Work Header

World AIDS Day

Work Text:

World AIDS Day

by April Valentine

Author's website:

I'm an amateur, writing for fun, not intending to infringe on copyrights. Blair and Jim are characters created by Petfly; I'm not sure how they started talking in my head and getting me to write what they say.

Thanks to Theresa Kyle for betaing this story and to all those who have given me such wonderful, positive feedback on it. This is the first time I've written fanfic on the subject of HIV or AIDS, though I've worked in the field for the past 14 years. Those who have read it in zine form tell me they're glad I wrote it. I feel it's a valid story about Blair and Jim -- and a valid story for all of us living in the world today.

This is *not* a death story and nobody we love is going to be sick or dying in it. I promise. The story is set between Dec. 1998 and Dec. 1999; however I do not refer to any canon events of the Sentinel universe -- read it as though the last season never happened as aired, Blair is still writing his dissertation and teaching at the University while he rides along with Jim. This story was published as a zine by In Person Press and is still available in print. The price of the zine goes to aid my HIV positive support group, Horizons.

December 1, 1998

"World AIDS Day. Another World AIDS Day. The epidemic began 18 years ago. And it isn't over. We're going to be taking this disease with us into the next millennium..."

Blair Sandburg sat in front of the television, his laptop and the article he was working on forgotten as the speaker concluded her remarks on the... What? Holiday? Do you "celebrate" World AIDS Day? Do you commemorate it? That was it. It was a day you commemorated. A day you noted, remembered. As the speaker said, the epidemic wasn't over. There were still infected people, still people with AIDS and the new medicines that had been in all the newscasts a couple of years ago weren't as good as they'd been expected to be. They helped some people with AIDS but others... apparently the drugs stopped working or they had too many awful side effects for the person to be able to stand taking them. And there were still people getting infected every day.

"So as this World AIDS Day ends, I charge you all," the speaker said, her eyes filled with tears, her voice strong, "to keep working, keep reaching out, keep helping... and most of all keep remembering."

Remembering... For some reason, Blair hadn't been able to get it out of his head this year. He knew about the day, in years past he'd watched the news, read a few articles, noted the event and thought about its anthropological significance, but he didn't personalize it. Yet this year, for no apparent reason, it felt personal.

Come on, Blair. You know why. Because this year, if circumstances were different, it could be personal.

If things were different... if I didn't feel... the way I do... about Jim. It's not a gay disease.

No. No, it's not. And even if it was, just feeling the way I feel about him wouldn't be enough...

And anyway, circumstances wouldn't even need to be different, would they? It's not like even if I never tell Jim how I feel or even if I do and he doesn't freak and kick me out but politely says no and we never, ever do anything, it wouldn't still be personal for me. Because... even though I never think about it, I still know. I still know my own secret.

Blair smiled ruefully.

Yeah, Jim isn't the only one in this loft that tries to repress things.

I used to deny it. To pretend it never happened. To act as though the disease that is being commemorated today could never affect me.Who am I kidding? Blair rubbed his hand through his tangled hair.

*Even if... if that never had happened, what makes me think I wouldn't be at risk? Doesn't Jim say I'd hump a table leg? You can get it from female partners, too. And even though I usually use condoms, they aren't a hundred percent effective.*

But with women... you just don't think about it... about AIDS. Well, you do think about it some.

But if you're a guy and you think about having sex with another guy, that's when you start really thinking about it.

So is that what's holding me back? The fear? Why would I think there'd be a risk with Jim? He's straight... very, very straight. And two people who don't have the virus can't just go create it out of thin air. Somebody has to have it first. It's not the kind of sex, it's who's having sex with who...

This is ridiculous. A totally hypothetical conversation going on in my head. It's not the first time I've ever had such a conversation of course, but this one might be weirder than most.

Blair sighed, reaching out to pick up the remote control. It was time to change the channel, time to get his mind off the subject of AIDS, off memories he felt better not remembering, about hopes that... well, were hopeless.

He flicked through the channels, hoping for something to grab his attention. He recognized the movie "Philadelphia" -- probably being shown because of World AIDS Day, he realized, seeing he couldn't get away from the subject after all. It was the scene where Tom Hanks had the party. Denzel Washington was dancing with his wife and then he saw the Tom Hanks character dancing with his partner, Antonio Banderas. And Denzel's face said he finally understood that it was all the same. Love was love.

Blair watched the scene with new eyes, studying the lovers portrayed on the screen... the two men dancing in their white navy uniforms... The tenderness between them, the rightness of their embrace, their dancing.

The film never really showed them kissing, he remembered. He guessed the movie makers thought the public might be grossed out if they had to watch Tom Hanks French kissing Antonio Banderas.

Could I handle something like that? Not seeing it up on the big screen in a public theater. Doing it... kissing Jim... somewhere public? Would we gross people out? Would we get beaten up?Arrested? Would I care... if I had his lips on mine?

He closed his eyes, visualizing the perfect shape of Jim's mouth, imagining its softness, yearning to know its taste. Jim's lips would be warm, smooth, moist toward the inside, where Blair's tongue wanted to go. And Jim's tongue? Strong and wet and passionate, delving into Blair's mouth, tasting him...

Blair got weak in the knees, just thinking about kissing Jim. He felt flushed, turned on... and though the physical reaction was strong, the emotional was just as powerful; his heart was soaring, full of love.

I've gotta tell him. I've waited long enough.

The thought sent a tingle of anticipation through his body, tinged with just a little edge of fear.

What if he's grossed out? If he doesn't mind being my friend but would rather die than be my lover?

The worries didn't seem real anymore, didn't seem worth worrying about. The love inside Blair at that moment was so strong, it calmed the fear, told him everything would be all right.

This is right. This is real. This is what I've gotta do.

Just then, the door to the loft rattled, a key clicking in its lock. Blair took a deep breath, eyes on the door as it swung open.

Jim -- all six feet whatever of him, muscled, strong, straight Jim -- came through the door. His eyes -- beautiful blue eyes -- lit up when they found Blair on the couch and Blair's heart leapt a little, full of hope, trepidation, need.

"You're home." The statement was soft, somehow surprising. Jim seemed... glad to see him. Glad maybe... in a way he hadn't been glad ever before?

No, I've gotta be imagining that.

"Yeah." Blair let the one word hang. The rest was on the tip of his tongue, ready to escape. But he held it in, waiting for some sign it would be okay to say it.

Jim turned to hang his coat on its peg, then moved into the living room, eyes never leaving Blair's face. "Busy?"

"No. Just... sitting here... watching this... " He nodded toward the TV.

Jim glanced over, seeming to recognize "Philadelphia." He held very, very still for an instant. Then his eyes moved back to Blair.

Holding the eye contact, Blair picked up the remote and clicked off the TV. The loft was suddenly silent, the hush coming over the room as though this kind of quiet had never existed here before. It felt the way the world did when insulated by a blanket of new snow. Calm, perfect, waiting...

Blair opened his mouth to speak but before he could get out one word, Jim was at his side, reaching to take the computer from his lap and place it on the coffee table, eyes intense as they held Blair's gaze.

"What?" Blair heard himself say, almost with a gasp. He gulped hard. "Something wrong, Jim?"

"No. At least I hope not." Jim's voice was like velvet, tender and intimate as Blair had never heard it before.

Oh God, don't let that be my imagination...

"Problem with your senses?"

"No." Jim paused, held very still for a moment. "Blair?"


God, I sound like an idiot.

Jim swallowed, sat next to Blair on the couch. "If I... did something... said something... would you promise me you won't get upset?"

"What could you say or do that would make me upset?"

My heart's pounding. He's gotta hear it.

"Promise." Jim's tongue flicked out to lick his lips. Mesmerized by the action, by the oddness of Jim's request, Blair nodded. He'd never seen Jim like this. Usually, if Jim wanted to do something, change something, he just went ahead and did it and Blair had to not mind or get over it if he did.

"Sure." Another gulp. "If you promise me the same thing."

Jim tilted his head questioningly. "Huh?"

"Promise me the same thing. Cause I want to tell you something too... "

"You want to go first?" Jim looked as though he'd take any out at the moment.

Blair shook his head. "You go ahead."

Jim glanced away for a second, then back, eyes more determined than ever. Blair was melting inside at the way Jim was looking at him. He could see Jim's heart in those fiery blue eyes right now. "Okay..." Jim might be brave but words weren't working for him.

Blair waited, but Jim didn't continue.


Please... pleasepleasepleaseplease... Instead of speaking, Jim reached out and took Blair's right hand in his. Took it and looked down at it, thumb stroking over the back of Blair's hand, eyes seeming to study it, the grip firm, steady. Blair felt himself get warm all over.

Jim's... holding my hand?

Jim drew Blair's hand closer to himself, turned it over to study the palm. Blair felt Jim's palm... it seemed faintly damp.

Nervous, Jim? Me, too....

"I... " Again, the words ran out for Jim. Blair squeezed his hand in reassurance, waiting, his breath held.

Jim leaned closer, eyes locked with Blair's again. Blair didn't move a millimeter.

Jim's mouth descended on his own.

Oh God... oh man... oh wow...

Jim's hand tightened its grip in Blair's, their fingers interlacing as their mouths touched. A little sound escaped from Blair's throat.

Jim moved back immediately, eyes abashed, diffident, as though the strangled sound Blair had made was one of protest.

"Oh, God, Jim," Blair pleaded, loving him, taking pity. "It's okay, man." He pulled their joined hands toward himself. He bent his head, bringing their hands up, dipping his head to kiss Jim's knuckles. He looked up at his Sentinel again. Jim's eyes had widened, hope and comprehension sparking in ocean blue.

"You...?" The husky gasp seemed all the Sentinel could utter.

Blair nodded, a smile breaking free. He wanted to shout with joy but he just asked simply, "You too?"

Jim swallowed, the sound loud in the otherwise silent loft. His cheeks reddened. Blair didn't think he'd ever seen Jim blush before; he hadn't thought the man capable of it. Then the courage that had allowed Jim to face armed killers returned. "Yeah. Blair, I... I love you."

Blair couldn't wait any longer. He released Jim's hand only to throw both arms around Jim's neck, pulling him closer. Jim's arms came up around his back, muscles straining as he made his grip tight, biceps hard as iron. Blair's head started spinning.

All that strength... translating into need... need for me...

He shifted back to look at Jim while keeping the embrace. Jim did the same.

Their mouths were on each other again then, this time without hesitation, without question, hungry, relieved, and to Blair, nothing had ever felt so right before.

I was right... it was the right thing to do, to tell him! He wants me too! Oh man, if it feels like this just to kiss him, what's the rest gonna be like?

He shivered and Jim's arms tightened protectively, one hand coming up to delve into Blair's curls at the back of his neck. That tender touch undid Blair, combined with the desperate strength of Jim's hold on him, and Blair groaned again, his lips parting under Jim's.

This time, Jim didn't break the kiss.

They continued that way for long, long moments, pausing to catch their breath every so often but going back to each other's mouths as fast as possible. Blair alternated between a sense of heavenly relief and stunned disbelief.

This is all a dream... I'm gonna wake up and find myself alone in my bed...

But that didn't happen.

Jim pressed his weight against Blair, bearing him down onto the couch on his back, both his hands tangled in Blair's curls, fingers kneading and stroking the wavy lengths. Blair didn't know how he could keep kissing and yet do so much with both hands... maybe only a Sentinel could... or maybe, as a Sentinel, Jim just had to touch as much of Blair at once as he possibly could and lying on him with his hands in his hair and kissing him might just accomplish that. For the time being. Blair loved the feel of Jim's weight all along him, though he was sure that Jim wasn't resting his full weight on him. Under the muscular body, Blair felt wanted and needed. The longer they kissed, the more Jim's body moved on him, nestling at first as though to get closer and more comfortable, then rubbing, stroking against him. Jim's hips began flexing in a slow motion rhythm and Blair found his own hips reacting, his body arching to meet Jim's languorous thrusts.

Jim was hard. The realization struck Blair; he felt amazed, he felt smug, he felt turned on.

Jim... hard for me... he really does want me like I want him...

The Sentinel's cock felt like a gun barrel down there, rubbing against Blair's own hardness. Thicker than a gun barrel, but just as hard. For a second or two, Blair's mind sought a better comparison.

Jim pulled his lips away, the sound wet and loud in the quiet loft. "Blair," he said accusingly, a smile tugging at the corners of his reddened mouth, "if you're thinking at a time like this, I'll... "

"You'll do what, tough guy?" Blair responded, delighted that his partner knew him so well. "Stop?" He arched up, fastening his lips to Jim's neck, nibbling and licking. "Yeah, I see that happenin.'"

Jim groaned, his eyes closing as he concentrated on the sensation of Blair nuzzling his neck.

Blair ran his tongue down to Jim's Adam's apple. "At least I'm thinking good thoughts." He nipped at the smooth throat.

"Chief, good thoughts are fine, but don't tell me you're lying here analyzing this."

Blair laughed. "I'm an anthropologist, Jim..."

"Not right this minute, you're not." Jim glared at him, looking stern and half-worried at the same time.

Blair relented. "Don't worry, Jim. This isn't going into a paper - or any diaries. It just... felt good, y'know... you rubbing against me like you were... and I noticed you're so... " He trailed off, realizing Jim probably didn't want him talking too much any more than he wanted him thinking too much.

But Jim surprised him again. "I'm so what?" he questioned, sounding breathless with anticipation as to what Blair would say next.

I'd've never figured Jim for liking sex talk.

He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "You're hard as a rock, man. Like forged iron down there."

Jim's eyes sank closed and a little groan escaped him, like Blair's words got to him. He dropped his head to Blair's shoulder, his hips starting to move again.

"I'm thinking about how hard you are," Blair went on, whispering the words to his aroused Sentinel, "about how hard you're gonna feel without those jeans on... " He took a deep breath. "About how hard you're gonna feel in me."

Jim stopped all motion.

Oh, shit... I've gone too far. It's one thing to start kissing your male roommate but another to contemplate actually fucking him, I guess.

The whispered words that came to him were so soft he wished he was the Sentinel. It took a minute for them to get processed in his head.

"You'd let me do that, baby?"

A shiver of reaction ran through Blair, tenderness mixed with passion. He didn't know which was more exciting, the fact that Jim had asked that particular question or that he'd used such an endearment.

Baby... he called me 'baby'...

The term was sexy, absolutely Jim, and Blair loved it, loved the fact that Jim wasn't so hung up on the male part of this that he wouldn't use a name like that. It didn't make Blair feel unmanly either. It was a word from '60's rock and roll love songs... "There goes my baby," "Be my baby..."

Blair rubbed his cheek against Jim's. "Yeah, baby," he whispered back, "I'd let you do that. I've been thinking about it for a long time."

Remembering something I did a long time ago, not liking it all that much, but thinking I might change my mind if I was doing it with you...

A shudder ran the length of Jim's body. "Really?"

"Yeah. I want you, Jim."

Sentinel-sensitive fingers came up to stroke his face. "Okay... if you'll do the same for me... " Jim's words trailed off and Blair remembered their pact at the beginning of this conversation. Then, like a sledge hammer, the sense of what Jim had just offered him struck him square in the gut.

"You... you want me to... " He felt like the room was spinning. "Oh, man... "

"Don't faint on me, Chief," Jim told him, an indulgent smile in his voice.

"But Jim... you... you're... "

"What? Too 'macho' to be on the bottom? Is that what you think of me?"

"No, but... I... " Blair's perceptions of his partner had to do a complete about face. Here he'd been thinking Jim might be shocked and dismayed by the idea that Blair was in love with him. But not only had he been keeping a similar secret, he wanted... Blair's mind was reeling... Jim wanted the serious stuff. "I just never thought about you... wanting to do that... " he finally blurted.

"I've never done it before," Jim admitted, leaning up to kiss Blair tenderly. "Until I realized how I felt about you, it just wasn't something I was interested in." He paused, looking deep into Blair's eyes. "I don't think that way any more."

Blair rubbed his knuckles along Jim's temple. "Aren't you kinda... ?" He didn't know how to ask his question. Blair had done it before, and he still felt a certain amount of trepidation at the thought.

Jim didn't bat an eye. "I'm looking forward to it," he confided, "to everything we can do together. Besides, I figure you'll be there to guide me, like you always are."

Blair felt swept away by Jim's trust, Jim's love. "Oh yeah, man. All the way." He brought his other hand up to Jim's face and pulled him down for another kiss. Then something else occurred to him. "Uh, Jim... why do you think I'll be able to guide you... you know, doing that?"

Jim smiled, looking half embarrassed. "You just seem to know so much about so many things... especially where I'm concerned."

Blair laughed briefly. "Uh... I think you're giving me too much credit." He'd had some experience, of course, but only on the receiving end of that particular act. It occurred to him that maybe he should tell Jim about his one previous experience, though. They were being honest with each other, and Jim had a right to know... but it was so long ago and Blair had so many mixed feelings about it himself, that he just didn't know how to bring it up or explain...

"I'm not making any assumptions, Blair, or prying into your past," Jim said suddenly. "Remember, I'm the guy who told you to burn the old diaries instead of showing them to your latest date."

Relieved that Jim had given him the out, Blair kissed Jim's temple. "I'm pretty sure I'll be burning them now."

"Hmmm?" Jim was nuzzling his neck and didn't seem to follow Blair's comment.

"I mean, when you find the right person, you do want to get rid of all the diaries, all the mementos, of other people in your life. And that's how I feel now." He smiled, rubbing his cheek against Jim's head.

"Ahh, Chief... " Jim looked at him, a smile in his eyes, and kissed Blair deeply again. Blair lost himself in the power of Jim's kiss, forgetting the past, feeling everything would be made new with Jim. Jim thrust his tongue deep into Blair's mouth and the feel of the strong, wet muscle sliding and slipping against his own tongue sent sparks of arousal shooting straight to Blair's groin. He was panting when Jim finally let him up for air.

"Ever feel like starting over?" Jim asked him.

"What?" All Blair could seem to do was hold on to the anchor of Jim's shoulders, his body heading for overload already, his mind swirling away from coherent thought.

"Starting over," Jim repeated, kissing Blair's chin, then moving to his nose. "Maybe you haven't... you're a lot younger than I am..."

"Hey... " Blair made a token protest at the comment, then stroked Jim's back. "What do you mean, starting over?"

"Starting over," Jim repeated. "I feel like this could be a new beginning for me. Like maybe I could actually get it right this time. I don't want to end up alone again, Blair."

"You're not going to, Jim. I swear. I feel the same way. No more casual dating, I don't need that anymore. You're all I want."

"Chief..." Jim came up for another deep kiss. "Okay, we're starting over, both of us. This is the beginning...nothing we've ever done in the past matters."

"Nothing," Blair agreed, "this is Day One... " He was deeply touched by Jim's words, at the need and commitment Jim had expressed. Swept away with the love he felt for the Sentinel, he homed in on Jim's mouth, wanting the talking to be over.

Jim apparently felt the same. His hips drove against Blair's groin more forcefully now, his kisses were hotter, more demanding. Blair urged him on, running his hands down Jim's back to his ass, squeezing the firm mounds of flesh, thrilling to the idea of having his hands on that part of Jim, thinking of intimacies yet to come.

Jim bucked at the touch. "Oh yeah, baby. I like that."

Blair smiled, bringing his fingers to Jim's waist, slipping them under his belt and waistband, hungering for the touch of Jim's flesh. Jim seemed to want to help him in that endeavor, flexing his hips as Blair's hands slid beneath the fabric of his khakis.

It still wasn't quite enough. "I need more room, man," Blair announced, pulling one hand free and sliding it around to the front of Jim's pants where he struggled with his belt. Jim lifted up, his mouth urgent on Blair's as he let his guide undo the leather from its buckle.

The snap was next and then Blair daringly tugged at Jim's zipper. To his delight, it came down more easily than he'd expected. With the pants loosened, he slipped his hands around to Jim's ass again, this time able to stroke the warm curves without impediment.

Jim gasped at the touch, his whole body shuddering. Blair realized how much more sensitive Jim was than any other partner he'd ever had -- oh God... I'm going to bed with a Sentinel -- but for once he didn't think at all about how an aspect of Jim's senses could be used in his thesis. This was just between the two of them. He swallowed a grin, realizing Jim would be pleased that the thesis was the furthest thing from his mind at this moment. All Blair really wanted to do was get Jim naked and touch him so thoroughly he'd never get over it.

"We don't have enough room here, man," he whispered urgently, taking a moment to lick Jim's earlobe. "Let's go upstairs or to my room, okay?"

"Hmmm?" Jim's eyes were closed in reaction to the caress of Blair's tongue. "Okay... whatever you say, Blair."

Blair chuckled. "Oh, I've gotta remind you later that you said that!" He took hold of Jim's shoulders. "Come on, get up."

"Sure," Jim panted, stealing another kiss then lifting his weight off Blair as he climbed off the couch. He grabbed at his loosened pants with one hand as he wrapped this other arm around Blair's waist. "Come on, what're you waiting for, Chief?"

"Nothin', man. Nothin' at all," Blair assured him.

Their eyes met and in wordless agreement they headed for the stairs. Blair's heart was racing at the thought of going to Jim's bed, of having his Sentinel with him under those blue sheets on that wide expanse of mattress.

"You're gonna look good on my blue sheets," Jim whispered into Blair's ear. "I've been picturing you there for a long time."

"I can't believe I was worried you wouldn't understand my feelings," Blair marveled, thrilled at Jim's admission. "God, this is so right... "

"You know it, lover," Jim responded, kissing him deeply again.

In moments, they were together under Jim's sheets, clothes left in a heap on the floor beside the bed. Blair had only a quick glimpse of perfect skin and chiseled muscles before Jim covered Blair with his body, hovering over him, tasting his lips like a starving man. Blair let him take the lead, enjoying being the object of Jim's desire.

It became immediately obvious that being the object of a Sentinel's desire was to be handled like precious china, examined like the most crucial piece of evidence. He felt Jim turn all his amazing abilities toward him, focusing as intently as only Jim could, finding even the most mundane and simple things about Blair apparently fascinating.

Like his hair... Blair lay still as Jim nosed through his curls, breathing in his scent, nuzzling as though to allow each individual hair to be felt as it moved across Jim's face. The longer he spent doing that, the more Jim seemed compelled to continue, bringing his fingers into play, carding through the long strands, thumb and forefinger delicately employed to track every inch of every wave.

"Don't zone on me, Jim," Blair warned as Jim continued the process untiringly.

Jim smiled against Blair's cheek and nosed deeper into Blair's hair. "And miss a second of this? You gotta be kidding, Chief."

Blair smiled too, moving his head from side to side to slide his hair across Jim's features, secretly relieved that the possibility of zoning didn't seem to be a factor Jim was worried about.

Guess I've taught you how to keep from doing that pretty darn well over the years...

He wouldn't want to have Jim suddenly focus one of his senses so intently he lost the ability to use all the others at a pivotal moment. That would do more than just break the mood, it would no doubt horribly embarrass Jim.

Gotta ask him sometime if it ever happened when he was in bed with anybody else...oh yeah -- that'd go over real well, wouldn't it?

Blair sighed; his inquisitive anthropologist's mind could be so distracting at times.

"You getting bored, baby?" Jim whispered, breathing the words into Blair's curls, misinterpreting the reason for Blair's restless sigh. "Sorry, I just... "

"No, love," he assured, kissing Jim through the veil of his hair, wondering how lips against hair against Jim's cheek felt to the Sentinel. "You take all the time you want. I'm loving it, too." Inspired, he reached up, gathering strands of his curls to rub the ends of them over Jim's cheek and temple and against the Sentinel's shorter hair.

Jim hissed his appreciation of the sensual offering, shivering as though chills were running the length of his body from Blair's playful gesture.

"Too light for you?" Blair questioned, thinking that the delicate touch might be almost too much for the sensitive man to endure.

"No," Jim breathed, still quaking from the touches. "Your hair... I want to feel it..." his voice dropped, not from shyness -- from desire, "everywhere on me... "

"That can be arranged." Blair grinned in relief, wrapping his arms tight around Jim and rolling them over on the bed. With Jim beneath him, he lifted up, slowly turning his head as he descended lower on Jim's body, letting his curls dance over Jim's powerful shoulders and across his throat, slowly working his way down to the well-defined pecs.

Jim moaned, actually moaned at the contact. Blair repeated it, could have repeated it endlessly, the thought of pleasuring Jim with such a simple act sending ripples of satisfaction through Blair's own body. He could feel Jim's nipples peaking under the caress of his curls and reached up to bring his fingers into play, not touching the tightened buds with them, but using them to tease the strands of his hair across the suddenly straining flesh. Jim gasped and arched into the touch.

"Blair... " The name seemed wrenched out of him, a plea, a command, an endearment. Blair continued the play, circling first one taut nipple and then the other with the curly ends of his hair, making Jim shudder and arch beneath him. When Jim couldn't seem to handle another swipe of the strands, Blair moved lower, letting the fall of his hair sweep across Jim's sensitive belly.

The flat abdomen rippled under the onslaught and Blair could feel goose bumps rising in the wake of his ministrations. He dragged his hair over the smooth skin of Jim's stomach over and over again, until he had the man writhing. Jim's fingers were tangled in the unruly curls, endlessly tugging at them, begging for more. Blair obliged by moving still lower, feeling his curls catch in the only tight curls that Jim owned.

Blair looked at Jim's penis through the curtain of his hair. He was closer to it now than he'd ever been to that part of Jim, way closer than the few times he'd caught a glimpse of it when Jim emerged from the shower. At this distance, the organ was formidable, and Blair was almost glad for the veil his curls made between him and it as the realization of being up close and personal with Jim's solid masculinity sank into him. Jim's big cock was fully hard and weeping, the silky pre-seminal fluid wetting Blair's curls, sending a thrill of arousal through him at the unexpected intimacy.

Blair moved on, not sure if he was prolonging Jim's torment or postponing his own more carnal contact with that amazing part of Jim's anatomy, allowing his hair to stroke over Jim's thighs. Jim's legs opened, his hips lifting up slightly as though to encourage Blair to move his caresses higher again. Blair didn't allow that, teasing Jim's thighs with his curls, over and over again until the Sentinel was gasping incoherently.

Blair moved lower still, gliding his hair along Jim's legs and down to his feet, knowing how to turn even them into an erogenous zone for the Sentinel. As he tossed his head wantonly, spilling curls over Jim's soles and arches, he could feel Jim's toes clenching in reaction. Jim seemed nearly ready to explode, from pleasure or frustration Blair wasn't sure.

Taking pity, he moved up once again, slowly trailing his hair against the insides of Jim's legs, knowing the sensitive flesh of inner thighs would delight in the dalliance. He lowered his head between Jim's parted legs, feeling the apex of Jim's body at his crown, and languorously rubbed the top of his head against Jim's balls.

Jim's hands fell away from Blair's hair then, his fingers clenching instead in the sheets as he reacted to the stimulation. He was panting harshly as Blair slowly lifted his head, moving a millimeter at a time up to allow his tangled hair to glide toward Jim's straining penis. With infinite care, he dragged his curls across the vertical column, circling it, occasionally letting it bump against his cheek or forehead, his eyes closed as he dreamily continued, listening to Jim's gasps, feeling his heat, his need. At last Blair brought his own hands back into action, winding his hair around the iron hardness, pulling the strands tight and slick along the damp, feverishly aroused flesh.

Hair-fucking, he thought brazenly, managing not to snicker at his own dirty mind, realizing again that perhaps he was postponing the inevitable, wondering why he felt no qualms about rubbing his hair against Jim's erection but hadn't allowed himself to dare putting it in his mouth yet.

I've imagined sucking him plenty of times, but this is the real thing... am I ready...? can I do it good for him?

"Jesus, Blair, you're gonna make me come like this," Jim rasped brokenly, near-pain in his voice.

Blair lifted his head, meeting the Sentinel's desperate eyes. "You want to?" he asked suggestively, his voice hot, his body throbbing at the idea of washing Jim's come out of his hair.

"Yes... no... no!" Jim panted. His hands grabbed Blair's shoulders possessively. "Come up here, dammit!"

Blair let himself be dragged up Jim's body, felt anxious hands sink deep in his curls and pull his face down for a kiss. His own heart nearly burst from his chest at the reunion of their lips. It had been way, way too long since he'd felt the perfection of Jim's mouth, tasted the sweetness of Jim's tongue. Jim's kiss was commanding, hungry, passionate, and Blair was reduced to a puddle of melting need as he let Jim take over again. Jim immediately rolled them over once more so he could cover Blair with his overheated body. It felt good to be pressed into the mattress under Jim's weight. The heavy feel of aroused Sentinel covering him was as erotic to Blair as the hair-teasing had apparently been to Jim.

Blair's cock was hard to the point of strain, caught between his abdomen and Jim's belly, slickened by the combined trails of their leaking pre-come. Blair moaned, arching and rubbing himself against Jim, wordlessly begging for release and relief.

"Oh no, you don't," the Sentinel chided. "Not like this either. I want the real thing, baby, for both of us."

"Huh?" Blair gasped incoherently, unable to think past the haze of lust demanding orgasm.

Jim's lips trailed over his cheek to his ear. "I don't want to waste it," he whispered. "It feels like this is happening too fast."

Blair looked up at Jim seeing the heat, the anxious need in the blue eyes. He raised a hand to stroke Jim's cheek. "Jim... we're gonna have plenty of time. This isn't gonna be our only chance. This is just the first time, remember?"

Jim looked abashed for a moment and Blair knew he'd guessed correctly about what was on Jim's mind. "I'm not going to look at you tomorrow and say I changed my mind," he told him earnestly. "Y'know... when all this started, I wanted to tell you something and I never got the chance."

Jim's jaw clenched and he looked more concerned than relieved.

Blair leaned up to kiss him tenderly. "You told me you loved me, man," he began. "And that made me feel so good... and we started kissing and stuff... and I never got to tell you... I love you, too, Jim."

"Oh God, Blair," Jim gasped, his arms tightening around his guide so hard Blair had to gasp too. He kissed Blair, his tongue seeking deep in Blair's mouth. "I've never felt this way before." Blair could hear the shock in Jim's voice as he admitted the depth of his passion.

He smiled against Jim's temple. "It's okay, man. It's okay to feel. You have such powerful physical senses, it's only natural that you'd have powerful emotional feelings too." Against Blair's lips, Jim's pulse pounded rapidly. The Sentinel was getting strung out, his need almost frantic as his hips flexed against Blair's body.

"Please, Blair... I... I need... " he panted, his hungry mouth tasting Blair's lips, his throat, the soft flesh of his shoulder.

"Tell me what you want, Jim," Blair soothed, stroking the broad shoulders, amazed at the longing the Sentinel projected for him. "I'll give you anything you want."

"I need to feel you... " Jim moaned, "all of you... " He lifted up, eyes devouring Blair's face, his hands delving into Blair's wild curls. "I want you inside me."

He'd known that, but hearing the actual words made Blair gasp. He felt like he was drowning -- in the need Jim was so willingly expressing for him, in the reciprocal need he felt to satisfy his Sentinel. He swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat.

"You sure, Jim? You're not worried I'll hurt you...?"

I'd had a couple of drinks and was pretty relaxed, but it hurt when it was done to me...

"You can't hurt me," Jim murmured, "you're my guide." He lifted up, looking down between their bodies and Blair trembled when the blue eyes stopped at the sight of their matching erections. Jim reached to encircle Blair's cock in his hand.

He has beautiful hands... how many times have I dreamed of seeing him hold me like that, stroke me with those elegant hands?

And then, surprising Blair even more, Jim bent, shifting position so that he could take Blair's cock in his mouth.

The feel of Jim going down on him almost made Blair come immediately, but he bit his lip and rode the feeling out. He didn't want to lose it and then not be able to give Jim what he'd promised him he would.

"You taste so beautiful," Jim whispered, lifting his head again. "You're so hard... you smell so good... " He closed his eyes, shaking in Blair's arms. "It's like my body is on fire, Blair, I want you so much." He rolled over, pulling Blair on top of him, his long legs parting. "I can feel every nerve in my body," he moaned, "every single one of them reaching for you, wanting to take you in."

The desperate, graphic pleading was more than Blair could stand. "Okay, Jim," he reassured, "Okay... just let me think a second. I need something... "

As he shifted, trying to reach the night stand, Jim went on, sounding half-crazed with desire. Blair wondered if in the light of day the man would remember saying these things and made a mental note not to remind him, aware that in his right mind the former Army Ranger would probably die of embarrassment if he knew he was talking this way.

"I know just where I need you so I'll be able to feel you the most," Jim sighed.

"Never... never thought that part of me could want... need so bad... it hurts not having you in me, Blair."

Blair managed to snag a tube from the night stand drawer, grateful to see that Jim kept some lube and condoms there. He dropped the tube on the bed and reached toward the night stand again.

"No... come on... I need you now." Jim begged, pulling at his arm.

"Jim, I need to get a rubber too," Blair panted, frustration making his voice break. I just sat there watching an AIDS movie... watching them show pieces of the damn Quilt for God's sake... I'm not doin' this without protection...

"No," Jim told him.

"Most guys say they don't like condoms 'cause they stop them from feeling everything," Blair volunteered, smiling down at his Sentinel. "You could probably compensate for that. And I don't mind them... "

"No." Jim's groan was shattering. "I... can't stand the idea of the latex touching me... not now... I've always been... allergic to it... and since my senses... "

Blair looked down at his partner, reading the near-panic in the brave man's eyes. That's something Jim never told me his senses affected, Blair thought distractedly, realizing that Jim would never have volunteered the private information. Then he remembered that Jim never used the latex gloves at a crime scene, only the special kind, made out of... something else. Still -- "Jim... "

"I want to feel you," Jim croaked in dismay, "I want to feel you inside me, your naked cock... I want to feel your come..."

Blair's head swam at the heated words, thinking maybe they should try phone sex someday.

Get Jim talking like this and I could get off without a single touch.

He nodded, unwilling to do anything that would make this less than perfect for Jim. "Okay." He relented, going to his knees between Jim's parted thighs and reaching for the lube. "Okay... "

His hands were shaking so hard he couldn't get the tube open. He almost asked Jim but one look told him Ellison was too far gone to be of any help. The Sentinel had his eyes on Blair's cock, seeming mesmerized at the sight, anticipating it like a strung out junkie craved his fix. At last the lid came off and Blair fumbled some of the gel onto his fingers. He reached down to stroke himself.

Jim rallied then, taking the open tube away from him and dribbling more of the stuff onto his own fingers, his hand aiding Blair's in anointing his cock. Jim wrapped his fingers tight around his straining flesh, stroking him, and Blair closed his eyes, thinking he could die right now. "That's good, Jim," he whispered, his jaw clenching against the pleasure. "So good... tight like that...."

"I'll be tighter inside," Jim promised, rocking back and pulling his knees toward his chest so that he was open to Blair, urging him to settle his now-slippery cock at the entrance to his body.

"Oh, God... " Blair gasped, feeling the sensitive flesh waiting for him, nearly pulling him in already. He didn't understand. If Jim had never done this before... how could he be so relaxed? He needed to get Jim ready or he'd hurt him and Blair didn't think he could stand it if he did. He fumbled with his gelled fingers, trying to prepare the way for his aching cock.

Jim groaned at the touch and his muscles relaxed even more.

Must be a Sentinel thing. He has more control over his body than other men... it's like he's willing himself to be open for me... to let me take him like he wants...

Dizzy with uncontrollable lust at Jim's willingness, Blair ceased his preparations and put the head of his cock against Jim's anus. The heat where their bodies touched was incredible.

What if he zones? What if I get all the way in him and he zones and he stops relaxing? I'll hurt him... Or worse --

Forget that... don't be stupid... look what he's offering you...You want it... he asked you for it... take it...

With a tortured groan, Blair thrust forward, entering Jim in one long, deeply penetrating stroke. One more thought passed through his mind, and he didn't know if it was his scientific side or the lust-crazed part of his brain that asked the question.

How can he be so relaxed and yet feel so tight? Nothing ever felt as tight as this... nothing ever felt as right as this... me inside Jim...

Then all thoughts failed him and his body took over completely, beginning to thrust for real.

Jim screamed. From deep in his gut came a howl that scared Blair as much as it turned him on. He couldn't tell for sure if Jim was crying out like that from pain or pleasure, fear or relief. He looked down and Jim's eyes locked with his own, telling Blair it wasn't pain he was feeling. Wordlessly, they communicated, Blair asking permission to thrust again, Jim readily giving it.

Blair withdrew and slid forward once more, and again the lustful wail erupted from Jim's throat, the long passionate sound ending in a single, pleading word: "Blair!"

"I'm here, Jim. I'm here," Blair assured him, his hips taking over, deep pleasure coursing through his veins as he made them one. "I've got you. I'll never let you go, baby. Understand? I'll never let you go."

Jim nodded, still groaning intensely each time Blair slid deep into him. "Never," he panted, eyes still locked with Blair's, "never let me go...."

Words failed Blair then and he couldn't have reassured Jim again if his life depended on it; the only thing he knew was what he felt, and what he felt was pleasure like he'd never known before. Jim caressed him with smooth, slick heat, drawing him down into a dark, endless pressure that threatened to turn Blair's soul inside out. His bones were melting, pouring his essence deeper and deeper into Jim until he could see his own image in Jim's azure eyes. They were one, Sentinel and Guide, Jim and Blair, man to man, heart to heart, joined in a purity of spirit and an ecstasy more delicious than anything Blair had ever imagined. He had never known that pleasure and bliss could be so alike, that an orgasm could make him feel so complete and yet as though every molecule of his body had flown apart. His body was disintegrating, merging him with every cell of Jim's body, even as Jim's orgasm rocked through them both. Blair felt every contraction of the Sentinel's body, every jerk of his clenching muscles, every spasm of a release that seemed to have been pent up deep inside Jim forever.

As he came back to self-awareness, Blair became conscious of Jim's hoarse voice, still gasping his name, breathlessly, as though he could not remember his own.

Blair glanced down at their joined bodies, at the strong legs still splayed wide open beneath his hips, at the semen splattered over Jim's abdomen and chest and Blair's chest, too, at the reddened skin of Jim's shoulders where Blair had anchored his hands, at Jim's face, more at peace and without concern than Blair had ever seen it. And more beautiful -- as Jim's eyes opened, his lashes wet and dark, his eyes luminous with wonder, his face like a carved icon, perfect as any man Blair had ever seen.

As the realization of what they had just done hit him, Blair's spirit soared and his stomach did flip-flops and all he could do was sink down into Jim's trembling arms and kiss the man's panting lips with all the tenderness he possessed.

A strong hand came to rest on his head, fingers threading through his sweat-soaked hair, fingertips gentle as only a Sentinel's could be. Jim's thumb brushed Blair's temple, soothing the frantic pulse still pounding there. Powerful thighs gripped at his waist, sweat sealing their bodies together. Jim's lips parted from his own and whispered against Blair's mouth, the words as gentle as a jungle breeze.

"That was perfect."

Blair, for once, was nearly speechless. He blinked against the sudden emotion welling up in him and kissed Jim once more. "Love you, man." His softened cock slipped from Jim's body and he grimaced at the loss, noting the slight sound Jim made as well. "S'okay, Jim," he soothed automatically, realizing he should do something about cleaning them up but just too wiped at the moment to actually accomplish anything.

Jim's arms tightened around him protectively and the Sentinel shifted position, shifting them over onto their sides. Blair sighed as he settled on the mattress. Jim's bed... He tried to rouse himself once again, but it was as though he were floating in thick clouds of contentment, nothing as important as resting here next to Jim, not even the stickiness drying on his body or his concerns for his partner's comfort.

Jim seemed to be all right, however. Blair noticed him reaching to pull the sheet up and felt Jim using it to clean the spilled semen from Blair's chest and, moving lower, to gently wipe his guide's penis and balls. The careful touch made Blair shiver, his heart welling up with emotion. When Jim moved to wipe the sheet over his own chest, Blair reached for the Sentinel's wandering hand, his fingers slipping between Jim's and taking over the procedure. "Let me," he murmured.

I'm the guide, I'm supposed to be seeing him through this. Gotta make sure he's okay.

He forced his tired eyes to focus and again checked Jim's face, finding to his relief no trace of pain or regret. Still, he had to ask, "You sure you're okay, Jim? Did I hurt you or anything?"

Jim met his gaze and Blair saw the corners of Jim's eyes crinkle. "You didn't hurt me," Jim affirmed, the smile evident in his voice as well. "I think you healed me."

"Healed you?"

"Something in me was broken," Jim managed to sigh. "Something was missing, wrong, and I never knew what it was. It's fixed now, baby. You made me whole... " The Sentinel's voice seemed to break on the word and he lifted his head to meet Blair's lips with his own.

"Hey... " Blair soothed. He brought his hand up to stroke Jim's temple and cheek. "I just... "

"Yeah," Jim finished for him when Blair could find no adequate words, "it was good for you too, huh?"

Blair nodded, still drifting in afterglow. "Perfect," he agreed. He blinked his eyes open, remembering something important he needed to say. "Thanks, man. I'll return the favor any time you want."

"Yeah?" Jim asked, his voice deepening with interest.

"Yeah, just let me catch my breath here."

Jim chuckled warmly. "I need to catch mine too, Chief. What do you say to a quick nap? We'll wake up in an hour or so and then... "

"Yeah," Blair agreed. "An hour. An hour'll be great and then I'm all yours." The idea of Jim taking him held no fear or concern now; he wanted to give back to Jim what his partner had given him. He drifted into sleep imagining how it would feel to have Jim make love to him.

Blair opened his eyes to sunshine. He stretched, feeling contentment in every muscle of his body.

I'm waking up in Jim's bed for the first time...

He sat up abruptly, looking around in confusion.

It's morning! We were only supposed to sleep for an hour...

Disappointment warred with the rested, content feeling that had soaked into his bones overnight. He turned to look at his bed mate. Jim was curled on his side facing Blair, breathing deeply. Blair lifted a hand to shake his shoulder then he stopped, just to look....

Damn, he's beautiful... that face of his, like a vision some sculptor had... those dark lashes, that exquisite mouth... and that body... look at those shoulders, those pecs... that smooth skin...

His temperature rising, he leaned closer, wanting to kiss Jim awake, wanting to run his hands over all that exposed Jim-skin., but he hesitated, unsure if, despite last night, he had Jim's leave to do something like that. Blair had never woken up with a man before, had never woken up with anyone like Jim... what were the rules going to be here? He knew Jim had a predilection for cooking breakfast for his sleep-over dates but they'd had breakfast together a zillion times already. And what if the Sentinel didn't want to be loved awake by an over-eager guide...? Blair didn't want to turn last night's magic into this morning's temper-tantrum.

Finally, unable to resist the sculpted lips, he settled on a kiss -- just one, just to test the waters, just to say 'hi' -- and was leaning toward Jim, holding his breath as he approached. Just as his lips contacted Jim's, the alarm clock went off, sending a shock wave through Blair's whole body. Their lips connected with a jolt as Blair gasped his surprise.

Jim's eyes opened and widened as they took in the sight of his guide leaning over him, their lips scant millimeters apart, no doubt feeling the caress that had been interrupted by the blaring alarm. Blair waited for the explosion... and found himself wrapped up in strong arms, rolled onto his back and kissed deeply, thoroughly, while the alarm continued to jangle his nerves.

A long moment later when Jim let him up for air, he managed to ask, "You wanta turn that alarm off, Jim? Or is your hearing turned so far down this morning it's not driving you as crazy as it is me?"

Jim smiled, said nothing, and in a moment released Blair to roll toward his night stand and cut off the alarm. "Seven already?" the Sentinel groaned, apparently only then realizing what Blair already had -- that their little nap had taken the entire night. Before Blair could reply however, Jim turned back to him and took him into a close embrace again. He searched Blair's eyes a moment, then leaned in for another kiss, this one even more tender than the first.

"We overslept," Jim said mildly a moment later, drawing back, reaching a hand toward Blair's curls.

"I know. Man, I'm sorry... "

"S'okay," Jim assured him, fingers twirling a tangled strand of Blair's hair. "I wish we had done it again, but it's okay. We've got tonight, don't we?"

Blair kissed him back. "We sure do. And every night after."

They lay in each other's arms, just looking at each other in the morning glow. Blair was barely breathing, so full of love and wonder that things had worked out he couldn't think of words to explain the feeling. Jim was looking down at him with so much tenderness, so much devotion it made his heart ache.

Jim leaned down to brush his lips against Blair's once again, then again met his eyes. "This is real, isn't it?" he asked, apparently having a little trouble of his own realizing it wasn't some kind of dream.

"Yeah, partner," Blair smiled up at him. "Totally real."

Jim sighed. "Good. When I thought about us this way... I mean, when I'd let myself think about it and imagined telling you and that you'd say it was okay... even in my imagination the next morning was... was never like this."

Jim's hesitancy was endearing. "You mean, even when you fantasized us getting together, the morning after wasn't cool, too?" Blair asked in surprise. "Man, in a fantasy, aren't you supposed to let everything go your way?"

"I wasn't sure it was a fantasy or just my way of rationalizing it wouldn't be a good idea to tell you," Jim shrugged. "Anyway, this is a lot better."

"You sure?" Blair asked as though to make certain. "I could look grossed out and jump out of this bed and -- "

"Don't you dare!" Jim silenced him with a kiss that smothered laughter, and not only Blair's. "God, Chief, you make me happy," the Sentinel declared at last, his arms tightening in a hug that nearly stole Blair's breath away.

"Ow!" he blurted at last, not exactly minding the bear hug Jim gave him. Jim's arms released him instantly and Blair forced himself not to rub at his biceps where Jim had gripped him. "Man, when you hug somebody, they stay hugged!" He leaned in for a quick kiss. "You make me happy too."

Jim stroked a hand through Blair's curls, then moved away with a sigh. "We're going to be late, Chief. We should get up and get showered... "

"Together?" Blair asked eagerly.

Jim scowled, or rather, pretended to. "I don't think that would be such a good idea. I said we'd be late if we don't get up - if we shower together it'll be a miracle if we get to the station at all today."

Blair chuckled. "You're such a sweet-talker, Ellison. Okay, I'll be good. You can even go first."

The day was passing in a pleasant blur for Blair Sandburg. Last night had been more incredible than he could ever have dreamed. Even supposing that Jim returned his feelings, he hadn't expected it all to go so smoothly... so perfectly. Even now, hours later, all he had to do was close his eyes and he could feel himself sinking into Jim's yielding body -- Blair flushed, the wave of heat bringing back his erection. Good thing he was sitting down alone in his office and not standing in front of one of his classes. Other than noting he was hard from thinking about Jim, he did not acknowledge his body's response; he intended to save the need until tonight, when he and Jim could go to bed again. This time, it was going to be Blair who laid back and let the other man make love to him. The one other time he'd had sex with a man, let another man have him that way, he'd tried his best to forget about it. Now, he looked forward to the moment when he would let himself be penetrated by Jim. He drew in a breath, his insides fluttering with anticipation....

The phone on his desk rang, its jangling noise jerking him out of his erotic reverie. Blair swallowed and tried to remember where he was. He picked up the telephone and hoped his voice sounded professional when he spoke. "Blair Sandburg."

"Oh, thank God," the voice at the other end of the line sighed, sounding relieved. "I thought I'd never catch you in."

The voice didn't sound familiar. A student who needed some more time on a paper, Blair figured. "Well, I'm here now," he answered amiably. "What can I do for you...?" His voice rose, tacitly asking to whom he was speaking.

"It's Ron, Blair." The caller sounded surprised that Blair didn't recognize him. "Ron Hughes."

Blair gulped convulsively, his face warming as he heard the name.

This is too weird. After all these years of trying to forget about the guy completely, after finally deciding to let it go, after falling in love with Jim and last night...

It was too improbable. He'd thought about Ron a lot of times in the past six years but the last thing he'd imagined was getting a call from him.

"You remember me, don't you, Blair?" the man asked, his voice faintly tinged with hope and a regret that seemed out of place.

"Uh... sure," he answered, probably too quickly.

What in the hell -- ?

"Yeah, I remember you, Ron. What's it been, six years?"

"That's right," Hughes agreed. "Six years. We were both a lot younger then, weren't we?" The chuckle sounded a little forced. "You got that doctorate yet?"

Blair swallowed again. "Not yet. I'm working on my dissertation though," he answered. He wondered why in the world he was having this inane conversation and groped for something to say. "So, how are you? What're you doing these days? You still with the band?" As he recalled, Ron played a mean lead guitar.

"Uh... " the soft voice faltered for the first time. "Not too much. I quit the band a couple years ago."

"That's too bad. I thought you guys had a future."

Hughes gave a derisive snort. "Yeah, so did I," he muttered.

The enigmatic comment raised the hairs on the back of Blair's neck. He gripped the phone tighter, wishing he could see through the wires to look at the man talking to him. "Ron, what's going on? Why did you call me?"

Hughes cleared his throat. "Yeah, no use bullshitting you, Professor, huh? Okay. Here's why I'm calling. I got a question to ask you."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Okay. I'm listening. Ask it."

"Have you ever been tested?"

For a moment, Blair didn't know what Ron meant, what kind of test he was talking about. And then he did know. "What?" he choked out.

"Tested. You know," came through the phone. "For HIV."

Blair couldn't answer for a moment. He knew he should say yes, but that would have been a lie. He'd never been tested. He'd been careful with women, so he hadn't thought he needed to be. And he'd tried everything he could to get what he'd done with Ron out of his mind. Getting tested would have meant it had really happened. "No," he managed. "No, I haven't."

"Shit." The word was soft as a sigh, without malice. "Well, you should. I want you to go get tested, Blair."

The heat rose in Blair's face again, like steam over a boiling pot of water. "It's been a long time, Ron," he said, almost stuttering. "I...I'm fine. I don't think... I mean, it was only that once - " he almost choked on the words.

Until last night, that is, you were the only man I was ever with.

"That doesn't matter, Blair," the other man's voice grew stronger with conviction. "Time doesn't matter and... the fact that we only did it once doesn't matter either. You have to get tested."

Blair's mind was blank -- and at the same time, too full. Knowledge, fear, remorse, compassion, all emotions roared into being at the same instant. "Oh Jesus, Ron... " he moaned, "no -- "

"Yeah, Blair." Hughes' voice had gained strength even as Blair's faltered. "I'm positive. I've got HIV. I'm symptomatic, even. My count's almost low enough to put me in the full blown AIDS category -- "

"Shut up." Blair didn't yell the words, they were more of a plea.

"You've gotta hear this," Ron insisted. "I'm sick. I've got it, you hear me? I probably had it six years ago. Don't you understand?"

"Ron... you wouldn't... I never blamed you... " It seemed important that he absolve the man now, that he never admit how confused he'd been about himself since the night they'd been together.

"I know you didn't, Blair. But none of that means anything now -- "

"You're right. You're right, Ron. It's okay, really. I just want you to be okay... "

"And I want you to be okay, Blair." Hughes sounded defeated now. "I want you to get tested, right away. That's why I'm calling."

"Ron, you wouldn't hurt me like that," Blair found himself insisting. He felt like he was drowning, like he was being pulled under water despite his frantic treading.

"You know, for a smart guy, that's a really dumb thing to say." Ron hesitated, coughing a second later. Blair cringed at the raw, painful sound. "You know whether somebody means to pass it on or not has nothing to do with it."

"But it was six years ago, Ron." Blair had to keep trying to fight his way back to shore against the tide taking him out to sea. "You probably... "

"What? I probably didn't have it then? I don't know that, Blair. I only have 250 t-cells. It's not an exact science but that could mean I was infected six years ago. And... and we were both a little drunk that night. I know that was the only reason you let me... " he broke off as though embarrassed. "And, Blair, you know I didn't use a condom."

Blair couldn't answer. Couldn't say another word. He couldn't breathe, couldn't think. No...

Of course he could think. It was all he could do.

Ron... positive... and I... I could have it...

"I want you to get tested, Blair," Ron was saying again. "You can go to the Health Department. They do it without asking any names."

"I don't care if they know my name," Blair murmured, feeling numb and on fire at the same time.

"It's still better to go there than to a doctor for the test," Ron continued. "And if you have a partner, she should get tested too."

Partner. She. Tested too. Oh God.


Blair started shaking then, any thoughts of his own health suddenly overshadowed by the idea that he could have hurt Jim, could have had something inside him all this time, like a ticking time bomb that he could have passed on to Jim last night.

Oh, God....

"Blair, you still with me?" Ron asked anxiously. "You understand? You need to get tested, buddy. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I never meant to hurt you... or anybody else... that's why I had to call you as soon as I found out."

"Y-you just found out?" Blair found his voice at last.

"A couple weeks ago," Ron answered. "I got sick... but the details don't matter. I started thinking, calling people. I found out you were still affiliated with Rainier but every time I called, I got a busy or your answering machine. And... well, this isn't exactly the kind of thing you'd want to leave on somebody's voice mail. Sorry I didn't catch you sooner."

Sooner? You couldn't have called me yesterday?

Blair felt dazed, not sure whether to be horrified, enraged or forgiving. He wanted to slug Hughes, then he wanted to blow his own brains out.

I am such a fucking idiot, he railed against himself. I pretended something never happened and when I finally got my head together about it, the first thing I do is to give it to the one person I love most in the world. Jim...

He cleared his throat, knowing it would do no good to tell Ron anything. The man felt bad enough without Blair adding to his guilt.

"Okay," he said finally, forcing the fear and the agony out of his voice. "I... appreciate you calling me. That must have been hard to do, Ron." As he acknowledged that, he wondered how he could ever do the same.

"You're going to get tested, then?" Ron asked again. "Like I said, go to the Health Department."

Blair swallowed. "Okay." But the word meant nothing. He had no sense of what he should do, what he could do. All he could think of was Jim.

Jim sick, suffering... dying... because of me.

"Take my number," Ron said softly. "Okay? Write down my number, Blair. I want you to call me. When you know. Okay?"

"Hmmm?" Nothing was really making any sense. Jim....

"You got a pen?"


"Okay. Here's my number. Write it down."

Ron dictated, Blair wrote. Jim...

"You got it?" Ron asked.

Blair read it back to him.

"Right. So call me then, okay? I... I really want to know, whichever way it comes out."

"Whichever... " Blair pressed his eyelids tightly shut but he could still see Jim's face.

"I'm sorry, Blair," Ron offered, then when Blair didn't respond he concluded quickly. "Call me."

The phone went silent. Blair held onto it a moment longer, then realized he was gripping the receiver so tightly his hand was aching. Carefully, as though it was a fragile piece of sculpture, he eased the instrument back down into its cradle. He looked around his office, not really seeing the artifacts and books, the papers and masks and the computer screen. It might as well have been an empty room, an empty world. All there was space for now was terror, remorse and guilt. And self-castigation.

Oh God, Jim...

Hands shaking, Blair Sandburg buried his face in his sweaty palms and moaned.

He stayed in his office, thinking, trying not to think, agonizing really, for how many hours he didn't know. Time seemed to have stopped at the moment Ron had told him he was HIV positive. The outside world had vanished. Anthropology didn't exist. Students and lectures didn't matter. There was no future, no tomorrow. And the only past was a giant aching wound of regret, without any memories save ones he kept all too clearly reliving.

Why did I do it? Why'd I let Ron...? Why didn't I get tested before now? Why did I try to forget about it instead of facing it? Why did I think the only thing I had to worry about was whether I'd ever find a Sentinel...

He couldn't think of Jim. Not now. Not until he had a handle on this thing himself. Right now, he was incoherent, devastated. If he thought about Jim --

oh, Jim, oh love... I wouldn't ever hurt you...

  • the pain was like a blade cutting into his soul. He felt like a rapist, like a murderer... and at the same time, he felt like he'd been raped, violated, his future stolen by a man who'd convinced him to try something he never should have gotten involved with.

No, I can't blame Ron. Can't blame anybody but myself. I may have only been twnety-two but I knew what I was doing, wasn't that drunk. I wanted to try it, see what it was really like... and just because I couldn't handle it afterwards is no reason to blame somebody else.

He remembered last night -- not the beauty of what he and Jim had shared together -- but before that, when he'd been watching TV: Tom Hanks' face, frail with the ravages of disease, losing the battle for his career, his life...

He imagined himself... trying to continue to teach anthropology... too sick to stand up in front of the class... the dean asking uncomfortable questions... and going home alone.

Alone... alone... That was the worst. The awful, aching emptiness he could see stretching before him. He was going to lose everything, never mind that he had just found it all last night. He was going to lose his job, his career, his future, his life... and his love.

I can't be with Jim now... not knowing this... it could already be too late... and even if I didn't give it to him last night, he's not going to want to have anything to do with me once he knows. Who's going to want to have sex with somebody who has... the virus?

Forget sex -- Jim isn't going to want to have anything to do with me at all. Not after this... betrayal... not after putting him at risk this way. He trusted me and I betrayed that trust. He said he loved me, and I could have killed him already. How's he ever going to trust me enough to let me be his friend, much less his guide?

He bent forward in his desk chair, hunching tightly as though to protect himself from the awful reality waiting in the air around him. He didn't want to ever leave this room, didn't want to have to walk to his car, didn't want to have to go home to the loft, didn't want to look into those beautiful blue eyes of Jim's and see the hurt, the hate, the horror he'd caused.

What am I going to do?

That question yawned ahead of him like an endless abyss, dark and cold as all of space. There were no answers within that abyss, no hope, no ideas. As deep as it was, it still felt very narrow to Blair, as though he were wedged inside a tunnel so tight his arms couldn't move from his sides. He couldn't move, couldn't turn around. And most of all, he couldn't go back.

He couldn't go back to that night six years ago when he'd said yes to Ron Hughes, when he'd turned onto his stomach and felt the other man slide his cock deep inside his body, unmaking him, changing him, turning him into someone he wasn't at that time ready to be -- but most of all -- possibly infecting him.


The word should have allowed him a thin shred of hope. Instead, it was practically meaningless.

If Ron had it then... if he was positive when we had sex... how could he not have given it to me?

He couldn't go back. Couldn't go back to last night before Jim came home, couldn't take back the words he'd said to him, couldn't take back the touches, the kisses... the body fluids... He shuddered, remembering Jim pleading with him to not use the condom, telling him he was allergic to the latex...

God, Jim, you'd better have been telling me the truth about that. If you just made that up so you could feel me more... No. I can't blame you. I was in charge. I could have reached back into that drawer...

But he hadn't. He couldn't go back and change one single thing from six years ago, or from last night. He'd had sex with Jim, not just oral sex, not just rubbing-off sex, but actual anal intercourse sex, possibly the most efficient way to transmit the virus.


That word again. It teased him, tormented him with a hope that refused to be born. If Ron had given Blair the virus, how could Blair not have given it to Jim last night?

Or any of the other times I had sex with a woman and didn't use a rubber...

He remembered thinking -- was it just last night? -- that he had usually worn a condom when he'd had sex and feeling secure about that level of safety.

Usually isn't enough, I guess.

The thought ripped through his mind and Blair groaned aloud, feeling like a mass murderer, spreading infection callously, acting like a hit and run driver, leaving his victims to suffer their injuries alone.

Maybe I should do what Ron did... call them and tell them to be tested. It wasn't like I didn't know their names... thank God I wasn't that much of a dog.

He shuddered at the thought of picking up the phone to make such a call. What could he say? How could he explain?

And if he couldn't imagine calling a woman he'd dated casually, the idea of telling Jim was unfathomable.

He was falling into the black abyss again, no closer to knowing what he was going to do. He couldn't even imagine meeting Jim's eyes, much less saying the words.

For a moment, he actually considered simply leaving town. It seemed logical, if a bit cowardly.

I could leave and get myself tested... then when I know for sure, I could call Jim... tell him over the phone. That way I wouldn't have to see his face, his reaction. God, if I was in front of him, he'd probably just kill me on the spot.

There was no humor in the thought.

Yet Sandburg knew he wouldn't take the coward's way out. He couldn't run away. He'd stay and face the consequences of his actions.

Last night was one of the happiest of my life, how can tonight be the worst?

He wanted to hang onto the happiness he'd so recently found just a little longer. And he didn't want to just walk into the loft and destroy Jim's life in one sentence.

Maybe finding out for sure first wouldn't be such a bad idea. If there's even a one in a million chance I'm okay, I should find out before I tell Jim. Why have him worry if I don't have to? I... put his life at risk... I know that, but if I can let him be happy just a few days longer... And if that one in a million chance pans out... would I ever tell him?

The hope of that happening was so slight, it didn't seem worth considering.

Okay, that's it then. I'll find out first, then I'll tell him.

He sat up, his eyes feeling raw. He rubbed at them and looked around his office, barely recognizing it. He felt changed, like he'd been sent into another world for a time and having returned, he'd never be the same. He didn't quite fit here anymore, didn't quite know who he was. He'd lost sight of his future, his dissertation, being with Jim, what he'd planned to do this weekend. A future did not exist. There was only now and not knowing. The only tomorrow consisted of knowing. And beyond tomorrow? Nothingness. Death? Perhaps not right away. Not without suffering, but eventually.

And guilt.

I could have killed Jim!

He shuddered, fist impotently pounding on his desk.

I could have killed the best man who ever lived... the one person I love most in the world...

He gasped as though a blade were being shoved into his heart...

*I could have killed a Sentinel_... oh God... That's like... like killing one of the last passenger pigeons... I'm destroying an endangered species... Worse, I'm killing _my Sentinel... like having Jane Goodall start shooting gorillas...*

It would be pretty ironic, he realized, to find that in searching for a sentinel for so long, he may have murdered one of the very few genuine ones in the world. Not exactly the best way to end one's dissertation.

Not that I'll be alive to finish it anyway...

He swallowed hard, knowing he had to shake himself out of the whirlwind of thoughts that kept spiraling downward uselessly. If he was going to find out first and then tell Jim, he had to start by getting tested. Ron had told him to go to the Health Department.

Hands trembling, he pulled open a desk drawer and got out the Cascade Yellow Pages, flipping to the blue section where the government listings were. There it was: Cascade County Health Department... HIV/AIDS testing information... 555-2437.

He stared at the words printed on the page, at the phone number that seemed to confront him.

Why do I even want to know? Wouldn't it be better to just forget about Ron's call? He might not have had it six years ago. I feel fine. And Jim's the healthiest man I know. We'll be okay. And if not... why ruin the time we have left with fear and worry? If we get sick, we get sick...until then, why have to know about it?

He sat in silence for a long time, the numbers on the page blurring, his thoughts winding round and round as he tried to get himself to pick up the phone. He was an anthropologist, a student of societies and cultures, hungry for knowledge all his life. He should at least have some scientific curiosity about this.

No. Not this time. I can't... not yet. I can't let it all end so soon after it started. Let us just have a little more time...

He took a deep breath and closed the phone book. He'd always been good at pretending, fitting in, making things up as he went along. Jim didn't like it when Blair lied, but he trusted him, trusted his guide to know what he was doing even if he was only one step ahead of Jim.

How ironic... Jim trusts me... and I betrayed his trust not telling him about Ron before... before last night... I'm going to betray it a little bit more by keeping this from him now, too.

But I won't put him at risk again... I swear... I can't take the chance... it may already be too late, but I'm not taking any more chances... At least I can give him that much, now that I know.

Blair drew a deep breath, reaching up to smooth his wild hair back. He felt drained, exhausted, terrified and alone. He was scared to see Jim, scared he'd somehow give himself away, but he had to be with him. Only Jim could make him feel safe again, feel worthy of being loved, of being alive. It was a shame he was going to be lying to Jim to preserve that, if only for a little while.

Oh, Jim... I'm so sorry...

Gathering his books and laptop into his backpack, Blair made his way out of his office and headed home.

He fumbled at the lock, his hands reflecting his nervousness. The closer he got to home, the more Blair's heart raced, the more perspiration trickled down his back. He knew he had to get his reactions under control or Jim would know something was wrong, but the terror marching through his veins would not be reined. A part of him wanted nothing more than to rush into Jim's arms and sob out the whole story, beg him to understand, and find comfort in the big man's supportive embrace.

That'd be, like, so wrong. I got myself into this mess, can't expect Jim to hold my hand though it.

He closed his eyes, drawing a deep, centering breath. Maybe he could just slip inside, tell Jim he had some papers to grade and sit in his room meditating for an hour or so before he had to face him. Right. He sighed, deciding to just get it over with and go inside.

The lock finally responded to his clumsy attempts with his key and he pushed the door open. He knew Jim was there; the truck was parked outside. They hadn't seen each other since morning. When they'd parted, it had been with a kiss. That moment of bliss seemed a hundred years ago for Blair. Now he didn't even know if he could meet Jim's eyes.

"You're home," a quiet voice greeted him, sounding soft with pleasure. Jim was sitting on the couch and a fire was going in the fireplace.

"Yeah," Blair responded, shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it up. He glanced over at his partner but didn't allow his gaze to linger. "Sorry I'm so late." He knew he should give a reason but he didn't have the strength to come up with one.

"That's okay," Jim said, with that same warm tenderness in his voice. "You're here now." He was off the couch and moving closer but Blair, still not looking at him, headed toward the sanctuary of his room.

Jim's fingers brushed his arm. "Hey," he urged, "stop a second."

Blair turned, eyes flicking up to meet Jim's hopeful gaze. From somewhere, he mustered up a smile. "Sorry," he said again. "Guess I'm just tired."

Jim looked at him closely, the blue of his eyes so clear it made Blair's heart twist inside his chest. "Everything okay?" There seemed to be more to the question.

Blair knew what it was. From the way they'd parted that morning, Jim had expected more of a greeting. Blair swallowed hard, trying to vanquish the guilt and fear. "Oh. Sure," he answered, hoping the word didn't sound too forced. He hesitated a second, then leaned toward Jim, rising up on his toes, offering the kiss he knew his partner wanted.

"Mmmm," Jim responded. As Blair moved back again, Jim's arms came up to wrap around him and it was obvious he intended to close in tight for more than just a quick hello kiss.

Blair hugged him a moment, relishing the strength in the big body even as his mind juxtaposed an image of Jim wasted and failing from disease. Before Jim's lips could connect with his own again, he turned aside. "I think I'm going to grab a shower." He gulped hard. If he didn't start acting normal pretty fast, Jim would be asking questions. "I spent a couple hours rearranging the bookshelves in my office this afternoon. I'm all dusty and sweaty."

"That's okay," Jim smiled. "I kinda like you that way."

Blair managed a chuckle. "Oh, I don't think you want to get too close to 'Eau d'Anthropologist' right now. You know how old some of the stuff in my office is, don't you, Jim?"

"Yeah, I do. Maybe you need some company in the shower to get off all those centuries of grime?" the Sentinel asked teasingly. "We're not in a hurry now like we were this morning."

A few hours ago, showering with Jim was one of the most pleasurable things he could imagine. Now all he wanted to do was get away from him, wash the sweat and stink of fear from his body, try to scrub away the contamination he felt lingering around himself.

As if my taking a shower could keep me from being a danger to him, Blair thought remorsefully.

"I think I can manage," he told the other man. Trying to offset the refusal, he leaned up to kiss him again quickly. "I won't be too long."

"Okay," Jim nodded as Blair moved away again. Sandburg tried not to react to the look of disappointment that flashed briefly in Jim's eyes. There were questions in those eyes, ones he knew he couldn't answer. His head and heart aching, he managed to retreat into his room and close the door.

He'd intended to drop his backpack and start undressing for his shower but instead, all he did was stand in the tiny room feeling helpless. He glanced around at his familiar things as though they could comfort him, but they meant nothing to him now. They belonged to a stranger, someone he didn't know anymore, someone who'd had a future, someone who'd been in love. This morning, he'd thought he'd be giving up this room, moving upstairs to sleep with Jim at night. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, dropping the backpack on the floor and resisting the urge to fall onto his bed in grief.

He's probably wondering what's taking me so long in here. He can probably hear my heartbeat's not right.

Blair shuddered, realizing that he'd been crazy to think he could go through with some charade here with Jim.

But I have to. I can't take last night and break it into a million pieces. I have to get myself together.

If I pretend everything's okay, he's going to want sex tonight. I can't let that happen, can't put him at risk again.

He sighed in misery, wanting Jim so badly, loving him so much, yet knowing the only thing he could do was hurt him.

Slowly, Blair unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off, then undid his jeans and let them drop to the floor. He toed off his sneakers and stepped out of the jeans, pulled his t-shirt over his head. Down to his boxers, he grabbed a set of sweats and headed for the bathroom before his mind could spiral off in another direction.

He was aware of Jim watching from the kitchen as he hurried toward the bathroom, but he couldn't look up, couldn't say anything. He shut the door and, on second thought, locked it, then turned on the shower. He let it run strong and hot and stepped inside, feeling the spray cover his body, closing his eyes against the steam and trying to let himself feel renewed. At first he felt too dispirited to wash, then he suddenly recognized how contaminated he felt and picked up the soap, scrubbing visciously at his arms and chest, waiting for the cleansing to sink in, to absolve him. That feeling never came. He stood under the spray to drench his hair and applied shampoo, the unscented kind that he knew wouldn't bother Jim's sensitive nose -- and nearly wept at the memory of making love to Jim with his hair last night.

Does 'hair-fucking' constitute safe sex?

Maybe he should have called that health department number, asked some questions about that, about how to be safe. He was supposed to know, everybody was, but Ron's call had swept all his knowledge away. It was all theoretical anyway, wasn't it? Who really knew if anything was ever safe?

Aching with loneliness, feeling so far away from Jim, he thought frantically, desperate for a way to be with him without transmitting the virus.

Kissing is supposed to be okay... isn't it? But how can I be sure? Maybe I should have asked Ron some questions -- I should have asked them six years ago.

He rubbed hard at the water rinsing the soap out of his hair, a tide of anger rising in him that threatened to sweep him away.

Damn it -- damn me! Why did I have to be such a... a damn idiot about dealing with what I'd done with Ron all these years? If I'd been tested, I wouldn't have done that with Jim last night. I'd either know I was okay, or... or I'd know not to be with anybody. Wouldn't I?

They said six months was long enough to be sure, Blair remembered. If you got tested six months after... and you were negative, it was okay.

Maybe. Who knows?

And why didn't I ever get tested?

There were plenty of opportunities, before going on expeditions, before starting to date someone new... when he had check-ups... He'd always declined when an offer of testing came his way -- influenced by his mother's rebellious, independent spirit, her teaching him to live for the moment and not worry about an uncertain future, he'd always told himself.

I was kidding myself, pretending what I did with Ron didn't matter. But the joke's over now.

The water sluicing over him had grown cold, he realized. He twisted the faucet to turn it off and stepped out of the shower, grabbing a towel, shivering as his wet hair dripped over his shoulders as soon as he dried them. He rubbed his hair briskly, trying to soak up most of the water from it, then resumed dying his body with the damp towel, too depressed to pick up another from the rack.

Jim always says I use too many towels...

Still damp, he struggled into the sweats he'd brought with him and ran a comb through his tangled hair. He met his own eyes in the mirror above the sink and he almost didn't recognize himself. Who was that stranger staring back at him with the haunted eyes? He didn't think he knew the answer. He drew a deep breath and pasted on a smile, checking the mirror to see if it looked real.

It didn't.

He closed his eyes and tried again, checking once more, reaching for that part of himself that could make people believe him, the part that could convince Jim of anything. Realizing that pretending would be yet another betrayal, he nevertheless determined to go out there and act glad to see Jim, get through the evening somehow. He knew Jim Ellison, and if Blair didn't send out the right signals -- that he was completely in love with Jim and totally happy -- the closed-up cop would pull away, retreat like he usually did. And the last thing Blair wanted right now was for Jim to pull away from him.

Forget about the phone call. There's nothing more you can find out tonight anyway. Just go out there and be with him.

Finally centering himself, he opened the door and strode out into the kitchen.

Jim was standing at the stove, flipping a couple of steaks he'd put on the broiler. Blair realized Jim must have been planning their evening -- the fire, the steak dinner... those dark, much-washed jeans he was wearing and the silky blue shirt with that gray tank top underneath seemed like part of a plan too, Blair thought, his admiration for the way Jim looked supplanting his fear and anguish for a moment. The jeans were just snug enough, the shirt complimented Jim's eyes and when he thought about how Jim's shoulders looked in that undershirt, the way it clung to his pecs...

Blair glanced down at himself, at the shapeless sweats he'd pulled on, and decided he should change, find something better to put on.

For Jim. So I don't ruin his evening.

Noticing Blair, Jim turned, another smile on his lips, though it looked more reticent this time, as though Blair's odd behavior had made him uncertain. Blair suddenly remembered how cautious Jim often was around women he liked, as though he was afraid to let himself expect too much, and he hated himself for putting that doubt in Jim's mind.

I wanted to be the one to take all your self-doubts away.

He swallowed hard, trying to keep the love uppermost in his mind and force Ron's call down as far as he could shove it, and he smiled back at his Sentinel, this time making it a genuine smile.

Jim seemed frozen where he stood with the broiling fork in his hand, confused by Blair's attitude.

"I'll just be a minute," Blair told him softly, turning to go back to his room. He tossed off the sweats and rummaged in his drawers, finding the red henley Jim had once said looked good on him. He tugged it over his head and pulled a fresh pair of jeans out of the folded laundry in his basket, pleased when they turned out to be the faded, ragged pair he used to live in, with the rips in the knees and more rips farther up.

Now that I think about it, Jim had a weird sorta gleam in his eye the last time he saw me wearing these. He musta thought I looked hot in them.

He slipped into the jeans bare; the strategic rips precluded underwear unless he wanted it to stick out and look stupid. Blair grinned, feeling like he was dressing for a date.

*Shit, I am.*

He grabbed a towel from where it hung off the back of his chair and rubbed at his hair some more, trying to get it drier, then combed it again, pulling the fly-away curls back in a band, knowing Jim seemed to approve of him wearing it that way. He reached for a bottle of aftershave, then passed on it. This was for Jim, after all. He found the leather necklace he'd gotten when they went to Peru to find Simon and Darryl; when he slipped it over his head it rested just where the hair on his chest started. His feet were chilly but he didn't feel like putting shoes on so he just grabbed a pair of argyles from the laundry basket. Finally, ready to go face his partner at last, he surveyed his appearance in the small mirror over his desk.

Not bad. I feel better too. It's gonna be okay. I can make this work.

He took a deep breath and headed back out into the loft.

"Dinner ready?" he asked as he approached the cooking island.

Jim was fussing with a salad, tossing it expertly. The steaks were done, it appeared; he'd taken them out of the broiler and they were already on the table, sizzling a bit on the warming plate.

"Yeah," the Sentinel answered, obviously feeling a bit sheepish over his preparations. Jim had set everything up with care, but one item was missing.

"Just a sec," Blair told him, heading for his room a third time. He returned quickly, noting the look of curious concern on Jim's expressive face.

"Candles," he told him, holding up a pair of handmade ones he'd bought the last time they'd gone to the Granville Island Market. "Don't worry. There's hardly any scent to them."

"I wasn't worried about that, Chief," Jim responded, carrying the salad to the table. He paused as Blair arranged them. "You feel better now?"

"Uh... yeah," Blair admitted, making it true as he picked a matchbook up from the cooking island and lit the candles. "Sorry about earlier. I just... "

"Forget it," Jim told him before he could fabricate something. "It's been a long day for me too."

"Right," Blair nodded. He moved closer to Jim, unable to resist the magnetism pulling them together. It was such a relief to be here with him, close to him again. Jim responded immediately, opening his arms and enfolding Blair against him. Blair sighed deeply, wrapping his own arms tight around Jim's waist. How can such a big man have such a small waist? he wondered, allowing that to be the only thought in his mind and heart at the moment.

He felt lips against his hair and held still, drinking in the gentle kiss Jim bestowed. The lips moved, this time contacting his temple, feeling moist and soft on his skin. A flower blossomed in Blair's heart, unfurling fresh, white petals, filling up the space inside to blot out anything dark or dangerous, and all Blair wanted to do was let it bloom. He tipped his head up toward Jim and their eyes met, the communication in them now stronger. Jim bent his head and their lips reunited, soft as flower petals, warm as a candle flame. Blair's lips parted and Jim's tongue filled his mouth, searching eagerly until Blair's met it and they dallied against each other, wetly stroking and tasting. Jim kissed like a man starving, or rather like a starving man giving his last meal to someone who was even hungrier, someone he'd rather feed than himself. Every thought he'd ever had left Blair's brain and for a moment he didn't care if he remembered his own name. Nothing was as important in his whole existence than being here, like this, kissing Jim. It felt like he could live the rest of his life on that sustenance alone. That and the tingle of anticipation and arousal he was beginning to feel sparking along his nerve endings.

"Whoa, Chief," Jim said, breaking away to draw in a deep breath of air. "Much more of that and these steaks will go to waste." His eyes, when he met Blair's, looked hot and unfocused.

Blair grinned. "We can always heat 'em up... "

"You barbarian," Jim protested, smiling. "Can't I ever teach you anything? You can't 'heat up' great steaks like this, not without them getting all dried out and chewy."

"Well, we wouldn't want that," Blair acquiesced, releasing Jim's waist from the hold he'd maintained on it. It was so great to be with Jim like this, having fun, bantering back and forth like always, but with each of them aware of the desire that they'd discovered.

Jim moved to the refrigerator and retrieved two bottles of beer, smiling at Blair as he returned to the table. His earlier diffidence seemed to have been banished by the kissing session and Blair was glad.

The last thing I want to do is hurt him...

The thought brought a flare of pain but he forced it aside. Instead, he picked up the platter and served himself a steak, nodding his thanks for the beer as Jim placed it beside him and returned to his seat. Jim sat down, taking the platter but making no move to push the second steak onto his own dinner plate. Blair looked up to find the Sentinel's eyes on him.

"What?" he asked, a little wave of shyness sweeping over him at the expression of fond intimacy in Jim's eyes.

Jim waited a moment before answering. "Nothing. You just look wonderful, that's all."

"Thanks." A blush tried to creep across Blair's face but he was delighted at the thought that Jim was able to tell him that. He let his eyes travel over Jim's face and upper body appraisingly and smiled back at him. "I like the way you're looking too, man."

Jim did blush at Blair's compliment, though Sandburg would have cut his tongue out before remarking on that fact.

*Guys like Jim probably don't think they blush... well, guys like Jim probably don't. But he does, though it'd kill him if he thought somebody noticed. Doesn't he know how he looks?* he wondered, probably for the thousandth time, marveling at the man's total lack of conceit.

You're gorgeous, Jim -- don't you know that? Women stare when you walk by and men envy you that body... don't you realize that?

He'd known guys with looks only half as good as Jim's who walked around thinking they were God's gift to women and putting down short guys with glasses, but Jim had never been that way. He treated everybody the same -- if he respected you, you were equals, if he didn't, you were scum and he arrested you. "I've always liked the way you look," Blair elaborated in a low, meaningful tone, watching the color rise on the man's cheekbones. Blair met the blue eyes steadily, allowing his appreciation to show.

Jim appeared to swallow abruptly. His eyes glanced away, then back again. "I guess I still don't get it," he finally murmured.

"Don't get it?" Blair was confused, then he thought he understood. "What, that another guy could like your looks?"

Clearly uncomfortable, Jim shrugged.

"Jim," Blair began patiently, "I'm sure I'm not the first guy who noticed your looks. Straight or gay, people still have eyes."

"Oh, it doesn't bother me," Jim told him hastily. "I've known other men have noticed me or whatever. But... well, my looks have never been all that fatal to women so I guess I never figured I'd be irresistible to another man either."

"Not fatal. Right," Blair scoffed. "Jim, guys like me pray they'll grow up and look like guys like you."

Jim looked genuinely surprised. "I wouldn't have you look any other way than you do right now." The soft voice was like the caress of velvet along Blair's flesh.

It was his turn to feel warmth grow in his face. "Uh... " he said finally, grasping at straws. "Eat your steak before it gets cold, okay?"

Jim chuckled, picking up his knife and fork. "Whatever you say, Chief."

"You bastard," Blair returned amiably, shaking his head. He picked up his own utensils and dug in, hungry for the dinner Jim had cooked for him.

The steak was delicious, so was the salad, everything. As he ate, he felt Ron's phone call recede into the distance, becoming unreal, some nightmare he only half remembered. Reality was here, in this room, this loft he shared with Jim. The outside world couldn't find them here, couldn't intrude. Here was where they had figured out how Jim could be a Sentinel, how Blair could guide one. Here was where -- though many had tried -- none of the criminals of Cascade had been able to vanquish them. How could any outside force, Blair asked silently, hurt them here, how could anything be more real than their love, here in this haven they had made for themselves? How could something that Jim could not discern, despite even his incredible, heightened, God-given senses, possibly be real enough to follow them here and harm them?

He knew he was wrong to pretend, to ignore reality that way, but looking into Jim's eyes, he wanted it to be all right, to be as magical as their lives, their love, had been up until this afternoon.

Dinner was finished. Jim's eyes were locked with Blair's and as Blair stood with the intention of clearing the table and cleaning the kitchen, Jim was there suddenly, wrapping both arms around him from behind, hands smoothing down his chest, around his waist, squeezing a moment, then moving on down to caress his hips. Blair sighed and leaned back into Jim's strength, feeling a warm breath waft across his throat. Jim's hands came up, fingers slipping under the band holding Blair's hair to release it.

Blair trembled as his hair came loose, Jim's fingers combing through the still-damp strands, unraveling the curls, lifting them to kiss the back of Blair's neck gently, moistly with his soft, soft lips. Inside Blair, the white flower petals shivered as his nerve endings woke to arousal.

"You keep that up," he husked, savoring the sensation of Jim's lips nipping at his nape, "and the dishes might not get done."

Strong arms gripped him, spun him around so they were face to face. "Screw the dishes," Jim said as he bent to take Blair's mouth in a ravenous kiss, only letting Blair up for air after a long moment. "The dishes can wait. I've been waiting all day for you, Sandburg. I want you now."

Jim claimed Blair's mouth again, as though he were claiming Blair's soul. Blair had no time to be amused or amazed that Jim for once didn't care if the kitchen didn't get cleaned up immediately, he was swept away by Jim's passion. For long moments, he put everything he had into his answering kiss and when Jim at last parted them, Blair whispered, "I'm here. You've got me."

"I sure do," Jim said, his eyes dancing in the candle-light as he looked Blair up and down. He moved, one arm wrapped around Blair's waist as he headed them out of the room.

Instead of moving to the stairs, however, he detoured into Blair's room. Guess that answers the your place or mine question for tonight, Blair thought as he found himself placed on the bed. Jim lay down next to him, arranging himself at the level of Blair's hips, his eyes dancing with promises and expectations as they traveled from Blair's face downward to the ragged jeans.

"Do you know how you look in these jeans?" he asked, probably rhetorically. Blair gulped as Jim's fingers moved to slip beneath the rip on his upper left thigh, exploring the flesh underneath with a Sentinel's touch.

Blair shivered, hot waves of impending pleasure washing over him. He shifted restlessly, parting his legs almost involuntarily, unable to resist inviting Jim's explorations. Jim's fingers dipped farther under the frayed denim, sneaking up higher, closer and closer to where Blair was beginning to ache to be touched. He sighed, arching his back, and Jim leaned forward, replacing his fingers with his tongue, delicately tasting the flesh of Blair's inner thigh.

Blair gasped, his entire body hungering for the feel of Jim's tongue, the need centering in his groin. Jim burrowed deeper, licking, tasting and Blair heard a soft ripping sound -- Jim was gently tearing the worn denim, opening the gash wider so he could have greater access to Blair's skin. "Ahhh!" A jolt of fire spread through him as Jim pressed his open mouth to the sensitive thigh muscle he'd been licking and began to suck the dampened flesh.

At the same moment, Jim's other hand came up to squeeze Blair's growing erection through his jeans. He stroked firmly up and down Blair's length as he continued sucking the flesh exposed by the hole in the jeans.

Blair bit his lip, writhing on the bed, mind blanking out from arousal and need... all but one rational corner remaining which supplied him with the realization that what they were doing, right at this moment, did constitute safe sex. Jim could make him come like this -- and it felt like any second he might -- and it wouldn't put Jim in danger.

He groaned, the reality-intrusion almost making him lose his erection as his fears moved in.

Jim must have noticed the subtle shift in his reactions. He raised his mouth from Blair's thigh though his fingers kept stroking Blair through his jeans. "You okay?" he asked somewhat breathlessly.

Blair sucked in air, trying to get his worries out of his mind. "Sure. I just... don't wanta lose it too soon here."

Jim stroked him again, then bent his head to rub his cheek against the bulge in Blair's jeans. Immediately, Blair stiffened to full hardness once more. He was burning, slowly melting. Jim's eyes glanced up to check on him again and Blair licked his lips, nodding in reassurance. "That's good, Jim," he managed.

Jim bit down on the hard length of him through the jeans. "Don't worry about coming too soon," he teased Blair. "You're young, you can get it up again, can't you?"

"I don't know... " Blair couldn't really think coherently but whatever Jim wanted he figured he could try to do. "With you, man, I think anything's possible."

"That's right," Jim murmured, nibbling wantonly as though he were really tasting Blair's naked flesh. "You're so hot," he marveled, "I can feel your heat right through these jeans... I can almost taste you... " Jim's fingers slipped into the enlarged rip in Blair's jeans, finally able to reach high enough to just brush Blair's balls.

Blair convulsed, his body singing. Jim continued biting his cloth-covered cock with his mouth, teasing his hidden balls with his fingertips, and at the same time brought his free hand up to effortlessly unsnap the waistband of Blair's jeans. The worn zipper released on its own, opening under the pressure of Jim's mouth and Blair's heated movements.

Jim leaned up to look at the flesh being revealed. "No underwear," he whispered with a pleased smile, "I thought so."

"Huh-unh," Blair managed along with a negative shake of his head. His eyes were riveted on the zipper's progress and on Jim's hand hovering over him in anticipation. He was trying hard to think, to keep his mind clear enough to prevent anything risky from happening, but with Jim unzipping him, his mind was having trouble focusing.

The cool air felt erotic across his finally bared cock and he hissed as Jim's warm fingers released it from his jeans, relief and need coursing through him in unrelenting waves. It rose stiffly from its confinement, pointing straight up toward Jim, wet at the tip. Blair might know in his head that he shouldn't let Jim go any farther, but his cock wanted the very thing he knew he shouldn't have.

The Sentinel's eyes seemed fascinated by the sight. It meant everything to Blair to see Jim looking at him, at that part of him that way, as though mesmerized, hungry. Jim licked his parted lips as he contemplated it and Blair held his breath. God... How he wanted that mouth on his cock, wanted those beautiful, wet lips surrounding him... Jim had started to suck him last night before moving on to other things...

No, I can't let him, gotta do something else...

Before Blair could redirect the action, Jim lowered his head and opened his mouth a bit more, taking Blair's hard cock deep into his throat all at once. Surprised, Blair could only fall back and let the sensations wash over him.

I'll stop him... After... After just a minute or two more...

It felt like heaven, like coming home, and Blair swiftly began hurtling toward climax. He was as close as he'd been the first time anyone had given him head. He bit his lip, trying to think of math tables or sacrificial rites, anything to curb his body's impatience for release. But there was Jim's tongue swirling around his head, Jim's throat working along his length, Jim's hand wrapping around his root, tightening and pulling and stroking, Jim's cheeks hollowing as he sucked Blair deep, Jim's dark head bent over his groin in hunger, all of it devastating to Blair's control. This man he loved above all others was doing this to him, giving this to him and seemed so hungry for him that Blair couldn't hold back, he was going to come, any second now, come hard and spurt all his seed deep into Jim's throat --

"NO!" Shoving Jim off, he pulled away roughly and rolled onto his stomach, his shout seeming deafening in the sudden silence left in the room. Only his own harsh breathing overlaid the room's lack of sound. He thought Jim must be holding his breath or something, shocked into silence at what Blair had just done to stop him.

Blair was mortified, hot with shame, shaking with fear and aborted lust, unable to roll back over and meet Jim's eyes, much less come up with words that would explain his actions. He'd been about to come down Jim's throat...

Oh, God, what I am, crazy? I could be killing him doing that! What was I thinking -- just let him do it for a couple of minutes?!... Isn't the pre-come bad too? Doesn't it have virus in it too?

He couldn't remember. All he knew was that, despite his intentions never to put Jim at risk again, he'd just done so. His own base needs had nearly driven him to throw caution to the wind and...

I can't do this, can't pretend everything is okay... it's too dangerous. I'm too weak... can't let it go that far...

But what in the hell am I going to do? Jim... how can I make Jim understand any of this?

He lay there, too upset to figure out what to do next, wishing he could take back what he'd done, when he felt a tentative touch on his hip. Incredibly, Jim was reaching out to him, even now. Blair could feel a minute trembling in the hand combined with a dampness he figured was caused either by nerves or the passion they'd been sharing. It took another long moment, but at last Jim spoke, in a tone Blair had never heard him use before.


Just that one word, and yet it said so much: confusion, disbelief, disappointment. Blair ached at what he knew must be going through Jim's mind at this moment.

He drew a deep breath, not knowing what was going to be worse, turning over and meeting Jim's eyes or the fact that he was going to say the words that would ruin everything between them.

I was crazy to think I could pull this off, pretending everything was okay tonight and not letting on anything was wrong until I found out for sure. Jim hates being lied to... and I was wrong to try to keep this from him anyway.

The hand on his hip withdrew. Blair knew he was making things worse, taking too long to answer. He closed his eyes tight and raised his upper body slightly, turning toward where he knew Jim was resting beside him.

He cracked his eyes open, but kept his gaze downcast, unable to make himself face Jim's expression. He opened his mouth to speak but further embarrassed himself when not a sound emerged. He swallowed, and even had to clear his throat before feeling as though he could talk. "Jim, I... sorry about that. I... didn't mean... I mean, I didn't plan to do that... stop you like that... it's just... "

"Don't." Jim's voice had somehow become a hoarse croak, worse than Blair's.

Sandburg looked up then, his eyes flying to Jim's face, dismayed at the sound.

Jim's face revealed nothing. Or rather, it had been carefully schooled to reveal nothing. Blair knew that look. Jim used it when he was trying to crush down his emotions.

"But Jim, I... " Blair tried again.

"I said don't. You don't have to explain." Now Jim's voice was as emotionless as his face.

Blair was swamped with remorse. This was getting worse by the minute. Jim obviously figured he'd done something wrong, that Blair hadn't liked what he was doing. "No, you don't understand. I didn't mean to get weird on you, man. It wasn't you, honest, it was -- " he rushed ahead, faltering only when Jim pushed up off the bed and headed out of the room.

"Jim!" Oh God... Blair struggled to get up too, his open jeans hindering his movements. He got to his feet, arranged his deflated cock and pulled up his zipper, then hurried after his roommate.

Jim had made it all the way to the balcony and was standing there, his back stiff and straight, looking out over the city as though it was any other night and he was just out there to get a breath of fresh air.

Blair followed him, his heart pounding. He wanted so badly to explain, to make Jim understand, but he was scared too. Scared of Jim's reaction, of the anger and hurt he knew he was responsible for, yes, but he was scared of the whole situation. Scared to death, as he had been ever since Ron's call and he needed Jim, needed his strength, his friendship, his comfort.

He stepped out onto the balcony, every nerve in his body taut as though someone was tightening invisible strings that held him together. One more step and he'd tear himself apart; he could feel his nerves straining, trembling, his grip on his sanity faltering every second.

Jim had heard him approach, but he didn't move a muscle. Blair knew he could hear the pounding of his heart and his muscles were clenching so hard that Jim could probably sense that too. He closed his eyes, willing himself to find the strength to get it all out, then reopened them, taking in the sight of the strong back of the man he loved, the prominent shoulder blades, the straight, broad shoulders that looked like they could hold up any weight, endure any hardship.

"Jim, I'm sorry," Blair began, his voice no more than a whisper, his breath taken away by his trembling nerves. "I want to explain." He hesitated a moment and when Jim didn't stop him, went on. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea here. What you were doing back there, it was beautiful, man," he watched Jim's back carefully but the man seemed frozen in stone he held so still, "but I... I shouldn't have let you do it. I was wrong... there was something I should have told you... should have said before... before we did what we did last night... and today, today I... "

Jim turned around then and the expression on his face was worse than Blair could have imagined. He looked pale, humiliated, crushed. "I understand," he said abruptly, holding up one hand as though to ward off Blair's words. "It's okay -- "

"No, Jim, it's not okay. I have to explain... "

"Don't make it worse, Chief," Jim interrupted again. "I'm not an idiot. I can see what you're going to say. I don't have to hear it."

"Jim, it's not that. It's not how you were doing it," Blair tried again, aghast that Jim was so upset over his thoughtless reaction. Had someone ridiculed his lovemaking in the past, that he would feel this bad over Blair's rejection? "I shouldn't have let you start it in the first place -- "

"You're right there, Sandburg." Blair winced at Jim's use of his last name. "That's the part I don't understand. Why didn't you tell me when you first got home that you'd had second thoughts?"

Blair's jaw dropped. "What?" He'd been so focused on his inner turmoil and the fear he'd made Jim think he wasn't giving him pleasure that the question came totally out of left field.

"It was a big step for both of us," Jim went on. "I knew I was walking on thin ice when I told you how I felt last night. I thought we were together though." His voice broke and Jim glanced away as though unable to bear Blair's eyes on him. "You changed your mind -- okay, I'm man enough to handle something like that. I just wish you'd had the guts to tell me before dinner." There was resignation in Jim's voice now and a barely suppressed anger.

Blair was stunned, the realization that Jim had totally misunderstood why he'd pushed him away rendering him virtually speechless. The last thing in the universe he'd ever want to do was make Jim think he didn't care about him. "Jim, I didn't have second thoughts," he managed to choke out, fearing with every syllable that he'd say the wrong thing and make matters worse. "You've got it all wrong. It's not that I didn't want to do what we did last night.... "

Jim was in motion, pushing past Blair as he returned to the living room, as though he had to put distance between them as quickly as possible. He was hurt and Blair knew when Jim was hurt he retreated, he pulled away and erected a wall of silence around himself. Blair couldn't let that happen. Jim would pull so far away from him he'd never be able to make him understand.

He was right, he realized, as he saw Jim start up the stairs to his bedroom. Frantic, Blair charged after him, cursing his shortsightedness for letting it go so wrong. He should have known Jim would interpret his confusing reactions of tonight that way.

I'm an idiot! When I came home I could hardly look at him... almost didn't let him kiss me... made up that story about needing a shower -- and after begging him only this morning to let me shower with him... tonight I refused the same request! And then when I pushed him away -- he had to think I'd been letting him just 'cause I didn't know how to let him down easy, to tell him I'd changed my mind but that when it came right down to it, I couldn't handle it. Damn!

He made it to the top of the steps, wanting nothing more than to rush to Jim and throw his arms around him, to kiss him and show him he was wrong, that he did love him. But the sight of Jim throwing clothes into a duffel made him freeze.

"You're packing?" he blurted when what he wished he could say was 'I love you.'

"Very observant, Sandburg," Jim snapped. "But then that's what you're good at, isn't it? You observe police procedure, you observe other cultures, you observe me. Is that what you were doing last night? Observing the Sentinel's reaction to sex with his guide?"

"Jim, that's not fair!" Blair stormed toward him, knowing Jim was just lashing out but feeling defensive anyway. He was hurting too. Couldn't Jim see that Blair was a mess, that something was horribly wrong? He had the worst scare in the world hanging over him and he couldn't even tell his best friend about it. He reached out, grabbing Jim by the shoulders. "Stop that! You know it wasn't like that!" Jim continued putting stuff into his bag. "You live here, for God's sake. You've gotta let me explain!"

"Let go of me, Blair," Jim said, his eyes on Blair's hands, his voice quiet. "I know I live here." He sighed, then bent to pull another article out of the dresser drawer. "But I've gotta get some air. I... I think it would be better for us not to see each other for a couple of days."

"Then I should leave," Blair told him, dropping his hands, wrung out suddenly, too exhausted to think any more. If Jim would ask him to tell him the truth right now, he didn't think he'd even be able to get the words out. "It's your place. I can stay with a friend or something."

"No, that's okay, Sandburg." Jim zipped the duffel and straightened, his eyes not meeting Blair's though he did glance toward him.

Last night, you called me 'baby.'

"The walls are closing in on me here. It's better if I take off for a couple days," he finished after a moment.

Blair latched on to those last words. "But you'll be back, right?"

Jim shrugged. "I live here. Sure, I'll be back."

Blair swallowed. "When you get back, you want me gone or anything?" The damage had been done; he needed to know if there would be anything to salvage from their friendship. Jim was hurt now and even if Blair could get him to listen later on, he knew any hope of their being lovers was over.

Jim finally met his eyes. "I didn't say that."

Blair drew a deep breath. "We'll talk when you get back then. I really have to explain to you, Jim -- "

"That's not necessary," Jim said, moving toward the stairs. "The less we say about this the better it'll be."

"But it's not like you think," Blair tried once more.

Maybe I should just blurt out the truth: I think I might have AIDS and I might have given it to you last night....

But this wasn't the kind of thing you just blurted; Jim was already upset, he might even think Blair was making it up as an excuse so he wouldn't have to have sex with Jim anymore. "This is the kind of thing we need to sit down and calmly discuss. I have stuff I need to tell you, man, stuff that has nothing at all to do with last night, with us."

Halfway down the steps, Jim stopped and turned. For a moment, Blair thought that Jim was going to listen to him. "Nothing to do with last night?"

"Well, not exactly nothing," he faltered, thinking again of how Jim was going to react when he found out how much Blair had put him at risk.

"That's what I thought," Jim said shortly, turning again and continuing down the stairs.

Blair continued to follow him, damning himself once more for the way he'd let things happen. Jim was at the door, slipping into his jacket. "You'll let me know where you are?"

"I don't know, Chief," Jim seemed to sigh.

"You'll be at work tomorrow though, right?"

Jim seemed startled by the mention of work, as though he'd forgotten about the rest of his life. "I don't know. I might call in sick."

"I have a class to teach in the morning... "

"I'll leave a message on the machine to let you know if I'm going in then," Jim stated. He reached for his keys and without turning, opened the door.

"Jim -- " Blair called out to him, desperate, heart-broken. "I'm sorry...."

Jim didn't look at him, but his shoulders drooped a little. "I know." With that, he stepped through the door and left.

Morning came finally, cold December light filtering through his window and slanting across Blair's bed. He'd fallen asleep finally, sometime around four a.m. but the light woke him easily. There was no peace in sleep, no escape. The dull ache of fear, of regret, had stayed with him throughout the night, never allowing him to fully let go and find the release of care real sleep brought.

Yet he'd relaxed enough that wakening brought all the terror of yesterday back with a stinging vengeance as one thought reared its ugly head.

I might have AIDS.

It was real. Yesterday hadn't been a nightmare. Ron had called him, told him he was sick. And things had just gotten worse from then on.

Blair hadn't heard from Jim all night, not that he had really expected to. The way Jim had left... well, he just hadn't. He had no idea where Jim would go to deal with his hurt alone and he was worried about him. He'd never seen Jim look like he had last night, like his last hope had been taken away from him. To most people, it wouldn't have been obvious. The handsome face would just look stern and cold to them. But Blair knew what to look for, had seen the pain in the icy eyes, the stiffness in the broad shoulders that indicated the battle being fought inside. Jim would wage war against his heart until the emotionless face he showed the world was all there was left of him. And there might be no reaching him again if that happened. Blair knew Jim had shared things with him that he hadn't told another living soul. He didn't know if he could ever repair the damage he'd done last night, if Jim would ever listen to him now.

I should have told him the minute I came through the door. He'd have been upset with me, but it would have been better than making him think I didn't love him.

At around 7:30, the phone rang. Blair jumped up from the couch to grab it, praying it was Jim.

"Sandburg, is that you?" a gruff voice demanded.

Blair's heart sank. "Yeah, it's me, Simon. What can I do for you?" It wasn't like Simon to call this early and he realized there was only one reason why.

"I just heard from Jim," the captain informed him. "He says he's not coming in today. I want to know what you know about that."

Blair swallowed hard. He had no idea what Jim might have told Simon but he didn't want to let on he didn't have any information. "Uh... well, he hasn't had a day off in quite awhile," he hedged.

"I know that," Simon groused. "But he sounded damn strange. Is something going on with his senses?"

"I don't think he'd want me to talk about it," Blair answered.

"I figured you'd say that." There was a pause. "Besides, if it was his senses, you'd be with him, wouldn't you?"

"What do you mean?" Blair asked, wincing as he realized it was becoming obvious he didn't know what Jim had told Simon.

"I mean, Sandburg, that if something was wrong with Jim's senses he wouldn't go off on his own, would he?"

"That's right," seemed the only safe thing to say. Had Jim gone out of town? Had he indicated to Simon that he wasn't home when he called? Apparently.

"You're not going to tell me what's going on, either, are you?" Banks asked then. "Do I have to threaten to take your observer's pass away?"

"Now, Simon..." Blair desperately wanted to ask Simon what Jim had said to him. "It's nothing serious, honest." He was glad Simon wasn't a sentinel or he'd hear Blair's heart pounding over the phone.

"Did he say when he's coming back?" Simon asked.

"He'll only be out a day or two. You know Jim," Blair improvised.

"Well, if something's wrong with him -- or you -- you'd better let me in on it, Sandburg," Simon ordered.

Blair gulped again. "What would be wrong with me?"

"I don't know. I just know Jim sounded weird when he called in to tell me he was taking some time off. He doesn't do that unless he's got a good reason. And if nothing's wrong with his senses, the reason could be you."

"Simon, I'm fine," Blair lied. "Both of us are fine."

"Well, if something's wrong you'd better tell me before it gets any worse."

Blair hung up the phone after Simon ended the call. He'd been worried about Jim's emotions last night, now he was worried about his senses. They'd seen what had happened when Jim suffered emotional upsets before. This could be so devastating that... Blair didn't want to think about it. He just hoped Jim didn't do anything crazy like leaving town to go out in the woods to be alone or anything. Something could happen to him out there if his senses went haywire.

Blair listened to the news and weather out of habit -- Jim's habit, actually. The cop regularly checked the TV news reports in the morning and Blair was used to listening to them with him while he got ready for school or the station. Today Blair was watching the clock. He had a class at nine o'clock but he planned to make an important phone call first. The Health Department opened at eight thirty.

As soon as his watch indicated it was half past eight, Blair dialed his phone, waiting with shaking hands for someone to pick up.

"Cascade Health Department," a pleasant voice answered after three rings. "Health Information. This is Abby. How can I help you?"

"I'd... uh... like to know if you do AIDS tests," Blair managed, his mouth having gone so dry he could barely force the words out.

"We do HIV tests," the woman acknowledged while apparently correcting him. "We're scheduled for the East Side Center this afternoon from two to four p.m. Would you like to come in then?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Can you tell me how long it takes to find out?"

"The results? It usually takes two weeks."

She might as well have said it took a hundred years. Two weeks sounded impossibly far away. Blair rubbed his face, trying to think. "Do you know of any other places that do it?" he asked after a moment. "I mean, that could get the results back sooner?"

"Some doctors' offices might," the woman informed him, "but it would depend on your insurance if the doctor would do it." She paused. "I'm one of the counselors. I'd be glad to answer any questions you might want to ask over the phone."

Blair glanced at the time. He had a few minutes before he had to leave. And the woman's sympathetic voice made him want to talk to her. He'd been feeling so alone since Ron had called him. "Uh," he didn't really know where to start. "I just... just heard from an old friend who is... positive... " He could barely get the word past his lips.

"Is this someone you've had contact with?" The question was so carefully phrased and non-judgmental that Blair realized he could answer it.

"Yeah. It was a long time ago, though. But... I think I could have gotten it." What he couldn't say was how that might have occurred.

"I see," the woman responded. "I'm glad you told me that. I want you to know one thing first. I've tested a lot of people and believe me, it's possible to be with someone who's positive and not get the virus yourself. It happens all the time."

"Really?" It was like being thrown a lifeline. Blair would have grabbed it but he wasn't sure if it was real or just a card-board cut out.

"Yes." The counselor was very firm. "It happens all the time. There was a woman who came in very worried because her husband had found out he was positive. They'd been together for ten years. Her test was negative."

"How is that possible?" It sounded like saying you could live after being hit by a speeding locomotive.

"The virus is not one hundred percent transmissible," he was told. "It depends on a lot of factors. The person who's positive might have a weak strain of the virus. Their partner's immune system could be really strong. We don't know for sure why someone could have sex over a long period of time with someone who's infected without getting it themselves but I've seen it happen many times. I always tell people who find out they've had a positive partner not to count themselves out until the test comes back. And if this was a long time ago, the person might not even have been positive at the time."

"It was six years ago," Blair offered. "I feel fine, but I guess it takes a long time before you get sick."

"Yes, it can take quite awhile for symptoms. But since it's been so long, you'll only need to get tested this one time."

"What?" His mind was spinning and he knew he needed to get to class.

"If it's been over six months, the test is definitely going to be accurate."

"You're sure about that?" Blair was gripping the phone tighter, wanting to believe her positive spin on the situation. "I thought it might take over ten years to show up."

"That would be for symptoms to show up," the counselor explained. "If someone never got tested, then ten years might go by before they'd show any symptoms. But antibodies would show up within six months following an exposure. If you're tested at least six months later and it's negative, you know that incident didn't pass the virus on to you. You'd only have to worry about contacts that were more recent than six months."

"Oh." Blair didn't think anything he'd done in the recent past was worth worrying about. It was just that one incident with Ron that terrified him.

"Okay?" the counselor checked.

"Uh... yeah, I guess."

"I've been doing this for over ten years. I know what I'm talking about," she informed him. "If I didn't see it happening all the time -- people getting good news even if they were exposed to the virus -- I wouldn't believe it myself. But it's true. We have far more negative tests come back than positive ones." She paused. "Do you think you'll be coming in this afternoon then?"

"I don't know," Blair replied. "I don't know if I can handle waiting two weeks."

"Our lab is really accurate," the counselor went on encouragingly. "I can't say the same about others. And if someone is really, really worried, I might be able to get the results back a little bit sooner. We hold the clinic once every two weeks, but I might be able to make a special appointment for results. Why don't you come in and talk to me at the clinic this afternoon?"

"I don't know." Blair didn't know whether to trust this counselor or not. She seemed very genuine and informed but she might just be trying to get him to come in to push up her statistics. His mother's distrust of government agencies seemed to loom before him.

"We test anonymously. Nobody can get your results from you and we don't need to get your name in order to do it. If you go to a doctor, the information is going to be a permanent part of your medical record. And if you use your insurance to pay for it, that's going to be available to any insurance company you might try to go through in the future."

"Oh, God." The repercussions from being tested were worse than he'd ever realized -- not that he'd even given it a thought before now. If it was anonymous at the clinic maybe he should go. Besides, he didn't know a doctor he felt comfortable enough with to talk about this. "Uh, okay, I guess I'll stop by. What was that address again?"

She gave it, then asked a question of her own. "Could you give me your first name?"

"It's Blair." Belatedly, he wondered if he should have made something up, then realized he was so upset he might forget an alias before this afternoon.

"Okay, Blair, I'll look for you this afternoon. Don't count yourself out, okay?"

She sounded like she meant it. Used to doing what Jim told him, Blair found himself agreeing. He hung up the phone, feeling marginally better than he had since Ron's call. At least he might be able to get through his class this morning.

Two o'clock found Blair entering the East Side Clinic. It was a small building, practically hidden between two huge trees. There was no big sign out front that indicated today was their HIV testing day or anything embarrassing like that. He walked inside, noticed a couple of people already seated in chairs in the waiting room and went to take a number from a spindle on a table to sit and wait his turn. There was a booklet and some pamphlets on the table to read, but he couldn't bring himself to pick any of them up.

One by one, counselors emerged from rooms down the hall and came out to call the people already waiting while Blair got progressively more nervous.

A few minutes later, a door opened down the hall and a woman emerged, walking with a younger, somewhat frail girl with wispy blonde hair. They were talking in low voices and smiling. As they parted, they hugged and the young girl left the building. Then the woman moved to the table and checked the numbers on the spindle.

"Number three," she called, glancing around the room.

Blair glanced at the number in his hand.

Three. Guess that's me.

He stood, grabbing his backpack from the floor.

"Hi," the woman smiled, extending her hand to take the number from him and drop it on a pile behind the sign on the table. "Come with me, please."

Silently, Blair followed her down the hall.

When they were seated in a small, bare office, the woman asked, "What brings you here for testing this afternoon?"

"Uh, I called earlier... "

"Oh. You must be Blair," she responded warmly. "I'm Abby. I'm glad you came in."

"Hi," Blair answered, dredging up a half-smile. "I hope I'm glad I did." Realizing she remembered their phone conversation, he tried to relax. Abby was calm and friendly. This might not be so bad after all. "You... this clinic, I mean... isn't exactly what I expected," he blurted out. He had half expected a lot of gay men to have been sitting in the waiting room, and maybe some people who looked like drug users, not the normal-looking people who had been waiting ahead of him.

"What'd you expect?" she smiled back at him.

"I don't know. I've never done anything like this before."

"Guess what? Most of the people who come in have never done this before either," Abby confided. "Let me tell you our procedures, okay? You and I are just going to talk here first. You can ask me as many questions as you want, take as much time as you need. Everything you tell me is confidential, like I said on the phone. We fill out a little paperwork, just some demographics and a bit of what we call risk assessment, then you have some blood drawn. We give you a number instead of taking your name and I'll set up a time for you to come in and get your results."

"Okay." Blair cleared his throat. His mouth was feeling dried out again.

"You sounded kind of worried on the phone this morning," Abby stated. "Would you want to tell me a little bit more about your concerns? The more I know about something that happened, the better I am at helping see how risky it might have been."

"I think this was pretty risky," Blair admitted. He glanced around the room but there were only a couple of posters on the wall, one of them on teens and HIV and another on not smoking. His eyes went back to Abby. She wore slacks and a nice blouse, her dark brown hair was neat and shoulder-length; he couldn't tell how old she was, maybe somewhere between 35 and 45. She was looking at him as though interested in what he had to say. She seemed a cross between a friend and a mother type, in her own way somewhat like Naomi -- although he knew he'd never be able to talk about this kind of thing with his mom, no matter how liberal she was.

"Why's that?" Abby asked patiently.

He was going to have to say it. He'd never actually said it out loud before. This was the moment of truth. Admitting what he'd never admitted to even himself before.

"Uh... the friend who called me about being positive?" he began, reminding her, "it was a guy." He paused, Abby only nodded. "We had sex together, six years ago."

"I see." She didn't seem shocked. Blair supposed she wouldn't be, working in a place like this. "And he just now found out he was positive?"

"Yeah. He'd been trying to reach me for a couple of days, he said. He just found out and he thinks he had it back then... " His voice trailed off. He shoved a strand of curls behind his ear.

"Why's that?"

"Cause he's sick now. He said his... t-cells?" Abby nodded so Blair figured it was the right term. "His t-cells were only two-hundred and fifty, and he's been sick. Do you think that could mean he was positive back then?"

"It could," Abby agreed, "but it's not certain. Different people lose t-cells at a different rate than others." Blair recognized the tone he used when instructing a class. "T-cells are the cells in the immune system that are attacked by the virus. We all have a different amount to start with, and a lot depends on the person's health all along. The normal amount ranges between a thousand and about eight hundred. It's an indicator of how well the body could respond to infections and germs. The more t-cells, the healthier the person might be."

"Is two-fifty bad?" Blair wondered about how Ron was doing.

"That depends. Two hundred is considered technically to be a diagnosis of AIDS but with medication, the t-cells can go back up again." She paused. "So your friend could start feeling a lot better once he's been on medication for awhile."

Blair nodded, not knowing what to say next.

Abby filled the gap. "It's pretty scary hearing that from someone, isn't it?"

"I'll say. I haven't been able to think of anything else really."

"When did he call you?"

"Yesterday afternoon."

"Then you called us right away. That's good."

"Why?" Did she mean so he wouldn't go around infecting people?

"A lot of people get so scared they have a hard time deciding what to do. It takes some courage to come into this building. You should pat yourself on the back for managing it."

Blair managed another half-smile. He didn't feel brave right now. "I hadn't heard from him in a long time." He glanced away. "I didn't want to think about him."

Abby didn't look judgmental. "Did you have some conflicts about being with him?"

Not judgmental, but perceptive, Blair realized. Her saying it made it easier to talk about it. "You might say that," he admitted ruefully. "I put it out of my mind 'cause I didn't think that was who I was. I mean, I'd always liked women."

"I see. You know, when you feel you've done something you shouldn't have, it's pretty hard to get past it. But a lot of people experiment with different kinds of sex. That's pretty normal."

"I know," Blair answered. He lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "I'm an anthropologist."

"Oh, that's interesting," Abby smiled.

"I'm with Ranier University," Blair elaborated. "I've studied all kinds of cultures and sexuality isn't something that I'm really uncomfortable about or anything. I should have really dealt with what happened between my friend and me a long time ago."

"You've never been tested before?"

Blair shook his head. "And I know I should have. Everybody does that, don't they? That's the other reason I'm worried. I've dated a lot. I didn't always use condoms."

"It's natural to worry about other people you've been with at a time like this," Abby acknowledged, "especially if you're a responsible person. But they had the opportunity to ask you to use a condom, didn't they? Would you have, if you were asked to?"

"Sure. If I had them, I usually did. If I didn't have them and someone told me they'd rather use them and she had them with her, I'd go ahead and use one. But if I didn't and she didn't bring it up, I'd just... you know..." He looked down at his lap.

"Blair, we're all ultimately responsible for our own actions. You don't seem like you'd push anybody into having unsafe sex with you. The women you dated could have asked you to use condoms."

"I know, but... if I've given this to anybody..."

"Wait, we're getting ahead of ourselves here," Abby interrupted his spiraling concerns. "You don't know if you're positive in the first place. And even if you are, you might not have passed it on."

Blair nodded, thinking of Jim. He didn't know if he would be able to tell Abby about him.

"You know," Abby went on, "not everything is as risky an activity as everything else. A lot depends on what you did with your friend back six years ago." She left the obvious question unvoiced.

Blair looked up at her. "I think what we did was risky. I had a lot to drink. So did he, actually. We... he... " He felt a wave of heat rush over him and knew he must be turning red. He was so tired of not admitting what he'd done, what he'd allowed to happen, what he hadn't faced for so long.

"Was it anal sex?" She spelled it out, but the clinical term was less scary than Blair thought it might have been. He gulped and nodded. "Were you on the bottom?"

Blair nodded a second time.

"And he didn't use a condom?"

Blair shook his head. "That's really risky, right?" He looked up at her, relieved it was out in the open, if even only here to the counselor.

"Yes, it can be." Abby didn't make it sound like it was horrendous, though. Her tone was still soothing, understanding. "The virus is in semen. The easier it can get into the body, the easier it might find its way into the blood stream. But as I told you this morning on the phone, that still doesn't mean he definitely infected you."

"You really think that's possible?" Blair wanted to grab that life preserver, but it was floating just out of his reach.

"I've tested a lot of people in the last ten years," Abby said with strong conviction. "Women who've been with positive men, men who've been with positive men. It's never a hundred percent. It's really more like fifty-fifty."

"Really?" Blair could almost grab it, almost.

"Really." Abby leaned toward him. "I see all the results that come through here, all the positives, all the negatives. I've seen it a lot, really, Blair. Don't give up on yourself yet."

Blair shook his head. "That kind of luck doesn't happen to me."

"It's not a matter of luck," Abby told him. "It's a virus. It's doesn't know or care who's lucky and who's not. It doesn't care who's a good person and who isn't. Sure, lots of unpromiscuous people get infected. But lots of people have a second chance and turn out to be fine."

"God, I hope you're right." Blair swallowed. "What happens if... if I'm not fine?"

Abby kept looking at him with the same firm seriousness and assurance. "If your test comes back positive, we're here to counsel you. We have medical care we can offer, too. Lots of information. You know yourself how important education is. I'd say the best thing for someone who's positive is to learn everything he can about the virus. The best way to fight it is to know about it so you feel more in control. Learn about how it acts in the body, about what drugs are coming out, about nutrition, alternative therapies... "

Despite his fears, or maybe because of them, Blair latched on to her enumeration of things to do. "What kinds of medicine would they put me on?" he asked. "Aren't there side effects and stuff?"

"Let's not put the cart before the horse," Abby counseled, holding up one hand. "You don't want to go into all that if you don't know your result yet." She looked at him sharply. "I bet you like to search the internet, don't you?"

Blair nodded. "Why?"

"Listen, don't go surfing for information on HIV," Abby said sternly. "You'll find sites that give wrong information, for one thing, and others that tell you way more than you need to know right now. It's very easy to find yourself having all kinds of symptoms, just from reading about them. You don't want to do self-diagnosis."

"Okay. I guess you're right about that."

"Of course, I'm right," Abby smiled. "If you have any questions you think of, call me. Don't call a whole bunch of other hotlines around the country. You might get someone inexperienced who wants to err on the side of caution who'll make you more worried than you are."

Blair shuddered. "I don't think that's possible."

"Is there anything else you want to ask about before we begin filling in the form?" Abby asked, changing the subject smoothly.

Blair closed his eyes, hesitating.

"Are you dating anyone right now?" Again, Abby seemed to know what he wasn't able to say.

"Sort of," he replied softly, still not looking at her.

"Does she know about the call from your friend?"

Blair looked up then. "He." He took a breath. "No, he doesn't know about the call."

"I see."

"I know I said I liked women," Blair explained. "And for years, I only dated women. But I have a friend... my roommate... " He didn't want to say too much; Jim was a cop and Blair wanted to protect his identity here as much as he would in his dissertation -- if he ever finished it now. Pushing that thought out of his mind, he hurried on, "He's a great guy. I started having feelings for him. I wasn't going to ever tell him but... I started thinking I should."

Abby waited a moment. When Blair didn't continue, she asked, "So you did tell him?"

"Yeah. And I found out he had feelings for me too," Blair rushed on, needing to share it all, needing someone to understand how it had happened. "We talked and found out we both felt the same way -- and we made love. It was before I heard from Ron, the guy who called me. Believe me, if I'd known, if I'd thought... I don't know what to do. If I've hurt Jim... " His words stopped, agony closing his throat.

"Why don't you tell him about the call?" Abby asked gently.

"I was afraid he wouldn't understand, that he'd think I hadn't been honest with him. I thought I should keep it to myself and not upset or worry him until I found out something." He looked at her with worried eyes. "What could I do? What should I do?"

"It's hard to know in a situation like that. But isn't it difficult worrying like this without your friend Jim realizing something is wrong?"

Blair nodded, feeling exhausted. "I wanted to talk to him, but I couldn't. Things got really messed up. He's a complicated guy. I didn't want to hurt him but... " He broke off, not wanting to go into all the personal details. It felt like a betrayal of Jim.

"It's okay," Abby soothed, patting his arm.

Blair took a deep breath, returning to what he had been most concerned about. "I'm afraid I could have infected him. We didn't use a condom. He's allergic to latex." He wondered if she'd believe that.

Again, Abby nodded knowingly. "A lot of people are. It's a problem."

"He's had some bad reactions to stuff he's allergic to," Blair went on, "so I didn't. And I was... I was on top. If Ron infected me when he did it with me, then I could have given it to Jim the same way -- " Panic nearly blotted out everything the counselor had already told him. Blair felt sweat break out on his body, beginning to trickle down his sides.

"No wonder you're worried," Abby said quietly. "But just as I told you, even if someone has unprotected sex with a person who's positive, there's no guarantee they'll get it too. Even if you're positive, and remember, you don't know that yet, you might not be -- it doesn't mean you've definitely passed it on to Jim." She asked another question. "When did this happen between the two of you?"

"Just the other night," Blair sighed,gloom still weighing him down.

"If you're okay, you don't have to worry," Abby explained. "If your test does come back positive, he should get tested in three months. He should repeat it again at six months, then you'll know for sure."

"Six months?" It sounded like a lifetime.

"I know it seems like forever," Abby said , "but the test is looking for antibodies, not the virus itself. It takes that long for them to form."

Blair digested that for a moment.

"If you and Jim have sex in the meantime, I can give you some information about what's safe. If he can't use latex condoms, there are things you can do that aren't as risky."

Blair cringed inwardly. "I don't know if we'll be doing anything. I know I don't even really want to. And things are kind of awkward between us right now. He knew I was upset but I didn't tell him what was really going on. Like I said, things got pretty messed up."

"Okay, but whatever happens, don't be afraid to ask me about it," Abby told him. "As long as no semen gets from one person to inside the other, its pretty safe. Saliva, sweat, tears... they don't carry enough of the virus to worry about. Kissing is okay. Touching... You know you can't give it to someone just by hugging them." She met his eyes.

"Yeah." Still, he felt contaminated. He filed the information she'd offered, not really thinking he'd need it.

"Have you been feeling depressed or worried about anything else lately?" Abby asked, looking at him closely. "Do you have a lot of other stuff on your mind with your work or anything like that?"

"Not really. I was so happy before I got Ron's call... " He shuddered, "Now all I'm really worried about is Jim."

"Have you ever felt suicidal, Blair?" Her tone was serious but not hesitant.

"No. I was in and out of counseling when I was a teenager," he admitted, "but I was never that depressed. I'll hang in there."

"Okay." Abby seemed to take him at his word. "But if you feel differently and ever think about wanting to end it all, you should go to the hospital."

"I understand," he nodded.

Abby reached for her paperwork. "Let's get this filled out, okay?" she asked. "If you think of anything else you want to ask me while we're doing it, go ahead. All right?"

Blair nodded. "Sure."

"I already know most of the answers, but we'll go through it anyhow, okay?" The form had questions about his age, his zip code, whether he'd ever used drugs with needles, things like that. Abby circled yes where it said had he ever had a male partner and yes where it asked about having a partner with HIV. She marked that he had female partners too and checked 'most of the time' when Blair answered about whether he used condoms for sex. He'd already told her he'd never been tested before.

She gave him a card with a six-digit number on it and said he should call her a week from today about whether the result was back yet or not. If it did, she would let him come in then so he wouldn't have to wait the full two weeks. Blair was relieved about that.

When they finished with the questions, Abby filled out what she told him was the lab slip that would go with his blood sample down to the lab to be analyzed. Then she stood, indicating they'd go to another room where he'd have his blood drawn.

This was easier than he thought it would be. He hadn't expected to find someone so understanding, who'd be so easy to talk to. He felt like he'd known Abby for years instead of just half and hour or so. He guessed she must be pretty good at her job.

From what he knew about counselors, he decided she was. He'd known many who were too 'professional' to seem very caring about their clients.

Blair bent to pick up his backpack. "I'm sorry I took up so much of your time."

"It's okay," Abby smiled. "That's what we're here for. If you have any more questions, like I said before, don't hesitate to call me. I hope you can get a chance to talk to Jim, too."

"Me, too."

Abby's eyes warmed. "Could you use a hug?"

Her sympathy and understanding were very real to Blair, and he'd been so alone with his fears. He nodded.

Abby opened her arms and put them around Blair, hugging him close. She wasn't afraid to touch somebody that might be infected, Blair noticed. He remembered the hug he'd seen her give that young girl who'd been here earlier. Was she positive, he wondered. Or just coming in for a test, like he was? He'd probably never know. He found himself choking up with emotion.

Abby patted his shoulder as they parted. "It's going to be okay, whatever happens," she informed him. "I'll be here for you to talk to. Are you going to be okay the rest of today? And waiting for your results?"

"Yeah. I think I can get through it," he nodded. "When I came in, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I'd be positive, but you've helped. A lot."

"Good." She patted his arm again, opening the door to her office. "But if you start to worry again, don't be surprised."

Blair actually grinned. "Oh, I won't be," he assured her.

When he returned home, he expected to find at least a message from Jim, but there was no flashing light on the answering machine, nothing. Jim had promised he'd call. It worried Blair that he hadn't heard from him at all since he left last night. Blair's feelings of hope evaporated in the silent loft. Alone, there was nothing to do but worry and his fears came back with a vengeance.

He tried to correct some test papers, tried to prepare a lecture for the following day, but his concentration was shot. All he could think about was Jim, where he was, what he was thinking, when he might come back. Though it was only nine o'clock, Blair was exhausted so he decided to give up on his paperwork and try to get some sleep. However, instead of attempting to sleep in his own room again, tonight he made his way slowly up the stairs to Jim's room.

What if he comes home and finds me there? Would he yell? Leave again? Be glad I'm up here?

Blair found he didn't care what reaction Jim might have as long as he came home. Still, not having heard anything from him all day, he didn't expect the Sentinel to suddenly show up. If he did, Blair would deal with whatever mood Jim might be in.

It was cold upstairs. Blair shivered in his undershirt and shorts, wondering how Jim could stand to sleep up here. He remembered how much body heat Jim generated and figured he never noticed the chill. Not having the energy to go down to his room for some sweats to put on, Blair instead went to Jim's dresser and rummaged through it. He'd already invaded Jim's domain by sleeping in his bed, how could it make matters any worse to borrow his clothes?

Blair found a sweatshirt and pants that once had been black but had been laundered so much they looked gray and slipped them on. He had to pull the cuffs of the pants up since they were too long for him but he liked the feel of the loose folds of soft fabric caressing his body. The sweats smelled like Jim; he must have worn them at least once since they'd last been washed. Blair didn't mind -- on the contrary, he liked that. It made him feel closer to Jim, made him feel less scared and lonely. If only it had been Jim's arms around him and not just his scent and his sweatshirt enfolding Blair... yet being dressed in Jim's stuff did make Blair feel more relaxed. Maybe it was just the warmth, but he thought maybe he could sleep now.

Blair crawled into the big bed, acutely missing the love they had shared there just two nights ago. He cursed himself yet again for taking chances, for not realizing just how serious a risk he was taking with Jim's life. He supposed that was how people got HIV -- despite knowing the facts. Love messed up your mind, made you unable to think clearly and rationally. Why bother with love at all?

Blair drifted into an uneasy sleep, thinking that perhaps it would be better to go through life without love than to suffer this kind of agony. If you didn't fall in love you wouldn't take such risky chances...

An unearthly howl woke him abruptly, the eerie sound sending shivers down his back, replacing the chill in the loft with the steamy heat of the jungle. Blair sat up in bed, nerves quivering, and peered into the darkness. He turned around to look down into the living area of the loft... and saw the panther.

It paced back and forth as though looking for the Sentinel, its back arched, its fur standing up, tail twitching nervously. As though it sensed Blair's eyes on it, it turned toward him, eyes aglow in the moonlight from the terrace doors. It took a few paces toward him and for a moment Blair thought it might be able to leap directly up to where he was. Instead the animal just flattened its ears back on its head and emitted a low growl, its white teeth bared as though to make him aware of the danger he was in.

The panther was Jim's guardian animal spirit... if it was here and Jim wasn't... did that mean Jim was in danger? Blair studied the great cat.

"Where's Jim?" he called down to it. "Why doesn't he come home?" The panther twitched its tail but gave no sign of an answer.

Then the strangest thing Blair had ever seen happened. As he stared down at it, the panther's shape changed, wavered, stretched -- morphing into a man in Chopec garb with a spear. He looked up at Blair and spoke.

"You are the Guide, are you not?"

"Y-yes," Blair managed, sure his hair was about to turn white. He pinched himself, sure he must be dreaming but when he didn't wake up and the vision of the Chopec remained, he decided he was merely going insane.

"Yet your Sentinel is not here," the Indian noted. "Don't you want to know where he is?"

"Yes, I do," Blair answered, stronger this time. "Can you show me? I'll go to him, bring him back... "

"He will not come home until his mind can rest, but I will show you where he is," the deep-voiced native intoned. "You will see him, if you are willing to take the risk."

Risk... I've already taken the worst one you can think of...

"I'm willing," Blair responded.

"Then come to the edge."

"What?" Blair wasn't sure what the Indian meant. He climbed off the bed, heading for the steps.

"I said come to the edge," the Chopec insisted.

Blair tried to follow the enigmatic instruction. He stepped to the railing, his bare toes right at the edge of the wooden floor. "Okay?" he asked the Indian breathlessly.

"Now close your eyes and take a step."

Blair didn't see how he could; the railing was there, but he followed the command, nonetheless. He closed his eyes, letting go of the rail, and stepped forward.

He fell. He dropped forward, tumbling down a steep incline, feeling jungle vines catching at his legs. His arms grabbed for something solid but the leaves and branches he touched weren't strong enough to hold him, slow his fall. He screamed, his eyes opening. He was falling over a steep cliffside in the jungle. Below him there was nothing but dense foliage and beneath that, he supposed, the hard ground.

"Jim!" he cried, involuntarily yelling his Sentinel's name. His eyes squeezed shut, terror filling his brain.

His fall slowed gradually until he landed on soft grass. A chilly breeze surprised him as he sat there, eyes still closed, catching his breath.

He opened his eyes to look around. He wasn't in the jungle any more. Instead, he was back in Cascade, on the rocky beach where Jim surfed on those rare occasions he managed to get the time. The sea washed up, waves crashing over the rocks along the shoreline. Down to Blair's left, it was sandy and people could surf in good weather, but here it was craggy and treacherous in the cold winter night.

He saw Jim, standing on an outcropping of rock, his legs getting drenched by waves as they broke over the place where he stood. Jim looked zoned. He was standing still, his eyes focused on something only a Sentinel could see, something far away on the black ocean surface.

He looked so cold and alone. Blair wanted to go to him, help him out of the zone and bring him back to the loft where he could warm him up and let him know he was loved. Jim looked so hurt, his spine straight against the cold and wind, looking like a lone warrior there guarding the beach and the city at his back.

"Jim..." Blair whispered.

The Sentinel turned but could not seem to locate the source of the voice that called him. Blair opened his mouth to say his name again, but the Chopec's voice stopped him.

"He cannot see you."

It was a vision, Blair realized belatedly. He wasn't really here on the beach with Jim, despite how real the cold wind and sea spray felt. The Chopec was only letting him see where Jim was.

Yet why had Jim turned?

Jim! Blair only thought the name this time, thought it with all the love in his heart, all the strength of will he could muster.

Jim scanned the beach and as the clouds moved across the sky, Blair had a clear view of his face.

The Sentinel looked ravaged. Blair's heart twisted as he noted the dark smudges under Jim's eyes, the red rims of them speaking of hours without sleep, without solace. There were lines carved into his face, around his mouth, between his eyebrows, lines that made him look older, careworn, weary of life. And hurt. Every line of his body spoke of pain, yet he stayed where he was, seeking the solace of the unforgiving sea.

"Why is he here?" Blair asked the Chopec, wishing he could go to Jim and wrap him up in his arms.

"He seeks his answers. He has many things in his heart to consider... "

"I want to bring him home," Blair murmured. "I want to tell him what happened..."

"The true guide knows when to let the Sentinel take his own time for searching out answers. If you seek him now, he will leave this place and find another."

"Huh?" Blair glanced toward the sound of the voice, but he couldn't see the Indian any more.

He looked back toward Jim. The Sentinel had remained staring back toward the beach. Blair could see thin, silvery streaks running down his cheeks. It was cold out here; Jim's eyes must be watering. The cold was making his lips tremble too.

Come home, Jim. We'll work things out. I'll tell you why I stopped you. It's not 'cause I don't love you. It's because I do.

"Jim!" Blair sat up, finding himself in Jim's bed, back home in the loft. He rubbed his eyes, shoved his tangled hair back from his face. Had it been a dream or a vision? Had he actually seen where Jim was, or had he only imagined it all, the panther, the Chopec, the fall in the jungle, the beach?

"Oh, Jim, come home... " If it was real, Jim could be making himself sick standing out on those rocks at night this time of year. Blair had an impulse to get in his car and drive to the beach to find Jim, but the Chopec's cautioning words stopped him. Then a wave of exhaustion stole over him, pushing him under black fog banks of sleep.

When he opened his eyes, it was morning.

Somehow, Blair managed to get out of bed and make coffee, though he barely tasted the cup he poured for himself. He'd carefully made Jim's bed and put away the sweats, not wanting Jim to know where he'd slept if he did come home.

Blair took another sip of coffee, rubbing the crook of his arm where the blood had been drawn. He'd thrown the band-aid away but he could see the tiny puncture. It didn't hurt but he could somehow still feel where the needle had gone in, a steady reminder of being tested.

Realizing there was something he needed to do, Blair went to pick up the cordless phone. He went to the CD player, needing to hear some soothing music and picked out an Enya CD. As the haunting strains of the music filled the loft, he sat on his bed and rifled through his backpack for the notebook in which he'd written Ron's telephone number. Finding it, he took a deep breath before dialing.

"H'lo?" The voice sounded sleep-fogged. Blair realized belatedly that it was still early. Maybe he shouldn't have wakened Ron.

"Ron?" he asked cautiously. "It's Blair. I'm sorry if I woke you."

"Hi, Blair." The voice sounded more awaken already. "No, it's okay. I was up anyway. Had to take my pills."

"Oh." Blair hated the reminder of Ron's condition. "I just wanted you to know, I went to get tested yesterday."

"That's good, Blair. I'm glad you called." Ron sounded relieved.

"I won't know anything for at least a week." The time until he could get his result stretched into an endless, uneasy future. Had it only been a day since he'd gone to the Health Department? His sense of time had totally gone crazy since he'd heard from Ron. He wondered if it, or anything else, would ever be right again.

"You'll call and let me know?" Ron asked.

"Yes. Of course." Blair dreaded that moment of truth. "Have you... have you heard from anybody else you called?"

Ron hesitated. "Other partners, you mean? Yeah, a couple."

Blair didn't know what the etiquette was in this situation, whether he should ask what their results had been. He wasn't even sure he wanted to know. If they were positive, would he feel worse, more terrified? If they were negative would that give him hope or would he just figure that the odds were against him being negative too?

"Blair, I didn't go around infecting people. I didn't know. I used condoms most of the time."

Anger flashed through Blair. "But you didn't six years ago. You were the experienced one, Ron. You knew who you were, what the risks were. I was twenty-two years old --"

"I know that, Blair. Don't you think I've thought about that night a hundred times since the doctor told me I was positive? I never meant to hurt you, to hurt anybody... "

"I could have stopped you," Blair told him, his voice dull, his heart heavy. He felt ashamed and he didn't know why. For hiding the truth even from himself all these years? For drinking too many beers that night? For doing what a guy shouldn't let another guy do to him? For being stupid even though he was supposedly smart?

"I cared about you, Blair," Ron whispered. "I'm sorry. You've got a chance... that's what the doctors tell me."

"Has anybody else... gotten good news?" Blair asked, his voice hoarse, his throat dry.

"One guy did," Ron answered.

Blair closed his eyes. "That's good. You must have been relieved to hear that."

"Yeah, I was." Ron didn't sound very happy. "Are you doing okay?"

"Oh sure, I'm just fine," Blair responded sarcastically.

"Is there... anybody in your life right now, Blair?" Ron asked him. "I mean, have you told anybody? It's rough going through this alone."

"You know, Ron," Blair said, feeling as though the breath were being squeezed out of his chest, "that's really none of your business." He held the phone gingerly. He held his breath.

"Okay, Blair. I understand. Just... call me when you know. Good luck." Ron's voice sounded hollow.

"Yeah, right," Blair muttered. He pressed the off button. The loft was suddenly quiet, the CD pausing between songs. Blair had never felt more alone in his life.

"Yeah, good luck to me," he murmured, his throat aching, burning. He gripped the phone, rapping it against his forehead as though to blot all thought from his mind. "All I have to worry about is whether or not I'm HIV positive." He closed his eyes, damning himself for getting into this situation. A moment ticked by.

The door to the loft banged open. Blair jerked, startled at the sound. Looking up, he saw a familiar figure framed in his doorway.

"What did you say?" Jim's voice was a rusty croak but the words came out a harsh demand.

Blair's blood ran cold. Strangely, at the same instant, a wave of heat and shame washed over him, sweat prickling along his back. He swallowed, unable to take a breath, much less form words.

Jim took two strides forward into the room. Blair noticed the Sentinel's hands were shaking.

"I said, what did you say?" Blue eyes framed in dark circles widened in sheer terror. Blair had never in his life seen Jim Ellison look so afraid.

He looked angry too, though. Involuntarily, Blair drew back from his menacing presence. The phone fell unnoticed from his nerveless fingers.

Another step and Jim was at his bed, hands reaching out to grab Blair by the shoulders. "What did you say?" This time the words were pleading.

Blair gulped. He'd decided to tell Jim, yes, but not like this. He'd wanted to get himself together first, feel like he could handle it, but talking to Ron had scared him, upset him again. He started shaking. "I... I... " His heart was pounding so hard he thought surely it would drown out any words he might say. "Didn't you hear me?" he finally gasped. How could Jim not have heard him? How long had he been outside? "You must have heard my whole conversation."

"Only part of it." Jim didn't ease his grip on Blair's shoulders. "The music... I couldn't hear the person on the other end of the phone, couldn't make out every word you said either. I was coming up... couldn't take listening from down in the street another moment... and then... then you said... " Jim's words trailed off as if he couldn't repeat the horror Blair had voiced either.

"I said I might be HIV positive." The words were out, flying between them like a thousand knives that could slice them to pieces.

Jim gasped as though he hadn't let himself believe his ears. "Oh God, Blair." He let go of Blair's shoulders only to wrap both arms around him, pulling him close in a crushing, desperate embrace. "Oh God... " he moaned, "no... no."

"Jim... " Blair hung in his arms, weak with remorse, relief that Jim wasn't walking out on him barely registering. He wanted to cry, to sob his story out, but all he could do was let Jim hold him tight and listen as his Sentinel breathed his name over and over again.

Jim got a knee up on the futon, pulling himself up next to Blair without breaking his hold. He shifted position, drawing Blair to lie in his arms as he leaned with his back against the wall. His hands were moving, running up and down Blair's body as though in search of injuries.

His hand came up to Blair's face, Jim's eyes roving over it in anxious concern. His fingers threaded through Blair's tangled curls and before Blair could say another word, Jim was leaning down toward him, eyes dropping to Blair's lips.

He turned his head away just in time and Jim's lips, cold and chapped feeling, landing on his cheek. B lair groaned. He was acting just like he had the other night, pushing Jim away. But now Jim knew.

"I'm sorry," he gasped, unable to meet Jim's eyes, but grabbing his leather jacket and holding on tight. Jim just continued to hold him, his hand still in Blair's hair. "I'm so sorry about the other night. I didn't push you away 'cause I changed my mind, Jim. I pushed you away because I didn't want to infect you." This time it felt like the knives were piercing directly through his heart, twisting in his soul. Tears he hadn't allowed before spilled from his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and wetting Jim's wrist. He panicked, fearing even that body fluid could hurt Jim, though intellectually, he knew better. Still, he shoved at Jim, trying to push him away from the danger he represented to him.

Jim held him firmly, still murmuring his name, and the fight drained out of Blair all at once. He had so longed for the haven of Jim's arms, the solace of his strength. It might only last a few moments; Jim still didn't know the whole story. Blair couldn't fight the comfort when it might end any second.

Jim pulled him up in his arms, shifting so that Blair's head rested on his shoulder. Jim smelled like the ocean and Blair flashed on the vision or dream or whatever he'd had last night, realizing it must have had at least some truth in it. He reached up, bringing his palm to Jim's cheek. It felt chapped and cold and the freezing December air hung around the Sentinel like the eye of a tornado. Blair pulled his hand down and huffed hot air from his mouth on it, then put it back on Jim's cheek, patting him gently, trying to warm him up.

"Tell me the rest," Jim rasped, his words no longer a demand. "What have I done to you?"

Blair pulled back to look at him. "What have you done to me? Nothing, Jim. It's what I've done to you -- "

"I'd never hurt you, never," Jim went on, seemingly unaware of Blair's response. "That's why I wanted you to have me the other night... Not the only reason, no, but one of them.... "

"What?" Blair couldn't wrap his mind around the words coming from his partner. "What are you telling me?"

"I'd never hurt you, Blair," Jim repeated. "Why do you think you might have HIV?" The question was a groan of dismay.

Blair swallowed. He had to get it all out now, before he lost his nerve. "I... wasn't completely honest with you the other night. I mean... I love you and want to be with you and only you, but... I tried sex with another guy once. It was a long time ago, Jim, really, and I never did anything else and hadn't even seen him for years... but after we made love the other night, the next day at my office, I got a call from him. He was the person I was on the phone with just now. He called to tell me... he'd been trying to find me, that is... he wanted to tell me he's got it." Jim's whole body stiffened. "He's sick, Jim. He got sick and went to the doctor and they told him he's positive. He's on medication and everything and he thinks he might have had it when he and I... Oh God, believe me, Jim, if I'd ever thought, if I'd known, I'd never have put you at risk that way!" He threw both arms around Jim's neck, hanging on for dear life, terrified Jim would break his hold, get up from his bed and walk out of his life at any moment.

Jim's hands didn't try to pull his arms from around his neck. Instead, they roamed up and down Blair's back, rubbing, comforting. "I know, I know," Jim whispered. "I'm so sorry, Blair."

"What have you got to be sorry about?" Blair sniffled, pulling back a little to look at Jim.

"I didn't let you explain. You must have been losing your mind that night and I took it the wrong way. I was being selfish. I thought it had to be that you'd changed your mind about us." Jim looked away. "I should have trusted you... "

Blair shuddered against him. "Trusted me? You did, and I might have killed you."

"Blair, I trust you, I've always trusted you." Jim drew a deep breath.

"You came in that door and bared your soul to me," Blair went on remorsefully. "You opened your heart and I took it and betrayed you. You'd never been with another man and I... I had and I never even thought about the repercussions... "

"Yes, you did," Jim reminded him, "you wanted to use a condom. I wouldn't let you." He stroked Blair's hair. "And I wasn't completely honest with you, either."

Blair closed his eyes, dreading the truth. "You lied about being allergic to the condoms?"

"No, I'm allergic to them. Even though you knew about all my other allergies and reactions since my senses went on line, I never told you that. Kept it filed under 'personal.' I keep those condoms in the night stand, yeah -- just in case, but every time I use one, it gives me a nasty rash," Jim admitted, half embarrassed. "I didn't lie, I just didn't tell you everything. I told you I didn't want to pry into your past, made that big thing about starting over... I meant that... but I didn't let on... "

"What, Jim?" Sensing his partner's distress, Blair rubbed his back soothingly. The leather jacket still creaked from the cold. Blair heard Jim gulp before he spoke.

"I have been with other men in the past."

Jim let the words hang and Blair was too amazed to respond for a moment. He'd always thought his partner was so straight....

"I could have been the one putting you at risk," Jim rushed on. "I tried sex with guys every so often. It was like something I needed but it never felt quite right, never gave me what I was aching for inside. But neither did sex with women. When I realized I loved you, I thought maybe that was it, what was missing all those years... I never actually loved anyone the way I love you, so I hoped.... Blair," he paused, pulling him close again, "I was telling the truth when I said I'd never had that kind of sex before. I never let a man take me before. You were the first."

"Jim... " Guilt was a band around Blair's heart. He didn't care that Jim had been with men in the past. It made sense somehow, actually. And it felt okay to know he hadn't been the only one to try gay sex before. But the gift Jim had given him...

And I tarnished it by putting him at risk.

"I'm not sorry, love," Jim whispered, his lips close to Blair's ear. His hold on Blair tightened, becoming crushingly emphatic. "You'll be okay," he breathed. "I won't let anything happen to you."

Fresh tears spilled down Blair's cheeks at the words. "It's not something you can protect me from, Jim. It's too late for that. I could have had the virus for six years by now."

"You said you only did it with him once." Jim was petting his hair and Blair could feel how shaky his hands still were.

"That's all it can take." A shudder ran the length of Blair's body. Jim's embrace got even harder. "Jim, we only did it once. It could already be too late for you too," he said forcefully.

Jim buried his face in Blair's curls, breathing deep of his guide's scent. "I can't worry about that now. I'm only worried about you."

"Jim, I'm so sorry," Blair nearly sobbed.

"Don't, baby. Shhh... " Jim stroked his head, his back. As Blair calmed, he asked, "Did I hear you say you got tested?"

Blair visualized Jim standing in the cold, looking up at their windows. "Yeah. I went to the anonymous clinic."

"What did they say?"

"The counselor was nice," Blair admitted. "She... she said there's a chance... "


"Jim, it's going to take a week for the results to come back. I know there's a slight chance I'll be all right, but... it's like I can't think, can't look forward. Everything just stopped when Ron called me. It felt like my life was ending right then and there. And when I realized I could have killed you too -- I just couldn't tell you right away. We were so happy that night, I don't think I've ever seen you look that happy. I couldn't take that away from you, not like that. Not until I knew for sure about me. I wasn't really thinking though. I couldn't cover up how upset I was. I didn't plan on how I'd react when you wanted to have sex... " Even now the memory horrified him. "It started so nice, you were just rubbing me through my jeans and I thought, like, that's safe, that's okay. And then you started sucking me... I wanted it so bad, it felt so good, my brain just shut off, y'know? And all of a sudden, I realized I was gonna come in your mouth -- " He gasped out the words, unable to go on, remembering the shame he'd felt, the fear. And he remembered Jim's shock and pain. "I didn't mean to hurt you, man. I was trying to protect you."

"Blair, we'd already done it," Jim argued, "it wouldn't have made any difference."

"We don't know that," Blair grated, anger flooding him. "If by some miracle I didn't give it to you when I fucked you, I could just as easily give it to you when I shot my load down your throat." He scrubbed at the tears on his face, struggling against Jim's patient embrace. "I could fucking well be giving it to you now!" The rough words felt good. He was angry -- at himself, at Ron, even at Jim. Angry at a world that could spawn a disease that could infect and kill so silently.

Jim tilted Blair's head back and very deliberately wiped the wetness from his cheeks, his serious eyes locking gazes with Blair's. "I love you, Blair," he whispered.

"I love you too!" Blair shouted, the anger feeding on itself. "I'd never forgive myself if I gave this to you! And in your right mind, you'd never forgive me! I could just see what would have happened if I'd let myself finish in your mouth. I'd have come home one day next week and told you I'm positive and you'd've been ready to blow my brains out with your gun! And I might just want you to do it, too!"

"Blair -- "

"No, Jim, listen to me! I'm nothing, I'm just an anthropologist farting around with his dissertation. But you're a Sentinel, for christ's sake! How many Sentinels are there in the whole fucking world? How could I destroy that? How could I do something to you that would prevent you from taking care of this city? You're meant to protect your tribe, Jim! You can't do that if you're wasting away from AIDS!"

"Blair, shut up!" Jim was gripping his shoulders again, shaking him hard. "Do you think so little of me that you believe I'd take out a gun and shoot you for doing what I asked you to do, what I willingly accepted the risk, the responsibility for? Blair, I'm forty years old and I've never been genuinely in love before. Do you think I'd do anything to jeopardize what we found together? My God, you've saved my life more times than I could count! Do you really think I'd throw you away because of a virus I can't even see?" Jim was white-faced with pain and anguish. "Do you really think that of me?"

"No, Jim -- oh God, no! I don't know what I was thinking, man! I was crazy, I was falling down a hole that was ten miles deep, with no hope of surviving the fall! Please, Jim, I'm sorry. I love you, man! All I could think was I'd hurt you, killed you... when all I wanted to do was give you my love.... "

"And don't you tell me you're nothing, Sandburg!" Jim went on, his voice breaking. "The only person I should take a gun to is that guy that did this to you! How old were you when this happened? How old was he?"

"T-twenty-two," Blair stammered. "He was twenty-six, but... "

"But nothing! Tell me, Blair, how was it? Was it something you liked, back then? Were you glad you let him do it?"

Blair's head was spinning. He shoved himself out of Jim's arms, backing away from him on the bed. "No, I didn't like it! I was ashamed of myself, for getting drunk, for letting him do it to me. I pushed it down until I hardly ever thought about it. Six years went by and I told myself I was straight. I was so straight I never even had the guts to get tested in all that time -- so straight there are probably women I've infected too! That's how 'important' I am!"

"Shut up!" Jim, kneeling up, moved toward him, his face pale with distress, his hands clenched into fists.

Blair drew back again, terrified, too stressed to be able to get away in his kneeling position, half tangled in his blankets, papers getting crushed under him. Jim advanced and he closed his eyes, understanding the man's anger, awaiting the blow he expected, felt he deserved.

It never came. Instead, he was swept into Jim's arms once more and before he could twist away, Jim's mouth was on his, open and passionate, desperate and hungry. He was being kissed savagely, impatiently, more thoroughly than he'd ever been kissed in his life, Jim's tongue brazenly invading his mouth, swabbing his throat, sucking at his juices before he retreated to meet Blair's terrified eyes.

"I love you, God-dammit!" Jim hissed. "I love you!"

"Jim, don't," Blair begged. "I can't... I'm too scared. I feel too contaminated... "

"I don't care about that," Jim whispered, the harshness gone from his voice, his eyes looking moist, tender. "I love everything about you. If I have to lose you someday, I'll face that when it comes. I've faced my own death a thousand times already. I'm not scared of dying. I'm only scared of dying without you." He leaned toward Blair again.

Swamped with love, barely able to take in the vehement declarations from this man who by nature kept his feelings so hidden, Blair accept the kiss this time, expecting the burning desperation of the last one. This time, however, Jim's mouth settled on his with delicate tenderness, his kiss almost chaste in its careful quality. He pressed his chapped lips against Blair's bruised-feeling ones with all the gentleness he possessed. As their mouths touched, Blair felt Jim start to shake violently all over.

"I'm sorry, love," Jim grated, breaking the soft kiss. "I won't force you to do what you're not ready to do. But understand this, Blair. Whether you're positive or not, whether I am or not, we're not going to be apart. I'm going to love you and I'm going to make love to you. If you want to be safe, we'll be safe. If you need to wait 'til you're ready, we'll wait. But I'm not going to have you draw back from me like you're some kind of radioactive waste. I won't let you hurt yourself like that." Jim blinked and water spilled from his eyes. He didn't try to turn away and hide his emotions from Blair; he let the tears fall, his eyes intent on Blair's face, their blue burning with an intensity Blair had never seen before.

In awe, he lifted his hand to wipe at Jim's tears, unconsciously mirroring Jim's earlier touch upon his face. The salty wetness trailing down the proud man's cheeks seemed like a gift of rare value. Blair touched his wet fingers to his lips, tasting Jim's tears, the moisture melding the two of them together as surely as their semen had done when they made love.

Jim leaned closer and his lips caressed Blair's own wet cheeks, tasting the tears he'd unknowingly shed at Jim's words.

"You're my partner, Blair," Jim breathed. "In every sense of the word. Tell me you won't leave me."

"I won't," Blair responded, barely able to form the words. "I won't ever leave you, Jim. Don't you ever leave me, either."

The strong arms swept him close. "Never." Jim held him near for what seemed like a very long time as their heartbeats slowed to normal and the tears dried on their faces.

They must have fallen asleep. The ringing of the phone woke Blair and he found himself half covered by Jim's big body, the phone muffled underneath them somewhere. He nudged the Sentinel, wondering why Jim didn't wake immediately at the sound. Jim responded groggily, finally shifting over and pulling the phone from under his hip.

"Ellison," he answered, his voice a croak. "Yeah, Simon, I'm home." He paused, listening. "No, I'm fine. Yeah, I'll be at the office tomorrow." He turned to look at Blair. "Both of us will be there. Okay. Yeah." He cut the connection and put the phone behind him, looking at Blair appraisingly. "Is that okay? Do you think you'll feel good enough to go in tomorrow?"

Blair nodded. He was still scared, but having Jim close to him helped immeasurably. "I've gotta keep busy," he admitted. "Otherwise all I'll do is sit here and worry about it."

"Good." Jim patted his shoulder, then his hand ran down Blair's arm. He leaned toward him, but instead of landing on his mouth, Jim's lips touched Blair's forehead. Then his head dropped back down to Blair's shoulder. "God, I could sleep for a week."

"I noticed the phone didn't wake you," Blair observed. "You look exhausted. Where were you last night? What were you doing?"

Jim sighed and Blair realized it must have taken a lot out of him to reverse his usual reticence by talking about his emotions so openly, nevermind where he was last night. "I was down at the beach, just standing on the rocks, watching the waves and the stars."

Blair gulped in amazement. "Oh God, it was real... "

"What?" Jim cracked his eyes open to look at him in curiosity.

"I saw you there," Blair told him, still marveling himself. "I was... up in your room, trying to sleep and I... I think being there with your stuff and all must have brought me kinda in sync with you psychically, or something. I had a vision, I guess. I just thought it was a weird dream at first."

"A vision?"

"First I heard the panther growl. I rolled over and looked down and there it was, pacing around the loft like it was looking for you. It was like, all upset. Its tail was twitching, its hair was up all along its back. And then the panther stood up."

"He what?"

"He stood up," Blair repeated. "He got up on his hind legs and sorta morphed, you know, like in the movies when they use a computer to generate a special effect and turn one thing into another -- he morphed into a man. A Chopec native standing there with a spear. He spoke to me."

"Oh man... " Jim looked thoughtful. "I think I've seen that same Chopec Indian," he breathed softly, as though talking too loud would break a spell. "I was in the jungle, dreaming, that time we went looking for Simon and Darryl, remember?" At Blair's nod, he continued. "I was afraid of the panther. That was the first time I'd ever seen it, remember? And it morphed into a man. He was standing in front of a temple and he asked me if I was ready to take responsibility for being a Sentinel. I turned around and found myself at the edge of a cliff. I was ready to take the step that would plunge me off, and it all disappeared. I was back in the real world and my senses were back on line."

"Man, I knew it was something like that," Blair enthused. "You never did tell me the details of how you got them back." He shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. "My vision was almost the same. He said if I was a guide, I should know where my Sentinel was. I told him I didn't and he said I should step off the ledge if I wanted to find you. I was up there in your bedroom, standing by the rail. I closed my eyes and stepped -- and found myself plummeting down off a cliff in the jungle. But when I landed, I was back in Cascade, out on the beach. I saw you standing there on the rocks, Jim. The waves were splashing your legs." He sat up abruptly, eyes going to Jim's pant legs. They were stained with white -- salt water had drenched them during the night. "I called you, but you didn't hear me. The Chopec said I should wait for you to come back on your own or I'd've gone down there looking for you." He shrugged a shoulder, half embarrassed. "I fell back to sleep, and didn't wake up until morning."

"I thought I heard you call me, but it was something I couldn't quite get a fix on, like from a vision," Jim whispered. "But I couldn't come back then, or answer you. I was trying to work through my feelings. I wasn't ready yet." He sighed. "Toward morning, I got in the truck and came home, but I couldn't bring myself to come up here and talk to you. I thought I'd just wait until you went out, then go in and get a shower and some sleep. I was listening to your heartbeat for a couple of hours... " His voice faded. "The longer I listened to it, the more sure I was that I loved you, whether you wanted me as your lover or not. I was going to come up and tell you that, try to patch our friendship back together, when I heard you put on the music and make the phone call."

"No wonder you felt like an icicle when you came in here and grabbed me," Blair scolded him.

Jim shrugged diffidently as though spending the night standing on rocks getting soaked by breakers was nothing unusual. "I must have zoned or something," he finally admitted. "See how much I need you?"

"I was worried when Simon called me yesterday morning. I didn't want him to realize I had no idea where you were, so I didn't know what to say to him," Blair explained. "I was afraid you were so upset your senses would go off line and you'd be out in the woods and need help or something."

"I was stupid to go off like that," Jim said sheepishly. "My senses went into a kind of heightened state, out on the beach. It was like I could hear the whales communicating with each other from miles out at sea."

"Don't try to distract me," Blair told him gruffly, thinking that if the situation wasn't so grave, he'd like to know if Jim were really able to hear whalesongs. "You were stupid to go off like that. This is your place, if you've forgotten."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "I just... couldn't be here with you right then, Blair. I thought... "

"I know." Blair rubbed his shoulder. "I was so upset that until you said it right out I didn't realize you thought my stopping you meant I'd changed my mind. If I'd seen that right away, maybe it wouldn't have gotten so bad. I might have been able to tell you what was really going on."

"I wouldn't let you talk to me." Jim seemed prepared to take his share of the blame for the disastrous conversation.

"You were never able to shut me up before," Blair disagreed. "I was being a wimp. I couldn't just blurt it out. I thought the only way to tell you was to sit down and start from the beginning or you'd... "

"Yeah, we've already been through what you thought, Chief." Jim said ruefully.

"I didn't mean that, Jim," Blair answered. "That isn't just something you just blurt out to someone who's already upset. At least, that's what I was telling myself at the time."

"You are not a wimp," Jim told him. "You're the bravest man I've ever known."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Says you." He couldn't help a chuckle.

"Damn right, says me. Look, I'm the Sentinel. I can sense these things. You're just the guide." Jim tried to sound stern but he was laughing quietly too.

Blair sobered. "I wasn't being a very good one when I let all this happen," he sighed.

"Stop it," Jim scolded. He stretched, groaning as his body shifted from its bent position on Blair's futon. "How do you manage to sleep on this thing?"he complained. He ran a hand through his mussed hair. "God, I'm a mess. I still feel kind of cold, too. I want a shower." He looked at Blair pointedly. "You want to join me?"

"Uh... uh... " The question had come out of nowhere. "I guess. We... uh...never did get to shower together like we wanted to anyway." He didn't know what it would be like, being next to Jim naked. The way he felt right now, he didn't think his body would ever feel arousal again, though he didn't want Jim to think he couldn't respond to him.

But if I do, what happens then? I'm still scared I'll let something risky happen between us. I can't let Jim's sympathy or his trust let us make the wrong choices here.

"Good." Jim got to his feet, stretching his arms up and back until his spine arched and cracked. He turned back to the bed. Blair was still lying there. "Are you coming, Chief?"

Blair struggled up too. "Sure. I guess so."

Jim cupped his face with both hands. "It's going to be all right, Blair. I'll behave myself."

Blair, unwilling to keep hurting the man he loved, leaned up to brush his lips over Jim's in the first kiss he'd initiated since Jim had come home. It didn't last long, but from the look on Jim's face, he could have just spent an hour necking with him.

Jim's smile was incandescent. "I'll go get the water started. Meet me in the bathroom, okay?"

Blair nodded.

When he entered the bathroom five minutes later, he found it warm and misted with steam. Jim had turned the faucets on hot and full blast and had even lit a couple of Blair's scented candles. They perfumed the air with botanical fragrances that didn't irritate Jim's sensitive nose and reminded them both of the jungle. Blair was touched by the effort Jim was making to help him relax.

Blair had slipped out of his jeans and put on a robe, self-conscious at the idea of Jim seeing him without his clothes. Struggling to find some way to act normal in the midst of his fears, Blair checked the cabinet for a special handmade soap he'd found last week at the Granville Market. It was unscented, contained no dyes or abrasives and was made of extra gentle ingredients. It had even been advertised as being especially for "those sense-y folks" and Blair had immediately bought it for Jim. He located it and pulled off the fabric it had been wrapped in, also grabbing a thick washcloth for Jim.

"You gonna get in here or not?" Jim asked suddenly, pulling aside the shower curtain. His hair was drenched, plastered flat on his head and his body gleamed with water and perspiration. Blair felt his throat dry out at the sight.

"Be right there, Jim." He shrugged out of his robe and left it on the hook next to Jim's, then strode naked to the shower. Jim opened the curtain for him, smiling down at him fondly.

"Feels nice and hot in here," Blair approved. He stepped back under the spray, getting his hair soaked and letting the hot water begin to relax his muscles.

"Yeah, I was pretty frozen," Jim admitted.

Blair wet the soap he was holding, working up a lather with the cloth. He was glad to see that the soap made a frothy foam and he couldn't wait to rub it on Jim's body.

"What's that?" Jim asked curiously.

Blair looked at him from under his damp eyelashes. "A new soap I found for you. It's specially made for people with extra sensitive skin."

"Yeah?" Jim's eyes were twinkling. "Put some on me."

"O-okay," Blair stammered. "If you're sure you're not afraid of it." He managed a grin. "I remember when you didn't like anything that was handmade or natural."

"Some of that stuff is okay," Jim allowed, sounding long-suffering, "but don't try putting sandalwood chips on the bathroom floor anymore."

"Hey, I stopped that. I use the spray even though it makes you sneeze, man," Blair protested as he began soaping Jim's shoulders. He swore he could feel a chill still emanating from Jim's body. "Gosh, did you get frozen solid out there? I don't want you getting sick, man."

"I'll be fine, now that I'm here with you," Jim said, his voice serious. He leaned into Blair's touch as his guide rubbed the cloth over his shoulders. "That feels good, but do you need the wash cloth?" he asked. "I'd rather feel your hands."

"Uh, sure." Blair draped the cloth over the towel rack and worked up more lather in his hands, then carefully ran his palms over Jim's shoulders. He kept it up for a while, trying to get comfortable with touching Jim again.

Jim cleared his throat. "You gonna only wash my shoulders, Blair?"

Shaking his head at his own reticence, Blair let his hands drift lower, lightly washing Jim's pecs. He'd always admired Jim's body, as well as the cop's ability to work out so hard to keep it in shape. Jim could well afford the snack foods he loved and the occasional Wonder Burger. Under Blair's hands, the flesh felt smooth and firm. He closed one hand over the curved area at Jim's left nipple, squeezing just to feel the delicious give. Jim groaned, leaning back against the shower wall. His hand settled at the back of Blair's head, putting a gentle pressure on him to lean closer.

Why not? Blair thought, wanting to offer some pleasure to Jim after the way he'd acted their last time. He bent his head, mouth finding Jim's nipple. He flicked his tongue over it and heard Jim moan. Emboldened, he continued, sucking in earnest as the flesh stiffened in his mouth.

Jim's hand tightened in Blair's hair as he enjoyed his Guide's careful ministrations. "I think a little more of me is beginning to thaw out," he whispered.

Blair looked down and noted Jim's growing erection. His first impulse was to reach out and stroke it with his soapy hand, but he held back. He doubted if his own cock would ever get hard again.

Jim didn't appear to notice Blair's nervousness. He leaned closer to his guide, allowing his erection to rub against Blair's wet thigh. The proximity of Jim's hardness felt so good Blair could have wept.

"Hey, I'm forgetting to take care of you," Jim murmured. He turned Blair so that his back was to Jim and soaped his front liberally, his fingers trailing through the whorls of hair on Blair's chest. Blair could feel Jim's cock pressing against his hip.

Jim worked shampoo into Blair's hair, massaging his scalp lovingly and gently. Blair closed his eyes, reveling in the attention. "You're beautiful," Jim whispered. "I love you so much, Blair. I'll always love you, even when we're old and gray."

"If we ever get old and gray," Blair grated,unable to stop himself from reminding them of their uncertain future. "I'm sorry," he rushed to say, fearing the mood of tranquility had been broken.

"It's okay." Jim was patience incarnate, still slowly massaging Blair's pecs and stomach, his movements only comforting, not sexual. "Relax, love. We'll get old and gray together. Of course, I'll be a little ahead of you. Although now that I think of it, maybe I won't have enough hair to be gray exactly."

Blair turned in his arms, framing Jim's face in his hands. "You are the most handsome man I've ever seen," he told him honestly. "I love everything about you. There's nothing wrong with your hair, not here -- " he ran a wet hand over the short strands flattened to Jim's skull, " -- or here." He transferred his grasp to Jim's darkly furred arms.

"What about here?" Jim asked, shifting his hips forward so Blair couldn't help feeling his hard cock against him.

"That's nice too," Blair grinned, letting the devilishness inside him slip out. He slowly trailed a hand down Jim's stomach, lightly teasing, making Jim wait until he finally arrived at the curls lower down. He caught at them, twisting them in his soapy fingers, but didn't touch the straining cock.

"You're mean, you know that?" Jim told him, rubbing his lower body against Blair's more suggestively.

"I'm mean?" Blair complained. He pulled out of the embrace, pretending to work on getting the shampoo out of his hair. "I thought you told me you were going to behave yourself in here. We're wasting water here, y'know? And I'm not even finished washing yet."

"I'll take care of that for you," Jim responded. First, he held him under the spray, getting the suds out of the hair on Blair's front, then he pulled Blair back against his chest again. He re-soaped his hands and rubbed them slowly down Blair's abdomen.

Blair hissed in a breath, feeling warmth gradually centering in his groin. "Oh, man," he whispered, "look what's happening... " He didn't know whether to be thrilled or terrified.

"Blair, you're twenty-eight years old. You're scared, not made out of stone. You're in the arms of the man you love -- " He paused significantly. "Aren't you?"

Shuddering, needing Jim's touch, Blair breathed, "Yes. Yes, I am in the arms of the man I love."

"Good," Jim approved. "I'd be hurt if you didn't react here, Chief."

"It just feels so wrong now, Jim," Blair protested. "I'm scared of hurting you."

"The only way you could ever hurt me was to not love me." Jim let his hands slip lower, finally taking Blair's half hard cock into his soapy grip. He just held him, demanding nothing. "If you feel for me, there's nothing wrong with getting hard and wanting me. I want you."

"Even now?" It was so hard for Blair to believe. "I hate to be a pessimist, Jim, but that's easy to say right now. What if... what if my test is positive and you're okay? You're allergic to condoms, for God's sake. Are you really going to want someone that you can't have real sex with?"

"Real sex?" Jim hissed in Blair's ear. "I'll show you real sex, Sandburg." He took Blair's earlobe into his mouth, sucking wantonly while his hands began to move ever so slightly up and down Blair's cock. Jim worried Blair's lobe for several minutes, eliciting a moan from him, then released it to nibble his way down his partner's neck, nipping and licking, finally stopping at the join of shoulder and throat where he bit down gently, sucking just enough to make Blair arch back against him. In Jim's hand, Blair's cock jerked to attention.

"That's right, baby," Jim murmured, soaping his hands again. He settled Blair back in his arms, his dick fitting up against the crack of Blair's ass and started stroking his partner's cock in earnest. Blair gasped, the pleasure bounding through him, pushing back the fear, reminding him he was alive and young and very much in love.

He arched back, lifting his hands to Jim's shoulders, rubbing them with his slippery fingers, urging Jim's head down to the other side of his neck. As Jim began kissing and nipping again, Blair lowered his arms and reached back to find Jim's ass. The smooth, muscular butt was wet and slick with soap, clenching with the movements of Jim's torso.

Jim's hands tightened at Blair's cock now, stroking and pulling. Blair gasped and shuddered against him, the feel of the steely hard cock rubbing sensuously at his butt pushing his own arousal higher.

Jim had been stroking his cock with both hands, now he used one of them to seek out and tease Blair's nipples, while his other continued pumping Blair in a custom-made rhythm that reminded Blair of tribal music.

"That's good, Jim," he breathed out. "Your hands are the best. I'm feeling so hot."

"Are you going to come for me, Blair?" The skillful hands pumped him, slick from the soap, warm from the cascading shower. On every downstroke, Jim flicked his thumb over the head of Blair's cock, gently fingering the hole that was trailing pre-come. Blair wasn't afraid; the fluid was being washed away under the water.

"Don't think about tomorrow," Jim told him, his voice a rough whisper in Blair's ear. "Don't think about next week, next year, or the next century. Don't think about two nights ago and our misunderstanding. Don't even think about six years ago. There's only right now, right here, my hands on your dick, my dick hard from rubbing against your ass. I'm going to make you come and it's going to be as good as it felt our first time, when you were buried to the hilt in my ass, pounding away at me."

"Oh, God," Blair gasped, feeling his balls tighten and draw up snug against his body. Jim fondled them, his fingers rubbing at Blair's perineum, then brought his hand back to pump vigorously at Blair's aching cock again. "Jim... don't stop... "

"I'll never stop, Blair," Jim promised. "I'll be stroking you on the last day we ever spend on earth. I'll use my hands on you, I'll whisper dirty words in your ear, like I am now. I'll lick every inch of your beautiful body." He pumped Blair calculatedly, hands tight and demanding. "I'll love you better and harder than you've ever been loved in your entire life. I'll love you over the phone. I'll love you with my eyes in a meeting at the station, I'll love you standing over a perp we've just busted. I'll even love you the next time you think of some crazy way to test my senses... "

"Don't give me ideas," Blair grated. He couldn't take much more. Jim's hand was moving faster, harder.

"Come for me, Blair," Jim hissed. "I want you to shoot all over my hands, I want to see your orgasm, feel it, feel how hot it is, pouring out of your body just for me." His hands were a blur on Blair's cock, jerking him hard, the thrills arcing like lightning bolts up and down Blair's spine.

Electric heat pulsed through Blair's veins, sizzling up his nerves, arcing through his muscles, his sinew and bone, searing his heart and soul and mind. He panted hard, wanting to come, needing to come, but something was holding him back. Fear stronger than the power of Jim's touch damned the flood that was surging inside him.

"Blair, I want you to come," Jim begged him. "You're beautiful. You're good and pure and perfect. Come for me, baby. Let it go. Give it all to me, now." He twisted Blair's right nipple between his fingers, milked his cock one final time and thrust hard against Blair's ass.

The flood gates opened. Blair screamed out his release and pleasure, stars bursting before his eyes, feeling the semen spurt from his cock, shooting over Jim's knuckles.

"Open your eyes, love," Jim told him. "See how beautiful you are, coming for me."

Blair moaned and did as he was told, the seed still erupting from his body, rinsed away by the purifying shower.

"That's your life there, Chief," Jim husked. "There's nothing wrong with it, nothing at all. It's part of you, like your sweat and your tears and your blood. I love all of you, I always will." The last word ended in a harsh groan as Jim humped hard against Blair's butt. He clenched his hands on Jim's ass, pulling him tighter against him, rubbing his rear end wantonly against Jim's dick. Jim's whole body jerked as his orgasm hit him, moaning out his pleasure as he came in long spurts.

They ended up collapsed against the wall of the shower, the water finally cooling as it continued to splash over them. Jim supported Blair's lax body in his strong arms; Blair kept Jim on his feet by leaning his full weight against him.

Jim was the first to move, his lips caressing the side of Blair's face. "How's that for 'real sex,' Sandburg?" he asked finally, sounding awfully proud of himself.

Blair turned in his arms and rewarded him with a full and open, deep, tongue-sucking kiss.

A week later, Blair arrived at the East Side Clinic once more, but this time he wasn't alone. Jim drove him and would be beside him as they walked through the door. He put the truck in park but Blair made no move to open his door.

"Well, I guess this is it," he remarked, trying for some levity when it was in impossibly short supply.

"This is it," Jim answered. He turned and met Blair's eyes. "It's going to be all right. No matter what happens, Blair. I promise you that."

Jim had said that before; he'd been saying it for a week now, but Blair still had his misgivings. He believed Jim would stick by him, of course. But 'all right' could be a very relative term.

At least the result was in. Blair had called Abby yesterday and she said his lab slip had arrived and he could come to the clinic to get it today. Last night had been the hardest for Blair ever since he'd been tested, despite Jim holding him all night. He couldn't sleep. Every time he drifted off, he dreamed of hospitals and doctors and nurses dressed in masks, people pulling away from him on the street, and seeing his face turn pale and thin and covered with lesions. And he saw Jim, always beside him, but coughing, losing weight, falling down, dying. He woke in a sweat of fear and every time Jim held him close, wiping the sweat from his face and body, murmuring words of love and support, kissing him open-mouthed and holding him until he dosed again and the process repeated itself. Blair had never been so glad to see morning dawn. Even if it was bad news, at least by this afternoon, the wait would be over.

Jim told Simon Blair had a doctor's appointment and needed him to drive and taken the whole day off. Three days off in one month had to be some kind of a record for Ellison. Blair didn't know what he had told Simon about the first two days he'd taken off, but the Captain hadn't asked any questions when they'd gone in together the next day after Jim came home.

Jim had been so solicitous with Blair, patient with his fears, even unperturbed by Blair's occasional temper-tantrums during the week of waiting as his nerves grew more and more frazzled. Despite the terror that dogged him day and night, Blair realized he would always treasure the days and nights of that week for the side of Jim they had shown him. He'd never expected his partner would be able to express his feelings so verbally, nor so eloquently. And every time Jim made love to him, he affirmed how precious Blair was to him, reinforcing the message he'd conveyed that first afternoon in their shower, that there was no part of Blair that wasn't lovable and that any way they showed their love physically was 'real' sex.

Jim had even told Blair about a few of the men he'd slept with in the past. Jim had been tested before of course. The army had made sure of that and Jim had been tested through the department several times since. And Blair had told Jim a little more about Ron.

Blair had been amazed yesterday when Jim had used the word 'gay' to refer to himself. It was as if a thousand repressed feelings had finally been set free for the Sentinel; Jim was comfortable with every aspect of being with Blair and he didn't hide his feelings when they were around other people either, not that he'd started necking with Blair in the bull pen or anything. Jim had always been physically touchy with Blair, at the loft and in public but the change in their relationship had done nothing to make Jim self-conscious about the touches he bestowed on Blair, or the ones he received from his partner either.

"You going in?" Jim asked softly, breaking into Blair's reverie, "or are you just going to wait out here in the truck?"

Blair took a deep breath. "I guess I'll go in." He looked at Jim. You don't have to go in there with me, you know. You could wait here, or I could call you when I'm ready to leave. I can do this myself."

"I know you can, Blair," Jim said easily. "Now are we going in there or aren't we?"

Shaking his head at his lover's stubbornness, Blair opened his door and climbed out. He strode through the parking lot with a confidence he didn't really feel, but he didn't want to let Jim down after all the support he'd given.

He was all right until they had to cross the street. Then an irrational urge to bolt washed over him and he hesitated as the walk light came on.

Jim stepped in front of him, looked down and took one of Blair's hands in his. "Let's go, Chief," he said quietly.

And Jim Ellison crossed a public street in Cascade, Washington in broad daylight, holding Blair Sandburg's hand.

The waiting room was more crowded this time; Blair's number was thirteen. He showed it to Jim as they found two seats together.

"Great," he muttered. "Look at this, will you?"

Jim met his eyes. "You don't believe in that stuff, do you, Chief? I don't."

Blair closed the number disc in his fist, shaking his head emphatically. "No. I don't believe in that stuff at all. I'm a scientist, remember?"

Jim smiled at him. "Yeah, I remember."

It seemed to take forever to get through thirteen people. Some of them were there for testing, like Blair had been last week, others were also there for results. He tried to check their faces when they emerged from the counseling rooms, wondering if he'd be able to tell if they'd received good news or bad. He figured most of them were okay since nobody seemed to take very long with the counselor when they went in for results.

They were up to number ten for results and Blair hadn't seen Abby yet. He started worrying that he'd get called by another counselor, that maybe she wasn't at work today, although it seemed as though she would have told him that when he spoke to her yesterday about coming in. Finally, he saw her, bringing someone from her office over to the lab to get their blood drawn. The person she was with was an older woman who looked pretty scared as far as Blair could tell. Abby must have had to spend a great deal of time counseling her.

Abby saw him when she went back to call the next number. She nodded in greeting but Blair didn't pick up any vibes from her about what his result might be. Abby had apologetically told him she couldn't give results to anyone over the telephone, no matter how worried they might be, so he hadn't asked. Still, the waiting was getting to him and he wished he'd been able to pick up a clue from her face.

"That's her," he whispered to Jim as she passed, wanting to ask if his Sentinel had detected anything from Abby's heartbeat. He didn't however, figuring that would put Jim in an unfair position.

A big hand settled on his thigh. "Stop bouncing, Chief," Jim whispered, leaning close to him. "You're vibrating the whole room here."

"Sorry." Blair hadn't even realized he was tapping his feet in nervous anticipation.

Finally, Blair was next. He watched for Abby a little anxiously, though she had explained he could say he was waiting for her if one of the other counselor's called his number. Apparently she understood that people liked to talk to the same person for results as they'd had for their pre-test counsseling, especially if they were worried or had spent a lot of time with the counselor.

Fortunately, Abby came out to call the next person. Blair made it to his feet and he felt Jim at his side as he approached Abby with the number disc in his hand. She glanced up at the tall handsome man accompanying him and smiled as she took the number from Blair.

"We usually see people one on one," she told them quietly.

"I'm here with Blair," Jim said in a voice that armed killers hadn't disobeyed.

"I understand, but we'll talk alone first. You can wait out here." She turned to Blair. "If you want to call your friend in after we've had a few moments, that's fine."

Blair found his voice. "Sure." He turned to Jim. "I'll be fine," he offered, pitched so low he knew no one but Jim and possibly Abby could hear him.

Jim nodded once, acepting Blair's decision. "I'll be right out here," he said, returning to his seat and looking at Abby skeptically. If the situation hadn't been so charged with emotion, Blair might have been able to smile about Jim's protectiveness. Maybe someday, he would be.

"Have you got your card with you?" Abby asked as Jim sat down.

Blair pulled it out of his wallet with trembling fingers. Abby took it from him, and glanced at the number on the back. "Right this way." She ushered him to her room and had him sit down. "I'll just be a moment," she told him, leaving to get the paperwork that would seal his fate.

Blair sat down, stood up, then forced himself to sit again. He was nervously tapping his fingers on the desk when Abby bustled into the room. She closed the door, then met his eyes.

Blair held his breath, unable to ask the question.

Abby spoke.

Blair blinked up at her, feeling zoned. He hadn't heard a word she's uttered.

"I said, everything's fine, Blair," she repeated. "Your test came back negative."

His hearing had kicked back in, at least he thought it had. Blair stared at her another moment, then at the paper she slid in front of him as she took her seat at the desk. "See?" She held the card next to the number on the lab slip, reciting the six digits to show him they matched. "Here's your age, your zip code, you're a male... and here's the result: non-reactive. That means no antibodies showed up. You're negative, Blair."

He finally caught the life-preserver and it wasn't a fake after all.

"Really?" he breathed, waiting for the other shoe to drop. "I'm really negative?"

"Yes, you are." Abby smiled whole-heartedly. "I'm so happy for you!" She put her hand on his arm.

"Oh God," Blair gasped. He felt faint. He felt like the knives had finally been pulled out of him, but like a balloon, all the air was now escaping from his body. "Oh God," he repeated.

Her hand gripped his arm more tightly. "Are you okay? You want a drink of water?"

"I... I'm fine." He stared down at the paper, then back at her open expression. "I guess I really am," he continued. "I am fine, aren't I?"

"Yes, you really are." She rubbed his arm as though to restore his circulation. "You're negative. And you told me you were with the positive partner six years ago, right?"

Blair nodded, the word negative reverberating in his mind. "Six years," he managed to gasp.

"Then there's nothing to worry about. Most people form antibodies in three to six months. We're as certain as we can be that you'd be showing them now if you got infected six years ago."

"As certain as you can be?" Blair asked.

"There have been a couple of cases, world wide, where people took a long time to form antibodies even though they were infected, but they weren't the norm. They all had other conditions relating to their immune systems that caused them to be slow in making antibodies. The general population is going to fit the normal time frame. I've never seen anyone test negative after six years, or even two years, and come back again a year later -- without having any more risky behavior -- and get a positive result. Blair, you have nothing to worry about," she smiled. "Unless you or your p artner have had any other partners in the last six months, you're fine." She gave him a look. "That is your partner, isn't it?" This time she grinned.

"Yes, that's Jim," Blair confirmed for her. "He's a cop," he whispered. "Don't tell him I told you that."

"Of course not," Abby agreed. "I thought he looked like he would arrest me if I didn't have good news for you. I just have to maintain every client's confidentiality, you understand."

"Oh, I understand," Blair managed to smile. "But Jim doesn't really get the whole confidentiality thing. He figures we have no secrets from each other."

"Well, a lot of people say that," Abby began.

"We don't," he told her, "not any more. I told him about what happened six years ago." His voice dropped lower again. "And he told me some things about his past too." At Abby's look he continued, "He's okay. He got tested in the army and after his last partner, too." Blair felt a blush creep over his face. "He's really a great guy."

"He looks nice," Abby nodded. "Do you want to call him in and tell him your good news? He might have a question or two."

"Oh. Yeah." Blair got to his feet hurriedly. "We've been in here awhile. He might figure things aren't going so well." He went to the door and glanced toward the waiting room. Jim would hear if he whispered, of course, but Blait called his name at normal volume; no need to do something to call attention to Jim's abilities. In seconds, the tall man was looming at Abby's door.

Blair pulled him inside. "Jim, this is Abby," he introduced them. "Abby, this is Jim."

Abby extended her hand. "Nice to meet you, Jim." Jim took it but looked at her questioningly. "There's nothing to worry about," she offered. "Blair wants you to know that the test came back negative."

"Yeah." Blair took Jim by the arm. "Did you hear that, man? I'm negative!"

The joy that broke over Jim's face was the most awesome thing Blair had ever witnessed. His eyes lost the haunted look they'd worn ever since Blair had confessed he'd been exposed to the virus, their blue returning to a crystal clarity Blair hadn't realized had been marred so much by the worry. Jim opened his mouth and closed it several times before he could get anything to come out, then he gave up trying as a beautfiul smile broke over his face, lighting up the whole room. He looked down at Blair and then pulled him into an unabashed hug, nearly lifting him off his feet in delight.

After a moment, he reluctantly let Blair go but kept an arm around him as he turned to Abby. "He's fine? Really?" At Abby's nod, he smiled again, taking her hand almost reverently. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

"I didn't have anything to do with it," Abby smiled, "but you're welcome."

"You helped a lot, Abby," Blair told her with all his heart. "I don't know what I'd've done if I hadn't talked to you when I called that morning."

"Thanks," she responded. "I'm glad to help. I always like giving out the good news."

Blair gulped, realizing the meeting could have gone very differently. "God, it must be awful having to tell someone they're positive."

"It's not my favorite part of the job, but we have so many resources and ways to help people these days, it's not as bad as it used to be. Knowing we have all that help makes it easier. And I've heard so many horror stories about bad experiences people have had getting a positive result from someone who isn't a counselor or isn't very knowledgable, I'd rather do it myself than have that happen to anybody if I can help it."

"But don't people get really upset, emotionally, I mean?" Blair asked, appreciative of her sincere feelings for people and wondering how she could keep doing this day after day, year after year.

"Yes," Abby nodded. "They do. I've had just about every possible reaction over the years. Actually, it's when the person has no reaction at all that I worry."

"Someone could really get bad news and not react?" Blair questioned, looking up at Jim.

"Strange as it seems, yes. Whether they just don't show their feelings or they've got some other problems, it happens. But then some people get really emotional when they find out they're okay, too," she said, deftly changing the subject to a more pleasant aspect of her job.

Blair shook his head, wiping a hand across his eyes, the reality finally sinking in. "I'm sure they do. Oh, whoa... " He leaned back toward Jim, smiling for all he was worth now that the tension was finally easing for him. "This is wonderful. I still can hardly believe it, but it's starting to feel great."

A warm hand at the small of his back caught him as he swayed, just as he had known it would. "We'd better get out of here, Chief," Jim pointed out, his own smile looking permanently fixed on his face. "There's quite a crowd of people out there today."

"Did you have any questions, Jim?" Abby asked. "I think I've covered everything for Blair."

"He doesn't have to get tested again? You're sure about this?" Jim asked, his eyes narrowing in a shadow of renewed concern.

"No. the only thing that wouldn't show up on this test would be something that occurred less than three to six months in the past. Unless a person or their partner has had any unprotected contact in that time period, the test is accurate."

Jim looked down at her, his face serious. "I haven't had any contact with anyone else in ten months," he informed the counselor. Blair felt his own jaw drop at Jim's open admission. "And I don't intend to ever have contact with anybody else in the future."

Abby grinned at his forthright declaration. "Well, that sounds pretty good to me. I think the two of you will be very happy." She extended her hand and Jim took it, bringing up both of his to hold it for a moment, his smile returning full force. "I wish you the best of luck."

Her eyes were twinkling as she turned to Blair. "I'm so happy for you."

"Thanks again, Abby." Blair pulled her into a hug and held on tight for a long moment. "If there's ever anything we can do for you... "

"Just don't ever let me see you back here again," she chuckled meaningfully as he stepped back. "And donate some money to the AIDS walk when it comes up next summer."

"We will," Blair agreed. He turned to his partner who was still smiling broadly, his eyes full of flashing sparkles. Together, they left the clinic, and this time it was Blair who grabbed Jim's hand as he rushed them across the street without waiting for the light to change.

"Hey, you could get arrested for jay-walking," Jim pointed out.

"I don't care," Blair grinned. "I'm going to be okay." He grabbed Jim around the waist. "And so are you." He closed his eyes. "I'm really relieved about that, Jim."

Intense blue eyes met his. "Me too," Jim admitted. "Let's go home, lover. I think you have a phone call to make."

Blair sobered. "Yeah, I do. I think Ron will be happy to hear the news, too. I only wish his own could have been better. He doesn't deserve to have it, man."

"I know, Blair." Putting his hand on Blair's shoulder, Jim headed them down the street.

December 1, 1999

So on this last World AIDS Day of the millenium, I encourage all of you to remember that this epidemic isn't over. We have made a lot of progress but we have not yet found a cure and we have not yet stopped new infections. People in this country are becoming complacent and world wide, more and more people are becoming infected every day. We must not forget them, or anyone, who is infected or affected by this disease."

With that statement, HIV counselor Abby Munroe held out an unlit candle to the candle flame flickering on the podium in front of her. When her candle was lit, she turned to the Mayor of Cascade who was standing beside her and lit his candle from hers. The Mayor then turned to the next person in the group of speakers and lit their candle. In moments, everyone who was standing in the grove of trees outside the East Side Health Center was holding a lighted candle as they shivered against the cold December night air.

Blair lit Jim's candle with his and together they held their flames aloft. Blair looked around the circle of people gathered there and a feeling of pride wet through him, even as his heart ached for everyone touched by the epidemic. There were so many people, young and old, black and white, women and men, gay and straight, rich and poor. He closed his eyes, saying a prayer of gratitude once again for his negative test result. He and Jim had been very, very lucky. Yet even as he thanked God for his health, he prayed for those who were infected, for those who, unlike him and his partner, couldn't speak out about the virus, couldn't pay their rent or afford their medicine and for those who were no longer alive to be there and light a candle.

He looked up at Jim, his eyes misting up as he thought of last year and what they'd been through. Jim placed his arm around Blair's waist and smiled fondly at him.

Blair leaned his head against Jim's shoulder and sighed, feeling even more proud of his partner. They were supposed to be on stake-out tonight, but Jim had told Simon they needed the night off -- and he had told him why. It was the closest thing to a coming out statement Jim could make to his police captain but it said everything it needed to say.

All of the candles were lit now and the people held them up, their flames flickering like tiny stars in the dark Cascade night, the circle joining everyone there in a unity of purpose and spirit. Abby and the Mayor began walking and the rest of the group joined them to take the procession into the building where a reception would take place. He and Jim walked side by side and Blair nodded and smiled at others in the group as he met their gazes. He didn't know these people, but he felt like he did. They all had the same thing in common, after all.

As they approached the building, he noticed Abby recieving a hug from a young woman who looked familiar. He realized it was the girl Abby had been talking to that day last year when he'd gone in to be tested. The girl had gained weight, Blair thought, and she looked much healthier now. He was glad.

Another person came up and hugged Abby, a man this time. He was handsome and young and it was obvious he and Abby knew each other well as they linked arms to walk for a little way.

"Let's go say hi to her," Blair whispered to Jim.

"Okay. You think she'll remember us?"

"I don't know." It didn't matter, Blair decided. She must see hundreds of people just like them every year. But he remembered her and wanted to say hello.

"Blair?" a voice called out.

Blair and Jim both stopped and turned. "Ron!" Blair hadn't seen him in the crowd. "How are you doing, man? You look great!" He hadn't seen Ron since a few weeks after he'd called him to tell him about his negative result. The two of them had gotten together for coffee at the U and Blair had told Ron about his relationship with Jim.

Ron stepped forward, his fair hair shining in the light of his candle. At his side was a man Blair hadn't met.

"This is Mark." Ron introduced them and Blair reached to shake hands. "This is an old friend, Blair... and... " He glanced up at Jim as he tried to recall his name.

"It's Jim," he answered, shaking hands with both Mark and then Ron. Jim didn't say much to them, but he smiled as Blair chatted a few minutes. Ron said the new medicine he was on was making a big difference in the way he felt and his viral load was almost at zero. He'd gained twenty pounds since he'd last seen Blair and had gone back to work as a guitarist with a new band.

Jim leaned close to whisper in Blair's ear. "We're going to miss Abby if you don't hurry, Chief."

"Oh, right." Blair flashed a grin up at him. "Good to see you, Ron. Take care." He gripped his old friend's hand tightly for a moment. "Nice meeting you, Mark."

Then he hurried over to Abby before she could slip into the building.

"Abby?" he called, catching up to her.

She turned, a ready smile on her face as she looked at him.

"I don't know if you remember me," he explained. "My name is Blair. I came to see you about a year ago." He looked around and found his ever-present partner at his left shoulder. "This is Jim. You met him too."

"Oh yes," Abby grinned, extending her hand. "I remember you very well. I'm so glad to see you here. Hi, Jim."

"It's nice to see you too," Blair told you. "You've been doing this a long time, haven't you?"

"Yes, I have," Abby smile ruefully. "I often say I don't get to retire until there's a cure. I sure hope it's soon."

"Me too," Blair answered. He looked up at Jim who was nodding.

"You do important work, Abby," he told her, clasping her hand. "Thanks for everything you did for us."

"My pleasure." Then another person called her name and she excused herself to hurry inside.

"You sure you don't mind going in?" Blair asked Jim as the crowd passed them. "I mean, with the Mayor here and everything?"

Jim sighed and looked around. "Well, there's nothing much on TV tonight." Then he turned serious. "No, I told you a hundred times, Blair. We belong here -- we would no matter what happened with your test or how our relationship turned out. Besides, I love you and I don't care who knows it. Let's go in. It's freezing out here."

Jim leaned forward then and kissed Blair right on the lips, then grabbed his arm and dragged him into the health center.

End World AIDS Day by April Valentine:

Author and story notes above.

Disclaimer: The Sentinel is owned etc. by Pet Fly, Inc. These pages and the stories on them are not meant to infringe on, nor are they endorsed by, Pet Fly, Inc. and Paramount.