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Folie a Deux

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I look around the table. The back room at Muldoon's is quiet and private, just like I wanted. Everyone has a beer, except for Simon, who's drinking whiskey, neat, and Joel, nursing his usual mineral water with a twist of lemon. Rafe and Megan are demolishing the onion rings, H has made a pretty substantial dent in the Nachos Grande, and I'm sitting here, practically shitting in my pants.

These people are our friends. Gotta remember that.

They're good people. Good friends. They stuck by us during the nightmare of Jim being outed as a Sentinel, and one by one, they came up to me after my press conference and told me that my story about faking the data on my dissertation was a crock of shit. They didn't believe I would lie about that, and they knew Jim was special in some way. At that point I was so strung out, I didn't even bother to argue.

Simon leans back, his unlit cigar clenched between his teeth. "So, what's this all about, Sandburg? You graduating early?"

"Not exactly," I admit, and take a quick swallow of beer to postpone the inevitable. It's cold and wet, kinda like my armpits right now. I'm freezing, and still sweating buckets. Jim's knee nudges my thigh and I take a deep breath and shoot him a grateful look. He offered to do this, but I told him no and came up with some bullshit about cleaning up my own messes and being a man. So here I am.

"You guys...." I stop and clear my throat. "You guys have all been really great and I appreciate your support over the past couple of months." I press my thigh against Jim's knee and try to smile at them. "Simon, I know I've said it before, but thanks for pulling god knows how many strings to get me into the Academy so fast, and for getting me excused from all those classes because of my 'field experience.'" He grins back.

"That was a good one," H agrees.

"Yeah. Can we use that excuse to get out of those refresher classes?" Joel winks at me.

"Taggert, do you know how many asses I had to kiss to get the Academy to agree to Sandburg's waivers?" Simon takes a sip of whiskey and waves his cigar. "I'm never doing that again."

Rafe chuckles and stuffs another onion ring into his mouth.

I hold my beer tightly and take a deep breath. "I've got something I need to tell you...." Simon's eyes narrow, and Megan tilts her head like she can hear my heart pounding its way through my chest. I look at Jim once, for courage, and continue.

"I'm quitting the Academy."

Then I grab Jim's hand and sit back while they all start to shout at once.

He scrambled over the rocks, moving cautiously to ensure he didn't overbalance. They hadn't walked far enough for the forty-pound pack on his back to become a burden, but it was awkward to climb with it on. Dusk was gathering as well-they hadn't left as early as either of them had hoped. When he reached the top of the outcropping, he paused and looked down. Sandburg was right behind him, frowning slightly as he concentrated on his hand- and footholds. Jim mirrored his frown for a moment; Blair looked tired, the thin skin beneath his eyes as dark as bruises, his mouth stitched with tiny worry lines.

We're both exhausted, he thought as he turned away, scanning the small clearing for the best location for their firepit. Sandburg came up beside him and nodded.

"Good choice." He fumbled with the straps of his backpack as Jim slid his own off his back.

"Need some help?"

"No. I've got it." His voice was cool and quiet, like it had been for the past week, and he tugged until he released the straps enough to let the pack slide off with a thump.

They set up camp in silence, with only an occasional gesture as a query or answer. Finally their fire was going, their food, save what they were cooking for dinner, was suspended high from a branch, and beside the fire their sleeping bags stretched out invitingly. Jim gave the dinner pot a stir, moved it off the fire so that it wouldn't scorch, and slowly walked over to where Blair was sitting on a rock, staring out into the valley. He stood beside Blair, looking out over the miles of uninterrupted green mountains, which were gradually fading to darkness.

"Want something to eat?" he said at last.

Blair shrugged. "Maybe later. I'm not really hungry."

"Okay." He walked back to the fire and spooned out a bowlful of stew for himself, sat crosslegged on his sleeping bag, and took a bite, chewing slowly. He suddenly wished they'd never come. It was worse out here, worse because this had been the place where they'd been closest, most at ease together. Jim sighed and put down his bowl. Here he had been able to relax, to forget for a day or two the city's constant assault on his senses. He could let down his guard, lower the barriers usually so firmly fixed in place. In the quiet and calm of the forest, they'd shared an easy camaraderie that he didn't realize he'd treasured until now, when it was obviously gone.

He put his bowl near the fire and stood, pausing uncertainly for a moment before returning to Blair's side.

"Should I put the food away, or do you think you'll be hungry later?"

Blair glanced at him. "Did you eat?"

He shrugged, not particularly caring if Blair took it for a 'yes' or a 'no.'

Blair raised his eyebrows and looked at him intently for a second. "Smells good," Blair said firmly, as if deciding something, and stood up with a wince. He rubbed the back of his knee and grimaced.

"Pins and needles?"


Jim was startled by Blair's unexpected grin, and followed him back to the fire. Without a word he spooned out another bowl and handed it to Sandburg, who had stretched out on his sleeping bag. He grabbed his own bowl and began to eat. Blair was right, it did smell good, and tasted pretty fine, too. When Jim looked up, Blair was scraping the bottom of the bowl.


Blair shook his head and patted his stomach. "Nah. I'm stuffed."

Jim looked at him assessingly. "I'm not surprised. That's the most you've eaten all week."

"Yeah, well." He shrugged again, and a shadow passed over his face. "It's been a hell of a couple of weeks, y'know?" Blair looked thoughtful and opened his mouth as if to continue, only to let loose a belch instead, a rip-roaring sound that echoed in the hills. His look of indignant surprise set Jim off, and Blair quickly followed, the two of them laughing until they were holding their bellies and begging each other to shut up.

Finally their laughter trailed off into occasional fits of giggles, and they smiled blearily at each other. Jim blinked experimentally, the water droplets on his damp eyelashes turning the firelight into prisms and rainbows of color. It was beautiful, and he found the fact that he could still appreciate beauty oddly comforting.

"This was a good idea, Jim." Blair sniggered quietly, and then groaned, clutching his stomach. "Not the laughing - I think I'm going to be sick - but getting away, coming up here."

Jim smiled and picked up their bowls, his apprehensions easing with Blair's words. Maybe this was a good idea after all. It was a good place to heal wounds, to rebuild what was crumbling. He took the bowls, along with his toothbrush, soap, and towel, the ten yards to the deep, cold lake tucked into the mountainside. There was no need for a flashlight - he could see fine in the faint light from their fire.

He had rinsed the bowls and washed up by the time Blair stumbled after him, the beam of his flashlight moving crazily through the branches and skittering over the ground. Jim left him kneeling beside the lake, muttering darkly about growing a beard instead of trying to shave in freezing water.

They settled on their sleeping bags, half-dozing, too comfortable to do anything more than poke green sticks into the fire and complain about how tired they were. There was a lull, then Jim looked up from studying the flames and glanced at Blair, lazily prodding the embers.

"So, have you decided what you're going to do with the money?"

Blair went still, then jerked his hand back and stared, frowning, at the glowing end of the stick. "I don't know," he finally said. "It's a lot of money."

"Bullshit," Jim snorted. "After what you went through? Sid was damn lucky you settled for as little as you did, as quickly as you did."

"I didn't do it for the money, Jim. You know that."

"Yeah, I know. But like everyone said, money's the language Sid understands. He'd have never left you alone otherwise - even Naomi agreed with that. You did what you had to."

"Hey, don't forget about Ira's contribution to the cause. He waived his fee and is riding Sid's ass to make sure he doesn't give us any more grief."

"Where did Naomi say she met him?" Jim suddenly held up his hand. "Never mind. I don't think I want to know." He rolled onto his side and propped his head on his hand. "But she was right about one thing; he's a damn good lawyer."

"Sometimes this whole last month seems like a nightmare." Blair flopped onto his back and clasped his hands behind his head. The firelight reddened his pale face and turned his hair to burnished copper. Jim closed his eyes at the sight, ignoring the strange tugging in his chest; he wished he could do the same with his memories of the past month. Betrayal, anger, the horror of being exposed to the world, the aching realization of the totality of his friend's sacrifice... 'Nightmare' was too tame a word for it. He opened his eyes and dragged himself back to the present.

"You could just invest the money, let it grow, and decide later."

"Always the practical one, aren't you?" Blair shook his head. "It seems weird to think about having enough money to invest."

Jim relaxed a fraction - he could hear Blair's smile in his words. "I wouldn't say no if you started paying rent."

That earned him a snort of amusement. "Maybe I'll get a place of my own."

"That wasn't what I meant," he said quickly, not pausing to wonder why his chest suddenly felt tight. "I don't need any rent. You can stay as long as you want to."

With a sinking feeling he remembered those same words he'd spoken half a year ago, after they'd returned from Sierra Verde, and he knew Blair remembered them as well. He'd hoped he would never need to say them again.

Obviously, he was wrong.

Blair stretched and yawned. "Oh, man, I am completely wiped. Must be the wholesome exercise and pure mountain air."

"Not to mention the tasty home-cooked dinner," Jim added, scrambling to match Blair's change of mood.

Blair slipped inside his sleeping bag. "Just wait'll we get to the hearty country breakfast." He yawned again. "Wake me up when it's cooked and ready, okay?"

Jim waited until he could hear Blair's breathing slow and deepen in sleep.

"Good night, Chief," he whispered as he stared into the fire.

The voices die one by one as they gradually take in the fact that Jim and I are holding hands. Two guys. Holding hands. In a semi-private public place. Only Simon's still going strong, but he's looking at the ceiling, so I just wait until it finally dawns on him that he's the only one talking and he looks at us.

"Sweet Jesus."

He takes a quick swallow of his whiskey, sets his jaw, and glares at us.

"Explain yourself, Sandburg. And I don't have to tell you that, after all the strings I pulled and favors I called in to get you into the Academy in the first place, it better be damn good."

I give Jim's hand a squeeze and let go.

"Believe me, Simon, this isn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. We've thought long and hard about it."

Simon's gaze shifts to Jim, and his eyebrows crawl up his forehead. "Jim, please tell me this isn't what I'm beginning to suspect it is."

"Well, sir, you shouldn't really be surprised, should you?" Megan pipes up. Everyone swivels to face her and she looks at them levelly. "Anyone with half an ounce of common sense and any detective abilities at all could see that they're a couple, and have been for a while." She winks at us. "A damn cute couple, too."

Rafe and Brown close their sagging jaws with a snap and turn to stare at us again. Joel blinks owlishly for a moment, then tries to hide his growing smile by taking a drink. Simon's still the odd man out - he looks angry, really angry.

"Sandburg, I asked you to explain. I'm still waiting."

Jim reaches out and rests his hand on my shoulder. "Let me, Chief," he says, catching my eyes and giving me a ghost of a smile. I nod, and he gives my shoulder a little pat, leaving his hand there. It's the only warm spot on my entire body right now, and I wish I could have Jim's hands all over me - they always heat me up like a shot.

"None of this was intentional, Captain," he begins. "We were as surprised as anyone." He glances at Megan, who is grinning like an idiot. "And maybe more surprised than some...."

The morning had been pleasant, and Jim was beginning to feel as if they'd restored their equilibrium. It was still a precarious balance, but it was far better than the careening, out-of-control ride they'd been on since the story of his abilities had hit the news.

They'd woken early, made coffee, and decided to take their fishing poles and try their luck catching breakfast at the lake. There was a narrow, fast-running outflow at the other side of the lake that looked promising. Blair staked out a sunny spot on the rocks about twenty feet from Jim.

"You can't stand in the sun, Chief. The fish'll see you and the rod."

"Trust me, man. I'm smarter than a fish, and I know what I'm doing." Blair sat on a rock, ostentatiously checked the position of the sun in relation to his fishing pole, and made minute adjustments to the pole until he nodded as if satisfied.

Jim flipped him the bird and received a snort in reply.

Half an hour and two trout for Jim later, Blair stretched, shifted around, and remarked, "You know, if Simon finds out we came here without him, you're a dead man."

"Thanks for your concern," Jim replied drily. "I'm not going to tell him." He glanced at the stream by Sandburg's line, and saw a large trout - damn, the thing was almost big enough to be a pike - just sitting there, looking at the fly dragging enticingly in the rushing water. "Chief," he began, but the fish decided to strike right then, and his warning was drowned out by Blair's yell.

He dropped his own rod, grabbed the net and practically leapt from rock to rock while Blair struggled to bring in the fish. By the time he got there, panting, with his jeans soaked from the knees down, Blair had landed it, and it was gasping shallowly and flopping on the rocks

"Here." Jim handed him the small club they used to kill fish, and Blair quickly dispatched it.

"Wow," he said, lifting his prize, his face split in a wide smile. "Pretty good, huh?"

Jim pretended to consider, then grinned. "Yeah, but you catch it, you clean it."

"I don't care." Blair was hefting the fish. "It must weigh four, maybe five pounds."

"At least," Jim agreed. "Good job, Chief."

Blair looked at him, eyes shining. "I told you I was smarter than some damn trout." He laughed when he saw Jim's dripping trousers. "Get a little excited, Jim? Forget you're not in your waders?"

"Nah. I was in a hurry. I didn't want you to lose the fish."

"Yeah, right." Blair pulled out the knife they used for gutting. "There's plenty here for both of us. Why don't you dump your two little, tiny fish, get the fire going, and put some more coffee on. I'll be there in a few minutes."

Jim had the coffee made and was changing his jeans when Blair arrived with the cleaned fish. The coals were hot, and despite its size, the fish didn't take long to cook. They feasted on fresh fish and coffee and the camp biscuits that Jim had learned to make when he was eleven.

"I don't know about you, man, but either I walk off this meal, or I lie here in a stupor all day." Blair poured the last of the coffee into his cup and scratched his belly contentedly.

"Either sounds good to me," Jim said, picking up their plates. "Your choice."

"Well, we can lay around at home, so we might as well take advantage of being out here." Blair finished his coffee, then collected the pans and followed Jim down to the lake. "Simon says there's a great view from the top - why don't we try it?"

They quickly washed up and secured the campsite, then headed up the mountain. It was an easy hike at first, and they walked together in a comfortable silence. Jim relaxed in the quiet, clean air, enjoying the restful greens and browns of the scenery. The tension that he unconsciously carried every day bled away, bit by bit. Gradually, the trail grew steeper, but there were enough hand- and footholds to make the going reasonable.

"Oh, man, will you look at that...."

Blair's quiet words interrupted Jim's idle contemplations, and his eyes followed the upward direction of Sandburg's pointing finger.

"It looks pretty steep, Chief."

"Well, d'uh, Jim." Blair's hands were on his hips, and his head was tilted back, as he looked up the slope. "It must be at least sixty-five degrees. Look at the angle of the tree trunks to the ground."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, his eyes raking over the cliff in front of them. "But I don't see any other way up except here. You want to call it a day and go back?"

With a glare at Jim, Blair shook his head. "No way. Not when we've come this far. Besides, we've got to be near the top." He shaded his eyes with his hand and squinted at the route. "The trees are close enough that we can just climb from trunk to trunk." Without waiting for Jim to comment, he scrambled up the eroded path and paused, clinging to the first tree trunk. "So far, so good," he said, grinning down at Jim, and then launched himself toward the next tree, sending down a shower of dirt and pebbles.

Jim watched him for a moment, his mouth curving in an indulgent smile, before following.

"Y'know, Jim," said a breathless voice fifteen minutes later, "this is a lot harder than it looked."

Jim changed his grip on the tree trunk he was clinging to, wiped the sweat from his eyes, and looked up the slope. "You're almost there, Tenzing. Three or four more trees, and you'll be out in the open."

"Hey, how come you get to be Sir Edmund Hillary and I'm the Sherpa?"

"Because you're the guide, Chief."

A groan was his only answer.

By the time Jim had crawled out of the trees, taking the last of the steep slope on his hands and knees, Blair was sprawled, panting, on a grassy meadow. Staggering to his feet and blessing the unexpectedly level ground, Jim stumbled over to Blair and collapsed beside him.

"Whose idea was this?" Blair asked, laughter coloring his voice.

"I don't know," gasped Jim, fumbling for his canteen, "but if I find out, someone's going to be in some serious shit."

"I don't think my knees work anymore."

"Just wait'll you have to go back down."

"Don't remind me," Blair groaned. He reached out, and Jim handed him the canteen. There was a rustle of movement, and out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see Blair sit up.

"Nice place," Blair said, looking around before he took a long drink and recapped the canteen.

"Yeah. Nice and flat." Jim stretched and folded his hands beneath his head. The sky was clear and brilliant blue - it looked solid, permanent, like a ceiling of polished glass.

Blair stood and turned in a circle. "It's really beautiful, you know." He glanced down at Jim, his face and torso oddly foreshortened, and held out his hand in invitation.

With a theatrical sigh, Jim hauled himself up and looked around. The meadow stretched up a gentle slope, ending abruptly at a cliff face, which rose precipitously to the summit another thousand feet above them. Wildflowers were scattered in clumps, softening the severe simplicity of the groups of lichen-encrusted boulders that dotted the area. Short, tough grass carpeted the ground, vying for space with patches of dense moss. It was beautiful, and Jim was startled to feel that fact slam into him with an almost physical force.

"I'm hungry," he said, fiercely pushing aside his reaction. He grinned when Blair threw up his hands.

"I give up, man. You're hopeless."

Jim closed his eyes and tilted his face to the sun. Its warmth soaked into his skin, contrasting sharply with the cool patch beneath his jaw, and he shivered at the unexpected intensity of it. He could feel the warmth of the sunlight on the front of his jacket and jeans radiating through his body, could feel his skin soften and relax at the small increase in temperature. His back remained cool, tight, the tiny hairs standing on end as his flesh contracted in the chill.

Heat suddenly blossomed at the small of his back, scorching tendrils shooting along nerve-ends up his back and down across his ass. He stumbled, and another hot-spot immediately appeared on his arm, bathing it in warmth.


He struggled to open his eyes, to regulate the flux of heat and cold that swirled around his body, to recover the sensory equilibrium he had suddenly lost. He gulped the cool air, its chill spreading through him from the inside out, and he shivered again.


Blinking in the strong sunlight, he lowered his head and met Blair's concerned gaze. He could feel Blair's hands on his back and arm - two islands of calm on his storm-racked body.

"What's going on, man?"

One hand moved from his arm and slid across his chest, his skin puckering beneath the warm palm. He shivered again as it slipped between his arm and chest and Blair grabbed a handful of his jacket, holding him tightly, his body pressed close to Jim's. Blair was still looking at him, his forehead creased with worry.

Jim blinked, lowered his head slowly, so slowly, and brushed a kiss over Blair's temple.

"Jim?" Blair loosened his hold - Jim could feel Blair's warmth against him decrease slightly, and he didn't like that, couldn't bear that. With his free arm, he pulled Blair closer and twisted slightly so that he could snake out his other arm and hold Blair firmly to him.

Blair sighed, as if in resignation, and settled himself against Jim. Gradually, Jim's body calmed and his grip relaxed. Pulling away enough to see Jim's face, Blair studied him intently, and Jim felt himself redden slightly at his scrutiny.

"You gonna be okay now?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah." His voice sounded rusty. Blair shifted, and Jim willed his grip to loosen, his hands and arms to release the other man. When Blair stepped away, he sank gratefully to the ground and took a deep breath, preparing.

"So," Blair said as he sat cross-legged beside Jim, "what set that off?"

Jim shrugged and brushed his hand across a tuft of grass, shivering at the blades' gentle resistance. "Stress, probably."

"That makes sense. We've had a lot to deal with lately." He looked at Jim thoughtfully, then lowered his eyes, looking at Jim's fingers as they idly carded through the grass. "Why'd you kiss me, Jim?"

He raised his head, his eyes meeting Jim's, his cool faade of the past few weeks cracked and gaping. Jim swallowed hard at what he saw - at what he thought he saw - in the ruins of Blair's hastily erected defenses.

What the hell could he say?

"I don't want the details, Jim," Simon interrupts.

"I do," Megan hisses, and winks at me. I cough to cover my laugh. Simon is not happy right now, and I don't want to add to his aggravation.

He glares at Megan, who sits back with a smirk, and then turns back to us. He looks at us for a minute, then sighs, pulls off his glasses, and rubs his eyes.

"I take it you're... romantically involved."

We both nod. I open my mouth to speak, but Jim nudges me and I close it again. He's right. This is hard enough as it is. Answer the questions, and don't volunteer any more information than is necessary. Channel Joe Friday: "Just the facts, ma'am."

"When did..." Simon's jaw snaps shut and his hand slices the air, cutting off the question. He studies us for a moment. "Did this... relationship start before you began the Academy, Sandburg?"

"That's hard to say. It took a while... I mean, we didn't just profess our undying love and leap into bed together...." I ignore Rafe's snicker, wince at Simon's expression, and then glance at Jim more desperately than I'd like. How about a little help here?

"Simon, we didn't know that this was going to be a problem when Blair started the Academy," Jim says firmly. "Once we agreed that we're in this for the long haul, and realized that we wouldn't be able to be officially partnered with each other, Blair insisted on leaving."

There is a chorus of head-nodding around the table. They understand our dilemma.

H glances at Simon and then turns to me. "I suppose you wouldn't consider being officially partnered with someone else, and work with Jim unofficially?"

I shake my head. "Nah. It won't work."

"What about keeping all this under wraps?" suggests Rafe, waving his hand at the two of us in a complicated stirring motion. I don't even want to think about what he means by the gesture.

"That's a good point," says Simon. Everyone turns to him in surprise. "I don't normally advocate withholding this type of information, but guys," he leans forward and spreads his hands like he's pleading, "you could have kept quiet about this and no one would be the wiser, despite what Connor claims."

"I'd never say anything," Megan protests.

Simon silences her with a look, then turns back to us. "Why rock the boat?"

"Can you imagine the fallout if I graduated, became Jim's partner, and then our relationship became public?" I shake my head. "It won't work, Simon, and you know it."

He sighs and takes another drink.

"So what are you going to do, Blair?" Joel asks, looking worried. "Are you going to go back to Rainier?"

"If you take up the fellowship Rainier offered, you won't be able to ride with Jim," H echoes Joel's worry.

"Why not?" asks Rafe. "Simon would approve it."

"I'd approve it," says Simon, "but it'll never fly with the brass. Not if Sandburg leaves the Academy."

Megan frowns. "So what are you going to do, Sandy? I'm sure you two have something in mind."

"Well, yeah, we do." I smile at Jim. "It was his idea...."

Jim blinked and looked at Sandburg, who was waiting for an answer to his question. Blair's expression was still open, almost hopeful. Jim hesitated - it would be nice if he had an idea what to say, how to explain what he did, why he did it. The silence grew, until Blair suddenly shook his head and turned away, his back stiff, his shoulders rigid.

"I'm going back, now," he said, getting to his feet. "I'll see you at camp."

Jim watched him walk toward the trees. He knew that if he didn't say something now, right this very minute, the gulf between them would never be bridged, their tenuous equilibrium would vanish. And Blair would leave.

"Sandburg!" he called, as Blair disappeared into the trees. He stumbled to his feet, sweating and clammy, and shambled across the grass. Without a pause, he started down the slope, skidding on loose stones, aiming for the closest tree trunk to break his headlong plunge. He caught it and held on tight as he peered through the trees, looking for Blair.

"Sandburg, wait!"

He could see him ahead, sliding down the slope from tree to tree. He didn't even pause or look up at the sound of Jim's voice.

"Dammit, wait for me!"

Clumsy with desperation he followed, but he continued to fall further behind Blair. Finally, he threw caution to the winds and simply slid down the slope, loosening an avalanche of stones. He managed to avoid the trees, and hoped upon hope that he could control his slide and not kill or injure himself when he stopped.

"Shit, Ellison, what the hell are you doing?"

He spotted Blair ten feet below him, clinging to a tree with one arm, his other one curled over his head, protecting himself from the falling stones launched by Jim's slide.

Jim threw himself to the right and snagged the same tree in passing. He hit it hard, knocking the air out of his lungs and scraping his arm painfully. Holding on grimly, he struggled for breath, his eyes squeezed tight against the dust. He could hear Blair shift, preparing to continue down the slope.

"Chief...." he gasped. "Wait."

For a second he thought Blair would ignore him, then there was a sigh and Blair's hand pressed against his arm.

"Can't this wait 'til we get to the bottom?"

He shook his head and blinked to clear the dust from his eyes. He felt around with his feet and found a rock to balance on, then shifted his grip on the trunk so that he was facing Blair, their arms wrapped around the tree, side by side. Dust and dirt coated Sandburg's face and hair, and Jim knew he looked as bad, or worse. Blair sneezed, and awkwardly wiped his nose with his sleeve.

"Well? What is it?" he said.

Jim opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened it again. "Don't go."

"Don't go where? Back to camp?" Blair's words were curt, but his expression gave Jim hope again.

"Don't go," he repeated, wriggling around the tree so that he could hold on with one hand. He raised the other and gently slid his thumb over Sandburg's lips. "Stay."

Blair blinked slowly, looking slightly shell-shocked as Jim's thumb made another pass across his mouth. His lips parted, and Jim shivered at the warmth of his breath over his skin.

"Your timing sucks, man," Blair said softly.

Jim nodded and swallowed, wondering if his voice would work. "Yeah. Tell me something I don't know." His thumb moved down to trace a path along Blair's jaw.

"I'm not a dog, Jim." Blair leaned into Jim's hand and rubbed his cheek against it gently. "You can't say 'stay' and expect me to obey. You've got to give me a reason to want to stay."

Jim dropped his hand. "I know," he ground out. "And I don't have a damn one."

Without waiting for a reply, he released the tree and caromed down the slope, landing at the bottom in a shower of gravel. He shoved his hands in his pockets and started back down the path.

He could hear Blair's footsteps pounding behind him, could hear his muttered curses. He didn't expect to be grabbed with strong fingers and jerked around to face him, however. Blair kept his grip on his arm and poked him in the chest.

"You can't think of one?" Poke. "You can't think of one damn reason," poke, "to keep me here beside you?" Poke. "Not one?"

Jim looked down at Sandburg, then at the grubby finger making a filthy splotch on his dirty shirt, and shook his head. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was as dry as a bone, his tongue sticking to his palate.

Sandburg's eyes narrowed and he stepped closer, balling the front of Jim's shirt in his fist. "You're lying, Ellison. You know a dozen ways to get me to stay, a hundred!" He licked his lips very deliberately, and Jim gasped, remembering how those lips had felt on his skin. He raised his hand again, sliding it up Blair's arm to rest his fingers against Blair's neck. His heat, the pounding of his pulse, reverberated through Jim's hand and up his arm to his heart.

He shook his head again. "Not a hundred, or a dozen. Only one." And he leaned forward to kiss Blair's brow. At the last moment the strong hand clutching his shirt jerked him down to meet Blair's lips.

It was a chaste kiss, not very long, but it sufficed. Jim had given his reason, and Blair had answered. He would stay.

Simon rolls his eyes. "I don't even want to ask...."

"C'mon, Sandburg, spill!" Rafe leans forward and winks. "What crackpot scheme has Ellison come up with now?"

H raises his glass. "Hey, Jim, you finally convince Hairboy to market those herbal remedies?"

"Nah," says Joel, laughing, "Blair's going to open a cooking school."

"Stop your gobs, you berks." Megan smacks Joel on the shoulder and glares at H. "Now, Sandy," she turns to me earnestly, "what's Jim's idea?"

I fold my hands on the table and take a deep breath. "Well, the problem's always been how I can stay with Jim." I pause for a second and glance at Jim, remembering how he convinced me to stay. He catches my eye and coughs to cover his smirk. "I couldn't do that if I stayed on at the Academy, or if I took the fellowship at Rainier. Do you guys remember Ira Singer?"

They look startled for a second at my apparent non sequitur, then Simon nods.

"Yeah. Isn't he your lawyer? The one who made Sid publicly state that he'd taken your manuscript for a novel and tried to pass it off as real without your knowledge or permission?"

"That's him," I say grimly. I still can't think about Sid without looking over my shoulder and feeling like the world's going to suddenly blow up. Jim gives my arm a pat and a squeeze, and I smile back.

"Singer's a miracle worker, as far as I'm concerned," says Joel. "I thought you'd crashed and burned when you gave that press conference and said you'd faked your data."

"So did I," I admit, the memory of that time like a sour taste in my mouth.

"Did Sid really coerce you into doing the press conference, like Singer said?" H asks.

"Well...." I shrug and glance at Jim again. His hand is warm on my arm. "Part of the agreement is that I can't discuss specifics about the case. Let's just say that Sid put me in a position where I didn't have much of an option."

"So why did you want to talk about Ira Singer?" Megan asks.

"Because there's another thing I'm not supposed to discuss," I say, "but you need to understand what's going on. So it has to stay between us."

Megan raises her hand in a Girl Guide salute, Rafe crosses his heart, and Simon nods. "I'll guarantee that, Sandburg."

"Ira negotiated for Sid to pay me a monetary settlement-"

H whistles, and Rafe leans forward. "How much, Blair?"

"Sorry," I shake my head. "I can't tell you that."

"Is it a lot of money?" Rafe looks hopeful.

I pause, feeling embarrassed, and Jim squeezes my arm. "Yeah, it's a lot of money."

Rafe reaches across the table and grabs my hand. "Sandburg, will you marry me?"

They walked back to camp, shoulder to shoulder, occasionally glancing at each other with small smiles. When they reached their campsite, Jim turned and cupped his hand around the back of Blair's neck, leaning forward. Blair raised his face, as if expecting another kiss.

"You stink," whispered Jim, his grin taking the sting from his words. "And you're covered in dirt and totally disgusting."

Blair's fingers trailed down Jim's cheek, jaw, and neck to pluck at Jim's shirt. "I know. I smell almost as bad as you."

Jim nodded. "Yeah, you do." He wrapped his hand around Blair's and raised it, resting it against his cheek. Blair suddenly shivered, and Jim reluctantly released his hand.

They collected their clean clothes and walked down to the lake. The water was far too cold to do anything other than have a cursory wash, and although admiring glances were exchanged when they both stripped, no words were spoken nor actions taken other than what was necessary for cleanliness.

Dinner came next on their unspoken agenda; it was quickly made and eaten. As dusk fell, they were sitting side by side, cupping their hands around mugs of hot coffee. Blair took a sip and cradled the cup under his chin, tendrils of steam curling around his cheeks.

"So, now what?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at Jim.

"Now what, what?" Jim countered.

"Now what happens with us?" Blair's hand sketched a connection between them.

Jim looked at him, suddenly feeling on very shaky ground. "What do you want to happen?" he asked cautiously.

Blair opened his mouth, looked startled, and then shrugged. "I'm not sure."

Jim nodded. He understood that feeling. "Do you... like the idea?" He mimicked Blair's gesture.

"Oh, yeah..." Blair's voice suddenly went husky. "How about you?"

Jim nodded, his throat too dry to actually speak. He scooted forward and carefully set his mug beside the fire, then pulled Blair's from his fingers and set it down beside his own. He turned and placed the palm of his hand on the middle of Blair's chest, wondering when the knot in his throat had traveled down to lodge beside his thundering heart. He could feel Blair's heartbeat race as he slid his hand up his shirt, over the sharp point of his Adam's apple, to cup his cheek. With a grunt, Blair launched himself at Jim, wrapping his arms around Jim's shoulders and neck, his lips hovering mere millimeters above Jim's mouth.

"Jim," he whispered, "I'm going to kiss you. You got a problem with that?"

Blinking in surprise, Jim shook his head and braced himself.

Blair chuckled. "Relax...." He closed the distance between them, his lips brushing over Jim's, then he pulled away. He slowly did it again, and a third time. Jim closed his eyes and tried to follow those lips, that mouth. He wanted more. So much more.

"Oh, god...." Blair's lips touched his temple, his cheek, his jaw, creating small islands of heat scattered across his skin. They landed on his chin, the corner of his mouth.... He groaned and forced his eyes open as Blair leaned his forehead against Jim's, his breath warm on Jim's lips. Blue eyes and stubbled skin and ridiculous curls filled his vision, intoxicating and thrilling and so very male....

Blair was babbling something, he realized. A torrent of words was tumbling out of his mouth, and Jim was jealous of them, jealous of Blair's mouth being occupied with something other than him. He unwillingly tuned into the words: "...have any idea how fucking incredible you are, you asshole? I can't believe I didn't even know I wanted you, but I do - more'n anything in the world, in the whole fucking universe - I want your hairy butt beside me twenty-four seven, and I don't know how I'm going to be away from your sorry ass while I'm in the Academy learning how to be a cop so I can stay with you all the time, all the frigging time in the universe and more, and, oh god, the way you fucking touch me, I feel like I'm going to-"

He snaked out his hands from beneath Blair's shirt and cupped Blair's face, holding it still when he pulled away slightly. The words cut off and Blair made an unhappy sound low in his throat. Jim's arms shook - he didn't want to stop this headlong plunge, but-

"Sandburg, shut up," he ground out, giving him a little shake when Blair grabbed Jim's wrists and tried to pull his hands away. "Blair, please!"

"Ellison, if you're dicking with me, I'll-"

"I'm not dicking with you." He smoothed his hands over Blair's skull and down over his shoulders, kneading them gently. "But what did you say about the Academy?"

Blair frowned, and looked at Jim, puzzled. "What about the Academy?"

"You said something about going to the Academy," Jim prompted.

"Yeah, I did." Blair lowered his gaze, oddly bashful. "I've decided to take up Simon on his offer." He grinned at Jim. "You just want to hear how much I'm going to miss being with you while I'm taking classes."

"Shit." Jim dropped his hands and turned to the fire.

"What's the matter?" Sounding worried, Blair scooted around and squatted next to Jim.

"Listen, Chief," he said, still facing the fire. His hand crept out and trailed down Blair's arm, fingers coming to rest on his forearm. "We've got to make a choice. Right now." He gently clasped Blair's wrist.

Blair looked wary. "What do you mean, 'make a choice,' Jim?"

"If we continue with this...." Jim lifted Blair's hand and brought it to his cheek, and Blair stretched out his fingers and stroked Jim's jaw. Leaning into the caress, Jim briefly closed his eyes and licked his lips. "With us," he continued, "and you become a cop, we won't be able to be partners."

Blair inhaled sharply and his eyes widened. "Shit. Shit!" His free hand ghosted across Jim's brow and down the side of his face. "We could lie, couldn't we? Not tell anyone? We could be together then."

Jim winced. "I couldn't lie about us, Chief. And you couldn't either," he said softly.

Blair looked like he wanted to argue, but Jim gazed at him steadily and he eventually sighed and nodded. "You're right. I couldn't do it." His hands dropped, and he picked up a stone and threw it into the fire. "And if I take the fellowship, we can be together," he gestured between them, "but we won't be able to work together."

"You've got it, Sandburg." Jim didn't bother to hide his frustration. "What's it to be, then?"

"Hey, why do I have to make the decision? This involves both of us."

"Because it's your life, Chief. Your career." Jim picked up his mug and stared into it. "Because you got shafted last time the decisions were being made, so it's your turn now."

Blair snorted. "You're just chicken."

"Am not," Jim said gruffly, wishing it wasn't true, that he wasn't so damn scared about which path Blair would choose. "I just don't want you bitching at me later because you blame me for making the wrong choice."

Picking up a stick, Blair prodded the fire, sending showers of sparks flying into the darkening sky. "You ever been with a guy before?"


"You heard me, man." Blair turned to him, looking miserable. "Have you ever had a sexual relationship with a guy?"

Jim felt his face grow warm. "Nothing long-term," he finally mumbled, turning the mug in his hands.

"Oh." Blair said quietly, and Jim ventured a glance. He was sitting cross-legged on his sleeping bag, looking at Jim with a bemused expression.

"You okay, Chief?"

"Yeah." A smile touched his lips and he pushed his hair out of his face. "I just wasn't expecting... I mean, I thought you'd be like me... y'know, I've thought about it, but I never actually did anything."

"Does it matter?" he said gently, suspecting, and dreading, Blair's answer.

"Well, I think it does." Blair frowned. "I'm not sure that what I feel for you-" He stopped abruptly and held up his hand. "No, that's not true. I know how I feel about you here," he tapped his head, "and here," he put his hand over his heart, "but all the rest...." He waved at his body and shrugged. "I don't know if what I want right now is what I'm going to feel next week or next month or next year-"

"I get it," Jim interrupted. He didn't want to hear more - it was becoming too painful. He knew his own feelings and desires, but if Blair didn't share them.... "Then you've made your decision, Chief. The Academy it is." His smile felt brittle, as if his lips were stretched in a rictus. But Blair appeared relieved at Jim's words.

"Are you okay with this?" He rested his hand on Jim's shoulder and peered at him.

"Yeah." Jim patted Blair's hand and then pulled away, ignoring the sudden chill in his chest at the loss of contact. He stood, stretching. "So when are you going to tell Simon? He'll probably try to get you into the class that's just started."

"I'll talk to him on Monday."

"If you call him tomorrow, he might be able to get things going faster. We could leave after breakfast instead of in the afternoon."

"Good idea." Blair nodded matter-of-factly, and stood up. "I'll have to have a physical, I guess, and probably some psychological testing." He gathered up their dinner plates and grabbed his flashlight, heading toward the lake. "Tell me about the courses, Jim. What can I expect?"

Jim picked up the coffeepot and dutch oven and followed him. "You won't have to worry about the legal classes, Sandburg. Those'll be a breeze. And you could probably teach the psychology classes...."

Jim continued to talk through the evening, offering advice and opinions on the classes and instructors, answering Blair's questions, pretending to be pleased with Blair's decision. He was pleased, he told himself. He'd gotten what he wanted, hadn't he? Blair would stay. He would have to put away his longing, his wanting Blair in that way. Cut it out, box it up, and stick it on the shelf.

But he knew that was impossible. He'd finally understood and admitted his feelings for Blair, and he couldn't just ignore those feelings. But he'd have to. He had given away the choice, and he could not ask for it back or complain about the decision that had been made.

So, he thought bleakly, this is what they mean by hell.

I just sit there, startled, while Megan and H splutter with laughter, and Simon looks disgusted.

"Put a sock in it, Detective," he says, and Rafe winks at me before letting go of my hand. Simon takes another drink, checks his watch, and glares at Megan, who's still giggling. "Will you get to the point, Sandburg? Some of us have to get home tonight."

"Yes, sir. Jim and I talked it over, and we decided that the only way I could continue to work with him, and still have our... relationship outside work, was if I was a consultant to the Department, assigned as his partner. So we went to the Commissioner and presented our idea, and he approved it today. I'll be starting work with Jim next Monday-"

Five voices burst out talking. Simon finally stands up and booms, "Just a minute!" and everyone falls silent. He looks at me and narrows his eyes. "When I said 'get to the point,' I didn't mean for you to leave out every detail." He sits down and clasps in hands in front of him. "What will you be doing as a 'consultant'? What has this got to do with your settlement from Sid? And why the hell didn't you two come to me first?" The hurt in his voice during his final statement makes me feel guilty, and Jim's face turns pink. He lets go of my arm and turns to Simon.

"I'm sorry, sir. That was my call. I didn't know if this idea would fly, and I didn't want you to think we didn't appreciate everything you did to get Sandburg into the Academy. Blair agreed to keep it under wraps until we heard back from the Commissioner. If he gave it the thumbs up, we wanted to tell you ourselves."

"You have a point," Simon concedes, "but as your friend...."

"I know. Believe me, we talked about it. But everything was so damn weird..." Jim pauses and shrugs. "It was hard to know what to do for the best."

"Weird, huh? Yeah, I can see how that could be the case with anything involving Sandburg." Simon gives Jim a grin and then turns to me. "So, what are you going to do as a 'consultant,' Blair?"

"You know those case studies they use at the Academy?" I ask.

Simon nods. "Yes."

"Well, when we were going over them in class, I kept thinking about the cases I'd worked on with Jim, and how much more interesting and appropriate they'd be as examples for the students. After all, Jim's been Cop of the Year a couple of times now, and his arrest record is the best in the region, so he must be doing something right, right?"

"So you're going to develop a new set of case studies, based on Jim's work?" Joel asks, looking pleased.

"Yeah. Along with study guides, group exercises, quizzes, everything. I'll keep the Academy stocked with a series of current, pertinent case studies, all ready to take off the shelf and hand out to the students. I'll also be developing another set for the experienced officers taking refresher courses."

"Sounds good, Blair," says H. "But I thought the Department had a hiring freeze on. At least," he continues, glaring at Simon, "that's the excuse some people used when we asked for more clerical support."

"Tell me about it," I agree. "That's why I told you about the money I got from Sid. We knew that the budget freeze for new hires would stop our idea dead in its tracks, but not if my position was funded independently of the Department budget. So we put the money in a trust, and my salary is paid from that."

"And of course the commissioner wouldn't turn down a consultant who was, in essence, working for free." Simon shakes his head and chuckles. "I've got to hand it to you two - that's some really creative thinking." He sits back and takes a sip of his drink. "I thought you'd have to 'remind' the commissioner about that... difficulty you got him out of, Jim." I can't believe my eyes - Simon's leering!

"It wasn't necessary, sir." Jim's voice is wooden.

"What 'difficulty' is Simon talking about?" I ask Jim, wondering if I even want to know. Jim bites his lip and scowls at the table. Oh, man, he is trying so hard not to laugh.

"Never mind, Sandburg," says Simon, waving his hand. "It doesn't matter."

Jim sneaks a glance at me. I smile at him, and he suddenly looks worried. Good. He can tell me all about the commissioner's peccadilloes when we get home. After he's apologized for not telling me about them in the first place.


"I hate to bring this up, Sandy," says Megan. "But how many case studies can you do before the Academy says 'enough?' What will you do after that?"

"The case studies are really my first assignment, a sort of get-acquainted offer to let the commissioner and the PD see the sorts of things I can do for the Department as a whole. I'll continue to do the things I've always done - research, some undercover work, being Jim's backup - and Jim and I are working on some other ideas about what I can do once the case studies are done."

"This whole idea is still pretty new to everyone," Jim adds. "It'll take a while before Blair identifies all the areas that he can help with, but I don't think he'll ever run out of things to do." He rubs my thigh under the table, and turns pink when he catches Megan's smirk.

"To Jim and Blair - the weirdest partners I've ever known," says H with a grin, raising his glass.

"To Jim and Blair," the others echo, and clink their glasses together.

Rafe sets down his beer and wipes off his foam mustache. "So it'll be just like old times, won't it?"

Jim and I grin at each other as I hook my hand through the back of his chair and give his ass a surreptitious squeeze. "Not exactly, Rafe," he says, lifting his glass in a salute. "It'll be better."

Damn right.

Blair called Simon as soon as they returned, and he immediately got the ball rolling. On Monday morning, Jim stared disconsolately after Blair when he was snatched from Jim's side in the bullpen and sent on the first of many appointments. The week passed in a blur for both of them, and by the following Monday, Blair had been poked, prodded, interviewed, analyzed, tested, and admitted to the Cascade Police Academy class of 1999. He'd received preferential treatment, thanks to Simon's efforts, his reputation in Major Crime, and the glowing letters of recommendation from various members of the faculty and administration at Rainier University, all of whom made it abundantly clear that the University's earlier censure of him had been ill-advised and based on faulty data, and that Blair Sandburg would be welcome back to assume the prestigious O'Leary Fellowship any time he chose to leave the Police Department. Jim read each and every letter aloud, grimly satisfied at their penitent, even remorseful, tones, but they made Blair practically writhe in embarrassment.

Two, three, four weeks passed quickly. Blair attended classes, studied, and hung out with Jim whenever he had a free minute. Jim worked, badgered the instructors about Blair's progress, and looked forward to being with him at the end of the day. On the surface, it wasn't that different from their previous routine, but Jim looked back on that earlier time as the time 'before': before they recognized other possibilities; before he understood what it was like to have, and yet not have, the person you desire; before the term 'Devil's bargain' had any meaning to him.

Jim locked away his need, guarding it vigilantly whenever Blair was near, whenever Blair talked to him or touched him. He would honor Blair's decision - it was the least he could do.

Occasionally he would catch Blair gazing at him intently, almost studying him, with a look in his eyes that Jim had never seen before. But it would disappear before Jim could figure out what it meant, and, since Blair continued to treat him with his usual mixture of fond exasperation and endless patience, Jim decided to ignore it.

Blair had just finished his sixth week at the Academy when he and Jim arrived home at the same time and met at their front door.

"Excellent timing, man," Blair said as he stepped off the elevator, swinging his backpack by the strap.

"Hey, Sandburg." Jim unlocked the door and stepped inside. "You ace the quiz in criminal psych today?"

"Yeah." Blair grinned and let his backpack drop to the floor with a thud. "You checkin' up on me again, Dad?"

Jim snorted as he shrugged off his jacket. "Someone's got to make sure you keep your nose clean, Junior."

"And you're just the man to do it," laughed Blair, unexpectedly giving Jim's arm a pat as he passed.

Jim shivered. Just once, just a quick shudder at the feel of Blair's hand, just a brief palsy before he clamped down on the fierce heat that raged through him, but it was enough to turn Blair on his heel, coming face to face with Jim.

"What's the matter?"


Blair's eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms over his chest. "Bull."

Jim stepped around him, heading for the balcony. He had to have some space, fresh air, a little breathing room after that ungoverned jolt of need. "I'm fine, Chief."

Blair's hand shot out and snagged his arm as he passed. "You can-" Blair began.

"Don't touch me..." Jim hissed, jerking his arm away as if scalded and taking two steps backward. "Just don't touch me...." With another shiver, he turned away from Blair and stumbled to the balcony doors.


He fumbled with the latch, finally wrenching the handle, breaking the lock. Flinging open the doors, Jim rushed outside, his chest heaving as he sucked in the cool air.


He whipped around, his back to the brick wall, and held up his hands. Blair stopped at the doorway, his forehead creased with worry, his hands gripping the doorframe tightly.

"What's the matter, Jim?" His eyes raked over Jim, and Jim shook - Blair's gaze felt as palpable on his skin as the touch of his fingers.

"I'll be okay." Jim blinked and swayed back against the wall. "Just give me a minute-"

But Blair was already there, one hand encircling his arm, the other pressed against his chest. Jim struggled to control, to master, to choke the life out of the desperate need boiling up within him. He grasped Blair's shoulders, trying to push him away, but instead, drew him into an embrace so right, so perfect, that his body sang with joy and hope.

He sighed, content to stand there with his arms around his partner for the foreseeable future. Pleasure at simply holding Blair rippled through him, and he rested his cheek against Blair's head. Blair murmured something and shifted in his arms.

"Stay," Jim whispered, knowing that he would soon have to let go.

Blair shifted again, pulling back his head to look at Jim. His face was all scrunched up, like something hurt. Jim winced guiltily and eased up on his grip, but Blair hugged him fiercely.

"I told you I'll stay...." Blair said, squeezing his eyes shut for a second. "But can I change my mind, Jim? Can I stay this way?"

"Chief?" The ache in Jim's chest grew until it was hard for him to breathe.

"I was wrong, man. I was so wrong, and now everything sucks, because I'm going to be your partner, but I can't be your partner, y'know? Which is what I want to be...." Blair gave Jim a shake and barked out a humorless laugh. "I want to be both, Jim. I want you day and night, twenty-four seven, all the fucking time. You get it?"

Jim nodded. "I get it." He slid his hands up Blair's neck to hold his head steady and leaned forward, falling into their kiss. Blair moved against him and deepened their kiss, his fingers pressing hard into Jim's shoulders. When they broke apart, breathless, Jim moved his hands forward, cupping Blair's face, and peered into his eyes.

"You get over your doubts, Chief? About what you want between us?"

Blair nodded. "I know what I want between us," he said, his voice husky. "Nothing. No clothes, no sheets, no air." His hands slipped between their bodies and pressed against Jim's groin, a welcome pressure on Jim's erection. "How's that sound to you?"

Jim threw his head back, his hips grinding his hard cock into Blair's palm. "Sounds great," he rasped. "Feels even better...."

"You're going to feel a hundred times better when I get through with you," Blair said, giving Jim's groin an encouraging squeeze and pat. "That's a promise. But let's go inside, Jim...." He tugged Jim toward the doors.

They landed in a tangle on the couch, not so much as part of a master plan as because Jim's foot caught on the rug and they tumbled over. Lips and tongues and fingers were busy for a long time, tasting, mapping, teasing with the lightest of touches, until Blair sat up, wild-haired and -eyed, and smiled down at Jim, rumpled and panting below him.

"This is a great couch, man. The finest. You know I'd never diss this couch. But it really sucks as a bed."

Jim nodded and rolled off the couch, taking Blair with him. "Upstairs?"

"Yeah, okay."

This time it was Blair who accidentally stumbled next to the bed, or so he later claimed, pushing Jim onto the mattress and landing heavily on top of him. With an awesome singlemindedness and some creative wriggling, he managed to divest Jim of shirt, shoes, and trousers without losing his balance.

"Stay," he murmured, planting a kiss in the middle of Jim's chest, and pressing Jim's hands into the mattress. Jim shivered as Blair slid off him, the cool air raising goosebumps on his sweaty skin. Blair pulled off his shirts, toed off his shoes, and shucked his jeans before crawling back onto Jim, blazing a trail over Jim's chest, neck, and jaw with his lips.

"Give me a reason to stay, Chief," Jim gasped as Blair tongued his nipple.

He moved up to hover over Jim's mouth, brushing their lips together and pulling away, teasing Jim with tantalizing touches.

"Reason? I'll give you a reason...."

Jim groaned as Blair slid down his body, rubbing his stomach and chest over Jim's erection and dragging Jim's boxers down to his thighs. He groaned again and blindly groped for Blair's head, clumsily stroking his hair as Blair rained kisses over his belly, interspersed with the occasional gentle raspberry.

"Sandburg, get your ass up here," he growled, shifting his grip to Blair's shoulders and tugging impatiently. Blair obliged, grinding himself against Jim on the way, and greeting him with a leer.

"Admit it, Jim. You just want me for my ass."

Jim nodded, stroking Blair's back and tucking his fingers into the waistband of Blair's boxers. "Yeah, that's right," he said, shoving his hands in further to cup each cheek, kneading them gently.

"Ohhh, that's... Wow!" Blair wiggled his hips at Jim's attentions, and buried his face in Jim's neck, kissing it softly.

"Isn't it," Jim agreed with a groan, as Blair's hand slid between them, clasped his cock, and stroked it firmly. He hooked his thumbs in the waistband of Blair's boxers and tugged, while rolling until they were side by side on the bed. He kissed Blair hungrily and pulled him closer, his fingers digging into Blair's ass. With an echoing groan, Blair released Jim's cock and wrapped his arm around Jim's shoulders. They thrust together frantically, exchanging sloppy kisses and awkward caresses, quickly building to release. It didn't take long before Jim moaned into Blair's mouth, his hands tightening as his hips jerked shallowly, spilling over their bellies and chests. Blair's eyes widened and he gasped, his cock pulsing, as if his orgasm took him by surprise.

They lay together for a while, eyes half-closed, arms and legs heavy, trading languid kisses for soft words.

"So what now?" Blair asked, running his finger along Jim's jaw.

"Shower?" Jim ventured.

"Well, yeah." Blair grimaced as he looked down at their sticky chests and bellies. "But I meant-"

"I know what you meant," interrupted Jim, stretching to snatch his shirt from the railing and then wiping them off. He settled on his side, facing Blair, and propped his head in his hand. "The Academy's not an option any more. Neither is Rainier." He kissed Blair's fingers as they passed over his lips, and captured his hand, holding it gently to his heart.

"Exactly." Blair leaned in for a kiss. "We're screwed, Jim."

"Not yet," said Jim, lifting his eyebrows, watching with interest as Blair's face grew pink.

"That's not-" he protested with a laugh.

"I know. But it's something I'm looking forward to." He ignored Blair's chuff of surprise as he moved Blair's hand to his ass and spread his legs a little. Blair stroked his cheek gently, and Jim enjoyed the warmth and pressure on his flesh, shivering when Blair's fingers began to explore. He hitched his hips a bit closer. "Chief, do you think you could stick with the Academy for a few more weeks?"

"Do we still get to do this?" Blair looked at him, heavy-lidded, and squeezed his ass.

Jim groaned. "Oh, yeah."

"Then, sure," he said, his explorations becoming bolder.

Jim closed his eyes and flung his leg over Blair's, giving him more room to work and tacit permission to do whatever he damn well pleased. "Good," he gasped, when Blair's fingers stroked a particularly sensitive spot. "Because... Oh god, don't stop... I have an idea...."

We settle the bill and follow everyone out of the room. This evening went well. Better than I expected, actually.

We say goodbye to Rafe, H, and Joel, and they disappear into the parking lot. We start back to the truck, and Simon draws Jim aside. Jim shoots me an amused glance. We have a five-dollar bet riding on whether or not Simon's going to offer Jim 'marital advice.' Jim said no way, but I know Simon. Easy money.

"So, Sandy," Megan begins, taking my arm and leading me a few feet away from Jim and Simon, "you're happy with this?"

"Yeah, I am."

She frowns and looks over at Jim, talking earnestly with Simon. "Do you think it has to do with this sentinel thing?"

I shrug. "I don't know. Maybe. Does it matter?"

"No, I suppose not...." She looks dubious for a minute, then chuckles. "But I was right about you two." She leans in close and smirks. "So when did it all start?"

"Well," I say, glancing at Jim. He pauses and I catch his eye. Damn. The man can make me hot with just a look. I send my own silent message and turn back to Megan, but not before I see his hand shake at his side. Good. He knows what's coming later tonight, namely him, with me buried deep inside. "We were on this camping trip, you see...."