very much he'd miss Blair if he wasn't around.

Well, shit.

Rolling over onto his back, Jim scrubbed his face with his hands and slowly shook his head, finally realizing where his thoughts and emotions had been leading him.

Sonofabitch.

Grimacing, he stared at the ceiling and tried to deny it, tried to tell himself that his feelings were just a reaction to almost losing Blair that night. God, it had been so ... so awful to see Sandburg chained and numbed by the drug, unable to move but his eyes filled with such devastating fear. He'd've given anything to make that fear go away, to make it so the kid wouldn't have to ever feel such terror in the first place. It had been the near loss that made what he felt all so abundantly, if improbably, clear. He rubbed at the ache in his chest, and finally named it for what it was.

Love.

He loved Sandburg.

More than he'd loved anyone since he'd been a child.

Blair was the best friend he'd ever had.

Fine time to realize it, just when Sandburg might be ready to call it quits. God damn it to hell.

For all the best reasons in the world, Blair might have had enough ...

... but Jim really didn't know how he'd be able to let him go.

 


 

If you go away on this summer day,
Then you might as well take the sun away;
All the birds that flew in the summer sky,
When our love was new and our hearts were high;
When the day was young and the night was long,
And the moon stood still for the night bird's song.
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

The next morning, Blair seemed a lot less fragile, though he was having trouble sustaining eye contact and his perennial smile seemed forced. He was putting on a pretty good act, but the good-natured, calm demeanor was a façade, as Jim could all too easily tell from the stiff posture, the shallow, still-too-fast respirations and the slight tremble in Sandburg's hands while he went through the motions of making breakfast. There was also the fact that the kid carefully did not look at the smashed television or comment on the busted door, and kept up a stream of meaningless chatter that had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he'd nearly been murdered the night before, and hadn't slept for thinking about it all night long. But, for all he knew it was a show for his benefit, Ellison was grateful. Maybe it meant Sandburg had decided to carry on and was just doing his best to get through it, to get past it.

They went downtown to give their formal statements and wrap up the case. As they entered the bullpen, Jim watched Blair acknowledge the hearty greetings of their coworkers, who weren't at all reticent about letting Sandburg know that they were damned glad he was alright. Jim had to smile at the congratulations and the enthusiastic backslaps he was also accorded for having rescued the kid from Lash; in five years, he'd not experienced such a degree of approbation from his colleagues. It felt good. Felt even better to see how touched the kid was to know that the others cared so much about him. Sandburg's hands stopped trembling and his posture loosened up. His shy smile was less bright than the fabrication at breakfast, but a lot more genuine.

They'd even gotten to the point of ribbing one another by the time they were ready to head back home. Ellison grinned at Sandburg's reaction to the revelation that his nipple ring was no longer a secret. No way was he about to break the mood by admitting that he'd only seen it the night before, when the Emergency staff had loosened Blair's clothing to attach electrocardiogram leads when his condition was being assessed and monitored as the effects of the drug ran their course. But though Sandburg joked about a tattoo or a tasteful earring to commemorate his gratitude for having his life saved, Ellison could hear the brittle edge in his tone, read the anxiety still shadowing his eyes before Blair turned his face away. With a sinking heart, he realized that things weren't fine and that nothing was certain.

Blair might still decide it was all too much. That he couldn't handle it - more, that he didn't want to risk so much anymore.

When the smile faltered and the usual chatter lapsed into silence on the way home, Jim was certain that the kid was trying to work himself up to deliver the bad news. Briefly, the detective entertained the possibility of simply accepting the inevitable. But everything in him revolted at the idea. He couldn't let go without at least trying to convince Blair to stay; which probably meant they were going to have to talk about it - a prospect that filled Jim with more trepidation than facing any physical threat ever could. Deciding that action was preferable to talk any day, he detoured to his favorite home hardware shop and dragged Blair inside to choose the supplies they needed to repair the doorframe, and to ensure they had the best, strongest, most reliable new door and lock on the market - so Sandburg would know he'd be safe in their home. And then he drove to the mall, to buy a new television and CD player. In the electronics shop, he again engaged the kid in the decisions of what models to buy, making it clear that Sandburg had as much right to have what he wanted as did Jim because they shared the use of these things in their home.

As they approached the cashier with their purchases, Blair muttered with low embarrassment, "I'm really sorry about all this, Jim. I know it's my fault your stuff got trashed, and I'll pay you back."

Ellison rolled his eyes and snorted, "Look, Chief, first of all my home insurance will cover the damages. And second of all, I'm just damned glad you had the determination to fight back, and not make it easy for the bastard." Then, as if it was only a throwaway comment, and not something he meant from the depths of his soul, he added, "Hell, even if my insurance company doesn't pay up, having you alive and well, and with me, is worth a helluva lot more than the paltry expense of a new TV or music machine."

As he turned away to pay for their new acquisitions, he was very aware that Sandburg was gaping a little and giving him a long, very thoughtful, look.

 


 

They carted the new stuff into the elevator and into the apartment. While Blair set up the television and player, Jim hung the new door and installed the lock. When he was finished, he casually tossed a new key to Sandburg and then went to the refrigerator, to pull out two beers. Sandburg was still studying the key in his hand when Ellison crossed the room and handed him the chilled bottle.

Biting the bullet, knowing he couldn't evade the necessary conversation any longer, Jim took a swig and then asked, with as much unconcerned aplomb as he could manage, "Something wrong with the key, Chief? What? It doesn't have a hole to fit on your keychain?"

Blair blinked and bit his lip, and finally looked up at him. "Jim, I ... I ...." But his voice faltered and he looked away, his expression strained.

Grimacing, Jim gripped his shoulder supportively, if briefly, then waved toward the sofa. "Sit," he ordered gently. "We need to talk."

Nodding slowly, Blair sat, his shoulders hunched and his head down. "I'm sorry," he murmured, placing the key carefully on the coffee table, and then picking at the label of the bottle. "I ... I'm still pretty shook up, I guess."

"You have every right," Ellison allowed firmly, settling beside his partner, so close their shoulders nearly touched. "You went through hell yesterday."

Sandburg sighed heavily, and then sat back, his fingers raking his hair off his face. He took a sip of beer, and then nodded. "Yeah," he agreed, staring at the wall. "I wish," he began, hesitated, and then continued with grim resolution, "I wish I was brave. That what happened didn't scare the shit out of me." Turning to face Jim, he went on earnestly, "I wish I was like you, you know? Intrepid. Fearless. But I'm not. I know I'm supposed to ... to set my feelings aside. Get passed them. But I can't seem to let it go." His gaze faltered and he turned his head away as he stammered, "I really th-thought I was going to d-die. Makes me feel s-sick inside, you know?"

"I know," Jim replied quietly as he looped an arm around his friend's shoulders. "Being afraid to die doesn't make you a coward, Chief. Just makes you human." When Blair only shrugged despondently, he went on determinedly, "I heard you last night. Of course you were scared, but that didn't stop you from fighting back, even when you were bound with chains and helpless. You were brave, Blair. Very brave."

"I was pissed off," Sandburg countered bitterly. "Furious that he was going to kill me and there was nothing I could do to stop it from happening. That's not brave. I was just mouthing off."

Jim snorted and shook his head. Looking around the loft, seeking inspiration, he wondered what the hell he could say to make it better somehow. To make the memories bearable. "I was scared, too," he finally acknowledged, if grudgingly, finding it hard. When Sandburg shot him a startled look, he added wryly, "I only look fearless and intrepid, Chief."

"Oh, yeah, right," Blair huffed, rolling his eyes. "You're a rock, Jim. Nothing stops you, man. Nothing."

Shifting, bringing his arm back down so that he was cradling the beer bottle in both hands, Jim admitted tentatively, "When I got home and realized he'd taken you - I, well, I came close to panicking. We had nothing. No clue. There was no way of knowing where to look. I ... I was scared, Chief. More afraid than I think I've ever been, that I wouldn't be able to find you. Save you." Swallowing, he again looked around the loft, remembering the devastation, the fear he'd felt. "You heard me last night, right? You know how I found you. By using what you taught me, about how to use my senses? I would have failed you if you hadn't taught me so much already."

He felt Blair touch his arm, wondered if the kid knew how comforting his touch was. "But you did find me. You did save my life," Sandburg murmured.

Jim sighed and took a long swallow of beer to moisten his mouth and throat. "Only because you bought me enough time," he rasped thickly. "By fighting back; by not making it easy. By not panicking, but challenging him, distracting him for the minutes I needed to figure it all out."

Blair shifted away, took a sip of beer. Thought about that. "You're using your senses really well," he observed distantly. "You're doing really great."

Jim stiffened, and his jaw clenched. This was it. Sandburg was about to tell him that it was over, done. And he couldn't let that happen. Couldn't. Swinging around to face his friend, he challenged, "No, not great. Better. But I'm a long way from controlling them, really understanding them. Trusting them."

Sandburg flinched and took a sharp breath. Studying his bottle of beer, he said haltingly, "I'm just saying that I think ... I think you can manage now, you know? That maybe you don't need -"

"Just ... just hold it, okay?" Jim interjected, lifting a hand as if to ward off a blow. "Look, you think I don't know you don't feel safe here right now? That you're maybe sorry you ever hooked up with me?"

"No, man, no!" Blair exclaimed, finally facing him. "I'll never be sorry I found you! I mean, not just because you're a sentinel. Jim, you're important to me. As a person." But his gaze fell away again as he continued, "But ... but I don't know if I can handle it. The violence. I don't know if I'm strong enough. Inside."

"You're strong enough," Jim asserted without hesitation or doubt. "You've proven that every step of the way. When you got on the bus with a crazy bomber and when you faced down Kincaid - hell, he'd've killed both of us if you hadn't thought fast and done what was needed. When you helped me go after the Junos, and wouldn't leave Earl's grandmother and her neighbours to face those gang members on their own. When you dealt with seeing death as ugly as if ever comes, and hung in, deciding to try to help catch the killer any way you could, and came up with the theory that he was taking on the personalities and appearance of his victims. And last night, when you fought that vicious bastard every step of the way."

When Blair just swallowed, his lips thin and his eyes downcast, Jim gripped his shoulder. "Listen to me; just listen, okay? And believe what I'm telling you. You're no coward, Chief. You're smart and resilient. And I, well, I just don't think you're a quitter, you know? I don't mean that as a challenge. I just mean that you've got guts and integrity. Of course, you're still shook. When I think about it, so am I. But I think you know I still need your help. So I don't think you can just walk away, no matter how much you wish you could right now." He paused, reaching for the words to at least buy time. "I'm just asking you not to make a snap decision, okay? Think about it, about what you really want, deep inside."

"I really don't want to die," Blair retorted hollowly.

"I know," Jim sighed, sitting back, losing hope and feeling helpless. "I wish I could promise you that there'd be no risk, no danger. But after the last few months, you'd know it was a lie. What I do for a living is dangerous and I can't promise that I'll never let anything like this happen again. All I can promise is to do my best to protect you, to keep you safe. I know I have no right to ask you to keep putting yourself at risk, but I don't want you to go."

Silence stretched between them.

Finally, still diligently picking away at the label on the bottle, Blair murmured, "So, you're saying you want me to stick around until you're comfortable with your senses."

Jim nodded. "Yeah," he replied tautly, and then added with unconscious, despondent candour, "and that I'd miss having you around."

Sandburg's hands stilled and he lifted his head. Slowly, he turned his face toward Jim, a slight frown of perplexity between his brows as Blair studied him thoughtfully. His gaze dropped and he bit his lip, and then he nodded. "Okay," he murmured softly, and then straightened, repeating more definitely, "Okay."

"Okay?" Jim echoed, not sure what Blair was saying.

Raking his hair back, meeting his eyes, his expression somber, Sandburg elaborated, "I'll, uh, I'll learn to deal with ... with being scared. I won't quit."

Sagging as the tension flowed out of him, Jim wiped a hand over his face. "Good," he finally managed to reply. "That's, uh, that's good, Chief. Thanks." Taking a breath, he leaned forward, adding, "Look, Simon said last night that if it would help to talk to the shrink downtown, he'd set it up. Maybe ... maybe it would be a good idea. You know, to, uh, help deal with being scared."

A small smile twitched at the corners of Blair's mouth. "A psychiatrist isn't going to help me deal," he said warmly. "It's knowing that you'll do your best to look out for me that makes it possible to ... to keep going. I guess, what it comes down to is that I trust you, Jim. And, uh, well, you're right, man. I wouldn't feel good walking away. I'd miss you, too."

"Yeah?" Ellison asked wonderingly, feeling absurdly pleased at the idea that maybe the kid liked him enough to miss him. It didn't matter much to him that not all that many people would miss having him in their lives, but it mattered a great deal to know that Blair felt that way.

Blair's gaze softened and his smile widened as he nodded. "Yeah."

Suddenly feeling awkward, Jim patted him heartily on the back and then stood to head toward the kitchen. "You hungry?" he asked.

"I could eat," Sandburg replied with a low, knowing chuckle, as if he recognized emotional avoidance when he saw it. "What did you have in mind?"

Shrugging, Jim suggested, "Chinese?"

"Works for me, man," Blair grinned, still too pale, but game. "Works for me."

Jim grinned back before turning away to call in their order. It was going to be all right. Blair wasn't going to bail. He was going to stay. Sure, he'd leave eventually. But not today. Not today.

Relief and gratitude bubbled inside, and he was still unconsciously smiling when he went up to bed several hours later. He listened to Sandburg slip into sleep almost as soon as the kid's head hit the pillow; sighing contentedly, he let the sandman claim him, too.

 


 

They couldn't seem to catch a break in the following hectic weeks. And the cases weren't anywhere near the usual shit of organized crime, gunrunning or major drug busts, stuff that would have a certain degree of predictability or at least be framed by established process and procedure. While giving Sandburg a covert, assessing glance, Jim sighed as he raked his hand over his head and kneaded the back of his neck. Blair was hunched in the molded plastic seat beside him, his fingers tapping a nervous tattoo on his thighs, his expression strained with anxiety as they waited for their flight to Peru to be called. Up until that morning, Jim had thought Blair was doing okay, wasn't suffering any more qualms about being able to cope with what came at them.

Now, he didn't know what to think.

There was no doubt that the last couple months would give anyone pause, let alone a grad student specializing in anthropology. First, there had been the train ride from hell, when Sandburg had feared he'd been killed and was left alone on a train with hired murderers to protect a scumbag, armed only with his wits and a gun he didn't really know how to use.

Then, they'd been forced into a situation where they could have been blown to smithereens by Brackett, a rogue CIA agent who had figured out he was a sentinel and who called Sandburg his 'guide', as if anyone with a half a brain would know why they'd formed such an unusual partnership. And why? So Brackett could steal a prototype stealth bomber, all of things.

It seemed only days after that when the next case heated up. Okay, it had been something a bit more typical of his usual Major Crimes investigations, a gunrunning millionaire Chilean ex-patriot - only it had included the unexpected and very regrettable twist of Sandburg getting his heart broken by the hood's daughter. Jim grimaced at the memory of how broken up the kid had been when Maya left him, and wondered why he loathed the girl so much. She'd been a victim of her own innocence, and had actually tipped him off that Blair was in trouble in time to keep the kid from being mangled by a machete, so he should probably at least pity her if not be outright grateful. But every time Jim thought of her he went cold inside, and the only thing that he was grateful for was the fact that she'd left the country. It had been a dumb idea to encourage the kid to try to get insider information out of her just because they both attended Rainier and it would be relatively easy for Sandburg to get to know her better.

Why the hell did that memory of seeing them kiss irritate him so much? Because he felt guilty, maybe, for instigating a situation that Sandburg wasn't equipped to handle without getting emotionally involved? God knew, she wasn't the first woman Blair had dated in the months since they'd hooked up, and she wouldn't be the last; Sandburg's wounded heart would heal. Shaking his head, Jim pushed his muddled emotions aside, preferring not to think about them. It was over, she was gone and ... and Blair was still backing him up.

Jim really didn't like the way those thoughts connected up. Made him feel churlish, as if deep down he didn't want Sandburg finding someone to love who'd love him back. He cared about the kid, right? Wanted him to be happy? Sure he did. But the hollow, sinking feeling in his gut told him that he dreaded the day Blair fell in love and would want to get on with his life. Stupid. Juvenile. Asinine. Anybody'd think he was jealous, and that was just plain ridiculous. Snorting to himself, he decided he was just tired, worrying about nothing.

At least Sandburg falling in love was ... an ordinary sort of thing that could happen to anybody and usually did at some point. But that deal with Laura was just weird, reawakening all of Jim's inherent distrust of his enhanced senses and the treacherous ways they played with his mind. God, he hadn't even liked the woman, and sure hadn't found her particularly interesting or engaging; he just hadn't been able to keep his hands off her. Pheromones. Jesus Christ, what was going to pop up next? Scratch that. There'd been entirely too much 'popping up' of his gonads to last a good long while. Made him feel like a class-A freak, literally sniffing and lusting after a jewel thief who had about as much compassion and decency in her soul as a thumbtack. Pinching his nose, he sighed.

Sandburg had just rolled with his irrational behaviour and come up with an explanation for it; he didn't back off when Jim tried not to listen, and generally acted like it was all basically natural, if more than a little exaggerated because of his sensory sensitivity. But then, Yoda - AKA Einstein - thought it was all good, the senses an amazing, wondrous gift. His lips thinning as he looked across the terminal concourse, Jim reflected bitterly that Sandburg didn't have a clue what the damned senses were like to live with, and the surprises they sprang on him were a long way from being either wondrous or amazing. They were unnerving, scary, often dangerous - and he spent more time privately cursing them than being in any way grateful for being 'different'.

Impatiently, he glanced at the big clock on the wall, wishing they were on their way, wondering what they'd find when they finally got to the jungle. Closing his eyes, he refused to think about the possibility that Simon and Darryl were dead. As far as he was concerned, they were alive until he saw their remains with his own eyes. Anticipating the worst was self-defeating, so he turned his thoughts back to the recent past.

When they'd arrived at Saint Sebastian's for a much needed bit of R&R, he could have cheerfully wrung his partner's neck for landing him in a place with no television, radio, or any other recognizable entertainment - no swimming pool, fishing or golf course - hell, not even a comfortable bed. And they sure hadn't gotten much chance for any rest or relaxation anyway, what with a mob hit man trying to take down one of the monks, Brother Marcus, also known as Jackie Kozcinski.

Frowning to himself, Jim thought about Brother Marcus and what Blair had told him about the man being an old friend of Naomi's. Once again glancing at his friend, he mused on his own theories about just how well Jackie and Naomi had known each other. Sandburg didn't seem to notice, and maybe it was just his enhanced senses, but bone structure, build, colouring, hair texture and curl, the shape of their hands, the timber of their voices, the personal scent of the two men .... Looking away, Jim shook his head. It was none of his business. And, much as Sandburg evidently loved Brother Marcus, he might not be all that excited about the probability that his father had been a gangster.

Jim filed his deductions under the memory tab, 'for emergency use only' - if the kid ever needed a kidney or a bone marrow transplant, it would be good to know where to start looking for a likely donor.

Scratching his cheek despondently, Jim had to admit that the months since Sandburg had teamed up with him had been anything but a cakewalk. Still, he'd been totally blindsided by the news of the 'offer of a lifetime' Blair had received from his mentor, some world-class anthropologist, to go off for a year or more on a field trip to Borneo. God. What the hell was there in Borneo to be so damned excited about? Jesus. Up until that morning, his worst fear had been that the kid would decide to put a period on the end of his term as an 'observer' and move out to some place on the other side of town. But even in that worst case scenario, Blair would still have been accessible, a friend to go to games or fishing with, a support to call upon if the senses acted up. But Borneo was halfway around the world! If Blair accepted the offer, he'd be gone. Just ... gone.

When the full implications of what Blair was saying hit him, he'd felt sandbagged. Angry, for being blind-sided. Stunned, that Sandburg would even consider taking off and leaving him high and dry. Scared, no, worried, just worried, that maybe the senses would act up and he'd be in trouble without Blair's intuitive grasp of what was happening and what was needed. And ... well, hurt, as annoying as that was to admit even if only to himself, that working with him, their friendship, wasn't enough, not near enough - worse, was something easily abandoned for a better, more interesting opportunity. Was that all he was to Blair? An opportunity? One that had played out and held no more allure?

Allure? Odd word, not really applicable. It wasn't as if he was a rejected lover or anything. They didn't have that kind of relationship. Stupid to use a word like that. They were friends, buddies, roommates of convenience. Hell, the whole thing was a matter of convenience; for him to get his senses under control, for Blair, to get his doctorate. But Jim didn't like feeling as if he was only a 'convenience'. Hell, that was worse than being 'an opportunity'.

He was furious with himself for wanting to ask - well, okay, demand - that Blair turn Eli whatshisname down flat. He wasn't that dependent, that needy. Had done just fine on his own for almost the whole of his life. Didn't need a friend and sure in hell didn't need a babysitter. Didn't need anybody. Never had.

Sighing, he rolled his eyes, not fooling himself with his self-righteous indignation. The truth was, he just plain didn't have the right to ask Sandburg to sacrifice a golden career opportunity simply to keep tagging along with him. It had to be Blair's decision, and his alone. It was his career, his life, that were at issue, not Jim's preferences or ... even needs.

But he felt edgy, as if his nerves were trembling under his skin, and his gut was this huge, hollow hole. If Blair decided to go, Jim didn't want to think about how much he'd miss the kid. How empty his home, his life, would feel. And he really didn't want to think about handling his senses on his own.

How the hell had he let a wide-eyed, wild-maned, manic grad student become part of the foundation of his world? He'd known from the beginning that the day would come when Blair would leave. It shouldn't be so damned hard to imagine watching him go.

 


 

But if you stay, I'll make you a day
Like no day has been, or will be again;
We'll sail the sun, we'll ride on the rain,
We'll talk to the trees and worship the wind.
Then if you go, I'll understand,
Leave me just enough love to fill up my hand,
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

"It's about friendship. I just didn't get it before," Blair said with wide-open, ingenuous, vulnerable candour, an apology in his eyes, and clear hope that Jim would accept it and forgive him for having been callous and obtuse.

Jim's throat tightened and he didn't dare breathe until he had mastered the surge of relief and banished the burn in his eyes. The best he could do was nod and smile and take refuge in sipping from the cold bottle of beer in his hand. But his knees felt weak and he was so damned grateful it was all he could do not to enfold the kid in a huge bearhug. Instead, he forced himself to walk outside onto the balcony, to look out over the city until his thoughts stopped whirling and his heart retreated from his throat.

Blair had made his choice - and he'd chosen to stay. Because their friendship mattered to him more than his career. Because Jim was more than an opportunity or a convenience, was someone he really cared about.

Damn. He felt like a wuss, being so damned happy that Sandburg wasn't going to leave. And, true to form, Blair was talking, wanting to know what had happened in Peru with his senses. The kid never quit trying to understand, trying to help, doing all he could to give the best support possible. But there was no way he could begin to talk about all that had happened, the visions, at that moment. He was too full of relief, too shaky. He'd reveal too much about how much Blair's decision meant to him. And he couldn't do that, because this was only a respite after all. That day, the day when Sandburg would leave, was still coming. The hurt would still have to be absorbed, but at least that day wasn't today. So he put his partner off with some inane remark about being home and just enjoying it, as if it was being home that made his chest ache and left him feeling filled with something he suspected was joy.

But his euphoria was tempered when he felt a prickle of tension and he looked over his shoulder, back into the loft - into the enigmatic eyes of the black jaguar. There was something in those eyes. Something intense, unblinking, that felt like a warning.

Jim figured the cat was telling him to not get carried away, not count on the kid hanging around. It wouldn't be forever. Just for a while longer. His jaw tightened and he turned away from the warning and the despondency that pulled at him when he thought about the future. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the fact that Sandburg was staying. Glancing down at his friend, he made a silent vow to do all he could to ensure Blair wouldn't ever regret passing up the opportunity in Borneo. Whatever came at them, he'd keep doing his best to safeguard the kid - more, to make sure they had some fun, maybe go fishing or camping, take in more games with the Jags when they were in town. He'd stop bitching about the tests, or at least whine less, and be less rigid about the house rules. After all, it was Blair's home, too. He should be able to relax in it.

 


 

Weeks sped into months and the months became nearly two years of working and living together. Their lives remained chaotic, their cases often bizarre, but they worked well together and had a lot of fun when they weren't dodging bullets, dirty cops, escaped murderers, Internal Affairs, international assassins, nutty psychics, obsessed weirdos or stone-cold bombers. Jim survived the terror of being temporarily blinded by tactile exposure to a potent illegal substance that was called Golden on the street - and Sandburg literally and just barely survived near death after unknowingly ingesting enough of the stuff to kill ten men.

Nor was that the only time that Blair nearly bought the farm in the year since Lash had taken him to that deserted warehouse.

That damned Maya had come back, to break the kid's heart all over again. And nearly get him killed in the bargain. Well, this time she hadn't left the country voluntarily; she'd been deported and wouldn't be allowed back. Good riddance. Sandburg didn't need her to keep popping up, disrupting his life, leading him on, hurting him.

Jim wouldn't ever forget the infinite, terrible moment when he'd rushed onto the deck of the boat and seen Blair sprawled, beaten and bloody, or the relief to feel the pulse in his throat. But that hadn't been anywhere near the worst of the moments in the past year.

Jim was still haunted by the sound of the explosion in the elevator shaft in the Wilkinson Tower, when he'd believed without doubt that Blair was dead. He had nightmares about that shattering moment and the endless, hopeless, sick moments that followed, until he'd gotten downstairs and found out that the elevator car was still intact, all its occupants still alive.

Nor would he ever forget counting down the fast-disappearing seconds, franticly dreading the moment when that oil rig blew sky high. Or the moment when April screamed that Sandburg had been shot by the Iceman, and Jim had arrived to find him lying way too still on the floor of the hotel room. Or just a few weeks ago when they'd gone after Dawson Quinn to rescue Simon, and Blair had been shot by that crazy hunter, had been in pain and afraid, and they'd been trapped in that damned cave with no obvious way out.

Moments, breath-stealing moments, seared into his memory, never to be forgotten; sickening moments of feeling he'd failed to protect Sandburg, failed to keep him safe.

Moments of overwhelming guilt and grief that his need for the kid too often nearly cost Blair his life.

Moments that haunted him in the darkness of his room late at night, taunting him, leaving him shaking.

Moments that brought him close, so close to telling the kid to go, to save himself, to live long and prosper as a professor somewhere, or an explorer on some dig. To go, get out while he could, to escape to someplace far away from guns and bombs and killers and impending death.

But, much as he ached to tell the kid to go, to save him from further harm, Jim couldn't ever bring himself to say the words - because he simply couldn't bear to face not having Sandburg in his life.

He wasn't exactly sure when he first realized that his feelings toward Sandburg were deepening. When he thought about it at all, he figured it was only natural. There'd been too many damned moments when Blair's life had been on the line; the fragility of life, the kid's vulnerability almost routinely made all too abundantly clear. So, yeah, it was only natural that his feelings intensified and he came to consciously treasure the time they shared. He told himself that Blair had become more family than friend, and didn't think much more about it, didn't try to analyze his emotions beyond that. When he was comfortable and things were going okay, at least between them if not in the world around them, it wasn't in his nature to fixate on the whys or wherefores of what he felt; to pick apart and name every nuance of why he felt contented in the kid's presence, or to wonder why he felt such an increasing depth of protectiveness, or why just thinking about Blair when the grad student wasn't around, which he vaguely knew he did a lot, gave him a warm feeling and made him smile. He sure didn't want to spend any time thinking about the future because, ultimately, the future would bring them to a point where what they currently shared would end. He knew he loved his crazy little neo-hippie, witchdoctor punk, and that they were both, basically, pretty happy with the way things were, and that was enough.

Basically.

But it was still a time-limited thing, wasn't it? One day Sandburg would go and he'd be on his own again. Somehow, that prospect was distinctly unappealing.

All of which, late one night when he couldn't sleep, led him to reflect on love - and the lack of it - in his life.

In a couple more years, he'd be forty. He'd had one failed marriage. Did he want to try again, maybe have a family? He didn't date a lot, but there were certainly women that had caught his attention. When Laura immediately sprang to mind, he frowned and shoved the discomfort of her memory away. She was proof that attraction was chemical, sensory, and couldn't be trusted. It would be too easy to choose the wrong woman based on a kind of sensory blindness to reality. Sighing, he thought about some of the women he'd found attractive since. Debra Reeves came to mind, but he'd ultimately found her too prickly. Micki Kamerev had had a certain allure, but it hadn't lasted; she seemed to see some kind of hero more than she saw him as a man, and he knew he'd never be able sustain his balance on any kind of pedestal. He had too many faults, and he didn't feel comfortable with a woman who didn't see him as he was. But then, none of them ever really saw him as he was, saw the honest picture; none of them had known about his senses.

Thinking about finding a woman to share a life with left him feeling restless, uneasy - and wondering if such a relationship would or could work, given his track record. He also honestly wondered if any woman would be comfortable with him, with his tendencies toward irascibility, and of holding so much of himself private and apart; with his heightened senses and all the complications they brought into the equation. His life was admittedly dangerous. Was it fair to make commitments that he might not live long enough to fulfill, particularly commitments to have and raise children? Sighing, he scrubbed his face. One thing was abundantly clear - if he ever did hope to have a lasting relationship, a marriage, it would have to be with a woman who didn't make his senses go nuts, leading him to serious lapses of judgment and unnerving sensory dysfunction. Maybe that was the way to go, he thought prosaically; if he found a woman who had the innate compatibility to soothe his senses, to allow them to function almost effortlessly at peak capacity, like Sandburg did, then he'd know the chemistry was right. Someone like Sandburg who took him as he was, liked him despite his faults, was fun and comfortable to be around, who he'd want to protect and cherish and never be without. Someone like Sandburg ....

His thoughts stalled, frozen by the sudden, breathless realization of what he'd just told himself, all unknowing. He blinked and his lips parted; he felt unnerved, disoriented. And then he snorted, rolled onto his side and punched his pillow. He'd just meant that Blair was family, that's all - a good buddy, a trusted partner, someone he really cared about, who cared about him, and helped him be the best he could be; someone who made things easy, comfortable. Like a brother, what a brother could be. Maybe even should be.

But less than a week later, the Fates conspired to effect a wholly unexpected and unlooked-for reconciliation with his brother, Steven, giving him a chance to remember, really remember, what it felt like to love a brother. Over the course of the investigation at the race track, as he confronted the threats looming over his long-estranged kid brother, he gradually, tentatively, allowed himself to feel those emotions again for Stevie. It was a rude awakening of sorts to contemplate his brother and then gaze across the hall during the formal reception at Blair. His partner, unconsciously elegant in a tux, was laughing as he teased Simon about something, his face alive with mischief, his eyes twinkling and his hands dancing gracefully in the air.

Glancing again at Stevie and then back to Blair, he blinked and swallowed, felt as if he'd been struck by a bolt of lightning. He froze, gaping in shock, scarcely able to breathe.

The love he felt for Sandburg, while a whole lot more than what he'd ever felt for any other friend, also wasn't the least bit fraternal. No, not fraternal at all. The love he felt wasn't even in any way platonic; and was familial only in the most unexpected and disconcerting of ways.

Shocked by the blinding insight, stunned by his prolonged and profound lack of perception and self-awareness, his willful if unconscious denial for God knew how long, he paled and felt dizzy, shaky. His expression abruptly flattened as he instinctively hid all trace of emotion from any casual, let alone too perceptive, observer. Swiftly, he turned away from the vision of his partner, urgently needing to get out of the crowded hall, needing to be someplace quiet, outdoors, where he could breathe and ... and think.

Shouldering open the heavy, glass-paneled door, he strode across the concrete apron to the balustrade and locked his fists around the rounded metal guardrail to ground himself and stop the incipient tremble in his hands. He drew in long, deep breaths, and then tilted his head to stare up at the stars dimpling the night sky. He felt as if a dam had burst inside; all of the emotion he'd stored away, taken for granted, hadn't examined, hadn't recognized, swamped him in a vast deluge that left him reeling. Was he crazy? It was impossible - couldn't be possible. How could he be in love with Sandburg? For God's sake, they were both actively heterosexual men.

But, if that was the case, then why had he felt such a rush of passion back in that crowded room? Passion mingled with tenderness so poignant that his heart ached. Why wasn't he more shocked, rather than just shook that it had taken him so long to realize what now seemed so incredibly obvious? Why, beneath all his astonishment, his instinctive need to deny that seemingly out of the blue he very much wanted carnal knowledge of his male roommate, was there a feeling that it was inevitable - more, that it was right? Along with certain knowledge that this was not a passing moment of madness, but soul deep and life long. He loved Blair, had loved him for years, never wanted him to go, couldn't bear to think about being without him, wanted to cherish him, safeguard him, touch and taste him, shower him with sensual sensation to make him euphoric, give him ecstasy ... make him happy.

Oh God.

Blair was a man who loved women, loved being with them, flirting with them, dancing with them, making love to them.

Swallowing heavily, Jim shivered in the cool night air, chilled by his sense of hopeless impossibility. Jesus, Blair would think he'd lost his mind if he ever dared admit his epiphany. Such an admission would change everything, redefine everything about their friendship, about how they interacted, about what touch meant or might mean. He could destroy Sandburg's easy and unquestioning trust in him. He could put their partnership at risk; make a train wreck of the friendship that had grown between them. Their home, a place of respite and peace, would become unbearably strained with tensions, doubts. Blair would second-guess every look, every touch or statement, wondering what Jim wanted from him, when Jim didn't expect anything at all. Hell, what could he expect?

Absolutely nothing, that's what.

What he felt didn't change anything about ... about anything. Their affiliation was as temporary now as it had always been, a period of shared time and learning, of unexpected friendship, but no more than that. No matter how much he'd come to unconsciously hope that what they had would never end, he knew all too well it would, had to. Blair had his own life, his own career, and his own dreams to pursue. Hell, he told himself bitterly, Sandburg was too obviously enamored of women to ever give even a passing glance at a nearly middle-aged, balding man, let alone entertain lustful fantasies about said man. Christ, Blair would erupt into gales of laughter at the very suggestion, sure it could only be a joke.

Some joke.

There really wasn't any chance, was there, that Blair might feel some of the same thing for him?

For a moment, Jim grasped at the hope that question represented, thinking about the way Sandburg sometimes looked at him, like when the kid had said it was all about friendship, and the easy and often way that Blair touched him. And how close the kid stood beside or behind him, so close they were nearly fused together, like conjoined twins - or lovers. The thought, the image that flashed into his mind, the ache in his body, left his mouth dry and he had to stifle the moan in his throat.

But then he bowed his head, tightened his jaw and ruthlessly stamped out the flare of wistful, wishful thinking. Bad enough to know what he felt was absurd and hopeless; he didn't have to also start acting the fool by torturing himself with fantasies of what wasn't and never would be real. His first instinctive reaction had been only too right. It was impossible. Blair saw him as a friend, and that was it, all it would ever be.

Shaking his head, he straightened, stretched and rubbed the back of his neck to loosen the tense rigidity of his muscles. Briefly, he really wondered if he was losing his mind, or if he was suffering from some weird variation of the Stockholm syndrome, his close affiliation with Blair for so long leading to emotions and desires that were otherwise very foreign to his nature. Sighing, he thought that even made a kind of bizarre sense. Whatever. With nearly overwhelming despair, he knew only too well that the bottom line was that he could never, ever, let anyone - most especially Sandburg - suspect how he really felt about the kid, how deeply he loved the man and would for the rest of his sorry life. This was his secret - just one more secret - to be locked away in the vaults of his mind and heart.

Bowing his head, once more gripping the balustrade, Jim bit his lip and fought for composure. He heard the door scrape open behind him, and the familiar, beloved scent told him who had come to check on him. Listening to the approaching footsteps, he dragged in a breath and then another. He had to get his act together; couldn't let his partner see or sense that anything was other than it had always been.

"Hey, man, you okay?" Blair asked from behind him, his voice laden with concern.

Nodding slowly, burying everything deep, schooling his features to studied neutrality, Jim turned to face his partner. "Yeah," he rasped, and cleared his throat. Waving toward the crowded, noisy party, he added, "I just needed some air and a little quiet."

Smiling with gentle understanding, Sandburg moved to join him by the rail, briefly gripping his arm supportively for a moment before shifting slightly away, giving him room though remaining, as he often was, well within the circle of Jim's personal space. "It's a beautiful night," he murmured, lifting his gaze to the sky. Turning to lean on the rail, Blair looked up at him. "Steven seems like a really nice guy," he observed, not quite tentatively.

Jim's gaze dropped away, unable to look at that beautiful face bathed by moonlight, close enough to lean down and kiss. "Yeah, he does," he agreed with a non-committal shrug.

"I get the impression that he'd, uh, like to get to know you better," Blair prodded gently.

Pursing his lips, still studying the ground, ruthlessly reining in his roiling emotions, Jim nodded. "Maybe."

"Give him a chance, Jim. Give yourself a chance," Blair urged softly, compassionately. "A chance to be brothers again. To be family again."

Taking a deep breath, he shrugged again. "We'll just have to see how it goes, Chief," he replied with nearly indifferent stoicism, glad the subject between them was so safe, so undemanding emotionally; after nearly twenty years of estrangement, he had decidedly mixed feelings about reconciling with his brother and really wouldn't mourn if nothing ever came of this unexpected reunion. Besides, right then, he had other things to think about, to deal with. Hesitating for a moment, he decided that it couldn't hurt to let Sandburg know that he stood a lot higher on his 'most valued people list' than Steven ever would. Looking up, holding Blair's gaze, he added meaningfully, "I'm happy with the family I've got."

Surprise flooded Blair's face but then, looking almost shy with pleased gratitude, his eyes lit and he smiled slowly. "Me, too, man," he murmured hoarsely, once again lifting his hand to firmly grip Jim's arm. But, as if embarrassed, his touch quickly shifted to a more comradely slap on the back and his gaze slipped away, to contemplate the ongoing party. "Guess we should head back inside," he suggested, a note of what sounded like regret resonating in his voice.

"Yeah, guess so," Jim agreed with very real reluctance. Unable to resist, he slung his arm around his partner's shoulders, guiltily relishing the solid feeling of holding Blair close to his side as they ambled back to rejoin the crowd. Maybe he couldn't ever reveal how he truly felt. Maybe he'd never even understand it himself. But none of that could ever erase his now sure knowledge that he wanted to cherish Blair in every way he could, for as long as he could.

 


 

Jim kept telling himself that nothing had changed, that everything with Blair would just keep going on the same, at least until the dreaded day when Sandburg decided it was time for him to move on.

But ... something had changed and changed fundamentally, and Jim had to admit that to himself. Every time he looked at his partner, he felt his chest tighten with longing - and he came dangerously close to losing himself in those eyes, or in his contemplation of what he wished he could do with that mouth. Every time he touched Blair, there was new electricity, new meaning, that had not, at least not consciously, invested any of his touches in the past. He became unduly self-conscious, wondering if he touched too much, or let his hand linger too long. At night, the sound of Blair's breathing and of his heartbeat from the room below was no longer simply soothing, lulling; now, he hungered to hear those breaths catch with desire, the heart pound with passion, and he felt a heaviness in his chest, his groin, a raw, gnawing despair that ate away at him. Blair's scent aroused him, distracted him so that life became a constant struggle for self-control. And Blair's voice? Oh, God, that voice was like music, ever-changing melodies he couldn't seem to get enough of despite the poignant sorrow of unrequited want and need and desire that those warm, rich tones evoked.

Often, far too often, he found himself on the edge of blurting it all out, and he had to clamp his jaw tight against his treacherous tongue. He stopped touching as much and found himself stepping back a little, so that he wasn't quite so easily in range of Blair's unconscious touches. He told himself he just needed to find a little balance. Just had to get past the immediacy, the surprise and shock and the newness of what felt humiliatingly like giddy infatuation. He was too damned old to be feeling like a gauche teenager again. He knew he wasn't handling it well, not well at all. He was irritated with himself for not being able to get a grip, and the frustration showed in clipped sarcasm and an increasingly flat, remote demeanor. He often caught Sandburg giving him the odd concerned glance, but he was quick to cover, just claiming to be tired or whatever.

All he knew was that things had changed. And he didn't know what to do about that, how to turn back the clock, how to pretend again that he didn't know how he felt, what he wanted.

When he ended up nearly killing a security guard because his senses had failed him, he didn't want to think the reason might be that he was so strung out over Sandburg that he couldn't think straight. So he chose to blame the senses, decided he didn't want them, that he couldn't trust them - and they seemed to disappear. Just disappear. Blair was all upset about it, but Jim wondered if it wasn't a good thing. He'd been a good cop without them, so he didn't need them to do his job. And they'd been irritating as hell, not trustworthy, uncomfortable too much of the time.

Then the Chopec had come to Cascade, throwing everything into even more confusion, his concern about Incacha and the others heaped onto his emotional upheaval over Sandburg. The only relief, the only bright spot was his amusement in watching Incacha and Blair trying to communicate with one another, and their almost childlike pleasure when they established connection, though neither understood a word the other said. But Incacha had glanced at him just then, and caught something in his expression or his eyes that must've given him away, for his old teacher smiled knowingly as he looked back at Blair and nodded. When Jim interjected in Quechua, explaining it wasn't like that, Incacha simply laughed and teased him, saying that he was too old to move so slowly in claiming his heart, while Blair looked on, bemused by a conversation he couldn't understand.

What could he say? Glancing away helplessly, he'd only shrugged. Incacha regarded him sadly, but then moved on to tell him why the Chopec had come to Cascade – and also told him bluntly that a sentinel was a sentinel so long as he chose to be what he was. Jim had barely absorbed the stern messages before the shaman whirled away and disappeared as swiftly as he'd appeared.

But he didn't have much time to reflect on any of that because things went steadily and rapidly downhill, and his fears for the safety of the Chopec, Incacha in particular, escalated. He knew he wasn't thinking clearly, was reacting rather than being decisive - spinning his wheels, digging in deeper and deeper but going nowhere. Like driving around and around, trying to find Incacha when they were supposed to be meeting Blair's friend, Janet. And Blair yammering at him to use his senses, and him biting back that he didn't need his senses to be a good cop, and that as far as he was concerned, the senses were dead. When Sandburg seemed so inordinately upset about the disappearance of senses that weren't his to mourn, Jim accused him of just being worried about his dissertation. It was then, so inadvertently, that he found out that Blair had enough information to finish, what did he say? Ten dissertations? But there hadn't been time to think about it then, what that meant. There'd been no time at all.

Because they got to the meeting place too late, and Janet was dead, murdered. Jim hid his reactions behind his wall of investigative process and procedure, but he was sick inside at the thought that his state of perpetual distraction, his confusion, had maybe cost Janet's life.

And Jim began to wonder if maybe he was repressing his senses because they were really all that held Blair close. No senses, no reason for the kid to stay. The thought that Blair would now leave ripped him apart, and he didn't think he'd ever really recover. But, but ... maybe it was best if Sandburg went, before it all fell apart anyway, before his need and his love destroyed what they had. Everything seemed to be escalating, going faster and faster, and he couldn't seem to get a grip, regain control. He could feel his tension, his sense of helplessness building until he didn't know how much longer he could keep pretending that things were normal, when they weren't okay, when nothing was.

The explosion came when Blair called him to say Incacha had been shot, and that the wound was serious. He got home to find Incacha bleeding to death in the loft, and Blair stricken with his inability to do anything to help. Aside from Simon, the people he loved most were there in front of him, and he was about to lose one of them forever. When Incacha reached out to grab Sandburg's arm with his bloody hand, Jim found himself staring, translating words as if on autopilot, not really getting them. That blood-soaked fist, blood smearing onto Sandburg’s skin, Blair's shock and alarm, Incacha's breathless urgency as he gasped out his last words. That image, that moment branded Jim's soul. He wasn't capable of coherent thought, but it seemed to him that Incacha was passing danger and death onto, into, Blair, pulling Blair along the same inevitable path to destruction.

The hand fell away and Incacha was gone. Guilt, grief, hideous loss, helplessness coalesced into fury and Jim nearly lost all control as he raged. He couldn't think, couldn't focus - was yelling at the EMTs, shouting out what they could or couldn't do with Incacha's remains. God, he wanted to hit something, break something, roar his impotent fear and fury to the world.

Blair brought him back from the edge of the abyss. Shaking him, shouting over his rage, pulling him away, forcing his attention onto Sandburg, his words. Making him listen enough that he was no longer in danger of assaulting some innocent bystander, enough to drag him from the loft and up to the roof, enough to get him focused on doing something, on action - enough to let him put up some hasty walls against pain and an incipient feeling of horror deep in his gut. What had Incacha done to Blair? What had he passed on? Just words or something more? For blood had terrible power, and the blood and breath of a dying man as he uttered his last will had almost limitless power in Incacha's world. What threat hung over Blair now, now that he'd been called to service and branded by the bloody hand of a dying shaman - a very, very powerful shaman?

Jim couldn't think about it, or he'd let slip his tenuous control. He could do nothing but cling to Blair's voice, obey his directions, believe in Sandburg's certainty that getting his senses back would make the difference, would at least help him honour Incacha and save the remaining Chopec. Breathe deep. Focus. Let the senses emerge.

And emerge they did - and then he was running, figuring out what was really going on with Cyclops Oil, engaging his mind on the clues, sorting out the puzzle. Moving, always moving, one step after another; acting, battling the murderer, bringing the perpetrators to justice. No time to think. Reflect. Emotions on hold.

Until finally, it was over and the rest of the Chopec were safe.

Only then, only when Blair wondered if he was now the shaman of the great city, did Jim allow himself to remember what Incacha had said, what he'd passed along as duty, responsibility and obligation. He swallowed and looked away, unable to respond. It was wrong, all wrong. Incacha had had no right to lay all that on Sandburg, like an invocation, a compulsion to stand by him whatever came, forever. Jim closed his eyes and took a breath to steady himself, to find some balance. It wasn't right. Much as he ached with all that he was to have Sandburg stay with him, to share the whole of his life, that wasn't Blair's path, wasn't fair to him.

Bleak desolation swept over him then as he realized what he'd done. When he'd lost it over Incacha's death and his fears of what that death-bed transference to Sandburg had meant, he'd forgotten that forsaking his senses might have been the best way of pushing Blair on his way to his own life. Instead, he'd allowed his senses to re-emerge and there was Blair, looking at him bemusedly, speculating about being the shaman of the city, maybe kidding around. Maybe not. Either way, the message was that Blair was intending to stick around, despite having all the research material he needed.

It wasn't fair. Jim knew Blair was hanging on because he'd promised to do so, way back after Lash had scared the shit out of him. He'd said then that he'd hold on as long as Jim needed him. But it had been nearly two years, and how much more of Blair's time and life could Jim claim?

And how much longer could Jim pretend that he wasn't helplessly and hopelessly in love when Blair was there, beside him, close, every day and every night? How long, before he went out of his mind with frustration?

And what the hell had Incacha passed on? What destiny? What danger?

Mutely, Jim got into the truck and they headed down to the PD. For once, Sandburg was quiet, maybe giving him space to absorb the reality of Incacha's death, the privacy to grieve. Glancing over at his partner, he saw that Blair's expression was somber, and Jim remembered that the kid also had a friend to mourn.

He told himself that it couldn't go on, this crazy life of half-truths and hidden agendas. If he loved Blair even half as much as he told himself he did, then he'd damned well find a way of doing it all on his own.

He'd find a way to show Blair that it was okay to live his own life.

Okay to move on.

 


 

If you go away, as I know you will,
You must tell the world to stop turning till
You return again, if you ever do,
For what good is love without loving you,
Can I tell you now, as you turn to go,
I'll be dying slowly till the next hello,
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

Jim began to consciously distance himself from his partner. When Blair became so uncertain of him, when the trust between them eroded sufficiently that Sandburg actually suppressed evidence for a while, Ellison was caustic in his anger, blaming Blair for the breach such an act created in the trust between them. Later, he took the opportunity to stand with Simon on the basketball court, refusing to give credence to Sandburg's information that Krause was their killer - and then hated himself for the frustration, the hurt and disappointment he read in Sandburg's eyes. But he steeled himself to continue with his program of gradual disassociation, actively rejecting any of Sandburg's perspectives on the case, shutting out the kid's instincts that Orvelle simply could not be a cold-blooded killer. It turned out that Sandburg's instincts, his belief in a good man, were right - but Jim carefully did not commend him on that when it was over. After all, he wasn't trying to repair bridges between them; the point was to create cracks and then to widen them.

So when, with Sandburg's typically eager willingness to trust any newcomer, the kid fell all over himself for that crazy and mendacious Iris, Jim was only too ready to heap scorn upon him. Whatever deep fear he'd felt when he'd realized the kid was in real trouble, for all that terrible night that he and Simon did their best to track him down, he hid from Blair. Rather than express relief that he was whole, essentially unharmed by his escapade on the dark side, Jim had gone along with the idea of actually charging him as a suspect, and letting him cool his heels in Banks' custody, while he wondered if he might actually go to prison. Teach him to fall for some unknown woman. Served him right to have been suckered in by a bitch that had turned out to be a callous criminal who wouldn't have blinked to see Blair dead.

Only ... only being such a tough guy, indifferent and occasionally even consciously mean, left Jim feeling like a proverbial piece of shit. There was hurt in Blair's eyes, uncertainty when the kid looked at him, puzzled, like he couldn't figure out what he'd done wrong or why Jim was so pissed off with him. And there was anger in Blair's eyes, too. That, after all their years together, Jim still seemed to discount him, didn't trust him or give him any credit. Would even abuse him in a way, by playing that stupid stunt of letting him think he might be in real trouble over his wild, terrifying night with Iris and her pals.

Jim couldn't sustain it, couldn't pretend such cold indifference. He felt a compelling need to somehow make up for his recent behaviours. So, he and Simon took the kid fishing, and they were having a blast. God, it was so good to see that internal light of joy glowing from Sandburg again, to hear his laughter, his sheer delight - just like a kid - to be included in shared good times. Guiltily, Jim remembered he'd promised himself to do this, to take the kid camping and fishing, to have some fun, to make up for not going to Borneo - and it had taken him a year and a burden of guilt to finally getting around to doing so.

Only the fun was short-lived, and they found themselves in the midst of a poaching case. Next thing he knew, he was undercover, posing as the husband of Elaine Walters, a Fish and Game Warden. She kept trying to spark him, but he just wasn't interested. Was monumentally uninterested, but when he caught a surprised, speculative glance from Sandburg, he decided he should make an effort. But it pissed him off that when the case ended, after Blair had had to take out Frank Rafferty on his own - one of the presumed good guys who had turned out to be an armed and dangerous Warden gone bad - and then they'd all come close to being wiped out, he ended up out for dinner with Elaine rather than being at home with his partner. It left him feeling chilled to imagine that battle between Blair and Frank on the open water and how easily Sandburg might have been overpowered. Jim scrubbed his forehead when he thought about it. He kept forgetting that, even though he saw Sandburg as someone who needed protection, the guy routinely showed he was pretty damned good at taking care of himself, even against the odds.

Reminding himself of that, determined to return to his strategy to prove he was doing okay and that Blair could go back to living his own life, when the chance came up to go undercover in the home of mob chieftain, Vincent Lazar, he grabbed it. Only that didn't go as planned either, and Blair showed up as the tutor for the kid - and then they both came close to buying the farm before it was all over.

It was maddening, infuriating. Nothing he did seemed to work. And his feelings for Blair weren't going away. Nuh-uh. Were, to the contrary, growing more intense, more insistent. Jim felt like he was constantly on edge, close to blowing up over the slightest thing. And Dan Freeman gave him just the excuse he needed to explode at someone, something. What should have been a modest traffic irritation escalated to Freeman nearly blowing an operation, and then dragging Sandburg off, with threats of killing the grad student. Jim saw red, furious that Blair had ended up in the middle of what had been his fight. If it hadn't been so serious, if Blair's life hadn't been so very much at risk, Jim might have seen something ironically amusing at having to charge off to the rescue, yet again, like a knight in shining armour.

As it was, he was just pissed off.

His mood didn't improve any when he realized Sandburg was falling for Genevieve Benet, a human rights activist from the Islands, whose life was under treat. Intellectually, he knew and fully accepted that Blair wasn't ever going to love him, be in love with him, but emotionally, he could barely endure knowing Sandburg was ... was ... well, he didn't want to think about it. Of course, it didn't last and she left and the kid looked like his heart was breaking all over again. What was it with him and foreign chicks? Jim shook his head. Not just women from far corners of the world. Blair had a regrettable tendency to fall easily, no doubt with the hope of finding the right one and starting a family, being a father to somehow assuage never having had one. Jim could tell him that having a father wasn't necessarily a great life experience, but he doubted Sandburg would really listen. But he couldn't stand to see the kid moping around, so he hauled him off on a holiday to visit his cousin, Rucker, a coast guard officer on a remote and rugged bit of stone, figuring a change of scenery, some fishing, some poker, would bring some sparkle back into Blair's eyes.

And then the murderous drug lord showed up and the next thing he knew, he was thrusting an automatic rifle into Blair's hands and they were barricading themselves against violent, explosive assault. And of course the girl they thought they were rescuing, Monique, was as two-faced and manipulative as they come. Well, at least she hadn't had time to break Sandburg's already sorely wounded heart.

Cursing as he fired out the window, Jim promised himself that if they got out of this he'd stop worrying about what the morrow might bring; he would just live each and every day enjoying the reality of Sandburg in his life, for as long as the kid was there. The distinct discomfort of hiding how he felt, of second guessing every touch, every look, everything he said, was a small price to pay for Blair's continued presence. If they got out of this alive, he'd just be damned grateful to have the kid around, safe and sound.

 


 

But if you stay, I'll make you a night
Like no night has been, or will be again.
I'll sail on your smile, I'll ride on your touch,
I'll talk to your eyes that I love so much.
But if you go, go, I won't cry,
Though the good is gone from the word goodbye,
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

Against all the odds, they did survive, though Rucker got pretty banged up. He'd be fine, thank God, but it put an end to whatever holiday plans might have survived being nearly massacred. The upside was that the close brush with death had done wonders to bring Sandburg back to life. Whatever wounds he'd been nursing over Maya's betrayal, he was fairly vibrating with life again, so incredibly relieved to still be alive. So, Jim supposed as they sat in the coast guard cutter that was taking them back to Cascade, he had to figure that the purpose of the trip had been achieved, however bizarrely. Sandburg's heart seemed to be back to normal, if the grin and the sparkle in his eyes was anything to go by.

As for the state of his own heart? Jim scrubbed his face with his hands and told himself for about the thousandth time to get a grip. When had the state of his heart ever mattered? Snorting at the blatant self-pity, he grimaced and shook his head. Somehow, without realizing it, he'd let his defences down, had come to care too much, when it wasn't appropriate and was doomed to disappointment. Sandburg didn't have a clue how he felt, and that's the way he wanted it. What he couldn't figure out was why Blair was still there. It had been months since the man had blurted out that he had more than enough to do his dissertation. And, sure, while Jim still had the odd sensory glitch, for the most part, he'd been doing fine, so ... so he could just say so, right? Just say that he could manage on his own now, right? Be straight about it, upfront, let Blair know that he was off the hook and didn't have to keep hanging around? That he could go with no misgivings or regrets?

Only, Jim wasn't ready to say the words that would send Blair out of his life. It was selfish and, God knew, the pain he grappled with everyday was immense as he fought his need to tell the simple truth, to ask if ... if ....

Disgusted, he thrust the thoughts away, stamped down on the feelings that tormented and confused him. He'd told himself that he'd just enjoy the kid's presence if they survived the last day, and he was going to do his damnedest to do just that.

 


 

Nearly another two months went by and Ellison was pleased that he seemed to have found some kind of balance, an ability to affiliate with Blair, if not with the comfortable warmth of the year before, at least with some of the easy humour. Of course, it was all at the expense of the ditzy Cassie Welles, who seemed to think she should be a detective and not simply a forensic specialist. At first, she tried to insinuate herself with Jim, shouldering Sandburg out of the way - big mistake. When she got nowhere, she went in the other direction, engaging Blair in off-side activities to prove her wild theories or to carry out unauthorized investigations on her own. At first, ever curious, ever helpful Sandburg seemed to have fallen for the ploy, but the kid soon got wise. When she then tried the trick of coming on to each of them, as if to form a human wedge between them, probably a kind of reversion to her original plan to eventually have Blair's observer status revoked, neither of them wanted to play and laughed as they walked away.

When Jim went undercover in a prison, he found the noise, the despair, the feeling of being caged nearly overwhelming. God, when he'd seen Sandburg in the classroom, he'd been torn between wanting to hug the stuffing out of the kid and reaming him out for being so stupid as to risk his own safety by coming into the lockup. The nights were the worst - long, dreary hours grappling with fear and loneliness, and trying hard not to draw any parallels between being locked in a cell and the prison he'd made of his heart, barring his desires and needs inside and standing vigilant guard against any inclination to reveal the truth.

By the time it was over, Jim felt battered in his mind, even in his soul, as well as in his body. Blair, as always, wanted to help, if he could; wanted Jim to talk it out. But Ellison didn't want the psychic filth of the hell that prison was to - in any way - find its way into Sandburg's mind or heart. So he just locked his roiling emotions inside, struggled to keep going, told himself that he was doing just fine.

Except ... the pressures just kept piling on and on, more and more. Tough cases continued to come at them, like having to seek the assistance of a priestess in a religious cult to bring down a bad cop; having to agree to Sandburg going undercover in Conover to figure out how a brilliant psychopath was still conducting or orchestrating murders; worrying about Simon being shot in a bank robbery and having to work under a temporary captain who could not figure out why Sandburg was still hanging around and wanted him gone. Which should have been fine, as that was the plan, wasn't it? Only it just got Jim's back up; man, he did not like being told what to do. So once again he was torn by ambivalence in a dilemma of his own making.

All his good intentions to just appreciate the kid and not worry about the future weren't enough to alleviate his internal struggle with his emotions. He felt like he was wearing down, like a stone worn thin by the eternal wash of a river, and he knew he was giving increasingly erratic and mixed signals of warm friendship and cool, if not downright icy, aloofness. Blair seemed to sense that something was off, wrong, off-key, but he couldn't know how strained things really were or why. But his partner was becoming increasingly watchful, uncertain. Jim desperately wanted to reassure the kid, wanted more than anything to regain the kind of rapport they'd had before his sudden epiphany, but he couldn't seem to find any way out of his irresolvable dilemma of wanting Blair to go away for Sandburg's sake, and needing the man to stay, for his own.

As time wore on, Jim was beginning to seriously wonder how much longer he could keep pretending that Sandburg was just a friend, how long he could keep denying what he was holding inside. He was becoming increasingly short-tempered and frayed at the edges. When Blair's old friend, Sweet Roy Williams, was murdered, he wasn't in any shape to handle either Sandburg's grief or his rage. They quarreled over the investigation, sometimes bitterly, and Jim was appalled when Blair willfully put himself between the armed, prime suspect and the police, namely his partner, Jim Ellison. God, if the kid had been wrong, he'd be stone cold dead.

The farce couldn't go on; it was, ultimately, too dangerous. Jim knew he had to find the strength to end it, to send Blair on his way. How many close calls could one person survive? How much luck - or good karma, as Sandburg would put it - did any one man have? But before he could figure out what to do, how to bring it all to an end, Jim found himself embroiled in his past. A new murder investigation threw light on the killing of his mentor, Bud, the only person who Jim had ever felt truly believed in him when he was a kid. And he ended up having to confront his father, whom he hadn't seen in twenty years and had no desire to see now.

Only to have all of his beliefs about his father, about how cold the man had been, about how he'd never really loved either him or Steven, turned upside down. Instead of the man of ice, he found a man who did indeed love him and always had, who had mourned his absence from afar. He didn't know what to think, what to feel. In some moments, he found himself leaning on Blair, at others, pushing the kid away as he struggled to deal with it all on his own.

And then Lila, God, Lila, came back into his life. A mystery woman from his past and the subject of a good many fantasies over the years - and she blew his senses into disarray even as the scent of her, the touch of her ignited a fire that should have probably been allowed to burn out a long, long time before. Part of him grabbed at the passion he felt for her, telling himself that it meant that, maybe, he was getting over his crazy, hopeless fascination with Sandburg, even as a small voice in his mind, one that sounded remarkably like his favorite anthropologist, told him that his behaviour was irrational. Finding out that she was an international assassin was staggering, and he hadn't wanted to believe that, once again, he'd developed a fatal attraction for the wrong, wrong person. When she'd died in his arms, saving his life, he felt numb, because he knew in that moment that he'd never loved her. Infatuated, sure. Saw her as a kind of emotional life-line, big time. But his body had known what his mind had rejected - his senses didn't work when she was around, a dead giveaway that something was very wrong. He'd acted like a fool, tried to delude himself into believing that his desire for Blair could be overcome, set aside, satisfied by another. And he was left feeling like his life was ashes, that there was nothing to hold onto, no hope to cling to, no future he dared imagine.

He couldn't go on like this. He needed to clear his head, reclaim his control over his emotions. He needed, badly, to do some serious thinking about his life and where it was going. But there was no time to think, no space for reflection - literally no time or space. Jim felt as if the world was crashing in on him and he had to step back, make some sense of it, finally, finally make up his mind about what he was going to do about getting Blair to move on and then find the intestinal fortitude to do it. But he couldn't, not with Sandburg around all the time, watching him with concern, trying to get him to talk about things he wasn't ready to talk about. He needed to get away. Just for a few days. He needed to think and sort things out.

So he took off with virtually no notice as soon as his last case was cleared, and refused to even let Simon or Blair know where he was going. He knew they were caught by surprise, that they didn't understand, but he didn't have the capacity to explain it. How did you tell your two best friends that they were suffocating you, that the world was closing in and you just needed space to breathe and silence, precious silence to think?

Only they figured out where he'd gone and followed him. And he was forced to tell them he didn't want their company, to beg them to go. God, the hurt in their eyes ... guilt tore at him. He blurted out something about loving them before he'd half realized what he'd said. But even that wasn't enough to assuage the dark sense of having been rejected in their expressions and voices. Next thing he knew, he insisted they all have breakfast together and then - as he might have guessed would happen, given the way his life had been going for what felt like years - all hell broke loose. People were falling over sick, and the military showed up, putting the town under quarantine because of some virulent, very deadly virus. Sandburg, of course, with his inherent suspicions about arbitrary military action, smelled some kind of conspiracy, but even he and Simon sensed there was something off-kilter.

And then Blair collapsed with a high fever. His face flushed, his eyes glazed and wide with fear, because there was every reason to believe he'd never get out of the quarantine tent alive, Blair was carried away from him. And there was nothing he could do, God damn it. It wasn't an enemy of flesh and blood but a murderous disease. And he couldn't seem to say anything - too afraid, too choked up - so Blair was taken without a single word of encouragement or hope ... or love. As he wheeled away to storm up the street, Jim fought the guilt that threatened to overwhelm him; if he hadn't had to run away, like he'd run away when he'd been a kid, to get his own space, to make sense of his world and his life, then Blair wouldn't've been in this damned town. Wouldn't maybe be dying.

Pinching his nose to hold back the burn of emotion, Jim vowed to himself that if he got his partner back alive, they were done with just drifting along. Things were going to change. Enough of Blair's rollercoaster ride - living on the edge, and damned near careening into the abyss way too often. He couldn't stand this; couldn't go on keeping the guy close and having to go through this ... this gut-clenching, soul-eating fear all the damned time. Whatever the hell it meant for him, he wanted Blair safe. Period. Safe.

If the kid survived.

Please, God. He had to survive.

Sandburg would finally leave, but at least, at least, he'd be alive somewhere, living a good life.


If you go away, as I know you must,
There'll be nothing left in the world to trust,
Just an empty room, full of empty space,
Like the empty look I see on your face.
I'd have been the shadow of your shadow
If I thought it might have kept me by your side.
If you go away, if you go away, if you go away.

It was ridiculous. He'd made up his mind to tell Sandburg that his ride was over, but he couldn't seem to find the right time or place to say it out loud. This wasn't something he could just dump on the guy out of the blue, and he didn't want Blair to misunderstand, didn't want Sandburg to think he was saying they couldn't be friends. But he didn't want to get into a lot of chit-chat about why he wanted it all to be over, wasn't sure he could ride the narrow edge of being intractable while still showing he cared. Too far one way, and he'd come across as one cold, thankless sonofabitch; too far the other way, and he might reveal too much. He needed time to work up to it, but not too much time.

So, not at the loft in the evenings, where Sandburg could badger him for the rest of the night about his reasons, and give all kinds of justifications about why he still needed to stay. Jim wasn't sure he could win a sustained fight with Blair about him staying, when everything in him wanted the kid to stay. Everything except his common sense.

And not at work, where there were too many people around and not enough privacy. Snorting to himself, he couldn't imagine beginning to start this conversation in the middle of the bullpen, and if they adjourned to a conference room, everyone would want to know why, what they were working on.

Not at dinner in a restaurant. Still too many people. And this particular conversation wouldn't do much for either of their appetites.

Not while driving one place or another. He needed to give this his full attention. Blair deserved that. And besides, the kid was tricky. If Jim was at all distracted by traffic or whatever, he knew Sandburg would weasel more out of him than he ever wanted to say.

So ... a late night stakeout, lasting until dawn. A conversation when Blair was too tired to fight back, just before the end of the shift when they'd either be going straight to bed when they got home or Sandburg would pull one of his routine stunts of going to Rainier as if it was any other day. Einstein swore that people wasted half their lives in sleep and he just plain didn't have the time to fritter away that way.

Good. He had a plan.

The only problem was that their next case didn't require a midnight to dawn stakeout.

Worse, they were assigned baby-sitting, er, orientation duty with the new exchange cop from Australia, who was irritating, annoying, impulsive, driven, didn't listen - except when it was 'sentinel stuff' that she wasn't supposed to hear, but that she seemed inevitably to focus in on, even from across a crowded room. She went off half-cocked on her own self-styled version of superwoman, and was generally a too aggressive, too watchful, bitch who now thought he was a psychic. Like he needed this? Shaking his head bemusedly, Jim thought wryly that someday he'd have to learn to speak his mind, at least to himself.

Worse still, Simon then assigned the three of them to go undercover in the 'burbs to find a potentially compromised relocated protected witness. He and Megan were posing as husband and wife, while Sandburg was a cousin or kid brother or some damned thing. And then Blair got the hots for a single mother living across the street - was there such a thing as 'worsest'? Whatever. The person in that house that Blair had really fallen for was the cute daughter. He was identifying too much, seeing himself and Naomi and his unsettled childhood, and everything in him was crying out to give that little kid a better life.

No time to talk. No place to talk. And he had to make nice with Connor while Sandburg mooned over a woman because he ached to be a father. Terrific.

Every time he warned his partner off, or made it impossible for him to keep a date, Jim honestly didn't know if he was doing it for the kid's sake - to save him from heartache if the woman turned out to be the protected witness who'd be moved immediately with no forwarding name or address - or for his own sake, because ... well, just because watching the man fall in love, again, with someone other than him, again - hell, a woman, again - was about as much fun as having his guts ripped out with a dull nail file.

Forcing himself to focus his mind on the case, Jim told himself that things had to get better. No way could they get any worse.

 


 

Jim finished reading the draft first chapter of Blair's dissertation and mechanically closed the folder, not really aware of doing so. He was numb. No, that wasn't right. Sick, maybe? Wanted to throw up? This was how Sandburg saw him? After three years together? The man he loved so much that he'd scarcely been able to think straight for a year had written this about him? Staring sightlessly at the closed door of the toilet cubicle, Jim shook his head, trying to make sense of it. Bile rose to the back of his throat and he pressed his fingers over his mouth as he swallowed convulsively.

Thinking maybe he'd gotten it wrong, that he must have misunderstood something, he went back and scanned some of the paragraphs again, but had to stop when his eyes blurred and burned. Blinking, pinching the bridge of his nose, sniffing, he forced back the hot tears. He wasn't going to cry over this shit. Nothing made him cry. Nothing.

The folder gripped in one hand, he crossed his arms and leaned forward, holding in the need to shout out his ... his rage at what a fool he'd been. At having thought Blair felt they were at least friends, having believed the kid cared something about him. Had maybe respected him.

God.

He'd fallen in love with a man who really did believe he was a Neanderthal throwback. Paranoid. Territorially challenged? Fear-based? Issues with intimacy? Sandburg had spoken to Carolyn? Behind his back? Discussed him like some case? Like some objective third party who couldn't give a shit about him as a man, a friend, a partner? Rolling his eyes, Jim shook his head. The kid had no fucking idea about the intimacy challenges he dealt with every single damned day, just to keep their boat afloat. Just to ... to protect and sustain a friendship that was vital to him, that had felt almost ... sacred. Just to hold on to what he had, when he couldn't ever have what he wanted.

But it was all a sham. There was no substance. For three years, he'd lived closer to Sandburg, shared more, trusted more ... hell, loved more ... than he had with any other person since he'd left home, only to find out that he wasn't much more than a lab rat after all to Blair. Just ... just a means to an end.

What kind of bastard could do that? Pretend loyalty and friendship for three fucking years just to get inside another man's skin in order to dissect him and flay him alive in print?

He couldn't wrap his head around it. Couldn't ... couldn't take it in.

Once again he stared at the folder, leafed through it, his gaze falling on the damning phrases. And he remembered Sandburg laughing about it in the truck earlier that evening. Getting a kick out of going through these notes. Fuck.

No wonder Sandburg hadn't wanted him to read it, he thought bitterly.

Closing his eyes, Jim fought to master his emotions. Shutting everything else out, blanking his mind, struggling to breathe evenly, he quietly, soberly, ruthlessly, told himself he'd been the world's biggest, blindest fool.

But now he knew where he stood. The man he'd thought he'd loved really didn't exist. Never had. It had all been a game of make-believe and pretend.

But the game was over.

Rage curdled in his belly, rose in a fire to his chest, blind, white-hot rage. He let it burn briefly, but knew he was out of control and wouldn't be able to function. He was in the middle of a case, in the middle of the PD. He had to be able to act rationally, had to be able to think coherently. So he dampened the nearly mindless fury, and grew cold, very cold. He could feel his heart, heavy in his chest, like a ball of rock-hard ice. No more delusions. No more hopes. No more.

It was all fucking over.

 


 

Seething in the elevator after he strode away, leaving Blair shouting after him, he wondered by what right Sandburg was so self-righteously pissed off. Who the hell was the one who'd been betrayed in this little scenario, huh?

But the kid had seemed so plausible. So ... convinced he'd done nothing wrong. So astonished to be accused of betrayal. And Jim knew Sandburg wasn't putting it on. He knew that man. Knew his every expression, every gesture, every look in his eyes and the sound of his heart.

And what had he seen? Sensed?

Deep hurt, that Jim could think him so callous, so unfeeling. That there could be any question of deliberate, malicious betrayal of the trust between them or their friendship.

And then fury that Jim could think so little of him.

It didn't make any sense. How could Blair have written all that, believed it, and yet not seen it as betrayal?

Jim didn't understand it, not any of it. He felt as if his whole world was in a tailspin.

But ... he wanted to believe that somehow it could all make sense. Badly wanted to believe that Blair hadn't been stringing him along, playing him for a first-class fool.

Wanted so very much to believe that the man he loved with every fiber of his being wasn't his imagination but really, really did exist.

Dear God, he wanted that so much that he had no words to describe the immensity of the longing that filled him.

 


 

Okay, maybe he could see Sandburg's point. And if the kid was prepared to destroy his notes rather than risk their friendship, well, then, maybe ... maybe he just really hadn't understood all the academic mumbo-jumbo. Maybe he'd over-reacted. But it still didn't feel right. Felt wrong.

"You didn't answer him. 'What good does it do for a man to have ears that will hear a thousand miles if he cannot listen to the whispers of his own heart?'"

Shocked by the words, Jim blinked at the sing-song voice behind him and turned. "What?" he demanded, confused to find Gabe, the self-proclaimed angel. The guy was a fruitcake.

"You should begin by listening to the hearts of others."

Jim gaped at him. The message was so ... appropriate and yet the source was so bizarrely unlikely as to be ludicrous. And what the hell was that hearing for a thousand miles bit, anyway? But when the tramp started chanting in some incomprehensible language, Jim turned and walked away. He didn't have time to deal with this. He had a case to solve. He needed a chance to think.

 


 

His thinking was done when he saw the assassin grab Blair in a headlock that could snap the kid's spine, and hold a weapon to Sandburg's head. All the confusion, the hurt, the anger, the uncertainty took a back seat to the abject reality that he loved the man and nothing was ever going to change that fact. Whether Blair published the paper, stayed, went - none of that mattered a damn in the face of that murderous bastard holding his partner's life in his hands.

If he could get Sandburg out of this mess, well, then, he'd find a way to live with being a lab rat.

Wasn't like he really had a choice, was it?

The bleak thoughts were fleeting, scraps of emotions more than words, little more than a dismal, despairing kind of acceptance, as he yelled at people crowding the corridor to get down and leveled his pistol at the bastard threatening Blair's life.

 


 

He raced through the blue jungle and found his prey, and gaped as the dead wolf blurred, its body shifting, changing into a naked, dead Blair.

Gasping for air, Jim woke with a jerk, the residual horror of the dream congealing in his belly. Disoriented, panicked, he sat up on the couch, his gaze darting around the room, and he realized he must have only been dreaming. Scraping a hand over his face, he fought to bring his emotions under control, to quell the nausea that threatened when he thought about Blair lying dead in the dream. Shuddering, he crossed his arms tightly and tried to make sense of what was happening, what had been happening. God, he hated these dreams, these waking visions, like seeing the spotted jaguar in that store during the robbery the other day. Or hearing the disembodied growl just before, weapon up and ready to fire, he yanked open the door to the hallway to find a very startled Sandburg staring wide-eyed down the barrel of his gun.

What the hell was going on? What was happening to him? Why hadn't he known it was Blair at the door? Smelled him? Heard and recognized his step, his heartbeat? Why had he been so sure that it was a deadly enemy in the hallway? Why the hell would he be dreaming about killing a wolf that morphed into Blair? Was he beginning to see Sandburg as some kind of enemy? Why? Was it some kind of twisted desire to kill off the love he felt? The love that was slowly driving him crazy with hopeless frustration and despair?

Heaving a sigh, he shook his head. For weeks, months, he'd been telling himself it couldn't go on, that he had to find a way to end it, to let Sandburg go - find a way to make him go. Gritting his teeth, closing his eyes tight against the furious tears that burned, refusing to lose control, Jim grappled with his demons. God, he hated feeling impotent and afraid, uncertain about the future, confused about everything. He needed to do something, take back control. He needed ... he needed to talk to Sandburg. Tell him about the visions. Tell him about the unreasoning sense of threat that was looming like suffocating darkness, smothering the light.

But not now, not when he was such a wreck he could scarcely put two words together. And not here, not in the loft where there'd be no escape other than to walk out if ... if he came too close to blurting out how he felt. Besides, it was the middle of the night. Sandburg was sleeping and Jim didn't want to wake him; didn't want to confess that he'd had a bad dream and needed comforting, as if he was some kid who was afraid of the dark. Tomorrow, he was going back to work. He'd go over to Blair's office during the day, maybe meet him for lunch, get to some neutral ground or something, and talk about the dream, and the feeling of something being wrong, very wrong.

Pushing himself to his feet, Jim walked shakily to the stairs and climbed up to his room. Crashing on the bed, he pulled the cover over his body and fell into exhausted, uneasy sleep.

 


 

Jim staggered away from Sandburg's office door, turned a corner and leaned against the wall. Shaken to the core by his vision of the spotted jaguar and the blond stranger in the office, trembling with unreasoning fury, he struggled to make sense of what was going on. He'd seen that same jaguar in the convenience store, just before he'd been shot. And now ... now that jaguar clearly seemed associated with that woman, whoever she was.

Blair had said he'd met some woman the other night, right? Days ago? And Sandburg had been the invisible man ever since, hardly ever home, not saying much about what he was up to, just that he was working on some project at Rainier.

Was she the project? The only other imaginary jaguar Jim had ever seen was the black one, the one that was somehow linked with him, with him being a sentinel. Swallowing back the gorge in his throat, he wondered, grimly, if Blair had found himself another sentinel. A beautiful blond sentinel.

Jealousy swamped him. And rage. He had to get out of the university. Had to go home. Had to make sense of this. Had to ... had to get control. He couldn't think like this.

Back in his truck, driving to the loft, his vision of having killed the wolf that was somehow Blair filled his mind, leaving him shaking. When he finally got home, he sat in the truck, gripping the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles were white, feeling desperate, so desperate to ... do what? He didn't know. He felt as if the world was crashing in, crushing him. Felt, terrifyingly, as if he was losing his mind.

And he was very, very afraid that he might actually be some kind of danger to Sandburg. That in his unreasoning jealousy over a love that Blair didn't even know about, in his rage and confusion, his desperation, his sense of being nearly totally out of control, that he might actually hurt Blair. Maybe that's what the vision had meant; maybe it had been a warning he didn't dare ignore.

Trembling, he went into the building, to the basement. He grabbed the folded-up boxes Sandburg had stored there when he'd first moved in, believing he'd only be there for a week and would be moving again, so there was no reason to junk the cartons. He carried them upstairs and, in a stunned daze, not wholly aware of what he was doing, he began to pack up Blair's stuff, moving box after box out to the front hall.

 


 

Feeling as if he'd been violated, Jim prowled the streets, his fists clenched. He could smell her on Sandburg, dammit. Her stench sickened him. Worse, the way it blended with Blair's distinctive personal scent put his teeth on edge, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard. He couldn't describe it exactly, but it was like music, the harmonics just off-key, mingled tones jangling, all wrong and disturbing. How could Sandburg ...?

But he pushed away the thought, not wanting, not able to contemplate what his partner might be doing with her. He had no right to challenge Sandburg, to demand anything of the man. He had no right.

He came to the park and loped toward the water. It was pitch dark, no one around and he tried to let the silence calm him. Leaning against a tree, he bowed his head and wrapped his arms around his body. He felt so cold, so lonely. So lost. Bleakly, he recalled the astonished look of disbelief and then hurt in Blair's eyes when he realized he was being summarily kicked out of the loft. Jim hadn't meant it like that, not like anything permanent. He just needed ... needed to ....

He didn't know what he needed. Did know and couldn't accept it. He needed Blair. Needed to hold on. But that wasn't going to happen. And he was so afraid, afraid his dream meant he might hurt, hell, might kill Blair somehow, as impossible as that thought seemed, as sick as it left him feeling.

Minutes passed, maybe hours. He'd lost track of time along with everything else. Swallowing, he pushed himself away from the tree and straightened, dragging in one breath after another, trying to fight off the sense of impending doom that left his skin crawling and his gut hollow. Slowly, stiffly, he made his way back home. But once he was in the loft, he still felt as if the world was closing in on him. He needed space to prowl, maybe to do battle, he didn't know. God, maybe he was going insane. Shaking his head numbly, like a stunned ox, he tried to fight off the feeling of being hunted, but he couldn't shake it. Increasingly desperate, he shoved all the living room furniture into Sandburg's now barren room. To clear enough space, he folded up the futon and stood it up against the wall. He piled the love seat onto the sofa, and the chair went into a corner. He went back into the main room, but it still felt crowded, oppressive. So he took apart the table, and stored those pieces and the chairs, too, in Blair's room.

He turned off the lights, turned down the heat, opened the balcony doors and went outside to drag in great gulps of air. When he felt he could breathe normally again, he went back inside and began to pace around the empty space.

He felt as though he was going to fly apart.

He had to keep moving. If he stopped, his thoughts would overwhelm him, his emotions tear him apart.

So, like a sentry focused only on doing his duty, his senses reaching into the night, he paced until dawn.

 


 

Jim felt incredulous fury rising as he gaped at Sandburg. He'd suspected, sure, and the videotape of the thief pretty much confirmed it, but he'd still hoped he was wrong. He hadn't wanted to believe Blair would be working with another sentinel behind his back; couldn't imagine that Blair would be that devious, that untrustworthy. But Sandburg had just admitted it. Admitted he'd been sneaking around, helping that blond bitch master her senses. Damn him to hell. Protocol? Sandburg was worried about research protocol? Was that all their friendship added up to? Research? Well, fuck that. Fuck everything. He didn't need this. Couldn't listen to another word or any more excuses that added up to shit.

He had a criminal to catch. Who the hell was she anyway? Where had she come from?

Storming past Sandburg, unable to bear looking at him, feeling more betrayed than he ever had before, wanting to slug the man so badly he could taste it, he slammed out into the bullpen to start getting answers about this mysterious Alex Barnes and what she was doing in his city.

 


 

Perched on the edge of his desk, his head turned away, Jim listened to the sound of Simon's footsteps receding into the distance. His lips pressed together, he slumped and pinched the bridge of his nose, fiercely determined to contain his emotions. Christ, did Simon think it had been easy to tell Sandburg it was done, over, to get lost? His jaw clenched against the need to cry out with his pain and to allow the sob thickening in his throat to escape; Jim felt like an ancient warrior who had failed so badly, so utterly, that he'd ripped out his own living heart and cast it into the fire, then stood for what felt like infinity to watch it burn to ashes, knowing he was dead inside, eager for the darkness to rush up and carry him into oblivion.

But he was no ancient, mythical warrior, just a cop who had failed in his duty and allowed a vicious murderer to escape with the means to kill millions more; just a man who felt bereft of all hope, as if his life had become a barren wasteland.

For three years, he'd trusted Sandburg with his life and sanity. For more than a year now, he'd secretly loved Blair with a passion that defied description. The enormity of the loss of all he'd believed, all he'd trusted, all he'd loved, swamped him, leaving him weak with despair. How could Blair have betrayed him like that? How, after so many, many years, could Blair still see him only as a research project? And how could Blair not understand? How could he look so wounded? As if he'd been the one who had been wronged? A mistake, he'd said. He'd made a mistake.

Well, he wasn't the only one who'd made a mistake, Jim told himself bitterly. At least Sandburg hadn't been fool enough to fall in love with someone who really didn't give a damn about him. Shaking his head, Jim pushed himself off the desk and walked slowly toward the elevators. Life went on, didn't it? A man didn't have to be happy to still breathe. Didn't have to feel alive inside to go through the motions and do his job. All he had to do was keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, until the pain receded. However hard it was. However long it took. He had to keep going.

Wasn't like there was any choice, right?

 


 

Jim cursed. Why the hell hadn't Connor cuffed the bitch? Sonofabitch. So close. They'd been so close to having her, to locking her away.

A wave of dizziness swamped him, and he was wondering if he'd suffered a concussion, when the vision of the blue jungle, of Blair dead, swam in front of his eyes. And he knew. Fear curdled in his belly, and he called out to Connor that Barnes was after Sandburg - and then he was racing for his truck.

The university. Blair had said Jim knew where he could find him. He had to be in his office at Rainier.

Siren blaring, he drove across town like a madman while Megan called for backup. Barnes had called him early, while it was still dark. After a miserable, sleepless night he'd been making coffee to jumpstart himself for the day, but hadn't been able to contemplate the idea of eating, any more than he'd been able to eat the night before when he'd gotten home. All night, all damned night, he'd thought about Blair. He'd come so close to calling, but he couldn't, just couldn't get past all that had happened. Jesus, if she'd gone after the kid, he didn't stand a chance.

Skidding to a stop in the traffic circle in front of Hargrove Hall, Jim burst out of the truck and raced to the door. But something prickled at his mind; a scent, two scents, barely there in the cool, still morning air. She'd been there. They'd both passed through the door not more than half an hour before. Turning, his gaze raked the area and he saw ... he saw ....

"Oh, God!" he gasped, lunging down the steps toward the fountain as Simon, Brown and Rafe pulled up and bounded out of their vehicles. "Help me!" he shouted, climbing over the edge, slogging through the water to grab Blair, to haul him out. Henri was there, and together they dragged Sandburg out and onto the ground.

He wasn't breathing. God, God, his face was gray with death.

Desperately, Jim began mouth to mouth while Simon started cardiac massage. Nothing. Nothing. Simon shouting at him. What? Heartbeat? No. No, he couldn't hear a heartbeat.

"C'mon, Chief. C'mon," he begged between breaths. The taste of the fountain on Blair's cold lips was foul, but he thrust that away. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that Blair start to breathe, that his heart start to beat again.

Simon pulling him away. Making room for the EMTs. Watching, pleading with Blair to respond. This couldn't be happening. He couldn't be dead. Not Sandburg. He was so full of life. Brimming with it. This couldn't be real. Couldn't ...

Sorry? What did the guy mean? Sorry? No. No, they couldn't give up. It couldn't be too late. Couldn't be hopeless. Sandburg wasn't dead. Couldn't be dead. No way. Breathe, he pleaded in his mind as he cupped Blair's face and blew life and warmth past his lips. Blew love. Please, Chief, please, he chanted silently.

Simon and Brown grabbed his arms, hauled him back and away. "NOOOOO!" he screamed then in furious denial, feeling as if something inside, his heart, his soul maybe, was being ripped from him. "Please, God, no," he rasped brokenly as he stared down at Sandburg's body, limp and cold, blue and still in death. "No."

And then, he thought he saw the face of the blue wolf superimposed on Blair’s dead face, the wolf from his dream, and he thought he was hallucinating. He blinked to clear his eyes; only to have Incacha fill his vision, the shaman's voice ringing in his ears. Panting with desperation, he listened with desperate hope and, like a man possessed, he violently pulled away from the hands that gripped him to once more fall to his knees beside Blair's body. Tenderly, he reached out to touch the beloved face, to cup Blair's cold visage between his warm hands. Closing his eyes, he cried out with everything in his heart, from the depths of his soul, for Blair to come back to him, cried out for the animals to bring him back, to please, please bring him back.

He saw the jungle, saw the wolf stumbling toward the light and his soul shouted in desperation. The wolf turned, hesitated, and then was running toward him, toward the jaguar that was in some strange way him, and he was racing toward the wolf, toward Blair. And they leapt toward each other and there was blinding light and heat and ... he heard it. Oh, God, he heard the first solid thump, and then second - and he was back in the real world, doing CPR and, when Sandburg coughed and convulsed weakly, turning Blair quickly as foul water gushed from the kid's mouth. Holding Sandburg on his side, he bellowed for the EMTs.

Hot tears of wretched relief flooded his eyes then as he scrambled out of the way of the medics, and he stumbled to his feet.

Blair was alive.

Blair had come back to him.

 


 

"...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," Sandburg encouraged, his voice weak and hoarse but his eyes bright with life and delight in their shared experience.

My brother, Jim thought as he looked away, swallowing hard. That's how Sandburg saw him, wasn't it? A brother. The brother Blair had never had. Muttering that he wasn't ready for that trip, he struggled to keep his sense of hopelessness hidden. Blair was alive. That's what mattered. The rest? There wasn't anything else. Never would be. That was just the way it was.

And he had a job to do. She was still out there, somewhere, with enough poison gas to murder everyone in Cascade. Even if she'd left town, he knew he had go after her. She was a sentinel ... or, at least, she had enhanced senses. There wasn't a cop in a local jurisdiction anywhere who had a hope of catching her, stopping her. He looked at Blair and managed a small smile.

"Get some rest, Chief," he urged, lightly squeezing Sandburg's shoulder.

When he turned to go, Blair reached up to grab his wrist. "You're going after her, aren't you," he said, a statement, not a question.

"I have to. You know that."

Blair searched his eyes. "Wait until I can go with you?" he asked, anxious concern in his voice.

Gently disengaging Sandburg's grip on his arm, Jim shook his head. "There's no time." Holding Blair's gaze, he added, "Don't worry. I'll be careful."

Sandburg's eyes darkened and he seemed about to say something, but he looked away, and then nodded slowly. Jim stroked his damp hair lightly, murmuring huskily, "Rest, Chief. Just rest. Everything'll be okay."

Resisting the urge to pull the kid into his arms and never let go, he turned abruptly and strode out of the treatment room without a backward glance.

 


 

Jim watched Alex race away from him, and he shook his head, feeling dazed and disoriented. What was he doing? What had he been doing? Thinking? He stood just as Blair reached his side, yelling at him to stop her, and he raised his weapon but he couldn't ....

Why couldn't he shoot her?

Numb, he shook his head and his arm dropped. He swallowed and turned his head to look at Blair, who was gaping at him, staring at him as if he was a stranger. Dizziness swamped him and he might have fallen if Blair hadn't grabbed him, held him until the world stopped spinning.

"I don't understand," he muttered, frowning, breathing heavily. "What's happening to me?"

"I don't know, man," Blair replied, his voice strained. "C'mon. Let's get you back to the church."

As they walked along the beach, slowly at first until he was sure he wasn't going to topple over, and then more briskly after he'd pulled away and was moving on his own, Sandburg did his best to come up with a theory to explain the inexplicable.

He'd been hungrily kissing Barnes. When he should have been arresting her.

And nothing Blair suggested made him feel any better about what had just happened. Nothing made any sense.

God damn it. He fucking hated this mystical shit.

 


 

Alex slumped insensible in his arms, her eyes wide and staring but blind, seeing nothing. He called to her, but there was no reaction, no recognition, and he bore her down to the ground, laying her carefully, even tenderly upon the cold stone. What had happened? What had she seen? Would she recover? Somehow, he didn't think so. She'd gone beyond the boundaries, seeking knowledge and pure sensation without the right preparation or even the right motives. She wanted what she wanted for herself. Not for greater insight. Not to be a better, wiser human being. Not to be a stronger protector. Just for her own selfish ends. She was corrupt inside and there had been no saving her.

What amazed him, left him stunned, was how much he'd wanted to save her, despite all the terrible things she'd done, the unforgivable things, like murdering Blair. How could he feel any regret for her? Or any sorrow that she was beyond salvation?

"Hey, Jimbo!" Megan's voice cut in, harsh. Impatient. "These ropes are bloody annoying."

Startled, having forgotten that he'd left them tied up, abandoned them one last time to go to Alex, he turned back to them and released their bonds. Megan immediately strode into the grotto, to secure the canisters of poisoned gas, and to keep watch on Alex, while Blair mutely helped Jim tie up the drug lord and his men. Jim was acutely conscious that Sandburg wasn't saying anything, wasn't looking at him, his face a frozen mask blanking out all emotion. Overhead, he could hear the whump-whump of approaching helicopters.

"We got more company," he muttered. "Maybe it's Simon."

In case it wasn't, Megan slung Alex's automatic weapon over her shoulder and moved to join him at the entry way, while Blair backed into the grotto, taking on the chore of safeguarding the canisters. Jim saw him somberly study Barnes but had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. A few moments later, he heard voices approaching. "It's Simon," he told them. Looking back across the dark interior, he saw Sandburg watching him, his expression closed, his eyes dark.

Feeling chilled, Jim went outside and moved stiffly down the broken steps to meet Banks and the local law enforcement officers who accompanied him. At Simon's quirked brow, he said wearily, "Everything's secure. The others are inside."

Banks gave him a troubled look but moved past and up the stairway, the others trailing behind him. Jim moved out of the way, to the broken remains of a collapsed wall. Deeply disturbed, his shoulders slumped, staring into nothing, he perched upon it and tried to pull himself together. He felt shell-shocked, bludgeoned, barely able to focus. Disjointed memories, fractured moments, inexplicable emotions swam in his mind. After all she'd done, all she'd destroyed, knowing she was a cold, callous murderer, he'd still wanted to protect her, to somehow save her from herself. Why? For God's sake, why? Because she was another sentinel? Somehow ... somehow that just didn't seem adequate explanation for leaving his friends unguarded in the night where they'd been set upon by enemies, or for letting her get the drop on him ... or for leaving his friends bound to again go to her, to try to reach her. Oh, sure, he'd been trying to keep her from opening the deadly canister, trying to distract her, fine. But he'd been shattered by her collapse.

It could so easily have been him who had gone too far, burned out his mind.

He remembered yelling in the pool, in protest, that it wasn't him, wasn't him. But what was he protesting? He'd called upon Incacha for help, Incacha who had sent him to the temple alone; but it had been Blair's face he'd seen in the visions stimulated by whatever drug she'd given him. Blair, who had drawn him back from the edge of insanity.

Blair, who he'd thrown out of his home, sent away. Who'd been murdered by that bitch. Blair, who he'd left behind in Cascade, left behind in the church when he'd run to meet Alex on the beach. Blair, who he'd left in the jungle last night.

Pushing him away, leaving him behind. To protect him? Or because ... because he couldn't handle, couldn't face, couldn't admit to what he felt for Sandburg?

Swallowing, he didn't know. Felt like he didn't know much of anything anymore.

He was dimly aware of them carrying Alex away on a stretcher, and he heard Connor's remarks, knew with bleak despair that she had guessed, figured it all out. Wondered what that would mean. If she'd tell the others back home.

Jim felt raw, laid bare. Vulnerable. And achingly alone.

Blair approached, asked him how he was doing. Told him there was a real difference between him and Alex, and he hoped Sandburg was right, but Blair said he hadn't gotten lost. Only, he felt lost.

Incacha had said in the vision that this was to be his greatest test. But he didn't know, not really, what the test was. To resist Alex's allure? To ... to not get overwhelmed in the pool? To come out of it all sane? All he knew for sure was that he didn't feel like he'd passed any test. Didn't feel any sense of achievement or closure.

He also knew with bleak despair that though Blair had come to check on him, his partner was standing well outside his personal space, hands shoved in his pockets, not touching him. And Blair's voice, though the words expressed concern, reassurance, the tones were wrong. Tight. Distant. Brittle.

Something fundamental, something profound, was broken between them. Remembering the miracle at the fountain, the wonder of Blair coming back to him, Jim ached to reach out, to enfold the kid in a tight embrace and just hold on, hold on. But he couldn't. Didn't feel he had the right. He'd pushed away, abandoned too many times. Had betrayed Blair by ... wanting somehow to save her. By leaving Blair behind, in the church, in the jungle, to race after her.

He didn't understand why he'd acted like that. Couldn't accept it was some mystical, biological imperative that stripped him of all self-determination and judgment. It felt somehow unforgivable. And worse, he was afraid he'd never understand it, never be able to explain it to himself, let alone Blair; never find a way to make it all right.

There had been tough times before they'd come to Mexico. Times when he'd been certain Blair had betrayed his trust, when he had been so hurt and angry that he'd been ready to end everything between them. But the fountain had changed all that. Had renewed the faith between them.

But it had been fragile, that reaffirmation, for all the drama of Blair's revival from certain death. Jim felt as if he'd failed his partner in so very many ways in the last few days. Failed to treasure the friendship that had still been possible. Failed to safeguard it. Failed again to safeguard Sandburg.

He didn't know if there was a way back, a way to fix things between them. Closing his eyes, filled with misery, he wasn't even sure if he should try.

Simon called that it was time to go. Blair hesitated a moment, then wordlessly drifted away. Jim pushed himself upright and trailed after them. Sandburg's silence, the physical space Blair kept between them, the avoidance of his gaze left him feeling rebuked, shunned ... and so very alone.

 


 

Despite the wary distance he kept, and the uncharacteristic quiet somberness that enveloped Blair during the journey home, Jim was aware that Sandburg was watching him with a dark, sober gaze. When they got back to Cascade, Blair shepherded him to a taxi and got in beside him, and then followed him into the building and up to the apartment, as if making certain that he got home safely.

They'd both forgotten the eerie emptiness of the loft and stood staring in mute dismay at the unfurnished space.

"I shoved everything into your room," he muttered, embarrassed by this evidence of how bizarrely he'd been acting.

Blair nodded, dropped his backpack, and moved across the floor, his footsteps echoing hollowly. Wordlessly, he began to shift dining room chairs back to where they belonged and, soon, between them, they had the room looking normal again. It was strange to work with no words between them, just the careful glances Sandburg shot at him, as if Blair thought he was fragile and might shatter. When they were finished, Blair went to the fridge, checked the cupboards and nodded to himself as he murmured, "Well, you've got enough food to be okay."

"You, uh, want a beer?" he offered, feeling awkward, wishing he knew how to bridge the chasm between them.

"No, um, I should probably be going," Sandburg replied, his gaze falling away as he moved to the door to pick up his pack.

Jim felt a surge of dread. He should let Blair go. Should let it end. But he couldn't. Just couldn't let the kid walk away like this. "Where?"

"I, uh, got a room in a motel close to Rainier," Blair replied tightly as he reached for the doorknob.

Trying to sound easy, natural, as if it was the only, obvious thing to do, what they both expected to do, he offered, "Okay, we'll take the truck and bring your stuff back."

A small, confused frown furrowed Blair's brows as he looked up in evident surprise. "You want me to move back in?" he asked, his voice small, uncertain.

"Yeah, sure. Of course I do," he replied, as if surprised by the question, and held his breath, waiting for Blair's response. Did he want to move back in? Was he prepared to give them both another chance?

Sandburg studied him intently and then looked around the apartment, a wistful expression on his face. He swallowed hard and then nodded. "Okay. I'd like that."

Letting out the breath, Jim nodded and slowly crossed the room. "Chief, I ... I know I've been acting crazy lately."

"No, shit," Blair replied, sounding infinitely weary, but he raked his hair back and straightened his shoulders. With a wan smile, he offered what felt like forgiveness, "But you had some good reasons, man. A lot of weird stuff was going on, you know? I'm, uh, I'm just sorry that I wasn't much help; that I only, um, made things worse."

A lump swelled in Jim's throat as he shook his head. Reaching Blair's side, he reached out to grip the kid's shoulder. "No," he managed to say. "When you came back, you gave me all the help I needed. You let me know I wasn't alone."

"Ah, man," Blair sighed, looking up at him, his gaze sorrowful, his lips parted as if there was so much he wanted to say but didn't know where or how to begin. His mouth closed and he swallowed, and then he said huskily, "I'll always be here for you, Jim. So long as you need and want me around. Always, man."

Jim tried to smile but was afraid his lips would tremble, so he simply drew Blair into the hug he'd been yearning for, for so, so long. When Sandburg hugged him back, and held him tightly, he dared to hope they might come through the disaster after all. That they might find a way back to the friendship they'd known, the trust and comfort that had been so easy between them in the beginning.

 


 

But the easiness didn't return. There was so much that was unsaid, on Jim's part anyway, and he wondered what doubts about him, what resentments, that Sandburg harboured. They remained stiff, awkward, though both tried, and there were moments, at breakfast or dinner at home, down at the PD during the day, that held echoes of the way things had been; however, those moments were separated by bouts of anger and resentment, and days of cool distance where they each went their own way, scarcely even encountering one another at home.

Blair blew up over the Ventriss case, his anger all out of proportion to the situation, at least at first, so far as Jim could tell. He lashed out both at him and at Simon, sounding bitter, something Jim didn't remember ever having heard in his voice before. He was pushing hard at Rainier, too - too hard. He'd gotten fired.

When it became clear that Brad Ventriss was, coincidentally, also probably the murderer Jim was hunting, they were at least able to get back in harness and pull together a bit better, which was a relief. Thinking about the kid, Jim was pretty sure Blair was still very wary of him, and was still deeply angry about his behaviours with Barnes, but he didn't know how to explain any of what happened, so he let it ride, feeling he deserved the anger. And, he had to admit, his own almost unconscious trust of Sandburg had been badly shaken in the past few weeks; as profoundly glad as he was that Blair hadn't left him for good at the fountain, had come back when he'd called, he found he still had a lot of anger inside, too, over his own sense of betrayal. Or, maybe not betrayal, but his firm belief that Sandburg had such a different world view, such different values and principles when it came to his research, that Jim couldn't trust him to treat him like a human being - even less like a friend - in the dissertation he was now actively writing. In that document, Jim knew he was 'the subject', something objective and remote, not a flesh and blood man and that bothered him a lot. A whole lot.

And yet ... and yet he continued to love Blair with a helpless, hopeless passion that left him bleak with despair. The damned dissertation was being written. The day was coming closer and ever closer when there'd be no reason for Sandburg to continue living under his roof and playing the part of unofficial, unpaid observer. Jim felt he needed to prepare himself for that inevitable day by learning to work without Sandburg constantly at his side, so he did more and more without keeping Blair informed of what was happening with his cases or when he might have appreciated the man's backup on stakeouts. Sometimes, Sandburg let it slide, simply giving him an inscrutable look when he heard after the fact. But other times, Blair simply showed up at the office and engaged himself in whatever was going on, just like old times.

Other times, they seemed caught somewhere in-between, like when Blair showed up for the photo session with the Jags and the charity game that had been set up with the PD. "You're not a cop," Simon reminded him, explaining why he couldn't be in the photo and Blair had looked so discouraged and irritated. Couldn't blame him, not after more than three years of doing his best on every case Jim caught. But, they'd had fun on the court with the professional players and Jim had to laugh at Sandburg's efforts to guard, hounding the heels of the giants, like a persistent terrier.

The fun turned ugly, though, when Kincaid escaped from prison. Very ugly when he took the whole stadium hostage, Simon, Darryl and Sandburg included. Jim was astonished during the final confrontation to see Blair firing a weapon with a determined expression on his face. What had happened to the guy who didn't much like to touch a gun, let alone fire it at other human beings?

Blair's anger resurfaced over the whole deal with Veronica, almost losing his patience with Jim's complicated emotions and memories. They fought frequently over her, though Jim was never sure why Sandburg held such antipathy for her, right from the beginning, long before anyone could know that she was ... well, was a vicious, manipulative killer. And then Blair was even angrier, showing even less tolerance for Jim's reticence to admit he was seeing ghosts of all things. As if he was tired of covering for Jim, making excuses or obfuscating to cover up what Jim perceived with his senses that others could not. And yet Sandburg was still there, doing his best to objectively prove Molly's existence, in no way doubting what Jim said he saw and heard, doing research to help solve a forty-year old case.

Jim thought Sandburg was finally perking up a bit, getting a kick out of working with Vince Deal, and was all too eager in Jim's opinion to agree to undercover work with Megan. Nobody else seemed to get that this wasn't fun and games, but a dangerous, volatile investigation of the people at Hydra Security who had already killed. It came close, again; too close, to Blair literally getting his head blown off. Jim couldn't take it. Just couldn't deal any longer with the threats to Sandburg's life. It had never been easy but, after the fountain, Jim felt an almost pathological aversion to the idea of Blair being in any kind of danger.

So, he tried to distance the kid again during the investigation of Harry Conkle, a thief that was legendary for his lifelong escapades, one of the most wanted men in America. In an effort to keep Sandburg out of any possible danger, he only included the kid on the original stakeout of Harry's daughter and then, later, on babysitting the daughter and her infant son. Only to walk in and find Blair unconscious, gassed, the baby and Harry gone. Seeing Blair sprawled on the chair, motionless, his breathing so shallow as to be barely discernible, made Jim flash back to those terrible minutes by the fountain. He lunged across the room, throwing open the windows, anxious to rouse Blair, to dispel the reactive horror he felt in his gut.

Back and forth, sometimes easy friends, more often like strangers, awkward and wary of one another. Jim knew it had to end, and suspected Sandburg did, too, which explained why Blair was now actively working on completing his dissertation. He didn't really know why Blair was still hanging in, hanging on; the kid sure didn't look happy most of the time, and the sparkle was long gone from his eyes, his smile rare and never as unconsciously bright as it had been. Most of the time, he just looked tired, somber and restrained, his emotions bundled up tight and locked down - which sure wasn't the Sandburg Jim had first met and fallen in love with. Jim could only assume that he mourned their old friendship, too, and didn't know how to let go. But things change, people move on. It wasn't as if Sandburg would ever feel the same kind of love Jim did, or ever want to share a lifetime. To Blair, he was a brother. A guy could love a brother without living under the same roof - or even being in the same country.

There were times when Jim thought they were engaged in a complicated dance, learning the steps as they went along. A dance that brought them close for some measures of music but inevitably seemed to be leading them away from one another, so that they were dancing farther and farther apart.

 


 

Jim's gut plummeted when what the reporters were shouting registered. Aghast, he gaped at his partner and was shocked to see that Blair wasn't really surprised, though he protested his innocence. The kid's heart was doing a tap dance and his eyes were wide with horror.

Oh my God, Jim thought dazedly as he drove away from the horde of microphones and cameras. What has he done? What the hell has he done?

Blair tried to say something but he held up a hand, cutting him off, needing all his concentration to just stay on the road until he parked near the harbour, away from the tourist areas, away from any crowds. When they were on the street, walking toward the water, he said hoarsely, "Okay. What was that about?"

He listened, or tried to listen, to what Sandburg was telling him, but he couldn't seem to take it in. The upshot was some publisher had the draft dissertation, a document he'd not yet seen himself, and at least parts of it had been released to the media. His identity had not been obscured in the draft. He was screwed.

Somehow Naomi seemed to factor in, but he was beyond hearing at that point. Shock thundered in his ears, disbelief and then anger suffused his being. Sandburg had done it again. Had reduced him to a thing. A research subject. Had laid him wide open; left him helpless to protect himself, to ensure his own privacy. And Blair was apparently going to get rich over it all.

Well, good for him, he thought with wretched bitterness. Through all the years, Sandburg had evidently kept his eye on the ball, kept his focus, remembered his primary objectives: to do his research, write the thesis, get his PhD, maybe get to be famous. Seemed he'd done it all.

Jim couldn't stand it. Just could not stand the cold, hard reality that he'd seen coming, had been forewarned - what, two, three times? At least. At the very least. And still he'd fallen for those guileless eyes, that innocent smile. He'd kept on believing in the friendship Sandburg vowed, kept on wanting to trust when he'd known, he'd known, dammit, that Blair ... that Blair just didn't see things the way he did. Didn't understand things like violation of privacy and human dignity in the same way.

Christ, he'd been such a fool. A lovesick, stupid, blind, fucking crazy fool.

He couldn't even manage anger beyond a raw sarcasm. Inside, he was dead. Everything just shut down. He didn't want to see Sandburg or hear his voice. Sure in hell didn't want to feel his touch.

What the hell was he going to do now? His life ... his life was a shambles.

Sometimes reality was just too damned hard to bear.

When all hope is gone, when all love is mangled and made obscene, when the future was only a dark maw of loneliness, regret and isolation, when trust was gone, and the world knew you were a freak, what did anything matter anyway?

He couldn't think, couldn't deal with any of it. Just wanted, so badly wanted it all to go away. All he had now to justify taking up space and using up air was his job. He had to focus on the job, had to do his job. It was all that was left that gave any meaning at all to his life. One step at a time. He had to keep going. Keep trying. One step after another. Ignoring the rest. Just ... just ignoring it. Like it wasn't happening. Wasn't real. Wasn't the end of his life as he knew it.

 


 

Storming out of the apartment and down the stairs, striding out onto the sidewalk and loping away from the building, Jim felt sick. God damn it. Sandburg still didn't get it. After everything that had happened, Simon and Connor being shot, the Iceman getting away because of the damned media in his face, his father and brother up in arms, fuck, Sandburg still didn't get it. Where did he get off saying that Jim couldn't deny what he was; couldn't wish with everything that he was, to be just an ordinary man? His life was over, dammit. He couldn't even do his job this way, and that was all he had left. And where did the kid get off looking so sad about it all, as if he ... he wanted some kind of forgiveness or understanding? Sure, sure, it had been an accident, hadn't been deliberate. So what? It was done. The document Blair had written had ruined everything. Intentional or not, the outcome was the same.

Jim got to the park and slowed, stumbled against a tree, leaned on it and then sank to his knees. Bowed forward, covering his face with his hands, he fought not to weep, not to lose control utterly because he didn't know if he could ever get it back. Fought the waves of desolation that swamped him. Fought the sick gorge that rose at knowing that it had been the man he loved, with everything that he was, who had done this, had destroyed his life.

He'd known all along that the love he felt, still felt despite everything, was hopeless. He just hadn't realized that by holding onto it, holding on to Sandburg when he knew he should have let him go a long, long time ago, hadn't realized that love was going to turn his life into ashes.

God it hurt. Hurt so bad. So bad that he didn't know how he'd bear it, how he'd be able to go on. But he had to go on. The Iceman was still out there. He still had a job to do.

Sighing bleakly, he pushed himself to his feet and turned back toward home, where he'd left his truck. He needed to get back downtown. There was work to be done. Once the case was over, maybe then ... maybe then he could go away, find some space, some peace, and try to figure out where he went from here.

If he went anywhere at all.

 


 

Jim stared at the television, at Sandburg behind a podium, his image stark under hot lights, and he could hear Blair's heartbeat, his tight respirations, see the beads of nervous sweat on his upper lip and brow. He wondered what the hell the man was up to, what was he going to do now, how much worse could things get?

But then Blair began to speak, and Jim gaped, tilted his head, frowned, and wondered if he was hearing right. Blair was denying the paper, calling it fraudulent? God. He was destroying himself on national, live TV.

Staggering back against the wall, Jim bowed his head, tried to take it in. Blair had just sacrificed himself - his hopes and dreams, his career, his personal credibility - to give him back his own life. To make it right for him.

Why? Jesus, why? This wasn't the act of someone who ultimately worshiped at the shrine of academia, who didn't know the difference between research and real life. This was the act of someone who cared deeply, who had to love deeply ... or else who was deeply principled. This was the kind of impetuous, generous, selfless thing the old Sandburg would have done. No, not the old one, the one Jim had believed in and loved but had thought an illusion.

But ... what would happen to Sandburg now? What would he do? What could he do? What did he want to do? God, what had Blair done to himself? Jim felt shattered. All his assumptions, all his bitterness and hurt, all his certainty that his trust and love had been abrogated were now strewn to the wind. Shaking his head, he struggled to pull himself together, to reframe everything that had happened and what it all meant.

The others looked at him, the silence in the room heavy. Swallowing, he shook his head. "The only lies Blair has told in this whole mess are the ones you just heard," he rasped, with raw honesty. "He's just thrown himself on his sword to protect me."

"Jim, man, what are we going to do?" Joel asked, his voice hushed.

"I don't know," he replied hoarsely. "But somehow, I've got to make this right."

Without another word, he turned and left. He had to find Blair, had to find him right away. Before he took off and just disappeared. Before he went away to find a new life somewhere else.

Because Jim was afraid he'd just seen Naomi's axiom of life, 'detach with love', acted out in the most profound and poignant of ways.

 


 

Blair told Simon he needed time to think about the offer, that it had been so totally unexpected that he didn't really know what to think or say. But Jim knew he was lying even as Sandburg said the words. He could hear the lie in Blair's heartbeat and the slight quaver of his voice; see it in the avoidance of eye contact and the tremble of his hands. Naomi went off somewhere to stay with a friend, saying they needed some time to work things out on their own. Now, there was an understatement.

They went home, and they'd talked through the rest of the afternoon. As the day waned, Blair lit the fire to take the chill out of the air - but Jim didn't think it was the air that was cold, but the sorrow they felt, the icy hopelessness that enveloped them both.

Blair believed he had to leave. For his sake. To keep his senses a secret.

“But … where will you go? What will you do?” he asked, raking his fingers through his hair, worried and frustrated and sick at heart about everything Blair had given up for him.

“I don’t know, Jim,” Sandburg sighed wearily. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I just know I have to leave, like, immediately, before anyone starts asking awkward questions about … well, about everything.” Straightening, he insisted firmly, “But you really don’t have to worry about that, man. You really don’t. I’ll be fine. I’m okay with … with the decisions I made and the actions I took. More than okay. It was the right thing to do and I have no regrets. And, as far as work goes, I’ve got lots of options. Hey, I’ve got a Masters degree that’s gotta be worth something. And, and I can weld, and do construction work, and drive a semi, and I can do research and archiving. Believe me, Jim, I won’t have any trouble finding a job. I’ll be okay.” Looking away, he firmly repeated again, “Really, man, I’ll be fine, just fine.”

Jim wondered who Blair was trying to convince, him or himself.

Sighing, he got up and wandered to the window as the sun set. Rationally, Blair was probably right. If he stayed, then people would wonder, talk, watch them like hawks. If Blair stayed, then some people at least – beyond their colleagues in MCU -- would have to know the truth and, eventually, that meant more and more would come to know it in time. Just a few days before, he'd been stricken to believe that people knowing meant that his life was over. In a vague way, he supposed he'd even been considering suicide a potential, eventual option.

But now? When he weighed his life against Blair's? When he considered the costs of keeping his secrets, all his secrets, he didn't know anymore, wasn't sure what was right or wrong. Except, he believed it was wrong for Blair to pay this price. Fundamentally, completely wrong.

And ... and now the moment he'd dreaded for years was here. Blair was going to leave him. Go away somewhere. There was nothing more to lose. And no reason to keep hiding the truth. Maybe every reason to speak out, as hard as that was ... including the decidedly irrational, desperate hope that maybe, just maybe, the truth he hid inside might outweigh rational arguments. Just maybe. If Blair loved him, or could love him, would be willing to try.

At the least, speaking now would mean that if, when, Blair left, he'd leave knowing that he was loved. Would always be loved. More than life.

Swallowing hard, he turned back to face the room and Blair, who was standing by the fireplace, his hands on his hips, watching him. Waiting for whatever he might say before Sandburg went to his room to finish packing.

"I, uh, I want to tell you something, and I just want you to listen, okay? Just ... just listen, and then maybe think about it. I don't want you to say anything right away or feel you ever have to say anything at all," he began hesitantly. Blair nodded and sank down to the floor beside the chair, resting his arm along it. Jim couldn't help but notice that the way he was positioned, with the chair between them, that he seemed to be using the chair as a shield. Maybe Sandburg thought he was going to say something that would hurt, that he would just go back over the old feelings of betrayal, would agree that it was best he leave as soon as possible.

Crossing the floor, taking time to get his thoughts together, Jim sank down on the sofa. He didn't know how to work up to this. In over a year, he'd never figured out how he'd ever say these words. Hell, hadn't allowed himself to ever imagine saying them. When the silence between them grew too taut to bear, he finally decided he just had to say them, and hope Blair ... well, hope Blair wouldn't hate him, might even understand. God, might even be glad to hear them.

"I don't want you to go," he said, his voice fraught with emotion he desperately strove to contain. "I don't want you to ever leave me."

Blair frowned a bit, his expression surprised, then thoughtful as he listened intently.

Licking his lips, Jim told him, "I ... I love you. Not ... not like a brother." Clearing his throat, he forced himself to go on. "I realized how I felt when ... when we were investigating the murder at the track, when I was trying to clear Steven's name. I've been hiding it ever since. It's been hard, because I know I have no right. That you, uh, probably don't, can't, feel the same way. I've, uh, well, I guess, I've been trying to push you away for a long time, and at the same time, wasn't able to bear the thought of you actually leaving. I'm sorry. I guess a lot of time, my actions, the way I behaved, didn't make a lot of sense. Were probably confusing as hell. But ... but all I can tell you is that I love you more than I've ever loved anyone, or ever will. More than I thought it was possible to love anyone."

Blair was wide-eyed, his lips parted in stunned surprise. Jim couldn't keep looking at those eyes, that surprise, couldn't bear to watch it turn into something else, like pity or revulsion. He bowed his head, and said simply, "I just wanted you to know. So if you decide to go, well, you'll go knowing how I feel, will always feel. And so you'll know that you'll always have a home with me to come back to, if you want it." Taking a shuddering breath, he finished, "But if you could love me, the way I love you ... or even just enough to stay, I don't know how I'll make things right for you, but I promise to do whatever it takes so that you can be happy here. I, uh, I really hope you'll stay with me."

His voice cracked, and he knew he couldn't go on. But he'd gotten it out and he could only hope. Without looking at Blair, he stood and climbed the steps to his room, leaving Sandburg to think about what he'd just been told.

Upstairs, he sank onto the edge of his bed and, elbows on his knees, he covered his face with his hands. Downstairs, it was silent but for the crackling of the logs in the fire, and the fast beat of Blair's heart. He waited, not sure what he was waiting for, only that he hoped he wouldn't hear the sounds of more packing.

Long, endless minutes passed, the loft growing dark but for the fire and the single lamp that burned downstairs. Finally, he heard the soft rustle of Blair's clothing as he stood and took a deep breath. And then the pad of his sock-covered feet as he crossed the floor, heading either to his room ... or the staircase. Blair paused, and then he heard footsteps on the risers as Sandburg mounted the steps, slowly. Jim didn't know what to expect, if maybe Blair just wanted to talk. He didn't dare hope that Blair was coming to him because ... because Blair could love him, was prepared to love him the way he wanted and needed to be loved.

Sandburg arrived at the top of the stairs and stopped. Jim took a breath and lowered his hands, and then raised his head to face his partner, the man he hoped would always be his partner.

He saw moisture glittering on the tips of Blair's lashes, and his chest tightened, the breath caught as he waited. Tears of sadness, to say he was going anyway? Tears of gladness, to know he was loved and could stay?

"Ah, Jim," Blair whispered brokenly. "Man, oh God, I'm so sorry."

Jim felt his world crumble, and he had to look away, blinking away the hot rush of tears that blinded him. A sob built in his chest, but he held it inside, unable to breathe as he fought for control, fought to not let Blair see how devastated he was. He felt frozen. Blair was telling him he was going to go, that he couldn't, didn't love him enough to stay.

But then Blair was rushing across the floor, wrapping strong arms around his shoulders, pulling him close, holding him tightly. "No, no," Blair hurried on. "You don't understand. I'm sorry I never told you, tried to never let on. We've both been hiding from each other, and it's been so damned hard, it nearly tore us apart. I love you, Jim. I love you so much it hurts, you know? I t-told you, man, I t-told you that I'd never leave so long as you needed or wanted me. I m-meant it. I ... I just thought you didn't want me around anymore."

Blair's words blasted away his grip on icy control, and Jim was swamped with uncontrollable, almost painful shudders that wracked his body. The sob broke free with the breath that had been locked in his chest as he embraced Blair, holding on as if his life depended on never letting go. His control, his hard won, hard maintained control shattered; he quaked with relief and gratitude and something that might have been joy but he wasn't sure. Emotion surged unbridled, and tears leaked from his eyes, tears he'd not ever let escape since he'd been a child, more than thirty years before. Too shaken to speak, he could only hold on.

And Blair held onto him, stroked his hair, his back, bent to kiss his brow, whispering over and over, "It's okay. It's okay. I love you. I'm never, ever going to go away. I'm never going to leave you. Oh, God, Jim. I love you. I've always loved you. I always will. I always, always will."

The rush of emotions subsided, and Jim drew in deep, steadying breaths. Holding Blair close, listening to his words, the ebb and flow of that beautiful voice, feeling Blair's hands stroke and comfort him, the warmth of Blair's lips on his brow, he felt peace fill him. All the fear and confusion, the hurt and doubt and pain were gone. Blair wasn't going to leave him. Blair loved him, even as he was loved.

Sniffing, Jim pulled away to swipe the wet tracks from his face, and then he looked up into Blair's eyes, and he saw the deep glow and sparkle of love shining there for him. Reaching up, he tangled his fingers in those glorious curls and drew Blair down for their first kiss, feeling tentative, tender with longing but unsure, uncertain. Blair was so important to him, he didn't want to do anything wrong. Didn't want to move too fast, need too much, demand too much, too soon. He felt Blair's lips brush his own and then cling briefly, surprisingly soft, their warm breath mingling. When they broke apart, their mouths still so close together, he kissed the corner of Blair's lips and then risked pulling on his lower lip, then sucked a little harder. Blair moaned in his throat and his fingers held Jim's head tightly as Sandburg opened his mouth to him, and pressed his body closer. Shuddering, Jim deepened their kiss, and his tongue darted out to find Blair's. The tips danced together and apart, then jousted more forcefully ... and the kiss deepened with promise. "Oh, God," he gasped as the heat grew between them. He lightly kissed Blair's eyes, nuzzled his ear, sucked on his lobe, inhaled his scent.

Blair's hands roamed his body, stroking his neck, his shoulders, as he whispered huskily, "God, oh God, Jim. I've wanted this for so long. So long."

Jim hungrily found his mouth again, drowning in the taste, the feel of Blair loving him. He could hear Blair's heart begin to race, his breathing grow heavier, feel the hot flush of Blair's body ... and his own. Blair wanted this.

Wanted him.

And, dear God, he wanted Blair.

He drew Blair onto the bed, to cherish him, as he'd longed to cherish his beloved for so very long.

Distantly, he heard music playing, a poignant, haunting song, and he wondered if it was real or a vision, but it didn't matter. For the song, like the night and all the days and nights to come, belonged to them ....

 

Let me take you to the waterfront,
The mist will wash away those tears.
And if you say it's okay, I'll hold your hand till this clears....

Do I take it she's hurt you again,
This time more painful than before?
I wish had the nerve to tell her you don't want no more.

'Cause, boy, I love you more than you'll ever know,
If the truth be said.
These feelings that I'm holding back make me more than just your friend.
But I can never tell the truth
'Cause I don't want to lose your trust.
I know if you went away,
My heart would turn to dust.

Walls between us were not made to keep
The sound of crying to themselves.
And it's another night of wasted dreams you'll defend.

I came so close to telling you today,
'Boy, you just take those dreams and run.'
But my selfish heart couldn't say those words...
Was that so wrong?

'Cause, boy, I love you more than you'll ever know,
If the truth be said.
These feelings that I'm holding back
Make me more than just your friend.
Maybe tonight, I'll tell the truth,
Please don't let me lose your trust.
Tonight, I'll not send you away.
Tonight is just for us.

Yes maybe tonight, I'll tell the truth,
Please don't let me lose your trust.
Tonight I'll not send you away.
Tonight is just for us.

 

FINIS