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Kitchen Song

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"You better come on
in my kitchen babe, it's bound to be rainin' outdoors"

Robert Johnson, "Come on in My Kitchen,"
(Recorded November 23, 1933)

 

The scratches on Jim's face still itched. More than once on the stand he stopped himself from reaching up to touch the scabs. Weirdest thing. He figured it must have happened in his sleep. He had trimmed his nails too far back in consequence, and his hands still felt naked and useless, like he couldn't untie his own shoelaces. But then, everything felt exposed and awkward this week. He was aware of a creeping sense of inexplicable helplessness that was all the worse because he thought he might be able to explain it if he pushed hard enough.

He wasn't pushing. What he was doing instead was keeping Sandburg within reach. Like now, for instance. He knew Blair was right on the other side of the courtroom wall, working on that paper of his. Jim knew that, he knew Blair was waiting for him. But he couldn't help it. Every time there was a lull in the cross-examination for an objection or instructions to the jury, he would reach out for Blair, looking for the sound of his fingers on the keyboard, the easy rhythm of his breath, the steady beat of his heart.

Sandburg should have finished that paper months ago. Jim wondered why he had any sympathy at all with this desperate push to meet a deadline the little professor had known about for nearly a year. But Jim couldn't even pretend to be impatient with Sandburg's procrastination. Instead he felt enormously and rather foolishly protective both of Blair and that stupid paper. He'd even volunteered to talk to the head of the department, if Blair thought it would help. Explain how hectic things had been at the station lately.

Blair had just grinned. "Thanks, Dad. I can manage."

There were scratches on Blair's face too. And bruises spreading across the underside of his chin. Blair had seen Jim looking at them, leaned forward and given him a quick hug, thumping him on the back. "It's OK, man, really. I got it under control."

And Jim knew perfectly well Blair was talking about more than the paper. It had been five days now since they had driven up to the Point. Stood and watched the surf in the drizzling rain. Before that loomed something Jim could not look at, but it was all right. Sandburg had it under control.

Jim wished he could write the paper for him, a thought that made him grin. Then he saw the DA look up at him, worried, so he wiped the smile off his face and went back to listening to Blair's fingers on the keyboard. It sounded as though the writing was going well. Sandburg's typing was erratic as ever, but there were no pauses, just a constant, irregular tapping and clicking that made Jim think of a handful of jacks tumbling slowly down a wooden staircase.

The sound of progress was an enormous relief because truth to tell, that damned paper seemed to be sucking the life out of Blair. Every day the circles under his eyes were darker, and this morning Jim had seen Blair's hands trembling as he reached for his first cup of coffee. The whole thing was getting way out of control. Sandburg needed to finish his paper up right now, today, turn it in and be done with it. Then they could both get some rest.

Most of the morning and afternoon Blair had been one floor up in the county law library, where he could plug in his computer and save the battery. Jim had been able to hear him there too, if he listened carefully, but it cost him more concentration than he could really afford with Dan Singleton sitting beside his attorney and glaring at him, and he was selfishly glad Blair was so close now.

And then, there it was. That little flourish of keystrokes Jim always associated with the end of the evening. It meant Blair was saving what he had done and was about to turn off the computer. Aha, he was right. There was the off switch. Jim almost smiled again, realizing how well Blair had him conditioned.

The DA and one of Singleton's attorneys were still arguing something in front of the bench, so Jim allowed himself to continue to listen to Blair. He heard a deep, long sigh, and wasn't entirely sure what it meant. There was the zipper. Blair was putting the laptop away in its case. Then a dull thump Jim couldn't identify at first. Surely Blair wouldn't have put the computer down so roughly? Besides, it was a thump against the wall, not the floor.

Oh. That had been Sandburg's head hitting the wall behind him. Jim winced in sympathy. Not a good sign.

Dammit, he needed to get out of here. They both needed to get home. Sandburg shouldn't have been coming to court with him all week in the first place. Ridiculous. You'd think Jim couldn't manage on his own any more.

And anyone thinking that would be right, wouldn't they? Jim looked down at his hands, lying empty in his lap. It was time to go home. Come on, already. Dismiss court for the day and let us all go home. Blair was just sitting there now. Not even talking, and Jim knew the corridor outside the courtroom was full of people. He wondered if Blair were sleeping. He listened. No. Breathing wasn't that slow, heartbeat not that easy. Sounded as though one foot were tapping restlessly, fingers drumming on something, perhaps the computer case. Then Blair stopped all at once, stilled his foot, made his hand lie still. Jim thought he could hear his fingers spreading across the grain of the case. It was a little unnatural, that sudden cessation. He had probably figured out Jim would be listening to him.

Jim occupied himself by glaring at Dan Singleton, and had a moment of bleak satisfaction when the man finally dropped his eyes. It was a fleeting victory. The two attorneys at the bench were going on endlessly, the judge looking over their shoulders at some point in the distance. Then at long last. Jim had been concentrating on Sandburg and missed the instructions to the bailiff, but the jury was rising, and Jim was dismissed from the stand. Thank god. About time. He walked straight down the central aisle and pushed his way out the doors, not noticing the people who got out of his way.

The air outside the courtroom was a few degrees cooler, and there was Sandburg. Jim had pictured him exactly right. Head against the wall, computer on his lap in the case, his hands flat on it. He didn't move when he saw Jim, except to smile. Jim sat down beside him on the bench. "Ready to go home?"

Blair sighed, still smiling. "Yeah." He still didn't move. "How'd it go? Are they going to need you again tomorrow?"

"'Fraid so."

Blair closed his eyes. "OK."

"You don't need to come with me tomorrow. Your paper --"

"I finished it just a little while ago. No masterpiece, but at least it's done."

"Hey, that's great," Jim insisted, worried by Blair's blank, unhappy look. "We'll swing by the university so you can drop it off. And you know what," he went on, trying to work up some enthusiasm for the both of them, "We should go out tonight. Celebrate. Maybe try that Ethiopian place after all. It can't be any worse than Simon's steakhouse was."

Blair shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, man. I'm not ready to turn it in yet."

"Why not? Because you need to run off a hard copy? Can't you do that at your office?"

"No, Jim," Blair said, sounding as thought it were an effort to be patient. Then he sighed and made a gesture of apology with both hands before dropping them again. "I'm not trying to be difficult, but it's a real rough draft. I need to let it sit for a few hours, then give it another read-through at the very least. Plus I've got to double-check my references and the footnotes. I haven't even looked at most of the bibliography in nearly a year."

Jim put his hand on Blair's shoulder and shook him gently. "Chief, is it, or is it not finished? Because if you can call this thing finished by any stretch of the imagination, then I think you'd be a helluva lot better off turning it in tonight and getting on with the rest of your life."

Blair tightened his hands possessively on the laptop for a moment, as though he were afraid Jim was about to pull it away from him. "It's finished, it really is. The hard work is done. One more night, I swear. I'll turn it in in the morning on the way to court."

Jim looked at him unhappily, wondering if it were worth arguing about. Probably not. He didn't have a hope of winning, and both of them were too tired for this anyway. "OK, Sandburg." He stood up and pulled Blair to his feet. "Let's go home."

---

The ride was quiet. Jim was concentrating on not telling Blair he should turn the damn paper in and be done with it, and Blair had pulled some xeroxes out of his backpack and was trying to read them by the strobing yellow streetlights. "That can't be good for your eyes," Jim finally said while they were sitting at a stoplight.

"Probably not," Blair agreed, unconcerned. "But I just remembered this bit in the Byczynski article I probably should stick in there somewhere. I think I say something about it in the footnotes --" He began digging around in his backpack, papers sliding across the seat and slipping down onto the floor. "Damn it --" He groped for the lost papers, and when he couldn't reach them, he unhooked his seatbelt so he could climb half out of the seat to retrieve them.

"That's it," Jim said calmly. He pulled the truck to the curb, turned off the ignition and turned on the cab light. "You've had a year to finish this paper. If it's suddenly so important it can't wait ten minutes till we get home, then we'll sit here until you finish. That might be the best thing anyway. Then we can drop it off at school, and neither one of us will have to hear a word about it again."

"Aw, Jim," Blair said irritably. He climbed back into the seat and refastened his seatbelt. "Give it a rest."

"That's what I'm asking you to do. I'm tired of watching this, Sandburg."

"What? Watching what? In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one who's been trying to live two separate lives for the past year. It's not always so easy, man! Sometimes things don't come out totally even. You gotta cut me some slack, because things haven't worked out quite like I planned recently, you know?"

"I know," Jim said quietly. "And I want to help. But you've got to tell me how."

"Oh man, I'm sorry. Forget it, I'm out of my head." His voice broke. "God, I'm sorry, Jim," He pushed the backpack out of his lap violently. It hit the floor of the cab with a thump that made Jim tremble for the laptop, but Blair didn't seem to notice. He just sat up, taking a deep breath. "Sorry. I'm just tired, I guess. Stupid. Like any of this matters." He reached his hand out and laid it on Jim's shoulder. "So long as you're all right."

"I'm fine, Chief," Jim said softly. "You're the one who-" He couldn't continue. He put his hands on the steering wheel and held on tight, trying to will away the shudder that crept down his spine, the hot, dark curl of fear there in his gut.

"Jim," Blair breathed. "Oh, Jim."

The snap of the seatbelt releasing again, and Blair's arms were around him, trying to pull him in.

Jim didn't think he'd let go of the steering wheel. He didn't see how he could have, but his own arms were around Sandburg, clutching the back of his shirt. He was turned awkwardly in the seat with the shoulder strap cutting into his neck and shoulder. Blair held on tight, murmuring something, and after a time, Jim began to make out the words.

"You're OK, Jim," Blair said. "You don't need to think about it. Safe now. We're both safe."

Of course they were safe, the rational part of Jim's mind insisted with some impatience. But something deeper moved him to pull Blair close against himself so he could feel Sandburg's heart beating against his own, his breath warm against the side of his neck.

"It's OK, it's OK," Blair kept saying. "I know, but it's OK, now." Bland, blanket reassurances that were supposed to hold back so much, and they couldn't possibly. And in the meantime, the damn seatbelt was about to strangle him. Jim released Blair for an instant to free himself from it and then pulled Blair back to him. Sandburg knelt up on the seat, his head above Jim's, arms locked around Jim's back.

Holding Blair that way the shock of fear began to dissipate. Terrible as it was, Jim couldn't maintain it. Unlike Blair it had no name, no existence, no being, and once it was gone, he realized the state Blair was in. Sandburg was trembling with exhaustion. His sweat was sour and cold-smelling, his shoulders too thin under Jim's arms.

"Chief," Jim murmured, and pushed him back.

Blair was reluctant to let him go. His arms relaxed only after Jim pushed him more determinedly. Then Blair sat back, and turned his face away. Jim caught his head with both hands and turned it back.

Sandburg's face was marked by the traces of the thing Jim could not ask about and dared not remember. He moved his hand down and traced the scratches on Sandburg's cheek. He felt the pucker and roughness of healing flesh in parallel lines down Blair's face. Blair's eyes were wide, alarmed, but he remained where he was, kneeling on the seat beside Jim.

Carefully, then, and very gently, Jim peeled down the collar of Blair's turtleneck, and lay his open palm against his bruised throat. Yellow and purple streaks escaped his attempt to encompass them, painting the underside of Blair's chin and bleeding down to the hollow of his throat. The worst of it was warm under his hand, scabbed where the skin had been broken. Blair brought his own hand up and covered Jim's, holding it here. His eyes were calmer, though he was still trembling, leaning his shoulder against the seat back as he knelt there facing Jim. His voice shook too when he spoke, but he kept his grip on Jim's hand, making sure Jim continued to touch the healing wound.

"No --" Jim shook his head slowly.

"Yes," Blair insisted. "You don't need to go there ever again. Don't need to look at it, don't need to think about it, man. It's over. You destroyed it. You saved my life." His voice broke. "Jim, you were so strong. You saved both of us."

Jim wanted so badly to believe him. But he had nothing except Blair's words, and the terrifying mist that had fallen between the past and the present. Nothing penetrated but flashes, shadows and suggestions. The possibility of unspeakable things. Blair was honest and strong. But he would lie like a dog -- dammit, and cringe like one too if he thought he was protecting Jim by doing it.

"Jim," Blair said, interrupting his thoughts. "Jim, look at me."

"I am looking at you," Jim said, his voice a whisper.

"You've got to do something for me. You're going to hate it, I know. But I'm asking you to do this. For me."

"I don't know if I can."

Blair smiled, sad and sweet. "Aw, c'mon, man. You don't even know what I'm going to ask yet."

"Sandburg, please."

"Look, I'll make you a deal, OK? You listen to me, and I'll let you drive me to the University. I'll print up my paper and drop it off. Tonight. Right now. You with me on this?"

Jim nodded cautiously. "Glad you're finally talking sense," he said, and his voice sounded utterly false in his own ears. He tried to retrieve his hand, but Blair wouldn't let go.

"No, first you gotta listen to me, and you have to believe what I'm telling you."

Jim shut his eyes for a moment. "I can't decide what I will and won't believe, Sandburg. My brain doesn't work that way. You tell me the truth, I'll believe it. Anything else -- "

"Geez, Jim, you think I would lie to you? About THIS? Oh man. Oh, Jim. I really screwed this up, didn't I?" Blair released him suddenly, not quite pushing him away, but he retreated to the far side of the passenger seat, as far away from Jim as he could get. "No, it's OK," he said then, preventing Jim from saying anything. "Don't worry about it. It's OK. You're losing more of the memories every day, I can see it. And once there aren't any more visual cues -- once my neck's all healed up, and after we get the glazier in here this weekend to replace the clerestory, it'll be like nothing ever happened."

"Then help me remember," Jim said hoarsely. "Tell me why I hurt you so badly."

Blair's eyes widened. "No. I told you. It wasn't you."

"It must have been," Jim said, keeping his voice calm with an effort. "The perp's not behind bars. There's no police report. Nobody's out looking. And I'm missing four days out of my life. Of course it was me, Chief. I've known that all along."

"What have you been doing?" Blair asked miserably. "Have you been thinking about it all this time? Trying to figure it out? Oh, Jim, you promised you wouldn't. You promised."

Jim shook his head again, sadder than ever. "I'm sorry, Chief. I can't control my thoughts that way." He turned around in the seat, put the key in the ignition. "We still going to campus, Sandburg?"

"No," Blair snapped furiously. "No we are not." He surged angrily across the seat, put his hand on Jim's shoulder and tried to drag him around. "You haven't listened to me yet."

Jim dropped his hands off the steering wheel. "All right. Go ahead. I'm listening."

"No, you're not," Blair said. "I know you're not, because I have to keep telling you the same damn thing over and over again."

"It doesn't matter how many times you tell me a lie," Jim said softly. "You still can't make me believe it. No matter how much I might want to."

Blair's shoulders sagged. "I know, man. I know. But I can't tell you the truth. Just a piece of it is all. And you're going to have to trust me, and make do with that much of it."

"I don't know if I can," Jim said. "Not when your life is at stake."

"Both our lives, Jim. This scratch on my face. The bite here on my throat. I can't tell you who did this to me. But I can tell you why. Jim, this is the truth. This is what happened. It's like -- it's like we were under siege."

"I don't want riddles."

"I know! Just hear me out, Jim. You said you would give me that much, now come on."

Jim nodded once, tightly.

"And see, through it all, I was the weak link. OK, I know I'm mixing up my metaphors here, but you know what I mean. It thought it could get to us by attacking me. So it hurt me, thinking I would run, or that when you figured out what was happening, you would make me run. Either way, we would be separated, and it would win. But it didn't work. I didn't leave you, Jim. I stuck right by you. And you knew I was strong enough. You let me stay. You let me help you, and we beat it, because you trusted me so much."

Jim shut his eyes and dropped his head. "You're asking more from me than I can give you, Chief. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm not," Blair said. "Jim. You've got to stop this. I'm not kidding around here. You've got to put it out of your head for once and for all. I know it's tough right now, when you're reminded of it every time you look at me, but it's going to get easier, I swear. These scratches, this place on my neck, it's all going to heal, and the bad stuff you're scared of in your own head, it's going to heal at the same time. We've just got to get through the next couple of weeks and --"

"Sandburg, stop. You're not getting this."

"No, Jim, you're the one who's not getting it. I want you to-"

"No." Jim turned away. "It's not going to be like that." His hands were on the wheel again and he was staring straight ahead. "It's going to get worse, not better. If what you're telling me is the truth, then I've got to live with the knowledge I could hurt you that way and then just forget it as soon as the physical evidence is gone?" He gave a short, bitter laugh. "I know you, Chief. You probably think you can live with the risk. You think you'll be able to duck next time, get out of the way. Well, I can't live with it. I've let things go on too long as it is."

"Jim, for the last time, it wasn't you. It was -- not -- you."

"Please, Blair, stop lying to me. I can't listen to it anymore."

Blair shut up. Jim could hear his throat working as he swallowed convulsively. Jim didn't say anything either, and the silence stretched out forever. Until Blair unlocked the passenger side door and swung it open. Still Jim didn't say anything. Not until Blair's feet hit the pavement. "Chief," he said then. Too quiet. Blair wasn't a sentinel, he shouldn't have been able to hear him. He did, though. Something stopped him from slamming the door shut behind himself.

He didn't say anything, though, and he wasn't looking at Jim. Jim could feel the heat from Blair's flushed face, hear the racing pulse, smell how he was sweating despite the cold, damp drizzle.

"Sandburg, get back in the truck."

Blair snorted and slammed the door shut behind himself.

Jim sat in the truck and just watched him walk away. It was raining harder now. By the time Sandburg had reached the corner his hair was plastered to his scalp. His shoulders were hunched, his head ducked down as though that were some protection from the downpour. He waited for the light to change at the corner, shifting from foot to foot, hands shoved deep in his pockets. The windshield was fogging, but Jim could still see him though through the glass. The light changed. The streaks of red reflecting in standing puddles of water on the sidewalk turned to green, and Blair stepped off the curb. A Mercedes turning right didn't wait for him. Blair backed up hastily as the sedan pulled by too fast, too close. A plume of water arched from the street in its wake. Blair shook himself irritably, though he was already soaked, and ran stiff legged across the street. Jim watched as long as he could see him. It was a good long ways. A quarter of a mile, even in this weather.

Jim told himself they were both doing the right thing.

Well, not quite. If Sandburg had any sense at all he would have stopped at the first phone booth and called a taxi. Not surprising, though. When his emotions were engaged, the professor's self preservation instincts were untrustworthy at best. Not enough sense to get in out of the rain. Not like Jim Ellison. Jim didn't think with his heart. He lowered his head until his forehead was resting on the steering wheel. So there had to be some logical reason he was letting Blair leave this way. Some logical, sensible explanation for this. It couldn't be an irrational belief he could protect Sandburg from anything, and a blank, embarrassed despair at the realization that in fact he could do no such thing.

It could have nothing at all to do with his suspicion that, all of Blair's protests aside, Sandburg was most in danger from Jim Ellison himself. Of course, it had been that way from the start, hadn't it? You think Sandburg would have jumped under a garbage truck by himself?

Traffic was heavy tonight. Blair was probably making better progress on foot than the cars that were crawling down Main Street.

Jim was out of the truck and running hard before he even realized the decision had been made. The same light that had caught Blair was red for Jim too, but he didn't wait, dodging around the car in the first lane, waving the car in the next lane to a stop, and once the way was clear sprinting for all he was worth down the empty sidewalk. The downtown shops had closed and lights shown out of empty windows. Jim's running footsteps were loud in his ears. He heard the echo off the buildings across the street. Back and forth, echoing and re-echoing. Rain was in his face, down the back of his collar, stinging his cheeks. He splashed through standing puddles on the sidewalk.

Blair was still a long block away when he heard Jim. He glanced over his shoulder but kept going anyway, shaking his head, hands up, palms out. "Jim --" He was muttering to himself, "Don't do this. It's too much. I just can't handle any more tonight." Jim caught up to him a moment later, still running hard. He grabbed a fistful of Blair's wet coat and swung him around, using Blair to help himself stop.

Blair knocked Jim's arm away and stumbled back. His face was angry, a stranger's countenance. "Jim, I am not interested in this," he said in a voice as cold and angry as his face. "Please, just go home and leave me alone."

"Don't be an idiot, Sandburg." Jim reached for Blair's shoulder again, taking hold of his coat. "We're both going to end up with pneumonia."

"Dammit, Jim, I said no." Blair tried to shake himself free.

Jim simply tightened his grip, bringing his other hand up to grab another fistful of the sopping leather coat. "For the last time, Chief, not like this."

"What the hell does it matter?" Blair wailed at him, a shocking cry of grief. "Jim, you don't trust me, you don't believe me, what the hell does any of it matter any more?"

"No!" Jim roared back. He pushed Blair back two long strides, Blair dragging his heels and stumbling against him, until Jim had him pinned against the wet brick facade of a storefront. Blair stopped struggling, and just stared sullenly up at him, his face streaming with rain. Jim was hardly thinking anything at all by then. Nothing rational, nothing sane, that was for sure. Just a stupid, blind impulse to keep Blair from slipping any further away.

But he couldn't hold that heart, even though he was gripping Blair's shoulders so hard. With every passing moment the gap was widening. Jim could see the distance in Sandburg's dull blue eyes, stretching out so fast before him. "Chief," he said, despairing, and let Blair go. He held Blair's head with both hands for an instant, but that was no better, he couldn't make Sandburg see him.

The burden of his loss was a crushing weight. It drove Jim to his knees, and he knelt in the rain before Blair, too lost even for grief. The rain beat down on his shoulders, on his bowed head, and all he could think about was how different the little things were going to be now. Like that damn rice cooker Blair had just badgered him into buying. Five pounds of basmati rice. Jim wouldn't eat that much rice by himself in ten years.

He curled forward, thinking dimly he ought to get out of the rain, but there seemed so little point. Come on, Ellison, he told himself, get a grip here. So Sandburg's leaving. You always knew he would some day. Funny thing. That wasn't a whole hell of a lot of comfort right now.

Then the warmth touched his face. Lips pressed to his temple for an instant. A cheek laid against his own, bristles, warm skin. Blair clambered down beside him on the sidewalk in the rain, half kneeling, his arms around Jim's neck. Jim reached up carefully with one hand. Blair didn't speak, and that was a strange thing. He touched the back of Blair's head, then spread his fingers wide, cradling as much of the wet scalp as he could encompass, assuring himself that this silent stranger really was Blair Sandburg.

He put his arms gently around Blair's shoulders, not holding on too tight. After a time, Blair's arms loosened, too. He was crouching awkwardly before Jim, and as he shifted his weight, Jim took the opportunity to pull back just enough to see Blair's face by the yellow glow of the streetlights. The grief Jim found there was more than he could bear. "C'mon, please," Jim said, "If nothing else, we gotta get out of the rain."

"I'm sorry," Blair whispered. "I don't know what else to tell you. I've already told you everything I can. If that's not enough, then I don't know what to do anymore."

Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and found they were shaking from the cold. "Come on. Get up. We'll talk about it at home."

Blair didn't get up. He bowed his head so he wasn't looking into Jim's face anymore. "Sandburg, what do you want me to say?"

"That you're not afraid anymore."

"But I am afraid," Jim said.

Blair flinched, but he raised head and looked at Jim. "What are you scared of, man? Of what's already happened? It's done, over with. Gone."

"No," Jim said. "I'm scared of the future."

Blair lurched to his feet. Jim reached for him, afraid he was leaving again, but he wasn't. His hands were on Jim's coat, trying to drag him up too. "No," Blair said. "No, Jim, you've got to get this NOW, dammit, or it will win, and I'm not going to let that happen. Not after everything. Not after so much." He took Jim's head in his hands, reaching up to do it once Jim was on his feet, and gazed up at him so seriously, so sternly. "We're gonna go through this one last time, all right? And then I'm through, you hear me?" His voice was just a whisper, choked with tears. "Are you looking at me?" he demanded as well as he could. Jim just nodded. "Now honestly, Jim. Honestly. Could you ever hurt me?"

Jim shut his eyes. "I have."

Blair cuffed the side of Jim's head to make him open his eyes. "That's not what I asked you, dammit."

Blair was breathing hard with emotion, swallowing as he waited for Jim's answer. Looking up as he was, his throat was bared, and the yellow lights blackened the fading bruises. Blair's anger somehow made him seem terribly vulnerable to Jim at that moment. His knowledge of things Jim could not himself face made him seem, for the same paradoxical reason, almost desperately innocent. And Sandburg was right. No matter what reason and logic told him, the truth was, Jim couldn't have hurt him. He loved him more than his own life.

He dragged Blair to him with a groan. "No," he said. "No, I couldn't hurt you."

"About time, " Blair said to Jim's chest, and began to weep.

"Hey," Jim said at last. "Easy, easy." Blair nodded, and wept all the harder.

"Chief," Jim said at last, lowering his head, his lips close to Blair's temple. "Can we go home now?"

Blair nodded again, trembling violently, but Jim was no longer sure if it was from his silent weeping, or from the cold and the rain. "Come on," he said, easing Blair away enough to wrap his arm around Blair's ribs and urge him forward. "Or do you want to wait here? I could run back and get the truck, be back in just a second." Blair just tightened his arm around Jim, wordless.

Jim said, "OK, never mind." He was shivering almost as hard as Blair was by now, and the rain was coming down in sheets, driving across the deserted sidewalks. Traffic crawled through the deluge, headlights stabbing though curtains of water. The gutters were roaring, and Jim could hear the thunder of water rushing away through the overtaxed sewers, and the sound of the rain hitting a hundred roofs all around, the hollow ping of it on the glass of the stores.

Blair held on tight, stumbling determinedly along at Jim's side. The truck seemed miles away. Sandburg was going slower and slower, leaning more heavily against Jim with every step. Finally he came to a stop, despite Jim's gentle attempts to keep him moving forward. The rain washed down over both their bare heads, beat on their shoulders. Jim's shoes were full of water. "Sandburg," Jim said. "Let me go for the truck." He tried to ease him back under the awning of a locksmith's shop. "This is ridiculous. I'll just be a minute."

Blair wasn't buying it. He looked up at Jim, blinking against the rain. "Man, Jim," he gasped out, exasperated. "What is it with you and lousy weather? Doesn't it count unless we both get soaked to the bone in the process?"

He sounded so much like the old Blair Sandburg that Jim could have kissed him. He contented himself with patting that rain-drenched face twice. "I'm not the one who jumped out of the truck, Sandburg," he said, growling with affection. Blair laughed, whapped Jim in the gut, and took off at a clumsy, stumbling run. After a startled instant, Jim caught up to him. "Sandburg --"

Blair turned, jogging backwards for a few paces. "I hate the rain, Jim! Just for the record, just so you know, I HATE it, man!" He turned back and would have run head-on into a lamp post if Jim hadn't been close enough to snag his shoulder and pull him away.

"Sandburg, when you end up in the gutter, I am not carrying you the rest of the way."

Blair just laughed, then put on a last burst of speed and covered the final block to the truck. When he got there he collapsed against the passenger side, breathing hard, waiting for Jim to unlock the door. It wasn't locked. Jim opened it for him and Blair rolled his eyes and crawled in, shaking so badly Jim gave him an arm up. Jim slid in on the other side and cranked the heat as soon as the key was in the ignition. Blair's teeth were chattering. Water dripped on the seats. "So it's OK if I turn the paper in tomorrow morning, all right, Jim?"

Jim just shook his head. "Easier ways to win the argument, Sandburg."

"Who was arguing?" He grinned momentarily, then wrapped his arms around himself. "Aw, man, this sucks," he moaned. "Can we please go home now?"

"On our way," Jim said, putting the truck into gear.

Blair took a long, shuddering sigh. Jim spared a glance at him once they were in traffic again. Blair was staring straight ahead, still shivering, hair plastered to his scalp and dripping on his shoulders. He was still taking those deep, long breaths. Long inhalation. Holding it. Letting it go. No, not quite letting it go, despite all they had said in the rain. Jim found his hands tight on the steering wheel. This was intolerable, for both of them. It couldn't continue.

No, Jim thought then. No, it wasn't continuing. He trusted Blair with his happiness, his life, his very soul, if that meant anything. Everything that Jim was, everything he hoped to achieve, everything he needed in this life, all of it had been handed over into Blair's keeping. And all Blair asked in return tonight was that Jim trust himself. He would try. For Blair, he would try, difficult as it was.

He reached out and caught Blair's wrist. It was a stretch at first, because Blair still had his arms wrapped around his own shoulders against the cold. But Jim caught his left wrist, and tugged, and Blair allowed him to pull his arm down until he could clasp Blair's cold hand in his own. He held Blair's hand the rest of the way home, steering with his knees when he had to change gears. Blair's palm warmed against his, and as it did, Blair's breathing evened as well, no longer measured and deliberate as it had been, no longer a method of control. Jim finally had to let Blair's hand go to park the truck. Blair seemed unwilling to release him. Or maybe he was just half asleep. At any rate, he kept holding on until Jim lifted his own hand well away. He patted Blair's knee twice, then swung into the nearest place he could find on the street outside the loft, which was nearly half a block away. It was after six, and most people were home already.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said. "I should have let you out closer. Just a minute. I'll pull back around."

"Don't do that," Blair said. He sighed and sat up straighter, managing something like a smile. "Somebody'll get our place. You'd end up having to walk back even further." He fumbled for his seatbelt. Those hands of his, usually so eloquent and sure, were slow and clumsy this evening.

Jim watched him unhappily. "Sandburg--" he started to say. But Blair flashed him a grin and swung the door open. The rain was still coming down in sheets. Blair flinched back from the spray just for a moment, then hoisted his backpack up onto his shoulder and jumped out into the deluge in the same determined, awkward burst of energy. Jim wouldn't have been surprised if he'd landed on his tail. Fortunately Blair kept his feet, wavering just a little. "Coming?" he asked, then slammed the door behind himself.

It was too close to a replay of earlier in the evening. Jim followed quickly. Catching up with him, Jim wrapped his hand around the shoulder straps and took the backpack. "I got it," he said. Blair let him take it.

The rain beat down mercilessly. The fog had lifted a little, and there were good smells in the air rising above the reek of wet asphalt and everything tossing far below in the storm drains. Coffee beans. Hot milk. Yeast. Suddenly Jim was ravenously hungry. He flung his arm over Blair's shoulders, supporting him and hurrying him along. At the door to the stairwell he stopped and told him, "You head on upstairs and get in the shower. I'll get us a couple of espressos and bring them up. You got your key?"

Blair turned his face up to Jim's, looking as though he wanted to agree to whatever Jim was asking, but just couldn't quite figure out what it was. "Right," Jim said. "Never mind."

Tonight of all nights, the perennial 'out of order' sign was strung across the elevator doors. Jim didn't quite push Blair up the stairs, but he stayed one step behind him the whole way, his hand on the small of Blair's back the first time he stumbled. "Sorry about this," Blair said at the second landing. He was leaning into Jim's support. "I always crash after a paper. I think it's one reason I procrastinate so bad." He was all but swaying. "Get all high strung and emotional, too. I'm sorry, man. Always think the next time it'll be different, but it never is. At least when I was livin' in the warehouse there was nobody else around for me to take it out on."

"Come on, Sandburg," Jim said. "Home stretch." The upstairs hall was cold and drafty and damp because the window was open at the far end. No big mystery who had left it open, but this wasn't the night for a lecture. Blair leaned against the wall and watched, dull-eyed, as Jim unlocked the front door. It was chilly in the loft as well, and seemed shut-in and dark. The plywood over the shattered clerestory windows blocked the lights of the city, but didn't keep out the cold night air.

Jim ushered Blair in first, still half-thinking that once Blair was in the shower he might run downstairs and get them some of the coffee that smelled so wonderful and one of the loaves of pain ordinaire just coming out of the oven. They were intended for the morning customers, but Jim was a regular -- they'd let him have one of the fresh ones.

But Blair took one reluctant step into the loft, and stopped dead. He looked up at the boarded windows, then his head swept around, watching the shadows and the darkness. He wrapped his arms around his own shoulders and just stood there, shivering, blocking Jim's way as well. He was dripping all over the floor, the water running from the ends of his tangled hair and from his shirt tails, spreading in a slow puddle around his shoes.

"Chief," Jim said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Let's get inside and get dry."

Blair started as though waking from an unpleasant dream. "Sorry," he mumbled, moving forward.

"Wait a minute," Jim stopped him with the hand still on his shoulder after Blair had taken only a step. He shut the door behind themselves and pushed the deadbolt home. Blair looked back for a moment at the sound, but didn't say a word. "Hang on. You wait here."

He gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he sidled into the room around him, then kicked off his own sodden shoes and set Blair's backpack down carefully under the coat rack. "Jim," Blair protested. "It's not going to make any difference what --"

"Humor me," Jim said, and found a grin to offer Sandburg. For a moment it worked. An answering smile spread across Blair's face. Jim turned and ran lightly through the kitchen to the linen closet, as though that would somehow keep him from dripping quite so much water on the floor. He grabbed the biggest bath towel he could find and carried it back to Blair, who was standing right where Jim had left him. His eyes were huge in the darkness, darting around the corners of the room.

"Here we go," he said, draping the towel over Blair's shoulders and wrapping it around tight. "Now just stand there a minute more."

"Jim," Blair pretended to complain, but the smile was back, at least a shadow of it as Jim knelt and tugged his left shoe off. Blair steadied himself by resting a hand on Jim's shoulder as he did, laughing a little, still trying to tell Jim the floor was already soaked, it didn't matter. But he raised his right foot without resistance and let Jim pull that shoe off as well.

"Shower," Jim said, standing up and putting his arm around Blair's towel-clad shoulder.

Blair nodded. "Turn up the heat?"

"You got it," Jim assured him, steering him past the dining room table, down the hall and into the bathroom. "Get in the shower, Sandburg. Stay there till you're warmed up. I'm going to run downstairs and get us something to eat, how does that sound?"

Blair nodded quickly and unhappily. "Sure." He was standing still once, this time in the middle of the bathroom floor. "Sounds great, Jim. One thing --"

"What is it?" Jim reached around him and turned on the space heater full blast. When he looked back, Blair was no longer meeting his eyes. He was looking over Jim's shoulder, out the open door into the dark hallway.

"Turn on some lights on your way out?"

"C'mon, Sandburg," Jim said, gruffly. He unwrapped the towel from Blair's shoulders. "On second thought, I don't know if I really want anything from downstairs anyway. Maybe I'll just heat up some chicken soup or something instead."

Relief shone in Blair's eyes. He nodded, quick and grateful, and began clumsily unbuttoning his shirt. "No, it's OK," he said then, not looking at Jim. "If you want to go out for a while, it's OK. Don't know what my problem is. This place just isn't all that cozy these days, is it? Don't understand what the deal is --" His voice was rising, and he broke off before it could crack. He took a long, shuddering sigh, let it out slowly. "Sorry," he whispered. "Thought I was over this by now. Guess it's something to do with getting the paper finished. Like I've got time to think about it now."

Think about what? Jim longed to ask him. For god's sake, Chief, what happened here? But he didn't voice the question. He had promised Blair that he wouldn't.

Blair had dropped his head and was working on getting the rest of the buttons on his shirt undone. The wet cloth resisted his numb fingers, and finally he growled in frustration and yanked furiously.

"Easy," Jim said. "I got it." He undid the last two buttons himself, then helped Blair slide the shirt off his shoulders, taking it and hanging it on the hook on the on the back of the door. When Jim turned back, Blair was trying to maneuver his wet undershirt off over his head, and not doing a very good job of it. One arm was still trapped, his elbow stretching the fabric.

"Easy, Sandburg," Jim said again, "You're gonna rip your shirt like that." He took the hem and pulled it up over the elbow Blair had gotten hung on, but now the shirt was pulled over his face, Blair still grumbling and yanking at it ineffectually. It would have been funny, if Jim hadn't known why his partner was so tired and cold and clumsy.

"Blair, stop," he said quietly, and took his wrists in both hands.

Blair went suddenly still. With his arms above his head, there was nothing to stop Jim from seeing the other marks on Blair's body. The bruises above his sternum reminded him of contusions left by the Iceman's bullets.

But these were in the shape of human hands.

Jim swallowed hard.

"Jim?" Blair said.

"Easy," Jim said again, amazed his voice sounded so calm. He worked one hand gently under the ribbed collar and pulled the shirt the rest of the way off. Blair began to shiver harder than ever, though the little bathroom was warming fast.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said, taking the shirt back and pitching it toward the clothes hamper. He missed. "I think I can handle it from here."

"I'll just go heat that chicken soup in the microwave. It'll be ready by the time you get out." Jim tried not to look at those terrible bruises, but his eyes dropped without his volition for a moment, and something of what he felt must have shown on his face, much as he tried to stop it.

The faint smile that had been on Blair's face vanished. He crossed his arms miserably over his chest and turned away, as though he were ashamed. "Sorry," Blair whispered. "I forgot. But it's OK, now. Really, man, it is."

"Chief --" Jim began, and then broke off. (For the love of God, why did I hurt you that way? Why did you forgive me?) But instead of asking questions he knew Blair wouldn't answer, he put his hand on Blair's shoulder. Blair pushed back against that contact with a muffled groan. Then he turned to Jim and threw his arms around him, heedless of Jim's wet shirt, and hung on like he never intended to let go.

Jim didn't know what to do with his hands. They hovered above Blair's bare shoulders, afraid to accept trust he knew he didn't deserve. But he couldn't hold himself aloof from Blair's love, and finally he let himself cradle Blair's head in his open hand. He crossed his other arm over Blair's shoulders and carefully pulled him closer, holding him as he shivered.

And now that he held Blair, he couldn't bear to let him get away again. He couldn't bear it. Blair knew it too. It's why he made all those unreasonable, nonsensical, impossible demands in the truck and in the rain. He knew how defenseless Jim really was.

"Chief," Jim murmured at length, talking to Blair's bowed head. "The shower. You're freezing."

Blair just nodded. He didn't say anything, and he didn't let go.

"OK," Jim said, talking as much to himself as to Blair. He smoothed his hand over the damp head pressed so hard to his shoulder. "Take as much time as you need. I'm not going anywhere. We're both safe at home now. Everything's all right."

Blair's fists clenched against Jim's back, and he made a muffled sound that could have been a grunt of laugher or exasperation. It was probably both. "Oh, man!" he said gruffly to Jim's shoulder. "Do you know how long I've been waiting to hear you say that?" He yanked on the back of Jim's shirt, then wrapped his arms tight around his back again.

"I know," Jim said, making himself laugh as he stroked the back of Blair's head. "I'm sorry." He glanced down and saw the faint lines that crossed the small of Blair's back and sides. Scratches, healing slow. Fingernail scratches always did. Jim closed his eyes to shut out the sight, but it was too late. Already his mind was trying to outrun the horror here under his own hands. It was the sheer mindlessness of it that he couldn't understand. Blair looked like he'd been mauled by a wild beast.

Jim took a deep, slow breath, trying to stay calm. It was hot in the bathroom, but the skin on Blair's back was cold where Jim spread his hands against him, trying to warm him. If he had -- if he had tried to hurt Blair, surely it wouldn't have been like this, in this stupid, animal way. Even in madness, Jim suspected he would have been more efficient.

Jim felt the panic rising again, and he held Blair tight against it, trying to find his control there. Not this time. He wouldn't let the fear stop him again.

"Jim?" Blair asked. He tried to draw back, but Jim couldn't release him. He clenched his fists and held on too hard, his forearms locked across Blair's shoulders. Closing his eyes, he tried to see. He was breaking his promise, but this would be the last time. If there was nothing, then he would shut all this down forever. He would find a way to survive with this, because Blair had told him he had to. But if there were any way to know --

Forgive me, Chief, he thought, tucking himself around Blair as tightly as he could.

A sharp, white pain started at the base of his scalp. It burned like ice, slicing cold and inexorable through defenses Jim had never been aware of building. His head dropped back. He stared blindly at the ceiling, and was granted a cruel instant of sight. Blair, flat on his back on the dining room table, looking up at him in anguish and horror, his face twisted with pain. Those were Jim's own hands scrabbling at his chest, and it was Jim's strength that pinned him there.

But Jim was fighting too. He remembered the struggle, his own terror and desperation. And Blair gasping aloud, telling him what to do, guiding him even as Jim's hands hurt him.

There it was in the shadows, twisting the shape of the light. The thing Jim could not face, that his mind would not let him see. But Blair's voice never faltered, and never doubted that Jim could do what he asked. Jim was fighting so hard. He remembered it now, and how frightened he had been. And he remembered rising above the fear to send the devil back to hell, because Blair told him that he could.

It ended with a slap. The cold pressure against the back of Jim's scalp vanished. His arms were still locked around Sandburg, but he couldn't support them anymore. His knees buckled, and he would have fallen, pulling Blair down with him, except Blair realized what was happening, and he shoved Jim back against the wall, groaning in anger, supporting him with his own body. He clutched fistfuls of Jim's wet shirt in both hands. Furious eyes blazed up at him. "What are you doing? Dammit, Jim, what do you think you're doing?"

Jim shook his head dazedly, trying so hard to pin it down. Just a fragment, the tiniest shard, something, anything so he could remember the truth. Hopeless. It slipped away even as he clutched at it, and he felt the burn of self loathing begin again, creeping out darkly from the shadows of his heart.

(It's all bullshit, Ellison. You're losing your mind. You nearly killed Sandburg, and he's just too star struck and too damned stupid to tell you the truth.)

"Talk to me, Jim!" Blair was shouting at him. He tried to shake Jim, but Jim wasn't to be moved. Threads tore in the shoulder of his shirt. Blankly, hardly aware of what he was doing, he brought his hands up and pushed Blair's away.

"Jim!" Shouting over and over again now, batting furiously, childishly, hopelessly at Jim's hands as Jim kept him away. He couldn't accept the distraction of Blair's touch now. His head rolled back against the tiled wall, his eyelids flickering. A flash in the darkness. There was Blair's voice in his memory, guiding him through the struggle Jim had been afraid to face alone, against such an intimate horror.

But he couldn't grasp it. Even to keep Blair, he couldn't hold the memory of that violation. Grief tore a sound from his throat. It should have been a scream, but it was nothing but an open-mouthed groan, as if he were choking.

Blair was the one who screamed. "JIM!"

He wasn't strong enough to push Blair away anymore, and Blair wasn't strong enough to hold him up. He could feel Blair's arms clumsy and desperate around his back, but his knees were folding up, his own arms loose and empty at his sides. Back to the darkness as he slid down the bathroom wall, taking Blair with him. He was a freak, a monster, a brute. He had tried to destroy the kindest, bravest soul he had ever known. If he wasn't stopped -- if he didn't send Blair away -- the next time he might succeed.

One last flicker. So faint, so far away he almost missed it. Such little things. A smell, here in the loft, like a stagnant pond. The sight of the big sentry palm out there by the window tipping slowly sideways, its pot shattered beneath it. The trust that shone out of Blair's eyes. Jim's determination not to disappoint that trust. Not ever, no matter what the cost.

He lunged, despairing. He had to have it. He had to keep that, somehow. There had to be a way.

He didn't know that his body was acting out the struggle in his mind. He didn't feel the cold tile under his hands and knees as he crawled frantic and blind, reaching with his hands for something he had to hold in his head.

There. Ah god in heaven, there it was. Blair on the beach that rainy morning before court, shivering and cranky, grouching at him for dragging them out there, wet hair plastered to his scalp. Jim embraced the memories violently, lashing the ghosts to the flesh, binding them together until they were one. He would not forget again. Not again. Not again. "Not again," he said out loud. "Not again." Fixing the memory with speech. "Not again."

He closed his eyes, satisfied that he had it, then opened them to find himself crouching over Blair on the bathroom floor. The two of them were backed in the corner against the bathtub and the wall, and Jim was holding Blair's shoulders off the floor. Blair's fists were still wrapped in his shirt, and he was staring up at Jim with such grief and horror on his face that Jim felt tears come to his own eyes. "Chief," he whispered, stricken. "I'm sorry."

Blair tried to say something, but he couldn't get the words out. Just violent gasps of air, as though there weren't enough oxygen in the room.

"Hush," Jim murmured roughly. "It's all right now." He knelt over Blair, helping him sit up. Blair held himself tense in Jim's arms, dragging violent breaths one after another.

"Take it slow," Jim pleaded with him. "It's all right now."

"Jim --" Blair panted out at last. "Jim -- you --"

"I know," Jim said. He finally let Blair go, and when he did, Blair scooted away fast, to crouch on the floor like a wet and angry animal. His hair hung over his face. His sides were heaving, belly sucked in hard with every indrawn breath, panting furiously and painfully.

Jim didn't allow himself to reach out to him, though he needed to so badly. Instead he waited as long as he could bear it, then said simply, "I know. I promised I wouldn't."

"Dammit!" Blair whispered furiously. "What's the matter with you? Do you have any idea how bad you scared me?" He had to stop to breathe, then managed to get the rest out. "Why the hell are you so stubborn?"

Jim couldn't stand the distance any longer. He crawled closer, so he could reach out and push the hair out of Sandburg's eyes. "It's the next best thing to being strong, Chief," he said, his hand still holding back a tangle of wet hair. "If I was as strong as you, maybe I wouldn't need to be so stubborn. But I'm not. So I've got to make do with what I have."

Blair's mouth was drawn into a sad, angry line, lips pressed together tight. His I'm-not-listening expression.

"I tried," Jim said, finally dropping his hand. "I tried anyway, but you always expect too much of me, Sandburg. You expect me to measure up to your standards, and this time, I just couldn't do it. I had to do things my way instead of yours. I'm sorry."

Blair's expression softened. His breathing was becoming quieter and easier. "Jim," he said at last, and then didn't say anything more for while. He drew his knees up and sat looking earnestly him. "Jim," he said again, at long last. "Are you all right?"

Jim nodded. "I think so."

"Did you remember?" All at once, Blair sounded so sad and tired.

"A little. Not much. Just impressions. Some of the emotions. Enough."

Blair squeezed his eyes shut. "It's that important to you? In spite of everything I told you?"

"Yes."

"You couldn't -- you couldn't just trust me?" Blair tried to keep his voice steady, but it wavered and broke anyway.

"No," Jim had to say. "Not about this." He reached out again, this time to lay his hand on Blair's chest. "I know this heart too well. You'd give your life for a stranger without a second thought. For me, Sandburg, I'm afraid you'd hand over your soul."

Blair took a hitching breath, eyes wide now, watching Jim's face.

"I tried," Jim told him. "But I'm not sure you understand. It's been tearing me up inside. Every time I looked at you, I could see where my hands -- god help me -- where my mouth had been on you. It couldn't go on. It was destroying me."

Blair's eyes darkened. His mouth turned down, and for a moment Jim thought he was getting ready to explode again. Jim couldn't blame him. He knew he wasn't getting his words out right. He was just making things worse.

"Jim," Blair said at last. "I'm so sorry." Tears swam up, but none fell. "I never meant to get things so wrong. See, I thought this was the best way, because it had hurt you so bad. I just didn't want you to hurt anymore."

"I know," Jim said. "You didn't get anything wrong." He put his hands on Blair's shoulders, gripping hard. "But you couldn't go on like this either. It was eating you up too."

Blair closed his eyes and turned his face away.

"You did everything alone, carried all the weight by yourself for so long. But it's over now, and you need to rest. Please let me help."

Blair's empty hands curled into fists. He didn't look up for a long time, and when he finally did, an emotion like anger or confusion smeared the blue of his eyes "How?" he asked.

"I don't know," Jim admitted. "But you have to let me try."

Blair made a weary, hopeless gesture with one hand. "No," he mumbled. "No, I don't know. I don't think so. You don't understand."

"I know I don't," Jim said, undeterred. "You'll have to help me."

"God, Jim!" In sheer frustration, Blair smacked him in the chest with the back of his hand. "Don't you ever give up?"

"You're freezing," Jim said quietly. "I'm gonna run a bath instead of a shower, all right?"

"I don't want a bath," Blair said mulishly. He tried to pull backward out of Jim's hands. "I don't want a shower. I just want you to do what I tell you for once in your goddammed life. I don't think that's asking too much. Is it? Just once?"

"Whatever you say, Chief," Jim agreed. He pulled Blair close, wrapping his arms tight around those trembling shoulders.

"Stop patronizing me," Blair complained softly, his arms going around Jim in turn.

"Never," Jim told him honestly as Blair's head dropped on his shoulder. "Easy," Jim said, "You can let it go now."

Blair gave a short, uneven laugh, not lifting his head from Jim's shoulder. "That easy, huh?"

"That easy," Jim said.

"Well, it's gotta be less work than fighting you about it any more," Blair whispered grumpily, tucking his head down a bit and wrapping his arms tighter around Jim. He was still shivering, goosebumps standing up all down his arms.

"Glad to hear it," Jim said. The bathroom floor was cold, and the way Blair was still shivering in his arms was beginning to worry him.

"Come on, Sandburg." Jim kept one arm locked tight around Blair's back, but with his other he groped over the side of the bathtub and managed to reach the fixtures. There. A twist, and water gushed out. It took it a while to warm up as always, but soon steam began to rise. The sound of splashing water changed as the tub began to fill.

"Jim, this is stupid," Blair muttered. "I can manage by myself here."

"I know you can," Jim said. "Let's take it one step at a time, OK?"

Blair nodded his head against Jim's shoulder, then patted him on the back and released him, sitting back. "See?" he said, as though simply being able to let go of Jim had proved something.

Jim got to his feet slowly, feeling the cold himself despite the steam roiling up. He was bone tired, with an ache in his joints and at the bottom of his lungs that felt like the beginning of a nasty cold.

He reached a hand down to Blair, but Blair didn't even notice. His back was propped against the side of the tub, which Jim knew it must be freezing cold, despite the hot water filling it on the other side. His head was down, and he was working on unbuttoning his jeans with a single-minded determination..

"Might be easier if you stand up," Jim offered quietly.

"I got it," Blair said grimly, not looking up. His hair was beginning to dry, hanging in damp curls on his shoulders. Unfastening the last button on his fly at last, he pushed his jeans down over his hips with an awkward wiggle. The boxers were next, pushed down to his knees in a damp tangle. Then he bent forward and tugged at his jeans from the ankle, working them down off his legs with a groan. He looked up then and saw Jim. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his shins, shivering. "You still here?"

Jim reached down again. "C'mon, Sandburg. Into the tub."

This time Blair took his hand, and let Jim pull him to his feet. "I've got it under control," Blair announced. He was shaking so hard that he had difficulty straightening up, even with Jim's help. Shudders ran down his frame one after another, and even though he managed a rueful grin for Jim, his fingers latched around Jim's arm fiercely.

"Doing great," Jim said, supporting him.

Blair took a deep breath. "Sorry," he said. "Don't know what the deal is tonight. That paper --"

"No more about the paper, got it?"

Blair nodded seriously. His throat was green and black with spreading bruises. The ones on his chest were worse, red and tender looking. "Just want to make sure the water's not too hot," Jim said. "So hold on for me here, OK?" He locked his arm around Blair's waist and half knelt to feel the water filling the tub. He'd begun to sweat from the steam and the heat, but Blair was still shivering violently.

"Feels OK," he announced. "Now you're just gonna step in, OK? I've got you."

"Jim, this is stupid," Blair complained, gripping Jim's forearm violently.

"I know. Humor me."

"All I ever do," Blair grumbled, lifting one foot with an effort and stepping into the tub. "Ah!" he complained when he felt the heat of the water. "Oh, shit."

"You all right?" Jim asked worriedly, starting to pull him back. "Is it too hot?"

"No, I'm all right," Blair said miserably. He moved his hands up to grip Jim's shoulders as he set the other foot in the tub, moaning. "Dammit, Jim," he said. "It hurts."

"I know," Jim said, steadying him. "Just take it slow. You're half frozen. It'll start to feel better in just a minute."

Blair nodded skeptically. He clung to Jim's shoulders, teeth chattering. Jim held his upper arms, feeling the tremors. Steam rolled upward. Blair's feet had turned bright red in the water, but his legs were white and covered in goosebumps. "What's the matter with me?" Blair got out in a whisper. "I'm totally falling apart here and I don't even know what the matter is anymore."

"It's been a rough afternoon," Jim told him. "Come on. Let's try to sit down now. You ready?"

"Is that the understatement of the year or what?" Blair laughed shakily. "Look at you, man! You're fine! You're totally fine! You can walk ten miles in the pouring rain and carry me home and face everything and not even break a sweat and here I am --" Blair suddenly tried to pull away, splashing water, stumbling on the slick surface of the bathtub. "It's just too much! Look at me, Jim! I'm in pieces here. Pushing you so hard and trying to do the right thing and screwing up so bad I tried to walk out -- what was I thinking? What the hell was I thinking? I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it. Aw Jim, you've got to believe me. I was just trying to help."

"Sandburg, stop." Jim pulled him back, his hands on Blair's arms, holding him tightly. It frightened Jim a little, trying to restrain Blair like this. He felt a hot flush creeping up his face, and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he held on anyway.

Blair looked up at him with enormous, worried eyes, and didn't try to pull away. "What's the matter with me, Jim?" he asked again. "Have I finally lost it?"

"No," Jim said. He pulled Blair to him, gently but inexorably, tucking Blair's head against his throat and wrapping his arm around Blair's bare shoulders. It was awkward and more than a little uncomfortable, the side of the tub pressing against his shins, steam from the hot water rising against his face. Blair groaned. His hands knotted in Jim's wet shirt and he held on hard. "No," Jim said again. "You're not losing it. You're finally letting someone else take their share of the burden. I know how long you've been carrying this, and how it's beaten you down. But I'm here now. I've got you, and I'm not gonna let go."

Blair said something that was completely muffled against Jim's chest. Jim simply tightened his arms around Blair's shoulders and held on. The water level in the tub was starting to concern him, but he could hardly stand to let Blair go even to turn off the faucet. He held him close, not talking. Even Blair's tailbone was bruised, an ugly blue and black halo around his coccyx. Jim waited, tensed, for the fear and anger to return, but he felt nothing but tenderness, holding Blair cradled trustingly against him.

But he was still shivering violently, and being pressed against Jim's wet shirt and jeans must be uncomfortable. Jim supposed it was selfish of him to prolong the embrace, but he needed the reassurance of Blair too badly to ease him away just yet. Blair's mind and body both were naked and bruised, but the battle was over now. He had been strong enough for both of them, and was strong enough to let Jim carry him from the field.

Blair sighed, his head pressed harder against Jim's throat and shoulder. The running water made a hollow, muffled sound as it splashed into the full bathtub. Jim eased his arms away so he could take Blair's head in both hands. Blair let him tilt his head back enough to gaze up again into Jim's face. Blair's eyes were still dark with exhaustion and pain, but there was a calm there Jim hadn't seen in days. Perhaps not since that morning at the Point. It had been raining then too. With the surf crashing behind them and the fog coming in low over the water, Blair had held him and forgiven him. Jim remembered that, he always would. And now he knew better what Blair had been prepared to carry alone.

All at once it didn't seem as though there was enough room in his own chest to accommodate the beat of his heart, it felt so achingly full and tender.

He pushed a damp tangle of hair off Blair's forehead, and then on a foolish, happy impulse, bent his head and touched his lips to that cold brow. Blair laughed at him then, beaming up at him, his teeth still chattering, his fists still knotted in Jim's shirt.

"Sit down, Chief," Jim said gruffly, "We're about to get water all over the bathroom floor."

Blair nodded, not trying to speak. He lowered his arms and gripped Jim's forearms tightly as he knelt, hissing as the water crept up his legs.

Jim knelt too, supporting Blair as well as he could, murmuring encouragement as Blair grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut. "Aw, man!" Blair complained at last, carefully stretching out one leg and then the other, sitting at last. "So much for fathering kids in this lifetime."

Jim patted his face, and Blair opened his eyes. "Hang in there, Sandburg. The water's not that hot."

"Easy for you to say."

But he lay gingerly against the back of the tub all the same and scooted down an inch at a time until the water was as high as his neck. Jim reached out and finally turned off the running water with his free hand as Blair shut his eyes again, peacefully this time. He was still holding Jim's hand. "Better?" Jim asked. He could see it was. Little residual shivers still shook Blair, but the intervals in between were growing longer and longer.

Blair sighed, the lines of tension slowly leaving his face. His grip on Jim's hand loosened, but he didn't let go. Jim shifted gingerly, moving from an awkward crouch so that he was sitting more comfortably on the floor by the tub. Blair's eyes fluttered open. "Jim," he said, squeezing his hand once. "You need to get dry."

"OK," Jim agreed. "In just a minute."

Blair nodded and his eyes drifted shut again. His shivers were subsiding, and there were even a few beads of sweat rising on his forehead from the heat of the water. Jim could smell the hot scent of salty perspiration, paradoxically clean and reassuring. Blair was still holding his hand. The ends of his hair were floating on the surface of the water, and there were still goosebumps on the arm he rested on the side of the tub so that he didn't have to let go of Jim's hand. It was probably uncomfortable, Jim thought regretfully. "Here, Chief," Jim said. He wrapped both hands around Blair's for a moment, then gently lifted Blair's arm from the side of the bathtub and tucked it at his side, releasing him. Blair let his arm sink into the warm water immediately, but the little sigh that escaped him wasn't entirely happy.

"You had any dinner yet, Jim?" he asked drowsily.

"Just getting to it," Jim said, making no move to get up.

"Maybe get something from downstairs?" Blair said slowly, his tongue sounding thick. "Hey." He interrupted his own thought. "Jim, oh, man. You wanted to get a couple of espressos, didn't you? I totally spaced. I'm sorry." He was slipping down further in the tub. His chin touched the surface of the water, and his eyes were still closed.

"I don't think so," Jim said. He couldn't stop himself from reaching out again and laying his hand on Blair's head. Blair cracked open one sleepy eye to look up him, seeming amused. "Probably more caffeine isn't what either one of us needs tonight."

"Jim," Blair said, sleepy and calm, sunk so far down in the tub that his breaths sent tiny ripples across the surface of the water. "Do me a favor, man."

"What's that?" Jim's hand was still resting on the damp curls on the top of his head.

"Go get dry, please. You've gotta be freezing."

"I'm OK," Jim said, meaning it for the first time in days.

"I know that." A tiny smile lifted the corner of Blair's mouth. "But you're soaking wet." He opened his eyes sleepily, concern showing then. "Oh, I know you'd like a shower. Want me to go ahead and get out?"

"Sandburg, stay put."

Jim patted the side of Blair's face twice. His cheek was flushed from the heat of the water, and he was still smiling, muscles bunched in his jaw and over his cheekbones. Jim could feel the gentle tension of that easy expression under his fingertips, and he let his hand linger a moment longer. "I'll get some dry clothes on and start dinner. You just soak. Got it?"

"Got it," Blair said. "Soaking." He eased down another few millimeters, and Jim at last crawled to his feet, supporting himself on the side of the tub as he did. He was surprised to find Blair was right. He was chilled to the bone. He hadn't noticed before. Now that he had noticed, it still didn't seem very important, except for the stab of guilt. How on earth had he let Blair go out in weather like this? Walking for blocks in the rain, trying to hold both of their lives together, and driven to the verge of despair by Jim's own stubbornness, that need to know that he hadn't been able to let go of, even in the face of Blair's desperate pleas for trust.

Ice prickled around his heart. For god's sake, what had he come so close to doing? Had it really been worth it? The memories he had fought so hard for seemed all at once inconsequential as nightmares. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else ever had. He had to let Blair know that, somehow.

He didn't realize how long he had been standing at the side of the bathtub gazing down at the man who had given him his life back a long time ago, and now his soul, until Blair opened his eyes and looked up at him. "Uh, is there something going on here I should know about?" The little smile on Blair's face became a grin. Jim grinned back, though his heart was so full he wondered that he didn't start to cry instead.

"Jim," Blair said.

"What?"

"Dry clothes. Dinner."

"OK," Jim said. He took a deep breath, wondering if he could find the words. "Chief --"

Blair stopped grinning. The expression in his eyes was still calm and happy, but he looked somber, almost grave. As grave as anyone could look submerged to his chin in the bathtub anyway. "I know," he said. His voice got softer. "Believe me, I know."

"Stay there till you're sure you're warmed up," Jim told him, instead of what he had wanted to say. But Sandburg was right. There was time.

"I will," Blair said. "Thanks for letting me have the tub first and everything. I owe you."

"Yell if you need anything."

---

The rest of the loft felt very dark and very cold after the light and steam of the bathroom. Jim lit the gas logs, but the flames themselves seemed cold and remote. He padded upstairs to find a change of clothes, shivering, and listening to every splash from the bathroom. Blair was lying very still, all except for one foot tapping on the bottom of the tub. Tiny waves lapped. Jim was focused so closely on the sound that he tripped on the top step and nearly went sprawling headlong. He caught himself, cursing mildly. Rain beat down on the skylight, and a cold wind crept past the plywood boards over the missing windows.

He found a pair of sweats waiting where he expected to find them on the bottom shelf, but his last clean sweatshirt was missing. Sandburg had helped himself, no doubt. Jim knew he was a couple of weeks behind in the laundry right now. A sudden violent bout of splashing from below startled him, and he grabbed his robe and started down the steps, hearing the sound of water draining away. Blair was getting out already, despite what Jim had told him. Nothing surprising about that, of course -- Blair doing exactly what he wanted, despite Jim's instructions.

At the bathroom door Jim stopped and knocked, suddenly unwilling to intrude on Blair's privacy despite all that had happened tonight. The distance seemed vast, and the shadows in the corners of the living room were very dark and very close. Why hadn't he turned on more lights? "Sandburg, you OK?"

The door swung open violently. Blair had appropriated the white bathrobe Jim kept on the hook on the back of the bathroom door, and he looked pink and warm and startled. "Way to give a guy a heart attack," he complained, and pushed past Jim into the hall. Jim saw him darting a glance at the far corners of the living room as well.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"You told me to stay till I was warmed up. Well, I'm warm now," Blair announced. He turned, his chin jutting, daring Jim to test his defiance.

Instead, Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I know," he admitted softly. "I feel it too. My own home, and I keep expecting the boogey man to jump out of the closet any second."

Blair took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, man," he whispered.

"For what?"

His face twisted. He shrugged, and tried twice before blurting out, "For being so relieved that it's not just me anymore."

Jim felt it like a blow. The need to protect, to defend the better half of his own soul, his regret for all the time Blair had been alone. "Don't you believe it, Sandburg," he growled, his hands heavy on Blair's shoulders. "It'll never be just you again, you hear me?"

When Blair looked up, his eyes were swimming with tears. "I just got so tired," he said. "I wanted to, Jim, but I couldn't."

"Chief," Jim said, helpless, furious at something he couldn't touch. Dammit, he thought they were past this. No, he wanted them to be past it, but it couldn't happen that quickly, as much as he wanted it to.

"Sorry," Blair whispered. "This really sucks, huh?"

"No," Jim said, and pulled Blair to him, cradling him hard against his chest, wrapping his arms around his back and holding on so Blair would know.

Blair didn't embrace him in turn, but he laid his head on Jim's chest with a quiet sound. Jim tightened his arms around Blair, feeling his skin still hot from the bath through the terry cloth, feeling the guilt and regret as well. He wanted to take it all from Blair and he couldn't, he knew he couldn't. He could only stand here like this and tell Blair the truth. "I've just got one thing to say to you," Jim whispered gruffly. Sandburg's hair was damp against his cheek. "The next time you walk out on me like that -"

"Jim," Blair said miserably. "It was only because you wouldn't --"

"The next time you walk out on me like that," Jim repeated, talking over him, still holding him tight, "I want you to be sure and take my weapon."

"Jim?" Blair whispered, bewildered.

"It wouldn't be safe for me to have it around."

"Jesus, Jim, you're really starting to scare me here." Blair sounded a little bit frightened, but more than a little angry too.

"I don't want to scare you," Jim said, meaning it. "We've both had too much of that."

"Then what are you telling me, man?" Blair had gone rigid in his arms. He raised his arms and clutched at the sleeves of Jim's robe.

Jim kept him folded close, but he raised his head, the underside of his chin resting on the top of Blair's head. What a dark, cold, lonely place the loft was tonight. How odd for him to see his own home that way, as if he still thought Blair might be gone from it. What a deep melancholy the possibility had wrought. "You're my whole life," Jim said calmly, no idea anymore of not telling Blair the plain truth. "Everything that still makes sense, everything that still matters. It's only because you're here with me."

"Jim," Blair said helplessly. He put his arms around Jim's back, and Jim could feel how they were trembling. "Jim, I don't -- Aw man, it's just me. Just Blair Sandburg. I can't -- I didn't mean --"

"I know," Jim told him gently as Blair buried his face against his chest and shoulder, "I know you didn't mean to. And I know you'll have to go someday. That's why I'm telling you now. I know you wouldn't want me to do anything permanent. And I'm afraid I might. I'm just not as tough as you, Chief."

"No," Blair growled. His head came up, pushing Jim's away. His voice was angry but his eyes were soft with love. "No, damn it. You're *my* life, Jim. You're not pushing me out the door like that. Not now, not ever. I won't let you. You hear me? You're the one with the sentinel eardrums. You hear me, man?"

Jim gazed down at that beloved face, scratched and bruised, dark with a five o'clock shadow, wet hair tumbling back in chaos over the shoulders of the white robe. Those burning blue eyes. Jim's hands came up and held Blair's head so he could drink in the sight of that love for as long as his soul needed. Blair wasn't exactly smiling, but his lips were pressed together as if in serious thought. His eyes betrayed him, they always did.

"Jim, you're still scaring me," Blair said at long last, his voice soft. Jim felt the movement of Blair's jaw with the palms of his hands when he spoke, and to him, Blair didn't look scared at all. His arms were still around Jim's waist.

"Sorry," Jim said, unrepentant.

"You wouldn't -- Jim, you didn't really mean that, did you? I mean, it's been a crazy night, that's all, and I've been out of my head. We both have. I just need to hear that you didn't really mean that the way it sounded."

Jim's hands slid back till his fingertips were laced together at the nape of Blair's neck. The base of his skull was such a warm, fragile weight in his hands. "I've meant every word I said," Jim told him. "It's only the ones I didn't say that were wrong."

Blair grinned, lopsided. "You're making less and less sense," he said. "You know that, don't you?"

Jim just smiled in return, the sight of that familiar grin on Blair's face filling his heart with such peace. But then Blair turned grave again. "It's just -- Jim, I know what I am, and it's just not that much. Nobody's ever counted on me before. And now you tell me that -- god, Jim -- it's just that you deserve so much. What in the world's gotten into you, counting on me like that?" He didn't sound upset or frightened, just confused. And he still showed no signs of letting go.

Jim laughed softly. Holding his head carefully still, he bent his head and pressed his cheek to Blair's temple, feeling the tender pulse beating against his own face. "I don't know why you're acting so surprised," he told Blair gently. "You marched into my life the day we met, and you haven't backed off since."

Blair laughed too, then. Quiet and hoarse, a few chuckles Jim felt rumbling against his own chest. "I guess I was sort of pushy, huh?"

"Good thing for me," Jim said. "I needed to be pushed." Suddenly it wasn't enough, and he put his arms around Blair and pulled him as close as he could again. "You saved my life," he whispered, almost afraid to say it out loud. "Over and over again, just by being next to me. You're the blessed protector, Chief. I'd think a smart guy like you would have figured that out a long time ago."

"Well, yeah," Blair said to Jim's chest, almost laughing again. "Just didn't want to hurt your feelings."

Blair was starting to shiver again as the heat from the bath left his skin. Reluctantly, Jim released him, and when Blair showed no signs of letting go, pushed him back with more force. "C'mon, Sandburg." He put his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned him toward the bedroom. "You need to either get dressed or get to bed."

"It's like seven o'clock," Blair grumbled. "I'm not going to bed." But he allowed Jim to push him gently through his bedroom doors. His footprints had left wet tracks down the hall from the bathroom. "You still going to heat up some soup?" he asked, his voice so quiet he might have been talking to himself as he knelt on the bedroom floor and began rooting though a pile of clothes. He looked over his shoulder when he realized Jim was still standing right behind him. "I know," he said mournfully. "It was my turn to do the wash. Sorry. I'll get caught up now that my paper's done."

He looked back a second time when he realized Jim hadn't moved. Jim knew he ought to say something, if only that yes, he was going to heat up the soup. But nothing seemed adequate to his feelings, such love, such gratitude, such a fond and slightly desperate sense of protectiveness. "Chief," he said at last, ridiculously inadequate, "you need me to lend you a pair of clean sweats?"

"I got em already," Blair announced, sheepishly. "A couple of days ago, actually. I know I should have asked. Oh, there they are," he went on, pulling them from halfway under the bed.

He kept looking up at Jim with an expression that Jim couldn't quite puzzle out, so he finally said, with difficulty, "I'll just go heat that soup up now," and left Blair alone.

The first thing he did was turn more lights on and push up the thermostat. He hadn't gotten back to the kitchen before Blair came out, still in the robe. He'd pulled on the sweats, rolling them up at the waist two or three times, half a dozen times at the ankle, it looked like. The elastic would never be the same. He was still barefoot, still shivering, and his eyes darted around the loft before coming to rest on Jim. He nodded to himself and visibly relaxed, almost managing a smile. "Dinner ready yet?"

"Not quite," Jim said, crossing the intervening space fast. He took Blair's arm, holding on gently but quite firmly just above the elbow, and guided him to the sofa. "Just getting to it. Hungry?"

Blair didn't sit down. "No, not really."

Jim put his hands on Blair shoulders. "You've got to eat."

"No, I'm really not hungry, not yet," Blair insisted. "My stomach's still kind of tied up in knots, you know?"

Jim stood looking down at him, his hands resting on Blair's shoulders. "OK," he said softly. "Whatever you think. We can wait a little while." He felt Blair's shrug, and the deep breath he took.

Then Blair looked up at him again. "You know what would be good right now?"

"What's that?"

"Do we still have any brandy left?"

"I don't know. I think so. Are you sure that's such a good idea? Wouldn't some food be better?"

"Jim, I've had it with good ideas, believe me." He took a deep breath, and shuddered as he let it out. "Never quite turn out the way you think they will."

Jim held on tighter. Sandburg's shoulders were rigid with strain, and he looked up at Jim with a weary, half-defiant and wholly guilty expression on his face. Jim couldn't stand it. He didn't know what to tell Blair anymore. Blair had risked everything to give Jim his peace again, and he should be able to rest now. He deserved his own peace too. They both did, or all Blair's courage had been for nothing.

It came to him so suddenly then that it never occurred to Jim to question the impulse. He put his hands on Blair's face, cupping the hinges of Blair's jaw in the palms of his hands to hold him carefully in place. Blair's ravaged throat was exposed by the open robe, as were the tender red marks spreading out across his breastbone. Tears came to Jim's eyes, but this time they weren't of grief or guilt. He ducked his head, having to bend his knees to manage it, and laid his face against Blair's throat. Whiskers prickled against his cheek. He could feel the warmth from the contusions, the rough places where broken skin was mending, and the vibration in Sandburg's voicebox when he gave a moan of surprise.

Blair held himself very still at first, and then his hands came up and touched Jim's face. His pulse beat strongly against Jim's cheek and brow, and after a long moment, Jim turned his head and pressed his lips first to the tender place under Blair's left ear. Blair trembled, and his fingers spread wide against Jim's scalp. Jim kissed him a second time, moving down his throat, closer to Blair's stigmata. The third time he kissed Blair, his lips were pressed to the darkest bruises, to the place where the imprint of Jim's own teeth remained above Blair's larynx, and he lingered until Blair's racing pulse began to slow.

Then he raised his head and looked into Blair's eyes. For only an instant he doubted. He couldn't recognize that expression at first, and wasn't sure he knew what it meant. But that was only because it had been so long. An eternity since Blair had been at peace. Blair was looking back at him calmly, utterly relaxed now, completely open. Jim felt himself grinning helplessly in response, but Blair's expression remained the same, accepting Jim's love as he always had, as though it were self-evidently his due.

"You're right," Jim said, his voice hoarse. "Brandy sounds good."

Blair laughed out loud, a sudden shout of joy. Then he dragged Jim's head down and kissed his mouth. "Aw, Jim," he said. "Jim."

Jim beamed down at him, his hands still cradling Blair's face. "Hi, Chief."

"Hey, man," Blair said, still grinning, but his voice was soft, and a blush that had nothing to do with the hot bath spread across his face. It darkened the scratches healing on his cheek, so Jim lowered his head and lightly kissed them too. When he drew back, Blair's eyes were closed, and though he wasn't grinning anymore, a calm, satisfied little smile was on his lips. A long time seemed to pass before he opened his eyes again to look at Jim.

"How's it going?" Jim asked softly, as though they hadn't seen each other for a long time.

"All right, man." Blair seemed to realize then he was still holding Jim's head, and he dropped his hands reluctantly, though he patted Jim's back afterward. "You were gonna find the brandy?"

"Right," Jim said. He dropped his hands to rest on Blair's shoulders. "Just sit down and take it easy for a minute, you think you can do that?"

Blair raised both hands in surrender, trying for his wide-eyed, innocent look. "Hey, I've been trying to take it easy all night."

"Right." Jim bore down gently, just enough to get Blair to sit down on the sofa, then shook out the Navajo blanket folded over the back and tucked it around him.

Blair sat quietly as he did, a little scowl on his face that did nothing to dim the joy shining in his eyes. When Jim was finished he complained, "You're gonna be impossible, aren't you?"

"Afraid so. You're just going to have to bear with me here."

"Like I've got a choice," Blair grumbled.

Jim patted the top of his head. "Not really, no." Blair nodded, still pretending to frown, and Jim was surprised by how difficult it was for him to turn and leave Blair, even though he was only going as far as the kitchen.

He looked over his shoulder after pulling a couple of glasses from the cabinet, and found Blair watching him closely, almost anxiously from across the room. He smiled back at him and Blair rolled his eyes and worked one hand out from under the blanket. "What'd you do with the remote?" he muttered. "Always getting lost. You'd think a guy with as many house rules as you would have a place for the remote."

Good. There was maybe a quarter bottle of brandy left. He snagged the bottle and carried it back with the glasses. "Got news for you, Sandburg. I'm not the one who always loses it."

"Right, blame everything on me," Blair said, but he was too tired even to go to the effort of sounding martyred. Instead he tucked himself into a tighter ball on the couch, accepting the glass when Jim handed it to him. Jim raised his own glass, but Sandburg, oblivious, brought the glass to his mouth with both hands and took a deep swallow, shivering as it went down. Only then did he notice Jim. "Cheers," he said weakly.

"Cheers," Jim agreed, and took a much smaller swallow of his own. Blair finished his drink, shuddering like he was gulping cough syrup, and put the glass down on the coffee table too hard. Jim thought about telling him what a waste of good brandy that was, but instead he reached out with his free hand and pushed a lock of Blair's damp hair back out of his eyes.

Blair sighed, his breath heavy with brandy now. "I'm gone. I ought to just go to bed."

"OK," Jim agreed quietly. "It's been a long day."

Blair laughed, pulling his feet up onto the couch. "What are you talking about? It's not even eight o'clock yet, is it?"

"Not quite, no."

"I can't go to bed now. I'd be awake at three a.m. and I'm telling you, that's not what I want to be -- " He broke off too fast and looked miserably away from Jim. "Sorry. Sorry. It doesn't matter."

Jim could have wept. Instead he put his glass down and turned Blair back to face him. "I know," Jim told him. "So, three in the morning was when I -- when it happened? Is that right? While you were sitting up working on your paper?"

Blair stared at him, trembling. Jim found that he was shaking too. He put one hand on Blair's shoulder and slid the other around to the back of his head, tangling in Blair's damp locks, holding him gently.

"Yeah," Blair said at last, barely moving his lips. "It was three in the morning."

Jim thought Blair would go on, but he fell silent for a long time then, watching Jim's face seriously, still trembling though his shivers began to subside as he pressed his head back against Jim's hand. When he finally did talk again, his voice was a little louder and just a little more certain. "Never felt alone like that before, you know? That's what really spooked me. I didn't know it was possible to be so alone."

Jim looked into those serious blue eyes, and thought, *that's what scared him?* It hadn't been how close Jim had come to tearing his throat out. Not the possibility Jim might turn on him and finish the job at any minute. Just the loneliness of carrying a secret he couldn't share.

"I'm sorry," he told Blair quietly. One hand still cradled the back of Sandburg's head, but he brought his other hand up and laid it softly along the side of his face.

"No," Blair said, and would have shaken his head if Jim hadn't been holding it. "No, we've already been through this, and it wasn't --"

"I know." Jim brought his head closer to Blair's. "It wasn't my fault. I'm sorry anyway."

"No," Blair said, his voice no less stubborn for being so quiet. "I must not be explaining this right. See, Jim, I knew all along that you were stronger. I knew it. It just took me so long to figure out how to tell you. Hell, to figure out what to tell you. And then I screwed that up too, and aw, Jim, I never got the chance to tell you before, but I did screw that up, bad. Letting you see -- this --" Blair's hand went to his throat. "It was the worst thing I could have done. I don't have any excuse. Just, I was tired, I guess. I got careless."

"Sandburg, stop."

"You don't know, Jim. You just don't know. That look on your face -- the one thing I tried so hard to save you from, and there it was, suddenly, right in your face --" He closed his eyes sorrowfully.

"Listen to me, Blair." The memory was uncertain, dreamlike, and he was afraid to push too hard, for fear of distorting it beyond any hope of retrieval. But he remembered the sharp good smell of oranges and sage and sawdust. He remembered Blair backing away from him in fear. Oh god, he remembered that. He would never forget it. And he remembered his despair, so vast and terrible he was willing to accept anything Blair offered in its place, no matter how ludicrous. He couldn't remember Blair's words now, but he remembered Blair's expression as he knelt over him, trying his damnedest to convince Jim that up was down, day was night. Whatever Blair had demanded he believe instead of the self-evident truth.

Jim smiled at himself then. At both of them. Blair's eyes were still closed unhappily, lost in guilt because he hadn't been able to spare Jim everything.

"All right, I'm listening," he told Jim quietly.

"No, you're not," Jim said, and tapped Blair's chin with the back of his fingers.

Blair pushed his hand away, muttering darkly, but his eyes opened again, and he looked at Jim. His eyes were hooded with sorrow masquerading as irritation, and Jim realized all his words would be inadequate. Hell, Sandburg had used them all, and it hadn't worked on Jim, had it? If Sandburg's eloquence hadn't been enough in the face of this darkness, then Jim might as well not even try.

Not with words, anyway.

He put one hand on Blair's shoulder, the other on his chest, and then asked Blair's permission. "Will you let me?" He wondered, as soon as he'd said it, how he expected Blair to understand that, but somehow he did. Perhaps because the worst was already over, and now they had to deal with having survived. Sometimes that was the hardest of all, Jim knew.

Blair drew himself up, taking a deep breath. He met Jim's gaze steadily. His arms were empty at his sides, defenseless. Innocent and open. Jim knew Blair was remembering those same moments, and he knew Blair was ashamed of what he couldn't help but see as failure, even now. He also knew Blair believed he could take the shame away. He knew that because Blair said, "Yeah, Jim. Of course. Of course, man."

First Jim moved his hand to the back of Blair's head again and drew him forward, bestowing a kiss of gratitude on his forehead. Then he eased the blanket off Blair's shoulders. It was warmer, though Blair was still shivering. He wore Jim's white terry-cloth bathrobe wrapped tight around himself, but he didn't protest when Jim unknotted the tie and gently folded it back to expose his chest.

The material was damp and warm to the touch, as was Blair's flesh underneath. Blair watched Jim's face carefully, seriously, as though everything were explained there. Jim didn't know. Perhaps it was.

Angry red marks spread like a sunburst across Blair's sternum. Jim knew what they meant. He remembered the nightmares better than all the rest. He suspected he was still having them, the way he had awaken every morning the past four days drenched in sweat and more exhausted than when he'd gone to bed.

He laid his hand over Blair's heart, and felt the beat of his life. Blair raised his eyes to Jim's and smiled at him again, gentler this time, his face soft with love. He almost nodded, whether to himself or to Jim, Jim wasn't entirely certain, then he reached out and took Jim's other hand by the wrist and tugged gently, laying it against his chest as well. Still smiling with his eyes and his lips, Blair spread both his hands across the backs of Jim's and bore down carefully, but very firmly, so that Jim could feel Blair's heart as though it were cradled in the palms of his hands. He opened himself to the rush of blood into the chambers, the soft catch of valves opening, muscles contracting strongly as a clenched fist. He swayed closer to Blair, spreading his fingers wide across the bruised flesh and muscle. Under the pads of his fingers, the hair on Sandburg's chest coiled softly, still damp from the shower.

Then Blair spoke. "Jim," he said, completing Jim's world. There was nothing else anywhere but the warm thunder of that voice, surrounding and encompassing him, drawing him closer even as everything else faded away. Only Sandburg's heart remained, pumping strong under his hands. His survivor's heart, and his survivor's smile. "Jim," he said. "I didn't tell you before. I couldn't. But I fell asleep in my office the next day. After that -- after that first night." He adjusted his grip, keeping Jim's hands pressed firmly to his chest. "And in my dream, I saw it. It looked like you, and it cracked open my ribs like I was being autopsied, and it yanked out my heart." He stopped, scrutinizing Jim's face, and Jim could see that certain as he was of Jim's love, he didn't know how Jim would handle something like this.

"I want to know," he told Blair, fingers spread wide across his chest. His voice sounded strange and distant in his ears. "Everything you can stand to tell me. I need to know, because I never want you to be alone with this again." He felt Blair's chest rise as he took a deep breath and held it for a moment.

"I know," Blair said, his voice soft and low. His head dropped forward again. He looked down at the hands across his chest, Jim's and his own, and Jim could hear him swallow once. "Sorry," Blair whispered, his head still down. His shoulders slumped, but he kept his hands over Jim's. "I'm just tired. Can't think straight."

Jim lowered his head too. "The brandy was your idea, Chief."

Blair gave a little snort that wasn't quite amusement.

"Maybe you should head off to bed," Jim said quietly. "We can talk about this in the morning."

Blair's head came up at that. "No." He took another deep breath. "No, this is important. I'm trying to tell you the most important thing, I think."

Jim smiled at him sadly. It had been a long night of important things. More than either one of them could handle. Surely it would be better to wait. But he gazed into those concerned blue eyes and said, "I'm listening. Whatever you want to tell me."

"I know," Blair said, almost whispering. "It's just kind of hard to explain, and I want to get it right." Suddenly he let go of Jim's hands and latched onto the shoulders of his robe instead. His face was more serious than ever, almost frightened. He pulled one knee up and turned on the couch. "Hold me?" he asked Jim.

Jim raised one hand from Blair's chest and touched his brow. He felt so close to Blair, Blair's presence was the entirety of his world. It grieved him to realize Blair was still uncertain. With his other arm he encircled Blair's waist and pulled him forward. "Here," he said quietly, again not questioning the impulse. "Lie back."

Blair nodded gravely, and something he saw in Jim's face made him smile. Not a grin, just that pleased, quiet smile of his when everything was turning out all right after all. He turned the rest of the way on the couch, resting his knee against the back, and glanced over his shoulder, gauging the position of the throw pillows. Then he scooted closer to Jim and carefully lay back. His hands were still holding the shoulders of Jim's robe, and he tugged Jim down with him, his insistence belying his earlier fear.

No, it hadn't been fear, Jim realized as he laid his head on Blair's chest, just above the bruises. One arm was still around Blair's waist. He gently worked the other arm around the small of Blair's back as well.

Blair was trembling. He brought his hands up and smoothed them over Jim's head again and again. But there was something else as well, the same thing Jim had seen earlier and misinterpreted. Not fear at all. Possessiveness. It was something he so seldom saw from Sandburg that he couldn't read it on his face when he saw it, but he felt it in the hands that touched and held his head so lovingly. When Blair spoke, Jim felt the vibrations thrumming in his chest, and he tightened his hold as much as he dared.

"It was stupid," Blair said quietly, sighing. "I mean, it scared the hell out of me, it kept me off balance so long it was nearly too late for both of us -- I let it get way too deep into you, Jim." The hands on Jim's head stopped moving for a moment. Jim felt the deep breath then, and the effort it cost Blair not to apologize again.

Instead he kept telling Jim the thing he believed was so important. "Mindless," Blair said. "Like some kind of sick machine. Or, I don't know. A force of nature. Not a hurricane, but a nasty ice storm in April that kills all the flowers. Aw geez, I'm not making any sense here at all, I know."

"It's all right," Jim said, and holding Blair that way, he knew he was telling the truth. Blair did too. He took another deep breath. Jim felt his lungs expanding under his cheek, and knew, although he couldn't see Blair's face, that Blair had closed his eyes.

"So when things were worst. When it tried drive me away from you -- when it -- Jim, when it hurt you -- it wasn't making that stuff up. It was just reflecting us back. Telling us what we already knew, but trying to make it horrible. It wasn't nightmarish bad luck that I dreamed of you reaching for my heart. Or that you dreamed the same thing. In the produce stand -- do you remember that?-- when you realized something was wrong, the first thing you did was tear open my shirt, man. Reaching for my heart. You didn't need to, Jim. It's already yours."

How odd, Jim thought. He didn't remember starting to cry, but he was now, and had been for some time, if the tears running down his face were any way to tell. He turned his face, smearing tears across Blair's chest, knowing Blair could feel them. Bending his neck, he could press his lips to the cruel bruises over Blair's sternum.

Blair moaned deep in his throat, holding Jim's head with both hands. Jim felt the pulse on the inside of Blair's thigh, trapped between Jim's body and the back of the couch, beating hard against his own hip.

"It's all right," Jim murmured. He freed one arm so he could reach up and touch Blair's face. He'd been right. Sandburg's eyes were closed too, but that didn't stop the tears that were flowing so freely down Blair's face as well. He spread his hand gently across Blair's face, then more tenderly still allowed himself to again touch his throat, the contusions hot against the tips of his fingers and the palm of his hand.

He trailed his hand down Blair's chest at last and spread his fingers across the bruises there as well. The old Jim Ellison thought furiously for an instant that Pops and Carolyn had been right after all, hadn't they? Jimmy's love was worse than inadequate, worse than disappointing. He always hurt the ones he loved.

But it was only a ghost. He knew he didn't have to believe that anymore. The man he held in his arms didn't believe that, and neither did he. "Blair," he whispered, and then couldn't go on. He was sorry for that. Blair had managed to tell him what he needed to hear, why couldn't he do the same for Blair?

Because words belonged to Blair Sandburg, that was why. They were his entire world. Without the words to describe it, the thought, the sensation, the very emotion seemed to have no existence for Sandburg. And this was more than words for Jim, as much as he trusted Blair's. He couldn't tell Blair about his own shame and grief and regret, far less about the relief, the forgiveness, the love. For Jim, words were tools one used to accomplish a desired end, and there was nothing utilitarian about the emotions roiling in his heart.

He could not name or speak them, couldn't limit something more vast than his own life. So he stopped trying. Instead he lifted himself over Blair a little, shivering at the cold that rushed in between them when they were parted. Blair's eyes opened, bewildered blue gazing up at Jim.

"It's all right," Jim whispered, beginning with words after all, because this was Blair Sandburg.

Blair was the speechless one now. He blinked, hiding for an instant those eyes darker than rain-washed skies, then gazed up again, the throb of his pulse heavy in his throat. Blair's hands had been on Jim's head, but they dropped and lay at his side, as if he were uncertain. They remained palm up, though, open and utterly trusting.

Propped on his elbows over Blair, Jim put his hands on Blair's chest, over the arch of his ribs, fingers spread wide to touch as much as he could. Then he lowered his head and carefully kissed Blair's mouth.

Blair made a small sound that Jim felt thrumming against his lips. The coil of tension still knotting Blair's muscles began to relax as he returned the kiss, pressing upward with his mouth and his body, though he left his hands where they lay at his sides.

Jim had kept his weight supported over Blair until then, but now he lowered himself gently, careful of Blair's bruised chest, and when he was once again tucked close and warm over his friend, only then did he break the kiss and lift his head to look down at him. Blair's eyes were closed and his lips were parted. His breaths were slow and easy, heavy with brandy.

Jim cradled Blair's head in his hands, letting his fingers thread gently through his hair. The curling locks were heavy and damp. Blair sighed and nearly smiled, then turned his head so he could press his cheek to the palm of Jim's hand.

Smiling himself, Jim kissed him twice more, gently once on his closed eye, and once on the corner of his mouth. Blair's own soft smile broadened at that, and he opened his eyes sleepily to look up at Jim.

Then he lifted his hands at last and took Jim's head. Jim felt the warmth of his palms over his jaw as Blair carefully pulled him down and kissed him in turn, achingly gentle, his mouth open against Jim's, his lips tender and warm.

Jim heard himself moaning, low and quite involuntary, and thought bemusedly that he sounded like a man in pain. He didn't try to stop himself though. He was given over wholly to the sweetness of that kiss. For so long, it seemed, Blair had shown his love in sacrifice and pain. Now at last the evil was behind them, but the love remained, pure and necessary as cold water after a long desert journey. Jim drank greedily, wholly open, allowing Blair everything.

Blair's hands spread against the sides of Jim's face. Jim felt the pulse in Blair's fingertips, slightly stronger in his thumbs. Blair shifted slightly, holding Jim's head carefully to be sure Jim didn't try to move away from him. He drew his knee up and managed to wiggle to one side, making himself more comfortable under Jim's weight. At that Jim couldn't help it. He raised his head just enough to speak to Blair, his mouth still so close to Blair's he could feel Blair's exhalations against his lips.

"C'mon, Chief," he whispered. "Long day. You'd be more comfortable in bed."

"No," Blair complained, and his arms went around Jim's back and locked tight. "Jim, please."

"It's OK," Jim said softly. "Not going anywhere." He laid his head on Blair's shoulder and felt Blair melt away under him. The arms around his back relaxed almost at once. Blair patted the back of his head clumsily once or twice, then sighed with utter contentment.

"Jim?" he whispered.

Jim opened his eyes. Blair's collarbone was under his temple, and the palm of Jim's hand was over the warm bruise in the center of Blair's chest. "Right here, Chief," he said, nonsensically, as though Blair could doubt it with Jim lying over him like this. He felt Blair chuckle faintly, his chest shaking with a moment of soft laughter. Then Blair sighed again, quiet, still, but it seemed to Jim no longer completely contented. Jim ran his hand carefully across Blair's chest and then touched his face. "What do you need?" he asked.

Blair's chest rose and fell. His hand came up and once again clumsily patted Jim's head where it still rested on his shoulder. "Nothing, man," he whispered. "I've got everything I need. Just --" His voice trailed off.

At that, Jim shifted so he could rise up and look down at Blair's face. Blair's eyes were open, rolled up to look toward the ceiling, but when Jim moved he looked down, then away to the side, hardly able to meet Jim's eyes. His lips were pressed tightly together. Frustration, Jim thought it was. With himself. With Blair Sandburg at a loss for words when he needed to ask something of Jim.

So Jim kissed him again, as though the warmth of his mouth over Blair's could free the voice locked inside. Blair tasted of saltwater tears, bath water and brandy, and his lips did open under the soft pressure. He held Jim's head, his body trying to arch up against Jim's, as though he could touch more of him that way, drawing Jim's breath into his mouth as they kissed, sounds coming from his throat that Jim felt clear through to the core of his being.

But it had been a long and brutal day, falling after a long and terrible week. Blair couldn't keep pushing back his exhaustion, and Jim felt him yielding at last. Blair's hands slipped away, and his body relaxed under Jim's. Jim touched his face and then slowly broke the kiss so he could look down at Blair's face again. This time Blair met his gaze squarely, through eyes half-closed with weariness, but midnight blue with determination.

"What do you need?" Jim asked again.

At last Blair was able to speak, and there was no fear. "Just have to know, Jim," he said softly. "I mean, I do, really. Mostly. But if you could -- " he swallowed. "If you could just let me know that you forgive yourself. Really and truly, forever. Everything you think you did. And that you're not afraid anymore. That's all I need."

For a moment Jim didn't know what to say or do, uncertain how to give Blair his reassurance, but he looked down at the bruises mottling Blair's chest, the marks Jim's hands had left while the two of them fought for Jim's soul, and then he understood how simple and direct Blair's need was. Jim had already reconfigured the marks on Blair's throat, kissed him in the places where his mouth had brutalized Blair when this horror had first come into their lives. Blair only needed him to clean the last darkness as well. Accept the marks of past suffering and in that acceptance, take away the shame forever.

Jim knew his expression must have changed once he understood, because the expression on Blair's face changed as well. Once again Blair's hands touched his head, and he pulled Jim's head down, all uncertainty gone, guiding Jim to his heart.

There was a mark an inch or two beneath the arc of Blair's collarbone on the left side, dark purple, in the shape of a fingerprint. With Blair's hands still cupping his head, Jim pressed the first kiss there. Blair's flesh smelled of soap and warm water, tears and sweat. The tears Jim didn't at first understand, until he remembered the ones he had shed himself. Being permitted to touch Blair this way made Jim's heart ache with tenderness. The hairs on Sandburg's chest were still faintly damp from the rain and the bathtub, and he felt the slight wiriness under the press of his lips. Blair groaned out loud at the feel of Jim's mouth soft near the center of his breast, even though his own hands had led Jim there.

Jim smiled, his face against Blair's chest. He worked one arm around under Sandburg's back, and his other hand lay gently on Blair's shoulder. There was a cluster of three bruises lower down, just above Blair's sternum. Short, dark streaks, tinged yellow at the edges. Jim kissed each in turn, feeling Blair tremble in his arms with every new touch. Jim went on, taking back the pain, giving love in its stead.

Blair's moans were low and constant now, and Jim could feel them thrumming in his chest. Sandburg could no more help talking than he could help breathing. Even now, even when he was too lost to form words. Jim stopped for a moment, laying his cheek carefully on Blair's chest. "Easy, Chief," he murmured, and heard how his own voice was none too steady. It trembled with the force of his love and the tender protectiveness that made him want to fold himself ever closer around Blair, hold him like this until there was no more pain for either of them.

Blair's hands still held Jim's head. Jim pressed his head back against their warmth, then shifted down so he could reach the bruises that bled down from Blair's sternum and across his ribs and belly. Blair's stomach quivered under the touch of his lips. His moans were softer now, quiet sighs of relief. Jim's arm was under the small of Blair's back, and he felt Blair try to arch up, exhausted as he was, straining for more of Jim's touch.

"I've got you," Jim said, tightening his arms gently, feeling the heat of his voice warming Blair's skin. "Just rest easy. I've got you."

Blair relaxed again. "I know," he whispered.

It was the reassurance Jim had not even realized he needed until Blair granted it to him. He raised his head to look up at Blair's face, wanting to see the sweet half-smile shining in Blair's eyes. Beneath him, though, Jim glimpsed a shadow, the dark corona of bruises around Blair's heart. He felt the sympathetic pains in his own breast, the dull, unforgiving hurt that made it difficult to straighten up or draw a deep breath, and tears came to his eyes. His hands had done that. His strength. For an instant the blackness came rushing back, sickening him with horror, and he had to close his eyes. He knew it was wrong to think this way, but for just an instant he couldn't remember why, not when faced with the brutal evidence. He didn't say a word, and he didn't move, but Blair knew all the same.

Blair cried out with grief, and Blair's sorrow brought him back immediately. "I'm sorry," Jim moaned, trying to get closer. "I'm sorry, I know. Forgive me." He could hear Blair's head tossing on the pillows above him, feel the shuddering sobs, and it was more than he could stand. He released Blair and tried to get up, thinking somehow the only thing left to him was not to hurt Blair anymore. He had tried as hard as he could, and failed again, and now there was nothing left.

Blair's hands released him. Somehow, he realized blankly, he had not expected that. He had thought Sandburg would hold on anyway. Jim stumbled back from the sofa, away from Blair. Blair continued to lie there, his chest heaving with dry, almost-silent sobs. He'd thrown his arm over his face, covering his eyes. His robe lay open on either side, his sweats rolled at the waist and at the ankle. Jim's robe, Jim's sweatpants too. One knee was still up, his bare foot flat on the cushions.

Jim could go no further. He stopped, trembling with agony. His hands were curled like claws against his forehead, and he looked around at this miserable place Blair's presence had made a home and staggered under the burden of his loss. He had fought back the inevitable for so long tonight, but it was over now. It was so dark here, despite the lights blazing in every fixture, so cold despite the fire leaping over unburning ceramic logs. Sandburg had tried so hard, they both had, and still it wasn't enough to reclaim this home. There was no power on earth that could give them back what had been taken away. Jim didn't hear the sound he made, but he felt the hardwood under his knees and realized he must have fallen.

He covered his face with his hands and remained there on his knees, dazed with hopeless grief. Why had Blair even tried? Salvation was proving as terrible as the alternative. Worse, perhaps, because he was aware, and knew what he was doing and how he was hurting Blair. Sandburg still wept, and every sob was another stab to Jim's heart. He was amazed it could still beat, it was so heavy with pain.

Jim had no idea how much time passed then. He was beyond counting minutes or hours or days. He knelt there on the floor until Blair had exhausted himself weeping and finally lay silent, and the dim, practical self thought he ought to get up and help Blair get to bed. But he couldn't make himself do it, not yet. He wasn't strong enough to face the expression he would see in Sandburg's eyes. The disappointment, the grief. Not yet. That was too much for any man, and far too much for what was left of Jim Ellison.

So he remained where he was, his head bowed, eyes closed, even when he heard Blair moving at last. Sitting up on the couch, rustling around. He was breathing noisily through his mouth, sniffling. Jim could hardly stand to hear it, but there was no way to shut it out. He would hear that sound if he were five city blocks away.

Then came the sounds that made no sense, and even though nothing had made sense since they'd returned from L.A., and he knew that nothing ever would again, still, almost against his will, he raised his head to see.

Blair had already slipped the robe from his shoulders and abandoned it on the back of the sofa. He half-stood, pushing the sweatpants off over his hips and stepping out of them. Naked, he took one step and came to Jim. His face was still white with the burden of the grief he shared with Jim, but his eyes shone with the innocent certainty of his love. He knelt before him, put his hands on Jim's face and said in a calm, low voice that was only a little hoarse from weeping, "It was my fault this time, Jim. Not yours."

Jim couldn't understand. He wasn't even sure if he needed to. All that reached him was Blair's closeness, his hands on Jim's face, Blair's body and his mind and god help them if there were a soul as well, it too was bared in absolute trust, despite Jim's weakness and failure. He couldn't understand it, but he couldn't turn Blair away. He reached out with trembling fingers and touched Blair's lips, wanting to stop the words he wouldn't understand. Blair seemed content to wait in silence. His head bowed, he knelt on his haunches, waiting for Jim.

"Chief," Jim rasped, only to be saying something, since what emerged was nonsensical. "You're gonna catch your death."

Blair gave a gasp, as though biting back laughter or tears. He stopped touching Jim's face and wrapped his arms around his own shoulders, beginning to tremble. Jim lifted his own hand, uncovering Blair's mouth, and once free, Blair tried to explain. Some of the words reached Jim, but it was the sound of his voice that was more important than their meaning.

"I just want it to be all over in your head, Jim. I wanted that so badly I couldn't see how it was messing with you, not knowing. But the worse thing was, I didn't realize how bad it was messing with me too. I thought I had to be strong, to protect you, but the truth is, man, I need you more than ever. So please, Jim, stay with me here. Help me put stuff back together again the way it's supposed to be. I know I want everything to be all right again, tonight, right this instant, and it can't be. But we've come so far, you've brought me so far. Please don't stop now."

And then Blair was silent again. His arms were around his shoulders still, holding himself, rocking on the floor before Jim. Most of his face was hidden by his hair. Crouched that way before him, Jim couldn't see the bruises on his throat, and could barely make out the ones on his chest. They were still there, of course. Blair's hope hadn't erased them, and neither had Blair's forgiveness.

Jim glanced around for a moment at the cold brick walls of his home, the plywood boards over the windows, the firelight reflecting on the glass framing his prints. Then back at Blair kneeling on the floor, open and innocent, asking Jim's permission to return to this place, as cold as it was. Willing to help rebuild this home, even yet.

He had held himself back, not allowing himself to touch Blair as he needed to, but he didn't hold back any longer. He wasn't sure why he'd waited as long as he had, except that there had been so many failures and so much pain tonight, and if there were any way to protect Blair from another of them -- But that was all wrong. He couldn't protect Blair by keeping him away. It would kill Blair as surely as it was destroying Jim, even now. Jim felt a wry, miserable smile on his face. If they were both doomed anyway, they might as well go down together.

It seemed foolishly simple after so much pain, but then the most important things usually were. Jim knelt forward. Careful to touch him nowhere else yet, he tenderly kissed Blair's forehead. He sat back and waited for Blair to look up at him. Blair's eyes were still hooded with sorrow, but after a moment's hesitation, they met Jim's all the same. Blair reached out then and grabbed onto Jim's open house-robe, and used that grip to pull himself closer. Jim's arms hung loose at his sides, much as he longed to enfold Blair and bring him close. "So you want to give it a try?" Blair whispered in a ragged, broken voice. "See if we can try to get things back to normal around here?"

Jim touched his forehead to Blair's, and finally allowed all the love he felt for this foolish, devoted, beautiful man to rise up in his heart. A long, heartfelt sigh released the last of his doubts. The past was still here between them, manifest in the marks on both their bodies, but it was only a shadow, and Blair had been right all along, just like he had been trying to tell Jim all night. In the light of day, the shadows would finally fade away.

He cradled Blair's head in his hands, drawing him closer. Blair's eyes widened and his hands shifted on Jim's robe, clutching tight. But there was no fear in his open eyes, and no uncertainty. Just his love and hope. "Chief," Jim whispered. "I don't even know what normal is anymore."

Blair smiled. "I'll tell you what normal is." Hands still wrapped in the thick folds of Jim's robe, he pulled himself up until he was kneeling up enough to look Jim in the face. "Knowing that you're my life. When you're happy, it's like I'm on top of the world too, and when you're hurting --" His voice dropped. "Geez, man, I can't stand it. I'd do anything to stop it. You, um, you know that, don't you?"

Jim could only smile. Then he brought Blair's face to his own and kissed his lips. He still held Blair's head, and Blair had not yet embraced him in turn. Then Blair's mouth opened under his. Blair tilted his head to the side and pressed upward, touching Jim with his bare chest, with his forearms, trapped between them as he drew closer, but not with his hands.

The sweetness of Blair's lips under his own, the warmth of that body pressing so close to his own, Blair's perfect trust and absolute love -- Jim wanted to cry aloud, but he couldn't lift his mouth from Blair's. He thought he still needed to ask, but the need to take Blair's pain away, to continue taking Blair's pain away, was so intense he couldn't stop. There was a tentativeness when he finally let his hand slip down and rest on Blair's shoulder that Blair felt immediately, though, and Blair was the one who broke the kiss.

Jim followed him as he pulled back, unable to let him go, and Blair sighed and smiled at him. He brought one hand up and touched with his fingertips the lips he had been kissing moments before. "Please," he said. "Please, Jim."

Jim only nodded. There were no words for him anymore. He took Blair's hand in both his own, turned it over and pressed his mouth to Blair's open palm. A shudder went through Blair, and he knelt up straighter with a gasp. When Jim raised his eyes, he saw Blair's head was back, his throat working, his chest rising and falling with hard, short pants. He knelt with his knees apart, hiding nothing from Jim. The evidence of his body's response to Jim's touch seemed paradoxically innocent to Jim. A night of paradoxes, all of them signaled by the transmutation of pain into love.

Still holding Blair's hand in both his own, Jim drew him closer, then kissed the tender spot on the inside of his wrist, feeling the beat of Blair's pulse warm against his lips, the fine bones, the delicate ridge of his veins. "Jim --" Blair moaned like a man at prayer. A shiver convulsed him, so different from the shivers of cold Jim had watched all evening, and though he had restrained himself as long as he could, trying to wait for Jim, he could wait no longer. Jim felt Blair's fingers splay open wide. Blair pressed himself closer, straightening his arm, offering it to Jim as he was offering himself.

Jim kissed the inside of Blair's elbow, cupping his arm with both his own hands. Blair's heartbeat was like thunder in his ears. Blair was panting and trembling, his free hand clutching at Jim's robe and then releasing it over and over again.

Jim raised his head to look at Blair's face, flushed and beautiful, tears standing in his eyes yet. He laid his hand tenderly on his brow, feeling the heat there, and whispered, "Easy. It's all right."

Blair laughed out loud, making the last unshed tears fall. "I know," he said. "Jim, I know, I --" He broke off and laid his hands on his own chest for a moment, covering the worst of the marks.

Jim lifted Blair's hands away from his chest. "Let me, please."

Blair nodded, but he had to swallow twice before he could get the words out. "Jim, anything. Anything." He swallowed again. "Please." And then, as though everything about his body and his upturned face were not telling Jim already, Blair spoke the words. "I love you, Jim."

Jim hardly realized he had reached for Blair, but his arms were around him, holding him as close as he could, and he was kissing Blair's face over and over again, slow and gentle and thorough, his forehead, his closed eyes, the flushed cheeks, the hinges of his jaws, the underside of his throat, cherishing the rough, soft sounds Blair made as he shivered in Jim's arms and pressed close. And though Jim had not believed words could tell Blair how he felt, evidently he had been wrong about that, as about so much else, because he was telling Sandburg, between every kiss, "I love you, Blair. I need you. I love you, too."

Jim felt Blair's hands restless and warm against the back of his head, pulling him closer, and every time Jim spoke Blair flinched against him, as though the words touched something so vital and true he couldn't hear them without a physical response. He had fallen back until he was against the sofa, his head thrown back and his hair spread across the cushions. Jim knelt over him, kissing his mouth, one arm around Blair's back, his other hand open over the bruise on Blair's chest. Jim's heart ached in his own breast, as though he were the one who'd been hurt. But it was an ache of pure love. He groaned with it, his breath muffled in Blair's mouth, and Blair groaned too. The sound was near enough to real pain for Jim to draw back then and look at him.

Blair's lips were parted, breathing as if it took an act of will. He opened heavily lidded eyes and gazed up at Jim, exhausted, dazed with love, reaching for Jim still. Jim smiled to keep from crying. He caught Blair's reaching hand in his own and held it between them. "Chief," he whispered, feeling dazed and exhausted himself. "It's late. You're tired. You need to sleep."

Blair chuckled weakly, his head rolling back and forth on the sofa cushions. Jim watched the pulse in his bruised throat, listened to its throb, echoed in Blair's heartbeat steady and strong under the heel of his hand. Blair grabbed Jim's robe with one clenching fist and drew him back. Jim went willingly, taking Blair's mouth again, his other hand moving up to the nape of Blair's neck. He tasted Blair's mouth gently and slowly, waiting for Blair to answer each tender advance.

Blair responded with sleepy fervor, writhing against him, touching as much of Jim as he could, then holding himself still for a moment or two before he began to move again. Trying to be careful for Jim, he realized with a rush of tenderness. Even at a moment like this Blair worried about overwhelming Jim's senses.

It was probably a valid concern, Jim thought in a wry, distant corner of his mind. His entire world was Blair. The slick warmth of Blair's tongue against his own, the ridged smoothness of Blair's teeth, the taste of his mouth, still salty with tears, growing bitter from the brandy. Blair's body shook under his own, in all his vulnerable beauty. Touching Blair like this, feeling him respond this way -- it was all too much. Jim felt splayed open and utterly vulnerable, as though a harsh breath would rip him away.

But he didn't shut down, and he didn't pull away. He wanted to open more, to give everything to Blair, to accept everything Blair would grant him in turn. He moved his head, feeling the warming air from the fireplace on his wet lips, and buried his face against Blair's throat and shoulder. His heart rejoiced at the way Blair's body arched hard against him, and at the sound Blair made then, a sharp little grunt of pleasure that cut through Jim so sweetly he moaned too.

Now that his mouth had been freed, Blair started talking again, quiet and a little frantic, as though there were no other way to expel air from his lungs. Mostly Jim's name, over and over again. Jim whispered, laughing with joy, "Easy, Sandburg, easy," against his throat, but it didn't calm him noticeably.

And Jim realized, as he went back to kissing the tender juncture of Blair's neck and shoulder, holding him more tightly as Blair squirmed against him, crying out in senseless, ecstatic gasps, he didn't want to calm Blair down. He wanted him lost in his arms, senseless to everything but Jim's hands and Jim's mouth and Jim's body. Blair returning his touch a thousandfold, so overwhelming Jim could do nothing but give more, wanting nothing in this world or the next but Blair's pleasure, Blair's joy. He smoothed his hand over Blair's chest moving away from the bruises, and spread his fingers over the solidity of Blair's breast. Muscle, flesh, curling hair, the nipple pebbled under the palm of Jim's hand.

Blair's head tossed as Jim kissed the hollow of his throat again, and Jim smiled, feeling a pleasure so sweet it made him cry too as a whimper of joy broke from Blair's lips. Jim whispered, "Blair," before kissing him yet again, drawing Blair's warm flesh between his teeth, tasting his skin, feeling for the ways of touching Blair that made him flinch in little starts of ecstasy, "We should get off the floor."

Blair moaned something in response. He was still clutching Jim's robe with one hand, fist locked as though he were incapable of letting go, and his other hand moved over Jim's back, up to the nape of Jim's neck, then down his back again, clumsy with exhaustion and passion, but gentle all the same. When Jim stopped kissing his neck, and laid his face against Blair's throat, trying to let him answer, Blair stilled his hand for a moment, then began the restless movement again, muttering in incoherent frustration.

OK, so getting off the floor wasn't going to be so easy. Jim tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders and lifted his head to kiss Blair's mouth again. Blair's lips opened eagerly under his, and Jim allowed Blair to draw him in. Blair's tongue brushed over his teeth, and Jim heard the muttering sound that came from his own throat.

He tilted his head, bearing down over Sandburg, wanting more. Blair's hand was spread wide over his cheek and the side of his head, fingertips brushing the curve of Jim's ear with a delicacy that seemed, in one sense, so at odds with the half-frantic thrashing of Blair's body under his own. Blair's exploration of his mouth was just as careful, though, as his hand on Jim's head, and the combination of such violent need and such achingly tender care from Sandburg was driving Jim out of his mind.

Panting with the effort to remember what had seemed important just a few moments ago, Jim tore his mouth away from Blair. Both of them groaned at the separation. "Please," Jim gasped out. "You've gotta be freezing. At least on the couch, Chief?"

Blair's eyes cleared for a moment. His breathing steadied, and he looked at Jim calmly. "I love you so much," he said quietly, as though that answered the question.

Jim didn't ask again. He pulled Blair forward so his back was no longer against the sofa, and eased him the rest of the way down, until he lay on his back under Jim, hair spread across the rug. His eyes were beginning to glaze again. The fist still wrapped in Jim's robe tugged insistently.

"Right here," Jim breathed, letting Blair pull him down. He kissed Blair's mouth first, lost in the feel of Blair's body under his own. Blair's legs were spread wide, one knee up, his arousal hot against Jim's belly. Blair's hands trembled as they stroked Jim's head, and Jim shook too as he pressed his tongue into Blair's mouth and felt Blair opening wider, everything he was yielding to Jim.

He couldn't touch enough of Blair. He wanted to be everywhere, to encompass him completely. He ran his hands up and down Blair's sides and arms, his chest, his neck, his face, his tangled dark hair on the rug behind his head. He kissed his chin, rough with the day's whiskers, and the underside of his throat. He touched his lips to the darkest bruises, secure in his forgiveness, his heart so light he felt the buoyancy in his chest like a sweet hot summer wind, then ran his tongue across Blair's throat before moving to the side of his neck where he could touch and taste more freely.

Blair thrummed and moaned beneath him, making desperate, lost sounds that died away again and again in sighs of violent pleasure. Jim's weight pinned him to the floor but Blair moved anyway, shivering constantly, struggling to touch more of Jim, to accept more of Jim's touch. Jim breathed hotly against Blair's neck, just behind the point of his jaw, then smoothed the hair away and whispered in his ear, "This is me, Blair. What was before --" Words failed but Blair understood. The hand on Jim's head bore down, pressing him closer.

"Please," Blair mumbled roughly. "I know it's you."

Sighing, Jim touched Blair's face in reassurance as he kissed and licked the sensitive flesh below Sandburg's ear. His damp hair still smelled of bath water, and very faintly of the rain. Blair twisted, straining upward, still talking to Jim though the words were jumbled and incoherent, the way he was panting them out. Jim let his hand glide down Blair's throat and stroked down Blair's trembling stomach, still worrying a tiny sensitive spot on Blair's neck with his lips and tongue. Sweat had broken out over Blair's body; he tasted salty and smelled of sex. The rest of the world shuddered into oblivion as Jim reached for him.

"Please," Blair groaned suddenly, breaking out of his dazzled pleasure to form words. "'s'all right, Jim. For both of us. Please. So I'll know it's all right."

As though he could have refused Blair anything, Jim thought in a bemused corner of his mind. He laid the palm of his hand over the hot shaft of Blair's cock, pressing back carefully against the softness of Blair's belly. Blair arched against him and cried out, and it was a sharp, low animal sound, wholly lost, utterly Jim's.

Jim held himself still for a moment, his face against the warmth of Blair's neck. He was aware of his own state, now, and realized he was trembling too with the force of his own agonizing arousal. His entire body ached with his need, his scalp hot, even the soles of his feet feeling alive with heat. Where he was actually flesh to flesh with Blair, it was more than heat, it was a sweet pure flame that consumed all doubts. He had never loved his senses more than he did at this moment, never been more grateful to Blair for them.

Where his face lay against Blair, his bare chest against Blair's, one hand trembling along Blair's side, because it made Blair tremble too, and oh sweet god in heaven, the palm of his other hand sliding up just to cup the slick wet head of Blair's straining cock -- there were no boundaries anymore. Sandburg's reactions were his own. When he lowered his head to kiss the hard little knot of Blair's left nipple, he felt the bolt of sensation in his own groin an instant before Blair's hips thrust helplessly upward.

He wanted this to last forever. He could not imagine anything else in life but going on touching Blair this way, holding him, feeling every touch reflected back more tenderly than he had given it in every shudder of Blair's body. He almost believed it could go on forever if he held Blair carefully enough. He gentled his hands on Blair until Blair's most violent shudders began to die away, leaving Blair splayed beneath him, breathing in sobs.

Then Jim began again, moving carefully, curling over Blair so he could rub his face over Blair's chest, feeling the soft, wiry hairs under his cheek. He held Blair's erection still, his fingers and the palm of his hand cradling him and moving slowly, pressuring him in the tiny, easy ways that kept Blair stuttering and helpless, so beautiful in surrender that Jim kept his own face turned away, nuzzling Blair's chest. If he saw in Blair's eyes what he felt in Blair's body, it would send him over the edge, he knew it, and he didn't want that yet. This was going to last forever.

There was a light, empty openness Jim felt in his head and in his belly, and a curious sort of buzzing sensation under the surface of his skin. He felt like a man who'd walked in dreams and shadows all his life, until now. He brought his other hand up and simply brushed the pads of his fingers over Blair's nipple, still damp from Jim's kiss, and heard the change in Blair's heart beat, felt it under the side of his face.

Moaning in response to Blair's own moans, he lifted his head and kissed him there again, moving slowly, giving both of them time to adjust to every new pleasure. His lips caught the hard nipple, rolling it a little, before his tongue scrubbed across the top of it, and he felt it too, like a wire drawn tight from his own breast straight to his groin, burning with heat. He raised his head, gasping Blair's name, and heard Blair gasping his own.

Ah, god, he thought in ecstasy. They were going to kill each other at this rate. He felt Blair's chest shaking then, a chuckle whispered from Blair's hoarse throat, answering Jim's own laugh. He didn't realize he'd laughed out loud until then. Perhaps he hadn't. "Glad --" Blair panted out, struggling to form words through the daze of pleasure. Jim kept his hands still, to let him speak. "Glad you think it's so funny, man."

Then Jim really did laugh, a hoarse shout that freed his very soul. He lifted himself over Blair and kissed him hard, holding his head with both hands, fingers and palms cradling his skull and feeling his soft hair, warm and damp. Blair kissed him back violently, teeth against Jim's teeth, tongue pressing back into Jim's mouth as his hips bucked up under Jim's weight.

Jim groaned. His arms slid around Blair's shoulders, one hand on the back of Blair head. Blair's hands were restless on his back, but they calmed then, one sliding up to hold the back of Jim's head as well, the other spreading wide against the small of his back. Jim felt the heat of Blair's palm there in the center of his back like a promise of warmth still to come.

Jim's hips had begun to thrust in helpless reaction to the force of Blair's response but as Blair's kiss became gentler and deeper, he slowed down as well, until he was rocking gently against Blair, slow, circular strokes that made Blair moan against Jim's mouth every time their cocks brushed, still separated by the soft cotton of Jim's sweats. When Blair's head finally dropped back, Jim lifted his own head to take in the sight of him, dazed blue eyes gazing up, parted lips swollen and very red, wet from Jim's mouth, a smooth flush over the olive skin, darkening his cheeks and throat, even spreading hot over his chest.

He was so beautiful Jim could do nothing but begin all over again. Still holding Blair's head he kissed Blair's brow once, and then over and over again, simply because he wanted to, feeling the heat against his lips, tasting the clean sweat. When Blair's eyes closed he kissed them as well, lingering to feel the quivering of Blair's lashes, the unimaginable fragility of the tender flesh there. He had the foolish, sentimental thought that he was kissing away Blair's tears and smiled to himself, even as he tasted their tracks on Blair's cheeks.

Blair's hands were under Jim's robe now, smoothing their way down Jim's back, and as Jim turned Blair's head to the side so he could trace a line of sweet, slow kisses from the corner of his mouth all the way to the soft hollow behind Blair's jaw, Blair's hands found their way under the waistband of Jim's sweats. Jim felt his warm fingers spread across his hips, gripping a little, trying to press Jim down more forcefully.

"Easy," he breathed into Blair's ear. "We've got time."

"Forever," Blair said. "I know. Forever."

Jim felt a burn like dry ice. It passed through him fast and hard, a wave of sensation that left his mouth dry, his lips tingling with sensation, his cock burning with sweet warmth, his entire body shuddering, suddenly drenched in sweat. He held on tight, his head buried against Blair's shoulder, wrapped around Blair as closely as he could, steadying himself as the world spun in wonderful, lazy circles, everything upside down and out of place. Jim had never known such chaos. He'd never known such happiness.

Blair wasn't leaving. He wanted to stay. He wanted to be here with Jim forever. Jim felt as though his heart were breaking under the weight of his joy. He lifted his head at last and looked down at Blair's beautiful face again, heavy-lidded eyes, an indescribable smile lifting the corners of his open mouth just a little, so calm and certain while Jim reeled with the amazed wonder of it all.

"Forever," Jim whispered back, watching Blair's face as he said the word. "Forever."

Blair's eyes closed. His head dropped back, exposing his bruised throat to Jim, asking without words. He only sobbed a little, fingers gripping Jim's hips hard as Jim found the same warm, tender place under Blair's ear that he had kissed and worried gently before. He caught the soft flesh between his teeth, giving Blair pleasure where once his mouth and body had been used to hurt him.

Feeling Blair arch under him, panting with joy, suddenly Jim wanted everything right now. He wanted to see Blair utterly lost and shuddering in his arms, nothing left but the pleasure Jim could bring him. This was the moment to bring Blair to completion, to baptize their new beginning with Blair's ecstasy. He worked his hand between them, Blair's belly quivering at the touch of his fingers, leaving goosebumps in his wake, and wrapped his hand around Blair's cock. He stroked harder than he had before, but then Blair stopped him, begging, "Please," even as he thrust up into Jim's hand.

"Shhh," Jim said, lifting his head from Blair's throat, his voice almost as ragged as Blair's. He stilled his hand, letting Blair return from the summit. "It's all right," he said again, when Blair was trembling under him, but calmer. "You can let go now. I want you to, Chief."

Blair managed a weak little laugh, and his own hands slid back, palms hot against Jim's ass, fingers trembling and radiating heat. "Together," he whispered. "You're the sentinel. You think you can get us there together?"

Jim kissed his mouth again, then breathed, "Yes," against Blair's face. Blair sighed and shivered. His eyes opened wide for a moment to gaze up at Jim, adoringly, then closed again. One hand still lay under the waistband of Jim's sweats, fingers spread wide against the curve of flesh and muscle where Jim's buttocks met his thigh, kneading gently. Blair's other hand came up and tugged ineffectually at the collar of the house robe Jim still wore.

Jim understood, but he could hardly stand to take his hands off Blair even long enough to shrug free of the robe. Blair helped as much as he could, tugging and pulling the robe down off Jim's shoulder on one side. When he couldn't push the robe any further, he ran his hand over Jim's bared shoulder and down his chest, finding one peaked nipple and teasing it harder between his thumb and forefinger. Jim growled with pleasure, his back arching, then hunching forward over Blair again, blind and lost, stupid with ecstasy. He tried to say something, but nothing came from his throat but sounds that made Blair laugh, and slit his eyes open again.

"C'mon," Blair panted, shivering as well even as he laughed. He laid his palm flat against Jim's chest and pushed back. "Jim, the robe. Please."

Jim took Blair's hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing his palm, the inside of his wrist, then each knuckle, the pads of his fingers, tasting him, closing his teeth gently, licking and sucking. Blair's laughter became a groan, and the hand on Jim's buttocks clenched harder. "Jim," he complained, not sounding all that unhappy. "Please --"

Jim laid Blair's hand against the side of his face and held it there with his own as he looked down at Blair. "What do you want?" he asked him softly. "Can you tell me?"

Blair gasped. "What do you think I want? Jim, you. Everything you'll let me have. You."

Jim kissed his mouth and then sat up over Blair, only their groins touching. Blair's hips began rocking up in an involuntary movement, but otherwise he was still, watching Jim through his heavily lidded eyes, breathing hard. The robe slipped from Jim's shoulders. Blair groaned and reached for him. Jim balled the robe together and leaned forward to tuck it behind Blair, pillowing his head, as Blair's hands spread eagerly across his chest. A draft over Jim's bare back made him shiver, but Blair's hands were hot and gentle. He remained that way for a moment longer, half-kneeling over Blair so Blair could keep touching him that way.

Blair smiled up at him. "Aw, Jim," he whispered, his hands moving slowly and gently, as though memorizing every touch. "You just don't know."

Jim smiled back, though he could feel his lips trembling. Blair's hands on him shattered everything so tenderly, so completely. "What is it?" he asked. "Tell me."

"Nothing. Everything." Blair pressed his lips together. They were swollen from Jim's kisses, and Jim wanted to bend forward and kiss them again. "I don't know." His hands slid up to Jim's throat, caressing, stroking. "It's just so much. Please hold me."

"Blair," Jim said. He lowered himself carefully, tucking his arms around Blair's trembling shoulders, feeling the warmth of Blair's chest against his own, his bare arms around Blair's shoulders and back. "I'm holding you," he said, and kissed Blair's forehead. "As long as you want. As long as you need me."

"Jim," Blair sighed profoundly, shivering at the warmth of Jim's body tucked around his own. Blair's arms were wrapped around Jim's ribs, hands spread wide across Jim's back. He strained up little to press a chaste kiss to Jim's lips and then settled back, eyes closed, though Jim still felt the tiny shivers that ran through him, and the way his hips still twitched from time to time, involuntary little thrusts against Jim that made them both moan. "Oh, man, Jim."

Jim kissed him just as carefully, and laid his cheek next to Blair's. "You were going to tell me something."

"Mmmm," Blair said, settling. His breathing was getting slow and deep, the shivers less frequent. His hands moved gently across Jim's back and his arms slipped down as he relaxed more until his hands were on the soft places at Jim's waist, under his ribs. "Makes sense," he murmured, not caring he wasn't making all that much sense himself. "Feels so good."

"I know," Jim whispered, turning his head to press a soft kiss to Blair's temple. "I love you too."

Blair whimpered, a speechless little exclamation of joy, writhing under Jim, kissing Jim's throat and chin and cheek and jaw in a flurry of sweet little touches. Then he relaxed again with another long, deep sigh. Jim felt his chest rise and fall, and as he tucked his head next to Blair's again, he felt the flutter of Blair's eyelashes as they closed.

Blair was exhausted. He should be in bed, Jim thought with tender regret, his arms tightening around Blair's shoulders, nuzzling his face against Blair's neck and shoulder, feeling and hearing Blair's quiet groan.

"No," Blair mumbled drowsily, as if Jim had spoken out loud. "Want you."

"I'm right here," Jim assured him, kissing his cheek. "But we've got time."

Blair turned his head blindly toward that kiss, straining for Jim. "Shh," Jim whispered before Blair's lips met his own. Blair's hands came up, clumsy but certain, and held Jim's head as he kissed Jim. Blair's body lay almost still under Jim's but his mouth was warm and sweet, his kiss so naked and hungry Jim could do nothing but give Blair everything he wanted.

Jim began moving again, slowly, carefully, still lost in Blair's deep kiss. He felt the curls of the hair on Blair's chest tickling his own smoother chest, the slow thunder of Blair's heartbeat, the heat and pressure of Blair's groin pressing up against Jim's own heat. His sweats were becoming an intolerable impediment, but he couldn't unwrap his arms from around Blair long enough to deal with them. He simply bore down harder, feeling the answering throb from Blair's heavy cock.

When Blair's head dropped back at last, Jim looked down into his sleepy sweet face, eyes bluer than the sky, lips parted, panting breathlessly, flushed with passion. His hands still held Jim's head, but the love in Blair's eyes held him more firmly. Jim's arms tightened around Blair's shoulders, thinking he couldn't possibly hold Blair tight enough in return, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

Blair smiled, almost shy, so beautiful and ridiculous with his arousal pressing hard against Jim's groin, then he shut his eyes and whispered, "Don't stop."

"No," Jim agreed, and kissed each closed eye. "Never. Thought we got that straight already. Never."

"Going to make holding down a job an interesting challenge," Blair said. He opened his eyes and laughed, and the feel of Blair's laughter, his chest shaking under Jim's weight, the way his throat worked as the happy sound escaped him, the way it sounded in his ears -- all of it shuddered through Jim and he wondered for a moment if he were zoning, everything seemed so gloriously intense, so exquisitely beyond his control.

He heard himself give a shout of laughter, and thought, no, not zoning. He didn't laugh when he zoned, and he certainly didn't feel like this, so alive, so full of joy, experiencing everything, not losing himself at all, but finding himself at long last.

And so damn turned on he couldn't string two thoughts together. Didn't think he could construct a sentence if his life depended on it. But that was ok. Even Sandburg seemed at a loss for words. He was craning his head up so he could reach Jim's throat, and the feel of that hot mouth gentle against the side of his neck, and then more insistent, lips, tongue, teeth, so gentle, so careful, maddening, unbearable -- oh god don't let him stop don't let this ever stop --

Blair was killing him, slowly, carefully, lovingly. Breaking him down into his component parts and lavishing that same hot sweet attention on every atom of his being. He was losing himself, he couldn't speak, he couldn't think, he was having trouble breathing. One of Blair's hands trailed down his back, the other cupped the back of his neck, holding Jim in place as he worked his way up the soft place under his jaw, reaching the ear lobe, nibbling carefully, his tongue flicking out then, hot, gentle, wet. Jim felt as though he'd never been kissed before in his life.

And he knew he'd never been loved before. He realized how close he was then, and with a groan, he released Blair, planting his hands flat on the floor and pushing himself up and away from Blair's sweet touch. Blair's eyes focused on his face with difficulty, and he seemed confused, but only for an instant. He spread his hand over Jim's face, caressing Jim's lips, and whispered between panting breaths, "Sorry, man." He didn't look very sorry. "Got carried away."

Jim groaned. His hands still planted on either side of Blair's shoulders, he lowered himself enough to kiss his lips. Blair responded with gentle fervor, tasting Jim's mouth as carefully as though this had been their first kiss, and his hands were busy, though just as gentle, as they slipped down under the waistband of Jim's sweats. The warmth of those beautiful hands made Jim moan into Blair's mouth, and Blair laughed again, muffled and ecstatic.

The waistband caught on Jim's furious erection as Blair tried to work the sweats down past Jim's hips, and Jim's moan became a gasp. Blair wrapped his hand around Jim's cock and with the other hand managed at last to get Jim's sweats down as far as his thighs, then held him like that, his other hand on the small of Jim's back, kissing him and waiting as the first, most violent shudders coursed through Jim.

When Jim finally lifted his head away from Blair's mouth, he wasn't at all sure he would be able to speak. And nothing very coherent emerged. He wasn't sure what he was saying. He wanted to tell Blair how much he loved him, but with Blair's hand holding him, Blair's face gazing up at him in perfect love -- and yeah, ok, there was a touch of smugness there, and Jim didn't begrudge him that -- he felt pretty damn smug himself, so sure he was of Blair's love -- and Blair's body spread beneath his own, aroused, insanely beautiful, lying there for Jim alone, forever -- Jim honestly didn't know what he said.

It must have been all right, though, whatever it was, because Blair's expression softened, and who would have thought it? A new blush heated Blair's olive cheeks, making them glow. He whispered to Jim, "You're so beautiful. I want you so much. I love you so much."

The shudders began even before Blair began to stroke him, firm and gentle, tender, insistent. Jim had no defenses. He didn't want any. All he could do was hold Blair's head, take his mouth, kiss him with violent joy as ecstasy broke through him.

Not the way he'd planned it, not the way Blair had asked for it, but Blair was taking it now, sweeping him away, helpless in Blair's arms. Everything was broken beyond repair, a glorious devastation. There was an aching hollow in the center of his gut and fire in his extremities. He felt himself thrusting helplessly, gasping, trying to breathe, trying to kiss Blair gently while everything else was ripped from his control. He was drowning in the taste of Blair's mouth, in the feel of his soft hair, almost dry now, in the heat of his body and the trembling of Blair's fingers even while they stroked Jim so surely. He would have liked to reach for Blair too, but he didn't have enough control for that. He was consumed by the spiral of pleasure as it coiled faster and harder, rushing through him, then turning him inside out and leaving him bereft, ecstatic and complete.

He collapsed over Blair, breaking the kiss at last, but only so he could bury his face against Blair's shoulder as the aftershocks twitched and trembled through him. Dear god, Jim thought, clutching Sandburg tighter, feeling with unspeakable relief Blair's hands coming up and tightening around his shoulders too. Oh dear god in heaven. I'm still alive.

Blair was talking to him. One hand was patting Jim's back carefully, his head rolled to the side so Jim could feel his jaw working as he talked. "Easy, man. It's all right. I've got you, Jim. I'm right here. I've got you."

Jim couldn't even lift his head. Couldn't even speak. His breathing was ragged and he thought it was a damned good thing his heart was strong, the way it was thundering away in his chest right now. He turned his face and kissed the warm hollow over Blair's collarbone because he couldn't do anything else.

Blair chuckled softly and happily. His hands were gently rubbing Jim's back, slow and easy. "So beautiful," he was murmuring to Jim, his voice muffled with laugher that sounded oddly like swallowed tears. "Your eyes. Your face. Aw, Jim, you don't know."

Jim wanted to tell him that he thought he did understand, but he couldn't manage words. Or much of anything else, except this. He tucked his arms more tightly around Blair's warm, exquisitely tense body, feeling the way Blair thrummed against his own sweet lassitude, and went back to kissing that soft place between Blair's neck and shoulder.

Blair felt so good. Jim couldn't touch enough of him and didn't have the strength to try, so he concentrated on this, the fine grain of his skin against his lips and tongue, the soft hair on his chest matted to his skin with sweat, the taste of him, salt and sex and even the brandy threaded faintly through the taste of his sweat. Jim wondered if he would ever be able to smell brandy again without getting hard. The thought made him laugh, and his laughter made Blair laugh, too. He held Blair tighter, feeling the aftershocks anew, a twitch at his groin that was very near pain in his present state. He licked and kissed his way across Blair's chest, lavishing gentle attention on the dark bruises, indulging himself elsewhere with tiny nips and bites between the kissing and tasting, because they made Blair moan and tremble and cry softly, "Aw, Jim, please. Please."

There was nothing else. There had never been anything else but the two of them entwined on the floor, Jim's passion slick and hot between their bellies as Jim slid down further and rubbed his cheek over one dusky nipple. The tender scratch of Jim's whiskers made Blair grunt, his hips coming up for a moment, and Jim turned his head and opened his mouth over the hard nipple, tasting carefully.

Blair liked that. Jim could feel the sudden rise in heat and tension. Blair squirmed in his arms, maybe saying something though the words didn't seem to make much sense. Holding Blair down with his own body, he brought his hands up and cupped Blair's strong, lean pectoral as he tongued and tasted and finally drew the tender nipple between his teeth, worrying it without force, just tugging a little, pressing and tasting.

The tastes changed, subtle but unmistakable as Blair's excitement rose and the tiny bud under Jim's lips grew harder. So intoxicating, so good. Jim never wanted to stop. He saw no reason why he would ever need to. Forever, Blair had said. Forever. Blair's half-frantic cries rang in his ears. His body jerked and flinched under Jim's, and his hands caught at Jim's head, spread across his scalp and then held on. One of Blair's heels drummed against the floor in a persistent, irregular rhythm.

The sudden spike in Blair's heartbeat brought Jim back to himself. He stopped, a little worried, and laid his head on Blair's chest, running his hands down his sides, gentling and soothing. "Easy," he whispered. "Easy. It's all right."

Blair groaned.

"Shh," Jim whispered. "I'm sorry. You should be resting."

Another groan. Blair's hand clenched into a fist at the back of Jim's neck, and he drew a long, shuddering breath. Jim felt his chest rise under his face and it was an effort not to turn his head and go back to worrying the nipple he felt erect and tender just under his cheekbone.

"Jim," Blair managed at long last. His voice was very hoarse. If Jim had had the strength for it he would have sat up enough to stop the painful effort of speech with another kiss, but since he couldn't right now he lay where he was, feeling Blair's voice thrum in his chest. "Have you lost your mind?"

Jim nodded, feeling the way Blair trembled against the brush of his scratchy cheek. "Don't know, Chief." His own voice sounded hoarse too, come to think of it. "Maybe. I think I like it."

"Oh come ON," Blair complained fretfully. He touched Jim's face, his hand sticky and wet. His body moved in incomplete little jerks and twitches under Jim's weight. "You're killing me. You know that don't you? You're enjoying it."

"Mm-hmm," Jim agreed happily. His tongue flicked out and lapped at the palm of Blair's hand. Blair was so responsive even that touch made him gasp out loud. He seemed to forget whatever it was he was trying to tell Jim, abandoning it to arch luxuriously under him, shivering and sighing.

Oh, that was nice. It was all so nice, it all felt so good. A little stupefying, maybe, a little overwhelming, but good. Not surprising he would be dazed, he thought, as he gently caught Blair's wrists and pressed them to the floor, then turned his head and once again caught the straining bud between his teeth. He'd never been so happy in his life.

Blair's whimpers were growing frantic by the time something else occurred to Jim. He kissed his way carefully across Blair's breastbone, tender over the dark bruises, not even grieving at the sight of them because he knew them as marks of Blair's love and sacrifice, and of his own strength, empowered by that love, when suddenly he realized how strange this happiness was.

All his life, the joy of physical release had been followed by sorrow. It didn't matter whether he was with a partner or alone, the pattern was the same. Blank, empty grief. Hollow, pointless, infinitely sad, and all the worse because he could never explain it. Biology, he finally convinced himself. Post-coital depression. Nothing to worry about. Happened to everyone. But it didn't help when he had curled away from Carolyn, hiding his face to keep her from seeing the sorrow there. How could she have understood? He hadn't understood himself.

But there was no melancholy now. No grief. No regret. A glorious exhaustion like he couldn't manage to crawl up off the floor if his life depended on it, but no sorrow.

The floor. Aw, Chief, I'm sorry. We're still on the floor.

He turned his head again and rested carefully on Blair's chest. His heartbeat was still thundering away. "Blair," he said. "The sofa?" Blair mumbled something as Jim worked his way across Blair's chest and found the other nipple. A nub of hardness, but the skin around wasn't goosepimpled yet, and felt so soft under his lips.

He was still holding Blair's wrists, Blair's arms stretched flat, and he could feel the way the muscles flexed under the palms of his hands as Blair's hands clenched into fists and then spread wide again and again. Blair's body moved differently when his wrists were pinned, a long undulation from his chest all the way down to his feet, as though unable to touch Jim with his hands, he had to compensate with the rest of his body.

He kissed and licked the tender nipple, no teeth this time, more gentle and slow, enjoying the way Blair moved under him too much to want to change anything. What perfect bliss, what complete joy. He couldn't imagine wanting anything else in his life ever again. He wouldn't, he realized suddenly, when Blair arched frantically against him and whispered, "God, Jim, please. I love you."

Nothing else would ever be so important.

Oh lord, and he wanted to then. It would take so little. His hands, his lips on Blair -- seeing Blair's beautiful face lost in ecstasy --

He understood why Blair hadn't been able to wait, but Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming himself, slowing down. The long drag of warm air across Blair's nipple, still wet from Jim's mouth, made Blair flinch, and he moaned and gave a soft little lost cry.

Jim smiled against Blair's chest and finally released his wrists. Blair grabbed his head, fingers warm against Jim's scalp, and held on a little too hard. His whole body was taut as a stretched wire. Jim's slightest movement made him thrum deliciously. Jim strained up so he could press a soft, wet kiss to the hollow of Blair's throat, and Blair cried out again, his head jerking to the side, one heel still drumming against the floor.

"Careful," Jim whispered, moving up the bared side of Blair's throat, kissing and tasting thoroughly along the way. He had shifted to the side, resting some of his weight on one elbow, and ran his other hand down Blair's ribs, to the slight, soft indention of his waist, and then to the curve of his hipbone. "Don't hurt yourself."

Blair made a strangled sound that could have been Jim's name.

Jim lifted his head, rubbed his cheek against Blair's, then looked seriously into those dazed blue eyes as his hand drifted across the flat of Blair's hip, stroked the side of Blair's desperate cock with two fingers, and then slipped carefully between his straining thighs to catch the soft balls together in the palm of his hand. Blair lay very still, panting breaths like sobs, keeping his eyes open, fixed on Jim's face.

Jim lowered his head and kissed Blair's mouth, shaking almost as badly as Blair as he felt Blair's thighs parting further. Blair's head tilted back, his mouth opening under Jim's. One knee had dropped to the side so that he lay splayed beneath Jim, trembling in hard little jerks as though he was about to shake out of his skin, but his mouth was tender and soft, breathing in Jim's breath.

Jim cupped his hand carefully, his fingers brushing the curling hair on the inside of Blair's thighs, before closing around Blair's soft vulnerability. The flesh there was so thin, wrinkled and soft. Jim sighed as Blair's tongue pressed gently in past his teeth. Jim still felt a shimmering afterglow of pleasure, a sweet, heavy pressure low his belly and tightening his throat, a sensation that reminded him for some unknown reason, of being very thirsty, and delaying for a moment that first sip of water. The wanting was as good as the fulfillment would be.

He would never stop wanting Blair.

Blair's tongue pressed more deeply, more insistently. His hands shifted on Jim's head, then he encircled Jim's neck with one arm, holding Jim to him. He was still shuddering, his heart pounding in his chest.

Overwhelmed, helpless in Blair's arms, Jim kissed him back more forcefully as well, teeth against teeth, lips wet and pressed hard, tongues slipping together. He held Blair firmly, feeling the fragile orbs slipping together under the thin, cool skin.

Blair froze.

Jim let go at once, moving his hand to Blair's thigh, releasing his mouth as well to look down at him in concern. It had felt so right, from the beginning, everything so in sync, reflected back to him so tenderly. He'd even felt the warmth between his own legs, the edge gone in the aftermath of his orgasm, but perhaps all the sweeter for that, languorous as that brandy, sipped slow.

No, he couldn't be wrong. "Blair --" he whispered, afraid of the answer all the same. There had been so many wrong answers in the past weeks, and even asking for them had been wrong. But not this. Surely not with this.

Blair began to breathe again. A long shiver, from his toes to fingertips, and then a hard gasp. "Jim?" It came out as a plaintive whisper. "Don't you *dare* stop now."

Jim bent his head and closed his eyes with kisses. "Never."

"Jim," Blair said again, as though Jim were in danger of wandering off somewhere. "Jim?"

"Shh," Jim said, pressing a kiss to his cheekbone. "It's all right." He ran his hand down Blair's thigh then up again. The soft hairs were beginning to mat with sweat. Blair managed to open his eyes.

"Jim," he said for the third time. His voice was shaking as badly as the rest of him. Another long shiver seemed to ripple down the length of his body, and he strained upward, seeking Jim's touch. "Anything you need." He rocked his hips up against Jim as he said it, and his own wantonness made a new blush spread across Blair's cheeks, mottling his chest and throat as well. "Anything you want."

"Blair," Jim whispered. He shifted so he could hold Blair's head in both hands and gaze into that beloved face. Blair closed his eyes for long moments, then finally opened them again. He was still shivering, and at irregular intervals his cock twitched involuntarily, the wet head hitting Jim's belly, making them both flinch with pleasure.

"I already have everything I want," Jim said. Blair's eyes were still wide, shining as though he were on the verge of tears, and the whole world lay within.

"Now," Blair said, his voice startlingly loud and clear for just a moment. "Jim, I love you, love you so much."

Jim shifted to the side again, and slid his hand down Blair's belly, fingers and palm in the slick wetness between them, sticky where it had begun to dry. He wrapped his hand around Blair's cock and stroked him gently and slowly, but as relentless and steady as Blair had been with him. Blair arched under him with a yelp that could have been "yes," or "please," or "Jim," and fell back again, head tossing from side to side.

To stop the restless movement, Jim caught Blair's mouth in another kiss, and despite the way Blair's body twisted and strained under Jim's hands, he answered Jim's kiss with such sweetness, so gently, that Jim felt as though he were the one on the verge of being lost.

He had to slow down, for himself, if not for Blair. He slid his palm around Blair's cock, slick and hot and twitching in his hand, and pressed forward, until the shaft was cradled softly against his own belly. He tasted Blair's long, slightly desperate sigh, never breaking the kiss.

Blair was clutching at Jim's shoulders, his fingers digging into muscle as his body grew tenser, straining toward completion. In response, Jim handled him still more gently, moving slowly though just as purposefully. He curled his palm around the shaft as he stroked up, twisting and closing his hand where the head flared, then wrapping his fist around the head of Blair's cock as best he could, feeling the heat, the tears of passion leaking slick and hot, making his hand glide easier over the silken skin.

Then down again, even more slowly. And again. And again. Blair had stopped kissing him back. His jaws were clenched, harsh, desperate breaths panting out through his parted lips. Jim kissed his lower lip, feeling it tremble, then the side of Blair's mouth, then the soft part of his cheek, then both closed eyes, before nuzzling down against Blair's throat and shoulder. "Do something for me?" he whispered, and stopped his hand for a moment to let Blair answer him.

Blair groaned.

Good enough, Jim thought, smiling against Blair's throat. He had no words for his feelings. An insane, reckless joy thundered in his heart, flamed through his mind. He had never felt so pure, so strong, so alive and free. Ironic, he supposed, since he knew how completely he was in thrall. "Blair," he said, beginning to stroke him again, even more slowly and carefully than before. "For me. Relax. Stop pushing. I've got you. I'll take care of you. I won't let you go."

Blair moaned deep in his throat. Jim could feel the desperate tension in the body he held. Blair's back was arched hard, hips and shoulders pressed to the floor, head rolling back. Blair's hands were digging into Jim's shoulders with painful force, but he managed to open his eyes again and stare up at Jim, the expression on his face a little frantic.

"I've got you," Jim whispered. "Easy."

"--Can't--" It came out as an explosion of voice, so soft, but violent with tension. "Jim--" More control now. He sounded as though he were sobbing. "Jim, it's too good -- I can't --"

"I know." Jim lowered his head again, cheek pressed to Blair's face, lips close to his ear. His hand slid up again, encircled the crown, cupped the shaft, then down again, very slowly, very tenderly, feeling every twitch in the engorged shaft. Blair's hips rocked in response. Jim heard Blair's breath catch, and he kissed Blair's temple, the shell of his ear, the side of his throat, then the warm hollow between the points of his collarbone. "But I've got you, Chief, and I'm not going to let you go."

He felt Blair's head nodding. The first breath Blair took rasped like a death rattle, but the next was easier, and the next was slower still.

"That's right," Jim said, his lips moving against Blair's throat, "That's right, like that."

The tight arch of Blair's back relaxed. He settled down against the floor in almost imperceptible degrees, his breaths softer, more regular. Jim was still talking, his hand moving carefully. "You saved my life. You saved my soul. Blair --" He stopped, hearing the harsh edge in Blair's breaths. He raised his head and looked down at Blair's face again. Blair's eyes were half-closed, his face flushed dark with passion. A damp tendril of hair was plastered to one cheek. A helpless, bewildered laugh escaped Jim. "And you're so damn beautiful, just looking at you makes me feel like I'm about to lose my mind."

Blair groaned something close to a laugh too, and shook his head as he finally let everything go. He released Jim's shoulders and dropped his arms. His head lolled back, muscles losing their tension with the abruptness of a house of cards coming down. He lay almost still, save for the rise of his chest as he took long, measured breaths, and the little flinches and jerks of his cock. The tender strife between them was gone. Blair lay utterly open to him, allowing Jim to hold him poised on the cusp, utterly vulnerable, naked with trust.

Tears blurred Jim's vision. He touched his lips to Blair's, and Blair's mouth opened under his. His mouth was so sweet. Jim tasted more deeply, and as his hand moved on Blair with all the gentleness and love he knew, Blair continued to yield. His lips, so soft and full, relaxed further, opening widely enough to permit Jim everything. Jim shifted his head to one side, pressing deeper, taking what Blair offered. He ran his tongue over the smooth ridge of Blair's teeth and then slipped deeper into the warmth of Blair's open mouth. Blair lay so still, but with each careful stroke of Jim's hand, Jim could feel the throb of pleasure that shook Blair to the very core. Jim felt it too, a diffuse, irresistible heat spreading through his entire body, a tide of ecstasy mounting in his veins and sweeping everything away but this. The pleasure that had silenced Blair so tenderly, taking him further and further away from himself every time Jim's hand slid down his cock, taking Jim with him, carrying them both away. Jim could have laughed when he realized the truth. Blair's perfect surrender had only bound Jim more irrevocably.

The wrench of joyful need pushed him further. He closed his fist around Blair, and the languorous strokes became a tight, close up-and-down, moving velvety hot skin relentlessly over the shaft and head. Hard and heavy as iron, save for the pulse Jim felt beating against the palm of his hand. Blair's mouth had gone slack under his, and a low cry whelmed up out of his throat, humming against Jim's mouth. But the tension, the passionate striving, never returned, even as Blair began to arch helplessly from the small of his back. Jim had to see his face. He broke the kiss with slow care, but as careful as he was, Blair followed him, straining for Jim's mouth. Jim moaned with laughter and kissed Blair's lower lip in reassurance, before lifting his head enough to look into his face.

Blair's eyes were wide open, and fixed on Jim, and the expression Jim found in those stormy blue depths undid him completely. He had never seen Blair so lost, so helplessly, desperately out of control. But even at this extremity one thing remained the same. The calm, unquestioning faith in Jim that had always shone out of those eyes shone there still.

Jim was the one who cried out. He claimed Blair's mouth again, tender despite the violence of his love, and rolled forward, resting his weight on Blair so he could wrap one arm around Blair's shoulders and hold him closer, his other hand trapped between them, knuckles scraping his own belly as he pleasured Blair. He felt the gathering storm, and knew the rush to completion was inexorable. He was no more capable of stopping than Blair. He stroked the length of Blair's cock one more time, closing his hand when Blair shuddered, his entire body tightening, trying to bring his hips up off the floor. Jim shook too. Ice prickled down the length of his spine, and it seemed each separate nerve ending burned with the heat of Blair's ecstasy. Overwhelmed, Jim laid his cheek against Blair's and whispered, "I love you," and then held him as Blair came with a sigh.

The hot pulse spilled through Jim's fingers and splashed against his belly. Jim felt a sympathetic rush of heat, a hollow ache in his chest and a hot, stinging sensation in his extremities, spreading warm and irresistible from his own suddenly unsated cock. He felt it jerk against Blair's heated thigh. Dear lord, hard again, and shuddering from Blair's pleasure. He felt it all, more intense, in its way, even than his own orgasm had been. The ecstatic weakness in his limbs, the sweet heat spreading up from his groin and down from his throat. His right nipple still burned from Blair's loving pinch minutes before, and he still felt the exquisite friction of Blair's beautiful hand on him.

Blair twisted under him. Jim closed his hand, moving carefully as shudders wracked Blair. He could feel the first desperate heat of ecstasy relaxing into something sweeter and somehow even more overwhelming.

Jim heard himself panting with it. Blair was breathing in long, noisy gasps, his hips moving in a slow, hard undulation under Jim's weight. His head was back, the throat bared again, mouth open, though nothing but his breaths escaped him.

Blair's eyelashes fluttered on his flushed cheek, impossibly demure and beautiful as his body continued to shake and buck, pressing upward against Jim's body as though the pleasure that had stolen speech and thought and reason from him weren't enough. As though Jim's touch were more important than what that touch had done to him.

"Shh," Jim whispered to him, his heart breaking with love. He gentled his hand on Blair, drawing out every last shudder of pleasure as long as he could. At last Blair lay almost still again, save for the rocking of his hips and his head turning from side to side, as though seeking something he expected to find very close. "I'm here," Jim told him softly, soothing him as Blair began to shiver. His arm was still around Blair's shoulders, and he shifted so he could reach up and cradle Blair's head in the palm of his hand, stopping the restless seeking. Blair gazed up through half closed lids, eyes quite unfocused. He was moaning every time he exhaled, making soft little trembling sounds. "I'm here," Jim said again, his own voice breaking. "Blair, it's all right."

Blair's lashes fluttered, and suddenly those naked blue eyes were open very wide and looking straight up at Jim. His lips moved. "Yeah," he whispered, almost managing a smile. "Yeah, Jim, I noticed."

Jim felt as though his heart were about to pound right out of his chest. He swooped down, not quite laughing, and kissed Blair's smiling lips. Blair met him, his own mouth warm and alive, and there was a subtle difference in the taste in the aftermath of Blair's passion, a soft musk that drew Jim in more deeply than before. He kissed Blair passionately, lingeringly, as though they hadn't just made love on the living room floor, or as though they might never see each other again, as though it were the first kiss or the last they would ever share.

Blair was gentle at first, exhausted, sated. Jim had seen the look of stunned pleasure in Blair's eyes as he bent his head to kiss him, and knowing he was the reason for that expression on Blair's face made Jim feel a bit dazed and overwhelmed himself. He drew back for a moment, hearing and feeling Blair's breathlessness, but Blair strained after him with an inarticulate moan of need that Jim felt like a fist closing around his very soul.

So Jim could do nothing but kiss him again, his own lips soft so he could feel the all the warmth and tenderness of Blair's trembling lips. When those lips parted, seeking more, Jim tasted more deeply, his mouth opening as Blair kissed him back. Blair was still shivering, sudden, brief shudders that seemed to have nothing to do with the cold. It wasn't cold in the room anymore anyway. It was gloriously warm in the loft, even though there were goosebumps rising on Jim's naked back.

The air was heavy with the scents of the evening. The loft smelled to Jim like warmth and safety. Rain, hot bathwater, brandy. Everything else. Blair. Sex. It hung around them like a haze of incense, familiar and yet impossibly exotic now that his and Blair's passion mingled wet and hot between them. Jim could feel Blair's stomach muscles quivering in reaction still, and there was a muscle twitching uncontrollably in Blair's thigh.

Jim wondered if he could calm even those last tremors if he kissed Blair gently enough. He was still holding Blair's softening cock, petting and stroking slowly and very, very tenderly, soothing him. Blair sighed, still kissing Jim, and stretched, arching luxuriously up against his hand.

Jim was supporting the weight of Blair's head still, holding him so he could continue to taste Blair's mouth. Blair's tongue pressed insistently back, even though the rest of him lay quiescent under Jim, and Blair finally managed to raise one hand and lay it gently at the small of Jim's back. Blair's palm was damp with sweat, and so hot Jim felt it like a brand. He moaned happily at the gentle touch, and felt Blair's lips smiling under his own.

Jim smiled back, then laughed softly, because he couldn't kiss Blair and grin at the same time, and now he couldn't stop grinning. He nuzzled his cheek against Blair's and whispered, "Thank you."

Blair laughed too, more breathlessly, sounding bewildered. "Jim," he said, or something like it. "You -- I don't --"

"It's OK," Jim said. He kissed the tip of Blair's nose, and smiled down at him, thinking he had never seen anything in his life more beautiful than Blair Sandburg at this moment, dazed with pleasure, clinging to Jim in the aftermath so trustingly. "I know."

And suddenly those startling blue eyes shone with tears. A single drop fell, rolling over Blair's temple to be lost in his tangled hair. "Chief," Jim whispered helplessly, seeing the mist before his own eyes.

But with more strength and purpose than Jim would have thought him capable of, Blair threw both arms around Jim's neck and pulled him down hard. "I never knew it could be like this," Blair whispered fiercely, his voice hoarse with passion. "God, Jim, I love you so much it hurts." His arms tightened, and Jim could feel the tears wet between their cheeks.

"Blair," Jim said in return, all he could say. "Blair." His hands were under Blair's shoulders, the point of each shoulder blade resting against his palm.

"You don't know, Jim," Blair whispered. His voice was iron with certainty, despite how soft it was. "I've never -- it was never--" He groaned in frustration, utterly beyond speech, so Jim nuzzled his cheek against Blair's, then turned his face to kiss the soft flesh of Blair's throat, just under the hinge of his jaw. The bristles were rough against his lips, and Blair's pulse was still ragged and fast.

Blair gasped, his body shuddering under Jim's. His forearms were still locked across the back of Jim's neck. "Will you tell me?" Jim managed to ask, the second time he tried. He kissed Blair again, touching his lips to the hollow above his collarbone, where fading trails of bruises from his throat and chest met in a yellowish smear. "Please, if I don't know -- I want to."

Blair made a sound that was not quite a word, then moved his hands to either side of Jim's head and with the strength of being certain, despite the trembling weakness in his body, he lifted Jim's head so that he could gaze up into Jim's face. Tears were wet on Blair's face, and bright in his eyes. "Kiss me," Blair whispered, nothing coy in his tone. "Kiss me, and I will."

Jim kissed him. Blair moaned, meeting Jim's kiss carefully, lips barely parted, the kiss of men who had been soulmates before they became lovers. Too soon, Blair eased away, as though he were being careful not to take advantage of Jim's gift, and Jim couldn't help sighing when the kiss ended.

He felt Blair smiling, though his face was too close to Blair's to see it. "Thanks, man," Blair whispered, his voice so low Jim felt the vibrations in his arched throat. They bubbled up suddenly into a laugh. "Like I'm thanking you for a lift from school," he said, half-choking on his laughter. He put his arms around Jim's neck again and squeezed so hard Jim grunted, and Blair laughed again. "Listen to me," he said seriously then, unwinding his arms so he could run his fingertips up the back of Jim's neck, through the short brush of hair.

"I'm listening." Jim dropped his head and touched another brief kiss to Blair's warm lips.

Blair accepted the kiss gravely, and when Jim raised his head again, Blair's eyes had burred with emotion once more. "It's just, nobody ever loved me enough to want so much of me. Not ever. Jim, I didn't even know."

"Yes you did," Jim said. His own voice sounded almost as hoarse in his own ears. "Nobody was ever so gentle with me." He stroked his hand over Blair's face, lifting a few tangled strands from Blair's damp temple and smoothing them back. He lowered his head and kissed Blair again, and Blair's lips parted so eagerly that Jim had no choice but to linger this time. Blair's mouth was sweet and open to him, and Blair's tongue pressed back into Jim's mouth, soft over his lips, slick and insistent over his teeth, hungry for him, even now, when his body lay sated and replete under Jim's.

------

"C'mon, Sandburg," Jim said at last. He rolled to the side and sat up, managing, with some difficulty, to pull Blair up with him. Blair helped as much as he could, though he was slow and clumsy, pushing himself up with one hand and leaning too hard on Jim. When Jim's back was against the sofa, he pulled Blair to him, laying Blair's head on his chest and tucking the top of Blair's head under his chin. Blair curled around him instinctively.

He wrapped his arms around Jim with a deep, contented sigh, and held on uncomplaining as Jim finally got his sweats down over his knees and then pushed them off altogether. Bundling the sweats up, he used them to swab at his own belly and Blair's, while Blair laughed softly at him and tried to tuck himself closer. Jim obliged by tossing the sweats aside and putting his arms around Blair, lowering his head to press a kiss to Blair's temple.

He sat up, laying Blair's head against his chest again. "Comfortable?" he asked, and Blair nodded. His silky hair, tangled and dry, moved against Jim's chest, the ends tickling one sensitive nipple. Jim's cock, half-hard, jerked, and he felt Blair chuckling, exhausted and happy, his warm breath on Jim's skin making Jim shiver again.

Blair patted Jim's side, then slipped down to hold him. Jim moaned, and Blair whispered in a husky voice, trying to tease, "That for me?"

Jim caught Blair's straying hand and brought it back up between them, his fingers laced through Blair's, palm against the back of Blair's hand. He kissed the soft hollow of Blair's palm, then laid Blair's hand over his heart, beside Blair's face. "Everything is, Chief. Everything I am."

"Jim --" Blair said in a choked voice, and he couldn't continue with words. He pulled away, but just enough so he could get to his knees beside Jim. His hands on Jim's shoulders, he climbed carefully over Jim's legs to kneel over him, peering into Jim's face from a distance of inches with his guiless, loving eyes. His warm hands slipped up Jim's shoulders and held his head with gentle determination. His lower lip still trembled as if he were on the verge of tears, and Jim could see the frustration wrinkling that smooth brow because Blair was too overcome for words. Jim reached up smoothed his hand over Blair's forehead, soothing the furrows between his eyebrow with his thumb.

Blair smiled, the edges of his mouth quivering. "I stopped looking a long time ago," Jim told him, wanting to be sure he told Blair the truth now. "And here you are anyway."

"Jim," Blair said again, fresh tears spilling down his cheeks even though he was smiling so hard. He brought his face closer, and then carefully kissed his lips. Jim closed his eyes, yielding himself up joyfully as the kiss deepened with slow care. Blair opened Jim's mouth with gentle insistence of lips and tongue, his warm hands holding Jim's head.

Jim's hands spread against Blair's back in turn, palms over the planes and points of his shoulder blades. Blair's soft flesh was still dimpled from the loops in the rug. He rubbed his hands over Blair's back in slow circles, trying to smooth them away. Blair arched against his hands but didn't break the kiss, only turning his head to press deeper. It was a kiss more intimate even than their hands had been, when they had caressed each other to that first sweet release. Jim's head dropped back as the astonished pleasure swept over him, and Blair followed him back, his lips over Jim's, his mouth claiming him. His chest and belly were pressed warmly to Jim's, and he had begun to caress Jim's head in tender, restless strokes as he kissed him, running his fingers through the short hair again and again.

Jim couldn't help his shivers. He was surrounded, overwhelmed, enraptured. So tenderly imprisoned by Blair's hands and mouth and body he was afraid he might just shake right out of his skin if Blair didn't stop touching and kissing him like this, but he was more afraid Blair might stop after all. And then Blair let one hand slip to the back of Jim's head. His mouth was still over Jim's, his tongue pressing deeply, hungrily. He brought his other hand forward, and tenderly brushed the backs of his fingers across Jim's temple and cheek.

Jim shuddered helplessly under Blair, and when Blair stopped kissing him and drew back, Jim fought to follow him, straining for the touch of his lips and his hand. "Shh," Blair whispered, "Easy," and laid his fingers over Jim's lips.

Jim opened his eyes dazedly to find Blair gazing down at him with tender concern. "Aw, Jim," he was whispering, and he pressed a chaste kiss to Jim's forehead. "Is it -- are you all right? I didn't ask or anything."

Jim shook his head, and when he saw Blair's eyes widen, he managed, "Didn't have to ask." He reached up and ran his hands through Blair's soft hair, fingers catching on the tangles and slipping free again. "You knew. We both did."

The expression on Blair's face was radiant. He beamed at Jim, his fingers gently stroking Jim's cheek, smiling even harder when Jim turned his head to press harder against the soft pressure of Blair's hand. "Kiss me?" Jim asked softly, and Blair laughed with joy and threw his arms around Jim.

"I did know," he whispered, head buried against Jim's shoulder, so Jim could feel the breath from those words hot against his throat and shoulder, and then Blair was pressing tender kisses to the soft place under Jim's jaw. One after another, soft and gentle, as far up as Jim's ear, where a puff of heated air made him shudder with stunned pleasure. Blair murmured, "Sorry," and trailed kisses back down Jim's face and throat, holding him effortlessly. "So beautiful," he said between kisses. "So perfect." His hands trailed down Jim's sides, and up again to capture Jim's face. Jim tried to shake his head, but Blair's hands held him firmly. "You are," Blair whispered. "I'll prove it."

He bent forward again and touched his mouth to Jim's, only the softest kisses, an unimaginably gentle touch of lips against lips. Blair's hands cradled his face, fingers moving in tiny, slow circles across Jim's temple, as far up as the hairline, down almost to the cheekbone.

Jim trembled under that exquisite touch. He felt as though Blair were carefully unraveling his very soul, every tender brush of lips and fingertips on his face unwinding another of the coils until there could be no more secrets, ever.

At length Blair stopped, resting his forehead against Jim's, hands still resting so lightly against Jim's face. He was pressed just close enough for the soft, damp curls of hair on his chest and belly to tickle Jim's breast. Blair was half-hard too, sex against sex nestled between them, and Jim had never felt so naked in his life. He shivered harder, wanting to arch up, to touch more of Blair, but he held still as he could, wanting more to do whatever Blair needed. Whatever Blair wanted.

"See?" Blair said quietly, his voice suddenly hoarse. "Told you."

Jim reached up, running his fingers through the glorious, tangled halo around Blair's face, then gently clenched his hands into fists at Blair's temples, holding his face close. Blair gazed back, his eyes soft with love. Jim could hardly breathe around the fullness in his heart. It almost hurt, a wonderful, exhausting, frightening sensation, that tightened his throat and warmed his belly. He felt like he was starving, mad with thirst, while holding a banquet here in his arms. Violent cravings and the perfect satisfaction of that need twisted together impossibly into this beautiful man who looked back at Jim, so calm and certain. So sweetly peaceful. Jim tried to tell Blair so, and it came out as just a foolish stutter of longing and love.

A quick grin crossed Blair's face, and his hands came up and covered Jim's hands, still knotted in fists at each temple. "Whatever you want, Jim," he said. This time he didn't blush. "You don't even have to ask." The grin came back. "But it's nice to hear you say it anyway."

"I love you," Jim said. His voice was softer than he meant it to be, but Blair heard him. He could tell by the look in his eyes. "I always will."

"Jim," he growled, his voice so low and harsh it made the hairs on the back of Jim's neck stand on end. He grabbed Jim's head and kissed him hard and sweet, taking his mouth with tender force.

Jim surrendered utterly as he felt Blair's arms tighten around his shoulders. Ravaged, lost, loved so completely in return. It was all too much, and he wanted more anyway. He moaned as Blair's tongue pressed and explored, as Blair's hands spread wide across his back, Blair's strong arms holding him so close.

"Jim," Blair pulled away with a gasp, even though he went no further than Jim's cheek, resting his own cheek against it. Every touch was so electric the bristles on Blair's face stung him, but the heat of that beloved face pressed to his made him moan again. He laid his hand on Blair's face and held him there, pressed close. "Jim, man, we gotta get you off the floor."

He nodded his head against Blair's, thinking vaguely that it was about time. He'd been trying to get them off the floor ever since -- Ever since Blair had come and knelt before him. The memory of that moment made Jim's heart ache. He took Blair's head in his hands and eased him back, once again needing to see the face of the man who had cast aside everything and given himself to Jim so completely, with such perfect joy and trust.

Blair's grin was shy again. He darted his eyes away, then met Jim's squarely, but his breathing quickened, and his heartbeat was louder and faster in Jim's ears. "You're right," Jim said quietly. "Let's get up."

"'Bout time," Blair grumbled unconvincingly. He drew one knee up, put one hand in the middle of Jim's chest. Then he bent forward and kissed Jim one more time before staggering to his feet over Jim. His hands were on Jim's upper arms, unhelpfully tugging at Jim as though he could help him up from that position.

Jim sat up enough to get his elbows on the cushions of the sofa behind him. He pulled his knees up, and with an awkward surge of energy, managed to pry himself far enough up off the floor to collapse on the sofa. The sudden exertion, mild as it was, made him dizzy for an instant. He closed his eyes, smiling at his own exhaustion. (You're getting old, Ellison.) He opened them again as Blair crawled on the sofa beside him and pushed at his shoulders.

"C'mon," Blair said. "There's room." He kissed Jim again, softly, lingeringly. "Just lie back," he whispered, shifting beside Jim and urging him back with his hands still on Jim's shoulders, and repeated kisses of encouragement as Jim shifted sideways, easing himself down until he lay on his back on the sofa. The pillow that had cushioned Blair's head earlier was under his now, and Blair was crouched over him, smiling. "Better?"

Jim reached up, lacing his both hands around the back of Blair's neck, and gently pulled him down so he could kiss that beautiful face.

Blair laughed against Jim's open mouth and kissed him back. He was holding Jim's head in turn as he carefully straightened his own legs, sprawling over Jim, one knee tucked between the back of the sofa and Jim's hip. He squirmed as he settled down. "Still a little sticky," he said seriously. Then he seemed to hear what he had just said, and laughed again. The vibrations in his chest and belly from that laugh made Jim moan, and when he did, Blair's laugher died away. "Jim," he said, then covered Jim's mouth again, taking another kiss.

"Mmm," Blair said thoughtfully when he finally raised his head again. Jim's lips were numb and tingling, and he could taste Blair in his mouth still. Blair laid his head against Jim's shoulder and sighed, a long, heartfelt sound. One hand trailed idly down Jim's chest, the gentle touch sparking a flame even sated and exhausted as Jim was.

Jim raised his hand when Blair's fingers reached his hip, and Blair caught Jim's hand in his own, lacing the fingers together and resting both hands there. The weight and warmth of their joined hands resting together filled Jim's heart. Blair's heart was thundering too. Jim felt it against his chest. Blair moved his head, settling in more firmly. He sighed again, the warm puff of air stirring the soft hairs on Jim's chest. "So anyway," he said, as though resuming a conversation. One forearm was under Jim's shoulder, his hand curled around so he could run light fingers up and down the side of Jim's neck. The soft touches made Jim shiver, icy tendrils of pleasure spreading down his side until he could feel its ghostly aftermath all the way to his toes. "You'd think I'd at least be surprised," Blair said thoughtfully. His gentle fingertips found Jim's earlobe and stroked the soft flesh there carefully, running his thumb along the side. "But it feels so good -- so right. Like we'd been planning this all along or something."

Jim found himself turning his head, wanting more of that careful touch. Blair stroked his cheek with the backs of his fingertips. Cool, smooth fingernails, the slight roughening at Blair's knuckles. Blair chuckled softly, and nestled his head against Jim's shoulder. "Or like I've been learning all this time who I really am around you." His voice got very quiet. "How much you've changed me."

"No," Jim protested, his voice a murmur. He ran his hand up Blair's back, palm flat, fingers spread wide, gentle across the muscles on either side of his spine, all the way up to the back of Blair's neck. "I don't want you to change," he told Blair helplessly.

He could feel Blair's smile against his throat. "Being loved changes a person," Blair said. "It just does. I didn't completely see it before, but I do now." He strained to lift his head, enough so he could softly kiss the corner of Jim's mouth. "The way you love me has been changing me all along. Just -- took something kind of dramatic for me to notice, I guess."

Jim shivered at the warm touch of Blair's lips. He freed his hand from Blair's grasp so he could wrap both arms around Blair and pull him even closer. The way Jim's flesh still tingled and burned with shocks and sparks of pleasure, he couldn't bear anything less than Blair pressed as near to him as they both could manage.

"Aw, Jim," Blair whispered, somehow managing to snuggle just a little bit closer by turning his head on Jim's chest and straightening the leg tucked between Jim and the sofa. "Like that. Touch me all you want."

Jim couldn't even manage to answer that sweet invitation with words. He heard the moan from his own throat, and it was close enough to being a growl that he tried to swallow it back. It was too late, but Blair understood, of course. He chucked softly against Jim's throat, tensing for a moment in Jim's arms then relaxing languorously against him. Jim hadn't realized he could be any more aware of the weight of Blair's naked body over his own. Jim felt completely untethered, as though his brain just might go floating away if he stopped concentrating. In that moment he could have turned and pushed Blair against the back of the sofa and begun all over again.

"See?" Blair said, his air of calm triumph marred only by the roughness in his voice. "This is where everything went right, isn't it? When you touched me. That's when you weren't afraid of yourself anymore." He took a deep breath. Jim felt the swell of Blair's chest against his own. "And that's when I stopped being scared, too. Not of you. I've never been scared of you, Jim, you know that. But when you kissed me, I stopped being afraid of what you were doing to yourself in your own head too."

He laughed again, sadly this time, and rubbed his face against Jim's shoulder. "Over analyzing again, I guess. Just tell me to shut up, and I will." Jim felt his sudden grin, then, the cheek bunched hard over his collarbone. "Or maybe you could try to *make* me shut up." He shivered in Jim's arms. "I think I'd like that."

"No," Jim said. He knew Blair was teasing, but he made himself let go enough so he could reach up and stroke the back of Blair's head, the tangled hair soft under his hand. "I want to know, Chief. Tell me."

"Nothing to tell," Blair said, and went on talking anyway. "When you kiss me, Jim, it's like -- I wish I could tell you right. But it's like what I've been waiting for my whole life. It made me want everything, no matter what. Aw Jim, I still do. I hope it's OK, but I do."

"What do you want?" Jim asked softly.

Blair untangled his arms from around Jim's back and lifted himself over Jim, looking down at him as seriously as he could with his hair hanging in his face, his lips swollen from Jim's kisses. "You really wanna know?"

Jim heard his own breaths going ragged as he gazed up at Blair's beautiful face. "Yes," he said hoarsely. "Tell me everything."

Sandburg's stormy blue eyes were glazed with emotion, his bottom lip trembling, the pulse in his throat emphatic, so loud to Jim in the close space between them. Then another of Blair's sweet smiles lifted the corners of his mouth for an instant. "You know what you're getting yourself in for?"

"No. You'll have to show me," Jim said, and he heard everything in his voice, and hoped Blair did too. The hope and love, even the tiniest tremolo of joyful fear.

Blair did. He groaned aloud, laugher and lust and love conspiring to steal his voice. Jim was still awed by that -- the spectacle of Blair so overwhelmed he couldn't even speak, and then Jim groaned too when Blair shifted over him, slithering down Jim's chest by indolent, wanton inches, his whole body slowly moving over Jim's until his head was resting in the center of Jim's chest, and Jim's cock was pressed gently under Blair's stomach.

Blair turned his head and found a nipple. Jim felt the scratch of his cheek, then the wet heat of Blair's tongue lapping carefully around the aureole. Jim's hips bucked helplessly, as much as he could under Blair's weight, and his head rolled back as the heat burned through him.

"Easy," Blair whispered, and even the warmth of his breath over the wet nipple made Jim shudder, stunned by creeping ecstasy. He felt it like an icy pressure at the back of his throat and an intense heat prickling up between his legs. The muscles at the backs of his thighs were tightening in involuntary spasms, and he couldn't stop shaking.

"Like that?" Blair said, as though he needed to ask. His nose was pressed against the swell of Jim's pectoral for a moment as he turned his head again, and then his soft, wet lips closed around the erect nipple. His tongue pressed down hard for a moment, then swept around, a sweet chaos of lips and tongue and mouth, gentle but absolutely insistent, relentlessly pleasuring Jim until he cried aloud and caught at Blair's shoulders, writhing like a man in pain. "Ah god, Jim," Blair moaned. He snaked his arms around the small of Jim's back to hold him. "You see? I don't ever want to stop."

Jim didn't try to answer. All he could do was groan when Blair went back to teasing the violently erect nipple, his lips and tongue infinitely gentle despite the way Jim shook, helpless in his arms. "Jim," Blair whispered at last. He was careful of his whiskered cheek when he turned his head this time, avoiding the nipple that would be too sensitive to bear the brush of a five-o'clock shadow. "Do you even know how beautiful you are?"

He scooted down further, until his cheek lay over Jim's sternum. Jim could feel Blair swallow. His cock was imprisoned under Blair's breast, and he could feel Blair's every heartbeat. "Because of me," Blair murmured, his voice soft with wonder and love. "I'm doing this to you, Jim."

Jim nodded even though he knew Blair couldn't see him. He realized how hard he was gripping Blair's shoulders, trying to anchor himself in the maelstrom of pleasures. Blair surrounded him, completed him. Everywhere Blair touched burned, and Blair was touching everything, wrapped around him so carefully, moving with such tender care. "I don't want to stop," Blair confessed again, in that husky voice. "But I'm not the sentinel. You'll have to tell me, so I'll know. Because I want to keep doing this. I want you like this in my arms forever. I don't think I'll ever want anything else in the world the way I want this." His voice was so low, a breaking whisper. "The way I want you, Jim."

Then he was moving again, his scratchy, warm cheek lower now, so Jim could feel Blair's chin and jaw, cheekbone and temple all pillowed on his stomach. Blair's hand was moving carefully over his hip and stroking his thigh. Jim couldn't say anything, because if he did, Blair would hear it in his voice. He laid his hands on Blair's warm head, running his fingers through the soft locks, turning his own eyes upward so the tears trailed across his temple.

Blair's head turned. His hand stilled on Jim's thigh, and his lips brushed Jim's stomach. Jim felt the quivering of his flesh, the way his stomach muscles tightened and twitched in reaction. He clenched his jaw, so the sob Blair's tenderness evoked wouldn't escape him. The press of Blair's lips became more deliberate, as though he were finding his way. He kissed Jim very seriously, moving down Jim's belly with slow care. He was stroking Jim's thigh again, a restless movement so in contrast with the gentle touch of his lips, the careful sweep of his tongue, tasting and kissing every inch. When Jim's cock touched his throat, he sighed, and Jim felt the movement of air so intimately he shuddered.

"Do you want this?" Blair's voice gusted warmly across his stomach. "Do you want me?"

He couldn't remain silent then. He ran his hands through Blair's soft hair, cradling that beloved head. "Always," he told Blair, and he said it loud enough to be sure Blair heard. "I'll never stop wanting you."

"Jim?" Blair said, his voice tender with concern. He raised himself up on his elbows and looked up at him. "Aw, man, Jim, what's wrong?" He crawled up until he was close enough to touch Jim's face, wiping one of the tears away with gentle fingertips. "Please tell me. Did I do something wrong?"

Jim shook his head, trying to smile, wishing he could stop the tears that closed his throat and spilled from his eyes when he tried to blink them away. "No, Chief," was all he could manage.

"Let me help, " Blair insisted, his hands stroking Jim's forehead, cradling his face, looking down so earnestly. "Whatever it is. Anything, please, you know that."

"I know," Jim whispered. "No one ever has before."

Blair gazed down, his beautiful brow creased with puzzlement. "No one's ever what?"

"Loved me," Jim said, feeling the chains forged over a lifetime dropping away as he told Blair the truth. "I didn't think anyone ever would."

"Aw, that's crazy," Blair told him gently, but his voice was breaking too. "Look at you, man. You're so beautiful, in your soul, in your mind -- aw, Jim--" He trailed one hand across Jim's chest "Your body, your heart -- Who wouldn't love you? Who could help it?"

Blair's earnest catalogue made Jim laugh through his tears, and he laid one hand on Blair's cheek, pushing back the tangle of hair that hid his face, feeling the joy fill his chest as he met Blair's eyes. "No one ever loved me just for this, before. Just for who I am." He watched Blair's face intently for another moment, and then told him, "Thank you."

"You're insane," Blair told him, but it sounded like, "I love you." He bent his head and kissed Jim's face once, and then over and over again, each kiss lingering and slow, lips soft against his cheeks and temple, tongue flickering hotly, that wet, heated touch undoing Jim so thoroughly. Kissing his tears away, Jim realized, and he smiled helplessly, wondering how he would survive such love.

Then he felt the first splash on his forehead. The second one fell on his cheek. Blair was weeping too. "Chief," he said. He held Blair's head carefully and pulled him down so he could kiss his lips. "Don't," he told him between the soft kisses, tongue pressing carefully past Blair's damp lips, gently enough to taste his own tears as well as Blair's. "Please don't. I want you to be happy."

"I am," Blair insisted, still weeping. He kissed Jim back, holding his head as well, his lithe, strong body lying over Jim's as though he meant to shelter him from the rest of the world, all the while bathing Jim's face with his own tears. He brought his mouth down to Jim's again, his lips parting so Jim could taste everything, their tears, the brandy, ah, and in back of it all, a sharp, essential musk, where Blair had been kissing his stomach. Mingled semen, his own and Blair's. Jim's head spun. He felt the hollow, open press of lust opening his mind and heart, and he gloried in his nakedness, hands stroking Blair's soft hair again and again, his body straining to somehow touch more of Blair even though they were lying so closely. He loved Blair so much. No surprise there. The amazing thing was that Blair loved him too. Blair wanted him too.

Jim shivered luxuriously as Blair kissed him once more. "Everything's really OK?" Blair asked again, whispering against Jim's lips. "You'd tell me if it wasn't?"

Jim held Blair's head, looking into his face, trying to find the words. A tear rolled off the end of Blair's nose and splashed on Jim's cheek, and they grinned at each other, not quite laughing, so foolishly happy that the words no longer seemed important.

Still grinning, Blair kissed the last tear drop away, then scooted down just enough to snuggle in against Jim's shoulder. "Hold me?" he asked, as Jim wrapped his arms around Blair's back and pulled him close.

Jim smiled up at the ceiling. Blair's head was pressed warmly up under his chin, one arm resting easily on Jim's chest, the other tucked around under Jim's shoulder. Blair sighed happily and relaxed more, the weight of his head feeling heavier already. "As long as you want," he told Blair.

"Might be a good long time," Blair threatened in what was probably supposed to be a sultry voice, but exhaustion seemed to have caught up with him at last, and he slurred, as though talking were becoming an effort.

"I hope so," Jim said. He reached up with one hand to stroke Blair's head, keeping him cradled close. "Rest, Chief. I'll be right here."

Blair muttered a soft protest. "I'm fine." The hand under Jim's shoulder clenched and relaxed. "You just feel so good."

Jim felt those ridiculous tears start to trickle from the corners of his eyes again, but he didn't mind them. He kept petting Blair's head with soft strokes, feeling the way Blair relaxed against him so trustingly. "I always believed it could be like this," he told Blair softly. "But after Carolyn -- it just hurt too much to keep trying."

"Oh, Jim," Blair said in a sad, lost voice. He kept his head pressed against Jim's shoulder, but he reached up to find Jim's face, stroking his cheek carefully. "I'm sorry."

Jim turned his head and kissed his hand. "No, it's all right now."

Blair spread his trembling fingers across Jim's lips. "I want it to be," he said softly.

"It is," Jim said again. "Just let me hold you for a little while."

Blair gave a snuffling little laugh and laid his hand on Jim's chest again. "You make it sound so easy."

Not easy, Jim thought. But perfect, all the same. He still felt the ache of desire for Blair, that open, happy yearning that made the weight of Blair's sleep-heavy body over his own unimaginably precious. It occurred to him they could lie here like this forever, or they could get up like sensible adults, wash off, get some dinner, or they could make love again. Anything would fill his heart, as long as Blair were here beside him.

He reached up blindly and found the blanket, crumpled on the back of the sofa where Blair had left it, and tugged it down, struggling to spread it over Blair one-handed. Blair sighed at the warmth, and did nothing at all to help, burrowing happily against Jim's shoulder as he managed to smooth it down over the back of Blair's thighs. "OK?" he asked.

"Mmm," Blair agreed. "You should get some dinner, Jim," he mumbled seriously.

"All right," Jim whispered to him, smiling. He ran his hand over the back of Blair's head, stroked his shoulders, feeling the warmth and smoothness even through the blanket, all the way down to the small of his back, and then reached up and did it again. "You want anything?"

Blair grumbled something unintelligible. He was working his arms around Jim's ribs in the slow determination of the half-asleep, and when he finally had his arms firmly locked around Jim's back he said, with an air of surprise, "What about that soup you were gonna heat up?"

"Got sidetracked," Jim admitted. "You want me to get up and fix it for you now?"

Blair's arms tightened. "Just try it," he muttered darkly.

"Take it easy, tough guy." Jim managed to turn his head, and by craning his neck, place a soft kiss at Blair's temple. "I'm not going anywhere. Thought we already got that worked out."

He felt Blair's lips curve into a smile at that kiss. "Mmm," he agreed, and then, his lashes fluttering against Jim's chest as his eyes closed again, said in a complete non sequitur that made Jim's heart beat a little faster, "I didn't even know enough to look, Jim. I never even knew."

"You don't need to, now," Jim whispered, when he could speak again.

Blair squeezed hard. "I know," he said. "Jim, Jim, Jim." A happy sing-song, quiet and low.

Jim laughed softly and hugged him back, then went back to stroking Blair's hair. Have to be careful of this, he thought, smiling. This felt too good, too right, and it was far too easy to envision this tomorrow in court. The endless testimony, deadening concentration and thought, until sometime in the middle of the afternoon Jim reached out and idly began running his fingers through Sandburg's hair in the middle of Judge Juarez's courtroom.

"What is it?" Blair asked sleepily, his head moving against Jim's shoulder.

"You going to come in with me tomorrow? You really should go to campus and get your paper turned in."

Blair laughed out loud, and Jim could hear how hoarse his voice was. "Enough with the paper, Jim."

"You still need to get it turned in," Jim pointed out reasonably. He closed his eyes and stretched, flesh moving against flesh, muscles lengthening and tightening under Blair's careful weight.

"Ah, Jim," Blair moaned, sounding as though he'd forgotten all about the paper. Jim relaxed again, and felt sleep flickering at the edges of his consciousness. He'd rest, he thought, just for a moment, and with that, everything began to slide. He felt Blair all around him, kissing him, stroking him, telling Jim how much he loved him. Jim wanted to kiss him back, but a strange lassitude had fallen over him. He could do nothing but lie in Blair's arms and accept those sweet touches, those precious, beautiful promises.

"Hey Jim." A quiet voice, tinged with amusement. "You falling asleep?"

He struggled up through waves of contentment and peace. There was no jolt of wakefulness, just a slow transition from the half-dreaming memory of Blair's loving hands on him to the warm reality of Blair's head on his shoulder, Blair's arms wrapped firmly around his ribs. And the gentle, fluttering kisses dropping like rose petals on his neck and throat.

"Blair," he said.

"Shh," Blair said unreasonably. "Go to sleep. It's all right." He shifted, getting comfortable, and on the cusp of sleep, utterly open and defenseless, Jim felt the tickle of every hair, the smooth warmth of his skin, the heat between them, a last, errant tear under Blair's cheek, against Jim's breast.

The sensations were too exquisite to bear, but Jim hadn't the strength to do anything, even half-awake, but lie under Blair, shivering with his drowsy ecstasy. "Jim," he was still saying, as though simply speaking Jim's name was another of the bewildering new pleasures. But his voice was getting softer, the head on Jim's shoulder heavier. Blair hugged him once more, possessively, then relaxed the fierce embrace, and just kept relaxing.

Jim felt himself carried irresistibly along, as though he and Sandburg were drifting down a slow, quiet river together. Jim sighed, and it almost seemed as though he could feel the waves against the side of their boat, rocking them gently.

On and on, slow and peaceful, no hurry in the world. Nothing else he needed in the world but this man in his arms. As Jim drifted further, the half-dream became more vivid. He could see the blue sky, the willows at the banks, long fronds trailing in the water. Blair's head resting on his chest, the weight of it such a welcome sign of Blair's trust and love.

In his dream he was trying to explain it to Blair, talking quietly as they drifted along together, telling him just how long he had hoped for a love like this, and how light his heart was now, buoyed with such joy. Blair laughed softly, the way he did, and somehow he had moved, though Jim didn't remember him getting up. But now he was stretched over Jim, face to face with him, hiding the blue sky with his bluer eyes, and he was so beautiful that Jim stopped, and just looked up, taking in the sight of him.

And then Blair bent his head and kissed him, and it was like the first kiss all over again, the intimacy of Blair's mouth over his, though there was no hesitancy as Blair kissed, and tasted, and finally drank deep, claiming Jim's mouth the same way he claimed his heart and mind and soul. As though everything of Jim's had always been his all along.

He put his arms around Blair. The sun beat down on them, a golden warmth. Blair's back was warm from the sun, the back of his head even hotter, his dark curls holding the heat. A soft curtain of his hair spilled down on either side of Jim's face. He could see sparkles and flashes through the tangled, curling locks, sunlight reflecting off the surface of the water, perhaps, or maybe just the radiance of Blair Sandburg in love.

Blair sighed, and smiled against Jim's lips, never breaking the kiss, and his hands were so warm and so gentle. He touched Jim knowingly, with such care he might have been the sentinel himself. But Jim tried. He wanted Blair to know how it felt to be loved so much. He stroked Blair's sun-hot back, feeling for the touches that made Blair moan, and return more urgently to that endless kiss.

He found the sensitive place under Blair's ribs, stroking with the tips of his fingers just enough to feel Blair shiver and flex his toes. He trailed down the square hips, fingers light over the bone, more firm at the swell of muscle and flesh where buttocks met thigh. Blair was melting in his arms, irresistibly hot and sweet. Jim cradled him as close as he could, one arm locked tight around Blair's back, his other hand spread wide over the yielding, muscular curves. Blair's body was warm from the sun, warmer from the heat of his hand, and he twisted as Jim touched him, shivering and restless with pleasure. He kissed Jim hungrily, and his mouth tasted like the summer day. A memory of sweat in the salt, a taste of water that reminded him of a few precious weeks one boyhood summer at a great uncle's summer cabin on the lake. But mostly Blair. Rosehips and hibiscus flowers. Olive oil, garlic, and sharp cooking herbs. Sandalwood and the distinctive taint of the hemp watchband he wore. All of it Blair.

He twined one arm around Jim's neck, holding him carefully and very possessively, his hand in a loose fist beside Jim's cheek. The sunlight dazzled Jim, and the rocking of the boat became part of everything else, the blinding, soul-deep pleasure of being enveloped by such complete love. Again, there was no sense of movement, but as Blair kissed him everything shifted, and Jim lay face down on soft cushions that lined the bottom of the boat. They were bluer than the sky, almost as blue as Blair's heavy lidded eyes.

Blair's arms were around him. Blair's arms were always around him. He was kissing Jim's neck, and rubbing his cheek across Jim's back, murmuring soft words. His knees were between Jim's thighs. Jim said, "Yes, please, yes," and when Blair rocked forward, he was more gentle even than the waves that moved their boat.

And then the boat was gone. They lay together on the grass of the riverbank, and the rocking pressure was Blair's tender movement. They were face to face now, and Jim was moving against him in turn, speechless and lost as he gazed up, lovingly taken by the other half of his soul. Found, Jim thought, and the peace was so shattering he did not know how he would endure it.

He opened his eyes and saw the brick walls and the upstairs railing. The weight on his chest was Blair slumbering in his arms. Jim lay as still as he could, not daring even to draw a deep breath, allowing the magic of the dream to leave him slowly. Those weren't blades of grass under his back, just the upholstery on the sofa cushions.

Blair had shifted as he slept, and he lay between Jim's legs, his body cradled by Jim's hips, his head heavy beside Jim's shoulder. He was still sound asleep, every breath snuffling against Jim's chest. Jim's arms were still around Blair's back, and Jim realized, distant and uninterested, that the fingertips on his left hand had begun to tingle from lack of blood, and that there was a dull knot of strain in his left shoulder. He didn't move. None of it mattered.

But as still as Jim tried to lie, the dream still held him, and thinking of it with Blair's drowsing weight in his arms, he couldn't help the sudden shiver that ran through him. He had a hazy memory yet of the look on Blair's face, and his hips rocked up in helpless response.

Blair grumbled sweetly at the movement, not waking up just yet, but he turned his head against Jim's chest and then settled down again with a small sigh that pierced Jim's heart. It hurt to love this much, and it felt so wonderful. He'd never known anything like this in his life. He was drifting between the dream and the reality, and both overwhelmed him. The darkness was gone, and Blair loved him. He looked up again, seeing the shadows, the ugly plywood boards over the windows. He rolled his head to the side and saw the muddle of wet coats hanging by the front door, their sodden shoes, Blair's backpack, streaked dark with rain.

Ought to make sure the laptop was OK, Jim thought suddenly, remember how badly that backpack had been knocked around. If that damned paper was lost --

He tightened his arms around Blair. "Chief," he whispered, craning his neck to nuzzle his hair. "Wake up."

Blair muttered something, and Jim felt his eyelashes flickering against his chest. "Mmm?" he said then, and Jim felt the little stretches and shivers as Blair swam slowly back to wakefulness. "Wha' time is it, Jim?"

Jim smiled so hard he felt as though he were breaking his heart. He stroked his hand over Blair's head gently. "I don't know. Not sure how long we were asleep."

"I'm not asleep," Blair protested, breaking off for a huge yawn. "Got pins and needles in my arms," he complained, and worked his arms out from under Jim, yawning again and stretching luxuriously over him.

"Of course not," Jim agreed quietly. His hands spread on Blair's warm back, he felt the play of muscles under the tender flesh, and he realized suddenly the taste of semen was still in his mouth. The wave of longing dazed him. He closed his eyes.

"Jim," Blair said in a different tone of voice. He lifted himself over him, and Jim looked up. The side of Blair's face that had been resting against Jim's chest was flushed dark red. Blair's eyes were very dark. "Jim," he said again, and bent his head to kiss him. It was a slow kiss, searching and gentle, as though Blair were reassuring himself of something. The taste was in Blair's mouth too. He was propped over Jim on his elbows, holding Jim's head carefully with both hands, exploring carefully and thoroughly.

He still lay heavily between Jim's legs, the weight reminding Jim of the dream. He responded more fervently to Blair's kiss, pressing his tongue back into Blair's mouth, tasting as deeply as Blair had tasted him, arms locked around Blair's supple back.

Blair made a surprised, happy sound, writhing against him with a shiver of pleasure, and Jim knew beyond all shadow of a doubt that the dream was true. Blair loved him. All his imperfections and failures on his head, and Blair loved him anyway. Enough to face madness and darkness at his side. Enough to make Jim a gift of his body. Even enough to take Jim one day, if Jim asked him to.

The thought of it was like a fire raging in his mind. He crushed Blair to him, kissing his mouth with tender ruthlessness, rolling both of them onto their sides and pressing Blair against the back of the sofa. He could touch Blair with more freedom this way, and he roamed over Blair's quaking body with the hand that wasn't cradling Blair's head.

Blair gasped, never breaking the kiss, hips bucking, back drawn into a hard arc. Jim spread his hand over Blair's breast and found the nipple so painfully erect that Blair jerked with shock as Jim's fingertips brushed over it. He closed his thumb and forefinger over the tender nub, and Blair pressed forward desperately, even letting go of Jim's head so he could put his hand over Jim's, mutely urging him on.

Jim broke the kiss with a groan and pulled his head away. "Sorry," he said, and almost laughed, since he wasn't sorry in the least. He flattened his hand over Blair's chest and felt his heartbeat thundering under the heel of his hand. He looked into Blair's dazed blue eyes, bleary with passion, and didn't understand where he found the strength not to drag Blair back into his arms and start all over again. He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. "Blair, that paper of yours -- "

A frown creased Blair's brow. It seemed to take him a little while to figure out what Jim was saying, but his voice was steady when he finally spoke. "What's going on, Jim?" The steady voice broke. "Something the matter here?"

"No," Jim said immediately. "No, oh god, no." He caught Blair's head in both hands and looked deep into worried blue eyes. "I'm just trying to keep one foot in the real world."

Blair wasn't reassured. "I'm in the real world, Jim," he said, his voice getting softer. "You telling me you're not?"

"Blair, don't," he said helplessly. "This is the happiest night of my life. You know that. You must know that."

Blair's lower lip trembled. "I do," he whispered. "But it's so good, it's a little hard to believe it, you know?"

"Do me a favor," Jim said just as softly, and he ducked his head to touch his lips to Blair's mouth for a moment. "Believe it. For me."

"OK," Blair agreed quietly. He put his arms around Jim's neck and tilted his forehead until it touched Jim's. "For you, Jim."

Jim put his arms around Blair just as carefully, and they held each other with easy comfort, letting the fires cool. After a time Jim laid his hand on Blair's face, caressing gently, hardly thinking anything at all except how much he loved this man in his arms. Blair's eyes were open, and he was watching Jim, a gentle smile on his face.

"Jim," Blair said finally. "What about my paper?"

"I got worried," Jim confessed helplessly, pushing a tangle of hair back out of Blair's face. "Your backpack got dropped a couple of times. Just thought maybe you should check and be sure the computer's OK. I just can't stand to think of you losing that damned paper."

"Jim--" Blair shook his head, beaming at him. "You're insane." He kissed Jim quickly, and then as though it had been so nice the first time he had to try it again, he kissed him lingeringly the second time. "Let me up," he breathed in Jim's ear, making Jim shudder. "I'll turn on the computer and check. Will that make you happy?"

"You make me happy," Jim said simply. "I love you."

"Aw Jim," Blair complained, not very convincingly, "Don't do that to me." The gentle arms around Jim's neck tightened. He kissed Jim's face.

"Don't do what?" Jim asked, smiling at the touch of Blair's lips on his cheek.

Blair sighed in mock exasperation. "You know good and well, man." He took his hand back and put it on his chest. "You really can feel it, right here," he said, and his voice got soft. "Like something aching, almost. So that's why people think you love with the heart."

"Chief," Jim said. He put his arms around Blair and drew him close, dropping a kiss on his forehead as Blair snuggled against his chest happily. One arm was still tucked awkwardly between them, but he put his other arm around Jim's ribs and squeezed tight, moaning with approval when Jim drew his leg up and laid it over Blair's hip and thigh, trying to encompass as much of Blair as he could.

"You feel so good," he whispered to Blair. "I never want to let you go."

Blair chucked against Jim's throat. "Is this the same man who wants me to get up and check his computer?"

"Your paper." Jim's arms tightened, and he rubbed his cheek against the top of Blair's head. "I just can't stand to think of you losing so much work -- Blair --" He broke off with a groan when Blair shifted in his arms and gave a wicked little thrust from the hips. "Oh god," Jim said, everything burning again. "Blair --"

Blair laughed out loud this time, nothing muffled about it. "I love you too, Jim. So much I don't even know what to do anymore." He nuzzled against Jim's throat, and rolled his hips again, just until Jim gasped. "Well, there's lots of things I can think of," he admitted, sounding breathless himself. "But if you're gonna keep worrying about that stupid paper --"

Then Jim's stomach growled.

Blair broke up, laughing against Jim's chest, his body shaking in Jim's arms. "Oh man," he gasped weakly. "Oh man, so I know where I really stand. Somewhere a few notches below dinner with you. Guess it's good to find out now." He pulled away and looked into Jim's face. His eyes were bright with amusement, grinning with his whole face. With his whole body, if that were possible. Jim hadn't realized he could love him anymore.

Blair pushed at his shoulder. "Hey, earth to Jim. Let me up. I'll check on my paper, and you get dinner started. What a guy has to do to get a bowl of chicken soup around here."

Jim kissed him soundly, then slowly let him go, easing his leg down, and trying to help Blair sit up. There wasn't any way to manage it, he discovered unhappily, without just getting off the sofa himself. He swung around and put his feet on the floor and stood slowly, stretching the kinks from his shoulders, then looked down to see Blair sprawled indolently on his back, grinning up at him. "I thought you were getting up too, Sandburg," he grumbled.

Blair grinned more broadly. "Just enjoying the view."

Jim reached down, grasped Blair's forearm, and hauled him into a sitting position. Blair smiled tolerantly and let him do it. The bathrobe Blair had been wearing was still on the back of the sofa. Jim shook it out and tucked it around Blair's shoulders, then ran both hands through his hair, on the pretext of lifting it out from under the collar of the robe. Blair grinned up at him so sweetly Jim had to bend down and kiss those smiling lips, lightly, just once. "Sit tight," he said, folding the robe around Blair when he shivered. "I'll get it."

Blair was still grinning, and Jim more than half expected a protest, but he only said, "Whatever makes you happy, man." He caught Jim's hand though, and didn't let go. Jim waited, smiling, until Blair gave a sharp tug, pulling him down within reach again and kissed him. Then he settled back on the sofa, a softer smile on his face. "I know," Blair said. "I really do understand."

"I know," Jim said. "Thank you." Feeling Blair's eyes on him like a caress the whole time, he walked across to the coat rack and retrieved the wet backpack, bringing it back to the coffee table.

Blair was still smiling, shaking his head. "Do you even have any idea?"

"What?"

Blair just shook his head again. His robe opened as he bent forward and unzipped the leather pack. The hair on his chest was dark against the white of the robe, the one exposed nipple dusky and still peaked. Jim closed his eyes with a sigh, and was overwhelmed by the smell of Blair and their lovemaking.

"I'm just gonna get cleaned up, and then I'll start dinner." He didn't think his voice sounded too hoarse. "Is that OK?"

"Yeah, Jim." At the amusement he heard in Blair's voice, he realized his eyes were still closed. He opened them, and found Blair determinedly hauling out the laptop, but there was a knowing smile on his beautiful lips. "That'll work great."

"All right." Jim couldn't help standing a moment longer though, just to watch him. He thought he had never seen anything so beautiful in his life as the welcome, ordinary sight of Blair bent over his computer. As though nothing at all had changed. And none of the important things had, Jim thought. Not really.

He scooped his own robe up from the floor, remembering how it had gotten there with a happy shudder, and carried it back to the bathroom. The steam from Blair's bath had dissipated, but Blair's scent was still strong. The smell of the rainsoaked clothes in the hamper brought colder memories.

Jim hung his robe on the back of the door and turned on the hot water faucet in the sink, letting it run for a minute to warm up. How close they had come tonight. He remembered Blair walking away in the rain, and wondered how he could ever have let things go so far. He wondered if Blair would ever have come back if he hadn't gone after him then. Jim found that he was knotting the washcloth in his hands, and he made himself stop and listen to Blair out in the living room. It sounded as though the laptop was powering up just fine. Thank goodness.

He bent his head, accepting his failures, his weaknesses, and knowing that Blair loved him anyway, open-eyed, seeing everything. Blair loved him despite everything. Maybe because of it all, who knew? He suspected he was not in the right frame of mind for puzzling it all out tonight, and that was just as well. They had the rest of their lives. Blair had told him forever. Joy spiked like pain, and Jim had to brace himself against the sink for a moment.

He felt tears misting his eyes again, and could have laughed. What a sentimental fool he was. And Pops had tried so hard to make a real man out of him. Smiling, he soaked the washcloth under water, and then swept it down his belly. The heat of the water intensified the smells. Him, Blair. He was half-hard again as he washed himself. He heard footsteps, and a heartbeat, and the same smells he was unsuccessfully trying to wash away, stronger and sweeter, and looked up to find Blair standing in the bathroom door watching him.

"Hey, there," Blair said, smiling.

"Your computer all right?"

Blair rolled his eyes, grinning. "Laptop's OK. Paper's just fine. For a piece of crap I wrote in a week, anyway."

"Blair --"

"It's OK, Jim. I'll turn it in tomorrow. I promise." He came the rest of the way into the bathroom. "Be nice not to have to worry about it anymore."

Another of those half-formed memories, cold, shapeless. Jim stopped, letting the sensation move through him without trying to seize it or to push it away. He saw the worry flickering in Blair's eyes, and told him quietly, "It's all right."

Blair watched him carefully for a moment before relaxing into a smile again. "It is, isn't it?"

Jim nodded. "Yes."

"Good."

Jim rinsed the washrag he was holding under the hot water and wrung it out. Blair was still leaning against the door frame, the bathrobe hanging open, his chest and belly streaked with evidence of their love. He held out his hand for the washrag, but Jim took his hand, kissed the back of it like a courtier, and drew Blair close. He draped the cloth over his free hand and wiped the first dried splashes from Blair's chest, moving slowly down his stomach.

Blair sighed and smiled, shivering at Jim's touch. The dark hair on his stomach was matted with sweat and semen. Jim moved his hand over Blair in small, careful strokes, and when the washcloth began to cool, he rinsed it out again under the flow of warm water, keeping Blair pulled close with his arm around Blair's back. He couldn't wring out the washcloth very effectively one handed, and he felt droplets running down Blair's belly and thighs in the wake of his cleaning. Blair put his hands on Jim's shoulders as though balancing himself, and Jim could feel him swaying as he stroked the washcloth across his lower stomach. Then he wrapped his hand carefully around Blair's soft cock. Blair made a quiet sound, and his legs parted trustingly as Jim handled him. Jim found he was awed, even yet, to feel the rush of blood in response to his touch. "Jim," Blair moaned at last, and he dropped his head forward to rest against Jim's chest. His hands tightened on Jim's shoulders.

Jim dropped the washcloth on the side of the sink and put both arms around Blair, holding him close, stroking his back in comfort until Blair gave a shaky laugh and hugged him back. "OK?" Jim asked quietly.

Blair nodded against Jim's chest. "You're gonna kill me," he muttered happily.

"I hope not," Jim said. He groped, one handed and blind, behind his back for the hand towel beside the sink. The only dry towel left in the bathroom, he suspected. They were going to have to do some laundry around here. Eventually. He worked his hand between them, drying Blair's damp, clean stomach. The curling hair down his abdomen held moisture, so Jim took his time, little up and down strokes with the towel. When he turned his hand so the towel was against his own stomach, he could feel the damp hairs on Blair's belly begin curl and stand up again with the back of his hand. Blair pressed eagerly against his touch, arching with a purr of satisfaction. Jim's other arm was around the small of his back, holding him securely as he dried the streaks of water that had run down the front of Blair's thighs, then the damp warmth between Blair's legs. Blair held onto Jim's shoulders, so quiet that Jim heard him swallow as he cradled his cock and balls with the towel.

The looped cotton suddenly seemed very coarse to Jim, so he simply held Blair without rubbing or stroking. After a moment Blair's head came up, and he looked at Jim with wide dark eyes, his chest rising and falling with each ragged breath. Written plainly on his beautiful face were both restless desire and utter contentment, irreconcilable extremes bound together so easily by his calm trust.

The rush of his own emotion at the sight made Jim feel a little unhinged. He did not know how to express so much love. It rose in his breast like a fire blazing out of control or a bird taking flight. It him so completely there was room for nothing else but the rhythmic pressure of Blair's quick breaths and quicker heartbeat. There was nothing else in the world for Jim but this man in his arms. Waiting in love while Jim held him so intimately, wanting nothing except what Jim wanted of him.

Jim didn't know what he wanted. He already had more than he had ever hoped to find. Blair still watched him with dark, dark eyes that seemed so calm, so knowing. Only his uneven breaths and thundering pulse betrayed that calm. That and the involuntary twitch of his cock in Jim's hand. Blair's head fell back, a moan escaping him. He bit his lip, shivering in Jim's arms.

Intoxicating desires crowded Jim's mind. He did know what he wanted. This, only this. Blair crying out, wanton and helpless in pleasure as Jim loved him. Jim's face was suddenly hot, a flush of desire that spread down his own throat and chest. He saw it so clearly. Sinking to his knees before Blair, here on the bathroom floor. Cold tiles under his knees, Blair's sturdy thighs trembling against his chest, and Blair's stomach quivering against his forehead. The taste of Blair in his mouth, filling him, not just hints and echoes but the actual weight on his tongue, the silken ball pressed hard against the inside of his cheek, then against his throat as Blair lost control.

The imagining made Jim feel hollow with love, half frantic with tender longing. He dropped the towel so he could hold Blair with his bare hand, the flesh so soft and delicate weighted in his palm. Blair's eyes were half closed, his head back, his bruised throat bared, but he still watched Jim. His eyes were darker and clearer than ever through his lashes. His lips were parted, his breaths rasping in his throat.

"What am I going to do?" he asked Blair helplessly. "I love you so much."

A smile touched Blair's full lips. He shrugged, and he let go of Jim's shoulders so he could wrap his arms firmly around Jim's back. "I don't know," he said in a shaky voice. His thighs were still open, trembling against Jim's hand. "But I love you too. Maybe we can work something out."

"All right," Jim breathed, safe with Blair's arms around him. He dropped a kiss on Blair's forehead, and then carefully released him, running his hand up Blair's warm belly, then taking Blair's head in both hands and smiling as Blair beamed up at him. "Just let me know."

"Come on, Jim," Blair voice was husky and soft, despite the grin on his face. "You really think that's gonna be a problem? This is me we're taking about. Self-expression has never exactly been a problem." He squeezed Jim hard, and then buried his face against Jim's chest. "I'm serious." His voice thrummed hotly against Jim's flesh. "Whatever you need -- right now, here on the floor, if it's what you want."

"Oh god, Chief." He put his arms around Blair and pulled him closer still, until his desperately pounding heart thundered against Blair's cheek. Blair hugged him back, shoulders hunching as he held Jim as tight as he could. "This is what I want," he told Blair truthfully. "This, right now."

Blair made a happy sound, not quite a laugh, and relaxed his fierce embrace. Jim could feel his arms shaking still. "A hug? That's it?"

Jim laughed too. He brought one hand up and spread his fingers against the back of Blair's head, his other arm resting more easily over Blair's shoulders. "And maybe a kiss," he said thoughtfully. "If it's not too much trouble, Sandburg."

Blair pressed back against Jim's hand so he could look up at his face. "A kiss, huh?" He stretched up on tiptoe, smiling gently. "Am I likely to get a better offer?"

"Don't know," Jim said, his own voice just as quiet. He bent at the knee to bring his face almost level with Blair's, hips pressed forward, Blair's heat against his own. "Want to wait and see?"

Blair's composure began to falter again. He managed to shake his head and whisper, "No."

Jim couldn't wait either. He held Blair's head in both hands and kissed his mouth, a soft, brief brush of lips against lips. Blair swayed against him, eyes fluttering shut. Jim kissed him again, his lips finding Blair's just as carefully. Blair's mouth was open, and he still tasted to Jim of rainwater and brandy and sex. Jim held his head carefully, his face still level with Blair's, and kissed him a third time, still without pressure or force, wanting to feel the sensitive mouth opening under his own. Blair's lips were soft and wet, and Blair's tongue found his carefully, a slow tasting that made Jim moan in the back of his throat. He answered Blair's careful searching, tilting his head to the side, opening more and then drawing back to brush Blair's lips once again as he broke the kiss. Blair's eyes were still closed, his lips slightly parted. Waiting for Jim.

Jim couldn't make him wait long. He drank in the sight for a moment, then met Blair's lips again, hearing Blair's sigh of relief and love, feeling his body relax against Jim's own. A light kiss at first, as the others had been, and then Jim kissed him more deeply. One arm around Blair's neck, supporting his head in his hand, his other slipped down to hold his shoulders, warm even through the terry cloth robe.

Blair whimpered, his head falling back under the pressure of Jim's mouth, only to meet the support of Jim's hand, holding the curve of his skull in his palm. Blair's mouth was soft and hot and eager, opening wide even as his body shook against Jim's. His hands were restless over Jim's back, as though looking for something to hold onto, and he was breathing hard through his nose, the hot air puffing against Jim's face.

Jim held him carefully, and let the kiss grow deeper, making love to Blair's mouth with his lips and his tongue. Turning his head to the side he was able to push deeper, and even the implicit violence of teeth against teeth was gentle for them.

Jim's thighs had begun to shake from the strain of holding himself level with Blair, but he couldn't stop. Blair was too precious, the taste of his mouth was too good. Jim felt himself beginning to slip, and did nothing to stop the delicious fall. He felt heat like a fever, singing his flesh and burning away all thought. He did not know if it were Blair's heat or his own, and it didn't matter. They were fast becoming one in the same.

The soft ends of Blair's hair prickled his arm where it lay over Blair's shoulders, a maddening, exquisite sensation. He wanted to bury himself in that soft hair, fragrant from the rain and the sweat of their lovemaking. The nipples on Blair's chest were achingly erect, pressing hard against Jim's chest. And every contraction of Blair's strong heart beat through flesh and muscle and bone and the silky pelt that covered Blair's breast. Jim's heart was beating in time with Blair's, he knew it. As they kissed they even drew breaths as one.

Blair's hips rocked forward, his tender sex growing harder against Jim's, but the urgency was luxurious, measured and sweet as the slow thrust of Blair's tongue and the heat of Blair's hands, one spread wide against Jim's back, the other moving gently across the back of Jim's head.

There had been nothing before this kiss. There would never be anything again. Jim felt ragged, incongruous hints of the world that was not Blair, but they only served to make Blair's touch more complete. The tile floor underfoot. The loops in the terry cloth robe over Blair's shoulders. Water dripping in the sink behind him.

None of the rest of it meant anything, except that the suggestion of a world that wasn't Blair drove him deeper, closer, spiraling into the very heart of his love, the intimacy so complete he was not wholly sure what he would see if he opened his eyes at this moment. He had not been so lost in Blair even when Blair had brought him to sharp ecstasy with the firm stroke of his hand. Blair's reactions were his own. He knew what Blair felt when he tasted that exquisite mouth -- he felt every reaction of the body he clasped in his arms. He might open his eyes to find he really was Blair, trembling violently, desperately under the onslaught of Jim's love.

The end was as gentle as all the rest had been. Jim felt a feather-soft touch on his cheek, and it drew him back to himself, reluctant and slow. Blair's hand touching him so carefully. Blair's body pressed against his own. The reluctance bled easily into a calm, happy acceptance.

He held Blair's head in his hands as he finally broke the kiss. He had to straighten his legs before they both ended up on the floor, but it wasn't easy drawing away from Blair as he did it. Blair wrapped his arms around Jim tight and held on, grinning against Jim's chest. Jim opened his eyes at length to see that smile. Everything still felt slightly unreal. That post-zone confusion had always frightened him in the past, but not now. Not with Blair's head cradled in his hands, Blair's arms clasped around his back. The taste of Blair so sweet on his lips.

Blair laughed shakily. "See?" he whispered. He talked as though his tongue felt thick. "Knew you were trying to kill me."

"No," Jim said in a quiet voice, feeling, for the moment, too vulnerable even for Blair's gentle teasing. "I'm sorry. I don't want to -- Blair, you'll have to tell me if it's too much."

Blair's head came up. He let go of the grip he had around Jim's ribs and put his hand over Jim's mouth. "No," he breathed. "No, Jim, it's not too much." He took his hand away then, stretched up on tiptoe and kissed the corner of Jim's mouth, balancing himself with his hands on Jim's shoulders. "I didn't even know, but I do now. Listen to me, OK? " He looked seriously at Jim until Jim nodded. "There's a lot I still don't know, but I know this for sure. If you want something, then I want it, too. Man, Jim, I don't even know how to tell you how much I want it." He put his arms around Jim's shoulders and laid his head on Jim's chest. His voice got quieter, a sultry murmur even though he was too shy to meet Jim's eyes. "Just thinking about what would turn you on makes me so hot, I feel like my brain's on fire."

He laughed quietly, hugging Jim tighter and giving a little shiver of pleasure, his cock brushing across Jim's thighs. Jim smiled too. He was running his hand carefully through Blair's hair, untangling the knots with his fingers. "You sure it's your brain that's on fire?"

"Well, among other things," Blair admitted. Jim felt him smiling against his chest, then he dropped his head back so Jim could see the smile. "What are we gonna do?" he asked Jim, not sounding too worried about it.

Jim kissed his forehead. "How about getting some dinner?"

Blair grinned harder. "You've been promising me food all night, and I haven't seen a bite to eat yet."

"I'm sorry," Jim said, bending down to nuzzle his cheek against Blair's.

Blair's warm hands smoothed over his head. "You're forgiven," he whispered.

It was that tone of voice, Jim thought. It went right through him, pierced his heart, broke him so tenderly, so irredeemably. He felt as though he could never be as loving and gentle as Blair deserved, but that Blair would forgive him every attempt anyway. He closed his eyes, brushing Blair's face with his lips, finding Blair's lips already parted for him. "Thank you," he told Blair. Just two words, the faintest fragment of breath before he covered Blair's mouth with his own, accepting the gift of Blair's love once again. The experience grew sweeter with each repetition.

Blair's hands were still holding his head, warm and gentle, and Blair was straining up on tiptoe so Jim would not have to bend down to him. Jim felt vaguely guilty for enjoying the tension in that warm body, stretched taut and pressed so eagerly to his -- surely this wasn't comfortable for Blair -- but the contrast between the muscles flexing in that compact form, and the yielding softness of Blair's open mouth was so exquisite he couldn't let him go yet. His arms wrapped around Blair's back, he pulled him closer, and the way Blair moaned and stretched up on tiptoe a little bit further, Jim knew Blair wanted him to feel this. That last wonderful kiss, he had knelt for Blair. Now Blair wanted to reach up for him.

Blair's fingers stroked restlessly through Jim's hair as he kissed Jim, and accepted Jim's kisses in turn. Back and forth, tender pressure and sweeter release. Blair was ruthless, lips pressed to Jim's mouth over and over again, his tongue slipping eagerly over Jim's, the little sobbing sounds bubbling from his mouth, the hisses of air he breathed out through flared nostrils.

Jim tried to yield everything to him -- he kept thinking he had nothing left to give -- and was surprised each time Blair's gentle hands and eager mouth and shaking, straining body coaxed a new surrender from him. And when Blair eased his mouth from Jim's and pressed his next kiss to the tender flesh under the hinge of Jim's jaw, Jim groaned aloud, and shook so violently Blair wrapped one arm around his ribs as though he could hold Jim up.

"Shh, Jim. Hush, easy." Blair dropped back on to his heels, laying the side of his face against Jim's chest. "I'm sorry." Both arms were wrapped hard around Jim's back now. "Easy, it's just me."

That surprised Jim into a laugh of pure joy. He was already holding Blair close, but he tightened his arms in a bearhug, thinking distantly it was a good thing the bathroom was as small as it was -- the way he felt, he was more than half tempted to sweep Blair up in his arms and spin him around the room. Blair grunted in surprise too and squeezed Jim back, rubbing his face on Jim's chest. "I think I forgot what the question was," he told Jim in a muffled voice.

"Was there a question?" Jim asked, enjoying the feel of Blair's soft hair ruffled against his chest.

Blair chuckled. "I'm pretty certain, man." He lifted his head and kissed the point of Jim's jaw. "Like, are you gonna ravish me here on the bathroom floor, or do I have to carry you upstairs first?" He kissed Jim's chin next, and then his smiling lips. "Or ... were you finally going to fix me some dinner? You know, I think that might have been it after all."

"Dinner?" Jim said. He was hungry, but it seemed an odd thing to be worried about right now. He brought his hands up and put them on Blair's shoulders, looking happily down at that smiling face. "What do you want me to fix?"

Blair laughed at him again and swatted him in the chest. "You're the one who's been talking about chicken soup all night."

"I have?" Jim said. His hands still on Blair's shoulders, he walked Sandburg backward a step, until his back was against the wall by the door. Then he tucked his hands inside the collar of the terry cloth robe, resting his palms over the arch of Blair's breastbone. Blair's heart was beating fast, but his chest rose with long, slow, steady breaths.

"Yes, you have," Blair informed him, though his attempt to sound stern was spoiled a little by his gasp when Jim slowly ran his fingers up his throat. He was gentle over the bruises, feeling again the faint warmth, the roughness of healing skin. He reached the underside of Blair's chin, brushing his fingertips over the bristle of a darkening shadow, and then touched his face. He let the pads of his fingers rest easily across Blair's cheeks, cradling the line of his jaw in the palms of his hands. He felt Blair swallow.

"Do you *want* chicken soup?" he asked Blair seriously. "It's just the canned stuff. I know you think it has too much salt."

Blair looked up at him, eyes a little glazed. "Jim --" he began, sounding helpless. He was leaning heavily against the wall. "I don't care. Whatever you want. I really, really don't care."

"You don't?" Jim lowered his head and kissed Blair's mouth, then whispered to him, still cradling Blair's face in the palms of his hands, "Want you to have a good dinner, Chief." And that was so nice he kissed Blair again, his mouth soft over Blair's. His palms slid carefully along the line of Blair's jaw until he could push his fingers through the halo of Blair's hair. He was supporting Blair against the wall, his chest firm against Blair's, his hips pressed forward, feeling Blair tremble against him, allowing Jim to hold him.

Blair's hair felt so soft, tangling around his spread fingers. Jim broke the kiss at long last so he could nuzzle his face against Blair's again, pressing closer, feeling the silky locks over his own cheeks and brow. Blair's hot hands came to rest at Jim's waist with a care that made Jim groan.

The puff of heated air so close to his ear made Blair moan too. He writhed against Jim, his hands tightening, then spreading wide again. "Jim," he gasped. "Whatever you want. I really -- don't --care." His last words came out as punctuated cries as Jim turned his head and began to thoughtfully kiss the tender flesh of Blair's throat. Jim felt the prickle of whiskers against his lips, the softness of Blair's skin, and underneath, the very pulse of Blair's precious life. Jim was faint with longing. Or maybe it was lack of food, a little voice inside him said, and that made him smile against Blair's throat. They really should get some dinner. But he couldn't resist closing his mouth over the warm skin. The faintest pressure of teeth, then, because it made Blair cry out, an almost breathless gasp of pleasure, and throw his arms around Jim, trying to drag him closer, embracing him so violently Jim heard himself gasp too.

"Blair," Jim said against his throat, and then he folded Blair to him as well, pulling him away from the wall so he could wrap his arms around Blair's shoulders. He felt every tremor that ran through the beautiful body he was allowed to hold this way. He raised his head and kissed Blair's lips again, softly. His own lips were starting to feel a little numb, and he laughed. Blair laughed too, in helpless reaction, and Jim slowly straightened up, feeling a protesting ache across his shoulders.

One arm still around Blair's back, he reached up with his other hand and laid his fingers over Blair's lips. His lips were swollen and warm as if they were bruised. Blair grinned. "We're a sight, aren't we?" he murmured, reaching up to touch Jim's lips as well.

"You are," Jim agreed, kissing his forehead. "A beautiful one."

Sandburg blushed, a slow, red heat that mounted his cheeks. "Jim --" he protested, and then closed his eyes. Jim kissed each closed eyelid.

"Dinner?" Jim asked when Blair finally looked up at him again.

"All right," Blair pretended to grumble, his arms still locked tight around Jim's back. "But put some clothes on, would you?"

Jim grinned at him. "You're the one who wanted me to take them off in the first place."

Blair rolled his eyes and grinned back. "And now I'm asking you to put them back on. How am I supposed to finish my paper with you walking around the place looking like that?"

Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and gently pushed him back against the wall. Blair rolled his head against the tile and looked up at Jim, smiling in happy defiance. Jim dropped a kiss on those grinning lips and then growled, "You said it was finished. You promised you would turn it in." A thought occurred to him. "Sandburg, you told me you'd turn it in tonight."

A faint frown creased Blair's forehead. "I don't remember saying that."

"I do." Jim pressed a little closer, pinning Blair to the wall with his body. His hands were still resting firmly on Blair's shoulders, close to the neck so he could feel the strong pulse. "You said if I listened to what you had to say, you'd drop off your paper tonight."

Blair grinned, triumphant. "And you didn't listen, did you? Look, just let me read over it a couple more times and clean up the footnotes, and I'll turn it in tomorrow, I promise." Jim must have allowed something to cross his face at that, because suddenly Blair lost his own grin. His hands came up and held Jim's head gently. "It's OK," he said quietly.

"No, I didn't listen," Jim admitted. "I'm sorry."

"Jim, the reason you didn't listen is because I wasn't saying anything you could hear. I was still asking way too much, I know that now. I hadn't worked things out for myself yet either, and there I was trying to tell you what to do. It couldn't have worked. I know that. That was my fault."

Jim stopped the recriminations by lowering his head and kissing Blair's mouth. His hands were still on Blair's shoulders, and he found Blair's lips without force or pressure, simply asking, the kiss as gentle as he could make it, for the absolution they both sought.

Blair granted it so easily, so joyfully. His mouth opened under Jim's, his soft lips parting as he breathed out a sigh of longing. Jim felt a sharp, desperate ache to fulfill that longing, to give Blair whatever he needed, whatever he wanted. Perhaps more than he dared to want for himself. Jim deepened the kiss and felt Blair's yielding, and all at once the fire was back, burning hotter and sweeter than ever. Jim tore his mouth away and groaned, "Blair -- "

"Anything," Blair whispered, his voice low, somehow knowing what Jim was asking. "Jim, anything."

Part 2

Jim drew back, and Blair saw his face. Jim's eyes were hot, his cheeks flushed, wet lips parted. Blair could hear him panting. But even like this, shaking and lost with desire, the look he turned on Blair was so tender Blair suddenly felt unsteady on his feet. He leaned harder against the wall, bracing himself, and asked Jim, "Please."

A softness overspread Jim's features. With the flat of his hand he smoothed the hair back off Blair's forehead, a restless, half-desperate gesture. "Blair," he said again his voice breaking, and with his palm still hot on Blair's brow, he bent forward and kissed him again.

Blair knew he was trembling. There was no point in trying to hide it, not from Jim. But he wanted to be the steady one, Jim's anchor now, more than ever. He wanted to let Jim know that somehow -- no matter what, no matter how far they journeyed, he was still Blair Sandburg, still Jim's friend. But all he could do was tremble when Jim's lips touched his, and groan out loud when Jim's other hand slipped inside his robe and spread wide over his chest. His smooth fingers ruffled the hair on his chest, hot against Blair's flesh, but gentle over the bruises. The faint pressure was a memory of breathlessness and pain, not pain itself, and Blair wondered despairingly all over again in that part of his mind that never seemed to shut itself off -- not even at a moment like this, when Jim's fingertips had found his right nipple and were circling it carefully, teasing it more erect -- how Jim could ever have thought himself capable causing such hurt.

Jim's mouth tasted his hungrily, his tongue thrusting deep. Those questing fingers had found his aching nipple and were stroking and rolling it gently between the soft pads of his fingers. Blair shuddered, reaching blindly back for Jim, a prisoner of his body's violent response to Jim's touch. If Jim were to stop breathing right now, Blair suspected he wouldn't be able to draw another breath either.

Jim eased his mouth away for a moment, leaving Blair bereft. Blair heard himself cry out, a little sob of protest escaping before he could stop himself, but then Jim's cheek was laid next to his, and Jim's hand was flat on his breast again, two fingers brushing carefully, slowly, back and forth across his nipple until Blair felt the taut pleasure shivering through him like a plucked wire. He was still trying to stay focused, to remember what was important, but Jim wasn't making it easy for him. Not when Jim's lips touched his ear, and Jim whispered in a heated breath, "Beautiful Blair --"

Blair shivered violently, his knees buckling, but Jim was pressed close, keeping him upright, even while he traced the shell of Blair's ear with his tongue, hot and wet and so gentle. The sensation burned through him, almost unendurably sweet, and he tipped his head away from Jim's, not because he wanted Jim to stop, but because the feelings were too shatteringly intense for him to hold himself still.

Jim understood. He didn't stop. He kissed Blair's exposed neck, worrying the sensitive flesh with his lips and tongue, moving slowly down to his shoulder, nuzzling aside the collar of his robe. His gentle fingers continued to stroke and tease Blair's nipple, until the pleasure verged on pain. Then his palm cupped softly, gentling Blair, protecting the tender flesh for an instant before beginning again, the pleasure building from an even higher plateau.

Blair heard himself whimpering. He tried to shut up, but some things were beyond his control by this point, and this was one of them. Some things? Everything. Everything. He should have known, he thought desperately, shaking under Jim's loving ministrations. Jim was absolutely single-minded when he set his mind to something.

Jim ducked his head, half crouching, and carefully closed his mouth over Blair's breast. Blair's head rolled back against the wall as Jim worked with him with care, kissing him, licking and tasting, suckling with tender concentration. The ache of his lovingly abused nipple destroyed everything, all thought, all reason. He couldn't stand it for another second. He never wanted Jim to stop. In desperation he reached up with both hands and held Jim's head, and the soft brush of Jim's hair and the heat of his scalp made him feel so fiercely, tenderly protective, even at a moment like this.

Dear Jim. Dear, gentle, beautiful, loving, insatiable Jim. God, I've created a monster, Blair thought, half-hysterical, and almost surprised himself into laughing, though what emerged was a strangled sort of groan. Jim's arms were wrapped hard above the small of his back, still supporting him even in this awkward position, and it seemed to Blair that the heat of Jim's mouth burned straight through him, leaving in its wake a core of fevered yearning. Imprinting desire on his flesh with such ferocity it reached through and found his very soul.

Blair wondered, through the haze that seemed to tinge all his thoughts red with longing, if he had understood what he was doing when he first knelt before Jim. He didn't think so. He didn't think he would have had the nerve to take such an irrevocable step, to change their lives so profoundly, if he had stopped for a minute to think things through.

There hadn't been time for thinking. He'd been pushing Jim so relentlessly all evening, demanding so much of him. Jim had tried so hard, and the final failure had simply shattered him. Blair had finally seen him there crouched on the floor, so lost, so afraid, his whole body bowed with the weight of his grief.

Blair would have done anything to make things right again. Stolen, lied, murdered -- cut out his very heart and handed it to Jim -- anything in the world to bring that expression back to Jim's face. The way Jim had looked at him when he first touched his lips to Blair's bruised throat, then raised his head, looked in Blair's eyes, and smiled.

Oh god, here he was crying again. His hands moved restlessly over Jim's head, cradling it against his breast. Jim didn't look up, but he must have known anyway. His kisses grew gentler, and at length he sank to his knees, arms wrapped around Blair's hips, his head resting against Blair's stomach. "I love you so much," Blair whispered, smoothing his hands over Jim's head again and again. The cold air on his wet nipple burned like a brand. The sweet mark of Jim's love. The ache grew until he had to raise one hand to cover his breast, and his own palm felt coarse as a stranger's.

Jim tightened his arms around Blair for a moment, then turned his head, and pressed a burning kiss to his stomach. Blair swallowed his moan, but Jim apparently wasn't looking for restraint. He released one arm and brought it around so he could lay his heated palm on Blair's stomach too as he kissed him again.

Blair felt himself go taut as a bowstring. He bit his lower lip for control, his hips rocking forward in response. "Jim--" he hissed, half frantic, and swore he could feel Jim smiling against his twitching belly.

"Blair," Jim said, his voice a throaty murmur before he kissed him again. "Blair." His hand trailed down Blair's stomach, traced lazy circles over the angle of his hip, then stroked his thigh. Every kiss was measured and careful, as though he were gauging Blair's response before beginning again, each touch of his lips, every flicker of his tongue somehow more exquisitely perfect than the one before.

Blair hardly trusted himself to hold Jim's head any longer, as badly as he was shaking. He put both hands on Jim's broad shoulders and held on tight. He had never imagined love could be like this, and the incidental fact Jim was another man seemed the least of it. There was nothing between them. No distance, no artifice. No attempt to maintain the self. There was no fear. It almost broke Blair's heart to think Jim had believed such intimacy was possible, and had sought it in vain all his life. He thought of the others -- Carolyn and the rest. What fools they must have been. What pathetic, frightened, lost fools. To have held this man in their arms even once, and not have known.

Jim slowly ran his hand up the inside of Blair's thigh, cupped his balls for a moment, and then carefully wrapped his palm around the base of his cock. Blair let out a breath of air no louder than a sigh. He couldn't stop his head from turning to side to side, any more than he could stop the constant, helpless grinding of his hips. He was achingly, agonizingly hard. Every touch anywhere on his body seemed to burn a path straight to his cock. Jim was pressing feather-soft kisses to the flesh below his navel, holding Blair up with the arm still around his hips and the press of his chest against Blair's thighs.

"Jim." Blair could hardly recognize his own voice. It rasped, hollow and hoarse, no more than a whisper.

"I love you, too," Jim said, his own voice just as low. He bowed his head, sinking down on his heels, and brought Blair's cock against his face. The bristles on his chin rubbed against the shaft, and Blair could feel the slick wet trail the weeping head left as it crossed Jim's cheekbone.

"Jim." Still whispering, babbling now. He had locked his knees to stay upright, and he'd taken his hands off Jim's shoulders and spread them flat against the wall behind him, trying to brace himself that way. "Jim --it's all right -- I'm -- you don't --"

"Sandburg," Jim said, his voice still hoarse, gusting warm and intimate, but Jim, just Jim, the same Jim Blair had loved all along. "Hush." And proceeded to lay a trail of soft kisses up the shaft above his hand, as though finding his way.

Blair couldn't move. He couldn't think. He had to hush, because he had no voice left. All sensation had been concentrated in his cock for so long, but now that Jim was tasting the head with lips and tongue, slowly easing down, giving both Blair and himself time -- suddenly he felt as though he'd been turned inside out. Every square inch of skin prickled and burned with arousal. He could hardly bear the brush of the terrycloth robe against his shoulders.

Jim sank down further. Blair felt the flat of Jim's tongue, the roof of his mouth, the inside of his cheek. Everything was shutting down in utter chaos. His eyes were closed but he saw bright lights anyway. Every breath he took hurt, an actual ache of desperation as though he had to force himself to keep breathing. The whole damn room seemed to be spinning and he couldn't seem to remember where they were. Still in the bathroom? *God -- don't tell me we're on the floor again.* The intimacy of Jim's touch made him feel as though he really had cut his heart out and offered it to Jim.

But the hurt was a wonderful one. Exhilarating, utterly freeing. He wanted to scream his joy to the world, despite the fact there was no breath in his lungs, far less strength in his sinews. He was slipping down the wall inch by inch, the robe sliding up his back, but he could hardly care about that. There was nothing but the joy in his heart and the agonizing pleasure of Jim's mouth taking him so gently and so ruthlessly.

And then before he realized what was happening, Jim had released him, surging up to press him back against the wall, the hot press of his body against Blair's so welcome Blair could only sag into his warmth and strength. "Blair," Jim was saying, his arms around him, stroking his hair, holding him tighter. "Blair?"

A question. Jim was asking him a question. Blair wondered what it was. He pressed his forehead against Jim's chest and tried to embrace him in return, and shivered with very irresponsible satisfaction when he realized Jim was just as hard as he was, his cock trapped between their bellies. His own was pressed against Jim's thigh, and he could still feel Jim's mouth, spasms of pleasure that tightened in his lower belly. He tried to answer the question he hadn't understood, and only groaned.

"Blair," Jim said again. Blair felt his lips close to his ear, and shivered again. "Can you wait on dinner?"

Blair snorted. He threw his arms around Jim's neck and kissed his face with a noisy smack. "You are -- such-- a dead man."

"Threats, Sandburg?" Jim kissed him back, finding Blair's lips, lingering long enough to be sure Blair tasted his mouth, and the sour intoxicating tang of sex. Blair groaned, kissing him hungrily in turn, somehow trying to wind himself more closely around Jim. Jim stooped then, and Blair felt Jim's arm slide behind his knees.

He pulled his mouth away from Jim. "Don't you --" Too late. With a grunt, Jim had swung him up in his arms. "Dammit, Jim," Blair protested, holding very still, his arms around Jim's neck. He could feel Jim's arms trembling. Jim took a half step, bracing himself. "Are you out of your mind?"

"You keep asking me that," Jim grinned down at him, a hint of strain beginning to show at the corners of his mouth. "Do I seem crazy to you?"

"Just warning you." Blair told him, softly. He felt disoriented and out of control like this, his legs dangling in the air, looking up at Jim's face from this unfamiliar angle, too far away to kiss him. But Jim's strong arms were holding him up, and this was Jim's broad chest he was half-curled against. He went on, even more quietly, "When you throw your back out, and I have to call the EMT's to come scrape you off the floor, I'm telling 'em exactly how you did it."

The smile on Jim's face changed. Blair saw the innocent pleasure in his own strength shifting into a tender vulnerability. The pale blue eyes gazed down at him trusting Blair with his heart. Blair could hear it in his voice. "Would you really tell them?"

For a breathless instant, Blair was unsure, as though he truly were dangling over a precipice. He reached out, looking for something to hold onto, but there was no need. Jim was already holding him. Jim wouldn't let him fall. He smiled up at Jim, hard, and those tears in the corners of his eyes were old ones, left over from much earlier in the evening. "Damn straight I would."

Jim gave a shout of laugher. Two steps to the door, then he had to turn sideways to maneuver Blair and himself out. "You've got a real way with words, Sandburg. Anyone ever tell you that? No wonder it took you a year to write that paper."

"Hey, that's low," Blair protested. They were at his bedroom door, and crossing that familiar threshold like this made his stomach flip-flop. He took a deep breath, keeping his eyes fixed on Jim's face.

Jim was watching where he was going, picking his way with care, and Blair thought, grinning, that he would have tidied up after himself if he had foreseen this. Jim held him for a moment more at his bedside, looking down at him as though he couldn't quite believe what he was holding in his arms. Blair closed his eyes, shivering, so buffeted by emotions and sensations he didn't know if he'd be able to stand when Jim finally put him down. He was so hard that his cock was jammed painfully against his belly, but the desire was shot through with the peace of utter contentment.

Jim released him gently, letting his legs down until his feet touched the bed. Blair's body turned against Jim's as he found his balance. The bed wasn't made. He was standing on one pillow and the wadded up corner of the comforter. Jim was still on the floor, and the difference in height was enough for Jim to rest his head on Blair's chest, face against Blair's throat, as Blair stroked Jim's biceps to feel the trembling muscles.

Then he put his own arms around Jim and held him close for a moment, before taking a cautious step backward on the futon, dragging his heels to be sure he wasn't about to step on a notebook or his backpack or whatever else might be lying in the middle of his bed. Jim let him move away reluctantly. His hands had been spread wide across Blair's ribs, and he didn't pull him back, but he kept his hands there, looking up at Blair, waiting, even after all this, to be asked.

"Yeah," Blair said, kneeling on the bed and tugging Jim down with him. "I can wait a little while for dinner."

"Make it up to you --" Jim whispered. He shuffled forward on his knees until he was close enough to put his arms around Blair's shoulders. He pressed a soft kiss to Blair's forehead, and Blair felt the touch of Jim's lips all the way to the tips of his toes. He felt himself smile with dreamy pleasure.

"OK," he said, hugging Jim tighter, hoping Jim would kiss him again. Every touch of those sensitive lips left him more naked, more free. Jim understood. His hands came up and he held Blair's head, those gentle fingers combing through his hair, pressed warmly to his scalp. He kissed Blair's temple, his closed eyelids, nuzzling his lips across one cheek while Blair tried to stop shivering.

"Cold?" Jim asked softly, his cheek against Blair's.

"No."

"You're trembling."

"I know," Blair agreed, hearing how his voice shook.

"I love you," Jim said.

Blair felt the ache under his breastbone again, sharp enough to make him cry out, sweet enough to make him weep. "I know," he said again. Jim's hands slipped down and eased the bathrobe off his shoulders. The sudden chill raised goosebumps, but Jim's hands were so warm, fingers spread over his shoulder blades, then stroking down close to his backbone, making him sigh and arch closer.

Jim bent his head and kissed Blair's mouth softly. "Do you ever make up your bed, Sandburg?"

"Mmmm," Blair sighed. He tried again, struggling to talk while Jim kissed the crook of his jaw, and then the soft flesh underneath. "Wha's the point? Just gets messed up again -- oh god, Jim."

"Something wrong?" Jim whispered against his throat, his breath hot against the wet flesh he'd been kissing a moment before.

"No -- just --" Jim had gone back to kissing his throat, pulling little folds of flesh gently between his teeth. "-- ah -- wondering why you care about the bed." The words came out between his own gritted teeth.

Jim pulled back and smiled at him. Blair sank down on his heels, his thighs shaking too badly to remain kneeling up. Jim patted the side of his face, his eyes crinkling in amusement. "So you don't mind if I put the books on the floor?"

Blair looked over his shoulder. A stack of library books was teetering at the foot of the bed. He smiled too. "Yeah, maybe we better."

Jim held his head with both hands for a moment, palms cradling his jaw. He kissed him once, softly, that touch of lips against lips that promised so much more and was utterly complete all by itself. Then Jim curled over onto one hip, stretching out so he could reach the books without getting up. Blair watched that long body uncoiling so beautifully, the flex of muscles in his arm as he reached out and snagged the books one by one and dropped them on the floor, his legs straightening toward the head of the bed. The leg beneath himself was bent at the hip and the knee, the other straight, the ball of his foot almost touching the wall.

Blair couldn't help it. He didn't try to. He laid his hand on Jim's hip, felt that strong body begin to tremble at that single touch, and he curled down beside Jim, resting his head on Jim's thigh above his bent knee.

Jim went perfectly still, save for the little twitches and shakes he didn't seem to be able to help any more than Blair could.

Blair was still resting his hand on Jim's hip. He ran his fingers and the palm of his hand up as far as Jim's waist and back again, gently, reassuringly, he hoped, feeling the warmth of Jim's thigh under his head, the dark sprinkling of hair tickling his cheek when he rubbed his face against Jim's flesh. There was a hollow feeling in the pit of Blair's stomach that didn't have anything to do with how late dinner had been delayed.

He let his fingers drift down across the flat of Jim's hip, slowly, trying to be as tender and careful as Jim had been for him. Jim's cock was rigid, flat across his belly, the head almost touching his navel. The curling hairs were still damp. "So beautiful," Blair whispered, marveling a little at himself, at both of them.

Jim moaned. Blair felt Jim's hand on his thigh, then his arm curving around the back of both thighs and the soft brush of Jim's short hair across the front of his thighs. He sucked his gut in hard, the intimacy of that touch making little runners of flame dance up his spine. He wrapped his hand around Jim's straining cock, and his awe at being permitted this was as shattering as the touch of Jim's lips to his belly.

"Jim, I want to," he whispered. He wanted this so much he could hear his own breaths, panting shamelessly with need, his flesh prickling hot and cold, his own pulse thundering in his ears. "Please." He wanted this so badly he was afraid he would misunderstand, get something wrong. "Please."

Jim gasped. Blair was so close he could see his stomach indrawn sharply. "Blair," he said, and that was all he managed, his voice low and harsh and beautiful, and all at once Blair felt a sweet, spreading calm rising to overwhelm him.

"Jim," he said. He stroked Jim with his closed fist, knowing that everything made perfect sense and was right beyond question, just as it had always been. He felt the throb of Jim's response against his palm. He could smell the heat, saw the flinches and tremors wracking the body of the powerful man who lay so willingly vulnerable in his arms.

Blair arched his neck, and took Jim into his mouth.

He was aware of Jim's arm tightening around his thighs, of Jim's breaths hot at his groin. He slid his other hand under Jim's thigh, anchoring himself. He felt Jim's head tossing against his thighs and heard the sounds Jim made, soft and lost. Not so different from a moan of pain, and Blair remembered how much pain there had been for Jim. The ache of the desire was sweetened and completed by a rush of sympathy. Everything they had been through, everything Jim had suffered, what he remembered most poignantly was Jim running after him in the rain.

And he'd pushed Jim away. Then tried to lock Jim out of his heart when he didn't have the physical strength to shake Jim's grip on his shoulders. He remembered the rain beating down on their heads and the grief on Jim's face.

*I was so wrong,* Blair grieved. *And I'll never leave you again, Jim. I promise, I promise.* He tried to open his throat more as he felt the involuntary thrusts, the hot length sliding over his tongue, a silken weight and pressure that made Blair flush with heat. He could give this to Jim. Enough joy to erase that moment of doubt forever. Surely he could. He'd never wanted anything as much in his life as he wanted Jim's pleasure now.

Jim was trying to hold back, Blair could feel it. He spread his hand across Jim's lower stomach, and could feel muscles trembling with the attempt at control. Jim's hands were restless on his body, kneading his ass, stroking the inside of his thigh, catching hold of his cock for a moment. That restless, unfocused movement from a man who did everything so deliberately told Blair even more than the low sounds Jim was still making and the shuddering weakness in Jim's strong body.

He didn't want Jim to hold back. He wanted to give Jim everything, no restraint anymore, no caution, just some measure of the love Jim had already shown him. And all the rest had been so easy. He sank down the length of Jim's cock in one long, easy stroke, and promptly gagged himself.

He had to let Jim go, the hard spasms closing his throat, tears springing to his eyes. "Sorry," he whispered when he could speak. He cuddled as close to Jim as he could get, his head pushed against Jim's thighs. He kept his fist curled possessively around Jim's cock, no intention of letting Jim get away.

Jim didn't try. He eased Blair's legs apart to reach the inside of his thigh, and kissed him as softly as he'd kissed Blair's face. "We can go slow," he whispered, and kissed him again, higher up. "No hurry."

"Jim--" He shook, feeling the sweet, warm imprint of Jim's lips as though emblazoned on his flesh. "Oh god, Jim."

Jim turned his head, sweeping his thighs with the bristle on his cheek and the soft brush of hair, and asked quietly, sounding amused, "How do you sleep on this mattress, Sandburg? It's hard as a rock." Then he pressed another kiss to Blair's upper thigh.

Oh god, that was nice. That was so damn nice. The tremors ran up from the base of his spine to spread hot, shivery fingers across his scalp. Blair could feel himself blushing with heat. He stroked the length of Jim's cock, then put his hand on Jim's hip as he pressed a lingering kiss to the inside of Jim's muscular thigh. Slow, Jim had said. Because they had plenty of time. Jim bucked, a helplessly visceral response, and Blair smiled. "I like a firm mattress, Jim," he whispered, hearing how hoarse he sounded. "It's good for my back."

"Difference between a firm mattress -- ," Jim hissed, his voice a hot whisper, " -- and a concrete slab." His lips found the hollow of Blair's thigh. Blair arched his back harder, shaking under the onslaught, and kissed Jim's inner thigh in return.

He heard Jim gasp, a trembling breath. Blair sighed, spreading his hands wide across Jim's hips, feeling Jim's hands holding him the same way. This could be dangerous, he thought, lifting his head to kiss Jim's taut belly as Jim's lips pressed a gentle kiss to Blair's own stomach. Mirroring a sentinel's touch kiss by kiss, stroke by stroke, only to feel each reflected back to him more tenderly than before. Allowing himself to be known so intimately, understood so completely. How would he ever stand being alone again?

He wouldn't be. He'd promised Jim. He'd told Jim they had forever. A melting warmth washed over him, trickling down his scalp like sweet almond oil, heating his blood, breaking his heart. He kissed Jim again, more tenderly, moving his hand over Jim's belly with a light, careful touch, pressing his lips just as carefully, feeling the soft flesh over corded muscles, wanting the touch of his lips and his hands to tell Jim all over again.

He thought of the look on Jim's face when he'd said the word, the way Jim had trembled in his arms. He remembered Jim saying "Forever," in turn, and watching him so carefully, with such wonder and joy as he repeated their vows. Blair smiled helplessly against Jim's stomach. Oh, man, what did he know about forever? He'd been nervous even accepting a two-year renewal on his fellowship.

But this was Jim, and he loved him so damn much. The flame burned hotter, making him want to give Jim everything -- right now, right this second. But Jim's touches were still languorous and slow, and Blair let his very being sink into Jim's careful love and found he could restrain his own delicious greed for Jim's pleasure. If Jim could be slow, he thought, shivering and stretching as Jim's fingers spread across his hips, stroking with the flat of his palm where Blair's flesh was taut over bone, kneading muscle with his strong fingers, then so could he.

Every kiss of his sensitive lips and every flicker of his tongue lit flames. Blair was burning alive, and he'd never known it could be so sweet and perfect and slow. He wanted to give this to Jim, he wanted Jim to know too. He had begun writhing against Jim, his body losing itself in the pleasure of Jim's touch, but his mind remained clear, and somehow, impossibly, it was even better than before. There was such joy in this, being able to return Jim's touches, to kiss Jim's flesh as Jim kissed his, feeling Jim tremble with the pleasure of it as Blair trembled as well.

He wrapped his hand around Jim's cock, carefully and deliberately. Jim's hand had slipped down over his hip and was stroking the inside of his thigh, spread fingers ruffling the hair with his fingertips, so light a touch that Blair bit his lip, holding back his cry, then bent his head and smothered the sounds that kept rising from his throat against Jim's lower belly.

Jim's pulse was strong and fast, Blair could feel it beating steadily against the pressure of his mouth. The knuckles of his hand, wrapped around Jim, were pressed against his own cheek as he worked his way further down. The hair at the crux of Jim's thighs was soft and damp, wiry with curls that tickled Blair's chin. He was smiling so hard it was hard to purse his lips to kiss Jim as carefully as he wanted to. He pressed his forehead against Jim's thigh, nuzzling Jim's legs further apart. He heard the catch in Jim's breathing, and felt a muscle in Jim's belly leap. Hard not to get carried away, to try and take everything now. His head was spinning, dazed and stupid with the weight of desire, the heat of longing. But Jim's touch eased and calmed him even while it stoked the fires hotter, an agonizingly sweet paradox. Blair groaned and contented himself with slipping his hand the length of Jim's cock, petting the head gently to hear Jim's gasp, before going back to the same fluttering, tender kisses Jim was pressing to his belly and thighs.

Jim did the same. A single, easy stroke, those sensitive fingers playing lightly across the head of his cock, fingertips smearing the slick heat in slow circles, before slipping down again, encircling Blair with warmth. Blair swallowed hard, having to hold still while the shocking pleasure screamed through him. After an instant the intensity dissipated into a slower, easier warmth, and he relaxed again against Jim with a groan. Jim chuckled.

"You bastard," Blair moaned happily, in between wet kisses laid in the hollow of Jim's hip.

"You started it," Jim said, his breath making Blair groan again.

"Me?" Blair released Jim so he could slip his own hand between Jim's parted thighs, warm and still damp from the washcloth. Jim's cock laid wetly against his cheek and temple. "How do you get off blaming me?" he teased quietly, easing his hand further up Jim's thigh.

But before he could touch Jim, a memory of pain came to him. He stopped, a cold pressure at the back of his throat, tears suddenly prickling at his eyes. *Damn it,* he thought miserably, and reached up to cup Jim in the palm of his hand as tenderly as he could. Soft flesh, wrinkled and so thin, the fragile roundness underneath slipping together even under the tender press of his fingers. Jim lay very still, not touching Blair the way Blair touched him, waiting as if he knew.

Blair kissed his thigh and said quietly. "I don't want to hurt you. Are you still sore?"

Jim's hand swept down his thigh, a long, comfortable stroke, before returning to his hip. "No," he murmured against Blair's stomach. "I'm ok."

"I'm sorry," Blair had to say it, even though he knew he was reminding Jim of the very things he wanted him to forget. "I'm so sorry."

"I'm not," Jim said, his voice sounding loud in the bedroom, and his next kisses were fierce. Blair shut his eyes, trembling, feeling teeth on his flesh, the hard suction of Jim's mouth. He cried out, pressing his head against Jim's thighs, trying to stay here, aware, close to Jim even as the sharp edged pleasure broke through him. "You survived," Jim hissed. "You survived and you saved my life." Violent kisses, over and over again, so shatteringly sweet that Blair couldn't keep still. Jim worked one arm under his thigh, and wrapped both arms around Blair's hips to hold him.

"Jim," he panted, clamping his hands on Jim's hips, kissing Jim just as fiercely, wanting Jim to know that he understood.

"Promise you always will," Jim demanded unreasonably, and Blair heard the tears in his voice, and felt them smeared across his stomach as Jim rubbed his face against him.

"I'll try," Blair promised anyway, kissing everything he could reach, belly, hip, thighs, the wrinkled softness of Jim's balls, the rigid length of his cock. Jim quaked in his arms. "I'll try, Jim," he breathed between every kiss. "I swear I will, somehow, for you."

At that, Jim grew still, his head buried warmly in Blair's lap, a wet slickness between Jim's cheek and the inner curve of Blair's hip. Jim's arms were still wrapped tight, and he could hear Jim breathing in hard gasps. "Jim," Blair said, and it was a truer promise, they both knew it. Jim's body relaxed against his. Humbled, Blair nuzzled his cheek against Jim's cock, turned his face, and found the soft head with his lips at the same moment that Jim's mouth closed over him.

The pleasure lashed across his body with such intensity that Blair froze for an instant, shattered from within and without. Overhead was a starry night sky and beneath was nothing at all, only the midnight blue abyss through which he and Jim clung to each other and fell endlessly. He'd never known. He'd never imagined. Making love to Jim was like being pushed off a cliff, and he realized, dazed and trembling with the immensity of his sensations, the only thing left of his own in the entire universe was his determination to return the pleasure Jim was lavishing on him. He'd never surrendered himself to a lover before, and immensity of his sacrifice awed him.

And this was Jim who was holding him, Jim who was trembling against him the same way Blair felt himself trembling, and oh god, he felt so good -- he tasted so good -- salt and heat, and the velvety, yearning weight that pressed against his tongue and filled his mouth. He had never known that the touch of a lover could bare the soul. He'd certainly never expected to find this reckless joy that spun away the entire world and left nothing but the two of them writhing together on Blair's unmade bed on a rainy Wednesday night when Jim had court in the morning and Blair still had a paper to turn in, laundry to do, dinner to cook. The sensations were as raw as young wine and as peaceful as sleep, an unimaginably gentle completion, the circle closed at last.

Blair arched against Jim's hands and mouth, thrusting helplessly now and again, even though he was trying so hard to be still. Jim controlled his movements with his gentle strength, shifting so he could hold Blair's hips steady, caressing Blair with his mouth, taking him deeper with slow care. Blair moaned around the slick heat and weight in his own mouth, and tried to be as gentle for Jim.

He remembered saying "I love you," once or twice in his life -- and suddenly realized that before it had always meant, "Please don't leave me." He had always clung to self so stubbornly, no matter who he was with -- no wonder he had only found lovers who were sure to release him sooner or later. For the first time he knew need and pleasure without the fear of loss. How could he be afraid now? The wet heat of Jim's mouth was breaking body and soul with pleasure, but that was less important than the way Jim had always looked at him, right from the beginning. As though he had been trying to find Blair his entire life. The surrender of their bodies to such pleasure tonight couldn't change that love, it could only make it sweeter. Jim was shuddering in his arms, Jim's stomach trembling against Blair's chest, a quiver in Jim's left leg that he didn't seem to be able to stop. He let Jim's cock slide forward across his tongue, slower this time, as slowly as he pressed forward over Jim's tongue, and the sensations were so perfect he hardly knew anymore where he ended and Jim began. Jim retreated, mouth and body easing away, then pressed back again, deeper than before.

Blair found himself mirroring those gentle thrusts so easily it was like slipping away into a dream. He heard whimpering, muffled cries of pleasure ringing in his ears, so loud over the wet sounds of their lips and mouths. He tried to silence himself, and finally realized he had succeeded -- that was Jim moaning, as lost as Blair was. Blair felt a cold, sweet bolt of ecstasy at the realization and shivered violently, icicles in his belly, fire in his mind.

The longing and the desire were bound and sweetened by a desperate tenderness. This was Jim he was holding, Jim who cried out with pleasure, his voice muffled by Blair's cock in his mouth. Sensitive, sensual, vulnerable Jim. So strong and beautiful, and all that strength and beauty given over to Blair tonight.

Tonight, and forever. They had both promised.

Blair let his hands slip back around to hold Jim's hips, steadying himself more than Jim, who lay almost still save for the tremors that shook him, and whatever he was doing that made red hot sparks dance up Blair's spine. It was the flutter of his tongue against the head every time Blair withdrew, just before he pressed forward again, and Blair wanted to show Jim just how wonderful that was. He craned his neck for a better angle, and realized that with every gentle thrust, he could feel Jim's hard nipples pressed against his belly.

Ah god, he was dying. Melting away, burning alive. He couldn't get close enough to Jim. He wrapped his arm around Jim's hips, trying to touch more of him, and he tried to swallow, gulping around the warm, solid weight of Jim, stretching his lips, keeping his mouth open wide. He couldn't manage it, but Jim felt it and convulsed against him, fingers tightening on Blair's hips, a harsh breath hissing over Blair's cock.

*Jim,* he thought, more tenderly still, and he lifted his head and let Jim slip from his mouth, catching him in his hand and stroking gently. "I'm here," he whispered to Jim. "It's just me." His hand slid easily along the slick, hot length, savoring every twitch against the palm of his hand, and the way Jim twisted against him, his body writhing slowly against Blair's as though he too were trying to find a way to touch him more closely.

"Won't let go," Blair mumbled, dropping a soft kiss on the plum-colored head of Jim's cock, velvet against velvet. He felt Jim tense in an agony of pleasure, then relax to take Blair even deeper. Blair felt a shuddering at the back of his knees, at the base of his spine. "I'll be here." He wasn't sure what he was saying any more. He just wanted to let Jim know it was safe, that he could give himself wholly over to his senses. "Jim," he said, "I'll catch you," and he closed his lips around him again. It was so easy now, every time grew easier, every time Jim shook harder as Blair strove to take more.

Blair's half-formed thoughts coalesced only for an instant before they spattered against the searing pleasure. Sighing, twisting, stroking his hands down Jim's long thighs, up the inside of his legs, turning his head against Jim's lap, taking the burning length eagerly as he could, intoxicated by Jim's moans and flinches, Jim's own yearning to return Blair's pleasure, the freedom to lose himself in this, if he wanted to, because Blair had told him it was all right. Blair felt Jim's trust as palpably as Jim's mouth and hands and body, just as sweet and just as overwhelming.

He flinched, all at once painfully close, balls drawn up hard, his breath trapped in his lungs, the entire surface of his skin prickling and alive. He had to release Jim again, not trusting his control, and held Jim's cock cradled against his cheek as he arched, gasping breathlessly. Blair felt the echo of his response in the identical, desperate shudder that wracked Jim from head to toe. Jim groaned, low and hard, as he let Blair slip from his mouth and caught him in a gentle hand. His forehead pressed against Blair's thighs as he shivered and flinched.

*Now?* Blair wondered, trembling and thrusting helplessly into Jim's carefully tightening fist. The desire for release was exquisitely counterbalanced by an equally desperate desire to go on like this forever. It was the sweetest dilemma Blair had ever known. He growled in happy frustration, and stroked Jim as gently and firmly as Jim was handling him. Whatever Jim wanted, he wanted too. Wherever it led them.

Blair would have laughed at that, if he could have stopped moaning. As though making love to Jim like this were some kind of sacrifice. His whole life, he'd never felt so ecstatically free and alive. "Jim," he moaned, just the pleasure of saying his name, still writhing on the cusp, Jim's hand his entire world, his own hand holding so much of Jim's right now, he knew.

"Jim," he said again, laughing and crying at the same time, pressing himself against that warm, solid body that lay beside him in his own bed, loving him so tenderly and relentlessly. "God, Jim --" He kissed Jim's thighs over and over again, stroking Jim in time with Jim's own careful strokes. They gentled Blair before the building passion could become frustration or pain, and Blair trusted that mirroring Jim's sure lovemaking could do the same for Jim. They were coming down together, slowly retreating from the brink, and Blair didn't know if it were Jim's decision or his own. They seemed to have made it together, without words, just the perfect sympathy that had been building between them all night. All night? All along, right from the day they'd met.

"I know," Jim whispered, his voice low, and just the sound of his voice made Blair cry out with pleasure.

"Yes," he told Jim, gasping. "Yes, I do too."

Jim murmured something that Blair couldn't quite hear, and then his lips found Blair once more, soft, sweet kisses before he slowly took Blair into his mouth again. Blair did the same, muffling his last, quiet sobs against Jim, and this time it was as easy as Blair had thought it should be all along. He felt Jim moving alongside him, and it was the most natural thing in the world to accustom himself to the press of Jim's body, to accommodate himself to Jim's pleasure, even as Jim gave himself over to Blair's. (Getting the hang of this) Blair thought to himself, helplessly trying to grin, and entirely unable to. He thought maybe Jim felt it anyway, because one hand slid up as far as Blair's waist and then back again, and Blair felt Jim's head turn a little, his forehead shifting against Blair's thighs.

It was a strange thing. They were lying so still now, hardly moving at all, just their throats working, necks craning for the angle that brought the most pleasure, fingers spreading wide against each others' hips and clutching hard. But otherwise Blair knew their bodies lay entwined and almost motionless on the bed. That wasn't the way it felt to him, though. It seemed as though they were tumbling endlessly together, twisting in an impossible freefall. He'd lost all awareness of the hard cotton batting under his hip and the cool air against his back and shoulders. There was only Jim's body, Jim's hands, Jim's mouth, and the pleasure sharper than pain, gentler than falling tears.

It was even odder that his mind seemed to be wandering -- at a time like THIS? he wondered, dazed and bemused, the flat of Jim's tongue trembling against his shaft, Jim's throat straining to take him deeper, Blair gulping around Jim's just as hungrily -- but it was true all the same. The good feelings were so intense his mind seemed to have snapped its moorings. Unconnected memories flashed through his thoughts, sparkling and hazed with the pleasure of the moment. Those long afternoons with Jim at the courthouse all this endless week, the damn paper such an uphill struggle. Not one paragraph had gone easily. Not one sentence.

When he was writing at his best, he lost all sense of time and place, and he was afraid of letting that happen now. He told himself it was because he wanted to keep an eye on Jim, and that was a lot of it, but not everything. He wasn't keeping his eye on Jim every minute of the day -- most of the time he was working upstairs in the county law library anyway.

No, the truth was, he didn't dare lose himself in the writing, because he was afraid of what might find him while he was looking for inspiration. It was a brutal, joyless way to work -- always being just a little bit afraid -- and so painfully slow he started to worry that he really would miss the deadline after all. He wasn't sleeping well, (big ol' surprise there); he didn't have much of an appetite -- and the kid manning the reference desk was an inveterate gum-chewer, snapping a piece of spearmint gum between her teeth over and over again until Blair was ready to march over there, wrench those cud-chewing jaws of hers open and take the gum right out of her mouth.

That, or bury his head in his hands and weep. This was hopeless. He'd never finish, and of course it didn't matter, not really, not in the grand scheme of things. Except, dammit, it did matter. It was an obligation he had told Jim he could meet, and he couldn't even think of disappointing Jim by failing, even in this little thing.

Had it been Tuesday afternoon? A day or so ago, a few hours after lunch. He'd been trying to remember where he'd read a useful quotation about matrilineal families and birth folklore that would have wrapped up this section nicely if he could only find the damn thing, ready to scream at the hapless intern behind the desk obliviously snapping her gum, and feeling beaten down almost to the point of tears by the gray wash of rain pouring across the library windows.

Then he'd heard the shush of the library doors swinging open, and he shut his eyes wearily, expecting to have to listen to another interminable lesson about hunting for case law on Lexis delivered by the gum-chewer herself.

He knew he was wrong almost at once. Something about the quality of the silence. He opened his eyes and saw Jim standing there, waiting for him to look up. He wasn't exactly smiling at Blair, but he seemed pleased to see him all the same -- relieved. "Hey Chief. Guess what, we're breaking early today. Wanna go home?"

"You don't even know," Blair said, feeling his face stretch into a grin. It sounded like the best news he'd heard in days.

Jim smiled back immediately, for an instant his expression absolutely naked with joy. And for no reason in the world, Blair thought, except that he had just given a smile to Jim.

*Oh god.*

The memory of Jim's smile shattered everything. An agony of pleasure lanced through him, scorching his lungs and belly, spreading like wildfire, eating him alive. He felt a hollow, wonderful, unbearable weight of pleasure bearing down from within, and he shuddered in ecstasy, trying to warn Jim and managing only a groan.

He let Jim go, but caught him in his hand, closing his fist strongly as Jim shuddered and sobbed out a harsh moan. That sound was more excruciating even than the heat of Jim's mouth. Blair was lost. No turning back now. Jim knew it too -- of course he did. He'd probably felt Blair giving way even before Blair knew what was happening. Jim's head moved against Blair's thighs, his lips soft and tight, engulfing him over and again, his warm hands holding Blair steady. Safe as houses while the pleasure broke him from within and tore the world to shreds.

Blair couldn't stop crying out, trying to say Jim's name. He heard his own voice, but he could hear Jim's as well and feel the vibrations of it, so hot and intimate. Jim was shaking too, violent shudders running the length of his strong frame one after another, but his touch remained unshakably deliberate and gentle, coaxing Blair over the edge a step at a time.

Blair was dying. He'd never recover from this. He didn't want to. He clutched Jim in his fist, his other hand braced against Jim's quivering stomach. All at once Jim was drenched in sweat. Blair could feel it clean and hot, slick on his belly under Blair's palm, and he knew what Jim's control was costing him. "Jim," he moaned at the realization, and heard himself manage Jim's name even as he twisted and fell. He wanted Jim to fall with him. "Jim," he said. "Forever."

Jim was suddenly motionless in his arms, only his throat and mouth still working, so relentless, so gentle and good. Blair caressed him in an agony of love, then with a sudden wrench he was over the edge, the rhythm of his stroking hand as he met Jim's pleasure his last raveling tether. He felt the first pulse in both their bodies so strongly he might have been the sentinel himself, and the crest of ecstasy stopped his heart. He looked down at the two of them on the unmade bed, moving against each other in awkward jerks and flinches, and even their gracelessness seemed beautiful.

Jim was beautiful. The moment of release pulled him taut across the bed, every muscle in stark relief, head back, body flexed in unendurable joy. For a moment it truly did seem to Blair that he could see the way ecstasy transfigured Jim's face.

He had caught Blair in his hand when the pleasure broke his control, and he stroked Blair with rough, shuddering care. The brief shock of cold air before Jim's hand curved over the head and stroked down again only made the edge of pleasure keener. Blair saw himself convulsing, trying to curl into himself and meeting Jim instead. He felt Jim bend his head, even though he was shuddering as violently as Blair was, and close his lips over Blair, lapping gently. Blair fell back into himself, blind, his face against Jim's lap, his own fist smearing the gooey white fluid as it spilled over his hand. Jim groaned over and over again, his body flinching with every pulse. His voice was desperate and low, muffled against Blair's belly and thighs.

Blair was groaning too. He could hear his own cries of stunned joy as the sharpest ecstasy slowly ebbed. Waves of pleasure continued to move through him, rocking him and Jim together on the salty tide, and icy cold shivers kept running down his back, but inside he was so warm and complete he knew he would never be cold again. He craned his neck, feeling a twinge in a jaw muscle that didn't stop him from tasting Jim with the same slow care that Jim gave him. Sour brine, hot and alive. Sacred. He was still moaning around the head of Jim's cock, but the feelings were gentler now and easier to bear. The waves were calmer.

Blair drifted, so peaceful he might have slept. He suspected he perhaps did slip away for a moment or two. He wasn't aware of the passage of time, but the next thing he knew, his head was resting heavily on Jim's thigh, Jim's cock lying softly against his cheek. Lazy and slow, utterly sated and content, Blair turned his head and kissed him, and only then did it dawn on him that they had fallen out of sync. Blair was so relaxed he suspected if he closed his eyes again he would be asleep in an instant. Jim's head was pressed warmly against Blair's thighs, but he was shivering violently, as though his body were still wracked by all the tension and heat that had bled so completely away from Blair.

"Jim," he whispered, shaken. He ran his hand down Jim's thigh, feeling the long muscles flexed and trembling hard. "Aw, Jim," he said again, pressing his lips to the soft flesh inside Jim's hip, lingering over the kiss as his hands caressed Jim, trying to encompass Jim with his touch. "I'm here," he whispered hoarsely, turning his head to lay his cheek against Jim's hip. "I've got you. It's OK."

Jim trembled in silence beside him. "It's all right," Blair said again, trying to keep talking while he pushed himself upright on the bed, clambering awkwardly but being careful for Jim. Jim's hands fell away as Blair shifted, and he heard the sound Jim made, a soft, unhappy sigh. "I'm here," Blair said. "I've got you." He stretched out toward the foot of the bed so he could pull Jim into his arms. "Shh, easy. I'm here." Jim's head was thrown back, his throat a long, beautiful curve. He was flushed and his parted lips were red and wet. Blair could hear his shallow breaths. Jim's cheeks were dark, his blue eyes dilated and fixed on nothing.

"Jim," Blair murmured, pulling Jim closer, until Jim's forehead touched his chest. Jim was still trembling with tension, but he shifted easily in Blair's arms. His shallow breaths were hot against Blair's damp skin. "Easy, man. It's me. I've got you. " Blair wrapped his arms as well as he could around Jim's shoulder, then cradled the back of Jim's head with one hand. Jim's shoulders still shook. "You're safe. Anytime you're ready to come back, Jim, I'm right here. I've got you."

Jim's knees bumped against his, and Jim's arms were folded back against his own chest, hands closed in loose fists. Blair wasn't certain what was going on, only that he was in no condition to analyze Jim as an anthropologist right now. Blair felt wrung to the bone. He was panting and out of breath from the simple effort of turning around in the bed, and so hopelessly in love he could hardly look at Jim without tears coming to his eyes. So forget scientific detachment. But the thread of sympathy between them was and purer and more perfect than ever, and he thought he did know what Jim was feeling.

"It's still going round and round inside you, isn't it?" he whispered to the bent head that was pressed warmly to his breast. He stroked his hands down the curve of Jim's back. "Over and over again, on and on --" He smiled gently even though Jim couldn't see it, and put his arms around Jim's shoulders again, and for a moment squeezed as tight as he could.

"And it's all right," Blair whispered, pressing another kiss to his temple. "As long as you want, it's OK." He brought one hand up so he could run his fingers through Jim's hair, fingertips gentle across his scalp. "I'm here, Jim. Not going anywhere. Not gonna let you go, I promise."

Jim still trembled against him, his shallow breaths gusting across Blair's chest.

"I'm here," Blair whispered again, and the realization that he had brought Jim to this was almost more than he could bear. He felt as though he were melting from the heat. His thighs were still shaking, even curled close to Jim this way, and his lips and fingertips felt curiously numb. He bowed his head and kissed the top of Jim's head. Jim's short hair prickled warmly against his lips which weren't numb at all, really, just tingling from the overload of sensation. He turned his head, resting his cheek against the top of Jim's head. "Jim, " he said quietly. It was an easy word to manage, and saying it brought a new flush of warmth, shivery and good -- a dissolving weakness down his spine, and a kind of aching between his legs that pulled a soft moan from him. He heard himself, and wrapped his arms more tightly around Jim.

He wanted to get closer, and couldn't. Too many knees and elbows were between them, but he kept his forearms locked across the back of Jim's broad shoulders. His flesh was so warm, so smooth and soft. Muscles jumped and flinched under the gentle pressure of his embrace, and Jim was moaning every time he exhaled, an almost voiceless surrender to the pleasure that still held him. "It's all right," Blair whispered again, his voice breaking with love. "You've been waiting for so long."

Blair could hardly stand to think of it -- this beautiful man, practically living for the pleasure of touch -- being alone for so long. Had he ever permitted a lover this before? Had he ever trusted enough? Blair let one hand slip around his shoulder, then drew soft patterns on Jim's flushed cheek. Lost as he was, Jim reacted even to that gentle touch, turning his face blindly against Blair's chest. "Shhh," Blair reassured him, whispering. "I'm right here. Not going anywhere."

He spread his hand so his fingertips rested on Jim's forehead. No, not lost at all. Right here in his arms, safe and sound. "I love you," Blair said, and saying it this time felt like the first time. As though he were learning anew what the words meant every time he voiced them.

Jim flinched in his arms, a tiny, contained violence, like a man slipping off into sleep, and suddenly gasped. It was a harsh, noisy breath, dragging the air into his lungs. He pulled his head away from Blair's chest and looked into Blair's face, wild-eyed, naked with passion.

"Jim," Blair breathed the beloved name without a sound, and reached up to cradle the back of Jim's head with his hand. "It's me. You're safe."

Jim stared at him. His breathing was ragged, chest rising and falling in short, hard pants. One hand came up and tangled in Blair's hair, a fist clinched close to Blair's scalp, holding him as looked searchingly into Blair's face, into his eyes. Blair lay still, meeting Jim's gaze, wanting Jim to find what he was looking for.

Jim didn't speak. But as his breathing grew easier, his fist relaxed, his hand opening to lie against Blair's face. He lay his other hand on Blair's cheek as well, cradling Blair's face in his palms, and then, still wordless, he brought his face next to Blair's and softly kissed his mouth.

Blair closed his eyes, parting his lips as Jim kissed him. Jim's mouth was hot and gentle, and he tasted like their lovemaking, raw and alive. Jim was still breathing hard, and kept having to break the kiss to take deeper gasps for air. His lips found Blair's over and over again, returning to Blair's mouth with such hunger Blair heard the whimper that escaped his own throat, wanting to permit Jim everything he wanted. Anything he needed. Anything he needed, without even having to ask. He twined his arms slowly around Jim's neck to support him and hold him close. Jim seemed to tremble at that. He made a quiet sound, his lips brushing Blair's cheek for a moment, then his mouth was over Blair's again. His tongue eased past Blair's open lips, and Blair trembled as well at the quiet, gentle intimacy of Jim's search.

Jim's hands moved across his face just as gently, palms on his forehead, fingers buried deeply in his tangled curls. Then he swept his hands back across Blair's scalp, holding Blair's head as he kissed him. The kisses were deeper and slower now, each one a careful tasting that began gently, to enjoy the softness of their mouths against each other, then pressed closer and deeper, savoring the depth of their intimacy.

He felt the press of Jim's knee against his thighs and parted his legs to let Jim nudge between them. The warm press of that muscled thigh between his own made him arch against Jim, moaning. When he did, Jim drew his face away. Blair hadn't realized until that moment that his own eyes were closed. He opened them and looked into Jim's face. Jim looked so calm and serious, even with his lips wet with saliva and come and a damp trail curving through the five o'clock shadow on his chin. Blair supposed he didn't look any better, and he smiled a little.

Jim's smile began at his eyes, turning down a little at the edges, the pupils so widely dilated only a sliver of blue showed, pale as the sky and melting with love. One hand still lay against the curve of Blair's skull, warm and supporting, but he brought the other around and laid his fingers softly upon Blair's lips.

Blair remembered, and felt the edges of his mouth tremble. Kneeling before Jim, nothing between them any longer, as though baring his body could somehow bare his soul to Jim as well. And the way Jim had looked at him in that moment, eyes clouded still with grief and confusion, his hand coming up to cover Blair's mouth, as though whatever Blair wanted to say next would be more than he could possibly stand.

Blair hadn't been afraid. He wondered a little at that now, the pads of Jim's fingers brushing tenderly over his lips, tracing the edges of his trembling smile, stroking his lower lip gently, even pressing softly between his parted lips to run his fingertips over his teeth. The intimacy of that unfamiliar touch made Blair shudder with pleasure, arching against Jim, trying to close his legs over Jim's thigh. He hadn't been afraid because he loved Jim, so it didn't matter what happened next, not really. Nothing either of them could do would change that.

It must have been shining on his face. His certainty. His belief. In the next moment Jim's eyes had cleared, wonder replacing the fear, the light of uncomplicated affection chasing away the grief and terror. What had he said? Blair wanted to remember, and it was hard to think with Jim's hand touching his face, and Jim's eyes looking at him with so much love.

Something dumb and sweet, first kin to a joke. Something about catching his death of cold, that was it. Because he was kneeling there naked on the floor. Jim never could tell a joke. The ache of love Blair felt at the memory seemed to amplify the aftershocks that sparked at intervals down the length of his spine. The muscles in his lower belly were still clenching, dulled reminders of the intensity of the pleasure. He shivered hard, still gazing into Jim's eyes, Jim's fingers still on his lips.

Predictable as springtime, Jim murmured in a ragged whisper, "Cold?"

"No," Blair said. He turned his head enough to press a kiss to the palm of Jim's hand, feeling Jim's other hand still cradling the back of his head tenderly. He reconsidered. "Maybe a little," he decided, smiling at Jim. "C'mere." Tightening his arms around Jim's neck and shoulders, he shifted backward, tugging Jim with him. The corner of Jim's mouth quirked up, a smile that was half knowing and still half shy. He eased Blair onto his back and crawled over him, sheltering Blair with his body, holding Blair's head with both hands.

"Better?" Jim whispered.

Blair beamed up at him. "Not cold at all, now."

"Me either," Jim said in that low, rough voice. He lowered his head and kissed Blair's mouth again. Soft lips against Blair's, the heady taste of their love.

Groaning, Blair reached to up hold Jim's head, kissing him back with lazy, hungry joy. Jim's knee was still between his thighs, Jim's sex resting against his hip, hot and fragile, the muscular press of that broad chest and strong arms covering and encompassing him. When Jim raised his head and looked down at him again, Blair simply smiled. He didn't need anything else.

Jim's eyes were soft with love, but there was a thoughtful frown creased across his brow. Those beautiful lips, sculpted and so sensitive, were turned down seriously. He let himself rest on one elbow over Blair, and he traced Blair's features with his other hand. Soft fingertips over his cheekbone and tracing the hinge of his jaw, light over his throat, playing with his earrings for a moment, then with a lock of hair.

"What is it?" Blair asked, smiling at him.

Jim kissed his forehead without answering, then went back to stroking Blair's face and hair with gentle, lingering touches, allowing Blair to feel the warmth of his hand against his cheek and brow, warm against his scalp, hotter still against his throat. "That's nice," Blair murmured, turning his face against Jim's hand. A little shiver ran down him as Jim's fingertips trailed down his throat again. Jim bent his head and touched his lips to the place his fingers had been a moment before. Blair moaned as the same fires began once more to burn, an exhausted pleasure that was so close to pain he threw his arms around Jim and held him as tight as he could, needing the shelter of Jim's touch.

Jim's arms went around him in turn, holding him close, his face lying against Blair's, one hand cradling the back of Blair's neck. "Blair," he said in a voice as soft and gentle as his hands. And then, softer still, as he struggled for the words. "There was nothing else. Just you, all around me. Holding me. Blair --" his voice broke, "Inside me. Everywhere."

Blair had not expected that. His arms were already around Jim, holding him as close as he could, but he tried to pull him closer still, murmuring love and reassurance as well as he could. All that really escaped was a sort of whimper, so he turned his face closer to Jim's and spread his hands across Jim's back, stroking the muscles he felt trembling still under Jim's warm flesh.

Jim murmured something soft and kind in return. Blair felt the breath of his friend's sweet words and the movement of his lips as Jim spoke them, and was too overwhelmed to understand the words themselves.

Jim had been aware of him. Even then, even so far beyond himself he'd lain blind and helpless in Blair's arms, lost in the cascade of sensation. He'd never disconnected. He'd never really been lost at all. Blair had been there with him all along.

And he wanted to know what Jim had told him next. "Jim," he whispered hoarsely, one hand still spread across Jim's back, the other cradling the curve of Jim's skull. "What'd you say?"

Jim grunted, almost laughing, and scooted down just enough to kiss the sensitive hollow of Blair's throat, holding Blair secure in his strong arms when the fluttering pleasure of lips and teeth made Blair cry out and rock against him. "Sandburg, I love you," he said, his voice low and hoarse as a growl. He raised his head and kissed Blair's mouth, then looked him in the eyes, one hand holding the side of Blair's face, his thumb stroking restlessly and so gently over Blair's cheek.

"Oh," Blair said softly. He felt as though he were melting away in Jim's arms. "Guess I did hear you."

Jim kissed him again, thoughtful and slow, exploring Blair's mouth tenderly before drawing back to whisper, "I don't mind telling you again." His voice was teasing and warm. "I want to make sure you don't forget."

"I won't forget," Blair told him, and it was more than he could tease about in return. He could feel the lump aching in his throat all over again, despite all the tears he'd already wept this evening. He was sure Jim would be able to see the moisture gathering in his eyes, so he closed them, as if that would hide anything. "I promise I won't."

"Blair." Jim's voice was as gentle as his hands, tangled in his hair, cradling his skull. His lips brushed the corner of Blair's mouth, a sweet, brief touch of reassurance and love, and then pressed his closed eyelids in such gentle blessing that Blair's hands moved over Jim's back with greater gentleness as well, wanting desperately to make his own touch just as kind. Jim's voice grew softer. "What did I ever do to deserve you?"

Blair couldn't help smiling at that, just a little. "Just lucky?" he ventured, even though his voice cracked as if a joke would make the emotions easier to bear.

Jim's lips touched his forehead, and then he rumbled in that soft, rough voice, "Thank you for coming back."

"Oh, Jim." So much for avoiding more tears. They welled from under his closed lids and ran across his temples. "Jim, I had to come back. I didn't mean to leave at all." He opened his eyes to look into Jim's face, trying to banish the memory of Jim on his knees on the wet sidewalk, head bowed under the terrifying weight of his grief. All because of him. Because Blair had tried to leave, and then had tried so hard to push him away.

"I was so scared," Blair confessed in a whisper. "I thought I was hurting you, and I just couldn't stand it anymore. I didn't mean to do that. I was just --"

"Stop," Jim begged him softly. He kissed Blair's cheek. "It doesn't matter now."

"But it does," Blair insisted, drawing his hand back to wipe at his streaming eyes. "I want you to know."

"I do know," Jim said, and his quiet voice shook. "Blair, I do know." He kissed Blair's forehead again, then rolled to the side, keeping his thigh crossed over Blair's, his body half-curled around Blair. "You thought I didn't trust you anymore."

*Oh god.* He'd actually told Jim that? Oh yes, he had. He remembered now, all those scared and angry words as the rain beat down on the roof of the truck, and Jim tried to take the blame for everything, the weight of the whole universe on those broad shoulders of his. And Blair's sick realization there was nothing he could do to stop it this time. Jim had made up his mind, and nothing could ever be good or right between them again.

It seemed a million lifetimes away, but it hurt all the same. He turned his head away from Jim's gentle eyes and looked fixedly up at the ceiling, even though he didn't seem to be able to focus. Fresh tears trickled down over his temples and into his hair. He could feel the damp trails they left on his skin. He'd never been so aware of his own flesh before. His entire body trembled with awareness, and knowing that Jim was watching him, he lay still, not even lifting a hand to wipe away the tears.

Jim caught them instead, brushing his tears away with the backs of his fingers. His touch was so soft and so tender that Blair sighed, choked on the tears running down his throat, started coughing and then had to laugh a little, feeble as it was. "Sorry," he whispered. "Don't know what -- I'm OK, Jim, really."

Jim laid his hand on the other side of Blair's face, and carefully turned Blair's head until they were face to face again. Jim's cool blue eyes searched his.

Blair drew a deep breath and gazed back. How could he do that? So calm, so sure, after everything they'd been through this evening. "Aw, Jim," he groaned all at once, not meaning it at all, and saying it all the same, "You're gonna make me crazy."

Jim smiled with his eyes and moved his hands to cradle Blair's face between them. "Should've thought of that before now," he rumbled in that hoarse, low voice that Blair swore he could feel like sunshine hot on his face, or brandy warming his throat. His face grew more serious as he watched Blair, then, and somehow more gentle as well. "Will you listen to me a minute?" he asked Blair at length.

Blair smiled back at him, feeling his cheeks pressing against Jim's palms, wet with the tears he'd shed. "I'm listening," he whispered, and was surprised by how hoarse his own voice sounded. Jim drew closer, still holding Blair's head in his hands, and brushed his lips over Blair's cheek, and then over Blair's lips as well.

Only then did he draw back, just enough to meet Blair's eyes as he spoke to him. "Everything that happened tonight. Every word you spoke, everything you did, Chief, you did because you love me. Don't you think I know that?"

"Jim--" he shut his eyes helplessly for a moment, but then opened them again. Jim was stroking one hand through his hair now, tangles slipping free around Jim's fingers. "I know I hurt you." The words came out so softly, but he managed to say them anyway. "I'm sorry."

Jim drew his hand away then, but only so he could lay it upon Blair's chest, fingers spread wide, the heat of his palm warming the old bruises. "I did too," he said, his voice low and deliberate.

Blair started to tremble, but he didn't speak. They had already said everything tonight. All that was left was working out what the words meant. Jim drew closer, curling tightly around Blair, enfolding him with the tenderness of his embrace. He ducked his head and pressed his lips to the hot pattern of bruises spreading like a corona around Blair's heart.

They were gentle kisses, but they were not soft. Blair felt the heat of Jim's mouth, teeth and lips and tongue, Jim's arms tightening around his back, holding him, surrounding him. Blair writhed under those kisses. He was still so sensitive from their shared passion that this new pleasure was almost unendurable. He cried out, pulling Jim closer, his hands on Jim's head, then spreading across his back. He couldn't forget his grief or his guilt, but they both seemed such petty things in the presence of such goodness and such perfect completion.

Jim's lips were moving tenderly, ruthlessly against Blair's throat, and then he was saying something to Blair, his voice a hot breath under Blair's ear. His hands had crept up, his fingers deep in Blair's tangled hair. His knee was drawn up over Blair's thighs. Blair opened his eyes again, looking up at the familiar ceiling, feeling Jim's lips and breath against his throat, and realized, bemusedly, that he still couldn't figure out what Jim was saying. His most recent tears had left cooling wet tracks across both temples, and Jim brushed one of them away with the side of his thumb.

He turned his head at last, slowly, Jim pulling back enough to allow him to do it, and lay there gazing at Jim for a distance of inches. Jim's face was still flushed, his eyes too bright. His lips were wet and dark, and he was smiling. It was such a sweet, cautious smile that Blair reached over and touched Jim's lips with his fingers. Jim smiled more, and it was a smile that answered everything. He'd never seen Jim so happy in his life. And if he was the one responsible for that look, Blair thought, then he must have gotten it right after all. Never mind all the wrong turns. Not now, not when Jim was smiling at him like that. He took Jim's head in his hands and drew him closer. "I love you," he whispered, and kissed Jim's mouth.

Jim returned the kiss softly. Those sweet, gentle kisses, Blair thought, closing his eyes in wonder as Jim's lips found his. How had he lived without them? It was as though he'd never known what a kiss was before this night. He parted his lips, breathing in Jim's breath, tasting Jim's mouth. He couldn't figure out how to roll closer, the way Jim was tucked around him, Jim's thigh over his, Jim's chest pressed to his ribs, but he could deepen their kiss, exploring the taste of himself on Jim's tongue, and he was able to reach up and hold Jim's head, running his fingers through the warm brush of hair. Jim made a soft sound that Blair felt thrumming against his lips, and the fingers tangled in Blair's hair combed back restlessly. Blair drew back just a little. The tears weren't dry on his cheeks yet, but he was grinning so much it hurt. Jim's happiness was like a drug singing in his own veins. Jim's pleasure was the only thing that mattered in the whole world.

Jim's hands spread across either side of Blair's face, and he pulled back too, seeming to drink in the sight of him so nakedly Blair felt himself blushing, and had to close his eyes, sorry to have teased him, even this gently. Jim didn't speak until Blair opened his eyes, and then he said carefully, in a voice loud enough to have been heard across the room. "I love you, too."

"Oh," Blair said faintly, and felt the edges of his smile trembling.

Jim bent his head and kissed the corner of his mouth and then said, in a much softer voice, "I think I always have.
"
"Jim." He was so close he only had to turn his head a little to kiss Jim's mouth again. He was getting used to this, he thought happily, the joy of spreading his hand over Jim's bristly cheek as they kissed, the heat of Jim's strong body wrapped closely around his own, the tenderly vulnerable feel of another man's soft cock lying against his hip. Not just another man. Jim. His Jim, who had loved him forever. Now Blair was the one groaning, trying to get words out without breaking the kiss. He pressed his tongue past Jim's lips again, feeling Jim's mouth opening to him, and despite Jim's strength, he was the one yielding everything to Blair. Blair felt a core of heat in the center of his being, exhausted as he was, and he tried to kiss Jim so that Jim would feel it too, such complete, overwhelming love it seemed to define his entire existence.

He couldn't even remember the man he had been before he had given himself over to Jim's love. He couldn't get close enough to Jim, and pinned by the weight of Jim's thigh over his legs, Blair knew his kiss was becoming hungrier. Trying to express everything in the press of lips and teeth, mouths open, seeking. He would have pleaded with Jim if he could have broken the kiss for an instant, but he didn't even try. Jim understood anyway. He managed to wrap his arms around Blair, one strong arm covering his chest, the other sliding under the small of Blair's back. Blair arched his back to help him, and when Jim's arms were around him, he dragged Blair closer by tightening his embrace, tugging him up into his arms as he scooted away from the edge of the bed. He never broke the kiss, and Blair ended up sprawled over him, holding Jim's head with his hands as he kissed him, shivering with the joy of Jim's arms locked around his back as though he never intended to let go, feeling Jim shiver as well.

"Hold me," Blair said, though Jim was holding him. He supposed he just wanted to be sure that Jim wasn't planning to let go. He kissed Jim's mouth again, and then once more as Jim hugged him even tighter. He relaxed against Jim, shivering in that firm embrace, and laid his head on Jim's shoulder, his face so close to Jim's throat he could press gentle kisses to the column of Jim's neck simply by arching his own neck a little. Jim's body was warm and sleek under his own, muscles that had tensed in their passion slowly relaxing, sweat slick between their bodies. He kissed the corner of Jim's jaw, and then his ear. He could see the old piercing, and he stretched his neck to bite gently at the lobe. He was very gentle with Jim, but he knew his breath was hot, the way Jim shuddered and sighed under him. "I can't help it," Blair whispered. He slid one hand up to hold Jim's head as Jim arched against him. "You're so beautiful. I want you so much. I love you so much."

"Anything," Jim said, in that broken, low voice. "Blair, anything."

Blair supposed he'd known that even before Jim spoke the words, and even though he'd said the same to Jim, hearing them reflected back so trustingly made his heart ache with the tender responsibility. He no longer knew how to tell Jim what he was feeling. He seemed to have passed the boundaries of language altogether, and there was nothing left but the gorgeous touch of Jim's body, and violence of his desire to return that touch even more gently than Jim offered it. He closed his eyes, snuggling his face against Jim's throat and shoulder, searching for the word or the touch that would let Jim know .

(He knows already) Blair thought then, smiling to himself. He pursed his lips and touched them to Jim's neck, feeling the prickles of his beard, and the pulse under his flesh. Still beating fast, but slower than his own. He could feel the echo of his own heartbeat where his chest was pressed closely to Jim.

He eased himself sideways, just a little, moving slowly over Jim, and let his hand trail down Jim's neck, laying his palm on Jim's chest, sliding across that muscular expanse a few inches at a time, savoring the touch as much as he did the quiet sounds Jim made as Blair touched him .

He brushed Jim's nipple with gentle fingertips, and felt Jim arch into his touch. He covered the soft nipple with his palm, feeling a tender nub beginning to harden under his hand. Jim breathed a sigh that was almost harsh, and reached up with the hand that wasn't around Blair's shoulders to stroke the back of his fingers over Blair's cheek.

Blair turned his head for a moment, closing his eyes to concentrate on the warmth of Jim's fingers on his face, then moved his hand down further. Jim's belly was wet, muscles still taut under Blair's palm. Jim turned his hand against Blair's face and breathed out again, more deeply. Blair could feel it in Jim's stomach, as well as hearing it, feeling it stir the hairs on the top of head. Jim's hand stroked softly through his hair, then returned to his face once more, drawing idle patterns over his face with his sensitive fingers.

Blair smiled, knowing Jim would feel it, and then laid his hand carefully over Jim's cock. Jim's breathing grew deeper, slower, and for a moment the hand on Blair's face was still. Blair held Jim gently, the heel of his hand and his tips of his fingers resting against the wrinkled, tender sac, Jim's cock almost contained under the palm of his hand. Wet from Blair's mouth, and Jim's come. Soft in the aftermath of their lovemaking. Blair felt his face suddenly flame hot, afraid this intimacy might be more than what Jim had wanted or asked for from him He pressed his burning face into Jim's shoulder, and felt Jim's hand slip back to hold the back of his head for a moment, and heard and felt Jim's breathing, momentarily ragged, ease again. Even the muscles still taut in Jim's belly began to relax and unknot.

No, of course it was right, this instinctive desire to reach out for Jim, even like this, Or especially like this, covering Jim's sex, fragile and hot, his body's vulnerable center, the way he longed to cover and protect the white hot center of Jim's soul. Just as beautiful in its heat, just as fragile in repose. The thought made Blair want to laugh and cry at the same time. All he managed was a sleepy chuckle against Jim's throat. "What?" Jim asked, his own voice sleepy and content.

"Tell you later," Blair murmured, nuzzling his face against Jim's shoulder. "Complicated."

Jim exhaled, not quite a laugh. "Is it?" He asked. His hand was still smoothing over Blair's head in slow, lingering strokes.

Blair shivered luxuriously under that gentle touch. "Guess not," he whispered. He slid his own hand up over Jim's belly again, then around his side to catch him in an easy embrace. "You feel so good," he said quietly. "Don't wanna leave."

"You planning on going somewhere?"

"No," Blair said, honestly puzzled. ""Where would I go?" The hollow of Jim's side, just under his ribs, was so soft. Blair drew his hand back to spread over the sensitive flesh, feeling the way it quivered under the palm of his hand, then slipped his hand back under Jim's back. "I don't get it," Blair insisted drowsily. "You want me to go somewhere? You need something?"

Jim's hand was still smoothing over his head, soft, firm strokes, over and over again. He only stopped to crane his neck a little and touch his lips to Blair's forehead. "I've got everything I need. Go to sleep, Sandburg. I'll be right here."

He didn't realize how hard he'd been fighting to stay awake until Jim told him it was all right to stop trying. Everything rushed away from so quickly he felt as though he were falling and he jerked awake again with a sharp cry that he heard echoing in his own ears, though he couldn't not remember having spoken.

"Shh," Jim was saying. "It's all right. I've got you." And it was true. His head lay on Jim's warm breast. Jim's arms were around his back, holding him close and safe.

"Aaaah," Blair agreed, and then laughed at the sound of that inarticulate moan, chuckling helplessly against Jim, trying to focus and tell Jim what was so important. "Don' forget to call about that leak," he managed, mumbling thickly, and knowing Jim would understand anyway.

Or wait. Had really been what he meant to say? He could feel Jim's chest shaking with laughter, and then Jim whispering again, "Go to sleep, Blair." His hand lay at the back of Blair's neck, cradling Blair's face against him. "Everything's all right now."

I know, Blair thought. I know. He turned his face so he could kiss the muscled breast that pillowed his head, and then settled in again. He could feel himself beginning to drift, and it was a luscious, luxurious feeling, exhausted from making love, being held so safe and warm as the rain pattered down outside.

He could hear it dripping on the fire escape, little pings and splashes, drip, drip, drip from the gutter, rumbling from the falling rain. Jim was rubbing his back slowly, firm, light strokes, not enough to wake him up. Just enough, Blair thought, happily stupid with love and sleepiness, to let him know that Jim was awake, watching over him as he held him.

He would have liked to be the one awake to hold Jim's sleep heavy head against himself, promising to watch over him as he slept, but he was too far gone himself, drifting further and further away. Besides, the plumber was going to be here any minute, take care of that leaking pipe before it ruined all the books in the law library.

It had just been one damn thing after another. He was never going to get this paper finished, never. They'd probably tack the bibliography on his tombstone. This was supposed to be a library for pete's sake, but you'd never know it from all the racket. The girl at the reference desk smacked her gum, happily oblivious as the plumber knocked and banged on the pipes.

Louder and louder, until it was a roar constant as distant thunder. In frustration and disgust he threw his pen down on the table. Not a pen at all, a thick charcoal pencil. His notes and sketches covered this table and the next and the next -- oh god, what had he been thinking? He should have been writing on this laptop. Now he was going to have to transcribe all of this, and what was he supposed to do about the sketches? Scan them all in? This was going to take forever. He'd never make the deadline. No way around it. He was just going to have to tell Jim he'd screwed up.

He started gathering the papers together, stacking them up into an untidy bundle so he could try and stuff them into his backpack. Some of the sketches gave him a nervous, crawling feeling up the back of his neck, and he rolled those up quickly, not wanting to look at them. Some of the papers were wet from the leaking pipes, and the plumber was making such a racket now that even the girl at the reception desk finally looked up - and wouldn't you know it? -- she was glaring at Blair as though it was all his fault.

Oh, man, she had a point. He'd called the guy, hadn't he? And as far as Blair could tell, he wasn't doing anything but hitting the pipes over and over again, until the booming racket filled the whole library. It was a sound he'd heard before, he realized suddenly, and terror closed around his heart. He tore open his backpack and began searching through the crumpled papers from the sketchpad. He had to see just what it was he had drawn.

"Aw come on, Jim," he whispered to himself. The papers were wetter than he realized, and he was pulling out strips like a paper mache project from his backpack now. "I know I said I'd finish it, but I can't do this alone. I need you."

The pipes overhead were leaking too. No wonder his papers had gotten soaked, standing out in the rain like this. Stupid of him. He upended his backpack into the gutter, and watched the rushing water carry it all away. There, over and done with at last. But why was he still so tense? Like a knot in his belly.

Jim. It was because he hadn't found Jim yet.

Dark, rainy night. Miserable to be out on the street corner. Traffic rushed by him, headlights blurred in the rain. His clothes were soaked. He started walking, unbuttoning his shirt as he went. By the time he finally spotted Jim up ahead he had abandoned all his clothes and the rain felt warm and good on his naked shoulders and back. "Jim," he called out. "Jim, it's all right. I'm here."

Jim turned towards him and Blair stopped, his heart in his throat. The last thing he had ever expected to see was that sorrow on his friend's face. Jim looked so lost, so afraid and alone. As if he didn't know. "Jim," Blair said. He covered the remaining distance between them, and when he was close enough he took Jim's cold hand in both is own hot ones. "Hey come on, listen to me," he begged. He brought Jim's hand up and covered his own lips with Jim's fingers.

He'd intended to explain about the library and the burst pipes and the plumber and those pictures (he thought) that had frightened him, but it was all so complicated, and he thought, after all, that perhaps Jim already knew. That maybe Jim blamed himself for it all. And as soon as he thought it, he knew he was right "Oh, Jim," he said, whispering against Jim's fingers. "Oh no. No, no, no."

He pulled Jim's hand under his chin, still holding him with both of his own, and looked anxiously up into Jim's sad face. He remembered this, he thought, frightened. He had been here in the rain with Jim before, the cars rushing past them on the street, the grief on Jim's face.

Jim kneeling before him, broken with grief.

Broken by loneliness. He though perhaps he'd lost Blair. He thought Blair was going away.

"Jim, no," he whispered again. He ran his hand up the side of Jim's sad face, pushed his fingers back through the short wet hair on his head. "No, I'm here."

A sad smile touched Jim's face. He looked as though his life were already over. Nothing left for him but enough dignity not to fall apart in front of Blair.

"Oh Jim, no, you're wrong." He took Jim's head in both hands, gazing up into those pale eyes, dark in the night with the rain coming down. "Listen to me. It's not gonna happen that way not ever."

He reached up, still holding Jim's head, and carefully kissed Jim's mouth. The rain running down Jim's face was cold, but his lips were warm, and Blair felt the heat burn through him. He swayed, overwhelmed, and he had to steady himself by grabbing Jim's lapels and hanging on tight. Jim's coat was rough and wet against his naked chest and belly, but Jim himself was solid and warm and so secure Blair could do nothing but press himself closer as he kissed Jim.

"Touch me," Blair whispered, when he laid his face against Jim's He reached out blindly, found Jim's hand, and guided it to his own hip. "Let me show you."

"Blair," Jim's voice was soft and low. His other arm came up and encircled Blair's waist, enfolding him, holding him close. He turned his head, lips nuzzling Blair's cheek, and found Blair's lips. He drew gentle circles on Blair's hip with his fingertips as he kissed Blair, and Blair was so weak at the knees it seemed Jim's arm around his waist was the only thing holding him up anymore. He sagged against Jim, opening his mouth to Jim's, offering everything so Jim would understand that everything was all right. More than all right. Jim's tongue slipped between lips and Jim's hand moved as gently between Blair's parted thighs and Blair moaned in joy and relief. The rain felt like Jim's caresses on his bare back.

Yes, Blair thought, dazzled, half sick with pleasure. Jim, my Jim, he sang to himself, foolish and happy and certain as he twined himself around his friend, trying to get somehow closer, encouraging Jim's explorations with moans and shivers since he couldn't pull away from Jim's kiss to tell Jim with words what he was feeling.

The ache of pleasure between his legs made him shift and stagger on his feet. The ache was in his chest as well, his untried heart breaking with tenderness and love. He felt it in the back of his throat too, the same intensity of pleasure verging on pain, as if he were trying to swallow back tears.

His legs were giving out. He knotted his fists again in the lapels of Jim's coat as his knees buckled and he dragged Jim down with him, a slow, sweet descent. Jim was still kissing his mouth and holding him close, and though Blair wasn't sure how they managed it so gracefully, they ended up kneeling together on the sidewalk, the rain still coming down, pattering and splashing on the standing water on the sidewalk and street.

Blair blinked the rain out of his eyes and gazed into Jim's face by the light of the passing headlights. The man was so beautiful. Those eyes, that mouth. Blair reached up and touched Jim's face, wet from the rain, and Jim smiled at him.

There was still something sad lurking in the depths of those all-seeing eyes. Blair didn't have to be a sentinel to see it. He stroked his hand over Jim's cheek, brushed his fingertips over the curve of Jim's soft lips, and knelt up to kiss him again.

Jim's mouth opened under the pressure of his own. He returned Blair's kiss gently, gratefully, but the sorrow was there, Blair was certain of it. He could taste it like salt tears in Jim's sweet mouth.

Blair broke the kiss slowly, brushing his lips across Jim's, then touching them to Jim's cheek, and once more to his mouth before settling back on his heels.

Jim's face was kind, but still patient and closed, an expression that Blair knew. It was the way Jim looked when he had to bear up under unbearable sorrow.

Even now. He still expected Blair to go. It was as though Blair had already gone -- or though he were too kind to tell Blair outright what he feared. What he knew. "You listen to me," Blair told him fiercely. He reached up and held Jim's head in his hands. "I love you too. You're my life and happiness too."

Jim closed his eyes, his shoulders bowed. "Jim, please," Blair said, cold not from the rain, but from something working its way from the inside out. "Jim, please let me come home."

Jim's arms locked around him, dragging Blair into his embrace. Blair buried his face against Jim's neck and shoulder, sheltering in Jim's warmth and heard Jim say, "You are my home." Jim's hands were moving restlessly over Blair's back. He kissed Blair's temple and the side of Blair's face until he turned and lifted his head so Jim could reach his mouth as well. He kissed Blair over and over again, each more passionate than the last, feasting. Adoring. Jim's mouth over his own. Touching his cheeks, his brow, his throat, his closed eyelids. Licking the rain from the face

Blair laughed out loud with his joy. He heard himself saying wonderful things to Jim, twisting helplessly, deliriously happy in Jim's arms. "I want to make love to you, Jim. I want you to make love to me." He held Jim's head, stroked his shoulders, tried to encompass the broad, strong back. Blair writhed under the onslaught of kisses that felt like the rain.

Or maybe the rain felt like kisses. Jim said "Yes," not whispering, his breath against Blair's lips, then kissed him again, searchingly, wonderingly, easing Blair's mouth open under his own. He tightened his arms around him and bore him easily back, never breaking the kiss, holding Blair with gentle possessiveness against his own breast as they lay down together.

The sidewalk wasn't cold at all under his back. It was soft and dry and prickly like densely woven wool. Blair shivered and laughed, not questioning anything, only lifting his face to meet Jim's next kiss with his own. The rain pattered down like Jim's kisses falling over his body, like Jim's gentle fingertips stroking, touching, holding him, surrounding him with his love.

The rain beat down on his upturned face. Blair looked up and saw the brick walls of the loft. They were home, Blair realized, wonderingly. Jim had brought him home. The plywood over the broken skylights had been taken down, and the rain was pouring through, washing everything dark and unwholesome away so that Jim would never have to doubt again.

"Thank you," he whispered to Jim, "It is all right. It is." He pulled Jim down to him, opening his thighs to Jim's slim hips. He felt the brush of Jim's dress slacks between his legs and the buttons of Jim's shirt against his belly. The friction was exquisite, maddening, perfect and unbearable. He gasped and laughed, failing at words, the rain washing over them both, Jim laughing too, happier than he had been in so long, god the first real laugh since they'd come back from LA.

He loved Jim's laughter. Jim's laugh was the most wonderful sound in the whole world. Jim's hands were holding his head, and Jim was beaming down at him, rain running down his face and dripping off the end of his nose.

Blair rocked his hips under Jim, moaning and laughing himself, and watching Jim's face, Jim's eyes half closing in rapture, and a sound that wasn't quite a laugh escaping him. Maybe it was even better than laugher.

A groan that could have been Blair's name, throaty and low. Somehow hungry and satisfied all at the same time, which made sense, Blair thought as Jim tucked himself around him even closer, arms around Blair's shoulders, raining kisses like rose petals upon his face. Jim wanted him. And Jim had him, here in his arms. And that throaty, laughing growl was his own voice now.

He thrashed happily, straining to get closer, tugging ineffectually at Jim's clothes, struggling and panting and laughing again. Jim laughed too, an echo of his own joy, and then his mouth covered Blair's, and Blair went very still. It was too sweet and too good to do anything else but lie quietly beneath Jim and accept the soft press of his lips to his own. Jim's lips were wet and gentle and so warm, his tongue in Blair's mouth, his teeth against Blair's as their mouths opened wider, both surrendering, both pressing forward in blissful hunger.

And somehow Blair's ineffectual tugging at Jim's clothes seemed to have done the trick after all, because Jim's chest was warm and solid and bare against his own, and Jim's naked hips were rocking between his thighs.

"Ah," Blair moaned against Jim's mouth. He drew his knees up and tilted his hips wantonly to meet Jim. Abandoned and ecstatic, a delicious fumbling pressure as their bodies came together.

Blair's head rolled back, letting the rain pour across his face. Jim was moaning, soft cries of pleasure and love as he moved against Blair. His head was pressed hard to Blair's shoulder, his hands under Blair's shoulder blades, forearms tucked tight against Blair's sides. Holding him so safely as the rain washed over them both.

It felt so good to bear Jim's weight. So good to move in rhythm with Jim's pleasure. Everything was right. God, everything was perfect. Especially the rain on their bodies and on the living room floor. They were home, they were safe. And Jim loved him. And oh, he loved Jim too. He was telling Jim so with every breath, and Jim was kissing his throat and the side of his face, and in between every kiss he said Blair's name. Blair held Jim's head, caressed his shoulders, ran his hands down Jim's sides and across his back to feel the muscles flex as Jim rocked back and pressed forward again, stroking with his body, surrounding and encompassing Blair, enfolding him with his love.

The pleasure was fiercer than pain, the weight and heat between his legs flashing like heat lightning across every nerve ending, burning away everything extraneous until there was nothing else in the world but Jim's tenderness and the violence of his own love. Blair was enraptured. Completed. Lost. He moaned aloud for Jim as his body twisted under Jim's weight, ravished with pleasure. And then Jim found him. Soft lips touched Blair's, a kiss as gentle and endless as Jim's vows. He was home, Blair thought with quiet joy, returning the kiss as softly as Jim offered it. They were home, and they were together.

Blair slipped away into the sweetness of that kiss. Jim's lips against his, Jim's breath panting softly across his cheek, the thunder of Jim's heart, the taste of Jim's mouth, and the rain coming down all around them. Love you, Jim, he thought happily. The whole world was gone. Nothing but Jim and the rain and the joy of loving this beautiful man in his arms so much.

Nothing was within bounds anymore, nothing could be kept still. He wanted to tell Jim everything, right now, this every instant. He wanted to touch him everywhere. He wanted know everything Jim was thinking, caress every stray thought his sentinel had, experience every emotion at his side. Inside his skin, if only he could figure out how. It didn't seem impossible. Nothing was, when he felt this way. Everything opened inside him, a universe exploding outward. His solitary self, the man he was without Jim Ellison, was borne away violently as a leaf in a rain gutter and he awoke with a gasp to find his head upon Jim's breast. Jim's hand was stroking the back of his head, and his voice was hoarse and low, gentle with love. "Welcome back, Chief."

"Jim," he whispered. He hugged Jim as hard as he could, and heard Jim grunt with laughter. Blair chuckled too, not sure why he was laughing, save for the drowsy, ecstatic joy that had to find expression some way

Jim turned his head and kissed Blair's cheek. "You were talking in your sleep," he said.

Blair shivered with sleepy pleasure. "Was I?"

Jim's hand was still stroking the back of his head, trailing down the back of his neck to his shoulders, the side of his hand tugging just a little as he swept over the ends of his hair to stroke just as gently down the center of Blair's back. Then again, starting at the crown of Blair's head and petting downwards, gentle and soothing and so kind. Blair trembled under his touch, wondering how he had lived without this love in his life for so long. And that answered the question, before it had even been asked. It had been here, all along. All he'd ever had to do was accept it. Jim said, a smile Blair could hear in his voice, "It sounded like a nice dream. Tell me about it?"

Blair smiled against Jim's chest. "It was about you," he started to say, but already it was slipping away from him as he tried to remember it. They had been in the rain, but he didn't want to tell Jim that now, when what had really happened in the rain was still so close to them. And he remembered drawing Jim to him, and the sound of his own voice as he asked Jim to make love to him, and the press of Jim's body -- And suddenly he could feel his face burning against Jim's chest, and he laughed out loud at himself for feeling shy when the two of them were sprawled together naked in Blair's own bed.

"What is it?" Jim murmured, maybe trying to sound a little indignant, and not managing to at all.

"It was about us," Blair amended. "Fooling around and stuff."

Jim laughed hoarsely. He wrapped his arms tight around Blair's back and rolled the two of them over onto their sides. "Fooling around?" he asked, grinning, before he ducked his head and kissed Blair's mouth.

"Yeah," Blair said, and kissed him back. He could feel the way Jim trembled a little as Blair kissed him again, pressing deeper this time, carefully finding his way past Jim's soft lips, feeling Jim's mouth opening against his and hearing and feeling the sigh Jim breathed out, half surrender, half relief. He let his eyes close as he kissed Jim, and found he was not all that awake yet after all. He felt as though he were on the verge of flying, floating away for good, only Jim's strong arms holding him here, the soft heat of Jim's mouth inviting him to stay. "Mmmm," he moaned, feeling the way his lips thrummed against Jim's face. His belly felt hollow, beyond hunger, aching a little with an intensity of need that was a dulled reflection of the ache in his groin. He wanted Jim to touch him again. He wanted to touch Jim. The brandy had given him a headache, and his lips and chin and cheeks felt as raw as his dick. It must be worse for Jim -- Blair hadn't shaved since this morning -- but Jim didn't seem to mind, and the ridiculous thing was how Blair didn't mind any of it either. Mind? He was stupidly, overwhelmingly, deliriously happy. And Jim was too. He knew it. He tried to wrap himself closer, pressing his body to Jim's, allowing his kiss to become greedy.

Jim groaned, a lost sound, and the arms around Blair's back trembled and then locked tighter, his mouth open to Blair's, allowing Blair everything. Jim's stomach was quivering, and he drew his leg up restlessly, laying it over Blair's thigh. His soft cock pressed sticky and hot against the hollow of Blair's hip, and when Blair rocked gently forward, pressing his own sex against the rippled, smooth warmth of Jim's belly, both of them moaned together.

Then they both started to laugh.

"Knock it off," Blair muttered happily, drawing back to whisper his complaint against Jim's cheek. One of Jim's hands slipped under Blair's tangled hair to hold the nape of his neck. Blair's eyes blinked open slowly, and he saw the way Jim was smiling at him. "I mean it," he whispered again, smiling back helplessly. "You're impossible, you know that, Jim?"

"How about some dinner?" Jim whispered back, still beaming. He drew his hand forward slowly, fingers brushing the side of Blair's neck, making Blair shudder in helpless response. Over his shoulder, then, down his chest, working his hand between them until he could stroke Blair's stomach, a little awkwardly, with the backs of his fingers. "You've got to be hungry."

Whether the position was awkward or not, Jim's touch was so electric and so good Blair's teeth began to chatter. "Jim," he protested again, back arching, shivering against Jim in exhausted pleasure.

"I'm hungry too," Jim confessed, nuzzling his face against Blair's, whispering in his ear. "Chicken soup's starting to sound pretty good, isn't it?"

"Sounds great. Right." Blair trembled and tried to tuck himself closer into Jim's embrace, then laughed again, he wasn't sure why. Maybe just because he was so damned happy. "It sounds great, anything you want, you know that." He turned his face and found himself nose to nose with Jim. Too close not to arch his neck and kiss Jim's lips again. A gentle kiss, though, brushing his own overly sensitized lips over Jim's, and then working his arm between them so he could lay his fingers over Jim's mouth, soothing the little moan that whelmed up when Blair's lips left his. Jim was hungry, Blair knew that. Probably *really* hungry. After all, lunch had been an egg salad sandwich from the vending machine in the basement of the courthouse, eaten in exactly four bites while Blair sat on the steps by the propped-open emergency exit door and watched him with a combination of amazement and fascinated disgust. The rain was loud on the pavement. "How can you *eat* that, man?"

Jim had swiped a bit of mustardy egg salad from the corner of his mouth with his thumb, then proceeded to lick his thumb clean, shrugging. "I've had worse."

The memory made Blair smile helplessly. He shifted back a little, and Jim freed him from his embrace, drawing his hand forward, touching Blair's hair, his shoulder, then his cheek. Blair caught his hand as it crossed his face and brought it back so he could kiss Jim's thumb himself. Jim tasted of sweat and sex, salty and hot.

He clasped Jim's hand under his chin then and held him tight . "You wanted to get some coffee from downstairs didn't you? Why don't you get us some fresh bread too. Be good on a night like tonight, wouldn't it?"

"You sure?" Jim turned his hand in Blair's grasp, and Blair felt the back of Jim's thumb gently caressing his throat. "I'd only be gone a minute."

"Yeah, I'm sure." Blair said. "Sounds like a great idea. In fact, maybe you could throw a load in the wash while you're downstairs too. We're starting to run a little low on clean clothes around here."

"Oh you noticed?" Jim said, one eyebrow going up.

"Yeah," Blair said. He was grinning so hard it hurt. "What's the deal with that anyway? I'm having to wear your sweats around, and they do not even begin to fit. I've gotta roll up the ankle and --"

Jim pounced with a happy growl, pushing Blair over onto his back, pinning his shoulders to the mattress and looming over him. His efforts to look menacing were spoiled by the loopy grin across his own face. "Why don't I just iron a couple of shirts for you while I'm at it, Sandburg?"

"Thanks, man, that'd be great --" Blair started, already laughing, but then Jim buried his face against the side of his neck, and gripping Blair's shoulders, blew a noisy raspberry against his throat. Blair shrieked at the sudden hot-cold blustery tickle, and Jim let one shoulder go so that he could cover Blair's mouth.

"Shush," he breathed, as Blair twisted and bucked under Jim's weight, feeling the puff of Jim's breath blowing right through him, the entire surface of his skin tingling and almost unbearably alive. Jim lifted his hand carefully. "You OK now?" He sounded so calm and superior that Blair would have smacked him if he could have gotten a hand up to do it.

"Jim," he panted, "I swear --"

"What," Jim breathed, coming in close again, moving his lips against Blair's throat, "You want me to iron some dress slacks too?"

"Stop it," Blair moaned, grunting with laughter. "Stop -- ah, ah--" He was laughing too hard to catch his breath. Jim kissed him soundly, once on the side of his neck, then once more on his bottom lip as Blair gasped and laughed, and then rolled off him, ending up against the tumble of mismatched pillows by the wall. Their legs were still tangled, but Jim had drawn his arms back so he could put both hands on Blair's chest. He lay there, watching Blair's laugher wind down into wheezes and gasps, looking a little mad, Blair thought, as he slowly gained control. One of the holy fools who've seen eternity. He supposed he couldn't blame Jim for that look. It was sort of the way he felt himself.

"Dinner?" he whispered to Jim, when he could speak.

"All right," Jim said calmly, that same wild expression in his eyes. He looked positively unhinged, in fact. Happy, but definitely nuts. Blair couldn't send him out in public like that.

"Forget the coffee." Blair said. "And the laundry can wait. Just the soup, OK?"

Jim reached his arms above his head, over the end of the futon, and stretched before he answered. Long and luxurious. Sleek, warm. Blair felt muscles flex under Jim's satiny, sweaty flesh, and saw Jim's nipples stretched flat across the heavy pectorals. He wasn't sure if the pulse he heard roaring in his ears was his own or Jim's. It would be so easy to drop his head just a little, brush his lips across those brown, flat nipples, feel them harden under the pressure of his mouth. Feel the way Jim's body began to tremble when Blair touched him, no matter how tenderly. Or especially when Blair touched him tenderly.

Blair swallowed, his throat suddenly dry, wondering how in the world he could be thinking of starting all over again, and contented himself, for now, with placing one hand in the center of Jim's chest. Jim was still stretching, fingers spread wide, so close Blair could almost swear he could feel his toes flexing too, but at Blair's deliberate touch, he made a quiet sound that Blair felt more than he heard, and relaxed all at once, pulling Blair back into an embrace as he dropped his arms.

"Mmm," Jim rumbled, and Blair felt Jim's cheek rubbing against the top of his head. Blair worked his arm out from around them with a little difficulty, tight as Jim was holding him, and managed to snake it around Jim's ribs so he could hold Jim tightly too. Their knees knocked together, but then Jim parted his to allow Blair's thigh to nudge between them. They lay entwined, breast to breast. It wasn't cold anymore in the loft this evening, Blair reflected happily. Lying in Jim's arms it actually deliciously, perfectly warm. He sighed blissfully and Jim murmured, "No, you were right the first time. We need to do some laundry."

"What?" Blair sighed again, in gentle exasperation this time. "No, Jim." He tried to wind himself closer, his face pressed to the warm hollow at Jim's neck and shoulder. "It can wait. It can all wait. Really."

"Let me up," Jim directed, though his arms were still wrapped tightly around Blair. "You need dinner too."

"All right," Blair agreed at last. Jim was the one who needed some dinner. He pulled back enough to see Jim's face. Jim's eyes were half closed, looking a little dazed from the simple pleasure of lying close like this, his beautiful lips curved into the tiniest smile. His chin and cheeks were blotchy and pink. Blair laid his hand on the side of Jim's face. "But you should take a shower or something before you go out. Trust me on this, Jim."

"Always," Jim said contentedly

"Like I believe that," Blair tried to grumble, and knew he wasn't even a little bit convincing. Jim just lay there smiling that same lazy, happy, almost-smile, but he relaxed his arms, and after a moment, reminding himself that Jim must be starving, Blair rolled away onto his back. For some reason looking up at the ceiling of his little room then made him feel all choked up, and he couldn't imagine why. All the nights he had looked up at that claustrophobic vista alone, perhaps. And now he wasn't alone anymore. He never had been, not really. He just hadn't had the sense to realize it.

Before the tears that Jim would be able to smell, probably, could come to his eyes, he rolled again and sat up, planting his feet on the floor. Sparkles flashed before his eyes, and he swayed, feeling a little lightheaded.

Jim touched him, palm warm at the small of Blair's back. "Easy."

"Yeah," Blair agreed, and then grinned to himself. "Little late for that, isn't it, Jim?" He put his hand flat beside himself and pushed himself to his feet determinedly. "Oh man." he put his hand over his stomach and turned around. "You're right. I'm *starving.*"

Jim was still curled on his side, still almost smiling. Against the dark print of Blair's sheets and the jumbled colors of the slipcovers on the pillows, his flesh gleamed. There were bronzed highlights on his face and arms still from their trip to LA, but his chest, belly and thighs were like cream in the light that spilled through the open door.

"Thought you were going to get up?" Blair whispered, gazing down at the beautiful man on his bed. His bed. His Jim lying there. He was trying to remember now why he was leaving it, and it wasn't all that easy. Impossible if Jim were going to remain here.

Jim shifted over onto his back with a series of little grunts, then stretched again. "I am," he said. He propped himself on his elbows and smiled up at Blair. "So how you feeling, Chief?"

"Good," Blair smiled back. "I feel pretty good. You?"

Jim chuckled, a throaty, satisfied, low-in-his-belly sound that sent a delicious spike of desire straight through Blair. "I feel pretty good too," Jim said. He was looking up into Blair's eyes, smiling, but then his gaze dropped, sweeping Blair's body like a caress. It felt that way to Blair, like Jim's hand on him again, and he wanted to crawl right back into bed, which was ridiculous -- they were both hungry, they needed to do laundry, get washed up -- a million things to do.

It could all wait for another minute or two. Blair knelt at the bedside, and Jim rolled onto his side, smiling at him. Blair laid his hand gently on the side of Jim's head and drew forward so he could kiss him. "Thank you, " he told Jim, and slipped his hand back to cradle the nape of Jim's neck. With his other hand he stroked Jim's chest in slow circles. "Jim, man, you --" he started to say, but gave it up to simply kiss Jim once more. In this position their lips met at an unfamiliar angle, and Blair lingered, exploring the delicate, narrow crease at the corner of Jim's mouth with his own lips and tongue.

Jim murmured something against Blair's open mouth, his chest rising and falling a little more rapidly under Blair's palm, and Blair drew away from him with aching reluctance, laying his cheek against Jim's and giving a shaky laugh. "Dinner," he said, reminding himself. "Laundry."

"Dinner," Jim agreed. He pushed himself upright and swung his feet around, Blair settling back just enough to give him space. He reached down, though, and put his hands on Blair, each palm against the side of Blair's head, gently holding him.

Crouched at Jim's knee, Blair could feel himself beaming up at him. "Right, Jim, dinner."

Jim bowed his head over Blair's, tilting Blair's face up so that he could touch his lips to Blair's forehead. "Still want some coffee from downstairs?" he asked quietly, seriously, as though it were the most momentous thing on each of their minds. "Or just a couple of loaves of the bread, maybe, to go with the soup?"

"Caffeine cannot be a good idea," Blair said. "But bring me up a double espresso anyway, OK?"

Jim looked down at him fondly. "You'll be bouncing off the walls."

"I don't want to fall asleep yet," Blair said, reaching up to stroke the side of Jim's face. "I wanna be awake to enjoy this."

"I'll still be here when you wake up in the morning," Jim said, and though it was probably meant as gentle teasing, by the time he had spoken the words, his voice was breaking. He caught Blair to him, pulling him up to kiss his mouth, arms wrapped around his shoulders, holding him closely, gently, but so close and so firm it was like he never expected to let go.

Blair couldn't hold Jim the way he wanted, the way Jim's embrace locked his arms at his sides, but he could yield what Jim needed from him, kneeling up so that he could press himself against Jim's warm stomach, letting his head drop back so that Jim could deepen their kiss. Jim was making that soft sound again, not a sob, not a cry, precisely. It broke Blair's heart, whatever it was, that murmur of want and gratitude, desire and relief, everything Jim was feeling that was too much to keep inside. Jim was kissing him harder, and somehow more gently all the same, thrusting his tongue past Blair's teeth, reaching deep as though the touch of their bodies reassured him of the closeness of their souls. That soft sound still hummed from Jim's throat and buzzed against Blair's lips, and it was the sound of needing Blair, of having needed him his entire life, Blair was certain of it. He twisted in Jim's arms, trying to press closer. Jim's thighs had closed against the soft places under his ribs, so that he felt encompassed, surrounded. It was everything he'd ever needed too, only he'd never known. He moved against Jim, luxuriating in Jim's embrace, but deliciously frustrated as well because he couldn't surround Jim the way Jim surrounded him. Jim was warm, so warm, sweat and semen half-dried on his stomach and thighs, and his mouth still covered Blair's, as though he wanted to drink Blair's words before Blair could even speak them out loud.

The floor was hard under Blair's knees, and Jim's tongue was slick and hot and gentle in his mouth, and Blair was still twisting, half-trying to free his arms so he could hold Jim. It was a hopeless effort, so he let his head fall back, feeling the way it pulled his lips open as his jaw dropped, and the way Jim moaned and pressed further, deeper, strong arms still locked around Blair's shoulders.

Fine. All right, this was fine too. Whatever Jim wanted was beyond fine, it was all Blair ever hoped for in this life or any of the next half dozen incarnations either. Jim bent over him, holding him, tasting and seeking, moving through the suddenly open, airy rooms of Blair's very soul. Yes, Blair wanted to say. Everything, everything you find, everything you want is yours.

And then with a gasp Jim released Blair's mouth, pressing his forehead against the side of Blair's throat and neck, quietly panting. He held Blair close, still wrapped around him tight. Blair's eyes were open, and he gazed over Jim's shoulder at the wall, the tumbled pillows, the hopeless shambles of the bedclothes. He was thinking what a joy and a wonder it was to be taking in these familiar sights over Jim's shoulder, and his heart was pounding as desperately as Jim's. He could feel the hard pulse in Jim's belly. Jim's embrace still locked Blair's arms against his sides, but he was able to bring his hands up so he could pat Jim's lower back, and if his touch was clumsy, it was as gentle as his love could make it as well. Jim swallowed but didn't seem to be able to speak, so Blair said it for him. It was the least he could do.

"I know you'll be here, Jim." He turned his head, managed to brush a soft kiss over the corded muscle that ran from back of Jim's neck to his shoulder. "I'll be here in the morning, too."

Jim hugged him so hard that a happy "oof" escaped Blair, then he relaxed his embrace at last, encircling Blair's shoulders with gentle contentment now, stroking Blair's back with his warm hands. Blair smiled and twined his own arms round Jim's waist now. "Not like I have any choice in the matter, is it? Where would I go? I don't think I have a clean shirt left."

Jim laughed, a single, quiet chuckle. "How is this supposed to convince me to do your laundry tonight, Sandburg?" He slowly got to his feet over Blair, tugging at Blair's arms without force to coax Blair to stand up with him. When they both stood at the side of the bed, grinning at each other, Blair thought, like they were the first people on the planet to discover just how nice *that* could feel, Jim ran his hand over Blair's head, pushing the hair out of his eyes, smoothing his palm across the tangled curls. And he kept smiling. Blair decided Jim wasn't really devoting much attention to the laundry question.

"I love you," Jim said, clinching it, and he stooped carefully so that he could kiss Blair. Jim's lips were soft, and Blair realized they always seemed to be trembling, just the tiniest amount, before the firm pressure of their mouths against each other could erase the faint quiver from Jim's sensitive lips.

It made Blair tremble too, and he shivered against Jim, stretching up on the balls of his feet so he could wrap his arms around Jim's neck. The kiss they shared this time was restrained, shallow and gentle, lips parted softly, tasting carefully with lips and tongues that were a little raw and sensitive now. And it still made Blair feel as though the room were slowly spinning around him in lazy, slow loops. He dropped back onto his heels at last, breaking the kiss reluctantly, sliding his hands down to cup Jim's jaw in both palms. He smiled up at the big man who gazed down at him with such naked joy, and wanted to shout his own happiness out loud, scream it to the whole damn world. I'm in love with a wonderful guy, he thought, and cracked himself up thinking it. Jeez, Broadway show tunes already?

"What?" Jim demanded suspiciously, still beaming, his arms around Blair's back.

"I love you, too," Blair said, smiling so hard his face was starting to ache. "And if I knew all the words to 'Some Enchanted Evening' I'd serenade you with it, I swear I would."

"Man's got to be thankful for small favors," Jim said, not managing his usual deadpan at all. He hugged Blair hard again, nuzzling his jaw against Blair's temple. "Thank you," he whispered, so softly Blair almost didn't hear him. Then he put his hands on Blair's shoulders and stepped him back a pace so he could look Blair in the face again. "You want in the shower first?"

Blair shook his head. "Nah, you go ahead. I'm just gonna mop up a little." He looked down at himself, then at Jim, grinning. "What a mess."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, not sounding very concerned about it. He slipped his arm back over Blair's shoulders, and turned him around, walking them both the two steps to the bedroom door, then sidling over the threshold as though he didn't want to let Blair go long enough even to get through the door. Blair smiled, and they went through the bathroom door the same way.

The washcloth they had both used last time lay in a soggy heap on the side of the sink; the hand towel was still on the floor where Jim had dropped it. His hand still over Blair's shoulders, Jim looked at the mess and shook his head. "There's not another dry towel in the house, is there?"

Blair reached out and fingered the bathtowel on the rack behind the door that he'd used after his bath. "This one's not all that wet."

"Not all that wet. Great," Jim said. He put his hand under Blair's chin and lifted his head a little, then bent to press a soft, brief kiss to the corner of Blair's mouth. "We're not going to let the laundry go this long again, OK, Chief?"

"OK with me," Blair said. He patted Jim's side as Jim straightened up. "Everything by the book from now on."

Jim lifted an eyebrow at him, which made Blair laugh. "Get in the shower, man, before I change my mind."

"Change your mind about what?"

"About wanting to get cleaned up and some dinner."

Jim loomed over him. "You saying you might want something else, Sandburg?" His voice was a throaty growl that made Blair go weak at the knees.

"Jim, you can't be serious." He put his hands on Jim's upper arms. "It's late, you need dinner, and if we keep it up we're gonna make each other sore."

Jim kissed his temple and laid his hand on Blair's breast, both of them soothing, carefully tender touches that made Blair tremble and swallow hard anyway. "You sore?" Jim asked.

"Nah, I'm fine, I'm fine." He put his hand over Jim's. "A million times better than fine. Just thinking maybe next time we should use some massage oil or something."

And was nearly lost again, suddenly envisioning Jim's beautiful body slick and shining with oil -- the way his hands would smooth over glistening flesh, and how Jim would move under him as he touched him -- "Jesus, Jim," he blurted out, looking up at Jim in dismay. "How did I miss it?"

Jim shook his head, his smile becoming gentler. "You didn't miss anything," he said. His hand was still on Blair's chest, but then he stroked upwards carefully, his fingertips soft over the bristles on Blair's throat before he covered Blair's mouth with the pads of his fingers. Blair wrapped his fingers around Jim's warm corded wrist as Jim whispered to him, most of his smile in his eyes now, "You showed me the way. You brought me home."

Blair swallowed, speechless again, as a sudden, sharp memory from his dream came to him. Is that what he had said out loud when he had lain dreaming in Jim's arms? He hoped so, and he pursed his lips to kiss Jim's fingertips before saying, finally, inconsequential as it is. "We should probably talk about this some time. Really, Jim, we should."

"All right," Jim agreed, smiling. "Whenever you want." He lifted his hand from Blair's lips, but only so he could reach back and cradle the back of his neck as he ducked his head and took another kiss. No, gave another kiss. Every kiss of Jim's seemed a gift of his body and his spirit and his life as well as his love. No one had ever kissed Blair that way before.

Blair wasn't sure he even knew how to return such a gift. It seemed too important to just hope that his kisses gave as much to Jim, and when Jim raised his head again he was talking while his lips were still warm from the pressure of Jim's mouth. "But I mean, how could I have not noticed something this big?" Jim grinned, and Blair groaned. "Don't even. You *know* what I mean. It's just so much -- you, you're so beautiful," he confessed helplessly. "I want you so much. How long has this been going on, you know?"

Jim looked at him seriously, love in his eyes. "But you told me." he said quietly. He caught a lock of hair in his hand, held it for a moment, then laid his palm on Blair's cheek. He took a breath. "In your nightmares, Chief -- at that produce stand -- the things I did when I didn't know what was happening." He broke off again, jaw tightening for a moment. His voice was lower, a little rough around the edges as he told Blair the rest. "You told me that I didn't have to reach for your heart. You said it was already mine."

"Oh," Blair said softly. He felt new tears prickling in his eyes, his lids already puffy and swollen, the surface of his eyeballs scratchy as though he'd been swimming in saltwater. Practically had been tonight. "Oh yeah," he said again, idiotically, a rueful smile tugging at the edges of his mouth. What good was it being able to talk a mile a minute when he didn't know what to say during the most important moments of his life? He took Jim's hand and brought it back to his chest because he didn't know what else to do, flattening Jim's palm over the darkest bruise, where he still felt a dull, distant pressure when he took too deep a breath. "I meant that, Jim. I still mean it. My heart has been yours, for a long time now," He gazed up at Jim, feeling the love and gratitude in Jim's gentle eyes like sunshine on his face. " I guess I just didn't know what the finished model would look like." He shrugged, then grinned suddenly at Jim. "The picture on the box wasn't very realistic."

Jim cocked his head at him, that silly what-are-you-going-on-about-NOW? look on his face that always reminded Blair of a large, friendly dog that was trying to figure out the rules of a new game.

"Oh come on," Blair insisted half laughing. "You know, while you were waiting for the glue to dry, and you know you should just *wait,* but you try to put on those little decals that always rip no matter how careful you try to be--"

"I always waited until the glue was dry, Sandburg," Jim said gruffly, and yes, there were tears swimming in Jim's eyes too, the big, beautiful lug. "But you're right, those stupid decals were just a cruel joke."

Blair laughed again, out loud this time, and leaned in to lay his head on Jim's broad chest. He wrapped his arms around Jim's waist, and felt Jim's arms heavy and reassuring around his shoulders. "Glad we agree on something," Blair mumbled. Jim felt so good. He even smelled good. Well, not *good* exactly, but alive and strong and right here, his heart pounding steadily against Blair's cheek, maybe a little faster when Blair spread his hands against the small of his back.

"Now get in the shower, man." Blair hugged him tighter, feeling a happy, icy shiver of pleasure sparking across every nerve ending when Jim moaned softly, and just as happily, at the press of Blair's arms and the touch of his hands. "I'll start the soup, since it looks like that's the only way I'm going to get any around here."

"I've been trying to make dinner for you all night," Jim murmured, all innocence. His hands were warm on the back of Blair's shoulders before he slid them up under the mantle of Blair's hair to cradle his head.

Blair shivered, tipping his head back to feel more of that gentle touch. "And now you're back to claiming it's my fault? Jim, we had this conversation an hour ago."

"I know," Jim agreed. Blair loved that happy, calm, amused tone of voice of Jim's. A tone of voice that meant James Ellison was well pleased with the world and his place in it. "It was your fault then, too." Jim's warm, tender hands slipped forward to cup Blair's jaw, and gently lift his face. Blair blinked and opened his eyes, his senses so full of Jim he hadn't realized until that moment that his eyes had closed.

He saw Jim gazing down at him, and it was that look in Jim's eyes that did it. Trusting, adoring. More patient than any man Blair had every met. And hopelessly in love. With him, Blair Sandburg. Jim was in love with him, and he let the truth of it shine from his naked blue eyes, because he wanted to be sure Blair knew as well.

"Oh, Jim," Blair stammered in a broken whisper. "I do too. It's like that for me too."

Jim's lips curved, but most the smile was in his eyes and in the lines of his face. He bent his head, still holding Blair's jaw cradled in the warm palms of his hands. Blair expected a kiss, but instead Jim simply nuzzled his whisker-roughened cheek against Blair's own. The caress was intimate in its hunger , the way Jim pressed against him just to share the joy of their closeness.

"Think I'll take that shower now," Jim announced, his voice a contented rumble.

"You do that, man," Blair said, and because Jim showed no signs of letting go on his own, he closed his eyes and lifted his head out of Jim's hands so he could step away. When he opened his eyes again, he found Jim looking at him with an expression that made Blair's heart start to ache all over again. The illusion of pain was so sharp and sweet he laid his hands on his own chest, as though that could contain his love, and turned his face away. Jim didn't say anything, but he reached out and stroked Blair's head once, tenderly, the palm of his hand and his gentle fingers barely brushing over his mussed and tangled hair.

Then Jim finally, obediently, turned around and pulled the shower curtain to, the metal rings rattling. The familiar sound made Blair smile. He'd always thought Jim would have preferred plastic shower curtain rings, but no, it was the rattley little ball bearings or nothing for Jim. For the first time Blair thought he understood. No reason to change things that had become familiar and comfortable and good, just because they made a little noise. He wouldn't worry so much about pulling the curtain in the mornings when he was up before Jim.

Like, tomorrow morning, say. He thought about that as Jim bent and turned on the water. God, the man was beautiful. But what would tomorrow morning be like? He suddenly realized he didn't even know which bed he would be waking up in. His own bed was too small for the two of them -- though they had managed *that* just fine, so simply sleeping should be no problem. Couldn't see Jim, though, choosing to spend the night on a hard little futon, when those acres of down pillows and silky smooth sheets were right upstairs.

But Blair wanted to sleep beside Jim. He wanted to wake during the night and feel that warmth and strength tucked all around him, holding him. Allowing Blair to hold him too.

But Jim's bed -- well, maybe it should stay Jim's. Maybe he would need that private place more than ever now, after inviting Blair to come so close. Just because Blair could no longer particularly imagine ever being apart from Jim again didn't mean his Sentinel would feel the same way. Blair never wanted to take from Jim what Jim didn't want to give him. Never again, no matter what.

"Hey, Chief." Jim stopped, one foot in the bathtub. His voice was raspy, but soft with affection all the same. "Whatever it is, you're thinking about it too hard. Knock it off."

"OK." Easy to agree to just about anything when Jim was smiling at him like that. Besides, Jim was right. They'd work things out. Jim would let him know. And by this point he had a pretty good idea that whatever made Jim happy would work for him too.

The sound of water in the shower changed as Jim stepped all the way in, water hitting flesh and muscle now instead of the enameled surface of the tub. A last rattle of the shower curtain hooks as Jim pulled the curtain shut the rest of the way behind himself. Blair picked the washrag off the side of the sink and turned on the faucet carefully, a slow stream of water that wouldn't affect Jim's shower. He was starting to feel a little cold again, even as the bathroom filled with steam, and Jim's hot shower was sounding pretty good, now that he thought of it.

No, he'd said he would start the soup while Jim showered, and Jim deserved a little pampering. It had been a hell of a night for him. Blair wrung the washcloth out under lukewarm water, thinking about that look on Jim's face. Out there in the rain, on the busy street. Sinking to his knees before Blair, devastated by loss. Blair closed his eyes and shook his head a little, trying to banish the memory. Jim had forgiven him for that. Jim understood.

Jim loved him.

He took a deep breath and opened his eyes, seeing himself smiling in the rapidly fogging mirror. And he loved Jim too. Like he'd never loved anyone in his whole life, and his whole body was still a little quivery and oversensitive as the proof of it. He flinched as a drop of water from the washcloth rolled down his belly.

In fact, maybe he should dress and get the laundry started himself, pick up the bread and coffee for Jim. Then both of them could just relax for the rest of the evening.

Sounded like a nice plan. They were both tired. No reason Jim should have to do all the work. He swabbed his belly clean in a few strokes, rinsed out the washcloth, and did the rest, so sensitive that his cock twitched even at the impersonal touch of the washcloth. You have *got* to be kidding, he thought, and didn't realize he'd spoken out loud until Jim stuck his head out around the shower curtain. He looked so -- vulnerable like that, somehow, Blair wasn't sure why, his wet hair lying flat against his scalp. "Kidding about what?"

"Nothing, man. Just talking to myself. " he smiled at Jim. "Wasn't talking about you."

"All right," Jim said. "I was just making sure." He reached one long arm out from around the shower curtain. "Come here a moment?" He sounded so cautious, as though Blair might think about refusing him.

Right. As if. Thinking about the things Jim might ask of him made Blair go a little weak at the knees. He was really going to have to start to controlling his imagination if he wanted to ever be able to go out in public again. "Yeah, Jim," he said, and sidled within reach. "What is it?"

Jim reached out to him, and cradling Blair's jaw in his wet palm, gently drew his face close enough to kiss. Water from the shower was running down Jim's arm and dripping from his bent elbow, onto the side of the tub, on the tiles, onto Blair's foot. Jim didn't seem to notice, or if he did, not to care any more than Blair did. He met Blair's lips gently, a soft sound like a whimper seeming to escape him as Blair kissed him in return. Jim's mouth tasted of the shower water, his lips faintly, faintly of soap and shampoo. His kiss was tender but hungry for Blair, as though they had been apart for hours. Blair opened his mouth under Jim's, returning Jim's kiss with joy, and wondering vaguely how on earth they would face the first separation of any length at all. So far Blair thought, he hadn't even managed to make it out of the bathroom without Jim. Jim couldn't even get through a shower. A giddy laugh rose in Blair's breast, between the pleasure of the Jim's kiss and the wonderful foolishness of standing here wasting hot water and getting it all over the floor to boot, escaping in a silly huff that broke their kiss. He laid his face against Jim's wet cheek in mute apology. Jim laughed too, more softly, and let the hand that had been cradling Blair's jaw slip upwards to caress the other side of Blair's face. He tried to push Blair's hair back with his fingers, but the loose curls caught and tangled against Jim's wet skin, so he left his palm resting warmly over Blair's cheekbone as he told him in a low, gruff voice, "Go put some clothes on, Sandburg, or come get in the shower with me. Water's getting all over the place. "

"I noticed," Blair whispered happily, and nuzzled back enough to kiss Jim again. He reached up to cradle the back of Jim's wet neck, feeling needles of water from the shower on his fingertips, hearing and feeling Jim's moan against his open mouth. He eased his mouth away. "I can't take a shower with you, man." He kissed the line of Jim's jaw and ran his hand down Jim's wet chest. "There just aren't enough dry towels left in the whole place."

Jim's eyes were closed, leaning into Blair's touch , a slightly dopey smile on his face, like a man too happy and too exhausted to do anything but stand there and smile. Blair touched his fingers to Jim's beautiful curved lips. "Finish your shower," he whispered. "I'll get dinner started."

At that Jim's eyes opened again, crinkling with amusement, and his smile grew broader. He didn't say anything, only caught Blair's hand in his own, and pressed a kiss to Blair's fingertips. His lips trembled against Blair's wet fingers. Blair felt something cold and sweet slip down his spine, down the very center of his being. His belly was hollow with hunger and longing.

"Stop it," he complained softly, turning his hand in Jim's grasp and brushing Jim's cheek with the flat of his hand. The planes of his face were so lovely, even flushed from the shower and their kisses, his thinning brush of hair plastered flat over his scalp. He was still smiling that foolish smile, his eyes half-closed, nothing showing in them but contentment and pleasure.

"I love you," Blair whispered, and when Jim's eyes fluttered open wide, misty with emotion, Blair strained up on tiptoe, took Jim's head in both hands, and kissed him once again. This one had to last them a while, at least until Jim got out of the shower, so Blair kissed him soundly, pressing his tongue past Jim's parted lips, spreading his fingers wide across Jim's wet scalp to steady him when Jim began to shake. Water trickled down Blair's arms and dripped from his elbows. It trickled across his face and spilled drop by drop from his chin as they kissed. He could taste shower water and soap on Jim's lips, and the salty, faintly sour savor of their lovemaking still in Jim's mouth. The shower seemed to have intensified the musky warm smell of Jim's body rather than washing it away, and somewhere in the midst of this kiss, Blair realized he had begun to yield. Or maybe he had been yielding from the first. Jim's arms were around his shoulders, strong and warm and dripping wet. Jim's tongue slipped over his own. He breathed in Blair's breath, and sighed in regret when Blair finally had to drop back onto his heels, breaking their kiss.

"Jim," he whispered, reaching up and putting both hands on Jim's chest. Jim covered both his hands with his own, lightly, not restraining him, just as though he was treasuring the touch. "Jim, when you run out of hot water, man, it is not gonna be my fault."

Jim just laughed, a contented, low chuckle. "Go put some clothes on, Sandburg," he said, smiling down at him, "before you catch pneumonia." And with that he pulled the shower curtain firmly shut again with a little rattle of ball bearings. Right, Blair thought, grinning at the closed shower curtain and the faint silhouette of Jim beyond it. As if Jim was the sensible one here. As *if.*

Actually, tonight, whatever Jim wanted to believe was fine with him. Blair dug a used towel out of the hamper and used it to mop the worst of the water off the floor, then kicked the towel back in the general direction of the hamper before remembering he had just been thinking about doing the laundry himself instead of leaving it for Jim.

It was still a good plan. He was feeling a little like the king of the universe anyway. Could do anything he set his mind to. Get all the laundry done, make the two of them a good dinner, bring up some fresh bread from downstairs. Maybe get the loft picked up some too. it was really starting to look like a dump around here.

He picked the wet towel up and dumped it in with the rest of the whites, then heaved the whole canvas bag off the frame and slung it over his shoulder. It was pretty heavy, actually. No wonder they were running out of laundry. And that washrag could go, too, and probably the bathmat, but he'd leave it for Jim when he got out of the shower.

He could almost see Jim behind the shower curtain, a darker shadow between the curtain and the shower wall. Jim, happy and at peace with the world right now, and dutifully lathering that inch and a half of hair on the top of his head. Blair could smell the sudden sharp scent of Jim's shampoo. Almost made you wonder why he even bothered. A bottle of shampoo lasted the man about five years, and then he bitched when Blair borrowed a couple of capfuls like Blair was dipping into a private reserve or something.

Blair smiled to himself, and ran his hand through his own almost-dry hair. He remembered the way Jim had touched his hair tonight. Running his fingers through it, gently tugging the tangles free, wrapping the ends around his fingertips. Smiling down at him in wonder and love as he smoothed his palm over curls. Just remembering the way Jim had looked at him made something deep inside him clench hard, a sensation that bit almost as sharply as pain. No danger, though, that he could ever mistake this for anything but pleasure. Jim loved him. Jim loved him so much that there were times during this endless evening when Blair had suspected Jim might be perfectly satisfied to simply lie there beside him and run his fingers forever through Blair's tangled hair.

The big galoot, Blair thought fondly, and swallowed hard against an ache in his throat. He shut the bathroom door behind himself to keep the draft out, the laundry bag heavy on his shoulder.

No one had ever loved him like that before. No one had ever *touched* him like that, not ever. Blair had never even imagined. Never even known enough to hope. He ran his free hand lightly over his chest, down to his stomach, just enough to stir the individual hairs and evoke the memory of Jim's hands on him. Never in his life had the simple fact of his presence been enough to make someone else so happy. As happy as Jim was when he looked at him. When Jim touched him.

When Jim kissed him. Blair raised his hand to his lips and felt them with his fingertips. Just his same old lips, nothing changed there. But when he kissed Jim with them the whole world came into focus, clear and beautiful and strong, and Jim at the very center of it. Everything else could get worked out in its own time. Or not. It didn't really matter, not when Jim kissed him back.

And in the meantime, he was standing stark naked by the kitchen table, holding a laundry bag and touching himself.

Blair laughed at himself and dropped the laundry before the cord creased his left palm permanently. He was starting to shiver too. Where had he left his robe? Not by the sofa. That was the robe Jim had been wearing earlier. He should take it in to Jim so he'd have something to wrap up in when he got out of the shower. His must be -- right. In the bedroom. Still crumpled on the bed, in fact. Just where it had been lying since Jim eased it off his shoulders. Then had kissed him, and pulled him close, holding Blair so that the warmth of that broad chest against Blair's own, and the weight and power of those strong arms around Blair's shoulders would drive away the evening chill.

Blair stood there at his bedside, just holding the robe in his hands. It wasn't even really his robe. This one was Jim's too, the thick, warm terrycloth one that Jim hung on the back on the bathroom door. Blair had simply grabbed it, a little panicky and a little angry at himself after Jim left him to soak in the bathtub. It seemed like a million years ago now. He wasn't sure what had frightened him more. Being alone himself, or knowing that Jim was alone. Even separated by a bathroom door had been much to far apart.

Silly.

Except it wasn't, not at all. Not then, when everything had been still so close to the edge. The pain and uncertainty darkening Jim's clear blue eyes. His concern for Blair might overshadow it for a moment, might allow him to act as though he understood, and that it was all over now, but in the man's heart of hearts, he hadn't forgiven himself for the things his hands had been used to do. Blair had known it as surely as he knew his own name. And he was supposed to just sit there in the tub? Don't think so, man.

And speaking of ghosts and memories and irrational fears ... while his own concern for Jim might disguise it for a time, the truth of the matter was, Blair had still been afraid of the dark himself, and afraid of being alone.

Was he still? he wondered. He explored the question for just a moment as he pulled Jim's robe on around his shoulders, still standing in this bedroom, his back to the door as he let himself think about something small. Like that sound. Early on, before he knew anything was going on.

Blair looked down at his finger. Stitches were due to come out in a couple of days, but the bruising was just now beginning to fade. He'd sliced open the back of his finger trying to cut an onion for dinner, and then while he huddled on the kitchen floor, trying to stop the bleeding and hoping he wouldn't faint (god, how stupid can you get, after all?) he had heard it. A booming thunder, like someone banging on the pipes. Coming from all around him, though, impossibly loud. Like something was knocking to get in.

Christ.

He got out of his bedroom fast and went back to the bathroom door. So all right, he was still a little nervous about things. He put his hand on the door panel and leaned his head against it, listening to Jim's shower running. It was like he kept telling Jim. He needed time. Some things didn't just go away over night, no matter how much you might wish they could. He looked up at the boarded-up skylights. He kept telling Jim not to rush things, so it was probably time for him to start listening to his own advice. Probably way past time at that. He pulled Jim's robe closer around himself and thought about the warm water sluicing over Jim's body in the shower. Washing all the cold and weariness away from him. He hoped it felt wonderful to Jim.

The rest of the loft still looked a little cold and dark, though. Half his memories, the rest the boarded up windows, he thought. The way the windows blocked out the city lights and the night sky. Knowing the explanation didn't make it any easier though. He felt as though he had expended every reserve of courage he'd ever had. There just wasn't anything left, not even for the simplest things.

Or maybe he was just really hungry and really tired. Blair smiled to himself, idiotic tears prickling at his eyes. Wasn't outside the realm of possibility. And Jim must be ravenous.

The shower shut off suddenly. "Sandburg? You OK?"

Blair smiled for real and pushed himself away from the door. "I'm OK. Just getting dinner."

Silence. Blair could practically see the half-skeptical frown on Jim's face. Then he heard the shower curtain rattling.

"Finish your shower, man. I'm all right." And to prove it, he went straight to the kitchen and pulled down a saucepan with more noise and force than was strictly necessary. Two cans of soup down off the shelf, the chicken noodle with the little stars that Jim always bought for some reason, a quirk that made Blair feel tremendously protective and sentimental tonight. He put them down on the counter and began rooting around in the drawers looking for the can opener. Wasn't where it was supposed to be, of course. It seemed like it never was. Jim claimed he never lost things like can openers and measuring spoons before Blair moved in -- Right, Jim, whatever -- but tonight of all nights, Blair really did wish he could find the can opener. How was he supposed to get Jim's dinner started without it? He slammed the drawer shut and turned around, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he found Jim standing not two feet behind him.

"Geez, Jim," he complained, so startled he was on the verge of being angry. "Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

Jim had put out his hand, as though reaching for Blair, but he dropped it when Blair snapped at him. "Didn't know you hadn't heard me, Chief," he said quietly.

Blair felt as though his heart was breaking as he looked at Jim standing there. The man looked so desperately vulnerable, that last soggy towel around his waist, his hair towel dried and standing up in all directions, skin still red from the shower. Waiting for his chicken soup with stars and noodles that Blair hadn't even gotten out of the can yet. "I'm sorry," Blair said. He reached out and touched Jim's face. Jim had shaved. For him, of course, who else? "I was thinking about -- the bad stuff. You know." His voice was climbing dangerously, and he broke off to start again. "It still makes me jumpy, I guess."

Jim covered Blair's hand with his own. His palm was damp and warm over the back of Blair's hand, and his jaw was smooth under Blair's palm. "You told me not to think about it anymore."

"Yeah, well, I say a lot of stuff," Blair agreed, a little helplessly. "Do you listen to every single word?"

"I have to," Jim said. A smile touched his lips then, and he reached out, almost idly, and smoothed a lock out hair back out of Blair's face. "Never know when you might say something important."

Blair felt himself trembling. He was so tired and so happy, and wrung out and Jim was just standing here, big and lovely and damp from the shower that he'd cut short, no doubt, because he'd heard Blair at the bathroom door, and Blair hadn't even started dinner yet, like he said he would, and everything else, the rain coming down outside, pattering down on the balcony, and the way Jim's eyes seemed to dilate when he gazed at Blair, and the wonder in his smile, and the way the cool air on Jim's bare breast had teased his right nipple to a peak, while the left one lay flat and soft. "I love you so much," Blair blurted out all in a rush. Suddenly it seemed terribly important to be sure that Jim knew. "It isn't just because of the stuff that happened. It's not because I still get scared, or because I didn't mean to hurt you so much. I didn't though. That's the last thing I ever meant to do." Oh man, this was getting further and further away from him. "Jim--" he said desperately, almost ready to cry, "I can't find the can opener."

Jim cocked his head, smiling with his eyes, an expression on his face as though he were trying to work his way through that tumble of words, syllable by syllable. He closed his hand around Blair's palm, which still lay against Jim's cheek, and lowered it, though he didn't let go. "You left it on top of the refrigerator," he told Blair.

What in the world was the man talking about? Blair felt himself swaying closer, and he tugged a little at their clasped hands, bringing them up to his chest. The back of Jim's wrist was warm, the sparse dark hairs holding some of the moisture from the shower. Jim's lips were beautiful. Flushed from the shower as well, or perhaps from their kisses, Blair though, with a shiver that went all the way through him.

"The can opener," Jim spoke patiently and slowly. His eyes were still smiling. "When you had the last Bass the other night, you opened it with the other end of the opener." Jim reached out with his free hand and picked up the opener where it rested, sure enough, on the top of the fridge. "You set it down there and it's been right there ever since."

"And you just left it there?"

Jim dropped his head back and shouted with laughter. It was a wonderful sound, the cry of a man set free, so much joy in it that Blair had to laugh too, even as a tear trickled down his cheek. Jim wrapped his hands in the lapels of Blair's robe (*Jim's* robe) and swung him around, gently, but brooking no resistance, and pushed him up against the refrigerator. "Sandburg," he said in a low, happy voice, "I love you too." One hand slipped inside Blair's robe and spread warmly against his chest, holding him without force as he bent to cover Blair's mouth with his own.

Kisses sweeter than wine, Blair thought, reaching up to hold Jim's head in his hands, and the memory of the old Weavers album playing on Naomi's turntable made him feel vaguely sad, but it was a good sadness. Just the regret of moments gone by, because one day this moment would be only a memory too. The refrigerator door cold through his houserobe, Jim's gentle hands touching his body, the press of Jim's warm, almost smooth breast, muscular and solid against his own, and most of all that kiss itself. It was searching and deep, coaxing a surrender from Blair that made him glad he had the refrigerator at his back.

Jim turned his head and whispered, his lips wet against Blair's cheek, "I've got an idea." Then he kissed Blair deeply once more, the hand on Blair's chest slipping up to cup his chin. But there would be other moments, Blair thought, wonderingly, responding to a second kiss even sweeter than the first.

There would be other kisses. Other touches. Many more. Blair's arms slid up to twine around Jim's neck, reaching up as Jim bent his knees and lowered his head to meet Blair. Jim's lips were parted, his mouth open, inviting every intimacy Blair was disposed to seek in return. Blair's hunger for their long-delayed dinner seemed to have been transmuted, wonderfully, into his hunger for Jim's touch. And Blair was feeding on manna. No, upon nectar and ambrosia. An eternal source, infinitely sweet and good, with no taint of immorality or fear of damnation. They had both said forever. So there was no need to regret the past, and nothing in the future to fear.

Jim drew his head back and whispered against Blair's lips. "Now that you have the can opener --" and Blair lost it. He wasn't trying very hard to hold on in the first place. He stopped whatever Jim was going to say by tightening his arms around the back of Jim's neck, drawing him down to kiss him again. Jim's mouth tasted so good. In fact, now that the keenest edge of passion had been sated, it seemed to Blair that he could explore the taste of Jim and the rich pleasure of his touch without distractions He had not noticed before, he thought, the way the heavy cords of Jim's thigh muscles pressed so hard against his legs, or how the edges of Jim's front teeth felt slightly serrated and rough when Blair ran his tongue across them.

Jim's hands moved away, and he planted them against the refrigerator on either side of Blair's shoulders, bracing himself so that he could lean in closer. The towel around Jim's waist felt damp against Blair's stomach, and Blair worried, distantly, that his own unshaved face would be too rough against Jim's, but Jim didn't seem to mind. He bore down carefully over Blair, his lips soft but insistent, his tongue slipping over Blair's to press deep, exploring the pleasure of this touch with an air at once fiercely serious, and deliriously, foolishly happy. Kissing Jim like this, having Jim kiss him back, the two emotions didn't seem incompatible in the least. This was very serious, after all, the slow thunder of Jim's heart beating against his own chest.

Then their combined weight rocked the refrigerator back. Blair heard himself huff in surprise, and Jim grabbed his arms and righted him before they could overbalance and fall. The can opener hit the floor and bounced, and Blair threw his arms around Jim and laughed until he was dizzy and his stomach hurt. He slowly calmed down, his arms still around Jim, his head against Jim's throat and shoulder, panting and chuckling. He realized Jim wasn't laughing with him, just holding him gently, his arm around Blair's shoulders, stroking Blair's hair with his other hand. "You OK there, Sandburg?" he asked. He did sound quietly amused.

Blair nodded his head against Jim's chest, still holding on tight.

"Want to hear what my plan is?" Jim asked. He kept stroking Blair's hair, seeming no more eager to let go than Blair was.

"Yeah," Blair whispered, smiling against Jim's shoulder. "I want to hear your plan." He rubbed his hands up as far as Jim's shoulder blades. Jim's back was beginning to feel cool as the heat of the shower left him. "Probably ought to involve getting dressed. You're cold."

"That's a good idea," Jim agreed solemnly. He nodded his head, his jaw nuzzling Blair's temple. "I'll get dressed first. Then I'll take that laundry bag downstairs and start a load, and bring up some fresh bread and a couple of espressos on the way back up. That is why the laundry bag is sitting in the middle of the floor, right?" His voice was warm with good humor. "To remind me that someone needs to do it?"

"Aw, man, I was going to," Blair protested. He straightened up and stepped back to look up at Jim, though he left his arms wrapped loosely around Jim's waist. "You didn't stay in the shower long enough. I was gonna do it."

"You start the soup and be sure that paper is ready to turn in tomorrow." Jim said. He looked to Blair as though he was trying to be stern. "That'll be enough for me."

Blair went up on tiptoe and kissed the thin, serious line of Jim's lips, and when he sank down again, Jim was smiling again. "OK," Blair agreed. He raised his hand and brushed two fingertips across Jim's lips. "Thanks."

Jim rocked forward and kissed Blair's forehead before he turned and went padding upstairs, presumably in search of some clothes. Blair leaned against the fridge and watched him, still feeling the momentary press of Jim's lip to his forehead. What a night it had been. The whole world turned inside out, though none of the important things had changed at all. They'd just become a little more emphatic was all. Blair laughed to himself. He liked that way of looking at it, he thought, stooping over to pick up the can opener.

"Something funny, Sandburg?" Jim demanded, but Blair could hear the amusement in his voice. He was standing at the head of his bed, pulling a gray t-shirt over his head, then tugging it down to his waist. He didn't have another stitch on.

OK, so some things were a *lot* more emphatic. And still Jim seemed so innocent somehow, utterly unselfconscious, as though he had no idea how beautiful he was. How the sight of him made Blair feel. "No," Blair said quietly. "Not really."

Jim looked down at him, smiling suspiciously. "You sure?"

Blair sighed and put his hand over his heart. The can opener clunked cold and metallic against his chest. "I'm sure, man."

Jim smiled and turned away. The long, unbroken line from his hip to the bend of his knee was so beautiful that Blair wished for a foolish moment that he was a sculptor or a painter who could capture the play of muscle under taut flesh along Jim's long limbs and preserve that loveliness forever. Then he turned to the counter, looking for the soup cans he had gotten down before. He had it bad, man, no hope for him. No hope for either one of them, he suspected. And as easily as they had slipped away tonight, it had probably been that way for a long time.

Blair fit the opener over the lip of the first can and crunched the blade through the lid. The smell of cold canned chicken soup drifted up. There was a dollop of fat floating on the top of the yellow broth, looking like one of the pasta stars, bloated and misshapen. Poor Jim, Blair thought, pouring the soup into a saucepan and opening a second can. He deserved a better dinner than this. Maybe he could perk up dinner with a little seasoning. And did they have any chicken in the freezer? If he could cook a couple of chicken breasts and add that to the soup, that would almost be something close to a real dinner.
Checking the freezer, though, he found nothing but frozen vegetables. Damn. He could add some peas to the soup, he supposed, or a package of the carrots and water chestnuts mix, but it still wasn't exactly a celebratory feast. Not much to offer to the man who had given Blair his heart tonight.

"Unless it's ice cubes, Chief, I can pretty much guarantee you're not going to find whatever you're looking for up there."

Blair shut the freezer door and turned around. Jim was coming down the stairs, buttoning his jeans along the way, the white shirt he'd been wearing today over his shoulder. "I know," Blair told him. "Maybe I can do the grocery shopping tomorrow afternoon after I get my paper turned in."

Jim looked faintly unhappy at the suggestion. He caught the shirt off his shoulder and dropped it onto the laundry bag Blair had left beside the dining room table. "I'm just going to do a load of whites tonight. Is there anything in your room you want washed?"

"Nah, I'll be OK as long as there's some underwear in the wash."

Jim tilted his head and looked at him seriously. "Sure?"

"I'm sure, I'm sure."

"OK."

Jim picked up the laundry bag and went to the door, Blair watching him in some bemusement. He slipped his coat on his shoulders, and Blair sympathized with how cold the wet leather must feel. But then he undid the deadbolt and, Blair finally asked "So do you want to take the soap?"

"Oh." Jim turned back. "Yeah, it might be a good idea.

Blair stooped and pulled the red plastic bottle of Tide Free out from under the counter and carried it to him. "Have you got change?"

Before Jim took the bottle in his free hand, he patted the back pocket of his jeans. "I've got change."

Blair stood by the door, looking up at him, blocking his way. "Are you sure you wanna do this tonight, man? You seem a little out of it."

Jim looked down at him, and suddenly a dazzling smile broke across his face. A smile that made Blair want to cry, or sing, or laugh out loud, or maybe just throw his arms around Jim and give the man a reason to smile that way. "I feel fine," Jim said. Both his hands were full, so he ducked his head and gently kissed Blair's face. His lips felt dry and smooth and cool against Blair's cheek. "I feel just fine," he said.

"Good," Blair whispered. He reached up and cupped Jim's face in his hands, and kissed Jim's mouth as gently as Jim had kissed him. "I feel fine, too."

Part 3

It was cold and drafty in the hall, and it smelled of the rain, wet bricks and asphalt. Jim set down the laundry and the detergent, and pulled the hall window shut. The rain was still coming down hard. A cold, wet, miserable night out there. A cold, wet, wonderful night. He could feel himself starting to grin as he picked up the laundry again. Get a grip, Ellison, he thought, not very sternly. Just because Sandburg kissed you, that's no reason to go off the deep end. Just because he smiled and reached up to touch your face like you were the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen, that's no reason to stand looking out at the rain like a lovesick teenager.

He could still feel the warmth where Blair had cradled his face in his hands for a moment. Blair had beautiful hands. Square-tipped, blunt fingers, oddly graceless at rest, but that only emphasized their eloquence in motion. Why had Jim never noticed before?

He took the stairs down, because even though he was hungry and exhausted, he was also too full of nervous energy to stand still and wait for anything. He had noticed Blair's hands before, of course. He always noticed Blair's hands. They said more than his voice, were as expressive as the emotions on his open face. Jim couldn't help but watch them. He remembered Blair's hands held empty at his sides as he first knelt before Jim. He had kept his hands motionless then, as though to deliberately hush their eloquence.

Blair knew. That's why he had held himself so still, even his hands silent. Offering himself, but refusing to ask. He knew how helpless Jim was in the face of his requests. That's why everything had been on the verge of going wrong for good. Blair had asked again and again for more than Jim could do, and Jim's failures had been destroying them both. So this would be Jim's decision. Jim's acceptance of himself, and who they were together.

Thinking about the courage and strength it had taken for Blair to kneel there in silence made Jim's heart ache with love. He remembered the moment when Blair had finally raised his still hands and wrapped them tightly in the collar of Jim's robe. Trembling with strength, his eyes warm with love. And smiling. He'd smiled at Jim. God, Jim thought, he would do anything for that smile, just like he would go and anywhere those hands directed.

He passed the exit to the street level and started down the next flight to the laundry room in the basement. Well, like now, for instance. Going down to the basement on a rainy night to do Sandburg's laundry, and smiling about it the whole way. As though it was some kind of privilege.

But it was. It was. Blair was upstairs waiting for him. He wasn't going anywhere, he'd promised. The way Blair looked at him when he said the words. The way Blair touched him then. Thinking about it now made Jim shiver, the memory of pleasure so sharp that he felt the sudden flush on his face and throat.

Hell, he probably *would* iron Sandburg's shirts, if he asked Jim to. If it meant Blair would stay in his home, continue to share his life with Jim, he'd starch and iron his underwear too. Even if starched underwear was the last thing either one of them would be wearing in the near future. Even the friction of his boxers and jeans as he descended the stairs made him smile. Or at least, the memories conjured up by that new tenderness were making him grin. He probably looked like a complete fool, he thought resignedly. Nobody grins like that on the way to the laundry room.

The room was empty, as Jim had known it would be, only a single dryer turning in the corner near the window. The place smelled of wet clothes and hot air and humidity. Rain splashed noisily on the sidewalk and against the street-level window set high in the cinderblock wall. Massage oil, Sandburg had suggested. That was a good idea. Jim had a bottle of sweet almond oil, in fact, but he hadn't thought about it. They hadn't stopped to think about much of anything this evening, had they? Not so far. Next time would be different, though. Measured and slow and comfortable and warm. Someplace where Jim wouldn't be afraid he was about to roll off the edge of the bed or the end of the sofa. Jim's bed, for instance.

He dropped the laundry bag and the detergent on top of one machine. Bleach. He was doing a load of whites, he should have brought bleach. He supposed he was lucky Sandburg had thought to give him the detergent on the way out the door, because Jim hadn't remembered that either, had he? Oh well. He fed his quarters into the machine, pushed them home, and as the water started to rush in, poured in a capful of detergent. It was just as well. He still felt wide open, stripped bare, open to everything. He probably wouldn't have been able to tolerate the harsh scent of bleach at all.

As the water began to foam, he pulled sheets and towels one by one from the laundry bag and dropped them into the washer. The uppermost linens still held the scents of their lovemaking. And he imagined Blair on his bed. His hair would be spread darkly on the pillow behind his head, and he would be smiling, drowsy, heavy-eyed, waiting for Jim.

All right, so it was far more likely that Sandburg would be sound asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, but that would be OK, too. After a week of nightmares and fretful, interrupted sleep, the thought of drifting off with Blair's warm, slumbering body cradled in his arms was almost unbearably sweet. The massage oil could wait, he smiled to himself. A good night's sleep with Blair curled beside him would be joy enough. More than he could have ever expected or hoped for even a few hours ago.

Jim upended the last of the laundry recklessly into the washing machine without bothering to check for the odd red wool sock or ballpoint pen. Living dangerously, Ellison. He smiled again. Well, so be it. It had been an evening of taking chances, and he couldn't complain with how any of them had turned out so far. He remembered easing Blair to the floor, Blair's hand still clutching the collar of his robe as Jim looked down into blue eyes wide open in wonder and love. He remembered burying his hand in the soft, curling locks as he supported Blair's head and feeling the warmth of Blair's chest against his own. Finding Blair's lips, tasting his mouth, and hearing the sound Blair made, deep in his throat.

Jim braced himself against the washing machine, feeling a little weak at the knees. Didn't he have better things to do tonight than to stand around down here in the laundry room anyway? He shook his head, trying to clear it, then dropped the lid on the machine. Checking his watch, he turned and half-jogged back up the stairs to the street level door. Still a rainy, miserable night. He hesitated for a moment at the door, looking out at the rain. The patter of rain on asphalt and cement, the smell of exhaust fumes and the sound of tires on wet streets reminded him of other things as well. The things he did not need to think about any longer, he knew. He felt a momentary twist of remembered horror and grief all the same, before he could push it down completely.

Ah, god, he was a wreck. From joy to sorrow and back again. An impossible emotional ping pong in his head. He turned up the collar of his leather coat and stepped out into the rainy night. That was only on the surface, though, the dizzying turns from lovesick mooning to grief and fear. Underneath it all was a bedrock warmth and safety and love. All the others were fragile, flitting emotions born of exhaustion after a long evening. A long day. An even longer week. The amazing thing was either one of them was still upright, far less in control of their emotions. So Jim couldn't help feeling what he did, but he recognized his emotions for what they were. He would treasure the good ones, and try to ignore the rest. It shouldn't be hard. The good ones so very good, after all. He hardly noticed the rain beating down on his bare head, thinking about the way Blair had moved under him, body arched hard, every muscle taut as a bowstring. And then the way he had relaxed himself into Jim's hands, simply because Jim had asked it of him. Trembling with pleasure but otherwise lying so still, watching Jim's face while Jim led him over the edge one stroke at a time. His eagerness to return pleasure for pleasure. Whispering to Jim, breathless with love and yearning, his hair falling softly across Jim's belly and thighs. The touch of his lips, the heat of his mouth.

Jim banged open the door of the bakery with far more force than he'd realized, and every head turned. He flushed in the heat of the shop, and raising his hand, touched the back of his fingers to his flaming cheek. There weren't many people in the bakery on such a cold rainy night, only the couple at the front window seat with two cappuccinos in mugs the size of soup bowls and a student type hunkered down behind a stack of textbooks that would have made Sandburg proud. Louis was behind the counter, sitting on a bar stool and reading the paper, and he smiled when he saw who it was. "Good timing, Jim," he called happily. "Baguettes just out of the oven."

"They smell fantastic," Jim said truthfully, smiling at Louis, the other customers, and the world in general. "Can you get me a couple? And a double espresso to go." Oh, well, he thought then, why not. It was a night to celebrate. "Make that two double espressos."

"Coming right up. Two espressos, two baguettes." Louis' smile grew broader before he turned away. "Had a good evening, Jim?"

He wondered vaguely how Louis could tell. "Not bad," he admitted, and the back of Louis head bobbed in agreement. Jim checked his back pocket and found his wallet -- the state he was in tonight, it wouldn't have surprised him to find he had walked out of the loft with out it, too -- then turned to watch the rainy night street as he waited for his order. Water was running down the plate glass in rivulets and streams, and Jim remembered fragments of his dream. On the sofa, Blair sleeping in his arms, and Jim had dreamed. He remembered the river flowing down like water on the glass, and willows with their fronds trailing in the water. Such a peaceful dream after a week of night terrors. Blair's body warm against his own, his hair falling across Jim's face. Just the scattered memories from a dream made him long to spread his hands over Blair's sun-hot back. Feel the weight of his body over Jim's own. Return Blair's sweet kisses. The yearning was like hunger or thirst, and he had to fight the temptation to open his senses and look for Blair through the rain running down the windowpane and pattering down on the night street. Blair was here, very close, just upstairs. The rain hadn't taken him away. His back wouldn't be warm from the sun, but he would melt into Jim's embrace all the same. And he would smile at Jim. Or kiss him. Or laugh at him for being a lovesick fool, and then stand up on tiptoe, his arms around Jim's neck, and press his body to Jim's, no more able to deny himself than Jim could.

"Jim." There was a hint of amusement in Louis's voice. How long had he been calling him? "Jim, your order."

Jim turned back, half suspecting that he had already given himself away, the way Louis was beaming at him. "What --" His voice cracked. He cleared it and tried again. "What do I owe you?"

"The coffee, the bread -- twelve-fifty. You and Blair, you both like the plain croissants best, right?" he reached under the counter and picked out two pale croissants, butter-rich, crusts as fragile as eggshells, and carefully slid them into the waxed paper bag that he put on the counter. "But these are for your breakfast. From me."

Oh, great. He'd been made all ready. And by the baker, yet. "Thank you," Jim said, handing over the last twenty in his wallet, and not minding that, or Louis's cheerful insight. The way he felt tonight, he was half tempted to announce it to the whole shop.

His name is Blair Sandburg, he would say, just for a start. And he's beautiful, and he loves me.

It would be so easy. He'd better get out of here before he lost it and did say that out loud. But especially before those expensive espressos got cold. "Goodnight, Louis," is he said instead, and pushed his way out the door with his shoulder, the two espressos on a molded paper tray in one hand, both bread bags clutched in the other. The rain had let up a little, and Jim bowed his head and hunched his shoulders as he jogged back to the stairwell door. He stuck the toe of his shoe under the jamb, swung the door open, and slipped inside. The elevator was standing open, and he took it instead of running up the stairs, in deference to the coffee which had already left a syrupy trail slopped down the side of one cup.

Slow, slow, the creaky old elevator always took a million years to ascend. Jim should have taken the stairs. He could smell the chicken soup, even over the fresh bread and coffee aromas in the closed elevator, so apparently Sandburg had remembered to turn on the stove after all. Jim hadn't been holding his breath for even that much.

The upstairs hall was still cold. Their door was standing just ajar, and Jim pushed it open with his shoulder. Blair hadn't locked up behind him. He should be more careful, Jim thought, kicking it shut behind himself, but deep down, the carelessness made his heart light. Blair had been so cautious, so frightened for days, always looking over her shoulder, sleeping with the lights on night after night. At last the fear was beginning to lift. It was time for both of them.

Blair came to his bedroom door, smiling, as Jim put the coffee and bread down on the table. He'd gotten dressed, and was in jeans and a cotton sweater that Jim had been looking for days. His feet were bare, and Jim found himself thinking how naked and lovely they looked against the floorboards. "The coffee," Blair said. His arms were full of papers. Looked like he was sorting out the paperwork that had been accumulating while he finished the paper. "It smells fantastic."

The pot of soup was boiling madly, spewing drops of yellow broth all over the stovetop. Jim took a few long strides across the kitchen to turn the burner down, and when he turned back Blair was only a step behind him, both of the paper coffee cups in his hands. He held one out to Jim. "Don't let it get cold." His hair was falling across his shoulders and his eyes were dark and happy. "Thanks for going out."

Jim took the cup. "No problem."

Blair's face had been tilted towards his expectantly, but he lowered it, then, uncertainty flickering for an moment in those beautiful eyes. Jim felt it too, the old habits of their years as roommates suddenly juxtaposed against this evening's revelations, and it did seem, just for the barest of instants, that perhaps this night hadn't been real at all.

One way to take care of that.

Jim ducked his head and brushed lips over Blair's in a brief, gentle kiss. Blair's lips were dry and soft, and he heard and felt Blair suddenly breathe out hard. He leaned into Jim, going up on his toes to get closer, the espresso slopping dangerously in the cup. Jim put his hand in the middle of Blair's chest to stop him, and when Blair's eyes blinked open and looked at him in faintly hurt surprise, Jim smiled. "The coffee," he said, raising his own cup. "Cheers."

Blair grinned back. "To us, man," he said, tapped the paper cup to Jim's, and then swallowed the espresso in a long gulp. "Oh boy," he said approvingly. "That hits the spot."

Jim tipped his cup and swallowed his own. Just in the nick of time. A minute more and it would have been too cold to drink, too bitter and thick. It was just on the verge now. He swallowed it fast and felt the jolt in the pit of his stomach and somewhere in the back of his skull, like an incandescent light suddenly switched on.

He took Sandburg's empty cup out of his hands and set aside on the counter with his own, having to double check to be sure he hadn't set them down on the hot stove. The way he was feeling tonight, it was entirely possible. The caffeine buzzing in his veins made him feel like the whole world was his for the taking. Or maybe that was just Blair Sandburg standing too close to him, being that whole world and everything Jim would ever want from it. Laughing, Jim cupped Blair's face in his hands and bent his head for another kiss. Blair's mouth was hot from the coffee and tasted like the good espresso roast, bitter chocolate and charcoal, and he moaned when Jim kissed him deeply, sagging as though his legs hadn't the strength to support him any longer.

Jim walked him back a step, until Blair's back was against the kitchen island. He pushed the fingers of his left hand gently back through Blair's soft, tangled hair to hold Blair's head in his hand as he kissed him. With his other hand he reached under Blair's sweater -- under *his* sweater -- and laid his palm over Blair's heart. His breast was warm under the sweater, the curling hairs dry and crisp. The nipple under the pads of Jim's fingers was soft, but it hardened as Jim kissed him, and Blair's heart began to beat faster. Jim could feel the flush warming Blair's face, and he could hear and feel Blair's breathing grow ragged and shallow and fast as that runaway heart. Blair's hands held Jim's waist, then fumbled their way up to lie on Jim's broad shoulders, Jim's shirt still wet from running to the bakery in the rain. At length he held Jim's head in his hands, palms cradling Jim's jaw, fingers spread trembling over Jim's cheeks.

Blair felt so wonderful, warm and yielding and strong. Jim couldn't get close enough. He wrapped both arms around Blair's back, one arm still under the sweater, spread his hand wide across the small of Blair's warm back and pulled him closer. Blair stretched up on tiptoe again, leaning into Jim with absolute trust. His lips were open under Jim's, and he pressed his tongue back into Jim's mouth with gentle insistence, his body molding itself to Jim's embrace in willing surrender, while the heat of his mouth coaxed the greater surrender from Jim.

Jim was starting to recognize this sensation. It started every time he took Blair in his arms. His scalp buzzing with stupefied pleasure, a flooding warmth in his belly, the weight of joyful need between his legs, a trembling ecstatic weakness in his limbs. He felt like he could conquer the world when he was like this, and knew he was so dazzled and overwhelmed he couldn't have made it to his own bed without help.

Blair's hands slid around to the back of his neck as he kissed Jim, and then he crossed both forearms as he stretched up, insistently but gently pulling Jim closer. Jim slipped his other hand under the back of Blair's sweater, cradling Blair's warm, urgent body against his own. Blair broke the kiss with a little gasp and stroked his own rough cheek over Jim's before whispering in his ear, half laughing, almost breathless with passion, "I missed you, man."

They were the sweetest words Blair could have spoken. Jim knew precisely what Blair meant, could guess everything Blair left unsaid. Blair had been thinking about the touches they had shared this evening, reliving every caress, thinking about their future together, his heart light with joy. Just like Jim had been, every second of the time he'd been away. "Missed you too, Chief," he whispered back, his lips touching Blair's ear. Blair shivered in his arms, almost laughing, and Jim hugged him hard before slipping his hands out from under Blair's sweater, finding a firm grip under Blair's arms, and then, before Blair could figure out what he was doing and protest it, lifting him to sit on the end of the kitchen island.

"Jim!" Blair gasped, half laughing, half annoyed. "You have *got* to stop doing that."

Jim moved in between Blair's jeans-clad legs and wrapped his arms around Blair's waist, laying his head upon Blair's chest. "Why?" he asked, a mostly serious question, feeling Blair's heart thundering under his cheek. Blair hooked his legs around Jim's back and laid his arms on Jim's shoulders, gently stroking the back of his head with one hand.

"Because you'll end up with a hernia, you idiot," he said affectionately, bowing his head so that his hair fell across Jim's neck and shoulders.

"But I like holding you," Jim murmured, feeling the warmth of Blair's breast through the sweater. Blair smelled of their lovemaking, fainter now, under the scent of soap, but still hot and sweet and good. Jim inhaled again, breathing in everything, the entire night imprinted on this warm body in his arms. Every teardrop and every drop of rain, coffee and brandy, mingled sweat and passion. Each promise, even, since every one had been sealed with a kiss that Jim knew he could scent on Blair's flesh if he tried. He tightened his arms gently around Blair's back for a moment. "You feel so good," he said out loud, as though that answered Blair's complaint.

Blair chuckled in soft exasperation, his hands stroking Jim's back before he reached up to cup Jim's jaw in both hands. He lifted Jim's face and looked down at him, trying to be serious. "You feel good, too," he said. "It's this business of picking me up and lugging me around the loft that worries me."

Jim grinned back, knowing he was asking for it, and then going ahead and saying it all the same. "But I like lugging you around, too. It's the only time I ever get to call the shots."

"You are *so* full of it!" Blair protested in delight. He covered Jim's face with sloppy kisses. "What kind of a liar am I shacked up with?"

"You're a real romantic, Chief," Jim grumbled, eyes closed under the onslaught of kisses. "Anybody ever tell you that?"

The kisses stopped. Blair's hands still cupped his jaw, the palm and fingertips of his left hand a little warmer from the holding the coffee cup. His thighs were still clamped around Jim's waist, though Jim could feel the long muscles trembling. He opened his eyes and looked up into Blair's downturned face.

"Actually, lots of people have," Blair said, wistful and a little sad. "It's not the sort of thing anyone ever says to me when they're being serious, though."

Jim reached up to touch Blair's face, running two fingers gently across Blair's lower lip until Blair smiled at him again. "Carolyn always told me I was no good at romance," he told Blair, smiling back at him. "So I guess that makes the two of us a pretty good pair."

"She musta been out of her mind," Blair said softly, his smile dissolving into an even gentler expression. He kissed Jim's fingertips before ducking his head to touch his lips to the corner of Jim's mouth.

Jim shivered, then slipped his hand up to hold the back of Blair's neck to take a firmer kiss, his mouth open against Blair's. The world shattered again, fragments glittering all around him. He felt the heavy throb of the artery in Blair's left thigh pulsing against his waist, the rough skin on Blair's right heel rubbing against the seat of his jeans, and a lock of Blair's hair curling against his neck.

The side of Blair's thumb was stroking Jim's cheekbone, and Blair still smelled of tears and brandy and the rain. Jim could hear raindrops hitting the balcony outside, and the side of the building, and the street below, and the hoods of the passing cars. He could even feel the chicken soup getting cold, molecules slowing down, fewer and fewer escaping into the air, heat radiating away from the pot on the stove. He felt the weave of Blair's sweater, and the warmth of Blair's body beneath it, and he could hear the silky slide of the thick hair on Blair's chest against weave of the sweater, and the rougher sound of the hair below his waist ruffling against boxers and blue jeans. He heard Blair somehow moan his name without ever breaking their kiss, and Jim was the one who reluctantly pulled away, laying his head on Blair's chest once more and wrapping his arms around Blair's waist while he waited for the world to settle back into manageable frames of reference. Blair petted his head and stroked his shoulders, not saying anything more, but when Jim lifted his head to look at him, he unwrapped his legs from around Jim's waist to free him.

"You should eat." Jim managed, his voice hoarse. "The chicken soup is getting cold." He stepped back, pulling Blair with him, and Blair slid off the counter, grinning at him.

"I'm supposed to believe that now you're finally gonna let me have some dinner?"

Jim reached up and gently grabbed Blair's chin with his thumb and the side of his forefinger. "What are you talking about?" he demanded, smiling back. He raised Blair's face and gave him a soft kiss. "I've been trying to get the two of us food since we got home tonight."

Blair pulled his head back out of Jim's grasp, reached up and rapped his knuckles softly against Jim's temple. "It *is* time for you to eat. You're so hungry you're becoming delusional." He dropped his hands onto Jim's shoulders, turned him around and pointed him towards the dining room table. "You, sit. I'll bring the soup."

Blair's hands were warm on his shoulders, and Jim pushed back a little against the welcome pressure. "How about I fix us something to drink while you get the soup. Does water sound good to you?"

Blair pushed back and Jim leaned a little harder. "Yeah, it really does. God, I'm thirsty. I didn't even realize. Water sounds great. And you're gonna end up on your butt if you don't cut it out."

Jim laughed out loud and leaned more of his weight back against Blair's hands. Blair snorted and pushed back, smothering a laugh of his own. Then he suddenly let go, though before Jim could begin to fall, he slipped right behind Jim, his chest against Jim's back and his arms around Jim's ribs. "What the hell's the matter with you?" he asked Jim happily. He wrapped his arms tighter around Jim, clasping his hands over Jim's chest. His forehead pressed hard between Jim's shoulder blades. "You're acting like some kind of a nut tonight. They must have thought you were bonkers when you went into the bakery."

"Nah," Jim said. He laid his arms over Blair's, ruffling the hair on Blair's forearms with the palms of his hands. "Louis just thought I'd been getting some. I think that's why he gave me the croissants."

"You're kidding. No, you're not, are you?" Blair sighed and laid the side of his face against Jim's back. "I'm not surprised. I don't mean to make you self conscious or anything, but you were looking a little deranged when you walked out of here. We probably need to work on that before you go out in public again."

"Whatever you say." Jim wrapped his hand around the back of Blair's and lifted Blair's hand so that he could press a soft kiss to the center of Blair's palm. Blair drew a sharp breath, trembling against Jim's back. "But how about some dinner first?"

"Right," Blair's voice was very soft. He retrieved his hand, patting Jim's chest gently, then releasing him. Jim heard him swallow. "Dinner. Before the chicken soup gets cold."

While Jim got glasses from the dish rack and filled them with water from the filtered pitcher in the fridge, Blair splashed the soup into two chili bowls and carried them to the table. "I forgot about the bread," he said, happy and surprised, and pulled one baguette out of its wrapper. "This practically makes it a real meal. You want butter?"

"I don't think we have any," Jim said, setting Blair's water glass beside the plate. "It's on the grocery list."

"Oh yeah. Oh well." Blair picked up the glass and drained it in one long swallow, water drizzling down his chin and dripping on his sweater by the time he lowered the glass. Jim thought fleetingly how nice it would be to lean in just a little and lick those sweet drops of water from Blair's lips, but instead he just went back to the fridge and brought the whole pitcher back with him to the table.

Blair was right. The bread looked delicious. It smelled even better, and Jim realized he was practically faint with hunger. He hooked a chair with his leg and dragged it to the table, tearing a sizable chunk off the long, thin loaf of bread before sitting down and happily dunking the bread in the soup. The first bite was the most delicious thing he'd ever tasted in his life, the hard crust of the bread softened just a little by its immersion in soup, the soup itself salty and still hot. Heaven. He dunked the rest of his bread and raised it dripping to his mouth. One, two big bites and the bread was gone. Before tearing himself off another piece, he raised the bowl to his mouth and had a long swallow of soup to wash down the bread, enjoying the warmth of the broth and even the taste and texture of boiled chicken and the mushy bits of vegetables. When he put the bowl down it was empty, and Blair was grinning at him from across the table. "Can I get you a spoon there, Jim?"

"Nope," Jim grinned back. "I'm doing fine. Think I will have some more soup, though." He drained his water glass before he stood up, and the water was as good as the soup had been, sweet and cold on his lips, deliciously satisfying as it washed down the last swallow of soup. "Can I get you some?"

Blair smiled up at him over a spoonful of his own soup. "Nah, you finish it up. I've got plenty here."

Jim walked back to the stove and most of the pot into his bowl, hesitating, though, at the last inch or so of broth. "You sure?"

Blair had picked up the second loaf of bread and was tearing off a piece. The crust broke with a soft, delicious sound. "The bread and soup are plenty," Blair said. "I'm sure." He took a bite of bread and swallowed most of it before mumbling, "You know, this is really good. We should do this more often."

Do what more often? Jim wondered happily. Make love for hours, until we're so ravenous even canned soup was a feast? Sounded like a good plan to him, though he supposed that probably wasn't what Blair meant. He carried the pot of soup to the table and poured the last bit of soup into Blair's bowl. "I told you that you could have it," Blair protested.

"If you can't finish it, I will."

"OK." Blair reached for the pitcher and poured himself more water, and they ate in silence for a few minutes, Blair still sipping soup from a spoon and grinning at Jim whenever he glanced up and caught Jim's eyes. "You're impossible," he complained.

Jim had to swallow a bite of bread before he could answer. "I'm just eating my dinner here," he said, and Blair rolled his eyes at him.

"Right. That didn't even work before you jumped my bones. It's for sure a lost cause by now."

Jim held up both hands in helpless surrender. "Sandburg, what the hell are you talking about?"

Blair just shook his head, looking ridiculously pleased even while he said, "I don't know why I even try. Do we have any of that olive paste left?"

"We do unless you ate it all," Jim said. Blair got up to root around in the refrigerator.

"Well, I don't see it." He shifted through the bottles of condiments in the door. "Don't you like olives? I thought you liked olives. You always want them on your pizza." Blair looked over his shoulder at Jim, seemingly seriously concerned with this new revelation.

"I like olives." Blair was right. It was felt good to have the luxury to be concerned about such a tiny thing. "But there's a difference between a few olives slices scattered around on a pizza and eating them by the spoonful."

Blair shrugged, still serious, a happy light in his eyes. He turned back to the fridge and announced at once, "I got it." He toted the little jar back to the table and twisted the lid off. Jim smelled the fruity sweetness of the olive oil and the salt of the pickling brine as Blair spread the mixture thickly over the last of his bread. "Sure you don't want some?" He asked after swallowing a bite. "It's really good."

"I'm sure." Jim lifted his bowl to his mouth and swallowed the last of the soup, then pushed himself away from the table. "I'm gonna run downstairs and put the clothes in the dryer."

"All right. Thanks." Blair looked up and smiled again, in that way that made Jim's heart turn over. "Do you want the rest of my soup?" Blair pushed the bowl across the table. "I'm really not going to finish it."

Jim took the bowl and drained it. Shame to let food go to waste, but the soup was getting cold, and didn't taste nearly as good as the first swallow had. They need to do some grocery shopping around here, get some decent food in the place. He put the bowl down and found that Sandburg was still smiling at him, faintly amused, but pleased and proud and a little possessive, even. Mostly, though, he looked half stupid with love. Like he wouldn't raise a fuss if Jim were to sweep all these dinner dishes off the table with the side of his arm, fancy olive spread and all, and lay Sandburg down on the table instead. A dangerous thought, Blair's golden warm body stretched out here like a feast before him. Jim swallowed, feeling a little lightheaded, his skin prickling and hot as though it were suddenly a little too tight for his body.

He wondered how much of what he was thinking showed on his face, because Blair began to blush, and his smile became sweetly, ludicrously bashful. "You really going to go outside looking like that?" he asked Jim. He got up from the table, turning away from Jim as if trying to hide. "I'll go get the laundry. I don't mind."

"I'll do it," Jim said. "You don't have your shoes on."

"That's not exactly an insurmountable obstacle." Blair padded off to his bedroom. Jim gathered up their dinner dishes and carried them to the sink, then poured himself another glass of water as Blair emerged once more, his bare feet stuffed into a pair of ancient running shoes. "We got change for the dryer?" he asked.

"Yeah." Jim emptied the change out of his pockets and held it out to Blair, who came scuffling over on the beaten-down backs of his shoes to take it.

His hand closed over Jim's, the backs of his fingers warm on the inside of Jim's palm as he scooped out the little collection of quarters. "Thanks."

"You're going to break your neck going downstairs in those shoes."

"Nah." Blair grinned up at him as he pushed the change into his back pocket. "I've got too much to live for."

Then he went up on tiptoe, his right hand still in his own back pocket, and gently laid his cheek against Jim's face, nuzzling softly. His jeans rubbed against Jim's as he stretched up, warm velvet over their thighs. "I'll be right back."

Jim put his hands on his shoulders as Blair dropped down onto his heels again. "Don't be long," he said.

Blair laughed softly. "Right. I'm going to hang around down in the laundry room while you're up here."

"You might," Jim said. He lowered his head to brush his lips across Blair's cheek. "I don't know why you would," he went on, touching his lips to Blair's forehead, "But I gave up trying to figure out why you do things a long time ago."

Blair just smiled. "I'm worried about you, man. You're supposed to be on the witness stand tomorrow, do you remember that?" He patted the side of Jim's face before turning and scuffling to the front door. "Which means you gotta be able to talk sense." He pulled open the front door and called over his shoulder, "And so far, you're not showing that you've got a real keen grip on reality tonight, you know what I mean?"

His shuffling footsteps moved down the hall, but before he'd gone far he was back again, his head stuck around the door, a half-worried smile on his face, looking like a man who was afraid he'd said exactly the wrong thing. "Except for the important stuff," he assured Jim. "You got that right."

Jim grinned helplessly back at him, not caring in the least if Blair Sandburg thought he was acting like a loon tonight. Not so long as Blair agreed that they had the important stuff right.

"Oh man," Blair said, pushing himself away from the door again and back down the hall. "It's gonna be a long way down."

Whatever he meant by that, he didn't sound too unhappy. Jim gathered the last dishes from the table and carried them to the sink. He heard Blair pause at the elevator, hit the button, and then shuffle on to the stairwell anyway. And he heard Blair pause again at the head of the stairs, and wondered what Sandburg was doing. There was a soft, sliding sound, nylon against metal, and Jim realized he had stopped to tie his shoes before running down the stairs. Jim was grinning as he turned on the water and squeezed a dollop of soap over the dishes. Blair was being careful. First time in his life, maybe, but he was trying to be careful tonight. Maybe because he felt like Jim did. When you were this happy, there was no use tempting the fates.

Suds bubbled up over the edges of the soup bowls. Jim swiped the sponge around glasses, lazily allowing the water to keep running. He rinsed the glasses one at a time, watching the bank of foam in the soup bowls rise and thin. Blair's footsteps on the stairs were growing fainter as he rounded each landing, but Jim could still follow his progress with little effort. He suspected it would more difficult for him to stop listening to Blair at this point. Blair has humming a little to himself as he trotted downstairs, not quite singing, just mumbling the words to some song Jim didn't recognize. He wondered if it would have sounded any less tuneless and flat if he had recognized the song.

"Drove downtown in the rain," Blair muttered happily. It really couldn't be called singing. "Nine-thirty on a Tuesday night just to check out the late-night record shop." Another landing passed. The last flight of stairs down to the basement, his feet pounding on poured cement instead of boards by now. "Call it impulsive call it compulsive." Jim set the glasses onto the drying rack and washed the two soup bowls. Hardly worth getting dishes dirty for the meal. He wondered what Blair would have thought if he'd suggested just drinking chicken soup out the saucepan. In the basement Blair was not really singing, but sounding quite happy all the same, "I had a dream that I was three hundred pounds." He'd opened the washing machine, and even three floors above him, Jim caught a whiff of detergent and clean wet laundry. Blair huffed as he tried to scoop out the entire load all at once. A thunk as he yanked open the door to one of the dryers, probably with his foot. In tumbled the clothes.

"And though I was very heavy I floated till I couldn't see the ground," Blair sang, louder and no more melodically. "I floated till I couldn't see the ground." Another load of wet clothes tumbled into the dryer. So he hadn't gotten them all in one armload after all. The dryer door slammed shut with a metallic rattle. Jim heard quarters dropped into the feeder, and the squeak of metal as Blair tried to slide them in. It jammed, and Blair stopped singing long enough to mutter, "shit," and yank at it impatiently. Another tug and drawer finally slid in. "Got it," he announced to the world, and started back up the stairs at a gallop without bothering to turn the dryer on.

Chief, Jim thought in fond exasperation as Blair reached the first landing and started up the second flight without having realized yet that he hadn't started the dryer. Jim set the bowls on the drying rack and thought about Blair so eager to get back to him that he could forget the whole reason he'd gone down to the basement on a rainy night in the first place. Blair was right. The two of them weren't going to have an easy time going out into the real world tomorrow.

At the third landing Blair finally remembered the dryer. "God DAMN it," he said out loud, sounding more cheerful than annoyed, and went thundering back down the stairs again. Jim hardly needed Sentinel hearing to follow his progress. There probably wasn't anyone left in the building who didn't know that Blair Sandburg was doing laundry tonight.

Jim rinsed out the saucepan for the soup, wiped up the splats of soup from the stovetop, and was wiping the bread crumbs from the table by the time Blair appeared at the front door, flushed and breathing hard. "I didn't think to look," he said, coming in and throwing himself down on the sofa. "Was there anything in you didn't want to go in the dryer?"

"No. I don't think so. I don't know. Does it matter?"

Blair fell over sideways, rolled onto his back, and propped his feet on the sofa. His eyes shut. "Who are you and what have you done with Jim Ellison?"

Jim threw the sponge in the sink and dried his hands on the dishtowel hooked through the drawer pull. "Tired?" he asked, coming over and looking down at Blair on the sofa. Blair's eyes were still closed, his hands crossed over his stomach.

"No," Blair said, and managed to open his eyes for a moment, lids fluttering heavily. "I was just going to finish filing away all the research for that damn paper. Don't want to look at it anymore." His eyes closed one more and he sighed comfortably. "Going to get right on that."

Jim sat down on the coffee table, leaned forward and touched his lips to Blair's forehead. "You do that."

Blair smiled without opening his eyes and tilted his face up for another kiss. Jim slid his hand under the nape of Blair's neck and kissed his mouth very gently. Then he sat up again, stroking the side of Blair's face. Blair turned his face into that touch, a profound sigh escaping him, then falling into sleep so quickly that he didn't move again, not even when Jim slowly withdrew his hand, and then scooted down to the other end of the coffee table to untie Blair's knotted laces and slide his running shoes off his feet.

The blanket was still crumpled on the floor. Jim picked it up, gently shook it out, folded it and laid it over Blair's legs, careful to cover his bare feet. As he straightened up, Blair's gave a long sigh in his sleep, and Jim crouched beside the sofa again. Blair's face was utterly relaxed, his lips slightly parted, his lashes looking long against his cheek. Jim meant to brush back the lock of hair that had fallen across his face, but afraid of wakening him, stayed his hand. Instead, illogically, he bent closer and touched his lips to Blair's. He raised his head, almost ashamed of himself for an instant, but another look at Blair's sleeping face, and a sudden, sharp memory of Blair leaning him to kiss him as he showered and water got all over the floor banished that. He got to his feet with a happy sense of reluctance, and let Blair continue to sleep.