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Salsa by Penelope Whistle

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J/B, PG13 for language and implied m/m pairing.
L for sorta funny, GI for stomach problems. No copyright infringement intended--or even possible (let's get real).

Salsa (A study in subtext)

by Penelope Whistle

"So whaddya think?" Blair looked at Jim, who had just slurped up his third tortilla chip with homemade salsa in as many seconds. "Do you like it?" He found himself nodding expectantly, trying to lead the witness. This was his very best effort yet, he was sure, and he wanted confirmation. Confirmation, hell! He wanted praise. More nodding, eyes alight: "Jim, buddy? Uh...Jim?"

Jim was moving his mouth, but no sound was coming out. He finally managed to rasp out: "Beer. Need...beer."

Blair turned over his chair in his haste to fulfill the request. He opened a long-necked Corona, snagging half a lime on the way back from the kitchen, and put a hand on Jim's shoulder as his partner took a long swallow. Jim's eyes were streaming tears, and Blair started rubbing his shoulder in fast circles as if frostbite were a danger instead of spontaneous combustion. "C'mon, speak to me, man. Try some of that lime; it neutralizes the alkaline. You'll be okay. You *will* be okay. Right? Right?"

Jim held up a hand and waved off further ministrations. "I'm fine." He cleared his throat. "Really. Hot DAMN, Sandburg, that is some salsa. This must be how your hair got curly. I mean, my eyebrows are sweating, and it wrecked my vision for a second. But it is so GOOD. What do you call that little parsley stuff again?" He reached for another chip, but Blair whisked the bowl of salsa away.

"Cilantro. I think I need to add some more tomatoes or something before you get back into this. You scared me, man. I thought for a minute there that I'd shorted out your electrical system." He scooped some into his own mouth. "It IS good, though, isn't it?" He shivered at the fiery taste and took the bowl to the kitchen.

Jim got up and followed. "Hey, no, Chief, don't doctor it up. I really like it the way it is. I just have to turn down my sensitivity. It's not like you didn't warn me."

Blair was starting to seed and chop a tomato. Jim suddenly barked at him: "All right, Sandburg, drop the vegetable and no one will get hurt." When Blair looked up, his partner laughed a mustache-twirling villain's laugh and whisked the salsa back to the table. "MINE," he cackled. "All mine."

Blair followed, shaking his head. "Man, what's got into you tonight? Were you hitting the beer before I got home?"

"Aw, c'mon, partner, lighten up." Jim leaned across the table and held out a chip with a load of salsa. "This will set you free. Say 'ahh.'"

Blair opened his mouth and closed it a second later around the chip and a couple of finger tips. He didn't swallow or even chew, just watched as Jim unconsciously licked his fingers and dove for another chip. It felt as if someone had plucked a string in his gut--something in the key of "G," which resonated throughout his entire body. Then his tongue was on fire, his sinuses smoking, his eyes pouring water.

Jim pushed the lime over to his partner and smirked, "Hurts real good, doesn't it?" He helped himself to more. "I can't say I understand it, but the pain is part of the pleasure somehow."

"For the people with limited resources...it may be the vitamin A," Blair managed to croak out. "Man, I think my eyeballs are going to fall on the floor."

"Vitamin A?"

"Yeah. Their bodies may crave chili peppers in spite of the pain because that is their only source of vitamin A." Blair blew his nose. "You, on the other hand, living in a culture with every nutritional advantage, which you frequently insist on ignoring, are a different matter. Hey! Leave some for the cook. Mmmm. Really makes you know you're alive, doesn't it?"

They polished off the salsa, and Blair served the black beans and rice.

"Uh, Jim?" He sat down and grimaced, although a smile was playing around his eyes.

"Yeah, Chief? Mmm. These beans are great too."

"I forgot to tell you that the salsa may be as spicy coming out as it was going in." He suddenly was fascinated by his food. Jim put down his fork and just looked at him.

"You have a real mean streak, you know that, Sandburg? You may look like a Christmas-card angel on the outside, but I bet underneath those khakis you have a long red tail."

"You PEEKED!" Blair turned to look at Jim over his left shoulder, eyes twinkling but sultry. He pulled a lock of hair over his cheek like a gypsy scarf and breathed, "Wanna see my horns?"

"Cut it out, Sandburg." Jim was blushing so furiously, even his scalp was pink. "Quit kidding around and finish your dinner. Jeez." He attacked his beans and rice with conviction.

Blair tossed his head and snorted, suppressing a grin. "Well! You're the one who started talking about the contents of people's pants." He took a couple of bites and said so quietly that only Sentinel hearing could pick it up: "Pervert."

"What!?"

A study in innocence: "What *what*?" Blair continued eating, looking at any point in the room except Jim. He could almost feel the heat rising off his partner, and he wasn't sure how long he could keep a straight face.

Jim's voice was very low, very slow, velvety in its control-the kind of voice that might tell you not to move before the bomb squad showed up. "Don't fuck with me, Chief. Don't...fuck...with me. You may get more than you bargained for. Trust me."

Blair's body responded to the danger in the voice before his mind could process the information. He could barely breathe, his heart was pounding so violently.

"Promises, promises," he said softly--and smiled.

What happened next was so unexpected, so out of the ordinary, so unpredictable from past data compiled under strict laboratory conditions--or under sloppy field conditions, for that matter--that Blair was absolutely speechless, itself a highly unusual phenomenon.

Jim stood up slowly, head lowered, hands gripping the table edges. He swept the table with one arm and roared, coming after Blair. The dishes breaking sounded like gunfire.

"I said DON'TFUCKWITHME!"

Blair froze--a wide-eyed deer caught in headlights. House Rule Number 10 about the appropriate place for food was totally shot to hell, which proved that anything could happen. In two seconds flat, he was on his back on the table (how had Jim *done* that?) with Jim on top of him, his arms pinned in the "Don't shoot!" position by Jim's elbows and his head between Jim's hands. They were almost nose-to-nose.

"You fucked with me," Jim said quietly, and Blair laughed--a little bleat of hysteria that he swallowed at once. Jim was scanning his face desperately, the ice-blue eyes full of anguish, which scared Blair more than the anger he would have expected.

"Damn you, Sandburg," Jim whispered. "Damn you all to hell." And he got up quickly, grabbed a jacket and fled the scene.

Blair lay where he was for a minute. He was incredibly aroused, not a little frightened, and completely bewildered. He got off the table, gestured futilely at the door, and said, "If it needed more salt, you could've just *told* me, man." He picked up a few pieces of the dinner dishes and stared into the middle distance of nowhere. Besides being speechless, he couldn't seem to put together a coherent thought. Shaking himself, seeing the broken crockery in his hand, he pitched it up as if it were a baseball, whiffed an imaginary bat through the air, went in his room and closed the door.

When he awoke the next morning, the loft was immaculate, all traces of the night before gone. Even the trash can was empty. It was as if nothing had happened. But something had. The place was *too* clean, *too* quiet. Without going upstairs, Blair knew that Jim wasn't there. A muscle in his cheek began twitching, and he smacked himself to make it stop.

Okay. Fine. He had things to do. A *lot* of things to do, as a matter of fact. To counteract the pressure building behind his eyes, he rubbed Tiger Balm on his temples and got in the shower to let the hot water pound the tension from his body.

At the university, Blair cleared up work in what he called his "fridge file" (usual procedure: put stuff in file, leave three weeks, throw out). He worked to avoid thinking, since he hadn't heard a word from the station all day. He hoped it was because the city had taken a holiday from major crimes, not because Jim was trying to do without him. The thought of Jim's going it alone put his anxiety off the charts on the worry meter. It was therefore with a great deal of relief that he smelled sauteed onions as he opened the loft door that evening.

"Hey, I hope that's for us because I didn't have lunch, and I am starved. " He dropped his backpack by the counter and tapped Jim's elbow. "Missed you at breakfast, man."

Jim looked up quickly. "Yeah, had to get an early start today. Have you developed any recent phobias about ham, cheese and potatoes, by any chance?"

Blair came over to peer around his partner's shoulder. "What is this? Is this the Ellison fritatta, the only famous creation of the edible James Ellison? I mean, the only edible creation of the famous--"

"Sandburg, do you flirt with *everyone*?"

"Ooh, well, Jim, I dooon't think so. Simon, for instance. I w--"

"Well, don't do it with me. All right?" Jim turned on his heel and slapped the fritatta on the table. He cut it in half with more violence than seemed strictly necessary to subdue a batch of overcooked eggs, and handed his blustering partner a plate.

"Is...is *that* what this is about? You think I've been *flirting* with you? Hey, man--"

"I don't *think*, Sandburg. I *know*. And I'd like you to stop it."

Blair opened his mouth, then closed it. He opened it again and gestured with one hand as if that might jump-start his stalled vocal engine.

But nothing came out.

Jim looked at him and started eating, eyes hooded and wary.

The engine sparked to life. "Bu-bu-but...but wait a minute now. I don't think my kidding around with you could be called flirting in any sense of the word, here, Jim. Like if I'm flirting--and I do sometimes go into overdrive in the charm department when a particularly lovely woman enters my territory--I usually have some sort of hidden agenda--not that it's anything bad, you understand, but it's just a sort of *game*, you know, like I'll show you mine if you show me yours. You know?" He flapped open the front of his vest, then closed it, laughing. "Peep-eye." Jim's face was stony. "It's courtship ritual, man. All cultures do it, even animals. It's necessary for procreation of the species. But your thinking I'm doing that with you has to be a joke. I mean, I don't have any hidden agenda with you. And, let's face it, the species is in major big trouble if it's depending on you and me for procreation. So--"

"DARWIN! Fine. I got it. You don't think you're flirting. Great. All that flirting you haven't been doing--stop doing it anyway." Jim looked down at his plate.

"I'll tell you, Jim, sometimes you... Okay, okay. Okay." Blair jumped up and walked around in quick figure-eights. "Okay. I have a request of my own, man, while we're at it, and it is this: Don't you ever, EVER pull that cave-man stuff on me again."

Blair's eyes were snapping, his voice rising. "I mean, I don't NEED any overt demonstration of strength to know you could snap my arm--and probably any other body part--like a twig, so I have to say that...that I took your slamming me onto the table last night as a definitely hostile and inappropriate act."

Jim's voice was soft and low. His eyes were full of pain. "I know. I was wrong. I'm sorry, it won't happen again. I apologize."

"Oh. Okay." Blair felt like a man who'd tried to break down a door that had just been opened from the inside. He sat down and helped himself to dinner, then grinned. "Actually, I shouldn't have said 'slammed.' You know me--always going for the effect. You didn't hurt me or anything. In fact, when I thought about it later, I remembered that you'd cradled my head so the back of it wouldn't bang on the table. But I still--"

"Let's just drop it, Chief, okay?" Jim's ears were pink, and he looked distinctly unhappy.

"Sure. Oh, I gotta tell you...." Blair thereupon launched into a long tale, complete with sound effects, about his department head and a miniature schnauzer the man's secretary had tried to stow away in the supply room behind the #10 envelopes. While they cleared the table, Blair realized how hard he'd been working at the conversation, although he couldn't call it a genuine conversation. It was more like a performance, and the audience that night had been a tough one.

"How about if I wash and you dry?" Blair offered.

In response, Jim grabbed a dish towel and snapped it at the sink. By the time Blair was finished with all of the dishes except the skillet, he was ready to jump out of his skin. He let the pan slide back into the soapy water.

"Jim, you are making me *so* nervous." He shook his hands to rid them of bubbles. "What is *wrong*, man? I tell you a great story, and you barely smile. You don't say a single word during the whole meal. And then, *then*"--He grabbed the dish towel and held it up to Jim like Exhibit C--"you don't flip me with the towel like you always do when you have to dry. What the hell is going on?"

Jim's mouth and eyes were drooping as if they might run off his face. Blair hadn't seen him look like that since Danny was killed.

"C'mon, you can tell me. I can't stand this. You're making me feel like I'm living alone." Blair hung the dish towel over Jim's arm. "Please, man. I'm just going to finish this skillet, and you grab us a couple of beers and tell me about it, okay?"

"Okay. I guess."

By the time Blair turned out the light in the kitchen, Jim was stretched out on one section of the L-shaped sofa. Blair stretched out on the other. If he'd been taller, their feet would have touched.

Blair forced himself to wait for Jim to speak first. The lights were low, and after a while he wondered if they both were going to fall asleep there before anyone said anything. He had almost finished his beer when Jim cleared his throat.

"Blair, I don't *know* what's going on. I feel so...isolated, like I've been dropped into the Peruvian jungle, and I don't speak the language."

Blair propped himself up on his elbows. "Sounds...lonely, man."

Jim looked at him and smiled a little. "Yeah."

"How long have you felt like this?"

So much time passed that Blair sat up. "Jim?"

Jim swung his feet onto the floor. "I don't think I can talk about this now, Chief, if it's all right with you."

Blair swung his own feet onto the floor. He kept his voice steady with an effort. "As a matter of fact, it is NOT all right with me." Jim looked up, and Blair continued: "You seem to be in some sort of pain, and, without taking anything away from whatever you're going through, I am starting to hurt real bad myself. It's all I can do not to imagine that it's my fault--but I don't have any information one way or the other. So, I *need* to know, as a simple matter of self-preservation, not to mention--"

"I'm going to bed." Ellison moved for the stairs.

"Well, it 's no mystery to me why your marriage didn't work." Blair was on his feet, his voice raised in his best lecture-hall manner. "It wouldn't have even mattered who she was. At first I thought it was just because you and Carolyn, two strong people, yadda yadda, both wanted to be top dog, yadda whatever. But now I'm clear that it wouldn't have worked with ANYONE, so--"

Jim had turned. "Listen, Sandburg, you don't know shit about my marriage. And there's no similarity between that and whatever goes down between you and me. We are not married."

"No, of course not, but hear me out here, Jim." Blair bounded over to the stairs. "The level of trust between us should be the same as that of a married couple--greater even. People's lives *depend* on our being in communication with each other, on our trusting each other, watching out for each other." Blair put a hand on Jim's arm. "We can't allow that to break down, man. Besides, Simon will take one look at us and know in a second that something's wrong, and then he'll whip both our butts. C'mon over here and sit down. You want another beer?"

"No. Oh...why the hell not? Sure." Jim dragged himself over to the sofa and slumped back into the cushions. "Thanks." He put the cold bottle on his forehead. "Blair, I am really scared."

Blair sat down next to him. "Tell me, man."

"You remember how it was with that drug Golden? How flame-like things would spring up under your feet and in front of your face without warning?"

"Yeah, for me it was the golden fire people."

"Exactly." Jim sat up and turned to his partner. "It's like that kind of thing has been happening to me the past couple of days with memories. At least I guess they're memories. They aren't hallucinations, like the fire people--they're mental images--with feelings attached--that are so strong, so gripping, that I have trouble staying focused." He got up and went to the window. "I had myself tested for drugs because I thought I might have been doped. The last time I did that was right before I met you, when my senses went haywire." He came back to sit heavily on the sofa again. "It's a good thing I only had paper work to do today. If I'd been out on the street, I would have been dead by noon."

"How often do the memories occur? And can you give me an example of one?" Blair picked up a note pad.

"I don't know, Chief. They feel so intensely private, but at the same time it's as if they happened to someone else." Jim put a hand over Blair's note pad. "I would take it as a great personal favor if you didn't take notes, buddy."

"Oh, sure," said Blair. "Sorry." He looked sheepish. "Just habit." He tossed the pad on the coffee table. "So, again, how often do these things come up?"

Jim rolled the beer bottle all over his face. "God, it's hot in here. I don't know. It's definitely not constant, like the Golden visions. Uh, maybe, I don't know, maybe one an hour? Maybe more. Jesus!" He suddenly clutched his stomach and doubled over.

"Jim? Jim, what's wrong?"

"My gut. Like...like a knife."

"Where?"

Jim pointed and gritted his teeth. He was sweating profusely.

Blair leaped for the phone. "Hang on, I'm calling an ambulance."

Two hours later, he and Simon were talking to a doctor in OR greens in the hall of Cascade General.

"He's going to be fine. But we did have to remove a small part of his stomach. Has Detective Ellison eaten anything particularly spicy in the past 24 hours that you know of?"

Blair turned away and banged his head against the wall. "Oh no. No, no, no!"

"Sandburg?" Simon turned him around. "You know something about this?"

"Uh, yessir. I made some salsa last night that kicked like a mule. But why Jim and not me? I ate it too."

The doctor shook his head. "Detective Ellison had had a previous abdominal injury that had been inadequately repaired--or perhaps left to heal on its own. The scar tissue in that area couldn't withstand the assault of your cooking, it seems." At Blair's look of horror, he reassured him, "It would have happened sooner or later anyway unless he limited himself to a diet of mashed potatoes and cream of wheat."

"Oh, sure, Jim has always been fond of the white food group," Blair muttered. "Can I sit with him until he wakes up?"

"He's Detective Ellison's partner," said Simon.

"Oh." The doctor looked surprised. "Come with me, and I'll clear it with the night nurse."

Simon slapped Blair on the shoulder. "Call me."

As they walked toward the nurses' station, the doctor said, "Mr. Sandburg, I hope you understand why we had to restrain you outside the OR."

"Yeah, how is that nurse? Is she going to be okay? I'm really sorry about the little dust-up, but, as I was trying to explain to Nurse Eichmann there, Detective Ellison is a very special man, and drugs can do weird things to him."

"Well, believe it or not, Mr. Sandburg, we like patient-advocates, but we've just never met one quite so...energetic. Are you Detective Ellison's partner on the force or his life partner?"

Blair blinked at him. "*Life* partner? We're roommates. We...work together."

Jim was the only occupant in a double room. Blair sat on the side of the bed that didn't have an IV and tentatively touched the unconscious man's hand. "I am so sorry, Jim," he whispered. "I am so, so sorry about that salsa. If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I swear I will make it up to you." He took Jim's hand and pressed it between both of his own. "And whatever's going on with the memory thing, we'll work it out. Just don't shut me out, man. Please don't shut me out."

The next thing he knew, someone was rubbing his head, and saying his name. He opened his eyes to see it was almost dawn, and the hand on his head was Jim's.

"Hey, partner, how 'bout some water?" Jim croaked.

Blair found a plastic cup and filled it, then reconsidered and brought a basin along as well. "Look, Jim, just take some water in your mouth and spit it out for right now. I have to ask the nurse if you can swallow without springing a leak. You've had a bad time, man."

"Yeah, it feels like it. My vision is totally fucked up. You're going to have to guide me to this water, Chief, because every time I open my eyes I feel sick."

Blair helped him with the mouth-rinsing, complaining all the while about hospital Nazis, until Jim stopped him.

"We can work it all out later. You ought to go home and get some sleep."

"Do you want me to leave, man?"

"Nah, not really. But I'll be okay if you do."

"I'd rather stay."

"Fine. You can lay your head back down here." Jim patted a spot beside him and then touched it more carefully. "I think you drooled on my bed, Chief."

"*Drooled*--"

"Shhh. It's okay. Sleep."

Blair laid his head down, and Jim ruffled his hair, then rested his hand there. Blair dropped off like a rock. Jim lay awake for a while, thinking, absently stroking the curly head.


Five days later, Cascade General released one James Ellison with a collective sigh of relief. It was generally agreed that Detective Ellison himself had been a model patient, but the young man with him was quite another matter: He asked questions constantly, demanded to know the specifics of all procedures, made phone calls, requests, demands, and, worst of all for the young nurses, stopped flirting the minute he got what he wanted. They called him the wild-haired terror.

"GET in that chair." Blair was brooking no argument, and Jim gave up and allowed himself to be helped into a wheelchair for the trip to the hospital exit.

"This is so embarrassing, Sandburg. I'm going to get you for this." He gave a crooked smile to the shift nurse who piled on his lap his belongings and the hospital contraband, topped by a pink urinal. "Thanks." And back to Blair: "I liked it better when you were the one who got hurt."

"Look, you've had major surgery, and I'm not taking any chances on your ripping your staples out. It's going to be bad enough getting you up to the loft."

Neither had any idea just how bad it could be. The ascent took almost 20 minutes, one slow step at a time. The whole way, Blair detailed his ideas for enlisting a physician to test Jim for reactions to all possible drugs and anesthesia he might be given in an emergency situation. The more he talked and the more Jim resisted, the more agitated he became.

With one flight to go, Blair was almost screaming with frustration. "This really SUCKS, man. Don't you *realize* what can happen? If some drug makes your sentinel senses flip off the map, it's too easy for an ER to misdiagnose you. You can DIE while some techno-med-head is trying to fix something that's not broken. And if I'm not there...if I'm not THERE...there's no way for them to KNOW--"

"If you keep yelling like this, Sandburg, I'm going to flip *you* somewhere." Jim was sweating and beginning to tire. "Get a grip. If you're still feeling guilty about the salsa--"

"This is definitely no longer about the salsa, man. This is like a wake-up call to remind us that bad things CAN happen and we should do everything to be prepared for--"

"Look, Chief, it's not something we've ever talked about, but let's face facts about this "we" stuff: Once you get your degree, you'll be outta here--sayonara, Butterfly--and I'll just deal with whatever happens, like I had to before you showed up." Jim grunted and looked up at the last half-flight. "I think I'll start by getting a ground-floor apartment."

"You're right, Jim. You are so absolutely right." Blair helped his partner to the next step. "Obviously, after the PhD, *obviously* I'll have to get a part-time job in Cascade. Or..." he brightened, "maybe Simon will finally get the city to pay me a subsistence wage."

By the time they made it into the loft, they were both exhausted. Jim groaned onto the sofa and begged for a beer.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea, Jim."

"The doctor didn't say I couldn't drink. Now get me a beer and then go on to school and do whatever you have to do. I'll be fine."

"I've arranged for someone else to take my classes for another week, just until you're back on your feet. I can't leave you alone here, man."

"The hell you can't...." Jim struggled to get up from the sofa, his alarm growing as he realized he was trapped by the softness of the cushions.

"You're making my point for me," said Blair. "The staple gun put your abs temporarily out of commission, although we can work around that. We can figure something out. But I'm reluctant to give you anything to drink until we find a way you can make it to the john."

"There's that god-awful pink thing--"

"You can't pee in the *living* room, Jim. You can't--"

"The beer, Chief. Get me a beer and the pink thing, and I'll undergo any drug-sensitivity tests you want, whenever you want. Just not this very minute."

By the time they'd compromised and split a beer, Blair had rigged a rope from an iron hook in the ceiling for Jim to pull himself up with, using the strength in his arms to compensate for the weakened abdominals. Sprawled on the sofa, neither man was feeling much pain, and Jim was holding his belly and trying not to laugh at Blair's description of his tussle with "Nurse Eichmann."

"Sandburg, *stop*. No more. Let me just relax here a minute, buddy." Jim put his head back and beat a private rhythm on his thigh with the empty bottle. Still not looking at Blair, he said, "This is a side of you I don't think I've seen before: a kind of guard dog--and a feisty one at that."

Blair snatched away his friend's beer bottle. "Whaddya *think*? I'm your *partner*." He turned to put the bottle on the counter to hide the hurt that suddenly caught him in the throat. "I've been watching your back and a lot more for two years. Give me a little credit, why don't you." He tossed the urinal and a towel to Jim and headed for the bathroom.

When he returned, he was perky again. " All right, what do you want to do today? Gin rummy? Backgammon? Parasailing? Snowboarding?"

"I need to lie down, Blair. On a bed. Would you be willing to swap rooms for a few days, until my stair-climbing improves?" He held out the urinal.

"Sure." Blair took the pink thing and tried to buy time. "I need to get the place cleaned up, change the sheets--"

"Not as bad as I need to lie down. Just kick any big stuff out of the way. It'll be fine. I've overextended myself here in celebrating being home."

After some lightning-fast arrangements (after all, no one who'd had gut surgery was going to look under the bed), Blair helped Jim into his new quarters and pulled off his sweats and shoes. He made sure his partner had plenty of pillows to support his back and finally left the cleaned urinal on the night table. As he turned to leave, Jim grabbed his forearm.

"I do give you credit, Chief. I probably don't do it out loud as much as I should. And I know what a load of trouble it must have been to baby-sit a man with a tube up his nose who couldn't wash, drink or pee by himself, so...." He didn't seem able to form words around whatever thought was present behind his eyes, but he wouldn't let go of Blair's arm either.

Blair gently pried Jim's hand loose and squeezed it in his own. "Hey, I know how tough this must be for you, man, laid up like this. I shouldn't be busting your balls about anything right now." He smiled. "And as for your being trouble, I've had collar stays that are more trouble than you."

"Sandburg, when have you ever come into contact with collar stays?"

"Good point." He gave Jim's hand another squeeze and turned to go, then turned back. "I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but I've enjoyed taking care of you." He shrugged. "It's...I don't know. It's been...nice. Malingering, however, will not be tolerated, so get some rest, and I'll dig up some tasty gruel for dinner." Rolling eyes. "Yum."

When Blair left, Jim lay back and tried consciously to zone out the abdominal discomfort as they'd practiced in the hospital. It was the only way he could avoid painkillers, which messed up his vision. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Scents of Blair, released from the bedding by the warmth of his own body, swept through him like a storm, dismantling any and all structures of coherent thought. The pulse at his incision pounded heavily.

The images started again, the first since he'd left the hospital. (They had only occurred during those rare times when he was alone--when Blair had run home to get clothes or go find food.) And they started the same way: flashes of green and white-gold, like emeralds and diamonds--beautiful, but accompanied by a feeling of emptiness and fear. His hands and feet were very cold. He was all alone, and he knew that he was dying.

Then the other images came: the movement of something sleek and dark, followed by flashes of multi-colored fragments, like pieces of a kaleidoscope shaken out into a slow-moving universe lighted by stars that burned like bonfires. And with these images came feelings of comfort and safety and...love.

He lay very still without opening his eyes, not daring to move. There was a naked body next to him--a very warm body, although fairly small compared to his own. A strangely diffused desire filled him, and he reveled in the feeling even as he tried to explain in his mind (to himself? to others?) why this person was in his bed. He reached out with his tactile sense, and his heart lurched: The body beside him was that of a man.

With the scent of Blair in his nostrils, he smiled. Had Blair crawled in beside him? Or--God forbid!--had *he* crawled into Blair's bed uninvited? He was afraid, but the fear brought a delicious rush of adrenaline that had been missing from his life for a week. At the least, this could prove embarrassing. At worst--well, it rarely proved useful to contemplate the worst.

He took a deep breath and forced himself to look to his left. Even in the dim light, he could see at once that no one was there. What should have been a relief, however, was not. He almost cried out at the disappointment and crushing sense of loss. He was alone in actuality, and the fact that he was not dying seemed small comfort.

The door to the bedroom opened. Perhaps he had made a noise after all.

"You okay?" Blair sounded concerned.

"It's nothing. Go away." He knew his voice was rough and desperate.

"Mmm. Doesn't sound like nothing to me." Blair came over and put a hand on the larger man's forehead. Jim angrily brushed it away, and Blair put it back. "Oookay. You haven't got a fever. My diagnosis is a burr up your ass. Now where did I put my forceps?"

"Ha, ha. Very funny."

"A less invasive procedure is a game of cards. Want to?"

They played until Blair served dinner, what he called a "melange of pureed vegetables" and Jim called "gross," which bothered Blair not at all, because Jim had seconds, although he insisted that was simply a tribute to being starved by the hospital for the first three days and fed library paste for the next two. They watched an action-adventure video, and Jim was angling for cards again when Blair declared a time-out.

"No, man. No more games. I have to change your dressing, and you have to get some sleep. You never gave me a hard time when we were in the hospital, so c'mon and get with the program here at home."

It was while he was changing the dressing that he realized what was wrong: Jim had capitulated with something very like resignation, had stopped insulting him, and, more telling, the funny drooping expression was back on his partner's face.

"You know, Jim...." He cleaned the incision as gently as possible, knowing it had to be tender even though Jim had never yet said a word about it. "You know, you were going to tell me about feeling isolated--like being dropped into Peru not speaking the language, I think you said...."

Jim's hissing intake of breath was so unexpected, it almost made Blair drop the antiseptic.

"Whoa. Sorry."

"That was it. That was it." Eyes shut tight, Jim clutched Blair's arm like a vise as sweat beaded on his forehead.

"Easy, man. What was 'it?'"

The blue eyes snapped open. "It wasn't LIKE Peru. It *was* Peru. The trees, the sunlight...panther in the underbrush." He closed his eyes again and gritted his teeth. "Oh Jesus, Blair."

"Jim. Jim." Blair used the guide voice. "Jim, I am right here. I am here. I will not leave you, but I need you to let go of my arm so I can apply your dressing. Uh, okay." He sat on the bed and tried to work around the impediment. Jim was not relinquishing the arm. "So ...Peru, jungle, panther. Keep talking."

"Alone...alone. Cold. Jungles s'posed to be hot. I am fucking dying. Belly...ripped up. Dying. Then not. Weird. This guy--where were *you*?" The blue eyes opened again in alarm, then closed. "No, it was Tami, I think...thought you...but no... sleeps with...stays with me...keeps me safe."

Blair's attention was divided between the dressing and Jim's rambling, and he couldn't understand what he thought he had heard. As he finally was able to maneuver the bandage over the incision, he said, "This is not when *we* were in Peru together, right? Who's Tommy?"

Releasing Blair's arm, Jim clamped his hand over the hand pressing his dressing into place and pressed harder. He threw his head back and groaned.

"Easy, easy." Blair saw what looked like tears leaking out of the fast-shut eyes. "Relax. Calm down. Listen to my voice." He stroked Jim's nearest shoulder with his free hand. "Relaaax. It's all right. You are safe. I am safe. Listen to me. Come back to me. Stay with me here, Jim."

After a while, Jim wiped his eyes. "Sorry, Chief."

"It's probably good to get this stuff out, man, whatever it is. Can you tell me about this? You looked like you were in terrible pain. Was this physical--?" Jim's paw was still grasping Blair's on top of the dressing. "Or was it the memories?"

"They seem to be related." Jim paused and considered. He patted Blair's hand. "I think the gut thing is better, actually, but I can't handle the memory things right now. They are so strong...." When Blair went to withdraw his hand, Jim grabbed it again. "I don't know how to say this, Sandburg. This is really stupid, but--"

Blair made an intuitive leap and let his mouth lead the way before he even formed the thought completely in his mind. "Excuse me a second, Jim, while I think of it--I'd feel better if you'd let me sleep in here tonight. If I have to lie out there on the couch worrying about you, I'm not going to get any sleep at all. I'll be very quiet. You won't even know I'm here. How about it?" He was careful to make the request casual.

"What are you going to sleep on? The floor's pretty hard."

Blair looked around, eyes wide to signal a complete willingness to do what he was told. "I don't know."

"Well--all right. Drag a few couch cushions in here. It won't hurt them for one night, though I still don't see why this is necessary."

"Rr-right." Blair got up to go, but hesitated. "I interrupted you. What were you going to say that you thought might be stupid?"

Now Jim was the one who looked carefully casual. "Oh, I forgot. It must not have been very important."

"Right." Blair smiled and went to collect bedding.

At 2:30 in the morning, Blair's butt hit the floor between the cushions for approximately the tenth time, and Jim groaned.

"Sandburg, I'll never get more than 20 minutes sleep if you keep thumping around down there. Just get in the bed and shut up, all right?"

"Whatever you say, Jim."

By 9 in the morning, Jim's arm encircled Blair's head, tucked into the larger man's armpit like a furry animal seeking shelter from the bears growling outside the cave.

Blair dared to open one eye. Christ! he thought. Jim's snoring. And I'm curled up against him as if this is the most natural thing in the world. If my theory is correct--that he needs the human contact--then he might not kill me. But wait: Who am I kidding? This man not only would never kill me; he'd give his life for me. But that doesn't mean he'd take kindly to physical intimacy. Well, what do you call the last five days? Okay, he has entrusted every millimeter of his body and every bodily function to me, but that has not included armpit sniffing, which is arguably more personal, and which I find disturbingly erotic.

Blair opened both eyes. Why is it disturbing? he wondered. Because you always thought you liked girls? You *do* like girls. And, at the same time, cuddling up to Jim is a real turn-on. That doesn't mean you're going to go jump the bones of any guy in the street. You hated that what's-his-name, Robert, who put the moves on you behind Naomi's back. But Jim--Jim is almost outside the category of "liking." It's more that he's...somehow ...essential. Which still doesn't explain the fact that you're lying here thinking about sticking your tongue out, licking his pecs, and....

Jim stopped snoring with a snuffle, and pressed Blair's head gently against his shoulder. "You awright, San'burg?"

"I have to go to the bathroom. Go back to sleep." Blair unwound the arm from his head and crept out, shaken to the core. So much for being killed.

He stood in the shower and masturbated under a punishing stream of water, leaning his head against the shower wall and biting his lip.

Jim was in an unbelievably good mood all day. He didn't even complain about the pureed meals or the subsequent bowel distress: He chortled evilly that Sandburg's having to help him on and off the toilet was revenge enough. He talked Blair into interminable games of brick basketball--where one player shoots to hit specified bricks on the loft wall with rubber half-size basketballs while the other player taunts and hoots and tries to make him miss. When Simon dropped by on his way home from work, he found Jim's good mood so extraordinary that he took Blair aside and asked about it. Blair had no clue but swore that drugs were not involved.

At 10 p.m., Blair announced it was bed time.

"Sandburg, we can't go to bed yet; I haven't even kicked your butt in gin rummy."

"If you haven't noticed, I don't have any butt left. You ran it off during all those games of brick basketball. How do you think the balls got collected after they were shot? C,mon, man, haul yourself off the couch so I have room to collapse."

Jim just looked at him. "So you aren't going to guard tonight? What if I have a seizure or something in the middle of the night?"

Blair wouldn't look at him. "You're not going to have a damn *seizure*. And I can guard from out here. If you need me, just holler, and I'll be there in no time." He steadied Jim as he pulled himself up from the couch and started to walk to the bathroom with him.

Jim pushed him aside. "Don't bother. I can make it."

Blair sat down and put his head in his hands. Three minutes later, he heard "FUCK!" and a crash. He was in the bathroom in a heartbeat.

Jim was on the floor with his sweatpants half off, surrounded by broken glass, toothbrushes and a large bottle of shampoo that had popped its plastic cap--everything that had been on a small table that was now firewood. He gave a half-hearted glower at Blair. "I'll clean it up."

Blair was on his knees. "Are you all right? What about your stitches? Did you hurt yourself? What happened?"

Jim looked tired and pissed off and ashamed. "My feet got tangled up, and I lost my balance. It's my own stupid fault."

"Actually," said Blair, "it's at least partly *my* fault, but we can choose up sides and kick cans later. First things first."

It was determined that Jim had a small cut on his left hand, a sore left knee, and dreadfully wounded pride, but otherwise no damage. It was also determined that Jim needed a shower, his clothes needed washing, and Blair needed to restock a lot of drugstore items.

Getting Jim back on his feet from a shampoo-slick floor was a major project, not made easier by the fact that after a while both men began to see the humor in the situation. The more Egyptian-pyramid schemes for raising a 200-pound man that Blair came up with, the more Jim ribbed him, and the more Blair countered with insults about ungrateful cripples, until they were finally standing and sliding, clinging to each other, stinking of witch hazel and shampoo and choking with tears and laughter. The fact that it hurt Jim to laugh only made it all funnier.

By the time they had cleaned up themselves and the bathroom and settled down side by side in underwear, socks and robes on the living room couch, Blair had agreed that they deserved to split a beer.

"I can't wait to hear how all that was your fault--excuse me, *partly* your fault," said Jim, and Blair grimaced, banging his head against the back of the couch.

"Please try not to laugh, okay? This goes way beyond the bounds of ordinary embarrassment. I mean, the original thing is embarrassing enough, and then--shit, we all should have learned something from Nixon's mistakes--after all, a cover-up is--"

"Sandburg, you produce the longest preambles of anyone I know. Have you ever tried just spitting it out?"

Blair opened his mouth, closed it, looked at Jim in surprise, opened and closed his mouth again, then blurted, "Well, I said I was going to sleep out here, which probably made you mad and... I mean, sleeping out here was a way to avoid...." He swallowed hard. "Actually, the short answer is, I think I'm in love with you."

"WHAT!?"

"I said I think I'm in love with you." Blair tucked a strand of hair behind an ear and took a shaky sip of beer. "Crazy, huh?"

"Look, Sandburg, there are some things you just don't joke about, and 911 is one of those things, and...this is another."

Blair put down his beer and turned, eyes huge and liquid. "I know. I don't expect you to do anything about it, of course, but I definitely was not joking. Somehow, when you said 'spit it out,' that's what was there. It's not like I meant for this to happen." He laughed. "Hell, it's not like I ever conceived...that I even thought...that the possibility ever occurred to me until I just *said* it, because it's the only logical--and then--click, click, click--all the tumblers fell into place, and the big safe swung open, and a sign inside said, 'Welcome to the contents of your heart.' And it's nothing like I thought."

Jim's had to clear his throat, his voice husky. "You're going to have to be a bit more specific for us slow people, Chief."

"Okay, I've thought I was 'in love' before, although it now looks more like a thousand cases of being 'in like,' with a couple of good hits of 'like a real lot'--well, never mind. Anyway, I'd be physically attracted to a woman, then I'd get to know her a little--sometimes a very little--and then we'd...you know, get it on, and after a while--pffft. Next." He ran a hand through his hair. "You gonna finish that beer?"

Jim handed it over.

Blair laughed and rolled his eyes. "But with *you*, Jim, I mean you are a very cool looking dude and all, but the most I ever thought about your body was that it was sometimes good to hide behind when bullets were flying around. No, with you, it did not start with physical stuff." He lowered his eyes. "It was different, and I can't say when it started, but it got so that..." He took a deep breath and pressed his lips together. "It got so that your welfare was as important to me as my own--or, it's more like I couldn't distinguish between the two any more, you know?" He pulled heavily on the beer.

"Yeah, I do know." Jim didn't even try to hide the affection in his eyes.

Blair put a hand on his arm. "I know you do, man, and it knocks me out." He jumped up and started walking figure-eights. "That's something I did not want to get for a long time--that you would die for me without a second thought. Damn! There's something about that.... If I think about it too much even now, it hurts--like I can't breathe or something.

"And then with you in the hospital--I can't tell you how happy it made me taking care of you, even the scut work, the cleaning up, all the cricks in my neck from sleeping with my head on your bed. But it was your *trusting* me so much that just *killed* me."

Blair shook his head and blinked rapidly. "It's not only that you trusted me to do all those things for you, sometimes very intimate things--and without apology, without embarrassment. It was more than that. I don't know how to put this. It was as if you...offered yourself up to me, like a gift. I was so touched."

Jim ran his hand back and forth over the top of his head several times and sighed. "Look, Chief, I did trust you--I *do* trust you--but it says more about you than me that you didn't feel burdened by what a lot people would consider a royal pain. And, as sweet as the sentiment is, I just think that being in love..." He licked his suddenly-dry lips. "Uhhh...it has implications outside of devotion or kindness or--"

"Jim, Jim, Jim--don't try to dismiss this as a faithful-partner-beyond-the-call thing or a good-buddies-stick-together thing. There's another piece to this that--hoo boy! You want another beer or something?"

"No, you go ahead. Just bring me some water. What's... the other piece, then?" Jim didn't look like he was ready for the news.

Blair let the water run a long time and generally futzed around before completing his errands in the kitchen. He finally plopped back down on the couch and laughed nervously. "Now this is the part I don't know what to do with--but since I'm spilling my guts, I might as well serve up the whole messy enchilada. Not to mix too many metaphors or anything--"

"*Sandburg*!"

"Okay. It's not that complicated, but it is rather embarrassing. This morning we were lying in bed, and I had my head in your armpit thinking about how nice it was--I know, I know, that really sounds funny--and then...I can't explain it. You hardly did anything: you just touched my head in a certain way, and I suddenly wanted you more than I've ever wanted another human being in my entire life. I jerked off so hard in the shower, my whole family came. I'm not going into detail because I will just get turned on again--"

"You wanted *me*." Jim looked skeptical. "Aren't you afraid you might be confusing simple human warmth and an ordinary morning hard-on with--"

"No." Blair looked at his partner squarely, moistened his lips and took a deep breath: "There was no confusion. I wanted to lick your nipples and run my tongue over your chest to see if your skin tasted as good as it smelled. I wanted to slip my hand inside your shorts and...."

"Jesus, Sandburg. STOP. My body can't take getting turned on at this point. Hand me that bottle there." Jim knocked the bottom of the beer bottle against the slight bulge in his shorts, as Blair watched, open-mouthed. Jim gave the bottle back to his partner. "What? You've never seen the troops subdued in this fashion--or you thought mine were too old or too sick to move out--or what?"

"I...I...I...JIM!" Blair grabbed a cushion and screamed into it.

"*What*?"

Blair's eyes appeared over the top of the cushion, and Jim grabbed it from him and tossed it over his shoulder. "What 's wrong? Are you like the dog who chases cars but doesn't expect to catch one? You didn't think that maybe I could feel the same way about you? Is that it?" His eyes were soft, and he took Blair's hand. He brushed his lips over the finger tips and tucked them in his palm.

"Omigod! Where's that beer bottle?" Blair said. He took his hand back and snatched the bottle off the coffee table and swung it against the peak in his shorts. "OW!"

"Take it easy, Sandburg. Some day I'm not going to be laid up, and I don't want you damaged. You just have to catch the tip of it. You want me to show you?"

"NO, I do not want you to *show* me, thank you very much." He tried to stuff the offending member between his legs, and his eyes narrowed. "Where did you pick up this fascist maneuver?"

Jim smiled. "In the hospital, where else? I'd be lying there in the middle of the night with a hand in your hair wondering what I'd done to deserve you--"

Blair wriggled. "*You* wondered what you'd done to deserve *me*?"

"Yeah, well, don't let it go to your head, pal. I also wondered how you got to be such a big pain in the ass too. And the night nurse would come in with her flashlight and whack my pup tent."

"Man, couldn't she simply suggest you review baseball stats or something? I mean, it seems like--."

Jim groaned and hauled himself to his feet. "You know how I live for our intellectual discussions, but how about bed now? I'm starting to ache--no, Sandburg, the *rest* of my body; God, you really do have a one-track mind. I'd like you to sleep with me, but only if you can keep your tongue to yourself."

"Jim, please. Those were fantasies, okay? Contrary to popular belief, my mind has many other tracks, so your honor is safe with me. But can we talk about this some more tomorrow?" At Jim's raised eyebrows: "I mean, I can't believe I said what I said."

Jim smacked him on the head. "You want to take it back?"

"No, but I--"

"Well, you can if you want. Just give it a rest for now, Chief, okay?"

They limped to the bedroom, arms around each other, arguing about who had left the top loose on the shampoo bottle.


Jim woke up so happy it scared him. Blair had his head buried in Jim's armpit again, and his warm, slow breathing was so trusting and peaceful that the older man marveled at the clutch of fear that accompanied the exquisite tenderness he felt for this nutty, brainy, adorable man. Jim held the curly head as close as he dared without waking Blair and wished he knew how to pray. The possibility of loss, the unreasonable fear of being separated, threatened to overwhelm him.

Dear God, if You exist, if You let anything bad happen to so much as a hair on his head, I swear I will beat the holy.... No, he was pretty sure supreme beings did not respond well to threats. He realized how much he counted on them in police work--threats, that is, not supreme beings. All right--another tack. God, if You keep Blair safe, I will do anything You ask. Oooh. What if He asked him to leave Blair? Ouch. He'd have to let the answering machine pick up on that one and just pretend not to get the call. To hell with it. Look, God, keep him safe. I'll do my best on this end.

He wished Blair would wake up. When he was awake, he was just annoying enough to make Jim feel confident that nothing really bad could happen to him. Jim loved how annoying Blair could be. He loved the fact that he could ask more questions than anyone he'd ever known--and that he knew the weirdest, most useless stuff. Okay, to be fair, some of the stuff had actually proved very valuable.... And then there was the incredible ocean of words that the man could pour out of himself in a never-ending stream. So long as the words were running, all was well.

Wake up, soft, defenseless Blair. Wake up, please, and become annoying, competent, mouthy Sandburg before my heart breaks.

"Jzim? Wha' time is it?" The mop head lifted itself up high enough to see the clock--if the head's eyes had been open--and then fell back. Jim kissed the eyelid that wasn't squished against his shoulder to see what would happen. Bingo. The eye opened so instantly and completely that Jim laughed.

"Morning, sunshine."

"Mmph." Blair rolled out of bed and stumped toward the bathroom.

Jim smiled and laced his fingers behind his head. Yesss. Life was good.

By the time a more-or-less awake Sandburg had emerged from the bathroom, Jim had breakfast on the table for Blair--yogurt, granola and banana slices--while he stood at the sink and sipped a high-protein drink.

"Mmmm," said Jim. "I think my favorite part of this is the pathetic acid."

"That's *pantothenic* acid, Jim, and I doubt you can taste it." Blair smiled in spite of himself. "Thanks for the breakfast, man. I thought you wouldn't touch yogurt with your bare hands."

"'Naah. I'm immune now that I've been drinking this stuff with the bee pollen and cyanide you bought me. I feel like a new man."

"That's *niacinamide*, not cyanide, and it's--yeah, well, it *is* bee pollen. What's with you this morning?"

"Can't I appreciate your choice of breakfast beverages without your thinking something's wrong?"

"No. Yesterday you complained when I wouldn't blenderize you an Egg McMuffin. This wouldn't have anything to do with what I said yesterday, would it?"

"Maybe. It's not every day that a man gets told that someone *thinks* they're in love with him." Jim polished off the last of his drink with a big belch. "Aaaah." He looked sideways at Blair, who was hunched over his granola, and grinned. "You want to take it back, don't you?"

"Nooo. It's just...."

"It's juuuuuust...?" Jim made cranking motions as encouragement.

"It's just that I never expected you...." Blair stopped, eyes wary.

Jim nodded, now serious. "...to feel the same way. I guess you're going to have to decide how to deal with that, Chief. Tell me if I'm off the mark here, but, from what I've seen, you usually deal with it by doing something to make Miss Current Affairs dump you. Now you might not use that MO with me because we haven't had sex.... Maybe I'm safe. I don't know. I guess I'll have to wait and see. Here, help me move this coffee table, will you?"

Jim pointed, and Blair moved the table. Jim lowered himself to the floor by the rope and began to do work on his stomach muscles with some very light, very slow exercises. Blair gestured toward the bedroom.

"I'm going to go...read some stuff...I've got backed up."

They spent the day in separate activities. Blair studied and went shopping. Jim explored the exact boundaries of his physical limits, cleaned his gun and took a long nap on the couch. They spoke maybe 10 words.

Dinner was an equally quiet affair--pleasant enough, but civil and polite to the point of bizarre. Jim carried the dirty plates to the kitchen.

"How about a game of rummy later?"

"No, I don't think so."

"All right. Rent a movie?"

"Not tonight, Jim. You want to dry?"

"Sure. Look, Sandburg, if you're mad at me, just tell me. Don't make me guess. I hate it when I have to guess." He flipped Blair with the dish towel.

"When have I ever made you guess, huh? *I'm* the one who has to guess. I tell you how I feel about you, in...in *excruciating* detail, and you say, 'I feel the same way.' Puh-leeeeze! What way is that?" Blair's energetic dishwashing was shooting clumps of suds up in the air. "And...and... have you, you know, been with a lot of guys before? Because I haven't, and I'm having to, like, try to totally redefine myself here as a sexual human being, which is upsetting enough without having to *guess* at what is going on in your head about me--" He flung the water off his hands, until Jim offered the towel, then went to flop on the couch.

"Sandburg, do you automatically assume I don't pay attention to a word you say? In our last conversation, you said you never expected me to feel the same way as you--okay, I had to finish the sentence for you, but correct me if I finished it wrong--which sort of implies that you know what way that is." Jim threw the towel on the counter and came over to the couch. "I'll tell you anything you want to know, but I just don't think that's the issue here, and I'd like to know what is."

Blair sat hugging his knees to his chest. "I don't *know* what the issue is, man. All I know is that I'm *scared*."

"Are you going to be mad at me if I say I feel the same way?"

Blair laughed, and Jim eased himself down onto the couch next to him.

"Aargh! All right, Chief, whaddya want to know?"

"Who's Tommy?"

"Tommy?"

"Yeah, when you were having that jungle flashback, you mentioned Tommy."

"Oh, Tami." Jim picked at a rough spot on his jeans and expelled a long breath. "He saved my life in Peru, patched me up. He was a sort of healer. Taught me the local language, helped me adjust to the senses thing." At Blair's open-mouthed look of accusation, Jim said, "I just put it all together in a half-way coherent fashion this afternoon, I swear. Don't look at me like that. I was going to tell you...some time."

Jim looked so sad that Blair avoided the temptation to switch into nagging research mode. Instead, he said, "Want to split a beer?"

"Sure."

Blair crawled over the back of the couch to get to the kitchen. "Tell me about it now?"

"The jungle was different...from everything. I have to say right off that so much is sketchy that sometimes I wonder if it happened or if I dreamed it. The natives there chewed coca leaves as a routine thing, and I probably did too, which may explain the big memory gaps. Thanks." Jim accepted a half-full bottle of beer. "If you tell Simon about that, I promise I will hang you by your heels out of the sixth-floor window."

"What happened to Tami?"

"He got killed. Murdered. It was my fault." Jim rolled the bottle against his forehead. "Another guy in the tribe--he may have been crazy for all I know--was jealous of our relationship. Probably thought that a sentinel--I didn't have a name for it at the time--and a shaman were too powerful a team to suit him--or something. Who knows?"

Jim looked up. Blair's unasked question hung in the air, so he answered it, keeping his voice steady with an effort. "Tami and I may have been lovers. I honestly don't remember anything physically except his warmth--and he was about your size." He ran a hand over his head. "I went a little nuts when he died."

"I'm really sorry, Jim."

"I could have been the intended victim. It was night. I never heard the perp and heard the arrow only after it was too late. Some sentinel, huh? Tami died in my arms. I don't remember anything except a freezing rage...and then nothing. I imagine I killed somebody."

He pulled himself up suddenly and walked back and forth in front of the window. "I don't know why I didn't remember him before--not even when you and I were back there looking for Simon. I know we had a lot on our minds. But I feel bad that I could actually forget him, you know? I mean, the guy saved my life *twice*."

"Don't be so hard on yourself. The memory blank is completely understandable, given the depth of your feeling for him, the guilt, the sheer trauma of his being killed--not to mention the coca leaves. " Blair followed his partner's caged pacing with mournful eyes and whispered, embarrassed: "I notice I'm a little jealous."

Jim turned. "NO. Don't think that way." His voice was so hoarse he could hardly get the words out. " If anything happened to you, I don't think I could stand it. I can't even tell you...." The pain and longing were raw in his face. "Oh, Jesus, Blair...."

Blair was instantly at his side, and Jim enveloped him in a crushing hug, making small moaning sounds--whether from desire or pain, it was hard to tell--then tangled one hand in the curls at the back of his head and bent to feather a promise against his lips: "I'm playing for keeps here, Chief." He would have kissed Blair if the younger man hadn't stepped back.

"Whoa, man. You're barely a week out of surgery." He put his hand under Jim's shirt to feel the incision. "Hot," he said. "I think we should sit down."

Breathing hard, Jim sat down heavily. "Shit. I thought you were getting fresh with me." He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "What are you afraid of, Sandburg?"

Blair had sat near Jim without being right next to him. "I don't know."

"Who should I ask?"

"You aren't cutting me much slack here, are you, Jim?"

"I'm sorry. I guess I was mistaking this for something important."

Blair popped off the couch. "No, man. Obviously *my* mistake." He snagged his jacket off the hook. "Catch you later."

Jim watched the door close behind him and yelled, "And what is that? The 90's version of 'I'll call you?'"

When Blair came back at 3 a.m., the lights had been turned off. He tiptoed to the bedroom, then came barreling out to the couch to find Jim right where he had left him. "Jim?"

"Yeah, Chief."

"Why didn't you go to bed?"

"I started to, but I realized I couldn't get my legs up on the bed by myself, so I just came back here."

Blair knelt in front of him and embraced one of his knees. "I'm so sorry, man. I am so, so sorry."

Jim reached over and rubbed Blair's head. "Forget it. While you're down there, could you get those boots off for me? But don't lick them. There's a house rule against groveling in the living room."

"I can't believe I did anything so thoughtless. Why don't you just yell at me or something?" Blair put the boots aside.

Jim smacked his partner's head and gestured helplessly. "Look, it's been a really long day, and we both need sleep." He pulled himself up as Blair scrambled to his feet. "If you help me, I think I can make it up the stairs. Then you can have your bed back."


After helping Jim to bed, Blair lay in his own bed and shivered. Cold. Empty. Earlier that evening--or morning, rather--Jeannie had kicked him out of *hers*--and over such a silly thing. Actually, he should have left sooner anyway. His timing used to be better in these matters. He felt like talking--just wailing away on any topic at all, with someone, anyone, who appreciated conversation as a series of jazz riffs against life's solo.... But there was no one to talk to, and for no discernible reason he felt like whimpering. He resented Jim's ability to fall asleep so easily.

Jim very badly wanted to groan. He lay in bed with a twisted corner of bed sheet between his teeth. If he'd been in better physical shape, he would have gone to the gym and worked the pain out that way. As it was, he could only wait for his strength to return. It had always been relatively easy... before. It was all a matter of never relinquishing control, even over thought. But once you've let a 500-pound gorilla out of the cage, you know that getting him back inside is going to be a solemn bitch.

Blair got up at 8, still cold and having slept not at all, and took a very hot shower. It was only then that he realized he must have come home stinking of sex. Which could explain why Jim did the one thing guaranteed to drive him crazy: Nothing. After the one lame joke about groveling, Jim had withdrawn to the point of seeming to disappear entirely. Blair leaned his head against the shower wall and let the water pound his scalp and run down his face. He must have been more miserable at some time in his life, but he couldn't remember when.

Jim waited until he heard Blair emerge from the bathroom before making 'I'm awake now' noises. In fact, he had never been to sleep, but he needed help getting down the stairs, and he couldn't bring himself to ask directly. He didn't want to need help for anything any more, and the knowledge that he did frightened him--and angered him. He would do his best not to take it out on Blair--it wasn't his fault. But he would do more body work today.

After breakfast, when he couldn't stand the silence any more, Blair announced that he was going to the library for a couple of hours. He left Jim on the floor with his rope and exercises.

Halfway to the university, Blair remembered he had left on his bed the list of references he wanted to check, so he turned back, cursing himself for an absent-minded fool. As he approached the door to the loft, his skin crawled. It sounded as if someone were being tortured. It was Jim, but Blair didn't move. He knew, without knowing how he knew, that he had intruded on something private. He also knew he shouldn't listen, but he couldn't help himself. The sounds inside went from a low growling groan to a scream of anguish and rage, a harsh gasp, and then back to a groan, ending in sobs.

At the height of the next series of cries, he backed quietly away from the door and tiptoed downstairs to his car. He sat hugging the steering wheel until he stopped shaking, then drove to his office and locked himself in. He didn't bother turning on the lights.

When he got home three hours later, Jim was lying on the floor, still in his workout clothes but fast asleep, snoring. Blair stood above his friend and gradually lowered the sack he was carrying to within inches of Jim's nose. He didn't have to wait long. With an abrupt snuffle, Jim licked his lips and opened his eyes. He looked surprised to see Blair, squatting above him and grinning, the sack now out of sight.

Blair caressed Jim's cheek with the back of his hand. "Hi, Partner. You know how much I like how you smell, but the neighbors are starting to complain. If you take a shower and let me change your dressing, I'll make you the lunch of your dreams." He got up and backed into the kitchen, stowing the mysterious sack, then returned to help a puzzled-looking Jim into the shower.

Before he had completed his culinary preparations, however, a moist and even more puzzled-looking Jim dressed in moccasins and a towel came out to ask where his sweats were. "What's going on here, Sandburg? What are you playing at this time?"

"Oh, I forgot. I put them in the wash. I'll get you another set." Blair bounded up the stairs to Jim's room and called down: "You are not allowed in the kitchen." He brought down the surgical supplies as well as the clothing. Jim eyed him suspiciously.

"You seem to be in an awfully good mood."

"I know. Lie down on the couch. Towel please." Blair held out the sweatshirt in exchange so Jim could cover himself and helped him stretch out. Even steeling himself in advance, he wasn't quite prepared for what Jim's incision now looked like under the old dressing: angry red, with dried blood where two staples had pulled. He cleaned the wound with antiseptic and tried not to wince. "My, my, I think someone's overdoing it in the exercise department." His mouth was grim as he applied a fresh dressing.

They both saw the problem at the same time: For Jim to haul himself off the couch, he would have to let go of the sweatshirt in front of the French doors and ostensibly all of Cascade. Blair could pull the blinds or....

"Hey Chief. See if you can get those sweatpants on me before I get arrested for indecent exposure."

After the hospital, Blair had always helped Jim into and out of his clothes by standing behind him, preserving at least the pretense of privacy, and he found the frontal approach, especially with Jim lying supine, joltingly erotic. Mentally reviewing last season's stats for the Mariners, he threaded his partner's feet all the way through the gray pant legs before beginning to pull the sweats up farther. By the time he reached the area covered by the sweatshirt, he was flushed and couldn't even remember the name of the team.

He tried to clear the hoarseness from his voice. "Could you haul on the rope and try to give me a little clearance under your butt?" He regretted not putting on underwear that morning, since there was no way now to disguise the fact that he was packing some serious heat. When he snagged the waistband of the sweats on Jim's penis and had to tuck it back in, he gulped and almost passed out. "Sorry, man." He left Jim to put on the sweatshirt by himself and fled for the bathroom.

Jim heard a growing rush of water, as if every faucet in the bathroom had been turned on, and then, almost immediately, a declining rush as if they'd been turned off. Blair, still blushing and still packing, walked over to the couch and sat down. "Can you believe that? I was going to pretend you don't turn me on--like you couldn't have already noticed. So I might as well make an official announcement: I am no longer insensitive to your physical charms, if indeed I ever was." The blush deepened, but Blair looked at his friend steadily.

Jim put a hand on his arm. "Whatever you want to pretend, buddy, I'll go along with. Sentinel senses or not, some things aren't my business."

"No, it's time for me to give up pretending. It's a bad habit." Blair swatted Jim's shoulder. "And it's too late anyway. I finally realized that this morning. You are now so deeply lodged in my heart that I can no longer pretend I'm free to walk out without serious damage to myself."

"Oh, Chief--" Jim looked worried.

"Really. I used to be adept at the ol' Naomi maneuver--love 'em and leave 'em. Be free, be free." He rolled his eyes and waved his hands in the air. "But all it really boiled down to was: 'Do unto others before they do unto you.' Whoa. Ouch. Not exactly the bedrock of enlightenment, is it?"

"I'll be real frank with you, Sandburg: I know you aren't a tease; that's not your nature. A flirt, maybe...." He smiled, then grew serious again. "So I know you mean no harm, just as I don't mean to hold you to anything--but I...I don't know if I can take your changing your mind again, so maybe you should think about this some more." Blair took Jim's hand. Jim wasn't finished, but it was clear that whatever else he wanted to say was going to cost him. "Last night...hurt real bad...."

Blair closed his eyes and held Jim's hand tighter, as if afraid he might pull away. "I am so sorry." He opened his eyes. "I keep saying that, don't I? I don't know what else to say. Please believe me when I say the last thing I wanted to do was hurt you. I was so panicked."

"What about?"

"If I tell you the truth, it's going to sound like such a...*line*."

"Try me."

"Okay--although I don't know if even *I'd* believe me. It's sort of embarrassing, and sappy and--"

"*Sandburg*...."

"Okay." Blair looked directly at Jim, but his voice quavered slightly. "I was frightened by the intensity of what I felt for you. It was beyond reason. It was beyond my control--and *that* has *never* happened to me, *not ever*. I felt as if I were stepping off a cliff into thin air...." He made a diving motion with his free hand. "When you went to kiss me, I thought I would pass out--"

"I scared you. You were...turned off?"

"Oh, no, no, no." Blair laughed. "Not exactly. I wanted to throw you on the floor and have my way with you--I think that's the euphemism. No, Jim, I may have almost zero experience with men, but at that moment I was ready to make it up as I went along, man, and let somebody collect the dead bodies in the morning."

"You didn't think you could tell me this?"

"No. All I wanted was my control back, and it looked like you were the one who had taken it from me. So I went and got laid by someone safe, someone I didn't love to the point of madness." Blair held Jim's hand to his cheek, anguish in his eyes. "I am so sorry. If it helps, she kicked me out when I kept calling your name in my sleep."

Jim just looked at him for a long minute with affection, stroking Blair's face with his thumb. Finally: "What was in the sack?"

Blair smiled slowly, smugly. "You should be able to tell from here."

"But what I smell would be almost too good to be true. How do I know it's not an evil trick? Like maybe you found a sack with this delicious scent in it and filled it with lettuce or something."

Blair turned his face into Jim's palm and kissed it. His eyes were serious. "You're going to have to trust me, Jim. There are some things you don't joke about, man--you know that--like 911, love, and...."

"And Monster Burgers. Don't kid me, Sandburg. Did you get me a Monster Burger?"

"Yes. And I got one of those plastic baby-food grinder things that we can mush it all up in, although God knows what it will do to your system."

Jim pulled Blair's head to him with the crook of his arm and growled, "Jesus, Sandburg, I love you, but what am I going to do with you?"


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