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"Tell me you're joking." But Jim could already see that Blair wasn't joking at all. There was determination in the narrowed line of his lips, the angle of his jaw. "Sandburg..."

"I mean it, Jim. I'm not cutting my hair." Sandburg's voice was low, and trembling just a little.

He had the look of a trapped animal, unable to escape, but unwilling to co-operate with its would-be rescuer. Recognising that look, Jim decided to back off a little, but couldn't keep the querulous tone from his voice. "Chief, I thought you wanted this."

"I do, Jim." Blair relaxed a little, smiled warmly. "It's not gonna be a big deal, man. I know how to do this." Suddenly, he seemed very sure of himself. "The firearms course is only gonna be a couple of weeks, right?"

"Yeah, but..."

"So I'm figuring it'll be a day or two before I get pulled into the office and given my first warning."

Jim could see where this was going, and it wasn't going to fly.

"I apologise, say I didn't realise I'd need to get my hair cut. Promise to get it done as soon as I can." Blair casually shrugged his shoulders. "If I can't string it out for two weeks, I'm losing my touch, man. Then I've completed the course and I'm out of there."

"It doesn't work like that, Sandburg. This isn't some liberal, academic ivory tower, here." He ignored Blair's flinch. If he didn't get his point across the kid was heading for a serious fall. "This is the Police Academy. They can, and will, refuse to graduate you if you don't have a regulation hair cut."

The mulish look was back in Blair's eyes and, aided by an all too familiar clenching in his gut, Jim's temper flared suddenly. "I can't believe you're willing to risk everything for the sake of your fucking hair. What is this? You're afraid you won't be able to pull the co-eds? Is this how much our partnership means to you?"

Blair's protesting cry barely registered as he hastened to press his point home. "You realise that Simon really went out on a limb for you. How's it going to look if you pull a stunt like this?"

"Fuck, Jim. What more do you want from me?" Now Blair's anger matched his own. The blue eyes fairly blazed with it for a moment before his shoulders slumped in defeat. "I know it's stupid, all right? It's just... I don't know how much more I can take. Cutting my hair, man, it's the last straw."

Somehow, that was worse. He was used to Blair's sometimes manic bursts of energy, his occasional irritability and his near constant pushiness. He didn't know how to deal with a dejected and beaten Sandburg. Rising beneath the instinctive sympathetic response was a fear that wouldn't be repressed any longer. Blair had already given up too much for him. How long would it be before it really sank in and Blair began to hate him for it? Jim could feel his cheek muscles twitch with the effort of holding the fear inside him, of not saying it aloud where it would only do more damage to their already fragile relationship.

"Oh, man. You're doing it again, aren't you?" Blair strode forward until he was right in Jim's face. So much so that Jim took a half step backward without thinking. "Look, just get it through your thick head, Jim. I am not backing out on this. I just need some... some time to process, okay?"

Now was the perfect time, if ever there was one, for Jim to back off and allow Blair to get a handle on his emotions. Some self-destructive impulse prompted him to keep pushing. "Sure, you say that now..."

"Yes, Jim, I do say it. I say it now, and I'll say it next week, and next month, and next goddamned year." He punctuated his speech with little prods of his forefinger against Jim's chest. "And, you know why? Because I love you, you big jerk. I. Fucking. Love. You."

It was true. Jim knew it was true with every fibre of his being. Nobody had ever loved him like Blair did. Nobody had given up their career, their reputation, their whole fucking life for him the way Blair had. Until he'd seen the press conference on television, he'd hardly been able to conceive of anyone loving him that much. It scared the hell out of him. He knew what happened to people who loved him, and Blair had only begun to taste that bitter fruit.

Shying away from the invitation in Blair's upturned face and parted lips, Jim backed towards the door. "I'm going out."

"Jim." Blair started after him, caught him by the sleeve of his jacket. "Jim, you can't run away from this."

Like hell, he couldn't. With a twist of his arm he pulled free, still backing up. "No. I won't do this. I can't." He grabbed his jacket and was out the door, heading for the stairs because the elevator would take too long. Blair stood in the doorway, watching.

Driving was still a problem, so Jim caught a cab to the nearest movie complex and spent the next few hours watching one movie after another without registering any of the action on the screen. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of the twenty-four hour places, and at one a.m. he was out on the street. He killed an hour in an all night diner and then caught another cab home.

The lights were still on in the loft, and he could hear Blair's heartbeat, not slow enough for him to be sleeping. He unlocked the truck and sat inside, prepared to wait all night if need be.

Finally, at a quarter of three, the lights went out and he heard the rustling of bedding as Blair settled in for the night. He gave it another half hour for good measure before creeping into his home with all the stealth he'd have used on one of his covert missions.

He was awake and out again the following morning before Blair so much as stirred.

It isn't easy to avoid a person who lives in the same apartment, who has no reason to leave that apartment, and who is determined to confront you. Jim managed it. During the days that followed Blair's profession of love, Jim became intimately acquainted with every movie theatre in downtown Cascade. He'd have gone to the Public Library, but that was too obvious, and using the library at Rainier would have somehow seemed like a betrayal. Besides, he wouldn't put it past Blair to go even there in search of him.

Blair started leaving notes for him. Nothing too personal, certainly nothing about their argument; just little notes about day-to-day stuff. Jim knew it was Blair's way of telling him that nothing had changed, that they could continue to be friends, partners, roommates, if only Jim would let them. Didn't Sandburg get it? Nothing could be the same any more. There wasn't any way to take back the words Blair had unleashed.

His first day back at work came not a moment too soon. He was still on desk duty, of course, and Simon wouldn't be back for a while longer. This time, the powers that be had seen sense and given Joel Taggart oversight of Major Crime, so it was easy to slip into the old routine, dealing with paper work, enduring the ribbing of his fellow detectives, and commiserating with O'Connor about being chained to a desk for another week or two. At least he knew that Blair wouldn't follow him here.

There was plenty of paper work too, and for once that suited Jim just fine. He had all the excuse he needed to work late, even though Joel had already advised him to take things easy. There was no point in leaving early, though, since he'd only have to wait outside the loft until Sandburg had gone to bed for the night.

Friday night, Jim ran out of paper work and out of excuses to stay at work. Joel, taking a last walk through the bullpen frowned at him and ordered him to go home, this time in a tone that brooked no excuse. Tired beyond bearing, Jim dragged himself down to the parking garage and drove home.

The loft was empty. Jim swallowed a hint of panic, and scanned the building carefully, from the laundry room in the basement to the rooftop. Not a hint of Blair. It was a good thing, he told himself; meant he could get to bed at a reasonable time and still avoid Blair. Blair was just out late - catching a movie; maybe on a date he told himself hopefully. He wrenched the door of his truck open and limped hurriedly into the building. It didn't mean there was something wrong. Didn't mean that Blair had left, or been kidnapped or...

"Jesus, get a grip" he muttered to himself as he opened the door. Still, the silence of the loft, without Blair's heartbeat thrumming in the background was suddenly unnerving.

He hesitated at the foot of the stairs, weighing up the risk of taking a shower now, when Blair might come home at any moment, against the inconvenience of a hurried clean up in the morning before heading out for the day. A day when there was no work for him to go to, nothing to distract him from the mess he was in.


The quiet voice from the open doorway of the loft was enough to make Jim stumble as he whirled around. How in hell had Sandburg manage to sneak up on him? He hadn't even heard the door open... and then all thought faded into oblivion. Blair had cut his hair. After all this, Blair had actually...

He was almost a stranger, this young man with a brief halo of short, dark curls. It wasn't anything like the way Blair looked with his hair tied back in a ponytail; that was far more severe, the hair flattened against his skull. This was soft, making him look years younger than his true age, emphasising eyes and lips that needed no accentuation.

Jim swallowed, his mouth suddenly very dry, at the look of mingled hope and despair on Blair's expressive face. He opened his mouth to speak, but only a croak emerged, and Blair smiled faintly.

"You see, Jim? I told you..." this time Blair swallowed, his throat working convulsively. "I'm not giving up on us, man."

God, it hurt to see the glimmer of desperate humour in his eyes, to know how much Blair was hurting, how much worse he'd made everything by letting this go on. It was time to end it, once and for all, to leave no room for doubt.

"You really think this changes anything?" Jim spoke hoarsely, seeing Blair flinch at the harshness of his tone. "It wasn't about the hair, Sandburg. It never was."

"No. It's about me being your partner." Blair's voice sounded firm, determined, but Jim could hear the faintest hint of uncertainty already. "It's about me doing whatever it takes..."

"No!" Jim chopped at the air with his hand, silencing the other man. "No, it's about having a partner I can trust. I need someone I can rely on to come through for me and not get distracted by, by..."

Anger flared in Blair's eyes, and suddenly he was in Jim's space, right up against his chest. Jim couldn't even remember seeing him move. "And maybe I need a partner who has a little faith in me, who won't turn on me the first time I fail to meet his standards of perfection. You fucking bastard..."

Before Jim could gather his wits to respond, Blair was gone, the door of his bedroom still vibrating against the frame. Slowly, Jim made his way upstairs, dialling down his hearing so he wouldn't hear the moment when Blair's disordered breathing turned to breathless sobs.

The next morning Jim listened to Blair moving around, getting ready to go wherever it was he went during the day. Hoping that he wouldn't come upstairs and confront him; too exhausted to think about what he'd do or say if Blair breached his tenuous sanctuary.

The front door opened. Jim heard the jangle of keys and held his breath.

Blair voice drifted up; quiet, pitched for Sentinel hearing. "Jim, man, we've gotta talk about this. I'm not... I don't want to... we just need to talk, okay? Please be here when I get home."

The thought of spending the weekend playing 'hide and go seek' with Blair was enough to get Jim out of bed even though he felt almost incapable of moving. He showered quickly and packed a few clothes in an old duffel bag. Breakfast held no interest for him, and he decided he could eat once he'd gotten a few miles between himself and the loft. He got in the truck without thinking too much about where he was going to go and just started driving.

An hour later he actually looked at a road sign, surprised to find a familiar name. Okay, Clayton Falls it would be, and god help any lawbreakers he might come across. They'd be lucky to survive the experience.

Sunday night came too soon for Jim's liking. He'd managed, for once, not to get dragged into any criminal activities, but the quiet countryside and the fishing hadn't helped him relax at all. He felt heavy with exhaustion as he drove back to Cascade, and a couple of times caught himself on the edge of a zone. The second time it was so close that he pulled over to the side of the road and did some of Sandburg's breathing exercises before starting off again.

He didn't know how he was going to face Blair after what he'd said last time. His words had been cruel and unfair, but necessary. The thought that he might have to do it again was beyond horrible. He might not be able to do it at all, and that was the most frightening thing, because he couldn't allow this to go any further. For Blair's sake, for his own sake, it had to end.

It was late, but not really late enough when Jim pulled up outside the loft. He couldn't put off this final confrontation any longer - Blair was due to start the Academy tomorrow morning - but Jim wasn't ready for it, and never would be. Apprehensively, he cast about for the sound of Blair's heartbeat and heard nothing but the sound of floorboards settling and the faint scuttle of a mouse in the apartment below.

Taking the reprieve with silent gratitude, Jim unloaded the truck and carried his camping gear up to the loft. Pain flared in his knee with every step, and he was thankful that he'd taken the bare minimum of equipment.

The loft seemed oddly deserted, even though he knew Blair wasn't home. Alerted by some barely recognised instinct, Jim crossed hurriedly to Blair's door and wrenched it open.

The room had been stripped of all Blair's personal possessions. Turning back into the living area, Jim realised that the sense of unease he'd felt from the moment he'd entered the apartment was due to the absence of those few items of Blair's that had made it out into their shared space. Heart pounding, Jim walked back to the counter and picked up the note.


You were right. How about that, huh? If you can't trust me as a partner, then this isn't going to work.

Tell Simon I'm sorry.


Simon was waiting for him when Jim finally made it to work. By the scowl on his face, and the fact he wasn't due back for another ten days, Jim guessed without any effort that he'd already heard from the Academy. He didn't bother going to his desk, but walked past it and into Simon's office.

"So, tell me why Sandburg's quit the Academy, Jim." Simon smiled that faux-reasonable smile and his voice had an all too familiar 'don't-bullshit-me' tone to it.

"I..." Jim rubbed his forehead, "he... uh, he's..."

The smile disappeared off Simon's face to be replaced with a concern that was one hundred percent genuine. "Jim, what's happened? Is he okay?"

"He's gone. I don't know." Jim lifted his eyes miserably from contemplation of his boots. "I shut him out, Simon. I couldn't... couldn't handle..."

Simon let out a gusty sigh. "He finally told you, huh?"

Not at all surprised, Jim nodded. "I already knew."

"Then why the hell didn't you do something about it? Dammit, Jim, the kid's been in love with you almost from the start." Simon's voice sharpened, became more nasally irritable than usual. "You could have let him down gently any time in the last four years and you chose to do it now?"

"I... I was hoping that if I didn't say anything then he wouldn't either." It sounded unbelievably lame, even to him. "I couldn't say anything, Simon. Jesus, if you think my track record's bad with women..." he stopped at the sight of Simon's open-mouthed astonishment.

"You... Jim, you're not saying what I think you're saying."

In spite of his misery, he couldn't help grinning weakly. "If you think I'm saying that I'm bi, then that's exactly what I'm saying."

"Then why..." Simon swallowed visibly, "why didn't you do something about it? Goddammit, Jim! The way you were with him, I thought the kid might even turn you gay. Don't tell me you aren't in love with him."

All his muscles tensed, uncontrollably. He could feel his face go blank. "It wouldn't have worked. I'm just not gonna go down that road again. Not after Danny."

"Danny Choi?" Simon's eyes widened. "Weren't you his Big Brother, or something?"

Jim shrugged, half looked away. "Not officially. Hell, Simon, nothing happened until long after he'd gone through the Academy. He wasn't a skinny teenager any more."

"All right. You want some coffee?" Simon turned away, anticipating his assent, and poured a couple of mugs. He passed one across the desk to Jim. "So, are you going after him?"

Jim shook his head and took a sip of the coffee. It was just on the edge of being stale, but Simon wouldn't be able to tell, so he just shrugged and took another swallow. "Why? I'll only end up hurting him more. He's better off finding a new life somewhere else."

"You mean you're just letting him go?"

Jim stared patiently at a point on the wall slightly above Simon's left shoulder. It had always worked in the past, and sure enough, Simon's indignant expression faded after a couple of seconds.

"Look, what you do with your personal life is your own business and God knows I don't want to give you relationship advice, but..." Simon waved a hand vaguely in the air. "What about the Sentinel stuff?"

"I'll manage."

"Sure you will." Simon's expression was openly sceptical. "And if you don't?"

Jim ground his teeth. "I'll manage."

"Sri Moya Meditation Centre." The woman's voice was quiet, well modulated and didn't belong to the person he was looking for. Of course, there was no reason why Naomi would be answering the telephone. She was probably a guest there.

"Uh, hello. I'd like to speak to Naomi Sandburg, please."

"I'm sorry, Naomi is meditating presently. Can I give her a message?"

Jim tightened his grip on the cell phone. "Yes, please. It's about her son, Blair..."

"Oh, you're Blair? Just a moment please..." She was gone before he could disabuse her. After a moment, by straining his hearing, Jim could just hear the sound of light, hurried footsteps coming closer. "Sweetie, how are you? It's so good to hear from you again. Are you feeling better? Do you..."

"Naomi, it's Jim." The sudden silence startled him. He heard her indrawn breath and when she spoke again her voice was polite, but distant.

"Why, hello, Jim. I didn't expect to hear from you."

"No, I don't suppose you did." Then, unable to stop himself he asked urgently, "have you heard from him recently? Is he all right?"

"Jim... Blair asked me not to speak to you about him." She sighed faintly. "In fact, he didn't really expect you to contact me at all, but he didn't want to take a chance that you might."

Jim closed his eyes and took a couple of deep breaths. Blair had taught him that. Strange how, even now, Blair was as much a part of his life as he'd always been. He just wasn't physically present.

"Are you all right, Jim?" He realised she'd asked him that more than once.

He almost laughed, except that he could hardly remember how any more. He hadn't laughed in six months. "No, not really. I need to find him, Naomi."

There was a long silence. "I can't tell you where he is. I'm sorry, Jim."

She did sound like she might actually be sorry. Maybe there was still some hope. "Look, I don't expect you to tell me that, but can you ask him if he'll see me? You do know how to get hold of him, don't you?"

"Well... he's not always there. It might take a while."

His fingers tightened on the phone. In spite of the fact he'd expected this kind of response, the thought that Blair might be gone from his life forever was unbearable. "Please, Naomi. This is important."

"It's not your... senses... is it?"

He was tempted to lie, to tell her anything that would tip the balance in his favour. It wouldn't be entirely untrue. Once again he took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No. I just... I need to see him, to tell him..." he swallowed hard, desperate to retain some kind of control over his shaking voice.

"Oh... oh, Jim." At last, Naomi sounded truly sympathetic. "Why didn't you tell him before?"

"I couldn't." Oh god, he was not going to do this now. If he had to spill his guts, it would be to Blair and nobody else. "I just... I couldn't, so I pushed him away. I hurt him, Naomi."

"You sure did."

The ironic tone stung. This whole situation would never have arisen if Naomi had just done what Blair had asked. "We both did."

"James Ellison, don't you dare compare your actions to mine! Whatever I did to Blair I did out of love, however misguided; not out of some selfish, cowardly, macho... oh!" a quiet gasp was followed by a muttered "I'm letting this go. I am letting this go." Then her voice was back to normal. "I'm sorry, Jim. That was uncalled for."

"No, you're right. I was selfish. And scared." Jim closed his eyes, remembering the look on Blair's face as he'd pulled away from him that day. "Tell him. Tell him if he doesn't want to see me I'll understand. I just hope..." his voice cracked and he took another deep breath. "I've gotta go. Please, call me, whatever the answer is; I need to hear it."

The next week was hell. Worse even than the days following his rejection of Blair. Jim arranged for a leave of absence that Simon was only too willing to allow, not because he really believed Blair would agree to see him, but because he couldn't bring himself to lose all hope a moment before he absolutely had to.

When the phone rang one evening, a week to the day since he'd talked to Naomi, he snatched it up. "Ellison."

"Hello, Jim."

He knew immediately. The tone of her voice told him what Blair's answer had been. "Thanks for trying Naomi."

The handset was halfway back to the cradle when he realised she was still talking. "Sorry, what did you say?"

"I said I needed to know what you wanted to tell my son."

Jim blinked. "I don't know. I thought maybe... you know, when I saw him..."

"Oh, you... you man..." Affection softened her exasperated tone. "What do you want, Jim? After all, if I'm going to interfere with my son's life again, I need to know that this time, it really will help him."

It came as no real surprise to find that Blair had left the United States entirely. The academic community was surprisingly small, and there was little chance he could have found a place either teaching or on some expedition. And it made sense that he would have gone somewhere warm, after Cascade. All those cute little stories Blair had trotted out to impress his many girlfriends had been about expeditions to tropical areas.

Jim was just grateful that Blair had chosen the capital city of Brazil's largest state as his hiding place. The prospect of slogging through dense jungle to find Blair unwilling to play Dr Livingston to his Richard Stanley hadn't been a very pleasant one. As it was, he took a taxi from the airport into the city in reasonable comfort.

The late afternoon sun in Manaus had lost none of its heat, and the air caressed his skin with warm damp fingers. Jim had walked from the battered storefront office of the Favela Project to the threadbare patch of dirt and dry, dusty grass that passed for a football field. Sure enough, Blair was there, playing soccer with a straggle of teens, most of whom were taller and skinnier and darker than he. It wasn't hard to pick him out.

Jim watched in pleasure at the sight of that sturdy figure zigzagging nimbly through a knot of players, his hair flying; almost dancing at times as he used his feet to dribble the ball towards the low goal. A boy, taller than any of the others, intercepted him and stole possession of the ball. Immediately, the entire field reversed direction, chasing the boy's long stride. Blair made a desperate dash and caught up to him, but too late. The ball flew past the goalkeeper in a shallow, unstoppable arc, and half the players erupted into cheers and hugs. Blair was thumping the boy on the back of his shoulder when his eyes met Jim's.

After a careful moment of absolute stillness, Blair walked towards him, and since there was no reason not to, Jim stared his fill. He looked well; even happy. Naomi had told Jim about the work he was doing. Useful work in some of the most dangerous slums in Brazil, combined with occasional forays into the Amazonian rainforest to work with native tribes in their efforts to conserve the ecology of the basin and their own way of life.

The warm climate obviously agreed with him. His face was tanned, making his eyes appear startlingly blue. The sun had bleached his hair with copper and even golden tints. And it was longer now than it had been before he'd had it cut. Tangled and dusty and damp with sweat, tendrils clinging to his face and neck, his hair had taken on a life of its own.

When only a couple of steps still separated them, Blair stopped. His eyes appraised Jim frankly, and Jim wondered what he saw. A pale, lonely, aging cop? A tired, empty stranger? The man who'd betrayed him? After a moment, Jim's eyes dropped to the sweat soaked and grimy undershirt and the worn jeans and bare feet. It took an effort of will to raise his eyes again to meet Blair's.

There was a faint smile on the familiar face. "I should have known you wouldn't take no for an answer."

Jim cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Actually, I would have."

"Naomi." Blair shrugged, looking resigned, but not giving anything else away.

After a brief hesitation, Blair stripped off his undershirt and used it to wipe away the sweat and dust from his face and arms, then scrubbed at the rivulets of sweat running down his chest. The dark hair in the centre clung wetly to skin that was only slightly paler than the deep olive tone of his arms. He tucked the end of the undershirt into the waistband of his jeans and began walking, calling his goodbyes to the other players. Uninvited, Jim followed.

They'd walked nearly a block before Blair spoke again. "What are you doing here, Jim? You seemed pretty clear, back in Cascade, that you didn't want anything to do with me."

"It wasn't..." he stopped and thought furiously. Something told him this was the only chance Blair would give him to explain himself. At that, it was more than he deserved. "I know I gave you that impression."

"You think?"

"All right, I wanted you to think that... that I didn't..." he groaned internally. This was worse than having a bullet dug out with no anaesthetic. He caught Blair's sideways glance at him and stopped in his tracks. "You knew I was coming." Naomi. He'd underestimated her, though god only knew why. Blair was, after all, his mother's son.

The hint of a smug smile touched the corners of Blair's lips, stretched into a small grin. "She called me after she talked to you the second time." He tilted his head, consideringly. "I think she's actually learned something, since the dissertation fiasco."

"Glad to hear I'm not the only one."

"She said you had something to tell me, and that I should listen to you." Blair started walking again. "I'm listening."

"I was scared. Those fear based reactions you talked about?" Jim shrugged. "You haven't even scratched the surface. And your timing was lousy."

"I should have known somehow it'd all be my fault." Blair spoke without heat. "Go on."

"Not your fault, okay?" He made an abortive move to touch Blair's arm, and knew Blair had seen it. "But it still sucked. I was trying to come to terms with what you'd done, what you'd sacrificed for me... Chief, nothing... nothing... could have prepared me for that." He remembered the numbing sense of shock he'd felt as Blair read his prepared statement. He hadn't felt anything for hours, not even when he'd met Blair in the hospital. It had taken days to wear off completely. And then, just when he was starting to get his head around it, Blair had dumped that on him...

"I panicked. I couldn't deal with my own feelings, much less yours." His longer stride had carried him slightly ahead and he stopped, catching hold of Blair's shoulders. The warm smooth skin under his fingers was a heady sensation. "I'm sorry. I pushed you away when I should have held you close. I didn't learn from what happened with Alex, or with the dissertation. I'm sorry."

"And if I let you near me, is it going to happen again the next time things get rough?" Blair's face was sober, waiting for his reply.

"No. Never again." But why should Blair believe him? "Just give me a chance to prove it."

Blair nodded, not in agreement, but in thought. "How long are you here for?"

"I've got two weeks." Actually, less now. It had been a long flight, and he'd caught a nap after he'd checked in to his hotel. Most of the day was gone. "Twelve days." It seemed impossible when he thought about it.

"Don't start, okay?" An elbow nudged him sharply. "If you spent as much energy thinking about how things could go better as you do anticipating problems..."

"Somebody's got to." It was his philosophy of life, and that was one thing he really didn't think he could change.

Blair smiled reluctantly. "Maybe." He bounced a little on the balls of his feet, "look, I really need a shower. I'm sharing a place with some other people from the Project. It's another block that way."

"All right." Jim turned in that direction, trying not to show how appalled he was. The area was filthy, stinking of sewerage and garbage, and a haven for drug dealers and users.

"No." Blair's voice was unusually decisive, even for him. "I think I need some time, Jim. This... this isn't easy for me, okay?"

All his instincts screamed to him not to let Blair go, even for a moment. He gritted his teeth and swallowed. "I'll do whatever you want."

"Thanks, Jim." The warmth in Blair's voice eased his tension a little. "What hotel are you staying at?"

"Sao Pedro Hotel. You know it?"

"Oh yeah. I know most of the big hotels. We get a lot of international visitors checking out what we're doing here." Blair smiled again. "I'll meet you there in two hours, okay? You can buy me dinner in the restaurant."

"Deal." It took all his self-control to watch Blair walk away and not run after him. When Blair finally turned the corner and disappeared, Jim started back towards the nearest metro station. He wasn't likely to find a cab any closer than that.

Blair arrived no more than half an hour late, which was what Jim had expected, so he hadn't yet got to the point were he was convinced that Blair had either changed his mind, been kidnapped by drug dealers or fled the country. Jim was waiting for him in the lobby, dressed casually in spite of their dinner date. As he'd also expected Blair was dressed considerably more casually - pale cotton shirt and tan pants, both soft and comfortable from many washes, but still tidy enough to pass muster in a hotel like this one.

Blair's smile, a mixture of cockiness and uncertainty, showed genuine pleasure at the sight of him, and Jim found himself responding with a warm smile and a frank appraisal. Blair blushed faintly. "Hey, Jim. I thought instead of the restaurant here, we could go to Ponta Negra. There's lot's of food stalls and things to see, and the locals go there, so it's not too much of a tourist trap..."

"Whoa, Chief," he held up his hands in surrender at the nervous spate of words. "Sounds good to me. Do we need a cab?"

They ended up walking, even though it was several blocks away. The air was cooling a little and dusk was falling, which made it pleasant enough. There were still a lot of people wandering around in couples and small groups, and the streetlights were coming on, as well as the coloured lights that were strung along the facades of the older buildings that were plentiful in this area.

The beach was thronged with stalls and performers, and an army of onlookers, many of whom, as Blair had predicted, seemed to be locals. The two of them wandered among the stalls, sharing small plates of spicy, delicious meats and sweet, juicy fruit, and inspecting the merchandise - everything from native crafts to cheap rip-off Ray-Bans and touristy T-shirts.

A young woman sang mournful ballads beneath a tree lit with coloured fairy lights and they paused there for a while before moving on to watch a juggler keep a half-dozen sparkling balls in the air for long moments before a loss of concentration brought them down, bouncing wildly among the onlookers. Blair retrieved a couple and handed them over with a quick smile and a brief exchange of rapid Portuguese.

Nothing of any importance was discussed, and gradually Jim relaxed and allowed himself simply to enjoy the pleasure of being with Blair again. It was completely dark when Blair led him to a relatively secluded corner of the square. "You might want to dial it down a bit, Jim. The fireworks start in a couple of minutes."

"Do they?" He stared down into Blair's face, partly turned away from him as the other man watched a group of teenagers wander past.

The lack of light was no barrier to his sight, and he greedily drank in the details - high rounded forehead, short, straight nose, full lips and determined chin, all framed by the exuberance of dark, glossy curls. He reached for Blair as the first explosion of light and sound cut through the white noise of the now considerable crowd.

The cotton shirt was soft and smooth as butter, and warm from Blair's body. Jim gripped the wide shoulders and drew him closer. He lowered his head until their lips were almost touching and, when Blair made no attempt to protest, kissed his friend full on the lips. It was no more than a testing of the waters, but it left Jim's senses reeling.

With a little sigh, Blair swayed towards him and their lips met again, sweet and languorous. Jim had no desire to rush things. This new aspect to their relationship was far too fragile, his emotions too intense, too overwhelming, for him to risk a misstep. It seemed that Blair felt the same; his lips parted slightly, but it was long moments before his tongue tip brushed lightly against Jim's bottom lip. Jim groaned softly, and then he felt Blair sigh into his mouth. They drew back a little, blinking as another burst of light came almost directly overhead.

"Jim... I..." Blair swallowed, closed his eyes and pulled Jim's head down. Their tongues met in a slow, heated dance, and he was suddenly aware of how long it had been since he'd last held a man's body, hard and muscular, in his arms. How long since he'd explored the generous depths of a man's mouth. Blair tasted of the exotic spices and the sweet, tangy fruit they'd eaten, and beneath it all a faint trace of mint.

Senses that had been reined in for months suddenly burst free of their bounds and Jim buried his hands in the rough silk of Blair's hair and kissed him with the intensity of a drowning man taking his first gasp of air. Blair met him with an equal passion, lips crushing his, body trembling with eagerness, and anything might have happened in that instant. Then silence fell as the fireworks ended, and Jim heard a whisper and a soft giggle, and knew they'd been observed. He released Blair, steadying him as he swayed and blinked bemusedly.

"Oh, man." Blair's voice was so faint, Jim could hardly hear it. "Jim..."

Glancing quickly in all directions, Jim checked that the small group had moved on. He returned his attention to the dishevelled, dazed man before him. "I think we need to take this somewhere else, don't you, Blair?"

"I guess...." Then Blair pulled himself together and grinned weakly. "I know this fancy hotel not far from here where they have beds big enough to sleep a whole family, a Jacuzzi in every bathroom, and great room service."

Ignoring the gross exaggeration of his hotel's services, Jim hesitated to accept Blair's offer. He knew what was going to happen the moment they stepped foot inside his room. "Are you sure? Not that I don't think it's a great idea, mind you."

Blair's eyes were hooded and unreadable, startling for a man who normally showed every emotion without reserve. "I'm sure. Tonight. I'm not promising anything past that, Jim. Can you handle that?"

Jim nodded. He'd take anything Blair was willing to give him. "Let's go."

The walk back to the hotel was accomplished in silence, as was the elevator ride up to the fifteenth floor. They couldn't talk about the things that were most on their minds in such a public place, and small talk was beyond them both. Jim fumbled the keycard from his wallet and opened the door.

Blair jumped him the moment Jim followed him in. They kissed in silence; frantic scrambling kisses, as if they were trying to make up for the twenty-minute walk. With a desperate effort, Jim managed to start unbuttoning Blair's shirt, pausing after every button to slide his hands over newly exposed skin and chest hair. Blair's pierced nipple, ringless tonight, sprang intemperately hard against his palm and Blair groaned.

"Oh god, Jim..." Blair's hands dragged Jim's shirt out of his pants and slid up beneath it to twist and tease his nipples through the thin cloth of his undershirt until they were hard, aching points. His moaning chant of 'Jim, Jim, Jim' was muffled against Jim's mouth. He backed Jim towards the bed, using his hands and hips to nudge him in the right direction.

The back of his legs hit the edge of the mattress and a firm shove sent Jim down onto the bed, breathless from kissing and half crazy with desire. Blair stood over him, panting and smiling in a manner that was distinctly predatory. His shirt was completely undone, and he shucked it off his shoulders with a shrug.

"Jim, before we go any further, I need to know if you've got protection." The rough voice sent shivers through Jim's body and his cock, already hard, throbbed in eager anticipation.

"In the nightstand." He watched as Blair retrieved the lube and condoms, placing them on the bed beside Jim's hand.

"Confident." Blair's smile was ironic.

Jim shook his head. "Hopeful."

The smile softened into genuine affection. "So what do you like to do, Jim?"

"Any..." he choked up and had to swallow, "anything you want 's okay with me."

Blair stepped up between his legs, leaned down to kiss him hungrily, supporting his weight on his arms. "Unbutton your shirt, Jim."

He hurried to comply, aroused beyond measure by the possessive gleam in Blair's eyes. When he would have sat up to pull the shirt off, Blair shook his head. "Leave it."

Neither man moved for a moment. Jim was breathing hard, shaking with nervous expectancy as Blair slowly scanned down his body and then pulled his undershirt out of his pants. The dark head swooped down and warm lips feathered across his belly. He gasped sharply, his muscles shivering involuntarily at the delicate touch. With slow, excruciating care, Blair slipped the thin cloth up his chest. Tiny kisses peppered his skin with intense bursts of sensation until finally Blair blew a sharp draught across his nipples. Pleasure exploded in his nerve endings and for a moment, Jim actually believed he'd come; but this was just the appetiser.

Blair's warm lips closed around his right nipple, suckling wetly and messily, then his small even teeth gripped the aching tip and bit gently. A choked cry somehow escaped Jim's throat and he managed to drag in a desperately needed lungful of air. A silken caress brushed across his chest - Blair's hair - and then his left nipple was treated to the same exquisite torment.

Just when he thought he might die from sheer sensual overload, Blair's lips began to travel down his body. Still teasing, but not unbearably so, the soft kisses soothed and pleasured his skin. Hands fumbled at his belt, and his cock, recognising it was about to join in the fun, pulsed eagerly as the tightness of his pants was eased. Blair knelt between his parted thighs and Jim stared at his rapt face across the length of his body.

Their eyes met briefly as Blair shoved Jim's pants and boxers out of the way. Then Blair was looking down, drinking in the sight of Jim's blood-darkened cock.

"Oh, fuck, Jim..." his voice was shaking, and he shook his head distractedly. "Fuck." He swooped down and ran his tongue across the painfully sensitive cockhead in a lavish caress.

Jim almost lost it then; felt a tiny spurt rising in his cock and clenched his fists in the bedding, using all of his considerable willpower to force the orgasm back down into his balls. "Jesus, Sandburg..."

"You are not going to come now, Jim. You understand?" Blair nodded determinedly at his breathless assent. "This is going to be so good for you."

Stunned, Jim could only watch as Blair's lips slid pliantly across his cockhead, moulding to the swell of his arousal, then parted to engulf the whole tip. He sucked, slowly, strongly, in time with the throb of Jim's pulse, sliding down the shaft a little and then rising again. His tongue flickered around the fleshy ridge, then pressed against the sweet spot just below the crown.

"Blair... god..." his hips surged up, trying to thrust into Blair's mouth, but Blair pulled back, cradling Jim's cock in his fingers. "...fuck... please..."

"Later." Blair's smile widened a little and he ran his tongue in a broad stoke along the length of Jim's cock.

"Oh... fuck, yes..." his voice was choked and harsh with longing. "...need you..."

"Shh. It's okay." Blair pushed his legs apart, caressing the insides of Jim's thighs as he bent to suck at the base of his cock. Strong, gentle fingers cupped his balls and began a delicate massage.

"Yes... yes, like that... Blair..." he was panting, trembling all over as if he'd just run a marathon. When Blair's tongue rasped softly along his cock, sliding the loose skin over its hardness, Jim screamed. "...give me... please... oh god..."

He was vaguely aware of Blair squeezing his cock almost brutally, of his fumbling for the lube beside Jim's hip, then his cock was engulfed in the wet furnace of Blair's mouth. Before he could do more than simply register the incredible sensation, a slick finger probed cautiously between his ass cheeks and circled his hole.

"Blair!" His body arched, every muscle snapping taut for a second, and when the spasm ended, the finger was inside him.

It had been more than four years since he'd last felt that. God, how had he lived so long without it? Blair slid his finger deeper, massaging his prostate, while the tight ring of Blair's lips sliding up and down his cock drove Jim slowly insane. He sobbed and pleaded shamelessly for the delicious torment to end, to never end, and his hands clenched ever tighter in the rumpled bedding.

Finally, when he thought he could bear it no longer, Jim felt Blair rub his prostate firmly and the iron grip around the base of his cock was loosened. He screamed again, his hips rising up and up as instinct overcame any concern for his lover. He thought he cried out some kind of warning, but then his cockhead brushed the back of Blair's throat and he was coming, and coming again, pouring himself out in uncontrollable pulses of mingled pleasure and pain so powerful he nearly blacked out.

He slowly became aware that the sensations had not ended, merely become less intense. Jim opened his eyes and took in a long, slow breath, blinking a little in the dimly lit room to focus his sight on the dark head bent over his groin. Blair still held his wilted cock in gentle fingers, caressing it with lavish swipes of his tongue. Tiny aftershocks ran through Jim's body. He released his white knuckled grip of the comforter and ran his fingers over the curve of Blair's skull.

Wide eyes, their pupils almost eclipsing the irises, met his, and Blair smiled warmly. "Welcome back, Jim." He gave Jim's cock a friendly little squeeze and released it. "Think you can scoot back a bit?"

"In about a month maybe." Jim grumbled, but complied. His legs were starting to ache from hanging over the edge of the bed anyway.

Blair grinned smugly and stood, though not without some stiffness, Jim was glad to see. He wasn't the only one getting too old for this kind of thing. He watched as Blair kicked off his shoes, peeled off his socks then, quite unselfconsciously, unzipped and stripped off his pants and boxers in one complicated movement combining a shimmy, an extended wiggle and a couple of hops.

Fuck, he was just beautiful. The last six months he'd shed a couple of extra pounds - or maybe it was just that exercise had trimmed his muscles - and the sun had given him a warm olive tone to his skin that he'd rarely achieved in Cascade. He'd been sunbathing nude too, since even his thighs and groin were several shades darker than the winter pallor Jim was accustomed to seeing on his body. The deeper colour suited him; he was made for a warmer climate.

Blair's smile broadened under Jim's appreciative stare. He climbed onto the bed on all fours, straddling Jim's lower body. "Ready?"

Not in this lifetime, was Jim's thought, but he smiled and pulled Blair's head down for a long kiss. They melted into it as easily as breathing. He'd never had a lover, male or female, who'd felt this right, this perfect. He'd been all kinds of a fool, forcing Blair out of his life the way he had. Please god, it wasn't too late to repair the damage.

He yelped as Blair bit his bottom lip. "You're thinking, man. Thinking is not on the agenda tonight, okay?"

"Sounds good." He slid his hands under Blair's body, over his chest and belly to the cock that lifted so invitingly between his thighs. "Got any plans?"

Blair's eyes gleamed suddenly. "You want a pillow?"

Just like that, his mouth went dry and his heart sped up. He nodded, unable to speak at that moment, even if his life had depended on it.

The pillow duly set in place, Blair set about retracing his steps with a trail of kisses slowly descending Jim's body. He paused, crouched between Jim's raised knees, to nuzzle the lax cock and plant a kiss on the inside of Jim's thigh, sucking hard enough to leave a mark. His fingers stroked with intimate familiarity over Jim's opening, and his body, remembering the last time Blair had touched him there, shivered uncontrollably.

"How long has it been, Jim?" One finger, barely lubed, slipped past his ring. He could probably feel Blair's fingerprint if he tried.

"A while." A sigh escaped him as he relaxed into the rhythm of that finger inside him. "You don't need to worry about hurting me." A soft pulse in his belly sent warmth stealing through him.

"Tough guy, huh?" Blair's eyelids drooped as he added a second finger, and more lube. He seemed to be enjoying this almost as much as Jim. "Not taking any chances, Jim."

"Mmn..." no arguments here, Jim thought lazily. His cock stirred vaguely. He brushed his fingertips over the soft flesh, drawing it up against his belly, and caught an appreciative glint in Blair's hooded eyes. "Any time you're ready, Chief."

A third finger entered him and Blair groaned. "Oh, I am so beyond ready..."

The raw need in his voice was hot enough to melt steel. It blew away any post-coital lassitude that remained in Jim and brought him achingly aware of how much he wanted that dark, beautiful cock inside his body. "Now, Sandburg."

Blair withdrew his fingers, leaving him feeling so empty... he watched hungrily as his lover ran lube-slicked fingers lightly over his cock before rolling on the condom. Then a generous amount of lube on top, and he was leaning forward, the long strands of hair momentarily obscuring his face.

Blunt pressure replaced the brief, careful probing of shaking fingers. Jim moaned in pleasure and bore down until his body closed around the head of Blair's cock.

"Fuck..." The wondering pleasure in Blair's voice sent a rush of heat to Jim's groin, and incredibly, his cock began to swell and stiffen. "God, Jim, you feel so good."

He drew his knees up to his chest and encouraged Blair to lean into them. The thick cock slipped a little deeper as the angle of Blair's hips changed. "Come on, Chief. It's okay."

A tentative thrust, followed by another, more confident this time, had Blair buried almost to the hilt. Jim pulled him down and wrapped his legs around Blair's lower back. They rocked slowly into each other, allowing the sensations to build gradually.

Blair's face was buried against his shoulder, but Jim could just reach his temple with a soft brush of his lips. The sturdy body shuddered in his arms and Jim ran soothing hands up and down his back. "Blair... is this your first time with a man?" When Blair suddenly tensed he added hurriedly "It's okay if it is. I just... it's better than okay, actually..."

"I've never..." Blair's whisper was muffled by his chest, but that didn't account for the distinct tremor in it. "I've done other stuff..." like killer blowjobs, Jim thought reminiscently, "just not this... I've always bottomed before."

"You're doing great. It's okay. You can go harder than this." To illustrate his point, Jim thrust up sharply while pushing Blair's lower back down. Their bodies met with a satisfying thwack, and Blair moaned. "Just let go. There's nothing to be afraid of."

His cock was hardening between their bodies and, as Blair began to thrust more powerfully, Jim realised that, incredibly, he was going to come again. Soon. He began to urge Blair on with words and groans and with the increasingly urgent demands of his body. Blair's breath was coming in effortful gasps, close to breaking point. Jim reached between their bodies and began to jerk himself off, pacing himself alongside Blair's increasingly erratic movements.

He felt the sudden surge inside Blair's cock, probably before Blair did, and gave one last ferocious pull and twist on his own. Then Blair made an odd little choking sound and froze, cock pulsing fiercely as Jim's ass contracted around it. They remained locked together for a moment, suspended on the fiery edge of orgasm, then Blair began to jerk in an uncoordinated syncopation to the rhythmic jets of cum spraying both their bellies.

They lay in tangled satisfaction for a while, until they were forced to move, Blair sliding a hand between their sticky bodies to secure the condom before pulling carefully out of Jim. He lay watching, dazed by exhaustion and bliss, as Blair tied off the condom and carried it to the bathroom.

The sound of the shower warned Jim that Blair wouldn't be coming back for a while. He hoped it didn't mean Blair was intending to leave. Tried not to hear the sound of Blair's heart beating frantically; tried not to smell the salt of his tears over the Green Tea and Mandarin shower gel so kindly supplied by the hotel.

When the bathroom door opened, Blair seemed so calm, that Jim might have imagined it. His eyes were a little reddened, but nothing else indicated the panic attack that had just taken place. He was carrying a damp washcloth.

"I figured you might not feel like taking a shower just yet."

"You figured right." Jim smiled and stretched lazily as Blair wiped him down. He wished he could purr.

"Are you okay?"

The hint of anxiety in Blair's voice made him open his eyes reluctantly. "A bit sore. Nothing to worry about. Are you okay?"

Blair nodded, avoiding his eyes. "I'll just rinse this out."

While Blair was in the bathroom, Jim dragged his unwilling body around so he was lying along the bed instead of across it, and arranged the covers comfortably over himself. In a blatant hint, he took the side furthest from the bathroom, and folded the comforter back on what he hoped would be Blair's side. Then he lay back and tried to look nonchalant.

A reluctant twinkle in Blair's eyes told him how unsuccessful he'd been. Jim pushed himself up on one elbow and patted the bed invitingly. "It's late. We're both tired." Then he took a deep breath and abandoned all his safety mechanisms and excuses. "I'd really like you to stay, Chief."

"Okay." Blair slipped under the covers, but maintained a discreet distance from Jim.

It was too late, and Jim was too drained to try to deal with Blair's sudden withdrawal. He turned off the lamp beside the bed, which was currently the room's only source of illumination and settled himself ready to sleep. Blair would be there in the morning, and then they could talk.

Jim woke early, but not, apparently, early enough. When he opened his eyes, Blair was lying on his side, watching him. "Morning."

"Hey, Jim." The faintly troubled air didn't ease when Blair smiled. If anything, it deepened.

He reached over to tweak one of the tangled curls and somehow his fingers ended up lying against Blair's cheek. He slid them into the dark bush and drew Blair towards him for a kiss.

It was like a repeat of last night; initial hesitation was rapidly overcome as Blair's lips parted beneath Jim's. Only moments later, Blair was in his arms, their bodies moving with lazy urgency; barely aroused cocks rubbing together to create delicious little frissons of pleasure. Only one thing was different; last night Jim had allowed Blair to control everything, this morning he wanted Blair to be on the receiving end of every fantasy Jim had ever had about him.

He rolled Blair onto his back and finger combed the unruly curls into something approaching order, fanning the glorious mass out across the pillow. Then he lowered his face into the silken strands, rubbing into its softness and inhaling the faint scent of Blair's shampoo.

Blair fingers stroked the nape of his neck. "I would never have guessed you for a hair fetishist, man."

"I have hidden depths." Jim grinned as Blair's laughter vibrated against his chest. "There are so many colours I can see in your hair. It's amazing."

"Mmn." Blair ran his other hand over Jim's butt. "It sure is."

A quick turn of his head allowed Jim to lick the side of Blair's neck and nibble his ear lobe. "I love you." He breathed the words into Blair's ear; so softly, so easily, he surprised even himself.

"Jim... oh, man..." Blair arched beneath him. "I love you too. So much, Jim."

"I know." He kissed down Blair's throat and along his shoulder. "I've always known. I was just too scared to do anything about it."

"It's all right. You don't have to..."

Jim silenced him with a long kiss. "Later, Chief. Right now, all I want is to make love to you."

He rolled them both onto their sides, his hands moving slowly over Blair's body, learning all its secrets, touching him everywhere. When his lips brushed over Blair's nipple the long, low groan sent shivers of excitement through him. All he wanted in the world was to make Blair make that sound, again and again.

He worked his way down his lover's body, intent on capturing every sensation, every nuance of skin and hair, of sweat and the musk of arousal. He took Blair's cock in his mouth and revelled in the sound of Blair's ragged cry, but when Blair tugged at his shoulders, Jim slid up his body, obedient to his demands.

They resumed the lazy, wonderful humping, legs tangled together, hips moving rhythmically. Blair's skin felt like heated silk beneath his hands as they roamed uninhibitedly. Jim rolled onto his back, bringing Blair over on top of him and slid one hand down over his ass. Blair gasped and sucked hard on the tender skin of Jim's throat.

Just that was enough to make him come. Blair thrust harder, his cock sliding through the slipperiness of Jim's spunk a couple of times before he shuddered and groaned in climax. He slumped bonelessly on top of Jim, breathing hard.


"Yeah." Jim smiled against the top of Blair's head. "How about we give it half an hour and then try that again?"

At once the tension returned to Blair's body. "I can't, Jim. I've got work, remember?"

"Call in sick." He brushed his hand over Blair's ass. "I can make it worth your while."

"I can't." Blair rolled off him and sat up. He didn't quite meet Jim's eyes. "I've got an important meeting to go to. It can't be put off."

Something was wrong, Jim could feel it in his gut. There was something Blair wasn't telling him. But if he'd learned anything in the last six months it was not to leap immediately to the worst possible conclusion, so he smiled and shrugged. "Okay. Well, we've got eleven more days. You can come back tonight, can't you?"

"I don't think I'll be able to, Jim." Now the misery in Blair's voice was unmistakable. "This meeting... it's about the field trip my team is taking; the final planning session. We leave early tomorrow morning. We'll be gone for a month."

All the pleasure and satisfaction drained from his body to be replaced by stone cold fury. "So what is this, Sandburg? Fuck and run?"

He pushed Blair aside and stood, heading for the bathroom. Halfway there he stopped and turned. Blair was still sitting on the edge of the bed, his face blank. "You couldn't have told me this last night? Or maybe it was deliberate. Is that it? Is this some sick kind of revenge? Fool me into thinking you actually care about me, and then just walk out? Was this Naomi's idea?"

"No!" Blair stood too, his face twisted with anger. "You don't get to do this shit to me again, Jim, so just cut it out." He began picking up his scattered items of clothing. "I must have been outa my mind to think anything would ever change."

"You're right." Jim resisted the urge to snatch Blair's crumpled shirt from his hands and toss it across the room. "Nothing's changed. I'm still assuming the worst, and you're still hiding things from me. This goes both ways, dammit. If we can't learn to trust each other, we might as well just call it quits right now."

"I'm sorry, okay? I meant to tell you, but..." Blair's shoulders rose in a helpless shrug, "we were having a good time and I didn't want to spoil it, and then... then you kissed me and all I could think of..." he caught his voice on a sob, "all I could think of was how much I wanted this. I didn't even think about today, or tomorrow. God, Jim, I've wanted you for so long..."

It would be much easier to hold on to the anger. Blame Blair for everything and force him out - again - and tell himself it was better that way; but it wasn't better. It never would be better until he could find a way to make Blair a part of his life again. Jim forced himself to see his anger for what it really was - fear.

"Blair, don't. I didn't meant to... look, I came down here just hoping to spend some time with you, to mend some bridges, and I wasn't prepared for this." His hand swept around, indicating the two of them, the room, and ended up pointing towards the bed. "Any of it. So, can you just make a little allowance here?"

"I guess I can do that. Just this once." Blair walked over to him and they hugged, their bodies sliding rather squishily together. He grinned faintly. "Euww."

"You'd better grab a shower." Satisfied, for the moment, and not willing to push his luck, Jim drew back. The congealing spunk reluctantly released their bodies with a faint squelching sound. It felt pretty disgusting too. "I'll order room service."

While Blair showered, he managed to wipe most of the mess off with his undershirt and pulled on his complimentary bathrobe. He could wait until Blair left to have his own shower, though he felt sticky and uncomfortable.

Breakfast arrived just after the shower was turned off, and Blair emerged, wearing another bathrobe, clean-shaven, his hair damp and curling wildly. The waiter barely glanced in his direction as Jim tipped him. "Smells good."

"They didn't have algae shake on the menu, Chief. I'm sorry."

Blair grinned. "I only drank it to gross you out." He followed Jim to the side table where the dishes had been laid out.

Jim chuckled appreciatively. It felt good to be in that old space again, where humour was just displaced affection and their bodies seemed to fall into this easy rhythm of movement, as though they were dancing together instead of simply walking across a room.

Blair sighed as he drank his first mouthful of coffee. "This is even better than Simon's."

Jim grunted agreement and that was the end of the conversation until after breakfast was finished. While Blair dressed and drank a second coffee, Jim showered hurriedly. Blair was tying his shoelaces when Jim returned to the bedroom.

"Listen, Chief, this doesn't have to be a complete write-off." Blair's head came up swiftly and Jim realised he could have phrased it a little more diplomatically. "I mean, I can probably get an early flight back, save my vacation time for later. When we can spend some time together."

"Okay." Blair smiled. "Well, there's still today. We'll probably break for lunch around twelve-thirty. How about you meet me at the office and we'll take it from there?"

Relief washed over him at the warmth in Blair's voice. "That sounds good. Uh... you want to have dinner here tonight? I don't mean stay overnight, but I did promise you dinner, remember?"

Blair stood and stretched, throwing him a grin. "We'll work something out at lunch, okay?"

"It's a deal." They shared a brief kiss, and then Blair was gone.

It wasn't quite twelve-thirty when Jim reached the small storefront where the Favela Project had its office, but Blair was waiting in the doorway for him. He grinned and came forward to hug Jim and kiss his cheeks, continental style. Jim caught the hint of laughter in the smoky blue eyes at his discomfort, even though he knew that this kind of greeting between both males and females was perfectly acceptable here in Brazil.

"Listen, Jim, before we go in..."

"We're not going somewhere?" Disappointment edged his voice. They had so little time, and he had no desire to share Blair with anyone else. "I thought maybe one of those barbeque places would be good."

Blair's smile softened. "Maybe for dinner, okay? I really want you to meet these people. But before you do..."

The sudden nervousness in Blair's voice set Jim's nerves on edge. They'd barely papered over the damage this morning, and now it seemed like Blair had been holding out on him again. Jim eyed him warily. "What haven't you told me now?"

"I couldn't. Not till I'd run it past the others." Enthusiasm warmed Blair's voice; lit his eyes. "I told them about the time you spent in Peru - not the sentinel stuff" he added hastily as Jim frowned, "but the rest of it. Living with the Chopec. Being able to speak Quechua..."

"I'm pretty rusty, Chief." Jim mock frowned, suddenly sure that whatever Blair was up to, it was relatively harmless. "I can get by. No more than that. And the dialect they speak here will be completely different to the one I know."

"All the same..." Blair smiled brilliantly up at him, "we'd like you to come with us. At least..."

Jim shook his head. "I can't just take off, Sandburg. Simon let me have two weeks at short notice, as a favour. I can't repay that by disappearing into the jungle for a month."

"You won't have to." A blunt forefinger poked him in the chest, while Blair's other hand took a firm grip of his shirtfront. "This is how it works, Jim. We go upriver by boat. That takes most of a day. Then two days walk into the first village on our circuit. The team that's coming out meets us there and we spend a couple of days going over the latest information and plans. You can come back with them. That's eight days. Nine days, tops."

It was a seriously tempting proposition. Five days more with Blair, even if they were spent in the company of a bunch of tree-hugging eco-tourist hippies, was a lot better prospect than heading back to Cascade tomorrow.

"Jim," Blair's voice dropped to an urgent growl, "the shaman at this village... I've been working with him, and I'm sure he knows something about sentinels. I really think I'm onto something here."

He'd never been able to resist that intensity of Blair's, and mostly, he didn't want to. "Then I guess you'd better introduce me to your friends."

The afternoon was spent meeting with Blair's fellow team members and then shopping for the kind of clothing and footwear that Jim would need for an eight-day excursion into the jungle. A sleeping bag and backpack would be provided, but even new hiking boots would be better than wearing borrowed ones.

They managed all the preparations, and still had time to eat at a local barbeque restaurant, as Blair had promised. Then, since they would be leaving early from the agency's office, Jim checked out of his hotel and brought his luggage to the small apartment which Blair shared with five other people.

"Uh, Chief..." There was a small lounge, with a kitchen alcove, and three tiny bedrooms off it. The room was clean enough, he supposed, but hardly tidy and very shabby. At least the apartment was situated on the edge of the favela - hardly a great location, but at least reasonably safe. "Five of you live here?"

"Well, not all the time." Blair shrugged cheerfully as a skinny blond squeezed past them. "See you later, man. That's Ulrik. He teaches German and English at the drop in centre. Two of the others work for the the Project like I do, and at least one of us is always off on a field trip." He offered helpfully, "the couch folds down into a double bed."

"Does it?" Jim eyed the ancient couch as though it might suddenly turn into an instrument of torture. Then a horrible thought struck him. "Tell me you're not expecting us to... oh, no. No way, Chief."

"Well, it's the only double bed we've got, and everybody's promised to stay out late." Blair waggled his eyebrows hopefully. "It can't be any worse than an army barrack, Jim."

"Can't it?" He wondered morosely whether the hotel would let him have his room back, since he'd had to pay for the night.

Blair's roommates were as good as their word. Jim heard them creeping in not long after one a.m. and barely managed to wake enough to check that the sheet he'd pulled across his and Blair's bodies was still decorously draped across their hips. Even at this time the room was almost stiflingly hot, in spite of the open, grille protected windows. There was no air-conditioning, of course. Blair was sprawled beside and half on top of him and the room smelled of sex. If his roommates had been in any doubt about the nature of their relationship, they certainly wouldn't be any longer.

He waited until the sound of them moving around had ceased and three heartbeats had slowed into sleep before turning his attention to Blair. The dim light cast by a waning moon lent a soft gleam to the sweat-sheened skin, highlighting the supple curve of the long back. Jim ran a proprietary hand over the satiny surface and under the sheet to cup the trim ass, and wasn't entirely displeased when Blair stirred and whispered his name drowsily.

Most of the evening had been spent in a slow and thorough inspection of every inch, every mound and valley, of Blair's body. Sense memory reprised in vivid detail the taste of his sweat, the texture of chest hair, from the coarse strands in the centre to the fine, downy hairs high on his pecs; the feel of responsive nipples, hardening against his tongue.

Suddenly, Jim was aroused and restless. He nuzzled Blair's temple and licked the damp skin until Blair angled his head so they could kiss.

"What do you want, Jim?"

He smiled at the low, ragged tone of Blair's voice. His lover seemed to delight in dragging out of Jim his most secret desires and fantasies, and then indulging them. "I want to fuck you. And I want you on top of me while I do it."

"Yeah?" Blair pushed himself up on one elbow and stared down at him. "You like me being in control, don't you, Jim?"

"Aren't you always?" Jim grinned, finally able to accept that he'd always loved being pushed around by Blair, even when he'd grumbled about it. He relaxed into the rather lumpy mattress and half closed his eyes, waiting.

He felt Blair's muscles tense and then the couch creaked quietly as Blair moved to straddle his hips. Moonlight illuminated most of Blair's body, accentuating the darkness of his body hair and the glimmering whites of his eyes. Only his groin was in shadow, and even there, Jim could see the thickening curve as his cock swelled.

Blair leaned forward, placing his hands on either side of Jim's shoulders. His lips brushed Jim's, teasing them apart to allow his invading tongue entrance. It was almost as good as sex to feel that part of Blair's body inside him, hot and agile and demanding. Jim groaned softly and rocked his hips against Blair's ass.

"You love this." Blair kissed his throat, trailed more kisses and nibbles down his neck and across his chest. "You love me."

"Yes." It was difficult to speak past the tightness of his throat. He moaned as Blair sucked his nipple. "I love you."

The dark head moved to his left nipple, trailing ends of hair tickling Jim's skin to almost unbearable sensitivity. Another lavish swab of tongue against nipple made his whole body arch up off the couch. He clutched Blair's head to his chest, holding him there. "That's it. There... that's perfect..."

Just perfect.

In spite of there being no privacy at all, the boat trip along the Rio Negro was one of the best days of Jim's life. Old hands at this, the team found the best spot while the tourists were still milling around excitedly, and settled in for the trip. They didn't talk much, knowing that five of them, at least, would be spending the next month in close quarters. It was a comfortable and easy feeling, and Jim quickly relaxed. In some ways, it was like being on a mission in the Rangers - the objective might be very different, but the quiet competence the team members showed was very familiar.

Nobody seemed to mind that Jim and Blair spent most of their time leaning into each other, or exchanging glances and fleetingly intimate touches. Once in a while they'd be left alone, and then they'd neck lazily, both knowing that nothing more was possible. The hours passed as though it was all a dream.

They arrived at the tiny, bustling township in the late afternoon. At this time of year they still had several hours before nightfall, and so set off into the surrounding jungle with little haste. Blair had told Jim they'd only be walking for a couple of hours on reasonably well-defined paths. Perfect for breaking in his new hiking boots, which he'd thoroughly soaked in the river and pulled on over two pairs of thick socks. By the time the boots dried, they'd have moulded to the shape of his feet.

Half an hour into the walk, Jim lost the last scents of civilisation - the diesel from the boat, the stink of the rubbish heap on the edge of the settlement, and other, even less savoury smells that were to be expected from a primitive sewerage system. All he could hear was the sounds of the jungle and the movement of his companions. Nobody spoke much, and Jim allowed his control to relax. Although there was plenty to be heard, seen, smelt, it was different from the chaotic product of human disorder; more organic, much easier to absorb without being overwhelmed.

Every once in a while the trail grew wide enough for Blair to fall back alongside him for a few strides. On one of those occasions, he brushed his fingers down Blair's arm and Blair grinned at him. "I've never seen you look so relaxed, man. You love it here, don't you?"

"It's... peaceful." Jim smiled fleetingly at him then allowed him to move ahead as the trail narrowed again.

They stopped to set up camp while it was still early. The next day would be the longest, and the rest of the team would be doing a hell of a lot more walking over the next month. It seemed like none of them were overly eager to push hard so early in the journey. Once again, Jim was stuck by their calm competence and professionalism. It was reassuring to know that Blair would be in good company when Jim returned to Cascade.

After they'd eaten, the group sat around their small campfire chatting quietly for an hour or so before turning in. Nobody seemed to care when Blair laid out his sleeping bag beside Jim's and zipped them together. He lay awake after everyone else slept; casting his hearing wide, grounded by the warmth of Blair's body spooned in against his chest. Finally satisfied that no dangers lurked nearby, he allowed himself to drift off.

He woke again as the light started to brighten and found that Blair had turned in his arms, and was now lying with his face pressed into Jim's throat. He sighed with pleasure at the feel of Blair's breath stirring against his throat.

"Hey." Blair's whisper was so faint that even Jim could barely hear it. He nuzzled the disordered curls beneath his nose until Blair tilted his head back so they could kiss.

It was nearly twenty minutes, by Jim's guess, before the others began to wake. By that time both he and Blair were flushed and squirming with arousal they could do nothing to ease. Prudently, Jim allowed Blair to stumble off alone into the bushes to relieve himself and didn't follow suit until after Blair had returned.

They arrived at the village mid-afternoon of the second day to a joyous reception by its inhabitants and a more muted welcome from the team they'd come to replace. The five men and women were showing signs of their long separation from the amenities of civilisation and were obviously tired. From the information Blair had given him, Jim knew they'd covered over a hundred miles, some of it through stretches of dense jungle. From this village onwards, there would be no easy trail, like the one that led here.

From this point they would only speak Quechua, in deference to their hosts. For the first hour or so Jim found it difficult to follow, then everything seemed to suddenly click and it was as though he'd never left the jungle at all.

On the following day - his last with Blair - both teams met with the village elders to discuss events and to plan the building of a small medical centre on the edge of the village. The project had managed to recruit a Brazilian doctor who would accompany teams into the jungle as far as the village and treat any of the native people who came to him.

It was, he'd gathered from Blair, a major breakthrough, since it had required all the local tribes to agree to respect the neutrality of the clinic, somewhat akin to the international agreements that allowed the Red Cross to operate. Now it only remained for the tribes to contribute supplies and workers to actually build the clinic, and the doctor would soon be arriving.

Jim was watching as Blair, particularly, encouraged the more reluctant of the elders, ebulliently congratulated those who obviously supported the project, and explained the benefits, not only of building the medical centre, but having established links with the other tribes that could be used for trade. As this village was the gateway to the outside world, it was in the best position to benefit from such trade, he hinted. Jim saw a glimmer of interest appear in the eyes of more than one of the doubters, and had to hide a grin.

As the meeting broke up to everyone's satisfaction, Jim noticed that the youngest man among the elders was watching him. Had, in fact, been watching him for some time. They exchanged a level stare, and then he turned away. Jim shrugged, not particularly concerned, but resolved to keep an eye on the man. When Blair joined him, still bubbling with excitement, Jim nodded briefly in the man's direction, asking without words.

"That's Pachakusi. He's the shaman I told you about." Blair smiled and gave a little wave to Pachakusi, who was now openly watching them. Jim resisted the urge to push Blair behind him, but still frowned a warning. Pachakusi nodded his acceptance of Jim's protectiveness and walked away.

"Jim..." Blair's voice held an equal mixture of annoyance and resignation. "What do you want? Should I get a tattoo that says 'Property of Jim Ellison'?"

He smiled somewhat ferally. "That would be a good start."

Blair punched him lightly on the shoulder and walked away. There was just the hint of a seductive sway to his hips that told Jim that Blair knew he was being watched and that he wasn't particularly pissed off by Jim's possessiveness. It promised well for Jim's plans to get Blair alone tonight.

Tomorrow, the outgoing team would be leaving on their journey back to Manaus, and Jim would be travelling with them. Even at best, it would be months before he'd see Blair again. He no longer had any doubts about Blair's love or commitment, but he knew how difficult it would be to maintain a long distance relationship, and try as he might, Jim could find no plan that would allow Blair to return to Cascade.

The Academy was out of the question. Simon's credibility had been seriously dented when Blair pulled out, and there was no chance of another offer being made. Blair couldn't go back to Rainier, and Jim doubted that he'd want to. Besides, it didn't take psychic abilities to see how much Blair was enjoying his job. The pay might be lousy, but he was doing exactly the kind of work that suited his abilities and temperament best.

Jim woke as the first light of dawn glimmered against the wall of the hut. Beside him, Blair twitched in his sleep, but didn't wake. None of the other occupants of the hut were showing any signs of stirring, nor was there any sound from the villagers. In a couple of hours the village would be bustling, and it would be time for Jim to leave with the outgoing team.

He leaned over and kissed Blair softly on the mouth, drawing it out until he felt his lover wake. "Want to go for a walk?"

Blair grinned and scrambled out of their bedding with alacrity and began pulling on his pants. They'd gone for a walk last night too, to the amusement of villagers and team members alike, but it would be a long time - months - before he and Blair would be together again, and this was their last chance. He followed Blair out of the hut, pausing on the edge of the village to drag on socks and boots before heading into the trees.

"This okay?" Blair glanced back at Jim, and he checked for any nearby danger, finding none. "Great."

Blair was on him in an instant, hands groping, lush mouth silencing the groans that rose immediately to Jim's lips. He clutched desperately at Blair's head, holding him in place as though the younger man might somehow melt away. The few days they'd spent together weren't enough to assuage the emptiness he'd felt all those awful months.

A part of him thought that a lifetime wouldn't be enough, but he couldn't allow himself to dwell on that. Their relationship was too fragile to put such pressure on it. He couldn't stay, and he couldn't ask Blair to give up the life he'd rebuilt so painfully from the ruins of his academic career.

"Jim... god, Jim!" Blair's voice was hoarse, his breath coming in ragged gasps, and Jim transferred his attentions to the roughly stubbled throat of his lover. He could feel the frantic thumping of Blair's pulse and the vibration of his groans against his lips. The sensations were so intense, so visceral that Jim couldn't control the urge to hump against Blair's hip like the dog he'd once compared Blair to.

"Fuck!" With a sudden surge of his hips, Blair thrust back against Jim's groin, then grabbed his shoulders, pulling himself up enough to wrap his legs around Jim's hips.

They wrestled back and forth, each trying to force the pace into a faster, more brutal rhythm. Jim let himself fall into something resembling a zone, as his senses overloaded on the feel and taste and scent of Blair's arousal.

Until something... something alien - something not JimandBlair - invaded his consciousness, forcing him out of his distraction. He turned his head in the direction of the anomaly, unconsciously keeping his body between Blair and the intruder.

Pachakusi stood beside one of the towering Jatoba trees watching them, his face inscrutable.

"What are you doing here?" Jim growled in Quechua. He wasn't particularly worried by the man's presence, but he wasn't pleased by the interruption either.

"I mean you no harm, sentinel" Pachakusi answered calmly. "Nor your guide."

Blair's soft gasp sounded very loud in the silence that followed. Neither of them had spoken about Jim's abilities to any of the team or villagers, and yet Jim found he wasn't completely surprised by this revelation. Pachakusi had been observing them both throughout the previous evening and, having spent a year and a half with Incacha, he'd learned not to underestimate a shaman's powers.

"Ah, Pachakusi... Jim is... he's..." Blair's fingers were on his lower back, gripping his shirt tightly.

Jim put his hand out to silence him. "No. It's okay, Blair." He met Pachakusi's eyes levelly. "Among our people, sentinels are not known. We do not speak of it to others."

Pachakusi nodded his understanding. "I have been waiting for you to come. There is much to do."

"Now, hang on a minute, there..."

Blair interrupted hurriedly. "Jim's going back to the city with the other team. Today."

"That is not what the spirits told me." Pachakusi seemed completely certain of himself.

"But..." Blair's grip on his shirt tightened still further and Jim could scent his distress.

"You have come so I may teach you both." Pachakusi stated calmly. "Why else would you be here?"

Jim knew how impossible it was to argue with a shaman who'd already made up his mind. There wasn't any point in trying, since he'd be leaving with the outgoing team soon enough. His main concern was that Blair would have to deal with the fallout after he'd gone, but there was little he could do about it. He smiled and spread his hands disarmingly. "We can speak of this another time."

Pachakusi nodded and slipped almost silently behind the tree. Jim listened to his quiet footsteps retreating towards the village. When he was satisfied that they wouldn't be interrupted again, he turned back to Blair.

The expression of longing on Blair's face disappeared so quickly that Jim was almost tempted to believe that he'd imagined it. He brushed his fingers lightly down Blair's whisker roughened cheek and leaned in for a slow kiss. Blair responded eagerly. Undoubtedly, he was no more inclined than Jim to open newly healed wounds with pointless discussion. Their lips slid moistly against each other's, then locked into a determined clasp. The urgency Jim had felt earlier was gone now, and all he wanted was to lose himself in Blair. He explored the depths of Blair's generous mouth until his belly ached and his lungs burned for air.

When he could bear it no longer, Jim pulled back a fraction, resting his forehead against Blair's while he dragged in the warm exhalations of Blair's gasping breaths. His hands still cupped Blair's cheeks, fingers caressing the rough/smooth boundary of his beard. Taking a last deep breath, Jim pulled away, easing himself slowly down to his knees, letting his cheek slide lightly over the Blair's wrinkled shirt and pants.

Blair gasped as Jim fumbled with the button and zipper, then fell silent. Jim's fingers were trembling uncontrollably, and it took much longer than it should have to unfasten the top of Blair's shorts and slide his hands underneath the cloth. He rubbed his face against the wiry fur of Blair's belly before angling his head down to mouth softly at the silky moistness of Blair's cock.

"Jim," Blair gasped, his hands clutching desperately at Jim's head. "Yes... god, yes..."

He didn't need any encouragement. The fiery ache of his gut demanded relief, but he ignored his own need, leaning his hands on Blair's hips and sucking, with long slow strokes. Blair trembled, his hands petting restlessly against the short fine hairs of Jim's nape but otherwise kept still, allowing Jim to set his own pace. Even so, it wasn't long before the heavy cock twitched against his tongue. Jim swallowed hastily, his throat working against the blunt head, causing Blair to cry out brokenly as he came.

It seemed like an eternity, but was probably no more than a few seconds, before Blair pushed him away gently, and tugged at his shoulders. Jim felt a hundred years old as he stood, his bad knee protesting a little at the awkward position. Not even the almost agonising intensity of his arousal seemed particularly important at the moment. With a long sigh, Jim wrapped his arms around Blair and buried his face in the wild profusion of Blair's curls.

A warm hand cupped his balls through his jeans, and Blair cursed softly as a groan escaped Jim's lips. "Hang in there, babe. I've got you."

Blair's voice was shaking almost as badly as his hands. He struggled with the zipper, but Jim couldn't rouse the strength or the inclination to help. He leaned passively against his lover as Blair set to work, and finally managed to capture Jim's cock. He cradled it gently for a moment. Jim heard him spit on his hand, then his shaft was firmly enclosed, stroked with just that perfect rhythm that Blair seemed to know by instinct.

He shuddered, almost undone by the slick sensation, and once again tempted to let himself zone on it. Only the certain knowledge that Blair would pitch a fit if he did gave Jim the control he needed to stay present. The tension in his gut was almost unbearable now and with a helpless groan, Jim pushed, once, twice, into Blair's hand and climaxed convulsively.

"Oh man... oh man, Jim... fuck..." Blair's voice barely penetrated the haze.

Instead of fading with his release, the pain was getting worse with every moment. Jim gasped and choked, raising his hands to clutch at Blair's arms for support. It wasn't arousal that was doing this to him. With a grunt, Jim dragged himself upright and free of Blair's hold.

"Jim! Jim, are you..." Blair fell silent as Jim grabbed two handfuls of his hair, not at all gently, and pulled their heads together.

His nose mashed up against Blair's forehead, Jim growled urgently. "I can't let you go. I won't let you go."

"Jim." The sorrow in that one word almost broke Jim's heart. "Jim, you promised..."

The pain was finally easing, and he knew why. Jim dragged in a deep breath and released Blair. "I'm not..." he caught Blair's hand as he lifted in a gesture of denial. "Blair, I'm not asking you to come with me."

Blair blinked, silenced for once as his mind struggled to understand. Jim thought he could almost hear the gears whirring. He caught Blair's shoulders and shook him gently. "I'm not asking you to come with me."

"But..." And now his face was completely blank.

"So, do you think Jurgen or Catarina would post..." His question was cut off as Blair lunged forward and kissed him hungrily.

It was several minutes before Jim was aware enough to realise that they were still standing with their dicks hanging out of their pants, and that the villagers were definitely starting to move around. He pulled away reluctantly. "Hey, Chief, it's time we went back. I've got a letter to write."


Simon put the letter down with exaggerated care and stared at it balefully. When Jim Ellison called in a favour he didn't do it by halves. He wasn't looking forward to calling William Ellison and telling him that his son had gone native in the Amazonian rain forest. No, not one little bit, though of course he'd do it.

It was the other request that Simon had absolutely no intention of carrying out. He glared at the phone, and on cue, it rang.

"Banks." His lips tightened as Rhonda informed him that the Commissioner wanted to speak with him. Now.

"Didn't I tell you I didn't want to be disturbed?" The pleasantly reasonable tone was warning enough for someone who knew him as well as she did.

Rhonda was blatantly unimpressed. "You said ten minutes, and that was fifteen minutes ago, Simon."

"I lied," he snapped. "Tell the Commissioner... no, look, just give me another five and then call him back for me, will you?" He sighed as he hung up the phone. It wasn't even nine-thirty and already his day was going to hell.

The coffee maker was burbling quietly, and Simon reached for the pot with a slightly happier sigh. The call to William Ellison could wait till later; calling the Commissioner without the soothing taste of Hazelnut-Mocha on his tongue was inadvisable to say the least.

Sipping the black brew, he looked again at the letter, lifted it one handed to read through again and then tossed it onto his desk. No way in hell was he accepting Ellison's resignation. Which meant that he somehow had to finagle an indefinite leave of absence - unpaid - for his most decorated detective. Just the thought of it was enough to give him a headache.

Too soon, the phone rang again. He folded the letter and placed it in the envelope along with Ellison's badge, dropped it in the drawer and closed it with a snap. Time for some tapdancing.