Work Header

Percent Difference

Work Text:

Percent Difference

by Hellesgift

I'm proud and worried and a little bit irritated, which Sandburg could tell you is a natural state for me.

Except that he wouldn't. I'm his secret. His life-affirming, soul-destroying secret. His brass ring, his holy grail, his ball and chain, and in about five more minutes, his partner. Permanently.

Because there's no way in hell I'm letting him go. He's given up his dreams and his goals for me, the least I can do is cling to him with panicked tenacity. Oh yeah, he could tell you about Jim Ellison.

But for right now, pride is winning. They've started calling the names of the academy graduates, new additions to our ranks, and I'm trying to keep from embarrassing him--purposefully not joining in the raucous cheering and clapping that surrounds me. But inside it's fireworks, it's a fifty-fucking-gun salute, because he's done it, he's made it, and he wanted to make it.

He wants to be my partner, and I don't have to rely on his repeated statements to that effect, thank god--there's no way I'd rely on Sandburg's statements--but I don't have to because, even from here in the audience, I can tell that he's happy. Of course, he's also excited and nervous, mumbling "oh god" on occasion. But I can see joy in the lines of his posture, hear it in his heartbeat and breathing, smell it on him. He seems lightened, buoyant with joy. And happiness suits him. He's deserved more happiness than I've given him lately. I want to make sure he gets a lot more in the future.

I'm so tuned in to my past and future partner that I almost miss the murmur from in front of me, off to the side and slightly lower in the large auditorium.


It's quiet, whispered even, but I recognize the voice.

"Freak! Monster!"

It's my father's voice, and my skin crawls at the disgust I hear. I focus intently on that area, and I can hear the murmur being taken up by the crowd that surrounds that well-known, hoped-for and hated voice.

"senses--" "Freak!" "Not natural--" "Taking advantage!" "Ought to be a law--"

What the hell? And somehow Sandburg feels my unease, because now he's looking at me across the stage, squinting under the harsh lights. I see the question in his eyes and hear the sharp jump in his heartrate as his gaze flickers away from me, over to the knot of whisperers across the room.

Only then do I hear a sound that is just barely more terrifying than the savage susurration of voices.

A bullet is chambered.

And now I'm turning to face the gun. Simon has noticed something amiss; he's turning to me, but slowly, so maybe he'll miss it, maybe he won't have to watch his detective and friend die.

Because I know it now; I know how this day and this event will end, and it's only moments before my happiness and Sandburg's could have been realized, the names are at Ramsey but it's too late, and we'll never be partners now. I can hear Sandburg as he starts to run, heart pounding--terror, horror--and I wish that he didn't know, that he wasn't watching as his past and nevermore partner is shot by an unseen enemy.

I hear the trigger of the gun as it is compressed, and the world slows down as the bullet speeds towards me and the impact slams Blair into me and we fall.

Back. Down. Knocking Simon out into the aisle, falling in a tangle of limbs and...


Oh fuck! Jesus Christ no, god no, please and the world speeds up again. I hear Simon's gun bark twice over my head, and I'm holding my partner, my permanent partner, against my body, feeling hopelessly for the hole in his chest that's pumping blood in an obscene fountain through my fingers, onto the chair at the end of row twenty-seven.

His eyes open slowly, already glazed, calm for a heartbreaking moment before the pain hits, the terror and adrenaline driving his heartrate back up, forcing the blood more rapidly past my palm, which is slippery already with his lost life and unable to put enough pressure on his heaving ribs. He grabs at me with amazing strength born of desperation and pain as he moans, choking on his fear and his blood, forcing his words out past the gore already filling his mouth.

"Jim! Sorry...god...sorry, Jim..."

And I want to shake him, I want to cry, I want to hold him and never let go so I do, I pull him close. "It's okay, Chief," I lie, frantic. "It's gonna be okay. Just hold on, Blair. Hold on for me; hold on to me."

He's clinging to me with a desperate grip that will leave bruises to mark this moment of hell, and he's trying to talk again, through the blood and the agony and the terror. God he's so afraid--

"Failed you, Jim...oh god, sorry..."

I don't know what the fuck he's talking about; why the hell he won't be quiet, save his strength?

"Shhh, Chief. Just be calm. Hold on, don't waste your energy..."

"...failed..." This time the groan is so muffled by his weakness and blood that I know I'm the only one who has a hope of hearing him. Behind me, Simon is shouting frantically for help, taking charge of the situation. But he has no command over death.

There are four hands covering the wound. I don't even stop to acknowledge Rafe, just move my hands up to Blair's face, holding him as if I can. As if I can hold him here. Blood from my hands marks his face like battle-paint.

I hear Joel cursing and crying, feel Brown shaking beside me as he hands Rafe a jacket to add to the growing mass of bloody cloth that I have left to others. I can't put pressure on his wound, because I have to put pressure on him.

"Blair, I need you. You can't leave me. It can't end like this. Please--"

I break off to listen to his response but realize that he can no longer hear me. His lungs have filled and his pulse is fading, but somehow he speaks again.

"Betrayed you...they know..."

The terror and pain and self-loathing in his eyes and in the choked moans that are his final words blast me with a pain so sharp I have a sudden hope that I'm dying. Heart attack, maybe. Please, let me go with him--

I don't have time to argue with him, convince him that he never betrayed me, that he was and is my one true partner.

He dies convinced that he has failed.

My friends' panicked actions fade with his life; nothing is worth hearing now. I pull his body to me, jealous of other hands. Burying my face in his throat, I scream, howling my agony into ears that will never hear me again...

"...okay, man! Shhh, it's okay. I've got you, it's okay, it's okay, it's all gonna be okay, Jim, just shhh, shhh..."

Struggling desperately out of the sticky morass of my nightmare, I have a sudden strong memory of Incacha. I know that his arms aren't holding me, that his voice is not rumbling low and comforting in my ears. Instead, I remember the weeks after his death, when Blair held me just as he holds me now, wrapping me in his comfort and his abiding love, sheltering me through my aching grief at the loss of my friend and shaman. So I recognize the body pressed against my back, the arms wrapped warmly around my shoulders, the strong hands doggedly gripping my crossed wrists.

I've considered that before he is even aware that I'm awake, and he grunts in surprise when I drag him around in front of me. I indulge myself in one long look at my sleep-rumpled, tired, but blessedly alive partner and then pull him into my arms.

He takes this reversal of our positions well, lying quiescent in my grip, allowing me to tuck him under my chin like a bedraggled teddy bear. As soon as my hold on him relaxes enough to let him breathe, he continues his calming murmur of comfort and proximity.

"Shhh, I'm here Jim. It's okay. Gonna be okay. Shhh..." He pauses to extricate one arm from my embrace but then compensates by wrapping it tightly around my back. "What's this all about, man? You want to tell me about it?"

I never woke him with my nightmares after I almost lost him--I would wake myself, gasping for breath, drowning in an agony of remorse, but they were silent dreams. And he was exhausted after weeks of his own nightmares. So the last of my nightmares that he knows about were after Incacha's death, and perhaps that explains his current confusion.

After all, my friend and shaman hasn't recently died. That he knows of. But dear god--

"Chief!" And I grab him by the shoulders again and thrust him away from me to arm's length. His head snaps back slightly, but he doesn't even wince, just meets my eyes for a long, slow second.

"It's okay Jim. We'll get through this. Is it...Incacha...?" He had been so calm in comfort, but was now slightly hesitant in questioning. I never talked to him about those former nightmares. Never liked discussing my dreams--look where that got us--and didn't know how to tell him that sometimes, in my dreams, he was lying there dying. Sometimes Incacha pulled him down to the couch and traded places with him, standing up whole and reborn, leaving me to watch my Guide--Blair--bleed to death in my living room.

Didn't tell him that. Didn't tell him about the hunt in the jungle, either. Well, it only took me once to learn my lesson. Or is that twice? Regardless--any dream where he dies is now top of my list of painful subjects I will discuss with him.

"You died."

He looks remarkably calm for someone who knows the intimate connection between my dreams and his death.

"It was graduation at the academy. They were almost to your name, and I was in the audience, and I heard my dad start whispering about how I was a freak. And then the crowd around him takes up the whispering, and then I hear a bullet chambering, and I'm facing the shooter, and then you're there. You got in front. And...and..."

And I'm choking up here, about to cry, like I haven't since the last time he fucking died. Blair breaks free of my hold to pull me in again. His body is warm through the thin cotton of his t-shirt, and I press my fingers into the muscles of his back as I muffle any wayward sounds in his hair. He has begun the gentle rocking again; I flash briefly back to my mother, some thirty years ago after a fight with my dad. She sat in her nightgown with me on her lap and rocked me back and forth as if I were a baby again. It's a particularly inappropriate memory--she was soft and smelled of gardenias while my partner is firm and smells of garlic, toothpaste, and sleep--so it fades quickly.

"And then I died, huh?" He's sparing me the telling of it, and I accept the charity. No way I can tell him about the blood and the pain and the godawful fear. I don't even want to think about it.

"And you thought..." I start--but how do I tell him that he thought he had failed me and that it was his fault I was targeted as a freak? We don't even talk about this when I'm sane, and right now, even within the circle of his protection, I'm teetering on the edge.

But he doesn't pounce on my trailed-off statement. Still holding me close, he attacks the problem in his usual way--detailed analysis.

"Okay, so you were at my graduation, and there's this incident." Damn, he's already talking like a cop. Or rather, an academy instructor. Incident my ass. But he's speaking again. "Everything's going fine until, out of the crowd like the villain in a melodrama, your father--or someone near your father--pulls a gun and tries to shoot you. Except that I interrupt this reverse Oedipus thing you almost had going."

"Yes. And god, Blair...the last time..." I can hear my voice clogging up again. Dammit! After a lifetime of male-pattern all-American machismo, suddenly I can't finish a sentence?

Blair speaks quietly over my objection. "Yeah, but I don't really see any similarities to the last time; I mean, at least not any that would make me think I should skip the ceremony, which actually, you know, I'm kind of looking forward to. Rite of passage kind of thing, and I'll get to be up there with the guys who've been there for me, which kind of makes up for the other ninety percent." He laughs sharply.

But that's a subject he refuses to discuss with me, and before I can follow up on this rare opportunity, he continues: "I mean, you didn't mention any spirit guides or jungle scenes or any other clue that might indicate this is anything more serious than a completely understandable case of free-floating anxiety."

I stare at him, dumbfounded as usual, and he hastens on apologetically. "I mean, not that I'm belittling the impact of the dream--I have no doubt it was awful. Just the fact that you're letting me know about it is a petty good indication of how bad it was, right man?"

He's been awake for less than ten does he do this?

"But awful dreams are kind of standard during times of stress. I mean, you don't even want to know what Simon and my Aunt Janet--who's not really my aunt, you know, not that that makes it any better--were up to last night while you were fishing for sharks in my mom's Olympic-sized pool, and if you think I wasn't terrified by the idea of Naomi as a corporate, talk about nightmares, right? But that's what I'm saying here, I mean, there's not really all that much chance that my dream was some sort of warning from the commune spirits that my mother is about to be possessed by a demon of rampant capitalism and my Captain is about to...well, the less said the better there, man. So there's really very little chance that your dream is a sign of anything other than stress...and maybe that pasta we had, it was kind of spicy. What time is it?"

He pauses, not even breathing hard after a marathon stream-of-consciousness run that would have left James Joyce choking on his dust. It takes me a second to realize that the last four words of what had basically been one long run-on sentence were directed at me. Before I can glance at the clock, he's figured out that, at the very least, it's extremely late. Or maybe very early. He blinks at me.

"Oh man, I making any sense at all here? Sorry to unleash this shit on you, but I was actually not dreaming when I was rather dramatically awakened."

I wince, remembering my horrified screams over the body of my partner, my partner who even now is sitting on my bed, gazing at me with compassion-filled, bleary, and slightly apologetic eyes. "Sorry about that, Chief."

"What? No, no man, that's not a complaint or anything. Actually, from a training point of view it was kind of cool. Do you know that I actually paused to check the perimeter?" He looks suddenly discomfited. "Okay, that was after I was actually inside the perimeter--right here, in fact--but still, it's not something I would have thought to do before the academy, even after the fact."

I let him wander a bit as I consider his rationalization. He's right; I can see that now. My significant dreams tend to be overtly symbolic--two-by-four to the head, anyone in there, dummy?--probably because my spirit guide recognizes the insensitivity (no pun intended) of its audience. As run of the mill anxiety dreams go, I suppose I should just be glad I was wearing clothes. Of course, my naked dreams with Blair have yet to include his graduating class. Or Simon. Or my father, for that matter. Thank god.

Leaning in intently, Blair is still trying to convince me of what I already realize. That's a fairly good sign that he's not completely awake, because usually he can tell pretty quickly when I'm not paying attention. I figure since I woke him up at zero dark thirty, I should at least listen to his comforting analysis, so I tune back in.

"...a number of weaknesses with this interpretation, even beyond the lack of any observable spiritual component. I mean, let's look at this rationally, with an aim towards eliminating any chance this is prophetic. We're in an auditorium with probably one of the most heavily-armed audiences in America. Figure my whole graduating class in uniform down to the side-arm, then all of Major Crimes...I'm assuming they showed up, right Jim?...and then if you figure even one tenth of the guests are cops, and from talking to my classmates, that might even be a conservative assumption...I should have done that thin-blue-line diss after all and included a chapter on familial influence. So anyway, you're armed, they're armed, I'm armed for Christsake, and this is the response? I think I'm a little insulted, Jim. You've seen my target scores, they're good. If I knew something was going down, what possible reason would I have to dash across the auditorium in order to secure my moment in the sun? Plus, and here's the kicker for you...sounds like I was closer to the shooter. If I was worried about discharging my gun in a crowd, surely it makes more sense to tackle him than you?"

He pauses, but I guess that he doesn't really expect a response. This discourse may in fact be more for him than me. All rationalizations aside, he can't enjoy the thought that I'm dreaming about his bloody demise at an event for which he's storing up his own fund of anxiety. Giving hopefully the appearance of attention, I focus in on his emotional response the way only I can: a quick survey of his heartbeat, respiration, body temperature, hormone levels...basically I get a strong impression of concerned sleepiness, almost overwhelming the tantalizing hint of--

His scent lightens a bit, and I realize that he's started to giggle quietly. "I mean, the clincher to my judgment that this is NOT a prophetic dream would have to be your dad. I mean, what're the odds that your dad is gonna show up at my grad?"

It must be late if he thinks that's funny. I bat him lightly on the head. "Okay, okay, Sandburg. Floating anxiety, not spiritual, unrealistic, not a prophet...I got it. Sorry to wake you up, and I think we both need to get back to bed."

Assessing me for a long and obvious moment, Blair allows another small quirk of his lips. "Okay, man. Off to bed. But I have one question for you."

Oh, this isn't good. One question from Blair can mean hours of lost sleep for both of us. But I'm not really in any position to complain. Actually--I look across the short distance of bed--I'm in a good position to pull him down and waste our scarce hours a much more enjoyable way, but that would shock him more than any fucked-up death dream of mine.

He's gazing at me intently, and I brace myself. "What?"

"Am I always such a drama-queen in your dreams?"

He flings himself across my lap in a dramatic sprawl ruined only by the limp-wristed, hand to brow gesture he has affected. He doesn't fake a death, probably in deference to the fact that I am only a few minutes out of stark terror. But while I'm grateful to him for that sensitivity, I'm also narrowing my eyes in my best level-ten intimidation glare.

Which has absolutely no effect. He gives a blatantly false cough, then makes a face that I can only assume is his 'dying cowboy' expression, based on the words that follow. "Don't mind me, Tex--save the cattle!"

He's snorting unattractively now and therefore is unaware that he has made a severe tactical blunder. Never show your soft underbelly to a trained commando. With a growl that just about hides my laughter, I pounce. I know every sensitive rib, and I use my knowledge ruthlessly, sending him into gales of hysterical laughter in response to my vicious tickling.

I narrowly duck a wayward fist, flung out in an attempt at self-defense. (The academy hasn't taught him much, has it?) He's shrieking, trying to fend me off as I come in for the grand assault. I've found a sweet spot on his right floating rib while my other hand tortures his side under his arm, and I'm going to have to pull back soon, because his heartrate is getting kind of ragged. I use my senses to stop before the fun slides into real torture, and I end up just holding him as he gasps and chokes, draped over my knees like the melodramatic heroine that he obviously objects to being seen as.

He looks up at me with blue eyes so limpid and innocent that I suddenly doubt the veracity of any innocent look he's ever given me. His voice, when he speaks, is so close to his Guide tones that I almost miss the import of his soulful statement.

"Jim, I...I want you to kidneys..."

The little...God, that's it! He makes an unsuccessful attempt to scramble away as I zoom in for the kill. This time his breathing is hitching painfully and his heartrate is through the roof before I take pity. I continue to keep one hand menacingly on the center of his chest, though, and he moans slightly but doesn't pull away. He looks up at me with terror so patently false I have to groan through my laughter.

"After all the shit you give me about my diet, Darwin, you'd better be offering me your heart with arteries intact."

"Jim, you've already got" and he changes course so smoothly I almost don't notice "my kidneys, and now you want more? Man, take a bullet for a guy, and he thinks he owns your organs."

I'm too distracted by that slight pause to be worried about the bullet reminder, although I can tell Blair regrets the statement the moment we both hear it. He looks upset and a little uncomfortable, although most people wouldn't notice. Standing up only a little quicker than he should, he leans down to bop me gently on the arm.

"Bedtime for all good Sentinels and Guides, Jim. You've got court tomorrow, and you know what I've got." With that he heads back downstairs, the whole performance almost smooth enough to seem natural, even to me.

But I lie awake thinking. Thinking about what I should have known I already had.

Okay, so a master of introspection I'm not, but this is really kind of ridiculous. How does my partner and live-in roommate fall in love with me without my receiving some clue from the old Sentinel senses? Because it's suddenly clear to me that we've gone beyond brotherly, Guiding love here: Blair's surreptitious discomfort is enough to buy me that clue, in the end.

Unlike my partner, stream-of-consciousness is not my style, so I lie back in bed and try to work this out in an organized fashion.

One: He's attracted to me. Well hell, I knew that. Hard to live with a Sentinel and keep that a secret. No biggie, really...I'm attracted to him, too. Just a healthy, normal and--after some of the shit I saw in Vice--pretty damn wholesome feeling. Sandburg could probably quote me the stats on the prevalence of buddy-lust, but I know enough to realize it's a pretty normal occurrence.

We've never acted on it. I think we both realized that, living together, working together, it could add too much confusion to the mix. Sex is never casual with me--well, maybe not never, but not all that often anymore: it involves too much closeness for me to take lightly, and that was true even before the senses made everything more...challenging. I read a line in a book once, something about being "smirched by other people's mess"--for me that mess can be emotional and physical, and it's a real disincentive. Once I figured out that I could have a damn fine orgasmic experience looking at autumn leaves or eating a good steak, the urge to have an affair with someone whose laundry-detergent could send me into a fatal zone kind of decreased. Apart from the few times when natural selection was conspiring against me, I've been pretty focused on longer-term, deeper relationships.

I don't know about Blair. I'm kidding myself if I pretend he avoids casual affairs. Hell, he's the king of casual. With the kind of time he commits to me, he can't afford to get too serious with someone else. But for all his horn-dog attitude, I think Blair has his own code about casual sex. I know he has a very deep desire to avoid hurting people--which is one reason the objects of his affection tend to also prefer to remain casual. I thought we were ignoring our mutual attraction because a buddy-fuck between friends would have been a mistake. Maybe Blair was realizing that it's an even worse mistake if the feelings in a buddy-fuck are unbalanced. The casual fling I've avoided with Blair--maybe he avoided it because it wouldn't be casual.

Which leads to Two: He loves me. No surprise there, either: love I knew about. I definitely love him, too. Love him more than I lust for him, honestly. I'm getting better at thinking the word, although I'm not up to saying it much. I love Blair Sandburg, grew to love him more with every crazy solution, each inspired obfuscation, every unrequited sacrifice he made for me. I know that he loves me; I trust his love more than I can possibly trust myself or my own feelings.

It's just...I think I was fooling myself into thinking that we were dealing with a David and Jonathan, Damon and Pythius kind of love. I get to be Damon of way I'm going to have a name that sounds like some lisping incontinence joke. And it's not like I'm completely fooling myself hasn't been that obvious. After all, Damon was willing to sacrifice himself for his friend (or maybe that was Pythius...I forget.) Coming back from the dead wasn't a completely unambiguous clue-in either. Maybe I should have figured it out earlier, but I'm not going to wallow in guilt over my lack of awareness...

...or my possible awareness and rapid repression. Maybe I had a glimmer of a clue all along. But the original objections still stand. I put these thoughts and feelings on hold when they first revealed themselves. If anything, the situation has gotten worse in terms of the damage a relationship could do. The police have non-fraternization rules for a reason. Of course, as partners, roommates, Sentinel and Guide, we don't quite fit into the normal fraternization scenario. Taking that final step on our somewhat winding journey could be natural--or disastrous. Is it only a disaster if the relationship fails, though? Hell if I know.

And I don't think failure's a foregone conclusion. Despite his fears in my dream (and god, I can't start repressing that one soon enough) he's never failed me yet.

So is it possible? Could it possibly work if I acknowledge his feelings and admit mine?

The next day doesn't bring any answers. After a few casually commonplace interactions, he calms down and seems to forget his slip made in the confusion of night before. He's not the only one who can misdirect...I subtly pry into his experience at the academy, which drives him to deep denial and defensiveness, leaving me free to ruminate without his recognizing the cause.

He's studying for finals, although I get the definite impression that his studying is more for the sake of his study-group's grades than his own. He knows this stuff forward, backwards, inside out, and in a number of languages. But every night for weeks, he met with his group. A group I know he personally assembled, probably after taking note of students who most needed his help. These five other cadets comprise the core of his 'ten percent' support-group.

So I'd have to forgive them for taking him away from me every evening this week, too...except that I'm actually pretty grateful for the space, so there's no forgiveness required. I use the evenings alone to take long walks on the beach--damned if I don't sound like a personals ad.

I log a lot of miles, but I'm not really getting anywhere. The truth may be out there, but I'm not finding it. Some shells, a depressing amount of garbage, but no blinding insight. I wonder, briefly, if maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. Not the beach, of course, but inside myself. Most of my good introspective trips seem to require Blair as a tour-guide.

But now is not the time to worry him. I've spent twelve nights walking this blasted beach, and the night before his exam is no time to start bugging him. So I feed him well, give him tea and noodles in prime Sentinel-care fashion, and then wait for him to fall asleep. It takes a little longer than usual--knowing he's going to ace the test doesn't eliminate all of his nervousness--but I'm on the beach only about half-hour later than usual.

I don't know if he's aware of my nocturnal wanderings--walking while he's away with his group is one thing, but even I realize a second walk after he goes to bed is probably excessive. I think maybe he knows but believes I deserve a little privacy. He's better at that than I am...he gets no privacy from me. Even as I'm walking along the beach, I'm tuned in to his sleeping heartrate and his dream-murmurs.

I take a longer walk than usual, but double it up so I'm never more than ten minutes away from the loft. In case he has a nightmare, I tell myself, and maybe it's true. But I get back in time to sleep before the Morning Of The Exam.

It goes off well. Even though he has every excuse to give himself a break this morning, I wake up to the now-familiar sound of fifty situps, twenty pushups, stretch, fifty situps, twenty pushups, stretch, fifty situps, twenty pushups, stretch and groan. Scratch, stretch, mumble something more or less profane. Shuffle to the shower.

He hums while he's under the water, which is the best gift he could have given me this morning. Coming out of his room in the khakis and shirt-sleeves that have become his replacement for flannel, he sits at the kitchen table without demur as I finish cooking breakfast.

Blair accepts fried eggs, toasted bagels, and fresh coffee as if he realizes that I'm pushing love as well as fuel. He's a little hyped, a little nervous, but he gives me a million-dollar grin just as he leaves.

"Thanks Jim. I'll see you tonight." As he pulls out for the overly-long drive to the academy, I recognize his wisdom in waiting until this morning to go back to the academy, even though it means a long drive before a longer day of testing. I had questioned his decision at first, but it feels right after our morning together. I fight the urge to run after him with a lunchbox or something--it's not quite a 'first day at kindergarten' feeling, but it's close.

The guys at work must have discovered the date of the exam, because I find myself inundated with slightly-too-casual requests for help. They keep me so busy I really don't have time to worry, and I'm driving back to the loft before I realize the day is over. Simon kept me late on a project he conveniently forgot to show me a few days ago, so Blair is already home by the time I'm parking the truck.

He's not humming now, but his heartbeat sounds calm and comfortable. The smell of pad thai greets me when I open the door--not homemade, he couldn't have had time--and I'm a little worried by that obvious admission of a need for comfort food. But at the same time, I'm reassured by the smile that welcomes me.

We settle in with the food, and I'm telling him about my day. He loves the idea of a bullpen of babysitters, and I have to stop twice to let him swallow rather than choke. I don't want to ask him about the exam, somehow convinced that it will come out as either doubt or prying. But too long without the obvious question would be too...well, obvious, so I finally ask.

"No worries, man. I aced it." No celebration there--he answers with a grim determination that forces me to look down at my plate quickly. In that set look his face acquires, I get a glimpse of a lot of things I'd been trying to deny. I don't like his eyes to be that cold or his smile that forced, and my heart hurts at what could have tinged his voice with the bitterness I can barely hear.

But he's talking about his group now, and I can put aside my heartache in deference to the honest joy he takes in their success. None of them know their grades yet because they won't be posted until tomorrow, but he's convinced they did well In his satisfaction I see a gifted teacher's pride.

I skip my walk in favor of a comfortable evening with my very-soon-to-be-official partner. Watching a mystery on TV, we derive most of our pleasure from lambasting the obvious procedural errors. I keep him up long enough to be sure he'll fall right asleep, then head off to bed myself.

In the long, cool hours of the night, listening to rain and my partner's heartbeat, I can rest peacefully again. We've made it, it's almost over. Almost beginning, rather.

Hours later I wake to the sound of his frantic gasps. I'm halfway down the stairs before his voice registers.

"Just a dream, Jim. It's okay, not a big deal."

Irresolute, I hover halfway between my territory and his.

"I promise, Jim, it's okay. Go back to bed."

I can't argue with that voice, that determined rejection of interference, so I make my way slowly back to bed, half hoping to hear him call me back. But he's quiet again, and I lie awake for what feels like hours, listening to him not sleep.

Great. My nightmares are over, and his are beginning.

So a long walk is definitely on order the following evening. I don't know why I deluded myself into thinking that anything was resolved. The exam was pretty close to meaningless anyway; his success was never really in doubt. If he can learn to put an entire magazine into the torso and head of a paper cutout, he can certainly pass a multiple-choice and essay test.

The results are probably available now, but I know Blair hasn't called. No point, really. The only grades he probably even cares about are those of his study-group friends, and the academy clerk isn't going to give him their grades.

Even though I'm a little worried he might have another nightmare, I allow myself to wander a good distance from the loft. He didn't need me last night, I tell myself. I don't know if I regret that, resent it, or am just using it as an excuse to put some distance between my guilt and me.

I sit down on a boulder facing the pulsing tide and immerse myself in my surroundings. I breathe in the tangy salt-breeze, smelling seaweed and fish and, unfortunately, fuel and other wastes. I can still revel in it, though. I owe this to Blair as well, my ability to enjoy the sea while filtering out the less-pleasant additions.

Not to indulge in another irreparable source of guilt, but I really wish I could share this with Blair. Unfair that the one person who would most appreciate my gift will never experience it: the sight of land and sea glowing softly silver-blue in the watery moonlight, the feel of mist coating my skin with the finest gilding of salt.

I ignore the supposedly-relaxing sound of the ocean, focusing instead on my sleeping Guide. He is at least two miles away, and yet his heartbeat is clearer to me than the waves crashing just a few steps in front of me. I revel in the sound of his heart, which, I have on good authority, belongs to me.

I float on the sound of his sleep, the soft breathing doing more to calm me than any ocean ever could. I sink into the sound of him, delighting in my senses in a way I never would have believed I could. His heartbeat is somnolent and steady.

"If Ellison sticks to his usual schedule, we've got about twenty minutes."

Wham! It's like getting punched in the gut, the sound of a stranger's voice so close to my sleeping Guide, within fifty yards of him, almost at the door to the loft. Dear god--

"If not?"

"Ward's ready to call and stall. Come on, now's our chance."

Fuck! Oh Jesus fucking Christ. I can hear them opening the door to the loft; I'm at least ten minutes away; and they're threatening Blair. I'm already running, but there's no way I can get there in time.

"Oh man, I cannot believe I'm breaking into a cop's house carrying this fucking kidnap kit. Tell me I'm not this stupid, man."

Not as stupid as I am, two miles too far away and running full out on wet sand. I'm prepared to kill anyone who gets in my way, too bad for Ward that she got stuck. I know her, at least by name, and I also recognize the voices, because dear god I've heard those voices over the phone so often this past week.

His study group. Who used him and took his trust and his goodwill and now...

Dear god dear god please. I don't spare the oxygen to pray out loud but keep a constant stream of pleas and threats headed heavenwards. Don't let them take him. I can't lose him, not again. I can't lose him to ungrateful punks who were his only support. His ten percent--and this is going to hurt him worse than all the other ninety percent ever did, even if they don't take him.

And they can't. I cannot allow that, so I push myself harder, ignoring the burn of lactic acid in my muscles, the pounding of fear in my ears.

I can hear them moving cautiously, and they must have a flashlight because there are no collisions. There are four sets of footsteps, the entire study-group. Nothing but wholesale betrayal for Blair. Terror and hatred dog my heels like rabid hounds, and guilt keeps pace beside me.

oh god oh god oh god

They've reached his door; I can hear it open almost-silently. Kidnap. They said kidnap, please not killing. Please not the sound of fists or bats or guns against my defenseless friend. Please don't make me hear that. I'll find him if they take him, let it be only that.

And my heart skips a beat, my pace staggers as I hear the first sound of a weapon hitting flesh. My Guide's heartbeat is raging like thunder, out of control and syncopated with the sound of a second impact. Pleasenopleasenoplease.

I hear a grunt of agony, a startled exclamation. The scrabble of feet on the floor, a solid thump as something, god someone hits the wall. Another strike, please god no please not again, the sound of thinly-sheathed bone hitting flesh, the sound of cartilage cracking, splintering, no please no. Another grunt on impact, a gasping breath.

"Sandburg! Wait, it's us!"

What? What the--

"What the FUCK?" Blair's voice is high and strained. There is a short pause, and I hear what is probably the light-switch. "What the...?"

"It was supposed to be a..." "Blair, I'm so sorry..." "joke, man, honestly" "Jesus, Sandburg, I mean good reflexes, but..." "...surprise you, Blair" "didn't mean to..."

And I slow my sprint almost imperceptibly in order to translate the cacophony of apologies that are now ringing in my ears.

"Guys, shut up!" In the sudden, obedient silence I can hear Blair's ragged breathing. "Oh, Jesus, Kendall...did I break your nose?"

The answer is muffled, a snuffling response through what is presumably a lot of blood, but really it's shock that keeps me from translating. Did Blair...?

"Look, okay, don't bleed on the furniture, okay man? Sorry to sound cold, but since Jim is gonna have your ass anyway, we should at least minimize the damage. Davison? Oh, man, that's going to be one gorgeous shiner you're sporting at graduation. Come on, let's grab some ice for that."

And I stumble slightly as, over a mile away, my tragedy is transmuted into farce. One of the intruders is still mumbling apologies, and Blair seems torn between righteous anger, reluctant humor, and his own apologies.

"Guys, guys! Wait. Shut up for a second, okay? Let's get the basic first-aid stuff started and then you can tell me what possibly POSSESSED you to break into a cop's home at ten...hell, at eleven-fifteen p.m.!"

Sandburg seems to realize that his calming approach lacks a little something, because he takes a deep breath and his voice lowers for his next attempt. "Come on guys. Ken, bleed into this until I can get you some ice. No, not on the couch. I know this seems pretty harsh, but can you lean over the sink for a few...whoa, okay, help him...sit down...okay, wait here, okay? Owege, can you hold this for him--"

"I've got him, Sandburg. Go ahead, get some ice."

I can hear two people moving quickly to the kitchen. "Frozen peas. Man, what did we ever do before frozen peas?" The question is probably rhetorical, but Davison answers him anyway.

"Steak, I think. I'll take peas any day. Sandburg, I'm really sorry about all of this."

"Hey!" That's a brave attempt at his 'we're all cool here' tone. "No harm done, man...well, except for a black eye and a broken nose, and Owege and Escobar are gonna have some lovely bruises tomorrow..." I can hear the tremor in his voice, the result of adrenaline and fear and probably guilt, knowing my partner. But he's hiding it pretty well.

"Come on man, let me take that. Shit, Sandburg, it's not okay. You're white as a sheet, and your hands are--"

Okay, maybe he's not hiding it so well. I want to tell the kid to leave my partner alone--the last thing he needs is a list of his symptoms. Blair steps in for me.

"Look, man, it's okay. I've got a lot of adrenaline going right now, but it's okay." The peas seem to have been obtained; Blair and Davison are moving again, probably towards the bathroom. "Hell, no it isn't. It's not okay, guys. What the fuck were you thinking?"

I can hear Owege's sarcastic "Thinking? Thought went into this?" at the same time that Blair continues, "What if Jim had been here, huh? I mean, shit, I only know what Pendrake taught us--no, lean forward and keep the ice on it--but Jim's got expert training; he can kill a man with a fucking toothpick."

Well, I never have. Of course, if they had hurt my partner, I would have been tempted to try. Blair is still noticeably upset; his choice of expletives isn't usually so limited. I slow my sprint into a steady run, which delays my arrival to about ten minutes from now.

There has been a (probably guilty) silence for the last few seconds. Blair sighs. "Okay, okay, that one was rhetorical. I think we can move past the question of your obvious psychological and intellectual impairment as indicated by this exercise in insanity, and we can maybe move on to motive. What the FUCK were you thinking?"

After their tumbling and stumbling apologies, it was nice to hear Escobar, a calm and phlegmatic man, take up the recitation.

"We got our results back."

"Yeah? Everybody do okay?" Unbelievably, Blair's voice is suddenly laced with eager anxiety.

"We did great. It's not even funny, Sandburg. We figured out last week that since forming this group, we moved--averaging all our grades, you know?--we moved from a collective C- to a B+. Now we're going to have to recalculate--not a single one of us got less than an A- on the final."

"No shit!" And now I can practically hear the bounce. "No shit! Oh man, that's great! That is so utterly stupendous. I told you that students who form study-groups are statistically more likely to excel in testing situations. Didn't I tell you that?" There's a cynical snort from one of the men. "What? I mean, this is proof, right?"

Owege's quiet tones interject. "This has very little to do with forming a group and everything to do with being lucky enough to have the right group leader."

"Yeah, Sandburg." Davison or Kendall, this time. Well, probably Davison; I doubt Kendall is much up to talking yet.

"So...this is...?"

"A thank you."

"Yeah, I can see that. B&E, attempted kidnap...I can be so hard to shop for."

"Well, it wasn't the brightest idea maybe." Davison sounds tentative.


"Definitely." Escobar decisively resumes the role of narrator. "But the thing is, we wanted to take you out to celebrate. And I know you got a lot of shit at the academy, but there are some others...a pretty good-size group, actually...and they're waiting for us at Mosquito's."

"Others?" And I hate the not-quite-downtrodden hope in his voice. Damn them for hurting him like that. Damn us all.

"Yeah, Sandburg. So, if you can--I mean--if you don't mind going along with this totally stupid idea, we want to kidnap you and deliver you to the bar."

"I don't know..."

Kendall chimes in with a nasal, stuffed-up encouragement. "After all this, Sandburg, don't you want to celebrate your A+?"

There's a long pause in which I imagine the group eagerly hopeful, like a basketful of puppies. But when Blair answers, my gut clenches again.

"Guys, that's real nice. And I'll definitely come celebrate; hell, I'm proud to be associated with such an overachieving group. But you know the way my essay tests have been going. I'll grant you a possible A on the multiple choice, but when they average in the essays..."

"No, that's the news, Sandburg! Escobar, tell him!"

"Maybe we should let Ward tell him?" Owege's quiet suggestion is obviously put aside as too cautious.

"Yeah--after all, she had to play lookout outside and thus missed all the fun." The sarcasm lacing that last word is staggering, although I guess Kendall has cause.

Escobar resumes his discourse. "Look, just pretend to be surprised when Ward tells you this. Here's the deal. It really pays to have the women on your side, Sandburg. Some of us guys were just kind of threatening some head-kicking a month back--blowing off steam, really--after reading your so-called C-minus essay on Procedural Errors where Winston robbed you--"

And of course I suspected this kind of thing, but god it hurts. I slow my run down to a jog, suddenly considering that I'll have to face Blair after all of this.

"--but Ward took a more practical approach. She got together with Searles, Garcia, Prescott, Ulton ...pretty much our entire female enrollment. And they went to O'Donnell and told him that they were a little 'concerned' about the fairness of the more subjective tests."

"You've got to hear Garcia tell this--it's a marvel of dramatic timing." Owege's voice.

"Yeah, you can imagine what kind of effect such a display of concern would have. I mean, nothing like having Searles say she's worried about the fairness of the tests and knowing that her father and her brother are both lawyers for the NAACP."

"And it may not be all that well known, but it's got to be in Garcia's file that her mom is a pretty high-up IA muckety-muck," Davison chimes in.

Kendall adds, with snuffling bemusement, "The cool thing is, they were all so polite."

Luckily for my comprehension, Escobar grabs the mic again. "So they suggested a system where, for the final at least, the essays would be graded blind."

A long pause, rich with suspense. Then my partner's awe-struck tones: "Damn."

"Yep. Didn't you wonder why we had that whole cover-sheet setup?"

"I didn't want to get my hopes up..."

"Well, now you can. Hell, why be satisfied with hopes? Kendall's kind of seeing one of the academy clerks--hope she wasn't only interested in your looks, Ken--"

"Very funny."

"--and since she knew that we all studied together, he didn't have too hard a time convincing her to give us your grades."

Another long pause. Well?

"Well?" Blair asks impatiently. I knew I could count on my partner.

"You aced it, buddy. Both parts. Not a single point off."

"Oh, man. Oh, man."

There is a long pause that I imagine is somewhat uncomfortable. But when Owege speaks, he merely sounds gentle. "It's not like you wouldn't have passed or anything. But it wasn't right. And presumably that's one of the reasons why we're at the academy to begin with. We want to support what's right."

"You', of course...I just...too easy to lose track of that lately. Man, I can't believe they did that for me."

Escobar let the silence grow for a second, then spoke again. "We would have done the same thing, Sandburg--"

"Yeah, if we'd thought of it!" Owege is not so gentle this time.

"--and they did it because you didn't deserve that shit. You've been a good classmate, and you certainly pulled our butts out of the fire, and most of the class was behind you, man."

Incredulous pause.

"Okay, most of the class was pretty much apathetic." Sandburg snorts in response. "But only a small group were actually negative, you know? They made your life pretty awful, I know, and I wish we had stepped in for you sooner--"

Blair interrupts, "Look, not only are we not going there, we're not even facing that direction. You guys have never been the problem."

Okay, enough with the mushy speeches. I thought these guys were going to be cops. Where are the stoic, repressed, emotionally-frigid cadets of my day?

"Well, now we're part of the solution. So, if you don't mind..."

"What the hell is that, Escobar?" Blair sounds like he's on the verge of either laughter or tears. After all this mush, maybe both.

"This is your gag. Or it will be if you'll consent to put it in your mouth."

My jaw tightens until I hear the kazu-like sound of a cheap party noise-maker.

"Okay, and this is the rope."


"We raided Ken Doll's dance wardrobe."

"Fuck you, Davis."

"Actually, Ward had it, and I don't dare ask why. Put it on. Yep, I knew it. You were born to wear feathers, Sandburg."

Blair is laughing helplessly now. I'm torn between gratitude to the cadets (I'll conveniently put aside the fact that I was prepared to kill them just minutes ago) and jealousy that I'm not there to share my partner's laughter.

"And your blindfold..."

"Oh, very Elton John! These yours, Owege?"

"I would never waste my time with something that subdued."

"And now all that's left is to carry you out of here. Um, we were actually going to do that, Sandburg, once you knew it was a joke, but since we're all kind of walking wounded here, I think we'll let you carry yourself out."

"Now?" Blair sounds breathless with laughter. "You want me to go with you to Mosquito's now, at like 11:15...or rather, 11:25?"

Ten minutes? Ten minutes or more since my heart almost stopped beating, and even though I've slowed to a jog, I'm only about five blocks from the loft now. Pretty soon Ward will be trying to stall me, and even though I no longer have to kill her, I'm not sure I want to be involved. What I really want is for those well-meaning idiots to leave my Guide alone for a while, so I can hug him 'til he creaks.

Further evidence that Blair and I are indeed great minds--I hear Blair say "Look, guys, go down and hang with Ward for a few, okay? I'm going to have to wait here and let Jim know the plan."

"Leave him a note. We have one written up, you can just Hancock it and go."

There's a sound of paper crackling, even as Blair objects. "No no no no. Not a chance, guys. Do you think maybe he'd be suspicious of a note in a stranger's handwriting saying that his roommate has left at practically midnight? I'd probably have an APB out on me in less than an hour, and I so don't need to be tracked to Mosquito's. Really, guys. Just head on did say Ward was outside? Okay, then let her know I'll be on my way, and I'll meet you two blocks over towards Mosquito's."

"She's just downstairs in front of the building--we can wait for you there."

"Look, guys...Not that I would in any way impugn the strategic vision of a group of A-students like yourselves--"

"You said it, man!"

"--but maybe you could NOT be caught loitering with intent in front of the place you have so recently broken in to. Speaking of which, how the hell did you get in?"

There's a longish pause. Then Owege's measured tones: "I made an impression of your key a couple of nights ago when we were mother does brass die-casting, and after that it wasn't tough. I mean, we had a key, and as long as the chain isn't on..."

"How did you know it wouldn't...I mean, for that matter, how did you know Jim would be gone?"

I hear a phone ringing at the same time that Davison mumbles "Guys, he's not going to be gone much longer. Can we maybe leave the scene of the crime?"

Owege answers the phone while Escobar answers Blair. "He's set up a regular schedule these past two weeks. Wasn't hard for one of us to come back here during a few study sessions and establish his route. Actually, maybe you should mention to him that it's not such a great idea to get into easily-exploited habits like that."

Like I'm going to take advice from this crowd? Of course, I'll have to get over the fact that he's right--

"Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that."

Before Blair's bemused voice can continue, Owege interrupts. "Ward says we're pushing our luck. Can I tell her we'll meet her two blocks down?"

"Yeah. Go ahead. I'll meet you there about five minutes after Jim gets probably have a better idea of when that'll be than I do."

I listen to the muffled yet rapid sounds of the four stooges' exit as I slow to walk the last few blocks. I time it so that I'm approaching Prospect just as they move out of sight. Ward might have been able to stall an unsuspecting Ellison, but even without my senses it would be odd for me not to notice a group of five people loitering near my home. I can hear Blair mumbling as he scrubs at something--presumably blood--in the bathroom.

I answer his mutterings as I walk in the door. "I don't know, Chief, 'idiots' actually seems too kind. Are you sure they're safe to be police officers?"

Stumbling, he turns to face me. "Damn. You heard?"

"Every bit of it. Probably more than you did, since I think for at least the first minutes of this fiasco you were still asleep."

"Damn. Damn. I'm so sorry, Jim. They're good guys and they didn't oof!" That last being a muffled grunt as I pull him into the crushing hug I've been promising myself for the past ten minutes. Holding me tightly, he reciprocates with touching enthusiasm. Unlike most men I've ever hugged (and the list is short) he doesn't go for the back-pounding approach--just holds on. And unlike anyone I've ever hugged, man or woman, he always allows me to let go first. This time I take advantage of that fact, holding him for a good couple of minutes--but not nearly long enough.

Before letting go completely, I hold him in front of me for a long moment, seeing the signs of exhaustion and stress but also a wonderful new gloss of hope. I can forgive them their idiocy, if only for this rare expression that used to be so familiar on my partner's face.

"They're waiting for you. Get going."

"Yeah, I will. I just want to clean this--"

"I've got it. Get going. But Chief..." I pause in the process of pushing him out the door. "As soon as you're conscious and cognizant tomorrow morning, we're going to have a talk."

Maybe it's the fact that he's just been released from a long embrace, but he doesn't even look nervous at my pronouncement. "Definitely, man." With a parting grin, he's off down the stairs. I worry briefly before realizing that the difference in his gait is the bounce, missing for months but now once again in evidence. Smiling, I use my senses to guide me in ridding the loft of signs of my partner's earlier struggle. Then I step into the shower to rid myself of signs of my earlier terror.

Morning dawns dark, drizzly, and cold, which I decided instantaneously to ignore as a potential omen. My significant dreams may be pretty damn obvious, but if you start reading too much into Cascade's weather, you're doomed.

Blair made it home just an hour or so before sun-up. As is our usual habit, he gave me a whispered status report as he quickly went to bed: nothing more than an "everything's cool, man; I'll tell you all about it in the morning." That's generally all I need, as long as the sensory scan agrees with his report. This morning it did: he smelled mildly of smoke and beer and a number of people in close contact, but his vital signs indicated that he was no more than happy and tired. I have a feeling he got some hugs last night--I hope some at least were from the oh-so-polite women who terrorized the Academy into blind-scoring the final exam.

Despite the fact that I'm sure he'd prefer to sleep in a bit, I'm feeling energized by the morning and have started to make breakfast. I'm indulging myself with real bacon, mixing up a quick batch of waffle batter, cutting some fruit to forestall criticism of the bacon and the waffles. I've got a pot of coffee brewing, anticipatory defense against my partner's reaction when he finds I've awakened him at 7 a.m. on a rainy Saturday.

Expecting the worst, I actually carry a mug of coffee in to his bedroom, making enough noise that he's bound to awaken. Surprisingly, he rolls over quickly, and I am a little chagrined to realize that he's been awake for a while, and I've been concentrating too hard on not waking him up to realize that it was unnecessary.

He smiles at me, not the sleepy smile that I sometimes get, but a slow, happy response to my presence--my mere existence, maybe. Suddenly my worries about the day and 'the talk' seem foolish. He's seen us through tougher stuff than this.

"So, do we talk over coffee or after breakfast?" he asks, pulling himself up to sit against the wall before taking the mug from me.

I'm tempted to say now, to get things over with--or, even better, get things started. But he's coming off a week of stress and not-quite adequate eating patterns. The least I can do is feed him before I...well, before whatever is going to happen.

We settle into our comfortable morning routine, slightly altered since he's usually the chef. He sets the table as I take a couple of waffles out, pour more batter, and grab the orange juice. Sitting down to breakfast is oddly domestic, more so than dinner, and I suddenly realize how much I missed this while he was at the Academy. I feel like some sort of cereal-commercial: "Have breakfast with your family, because breakfast is the most important meal of the day." Blair shoots me an inquisitive glance when I don't quite manage to muffle a snort.

We talk about inconsequentials as we finish the meal and clean the kitchen--plans for our next camping trip, ideas about a case I'm working on. I've almost been lulled into my comfort zone, but when Blair has put the last dish away, I know it's time to face the talk.

So of course, I'm paralyzed, standing with my hands in warm soapy water, thinking surely it's time to scrub the kitchen because it's been days since I really got down and dirty with the floor by the fridge. Blair is halfway to the couch before he realizes I haven't moved.

He doesn't speak until he's made his way back to my side. "It's okay, man. Come on." It's obvious I'm going to need more help than that.

I watch his hand enter my field of vision and slip down into the water in front of me. As he pulls the plug and allows the water to start draining, I lose myself in the sudden movement of the water and the sight of his hand between mine. Now we're both standing frozen, seemingly caught by the miniature whirlpool swirling around our hands.

Iridescent, lemony bubbles cling to the hairs on his wrist, like a frothy bracelet or a foam cuff, matching mine. Before I can make any farfetched connections between the cuffs and our talk, I feel his fingers, cool in the hot water, slip gently between my own. We stand there for the briefest second, holding hands beneath the water, before he gives my hand a calming squeeze and leans into my side. "Come on, Jim. It's going to be okay."

When he reaches for the dishtowel, the thought of dirty, soapy water on my clean towels snaps me out of my frozen funk--sounds like a great Ben and Jerry's flavor. Keeping his hand clasped securely in mine, I turn on the water and rinse off the suds, carefully manipulating his fingers under the lukewarm water. Only when I'm sure our hands are clean do I reach for the towel myself, firmly ignoring the lovingly sarcastic smirk Blair is shooting sideways at me.

On the couch, Blair chooses the near side and then sits, cross-legged, facing the middle cushion. I sit less than six inches from him, close enough that I can feel his body heat like a halo surrounding him. Giving no more than a brief farewell thought to the house rules, I turn to face him, mirroring his cross-legged pose. When it becomes obvious that I'm perfectly happy to sit in silence and contemplate his knees, he laughs.

"Okay, man, I'll start." He wriggles for a second to get more comfortable, sending odd little waves of heat emanating towards me. That's a good clue that I'm focused too closely, so I pull out. Purposefully, I surround myself with his warmth as I tune into his voice; the two together are an all-around sensory massage to a Sentinel.

"So, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing our talk stems from my little slip during the aftermath of your nightmare?" There are numerous other topics we could start with--the academy, his wonderful idiot friends, my recent late-night hikes--but as he often does, he has made the right choice. I just look at him, enjoying the deep reverberations of his voice and knowing that he'll figure it out without my answering. He shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "Okay, new plan. Forget correcting me if I'm wrong; maybe you should just go ahead and nod if I'm right."

"Yeah, your 'little slip' started me thinking."

"Always a dangerous possibility with you, Jim. Okay. Damn. See, everything would all be easier if you'd ignore that."

I just shake my head.

"Mmm-hmm, thought as much." He shifts uncomfortably. "Okay, explanation time. It's probably not a huge shock to you that I have, on occasion, entertained not-so-platonic thoughts towards you." He chuckles. "Entertained them...hell, I've thrown massive parties."

"Can't say there's never been revelry in my rec-room, either."

"Right. So the change is that I've also fallen in love with you." He pauses, shakes his head. "No, actually, that's been true for a while now. The change is that now you know I'm in love with you."

"How long?"

"Oh man, how do I answer that, huh? I mean, was it from the moment you gave me a home, took me hiking, made me laugh? I don't know. I was probably in love with you for a long time before I figured it out, you know?" He grimaces, and I hurt for him, watching him open up his heart for inspection like this. But I need an answer.

"I think I figured it out--that I was in love with you as well as loving you like a brother and all that..." he trails off and quirks an eyebrow ruefully. "Well, probably when I realized that I wanted to come back to the loft, even after all that shit had gone down." He gives me no chance to react to my guilt, just continues calmly, "For someone who had previously spent a lifetime cutting his losses, the fact that the only place I wanted to be was back here...pretty good sign, huh?"

I hate this. I want him to remember something wonderful, some moment that doesn't involve my letting him get killed. As if he can sense my feelings--like they're so well-hidden--he reaches over and covers my hands where they rest on my thighs.

"It's okay, Jim. That's a good thing, really." I can't help it, I have to return that smile.

"So why didn't you tell me, Chief?"

Suddenly he doesn't look so happy. "Uh, well...that's the problem, right there. See, I didn't want anything to change."

"It wouldn't..."

"Of course it would. It's like the friggin' prime directive of relationships: love changes things. Romantic love, that is."

"It could have changed for the better."

"I didn't want it to change at all!" His voice is suddenly tight, and he pulls away from me slightly. "I didn't want it to change; I don't want it to change. I want things to remain the same."

Okay, he's lost me. I kept up for multiple minutes, though; that may be a new record when it comes to Sandburgian flights of idiocy. "I don't get it: you're in love with me, but you don't want to do anything about it?"

"Exactly." He knows there's no way this is ending that easily, and he sighs. "Okay, Jim, I'm going to tell you a story, okay?"

I'm about to take offense at what I take to be his patronizing tone when I notice the real worry in his eyes. Okay, I can listen to a story.

"You asked once about my father, and I told you about all the guys who kind of played Dad in my life. Well, I didn't mention Janet, but I should have, because she was pretty much the best--and certainly the most stable--father figure I ever had."

He's watching me narrowly to see my reaction. "This wouldn't be the Aunt Janet who was fooling around with Simon in your nightmares, would it?" I seem to have passed a test, because he flashes a Sandburg special my way.

"Got it in one, man! And now you know why the whole thing freaked me out so bad. Poor Simon. Poor Janet!" He gives a mock shudder. "My mom met Janet at a retreat when I was about seven, I guess. Some sort of women's empowerment thing. Looking back, I think she may have been embracing sisterhood more than Janet to begin with. I don't think Janet was her first female lover--I used to say her only commitment was to free love--but she became Naomi's first long-term relationship that I can remember. Janet was great with me, loved me to death and treated me like her own kid. While they were together, I saw more of Janet than Naomi, actually. Mom would go off on her periodic searches for enlightenment, experience, whatever, and I stayed with Janet. Nearly broke my heart when Naomi told me I had to leave."

I lean in, offering support if needed. "Why did she?"

"Oh, man, why does Naomi move on? Why do butterflies flit, you know? Looking back, I think after three plus years, Janet thought Naomi would say yes to her request that she be more than a convenient permanent babysitter and occasional lay." I hate to hear him say that, hate even worse the cold flippancy that doesn't come close to hiding the pain that twists his mouth sharply.

"See, Jim, this is where the Sandburg approach to life can cause confusion. Janet figured that they'd been on-and-off together for years and the next step was obvious. Naomi didn't want a next step, didn't even see a next step. She had someone she could trust to look after me, someone who always welcomed her and, up to that point, never tried to tie her down. But more importantly, she had the freedom to find herself and, not incidentally, other lovers."

He laughs, a mirthless sound that raises the hair on the back of my neck. "And Mom taught me well, man. Because although my personal memory is of how bad it hurt to leave Aunt Janet and my home, the lesson I took from it is that Naomi had the right idea."

"How the hell was that right, to hurt you both?" I don't know who I'm angrier for, the faithful lover spurned or the little boy dragged from his second mother.

"Not morally right, maybe. But the right way to avoid getting hurt. Naomi took me to India and introduced me to great thinkers and not-so-great thinkers on the road to Marrakech. She let go of any guilt she might have felt, and she was completely happy, showing me the beauty of a new culture."

He sighs and shifts uncomfortably. "I couldn't hate her for it, even though I was still hurting, because... Hell, you've met her, man. You can't hate a butterfly for not being a...I don't know, a rock or something. You can't hate it for being beautiful and flighty and thoughtless, or for not providing any kind of foundation to build on. Mom actually did it the right way, just taking and giving love on a part-time basis. Because you know, Janet had let Naomi--and me, I guess--become everything to her. For those three years, Naomi was her only love. And our leaving destroyed her."

"Don't you think that's a little melodramatic?"

He pulls away from my hands angrily. "Okay, it sounds arrogant. But I know how she felt. You are--like, ninety-five percent of my everything right now, Jim. You're my best friend, partner, roommate, mentor, student, coach, therapist, guardian, responsibility...I can't let you be my lover, man. I can't do it. Because then you'd be a hundred percent of everything, and I can't lose everything! I can't do it, can't face it. I've got to keep that five percent free of you, Jim!"

The raw pain in his voice shocks me, and I let him finish before grabbing his frantically gesticulating hands. I don't know how to answer him, confronted as I am with both a lifetime of conditioning and my own vicious actions. Because this isn't a hypothetical situation for Blair--he lost pretty close to everything once, forced without reason or recourse out of his home and my life.

I give up on speech, knowing that it's not my best tool for the job at hand. Instead, I reach out and pull him in to me, holding his shoulders tightly during his instinctive struggle. By the time he has relaxed into my embrace, I've managed to get my legs around him, too, so that he's almost entirely surrounded by my body. I rock slowly, remembering how calming that motion had been after my nightmare, and gradually the rigidity of his muscles eases. Leaning closer to me, he tentatively puts his arms around me in a loose hug, and I take that as permission to pull him in tighter.

His face is hidden in my neck, his breath warm on my throat. I have my arms around his wide shoulders, my legs pressing in on his sides, my heels hard against his tailbone. I didn't let him uncross his legs before our change in position, so I'm practically sitting on his feet, with his hairy shins pressed firmly into my groin, his knees bony against my chest. How many people have the chance to hold their everything all in one embrace?

He shivers as I murmur in his ear, "How about we renegotiate that five percent, Chief? I'll give up doing housework together."

He snuffles into my throat, a moist combination of tears and laughter. "I don't know, man, you know you'd never be comfortable without white-gloving my work."

"You're right, we can't do that. And I'm not willing to give up my roommate or therapist either, partner." I put loving emphasis on that title, and I can feel his smile against my neck.

"There's really only one other option, Blair. Only one I'm going to accept. I want that hundred percent."

He pulls away from me at that, leaning against the circle of my arms. His face shows faint pain and confusion, and I can feel tiny shivers coursing through his body and into mine. "Can't, Jim. Please--"

I don't want to hear him deny us again. "You're not going to lose me, Blair. I promise. You're not going to lose everything."

He stares at me a long time, his eyes fathomless blue in the midmorning sunshine. I have no insight into the convoluted reasoning he is no doubt exercising, but I can feel the waves of tension in his body. Finally, he closes his eyes and takes a long, deep breath.

His voice catches in his throat as he whispers, "Won't make any difference, ninety-five or a hundred. It'll destroy me this time, either way."

No. He's not losing me, because I'm not going to lose him. Did that once, never again. I don't know how to answer that pained memory, however, and luckily he steps in for me as always. He reaches his right hand up, cupping my face tenderly in his broad palm. The side of his thumb rubs gently over my cheekbone, then higher to softly trace below my eye. Two fingers rest gently on my throat, soft foci of warmth over my pulse, and I turn down the dials slightly so that this first time of ours isn't over before he even knows it has begun.

I catch his other hand before it reaches me and hold it gently imprisoned in both of mine. His fingers curl loosely, giving their strength over to my command. Leaning in to kiss his knuckles, I let my left hand trail down the inside of his arm, feeling the silky contrast of soft skin and sparse hair. To balance the wash of sensation from that touch, I mouth his fingertips gently, then lick between his fingers, enjoying the salt taste almost as much as I enjoy his surprised gust of laughter.

I trace slowly across his palm, reveling in the jagged length of his lifeline, biting gently at the tender flesh below his thumb. Drawn by the heat of his blood, my lips slip down to his wrist, life-hot in comparison to his hand. I place my mouth against the parchment-thin silk. A plea, a prayer. All the while his free hand is tracing my collarbone, a delicate touch more suited to rare artifacts than a horny Sentinel. But the teasing touch serves its purpose, keeping me from zoning on the passionate rise of his pulse, leaping to my kiss.

He's tugging his hand away from my grasp, pressing firmly with his other hand against the back of my neck. I give him the lead and once again see why he is the Guide when our lips meet, soft and sweet until he enters me with his tongue, like a spear of sunlight into my heart. Lost in the lush treasure of his lips, I am almost unaware of his further guidance, as he pushes me gently backwards onto the couch, coming to rest firmly, perfectly along my body. His left hand still cups my head, his right hand ranging down to press against my heart as I deliver my body into his hands and my soul into his care.

Holding him to me as tightly as I dare, I immerse myself in the sensory sea that is Blair. Taste of his skin. Scent of his lust. Sound of his heart. Warmth of the sun.

"Jim? Wake up, man. Come on, let's go to bed. Nap time for good little Sentinels." I ignore the noises from the warm, sticky mass on my chest in favor of the soft embrace of darkness where exhaustion left me. No such luck. I'm not sure if that well-placed elbow to my ribs was intentional, but I'm definitely not going to be sinking back into the welcoming arms of slumber.

"Blair, can't we just go to sleep?"

"Yep. But not here. Come on, Jim--as a mattress you make a great Sentinel, okay?"

I grunt, hoping some response will get rid of him. I'm deeply into the beached-whale stage of post-orgasmic bliss, and the last thing I want to do is move. But once again our roles are clearly highlighted as he guides me up the stairs, into bed, and back to oblivion...

...only to be reawakened what feels like hours later by the sound of his harsh, accelerated breathing. I have a fleeting hope that we're about to attempt the (for me) impossible, but then I catch the sound of a low moan. He's in the grip of another nightmare, near silent as he twists in taut distress.

"Shh, hey buddy." I reach over to touch his shoulder gently, while keeping a good eye on the location of his fists and feet. He's never yet come up fighting, but I see no reason take that for granted--I know more of what he's learned at the Academy, now. He moans a final time, then opens his eyes, blinking muzzily at me.

"Wha...? Jim? Somethin' wrong, man?"

"You tell me. You were having a nightmare."

He closes his eyes, then grimaces. "Oh yeah. Damn, hate that one. Sorry."

He looks more rueful than anything else, but since a nightmare started this, I feel the need to follow up his answer. "What was it?"

"Oh, man." he shrugs. "It's stupid, okay? Doesn't mean anything."

"You decided mine didn't mean anything either, but I still had to tell you."

"What is this, tit for tat?" I start to comment, and he raises a warning hand, "Don't even make a crack, okay man?" Then he realizes what he's said and shakes his head, exasperated.

"Blair, in my dream--" He moves in closer, responding to the reminiscent pain in my voice. "In my dream, you thought you had betrayed me. You apologized for know, with your dissertation and all." He looks at me blankly. "I mean, was that...?"

"Nah. I don't have to dream about that, Jim. I live the nightmare. Come on, let's get some more sleep, take advantage of our weekend furlough from responsibility."

"What do you mean, you live it?" He tries to roll away from me, but I hold onto his shoulder. "Dammit, Chief, this is important."

"God! Are your mornings after ALWAYS this much fun?" He's looming over me suddenly, an intimidating flurry of flashing eyes and serious bed-head. "You said we had to talk this morning...oh, and by the way, don't think I didn't realize that I got stuck with all of the soul-baring. Whatever happened to the concept of a nice post-coital cuddle, huh? Let it go!"

My hearing was up a little high for that kind of response to be comfortable, and he immediately softens his voice. "Sorry, man. But really, spilling my entrails for you to read is not on my list of fun stuff today."

"Lovely image there."

"Yeah, well, I'm sorry. I had a long night of very little sleep; I'm fucked-out and loving it; I just woke up from an unpleasant dream; and now you want to talk guilt." I look at him calmly until he caves. "Okay. I don't usually have dreams about the repercussions of my dissertation fiasco. I think that's because it's always there in the conscious, so why bother the preconscious, right?"

I'm horribly glad when he hides the brimming misery in his eyes by leaning down to rest his head on my sternum. "I fucked up, Jim. I fucked up, could have gotten you killed or worse. And it could still happen. And I live with that every day, man, okay?"

"You didn't mean to--"

"Shit no! Fuck no, I didn't mean to. And what the hell difference does that make, huh? I'm supposed to say to whatever fucking organization takes you," his voice rises to a whine, "'But I didn't mean to'...that's bullshit, man. No, I didn't mean to. And don't think I'm not angry--don't--I love you and the fact that the last five percent just made the earth shimmy, man, but don't I'm not still hurt and angry--furious--that you could think I would do that on purpose."

His voice is lower as he returns to his main topic. "Despite stereotypic assumptions deriving from my ancestry, I don't really deal much in guilt. Naomi's gift, no doubt. But I do live with what I did, every day. And I just hope that if the worst threatens, I have a chance to help stop it. But that's not some payment for having fucked up. Even if I were blameless in this, which god knows I'm not, I'd still be right here hoping to keep you safe. You would have had that, fuck-up or no."

I'm surprised I can speak through the tight anguish in my throat. "We both fucked up, Chief."

He nods. "Yeah, we did. You with more intent, but me with more import."

I shake my head at him, and he explains. "You...yours was knowing. You kicked me out consciously, accused me of treachery consciously. But mine, my carelessness, my negligence, is so much more dangerous, man."

"I kicked you out and got you killed!"

"Damn it, no you didn't!" He grabs my shoulders, and I have to say I'm impressed by changes the Academy has wrought--his fingers feel like they're drilling down to bone. "You didn't get me killed. You kicked me out; by definition you got me homeless. Alex killed me, Jim, not you."

I can see that this argument is an endless ricochet. I can't accept that his thoughtless faith in his mother is in any way comparable to my panicked attack on his friendship and loyalty. Unlike Blair, I do deal in guilt. But what's this for, really? I'm going to try to force him to admit that I'm the greater of two evils...and then what? Somehow I don't think a lazy afternoon of that final five percent will be on the cards.

He seems to come to the same conclusion. "Damn, Jim," he says, sighing. "I realize the hundred percent includes debate-opponent, but is there anyway we could put that on hold for a while?" His hand strokes softly down my arm, barely brushing my skin. A wave of goosebumps sweeps after it, and he looks up at me with a sly smile.

I pull him down sharply, bringing us chest to chest once again. "Okay, Chief, new house rule. No more post-sex emotional-autopsies." He makes a sharply disgusted face, then grins. Reaching up, I trace the swollen line of his lower lip, whispering almost into his mouth. "And no more nightmares, okay? Because that's in the past. None of that's going to happen again. And whatever does happen, we'll make it through together."

He sighs and drops a tiny kiss on my fingers. On his way to my lips, he murmurs lovingly, "I'm gonna hold you to that."

I'm drowning in his kiss, every dial pegged at the sweet influx of sensation. I smooth my hands down to the small of his back, kneading softly until he starts squirming on top of me. A dream come true, my Blair, and I--

"Wait. Wait! Blair, stop!"

"What?" He pulls back anxiously.

"You never told me what your nightmare really was."

"What?" he shrieks. "For god's sake, Jim! You interrupted me to ask that? You are breaking your newest house-rule. Number four hundred and fifty fucking two, and it's already broken." He glares at me, torn between frustration and laughter, and then grins evilly. "And I'm afraid the punishment for breaking that rule is very harsh." With a movement that would undoubtedly make old Punchin' Pendrake extremely proud, he pins my wrists over my head.

"Blair, please?" He doesn't release me, but sighs gustily.

"Sheesh. Okay. I dreamed I didn't study for the exam. Completely standard for me, I've had those forever." He fills my disbelieving silence with further details. "You know, didn't study. Didn't know about the last paper. Not gonna pass, yadda yadda. Typical night-terrors for the professional student."

I fight desperately to keep a straight face--and apparently I lose.

"Dammit, Jim, I told you it was stupid!"

And then the punishment for breaking house-rule four hundred and fifty two begins, and I am forced to acknowledge that commando training is no match for an inspired Guide with a ticklish Sentinel.