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Hazy Shade of Winter

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Hazy Shade of Winter

by PsychGirl

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Written for the ts_ficathon "The Sentinel Gets a Clue" on LJ. My prompts were Sally Wong, Lastings Park, and backpack.
I'm very grateful to morgan32, mab_browne, and earth2skye on LJ for their helpful comments on an early draft of the first scene. I also owe many thanks to Sheila, Marion, Joyce, and Skye on the SenBetas list for their invaluable help and advice. All errors and missteps are, consequently, mine.
The first seven lines were written by Bill Froelich. Thanks to Becky's Sentinel Site for the transcript. The Poetry of Rumi isn't a real book, as far as I know; I took the poem from The Illuminated Rumi by Coleman Banks. And the title, and song lyrics, are taken from "Hazy Shade of Winter" by Simon and Garfunkel.

Song lyrics (used very sparingly, I promise!). Spoilers for SenToo.

This story is a sequel to:

Cascade, Washington
May 1999

Why don't you let me read it and I'll give you some feedback?

He's not going to be part of anything. I'm not going to be part of anything, either. You cannot publish it.

No, look, don't you run some interrogation on me. You're not going to find some weak spot in me, all right? Look, I'm not a perp, I'm your friend.

Hey, Chief, let me ask you something. How did you intend to protect my identity and still keep your research valid?

People are calling my father and my brother asking them what it's like to live with the freak.

I'd like to go back to things they way they were before Sandburg, when I worked alone.

My desire to impress both my peers and the world at large drove me to an immoral and unethical act. My thesis, The Sentinel, is a fraud.

Blair's eyes snapped open. His heart was pounding; he was sweating, limbs tangled in his sheets. What a bizarre dream, he thought. Zeller getting into Major Crimes, Simon and Megan being shot, Jim standing vigil in the hospital...he felt a cold hand close over his heart as he remembered that Jim had been shot, too, in the dream.

He untangled his legs from the bedclothes and swung them over the edge of the bed, rubbing his face. His hands had a slight tremor; he took a few deep, calming breaths. Chill, man, he thought. Jim and Simon are camping, up in the Cascades; they're fine. He ran a hand through his hair. Must have put too much garlic on the pasta last night. He pushed himself to his feet, went into the kitchen and started the coffee, then headed for the bathroom.

Still, he couldn't stop thinking about the dream. Under the pounding spray of the shower he remembered standing at a podium with a heavy heart, denouncing his work, his career, Jim's abilities. The memory sent a shiver down his spine, clenched his stomach. He shook his head sharply and poured out some shampoo, worked it into his hair. It was just a bad dream, he told himself firmly. No big deal, you've had those before. Take a deep breath, concentrate - you've got a lot to do today.

He'd wanted to go camping with Jim, had been looking forward to the two of them just spending some quiet time together. They hadn't had a chance to do anything like that since they'd come back from Sierra Verde. And although things seemed to have gotten back to normal between them, it felt fragile to Blair, as if they were both walking on eggshells. He'd really wanted them both to be able to get away from the pressures of work and school, have some fun, just have some time to reconnect. But, as it turned out, this was the week he'd had to get his grant application in for next year, and then his advisor had demanded to have a meeting, evaluate the progress Blair had made over the semester. All of which meant that, instead of standing in hip waders in a nice, clear mountain stream, he was donning metaphorical hip waders to try and BS his advisor into approving his work.

He shut off the shower and stepped out into the bathroom, grabbing the towel off the rack and rubbing his hair briskly. The more he thought about it, the more the dream was starting to look like a classic anxiety dream, straight out of Freud. He was worried about how he was going to convince his advisor that he'd made progress without blowing Jim's cover, so he dreamed that someone had leaked his dissertation. And there was even a small element of wish fulfillment -being pursued by the media, offered millions of dollars, nominated for the Nobel Prize. He snorted derisively at his own unconscious hubris. If ever there was an example of dream wish fulfillment...there wasn't any such thing as a Nobel Prize in anthropology.

He had to admit, though, that recently he'd begun to wonder whether he was doing Jim any good any more. Sometimes he wondered whether he had ever done him any good. He'd certainly screwed things up with Alex. He'd made all the wrong choices, at every point down the line. He hadn't trusted Jim, hadn't communicated with him at all, had had too much confidence in his own abilities...and the results had been disastrous.

He stared at himself in the mirror, his hand, full of shaving cream, halted halfway to his face. Maybe the dream was a sign that it was time for him to move on. He'd told Jim that he had plenty of data, and he did. Maybe he'd outstayed his welcome, both as Jim's Guide and as his roommate. He sighed, spread the thick lather over his cheeks and chin. Maybe that was the source of the faint tension between them. But maybe Jim couldn't find a way to tell him that. Maybe he should leave.

The thought sent a tremor through him, making his drop his razor. He cursed as he fumbled in the sink with hands that were suddenly clumsy and numb. He knew why he didn't want to leave, and it had nothing to do with Jim's Sentinel senses or his dissertation or needing a cheap place to live.

He looked up at the mirror, seeing the small, sad smile on his face reflected there. Who'd have thought that, after all the places he'd traveled, and all the different cultures he'd studied, that he'd end up losing his heart to a taciturn, blue-eyed cop with a killer smile and five enhanced senses? But that was what had happened. He'd known it since he woke up in the hospital to Jim's awkward joking about back rent. He'd tried to broach the subject with Jim, then, to no avail. Jim had neatly sidestepped the topic, a profound look of discomfort on his face, and Blair hadn't had the courage to bring it up again.

His brows drew together in a slight frown. Maybe that was the reason things seemed so strained. Maybe Jim was uncomfortable living with him now that he had made his feelings clear, but couldn't bring himself to tell Blair to leave. Especially after he'd kicked him out once already.

He shivered, remembering being greeted by a gun in his face, his belongings in boxes. No, he could see how it could be hard for Jim to tell him to leave. But he clearly wasn't comfortable being around Blair anymore. And that brought him back to the dream, and his feeling that it was trying to tell him something, something important. He sighed; grasping the razor firmly, he gave his reflection a good, hard glare. Get your head out of your ass, Sandburg, and stop thinking about the goddamned dream. It's just a dream. Start thinking about what you're going to say to your advisor.

However, it was a lot harder to maintain that equanimity three nights later, when he had the dream for the seventh time. He sat bolt upright in bed, clutching his head in his hands, the voices echoing in his ears as loudly as if they'd been in the room with him. It was exactly the same thing, every time. Naomi, emailing his dissertation to Sid. The reporters and camera crews, ambushing him and Jim in the truck. Jim, furious with him, cold and unforgiving. Zeller, getting away, shooting Megan and Simon. Jim, standing vigil in the hospital. Him, standing at a podium, throwing his life away. The details had only gotten clearer and more vivid with each repetition.

He struggled to draw breath into lungs locked closed by anxiety. He was sure, now, that the dream was trying to warn him about something, but exactly what, he couldn't figure out. Damn it, Sandburg, he railed at himself, what kind of shaman are you? You can't even interpret a simple dream message from the spirit world? Part of the problem was undoubtedly that he was exhausted. He hadn't slept well for the last three nights. But he knew that, until he figured out what the dream meant, it would keep happening.

The one part of the dream that really frightened him, that sent a shaft of ice through his gut every time, was the estrangement between him and Jim. Jim had been angry at him before, sure, but he had never been like that. Refusing to listen to him, ignoring him, walking out on him, telling Simon he didn't want him as his partner much as he tried to tell himself that it wasn't real, that it was only a dream, each nightly replay - sometimes twice in one night - had been like a blow to his heart.

He managed to draw a few shaky breaths, his heart slowing its frantic pounding. He swung his legs over the edge of his bed, got up and made his way slowly into the kitchen. Maybe if he had some tea, it would help calm him down, help him think. He shook the kettle to make sure it had water in it, then switched the burner on underneath it. He turned to the cabinet and found his chamomile tea, then reached for a cup. He smiled slightly as he saw the cup he was reaching for. It was something Jim had found for him, at the gift store outside Cascade National Forest. He'd bought it as a joke, given it to Blair with a lopsided grin and a twinkle in his eye. It was tan, embossed with the seal of the National Forest Service and the word "Guide". But even though Jim had meant it only in fun, Blair treasured the gift dearly.

Lost in his memories, he fumbled in the cabinet. The cup slipped out of his hand; as it shattered on the kitchen floor, Blair realized, with a burst of insight, what the dream had been trying to tell him.

It was him. He was the threat to Jim. He was putting Jim in danger; his research was putting Jim in danger. It was all so perfectly clear.

He froze, leaning against the kitchen island, his knees suddenly weak. He scrubbed his hands down his face. What had he thought was going to happen once he'd finished? Of course things would go public at that point. Defenses were open to anyone in the university community; dissertations could be checked out of the library, copies requested online. Jim's life, Jim's secret, would be an open book at that point. Even if he took Jim's name out, any person with an ounce of common sense would be able to figure out who he was with a few hours of investigative work.

He stumbled out of the kitchen and into his room, flipping his laptop open, jamming his finger against the power button. Hands flying across the keyboard, he located the folder with all his dissertation notes and drafts, dragged it into the trash icon, right-clicked and chose "Empty trash bin". "Are you sure?" popped up on the screen, with "Yes" highlighted. He lowered his finger towards the Enter key.

And stopped just above it.

A whimper escaped him as he tried to make himself strike the key. He had to do this, had to get rid of it, had to prevent it from becoming public, from hurting Jim.

His finger wavered in the air above the key, then curled as he made a fist, slammed it down on the desk next to the laptop. He couldn't do it. Whether out of personal pride or scientific ethics, he couldn't bring himself to destroy all that work, all that information.

Stifling a groan, he sank onto the edge of his bed, burying his face in his hands. What was he going to do? God, he'd screwed everything up. He'd thought it had just been Alex, but now he could see that everything he'd done, every decision he'd made, had been leading inevitably to disaster. He was no kind of Guide at all. He'd failed Jim, failed Incacha. He'd created this mess, with this stupid delusional scheme of studying a Sentinel for his dissertation, and now he didn't have the guts to fix it in the only way possible.

Unless...he raised his head, an idea slowly taking shape inside him. If he left; if he took everything with him, all his notebooks, all his drafts, the laptop; if he cut all ties to this place, his life here...then no one could get a hold of it, no one could find out. Jim would be safe.

A pang of grief stabbed through him at the thought of leaving, but he pushed it aside roughly. It was probably for the best. Jim didn't really seem to need him or want him around and, after the fiasco with Alex, he wasn't sure that he'd be anything but a liability if there was another crisis. There's no point in getting upset about it, he told himself harshly. It's the only solution. This is your chance to make the right choice, do something right, for once. Do something to atone for all those times you fucked up.

He had to do it now, though. If he waited until Jim came back, he'd lose his nerve. And he'd never be able to make Jim understand why he had to do this. He'd leave a note; tell Jim that Naomi had come by, talked him into going to Tibet with her. Jim would be disappointed in him, and pissed as hell for a while, but he'd get over it. And it really was for the best...he'd known that, since Alex, things just hadn't been the same between them. He understood why, now. The dream had helped him see that. He'd just screwed up too much, too often. Jim couldn't trust him anymore. And a partnership without trust...well, that was no partnership at all.

He took a deep breath, running his hands through his hair, and then stood and went into the kitchen to start cleaning up the mess he'd made.

Chicago, Illinois
September, 1999

Time, time, time, see what you've done to me...

Emily Turner regarded the young man standing before her with a critical eye. He looked like he was sick, or jonesing, maybe. He was painfully thin, his clothes - worn, patched jeans and an old, faded t-shirt that looked like it had been bought at a thrift store - hanging off his sturdy frame. And his appearance wasn't improved by the quarter-inch of dark stubble covering his head, or the dark shadows under his eyes. What she could see of his eyes, that was; he tended to look at the floor, shifting from one foot to another nervously, glancing up apprehensively at her every now and then, almost as if he was expecting her to yell at him or strike him. He had a battered leather backpack slung over one shoulder, and an old Army fatigue jacket in the other hand.

"So, Ron tells me you and he go way back," she said.

The man nodded, keeping his eyes on the floor. "We were grad students together at Rainier," he said, his voice soft.

"Why do you want to work in my bookstore?"

His eyes met hers at that, and she caught a flash of sapphire blue. "I like books. And I need a job."

She chewed her lip reflectively, watching him fidget. "You strung out?" she asked, years of experience having taught her that a direct approach was best.

He shook his head, but his gaze remained averted.

"Still using?"

"No. No." The protest, although soft, was vehement; his head moving back and forth sharply.

She sighed, torn. Logic was telling her that this guy was a bad risk, as like as not to rob the place blind to get money for drugs. But there was something about him...he seemed vulnerable, off course. It tugged at her maternal instincts. And she trusted Ron; he was a good judge of character. "The pay's not much," she said, coming to a decision, "but I can offer you as many hours as you want. I'm the only other employee, and I could use the help."

He nodded, seeming to relax infinitesimally, the nervous shifting slowing. "Ron said you had a place I could crash?"

She frowned. "I've got a room in the back of the bookstore, but it's little more than a closet. There's a cot and a hot plate, but not space for much else."

"It'll be fine. That is, if you don't mind?..."

She gazed at him, bemused. "It really isn't fit to live in. I mean, there's a toilet back there, but no shower or anything..."

He shrugged one shoulder diffidently, eyes back on the floor, his voice flat. "It doesn't matter to me. All I need is a place to sleep. But if you'd rather not, it's okay, I'll find something else."

Maybe it was concern on her part at the kinds of places he might end up, if he was willing to settle for so little. Or maybe it was that maternal instinct she'd felt earlier. If he was living in the bookstore, she could keep an eye on him, make sure he ate a good meal now and then. And, the more paranoid and cynical part of her brain supplied, you can keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn't steal anything.

She pushed that uncharitable thought to the back of her brain. "No, it's fine, you're welcome to use it." She smiled at him and put her hand out. "Well, Mr. Sandburg, welcome to Emily's Books."

The shadow of a smile touched his face, and he took her hand briefly in a dry, strong grip. "Please, call me Blair," he said.

"When do you want to start?"

"As soon as possible. How about tomorrow?"

"No problem. We could get the paperwork done now, if you want, then I can show you the room."

"Uh, actually...." The uneasy shifting had returned and his eyes were back on the floor. "...could...could I convince you to just pay me under the table?" He glanced up at her, and she saw fear in his eyes. "You can cut my wages, if you want, if it makes it easier, or just pay me what you can when you can, I don't care..." He trailed off.

She gave him a piercing look. "Are you in some kind of trouble? Trying to avoid the police or something? Because I'm warning you..."

"No. No, it's nothing like that, I promise." He held her gaze steadily, and she could see the sincerity in his eyes, beneath the haunted shadows. "I just...I just want to stay off the grid. I don't want to be found. But...but it's not because I've done anything wrong or illegal. I promise."

She chewed on her lip again, her earlier concerns surging to the forefront of her mind. Then she pushed them away resolutely. Her gut was telling her this guy was okay. Troubled, definitely, but not in trouble. She was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, because Ron knew him, and Ron was her friend, so Ron's friends were hers. And Blair Sandburg looked like he could really use a friend right about now. "Okay," she said, "we'll work something out. Why don't I take you back and show you the room?"

Relief crossed his features and he closed his eyes, briefly. "Thank you," he said, softly.

He might not be so thankful, she thought to herself, as she motioned him to the back of the bookstore, if he knew what he was getting in addition to a room. Because now she was not going to rest until she had figured out what had happened to him.

December, 1999

Weaving time in a tapestry...won't you stop and remember me...

The sunlight streamed in through the tall plate glass windows, but Blair was still cold. The bookstore was in an old building in Grant Park that had been used a boarding house during the Great Depression. The ceilings were nearly twenty feet high, which made the place feel airy and spacious, but damn hard to heat.

Its legacy as a boarding house meant that there were several unique and idiosyncratic touches, such as the large fireplace that dominated one wall. Emily had converted it to gas when she'd bought the place, and had arranged a red horsehair couch and several plush wingchairs around it, along with piles of floor pillows and throws. Add the huge plush rug in front of the fire, and it became a nice little reading nook for customers. Blair looked at it a little longingly. It was usually a lot warmer over in the nook.

The door opened, setting the bell attached to it to chiming. A man came in, a brown shopping bag in his arms. He put the bag on the counter and stuck his hand out to Blair. "Pete Roberts," he said. "Emily said I could drop these books off."

"Oh, yeah," Blair said, shaking his hand. Emily had told him someone would be bringing by some books to sell. "If you want to give me a few minutes, I'll go through them and give you an estimate of what we can pay you for them."

Pete shook his head. "I've got to run. Store credit will be fine." He opened the door, turned to look back at Blair. "Tell Emily I said hi." The bell rang as the door closed behind him.

Blair dug a pad of paper and a pen out from under the counter, then reached into the brown shopping bag and pulled out a book, looked at the title. The Poetry of Rumi, he read to himself. He flipped the book open, turned to a random page. Listen to the story being told by the reed of being separated, he read. Since I was cut from the reed bed I have made this crying sound. Anyone separated from someone he loves understands what I say: Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back.

He shut the book quickly, the back of his throat suddenly aching, tears prickling in his eyes. He heard Emily coming from the back of the store and put the book up on the counter, fumbling in his lap for the pad and pen there. He bent his head and carefully started to record the book's information.

"Did Pete bring us some good stuff?" Emily asked as she came behind the counter.

"Yeah," Blair replied, his voice sounding harsh in his ears.

She stopped and he could tell, even without seeing her face, that she was looking at him with intense scrutiny. "You okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, fine," he said, voice closer to normal. He kept his attention on the pad, writing; hiding the tremor in his fingers by curling them tightly around the pen, unable to face her sympathetic gaze. He knew she was curious about his life prior to coming to Chicago; she'd asked him a few questions, gently, without pressure, but he couldn't bring himself to open up to her. He couldn't talk to anyone about the life he'd left behind. The loss of it was like a hole in his heart, a hole that he managed through sheer force of will, and if he started talking about it he was afraid that it would grow and grow until it had swallowed him whole.

He realized Emily had been asking him a question. "I'm sorry?" he said.

"I said, have you taken your lunch break yet?"

"No." He glanced at the clock. Nearly 2 pm already. He put the pad and pen on the counter, started to slide off the stool. "I'll go now." Usually he just went for a walk, sat in a nearby park for a half an hour.

"Oh, no, you don't," Emily said, her hand on his arm, restraining him. "Today we're going to have a working lunch. I'm going to go get sandwiches, and, for once, you're going to eat." He looked at her, startled, and she gave him a thin smile. "Don't think I haven't noticed that you tend to spend your lunch breaks walking instead of eating. And I bet all you've had today is far too much coffee."

He couldn't stop the rueful grin that twisted a corner of his mouth. One definite benefit of working in the bookstore was all the free coffee he could drink. "Emily, thanks, but you don't have to do that..."

She cut him off. "As your boss, I'm informing you that it's Employee Appreciation Week at Emily's Books, and I'm buying lunch for all the employees. Which is you. So, what kind of sandwich do you want?"

"Em, really..."

"Blair. What kind of sandwich?"

He sighed inwardly. How could he explain to her that it didn't matter, that everything he put in his mouth tasted like ashes. "Turkey on wheat, no cheese; mustard, no mayo."

She gave him a bright grin. "Great. I'll be right back."

She was as good as her word; twenty minutes later she was spreading a feast out on the counter in front of him. In addition to the sandwich, she'd bought him a bottle of orange juice, a bag of chips, and a cookie. He thought about protesting, but one look at her determined face silenced him, and he picked up the sandwich and took a small bite.

"You know," she said, thoughtfully, between bites of her own sandwich, "we haven't talked about what we're going to do over the holidays. I usually close the store for the two weeks around Christmas." She looked over at him hopefully. "So, you could take that time off, go visit your family, if you want."

He shook his head slowly, feeling the familiar pang of loss echo through him. "No, I don't have anyone to visit." He'd cut off all contact with Naomi as well, too afraid that even that oblique connection could endanger Jim. After all, in his dream it had been Naomi that had started it all. But he hadn't wanted to worry her. He'd left her a message that he was going to Ecuador on an expedition, would be incommunicado for at least eight months. After the New Year he'd have to think up a new lie to tell her.

He looked up to find Emily looking at him, concern in her eyes, and he ducked his head quickly, avoiding her gaze. "I'm...uh, I'm happy to work, if you want to keep the store open. I don't mind. I'll be here anyway."

"Okay," she said quietly.

His appetite gone, he wrapped up his sandwich and stowed it, with the chips and the cookie, under the counter. He caught the glare Emily directed at him. "Dinner. I promise," he said. Brushing his hands off, he reached for the pad and pen, nodding at the grocery sack next to Emily. "What's the next one? You did say this was a working lunch."

Rolling her eyes, she reached into the grocery bag and pulled out the next book. "History of the American Racetrack," she read aloud. Her face brightened suddenly. "Oh, good, I know someone who'll be interested in this."

"Really?" Blair asked, writing the title down on the pad.

"Yeah, he's a big racetrack buff." She flipped idly through the book, then glanced up at Blair, one eyebrow raised. Laying the book open on the counter, she slid it over in front of him. "Recognize this place?"

Blair looked up. Lastings Park, Cascade, Washington read the page header. His heart thumped as he glanced over and saw the familiar lines of the grandstand. Without warning, the memory of Jim smiling at him, looking utterly gorgeous and classy in his tux, swept over him. His throat tightened painfully as he remembered how good he'd felt that night, his heart nearly bursting with pride and happiness for Jim, so pleased that he and Simon had been able to keep the award a secret.

With a start, he realized he'd snapped the pen in two, and now black ink was leaking out onto the pad. "Oh, shit, Em, I'm sorry," he gasped, grabbing a handful of napkins out of the sandwich bag and trying to blot up the pool of ink.

"Blair, it's okay, don't worry about it," she was saying, her hand gentle on his arm, but he couldn't respond. Overwhelmed by the memories that circled around him like vultures, he lurched to his feet, reeling; the stained pad and pen fragments dropping to the floor. He couldn't breathe. He had to get away, get outside, get some air.

Emily was in front of him, her hands on both his arms now. "Blair, what is it? Tell me what happened, what's got you so upset?"

He shook his head in negation. "Can't...I'm sorry, Emily, I...I just...I can't." His head was pounding, his stomach twisting with nausea.

"But maybe I can help. Is it someone there you're afraid of? Did you have a gambling problem or something?"

"No. No." He took a deep breath, tried to focus. "I was investigating a murder..."

"You were a police officer?" Her voice was incredulous.

"No. An observer. I was working with...." But it was too much, too hard; the awful emptiness expanded inside him, taunting him with memories of laughter, camaraderie, friendship. He pulled himself out of her grasp, stumbled around the edge of the counter, headed for the door. "Air," he gasped, "I just...I just need to get some air..." and then he was out the door, heading blindly down the street, caring about nothing except that he needed to find some place to be alone with his pain and misery.

January, 2000

But if your hopes should pass away, simply pretend that you can build them again...

Blair climbed down the ladder, a pile of books in the crook of one arm. He stacked them carefully on the floor and straightened, putting his hands in the small of his back and stretching backwards with a groan.

Emily came around the corner of the bookcase and handed him a steaming mug. He wrapped his hands around it gratefully and inhaled deeply. Green tea.

"I didn't figure you needed any more caffeine today," she said, smiling at him.

"Thanks," he replied, settling himself cross-legged on the floor. He took a long drink, then put the mug down at his side and pulled the heavy three-ring binder into his lap. "Why don't you read the titles this time, and I'll check them off."

His mind wandered as they moved steadily through the inventory. It had been about a month since his little freak-out, and, much to his surprise and relief, Emily hadn't said anything about it. She hadn't asked him any more questions about his past, had accepted his decision to stay at the bookstore and work over the holidays without a word, hadn't mentioned Cascade again, not even in passing. He'd thought she was more tenacious than that; the kind of person who, once she got a notion in her brain, didn't give up. But maybe his reaction had convinced her that there was no point in pursuing the topic.

"And that's the last of ones in this case," she said, straightening and looking at her watch. "We can start with the next bookcase tomorrow; it's already after nine."

"Okay," he agreed. "I'll put these back." He motioned at the stacks of books on the floor. "Although I might get started on the next group after I close up." Nights were the worst; once the customers had left and the store was locked up and quiet it was all too easy for the memories to come back. He'd lay awake for hours, fighting them off; then finally fall asleep, only to wake before dawn, hopelessness settling into his heart as he took in his surroundings.

Most of the time, then, he'd unlock the small black footlocker at the end of his bed - his only contribution to the room's decor - and, pushing aside his few articles of clothing, dig out one of the notebooks at the bottom. He'd written the dream down in one of them, in excruciating detail, and he'd read through it, again and again, reminding himself that he was doing this to protect Jim, to keep him and his secret safe. It didn't ease the ache in his heart at all - made it worse, in fact, more often than not - but it did help to convince him that he was doing the right thing. That, and the fact that he hadn't had the dream since he'd left Cascade.

Continuing the inventory would give him something to do, and postpone the inevitable moment when he had to go back into his tiny, barren room and wrestle with his demons. And maybe it would make him tired enough that he'd just drop off to sleep, for once. Yeah, he thought bitterly, and maybe the sun won't rise tomorrow.

Emily's hand fell on his shoulder, startling him out of his black thoughts. "I'm gonna head out, then, if you don't mind closing up." she said. "See you tomorrow."

"Okay." He rose to his feet, gathered up an armful of books.

She was halfway down the aisle when she turned back. "Oh, someone called today and asked me to hold a book. Said he'd come by tonight to pick it up. It's under the counter, next to the cash register."

"Okay," he said absently, browsing over the titles of the books he held, trying to figure out where they went on the shelf.

He heard her walk to the front of the store; heard the jingle of the bell as she left. He climbed up the ladder, balancing precariously at the top as he shifted the books in his arms. He tried to keep his mind on nothing but the task, sliding the books back onto their places on the shelf, trying to lose himself in the rhythm of it, the repetitiveness. If he was lucky, he'd find a few moments of relief from the ever-present gloom that dogged his thoughts.

He heard the jingle of the door again and paused, about to put "A Tale of Two Cities" on the shelf. "Em? That you?" There was no answer, and he sighed. Must be a customer, then. Oh, well, at least it would be another distraction.

He climbed down the ladder and headed for the main vestibule, the book still in his hand. "I'm sorry," he started to say as he came around the corner, "I was in the back..."

Jim Ellison stood in the doorway.

He froze, the book dropping from suddenly numb fingers to fall on the floor with a dull thud. Myriad emotions surged through him - joy, shock, sorrow, relief, fear - closing his throat and rendering him speechless.

He was sure the look of surprise on Jim's face was mirrored on his own. "Sandburg," Jim whispered, his face pale, "I...I didn't realize..."

Fear elbowed its way to the front of his mind. He had to get Jim out of here, had to pretend everything was fine so he would leave, so he would be safe. Swallowing hard, he scrambled to cover. "That I'd gotten back from Tibet?" he said, forcing cheeriness into his voice. "Yeah, man, sorry I didn't call...we got back just before the holidays; Naomi took off for California and I decided to just crash with some friends...the woman who owns this bookstore, she's a friend of a friend, and she needed some help, so I thought I'd work a little, make a little extra cash before heading home...." He knew he was babbling, but he couldn't stop himself.

"You cut your hair," Jim said, breaking into Blair's monologue, his voice flat.

"Oh, yeah...." He ran his hand self-consciously over the quarter-inch of stubble. Emily had been after him to grow it out, told him it would help keep him warm during the winter, but he'd refused. His weekly ritual with the hair clipper was one of the ways he reminded himself that his old life was dead, that he was a different person now. But he couldn't tell Jim that. "Tibetan monk tradition," he supplied quickly. "You know, when in Rome, and all that..."

Jim nodded and an awkward moment of silence fell between them. He couldn't stop looking at Jim; couldn't take his eyes off him, the sight of him feeding his hungry, aching heart. He looked pale, seemed a little tired, but otherwise he looked just exactly the same as when Blair had left Cascade eight months ago.

"I...uh, I called...uh, about a book?" Jim said, finally breaking the silence.

"Oh, right," Blair said, remembering Emily's parting comment, and then his mouth was off and running again. "Yeah, Em told me...I mean, she didn't tell me it was for you," he forced one of the cheery grins again, "or I'd have called you, you know, try and find some time to get together, have a drink or something, catch up, talk about old times, but I've got plans tonight, unfortunately..." Shut the hell up! his brain was shrieking, but it was like his mouth had a mind of it's own.

"Then how about dinner tomorrow night?" Jim said, smoothly. "Know any good places around here?"

"Sure," he heard himself say, in utter amazement. "There's a good diner at 11th and Wabash, just around the corner. Got a fantastic deli - great smoked herring, and lox to die for." God, what was he doing? Was he insane? He couldn't have dinner with Jim. He wouldn't be able to keep this act up for an entire meal.

Jim raised an eyebrow, his mouth curving slightly. "I'll take your word for it, Sandburg. Eight o'clock sound good? Where should I pick you up?"

A modicum of self-preservation inserted itself between his mouth and his brain at that point. He couldn't let Jim know that he was living at the bookstore. "Uh...I've...I've got to work tomorrow night...why don't I just meet you there?"

"Okay," Jim said, nodding, "eight o'clock, at the diner. 11th and Wabash." Another heavy silence fell between them, broken again by Jim, this time clearing his throat. "Uh...the book?"

"Oh, right." He slid behind the counter, fumbling next to the cash register for the book. Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac. He rang it up with shaking hands, his garrulousness suddenly deserting him, the enormity of what he'd agreed to sinking in. Jim handed over a ten and he made change, slid the book into a bag, handed the bag and the change to Jim.

"Well," Jim said, stuffing his wallet in his back pocket, "I guess I'll see you tomorrow night, then." He met Blair's eyes, and, for a second, Blair thought he saw something that looked like trepidation in those cool blue depths. Then Jim smiled, blindingly, brilliantly, and the sight of it was like a bullet to Blair's heart. "It's good to see you, Chief," he said, warmly.

"You, too," Blair mumbled unconvincingly, his throat tightening in misery. He watched Jim leave the store and head down the sidewalk, his hands gripping the edge of the counter. Once Jim was out of sight, he ran to the door. Flipping the sign to "closed", he locked the door securely, then drew the shades. Alone now, and unseen, he let go, dropping to the floor slowly, drawing his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. Tears slid down his cheeks as his body shook with silent sobs, the ache of loss reverberating through him.

Jim turned the corner, out of the biting wind coming off the lake, and then stopped and leaned back against the wall, shaken. He exhaled heavily, running his free hand over his face, tightly clutching the bag with the book in the other. His heart was pounding, and he braced himself against the cold brick, finding the coolness and solidity comforting.

Jesus. Emily had told him, when she'd called, that she'd thought things were bad, but she'd admitted that, since she hadn't known Blair before, she might be wrong. But she wasn't.

He was so thin. And with his head shaved like that...Jim swallowed convulsively in a dry throat. He looked like he'd been living on the streets, or in a concentration camp. And his eyes; he might have been trying to put up a good front, pretending to be cheerful and carefree, but his eyes gave him away, just as they always had. The loneliness, the emptiness in them tore at Jim's heart.

But there had been fear there, as well. And fear in his scent, pouring off him in waves. It was the only thing that was keeping Jim where he was, the only thing preventing him from racing back down the street and breaking the door open and demanding to know what had happened. He was afraid that, if he did, Blair would disappear again, just vanish into thin air like he'd done before.

Which was entirely his own fault, Jim realized. He'd known things were strained between them, known he was acting like an ass, known that Blair had to be picking up on it. But that day at the fountain, he'd, that wasn't right. Come on, Ellison, at least be truthful with yourself, he admonished. He'd known, long before that day. Known, but hadn't let himself admit, or even think about, the place that Blair had come to occupy in his heart. And in his typically craven, repressive fashion, he'd avoided any opportunity to broach the subject with the man himself.

And then: that day. That terrible, beautiful day. He'd experienced the lowest and the highest points of his life within those thirty minutes by that fountain. But then he'd been like a spectator at the hospital, detached, watching himself ramble on about nurses and back rent, watching himself shy away from the truth, again, damn it, when all he'd wanted to do, all he should have done, was to hold Blair close and reassure him that he was never, never going to let him go.

When he'd come up with the idea to go camping, it had seemed perfect. And Blair had really jumped at the idea. He was going to do it this time, he wasn't going to let himself chicken out. There wouldn't be any distractions: no crime waves, no stakeouts, no classes, no lectures. He was going to sit Blair down and tell him everything, and let the chips fall where they may. But then Blair had had to meet with his advisor, and turn in his grant application, and Jim felt like he'd be a heel to insist that Blair come, because he knew how important the grant support was, and how Blair was always strapped for Simon had come instead. But he'd promised himself that he was still going to have that talk with Blair, as soon as he got back...except that when he got back, Blair was gone.

He'd thought that Blair had left because he had just gotten sick of putting up with Jim's crap, and the bullshit about going to Tibet was just his way of sparing Jim's feelings. But now it was clear to Jim that there was something else going on. Something that had frightened Blair so badly that it had driven him away; caused him to break off contact with everyone, even Naomi.

He was going to find out what that was, and then he was going to fix it. But he had to go carefully. He'd been through too much in the last eight months to risk it all by jumping the gun. He scrubbed his hands over his face, took a deep breath, called up his admittedly thin patience. Tomorrow night. You'll see him then. Then you'll find out what's going on. Sighing, he pushed off the wall and headed for his hotel.

Blair stood in the shadowed entrance to the building, watching the diner across the street. He shivered, hunching his shoulders, drawing his threadbare fatigue jacket around himself tightly and shoving his bare hands under his armpits.

He'd been standing out here for thirty minutes now, arguing with himself. He'd seen Jim arrive, watched him go inside, but couldn't bring himself to follow, torn between desperately wanting to see him and feeling terrified by the idea.

Come on, you can do this, he told himself. It's just a little obfuscation. Two, two-and-a-half hours, tops. Make up a few stories about what it was like in Tibet, something ditzy that Naomi did, and you're home free. No problem. The thing was, he didn't think he was very good at lying any more. For one thing, it took too much energy. Recently he'd found it a lot easier to just say nothing, but nothing wasn't going to get him through this dinner.

And he was going to have to hear all about what everyone was doing, and how they were, and how he was going to do that and keep up his cheerful front, he didn't know. The very thought of it made him tired. But, if he didn't go in, if he wussed out, Jim would just track him down at the bookstore, maybe be worried about him, worried enough to start asking questions, hang around.

Just go, just do it, he thought. One night, one dinner, a few laughs, and then Jim's gone, gone back to Cascade, and you don't have to worry anymore. He resolutely ignored the pang that passed through him at that thought. He took a deep breath, psyching himself up, then blew out his breath in a long huff and crossed the street.

Jim was sitting in a booth at the back, wearing a dark sweater that brought out the color of his eyes, and Blair's heart did a somersault when he saw him. He strolled to the back casually, surreptitiously taking deep breaths to try and slow his heartbeat. Which is ridiculous, to think you're going to try and hide that from a Sentinel, he told himself. Maybe he could sell the story that it was because of the cold.

"Whew! Frigid out there!" he said, as he slid into the booth. "Sorry I'm late, had a few last-minute customers."

Jim raised an eyebrow at him, a small smile quirking the corner of his mouth. "You thought Cascade was cold. I'm amazed you can stand living here."

He wasn't able to think of a good comeback for that, so he just shrugged. The waiter came by and set down two pint glasses full of dark brown liquid.

"I ordered you a beer," Jim said. "Whatever this local stuff is that they have on tap - Fat Tire? Sounds pretty good."

Blair eyed the glass dubiously. He hadn't had very much to eat today; alcohol was going to go straight to his head, but it was too late to protest. "Great, thanks," he said. He'd try to make this one last.

"So, what's good here?" Jim asked.

"The burgers are pretty good," Blair replied, and they spent a few minutes discussing the pros and cons of the various menu items. That conversation seemed to go pretty well, and he started to relax. Maybe this wasn't going to be as difficult as he'd thought. The waiter came back, and they ordered. He took a sip of beer - it was pretty good, actually - and decided that the best defense was a good offense. "So, what brings you to Chicago, man? Isn't this a little out of your jurisdiction?"

Jim looked down at the table, studying his hands, his expression solemn. "Actually, I'm not a cop anymore," he said quietly.

Blair nearly dropped his beer. "What?"

"Yeah, I retired. Well, actually, I was encouraged to retire, and I agreed." Jim looked up, met Blair's eyes, a rueful twist to his lips. "Someone figured out about the senses."

Fear went through him like a bolt of lightning. "What? How?" he asked, his voice hoarse. He put his glass down, jammed his hands in his lap, clenched them together to hide their trembling.

Jim was shaking his head, his attention back on the table. "It was that new reporter for the Cascade Tribune, Janice Stillweather. I still don't know if she had an inside source at the PD, or if she was just incredibly lucky. Or incredibly bright. Or both. Anyway, somehow, she put two and two together and ran a series of articles claiming to have proof that I had super senses, and had been using them to catch criminals."

His chest felt like there were bands of iron tightening slowly around it. He couldn't breathe. "Wh...what happened?" he managed to gasp out.

Jim shrugged one shoulder, his mouth a thin line. "The PD closed ranks, of course; refused to comment. There was a lot of speculation in the media, but she refused to name her sources and after about two months it all blew over. But the Chief of Police and the Commissioner weren't happy. They called Simon in, and, of course, he couldn't lie to them about it. IA went over all my cases. They didn't find anything; the evidence was solid, but it was too much of a risk for the brass. After everything was cleared, Simon was told that it would be best to get me to accept an early retirement." He looked up at Blair, his brows drawing together in a frown. "Look, Chief, it's not..."

But he couldn't listen, couldn't hear any more. His heart was thundering in his ears, panic clawing its way up his spine. He could see Jim's lips moving, but he couldn't hear what he was saying, his words drowned out by the growing cacophony of jeers and recriminations in his head. He had to get out of there, he had to get away. "Sorry," he gasped, pushing himself out of the booth, his breath coming short and fast, his head whirling.

He headed for the exit, knocking over one of the waiters who was carrying a tray full of dishes. Dinner plates, cutlery, glasses, everything fell to the ground with a deafening crash, and he saw Jim wince, hands to his ears. He sprinted for the door; he thought he heard Jim call his name, but then he was through the crowd and out on the street.

The next thing he knew, he was inside the bookstore, his back pressed tightly against the door, gasping for breath. His lungs ached as if he'd been running, but he had no memory of how he'd gotten there. His limbs were shaking as if he had the flu; his whole body alternately feeling flushed and chilled. He ran his hands over his face, tried to take a deep breath, but he couldn't manage anything beyond a sickly high-pitched wheeze.

He stumbled to his room in the back of the store. Usually he found the small featureless space calming, but now it just felt confining. He felt like the walls were closing in on him. He paced back and forth restlessly, feeling like a caged animal. Tea, he needed tea, something to help him calm down. He forced his shaking fingers around the mug on his bedside table.

He was unprepared for the wave of fury that slammed into him, nearly doubling him over. Damn it, this wasn't supposed to happen! He'd done the right thing, he'd done what he was supposed to do. He'd left Cascade, left Jim, taken his research with him. He'd given up his entire life, sacrificed everything that was meaningful to him, and for what? - for nothing. His only comfort had ever been the knowledge that his actions were protecting Jim, but now it turned out that it had all been a lie. It had all been for nothing. All the fear, all the pain, all the sorrow - meaningless. Someone had still found out, Jim had still been outed, publicly exposed, forced to retire from the job he loved, the thing that gave his life purpose. His hands clenched around the mug convulsively. How could this have happened? How could things have gone so wrong? Had he misunderstood the dream? Should he have stayed in Cascade, instead of leaving?

A flood of guilt and remorse washed over him. Of course he should have stayed. Jim's senses had been revealed, and he hadn't been there to help Jim deal with it. He'd fucked up again, made the wrong decision again; he'd abandoned Jim, just when Jim needed him the most. Abandoned him as a Guide; but also as a friend. It had to have been a nightmare for Jim; telephone calls at all hours of the day and night; reporters and cameramen following him everywhere; IA opening all his cases; suspended, on desk duty...and where had Blair been? Where had the supposed Guide, the Shaman of the Great City, the friend, been? Hiding like a fucking coward halfway across the country. His stomach twisted with disgust, his fingers gripping the mug so hard his joints creaked.

His revulsion built until, with an incoherent howl of rage and pain, he flung the mug against the wall, watching as it shattered into fragments. He crouched down, picked up one of the pieces in his hand, held it tightly, watched as the sharp edges bit into his palm. Blood, bright and red against his pale skin, welled up. He couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything but this blinding, all-encompassing fury at himself and the mistakes he'd made.

Loathing coiled in his chest. He felt an overwhelming urge to mark himself, tear at himself. Make his outside as ugly and horrible as what was inside him. Hands shaking, he turned the fragment so that one of the sharp edges was pointing outwards.

Then other hands covered his, prying the shard out gently but firmly. He made a noise of protest. His hand was turned over, long fingers stroking gently across the wounds on his palm. He shook his head, a moan of distress escaping him. He didn't deserve this, this care, this consideration. He deserved to suffer, to be punished for the things he'd done wrong.

He surged to his feet, but before he could do anything, something folded around him, something strong and warm, wrapping him up tightly. He struggled, but to no avail; he couldn't move a muscle.

It was as if something let go inside him then, and all his anger, all his fear, came pouring out of him, and he fought against the bonds holding him with all his might. Screaming at the top of his lungs, kicking, twisting feverishly, his muscles bunching violently, he flung himself against the force that constrained him; struck out, battling against it furiously. But it didn't make any difference at all. The strength that held him didn't weaken one iota.

He wasn't sure how long he struggled, how much time had passed, but eventually he sagged in the grasp of whatever held him, drained and exhausted. Tears filled his eyes, slid down his cheeks. He started to cry; hopeless, wrenching sobs that shook his entire body. It had all been for nothing. He was lost, adrift; he had nowhere to go now and nothing to be.

He became aware of a low, soft sound in his ear; a warm, soothing murmur. He couldn't make out any words, but the sound washed over him like water, calming him, comforting him. Still held captive, he hung limply, unresisting, feeling his body being rocked gently. Slowly the grief and sorrow that wracked him receded, and, for the first time in months, he slid easily into sleep.

Blair opened his eyes slowly. The room was dim, lit only by a sliver of light from the half-shut door. He heard voices, fairly close; one he recognized as Emily's, high and light, the other was deeper, a warmer baritone that tugged at his memory. He frowned. Usually he awoke long before the bookstore opened.

Blinking, he struggled to sit up, his body aching and sore. He felt as though someone had been using him for a punching bag. Maybe he was coming down with something. His eyes felt swollen, hot and grainy; he raised his hands to rub them, then stared at the neat white bandage on his right hand. Where had that come from?

Fragments of memory floated through his head, coalesced, and he realized the other voice he'd heard was Jim's. Now he recalled meeting Jim at the diner; remembered hearing his news; remembered fleeing in a blind panic, running into a waiter. He knew he'd come back here, but the rest of the night was a blur. He ran a thumb over the gauze wrapping his palm. He must have hurt his hand, but he couldn't remember how, couldn't remember dressing it.

In spite of having just woken up, he felt tired, dull and listless, detached from everything around him. He knew that he'd been upset, last night, at the news that Jim had been forced into retirement, but he couldn't feel it. It was as if he was watching himself on a movie screen. He just didn't have the energy for any of it anymore.

He heard the voices again, Jim saying something he couldn't make out, Emily laughing. After the scene he'd made last night, Jim must be worried about him. He'd probably come by this morning to check on him. He supposed he should go out there, let Jim know he was okay, so Jim could go back to Cascade with a clear conscience.

His jeans were folded neatly at the end of the bed and he pulled them on, a wave of dizziness passing over him as he stood. He stumbled, caught himself, took a few deep breaths, and the dizziness passed. He searched the room, but he couldn't find the shirt he'd been wearing last night. He couldn't muster the energy to worry about it, though. Shrugging resignedly, he unlocked his footlocker and pulled out a t-shirt and a pair of socks.

He shuffled out into the vestibule, hands tucked into his armpits for warmth, blinking against the bright sunlight streaming in through the front windows. Emily was behind the counter, and Jim was standing at the front door, the sleeves of his dark sweater pushed up, glazing one of the small panes of glass in the door. Blair frowned. Had he broken it last night? He didn't remember doing that...but he had been upset. Maybe he'd closed the door too hard and shattered it. He felt a pang of guilt that he hadn't noticed. If the pane had been broken all night...they were lucky that someone hadn't come in and robbed the place.

"So, you just need to let this cure," Jim was saying, smoothing the last of the glaze with a careful finger. "It should take a day or two. Fortunately, I think the weather's supposed to be clear." He gathered the tools and turned, catching sight of Blair. "Hey, Chief," he said quietly.

Emily turned, a too-wide smile across her face. "Blair, you're awake!" she chirped.

"What time is it?" he asked, his voice coming out hoarse and raspy. He cleared his throat and continued. "Wasn't I supposed to open today?"

He saw Jim and Emily's eyes meet surreptitiously, over his head, and then Emily waved her hand at him casually. "Oh, don't worry about it, dear. I had to come in anyway to do some paperwork, and you seemed like you needed the sleep." She had moved over to the coffeepot and now placed a large steaming mug on the counter in front of him. "Here, want some coffee?"

He ignored the mug and addressed himself to Jim. "Look, I'm sorry about ditching you last night; I just had a little panic attack, that's all. It's no big deal, everything's fine now."

Jim put the tools and glazing supplies on the counter and moved over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Good, Chief, I'm glad to hear that. How about some breakfast?"

"Uh...thanks, but I've gotta work this morning...." He tried to inch out from underneath Jim's hand, but Jim's grip was as firm and implacable as iron.

"Oh, that's okay, Blair," Emily said brightly. "I can hold down the fort by myself for a few hours. You should get a chance to visit with your friend." She glanced over at Jim again.

He knew he should feel worried, or angry, or something, because they clearly had been talking about him, but he didn't. He didn't feel anything at all, really. Just numb. Shrugging, he turned to go back to his room. "Let me get my shoes on and get my coat," he said flatly.

It was cold when they got outside, in spite of the sunshine. "There's a restaurant in my hotel, about three blocks away," Jim suggested, and he nodded, not really caring where they went. But he was shivering by the time they'd walked the short distance to the restaurant, and grateful for the large cup of coffee the waitress brought to their table, especially since he'd refused the coffee Emily had offered him. He wrapped his hands around the cup and took a sip, feeling the warmth permeate his body all the way down to his toes. Pity it couldn't touch the numbness in his heart.

"So," Jim said, "what looks good?" He glanced at Blair over the top of the menu. "Get whatever you want. My treat, since dinner last night didn't, uh, work out."

"Jim, you don't have to do that," he protested.

"My pleasure, Chief. I figure I owe you."

The waitress, whose nametag proclaimed her to be Helen, sauntered over to their table. "You guys ready to order?" she asked.

"I'll have a bagel," he said.

Jim glared at him, then looked at Helen. "He'll have scrambled eggs with that, and a side of bacon. I'll have the same, except toast instead of a bagel. Wheat toast." He handed the menu back to her.

"Jim," he started reprovingly, but he ran out of steam. He didn't even have the energy to complain.

"No arguments, Chief. You need protein. You didn't have any dinner last night, and, from the looks of you, you haven't been eating right for a while now."

He made a weak attempt to obfuscate. "Well, you know, Tibetan monks, they don't have access to much protein...milk and cheese, maybe, but very little meat..."

"Sandburg," Jim interrupted him, leaning across the table, his gaze serious and intent, "I know you didn't go to Tibet."

That took the heart out of him completely, like air out of a punctured balloon, and he just sat there, unmoving, for several minutes, unsure of what to say or do next. "How?" he whispered eventually.

Jim drew breath to say something, but just then the waitress brought their breakfast. Jim watched her impatiently as she set their plates down, then fussed over them, bringing them salt and pepper, ketchup, jam; refilling their coffee cups. "Got everything you need?" she asked, brightly.

"Yeah, thanks," Jim said, with barely concealed irritation. Once she was gone, he turned back to Blair. "Naomi called the loft, looking for you, about two weeks after you'd left, and we compared notes." He dug into his eggs. "I was going to go looking for you when the senses hit the front page."

Blair felt a jolt of guilt. He grabbed his fork and picked desultorily at his food, more out of a need to do something with his hands than out of hunger. "How did you find me?" he asked dully.

Jim was shaking his head. "It wasn't me," he said. "I tracked you as far as Santa Fe, and then you just vanished. I figured..." He paused, staring sightlessly out the front window. Blair could see his throat muscles working. Then, with a slight shake of his head, he continued. "Emily called the station, asking to talk to someone who had worked the murders at Lastings Park. They routed her to Simon. It took a few tries, but eventually she convinced him that she wasn't some nutcase; that she really knew you, knew where you were, and believed that you were in some kind of trouble." He took a long drink of coffee. "He tried to get in touch with me, but he couldn' was around the holidays and I...I was hard to find. By the time I got the message it was after the New Year. But as soon as Simon told me, I was on the next flight out."

"Well, I'm not in any trouble," Blair said, quietly. "I appreciate the concern, but I'm fine."

Jim gave him a measuring look. "You don't seem fine."

He pushed the eggs around on his plate slowly. "Well, I am." The handle of the fork poked his bandaged palm and he winced, dropping the fork.

Quick as a cat, Jim had reached over and grabbed his hand, turning it palm up, his fingers questing gently over the gauze. "So, you want to tell me what last night was about, then, Chief?" he asked gently.

Blair tried to pull his hand away, shame flushing his cheeks as the memory of his loss of control last night came back to him with brutal clarity. He struggled to maintain his composure, his breath whistling in his throat. His face felt like it was on fire.

"Blair, come on, talk to me," he heard Jim say. Jim's voice was low and soft, but it sounded as if it was coming from very far away. His own heartbeat was thundering in his ears. Jim still had a hold of his hand and was lightly rubbing his thumb over Blair's wrist.

"Not...not here," he heard himself say.

"Okay," he heard Jim say, and then heard him ask Helen for the check. Then they were leaving the restaurant and Jim was maneuvering him towards the elevators, a firm arm around his shoulders. "Come on," Jim was saying, "we can go up to my room," and Blair just gave up and went along with him. He was so tired, and he couldn't think straight. He might as well just tell Jim everything. It didn't matter anymore.

Jim slid his key card into the door and turned the handle, pushing the door open. He ushered Blair inside and over to one of the chairs. "Sit here, Chief," he said. "I'm going to take a look at that hand."

He watched as Blair sat down listlessly, his face devoid of all expression. There'd been a minute there, downstairs in the restaurant, where Jim had thought he was going to run again, just like last night, but then he'd just withdrawn, shut down.

He retrieved some supplies from the bathroom and pulled the other chair over so he was facing Blair. Gently taking Blair's injured hand in his, he carefully unwound the gauze. The cuts on his palm looked okay; they were still red but didn't look puffy or inflamed. He moved his fingers across them lightly, dialing up his sense of touch, but couldn't detect any more heat than in the uninjured areas of Blair's hand. No infection, then. Just to be sure, though, he washed the cuts with hydrogen peroxide before rewrapping the gauze around Blair's hand.

Blair watched the whole thing with a look of detachment, his eyes focused on his hand. He didn't wince or change expression, even when Jim put the peroxide on.

He finished wrapping the gauze, tucking the end away neatly and patting the back of Blair's hand. "There, all done." He didn't let go of Blair's wrist, though, feeling a need to keep some kind of connection between them, however tenuous. " were going to tell me about last night?"

Blair raised his head, looking directly at Jim, his blue eyes dark with sorrow and pain. "Why'd you come after me?" he asked.

"You were upset," he answered, "I'd never seen you that upset. You ran right into that waiter and didn't stop, didn't say anything, just kept going....I was worried about you."

Blair's gaze didn't shift. "No, I mean why did you come to Chicago?"

He frowned. "Because I was worried about you."


"What do you mean, why? Naomi didn't know where you were, I didn't know where you were..."

"So? I'm a grown man, Jim. I don't have to tell you, or my mother, where I'm going. Maybe I just wanted to be alone for a while."

"Then why lie about it? Why tell me you were going to Tibet?"

Blair shrugged. "Maybe I didn't want to have to deal with you asking me endless questions about it. Maybe I just wanted to be gone."

He opened his mouth to make a sharp retort, then stopped. Something wasn't right here. That first time, the first night he'd gone to the bookstore, Blair hadn't been annoyed. He'd been scared. Scared and miserable. That didn't seem like the kind of reaction you'd get from someone who'd just wanted to be gone.

Come on, Ellison, he thought, just tell the truth. Out loud, he said, "Because I needed you."

Blair didn't even blink at that, tossing back a question of his own. "Because of the Sentinel thing?"

And there it was, the opening he'd wanted. The perfect opportunity to broach the subject of his feelings for Blair. And, just like he had that night in the truck, when they were looking for Incacha, he walked right past it, his courage deserting him just when he needed it most. "Yeah."

Blair's head dropped, and his shoulders slumped, and Jim had the sinking feeling that he'd just given the wrong answer. "I can't be your Guide anymore, Jim," Blair said, dully.

"What?" he said, the beginnings of alarm stirring in his chest, "Why not?"

Blair was shaking his head slowly. "I can't be a Guide, or a shaman. I don't know who I was trying to kid. I'm no good at this. I'm a fraud, a failure."

He reached out and grasped Blair's shoulders firmly, shook him a little. "Chief, that's crazy. You saved my life. If it hadn't been for you, I'd be dead, squashed flat by that garbage truck."

"If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have even been in front of the garbage truck. If I hadn't totally fucked up what I was trying to tell you, you wouldn't have gotten upset and stormed off. You probably wouldn't have zoned, either."

"Blair, don't be ridiculous," he said, the alarm growing. "You taught me to control my senses. If you hadn't come and found me in that hospital, I'd be a basket case right now." He squeezed Blair's shoulders gently, tried to catch his eyes, but Blair just stared down at his lap, his head still moving back and forth in negation.

"You would have figured it out eventually. You're used to discipline. Or you would have just suppressed them again, like you did before. You never really wanted them anyway. It was just something I talked you into, like letting me stay in your spare room."

"Sandburg, where's all this coming from?" This attitude of Blair's was really starting to worry him, now.

Blair stood and went over to the window, staring out at the city below. "I had a dream - a vision, really," he said in a flat, strange voice. "My dissertation got leaked to the press and they were following us around, asking you all about your senses. You couldn't do your job; you were furious with me...." He trailed off, swallowing hard, then took a deep breath and continued, "I realized that I was putting you in danger. Not just the research, although that was a big part of it. But everything, I was doing everything wrong. Everything I did with Alex...." He trailed off again, shaking his head. "I'm not a Guide. And I'm endangering you by pretending to be one."

Jim stood, guilt gnawing at his insides. "Chief, listen, Alex...that was not your fault. Or at least not yours alone. I made plenty of mistakes on that one, myself."

But it was as if Blair hadn't even heard him. He was still looking out the window, still talking in that odd, distant voice. "You were right. You said it. It was a breach of trust. You've got to be able to trust your partner, and you can't trust me. I keep screwing things up."

He went over to stand behind Blair, cupping his shoulders in his hands. "Look, I'm sorry I said that. I was angry, and I...I didn't mean it. You're the best partner I've ever had." He gave Blair a gentle shake. "We'll go home, we'll figure this out, together, just like we always do."

Blair was shaking his head again. "No. I'm not going back to Cascade with you."

"Sandburg, come on!" He was starting to feel annoyed. "It was just a dream. My senses have already been exposed, and you weren't there, so it couldn't have been your fault."

"I know," Blair said, his brow furrowing. "I don't know what I did wrong, but I must have done something, misunderstood something, because it happened anyway."

An idea occurred to Jim. "Maybe the dream was warning you. Maybe it wasn't about me at all. Maybe you needed to get out of town, because if you'd been there, maybe you would have gotten sucked into it, too. That reporter, she would have found out about you, looked at your early papers - just like Brackett - your research would have been publicized; who knows how your committee would have reacted? This way, you can come home and pick up where you left off."

Blair pulled away from him and headed for the door. "Weren't you listening? I said I'm not going back to Cascade. I can't. I can't help you. I can't be your Guide."

"Chief, come on, this is absurd..." He reached out for Blair, frustrated at his inability to get through to him. This had been so much easier last night, when all he'd needed to do was hold Blair, keep him safe, soothe him. He was much better at the non-verbal stuff, the tactile stuff, than the talking. His hand touched Blair's shoulder, but Blair twisted out of his grasp, his hand on the doorknob. In desperation, Jim played his trump card. "What if I need you? What if something new, something strange happens with the senses?"

Blair looked up, his hand on the door, and his eyes were like cinders in his pale face; dark and flat and hard. "I told you I can't help you. You'll have to find someone else."

"Blair...." He was too stunned to say any more. He couldn't believe Blair was about to just walk out of his life, and he had no idea how to get him back.

Blair paused, his shoulders slumped. "Come by the bookstore tonight and I'll give you my laptop and all my notes," he said quietly. "So you'll have some references if something weird does happen." Before Jim could reply, he had pushed the door open and left.

Jim slumped onto the bed, his face in his hands, feeling torn between despair and putting his fist through the drywall. For all his caution about going slowly, he certainly seemed to be fucking this up. But at least Blair hadn't shut the door entirely. He'd get one more chance tonight. But he'd have to make it good. And it was clear that he wasn't going to stand a chance simply arguing with Sandburg. He needed to be devious, to play dirty.

God, he was such an idiot. You never really wanted the senses, anyway, Blair's voice rang in his head, It was just something I talked you into. It wasn't the truth, although it was obvious to him why Blair felt that way. He'd acted resentful from the day they'd met, and fought Blair every step of the way, every suggestion, every test.

He blinked. That gave him an idea...

Jim got a wary look as he entered the bookstore that evening, carefully balancing a six-pack of beer on top of a large pizza. "What's that for?" Blair asked, standing at the cash register.

Jim slid the pizza box and the beer onto the counter. "Dinner," he said succinctly, "and an apology."

"Pizza and beer are not going to make me come back to Cascade."

"I never thought they would. The pizza's better here, anyhow."

Blair's gaze was still suspicious. "I don't want to argue with you about this anymore."

Jim nodded, raising his hands in surrender. "I get it, Chief. No arguments. Just something to eat."

A customer came up to the counter, and Blair relented. "Okay. But you'll have to wait until I close, in about twenty minutes or so."

"No problem," he replied evenly. As Blair rung up the customer's purchases, he wandered over to the front door, checking the glazing he had done earlier that day. It looked like it was curing nicely. Almost absent-mindedly, he pulled the door open to let the customer out, then closed it again. He looked up to find Blair standing next to him, looking at the pane, his hands in his pockets, his eyes shadowed.

"Did I do that?" Blair asked softly.

"No," he replied, "I did. I followed you back here from the diner, but you had locked the door. I had to break the pane to get in." He ran a light fingertip over the glazing. "Figured it was only fair that I fix it."

He glanced over at Blair, who was looking down at the floor, his cheeks red. Blair drew breath as if to say something, then seemed to think better of it and walked away. Jim sighed and went to browse among the stacks of books.

About a half an hour later, Blair was throwing the deadbolt on the front door and drawing the shades, and Jim was lighting the gas logs in the fireplace. Blair brought the pizza and beer over. Sitting cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire, he dug in his pocket for his Swiss Army knife and opened two beers, now slightly warm, handing one to Jim, who was ensconced comfortably on the red horsehair couch, long legs stretched out in front of him, ankles crossed.

Jim watched to make sure Blair had taken a piece of pizza before grabbing his own. They ate in silence for a few minutes, then Blair glanced up at him. "So, what did you mean about an apology?"

"Oh, yeah," he replied, affecting a nonchalant air. "I've just been thinking about what you said this afternoon, Chief, and I figured I owe you one."

"What for?"

"Well, you made me realize that I've been a lousy Sentinel."

The speculative, guarded look was back. "How so?"

"Sandburg, I'm well aware that you dragged me into this kicking and screaming the whole way. You're right, I never wanted these senses. I never appreciated them, never appreciated what you were doing." He caught a furious look from Blair and held up his hand. "I'm not arguing. Bad Guide; I got it. But misguided or not, right or not, you were still only trying to help me. And I...I was a total bastard about it, to be honest."

" really weren't that bad," Blair said, weakly.

Jim snagged a second slice of pizza. "I think I'll have to disagree with you there, Chief. I threatened you - assaulted you, in fact - the first time we met. You could have had my badge for that."

"Second time, actually...but you were under a lot of stress..."

"I wouldn't tell you when my senses were acting up. I ignored your advice and then got mad at you when things went haywire. I shouted at you, pushed you around; I pulled a gun on you, and I kicked you out of your own home."

"That wasn't...that wasn't your fault, man. You didn't realize..."

"I lied to you, I went and did things behind your back, and I didn't trust you. You asked me not to read your dissertation chapter, and I did. Jesus, I got you exposed to a lethal dose of Golden, because I couldn't admit to my own limitations." It was turning out to be a lot easier to make this conversation authentic than he had expected. His throat was tight as he realized just exactly what Blair had had to put up with during his time with him.

Blair was quiet, sliding his half-eaten piece of pizza back into the box.

"I got you killed, Chief." He didn't have to pretend that his voice broke at that. Taking a deep breath, he continued. "No, I don't think you can take all the blame for the failure of this Sentinel thing."

Blair got up from the floor and sat on the couch next to him. "Look, man, it's not a failure. You've still got the senses, you've still got control. You'll find another Guide. Even if you're not a cop anymore, there are a hundred things you can do, a million ways to still serve and protect the tribe..."

Jim shook his head. "You're not listening to me, Sandburg. Even if I could find someone else who would put up with my crap, why bother? I mean, it's not like my attitude is going to change. Maybe it would be best if I just repressed them, made them go dormant again."

"Jim, man, don't be ridiculous. You're throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. What you can do is amazing. These senses, they're a gift, and you''re...." He trailed off, staring at Jim, comprehension dawning in his eyes. "You're a fucking bastard, you know that?"

Jim allowed himself a small victory smile. "I'm just pointing out that if you made mistakes, then I did, too. If you think your performance was bad, well, then - mine was pretty piss-poor as well."

Blair was silent, staring down at his lap, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.

"So, maybe," Jim ventured, "we could call a truce on this argument and declare ourselves both pretty mediocre?"

Blair snorted, and reached down for his beer bottle. Without looking at Jim, he held it up, and Jim clinked his own bottle against it. "To mediocre Sentinels and Guides," Blair said, still not meeting Jim's eyes.

"Hear, hear," Jim replied, taking a drink. And suddenly the opening was there again, and he didn't stop to think this time, but just plunged in. "That wasn't the biggest mistake I made, though."

Blair took a long swig of beer, still not looking at Jim.

Jim took a deep breath and continued. "The biggest mistake I made...I had this really great friend - funny, caring, compassionate. We'd been through some pretty weird shit together, and he'd always pulled me through. Well, he asked me to go on this amazing trip with him. It was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the brass ring - everything I'd ever wanted. But I was too scared. I turned him down, told him I wasn't ready." He shook his head slowly, turning his beer in his hands, smoothing the label over the bottle with his thumbs. "Worst decision I ever made."

There was a long silence. Finally, when Jim had just about decided that he was screwed, Blair cleared his throat. "Well," he said, his voice rough, "I bet the offer's still open. I bet your friend would still take you on that trip. If you asked."

"You think so, Chief?" He looked over and met Blair's eyes, feeling the cold knot that had been in his chest since he'd come to Chicago dissolve. Blair had a small smile on his face; tears shivered at the ends of his lashes, but his eyes were shining.

And somehow he crossed the distance between them, both literal and metaphorical, pulling Blair close with a hand on the back of his neck, brushing his mouth against Blair's. He'd meant the kiss to be gentle, but the feel of Blair's mouth on his was just too good, too right...and then Blair's mouth opened and he slid inside...before he realized it he was cradling Blair's head in both hands, his thumbs stroking along Blair's jaw, right below his ear; devouring Blair's mouth, the taste of him intoxicating, exotic; he couldn't get enough...

Blair pulled away, panting, hands flat on Jim's chest; Jim could feel the heat of them through his shirt. "Whoa, man. Need a little bit of a breather."

Jim lay back on the sofa, stretching his legs out and pulling Blair down on top of him. Blair wobbled for a moment, then shifted, their bodies fitting together; their dicks, half-hard, bumping together, sending an anticipatory shiver down Jim's spine. He drew Blair close, kissed him again, savoring the taste of beer and pizza, and, underneath, Blair's own unique taste, like oranges and cloves.

This time he broke the kiss before he could get too carried away. Blair sighed, resting his forehead on Jim's. "You okay?" Jim asked, his voice low, his hands restlessly stroking Blair's shoulders.

Blair nodded, licking his lips, the sight of which sent a shaft of heat straight to Jim's groin. "I'm fine...but we went from being on the outs to sharing spit in, like, 60 seconds. I need a little time to catch up, okay?"

"Okay," Jim said agreeably, having no intention of letting Blair's head get back in the game and derail things. He rocked his hips against Blair gently, his hands sliding down to cup Blair's ass.

Blair groaned. "Prick," he said.

"Mmmm-hmmm," Jim said smugly, then made a show of looking down between their bodies. "Oh, look, you have one, too," he said, mock surprise in his voice.

That made Blair laugh out loud, and the sound of it was so welcome that Jim closed his eyes for a moment, savoring the way it rang inside him like a bell. Serious now, he stopped moving, framing Blair's face with his hands. "Hey. In case I didn't make it clear, earlier: I love you, okay?"

Blair nodded, blinking hard. "I...I love you, too," he whispered, chewing at his bottom lip, and so Jim just had to rub his thumb across the tiny indentations, soothing them, and then follow that with his mouth, and then his tongue, and then one thing led to another and somehow they ended up on the fluffy rug in front of the hearth; clothing, pizza box, and beer bottles scattered to the four corners of the room; the fire their only illumination.

Poised over Blair, on his hands and knees, Jim immersed himself in sensation. He nuzzled into the crook between Blair's neck and shoulder, breathing in his musky scent, heady with the perfume of arousal. He bit down lightly, grinning at Blair's yelp, savoring the various tastes he found there; nosed down his broad chest, enjoying the rough scrape of silky hair against his chin, his cheeks. He sat back on his heels, sliding his hands gently down Blair's sides, dialing up touch until he could feel the faint ridges of ribs under his skin. He frowned; he might have to make this a weekly inspection until he was satisfied that Blair was putting some weight back on.

Blair looked like he was holding his breath, and then, just as Jim ran his fingers over a rib, he burst out laughing. "Hey, man," he gasped, "no fair tickling!" Jim grinned, flexing his fingers a little before skating them playfully over Blair's sides. Blair wriggled and twisted, rolling to all fours and making a break for it. Jim grabbed him easily and pulled him backwards, pinning Blair against his body. A surge of lust rolled through him, making him dizzy; God, it was going to feel so damn good, sinking inside Blair, taking him. He shivered, controlling himself, then pushed Blair onto his back and kissed him, hard.

He felt Blair's hands slide around his neck, gently kneading the muscles there. He pulled away slightly, gazing into those wide, dazed, midnight-blue eyes, and smiled. With a swift, graceful motion he sat back on his heels, pulling Blair's knees up and sliding his hands down the inside of his thighs, eyeing the stiff, garnet-colored cock that jutted up from a nest of dark, curly hair. It bobbed up and down in front of him in time with Blair's breathing; he licked his lips, taking a deep breath of his own, and bent forward.

But Blair was sitting up, then, quickly, and grabbing his hands. "No, no, wait," he murmured. "Not unless you've got protection."

Jim settled back on his heels. "What's the matter?"

"I'm...I'm not sure it'" Blair's head was bent, his shoulders slumped, but even in the dim firelight Jim could see the telltale blaze across his cheeks. "Uh...I was...I was seriously lost for a while, in Santa Fe. I did some things...I mean I might have...I don't really remember...." He trailed off, and Jim felt the hands that held his tremble.

He quelled the protective instinct inside him that was clamoring that he haul Blair off to a doctor immediately, and lifted Blair's hand to his mouth, kissing the palm gently. "Okay," he said quietly, "no problem."

Blair raised his eyes to meet Jim's, his look unsure, his cheeks still aflame. "Okay? You're not pissed at me?"

The plaintive tone made his heart ache. "No, not pissed. Worried, maybe, but we'll deal with it when we get home." He reached out and stroked his fingers down Blair's face, the heat of his blush tangible. "I've been lost before, myself," he said, thinking about Vice, about coming back from Peru. "I know how it can be."

"Sorry," Blair said morosely, deflated. "I sure have a knack for killing a mood, huh?"

"Hey," he said, gently taking hold of Blair's shoulders, "this self-depreciation doesn't suit you. Listen to me: I'm not going to get upset about where you were or what you did. I don't care if you never ask me another question about my senses, or if you come up with a million; I don't care if you decide to drop the whole grad school thing and get a job as a janitor at Cascade High. Or become a cop. I just want you in my life, okay?" He pulled Blair in for another kiss, this one slow and searching and leisurely; he explored Blair's mouth thoroughly, meticulously, and when he drew away Blair's eyes were glazed and he was hard again.

Jim stretched out onto his back, knees bent, and coaxed Blair into straddling his hips. His hands roamed gently over Blair's body, shifting Blair until his dick was nestled in the crease of Blair's ass.

Blair hummed under his breath, a slight grin playing across his features. Then his eyes went wide as Jim rocked upward, canting his hips slightly, and then it was Jim's turn to grin. He wrapped his hand around Blair, starting a long, slow stroke, matched to the roll of his hips. Blair felt so good in his hand, silken and hard and hot, and Jim groaned as he felt himself pulse in response.

God, Blair was beautiful, so beautiful, in this moment, just as he'd imagined in a thousand fantasies; his wiry, strong body moving easily above him; his hot, sleepy gaze; his full lips parted slightly, tongue sneaking out to wet them; throwing his head back, his throat bared. Jim reached a hand up to caress Blair's shorn head, his thumb trailing tenderly against Blair's jaw. The firelight limned Blair's body in gold, highlighting the curve of his broad shoulders, the bunch of his biceps, the long tendons in his neck.

Need arched through Jim, the slide of his burning, aching cock against the cool satiny skin of Blair's backside almost too much to bear. He quickened his pace, and recklessly opened all his senses to Blair, concentrating on him, sinking into him. He could feel the muscles of Blair's legs quivering against him; could hear the soft, guttural noises Blair was making deep in his throat; could smell the sharp tang of sweat and the rich, organic scent of the drop of fluid shivering at the tip of Blair's cock. Everything Blair felt was magnified for him; echoing through him and inside him.

They moved like this for what seemed like hours, but eventually he could sense Blair teetering on the edge, and, taking a firm hold of Blair's cock, he rubbed his thumb roughly across the sensitive bundle of nerves just below the head. With a cry that was at once desperate and triumphant, Blair came, spilling across his abdomen, his body jerking. Jim reveled in the sensations that washed over him, his own release almost secondary to the sight, smell, sound, and feel of Blair's.

With bare presence of mind he tugged on Blair's arm, coaxing him to stretch out against his side, his head pillowed on Jim's shoulder, his body still quivering in release. He wrapped his arm around Blair's shoulders and drifted for a while on the wake of their pleasure, feeling loose, feeling good.

He felt Blair's hand trail slowly up his chest and across his chin, fingers tracing gently over his mouth. He smiled, letting Blair's fingers read that, then turned his head and kissed Blair's forehead; heard Blair sigh. "A million questions, huh?" Blair said, his voice muffled against Jim's shoulder.

"Sure." He was undoubtedly going to regret that promise at some point, but right now, if it got Blair back at his side, where he belonged, he didn't care.

Blair lifted his head and propped it on his hand. "So, tell me the rest of what happened. What did you do once the story broke?"

Jim sighed, his smile fading. "Put up with it for a while. It wasn't all that different from when I was working a big case. You know, photographers and reporters hanging around outside the PD, that kind of thing. But when the brass forced Simon to suspend me pending the outcome of the IA stuff, I went to live with Steven."

"You couldn't stand the constant attention, huh?"

Jim met his gaze evenly. "No. I couldn't stand being in the loft without you." Blair looked startled; opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it. Jim glanced away. "I knew you'd gone to Santa Fe, but I couldn't get any more information than that. And I couldn't leave town, since I was under investigation. I tried to get Naomi to go, but once we found out that you'd taken a formal leave of absence from the university, she insisted that you were fine, that you'd turn up when you were ready, and that anything she did to disturb your "journey" would be bad karma."

Blair chuckled ruefully. "That sounds like Naomi."

"By the time IA was done with me, I had pretty much come to agree with her. It was clear you hadn't been coerced and weren't in danger." He glanced at Blair quickly, then looked away again. "I just figured you'd had enough, and I'd finally driven you away. Figured you'd put up with me and my faults and these damned senses long enough and you'd finally seen the light and moved on. That was about the time Simon told me I had to retire."

"Well, at least you had Steven there to be supportive."

Jim snorted. "He tried, Chief, but I was being a total bastard. To him, to Simon, to everyone. I was moody, sullen, irritable, snapping at people...I had a chip on my shoulder the size of the planet. Finally, Steven couldn't take it anymore, and he kicked me out." He noted Blair's look of surprise. "Yeah, well, I had it coming."

"So what did you do?"

"I went to live with Dad. Still couldn't bring myself to go back to the loft. So...I was an asshole at Dad's, until..."

"Your dad kicked your ass?"

"No, actually, it was Sally." He laughed at Blair's look of astonishment. "Yeah, I was surprised, too. One day, around the end of November, I was sitting in the den, and she came in to clean. I got up to leave, made some crack about how I was just gathering dust anyway, and she just lit into me. Yelled at me that I was being a fool, that I was acting like my life was over when it wasn't, that I was pushing away all the people in my life who cared about me." He paused, swallowed. "Then she told me my mother would have been disappointed in me."

"Wow," Blair breathed.

He grimaced. "Yeah. Well, she was right." He took a deep breath. "I needed some time to think, so I went up to this cabin Dad has in the mountains. Stayed up there about a month, working on some minor repairs, thinking a lot about my life, what I'd been doing, what I was going to do next."

"So what did you decide?"

"I decided the first thing I was going to do was find you. I didn't care if it messed up my karma, or whatever." He stroked Blair's cheek gently. "I realized that I'd been given a second chance, that day at the fountain, but that if I didn't take advantage of it soon, I'd lose you, for good." He smiled at Blair. "And, I decided I was going to open a private detective agency." Blair raised his eyebrows at him, and he laughed. "Yeah, Steven found me a job."

"A job?"

"A guy he'd worked with at Lastings Park had started this biotech company, processing samples for drug studies. The guy was worried that one of his employees was stealing samples, but he didn't have enough evidence to go to the police, and he wanted to keep things quiet; didn't want the big pharmaceutical companies to be worried about his security procedures. He remembered the articles in the paper, figured I might have an...advantage, so to speak. So he contacted me through Steven, and hired me."

Blair was grinning. "And you caught the guy with your senses."

"Well, that and some good old-fashioned detective work." He shook his head. "People always underestimate the detective work." He gave Blair a serious look. "Thing is, I need a partner. Someone to watch my back."

Blair ducked his head. "Jim--" he started, then stopped.

He put his hand under Blair's chin, raised his head until their eyes met. "A really mediocre one, you know? Because I'm an arrogant, self-destructive schmuck, and hard to get along with, so I doubt I could keep a competent partner for long..."

Blair sighed, but his mouth curved up in an impish grin "I think I know just the guy for you. He's a bit of a free spirit; kind of a neo-hippie witch-doctor punk, but I think he's just what you're looking for."

Just looking at that mouth made his heart thump erratically; and made other parts of his body move erratically as well. He leaned in towards Blair. "Does he have a nice ass?"

"Oh, yeah."

"Sounds perfect," he murmured, as he covered Blair's mouth in a kiss.

Emily unlocked the front door, reaching up to muffle the bell as she pushed the door open. She didn't want to wake Blair if he was sleeping. He'd looked awful when he'd come to work yesterday afternoon, pale and drained, moving around the store like a robot. She'd tried to get him to tell her what had happened with Jim, but he'd just said, in a flat, quiet voice, "Emily, drop it, okay? It just didn't work out."

She sighed to herself, disappointed. When Jim had called her, when she'd heard the concern in his voice, she'd been so hopeful. And when she'd come in yesterday morning to find Jim keeping vigil in a chair by Blair's door, love and apprehension clear in his face, she was sure that everything was going to turn out okay. But she guessed she'd been wrong. Come on, Turner, she chided herself, Just because you sell books doesn't mean you should expect life to turn out like them. Romance novels are just that - novels. Fiction. Pretend.

Leaving her purse on the counter, she crept silently to the back to check on Blair. The door to his room was ajar; as she reached out to close it she couldn't help glancing inside. Her heart leapt at the sight of Blair asleep, with Jim spooned up behind him, the comforter wrapped snugly around both of them. She couldn't stop the smile that spread across her face.

She closed the door quickly, wincing as it squeaked, and hurried back to the front. Going behind the counter, she dug for a piece of paper and a felt-tip marker.

"Emily?" a soft voice said, and she jumped, startled, and looked up to see Jim standing at the end of the counter. He was wearing jeans, but his shirt hung open, and he was barefoot. "I'm sorry," he said, a tinge of red coloring his cheeks, "I...I should have left you a note, or something..."

"No, no, it's okay," she said quickly, "I was just writing something to put on the door; let people know we won't be open until this afternoon." She smiled at him. "So...everything's okay, then?"

He smiled; a wide, boyish smile that lit up the whole room. "It's getting pretty close. Not perfect, yet, but a lot better than yesterday."

Her throat felt tight and she felt a prickling sensation behind her eyes. "That's great, really great. I'm so glad to hear that." With a start, she realized she was going to cry.

Jim came behind the counter and enveloped her in a warm hug. "Thank you," he said softly, "thank you for calling, for everything. Thank you for caring as much as you did."

She looked up at him, blinking, her emotions under control. "He's a pretty special person," she said.

She had thought that that smile couldn't get any more blinding, but she was wrong. "Yeah. He is." He let her go, stepped back, motioning over his shoulder with his thumb. "I'm, uh...I'm gonna get back..."

"Okay," she said. "I'll see you both later...maybe we can all go out to dinner tonight?"

"That'd be great," he replied, "my treat." He turned and headed to the back of the store.

She was still smiling as she closed and locked the front door, the note affixed to it firmly. In spite of the winter chill in the air, the sun shining on her back felt like summer. I guess I was wrong, she thought happily. Sometimes love does conquer all.



Hazy Shade of Winter by PsychGirl:
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