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A Seal Upon Your Heart

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A Seal Upon Your Heart

by Jyllean

Thanks to Lyn and Delilah for their beta efforts. Anything else was my fault anyway.
This story picks up where Phantom leaves off.
This story is a sequel to: Phantom

Blair Sandburg leaned against the metal walls of the elevator, noting the graffiti that had been added since yesterday. He snorted. Nope, Tiffany wouldn't be getting a call from him today, whether she was a good time or not. He juggled his burdens as the doors opened to the fourth floor. He should have taken the time to pack it into a bag, but Jim was anxious to get out of here. He hadn't realized it would be so awkward.

A wheelchair was waiting in the hallway outside of Jim's room. The doctor had insisted Jim take it for the trip to the station and then home. Wishful thinking on his part. No way was Jim showing up to a press conference other than on his own two feet. Blair wished again that he and Simon had been able to forestall this little sideshow. The Chief of Police and the mayor had been insistent. Apparently the dramatic rescue of elementary schoolchildren from an urban terrorist was just too sensational for the politicians to pass up. No one seemed impressed by the reality that Jim had been under the surgeon's knife barely thirty-six hours earlier, and that included the patient. Jim just wanted out. If he had to tap dance with the mayor to get there, so be it.

Blair knocked gently and pushed the door open. The knock was unnecessary. Jim was already looking at the door expectantly. "Hey, there," Blair said. "Your gentleman's gentleman has arrived."

Jim laughed. "You don't look like Jeeves. Did you shrink?"

"Enough with the short jokes, or I'm abandoning you." Blair set his burdens down on the unused bed. "You'll be meeting the press in a hospital gown."

"And here I was thinking that things couldn't get any worse. That would be worse."

"No. Worse would be bleeding out from your incision because you're too damn stubborn to stay here another day."

"You worry too much. Hand 'em over, Chief. This hospital gown is history."

Blair moved underwear, shirt and pants over by Jim's feet on the other bed. "What did the doctor say? Are there any meds I need to pick up?"

"An antibiotic and pain meds. Forget the pain pills. They don't do any good." Jim handed the prescriptions to his partner. "Other than that, the usual. Rest, stay off it, blah, blah."

"Advice which you're going to ignore, of course." Blair read through the slips quickly. "Yeah, I remember that one. It was a loser. Do you want me to ask for something else?"

"No. I'll be fine once I get home. Just being stuck in here is way worse than anything with my leg. It's not like I'm an amputee or something."

Blair knew better than to argue the point. Jim was being released early because any hospital stay was pure torture for a sentinel. He knew from past experience that any residual fatigue and stress would catch up with his impatient patient when they got back to an environment where he could actually relax.

"Okay, you dress and I'll get the prescription filled." Jim was already out of bed and balancing on his good leg before Blair made it to the door. "Uh, Jim?" He waited until Jim looked him in the eye. "You don't have to prove anything here. Take it slow."

"I'll be careful."

The pharmacy was slow, and Blair wasn't surprised to find Jim fully dressed and waiting in the bedside chair, looking a bit triumphant. Blair smiled. "I see you found my secret surprise. I dug it out of the storeroom in the basement."

Jim waggled one end of the cane in the air. "You are a genius. I've got all my paperwork, so let's give 'em the slip while we can."

"You really are incorrigible. Be a good boy and don't upset the nurses. You can use the cane at the station." Blair pulled the wheelchair into the room. "Your chariot awaits."

Jim hobbled over and swung awkwardly into the seat. Ignoring his protests, Blair knelt and eased the injured leg into the footrest. Jim grabbed his hand before he pulled away. "We need to go home." He wrapped Blair's hand in a more encompassing grip, and his expression softened. "We have other things, personal things."

Blair took note of the deserted corridor, pressed a kiss to Jim's knuckle and smiled. "Yeah, we do have a couple of things to talk about, don't we? Soon enough. We have all the time in the world."

Blair stood off in the wings, waiting quietly as the press conference proceeded. This was exactly what Jim didn't need: lights, noise, flashbulbs going off. Blair noticed the telltale signs of overload. Jim was starting to frown and shift uncomfortably in his chair. If they didn't wrap this up soon, he was going to be severely overextended. He checked his watch. Five more minutes, he promised himself. He'd pull the fire alarm if necessary.

So far, things had gone well. All the mucky mucks wanted to glorify their "support" for the valued, decorated Detective Ellison during this dangerous and difficult time. Funny how they forgot about nearly pulling his badge. Blair wondered if that twit Purnell would ever answer for his actions.

The only blessing was that Jim hadn't been called upon to speak much. The questions directed at him had been pretty adoring. Jim had been able to concentrate on thanking his fellow police officers and the members of the public who had assisted in the investigation. So far, so good.

Blair moved a few steps and caught Simon's eye. He made a cutting motion across his throat. Blair had spent years in front of a classroom. He had a keen sense of when a group was getting restless. They'd covered all the easy ground. Pretty soon, someone was going to get bored and start pressing Jim for details that he wasn't about to discuss publicly. After a few moments, Blair repeated the gesture. This time, Simon seemed to sense the urgency. He leaned over and spoke a few words to the Chief of Police. Warren nodded in agreement.

"Excuse me, everyone. Thank you for attending, but we need to defer to other priorities. Detective Ellison is, as you know, recovering from a gunshot wound, and we've already exceeded the guidelines of the medical personnel. If any further information develops, the department will issue a statement." Warren rose from his seat, and moved to shake Jim's hand. Brief applause rippled across the room.

Simon moved quickly between Jim and the other dignitaries on the platform. "Let me give you a hand down the stairs."

"Just as long as you get me out of this circus," Jim muttered. He wrapped an arm around Simon's waist and let the taller man take most of his weight, allowing him to hop the stairs on his good leg. "Thanks, Captain. I can handle it on the flat with the cane."

"I'm walking you to your car." Simon threw an irritated glare over his shoulder. "I never should have let those idiots bully us into this. Sandburg, why don't you meet us in the back? What are you driving?"

"Jim's truck. It's not the smoothest ride, but it's harder for him to get into the Volvo. You'll be okay, Jim?" Blair asked.

"Just get me out of here." Blair hustled off. Jim did well for about half the distance before the pain got the better of his irritation. He stopped for a breather.

"Are you sure you don't want to ride the rest of the way? I can get a wheelchair from the first floor." Simon asked. Jim shook his head. "I'm proud of you, you know. You didn't deck our good mayor the moment you saw him."

Jim started to hobble along again, leaning ever more heavily on the cane. "The man could use a few lessons in loyalty. Just make sure I don't pull any duty in his vicinity for a year or so." When they reached the back entrance, Sandburg was nowhere to be seen.

"Damn, where is he?" Simon fumed.

"Probably stuck in a mob scene," Jim said. "Better him than me. When will he have to see the powers that be for the shooting?"

"I requested that we have the hearing at the loft, tomorrow. That way we can get it over all at once. You were the primary witness, so your testimony is essential. I don't want you out running around, and I don't want Sandburg waiting any longer than necessary." Simon checked outside again. Still no Sandburg. "It will be ruled a clean shoot. Is Sandburg okay? Faller was a bloodthirsty bastard, but taking a life in the line of duty is always rough. I tried to talk with him while you were in surgery, but he refused to discuss it. I haven't made any progress since, either."

"I'll make sure to talk with him. He had no choice. None of us had a choice." He cocked his head slightly. "Truck just turned the corner."

Simon pushed the door open. After he'd helped Jim into the passenger side, he concentrated on Sandburg. "The deadly force hearing is tomorrow. Jim can give you the other details. Taggart's bringing some groceries by so you don't have to go out again. You get this guy in bed, you hear me?"

"Got it, Captain," Blair said. Simon shut the door with a wave and Blair put the truck in gear. He was primed to grill Jim on everything: how he felt, his senses, his pain level.

Jim stopped him with a wry grin. "You realize our superior officer just told you to take me to bed, don't you?"

Blair did a double-take and cracked up.

Jim sat down on the bed. Blair knelt to remove his shoes, and Jim didn't object. "You overdid this, Jim. Too much walking around too soon."

"You may be right, but it's over now." Jim leaned back on his elbows. His leg ached more than he was willing to admit.

"Didn't stop you from climbing these stairs," Blair grumbled. "You could have used my room. The doctor specifically told you to avoid stairs."

"The doctor doesn't know about your futon, the Cascade equivalent of sleeping on a bed of nails."

"There's nothing wrong with the futon," Blair said, starting on the second shoe. "You realize every trip to the bathroom, you're going to have to do those stairs again."

"Fine. You win. But if I don't sleep up here, I'll just do a sleeping bag on the floor. At least the floor is flat. That futon is all bumps and valleys."

"Okay, Jim. I won't argue with you, if you just promise not to take them on your own." Blair grabbed some extra pillows from the storage closet. "You stretch out and I'll bring up something for you to eat."

Jim sat up and grabbed him by the elbow. "I don't want anything to eat right now. Just stay."

Blair scooted around to the other side of the bed, frowning. Jim was still sitting up, so he did the same, his legs stretched out straight in front of him. "Are your senses spiking? Or is it your leg?"

Jim did the last thing he expected. Without a word, he stretched out sideways, laying his head on Blair's thigh. "Yes, maybe, all of the above. Actually, my ribs bother me more than anything else, but that's not a big deal. I just want you to stay, that's all."

Blair felt rather than heard the yawn. Just as he'd expected, Jim was finally crashing. Sore, overwhelmed and emotionally drained, Jim was just asking for a peaceful moment. Blair leaned back towards the head of the bed, one elbow on the pillows. "Just relax. Give yourself some time to unwind." Jim took a deep breath and let it out. "That's it. Just lose the tension." Blair held the silence, consciously slowing his breathing into a steady rhythm. They stayed there, motionless, for a few minutes. Then Jim took an especially long deep breath, the tight muscles sagged, and his head settled onto Blair's lap.

He was sound asleep. Knowing how little rest Jim actually got in the hospital, Blair was grateful. He shifted ever so slightly to relax himself. He had no intention of disturbing Jim by trying to go downstairs. Gently, he rested an open hand on Jim's hip.

What would it be like, to touch Jim as a lover? Or be touched by him? Blair shivered, unwilling to direct his imagination. So many questions, so much unexplored territory. Did Jim really like guys? In how many years, he'd never seen a hint. Were there serious relationships in his past? What would Jim want to know about his own loves, male and female? Blair traced his fingers along the seam of Jim's jeans. Jim had a beautiful body. Would he feel unevenly matched? Would he notice that the Jewish guy with glasses wasn't sporting a six pack?

Jim said he'd waited a long time, but he'd been involved with ladies, Veronica most recently. What was that about? Should he ask? Would they be exclusive? In the closet or out? What about Simon, and the other members of Major Crime? What would Jim tell his father, and his brother? God help him, what would he tell Naomi?

Without realizing it, Blair had dropped his head onto the pillow. He'd sat in constant vigil by Jim's bed through the wee hours of the morning, doing what he could to soothe a disoriented sentinel coming out of anesthesia. The following night hadn't been any more restful. His eyes drooped as his mind spun through an endless series of questions. As he contemplated the thought of buying Jim a ring, and why that seemed somehow hilarious to him, he followed Jim into slumber.

Jim opened his eyes to the light of early afternoon. He sensed Blair close by, asleep. He rolled slowly to his back. Blair's head was arched back, nestled onto the pillows. They'd probably fallen asleep within minutes of each other. Quite the passionate homecoming.

Jim slowly traced figure eights around Blair's knuckles and sent a silent prayer of gratitude to the heavens. He could easily have lost this young man, or died at Faller's hands himself. He had hoped to sweep Blair off his feet, to romance him. Now, after all that had happened, he was sure they needed to take several huge steps backward.

Blair had seemed receptive to his aborted overtures. The bracelet still sat in the drawer of his nightstand, along with Blair's request to ask him again when Faller had been dealt with. That wasn't really Jim's major concern.

It wasn't just the tangle of personal issues. Blair would need time; time to reconcile his genuine idealism with the fact that he'd taken a life. Jim remembered vividly Blair's reaction on the practice range the first time he was faced with a human silhouette. The younger man had turned and walked away without a word. Ten minutes later he'd returned, donned the ear protection and continued his practice, never to mention the incident again. Would this be too much for him to live with?

The reality saddened Jim. It would be unfair to press the question of a relationship just now, as if it were a ploy to keep Blair by his side. Blair might not connect the two issues, but he couldn't take the chance. He truly wanted Blair's answer, and hopefully, his commitment to a relationship, to be untainted with other issues.

He'd waited this long. He could wait again. Blair was worth it.

At that moment, he realized that the subject of his rambling thoughts was watching him. "Hi. What time is it?" Blair shifted slightly, finding a more comfortable angle for his head.

"Decided to wake up before you became a human pretzel? It's about three."

"I suppose you didn't look at a clock." Blair stretched lazily. "It must be a sentinel thing. Sorry about crashing like that."

Jim rolled his shoulders. Sandburg, as it turned out, had an especially nice lap. "Why? I'm not complaining. Besides, I think we're moving up. Last time I got you in this bed, you were carrying."

Blair answered with a snort of laughter. Jim promptly snaked a finger into his companion's rib cage, bringing about some delightful squirming. Jim raised himself on one elbow. "On the seduction scale, this must rate about a two. Obviously, my technique needs work."

Blair trapped the offending hand. "This is seduction? Quit tickling. You're injured. If I have to be nice, you have to be nice." His face went very serious. "This is kind of weird, you know? I don't know where to start."

"Yeah, well, I don't exactly know where to start, either. We kind of got high centered at a critical moment."

"Jimmm! A truck analogy? Please - do I look like a Ford to you?" He caught the mischievous gleam in Jim's eye, and made a break for an escape. "Don't answer that."

Jim caught him easily. Blair was too worried about his gunshot wound to put up much of a fight. "Well, there's that spare tire I wanted to talk to you about." It was easy to home in on a few especially sensitive spots. Things were just beginning to get interesting when the doorbell rang.

Blair struggled out from under his tormenter and Jim let him go. "It's just Joel, Chief. He was bringing groceries, remember?"

"Great," Blair said softly. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and blanched. "Shit, I look debauched. I need a hair tie, or Joel will get the wrong idea." He scampered down the stairs. "Coming! Just a second!" he called.

"Hey, Chief!" Jim said, peering through the railing.

"Yeah?" Blair asked, stopping halfway to look back at Jim.

"What exactly IS the wrong idea at this point?" Jim asked, grinning.

"Jim! Cut that out!" Blair hissed in a scandalized whisper.

Jim just smiled, enjoying the possibilities.

Joel not only brought several bags of groceries, he also supplied dinner. It took two more trips to ferry everything up from the car. "Man, that smells delicious," Blair said as they came back in for the last time. He turned to see Jim at the bottom of the stairs, preparing to hop across the room to retrieve his cane. "Jim, are you out of your mind?" Blair said sharply. "Can't you wait for anyone?" He grabbed Jim's cane and brought it to him.

"Relax, Chief. I didn't hurt myself. Besides, who can stay in bed when there's lasagna around?"

"I could have brought you a tray," Blair said.

"Right. We can eat in the bedroom, and you and Taggart can sit on the floor to keep me company. Good to see you, Joel."

Joel pulled a chair back from the dining table. "Get over here and sit down. I agree with Blair. We'll let you unwrap the takeout." While Blair worked on unpacking the groceries, Taggart wasn't content until Jim was seated and had his leg comfortably propped up on pillow.

Chores complete, all three dove into green salad, French bread and cheesy lasagna. "Doesn't this look great? I figured it wouldn't interfere with any meds Jim was on," Joel said, spooning generous servings onto plates. "Besides, I know neither of you ate anything worth mentioning for the last few days."

"Tony's makes the best pasta," Blair said, speaking around the bread in his mouth. "Except for Jim's, of course, but we'll excuse him from the kitchen for a few days at least."

"Whack off another hunk of that bread, will you, Chief?" Jim accepted it gratefully. "How were things at the station after we left?"

"Chaos. Simon spent the afternoon reminding the mayor that Purnell committed more than a minor indiscretion. In his spare time, he was wringing his hands on how to cover the overtime in the budget or adjusting the schedule so everyone gets a little downtime. I finally kicked him out right before I left. He's supposed to be on restricted duty for a few more days." He shook a finger at Jim. "Don't you look guilty, Ellison. Faller was an act of nature. A little overtime was a small price to pay."

"I know. I just feel responsible."

"Well, don't," Joel said. "Who shall we blame Kincaid on? Or any garden-variety street criminal? We do our jobs, and the fact that it's inconvenient sometimes isn't the issue."

"Doesn't help that I'm on suspension," Blair said. He picked at a chunk of lettuce pensively. "That leaves the unit two people short instead of one."

"We'll save that discussion for later," Taggart said firmly. "Now come on, guys, lighten up. I'm starved. I know you're starved. Let's enjoy the meal."

They fell into easy banter as the food disappeared. After the second helpings were nearly finished, Taggart produced his surprise. "I saved the best for last. I just happened to mention that this takeout was for Detective Ellison and his partner." Joel tapped Jim on the hand solicitously. "You know Tony. He was sure you looked pale and underfed on television today. They threw in dessert with their complements."

"You're kidding! Dessert at Tony's is a slice of heaven," Blair said as Joel brought a Styrofoam box from the fridge. "When did you sneak that in?"

"Doesn't matter. Feast your eyes, my friends. Tiramisu, cannoli, something called zeppole, and some others I forgot."

Jim already had his fork to sample a slice of very chocolately, very gooey cake. "Oh, yeah. Come to papa." He savored the small bite with relish. "For this I'd get shot more often."

"Don't say that even in jest, Jim," Blair said with a warning look. "I'll get plates, and I'd better get a few bites of that cake."

It was not a moment for restraint. Blair made coffee, and they polished off every last delectable bit. "Oh, man," Blair groaned. "That was awesome."

"That it was," Joel agreed. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. You earned it, you know." He swirled the creamy coffee remaining in his cup. "Now I'll allow the serious stuff." He looked steadily at Blair. "This is the only official business for the evening. Simon would have done this himself under normal circumstances, but God knows, he needed to be home in bed. First of all, you're not on suspension. You're on administrative assignment, translation: paperwork and answering the phone. Are we clear on that point?"

Blair nodded. "I guess I thought it was all the same."

"It's not. Second, this isn't an IA investigation, although we're sometimes sloppy about how we refer to it. You've never been through a deadly force hearing, have you?"

Blair's contented smile evaporated. "Well, sort of, with Jim."

Jim shook his head. "Actually, you had to give testimony for IA, because it was a formal investigation. This is just a Firearm's Review Board."

"This happens even if you drop your gun and it fires by accident," Joel explained. "It's more of an interview. They'll decide if you followed the proper procedures. If procedures were followed, it all ends right then and there."

"Oh," Blair said. "Not such a big deal. I guess I knew that from the academy. I was just remembering those IA things with Jim, and got it garbled together."

"You've had a couple other things to think about, Chief. I should have realized you might have them confused." Jim frowned. "Crap, I've got to quit forgetting you're a rookie."

Joel nodded. "So you can relax a little bit, but it's still nerve-wracking. No matter what you know about the process intellectually, you're never completely prepared. I'm going to have you go over it with me, just like I was the hearing board. Simon would do the same with any of his people, so don't think we're doing anything extraordinary."

"Well, uh, maybe you could just go through the procedure with me," Blair said hesitantly. "That is, if you really think it's necessary."

"It will make you more comfortable in the long run. They'll take Jim's testimony, then yours. Maybe ask a few questions. The physical evidence from the scene is pretty overwhelming. It's just a formality, really. Now, go ahead. Start at the beginning."

Blair swallowed. Then in a low voice, he described arriving at Foster Ridge State Park, searching for any sign of Faller, and following the sound of rifle shots. His description of the final moments, hoping that Faller had indeed lost the sight in his left eye, running up the slope to be close enough to take the final shot was delivered in slow, terse monosyllables.

Jim nodded. "That's good, Chief. Just stick to the facts."

"Jim's right. You'll do fine. Is there anything you need to bounce around?" Joel asked. "Even when you're clearly in the right, these hearings are tense."

Jim watched his partner apprehensively. Blair seemed at a loss, but there were no glib obfuscations. Joel frowned. "Blair, is there something wrong?"

Blair didn't answer. Jim expected this to be difficult, and wanted to make it as easy as possible. "Chief, there's absolutely no question. Faller was firing on a fellow officer. He was threatening civilians."

Blair fumbled with his napkin. "Well. I don't know. I just don't want to lie."

"Lie?" Jim asked, totally confused. "You don't have anything to lie about," he said pointedly.

"What if they ask me... want to know..." Blair stopped speaking and sighed. "I mean, I'm supposed to feel bad, aren't I?" Jim watched in horrified fascination as the dam broke before his eyes. Blair's studied composure evaporated, the pitch of his voice rising. "What if they ask me that, huh? I don't feel one bit bad. I wanted to kill that son of a bitch. Am I in trouble if I tell them that?" Blair was breathing hard, almost panting. "I never thought I'd say that about anyone. After what he did... to everyone." He looked at Jim, a bit desperate. He alone was privy, via Jim, to Faller's worst depravities. "He should never have been born. I'm glad I shot him. Don't think that's anywhere in the code of conduct, is it?" He flung down his napkin and bolted for the balcony.

Jim started to rise, but Taggart caught him. "Let me. He'll need to talk through it again, and that will be your turn." He shut the glass door behind him.

Jim listened, without shame.

"Not my finest moment. Sorry."

"Every cop dreads the time he has to pull the trigger, Blair. I know you thought about it long and hard before you went to the academy."

"I did. I expected it to be awful. I expected - regret. What's wrong with me? What kind of a person kills without remorse?"

"I wish I could have spared you this, so soon in your career. Let's look at this from what the board is concerned with. Did you go up that hill intending to kill Faller?"


*"Would you have taken the shot if Jim or those children hadn't been in immediate danger?" *


"Was there any alternative? Any hope of capture, negotiation? Would he have surrendered? Was there backup readily available?"

"It happened so fast. Maybe if I...I don't know."

"Blair, look at the evidence objectively. He was terminally ill, and he couldn't face his own day of reckoning. He wanted to die on his own terms. He was a coward in the end. After looking at all the information from Kelso, I'm convinced he would have turned the gun on himself before spending a moment in custody. He would have forced your hand, one way or the other."

"Even if you're right, what does that have to do with the way I feel? I killed a man, and God help me, I'm glad I killed him."

"Blair, son, listen to me. We're trained to not follow any impulse toward being a vigilante. That's why we have procedures to help us through those moments of great emotion. The Cascade Police Department will hold you to the procedures, and that's what they will ask you about. You will truthfully tell them you followed those procedures."

"That doesn't change my lack of - "

"Blair, you listen to me very carefully. It is not a flaw of character to recognize and destroy pure evil. Once in a great while, we have to be God's avenging sword. You did your duty, and you know it was right. There is no shame here. You are not a monster. The fact that you can question your own motives is testament to that."

At the sound of the first ragged sob, Jim was on the move. Joel had an arm wrapped around the shaking shoulders, tears streaking from his own dark eyes. "Let it go, son. You've lost your innocence, but not your humanity."

Jim stood on the other side, pressing close, his hand on the back of Blair's neck. Together, they waited for the storm to pass.

Joel finally departed. Joel Taggart was a rare man: a veteran without the cynicism that usually went with long service. What was a platitude from anyone else was wisdom from Joel. Jim was grateful for his steadying presence. He'd allowed Blair to bustle with other things: washing the dishes, helping Jim with a shower, changing the dressing on the surgical incision. Jim, of all people, appreciated the need for a little avoidance. From his seat on the couch, surrounded by pillows, he knew Blair was winding down. It would be his turn soon.

"Okay, it's antibiotic time." Blair handed him the medication and a fresh glass of water. "If they upset your stomach, I'll make you some peppermint tea. No holding out on me."

"Thanks. The first two doses weren't bad." Blair settled into one of the chairs across the room. Jim crooked his finger at him.

Blair started to shake his head, then gave in. "I want you to be comfortable," he protested.

"You close is comfortable." Jim moved his leg across Blair's lap. "You know, when we first met, I thought you wore everything on your sleeve. Took me awhile to figure out you were damn selective with the emotions you displayed. I'm getting better at deciphering the code."

"Jim, I just don't want to talk about it anymore. One breakdown a day is plenty." To Jim's eyes, his friend looked terribly tired and dispirited.

"What, you think it's embarrassing?" Jim asked.

"Well, yeah." Blair settled back onto the couch as he shrugged his shoulders. "I've been working with you for years, and a full-fledged detective for long enough. I should be able to handle it better."

"What's your definition of better, Chief?"

"Give me a break, Jim. Joel has to explain to me the difference between IA and firearms review? I completely lose it in front of both of you? Forgive me, but I can see some areas that need improvement."

"Want to know how I handled my first kill?" Jim set the mug of tea on the coffee table. "Took out two guys in a firefight. If I don't shoot them, they shoot me. So, truthfully, I was pretty justified, but they were young, just kids, really. When we got back to base, I drove fifty miles to the nearest town, got drunk and stayed drunk for three days. It wasn't pretty. I would have been AWOL if one of the guys on the team hadn't dragged my ass back and stayed with me for the next week. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. I lost count of how many times I broke down. Anyone with a brain would have questioned my fitness for duty. Fortunately, my CO was a bit short in the brains department."

Blair looked shocked. "I don't know what to say. I can't imagine."

"You've got a short memory, partner. A couple days ago I had a grade A, big time meltdown in this very spot. Want to know what I was worried about? That once you knew the truth about me, about what I've done in my life, that I'd blown any chance I might have had with you."

"I never thought that!" Blair protested.

"I know. You heard the worst, and you told me none of it made any difference, that you knew what mattered. Even then, I doubted it." Jim placed a hand on Blair's knee. "You're doing the absolute same identical thing right now. Thinking that now that I've seen this part of Blair Sandburg, I'll think less of you, or I'll be packing your stuff. Am I right?"

"No... yes." Blair sighed. "It's just, look at how pathetic this is. I'm supposed to be taking care of you, and here I am, acting like I'm the center of the universe."

"You are the center of my universe," Jim said softly. Blair looked even more upset.

"Even if you think that's true, you can do better. You should do better. Professionally and personally. Don't you understand that?"

"No, I can't. Chief, I need you to hear me. When I drove through those woods, knowing Faller was waiting on the other side, I didn't think my chances of survival were too high. The only regret I had was you. That's it. Only you. How is it you used to say it? We're on different learning curves. You got the whole relationship thing sprung on you just a few days ago. Faller speeded things up for me. I just don't have any doubts about the two of us together. I don't want you worrying about anything on that score."

Blair nodded slowly. "I hear you. I don't understand it, but I hear you."

"You shot a man. Fine. It's every cop's worst nightmare. If you decide it takes too much of your soul to keep doing this, I want you to quit. I might quit with you, because I'll go anywhere, do anything, to share the rest of my life with you. That's how I feel about it. It's you I want, not Detective Sandburg."

"You'd do that?" Blair asked, aghast. "You'd leave the department?"


"Okay." Blair thought for a moment, then seemed to take some confidence. "Okay, I guess I can do this."

"Good, then we take first things first. We get through the hearing. We take care of the big things, the personal things, in good time. I did a crappy job of asking in the first place, but you haven't turned me down. There's no rush, no timetable, no deadlines."

"You're damn right I didn't say, 'no,' but I admit, I feel kind of overwhelmed."

"I can't imagine why," Jim said sarcastically. "I don't know about you, but I'm running on fumes. What do you say we go to bed?"

"It is pretty late. You need your rest. I'll help you upstairs and lock up." Blair started to shift Jim's legs so he could stand.

"Not so fast, there." Jim grabbed Blair's wrist. "I want you to sleep upstairs. If you need a practical reason, I can keep the pain dialed down a lot easier when you're close."

"Oh - really?" Blair looked a bit sheepish. "I'm usually not the shy one when it comes to bed. It just seemed like maybe now's not the time. We have so much to talk about. I thought... maybe it would be better... you know?"

Jim smirked. "What do we really need to talk about? Boxers or nude? Condom brands? Pitch or catch?" Blair promptly blushed, then laughed, breaking the tension. "Hey, I'm with you there. We do have a lot to talk about, and it's more than I can handle tonight. But you, close, maybe steal a kiss or two? That sounds really nice." Jim carefully pulled the hair tie from Blair's mane, and tucked a strand behind his ear with a tug. Blair leaned ever so slightly into the touch. Jim pulled his hand away slowly. With a neutral gaze, he waited for Blair to meet his eyes.

Blair stood, and helped Jim ease to a standing position. He wrapped an arm around Jim's waist. "You let me take the weight this time when you do the stairs. I'll be up as soon as I shower."

Jim wrapped his near arm around Blair's shoulders. He was so pleased he could hardly contain himself. As they took the stairs, one at a time, he whispered as seductively as he could, "You know, I've always had a thing for those chili pepper boxers, if you can find them."

Blair laughed so hard they both almost tumbled down the stairs.

The clock said four when Jim looked. He groaned softly and looked to his right. Blair, sleeping soundly, occupied the usually empty space. Carefully, Jim adjusted the blanket to cover a bare shoulder. His bedmate had forsaken the t-shirt and sweats he often wore to bed, and appeared in his slightly rumpled chili-pepper boxers, a good thing as it turned out. Despite the limitations of an injured leg, their first encounter had been decidedly spicy. Jim had managed to steal his kiss and a little bit more.

He was definitely paying for it now. The ache in his leg was the culprit, rousing him from sleep. He carefully shifted position, hoping to relieve the pain. Not much better. Finally, he stuffed a pillow under his knee. That helped a bit. He knew from experience that noticeable improvement was a few days off. It certainly wasn't going to get better if he kept racing around on it. He rubbed his hand across the bruise still spreading on his chest. Kevlar stopped a bullet, but the impact still did damage. Basically, now that he was awake, he hurt all over.

His restless fidgeting created an answering stir. Blair squirmed, and mumbled, "It's early." He snuggled closer to Jim's side, burrowing into his shoulder. "Mmmm - w'rm."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you. Go back to sleep." He would have turned to join the snuggle, but a sharp pain from his incision put a stop to that.


"Yeah," Jim said quietly. Blair's eyes were closed; he might not even remember the conversation in the morning. "Just an ache."

"Dial..." Blair yawned, eyes still shut. "Down." He grabbed Jim's hand and pulled it to his chest.

Jim could feel the steady thump of Blair's heartbeat. Damn, Sandburg was good, even when only partially awake. Jim closed his eyes and allowed the rhythm to seduce him back into slumber.

"Sandburg, stop, please. I know you're nervous, but this place is just too small for pacing."

"I think this would have been easier if I'd just gone down to the station. Maybe I should get a lawyer. Doesn't the PD have lawyers?" Blair pulled fretfully at his khakis. "Am I too casual? Maybe I should put on a tie."

A babbling Sandburg was a nervous Sandburg. "Sit. In. The. Chair." Jim said firmly. Blair promptly sat down. "You only need representation if you're under investigation. They're just going to take our statements and that will be the end of it." Jim was back on the couch, his leg propped up in the air. He was definitely paying the price for overdoing his first day out of the hospital. It was shameless, but one sure way to ease Blair's nerves was to get him concentrating on other things. "Do you think you could get me some aspirin?"

"Aspirin? Sure." Blair rocketed into the kitchen for a glass of water. "Do you need another pillow? Are you sure you don't want me to call for some pain meds?"

"No," Jim said, satisfied that he could keep his partner distracted for the time they had left to wait. "You were right. I should have been more careful yesterday. It aches a lot less when I have it up."

"Maybe I should check the dressing again." Blair was kneeling by the couch, his fingers tracing the edge of the bandages. "Can you tell if it feels hot? Maybe I messed up last night and it's infected."

"The incision is fine. Didn't you tell me you had something for bruises?"

"Yeah. It's a new gel that's supposed to really do wonders." Blair did a double take. "Where do you have bruises?"

"Nothing from last night, if that's what your overactive imagination is thinking. When we're done with this, I'm going to turn you loose." He looked fondly at his partner. "Right now you might want to get off the floor. Simon just got out of the elevator."

"Cigar?" Blair asked knowingly, heading for the door.

"Cigar," Jim said decisively. "He can go air out on the balcony for a few minutes," he added as Blair was opening the door.

"I heard that, Ellison," Simon said. He stuffed the unlit cigar he'd been playing with back into his pocket. "I see you're in true form. The rest of the review board will be up in about twenty minutes. I left them taking statements from Sandburg's partners in crime. I think Major Crime set a record for number of interviews in a single day." He looked around the room. "Okay, we can shift some furniture around and this will work out great."

"Who did we draw?" Jim asked, watching the other two men moving chairs around.

"Captain Merriman is the non-unit Captain."

"Do I know him?" Blair asked.

"Probably not. He's relatively new. Heads up the Sexual Assault Unit, and came on board while you were at the academy. Then there's the Deputy Chief, who runs the show, someone from the academy, and Lieutenant Nelson from Southwest Precinct. I'll be here, and a community member from Professional Accountability, but the two of us don't vote."

"I've heard good things about Merriman," Jim commented. "Who's the Training Rep from the academy?"

"Bailey," Simon answered, watching Blair's reaction.

"Crap," Blair said. "The man hates me. He made it real clear what a travesty my presence was." He sat down in the closest chair. "That's it. I'm dead."

"He still has to follow the rules, Sandburg, no matter what his personal feelings," Simon said. "You have the advantage of knowing that if there's anything to nitpick, he'll be the one to do it. Just roll with it."

They had just finished their furniture arranging project when the bell rang. Blair moved to stand closer to Jim while Simon answered the door and got everyone seated.

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim whispered. "Just remember to breathe."

"If only," Blair replied, with a look that said otherwise.

Jim was to be interviewed first. Blair retired to the far side of the room. The review board didn't seem to want him to leave, even though he would have been perfectly willing to if asked. After a few general questions to get everyone oriented, Deputy Chief Metz moved to the topic at hand. "Detective Ellison, please describe the events leading up to the shooting for us, please."

Blair listened, fascinated, as Jim related his frantic departure from the PD, desperately trying to keep up as Faller sent him on a merry chase. He described losing all contact with backup in the park, the discovery of the jeep, the further instructions that led to Foster Ridge State Park.

"So you would describe this as carefully planned, Detective?" Captain Merriman asked.

"It was minutely planned and executed. There was a worry doll at each location, which was Faller's signature, or his message, if you will. The whole charade was calculated to cut off any communication or backup."

"What was the significance of the dolls, Detective?" Blair cringed. Jim couldn't, or wouldn't, answer that. Of course, it was Bailey who had asked the question.

"I'm sure Captain Banks has explained that I can't discuss some issues concerning Lincoln Faller. All I can tell you is that they constituted a threat to the wellbeing of the children Faller had kidnapped."

"That's an inadequate answer, Ellison," Bailey snapped.

"Be that as is may, I can tell you with certainty that Faller had no intention of letting either those children or me survive. That's all I can say."

"For the moment, perhaps we should move on," Metz suggested. "Why did you abandon the jeep?"

"It ran out of gas, by design. He wanted me stranded and on foot. When I came out of the woods, Faller was at the top of the ridge. He was communicating through a radio he left for me. I'm sure it's in evidence. He informed me that he would detonate charges to kill the children. I had the choice of trying to get to them, or get to him."

Metz shuffled through some papers. "We have photos of the area, if you'd like to look," he said to the other members of the review board. "I understand we're talking about several hundred yards, Detective."

"That's right, without cover and all uphill. Faller was a trained sniper, and he had a rifle. As I tried to get to the first child, he started shooting. I lost count of how many rounds. I was only going maybe five or ten seconds between shots. I got to the first child and heaved the charge away just in time. At that point, it was obvious; the only thing I could do was take Faller out. There was too much ground to cover."

"You were already wounded at this point?"

"Yes, sir. I started running straight up the hill at Faller. It was then I saw Detective Sandburg coming from Faller's left, closing fast. I stood up, trying to draw his fire. To my eyes, Faller took his last shot at me just before Sandburg fired on him. That was the round that hit me in the chest."

"Detective Sandburg fired three shots, not just one," Merriman pointed out. It was a statement of fact, not a question.

"That's correct. He needed all three. Faller didn't go down right away. In fact, when Sandburg came to my assistance, I was yelling at him to go back and make sure Faller was down for good."

"I see," Merriman said. "Detective, do you believe Detective Sandburg had any other options available to him?"

"No, sir. The last round Faller fired ended up in my Kevlar."

"So if you had not been wearing a vest, the shot would have been fatal?" Metz asked

"Yes, sir. Trust me, sir, the bruise is bad enough. He hit me dead center."

"Are there any other questions?" Metz asked. "In that case, thank you, Detective Ellison. Detective Sandburg, your turn."

Blair moved forward and sat next to Jim, since that placed him directly in front of the review board. Metz nodded at Captain Merriman, who continued the questioning. "We have previously interviewed Detectives Rafe and Brown. According to them, you arrived at Foster Ridge State Park and split up. Is that correct?"

"Yes, sir." Blair's tone was quiet, with little emotion, but Jim could sense the tension radiating off him. "We weren't sure that Faller was there. It's a huge place. It seemed prudent to cover as much ground as quickly as possible. I was working through the picnic area on foot when I heard the first shots. All I could do was follow the sound. I got there just before the first explosion. Jim - uh, Detective Ellison was under direct fire as soon as the dust cleared. I went after Faller."

"You didn't fire immediately?" Merriman asked.

"No, sir. I was out of range, and there was no cover for my approach. Staff at the physician's office indicated Faller might be visually impaired in his left eye. I took the chance and moved on him."

"How many shots did he take before your first shot, Sandburg?"

Blair thought for a moment. Jim noticed Bailey stiffen, no doubt waiting for an opening. Blair chewed on his own lip briefly and then answered, "I'm not entirely sure. Three for sure, I think. Probably more, not counting the explosion." He looked somberly at Jim. "I didn't expect to see Jim alive after the charge went off. When he got up, I could see he was limping. Faller was taking aim - I just had to fire as soon as I thought I was in range." He looked down at the floor. "When he didn't go down, I kept firing."

"You didn't identify yourself as a police officer?" Bailey asked sharply.

Blair's eyes widened in alarm. "No, sir. His range with the rifle was much longer than my service revolver. I couldn't say anything until I got close enough to take the shot, and then there wasn't time."

"Identifying yourself isn't optional, Sandburg," Bailey said. "You should know that, Detective."

Blair was visibly shaken. "Detective," Merriman prompted softly, "Perhaps you could elaborate."

"There was no one else." Blair shook his head. "Jim was already wounded, and there was no backup. I was the only one. If I went down, Jim and those children would have been at Faller's mercy. I couldn't take the chance."

"You felt you had no other option?"

"No," Blair said in a whisper. "There was nothing else I could do. If there had been another way, I would have taken it." Blair looked studiously at the ground. After a moment he swallowed hard, and added, "This was a real problem for me when I started at the academy. I questioned whether I could used deadly force when it was called for, and end up endangering someone else's life. If the situation hadn't been so dire, or it had been anyone other than Faller, I'm not sure I could have done it."

Merriman glanced at the other members of the review board. "I don't believe we have any other questions for you at this time, Detective Sandburg. We'll notify you through Captain Banks of our findings."

Deputy Chief Metz stood. "Detective Ellison, we'll allow you to get back to your recuperation." The group filed out of the loft, Simon and Blair bringing up the rear. Simon stopped at the doorway and shook Blair's hand. "I'll call you. You did just fine, Sandburg. I expect you in the bullpen tomorrow morning."

Blair sat limp in the nearest chair for a few moments. He looked distraught. Jim wanted to do something, anything, to help, but waited for Blair to make the first move. "I think I need to go for a walk." Blair's eyes looked haunted. "Will you be okay?"

"Sure," Jim said. As the door shut, he said softly to the empty room. "The question is, Sandburg, will you be okay?"

Jim was dozing on the couch when the phone started to ring. He grabbed the cordless off the coffee table.


Hey, Jim. Is Sandburg there?

No, sir. He was kind of keyed up. He went for a walk.

*He's been gone all this time? Joel told me he was working through some things. Despite that idiot Bailey, the Review Board came back with a unanimous decision. The shooting was ruled justifiable and imminently necessary. *

Good. I didn't think they could see it any other way.

Jim, he did a fine job. Between you and me, both Metz and Merriman feel strongly about issuing a special commendation for valor. I'm damn proud of him.

I wish he felt the same way, sir, but I think he'll come around. You want him in tomorrow?

Yes, if you can manage on your own.

I'm fine. What are you going to stick him with?

Paperwork. You would not believe the amount of paperwork that's piled up in this place.

Damn. Pretty soon everyone will figure out that Sandburg is the goose that laid the golden egg. I'll have to fight them off with a stick to keep them from stealing him.

Well, your paperwork has never looked better. Tell him not to be here before ten, and give him the good news.

Yes, sir. I'll do that.

Jim hung up and stretched. It was a mistake and he groaned. His chest ached fiercely. Deciding he needed the bathroom, he located the cane and gingerly made his way across the room. After finishing the necessities, he unbuttoned his shirt, pulled off the tape and examined himself in the mirror.

No wonder he was aching. The left side of his chest, spreading across his heart, was swollen, stained purple and red from the bruise. It had been bad enough yesterday before they taped it at the hospital. Now it was at least twice as large. He couldn't cover all of it with an outstretched palm.

Jim considered soaking in the shower, or even running a bath, but that would mean dealing with the surgical incision snaking down his thigh. That would take way too much energy. He ran hot water into the sink, dumped a washrag into the water and made a hot compress. The heat singed his skin, but penetrated the sore, abused muscles.

He was still repeating the process, wincing each time, when he heard the key in the lock. "In here, Sandburg!" he called. "I was beginning to worry about you."

"You okay in there?"

Jim poked his head around the door. "Maybe you could come in and give me a sponge bath," he said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.

"Will you cut that out! I never knew you were such a tease."

"You don't sound too annoyed," Jim said with a smile. He could hear the fridge opening and closing. "Simon called. The review board ruled the shooting totally justified - unanimous, by the way."

"Really? I was sure Bailey - well, let's just say I'm relieved." Blair appeared at the door, sipping a bottled water. He caught a glimpse of Jim's chest. "Oh my God. Is that from that last shot? Let me look at that." He took the washrag out of Jim's hand and touched the purple flesh gently. "Why didn't you tell me it was this bad?"

"I was ignoring it. Besides, it was covered up with tape. I was beginning to feel it, but it looks worse than it feels."

Sandburg rolled his eyes. "It looks like you need to be in traction. You must be dialing it down. I could barely move when I took a bullet through Kevlar, and this is a hundred times worse. What were you doing, anyway? Heat is the worst thing for a bruise."

Jim shrugged. "It just felt good. Right now, a hot tub sounds good."

"Well, that's not happening either. Get in here," Blair said, motioning toward his bedroom. "I swear, I turn my back on you and look what happens." He was stacking pillows on one end of the futon. "Sit down and try to lean back so you can be comfortable."

"Owww! I guess that tape was helping after all," Jim moaned, slowly lowering himself back. "What are you up to?"

"An anti-inflammatory to start with. Here, take these," Blair said, holding out water and aspirin. "Then we'll try this Arnica gel."

"Arnie what? Let me see that." Jim looked at it skeptically. "Are you sure this isn't some banned substance somebody snuck across the border?"

"No!" Blair said, clearly irritated as he snatched the tube back from his partner. "You have such a suspicious mind. This is the stuff I was telling you about. It's botanical name is Arnica Montana. Leopard's bane, a yellow flower, and no, you don't smoke it. It's a very legitimate herbal remedy. It stimulates white blood cells, and it's used for bruises, sprains, muscle and joint pain, that sort of thing." He spread some of the cream on his hand.

"Let me smell that before you touch me with it." Blair held out his palm. Jim sniffed tentatively. "Doesn't smell too bad."

Blair shook his head indulgently. "It's in almond oil and cocoa butter. No more dangerous than suntan lotion. I wouldn't pick anything harsh to use on you. Now let's see if I can work this in without making you hurt worse."

Blair's first strokes were tentative, barely smearing a few thin streaks with each fingertip. "Tell me how that feels. I don't want to put a lot on until we're sure it isn't irritating."

"Wow. It's warm." Jim waited a moment. "Warm, but it doesn't burn. Try a little more."

Blair proceeded cautiously. Eventually, he was massaging the cream all across the bruised area. Jim sighed in relief. "That really works. It feels so much better."

"I'm not going to put the tape back on. I can see some irritation from the adhesive."

"There should be an Ace wrap in the medicine chest," Jim suggested.

It was a slow process, but the added support from the elastic bandage and the cream did their work. By the time Blair was finished, Jim was much more comfortable. "Think you could rest while I make us a late lunch?"

"Actually, I think I can." Jim leaned back on the pillows. "I'll just rack out here. Even I can handle the futon for a few minutes."

"Good. I'll be back in a minute."

Jim felt incredibly relaxed. The pain relief might not last, but for now, it felt great. The presence of Blair in the immediate vicinity made things much easier. He wriggled his shoulders into the pillows and closed his eyes, following the movements of Blair in the kitchen by sound.

Blair stared at the contents of the kitchen cupboard, trying desperately to regroup. Soup. Soothing, but mindless. As he opened the can, he wondered if Jim could tell his touch hadn't been entirely clinical. Jim had often mentioned he could pick up the physical indications of lust from other people: heart rate, pheromones, that sort of thing.

Ooookay, Blair, so you are definitely hot for Jim's body. He dumped the soup into a pan, contemplating some other areas on Detective Ellison's lean frame that would be interesting to massage, probably with something more erotic than a cream for bruises. He started the soup heating and sighed in disgust. That bruising was hellacious. How had he allowed Jim to talk him into messing around last night, even a little? Jim no doubt dialed it down, but he was obviously hurting now, paying in pain for a few moments of pleasure. Some caregiver he was turning out to be, and talk about selfish!

Joel had supplied them with meat and cheese from the deli, so the next task was sandwiches. Blair grinned as he picked through the selection. You wouldn't guess from external appearances, but Jim and Joel were definitely soul brothers when it came to food. Jim would be in heaven, and it wasn't time to fuss over cholesterol. Blair piled on layer after layer, lecturing himself that no matter what, Jim's physical pleasures were going to be limited to gastronomic contentment and healing rest. No more falling for the sly smiles and double entendres. He never would have guessed that Jim Ellison was such a shameless flirt, or that he would be melting at lines just one notch above, "Would you like to come up and see my record collection?" He'd just finished his masterpiece when he realized the soup was near boiling. To his chagrin, he noted that 'Little Blair' was about to boil, too.

"Down, boy," he muttered, and then realized that Jim had probably heard that and was snickering into the pillow. It was going to be a long afternoon. Where were the guys at St. Sebastian's when he needed them?


Jim clicked off the television. For some reason, SportsCenter just wasn't riveting when you watched it all the time. Who knew?

Sandburg had returned to work, still on administrative leave until the inquest into Faller's death, which was just a formality. The DA's office had already made it clear that no charges would be filed. The loft was quiet without him. Jim had dutifully rested, swallowed antibiotics and watched television. He read the Cascade Herald down to the last classified. One bright spot was the article reporting the outcome of the Firearms Review Board, clearing Sandburg of all wrongdoing. Deputy Chief Metz had been highly complementary of Major Crimes', and of Sandburg's, performance in particular, hinting that commendations were in the works. Gratifying, but for Jim, a bit short-lived in the thrill category. He'd worked the crossword every day to completion, shorted receipts for tax time, performed every menial task he could think of.

He was bored out of his mind.

Not just bored, but frustrated. Damn, Sandburg was a stubborn man. After seeing the chest bruise in full Technicolor, he'd somehow come to the conclusion that intimacy was too strenuous and interfering with Jim's recovery. The chili pepper boxers disappeared. When Jim managed to coax him upstairs, he was damn near dressed for the tundra. That marvelously suggestive first massage with arnica had digressed to the purely clinical. Kisses were pronounced a temptation best avoided. Casual conversation would have met the standards of a Victorian maiden.

Jim frowned. It was time to take some action. He wasn't supposed to go back to have his stitches removed for several more days, but the level of itching told him the worst was over. That was the ticket. Maybe if he could get them taken out early, Sandburg would be a little more open to influence.

The whole idea appealed to Jim. He couldn't drive, but a cab would be a piece of cake. Compared to Sandburg, bullying medical personnel into removing stitches would be easy and welcome entertainment. Actually, he was thrilled with the entire idea.

He called the doctor, and the cab company. Getting into something street appropriate wasn't much of a problem. He smiled to himself as heard the crotchety old elevator make its noisy way to the third floor, so he knew it was working. Excellent. Making it down three full flights might have been dicey. He collected the cane and his wallet, not paying a lot of attention to anything else. Yes, yes, things were looking up. He fumbled a bit getting the door open, jostling the keys and the cane...

"You! Why are you here?"

Jim's head snapped up, not entirely sure what buzz saw he'd walked into. Or more correctly, hobbled into. "Hello to you, too. I live here, remember?"

Naomi Sandburg stood trembling before him, her voice rising in anger. "Blair should be here. His car's here and your truck is gone. Where's my son?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," Jim said sarcastically. "Why don't you come in?"

If Naomi had been calm before arriving, it was eroding quickly. "How can you even speak to me? Act like I'm just dropping by for a visit and nothing is wrong? I've heard all about it - how you've turned him into a killer."

Blair was going to love this. Jim was glad he wasn't at the loft for this blindside, but it didn't seem the time to share. "Naomi, why don't you come in and stop shouting."

Naomi slid past him into the entry. "It's all your fault. Don't you deny it!" The slap caught Jim by surprise. Naomi burst into tears and took aim again, completely beyond reason. Jim dropped the cane and caught her hand in midair.

"That's enough," he said quietly.

Naomi jerked her wrist out of his hand. She brushed by him, tears streaming down her cheek. "Where is he? What have you done with him?"

"He's on duty, Naomi." Jim leaned down awkwardly, retrieving the cane.

"Then I'll have to wait for him here. I'm not going into that den of vipers without a flamethrower." She crossed her arms in over her chest. "You were going out? Well, go right ahead. I can't be civilized with you. I hope you fall down the stairs. I hope you're run over by a garbage truck."

Jim looked at the distraught woman indulgently. She was more upset than truly angry, and would no doubt regret every word. "That already happened, actually. Blair knocked me down and the truck went right over the top of us."

Naomi shrieked. "No one can generate that much bad karma! Don't even speak to me! I... I... just go!"

Truer words were never spoken. Jim left.

"Hey, Sandburg," Brown called over the bustle of the bullpen. "Look who's here."

"Knock it off, H. I'm busy."

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Henri Brown teased in an amused singsong.

Blair kept right on typing. "You guys get all this paperwork done for you and all I get is crap for it."

"You're right. I'd strike, if I were you."

Blair's head snapped around with a force worthy of whiplash. "Jim? What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded. He scrambled away from the computer. "What's wrong?"

"Take it easy, Chief. I was feeling good, so I went down and got my stitches out a few days early. Actually, I'm cleared to return to limited duty. Starting tomorrow, we'll be doing paperwork together."

"You what?" Blair stammered. "You can't fool me. They just cleared you to get rid of you. You didn't drive, did you? Not even you could be that stupid."

"Who's calling my detective stupid?" Simon emerged from his office. "Did I hear you right? You're cleared?"

Jim handed Simon the appropriate paperwork. "Signed, sealed and delivered. Two weeks of desk duty, but it's better than nothing."

They'd drawn a crowd by now. Jim ignored Sandburg glaring at him, returning the greetings and good-natured teasing. When things thinned out a bit, Jim perched on the edge of the desk, content to take some weight off his leg. "Hi," he said, smiling sweetly.

"Don't you 'Hi' me," Blair snapped. "I can't believe you did this."

"What's to believe? I was feeling better, and I was bored. I'd rather come back to work than sit by myself."

"And you couldn't wait for me to take you tomorrow? I could strangle you when you pull stunts like this."

"Well, no, I couldn't wait, and I had a good reason."

"I don't want to hear some lame excuse." Blair reached over his chair and grabbed his leather jacket. "I'll tell Simon I'm taking you home. Don't even try to talk me out of it."

Blair was halfway across the room before Jim decided he really ought to break the news to him. "Uh, Chief? You may have competition when it comes to strangling. Naomi's at the loft."

Blair turned around very slowly, his eyes wide. "Mom?" Jim watched the wheels turn. "She knows?"

"Oh, yeah, she knows. She definitely knows."

Blair sat down abruptly. "Maybe I should just finish a few things up, you know?"

Jim nodded knowingly. "Might be a good idea."

"Right. I wonder how Simon would feel about us just sticking around for a few - days?" Blair closed his eyes and lowered his head into his hands. "Damn, damn, damn."

"You've told me this twice, and I still can't believe she slapped you. Naomi believes in nonviolence."

"I wouldn't count on it, Chief," Jim said, pushing the elevator button for the third floor. "I think she'd call it overwhelming provocation. If it's okay with you, I'll just go upstairs and stay out of the fray."

"What do you think I should say to her?" Blair asked. He was flattened against the side of the elevator as if it would provide some protection.

Jim clapped his friend on the shoulder. "Unless I've missed my guess, you're not going to get a word in edgewise." They stepped off the elevator. Jim recoiled immediately. "Oh, shit. Sage. Lot's of it. On second thought, I'll go on the balcony."

"Coward. You just want an easy escape route."

"Hey, she's your mother." Jim motioned Blair forward. "After you, Detective."

Blair cautiously peeked around the door. "Mom? You here, Mom?"

"What, you were hoping I left?"

"Ouch," Jim said, wincing for effect. He patted Blair on the back. "Be strong."

Blair rolled his eyes and led the way. "Mom, it's good to see you. Give me a hug."

Naomi had changed into jeans and a peach-colored sweater. There was no missing the storm cloud on her face. Jim went the opposite direction and stepped onto the balcony, leaving the door open. Even in the fresh air, the sage nearly choked him. He watched the scene unfold in silence.

Blair put his sweetest smile on his face. "You could have called, Mom. When did you get in?"

"Blair Jacob Sandburg, don't even," Naomi scolded. She smoothed a hair along his forehead. "Your aura is in absolute tatters. It's worse than I ever imagined." Tears pooled in her blue eyes.

"Mom, don't cry. Everything is fine... " Blair tried to wrap an arm around her shoulders. She slapped the hand away.

"This is a disaster. I never should have allowed it to get this far, but that's another issue. I'm only concerned with your wellbeing right now."

"Mom, maybe you should quit acting like I was thirteen. I'm sure you don't know the whole story. I know you're upset. I'll make us some tea, and we can talk"

"You think we'll have tea, light a few candles and that will solve everything?" Naomi shook her head violently. "Oh, no. Absolutely not. This is way beyond a little meditation."

She crossed her arms and paced restlessly around the small living room. "We're not staying here. I'm serious, Blair. I've consulted with people that specialize in traumatic events, and the most important step is removal from all negative influences." She glowered at Jim, still waiting silently on the balcony, leaving no doubt as to what negative influences needed to be abandoned. "I've located a Watsu practitioner, which is exactly the supportive environment you need to release all those negative emotions. Not that someone shouldn't have intervened immediately." She looked sternly at Blair. "It's delayed, but if we act quickly, that might be enough to get started at least. I insist we leave."

"Mom, I'm not going anywhere," Blair said gently.

"But you have to," she pleaded, tears close again. Then she shifted gears, going for 'tough mom,' stomping a foot for emphasis. "You can't stay in this place, with that man."

"No, Mom."

Naomi dissolved into tears, waving her arms toward the balcony. "It's all his fault. He's preyed on your goodness, overwhelmed you with all this violence and negativity."

"Mom, you can't say those things about Jim. This was an evil man, and I had as much responsibility as anyone to keep him from hurting any more people. He was threatening to kill children." Blair placed his hands on his mother's shoulders. "I'm glad you're here, I welcome your support, but we're not going to have more Jim-bashing."

"No, no, NO!" Naomi shouted. "It's got to end, this influence he has over you. You can leave him, sweetie." She clutched Blair's hands, pulling him towards the door. "Just walk out the door, sweetie, and breathe again. Just take that first step."

Blair gave Jim a despairing look, then looked back at his mother. "You are my mother, and I love you, but I am not leaving my home, or leaving Jim. Now stop this."

Naomi smiled brightly, as if a little positive reinforcement would do the trick. "Don't be ridiculous. Detach with love, sweetie. He's just a roommate, someone you work with. Everything will be fine once we get started."

Blair's shoulders sagged. "You aren't listening. I'm not detaching anything." He looked at Jim again, silently asking the question. Jim gave him a tiny nod. "Mom, Jim and I are together."

Naomi froze. "Together? As in sleeping - together?" Blair nodded. She took a step backwards. "No. You can't be serious."

"Of course I'm serious." He studied Naomi's horrified face. "I didn't think you'd have a problem with an alternative lifestyle. I want you to be happy for me, Mom. So you can understand why I'm definitely not leaving."

"Alternative - happy - I don't care if you do a whole colony of dwarves, but you cannot be serious about being with - him!" She threw up her hands and stalked toward the balcony. "You are bedding a jackbooted thug and you want me to be happy?"

"Mom, that's enough," Blair said sharply.

Jim stepped off the balcony, suppressing a gag reflex when the sage hit him. "Naomi, I love him. I'd never hurt him."

Naomi closed her eyes. "I am calm. I am calm. I'm in a fucking nightmare, but I am calm. I am calm." Then she collapsed into chair, dissolving into tears. "You don't understand. You're my baby, and I can't do this all by myself."

Blair kissed her gently on the forehead. "It's okay, mom. Shhh. I know."

Together, they watched the last rays of the sun dance across the water. The view from the roof was beautiful on any evening, but tonight it seemed especially peaceful. Maybe it was the contrast with the storm of emotions in the loft below.

"It was a good idea to come up here," Blair said. "Give mom a chance to regroup."

Jim pulled him closer. "Naomi isn't the only one who needs to regroup, Chief."

Blair sighed. They were seated on the brick facing that bordered the rooftop of 852 Prospect. He was facing away from Jim, and leaned his head back onto the taller man's shoulder. Normally, Blair didn't enjoy being this close to the edge, but after a few hours with Naomi, anywhere with Jim was a welcome haven. "She's really upset. I'm sorry about the things she said to you."

"Don't worry about it." Jim slowly massaged the tense shoulder and neck muscles of the man in front of him. "She loves you, and she's frightened. I can relate to that. I'm the expert in fear-based response, remember?" Jim stopped the massage, hooked his chin over Blair's shoulder, and wrapped his arms around his waist. "She's distraught. She didn't mean it - not really. Your mom's a kind, gentle, person, but even the kind and gentle blow a fuse once in a while."

"Maybe," Blair said without smiling. "How's she doing?"

Jim listened for a moment. "She's crying again, but not hysterically. I think she just needs some time." He locked his hands over Sandburg's belt buckle. "It's a little ironic that you let her think we were already lovers."

"Yeah, kind of a cheap shot, but I knew that would get her attention."

"You got her attention, all right," Jim said wryly.

"Mom's really open minded if you can get her to slow down."

Jim snickered. "For all the peace and love, she has a redhead's temper. I'm going to have to talk to her about the dwarf comment."

Blair giggled. "She can turn a phrase, can't she? We had some real knock-down, drag-outs when I was about fifteen and still knew everything."

"She has my sympathy. A smart-mouth teenager with your brains and vocabulary? You must have been a handful."

"It didn't happen very often. Naomi can usually talk you into seeing it her way before it descends into argument. The art of gentle persuasion; you never know quite what hit you." Blair sighed. "And then there are times like this."

"Who spilled the beans?" Jim asked.

"I never even looked at a newspaper, but I guess the grand finale made the national press. One of her friends noticed the name and called her. She was better after I explained the circumstances a little more clearly, that there were lives at stake. I guess I should have anticipated that, and called her right away." He looked over his shoulder. "At the time, I was a lot more worried about you."

"I'm sorry about this, Chief. Sorry you were ever in the position to take the shot in the first place, sorry Naomi had to find out this way."

"Yeah, well it's been that kind of a week, hasn't it? You're not off the hook either. Why did you take off and go to the hospital? If you really thought you were healed up, I would have taken you. What was the hurry?"

"I could blame it on Naomi, but I was headed out the door when she showed up." He nuzzled Blair's neck. "If you must know, I was getting frustrated with the Iron Nurse routine. I was kind of hoping that if I was cleared for duty, I could get somewhere with you." Jim slid his hands slowly downward from the belt buckle, cupping his hands across Blair's jeans, pleased with the reaction he got. "It would make staying home a lot more interesting."

Blair arched slightly into those caressing hands. "Mmm - you're shameless. Naomi has nothing on you. What, I'm supposed to feel guilty for putting your health first?"

"I'm sure someone's done research on sex and the enhancement of healing." Jim nibbled at Blair's earlobe, snickering when a shiver ran up Blair's spine in response. "See. We're doing the follow-up study. Think of the contribution to modern medicine. We can do tests."

"Now there's a first - you agreeing to do tests. Think of how embarrassing it will be when someone finds us naked on the roof of our building." Blair squirmed away, capturing Jim's hands in his own. "This thing with Naomi, the hearing, not to mention Faller - the whole thing has just been a roller coaster. I feel wiped out, like it's all been too much." He leaned his head back. Jim could see the shadows under his eyes left by fatigue and worry. "Just hold me, okay?"

Jim tightened his arms around Blair's waist again, ignoring the twinge from his ribs. "Oh, yeah. I can do that."

By the time they returned to the loft, Naomi had composed herself. In their absence, she'd investigated the kitchen, thawed out some frozen chicken, made a salad and warmed some bread. She wordlessly enveloped Blair in a hug. After giving her son a peck on the cheek, she turned to Jim.

"I apologize for my behavior towards you. I hope you can forgive me. If you and Blair are going to start a life together, I don't want to be a problem."

"I've been known to blurt out a few ill-advised statements from time to time." Jim took her hands, looking at her seriously. "We don't have much common ground, Naomi. We may not see eye to eye, but you're a good person, and I hope you'll accept that I'll do everything I can to make Blair happy, and to keep him safe." Jim sincerely hoped she'd catch the unspoken part of the message: that he'd regret forcing Blair to choose between them, but he had no intention of letting him go without a fight.

Naomi tried to answer and couldn't quite get the words out. Finally, she managed, "I hear that."

"Why don't we eat?" he suggested. "I'll open a bottle of wine. Chardonnay or Riesling, Chief?"

It was a pleasant meal, if a bit subdued. Jim figured both Naomi and Blair were emotionally exhausted, and made a conscious decision not to feel uncomfortable with the silence. He pushed a second helping of chicken on Blair, and took some for himself. "The chicken is great, Naomi. Feel free to drop in and cook more often."

"Considering that I nearly took the place by storm, that's a charitable invitation," Naomi said. She picked at the salad with her fork. "Can I ask the two of you a few - personal things?"

"Sure, Mom," Blair said, silently checking with Jim as he said it. "You just have to promise to take 'no' for an answer." Jim nodded in agreement.

"This is recent?"

"Yes and no," Blair said. "Look around you, Naomi. Jim and I have more overlap in our lives than most married couples, and it's been that way for years. I guess you could say we were waiting for the right time."

"I suppose I always knew your relationship was unique. Are you planning on being - out, I guess, although I hate that phrase." Naomi set her napkin carefully by her plate, not meeting their eyes. "I don't want to spoil things by being impetuous."

*You mean like with the dissertation. *Jim kept that thought to himself, trying to swallow the bitterness that accompanied it. Blair had paid an especially high price for Naomi's free spirit.

"Well, uh, we're still working out some of the details," Blair stammered. "Jim?"

Jim was painfully aware how awkward this exchange was. They were paying the price for misleading Naomi earlier in the afternoon. He knew Blair was hoping that he'd bail the two of them out. "First of all, I'm not ashamed of any relationship we have. It's just a little more complicated when we're both on the force."

"Don't tell me the police department has some antiquated rule about these things."

"Officially?" Jim asked. "The city of Cascade is politically correct. Unofficially, gay cops can have a tough time. The real issue is the fact that we're partners. Having a relationship of any kind would preclude us working together."

"They'd split you up?" Naomi asked.

Jim said a silent prayer, hoping against hope that Naomi didn't have something devious in mind. "The regulations apply to all couples: gay, straight, married, engaged."

Blair picked up the explanation. "I want to work with Jim, Mom. We've been through a lot to work this out. We probably will have to sacrifice some openness to preserve the things that are most important to us." Blair paused for a moment, and then decided to continue. "I need you to promise me you're not going to second guess on this one. No messing around, Mom. I need you to give me your word."

"I deserve that," Naomi said softly. "I know, and I have to live with how much damage I did sending your paper to Sid. I give you my promise, Blair. Not a word from me."

"Thank you, Mom." Blair looked at her cautiously. "Does that mean you're happy for us?"

Naomi gave Blair a long, searching look. "You have my support, sweetie. I reserve the right to worry about you, but I won't interfere."

Blair cracked one of his first smiles of the evening. "Considering the alternatives, I'll take that." He started to gather up the plates. "I don't know about you two, but I have a real craving for something sweet." With Naomi in tow, he left in search of the perfect dessert.

Jim retreated to the couch. It bugged him to leave dishes on the table, but there was no sense in aggravating Blair. The poor guy had his hands full with Naomi. The least he could do was to not be an additional worry. Besides, despite his persuasive lobbying at the hospital, his leg ached, and propping it up was a relief.

He automatically reached for the remote, then set it down with a frown. He ought to be smart enough to learn from the day's events. Jim took a deep breath, reached for the phone and dialed his father's number at home.

Jim woke to the rustle of sheets. He rolled to his side, switched off the white noise generator and propped his head up. "Hey, Chief. Hope you didn't mind me turning in early."

Blair scooted close. "I knew you were just being polite. We had a good talk. I think she's okay, really okay. You get any rest?"

"Cranked up the white noise and crashed."

"Sorry about all the chaos. You were really patient."

"I consider it a raving success. I got you back up here in bed." Jim made a show of peeking under the sheets. "Did I get the chili peppers?" He slid a hand under the elastic of the hoped-for garment.

Blair snickered, intercepting the inquisitive hand. "That's my mom down there."

"I can be quiet. You can't imagine how quiet."

"Riiight." He laughed softly. "This is just too weird. Naomi would probably start with the sage again. You're going to have to settle for a kiss." Blair promptly provided the promised goods. "Mmmm."

Jim responded with enthusiasm. "I never talked out in school. She'd never know."

Blair pushed his bedmate onto his back, settling his head on Jim's shoulder. "First thing tomorrow those lips go on the PD's list of personal weapons. As soon as I find the serial numbers, of course." He gave Jim another kiss and pulled back a bit. "Talk to me when your ribs are healed." He trailed a light finger down the center of Jim's chest. "You really can't fool me. You overdid it again today. What am I going to do with you?"

"Consider staying in bed with me all day tomorrow," Jim said slyly.

Blair laughed. "Well, no, but maybe you should delay coming back to work for another day or two. Naomi's leaving in the morning. She already called and got a flight out; I'll drop her off on the way to work. You'd have some peace and quiet."

"You're so behind, Sandburg. Already called and told Simon I wouldn't be back until Monday."

"You did?"

"Yep." Jim's tone changed from playful to serious. "After I talked to Simon, I called my dad. I'm meeting him for lunch tomorrow."

Even in the gloom of the unlighted loft, Jim could see Blair's eyes go wide. "Oh. Your dad - tomorrow? Are you sure...?"

"We're not going to do this shock and awe thing with the parental units twice, Chief. And yes, I'm sure. Now get that hot body of yours over here so we can both be properly inspired for tomorrow.

"The house looks pretty good, Dad. It must have been a shock when you first walked in."

"Want to know what I thought when I walked in? That I was damn glad I paid attention to my son. Here, have some more noodles." William Ellison munched contentedly on a spring roll. They were eating in the kitchen, which had sustained less physical damage from Faller's rampage than the rest of the first floor. "My insurance agent did a good job getting a crew in here. I'd like to have it put back together before Sally gets back. I told her to take another week with her sister, with pay, of course." He gave his son an appraising look. "Actually, I think you're coming along faster than the house. You look good, Jimmie."

"It wasn't complicated surgery. I actually got the stitches taken out yesterday, and I'm cleared for desk duty. The ribs are more trouble than the leg."

William set his chopsticks down with a clatter. "What's wrong with your ribs? Blair didn't mention anything about that."

"Took a round in the Kevlar." Jim tapped his chest. "It leaves a horrible bruise. I'll be sore for another week or so."

William shook his head. "I don't know how you can brush these things off so casually. Blair assured me that it wasn't serious, but when I saw you the day after surgery, I thought you looked terrible. I couldn't believe they released you the next morning."

"That was my choice. It's called AMA, against medical advice. I needed to get out of there. The sentinel thing is really tough in the hospital."

"Didn't they give you adequate care?" William asked. "Good Lord, Jimmy, I've been on the hospital board for years! If there's something you needed, I would have rattled cages all over the building. Why didn't you say something?"

Considering the nature of what he planned to discuss, the last thing Jim wanted to do was get his dad riled up. "Calm down, Dad. I didn't say anything because it's just a matter of being over sensitized. It's not their fault I can hear the children in pediatrics, or smell medications from all over the hospital. They can't change the environment."

"You can do that? God, Jimmy, it must be awful. What about a private room?"

"Dad, it's okay. The real solution is to get out sooner rather than later. Now quit fretting. You want some more sweet and sour shrimp?"

William accepted the takeout container, but set it down quickly. "Look, I know I really blew it when you were young, with the senses - well, with lots of things. I want to say this right. I've learned a few things about what's important in life. Please don't shut me out. Let me do something right for you."

"Dad, this isn't a guilt visit."

"I know that." William looked earnestly across the small table. "Ten years ago, I never would have gotten on a plane in the middle of the night just because you asked me to. I would have been wrapped up in winning the argument. I see things differently now. I hope you'll give me a chance to really show you."

"Okay, Dad." Truer words never spoken. I'm going to put you to the test pretty quickly here.

William picked up the bowl and took more shrimp. "So about the hospital..."

"Dad, really. A hospital can't be anything but a hospital. Sandburg does more than you could ever know."

"Really?" William looked thoughtful for a moment. "He seemed like a nice young man when that Aaron Foster broke into the house and roughed me up. Sort of a strange choice for you, but sincere enough." He took a mouthful of shrimp. "This is really good. I'm glad you suggested it. Anyway, I've never been able to sort out how I feel about him. When that paper was released to the media, it seemed like he was nothing but trouble for you. I didn't understand it."

"I told you, Dad - it wasn't really his fault. His mother, well, you've heard all this."

"You know the old saying, actions speak louder than words. I could tell how attentive he was at the hospital. He must be a good friend, someone you can really depend on."

Jim nearly choked. If he was ever going to break this to his father, now was the time. "Actually, Dad, that's kind of why I wanted to talk to you."

"About Blair having medical power of attorney? Jimmy, I'm not upset about that. When he explained it, it all made perfect sense. You spend so much time together, after all."

"Not exactly. You're right, Sandburg is a really good friend, and he's the best partner I've ever had." Jim faltered. He took a long drink from the glass of water at his elbow, trying to buy some time and collect his thoughts.

"Why do I all of a sudden feel like you're sixteen and telling me you backed the car into the mailbox?" William asked shrewdly.

Jim couldn't contain the laugh. "Dad, you missed your calling as a cop. Look, I'm just going say this and hope for the best. Blair isn't just my work partner. He's my life partner. We're in a relationship."

"Well, of course you are. You live together," William said glibly, before the full implication soaked in. Jim could see the wheels turning. "A relationship?" William asked slowly. "Like, uh, a gay thing?"

Jim rubbed at his forehead and forged ahead. "Yeah, Dad, like a gay thing."

"Oh. Well. I guess..." William stopped, completely flustered. "You know, son, I think a scotch sounds real good right now. I'll get one for both of us. Be right back." He disappeared quickly.

"You got that right," Jim said to the empty room. "Make mine a double."

Blair unlocked the door to the loft. "Jim?" he called. "You here, Jim?"

"Out here, Chief."

Blair found him on the balcony. Jim was sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, pulled into the pale, early evening sunshine. "Hey, there." Jim looked back out at the water. "You know, when Carolyn and I were splitting up, I'd come out here. Watch the water. Pretend all the bad stuff wasn't happening. I'd sit out here until long after dark, just letting the whole world wash over me."

Blair stood behind the chair, resting his hands on the slumped shoulders. "It was rough?"

"You might say that." Jim met his eyes for a moment, then went back to watch the bay.

The eyes said everything the words didn't. Did Jim see anything on that far horizon that comforted him? Blair started to gently massage the tight muscles. "God, Jim, you don't need this. You didn't have to tell him, at least right away. I could have gone with you."

"I know you would have. It wouldn't have made a difference." His voice sounded so weary.

Blair got a chair from the kitchen himself and sat near Jim. "Can you tell me about it? I know it's not your nature, but it might help. It had to have been hard for him, you know. It's a generation thing." He grabbed at Jim's hand, grateful he didn't seem inclined to pull it away.

Jim stroked Blair's hand with his finger, tracing figure eights along the palm. "He wants us to come for dinner. Sunday, maybe, or next week."

"But I thought," Blair stammered. "Jim, I'm confused. He's mad, isn't he?"

"Angry? Hurt? I guess. The last thing he said was that he didn't care. After sitting in a strange city for a week, waiting to find out if some lunatic had killed me or not, that as long as I was alive and well, he didn't care. That I was his son and he loved me, no matter what."

Blair was watching Jim's eyes. All he could see was deep, aching sorrow. "Jim, that's a beautiful thing for him to say. Then why are you so upset?"

"He cried."

Blair leaned forward, trying to get a good look at Jim's face. "I don't get it."

Jim ran the back of his knuckle across the other man's cheek. "All those years of trying to please him, hurt feelings, arguments. Even when I walked out the door to join the service and told him I was never coming back, he'd maybe yell, but usually he'd just turn and walk away. Nothing I did made any impression on him. Today I tell him I've found the other half of my soul, and he cries. Weeps like a frightened child, like it was a death. How am I supposed to feel about that? I'm so - empty."

"Oh, no, babe." Blair felt like crying himself. He wrapped both arms around Jim's shoulders and hugged him fiercely. "He loves you. I love you. Today is a good day, a very good day."

Slowly, Jim's tense shoulders relaxed into those sheltering arms. Blair stroked the short, fine hair, sensing the ache that remained, to be accepted at face value, without conditions. "Jim, he gave you his best," he whispered. "Don't lose sight of that because it wasn't everything you might have hoped for."

"I know. My head knows." Jim shifted his knees to rest between Blair's legs. Insistently, he pulled Blair downward to rest on his lap.

Blair resisted briefly, then gave in, still bearing some of his own weight. "We'll break the chair," he protested mildly.

"Good. I feel like breaking things. Matches my frustration level." He snuggled under Blair's chin.

They stayed still, adding only a nuzzle or a gentle hug, peaceful, waiting. Blair held the silence, calling on years of hard won insight, and the suspicion that Jim, as a lover, would communicate more with touch than words. Maybe it was a sentinel thing, maybe a Jim thing. Had Jim ever been held or cuddled as a child, soothed through the teenage hurts with a hug and encouragement? Probably not. Incrementally, Blair could feel the body and soul unwind. Cautiously, he allowed his hands to explore. Jim would let him know if it was too much, too fast. Slowly, Jim began to answer, touch for touch. Blair smiled when he felt his own, very male response, and Jim's matching hardness.

Jim broke their close embrace, shifting Blair away slightly. He arched upwards as his hand traced the swell beneath Blair's jeans. "Everything's so backwards. I waited so long to ask you, and I just can't get it right."

Blair tilted his chin up. "I didn't turn you down. You did notice that, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I noticed," Jim said.

"I have something for you." Blair stood up and returned with a manila envelope, lumpy and awkwardly sealed. "Go on. Open it."

Jim broke the seal and peeked inside. "You're giving me plastic?"

"Don't you remember? The big night? You wanted lobster for me, steak for you, followed by bracelet and seduction. I went for accuracy, as you can see," he said with mock seriousness.

Jim extracted the two items: a green cow from a child's farm set and a swizzle stick topped with a lobster. "This is not exactly what I had in mind."

"Hey, it was your fantasy." He gestured expansively. "We've got beef, we've got lobster - what's the problem here? I had limited time available, and it's the spirit that counts. I wanted the whole package, and it was time to get the show on the road."

Jim twirled the plastic cow between his fingers. "I just keep thinking that any minute, you'll wake up and realize what a moment of temporary insanity that was. Have you really thought about this?"

It occurred to Blair that he could be angry. He wasn't. In truth, they were discussing Jim's doubts and fears. A lifetime of deep, personal disappointment had left him always waiting for the other shoe to fall. "Jim, we're going to have ups and downs, but I don't have any real doubts.

"We don't have anything in common."

"Yeah, my mom has pointed that out, hasn't she? In detail." He laughed, continuing in a happy, teasing tone, looking down from his higher vantage point. "Jim, when a couple thinks about getting married, what do most of them worry about? What do they ask themselves? Can we live together? Okay, after more than five years, we have that covered. You know I'm a slob, I know you secretly yearn to clean toilets, and we deal. Do we want children? Hate to break the news to you, big boy, but we're missing a few X chromosomes for that." Now he had Jim smiling. "What else? Will the family approve? Well, we've got two definite maybe's, but we're both a little old to lock in our bedrooms. We're not going to argue over the china pattern and the flowers for the church. Can we make it forever? We've already walked through fire. We have a better chance than most. Jim, all the things we don't have in common lets us concentrate on the things that we do share, that we care about."

"You're sure?" Jim went to the bookshelves. Blair recognized the box he had in his hand. Jim fumbled a bit. Smiling, Blair slipped the turquoise and silver onto his wrist. "I'm very sure."

Jim answered with a chaste, but lingering, kiss, one that promised more.

"It's getting late. We should go to bed."

"I'm not in a hurry," Blair said. "It's the weekend. No overtime when you're pushing a desk. Simon can't even think about calling us in." The lights were off in the loft with the exception of a few candles. Jim had built a fire in the woodstove, more for the ambiance than the heat. They were stretched on a haphazard pile of cushions, pillows, and the quilt off Blair's futon, sipping wine. Their first time together, or more correctly, times, had been right here, by firelight.

"I think I'll disconnect the phone, just in case." Jim tousled a long curl as he spoke. Blair's hair tie had been one of the first things to go. "The wine is good. Did you pick this bottle?"

"I do believe I did." Blair took another sip, set down his wine glass and stretched languorously. "I didn't think I could ever feel this way about someone." He rolled to his stomach and scooted forward, lining up his chest with Jim's. "Everything, everyone before you was just practice."

Jim buried a hand into the rumpled mass of auburn hair. "You have no idea how beautiful you are."

Blair snorted. "As measured by what? Quantity of hair."

"The whole package is pretty damn fine, if you ask me. You're going to be sore tomorrow, love. You should have told me."

Blair smiled. "Told you what? That I was longer on exuberance than experience when it came to guys? Have you worrying the whole time? I'd rather have Jim Ellison with abandon."

"I could have -"

"No. I wouldn't have changed a thing. Don't mess with perfection, man."

"Perfection?" Jim scoffed. "You know better. My warranty expired a long time ago, Sandburg. Now get up here where I can kiss you properly."

Blair complied, slipping his tongue past willing lips. "You're not irritated with me? I kind of played fast and loose with your fantasy, you know. You don't mind being preempted?"

"On that point I agree wholeheartedly," Jim said, smothering Blair in kiss after kiss. "I wanted you so much, and you were being so careful. I didn't know how to start."

"That's why you have me, the impetuous one." Blair snuggled in contentedly. "Besides, I'm a practical man. We survived Faller, hospitals, my mom. God knows what else could have gotten in the way. At least this way we're launched."

"Quite the choice of words, Chief," Jim said, noticing at the wakening response from Blair's cock. "Launched indeed. Ah, to be young." He changed position, rolling Blair beneath him, trapping both wrists above his head. "You okay with the bracelet? It was pretty presumptuous of me."

"I'm more than okay with the bracelet." Jim released his partner's hands, anticipating their pleasant wandering before the night was through. Blair held his wrist up, admiring the inlaid turquoise and silver which Jim had chosen. Blair arched into him, sighing in pleasure. "It's never coming off." His smile said everything as those hands trailed down Jim's back.

Jim fingered the heavy gold chain and medallion that had been Blair's gift to him this night, a beautiful, if unexpected surprise. "Neither is this." He touched the medallion, reciting the verse Blair had chosen to engrave. *"Set me as a seal upon your heart. * I'm a lucky man, Blair Sandburg, a very lucky man."

"Just remember what it says. That's all we'll ever need."

End A Seal Upon Your Heart by Jyllean:
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