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Jim could have guessed that the senses would outlast everything else in his body, that at the moment of his death he wouldn’t be able to feel his arms or his legs, wouldn’t be able to turn his head or close his eyes or make a sound, but he’d be perfectly able to hear the yelling and the gunshots and the confused, static blare out of his headset, to feel the sticky heat of his own blood seeping under his bulletproof vest, pasting his shirt to his chest. He could smell it, too, sickly sharp and metallic sour, and taste it as it filled up his mouth. He couldn’t turn his head, could only lie on his back and watch the lighting fixture swing erratically above him as the SWAT team slammed against the warehouse doors, battering their way in. Too late.

“Jim! Jim!” His partner crouched over his chest, her long blonde hair swinging in his face at a mesmerizing counter-rhythm to the arc of the light. “Fuck, Jim, can you hear me?” She yanked the sleeve of her shirt over the heel of her hand and pressed it to his throat, and her hair spiderwebbed all over his nose and mouth even as she leaned her slight weight on top of his windpipe. Christ, Rachel, he wanted to say, you’re gonna fucking throttle me to death before I have a chance to bleed out.

The smell of her was overpowering, much more so than usual, but it was that same thick Rachel-smell, jasmine and gardenia and the saccharine chemical compound of her conditioner and the wet-sand smell of her makeup. He could always smell Rachel two floors away, and usually that was fine, sometimes even a plus in a partner, but Jim’s heart seemed to kick peevishly inside his body, wracked with a fit of temper not because he was dying, but because the last thing on earth he was going to smell was Rachel’s damn Bath & Body Works shower gel.

It should be Sandburg, he thought hazily. He could always smell Sandburg two blocks away. He smelled like the fucking Marrakesh Night Market, a jumble of exotic scents that Jim had never even heard of before Sandburg, like Nag Champa incense and aioli sauce and chipotles. “Stay with me, Jim,” Rachel was muttering. “Stay with me, listen to my voice. We’re over here!” she suddenly yelled out. “Officer down, officer– Get me the fucking paramedics!” Her voice cracked at the end, and Jim tried one more time to move his arm, motivated by the surprising impulse to pat her arm comfortingly. She wasn’t a bad girl, not a bad partner, twenty-six and whip-smart and not too impulsive – Simon hand-picked her, and Simon was never wrong about these things -- and the truth was Jim didn’t know her that well, had spent the last six months trying not to get to know her, and now his death was going to hang around her neck forever, maybe even blight a perfectly good potential career.

He hadn’t treated her right. He could have been warmer, more of – a mentor. Something. He could have smiled at her once in a while, at least. Could have done practically anything except what he did, which was take it out on Rachel that she wasn’t Sandburg.

Well, that was a regret he had, then. He had a few, like the song goes. He’d been angry that after everything he went through to get Sandburg a shield, he hadn’t even made his one-year anniversary on the force before he resigned. Jim hadn’t said so, of course, but he had. He’d been angry at Sandburg, even though a lot of water had gone under the bridge since then, but he’d punished Rachel, who had the bad fortune to be the first partner Simon had put his foot down and insisted Jim take on and keep, and now she was crying. Jim couldn’t stand to see a woman cry.

God, his mouth was full of blood. It felt endless, bubbling out from between his lips, staining the blonde tips of her hair, streaking his cheek when she grabbed him with her bloody hand. His blood, her handprint. Her smell everywhere, pleasant enough on an ordinary day, but here and now it was too much, cloying and slippery and sugary, and it should have been cilantro and musk and red wine vinegar, it should have been Sandburg here with him at the end.

Everything was going bloody-red around the edges, closing in on him. More people were yelling, and Jim felt himself being hoisted off the ground. His sight was going dark, even the senses failing him now. Almost the end, now.

It would have been good to say goodbye to Sandburg first. Jim was sorry he’d have to go without that.

*

He woke up – four days and seven surgeries later, come to find out – in a floral hell.

Hospitals had a smell to them that even the most profoundly numb of idiot civilians found noticeable, but Jim’s hospital room had been colonized, returned to the primal Pangaean jungle by bouquets of roses and jonquils and carnations and God knew what else, too riotous a blend for even Jim to carve his way through it. All he could smell was flowers. All he could smell was flowers and funerals and Rachel’s hair and dying and dying and dying and dying.

Jim tried to heave himself up, because he had to, he just fucking had to get out of here no matter what, but there were needles like carpenter’s nails in his arms and arms across his shoulders and someone shouting his name in his ear, not to mention morphine like a whitewater river through his veins. Let me go, he tried to say. Get me out of here, I’m dying, I don’t want to die like this, don’t let me die! His heart was pounding with the force of all the fear he hadn’t felt during the raid, during his struggle with Starcevic, when he felt the knife at his throat, when he felt it drawn bright-shock-fast-deep through his skin, while he was bleeding on the floor. It had seemed easy then, pretty close to the death Jim had always expected; he had the Sentinel within him then, the thrill of battle, the utter comprehension of nature and inevitability. Now he was just Jim Ellison again, and he wasn’t ready to cash it in just yet.

No sound came out, though. Just the agonizing, slow sawing of air through his throat as his mouth worked stupidly.

“Jim, no! Jim!”

Blair’s voice. Jim focused his eyes and fixed them at the sound of the voice. Blair. He was holding Jim down, tendons taut in his arm, eyes huge and desperate and startlingly blue, smelling like powdered doughnuts and spearmint gum and home. Jim opened his mouth again to say his name, just to say Sandburg, Blair, it’s you, but he couldn’t speak, and then Blair’s mouth was pressed against his, and when he came away Jim was heavy with paralysis and Blair was stroking his face and talking in a low rattle, a constant caffeinated burr of “Please, Jim, please listen, listen, everything is okay, listen to me, you’re gonna hurt yourself, Jim, okay? Be still.”

Be still. Jim tried. He fixed his shoulders to the uptilted mattress and stared at the ceiling vents and tried to breathe without thinking about flowers. Blair’s hand was still pressed to his cheek, damp with sweat. Blair, he wanted to say. His lips felt strange as they shaped the name; he rarely used it, rarely thought of Sandburg as Blair, but now Sandburg wasn’t just his roommate, his friend, his ex-partner, or the guardian of Jim’s dubious secret identity. He was the man who had just kissed Jim. It warranted a shift in perception. It turned him into a Blair somehow.

He wanted to try out the sound of it, but he couldn’t hear himself speak. Blair slumped across him, resting his forehead uncomfortably against Jim’s collarbone, and Jim put his hand on Blair’s shoulder, sweat and dirt and the shorter eiderdown of hairs at the back of his neck. “It’s okay, Jim,” Blair said, his tone hollow but steady, robotic, like the computerized voices that read your bank balance to you over the phone. “It’s okay.” His fist curled in the hospital gown, tense hand pressed to Jim’s ribs, and Jim fought to hold down the rising panic.

He’d return the favor, tell Blair he was fine, he was going to be all right. Except that not a word that he tried to say would come out at all. Okay, Jim thought, cautiously, picking the path of his thoughts like walking through unsteady swamp ground. This will be okay. The important thing is, we’re both here.

Actions spoke louder than words, Jim had always believed.

*

They gave him a pad and pen and told him he’d never speak again. Rodion Starcevic had cut his throat, and Cascade’s finest doctors had managed to save his life, but not his vocal cords.

Jim listened to a lot of medical jargon that came down to pretty much that. He listened to the epic saga of the Starcevic raid from six different witnesses, all with the centerpiece, the piece de resistance, of Rachel shooting the bastard three times in the chest and once through the forehead. She was getting a commendation. Jim was getting retired with all the pomp and ceremony Cascade could devise. He listened to Blair read him testimonial letters from practically everyone he’d ever met, all assuring Jim that he was a hero, one of a kind, that he was in their prayers, that it would have broken hearts around the globe if he shuffled off this mortal coil at the tender age of forty-eight.

He did a whole hell of a lot more listening than he was used to.

He listened to Simon and his attorneys lay out the financial details of his disability insurance, his line-of-duty payout. This was how it ended, then. The Sentinel of the Great City, not fallen in a blaze of glory, but awarded a medal and a spread in the Sunday paper, a letter of thanks from the Mayor and a generous, if fixed, yearly salary.

This was the end of it. Jim couldn’t have said how he felt about that, even if – he could have, well. Said.

“You’re going to see a counselor,” Blair told him, pointing his finger under Jim’s nose. “I don’t want to hear about it, you just are.” Jim arched an eyebrow at him, wondering exactly what Blair thought he was going to be hearing, and when Blair caught on he flushed dark red around the edges of his face and looked guilty and defiant at the same time.

Blair was always with him, of course. He took a leave of absence from his job writing letters to wring money out of rich capitalists with which to save the earth – or mostly a leave of absence, although when he thought Jim was sleeping he put his glasses on and hunched over his notebook and wrote, grumbling words like “ethnobotany” and “biodiversity” and “dystopian fascist treacherous cocksuckers”in that way that Blair’s nattering was rarely even slowed down by the fact that no one was listening to him. He played gatekeeper, only forcing Jim to take visits from the four or five people Jim actually did want to see, and some of the undesirable he seemed to relish delivering the metaphorical bum rush to, but some of them he handled deftly and gently. He kept Rachel away, but with such kindness in his face and voice that Jim thought – Jim hoped – she couldn’t possibly be offended. Jim didn’t want to offend her. He liked her, or at least, he was sure he would have come to like her, given a little more wear and tear on his stubborn defenses, and he wouldn’t miss her, but he wished it had come to that, and he wouldn’t have trusted anyone but Blair to bring all of that to the table.

Jim considered writing her a letter. Thank her for shooting Starcevic. Pass on some kind of sage career advice. Maybe even suggest she could come visit him once he was settled in at home, as long as she scrubbed all the fucking gardenia off her body first.

He didn’t write it. He was still dosed up pretty well most of the time, and he had ugly handwriting, and he’d never quite found the right setting on his visual dial to suit the blue-light glare of a computer screen. The whole task was just too fucking hard, so he didn’t do it.

Blair smuggled hot dogs and caramel corn into the hospital. Blair had sleight-of-hand that Fagin would have envied when it came to being in possession of things he didn’t have permission to be in possession of. He probably could have found a way to get a twelve-ounce ribeye and a loaded baked potato into the room, but eating it on the sly would have been the tricky part. He didn’t kiss Jim again, and Jim chose to let the whole thing go. A conclusion seemed a long way away, at the end of a winding, uphill tunnel of questions and changes and meaning and choices, and Jim just plain didn’t have the energy for the hike. He’d have to just not know what it all meant for now, and that was pretty easy to live with. He was having quite the stimulating week as it was.

At the end of the week, Jim stood in front of a mirror for the first time and unwrapped the bandages around his neck, popping the metal staples loose from the shabby, greying gauze. Blair was right by his elbow, framed in the narrow mirror as well. Jim kept elbowing him in the chest as he unspun the noose from his neck, but Blair didn’t take the hint and step away.

Fucking Frankenstein. That was all Jim could think of. It didn’t look like he was still one unified person; it looked like his goddamn head had been sewn onto a body much like his own, except ten pounds lighter and more slumped from the bad food and inactivity. He started to touch the scar, and then couldn’t.

“I love you,” Blair blurted. Jim kept staring at them in the mirror, watching the reflection of Blair watching him. “Please don’t look like that, God, the look on your face, Jim.” He tipped his body forward and waited for Jim to move his arm so he could fall underneath it. Jim wrapped his arm around Blair’s back, cradling him against his side, but he could still only look at the image of them, not down at the real Blair. “I almost lost you,” Blair was saying, quietly, harshly. “I can’t believe you’re even alive after all that. I got you back, Jim. Everything’s okay.”

Jim only looked down when Blair tilted his head and put his lips against the edge of Jim’s scar. All he could see was the top of Blair’s head, Blair’s curls. Jim had no idea how to explain the feeling of seeing the end of his life razored across his skin like that, impossible to ignore, a cut that severed everything he had been from everything he was now. They’d sewn it up, but it was still there, the gap, the cut, the divide. It was right there. It would be there forever.

When Blair looked up again, Jim put his fingertip to the mirror and drew letters slowly. He could see the reflection of Blair frowning in concentration, shifting Jim’s motions into letters, sounds, words in his head. It was all going to be translation for a while, Jim realized. They barely had a common language for now, until they had time to cobble together a new one. F. RNKN –

Blair slapped his palm abruptly on the mirror, streaking his handprint across the surface as if he could rub away invisible words, rub away thoughts. Same thing, right? “No, Jim, don’t you dare.” Blair was good with languages, thank God. Jim spoke English, Spanish, and Qechua, plus a substandard smattering of Japanese and French, but he didn’t consider languages to be among his talents. They were such hellishly hard work for him, not like for Blair, who could probably think in Martian after one afternoon watching alien soap operas on cable. “You’re perfect,” Blair said. “You’re perfect.”

Jim turned then so that he could put both his arms around Blair. It was too much; Blair started to cry, thick, gulping, noiseless crying that had more to do with sheer exhaustion than anything else. If he could have, Jim would have reminded him that it was fine for it to be too much, that this was just another tool to help a person cope with the unbearable, that he could be anything in front of Jim, even petty or needy or helpless.

Usually Blair knew that kind of thing, but Jim thought a friend would say it anyway. He settled for holding Blair, tucking his head under Jim’s chin, drawing little lines on the bare skin just above his elbow that didn’t come together to form letters at all.

*

Before they even got home, Blair made them stop over at Barnes & Noble and bought two different ASL dictionaries. Borders was on the way, but Blair wouldn’t shop at Borders because they donated money to the Republican Party; Jim had once tried to use the same excuse to get out of dinner with his father, but Blair would have none of it.

Jim sat passively in the truck and listened to Blair sing the praises of ASL, which was a language, a real language, with its own syntax and morphology, people thought it was a word-to-word transliteration of spoken English, but it absolutely was not, although there was that, it was called SE, Signed English, but SE was just a, a, like a prosthetic, just a false replacement of a real thing and so obviously it was never going to fool anyone, it would always be not this thing, but this other thing, this poor substitute, but that’s not what ASL was. It was a language of its own. Once Jim learned it, he’d be bilingual – bi-cultural, really, he’d be functional in two different idioms.

Jim spoke English, Spanish, and Qechua and he could navigate dinner and the subway in Paris or Tokyo. Blair knew that perfectly well. It was getting to him, though, Jim could tell. The silences. Blair could fill them up, God knew Blair could yammer on, but they’d lost their rhythm. The moments where Jim would have made some snide or deflating comment, set up Blair’s punchline for him, ordered him to change the record, already, they arrived right on schedule, and nothing happened. The places where Jim should have spoken were obvious to both of them. Blair didn’t know how to account for the blank spaces, so he fumbled them.

Jim leafed through the dictionary, with its black-and-white line drawings of hands, their motion marked by arrows. He learned the alphabet in sign language when he was in the Boy Scouts. They’d thought it was a secret language back then, like no one would ever be able to crack their wily code. A simple half-sentence took forever to spell out, and the teachers might not have known what you were saying in class, but they knew you were up to something they should put a stop to, and so it didn’t turn out useful at all.

A - B - C. Two hundred and eighty-odd pages of words to memorize. Jim closed the book and went over the alphabet in his head by memory. L - M - N - O - P....

“We’re home,” Blair said, while Jim fumbled to remember U. Just said it like that, we’re home, like this was the point at which life returned to normal. Sandburg always did put that positive face on things. Jim looked around the parking garage underneath the building where he’d lived for almost fifteen years, and it didn’t really look like anyplace that he knew. The whole world outside his hospital room was like an opera in Italian, something Jim could almost follow but not quite describe. Blair wanted him to be functional in two idioms, but right then Jim would have settled for one.

*

He didn’t want to learn a new language, so he very nearly didn’t – wouldn’t have at all if it hadn’t been for the Blair Sandburg Immersion Program. It made Jim think of fucking Frankenstein again, where he watches through the window and learns English from the old man teaching the children to read and write on the chalkboard. Jim only learned what he observed Blair learning, so he was forever two steps back, not quite able to hold up his end of things.

Blair took to it immediately, of course, and by the end of the month he was doing volunteer work for the Cascade Shelter Alliance, translating for the couple dozen deaf transients who lived in town at any given time. The loft turned strangely quiet, blanketed by a spell. There was still the television, the coffee-maker, the blender, the a/c, doors and floorboards and traffic and running water, so okay, so it wasn’t quiet, but Jim couldn’t speak and Blair rarely did. The blank spaces turned out to be too heavy, a desert they never found the equipment to cross, and so Blair, ever motivated by justice and equality, mixed his speech more and more as time went by with Jim’s language, the one they both had access to.

They circled each other like animals, communicating by gesture, expression, posture, and a jagged pidgin of ASL and SE and Jim’s own personal vocabulary. When they watched games on tv, Jim combined the signs for “flag” and “die” – that meant “the ref is an idiot.” Blair would snort and nod in response. When Blair was deep into work on his laptop and ignoring the phone, maybe thinking in the back of his mind somewhere that Jim could get it, Jim would rap the table beside him and Blair’s hand would shoot out automatically for the cordless on his desk. He put his fingers gently under Blair’s chin for just a moment to say goodnight, and Blair would smile at him, wordless.

Sometimes Blair signed it at him; “I love you” was one word in ASL, like the rock’n’roll devil horns with the thumb extended, a hieroglyphic that contained I - L - Y within it. Blair could throw it at him across the room like a gang sign. When Jim was a kid, his mother used to do the same thing; she would hold up her hand just like that when she left him and Stephen on the playground, with friends, reminding them and letting them save face at the same time, because God knew by seven or eight you’d learned that it was fine if your mother loved you, as long as it was a secret. So they had that secret between them, and then when she was gone Jim wondered if it had been hard for her to say out loud, too, if there had been a lot of things she’d never been able to just come out and say. Living in the Ellison household tended to breed that particular disability. Now Blair held the same sign out to him, and Jim had to swallow and remember that, no, it didn’t mean “goodbye”. It didn’t have to.

Once, he sat down on a long, quiet afternoon and tried to write that down. His mother. The playground. The things that were buried under every place you put your feet at home, how no one ever really talked – spoke, but not talked.

It was too hard. He had ugly handwriting, and the words looked raw and confused on the page. He didn’t think they said what he meant, and he balled the paper up in his hand and threw it in the trash. He didn’t even know what he meant, so what was the point, anyway? He didn’t think of Blair like his mother, so the whole thing was irrelevant, misleading – something. It was all best left in another lifetime.

Jim refused to make use of the invalid-bell in his room. He wasn’t sick, he wasn’t helpless. If he needed something, he could go downstairs himself. He didn’t need to be able to speak; he could just prowl closer and closer to Blair, right up into his space, and no matter what subdivision of La-La Land Blair was visiting at the moment, sooner or later he’d look up and cock his head to the side, ready and waiting to interpret whatever it was that Jim wanted.

Blair stopped babbling. He spent his time thinking about stuff, just like always, except that now everything that crossed his mind didn’t immediately fly out of his mouth. In a way it was nice, seeing Blair just enjoying a decent meal or a classic movie or chopping vegetables, looking like he was really there for once, and not in ancient Egypt or the mating habits of Emperor penguins or bioengineered wheat fields in Pakistan or where the hell ever. He’d always known that half of Blair’s talk talk talk was a smokescreen, a way to dodge silence. He liked seeing the serenity in Blair’s face when he was silent; he looked like an adult, like the actual, put-together, educated, well-traveled, cool-in-a-crisis, good-looking, thirtysomething intellectual that he was.

He didn’t have to solve the whole Sandburg/Blair conundrum, because the reason for addressing someone by name was to get their attention, and Blair had to devote his full attention to reading Jim’s signs when they were talking anyway. He had most of Blair, most of the time; Blair’s nonprofit work had always happened as much from home as anywhere else, and now he was working at home most of the time. God knew Jim didn’t have anywhere to go. They were either off in their own space, or they were saying something to each other with full attention, eyes moving rapidly from hands to face like the black-and-white arrows in ASL diagrams, inventing language as they went along. Jim didn’t have to call him anything at all.

The sign for “police officer” was the letter C, held against your chest, over your heart. Jim sat at the kitchen table, drinking his tea and browsing the dictionary, and his hand came up toward his chest to try it, but then he stopped. He covered up the illustration instead. The tea was lemon, but for a moment it smelled floral, sickening, and for a moment he didn’t know who he was.

Most of the time he didn’t know who he was, but Jim could avoid thinking about it. Unlike picking up new languages, that was among Jim’s talents.

In his dreams, Jim could still talk. He had boring, stupid dreams, just about standing in the kitchen telling Blair, don’t forget to buy trash bags, the Jags got screwed in the draft this year, Daylight Savings Time, does that start this weekend? Better than PTSD nightmares, Jim supposed, but come on. If he really had it all back, if he could say anything in the world to Blair, was that what his subconscious most wanted to say? Not I love you, Blair, not thank you for all of this, not is there some particular reason we kissed one time and then never again?

Sadly, maybe his subconscious was right. Carolyn would be perfectly willing to testify to the fact that Jim had always found ways to avoid saying the difficult things, even before he had a slit throat to fall back on.

Blair leaned on him when they watched tv together. Jim would put his arm around Blair’s shoulders, and he was over the stage of wondering what he should say next. No point at all, and Jim had never been the kind of person to dwell on the hypothetical.

He missed the sound of Blair’s voice, though.

*

Jim wasn’t exactly a recluse. He didn’t skulk around basements in a mask or anything; he had visitors, family and colleagues – former colleagues – and assorted oddballs from the building, because apparently Jim’s neighbors were a motley crew indeed, and apparently Blair actually knew who most of them were. Jim hadn’t realized that Blair was friendly with so many people that Jim didn’t know at all, but he liked it when they came around. He pretended to read Time and listened in to their conversations with Blair. All right, so maybe he skulked, just a little.

But he didn’t consider himself a recluse, and he went to the Major Crimes Super Bowl party at O’Leary’s specifically because Blair called him a recluse – spelled it out for him by hand in conjunction with saying the word so that Jim would be absolutely sure not to miss the point – and generally made him sound like one or another monster from a Victorian novel, Jim was still partial to Frankenstein, but Blair was working a very Quasimodo sort of theme. French Lit was the only class Jim ever got a C in during college, and he had to go to the party, because anything else would have been a resounding victory for Blair Sandburg and Victor Hugo, two people he definitely did not need conspiring against him.

He must have looked exactly like he felt, because people kept asking him all night if he was okay. I’m a mute in a sports bar, he wanted to say. Is there anything more fucking pointless in life? The chili wasn’t that great, and even though football was still enjoyable in sign language when he was home alone with Blair, he was neither home nor alone with Blair. He was standing like a wallflower by the jukebox, listening to his friends yell and boo and taunt and threaten and jeer at a box that couldn’t talk back to them. The darkness outside turned the front window of O’Leary’s into a mirrored surface, and Jim’s eyes could draw the faint reflection right out, an all-access pass to the frustrated set of his own jaw, the vaguely lost look in his eyes, the ridge of scar tissue around his neck, not quite covered up by his sweater.

Rachel came over during halftime and stood so close she almost touched him, and the smell of her had changed. She smelled spicy, like a man’s cologne, and like salt and cheese and salsa, for obvious reasons. She handed him a beer, and he nodded his thanks.

He’d wanted...to tell her things. Jim was sure of that, although it seemed so long ago now, and he’d given it up for impossible, but they were kind of having a moment. This was his chance: wisdom from long experience, like the old but still ass-kicking master to the young student in a kung-fu movie. Thanks for avenging my near-murder, Rachel. You were a pretty good partner, kid, sorry I didn’t tell you that. It would have been good working with you. Whoever you smell like has good taste in cologne, and make sure he treats you right, because you’d be surprised how few secrets there are in the bullpen, and those yahoos over there can get protective. You’re young enough to be my daughter, and my God, when I look at you I can’t help but wonder if I should have had a daughter, if I’ve already missed my chance to leave something of me behind when I go, and let me tell you, I’ve been thinking a lot about mortality lately, which you’re too young to understand, but it smells like jasmine and gardenias. They don’t make the perfume my mother wore anymore; she’s so far away now, gone so deep into the realm of history books. When you shoot a perp they offer you counseling, and you should think about going for it if you haven’t already, because you don’t want to end up like me, lugging around death everywhere you go and utterly lost if you should be so lucky as to get through it all and find out what the peaceful life is like. The Land of the Living. Rachel, you’re so young. You’re still alive. Don’t be a hero, it’s bad pay and worse hours and the only way for anyone to know who you are is to drag them right along behind you. You’re strong, you have steady hands, you think fast, you could do good work, but maybe you should consider getting married and having babies instead.

Because he really would have said any of that if he could have. Sure. More to the point, she was really likely to listen to him.

They left right after the game ended. Simon hugged him, slapping him on the back, and Rachel hugged him, squeezing his arms. Brown and Rafe and Megan ganged up and warned him that they were coming over for poker, don’t think you can weasel out of your turn so easily. Jim grinned a little at the idea of poker night – he and Blair could cheat right out in the open, and political correctness would prevent the guys from telling them to knock it off for at least two or three hands.

They were parked in a metered lot three blocks away, and Blair walked in front of Jim and backwards, a clear warning that he was getting ready to say something that he fully expected Jim to respond to. Jim made a spread-handed gesture that didn’t literally mean anything, but connoted something like, out with it, already, then.

You have to try, Blair signed. You have to work if you want to be normal.

Jim snorted. Normal, right. Blair the optimist. Everything different now, Jim signed, his hands moving sharp and jerky to convey that he wasn’t committing to this conversation, that the sooner it was over with, the better.

You still have friends.

If Jim hadn’t been steering them in the right direction Blair might have ended up crashing through the Wendy’s drive-through window; no way did he know where the truck was when he couldn’t even bother to glance back over his shoulder at where he was going. It clearly came as a surprise to Blair when he found himself backed up against the truck. Those people love you, he went on. They worry about you.

Abruptly, the whole night was too much for Jim. He’d gone to be with his friends but he’d hardly been there at all, a ghost, an illegal alien that everyone pretended not to see. Did Blair think it was fun for him, surrounded by the life he couldn’t lead anymore, listening to them bitch about lawyers and paperwork and City Hall in the way you only bitch about your job when you love it? Did he think that Jim didn’t still love his friends, love his goddamn job, love half a dozen different things that weren’t actually any part of his life at all anymore? Jim slammed his hands against the cab of the truck, on either side of Blair’s head, and when Blair froze Jim signed to him in oversized, unsubtle gestures like a shout, TALK! TALK! I’M NOT DEAF!

“I really hate you sometimes!” Blair yelled. His voice broke at the very end, and then the rest of Blair followed suit.

Jim stood steady under the weight of a crumpled Blair, gripping the shoulders of his sweater and leaning on Jim’s chest. “No, I don’t hate you,” he said, and he was speaking strangely, sort of gasping and talking at the same time, like he’d forgotten how to breathe and talk simultaneously. “I love you, Jim, you know I’ve always loved you. You just make everything so damn difficult, and yes, I know exactly how that sounds, I know I’m selfish, but seriously, Jim, you know what? Everyone’s selfish, it’s just the human condition, and I liked the way we were, I was happy. Nobody owned me, not Rainier or the CPD, it was like for the first time, nobody had my tags and title and I was my own man. I even thought you didn’t own me, but fuck you, Jim, you do now, don’t you? I don’t mean that, I don’t mean ‘fuck you,’ I wanted to do this. I’d rather die than have you going through this and being alone, and you would be, you asshole, if you didn’t have me around you’d be living on the Spruce Goose by now, you never did let anybody but me help you. What’s more dysfunctional, that I resent you for that or that I’ve got my self-esteem all wrapped up in it? God, Jim, I don’t mean any of this, no, I mean, I don’t mean half of this, I don’t even really know. I just don’t know if you’re getting any better, and I want so badly for you to get better, I want things to be good again and, God, I don’t want to let you down, and you sure as hell won’t go to anyone but me for help so it’s all on me now, and truthfully, Jim, am I really qualified for this at all? Do I give off the impression of having the first fucking clue what I’m doing, because if I do, that is a complete deception, fraudulent in the extreme, I am definitely not a doctor of any kind, man.”

Sandburg, shut up. He thought it automatically; once upon a time he would have said it, when Blair was rattling his cage with uncertainties and insights and...feelings. He didn’t have that option anymore. He kissed Blair instead, the scent of him climbing over the sense of his words, the feel of him, a ninety-odd degrees and rising hotspot in the middle of the winter Cascade wind.

“Get in the truck,” Blair ordered him when they pulled apart. Jim nodded, mesmerized by the shine of his saliva on Blair’s mouth.

He wasn’t exactly nervous, but he sat rigidly in the passenger seat, his spine flat against the back of it, because he wanted whatever Blair had in mind, wanted to leave room for any and all of Blair’s impulses and make no assumptions beforehand. He only moved when Blair straddled his lap, the two of them combined filling up their side of the cab like the candy stuffed into a plastic Easter egg. He shifted his arm so that Blair’s thigh didn’t squeeze it against the door handle, and the best place for his arms to go seemed to be loosely around Blair’s hips, his hands resting hesitantly on Blair’s ass.

“Come on, come on, come on,” Blair was muttering, presumably to himself, since he was the one who had taken charge of unbuckling Jim, unzipping both of them, cutting to the chase. He kissed Jim’s lips, then before Jim could react, Blair kissed his face, the side of his mouth, his jaw, the scar. He mouthed the ridge of tissue there, the sensitized regrowth of skin, and Jim breathed out heavily, closing his eyes and echoing Blair’s impatient chant in his own head.

“God – fuck,” Blair gasped when he got his cock out, thrusting his hips forward hard so it pressed into the soft cashmere-blend sweater and the resistant weight of Jim underneath. Jim shifted his hand up to rub his thumb across the flushed, winter-roughened, crisp-stubbled skin of Blair’s cheek. Blair mirrored him, moving his hands to rest under against Jim’s neck like he was holding Jim’s head up for him. “I love you, I’ve always loved you – no, well, wait, not always, but – wow, a long damn time, this is not late-breaking news, can you believe how long it’s been, Jim? I can’t believe it, it feels like I just met you the other day, and you were a real asshole to me, but I thought hey, what the hell, if you can’t put up with – oh – a little discomfort – for the sake of science, then – oh, Jim, oh, Jim, oh, God, I love you! But it wasn’t the other day, it’s been years and years, and I love you more all the time.”

Jim nodded shortly: I know. He did know. He’d known for a while; even if he’d never matched the words up to the actions, turned Sandburg’s loyalty and kindness into I-L-Y in this or that language, that didn’t exactly make the connection a big surprise. Jim pulled up his sweater, shifting Blair forward so that his dick rested against Jim’s body, the threads of cashmere just a grace-note shivering at the edges of Blair’s senses. Blair moaned and pressed up hard against him. A passing moment of vanity clouded Jim’s good mood, because wouldn’t it have been so much better if they’d done this a year ago, five years ago, when Jim’s stomach was harder and more textured with muscle? The gym was one of those places that, reclusively, he’d been avoiding since his retirement, and there was only so much that crunches and push-ups could accomplish, and it was crazy, when Jim stopped to think about it, that he’d pushed himself so hard for so many years to make his body good enough for the job, and this was the first time since Jim could remember that he thought of his body as a thing that could turn somebody on. It was no fucking wonder he didn’t know what to do with himself, now that he was living strung upside-down, unemployed and in love.

Blair wouldn’t shut up, he just would not quit talking, saying “I love you” and “fuck, Jim, you feel so good, I knew you’d feel this good” and “it’s not about a kink, man, I never, ever, ever had throw-me-down-and-fuck-me-hard fantasies before you, or since you, actually, it’s just you” and “you better not be jerking me around, man, this better not be a pity-fuck, I need this, I need you, you need me too, don’t do anything stupid, Jim, just – do – this – this, oh, this” and “I love you, I love you, Jim, I love you.” Jim didn’t know how long he was going to have to wait before he got another chance to kiss Blair, but he did know that he craved the sound of Blair’s stream-of-consciousness more than nearly anything in the world right now.

Behind the pleasure, though – the pleasure of Blair’s voice, the pleasure of his cock brushing back and forth against Blair’s balls and his ass as he thrust back and forth against Jim – Jim was aware of the aftertaste of desperation in the back of his throat. He had Blair, hot and hard and half out of his mind with however many years of checked desire, over him, pressing against him and holding him in place. He had Blair’s manic full-disclosure episode battering against his comfortable coital stupidity. He could barely find room to move, and he sure as hell couldn’t do the fair thing and hold up his end of the conversation. He had nothing to give back, no way to get out of Blair’s debt.

Truthfully, there probably hadn’t ever been a way to get out of Blair’s debt.

Blair was vaguely ugly when he came, scowling, sweating. Jim knew he himself was ugly when he came, too, suspected that all men were. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t doing this because he’d been under the impression that he was fucking Nicolette Sheridan. Blair was Blair, looked and smelled and sounded like Blair, and Jim had been in love with him since, God only knew, the beginning of time or something like that. Close enough for government work. He thought of Blair, nosing his red, raw scar and saying you’re perfect, you’re perfect, and he finally got that it wasn’t generosity of spirit that made him say that, just the way Blair’s eyes worked. Jim knew all about altered perceptions. This was just one more alteration among many, and more pleasant than most.

Blair pulled away from him and the full force of his helplessness hit Jim right in the gut. Blair had that look on his face, freshly fucked, and he was lost, zoned, in no state at all to hear anything that Jim would be capable of saying. He shifted off of Jim to the side and leaned over his cock, and Jim was shoving up into his mouth before he could stop himself, but he was conflicted about it, because he wanted the blowjob, okay, obviously, but he needed to tell Blair – he needed to say something – he needed Blair to listen to him, and it was impossible. He fisted his hands in Blair’s hair and willed him to stop, willed him to keep going, willed him to just know and get it and look up and say, “Okay, Jim, I hear that.”

He wasn’t listening, though. Why should he? How could he possibly know that Jim had important things to say, when they’d made ten years’ habit of making themselves comfortable in these roles, Sandburg the motor-mouth, Jim the uncooperative grunting savage? Christ, the way that Blair – the way that everyone must see him. Fucking Frankenstein, long before the scar.

Jim stroked his hair. He didn’t know half the words with his hands that Blair did, but that wasn’t really a big change from before, and maybe no matter how it happened, it would always have happened like this, with Blair ripping open his soul and making a cut-away diagram of it and Jim unable to open his mouth and say the littlest, easiest, most important thing.

He couldn’t make a sound when he came. He could only pant (out of shape, middle-aged, not the hero anymore, let’s hear it for modern medicine and the great advances that make 21st century Sentinels capable of outliving their design function by, oh, let’s say another thirty or forty years coming down the pike at him) and scrape his fingers over Blair’s back to keep himself from pulling on his hair.

Wet lips, swollen, and he must have been staring, because Blair wiped his fingers almost shyly across his mouth, blotting off the evidence. The truck smelled like absolutely nothing but sex now, sex and maybe a hint of Colorado Pine air freshener, but the taste of corn nuts and Blair’s own chemistry still lined Jim’s mouth. Blair wasn’t quite meeting his eyes, and it took Jim’s fogged brain a moment to realize it was because Blair couldn’t see him clearly in the dark. He could see Blair, though, red-faced and sweaty and tangled, dazed, dopey, grinning an abashed little grin as he mulled over the fact that he’d just fucked in a downtown parking lot on Super Bowl Sunday. Blair’s face was always so ridiculously easy to read. It would all have been sort of adorable, if it hadn’t been for the terrifying fact that if Blair couldn’t see him, Blair couldn’t hear him. Jim could vanish into the fourth dimension here and it would take Blair a minute or two of squinting into the darkness to be sure he was gone.

“Jim,” Blair began, and Jim reached across and took hold of his wrist, pulling Blair’s hand into the space between them, palm up. He’d learned the alphabet in Boy Scouts, the slowest and most cumbersome method of communicating without a voice. B, he shaped, pressing his hand into Blair’s palm, Miracle-Worker style. Patty Duke movies were going to save his marriage to Blair? Well, Blair was blind and deaf to him right now, so they would use any inspirational story of the triumph of the human spirit that they could get their hands on.

He found that he had faltered, stopped. Helen Keller – the smell of Colorado Pine and Blair’s glycerin soap – Blair’s wide, watchful, blind eyes – the slight crick in his own back – he was able to process everything, able to handle anything except words. Jim was multilingual, dysfunctional in every idiom.

“Go on, Jim,” Blair said softly. “I’m listening.”

Jim brushed his hand softly over Blair’s palm, watched and felt Blair try to hide a shudder of pleasure. Go on.

n-e-v-e-r s-a-i-d w-a-i-t-e-d t-o-o l-o-n-g He watched Blair frown in concentration, following along in his head and making sense out of symbols. Blair was nodding steadily, an unconscious I’m with you, I see it, keep going. Jim kept going. s-o s-o-r-r-y t-o-o l-a-t-e

He stopped then and folded his hand around Blair’s. Too late. He knew the sign for it, but the prosthetic version couldn’t replace the real one; they might live forty years together and it might be happy and it might turn out that Jim was adjusting and would be okay after all, thanks to Blair, but no matter what happened, he would never be able to say “I love you.” Blair would never hear that again, not from someone who meant it like Jim meant it. He’d waited so long, kept his mouth shut and even taken some perverse pride in being able to keep his mouth shut, playing this long push-me-pull-you game with Sandburg, and now there was no time left on the clock and he’d robbed Blair of this. He hadn’t known there wouldn’t always be time, but ignorance of the law was no excuse. He’d waited too long. He’d lost this for both of them.

Blair put his hand on Jim’s face, his thumb moving slowly across Jim’s lips like he was hushing Jim. He leaned his face closer, and if dying smelled like flowers, he’d known for years that living smelled like Blair. “Tell me you love me, Jim,” Blair whispered, breath against Jim’s face, and then kissed him.

Jim cupped his hands around Blair’s face and kissed him back.