Sequel to Intimations of Intent and Mother Knows Best
Originally published in the zine Primal Instincts 2
"You know, I think that's the first time you've actually called me partner," Blair Sandburg commented as he took a seat on the sun-drenched deck. The facial cuts that he'd sustained in their recent trip to Peru were just beginning to scab. The one on the left side of his upturned nose was especially noticeable.
Detective James Ellison tore his attention away from the panther that might or might not have been in the loft behind them, returning his gaze to the smaller man at his side. It required every ounce of discipline he possessed to ignore the lethal predator behind him. In the eighteen months Jim had lived in the jungle, he'd seen what a big cat could do to tender human flesh, but there was no trace of the panther's scent, no sound of its breathing...nothing but its irrefutable presence.
"Did you hear what I said, Jim? You with me here?" Blair plaintively demanded.
"What?" Jim started, then absently nodded as he figured out what Blair was talking about. "Oh, yeah."
"What is it with you today, man?" Blair turned his head to stare back into the loft, as if searching for whatever had captivated his companion's attention back there. Even that small movement was cautious. Like himself, Blair was still sporting any number of sprains and bruises from their trip to Peru to rescue Simon and Daryl.
"Nothing. Sorry. What were you saying?" Jim shook off the feeling of being watched. Definitely not wanting to see those cat eyes on him, he took a slug of his beer and eased himself down onto the deck chair next to Blair's.
Blair gave a theatric sigh, a wide grin belying his exasperation. "I said that this is the first time you've voluntarily called me your partner when we're alone together," Blair patiently repeated.
Jim stared at the scratched up face, evaluating. After a moment he voiced a soft, "Yeah, it is."
"I was just wondering...why now? I mean, most times when I've called myself your partner in the past, you jumped all over me to deny it. Is it because I'm not going to Borneo?"
Jim looked away from those atypically solemn features, wondering if he could explain without revealing secrets better off left buried. "Partially."
"And the other part?"
"You earned the title. It's yours if you want it," Jim hesitantly offered, still not understanding why he felt so exposed.
"If?" Blair's manic enthusiasm kicked into gear. "Are you kidding, man? Of course, I--."
Jim cut in before the kid could get too hyper. "Not so fast, Chief. There're rules that come with the title."
"Rules?" Blair cautiously asked. "What kind of rules?"
Jim took a deep breath and then broached the issue he'd successfully fielded for the last four days. "If you're going to be my partner, there can't be any more lies between us, Blair."
"Lies?" His vivid blue eyes opened very wide, Blair repeated the word like he'd never heard it before.
Jim's hearing picked up on how his partner's heart rate quickened. He could almost feel Blair's nervousness.
"Yes, lies," Jim repeated. "The whopper you told me on this trip nearly got you killed."
"Huh?" Blair was a picture of blank incomprehension.
"You remember that little embellishment you told me, the one that almost left you smeared across that Peruvian valley last week?"
"Oh, that." Blair had the grace to look repentant. "Yeah, well..."
"If you're going to be my partner, I have to be able to trust you. Completely. I can't be second-guessing you in a crisis situation, Chief. So, what do you say?"
The fan of incredibly thick black lashes swept down to veil Blair's eyes. Blair's hands moved to fiddle with the hem of the black and white plaid shirt that was his outermost layer today.
After a long, pensive silence, Blair quietly admitted, "Fabrication is second nature to me, Jim. I know that you don't approve of it, but...with all the moving around we did, I learned real early that the only way to survive in a hostile environment was to convince the natives that I was whatever it was that they wanted me to be at that particular moment in time. I don't know if I can break that habit, man."
Realizing that the assessment was unrelentingly honest, Jim stared at his nervous Guide, almost smelling the other man's fear. There was so much of that emotion thrumming through his friend that Jim couldn't credit all of its causes, but he could guess some of it: fear of being dumped, fear of having revealed too much, fear of displeasing, and something more that he couldn't untangle.
All he knew was that none of it should be there, not between friends, partners, or Sentinel and Guide. An effective Guide couldn't fear his Sentinel, nor could that Guide function to full capacity while uncertain of his place in his charge's life.
"Okay," Jim said gently, "it's an ingrained response."
Blair's chin shot up. Between the dark wings of his pulled back curls, his face appeared almost as pale as the white checks on his shirt. "And?"
"And it's going to be hard, but you have to learn that you don't need to lie to me, Chief. I don't want you shifting your skin like a chameleon to placate me. I'm not a hostile. I'm your partner. If this is going to work, we've got to trust each other."
"You don't trust me?"
Jim could tell how hard his friend had fought to keep his tone level as Blair voiced that question, but the forlorn look in those expressive eyes told him that his housemate felt as if he were watching his world crumble around him.
What was it Blair had said all those months ago? Whenever he got comfortable, it was time to start packing.
Just looking at his Guide, Jim knew that Blair was anticipating the worst, like now that he'd been honest enough to voice his doubts about his ability to comply with Jim's demands, he was expecting to be told to get packing.
"I trust you implicitly," Jim calmly replied, making it sound like no big deal. "Even with the lies. I know that when a situation goes bad, you're gonna be right there behind me, doing everything in your power to back me up." He let his gaze drift to the bay off in the distance, trying to absorb some of the water's clear blue tranquility.
"Then why the sudden moratorium on creative reality realignment?" Blair asked, seeming far less anxious as he sipped his brew.
Jim tried not to follow the sounds of the beer's progress down his friend's esophagus, tried not to stare at that sensuous, milk-white throat.
"Because I need you to trust me enough to give me the truth, not what you think I want to hear from you."
"That's a hard order to fill, Jim."
"I know." The fact that Blair wasn't just yessing him along was reassuring. If nothing else, it showed that the kid understood how important this subject was to him.
"When I...exaggerate, I do it because I don't want to be left behind, not because I don't trust you."
"I understand that, but it has to stop, Chief. Now." Seeing how the younger man wanted to protest further, Jim softly asked, "Do you know what it was like watching you pin-wheel down in that parachute like you did, hearing your screams for help and knowing that there wasn't a damn thing I could have done to help you without fouling both our chutes and getting us killed?"
The rebellion faded from those articulate eyes, guilt taking over before Blair effectively veiled his gaze by looking down at his hands. His regret seemed sincere as he spoke, "No, ah...I guess that I never considered what it was like for you. I'm sorry, man."
"I don't ever want that to happen again, Blair."
Blair gave a pronounced gulp, then his shaggy head nodded in agreement. "I can't give you my word that I'll never exaggerate again – that'd be a lie in itself, Jim – but I can promise to...try my damnedest to stick to the truth with you. Is that enough?"
Moved by the earnest, anxious offer, Jim smiled. "Yeah, it's more than enough, partner."
The shadows sloughed from the intense features. The voltage of the grin that sprouted was bright enough to light the entire Northwest grid. "All right, partner."
Blair said the word as though he were trying it on for size.
"There's just one more thing."
"Yeah, what's that?"
"I want you to learn how to use a chute, so this never happens again," Jim ventured, unconsciously holding his breath as he waited for the explosion.
If it were possible for a smile to trip and fall, Blair's did exactly that. All animation dropping away, his scratched and banged-up partner squawked on a rising note of panic, "WHAT?"
"Next weekend I want to take you up to a drop zone that a friend of mine operates and teach you to control your falls," Jim calmly explained.
Eyes bugged out like the Chihuahua in that Ren and Stimpy cartoon, Blair adamantly shook his head. "No way, man."
"Blair, if that tree hadn't caught you, you would have broken your spine or worse in that kind of uncontrolled fall."
"It was a one-shot deal. There's no need for – "
Jim pretended not to have heard. "Everything's all set. I called Sully this morning. We'll go up on Friday morning and leave Sunday evening. Jack said we could go up with every flight if we like."
"You're not listening to me, man. I cannot just jump out of a plane – "
"That's what you did three days ago. What's more, you lied about your ability and endangered both your life and the mission. That's not going to happen again, Chief. Next time, you'll be prepared."
"There isn't going to be a next time!" Blair heatedly protested, "For God's sake, Jim, the trip to Peru was a once in a lifetime deal."
"Is that so?" Jim paused, then asked, "Well, Mr.-Once-in-a-Lifetime, just answer me one question and then we'll let the subject drop."
"What question?" Blair asked suspiciously.
"How many times have you found yourself forced into a plane or a helicopter this past year?"
Blair's mouth opened to argue, then abruptly closed shut. "Jim, please...I really don't want to do this."
"And I don't want you to end up smashed on a mountainside. You said that you've jumped tandem before. We'll start that way and work up to soloing."
"Please, I can't." The huge eyes begged.
Hardening himself against the impulse to cave at that doleful expression, Jim checked, "You said you jumped tandem before. Or was that a lie, too?"
"No, that was true. I did jump tandem a few times," Blair hollowly reported.
"So, what you're saying is that you don't trust me as much as you did the person you jumped with last time?" Jim played his final card, lowering his voice to sound hurt and confused. It was perhaps the most ruthless emotional manipulation he'd ever employed with his Guide to date, but knowing that this training might save Blair's life made it easier.
As expected, the softhearted Blair faltered. "Ah, Jim, man, that's not...I mean, I was involved with...the last person I jumped with."
"We're not involved? I'm your partner," Jim stated simply.
If they hadn't been through the trials they'd endured while rescuing Simon and Daryl in Peru, Jim's ego might have needed bolstering, especially in light of how close his Guide had come to dumping the Sentinel Project for that Borneo expedition. Jim didn't think that he'd ever get over the cold wasteland that had opened up inside him when Blair had told him about Professor Stoddard's offer. Just the thought that Blair would cut out on him like that, without a backwards glance or regret, that he'd...abandon him out of the blue the same way Carolyn had, rattled him much more than he was comfortable admitting, even to himself.
But when they'd been trapped deep in the jungles of Peru, with no one to rely on but each other, their problems had seemed to work themselves out. Jim had made a conscious decision to accept this gauntlet which had been cast his way. With the assumption of that responsibility came the acceptance of the partnership that he had fought tooth and nail this past year. Now he couldn't understand why he'd been so reluctant to accept Blair as his partner.
God knew, Blair had more than proven himself worthy of the title this time out. Jim knew how badly Blair feared heights, yet the kid had willingly jumped from a plane to remain by his side. And once they'd been down on the ground and that big cat had started stalking him, Blair had believed him. How many other scientists would have taken his word about an invisible cat like that without some form of empirical proof?
Now, here he was demanding that his acrophobic housemate leap out of another plane, for no other reason than because he asked it of him, Jim thought as he watched his last comment about being partners hit home.
After a long, tense moment, Blair asked, "This is that important to you, man?"
Jim found himself foundering in the endless depths of those incredible eyes. Their color was unique, like the bay on a misty morning, blue, gray...totally captivating.
Shaking himself free of their enticing depths, Jim swallowed hard, took a deep breath and nodded, "Yeah, it's that important to me."
Blair seemed to digest his reply, staring so intently into his eyes that it was all Jim could do to keep from squirming.
"You'll go?" Jim could barely believe the concession.
"Yeah. Just don't expect any miracles, man. Acrophobes can be, like, real embarrassing at a drop zone. You sure you wanta be seen with me there?"
Knowing that everything was going to be all right now that he was back in what he privately referred to as the Sandburg Zone, meaning that he no longer had a single clue as to what they were talking about, he blinked and asked, "What? Why would I be embarrassed by you?"
A warm light filled Blair's features until he seemed to glow like a jack-o-lantern on All Hallows Eve. "Those jumpers are positively tribal, Jim. Talk about a tight, alternative culture. My testosterone level isn't nearly high enough for inclusion. They'll sniff me out right away."
Thinking back on all the weekends he'd spent up at Jack's drop zone when his buddy was just starting up, Jim realized that his housemate was right. Blair fit in with those macho adrenaline junkies even less than he did at the precinct.
"You'll do just fine," Jim assured.
Blair's grin grew to impossible proportions. "Meaning that you've got more than enough testosterone for both of us, right?"
"Don't push it, Chief," Jim growled, but he was smiling. The kid had more balls than Napoleon's army. It was one of the things he respected most about his Guide, that refusal to back off. When Blair thought he was right, he would go nose to nose with him and not back down...as if the eight inches, ninety pounds, and twenty years of lethal fighting experience Jim had on him were meaningless.
"Whatever you say, partner," Blair beamed, holding his beer out towards him at the word 'partner'.
Touched by how much that title meant to his friend, Jim tapped his own sweaty beer bottle against Blair's again. During the silent toast, their knuckles inadvertently brushed.
The contact should have been meaningless, just another of the countless times they bumped elbows or sides while inhabiting the same living space. But this time was different. Jim's body responded to that simple brush of bare knuckle against bare knuckle the way he might to a woman stroking her hand over his crotch. Jim felt himself go up like a flagpole, his heart rate tripling as he struggled to get some air.
This is insane, Jim told himself, not understanding why he was suddenly so out of control. In fighting these urges for the last six months, he'd honed resisting Blair down to a fine art. If he had to, he could watch his Guide shower without revealing his innermost desires. But here they sat with nothing more than their knuckles touching – their knuckles, quite possibly the least erogenous zone on the human body – and he felt ready to cream his jeans like a horny teenager. He was forty-one years old, for Christ's sake! What the hell was going on here?
Dragging in a desperate hit of cool oxygen, Jim committed Fatal Error #2. He met Blair's eyes.
It was like the deck dropped out from under him, sending him plummeting at breakneck speed to a reality he dared not consider. The blue of those irises darker and more mysterious than the deepest sea, Jim was drowning again, no longer certain in which direction the surface lay.
Blair's eyes were so incredibly wide. Stunned, Jim realized, feeling more than a bit of it himself as he read what was in that gaze. For all the difference in color, he might just as well have been looking into a mirror, so exact a copy to his own were the turbulent emotions reflected there. The confusion could have been his...as could the raw need beneath it..
Something inside him switching gears, Jim paused to consider this new element. Need? From Blair? Could it be?
About to dismiss the absurd notion as wishful thinking on his own part, his enhanced senses kicked in to investigate. His twitching nostrils picked up the slightest, telltale increase in Blair's body musk as his Sentinel hearing registered the wild drumming of the other man's heart. And, perhaps it was simply his overactive imagination, but he swore he could sense the rush of blood through his Guide...his hypothesis confirmed seconds later when a heated flush colored Blair's scratched cheeks.
Jim was attempting to process this new information to the stage of acting upon it when he once again slipped into the Sandburg Zone. Just when he was certain that everything was going to be all right, when he knew that they both felt the same, his Guide threw him for the proverbial loop.
Instead of melting together in the natural outcome of such a steamy exchange, a distance came between them as Blair abruptly jerked his hand away. The bewildered 'hey, what's going on here, Big Guy?' that Jim expected never emerged.
Totally confused, Jim watched every hint of color drain from his housemate's face. The emotion that replaced it stopped him cold.
Fear – of him. Jim could almost smell it in the air between them.
Blair's gaze lowered, darting to the sweat-beaded beer bottle he now held clenched between both hands.
Jim heard his friend swallow hard, almost felt the effort it took for him to speak. His partner's cheer was so forced it was painful.
"I, ah...I've gotta go update my notes before I forget half the stuff that went on in the jungle. All right?"
No, Jim wanted to yell, it was anything but all right.
But this wasn't something he could force. If it were going to happen between them, it would happen in its own time. Until he understood why Blair would fear him, there was no way in hell that he was going to force this particular issue.
"Sure, Chief," Jim replied. He was trying to keep it light, like he had in the kitchen a few days back when he'd told Blair that he wasn't upset by the prospect of his Guide dumping their project to run off to Borneo. Now, as then, his voice betrayed him, broadcasting his hurt confusion louder than words.
His gaze still riveted on the side of his partner's face, he saw Blair wince, his chin bouncing up as the kid visibly forced himself to meet his stare.
Jim's confusion only deepened at the emotion swimming in the troubled eyes.
How could someone so young, someone so all-around chipper and up-beat as Blair know such pain, he wondered, completely bewildered, as he took in the miserable visage. Jim had only rarely viewed that kind of pain in Blair – once when Maya had dumped him and then again when Blair had told him about the home he'd lost as a kid...the story that had made Jim get those expensive French doors for Blair's room. Why that kind of hurt would be there in Blair's eyes now made absolutely no sense.
Sorry. It was written all over the confused features. If Jim didn't know any better, he'd have sworn that Blair was waiting for him to explode with fury.
Puzzled more than anything else now, Jim nodded. "It's okay, Chief."
His response seemed to be more than Blair could handle, for his partner took a deep, shaky breath, nodded once in return and all but fled the deck.
For a long time after Blair left, Jim sat out there in the chilly air, staring off at the shimmering blue waters of the bay, trying not to see his Guide's eyes in the too-similar color.
Five a.m., Friday morning. Jim stood with his duffel bag in hand by the front door, patiently waiting while the zombie that would resurrect into his partner five or six hours from now staggered out of his room.
Blair looked like hell: eyes puffy and red, clothes rumpled and more poorly matched than normal, skin pasty, his curls an unkempt tumbleweed of tangles that had yet to see a comb this day...in short, S.O.P. for his Guide before ten a.m. Just looking at the pathetic figure brightened Jim's day immensely.
"Good morning, sunshine," Jim greeted.
Somehow, the tiny slit of eyes managed to glare. "Mmmm," came the noncommittal reply.
Chuckling, Jim's grin widened. "You know, Chief, seeing your smiling face first thing in the a.m. just puts my entire day in perspective."
"Don't push it. I'm up," Blair grumped.
Which was really as much as he could hope for. Jim had been expecting a Blairesque excuse to avoid going to the drop zone up until the last minute. The fact that his partner was vertical at this hour and more or less willing to accompany him was a miracle in itself.
"I can see that. Come on, Chief. You can doze in the car. Where's your bag?"
"Bag?" Blair repeated the word like it was in a foreign language.
Torn between wanting to throttle his somnambulistic housemate and cuddle him for the same exasperating fogginess, Jim sighed. "The bag you packed last night. What did you do with it?"
"Ah, that bag. 's in the truck." Blair's mouth opened in a stupendous yawn, his shaggy mane of uncombed curls lending him a very lion-like air.
Shaking his head at the matter-of-fact announcement, Jim snagged his companion's arm and steered him towards the door. "Come on, slugger."
Fortunately, Jim wasn't depending upon his companion to keep him awake while he drove the pre-dawn highways. As far as scintillating conversationalists went, at this hour of the morning his comatose partner ran a close second to a dead trout. No sooner had Blair settled into the passenger seat, then he was fast asleep.
Glancing over at the untidy sprawl that was his Guide, Jim figured that it was probably just as well if Blair slept through the drive. The tension between them since their chat on the deck three days ago was thick enough to cut with a knife. The last thing they needed was to be stuck side by side on a two-and-a-half-hour drive filled with awkward silence.
It was weird, but Jim felt strangely close to his partner when Blair was out like this. Perhaps it was his own control-oriented nature or his military background that prevented him from relaxing his guards so completely as to sleep while on the way to some unknown place, but the level of trust implied touched him deeply.
Looking at his slumbering housemate, Jim was struck by how very much like an alley cat Blair was. Like a stray looking for a home, Blair had insinuated himself into Jim's home the night the warehouse had exploded and taken over inch by subtle inch, until now Blair lay sprawled like a sleeping tom while his person did the driving. Jim still didn't know how this had happened to him, couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when Blair had graduated from being a necessary irritant to...to whatever the kid was now. Sometimes Jim thought that if he could just figure out at what moment everything had changed, these confusing feelings he had for his Guide would all make sense.
"Heads up, Chief," he called when they were ten minutes out from the drop zone. The sun was just beginning to creep over the mountains on the eastern horizon, its light sparking red highlights in Blair's tangled curls.
A sluggish stirring preceded a semi-coherent, "Mmmmm?"
"We're almost there."
"Oh." Blair sat up, his knuckles rubbing at his eyes like a tired toddler, still more asleep than awake. "Coffee?"
Jim grinned. "In the thermos."
Out of the corner of his eye he watched the slender, delicate fingers work the thermos open, then carefully pour a steaming cupful before resealing the jug. Blair released a long, drawn out sigh at his first sip. "Aaahhh..."
Shivering at the unconscious sensuality of the exhalation, Jim returned his full attention to the road.
"Where are we?" Blair questioned once the caffeine was in him.
"A few minutes out from the drop zone. Look over there," Jim directed, gesturing out the passenger window that faced out towards the east at the moment.
The sky was speckled with a dozen or so parachutes. The long, rectangular chutes were a brilliant cascade of color, looking like nothing so much as a dozen pieces of a fractured rainbow drifting down from the pale blue of the dawning sky. Their slow, gentle spirals were incredibly peaceful, like the unrushed descent of a falling oak leaf.
Jim glanced at his companion, curious to see how rampant Blair's acrophobia truly was. He'd known some guys so scared of heights that they couldn't even watch a parachute come down, but apparently his Guide's fear pertained only to Blair's actual experience. His partner's expression was soft as he watched the descending skydivers, touched with wonder.
"They look so tranquil from down here," Blair marveled, sounding almost envious.
"It can be just as peaceful up there, Chief," Jim promised.
"Yeah, right," Blair snorted, completely unconvinced. "You forget, I've done this before, Jim. Recently."
"Last week doesn't count."
"How's that?" Blair demanded.
Jim shot his Guide a stern look. "Last week you scared even me with that uncontrolled descent. Anyone would have freaked in that kind of plummet."
"And how is today going to be any different? You don't seem to understand the problem here, Jim. The fear kicks in and all thought stops. When I feel the solid support of the plane drop out from beneath me, I can't remember my own name. This is never going to work, man."
Jim didn't allow any hint of doubt to shade his response. "It will work. You'll see. Today will be different."
"How?" Blair demanded. "Just thinking about stepping out of a plane again makes me want to puke. How are you gonna fix that?"
"Today's going to be different because when you jump from that plane, you're going to be hooked to me. I never have and I never will let you fall, Chief. Can you believe that?"
The fear he was subjecting Blair to here was a hell of a thing to ask of anyone, Jim knew. How many lovers had he had who would have trusted him enough to keep them safe through their deepest terror? He'd never even asked this much of Carolyn.
Yet, this intrepid spirit gave a ready nod, Blair's eyes clear and unshadowed as he answered, "You won't let me fall. I know that. It's just...it's, like, hard for me to..."
"I know. It scares you. It might always frighten you, but I promise you, knowing that you're not helpless in a situation like that will make a difference. The fear will still be there, but it won't control you."
Blair nodded, everything in his features screaming that he didn't believe a word of it, that the only reason he was here at all was because Jim had asked it of him.
Jim gulped, wishing that he knew what he'd ever done to deserve this kind of faith.
The winding country road twisted yet again and the drop zone itself finally came into view. The white-capped mountains that were so close to Cascade were a breathtaking back drop, way off in the distance. The zone itself was situated in a seemingly endless, flat grassy meadow which was nestled between two gently rounded mountains.
The airfield, the life's blood of the operation, was close to the road. A gravel parking lot was situated in front of the one-story, rambling wooden building that acted as the Sky Diving School's main office, as well as Jack Sullivan's home. Further back towards the runway were two aircraft hangers, then over to the right a confusing jumble of trailers and RVs that looked like nothing so much as a gypsy camp.
Looking at the place, Jim was struck with a burst of nostalgia. Nothing ever seemed to change out here. Yet, the last time he'd visited, Carolyn and he were still married.
"It looks exactly the same," Blair remarked, not a trace of wistful nostalgia in his tone.
Jim started at hearing his own thought spoken aloud. "You've been here before?"
Blair sighed. "I told you that I've jumped before. The...person I was involved with was almost an addict when it came to sky diving. It was like a religion."
Sensing something odd about his Guide's attitude, a tension that hadn't been there before, Jim lightly inquired, "She was a real adrenaline junkie, huh?"
The sudden silence on the other side of the car was absolute. The only sound was Blair's pounding heart. His friend didn't even seem to be breathing at the moment. Then, just as it had hit, Blair seemed to break free of the stasis, giving a strangely noncommittal, "You could say that. You said that you know the guy who runs this asylum, Jim?"
Confused by the pointed change of subject, Jim nodded. "Jack Sullivan and I go back a long ways. Do you know Sully?"
More tension, then Blair asked, "Big guy – dark hair, dark eyes?" At Jim's nod, Blair seemed almost resigned. "I think he flew the plane I jumped out of last time."
"Probably. Flying was the only thing he loved more than jumping," Jim chuckled, eager to see his old buddy. "Other than his wife, of course. They've been together forever."
Gravel spewing out from under the Expedition's tires, the truck pulled to a stop beside a beat-up BMW. There seemed to be more stickers than chrome on its dented bumper. The majority of the bumper stickers were related to sky diving, the most vivid a Technicolor eyesore that read, 'Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good plane? Because the door was open. Jump!'
Blair was staring at the car like a shrink confronted by a patient claiming to be Napoleon Bonaparte. The uneasy blue gaze scanned across the parking lot. Most of the vehicles parked there were of the same ilk as the BMW. Like the sport of kings, sky diving was not a poor man's pastime.
"What?" Jim asked at the anxious look Blair shot him.
"Do you really think that we fit in with this crowd, Jim?"
"What do you mean?" He feigned ignorance, even though he was half certain of the nature of the complaint that was about to emerge.
Jim's expectations were not disappointed. With typical Blair finesse, his partner called it as he saw it.
"Take a look around you, man. Status symbols, manhood symbols...these guys are so insecure in their masculinity that it's an analyst's dream. Classic over-compensation."
Tickled by the notion, Jim good-naturedly warned, "If you want to survive the day, I wouldn't go broadcasting that theory too loud, Chief. We over-compensators can be mighty over-sensitive when our manhood is in question."
"I wasn't talking about you," Blair instantly denied.
"No?" Jim chuckled.
"Absolutely not. You're, like, the genuine article, Jim. You're what all these weekend-warriors and adrenaline junkies aspire to and never achieve. You're a classic – a primal man."
"Thanks, I think," he said, not quite sure if he'd just been complimented or subtlety put-down.
"So what happens now?" Blair questioned, apprehension tensing his face as he stared over at the white building marked OFFICE.
Jim tried to be as encouraging as possible without being too obvious about it, "We get our bags and go find Sully."
The main office was just as Jim remembered it – a reservation/check-in counter that was always crowded, no matter what time you arrived. A couple of soda and candy machines stood on the far wall beside the bulletin boards that immediately riveted every newcomer's attention. No sooner were they in the door than Blair was over there checking out the sky-diving related comics that plastered the boards.
"Will you look at this one, man," Blair laughed as Jim patiently waited his turn behind a trio of surfer-type blonds.
When the three Valley Boys had cleared out, Jim gave the perky brunette behind the counter his brightest smile and asked, "Is that old reprobate Jack Sullivan around?"
If anything, the girl's round, cheerful face became more animated. Pretty brown eyes bright as starlight, she asked in a tone better suited to addressing a rock star, "Are you Jim Ellison? Sully has been talking about you all week."
Once, Jim would have been tempted by her luscious figure and winsome smile, but these days all he seemed able to see was the skinny motor mouth that shared his home. He'd just nodded and opened his mouth to confirm her guess when the main door opened behind him and six noisy, coverall clad jumpers entered, hauling their gear with them.
A familiar baritone boomed from behind the group, "Jimbo! You son of a bitch, you did make it out, after all! Long time no see, stranger!"
"How are you, Sully?" Jim grinned as his old friend shouldered his way through the five guys and solitary girl standing between him and the drop zone's proud owner.
Like most of their old Ranger buddies, Sully and he were cut from the same cloth, being big, heavily muscled men, capable fighters. Sully's short hair was a chestnut brown, his eyes an even darker hue. Black Irish, Sullivan had his forbearers' legendary temper and a matching magnanimity that made up for those inevitable explosions.
"I feel a hell of a lot better since I laid eyes on you. God, but you're a sight for sore eyes, man!" Sully growled, gathering Jim up into a bear hug.
After much back pounding and laughter, the two army buddies released each other.
Catching sight of Blair standing off to the side with a wide smile on his impish features, Jim gestured his Guide over. Blair always seemed so happy to meet his old friends, even though he inevitably had even less in common with Jim's friends than he did with Jim himself.
"Ah, Sully, I'd like you to meet my partner, Blair Sandburg. Chief, this is Jack Sullivan, probably my oldest friend on the planet," Jim introduced.
"How you doing, man?" Blair stepped forward, hand outstretched.
Blair's fine-boned hand seemed to disappear as Sully's huge mitt engulfed it. "Just great. You're a detective?" There was no mistaking the swarthy Irishman's doubt.
"A consultant to the force. I'm actually an anthropologist," Blair replied.
"An anthropologist?" Sullivan's eyes narrowed in confusion before something like recognition lit his rough, but affable features, "Hey, wait a minute. Don't I know you? You've been up here before, haven't you? Yeah, you used to come up here with Woody. It's the hair that threw me. You used to wear it short, right?"
Jim's humoring smile faded as he watched all the emotion blank from his partner's features. A sickly expression replacing it, his brow beaded with perspiration as his heart pounded a mile a minute, Blair nodded, "Yeah. I used to wear it short."
Sully seemed oblivious to the effect he was having on the younger man. "Well, it's damn good to see you again, Blair – was it? – Never thought you'd step out of a plane after last time."
At the pilot's booming laugh, Blair gave an anemic chuckle, Blair obviously striving to be polite in the face of what Jim was beginning to suspect was a tremendous emotional strain.
"Neither did I," Blair answered, "but here I am."
"Yeah, here you are." Sully grinned, "You know..."
Not knowing precisely what was going on, but sensing how badly Blair wanted to be out of the conversation, Jim interrupted with, "So, where's that pretty wife of yours gotten to, Sull? Or has Sylvy finally gotten some sense and bailed out on you?"
Sullivan's laugh damn near shook the building. Wincing at the amplitude, Jim toned down his hearing several notches.
"The only thing Sylvy has bailed out of is a plane. She's up with a load of...ah, speak of the devil." Sully grinned as the door opened and a crowd of flushed faced, excited people in navy blue coveralls entered. At their center was a buxomy honey blonde in pink coveralls with an armful of Technicolor silk. Jim instantly recognized his old friend's wife, even though she'd been a brunette the last time they'd met.
"Jim!" Always exuberant, Sylvia Sullivan came rushing at him like an amorous linebacker.
Left with no choice but to catch the bundle of shocking pink catapulting straight at him, Jim gathered the vivacious woman into his arms. "How are you doing, Sylvy?" he asked as he placed her back on her feet after a long hug. Carefully, Jim disentangled himself from the yards of parachute she'd crushed between them.
"Better all the time, Jim. My God, you're still gorgeous," she enthused, her brown eyes appraising him.
Her frank praise brought a rush of heat to his cheeks. Somehow, this amazing woman always made him feel like a gawky teenager. "Ah, thanks."
"Jim doesn't do well with compliments...or teasing," Blair warned, offering the full-figured jumper his hand, his eyes firmly fixed above her most imposing feature. "Hi, I'm Blair."
Recalling his manners, Jim instantly introduced his friend. "Sylvy, this is my partner, Blair Sandburg. Blair, this is the bravest woman in the world. She'd have to be to put up with this galoot."
"Hi, Blair. So you're the one Jim is going to teach to jump?" Sylvy smiled.
"Yeah, lucky me," Blair groused, his lack of enthusiasm making the veteran sky divers laugh.
"Don't worry. You'll love it," Sylvy counseled.
"We'll see," Blair managed to sound polite.
"So, let's get you guys set up in the guest trailer and then we'll check you out for gear," Sully said, relieving his wife of the bunched up chute. He placed the silk almost reverently on top of the registration counter. "Jennie, would you put this on my desk. I'll pack it after we get Jim and his friend settled, Syl."
"Thanks, love," the blond replied, asking as they circumnavigated the growing crowd in the registration office, "Hey, Blair, have you got your own coveralls?"
"Ah, no," Blair answered, holding the door open for them all. "Why? Last time I just used one of the school's."
Back out in the open air, away from the congested office, Jim instantly breathed easier. This morning was exceptionally clear and bright, a rarity for Washington state. Trying to distract himself from the way the morning sun picked out the rich red highlights in his partner's bouncing curls, Jim turned his full attention on his old friend's wife as Sylvia answered Blair's question.
"The coveralls we have for the students can be a little on the ripe side, shall we say? If you like, you can borrow one of my suits," Sylvy offered. "We look like we're nearly the same size."
"Thanks a lot, but...pink isn't exactly my color," Blair cheerfully denied as the foursome made their way across the dew-soaked, sun-washed field between the main office and the trailer congregation down the road.
"Oh, I don't know about that, Chief. I think you'd look real cute in pink," Jim joked, Sully cracking up instantly, while Blair glared daggers at him.
"Ignore these boys," Sylvy told Blair. "They regress to ten year olds every time they get together. Just for the record, the suit I had in mind was blue, not pink."
"Blue, I can handle," Blair grinned. "Thanks a lot."
"Good." Sylvy patted Blair's arm, his partner obviously getting to her with those sheep-dog curls and puppy eyes the same way he did to Jim. "I'll bring it over once you're settled in."
The trailer that the Sullivans led them to was set off a bit from the others. The thick tangle of indigo morning glories growing over the RV hook up told Jim that the gray and burgundy vehicle had been there awhile.
Pristine and neat, the inside was as claustrophobically cramped as most of its kind. The RV door opened into the kitchen area, immediately behind which was the combination living-room\bedroom\dining-room. With the four of them inside, the trailer was incredibly cramped, but, viewing the small accommodations, Jim figured that it would be just as bad with only Blair and himself.
"Well, I think I've shown you where everything is," Sully announced, once he'd finished the grand tour to acquaint the Cascaders with their temporary home. "We'll just leave you guys to settle in. Jim, you remember how the bed pulls out, don't you?" At his nod, Sully continued, "Good. When you're ready, come down to the hanger."
"Sure thing. Thanks, Sull, Sylvia," Jim said as the two sidled past him in the too-limited space.
"Our pleasure, hon," Sylvy gave him a playful peck on the cheek as she squeezed past, her generous bosom pressed tight to Jim's abs in the close space.
"Next jump's in forty-five minutes," Sully reminded, "So don't be too long."
"I'll bring your suit down to the hanger, Blair," Sylvy said as she opened the door to the early morning sunshine and birdsong.
"Thanks a lot, Sylvy. I really appreciate it," Blair called as the Sullivans left.
"You appreciate it like a broken arm," Jim said as the door closed behind his old friends.
"Nah, I appreciate the suit. It's the jumping I could live without." Blair's warm chuckle filled the tiny space.
Jim's senses were already swimming from Blair Overload. Belatedly, Jim recognized that this trip might not have been the wisest move in view of the tension between them.
For the moment, his Guide seemed his exuberant self. "Jeez, will you look at this place! Who was it built for – munchkins?"
Storing his clothes in the top drawer beneath the couch/bed, Jim replied, "Actually, Sylvy and Jack used to live here when they were starting up."
"God, you'd really have to like someone an awful lot to live in quarters this close." Blair had a claustrophobic glint in his eye as he stared around the Lilliputian living space.
Sympathizing with the sentiment all too well, Jim dryly stated, "They were newlyweds."
"Oh." A long pause, then Blair asked in a strangely hesitant voice, "Ah, Jim?"
"Yeah, Chief?" Jim put his toiletry kit on one of the two shelves in the postage stamp-sized bathroom. As he recalled from his last stay, he barely fit in the shower stall.
"Where are the beds?"
Jim sighed at Blair's use of the plural. It was going to be a very long weekend. "You're standing right beside it."
"Huh?" Stepping out of the closet sized bath, Jim watched his confused partner search the tiny space, as if expecting a set of double beds to pop into existence if only he looked hard enough.
"Step back into the kitchen," Jim directed. He removed the couch cushions before reaching out to pull down the Murphy bed that made up the backrest of the sofa. The double bed mattress, fully made up with clean blue sheets, came to rest across the couch's seat and the nearby table top to form a surprisingly roomy, sturdy sleeping area. "It's not so bad."
"There's only the one?" Blair nervously questioned.
At last understanding the source of his companion's concern, Jim nodded. "I'm afraid so. Is it going to be a problem, Chief?"
The wild beat of Blair's heart sounded loud as a ceremonial tom-tom in the tiny metal box they'd be calling home for the next three days.
Suddenly, it was there between them again, this thing that had been haunting them since Jim had purchased those new doors for his partner's bedroom, desire thicker than fresh honey and just as sweet. His nerves stretched tighter than a harp string, he waited.
Blair's gaze dropped to the powder blue sheets, then slid quickly away as a flush touched his fair cheeks. "Are you okay with it, Jim?" Blair tossed the primed grenade firmly back into Jim's court.
Jim didn't answer until his silence drew those expressive eyes back to his own. Any doubts about these strange longings being solely his own problem were dashed by the emotions warring in those vivid blue eyes. Still not comfortable with the trepidation he found there, Jim gentled his attitude. "I'm okay with it, but if you're not, I can bunk in with Syl and Sully. They've got a few rooms behind the main office. It's no problem. Either way."
Blair gulped, his torn expression seeming to ask just what it was and what Jim meant by his amorphous assertion.
But Blair didn't question him and, despite all protests to the contrary, he wasn't comfortable enough to put words to what was pulling at them, for once named, the problem would have to be addressed. Breath held, he watched Blair watch him.
Finally, the tension seemed to break in the lithe figure. Venting a bone-shaking sigh, Blair asked, "It's my call, huh?"
Jim's head inclined in silent affirmation, as he left it all up to his partner.
It was achingly clear that neither one of them knew precisely what was being decided here, only the vague sense that in some way, it was a question of trust. All there was was the near visceral sense of dangling mid-air, waiting for the decision that would either cut them loose to go on with their separate, safe existences or send them crashing, bound together in an endless plummet.
Looking scared to death, Blair voiced the words that would send them hurtling over that fatal chasm. "Partners stick together, right?"
His Guide had the air of a man who was risking everything...which, of course, they were, Jim recognized.
The last time Jim had slept in this trailer, that damn bed had been too small to accommodate his solitary 6'4" frame. To risk squashing in there with Blair when this nuclear stockpile between them was about to achieve critical mass was a recipe for disaster. And, yet, he could no more turn away from this than he'd been able to refuse Blair a temporary residence the night the homeless grad student had pleaded for a place to stay. When faced with those eyes, surrender was almost a foregone conclusion.
But surrender to what? It was painfully clear that neither of them knew.
Feeling that polarized push\pull acting between them again, Jim decided what was needed here was a grounding burst of normality. Putting on his best everything's all right expression, Jim consoled, "You got that right, Chief. Come on, let's get your gear stored away and go down to the hanger.
At first something like disappointment flashed through his Guide's gaze, like maybe Blair had really wanted to define whatever was going on here, but then it was replaced by naked relief.
Armageddon postponed, a stifling sense of anti-climax settled between them as they finished unpacking in silence.
Hating the anxious quality of the quiet, that waiting-for-the-sword-to-drop sense of looming fatality, Jim wondered just how long it would be before one or the other of them cracked.
"Blue. She said that they were blue," Blair Sandburg muttered as he stared disconsolately down at the coveralls in his hands.
"They are blue, Chief," Jim pointed out, doing his very best to keep from laughing at his partner's forlorn expression.
"They're turquoise," Blair protested.
"Actually, I'd call them more a powder-blue myself, but turquoise will do." The glare that earned him undid any attempt at control. Laughing aloud, Jim advised, "You can always use one of the school's. They're a dignified navy blue."
"Did you get a whiff of them? They smell like the entire navy used them."
"You've got a point there," Jim conceded. "I can smell them from here." The rack was a good hundred yards away, on the far side of the cavernous hanger. "Go on, Chief. Try them on. It's not such a bad color. They sort of match your eyes."
"Very funny," Blair groused, shaking out the offending garment and eyeing it with visible reluctance.
Jim didn't think that his housemate would appreciate hearing that he hadn't been joking. The bright blue overalls, though not an exact match, did bring out the incredible, intense shade of Blair's eyes.
A few months ago they could have chuckled over this and camped it up, but now everything was different. The tension between them since they'd unpacked in the trailer was a powder-keg waiting to explode. Gay jokes just weren't funny anymore – to either of them.
What Jim missed most was his friend's outrageous spontaneity. There was a time when Blair would have taken a line like that and run with it. But now, he could see how the kid paused to consider every single syllable before voicing it.
Not wanting to make his companion even more nervous by staring, Jim turned his gaze to the busy hanger while his partner donned the overalls. God, how he hated this.
Fortunately, there was more than enough going on in the active area to distract him. Blair and he were standing beside a bench that ran the length of the right side of the hanger. Directly in front of them, a pair of certified sky diving instructors were folding and packing the endless yards of Technicolor silk that made up the chutes. In the far left corner, another instructor had a gaggle of first time tandem jumpers practicing their freefall pose. Lying flat on their stomachs with their spines arched, arms out in front of them and toes curling up to try and touch the back of their heads, the would-be jumpers looked more like a yoga class than anything else. Then, over by the malodorous coverall rack, yet another instructor was outfitting another small group. And, throughout the entire melee, were a dozen or so people wandering through with no determined purpose. All in all, just another typical day at the drop zone.
Blair's uncertain voice interrupted his musings, "So what do you think, man? Am I gonna be laughed outta the plane or what?"
Jim turned back to his friend, his movement casual, unprepared. It was all he could do to keep from tripping over his jaw as it dropped. Jump suits were supposed to be bulky, utilitarian, protective gear, like Jim's own black coveralls. They were not supposed to be provocative. Nor were they intended as fashion statements. But the robin-egg-blue suit Blair was wearing now hugged his slender form like a second skin, the material's vivid color making Blair's unique eyes glow neon-bright.
"Earth to Jim. Earth to Jim. You with me or zoning?" Blair complained.
Blinking clear of the daze blanketing himhe distractedly replied, "It's definitely or."
"Huh?" Now it was his Guide's turn to look confused.
Fixing his gaze on this too-attractive temptation's face, Jim tried to play it as cool as possible. Inside, it was all he could do to keep his hands off his partner. "You look fine. No one's going to laugh."
"Oh, great. What now?"
Now, I kiss you, Jim thought, hypnotized by the movement of that full, sensuous mouth.
Panicked at how close he was to surrendering to this suicidal urge, Jim frantically looked for something – anything – to distract him. At last, his eyes settled upon Blair's mane of wild, kinky curls. That wouldn't do in freefall. They'd both be blinded by the flying hair.
His mouth and throat parched, Jim moved to grab a rubber band out of the box near the two instructors rolling their chutes. The jumpers used the rubber bands to keep their parachute ropes rolled without snags. When the canopy opened, the rubber bands broke easily, but they kept the lines untangled until used.
What Jim should have done was hand the band over and tell Blair to tie his hair back. But when he looked down into his Guide's wide, curious gaze, he found his own fingers moving towards that silken cascade, almost as if drawn against their will.
Blair watched Jim's large hands approach his face. His partner's confusion was obvious, but the younger man made no protest as Jim drew the heavy fall of hair back from his cheeks.
All those months, Jim had ached for the freedom to touch the unruly curls, having to content himself with a seemingly innocent brush or tousle, those stolen pleasures nothing that one buddy couldn't do to another in public. But now, he lingered, letting his Sentinel-sensitive fingertips explore their full as he sampled the lush length, not caring who might be watching. Those locks were softer than he ever could have imagined, having more in common with sable or llama fur than human hair, for all its kinky curls.
Aware that he could stand here all day playing with the warm hair without growing bored, Jim gathered the rebelling length in his left hand, then effectively bound it at the nape of Blair's neck.
Standing perfectly still, Blair stared up at him, his expression so open, so approachable, that it made him tremble.
"What's going on, Big Guy?" Blair's husky tone was pitched so low that not even the two brown-haired instructors packing their chutes practically at the partners' feet could have overheard their whispered conversation.
Thinking that it was quite obvious what was going on, Jim snatched his hands away as if burned. Abruptly self-conscious, he gave a terse, "Sorry."
Shutting down before the hurt could hit, stepping back, on the defensive, Jim's retreat was halted by the butterfly light landing of a hand on his left elbow. It didn't grip him, didn't force him to stay put. Like this feeling that was birthing between them, Blair's touch was tentative, questioning rather than assertive.
"Nothing to apologize for. I like to have my hair played with," Blair quietly offered, so serious and intent that it took Jim nearly a full minute to realize that the line was more than idle information. It was a very cautiously couched come-on. Blair was flirting with him.
This was hardly the first time their byplay had taken on such openly suggestive overtones. It was, however, the first time such words were voiced with serious intent.
More than a little out of his league here, Jim nodded. Seeing something like disappointment shadow those magnetic eyes, into which he was beginning to think that he could spend the remainder of his life stupidly staring, Jim hastily added, "I'll keep that in mind for future reference." Even to his own ears he sounded hoarse.
Reassurance given, Blair seemed to relax infinitesimally. Sounding much more himself, Blair gave a questioning arch of his brow and asked, "Future?"
Despite the characteristically light tone, there was a level of uncertainty in Blair's watchful face that made Jim's reserved, low-key heart long to abandon the strictures of a lifetime to gush out the most sentimental of promises. But everything was still too tentative for that, too nebulous. So, instead of embarrassing them both, he gave another nod, this one of confirmation. "That's right."
"Are we talking, like, distant future here or something a little more immediate?" Blair fished.
Jim glanced meaningfully down at the pale hand resting on his elbow, feeling the start Blair's system gave as clearly as he did his own. "What do you think, Chief?"
Whatever his partner was about to say was lost as an unfamiliar, deep voice called out from behind them, "Blair? Blair Sandburg – is that you?"
Alarmed, Jim watched every bit of color drain from his partner's cheeks. Never had he seen such an expression of horror on his normally easygoing Guide. Blair looked like he'd just seen a ghost, a ghost he'd obviously thought very long dead.
Blair's hand shot almost guiltily away from Jim's arm. Visibly bracing himself, Blair turned to face the speaker.
His protective instincts on overdrive for no tangible reason, Jim followed suit.
The approaching figure hardly seemed a threat. Early twenties, perfectly styled blond hair, green eyes, deep bronze tan, the well-muscled newcomer was just another of the hot shot kids who flocked to the drop zone. Better looking than most, perhaps, but certainly not an object of terror, nothing to explain what had freaked Blair out.
Trying to comprehend the source of his partner's silent panic, Jim studied the stranger's too-handsome, strong-boned face. There was a decadent sensuality to the full-lipped blond, an almost visible miasma of total self-absorption that immediately set Jim's teeth on edge.
"Joshua." Blair's tight tone relayed his emotions to the man who was learning to read them so well.
"It is you!" the stranger declared, clapping Blair on the shoulder. "I didn't recognize you! What's with the hair? You look like a refugee from Jesus Christ, Superstar."
It took only four lines, but already Jim didn't like the guy. He waited for his sharp-witted partner to verbally slice the obnoxious newcomer to pieces with typical Sandburg style, but Blair remained strangely silent.
Puzzled, Jim turned to his partner. He'd never seen his spunky companion take that kind of crap from anyone other than himself, and even there, Blair had a dry, sarcastic streak that put even him in his place when it was called for. But seeing Blair's pasty expression, Jim realized that there was a hell of a lot more going on here than he understood. He could almost smell the fear pouring off his partner.
But fear of what, he wondered. With his TV perfect, Nordic looks, this guy was just this side of a complete nonentity, so superficial that Jim could barely believe his eccentric partner knew the man.
Jim's stare seemed to remind Blair of his partner's presence. Gulping loud enough for even this Joshua guy to hear, Blair stammered out an introduction, "Ah, Jim...this is Joshua Woodman. Josh, James Ellison."
"You Blair's uncle?" the blond questioned with apparent innocence, displaying about as much tact as he had diplomacy earlier.
Both Sentinel and Guide froze.
Jim tried to tell himself that it was a natural enough assumption for Woodman to have made, given the obvious discrepancy in their ages. After all, wasn't that age gap the major stumbling block that had kept him from approaching Blair these past six months, Jim reminded himself. Yet, to hear it so casually remarked upon by this good-looking kid made him feel decades older than the fifteen years that separated him and Blair.
Suddenly, the dream that had seemed right within his grasp moments ago was once again light years out of reach. His uncle, Jim supposed it was slightly better than being mistaken for Blair's grandfather.
"No, Josh. Jim's not my uncle. He's a friend," Blair firmly corrected, looking as though he wished the Earth would open up beneath him and swallow him whole.
For some reason, Jim was very conscious of the fact that Blair had not introduced him as his partner. Ashamed of being seen with an old guy by this Viking pop star, Jim's insecure side suggested.
Even as he thought it, he knew that he was being unfair to Blair. His Guide had never used their age difference as a put down, but for some reason Jim couldn't put his finger on, he had the feeling that he was in competition with this Beverly Hills 9-0-whatever extra standing before them.
"Sorry," Joshua apologized with seeming regret. "Good to meet you...Jim, was it? You must be some special friend to get Blair back up to a drop zone. The last time Blair was here with me, I thought he was gonna have a coronary."
Abruptly, Jim's mind flashed back to the conversation he'd had with Blair on his deck the afternoon his partner had agreed to this training mission. Once again, Jim seemed to hear his partner saying 'I was involved with the last person I jumped with.'
Jim's enlightenment was painful and instantaneous. No wonder he was feeling rivalry towards this glitter boy. Woodman was the competition.
Feeling very much the scarred old war-horse that he was, Jim regarded this handsome young stallion, trying very hard not to make comparisons.
It was useless. The fifteen or so years that separated him and Woodman had not been easy ones. The kid hadn't even entered his prime yet, and Jim felt as though he were on his way out of his.
Which was utterly ridiculous, he knew. He was in great shape, had more energy and drive than cops half his age, but even when he'd been twenty-five, Jim had never had the kind of movie star perfection when it came to looks that Woodman did.
And now? Every day his close cropped hair seemed to recede further and further back, making his severe widow's peak all the more noticeable. He'd turned forty-one last May, and every single one of those years was creeping up on him. How in the name of God was he supposed to compete with a kid this young, this hot?
The answer was as simple as it was tragic – he couldn't.
Hearing from his partner's heartbeat that Blair hadn't calmed down a bit – if anything, he seemed even more anxious – Jim took an instinctive step closer and put an unobtrusive hand on Blair's back.
The tense figure started at his touch, Blair shooting him a panicked glance. For a moment, Blair seemed poised for flight. Whatever his Guide found in his face appeared to reassure him. After staring at him for a breathless moment, the wildness left Blair's incredible eyes. A deep breath, then another, and his friend almost seemed himself.
"That was a long time ago," Blair addressed Woodman's comment about having a fear-induced coronary from sky diving. "People change."
"Obviously," the blond replied, reaching out to jostle Blair's pony tail. From Woodman's intonation, it was plainly not a compliment. "So, Jim, what do you do? You're not an anthropologist."
Jim gave a negative shake of his head, blanking all emotion from his face. He could feel that dark portion of his soul, the side he called his shark, surfacing inside him, drawn out and incited by this piece of fluff who seemed intent on belittling his partner.
When it became plain that Jim wasn't going to give any further answer, Woodman's questioning gaze shifted to Blair. The shark was pleased by the trace of nervousness that had entered Woodman's green eyes before they'd turned to Blair, where the familiar returned the smugness to the perfect visage.
"Jim's a detective with the Cascade P.D.'s Major Crimes unit," Blair supplied.
"You don't look like a cop," Woodman observed.
"No? What do I look like?" Jim inquired, coolly polite, his dislike not out in the open yet, although the nervous glances Blair kept shooting his way told him that his partner was aware of his feelings, maybe even knew how close the shark was to the surface.
"You look like one of those army dudes." The blond smoothed back his already perfectly coifed, fine hair.
"Close. I was a Ranger," Jim informed.
"Ah, so what's a Ranger-type like you doing with Rainier's resident brain case?" Woodman asked.
Doing his best not to growl, Jim answered in a no-nonsense tone, "Blair's my partner."
"Partner?" the Viking practically squawked with disbelief.
"I'm a consultant to the Cascade Police Department," Blair self-consciously added.
"You?" Woodman scoffed.
Bristling like an enraged razorback, Jim asked in his deadliest, subdued tone, "You got a problem with that?"
"Jim..." Blair spoke softly, lightly placing a restraining hand on Jim's stomach.
Primed for explosion, Jim stared down into his Guide's silently beseeching eyes. He could read how badly Blair wanted him to tone the aggression down. Taking a deep breath, he forced the shark back into the dark corner of his soul where it normally slumbered, consciously defusing his temper. Jealousy was a damn poor excuse to loose the monster inside him. Irritating as Woodman was, the kid was no true threat to anything other than his pride.
Letting the fury go, Jim gave a terse nod and whispered, "Okay."
Though Blair's facial expression didn't change, his eyes softened immeasurably, a tender, almost incandescent light sparking the brilliant orbs.
And suddenly, that magnetic attraction was there full-blown between them again, tugging and pulling, oblivious to how inappropriate its emergence was while Blair's hostile ex-lover was standing a foot away. That feeling was as enveloping and irresistible as a zone-out.
As if from a distance, Jim heard Woodman's nervous voice answering his demand. "No, no problem. Sorry, dude. No hard feelings, all right?"
Tearing his gaze from his partner's, Jim gave another nod, so distracted by the force operating between him and Blair that he hardly recalled the issue. Damn, but this could be dangerous.
"Jim." A familiar voice sounded from his right. Sully.
Jim turned as the swarthy pilot came up to them.
"Ah, so you two found each other," Jack grinned at the younger men, turning back to Jim as he added, "Jim, you wanna come pick out your harness?"
Unwilling to abandon Blair with this contemptuous stranger, Jim looked at his partner, unconsciously seeking direction.
"Go on, Jim," Blair urged, seeming as displaced by the abrupt shattering of the spell between them as Jim was. "I'll be fine."
Touch an absolute necessity, Jim gave Blair's left elbow a quick squeeze. "Okay. I'll be on the other side of the hanger if you need me."
Memorizing the sweetness of that pixie bright grin, Jim tore himself away. "Come on, Sull. Let's sort out that gear. Don't get lost, Chief, we're going up with the next flight."
"Yeah, right," Blair stammered, his enthusiasm plummeting like a skydiver with a faulty chute.
Amused as ever by his housemate, Jim followed his old army buddy over towards the gear racks, which were situated beside the wardrobe and a wooden simulation booth.
"Ah, Jim," the burly pilot began once they were out of ear shot, his hesitation obvious.
"Yeah, Sully?" Jim was glad to have something to distract him from his partner's ongoing conversation.
"This mightn't be any of my business..."
"But?" Jim prodded.
"I thought you should know that, well, that...when your buddy used to come up here with Woodman, they were more than just friends – if you catch my drift." Sullivan looked pretty much like Blair had when Woodman made that comment about their past, like he was waiting for Jim to go ballistic.
"And?" Jim asked, as if Sullivan had just told him that the color of the sky on a clear day was usually blue. Sometimes, he wondered just what kind of an image his friends had of him. Did he really come across as that superficial?
"About Woodman specifically, no, but I know Blair lives a pretty unconventional lifestyle."
"And it doesn't bother you?" Sully asked, looking at Jim like he'd just grown a second head.
"Why should it?" Jim shrugged. This type of narrow-mindedness was one of the things he'd disliked most about the military.
"Didn't you tell me that the guy lives with you when you called me the other night?"
Jim sighed. As much as he valued Sully's friendship, he wasn't about to go discussing things that were none of Jack's business. Jim knew that if he just told Sully that Blair and he weren't lovers, that he hadn't been aware of his partner's preferences when Blair moved in, the problem would go away. But as factual as both those statements were, he knew that it would be dishonest to hide behind them. Things had changed between Blair and him these past months. Although he wasn't comfortable enough with those changes to act upon them yet, there was no way in hell that he was going to make excuses to anyone for Blair's presence in his life and home.
So, instead of answering the almost accusatory question, Jim looked into his old friend's eyes and quietly offered, "If you've got a problem with my partner, we can be out of here in five minutes, Sully."
Astonishment touched Sullivan's round, friendly features. "Jesus, Jim, don't look at me like that. We've been friends for almost twenty years. I don't want you to leave. It's just a shock, that's all. Last time you were here, you were with your wife."
Realizing the wrong assumption Jack had made, Jim started to correct his friend, but before he could voice the instinctive denial, he closed his mouth. What was he going to say – that he and Blair weren't lovers? That he was still straight, still...normal?
How could he make such a statement after the thousands of times he'd made love to Blair in his mind?
"That was a long time ago, Sull," Jim said at last, denying nothing. "Things change."
Jim was surprised to realize that he was holding his breath in the absolute silence that claimed his normally boisterous companion. Nine out of ten of the guys Jim had served with in his Ranger Unit would have had nothing to do with him after such an admission. Hell, they probably would have ostracized him just for allowing Blair to stick around. Sully and he had always been a little different from the other guys in their crew, a little closer, a little less judgmental. Theirs was a trust forged of blood and complete interdependence. Rather like what he had with Blair now. Even so, he wasn't sure if twenty years of trust and friendship would be enough to overcome such ingrained prejudice.
To Jim's utter shock and relief, the unnatural quiet didn't last long. For a moment or two, Sully appeared completely pole-axed by his tacit admission, but then the burly pilot hooted with laughter and pounded Jim on the back.
"I'll say they've changed! Who would have thought it! Macho Man Ellison and another guy. Jeez, Jim, when you go in for a change, you go all out, don't you?" Shaking his head, Sully gave him another resounding back thump and grabbed his sleeve. "Come on, let's get you that harness before I make an utter fool of myself. Or is it too late?"
"Twenty years or so too late, I'm afraid," Jim cheerfully responded, hiding the fact that he was almost weak with relief.
After selecting one of the instructor's tandem harnesses – the jumble of heavy duty straps, hooks and buckles which kept a novice skydiver firmly bound to his instructor – Jim helped Sully pack one of the huge tandem chutes that another teacher had just returned. As they were on their knees, carefully folding the yards of silk, Jim could almost feel his old friend's surreptitious gaze digging into the side of his face.
"What already?" Jim asked when it became too much, unconsciously borrowing what he'd privately come to refer to as a Blairism. The tone and rhythm of the words were pure Blair.
"Whatever made you choose... I mean, the kid is nice and all, but he doesn't exactly seem...do you know what I mean?" the blushing Sully awkwardly questioned.
Jim laughed, knowing exactly what Sullivan meant. For the twenty years Sully had known him, Jim had been drawn to unusually attractive women. The undersized, skinny student with his unkempt tumbleweed head of curls, mismatched baggy clothes and motor mouth was a far cry from the model-like perfection of the women Sully was accustomed to seeing him with.
"I didn't choose him," Jim admitted, a trace of his own mystification hanging about him as he continued, "Blair is like a force of nature. You don't choose him, he just sort of happens to you."
Sullivan chuckled, seeming fully at ease with him, despite the unusual topic of conversation. "Well, whatever it is, you seem to be thriving. I mean it, Jim, you haven't looked this happy in years."
Surprised, Jim realized that it was true. He was a lot happier since Blair had moved in. "He makes me laugh, Sull. In my line of work, that means a lot."
Sullivan grinned. "Well, any time you get tired of dodging bullets for a living, there's a good paying job waiting right here for you, old buddy."
Having had this particular conversation too many times in the past, Jim shook his head and smiled back. "Thanks, but I think I'll stay where I am. Somehow, I don't think that jumping out of a plane a half a dozen times a day is a whole lot safer a way to earn a living than being a cop."
Sullivan's hearty laugh was interrupted when a couple of excited college-age kids in jump suits raced over to them.
"You were right, Mr. Sullivan, it was the thrill of a lifetime!" the beefy redheaded male student exclaimed while his brunette girl friend stood beside him with an equally elated smile on her pretty face.
Jim barely recalled his very first jump, but he imagined that he must have been about the age of these kids. Kids? They couldn't be more than three or four years younger than Blair. Yet, looking at them Jim found it hard to believe that he could have ever been quite this young or this enthusiastic.
While Sully talked the pair back to something approaching normality, Jim continued to fold the chute. Almost against his will, his enhanced hearing targeted in on the voice that he heard even in his dreams. He didn't like to eavesdrop, but sometimes his damn abilities made it next to impossible not to listen in.
Blair was still talking with that Woodman character. When Jim homed in, his Guide appeared to be updating his old flame on what he'd been up to for the last three years. Jim cut in just as Blair was saying, "I spent the summer of '93 down in the Amazon Basin with Dr. Stoddard studying the effects of clear cutting of the rain forest on its indigenous peoples. It was so amazing, Josh. You wouldn't believe it."
"Probably not." The snide edge in the blond's voice set the muscle in Jim's jaw twitching. He'd barely spent three minutes in Woodman's company and already he despised him.
Blair seemed oblivious to the sarcastic overtones as he continued, "The summer before that, I spent a couple of months in Tibet with Naomi, and most of the summer before that, I was in Africa living with one of the few remaining Zimbabwe tribes."
Jim recognized the over-bright tone as the one Blair used to compensate for a true lack of enthusiasm. Sometimes he was amazed by just how well he'd come to know Blair in the short time they'd been together. He'd known Sully nearly as long as Blair had been alive, and he hadn't a tenth of the sensitivity to Jack's moods that he did to Blair's.
Jim was about to withdraw his attention from the private conversation when Woodman interrupted Blair's travelogue to ask, "So, what's with you and the jarhead, Blair? I won't ask what's between you, 'cause one look at the guy and anyone can see that he's got you staked out as his private property. Lust, I understand, but what in the name of God do you two talk about when you're outta bed? It's not like you have anything in common with macho men. As I recall, you were into the person as a whole."
Even from across the crowded hanger, Jim could hear Blair's heart thundering. He couldn't tell if it was rage or fear causing the increase. All he knew was that Blair's heart sounded like it was pounding fast enough to burst.
"I can't believe I even know you, let alone wasted feelings on you." The note of confused hurt in Blair's voice pulled at Jim's heart.
"You didn't think it was wasted back then, baby. You were fucking devastated when I dumped you," Woodman reminded.
Jim wanted to kill the creep just for the little wounded sound that escaped Blair's throat. He heard his Guide swallow hard, his own vocal tract aching in sympathy as Blair forced himself to answer, "You always had an inflated view of your own importance, Josh. I'd hardly call it devastated. More like enlightened or emancipated."
"That so? Well how are you gonna feel when Captain America over there gets tired of fucking Chicken Little and cuts you loose? You're not gonna pretend that you'll feel emancipated then, are you? I saw the way you were mooning over him."
"Once again, you've got the entire picture wrong. Jim and I aren't...together like that," Blair said, while Jim was wondering why his partner didn't simply haul off and sock the jerk.
"Yeah, like you and Cynthia weren't together like that, right?" Woodman challenged.
Jim's view of the situation altered immediately at that emotion-packed question. It wasn't just sour grapes with Woodman. From the sound of it, the guy was obviously a victim of Sanburg's romantic roulette. As being taken for a fool in precisely this fashion was one of the things that he feared most about getting involved with Blair, he listened intently to his partner's response to the accusation.
Blair gave a long, drawn out sigh, then answered, "Yeah, just like Cynthia. You blew that all out of proportion, man."
"Did I? Well, you just remember that when that Action Jackson dude over there blows you away when he catches you in the clinch with some little redhead. Those military types are so territorial, Blair, and they play for keeps. Maybe you'll finally get what's coming to you."
"Don't get your hopes up. It really isn't like that with Jim and me," Blair insisted.
"Yeah, right. See you around, dude. When you jump later, try not to toss your cookies in Mr. Wonderful's face. That does so put a damper on the romance."
Jim heard Woodman give a cruel laugh and walk away. If his life had depended on it, he couldn't have kept his gaze from seeking out his Guide at that moment.
Blair stood still as stone, watching Woodman retreat. Jim almost wished his sight wasn't so accurate, that way he would have missed the anguish in those too-expressive eyes,
As if sensing himself under observation, Blair turned in Jim's direction, as if searching. When those troubled blue eyes finally met his stare, they widened. Then, an expression that Jim could only name as despair touched Blair's every feature as his friend blanched and looked quickly away. Even from across the noisy hanger, Jim could hear the panicked pound of his partner's heart. A second later, Blair turned and rushed for the rest room.
Guilt-stricken, Jim realized that he'd been caught eavesdropping on an intensely private conversation. Normally, Blair was unconcerned about such things. The kid lived his life as if it were an open book to him, almost inviting Jim into his private life with how openly he transacted his affairs. Blair never acted as if he had a single secret from him.
Jim didn't know another human being who could accept the lack of privacy that living with a Sentinel entailed, let alone cope as cheerfully and naturally as Blair did. For that reason, he always did his very best to focus elsewhere during those times when common decency demanded privacy.
Jim recognized that what he'd just done was reprehensible, on the same level as if he'd snuck into his partner's bedroom to read the kid's private journals.
Mulling over his breach of honor, Jim finished packing the parachute. He was just securing the ripcord when Blair's heartbeat joined the frenetic mix of sound around him.
Sometimes, it still amazed him how easily he could pick his partner out of a crowd without seeing Blair. The sounds and scents of Blair's body were more familiar to him than those of his own. There were nights he could almost swear he'd know Blair by taste alone...and that was a sense with which he had yet to sample his partner.
Task done, Jim rose to his feet, glancing over his shoulder as Sully called his name out. "Yeah, Sull?"
"Better get your buddy suited up. I'll be taking the next load up in ten minutes," the drop zone's proprietor warned.
"Right." Not looking forward to his partner's justified anger, Jim donned his own harness, then sidetracked to the gear box long enough to pick out goggles and caps for them both. With nothing left to delay him, Jim made his way back to his Guide.
Blair was sitting on the bench that ran the length of the hanger wall, staring down at the floor between his feet.
"Hey, Chief. You ready?" Jim asked as brightly as he could manage, half-expecting Blair to tell him what he could do with the flight as well as their partnership.
But Blair glanced up at him uncertainly, looking up at him as though Blair himself were the one expecting to be sent packing.
"All set," Blair said, rising to his feet and glancing quickly away.
Jim knew it was bad. The kid was too preoccupied to even be scared of jumping.
"Here, step into this," Jim directed, holding out the harness.
Once Blair had the thing on him, Jim stepped forward and started buckling it.
"I can do that," Blair protested as Jim's hands reached to secure the fastening between his friend's legs.
"Next time. Watch me now," Jim directed. He could feel the heat in Blair's cheeks, did his best to ignore it and his own body's response to the lithe figure. They had enough to worry about now.
"Thanks," Blair said as Jim stepped back.
"Pop quiz, Chief. You told me that you've jumped tandem before. What's the first thing that you're going to do when we hit freefall?" Jim asked, curious about just how much Blair actually knew about sky diving.
A mischievous light sparked in Blair's eyes as his irrepressible spirit rose to the challenge. "Scream my head off and barf," Blair grinned.
In spite of himself, Jim returned the smile. With a conscious effort, he shook off all traces of humor and prodded, "Seriously. Both our lives depend on it."
"Okay. When we hit freefall, I arch my spine and try to touch my toes to the back of my head. That distributes both our body weights to your center of gravity, where its easier for you to control our descent," the scientist in Blair reported, adding, "And under absolutely no circumstances do I grab hold of your hands. Good enough?"
"Perfect," Jim approved. "Here, try these on."
All business now, Jim helped Blair don his goggles and cap. His assistance was desperately needed for the tight-fitting leather headpiece. No matter what Blair tried on his own, he seemed incapable of confining all those curls under the cap. Even with the heavy hair bound in a ponytail, a curl or two kept popping out. Normally, it wouldn't be such a big deal, but when jumping tandem, the instructor's face was over the student's shoulder to see. The last thing Jim needed in freefall was a faceful of hair. Considering the way he was feeling about Blair lately, the brush of those curls across his skin might be enough to cause a zone-out – even in freefall.
Even now Jim was having difficulty focusing on the task at hand. He kept getting distracted by the kinky curl's sable texture and the bouquet of pine scented herbal shampoo, which he knew had to be chamomile.
"Something wrong, Jim?" Blair asked, looking over his right shoulder to where Jim was standing behind him, his Guide's green-tinted goggles giving his odd features a fishy slant.
Jim replied without thinking, "They're a lot softer than they look."
"So is yours," Blair said so low that only a Sentinel would have distinguished the words.
"How would you know?" Jim asked, smiling a bit at the absurd statement. He hardly had enough hair left to merit the buzz cut these days and he knew that Blair had never touched his hair. He had it so bad for the kid that he recalled with perfect clarity every time Blair so much as laid a finger on him. His partner touching his hair wasn't something he was likely to forget.
"Last week in Peru after Kimberly coshed you with that club, I felt it."
"Copped a feel, huh?" Jim joked, the smile dropping from his face as Blair turned bright red.
"Sorry," Blair mumbled. "I couldn't help myself."
Blair looked miserable, like he really felt guilty over that small liberty. Realizing how important that stolen touch must have been to his partner for Blair to react so strongly, shock spread through him. Could it be the same for Blair as it was for him? Was it possible?
For some time now, Jim had been aware that the attraction was not one-sided, but he'd never thought of Blair as suffering over this as he did himself. His friend had never struck him as the pining type. For some twenty year old co-ed, perhaps. But not over a middle-aged, cantankerous cop. The possibility that Blair ached for this as badly as he did for Blair was staggering.
"Don't apologize, Blair." Jim's voice was gruff with emotion as he spoke, careful of his partner's feelings, where once he would have joked to get past the awkwardness. The use of his Guide's first name was purposeful and fulfilled its desired intent.
Blair's goggle-veiled gaze fixed on Jim's, bleeding its vulnerability into his soul. The kid had never looked more ridiculous than he did now standing there in his Red Baron helmet and goggles, and, yet, Jim had never felt so much desire for another person. Only the fact that they were in a crowded public place stopped Jim from swooping down and claiming those lips...and he might have foregone that restriction had they discussed these feelings at all. But with everything still unspoken between them, his natural reserves wouldn't allow him to take the chance.
And then there was Woodman. Jim no longer saw the handsome blond as a threat, but before this progressed one inch further, he wanted to make it plain up front that he didn't want to end up cuckolded like Woodman.
"You guys ready?" Sully's voice sounded from behind, startling them both.
Turning, Jim could see the open curiosity in his old friend's eyes as Sully studied him and Blair together. Glancing back to Blair, Jim noticed a sudden self-consciousness in his partner's attitude. His Guide kept shooting Sullivan nervous looks, as if he were worried that the pilot might get the wrong idea from how close they were standing.
"We're all set. Right, Chief?" Jim grinned, clapping his partner on the shoulder. Now was definitely not the time to explore these issues.
"As set as I'll ever be to jump out of a moving plane," Blair responded as he fell into step between the taller, bulkier men.
"We taking the new CASA up, Sully?" Jim asked, referring to his friend's most recent, prized acquisition – a plane built exclusively for sky diving. Jim had read the specs on the CASA and it was quite a beauty. She took up a much larger load than the Cessnas, from which Jim was accustomed to jumping. There was a ramp in the rear of the CASA plane that stayed open during take-off and flight. Rather than opening a door to jump at the proscribed altitude, all the skydivers had to do was walk down the ramp and out of the plane. As an added perk, the ramp stayed down during lift off so that the passengers got a clear view of the ground dropping away beneath them. Jim was really looking forward to experiencing this last, but he could just imagine how his acrophobic partner was going to respond to the set up.
Blair was just going to love this, Jim grimly thought. Gritting his teeth, he hoped his partner would be able to hold it together long enough to actually jump.
As they boarded the plane via the ramp that they'd eventually be jumping from, Jim could see how pale and pinched Blair's face already looked. Once again, he was reminded of just how much he was asking of his Guide.
"Where are the seats?" Blair questioned once inside, looking around what amounted to a bare cargo hold as if he expected to find fold down chairs.
"You're looking at them." Sull laughed as he made his way towards the cockpit. "Jim, tandems still jump last, so you guys will be closest to the forward wall. You remember the drill for this, old buddy?"
"Vividly," Jim assured, nothing showing in either his face or voice as he considered their next step.
"Where do we sit, Jim?" Blair asked, still searching for those pop-up seats, were his expression anything to go by.
"The floor," he explained. "I sit with my back to the wall. You sit between my legs. The guy in front of you sits between yours, etc."
"You're joking, right?" Blair squeaked.
"It'll be fine, Chief. You'll see," Jim soothed. Suiting action to word, he sat down on the blue carpeted floor with his back pressed to the forward bulkhead. The parachute pack he was wearing acted as a comfortable cushion between his spine and the wall. Once down, Jim spread his knees wide and gestured to the floor between them. "Down you go."
Blair stared at him as if he'd taken leave of his senses, standing frozen over him as a mob of excited sky divers jostled past for floor space. As Blair saw the girl who settled next to Jim open her legs for her companion to slide between them, he stammered, "This is for real, right?"
"Sit down, would ya, pal?" A balding ex-military type behind Blair requested. "You're holding everybody up."
The cheeks beneath his bulky goggles going bright red, Blair quickly scampered down between Jim's legs without further ado.
"That's it, just relax, Chief." Jim said as that tense back settled nervously against him.
Although Blair was facing away from him, Jim had no trouble hearing his friend mutter, "Uncle Jesse was right."
"About what?" Jim questioned, settling his wrists on his knees, allowing his hands to come to rest on the slender, stiff shoulders so close to them.
"About being careful what you wish for." Blair craned his neck around to give Jim a sardonic grin.
Jim was so distracted by the sweet smile that it took him a moment to comprehend what Blair was actually admitting. When realization struck, it was his turn to blush.
"You mind, buddy?"
Both Sentinel and Guide jumped a little as the balding marine gestured at the floor between Blair's legs.
The silence was absolute for a moment.
Then, Blair took a look around the hold. Seeing that almost everyone else was seated in the awkwardly intimate fashion, Blair gave a nervous laugh and waved, "Be my guest, man."
"Thanks, kid," the stranger said as he seated himself between Blair's thin legs.
Instinct seemed to drive Blair to familiar territory. As the big guy with his bright red, sun-burned pate and surrounding fringe of white hair settled down between Blair's legs, Blair leaned completely back against his partner, as if to escape the stranger's intrusion into his personal space.
"You mind?" Blair asked as he trusted his full weight to the wall of Jim's chest.
Jim looked down at his partner's position, noting how his neck was no-doubt painfully craned in order to see his face. Jim's gaze was caught and held by the lush pads of full lips, which were tilted at precisely the right angle for a kiss, he couldn't help but think. Too aware of the blazing heat that was Blair against his chest, groin, and inner thighs, Jim shook his head and gave Blair something to ponder when he whispered into his friend's ear, "Only the lack of privacy."
Blair hissed, bit his lower lip and said in an undertone, "You don't play fair, Big Guy."
Jim glanced around the packed plane. Everyone seemed absorbed in their own animated conversations, including the marine in front of Blair who was chatting with a twentyish blonde at his side. No one appeared to be paying them the least bit of attention.
Assured of their relative privacy, Jim gazed into those bottomless eyes and said, "That's because I'm not playing, Blair. Make no mistake there."
"What are you saying, Jim?" Blair questioned, his humor dropping away as worry claimed his features.
Before Jim could answer the plane engines roared to life, the mechanical growl pounding through his enhanced hearing like a thunderstorm in a tin drum. If he hadn't been so caught up in this thing with Blair, he would have consciously toned down his hearing beforehand. As it was, the resulting pain nearly blinded him.
Jim's hands flew to the side of his head as he belatedly turned down the volume knob in his head.
"Ah, Jeez...come on, breathe, man. Just relax." Blair's hands were there covering his own, urging them away from where they clutched the side of his head as Blair twisted around in an impossible angle to reach him. "Tone it down, Jim. That's it. That's right," Blair guided him through the worst of the aural shock.
As ever, when bludgeoned by his freakish senses, Jim's mind fixed on that familiar, deep tone to the exclusion of all else. Blair's voice was his lifeline back to sanity, the one thing that followed him into the maelstrom of over-stimulation and pulled him back.
"Hey, is he all right?" the wiry brunette woman sitting next to Jim asked as she noticed the interplay.
"Yeah, he just has sensitive ears. The sound of the engine was too much," Blair calmly explained.
"It gets to me too that way sometimes," she sympathized.
Knowing that this was neither the time nor place for a zone-out, Jim concentrated on his breathing and fought his way back. When the engine was once again just an engine and not the trumpets of Armageddon, he opened his eyes.
"Better now?" his concerned Guide questioned.
"Yeah, thanks, Chief," Jim said, running a hand over his face.
As he settled against the wall, Jim realized that his near zone-out had served at least one purpose. According to the altimeter strapped to the sleeve of his black jumpsuit, they were nearly two thousand feet up. Blair had been so occupied with his duties as Guide that he'd totally skipped his usual take-off anxiety.
Now, Blair gave a sudden start as he stared to the back of the plane, where, through the open back hatch, the landscape could be seen quickly turning into a patchwork quilt of forest, meadows, farms, and roads as the plane climbed higher.
Jim felt Blair's muscles turn to stone, then his Guide gulped loudly and asked with fragile control, "Ah, Jim...why is the door still open?"
"It stays that way till we jump."
"That's like, so dangerous, man. What if…?" Blair began to freak.
Knowing where all this was headed, Jim quit pussy-footing around and moved his hands entirely onto his partner's shoulders to give a reassuring squeeze. "It's safe. I've done it lots of times before. Just try to relax, Blair, okay?"
Blair gave a stiff nod before dropping his gaze to where his hands were tightly clenched between his stomach and the marine between his legs' parachute pack.
The fact that his Guide wasn't blathering on told Jim how bad it was for the acrophobe. Unable to ignore that fear, he took a quick glance around to assure that no one was watching them, then casually laid his right hand on top of Blair's sweaty, cold hands.
The slender form jerked. For a moment, Blair seemed to simply stare at the Jim's hand where it trapped both of Blair's against the borrowed turquoise jumpsuit. Jim could almost feel them both noticing how his huge hand all but swallowed Blair's. After a second, his partner hesitantly pulled one of his hands out from beneath his and laid it on top of Jim's, sandwiching Jim's between his own. When he didn't flinch immediately away, Blair increased the pressure of his grip, clutching his hand as if it were a lifeline.
Jim could feel the blood pulsing through both of Blair's hands, feel the press of bone, skin, and sinew beneath the nervous sweat beading the palm.
Blair's grip increased to vise-level as Sully's voice sounded over the intercom, "Heads up, people! Time to dance with the angels."
"That's our cue, Chief," Jim said, gently disentangling himself so that he could climb to his feet. Using Blair's harness as a pulley, he helped his partner up. "Okay, Blair, I'm gonna hook us up now. From now on, we're one entity. You breathe, I feel it. You screw up, I pay for it big time. So, we're going to follow procedure to the letter here. Right, Chief?"
A tight, white-lipped nod was Blair's only response. Now that the moment was upon them, his partner's complexion had gone a putty shade of gray.
"Turn around," Jim ordered.
Like an automaton, Blair faced away from him. Jim could feel the smaller body shake as Blair looked towards the open door.
Carefully securing every snap and hook of the tandem harness, Jim verbally went through the checklist, his hearing picking up on how Blair's body calmed just the tiniest bit at the matter-of-fact drone of his voice.
"Okay, all set," Jim cheerfully declared once they were locked tighter to each other than Siamese twins. It was almost impossible to ignore how close his groin was pressed to the small of Blair's back. He thanked the stars for his partner's smaller stature. Had Blair been just an inch or two taller, Jim would have found his groin pressed tight to his friend's ass. That kind of distraction he could live without.
"Wow, I forgot how tight this was," Blair remarked, his amazement temporarily overshadowing even his terror. "You're so close I can tell your religion, man."
Relieved that Blair was okay enough about this for humor, Jim blushed and grinned, "You should feel it from this end, Chief."
Blair was about to make a reply when a chorus booming "JUMP" erupted around them, telling him that they'd reached optimum altitude.
"I hate this part," Blair nervously confessed as the skydivers at the back of the plane loudly urged their companions closer to the open door to jump, while those frozen at the windy portal hesitated long enough to clear the previous jumper's canopy. The last thing a skydiver wanted to do was jump too close to another diver. Tangled rigs were no laughing matter. Ten thousand feet above solid ground, the Earth was very unforgiving of such errors.
"Me, too," Jim agreed, inching them slowly towards the open hatch as their companions bailed out. Going over the last bit of detail, Jim explained once again, "When we get to the door, we're going to turn around and face the inside of the plane. You're going to rest your head on my left shoulder and lift your feet off the ground. I'll handle the rest. We'll go out backwards and I'll turn us around. All you have to do is relax and enjoy the ride, partner."
"And arch," Blair grimly reminded, sounding like he was on the point of freaking.
"That's right. Arch in freefall. Ready, Chief?" Jim asked when it was just them in the empty hold, maneuvering his Guide around before they reached the door to prevent Blair from balking at the sight of the drop.
Blair nodded, his muscles harder than iron as Jim guided the capped head back onto his shoulder.
"Feet up," Jim ordered.
As soon as he felt Blair's full weight pull at his harness, Jim flung himself out the door backwards. Then all there was was the wild roar of the freezing wind and Blair's shriek of, "Oh, my, God!"
The volume of the shriek nearly deafened him. Fortunately, he'd been expecting it and had toned down his hearing. Otherwise, he would have heard that despairing cry all the way back in Cascade.
Within seconds, Jim was orienting them, fighting the wind's pull to put Blair safely beneath him. The turn was jarring, even to veteran jumpers, as the abrupt shifting and resultant disorientation led to intense nausea. Even over the screaming wind, Jim heard the gulp Blair gave. Silently, he prayed that his friend wouldn't be sick. To his intense relief, Blair didn't throw up.
The kid even remembered to arch without being told, Jim proudly acknowledged as his partner made it easier for him to control their fall.
"Hang on, Chief," Jim yelled into a nearby ear, hearing the pathetic keen of terror Blair was making. At that moment, he hated himself for forcing Blair into this. No one should be this afraid.
Although Jim knew it was the height pushing Blair's panic buttons, a good part of that fear had to do with the ferocious wind ripping at them. Up this high, freefalling, the wind was a living thing, a howling, ravening beast intent upon ripping clothes and flesh to pieces with its icy talons.
Keeping a close eye on the altimeter attached to his left wrist, Jim carefully counted down the feet. Blair's raw terror made the fifty-five seconds it took to reach chute level the longest minute of his life.
The instant they hit safe air, Jim tugged his ripcord. A jerk and a pull followed as the chute opened up, the wind cutting off almost immediately when they changed position.
Blair gave another helpless scream as he was once again tugged around mid-air.
Once the chute's full canopy opened up, they pretty much froze in their crazed descent, fixed in a bubble of such utter tranquility that it was almost as shocking as the rending winds of freefall.
"How you doing, buddy?" Jim shouted into Blair's cap-covered ear. "You doing okay?"
A silent nod was all the answer he received.
"You've got your eyes closed, don't you?" Jim guessed.
"You want to try opening them a bit? It's not too bad. Sort of like looking straight out from a high-rise. Just don't look directly down and I think you'll be all right."
"I can't," Blair stammered.
"Yes, you can. You're not going to fall. I've got you, babe." The endearment unconsciously escaped. "You're not going anywhere without me. Come on, we can test my vision up here if you want."
"Did I just hear you volunteer for an experiment?" Blair questioned, an edge still in his voice, but no longer openly panicked.
"Must be the altitude getting to me, but, yeah. You tell me what to do. I'll give it a shot, if you open your eyes."
The subsequent gasp and tensing of muscles told him that Blair had done as requested.
"Don't look down, babe. Look straight out at that mountain over there," Jim ordered, gesturing at a white-capped marvel that gave the Grand Tetons a run for their money.
Blair was silent for a long moment before he finally conceded, "It-it is beautiful. How many of the aspens have started to turn gold?"
Jim grinned at his Guide's obsession with his Sentinel skills. They'd be on their way to Hell and Blair would ask him to monitor the changes in the ambient temperature.
Making a quick count of the gold flecked trees three miles distant, he answered. "Forty-three. And they're white birch, not aspens."
"How can you tell?"
Jim was almost startled himself as he answered, "I can see the shape of the leaves. Aspen are rounder. These are skinny and pointy. Definitely white birch."
"Hot damn, you're good," Blair chuckled.
Jim bit back on an offer to prove it to his partner, deciding not to add any more unnecessary tension to the pot. Right now, Blair needed to relax up here. His Guide couldn't maintain this level of fear if they were going to do this five or six more times today. Hardhearted as Jim sometimes was, he couldn't inflict the degree of terror Blair had just experienced again and again. They had to get a handle on this, now.
"When does the loop-de-looping start?" Blair asked out of nowhere.
"Whenever I jumped with Josh, we'd be tossing about like a leaf in a hurricane about now. It was worse than the freefall. When are we gonna hit that?"
For a second, the murderous rage that came over him was so intense that Jim had to grit his teeth and clench his eyes shut to control it. That sadistic son of a bitch! When he got Blair down from here, he was going to find Woodman and...
"You still with me back there, Jim?" Blair nervously called. "When's the rocky part?"
Calming himself with an act of pure discipline, Jim softly promised, "There is no rocky part. Not on a day like this. Freefall was it. The rest of the ride's smooth as glass, Chief."
"Then why was it so rough with Josh?"
"I suspect your...friend liked hearing you scream." Jim employed his best cop voice, the one that allowed him to report any manner of depravity in a professional manner.
"Liked? Oh." The quiet was absolute. "It's always this...gentle?" Blair checked.
"When the weather is clear and you know how to control the chute."
Silence fell again.
Though not exactly relaxed, Blair's breathing was far less labored. Jim could almost feel his partner stamping down on his fear now that Blair knew he'd been through the worst already. As he thought about the hellish ride Blair had obviously been expecting, he was once again astounded that his Guide had consented to this – just because he'd asked it of him.
An overwhelming softness unfurling within him, Jim tried to remind himself of the million and one reasons why things would never work out between them. Differences in age, interests, and personalities aside, there was the fidelity factor to consider. His earlier eavesdropping had confirmed his deepest fears, that Blair wasn't capable of maintaining a monogamous relationship. But suspended here with Blair in this utterly silent world of absolute peace, with his partner strapped closer to him than a lover's embrace, he knew that he wanted to go through the rest of his life this way – tied so close to Blair that his Guide's heartbeat blended with his own.
In a lifetime of violence, struggle, and death, there had been a mere handful of moments as perfect as this, and not a one of those had been nearly this all around satisfying.
Noticing how close they were to the ground, Jim suggested, "Let's practice the landing, okay?"
A couple of tries were sufficient to convince him that his partner was okay with the procedure.
One more leisurely circle over the grassy field of the drop zone and Jim headed in for his final approach. "Feet up, Chief," he yelled.
The maneuver went off like a well-oiled machine. Blair's feet came up enough to allow Jim to land first. Once Blair was certain they were grounded, his feet dropped and he started running on his toes, somehow keeping pace with Jim's longer legs.
Despite a gentle stop, Blair's knees seemed to buckle the moment it was all over. Shaking with reaction, Blair sank to his knees in the dew-soaked, sun-drenched meadow.
Very aware of the honeybees droning in the sweet clover around them, Jim followed his partner down.
Elated as he always was after a good jump, Jim tried to tone down his enthusiasm enough to be of comfort to his shaken friend. Beginning to understand what it was like for Blair when dealing with him, Jim put his hand on the nape of his Guide's neck and gave an encouraging squeeze. "You did great, Chief. How're you doing?"
"I've been better," Blair gasped, deathly white.
"If you need to be sick, go ahead," Jim counseled.
The leather cap shook a negative reply. "No…just give me a minute, huh?"
"Sure, Chief. Anything you say."
Pulling back a little, Jim tugged off his own cap and goggles before undoing the harness hooks that bound them together. Free, he started to gather up the chute.
When he glanced back, Jim was relieved to see his partner sitting cross-legged in the grass watching him. Though far from elated, there was no reproach in those captivating eyes. In the time he'd been gathering up the chute, Blair had removed his cap and goggles and freed his curls. Watching the chestnut ringlets puff around his head, glinting red in the early morning sun, it was all he could do to stop himself from swooping down to claim that gorgeous mouth.
Instead, he grinned and asked, "So what do you think, Ace? You ready to do it again?"
Still pale, Blair forced a smile and shrugged, "Whither thou goest..."
Touched, but not ready for things to get too heavy just yet, Jim covered his reaction with, "Right now I goeth to breakfast. Coming?"
With a mumbled, "Not yet," Blair rose to trudge gamely along behind him.
The remainder of the day was a blur of jumps and landings. Jim might have jumped more times in a single day in his past, but never had he done so with someone as frightened as his partner strapped to him. Every time they fell out of the CASA plane, Blair screamed in horror, landed a shaking wreck, then got up to follow him back to the hanger to start the entire process over again. He'd never seen such courage. What was even more impressive was the fact that even while plagued with all that fear, Blair actually learned to steer the parachute and land safely. By the end of the day, Jim was more than convinced that his partner was ready for tomorrow's solo flight.
But the stress took its toll. At the end of their last jump of the day, the kid looked totally drained. Two more encounters with Woodman didn't help any either. Both times, Jim managed to give his partner the necessary privacy, but it was obvious even from a distance that the meetings did not go well. After the last clash with the handsome blond, Blair seemed strange, far too quiet on the outside, while his pounding heart declared his inner turmoil. As soon as they touched down after the final jump, Blair begged off dinner, claiming a need for solitude before disappearing into the forest.
Now, two hours after dark, Jim was beginning to worry. He was the loner in this partnership. He wasn't used to his Guide withdrawing like this.
Sitting on a log in front of their RV with Syl and Sully facing him from across a roaring campfire, a coffee cup warming his hands while a steak dinner warmed his insides...it should have been the perfect formula for contentment. But all Jim could concentrate on was his absent partner. With a vague sense of distraction, he wondered just when his enjoyment of a situation had altered to necessitate the inclusion of one hyperactive grad student for happiness.
"Blair's been gone a long time, Jim," Sylvia voiced the fear that had been running through him. "Are you sure he's all right alone out there? He could be lost. It's dark..."
"Blair's no novice to the woods," Jim assured, trying very hard not to recall how his intrepid Guide could never decide with any true conviction, let alone accuracy, in which direction north lay (not to mention south, east, and west). Doing his very best to sound confident, he continued, "Blair found his way up and down the Amazon River."
"He did?" Sylvy marveled, reaching out with a gloved hand to pour some more coffee from the black, carbon-scored pot. "What was he doing down there?"
"Research. Blair's an anthropologist," Jim explained. As he pulled his jacket on over his heavy gray Aran Island sweater, he couldn't help but think how cold his temperature-sensitive partner must be out there in the dark with just a lightweight windbreaker.
"I thought Blair was your partner?" Sylvia asked as she cuddled closer to her husband.
Even from across the campfire, Jim could still sense the heat his swarthy friend put off. "He is, sort of. Officially, Blair is a consultant to the force, but basically, he's my acting partner."
"And you two live together?" the honey-blonde questioned. Obviously, Sully had told her about his earlier bombshell, but her puzzled tone made it plain that she wouldn't believe it until she heard it from his own lips.
Jim nodded. "For nearly a year now."
The only sounds for a few moments were the crackling of the dancing flames as they consumed the wood and the crickets chirping choir in the dark grass.
When Jim was sure that his old friend was disgusted by the very idea, Sylvy surprised him by saying, "I like Blair. He suits you."
"What?" Both Jim and her husband said simultaneously.
Jim gaped at the smiling blonde, reading in her level stare how serious she was behind her outer humor. "You've never liked anyone I've brought up here, Sylvy, not even Carolyn and she was my wife."
Her broad shoulders shrugged beneath her ivory, fur-trimmed parka. "Carolyn was very nice, but she wasn't right for you."
"And a motor-mouth, wise-cracking grad student fifteen years my junior is?" Jim questioned, that familiar Sandburg Zone feeling that spread through him made him think that he was talking to his partner and not the sensible woman he'd known almost twenty years.
She gave another shrug. "I was talking to Blair this afternoon while you two were packing the chutes. He tried to hide it, Jim, but it just shines out of his eyes every time he says your name. He really...cares about you."
"He'd have to, to jump out of a plane for you the way he did today," Sully added with good-natured cheer. "I've never seen anyone so scared of heights before. Except maybe that stockbroker last year. Remember him, Syl?"
"Oh, yeah. The guy who brought the vomit bag up with him," Sylvia answered.
"What?" Jim gave a soft laugh, very happy to be with these two people again as he listened to the dry-witted pair relay the hysterical anecdote.
They were all three convulsed with laughter when Jim picked up a tread and heartbeat that were more familiar to him than his own. Long before the spry figure cleared the shadowed fringe of the forest, Jim was watching his friend. He was struck by how lonely Blair looked as he trudged through the star-lit drop zone. Perhaps it was simply exhaustion, but his partner's shoulders almost seemed to be dispiritedly slumped.
Jim's Sentinel sight homed in, enabling him to see how Blair hesitated at the sight of the campfires burning before most of the RVs, as if startled by the sudden onslaught of light after the night's solitary darkness.
Hands buried deep within the pockets of his totally inadequate blue windbreaker, his teeth chattering audibly, Blair stopped just beyond the ring of firelight, staring self-consciously in at the laughing friends as if reluctant to intrude.
"Hi, there, Chief," Jim greeted. Snagging the nearby potholder, he leaned over to pour the steaming coffee into his own mug. Sweetening the brew to Blair tastes with the nearby sugar, he offered it to his partner. "Pull up a log and get something warm inside you."
Puzzled by the naked gratitude that touched the cold-reddened face, Jim watched as his Guide carefully lowered himself onto the log on his side of the fire. Sitting nowhere near as close as was normal, Blair was perched as though he might flee at any second.
"God, that fire feels incredible," Blair sighed, holding his chilled hands out to the flames.
Jim barely suppressed his own sigh as his enhanced olfactory senses picked up his partner's scent. Always disturbing in itself, tonight Blair carried the added perfumes of pine and sweet bracken fern, picked up by his hair, skin, and clothing during his walk.
"Did you have a good walk, Blair?" Sylvy asked from across the campfire.
"Great. It's very peaceful out here," Blair answered.
"When you're not hurtling down from freefall," Sylvy joked with an ease that told Jim that she and Blair had done a considerable amount of chatting this afternoon.
"There is that," Blair agreed, offering a wan smile.
Noticing that his partner was still shivering from the cold, Jim shrugged out of his own heavy pea-coat and handed it over. "Here, Chief. Put this on till you warm up."
"Jim, you don't haveta..." Blair protested, the firelight turning his flesh a burnished gold while it danced from one red highlight to another in his windblown curls.
Wanting nothing so much as to take that trembling form in his arms and give his Guide an entirely different type of chill, Jim replied, "Go on. If I get cold, I'll just go in for another sweater. You look too wiped out to move."
After a momentary hesitation, the cold won through. Blair quickly donned the oversized garment. "Thanks, man."
Grinning, Jim watched as his companion all but disappeared into the navy seaman's jacket. Looking back across the flickering campfire, Jim found Sylvia watching them with a smile of open approval, while Sully didn't seem to know quite where to place his eyes.
"So, Blair," Sylvy asked, all curiosity, "Jim tells me that you two met while you were researching your thesis, that you're with him as part of that?"
"Yeah. My main field of study is alternative cultures. Through my work with Jim, I'm researching how modern policemen compare to tribal guardians."
Jim was impressed with the response. It wasn't a lie, but it wasn't the whole truth either.
"What are your plans once you get your doctorate? Jim told me that you're only a year or so away from it," Sylvia innocently inquired.
That was another of the things Jim never allowed himself to think about, what would happen to their partnership – never mind their personal life – when Blair got his sheepskin. Blair never spoke of his long term plans and, for his own part, Jim was content to pretend that things were never going to change between them. But now that they were standing on the threshold of a whole new joint-reality, Blair's long term plans were an increasingly important issue to his cautious heart. Even if by some miracle, things did work out between them in the romance department, Blair could still be on a plane to Borneo or Timbuktu a year from now. Scratch 'could be.' Once his Sentinel Report hit, every Ivy League university worth its laurels would be vying for Dr. Sandburg's expertise. Blair would be gone within a week of graduation.
Too much riding on Blair's answer, Jim held his breath, trying not to place too much significance on the accelerated beat of his partner's heart.
Obviously taken off guard, his normally articulate partner fumbled for an answer. "I...ah...haven't really thought that far ahead."
His dreams crumbling around him, Jim carefully blanked his face of all emotion as he stared dully down at the pebbly grass between his hiking boots and the fire-pit. He tried to ignore his partner's gaze at it dug into his stony profile.
The silence that fell was short-lived. His Guide had barely finished speaking when Blair was amending his statement with, "But whatever I'll be doing, it will be in Cascade."
Jim's chin shot up. His questioning glance was met with a contrite, almost self-conscious smile, his partner looking as if he weren't sure such a declaration would be welcomed.
Jim couldn't have kept in his sappy grin at that instant had his life depended upon it. Though hardly a promise of undying affection or fidelity, Blair's addendum was a tacit admission that his partner was viewing his relationship with him as more than a casual fling. Or so he hoped. Jim felt so out of his depth in this ocean of ambiguity that he couldn't even remember what dry ground felt like any more. But Blair's words went a long way in reassuring him that he wasn't alone in these waters.
In spite of the fact that there were two other people present, the moment felt oddly intimate.
They both seemed to realize that they were under observation at the same time. Jim watched his Guide freeze almost guiltily, Blair staring into the fire thereafter as though awaiting a reprimand.
A quick glance at the Sullivans revealed no trace of condemnation. Jack still looked like he was trying to process a completely alien concept into his universe, while Sylvia smiled in unmistakable approval.
Needing some firmer contact, Blair's drooping coffee cup gave Jim the perfect excuse to scoot closer. Jim caught the mug before the contents could spill. His hand covering Blair's chilly counterparts, he warned, "Careful there, Chief."
"Ah, thanks." To his bewilderment, Blair inched away from him on the log, appearing intensely uncomfortable.
Not quite sure what was wrong, Jim turned his full attention on his friend, tuning up his senses full strength. Sight, smell, and hearing all relayed the same confusing information – Blair was scared.
"You all right, Blair?" he asked in a puzzled undertone.
"Yeah, fine. Just tired, I guess," Blair answered.
The reply came too fast. Jim could almost feel the barricades slamming down between him and this soul that had never been anything but open to him.
Wondering if he could be misreading everything that was going on here and unwilling to put his partner on the spot, Jim looked back at the campfire. Even that seemed to be dying down.
Frustrated without knowing why, Jim tried to understand the mixed signals Blair was sending out. One minute the kid seemed hot for him, and the next, scared to death.
Sort of like himself, he recognized.
"Yeah, it's getting late," Sylvia pointedly said from across the dimming flames.
"We've got an early start tomorrow." Sully grinned. "Solo class begins at eight o'clock sharp."
"a.m.?" Blair checked.
"Uh-huh," the good-natured Sully chuckled. "Come on, baby. That bed's a-calling to me."
"That bed is always calling to you." The buxomy blonde giggled like a schoolgirl, moving faster than a startled doe to melt into her husband's embrace.
"You two are way too happy for twenty years together," Jim announced, glad to see that love could survive that long. Whenever he came to doubt that such an ephemeral bond could last between two people, he liked to visit this pair just to see it in action.
"You should see us after when of my poker nights," Sully laughed. "That'd change your mind, but good."
"I have seen you two after one of your poker nights," Jim reminded, "And I still think that you're one hell of a lucky guy, Sull."
"So are you," Sylvia said, casting a meaningful glance in the weary Blair's direction. "Don't wear yourselves out tonight, boys. I'll be the one teaching the six hour solo class. No red eye specials. I want my students bright eyed and bushy tailed. Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," Jim answered, completely deadpan, not missing a beat, for all that he could hear Blair's heart practically bursting at the comment. He lifted his cheek to accept her kiss when she came over to him, smiling as she moved to give Blair the same treatment.
Rising to his feet, Jim returned Sully's affable back-pounding.
"Goodnight, Jimbo. It's good to have you here again," Sully grinned.
"It's good to be here," he assured, meaning it.
A little less certain, Sullivan turned to the still-seated anthropologist. Standing over the kid the way he was, Jack looked like a giant. Blair's uneasy expression revealed that he was highly conscious of the discrepancy in their heights. "Good meeting you again, kid."
Blair gave a nervous, small smile. "You, too, man. And thanks for everything."
Sully stared down at Jim's partner for a long moment, then chuckled and patted Blair's back. Mumbling "Who would've thought it," Jim's oldest friend threw an arm across his wife's shoulders and steered them out into the dark shadows beyond the thin ring of the waning campfire.
While the Sullivans were walking away, the last piece of burning wood sputtered and died, casting the area into sudden darkness.
Even before Jim turned back to Blair, he felt the sudden rise in his friend's temperature, sensed the blush.
As soon as the Sullivans were completely out of sight, the scarlet-cheeked Blair stammered, "I am, like, so sorry, Jim."
"What are we talking about here?" Jim questioned as he bent to scatter the smoking remains of their fire.
The flames from the other RVs' campfires and the starlight cast an odd, eerie half-light over the now dark campsite. After the vibrant light and heat of the roaring campfire, the abrupt dark and chill were more than slightly unnerving. Jim could sense that his emotional partner had been affected by the change.
Seemingly occupied with his task of damping the glowing embers for the night, Jim was in fact concentrating his full senses on his partner. Everything he knew about this man was telling him that Blair was inches away from cracking. But over what?
"Your friends. They think that we're...God, I am so sorry, man," Blair nearly stuttered, the whites and darks of his eyes sparking like diamonds and sapphires in the gentle starlight.
Crouching beside the fire-pit, Jim poured the last of the coffee over the black and gray ashes in their sparking gold bed that were all that remained of their fire. When most of the embers stopped sizzling, he quietly dismissed, "Nothing to be sorry about, Chief."
"Do I look upset?"
Blair took a deep breath and shook his head. "No, but your friends have the wrong idea about..."
"Not that wrong," Jim corrected, hearing his partner's subsequent gulp. Damn. Blair still wasn't ready to bring this out into the light. Backpedaling, Jim covered his own sense of exposure by adding, "Anyway, it's the first thing that's kept Sylvy from setting me up with every available girl this side of the Great Divide."
From Blair's tone and dropping gaze, Jim knew that he'd made a monumental error, that he'd hurt Blair. Yet, his partner recovered quickly. Erecting a shield of artificial cheer that practically left Jim's head spinning, his Guide said, "That coffee's not gonna do the trick, man. Give me the pot and I'll get some water from inside to soak the ashes."
Stunned by the speed of the defense mechanism, Jim handed over the coffeepot. If he hadn't had his complete attention concentrated on Blair, he never would have picked up on the hurt. The kid was better at hiding than a damned chameleon.
Wondering how many times he might have wounded his partner without knowing it in the past, he followed his Guide inside.
"Need some help?" Jim asked as they maneuvered around each other in the claustrophobically close interior. Somehow, the exhausted Blair managed to pass him without dousing either of them with the cold water with which he'd filled the fire-blackened pot.
Still distant – for Blair, that was, with anyone else Jim would have termed the response effusive – Blair shook his head, "Nah, I got this one covered."
After making a pit stop in the closet sized bath, Jim lingered long enough to brush his teeth.
Blair was certainly taking his time dousing those ashes. Jim turned up his hearing, detecting the fading hiss of soaked embers. The low sound indicated that a few minutes had passed since the water had been dumped on the pit. No one other than a Sentinel would ever have heard the sound now.
Blair's heartbeat was pounding in an accelerated rhythm, drowning out the last of the dying fire's hiss. Jim had heard that carefully controlled breathing a thousand times. It was his partner's way of mastering a stressful situation. It didn't make him happy to think of his Guide standing alone out there in the cold darkness, practicing deep breathing exercises so that he could be alone with him.
Part of him wanted to go out to his friend, to offer comfort, but the memory of Blair's fear stopped him cold. He'd pressed the kid enough today with his demands. Six jumps was a lot, even for an experienced diver. For an acrophobe like Blair, it was a tremendous accomplishment. Maybe Blair just needed some time alone to process everything that had gone on today.
Deciding to give Blair the space his Guide always granted him, Jim disrobed, folded and put away his clothes. In an area this small there was simply no room for mess. But Blair would find room for it, he knew, smiling at the thought as he pulled down the Murphy bed and made it up.
Peeled down to his boxer shorts and undershirt, Jim was climbing onto the bed when his partner returned. Sitting on the edge of the tiny mattress, he turned to his friend.
"Ah, hi," Blair greeted, looking everywhere but at the bed, his heart beating loud as a tom-tom within the small space.
"Hi, yourself," Jim smiled, hoping to relax his nervous friend. "Catch any shooting stars?"
"No, but the stars are awesome out there." Blair took off the pea-coat that fell almost to his knees. "Thanks for the loan of the jacket, man."
"No problem." Trying not to watch, Jim nonetheless found himself following every move as his partner toed off his sneakers and skinned off his outer layers of clothing. Two button down shirts – one a plaid flannel, one blue silk – and worn jeans were left hanging on the back of the RV's small chair. Jim suppressed a smile as he saw the long johns Blair was wearing beneath all those clothes. Clad in his socks, white thermal bottoms and a pale gray sweatshirt, Blair padded into the bathroom.
When he emerged five minutes later, smelling of wood-smoke and toothpaste, Blair was still far too quiet. Though the pinched features spoke of his exhaustion, his partner's fast heart and respiration rates told him that his friend was more than simply tired.
"Ah, God, I forgot," Blair froze a foot away from the bed, looking stricken.
"Forgot what?" Jim groaned, seriously not interested in going back out into the freezing cold to retrieve some lost book from the hanger.
"Do you want me to shower?"
"What?" Jim questioned, slipping into that Sandburg Zone, where with one single sentence, his partner blasted away his grasp on temporal reality, making him feel as though he'd zoned out on a vital piece of the conversation.
His pale cheeks flushed with color as Blair's gaze dropped to the floor. "Your sense of smell, Jim. Won't it...bother you if..."
Something melting inside, Jim stared at the self-conscious man before him. The kid looked worn to the bone, too tired to string two words together, let alone shower in a freezing trailer. That Blair would even think of his needs when so drained was terribly touching.
"No, you're a constant," Jim replied, moving off the bed to let Blair crawl in against the inside wall. With the size of the damn thing, his partner was sure to end up on the floor if they didn't take that precaution.
"Huh?" Blair blinked.
"Your scent – it's like white sound now. It's all over the loft, my truck, even my locker. I hardly notice it anymore."
"What?" Blair froze. "You mean that you can, like, smell me on the furniture? What am I saying, of course, you can. God, Jim, I never...I'm, like, so sorry, man."
Embarrassment not something he was accustomed to equating with his ball buster of a partner, Jim was instantly sorry that he'd spoken. "Hey, that wasn't a complaint."
"No, of course not. You just can't walk into your own home without smelling another guy all over everything. God, I never..."
Trying to derail this runaway train, Jim interrupted, "Blair, I live in a world of smells and reeks. Everything has a scent now. Aside from the bathroom issue – which we've hashed out a thousand times – your scent doesn't bother me. It's a constant, okay?"
"You said that before. I still don't know what you mean...am I a constant irritant that you've learned to ignore or..."
Overwhelmed, Jim looked upwards for patience. Finding only the uninspiring RV roof, he carefully explained, "You're not an irritant or a reek. It's like...like when you're a kid and you smell some woman wearing your mother's perfume. The scent always reminds you of your mother."
"And I remind you of…?" Blair probed, still unconvinced.
"Home. Safety. Your scent is the first thing I smell in the morning and the last thing at night. When you talk me out of a zone, it's there on the first breath I take. A constant – get it now?" Irritated at the necessity of explaining, Jim none-the-less found himself softening under that stunned expression.
"Oh," was all Blair seemed able to manage.
"Now get into bed, Blair, so we can get some sleep. You've got a big day tomorrow."
Still seeming derailed by Jim's explanation, Blair nodded and crawled into the far side of the Murphy bed, wearing more clothing than Jim usually did on winter stakeouts. "Yeah, right. Good night, Jim."
"Good night, Chief." Jim waited by the light switch until his partner was settled before making his way to bed.
Sliding into the totally inadequate space, he did his best to keep his over-sized body on his side of the bed. That proved a hell of a lot easier than ignoring Blair. Blair's scent, his body heat were all around him. And even though it was completely dark in the trailer, there was enough starlight filtering through the shades for Jim to clearly see that piquant profile whenever he glanced his partner's way.
Some time passed, but finally his weariness allowed him to tone down his senses sufficiently to let sleep to claim him. It was only as he was laying there, blessed lassitude seeping through his system, when he became aware of the bundle of tension with whom he was sharing the bed.
From the instant Jim had lain down, Blair had not moved at all. The kid was crammed up against the far wall in a space too tiny for even Blair's smaller physique. Jim had been too busy concentrating on getting his own reactions under control before to pay much attention to his partner, but now that he was relaxed and on the verge of sleep, he began to notice things: like the crazed ta-thump, ta-thump pounding his ears and the hair trigger bomb of nervous energy beside him.
Although Jim wanted to address the situation immediately, he paused long enough to evaluate the nature of the problem. If it were similar to his own initial difficulties, he'd just let it pass. After seeing Blair's fear today, there was no way on Earth he was going to force the sex issue with his young friend. If Blair wanted this, the kid was going to have to make the first move.
To an outside observer, even one whose senses were as finely tuned as a Sentinel's, the physical differences between repressed arousal and anxiety were minute. In both cases, the heart beat faster, breathing grew erratic, and swallowing was loud and difficult. Blair had all of those symptoms.
Switching to another, often more accurate detection device, Jim turned his head Blair's way to take a long drag of the air into his bloodhound accurate nostrils. No one else would have noticed it, but the sweat of the day was still strong on his partner. Uppermost was the minty smell of toothpaste and the tangy wood-smoke, below it that sweet, exciting scent that was particular to Blair alone. Lingering traces of deodorant and shampoo tickled Jim's nose with just a hint of the fern, pine, and fresh night air that still clung to Blair's curls. But no musk, nothing to indicate arousal.
Relaxing in some ways at that discovery, Jim turned on his side to face his companion. For him, it was bright as noon in the dark RV. He could see that Blair's face was still too pale, strained with tension despite his closed eyes.
"Okay, Chief, what's up?" Jim whispered, not at all prepared for the jerk his gentle inquiry caused. Blair jumped as if he'd poked him with a cow prod.
"Huh?" Blair tried to bluff, his wide gaze just this side of panic.
"You're wired. It's like trying to sleep knowing there's a coiled rattler in the bed with you. What's going on?"
"Sorry. I'll go sleep in the –"
"I don't want you to go anywhere. I want you to talk to me, Blair. You've been like this all day and it isn't the jumps. What's going on with you?" He wasn't used to this role. Usually, it was Blair asking these kinds of questions.
Stony silence, save for a heart pounding so fast that it should burst, was the only reply that Jim received.
Worried, because Blair was not uncommunicative by nature and the only times Jim had seen his friend this way in the past was when Blair was deeply wounded or scared, he lightly rested his palm on his partner's shoulder. "A sometimes very wise anthropologist once told me that it helps to talk. What's wrong? The skydiving push too many buttons?"
The negative shake Blair's head gave sent those silken, kinky curls brushing across his knuckles on the hand Jim had rested on his partner's left shoulder. It was all Jim could do to hold in his groan, so sensitized was he to this person's touch.
A few seconds to regain control, then Jim asked the most difficult question, "Is it me?"
After a short, tense quiet, Blair whispered, "In part."
Stung, Jim removed his hand. He didn't know what to say to that.
Blair surprised him by continuing in that same tentative, subdued tone, sounding as though he were as afraid of the consequences of not speaking as of what might be revealed by too careless a word. "My whole life, I never gave a damn about what anyone thought of me, Jim. From the day Naomi delivered her fatherless runt, absolutely everybody had something to say about me, and none of it ever mattered. Not my grandparents, my oh-so-married and proper aunts, not Naomi's jealous boyfriends, not even Uncle Jesse, who really loved me. I didn't care what any of them thought about me, not ever. But what you think of me, that matters."
"I still don't understand," Jim confessed. As much as the revelation touched him, it didn't explain what was wrong.
"Today with Josh. You heard, didn't you?"
"That's what all this is about?" Jim asked, astounded. He'd thought it was something he'd done.
"Answer the question, Jim," Blair tightly demanded.
Realizing that he had, in fact, done something wrong in that situation, Jim tried to distance himself from the events as he reported, "I overheard the first exchange. I managed to stay out of the rest."
Blair's breath seemed to cut off as he turned his face away to stare at the wall.
"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim tried to apologize for something that he'd known was wrong all along. "I know I shouldn't have listened in..."
"Didn't it...bother you?" Blair cut in, his voice so stressed with emotion that it barely sounded like Blair's.
"Eavesdropping is a pretty lousy thing to do..."
"Not that. Didn't it bother you that I didn't tell you it was a guy I was involved with, that I let you believe that it was a girl I came up here with? Aren't you shocked – angry?"
Jim sighed. So that was the problem. Playing it as calm as he could, he mildly offered, "It wasn't exactly an earthshaking revelation, Chief."
"Huh?" That seemed to throw Blair completely. "You can't have known. I haven't dated another guy since we met, I mean...how could you know?"
Wanting to stem the rising tide of panic, Jim softly answered, "Let's just say that I've met your mother, okay?"
His soft words had an unanticipated effect. Blair almost bristled with fury. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? You got a gripe with me, take it to me, man. Don't insult Naomi..."
"Whoa there," Jim grabbed Blair's elbow as his Guide sat up in preparation to storming out of the bed. "I did not and never will insult your mother. Naomi is a very special lady, Chief."
"Then what did you mean by that?" Blair insisted, uncharacteristically unmollified.
"Your mother is one of the most unbiased people I've ever had the good fortune to meet. She raised her son to be a living example of the idealism and free thought that most of my generation only paid lip service to. I wasn't shocked that you don't have many...sexual prejudices because Naomi raised her child to be open to new experiences. Okay?"
Slowly, the ferocious glint left those magnificent eyes. Blair settled back against the pillows, casting a contrite glance in Jim's direction. "Sorry. I overreacted."
"You had cause," Jim shrugged. "Now can we go to sleep?"
"It really didn't bother you that Josh and I…?" His Guide seemed unable to accept that fact. Blair sounded like he still expected to be disowned and evicted.
Deciding to throw a little self-honesty into the mix, Jim blanked all expression from his face and lowly confessed, "He bothered me the way any good-looking competition would."
It was the clearest statement that he'd made to date that his interest in his partner was sexual.
Blair's nonplussed stare was everything Jim could have hoped for. At least now there would be no more homophobic concerns.
Waiting the few moments it took for his meaning to fully penetrate, Jim smiled the kind of smile he would use to encourage a special lady. After giving the steamy look long enough to run its course, he transformed it into his usual Sandburg Zone grin and gave a cheery, "Good night, Chief."
Without waiting for a reaction, Jim rolled over on his side, facing away from Blair.
The next move was totally his Guide's.
Jim could feel Blair's stare burning into the back of his skull for the longest time. There was an energy pulsing between them that was screaming for touch. One move from Blair was all it would take to send this passion exploding between them.
Blair sat frozen, watching him for the longest time. Finally, his Guide released a pent-up sigh and lay back down on the bed, his back to Jim's. A few seconds of noisy rustling with the bedclothes followed before his cold-sensitive partner was bundled deep enough in the blankets to brave an arctic night.
Disappointed by yet another impasse, Jim was on the very brink of sleep when the softest, nearly inaudible subvocalization whispered his way.
"You don't have any competition, Jim."
Behind him, he could feel Blair snuggle deeper into the blankets. Grinning like a half-wit, Jim finally allowed sleep to claim him.
Jim had forgotten just how cold mountain nights could get. Although it was still only late-September, the night temperature of the Cascade National Forest had dropped well into the low thirties, with the inside of the RV only slightly warmer.
Within hours of closing his eyes, Jim found himself grateful for the heavy blankets on the Murphy bed and the body heat seeping over from what he'd jokingly considered his grossly overdressed partner. Shivering in the dark night, Jim found himself wishing that he'd had the sense to put a pair of thermals on.
Jim was on the verge of braving the frigid night to don a pair of sweats when his partner eliminated the need. Sharing a bed with Blair had confirmed what Jim's ears had declared for the past year – that his partner was as restless a sleeper as he was hyperactive when awake. In the past two hours the kid had tossed about, turned over, moaned or mumbled more times than Jim did in a full month's worth of slumber. Apparently, the cold-sensitive anthropologist's layers weren't sufficient protection against the mountain cold. At the apex of Jim's discomfort, that moment when even his Spartan soul was about to bow to the necessity of a few more layers of insulation, Blair rolled over and fastened his limbs around him like an affectionate starfish.
The sensual shock of the unexpected action nearly propelled the unprepared Sentinel into a zone-out.
First, there was the incredible heat that poured through Blair's clothes, which were the only thing separating them from touching skin to skin. Alone on their own side of the bed, each of them might have remained chilly, but pressed together like this, they put off enough thermal energy to jump-start a few stars into supernova.
More distracting than Blair's heat was his scent. His Guide's natural bouquet was always disturbing, but the wood-smoke clinging to the silken curls that were now pressed to his sternum was affecting him like an exotic perfume.
Afraid to move, lest his body achieve even more contact with the seductive form clinging to him, Jim lay frozen, awaiting the next Blair sleep tsunami. If his partner ran true to form, in less than five minutes the kid would be thrashing about for a more comfortable position. But as the minutes ticked by, Blair stayed put, sleeping as peacefully and as motionlessly as an exhausted puppy. Jim had never seen his Guide so still. All that frenetic energy finally seemed tamed, as if Blair had finally found the safe harbor he'd subconsciously sought his entire life.
Jim's rational side attempted to dispute the fanciful image as the ego-fodder it was, but as the minutes gave way to an hour, even the skeptic within him was forced to acknowledge the difference in his normally restless partner.
Moved on levels his dour mind had never suspected he possessed, Jim carefully rested his hand on Blair's slender back. His partner seemed so fragile, so vulnerable. Every protective instinct he had fixated on the precious being that had trusted itself so completely to him in sleep.
Jim had never felt this way about another person in his entire life...not even Carolyn. Lying there in the tiny bed with Blair octopussed around him, Jim tried to figure out how he could possibly feel more for a squirt of a guy whom he'd never even kissed than he did for the woman he'd made love to for years, a woman he'd taken for his wife, his life-mate.
As he shifted to get more comfortable, Jim had his answer. Blair didn't stir or detach from him. Moving with him, Blair simply accommodated himself to the new position, cuddling sideways into the curve of Jim's body.
And that was where the difference between Blair and Carolyn could be found. Carolyn and he had been two of a kind: proud, unbending, unable to be vulnerable to another on anything but the most superficial of levels. Jim knew from experience that no matter how cold it was where he and his ex were sleeping, had he shifted and disturbed her comfort like he'd just done with Blair, Carolyn would have automatically retreated to her own side of the bed.
That tiny difference in personality seemed to encapsulate the explanation as to why Blair fit so much better into his life and heart than Carolina had. Unlike his former wife, Blair was able to accommodate himself to another. It was an art that neither Carolyn nor Jim himself had ever attained, the ability to retain one's own independence while blending into a relationship. He knew that he and Carolyn had been after the same thing – control. She'd wanted him to expose more of himself, while he'd been equally adamant about giving up only what he was comfortable entrusting to her.
But somehow with Blair, exposure wasn't an issue. Although he was no more forthcoming, he didn't fight with his partner over opening up the way he had with Carolyn. Blair didn't take his withdrawals personally. The kid just kept pushing and wheedling, ignoring the threatening stone wall Jim had used to cow the rest of humanity as if those walls didn't exist, as if Blair already knew that Jim, and even the shark in Jim, were incapable of harming him. Where Carolyn would get mad and stalk off, Blair stayed with him, patiently pushing at that defensive barrier until he broke down and allowed his walls to envelope his partner as well. Carolyn had wanted to demolish those barriers, while Blair was simply content to be allowed within them. That was the basic difference between the two, gender notwithstanding.
His heart as warmed by the physical contact as his chilly flesh, Jim finally drifted back to sleep.
When Jim awoke hours later, the sun was filtering through the shades on the RV's tiny windows, turning the still-freezing interior a rich, honey gold.
Jim became simultaneously aware of two facts – that Blair had not let go of him during the night and that fate had not spared him his usual early-morning hard-on.
Apparently, even attached as they were, the cold had become too much for his Guide. Sometime after Jim had achieved sleep, Blair had burrowed totally under the covers. Lying on his side facing Jim, Blair's head was now pillowed on Jim's stomach. Blair's arms were slung around his waist, his partner's upper leg thrown over both of Jim's.
It had been a way too long and lonesome time since Jim had woken up in another's arms. The sensual aspects of the situation deluged the half-awake Sentinel before his rational mind could fight. Blair's face was turned towards his lower body. Every one of his partner's sleepy, moist exhalations brushed across Jim's straining erection, caressing the hyper-sensitive flesh through his underwear as another's hand might arouse bare organs.
Uncomfortable, early-morning stiffness mutated instantly into aching need, each of Blair's breaths teasing Jim's starved flesh like a French tickler.
Inundated, Jim sucked in air and groaned low in his throat, needing to get out of here now. But if he moved, he'd wake Blair. The first thing the kid would see was that monster erection aimed at him.
Jim knew that he couldn't take much more of this. If he didn't get free soon, he'd come just from the whisper of breath across his crotch.
Every nerve froze inside Jim as he heard Blair's heart ta-thump into its normal wakeful rhythm. One beat, two, then Jim's stomach felt the impossibly long eyelashes flutter against the cotton tee shirt separating their skins. The breath stopped in Blair's chest as soon as he'd had time for his eyes to open and focus.
Mortified, Jim waited for a reaction, but his partner lay completely still.
Nearly hysterical, Jim wondered just what the proper protocol in such a situation was.
Humiliated beyond his capacity to endure, his reserve made him want to bolt, but he couldn't just run like his instincts were urging. Damn, if only he couldn't feel Blair staring at him – there, of all places!
So, on the edge of death by embarrassment, Jim mustered what little dignity he could in so horrifying a position. His face blazing, he thickly muttered, "Sorry, Chief. It's running on auto-pilot this morning. I'll just..."
A firm hand pushed his legs back down as Jim made to move.
"No, stay. Please?" Blair muttered from beneath the mound of blankets.
And then it was no longer simply breath touching him. Blair's fingers tentatively stroked his erection through his cotton boxer shorts, calling forth another harsh groan as the sensation exploded through him like a wad of C-4 on a motion-sensitive detonator.
His partner didn't have to work to free him from the bonds of his underpants. As soon as Blair shifted the loose boxers, Jim's shaft surged forth like a thoroughbred from the starting gate. He heard Blair's surprised gasp as hisfriend got his first look at him, heard the trip-hammer start Blair's heart gave.
Jim instantly understood the problem. He couldn't count the number of women who'd been unnerved at their first view of him. 6'4", well endowed even for that height, he knew how intimidating he could be. Even Carolyn had initially experienced some difficulty getting used to his size, and that was after she'd watched him grow to fullness.
But poor Blair...the kid had awoken to him in all his splendor.
"God," Blair gasped.
Somehow, it was not the expected exclamation of fear or revulsion. If Jim didn't know better, he'd swear that it was appreciation thickening his partner's voice. But who in their right mind would appreciate having that thing, grown to monstrous proportion in its mindless need, aimed at them first thing in the morning?
Apparently, Blair did. After that momentary, initial delay, Blair's warm fingers lightly touched the flaring head of his cock, then tentatively stroked down the sensitive underside.
Jim hissed at the frisson of delight that uncertain touch sent shooting through his entire body. His face going scarlet, he knew that his penis had expanded even further. There were times when being built like a stallion was a definite plus, but he'd always felt too self-conscious in first time encounters to enjoy it. Now, he only wished that he was normal sized, that his already skittish partner wouldn't have this to deal with.
Damn, damn, damn...why couldn't they have started slow, built up to this? Instead, Blair was presented with something that would send an inflatable sex doll running in terror.
"Does it get any bigger?" Blair gruffly questioned, a note of mischief mixed in with what Jim's mind persisted as categorizing as awe.
Before Jim could frame a coherent answer, there was movement beneath the blankets, increased heat, and then his entire body jerked as his partner rubbed his cheek against that tower of need. Blair's stubbled jaw was as prickly as sandpaper as it bumped against his furry testicles, but even that abrasive contact felt like sheer heaven to the touch-starved Sentinel.
The sheer carnality of the unexpected gesture sent Jim into orbit. He'd never felt so much after only three small touches.
The skin on Blair's cheek was as silken as his beard stubble was bristly. The warm, moist breath, the sable soft brush of curls wisping over Jim's steaming groin, Blair's strong morning scent...it was all too much. His enhanced senses were aware of every aspect of the experience, down to the number of breaths and swallows his companion took. If he tried, Jim swore he could count the pores on Blair's cheek as it brushed over his cock.
Then Blair's tongue flicked out to taste him. Jim's senses of smell, hearing, and sight blinked out like a switch had been thrown as he concentrated on the overload of tactile stimuli. All there was for him was that burning sensation, desire so fierce and hot that it sizzled through his every nerve ending like a solar flare, searing his very DNA with the ecstasy of Blair's touch. Had a dozen crazed killers broken into the RV at that moment, he wouldn't have known about it.
The tongue laved his thick length, its tip tracing delicate patterns on his glans before greedily lapping up the preseminal fluid that dribbled out of the slit. Blair's fingers seemed to be everywhere, playing his balls, stroking between his thighs, teasing his wiry pubic curls.
Jim was so deep in this zone of experience that he was beyond even independent movement. All he could do was lay there and take it, helpless, open, utterly vulnerable to anything Blair might wish to do to him.
What his partner did do, changed his life forever. As Blair sucked him into his mouth, or as much of him as Blair could swallow, Jim felt as though he had at long last found what he'd been searching for his entire adult life.
It was so good, so perfect that he had to clutch the sheets to keep himself from forcing Blair's head down to take his whole length, he wanted this so badly.
The wet, hot suction was unreal. While one of Blair's hands worked his balls, the other was pumping the length of shaft that Blair couldn't take, that busy mouth working all the while to suck Jim into the stratosphere. Those three separate acts synchronized into the most dazzling sensual symphony he'd ever been part of. No sexual act had ever moved him like this, left his inner core this quivering mound of helpless jelly.
When Jim had zoned-out during intercourse in the past, all sensation had cut off, including his enjoyment of the sex. But with Blair, it was different. He still had focus and awareness, at least where sensation was concerned. It was almost as if his body had shut down all non-essential systems so that he could fully experience this, his most vividly visceral encounter to the highest degree of amplification. Blair was like a magnifying glass, while sensation was the sun, and Jim's body, well, that was the paper combusting. Every touch, every lick, every wet suck – that he knew would be slurpy, if only he could hear it – singed more and more of Jim's neural network, until he was nothing but a pool of roiling protoplasm, flesh and bone melted in a puddle of need.
One last solar flare and Jim was utterly incinerated. Pulse after pulse of raw ecstasy throbbed through him as he panted for the oxygen that simply wasn't there as he supernovaed.
Jim's body helplessly spasmed, delight spiraling through every neuron as he liquefied, spraying out everything he was in powerful, primal spurts down Blair's throat.
And Blair didn't pull back, didn't abandon him there alone on the edge, alone in that dark quiet. He could feel how that luscious mouth clung to him, swallowing every drop of the geysering sperm.
Blair's long, delicate fingers froze in place. Those of the right hand tightened around Jim's gushing cock, while the left clutched painfully at his hairy thigh.
The climax was like a freefall that never ended. Down and down Jim spun, until finally he crashed. All at once, sight, hearing and taste snapped back on, temporarily befuddling his gasping body with the overload of stimuli.
Jim dragged in a much-needed breath. As always upon regaining consciousness, the first thing he smelt was Blair. After that initial sweet blast, came the heady whiff of semen – his own, combined with a slightly different brand. Blair's, he realized, swamped with tenderness.
The two separate ejaculate smells combined to form a unique bouquet: a stringent, musky blend that would forever be the perfume of their union. With that thought in mind, Jim drew the acrid aroma deep into his lungs, imprinting it on his sensual memory, making it part of his soul. This was what sex with the person he loved most in the universe smelt like...
The person he loved...
Concerned by a silence and stillness that were totally alien to Blair's bouncy character, Jim forced himself to throw off the coils of the seductive lassitude seeping through him and focus on his companion.
Blair was stone still under all those covers. His partner's forehead was resting against Jim's now deflated penis.
Blair's utter stasis was a sharp contrast to his thundering heart. Studying his blanket-hidden Guide with all his senses, Jim couldn't help but think how the kid almost seemed too scared to move.
Scared of his reaction, Jim recognized.
Bewildered, Jim released the death hold he had on the sheets and cautiously moved his hand towards his partner. Trying to ignore how the slim figure tensed, he stroked the living warmth of those addictively soft curls.
He was so attuned to his Guide, so sensitized, that even without tuning up his olfactory sense, he could smell the wood-smoke and natural oils that clung to those kinky curls of organic silk. With the lingering traces of their spent semen, the experience was almost too erotic to be borne.
Jim's ultra-sensitive fingertips soothed the damp locks back from Blair's sweaty brow. As the gentle touch continued, some of the tight-wire tension eased from that coiled spring of a body.
Venting a shuddery sigh, Blair commented, his nervous tone muffled by the covers he was still hiding beneath, "Guess this is one of those awkward situations the etiquette books don't cover, huh?"
Emboldened, Jim's fingertips brushed over a velvety cheek to the rough bristled jaw. Stroking, gentling, he let Blair know without words that everything was all right.
After a few moments of that quiet sharing, Jim gave a negative shake of his head and assured his partner, "It's only as awkward as we make it, Chief."
Jim wished that his friend would emerge from beneath the blankets, but with typical Blair contrariness, his partner stayed put.
A breathy quiet followed, then Blair asked in far too vulnerable a voice, "Have I blown everything? Damn, I don't believe I said that, man. What I mean is..."
Longing to see his partner's expression, Jim slipped his index finger over the full lips and hushed the fretting. "We're solid, Chief."
He felt Blair's reaction as though it were his own, relief so palpable you could nearly touch it. Beneath Jim's fingers, his Guide's features went slack for a moment, then trembled as Blair swallowed hard. Alarmed, Jim realized that his companion was fighting back tears.
Wondering what he'd done wrong, Jim took hold of the wiry arms, thin and firm beneath their sweatshirt padding, and gently urged Blair up into his arms.
After an initial resistance, Blair's curly head emerged from beneath the blue and yellow blankets. Those huge, anxious eyes were watching him as if Blair still expected to be violently rejected. When no explosion occurred, Blair tentatively rested his cheek against the broad, bare stretch of his chest.
Jim lay there, gently rubbing the slender back, feeling the soft heat of Blair's skin through the shirt he wore. His partner felt so fragile in his arms, far more breakable than Carolyn had ever seemed.
Jim could feel the cooling, sticky patch at the front of the crotch of Blair's thermals pressing against his own hairy thigh. Only now that he was coming down from the incredible high of aftermath did he realize that his partner had climaxed without so much as a single touch from his zoned-out partner.
Could making love to him have affected Blair that deeply, Jim wondered, unable to believe that it could be that important to his popular young friend. He'd seen the stunning women this unlikely Lothario he held cradled in his arms dated and bedded. There was no way in hell that a balding, forty-one year old cop could be more exciting than those shapely beauties. No, Jim decided, the kid was probably just a firecracker when it came to sex, primed to go off at the slightest spark.
"Yeah?" He held his breath at the tentative tone.
"Did you mean it when you said that...everything was okay between us?" Those fine-boned hands were clinging to his sides as though Blair expected to be forcibly thrown off at any moment.
Once again, Jim was reminded of the time Blair had told him that whenever he'd gotten comfortable in the past, it was usually time to start packing. If his partner were experiencing even a pale glimmer of the glowing contentment he was feeling while simply holding Blair in his arms, the word contentment would be a gross understatement.
When Jim didn't respond immediately, Blair's voice hardened, his entire body tensing as he asked, "Or is this the part where you read me the riot act and we pretend like nothing happened?"
Even the cynic in Jim was choked up by the question. What kind of past must the kid have had that that would be one of the first questions out of his mouth while he was lying there cuddling in sleepy aftermath?
While Jim struggled to work his voice around the boulder that had lodged itself in his throat, he lowered his head to plant a chaste kiss on the top of that warm, curl-crowded crown.
"This is the part where I say thank you," Jim softly offered, his free hand playing with a stray curl, twirling and unwinding it around his index finger.
"Thank me?" Blair unsteadily questioned, as though he'd been the recipient rather than the fellator in the blow-job of the century.
"I could say that it's been years since I woke up with anything as wonderful as you in my arms, Chief, but that would be a lie."
"Yeah, of course it would," the dull tone was totally dispirited, as if his partner believed that everything he had to offer had been dismissed as inadequate.
Hating whoever had put this doubt in this bright spirit's heart, Jim confessed, "It'd be a lie because I've never had this kind of luck before."
"Jim, you don't haveta..."
Exasperated, Jim rolled them over, pushing Blair flat on the bed and glowering down into that beautiful, alarmed face. "I don't lie to my partner, Chief. I know that a lot of people have cut you down in the past, but I'm not one of them." Then, because he couldn't resist the allure of those partially open lips, Jim pressed his mouth onto his startled partner's.
Jim didn't force a response, but courted one instead with gentle nuzzling.
At first, there was nothing, not even resistance.
Ever so slowly, the full pads of Blair's mouth opened to him, the kiss deepening naturally, as if this wasn't an awkward first exploration, but a union they'd shared a thousand times before in a thousand different lifetimes. And, for all Jim knew, maybe he and his Guide had shared this in the past. The feelings were that deep-rooted.
One aspect of the experience was not at all as Jim had dreamed it. He was so used to Blair's sweet breath, he'd pictured this mouth as tasting as fresh and clean as the moist exhalations which he was accustomed to sensing. But following so soon after the oral sex, all Jim could taste on his partner was the harsh, sour remnants of his own coming. Blair's breath was even tinged with the smell.
And, somehow, even that moved him.
Kissing Blair, he felt like a pad of butter on a toaster-hot English muffin, melting under that transformative kiss, seeping into the nooks and crannies of Blair's being.
"I could kiss you forever," Jim declared as they parted for air, starting to grow hard again at the feel of that hot body beneath him.
Visibly dazed, Blair focused on him with difficulty. "Sounds good to me. You want a written invitation?" Blair tried to joke, his eyes so filled with incredulous disbelief that Jim hardly recognized them.
"Maybe I need one," Jim replied.
"I think that you're more scared of this than skydiving. You want to tell me what worries you most?"
Blair gave him a sad smile that was nothing like his normal grin. "You mean other than the fact that when I screw this up I lose my best friend, my home, and my thesis all in one fell swoop? Other than that, nothing's worrying me at all."
"When you screw this up? You make it sound like a foregone conclusion."
"It is. Sandburgs aren't exactly known for their staying power."
Jim settled on his side to stare down at Blair, taking his weight off the distracting enigma that was his partner. "That's the fear talking."
"That's common sense talking, Jim. This is...suicide, buddy."
Jim brushed a finger down the bridge of his companion's suddenly adorable, turned-up nose. "Funny, it felt like a lifeline to me."
The sigh that followed seemed to be dredged up from the depths of Blair's soul. "Me, too."
"Do you want this, Blair?" Jim questioned, growing frustrated with the roundabout they were trapped on, "`cause if you do, you're going to have to give me some firm directions here, `cause all I'm getting is mixed signals."
"I can't think when you're near me like this," Blair complained, rolling away to sit up on the tiny bed, his bony back to Jim as he stared out across the gold-tinged interior of the RV and took deep breaths.
"Do you want this?" Jim repeated.
"Want this?" Blair echoed, sounding utterly lost. "I don't even know what you're offering here, and I'd die for it, man."
Jim focused his Sentinel sight on the back of that unkempt head, wishing that his enhanced abilities would allow him to peer within that convoluted morass that passed for a brain, so that he could see for himself just what it was that motivated his partner.
"What I'm offering?" Jim prodded, not seeing how there could be much doubt after this morning as to what they were dancing around here.
"Yeah. What, as in how much? Are we talking a weekend fling here, a friendly fuck when we're at loose ends or..."
Jim's hopes plummeted around him. "You can't even say it, it scares you so much."
"Try petrifies," Blair corrected, those vivid eyes suddenly pinning him as Blair turned back to face him. "I've got handling rejection down to a fine art form, Jim. Going in, I can usually predict the life-span of a relationship down to the last minute."
"Okay, Kreskin, what are your amazing powers of prediction telling you here?" Jim demanded, barely able to control his growing anger. He couldn't understand why everything had to be such a struggle with his partner, why Blair couldn't just relax and enjoy it now that they knew they were good together.
"They're telling me not to push my luck," Blair snapped. Then, before Jim could even mouth a comeback, the whirlwind of frenetic energy was up out of the bed gathering clothes and toiletries together.
The flimsy tin bathroom door slammed behind Blair, banging with finality.
Feeling like he'd been run over by a semi wearing size 8-1/2 Nike Severes, Jim sat in the Lilliputian-sized Murphy bed, staring at the tin door as if it held the mysteries of the universe behind it...which, in a way, it did. Jim's universe, his most mind-boggling mystery was behind it now with salty tears running down his cheeks, were the sudden briny tear-scent anything to go by.
Determining not to push too hard, Jim resolved to wait and bide his time until Blair was more at ease with him.
For all that the day began with a traumatic start, the remainder really didn't go that badly, mostly because they managed to avoid each other for the better part of it.
Cold and silent, Jim had walked his equally uncommunicative partner to the hanger for Blair's six-hour solo class. He didn't know how the kid did it, but the expression Blair threw him at the hanger doors had made him feel guilty, of all things, like he was abandoning his Guide. Hypnotized by the way the early morning sun glinted off the blazing highlights in those chestnut curls, Jim had found himself inanely explaining, "I'm not going to be able to walk you through this part because I'm not certified to teach on the simulators, Chief, but I'll be there with you later when you jump solo."
The naked relief that had swept over those pinched features had made Jim glad that he'd spoken.
"Thanks. Jim, about this morning..."
"You've got a class to concentrate on now, Blair. We can talk later."
Twelve hours down the line, Jim knew that later couldn't be put off much longer.
Blair had done him proud today, jumping, if not like a seasoned skydiver, at least with enough competency to save his life in an emergency situation. But, as he'd done the previous night, as soon as he'd landed, Blair had disappeared, begging off the small party Sylvia had wanted to throw for his successful solo flight.
Now, it seemed like an instant retake of the night before: another cold, starry night, another campfire, Jim glumly acknowledged as he watched the sickeningly happy couple basking in each other's company from his solitary seat across the fire. As he sat making small talk with his old friends, every iota of his being was concentrated on that familiar heartbeat thumping somewhere out beyond the dark verge of pines.
"Is something wrong with Blair, Jim?" Sylvy asked, her concern obvious in her fire-lit, freckled features.
"Why do you ask?" Jim wasn't surprised by the question, only that she'd waited this long to voice it.
"Yesterday Blair was really outgoing, talking a mile a minute. But today he was...quiet. He hardly even smiled," she explained, snuggling close to her husband.
For some reason, that small, natural action made his normally self-contained heart feel very lonely, seeming to accentuate as it did what was missing from his own life. It wasn't right that he was sitting here alone while his...his lover sulked out in the damp night. Blair should be here, beside him. Maybe neither one of them was ready to be openly cuddling each other, but just sitting close together like they had the previous night would have been enough for him. He'd never thought he could miss someone he'd seen less than two hours ago the way he missed Blair at that moment.
"Jim?" Sylvia prodded.
"Sorry, Syl." He blinked. "We had a stupid fight this morning. It was all my fault, really."
"It's never all one person's fault," Sully's wife assured.
Jack's grin flashed brighter than the dancing flames between them. "I sure wish she'd remember that after poker night."
"Very funny. It's never one person's fault, except where poker night is concerned," Sylvy laughed, turning serious once the resultant chuckles died down. "You should go to him, Jim. He's been out there a long time."
"Blair's avoiding me. I...I don't think he really wants to see me right now," Jim explained, uncomfortable. It wasn't his way to go blabbing his personal problems, even with his closest friends. But for some reason, he felt the need for honesty tonight. Worried, he wondered if he'd be telling these two the particulars of their fight in another minute.
"Maybe he's waiting for you to come find him. I can never stay mad at Jack when he comes after me," she helpfully offered.
"Yeah, well..." Jim hedged, his ears picking up a change in the heartbeat that was always there below his own, pumping in perfect counter-time.
"She's right, Jim." Sully smiled, "We always make up best when I'm man enough to crawl."
"You keep talking like that and you might find yourself practicing it again," Sylvy warned.
"Is that so?" Sully challenged, his thick brows twitching suggestively as he made a ridiculous face at his wife.
After a second, Sylvia's glare turned to a giggle and from there into friendly sidling as the pair jostled each other back and forth on the log, giggling like a pair of teenagers.
Jim smiled at the good-natured tussling. Finding himself redundant as the couple melted into a kiss, he self-consciously cleared his throat and softly announced, "I'm going to go do my share of crawling. Bank down the fire before you go, Sull. Okay?"
Leaving his friends to their privacy, Jim walked off into the night, following the trail of that familiar heartbeat. It took him through the dew-soaked grass of the drop zone, down a gentle hill, into the dark pine trees below, where he found a deer trail bearing a familiar sneaker imprint. The well-worn path took him through the thick, pine-scented shadows of the wood, wending its smooth way down the narrow valley to a cool, fern-scented stream that trickled the length of the glen.
Jim found his partner sitting on a huge mossy boulder beside the creek, watching the starlight frost the water silver as it danced its way downstream. At that first sight of Blair, Jim released a pent-up breath that he hadn't been consciously aware of holding. Although pensive, his friend didn't look actively upset. There was no scent of tears in the air, no wet cheeks or used tissues in evidence.
Jim was glad to see that his Guide had dressed more sensibly tonight. Blair's slender form was bulked out by sweater after sweater beneath his heavy brown corduroy jacket. The ends of a long gray wool scarf dangled down from Blair's shoulders, while his long, artistic fingers were snuggled in a pair of red wool gloves.
Only his partner could wear brown, gray, and red and not come across a complete clown, Jim reflected. On Blair, the mismatched garb almost seemed a fashion statement.
"Care for some company, Chief?" he asked softly, unsure of his welcome.
Blair all but started out of his skin. "Jeez, man...don't sneak up on me like that, okay?"
"Sorry." Jim hesitated, self-conscious as Blair's eyes shied away. He saw his partner's square white teeth worry his full lower lip, nipping its meaty pad the way Jim longed to. "I'll go back if you want me to."
"I hate this..." Blair's whisper was as low as the murmuring stream, "...this awkwardness between us. It's like the Sandburgs have this curse on them or some genetic defect. Things are going great, so screw everything up by letting your hormones do your thinking for you. You think I would've learned from watching Naomi all those years." Blair stared at the creek a moment before sighing, "I guess I did learn from her all too well."
Blair's curl-covered head lowered. The four silver hoops in his left ear threw every bit of available light back at Jim. The unexpected flash in these dark surroundings was so unexpected that it threatened a zone-out.
Tearing his gaze away from the scintillating rings, Jim cautiously approached his partner. "You didn't screw anything up. If you remember, it was my hormones that started all this."
"Yeah, right," Blair muttered, totally unconvinced.
Jim perched on the mossy gray granite boulder, being careful not to crowd his troubled companion.
Even with all that space between them, Blair still seemed to feel the need to draw his knees up to his chest and hug them tight to himself. His partner looked like nothing so much as a little kid trying to deal with something totally beyond his ken, Jim thought, guilt-stricken by the knowledge that he was the one who'd brought his bouncy Guide to this state.
"We don't have to go down this road, Chief," Jim softly offered, staring off at the melodic brook himself. "We can go back to where we were a week ago."
"You can't turn back the clock, man. It's like a bullet. Once it's out, it can't be pulled back. We pretend it's not there, it'll poison everything. I've been through this before. I know the drill. Heads, I lose. Tails, I lose. I fucked up royally again."
Jim watched the water dance over the rocks, smelling its cool sweetness, which was only slightly less titillating than Blair's scent.
Keeping his voice carefully controlled, Jim quietly questioned, "Why is disaster a foregone conclusion here?"
"You serious?" Blair squeaked. Apparently seeing that he meant his words, he went on, "Just look at us, Jim."
"We're different. So what?" Jim shrugged. "It's what makes our partnership so strong. What I'm missing, you've got, and vice versa. That can work for us here, too, Chief."
"Chemistry is a chancy thing, Jim. At night, it's all about pheromones and body heat and wild sex; the next morning, all that's usually left is irritating habits and regrets. I don't ever wanta see that look in your eyes."
"What look?" Staring at the unhappy profile, Jim saw the wince Blair gave.
"I don't suppose someone like you gets it very often. It's sort of a reverse of the Princess and the Frog routine. It's that moment when the glamour fades and they see their Romeo for the hyperactive nebbish he really is."
"That's it!" Jim felt something inside him snap. Before he'd even consciously considered his next action, he found himself kneeling on the damp, mossy stone, his right hand forcing Blair's chin up to face him. "You are not a nebbish or a frog or even a Romeo."
It wasn't Jim's shark out there right now, but this new front was very close to the killer's hair-trigger, deadly calm.
Just as Blair had done on their first day together when Jim's darker side had gone for him after the kid had made the mistake of calling him a caveman, Blair didn't back down. Those lost eyes pinned him, the deep voice asking in far too tremulous a tone, "No? Then what am I? `cause I sure as hell haven't got a clue as to what you see when you look at me."
Jim's free hand rose to stroke his partner's cheek and push back the veil of curls. "When I look at you, I see my future."
"Your future?" He felt Blair shiver.
Jim nodded. "You came to me when I was at the lowest ebb in my life, when I was losing control over everything and, even though I didn't make it easy on you, or make you feel welcome, you showed me how to put my world back on track. You've saved my life more times than I can count..."
"That's not what I meant," Blair protested, the cheek beneath Jim's fingers warming with color.
"You ask what I see when I look at you, that's what I see. This isn't about some weekend of mindless sex, Chief. I'm not some co-ed dazzled by some slick line you've fed her. There's no glamour to rub off. I know what you look like first thing in the morning. I know you better than anyone on the planet. I can pick you out by scent alone in a dark, crowded room. I know the rhythms of your heart and breath. I know the gurgles and rumbles that your stomach makes at night."
Cheeks flaming, Blair swallowed hard and mumbled, "I'm an open book to you, hah? No mystery left at all."
"No mystery?" Jim lowered his head and brushed the lightest of kisses across that wide, intelligent brow, feeling them both quiver at the contact. "Everything about you confounds me."
Blair emitted a soundless gasp before he visibly forced himself to pull away. "Don't. I can't think straight when you touch me and now more than ever, I've got to be clear-headed."
Though he wasn't pleased, Jim respected the distance with a grudging, "Okay."
"No," Blair snapped with uncharacteristic anger. "It's not okay. And don't give me that wounded look, Big Guy. I'm in over my head here and lines like that just pull me further under."
"Do you think it's any different for me?" Jim demanded, sincerely hurt.
"I think you have less to lose here."
Jim just stared at his partner for the longest time. "You're joking, right?"
"You've got your senses under control now. You don't need me the way you used to. If this…"
"Don't need you?" Jim interrupted, riding right over his Guide's paranoia. "Are you insane? I've never allowed myself to rely on anyone the way I do you – either personally or professionally. Last week when you told me that you were planning on skipping out on me…it felt like my whole world collapsed under me. You think this is easy for me, Chief, think again." His angry declaration seemed to echo endlessly through the quiet glen, bouncing eerily off the rocks and water.
"I'm listening." Blair interrupted the zone-inducing echo, his words almost a challenge.
"You're not the only one with something to lose here. You're not the only one who can be hurt. God damn it, Blair, you're fifteen friggin' years younger than me!"
"What has that got to do with anything?" Blair hotly demanded, as if the issue weren't even worthy of consideration, much less confrontation.
"I'm not just looking for someone to warm my bed. I want...I need something lasting, someone to share my life. Twenty years from now..."
"You'll still be a Sentinel and I'll still be your Guide." Blair assured, sounding as if he were voicing a scientific fact of nature and not a declaration of the heart.
"Will you?" Jim questioned, allowing just a hint of his fears to peek out as he continued, "Next spring, your thesis will be done. When Harvard or Oxford offers you a seat in their department, you going to turn them down to play sidekick to a street cop? The next time Samantha down in forensics bats those pretty dark eyes at you, you gonna fall at her feet so she can kick you in the balls again?"
The air hissed out of Blair's lungs as if Jim had done the latter himself. "I won't leave you. Not for Harvard, not for a woman."
"And I'm supposed to believe that because…?" Jim challenged.
"Because you told me that partners don't lie to each other," Blair reminded. "Because I want you so fucking much that if you told me that all there could ever be between us was what we had this morning, that you'd never touch me or hold me or kiss me ever again, that all I'd ever get to do was suck you off when you were in the mood for it, and that I could never even look at another or lose even that, I'd go for the deal and count myself lucky, man. So, it's all in your court. You're into rules. You made the house rules up and the conditions of our partnership. You can make these rules, too, and I give you my solemn word that I'll abide by them."
Totally thrown, Jim felt like he did when doused with tear gas without protection. His eyes stung, his throat was tight and swollen. And those bottomless eyes were watching him, touching off emotions in him that he had never even suspected existed. Blair's incredible admission ricocheting through his heart and mind, he couldn't breathe, let alone think.
Shaking all over, Jim reached out to cup his companion's lightly stubbled chin, his touch gentle, for all that he wanted to crush the slender form to him. "Like someone could put a stop-gap measure on loving you," he whispered when he thought his voice would hold.
Blair gave a noisy gulp, something fragile entering his gaze as he replied, "Others have."
Jim couldn't – wouldn't – pry here, but he knew his eyes were asking every one of the questions that integrity wouldn't allow him to utter.
As Blair elucidated, Jim realized that this was the first time Blair had ever completely dropped his guards. Everything the kid was was open to him. Jim knew that with one thoughtless word, he could destroy his friend.
"Not every guy is comfortable going this route. Our society has so many stigmas against two men...being together that some need limits. Some can only be on top. Others will only let you blow them. I've been down both those streets. From an anthropological viewpoint, it's kinda fascinating." Blair's gaze dropped, as if too much honesty had made him shy.
Jim's caressing hand fell away from the prickly jaw to give the nearby, corduroy-covered shoulder an encouraging squeeze. "Doesn't sound quite fair to me, Chief."
Blair shrugged. "It's not about fair. It's about how bad you want something." Those troubled eyes glanced up at him, then Blair asked, "What?"
Jim swallowed hard, not wanting to answer, but such brutal self-honesty would demand nothing less in return. "I guess I'm having trouble understanding how..." He faltered under the vulnerable blue gaze.
"How anyone with self-respect would put up with it?" Blair suggested.
Unwilling to back away from the truth, Jim nodded. "I couldn't. That's why this...this situation with you worries me. I don't go in for half measures, Chief. You walk down this road with me, it's all the way. This isn't about rules and limits. It's about trust. Either you've got mine or you don't."
Blair stepped away from him, turning to stare into the rippling creek. "And if I'm not...worthy of it? If it all blows up in my face…? If I screw up this time, I'm going to hurt you bad, and you gotta believe that that's, like, the last thing I want to do in this world, Jim."
Jim could almost feel the misery pouring off his wiry partner. Unable to ignore it, he stepped right up behind Blair to wrap his arms around that well-insulated chest. "I believe you," Jim whispered into the fragrant curls.
"You do?" Blair's hand moved to cover Jim's where they were clasped on his chest, Blair's shoulders easing back against him.
Jim nodded, making sure Blair felt the motion by brushing his chin through the sable soft curls. He was losing it fast. Blair's heat, his scent were all around him. Stunned, he recognized that having sex with others didn't give him the thrill that simply standing here holding Blair in this damp, chilly glen did.
Finding his voice, Jim gruffly offered, "In the year we've been together, you've only hurt me once."
"When was that, Big Guy?" Blair softly asked, pulling off his gloves and stowing them in his pockets so that his index finger could outline Jim's square, battle-hardened knuckles.
Jim could tell by the tone that Blair honestly had no idea to what he was referring. He only wished that he himself could claim such a clear conscience. He was all too aware of how often his size thirteen hiking boots had trodden over the kid's feelings.
Shivering at what that feather-light fingertip was doing to him with what should have been a simple touch, Jim answered, "Last week, when you told me you wanted to go to Borneo."
"You said that you weren't upset," Blair whispered, his hands stilling. "I figured that you were glad to get rid of me."
Jim hugged his partner closer, sharing his warmth with the shivering man, feeling his Guide respond to his body language as much as his words. "Never."
"Never…what?" Blair sounded almost afraid of the answer he'd receive.
"I never want you out of my life, Blair," Jim explained what seemed painfully obvious, but which was not as apparent as he'd thought if the sudden tensing and subsequent freezing of the body he held so close to him were any indication.
"You can't mean that."
"Why not?" Jim asked, his curiosity winning out over his exasperation.
Blair was silent for so long that Jim thought he wasn't going to answer, but finally the reply came, so low that no one other than a Sentinel would have caught the words. "Because I'm not the kind of guy someone wants to keep around that long. I'm good for a few laughs and some great times in the sack, but when it comes to settling down, they always look for someone more like themselves. Someone stable, someone trustworthy..."
Jim gulped around the lump that filled his throat, "You are stable. And as for trustworthy... Chief, I've never trusted anyone the way I trust you."
Maybe it was easier for Blair to open up while not looking directly at him, Jim thought. Normally, his partner went out of his way to avoid confrontation, but tonight Blair responded honestly with a skeptical, "Yeah, sure, you trust me so much. That's why it's taken you this long to decide to go this route. We've been dancing around each other over this almost from the day I moved in. Maybe even before that, if we're gonna be honest."
"Blair, you're twenty-six years old. I remember what it felt like to be that young: the passion, the drama, everything is so intense at that age. I know..." Jim faltered as Blair broke out of his arms and swirled to face him, all flying curls, emotion-flushed cheeks, and glittering eyes.
"You know what it's like for me, do you? You know what it's like to ache for a real home your entire, goddamned life and have it casually granted to you out of expedience? You know what it's like to try and do something that your own mother tells you you're not cut out for, knowing that you're a joke to everyone because you're small and brainy? You know what it's like to fall hopelessly in love with a perfect physical specimen, to watch that man's muscles bulge while he bench presses more than your entire body weight, and then go stand in front of a mirror and try to find something – anything – that might attract him in the scrawny bag of bones genetics have stuck you with? You know what that's like, right?"
Stunned into silence, Jim could only watch Blair's chest rise and fall as his partner struggled to calm himself. When he thought his companion was listening again, Jim softly said, "No, I guess I didn't know you felt that way. You hide it too well. Did you ever consider the flip side, Blair?"
"What're you talking about?"
"Until a year ago, all that was in the loft was a bed, a couple of couches, and a CD player. It wasn't a home until you moved in and made it one. Number two: No one who matters at the station thinks of you as a joke anymore, but you can't honestly say the same thing about the university, can you? I see their stares when I meet you, hear the What can Sandburg see in this Neanderthal? comments after we leave a room. I know that I'm not in your league when it comes to the brains department, Chief, and it irks the hell out of me. As for the other, anytime you want to know what attracts me to you, just ask; I'm still working on the list. I look at how young and fresh you are, see how hot you are, how all the girls are hanging all over you, and can't imagine what you can possibly see in a balding, middle-aged cop. I know that you care about me, that you're...infatuated. I know that you'd give me a roll in the hay if I asked it, but I'm scared to death that I don't have what it takes to hold you and keep you at my side."
For a very long moment, Blair simply stared at him, as if gauging the truth of what he'd said. After twenty-three breaths, the curl-covered head gave a slow, negative shake. "You're wrong, Jim."
"The talk at the University. I've heard what they say after you leave. They only make those caveman comments because they're...envious. It's common knowledge that I live with you, and they all just assume that it's for the usual reason. And...I'm not infatuated with you, Big Guy."
"You're not?" Jim hesitated, that sinking sensation of the ground dropping out from under him telling him that he was slipping back into the Sandburg Zone again.
"No, Jim," Blair said levelly, dead serious. "I'm in love with you, man."
To hear it stated openly like that was shocking. Jim's normally stoic front wasn't prepared for it. He actually felt the breath torn from his lungs at Blair's admission.. When he got his wind back, he inquired as calmly as possible, "If you're in love with me and I'm in love with you, then what's the problem here?"
"If I hurt you..."
"You won't," Jim assured, stepping forward to embrace his visibly overwhelmed partner.
"How can you be so sure, when I can't be sure myself?"
Jim looked into that mischievous-boned face, recalling every one of the times that Blair had made two dates for the same night or stood some poor girl up because he'd entirely forgotten the casual assignation. This Lothario was the person he was going to make his life with?
Jim confronted his fears, acknowledging that every single one of them was valid. If Blair wanted to, the kid could put his heart through the proverbial meat grinder. But his instincts were telling him different, telling him that his Guide would never knowingly hurt him.
"Jim?" Blair prodded. "I need to know, man. Trust is...something I'm just not used to getting in important stuff."
Jim ran a slow finger over his partner's cheekbone, then gave his reply, "I guess it's a Sentinel thing. You've never let me down when I needed you in the past. My gut feeling tells me that you won't in the future, either." A hot, liquid drop collided with his forefinger, the salty scent of tears filling the sweet dampness of the night. "What...what did I say wrong?"
"Nothing." Blair sniffed noisily and got himself back under control. "It's just...in my entire life, no one has put that kind of faith in me. Do you know what that means to me?"
Before he could frame a reply, two anxious hands gripped the sides of his head and pulled him down into a salty, Blair-flavored kiss. As Jim lost himself in the sweet, juicy depths of his partner's mouth, Blair's palms rubbed over his close-cropped hair, one slipping down to stroke his neck and back.
No chance left of regaining his senses, Jim swam in the warm feelings, losing himself in the taste, scent, and feel of this special individual. Their hearts were twin tympanis, pounding the same beat. Single breathing was a distant memory as they shared the same moist air.
The sounds emanating from his partner's throat were the most erotic, melodic music Jim had ever heard in his life. His acute sensitivity to the different range in tones couldn't help but note the deeper quality to these noises Blair was making as compared to those, say, that Blair made while sleeping or writing.
Jim found his own hands moving. First, they were carding through the silken, kinky curls, then undoing jacket buttons and sliding the warm corduroy from Blair's shoulders. A plasticy popping sound followed as the buttons to his partner's blue plaid flannel shirt sailed off in a dozen different directions, then the shirt was slipping to the dew-soaked plants underfoot. The oatmeal colored pullover sweater met Jim's frustrated fingertips. Beyond thought, he gripped the bottom of the sweater and undershirt. Hauling them up, he pulled back from the kiss only long enough to tug the obstinate garments over his partner's head. He could hear the staticy sparks those curls gave as they frizzed out in a hundred different directions.
Blair's shocked gasp filled his ears then, cutting out all other sound. Jim's fingertips felt the sudden puckering of gooseflesh beneath the soft-downed chest he was stroking. The moonlight etched the skin beneath the dark fuzz of chest hair an eerie, ghostly white.
"Oh, God..." Blair groaned between chattering teeth as Jim lowered his head to his Guide's chest.
The shout Blair loosed as Jim sucked on one of his partner's nipples, already erect from their exposure to the freezing cold night air, proved that when it came to sex, the Guide was as sensitive as his Sentinel.
Completely zoned, Jim followed the trail of body hair down the center of Blair's chest to the kid's flat stomach. He could just manage to tongue the top of Blair's navel by slipping beneath the band of his jeans. He was only vaguely aware of the noises his friend was making now, he was so entirely focused on taste and scent and touch. All there was was ultra-soft skin, wispy body hair and tasty little nooks and nubs. Blair was a feast to his senses and Jim absolutely had to sample the rest of this organic smorgasbord.
So intent that he was nearly blind, Jim fumbled at his partner's waistband until he got the jeans button undone.
"Whoa, there, Big Guy. What're you going... Ahhh..."
The sigh as pants, thermals and briefs all came down together in one smooth tug reassured Jim that the protest hadn't been legitimate, for which he was eternally grateful. Nothing short of a rocket launcher was going to stop him now. Blair's circumcised cock popped immediately free.
Blair was magnificent, Jim thought, unable to find any other word to suitably describe the wine-dark shaft and rose-bud pink balls that jiggled in front of his face as he all but ripped his partner's pants and briefs down his hirsute thighs. Blair was especially hairy here, which probably shouldn't have surprised him, considering how well fuzzed the visible portions of Blair's anatomy were. The dark patch of aromatic pubic curls seemed strangely mysterious, nearly as exciting as the springy tower rising above it that was just crying out for Jim's attention.
Jim fell to his knees in the wet grass to pay Blair's shaft proper homage.
On some vague, faraway level, he knew that he should be cowed by his first sight of another man's aroused genitals. This was a first time for him. Aside from helping his little brother pee when Stephen was just a toddler, he'd never touched another man's penis, let alone made love to it. But this initial sight of a naked Blair felt like a homecoming.
Without hesitation, Jim collected the straining shaft into his right hand, while his left familiarized itself with Blair's heavy, bouncy balls. When compared to the velvet-soft testicles, the shaft was solid steel. And, yet, even the cock was a dichotomy, for as hard as it was, the skin there was still incredibly lush and touchable.
The heady musk that was pouring up from the hot genitals all but overwhelmed him. He had but one imperative: to sample every inch of that hungry flesh.
Blair's shout as he went down on him shattered the silent glen. Jim sucked the impressive length in, playing his tongue over the pulsing, angry vein that ran the cock's length. Blair's acrid, salty flavor shot through him. He tasted things in the clear preseminal fluid no one else would detect as he greedily lapped at everything Blair offered him. His Guide's taste was intoxicating, like a shot of Napoleon brandy, something so rare and fine that a single taste hooked you for life.
A complete novice to this particular act, need dictated what experience lacked. Any awkwardness was lost after his first attempt at sucking. As they fell into rhythm, it was almost frightening how in sync their bodies were to each other, how in tune they became when all higher thought processes were erased. Blair seemed to instinctively know how much of him he could take, just as Jim's jaw and throat seemed to sense how to take Blair's cock. His bobbing head greedily met each of Blair's hungry thrusts, Jim handling the unique experience as though it were something he'd done every night for the last thirty years.
Desperate for even more contact, his hands left Blair's thighs, sliding around back and upwards towards the velvet-down of the slightly rounded butt. He gripped and squeezed the subtle mounds, causing Blair to cry out again.
Lost in the blazing passion, Jim's fingers instinctively sought the dark cleft hidden between, feeling the moist, sweaty separation between the hot globes.
Blair gasped at the clumsy probe, spreading his legs wide apart.
Distracted by the way Blair groaned every time he so much as brushed his finger over that hidden ring of tight muscle, Jim raised his head from his oral service, separating from Blair's cock with a wet, slurpy sound.
For an endless moment, their gazes locked – two different shades of blue echoing the same mindless abandon.
Then Blair's long, delicate fingers were tearing the jacket from Jim's shoulders and scrabbling down the front of his jeans.
Jim stood back up so that Blair could lower his pants, the icy touch of the night air cooling his ardor to the point where his rational mind could scream, What the hell are you doing, Ellison?
But then Blair's hand reached out to pump him to fullness with a couple of firm tugs and no thought remained.
There was a moment of suspension, of frozen timelessness, then Blair pulled his head back down into another kiss. Their mouths sucked each other's tongues, each taking its turn like nursing lambs at their mother. Jim could feel his companion's chest hair tickling his own smooth sternum through the layers of his thick gray wool sweater and his cotton undershirt, while their hot groins mashed together below. There was absolutely no describing what Blair's naked genitals felt like pressed tight to his own, that mind-altering crushing of flesh.
Then they were scrabbling again. Hot saliva bathed Jim's sizzling shaft as Blair knelt to suck him in, but only for a too-brief moment. Nirvana that it was to feel Blair sucking him, Jim didn't want them to come separately again.
When he pulled Blair up to his feet, he had only a vague plan of mashing their cocks together again until they both came, but then his partner was twisting in his arms. Blair turned away from him, bending over to present his backside to the out-of-control Jim. And, abruptly, everything changed.
By an instinct even older than that of being a Sentinel, his engorged cock found its way between those beautiful, milk-white cheeks.
There was no build up, no extended foreplay. His saliva-coated glans found the tight, hot ring and pushed its way home.
Blair's cry was as much pain then as pleasure, but both of them were too far gone to do anything about it. The body's instinctive resistance to violation lasted only a moment or two. Jim's relentless shaft really didn't give the kid a chance to reject him as he plowed that tender channel.
Jim could feel every millimeter of that muscular passage as he pressed forward. Needing complete surrender, his hand slipped around front to milk Blair's shaft, using the varying degrees of resistance he encountered as a road map as to how much stimulation was necessary to get Blair's body to accept him.
Jim had never used his senses this way, as a barometer during sex. But he employed them shamelessly, instinctively using everything he could think of to make this good for his lover.
Needing to taste Blair again, he buried his head in the sweaty throat, biting the tender skin there, simultaneously squeezing Blair's rock-hard shaft while pressing deeper into that bent over bottom.
Blair shouted again, this time with little trace of pain in the outcry.
Jim thrust once more, letting his tongue dip into the bitter depths of the ear, knowing how sensitive his friend was there.
Blair went wild at the stimulation, making tiny, desperate incoherent sounds that were fully as articulate as his most thoughtful paper.
On the next thrust, Jim's cock encountered something soft and roundish within his partner, a spot that really dug the pressure his cock was applying, were Blair's cry anything to go by.
Blair's knees buckled under whatever sensations coursed through him.
Buried deep inside his partner, and none too stable himself, the zoning Sentinel had no choice but to follow his Guide down as Blair dropped to all fours.
The squishy feel of soggy ferns and moss beneath his left knee when contrasted to the warm corduroy of Blair's jacket cushioning his right brought Jim back enough to his senses to recognize just what they were doing and where they were doing it.
Just for a second, he stared about the moonlit glen in perfect coherency, seeing the silver-laced stream dancing nearby, the swaying willows, reeds and cattails around them as he breathed in the sweetness of the night and the sharp, acrid scent of their rut.
And then his shocked eyes fell upon his companion. Blair was down on his hands and knees in the ferns before him. One side of Blair's face was resting on some thick green moss, the other veiled by his fallen curls. The kid's butt was raised high up in the air to meet each of his wild, animalistic thrusts, Blair's entire body offered to him for the taking here. And Jim was taking it as he'd claimed no other lover in his life.
His gaze fixed on where his own shaft was buried deep in that young body, buried straight to the hilt. He couldn't even see his own pubic curls he was pushed so far up that tight channel. With every savage thrust, he branded Blair as his own. He could see the collection of red, mottled marks on Blair's porcelain white neck and shoulders where he'd sucked or bitten in his heat. The kid's body was an organic chronicle of their love play. Blair would no doubt bear bruises in most of those places come morning.
For one moment of fast-fleeting sanity, Jim was horrified by the savagery. What was he doing? Surely, Blair must be hating this...
But then Blair's butt bucked back at him. As Blair further impaled himself on his cock, Jim's conscience flicked off and they were once again partners in passion.
There would be no questioning this, no fighting it. He was as helpless against resisting taking Blair as he'd been at keeping the kid out of his heart.
It didn't last long after that. It couldn't. With one final, primal thrust that threatened to split his partner right in half, Jim came deep inside his lover, shooting pulse after pulse of burning seed deep within the secret recesses of Blair's body.
A second later, Blair convulsed beneath him. The slender body went terribly still as Blair-scented semen joined the night's heady bouquet.
Then all that remained was silence and their harsh, labored breaths.
The rhythms of their bodies seemed all Jim's hearing was able to pick up. The experience wasn't exactly the same as zoning-out. It was more like creative censoring of all but the most vital stimuli.
Only slowly did the sounds of the outside world filter back into Jim's consciousness: the gurgle of the nearby stream, the rush of the wind through the pines overhead, the myriad stirrings of the insect population, the eerie hoot of an owl.
If it weren't for the fact that he was kneeling there with his cock buried to the hilt up another man's anus, he might have enjoyed the tranquility of the sylvan setting. As it was, he was a hair's breadth away from losing it completely and irreparably.
What in the name of God had he done? He'd told the kid he loved him, then he'd taken Blair like a crazed beast in heat, without a single thought to his companion's comfort or wellbeing. Mortified, Jim realized that they hadn't even used a lubricant. Given his size, he could very well have ripped his unprepared partner to pieces.
Hating himself, crippled with guilt, Jim knelt there in the chilly, wet ferns, wishing himself dead. What did one say after such a savage betrayal of trust? As far as his morals could see, the apology hadn't been invented that was big enough to cover the scope of his betrayal.
Sick at heart, Jim felt his deflated phallus slide clear of the abused ring of muscle he'd all but raped.
As if that internal prop had been the only thing holding him up, Blair collapsed face-first onto the fragrant, dew-soaked bed of bracken ferns, pine needles, moss, and damp clothing.
Although Jim wanted nothing more than to cut and run from the scene of the crime, he remained frozen in place. His military medic training kicking in, he upped his auditory reception to check out his companion's heart and respiration rates. Both were elevated, but no more so than could be expected after the kind of wild sex in which they'd just engaged.
Less sanguine about the next part, Jim stared between Blair's wide-splayed thighs, visually checking for damage in an area that would have been nothing but a shadowed cleft to anyone else.
His enhanced vision immediately picked out the angry, swollen ring of distended muscle. Though visibly abused, there didn't appear to be any tears in the flesh and, to his intense relief, there was only spent semen seeping out. No trace of blood.
He hadn't hurt Blair...physically, thank God. Jim knew that he could take no responsibility for that blessing. He'd savaged his Guide like a wild beast. If Blair weren't hurt, it was only through sheer providence.
Blair's continued stillness scared him. He simply lay there, his skin pricked up in a million angry goose bumps, his teeth chattering, breath stirring the pine needles beneath his face.
It was almost as though his partner didn't want to look at him, Jim realized. Not that he could blame the kid.
Jim knew that he'd be lucky if he weren't brought up on charges for this. He still didn't know what had happened, how he had lost control so completely. Granted, he hadn't had sex but once in the past two and a half years. That was a long time to go without, but circumstances had forced him to be celibate for even longer stretches without turning him into some priapismic rapist. And to have hurt Blair, of all people...
It was inhuman and unconscionable, his guilt-stricken heart decided.
"God almighty..." Blair finally spoke in a subdued, shaky tone. As if afraid of rupturing something with too-sudden a move, he rolled carefully over onto his back, releasing a sibilant noise that was part hiss, part sigh.
"I...I...I'm sorry, Blair," Jim stammered, rushing to get the words out, very aware of the fact that his partner had yet to look at him.
Jim braced himself as the dirt-speckled face turned his way. There were pine needles, chips of moss, and bark clinging to Blair's sweaty brow.
"Huh?" Blair's smoky gaze was still very far away and unfocused.
At least his partner didn't appear to be in shock or physical distress, Jim gratefully acknowledged, aware that he was getting off easy. Fury, he could deal with. Hurting Blair was something he didn't want to live with.
"I don't know what...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..."
"Hey." Amazingly enough, it was concern and not disgust that slipped into that husky voice. Blair almost sounded as though he'd screamed himself hoarse as he asked, "You're not trying to apologize for that, are you, man?"
"I should." Jim looked self-consciously away and confessed, "I was an animal."
Wincing, his teeth chattering as his entire body shook with the cold, Blair sat up and reached out to touch Jim's chest.
"You were incredible," Blair corrected. "I mean, you were like...wow, man. Pure power."
Almost timid, Jim glanced back, only to find himself ambushed by emotion. Knowing himself to be completely unworthy of what was still shining in those amazing blue eyes, Jim looked down at where Blair's palm rested on his smooth sternum. "Christ, Chief, I could have ripped you to pieces."
"Maybe," Blair gave a full, sunny smile, "but you didn't."
"This isn't something to laugh about! I, oh, God..." His own limbs abruptly started to shake like he had a fever of a hundred and four as he came to yet another frightening realization.
"Jim? What's wrong?"
As Blair gripped his shoulders, sliding closer to him, Jim forced himself to meet his partner's concerned gaze. "I didn't use a rubber. I..."
Strangely sober, Blair stroked his cheek. "It was a little late for that any way, Big Guy. I drank you down this morning."
Mortified, Jim recognized that he hadn't even considered that aspect of this morning's encounter. It had been over fifteen years since he'd been this careless when it came to intercourse. Sex in the nineties made it a given that the insidious shadow of AIDS was never far from casual pleasure. Wanting to dispel the uneasiness from his Guide's expression, he softly offered, "I've tested negative twice since Laura McCarthy. There hasn't been anyone since her."
If Blair were startled by his abstinence, he had the grace to disguise it.
"Just for the record, I test regularly. I'm clean. This morning..." Trembling, Blair seemed to falter before forcing himself to continue, "...well, that was a first for me."
Knowing the expertise his young friend had brought to that rushed union, Jim gave his Guide a skeptical look.
As he watched Blair's cheeks fill with color, Jim realized that he'd seen him blush more in the last twenty-four hours than he had in the entire year they'd known each other.
Blair seemed to stumble as he tried to explain, "What I mean is...I never tasted it before today. There's always been a condom between my mouth and...it, or else I pulled back at the last minute. The Big A is one of the few things I'm more paranoid about than heights."
Jim studied his partner's eyes as Blair spoke, all too aware of what an accomplished liar his unconventional friend was. Most times, Jim never knew for certain what the truth was. And, in this case, a mistake could cost him his life. Yet, everything in him was telling him that Blair was being honest with him.
"Okay, then." Jim gave a shaky smile, oddly relieved at his internal decision. "So long as we don't mess around, we should be all right."
In the act of gathering his clothes together, still visibly shivering from the cold, Blair turned to stare at him. "You'd trust me on that?"
"It comes with the territory, Chief." Jim helped his freezing friend locate his shirts – plural.
"Huh?" Already in his thermal, Blair paused half into his oatmeal sweater.
"I love you, Blair. There aren't any half measures on that for me. Either I trust you completely, or we never do this again. I don't play guessing games where my heart's concerned. Hand me my sweater, will you?" Not liking the too-pensive silence that had fallen over his shuddering partner, Jim accepted his heavy gray Aran Island sweater and prodded, "What now?"
"That didn't sound like a question." Blair's gaze didn't rise from the corduroy jacket he was attempting to pick the largest pieces of clinging moss and dirt off of.
His partner's body language telling him that, for whatever reason, this was an important issue to Blair, Jim paused to carefully consider his response. With Blair, everything was nuances. The kid didn't get vocal or sulky when his feelings were hurt. Such wounds were revealed only in a sudden flash of expression, then were forced back with all Blair's other hidden hurts. But, Jim sensed that this wasn't pain, exactly. Blair seemed to be more vulnerable at the moment, as if he were guarding himself against a possible blow.
But what type of blow? Was Blair angry because he hadn't been consulted on his assumption that they'd stay true to each other, Jim wondered? Or was it something else? Something more basic?
Recalling how very important being considered trustworthy seemed to his partner, Jim thought that he might be on to the problem – if it could be called that.
"It wasn't a question," Jim said slowly, carefully. "I don't have any more doubts about you."
"Just because we...did it?" Blair hoarsely whispered.
Jim leaned forward to lift the down-bent chin, giving a sad, negative shake of his head. "No. Because you told me you loved me and wouldn't hurt me."
"My saying it was enough? You don't want any promises?"
Jim bent to kiss his Guide's swollen lips, the gesture gentle, cherishing...as he'd wanted their first time together to be. "That was a promise, Blair."
"Oh." The motor mouth seemed speechless.
"You ready to go back to the RV?"
Dark curls bounced in a nod of agreement.
Jim pulled on his own sweater and rose to his feet, reaching down to give his companion a hand up.
Wincing at the movement, Blair accepted the help, standing there shuddering with the cold afterward, staring uncertainly up at him.
Recognizing how totally overwhelmed his partner was by everything they'd shared, Jim draped his right arm over the corduroy-bulked shoulders, lightly urging Blair closer.
To his intense relief, Blair didn't hesitate. His partner instantly drew nearer, tentatively slipping his arm around his waist. The tension in the wiry form and wildly pounding heart told Jim that Blair was still feeling his way through this, Blair still acting as if he expected an explosion at any turn.
Hoping touch would convey the reassurance that words never would, Jim cuddled his Guide closer, loving the way Blair seemed to be constructed to fit right under his shoulder.
It felt so good walking through the dark with Blair snuggled so close at his side. As they followed the stygian deer trail through the fragrant pine forest, Jim heard his partner's heartbeat gradually return to a normal rhythm, as if Blair were equally comforted by the proximity.
When they reached the edge of the dew-drenched drop zone and the RV campfires came into sight, Blair's arm dropped almost guiltily away. Blair would have pulled completely free if Jim hadn't tightened his hold.
"Ah, Jim...we're almost back. They're gonna be able to see us in a minute."
Jim stared down into those troubled eyes, seeing how hard Blair was trying to understand where the lines were drawn in this new relationship. New to this form of loving himself, he wasn't any more confident. He'd never had a love he had to hide before and he knew himself well enough to know that no matter how paranoid they behaved in public, his feelings for Blair would show all over him. So, he didn't see much point in playing charades for strangers if they were going to know anyway. The only problem was, he wasn't certain Blair would see it the same way. For all his outlandish tendencies, his partner was an expert at camouflage.
"Does it bother you, being seen with my arm around you?" Jim gently asked.
Seemingly struck speechless, Blair shook his head, no. After a moment, he nervously asked, "Doesn't it bother you? With your job, I thought...I mean..."
"I'm not good at pretending for strangers. It was one of the things about me that used to drive Carolyn nuts. I told you yesterday that I don't play games, Blair."
"What are you saying, Jim?" Blair sounded choked up, like he couldn't accept what he seemed to be telling him.
Figuring it was best to be honest up front, Jim made his position as clear as possible. "You know that I'm not demonstrative by nature. I probably won't ever be comfortable kissing you in public...when I was married, that was another of Carolyn's major complaints. But...what I feel, I feel. I won't hide it or deny it. This..." Jim squeezed his partner's shoulder with the arm he still had draped across them, "I'm comfortable with. Is it enough?"
That was the question – would this exuberant free spirit be content with the limits that had driven his wife to leave him?
Blair gulped noisily. His eyes very bright, his partner gave a stunned-looking nod. "It's more than enough. But...you know that they'll still be thinking that we're...lovers if they see us this way, don't you?"
Jim nodded. "This isn't about them, Blair. It's about me. I'm...shy about some things. Private. It's not a man-man issue, more an uptight-old-timer thing."
"Not so old, Big Guy." Blair's deep, sensual tone sent shivers straight through him.
"Maybe not now," Jim said, serious, worried because his heart was telling him that no matter how many years fate blessed them with together, it still wouldn't be long enough. "But in twenty years? Hell, in ten years even..."
"I'll still be there," Blair quietly assured, reaching up to touch Jim's cheek with a chilled, not quite steady hand that smelt of sex and had tiny bits of bark and moss flakes clinging to it. "I promised that I'd never hurt you. I meant it. I won't leave you. Not because we were born a few years apart or for a university or for a woman. I'll be with you until you kick me out, Jim."
And even though Blair had promised him basically the same thing with equal sincerity less than an hour ago, this time Jim found himself completely believing.
Maybe it was the pathetic image the kid presented, standing there shivering in the dark in his rumpled, dew-stained clothes, with half his buttons done up wrong and bits of plant all over him that did it. Or perhaps it was the fact that Blair no longer seemed so scared of screwing up. Whatever the cause, something inside him broke at Blair's promise, the something that had held him apart from those he loved for longer than his Guide had been alive.
To his astonishment, Jim found himself violating his own strictures as he bent forward to cover those berry-red, swollen lips with his own. Granted, they were on the farthest fringe of the RV encampment, standing at the edge of a pitch-black field, so it was highly unlikely that they'd be observed, but even so, public moves like this were not a part of Detective James Ellison's normal romantic MO. In his wildest, younger days, he'd never made love on a wet creek bank at the start of winter. He might steal a kiss or two in a movie theater or on a dark doorstep, but he didn't French kiss in public.
Nor could he blame this on Blair. As Jim's tongue avidly explored the deepest reaches of that sweet, juicy mouth, Blair stood still as stone, clutching his elbows, shock, passion, and fear vibrating through the slender form in equal measures.
In moments his Guide's astonished resistance collapsed. Blair's hands clutched at his back as he put everything he was into the wet union of their mouths.
A long, breathless time later, when they were on the brink of where clothes needed to be shed, Jim forced himself back. Utterly stunned, he tried to figure out what had happened to him, what was making him behave this way, but came up empty.
It was just another unanticipated side-effect of slipping into the Sandburg Zone, he dazedly decided as he took in his companion's abstracted expression as Blair visibly concentrated on his inner sensations.
Very slowly, Blair opened his eyes. "Like, wow..." he sighed, sobering as his smoky gaze settled on him. "Is this where one of us is supposed to apologize?"
"Let's just...get inside. Please?" Jim practically begged, almost afraid of what he might do next. He'd never had a passion he couldn't control before. This was...frightening.
At Blair's nod, Jim took hold of his Guide's elbow and hurried them towards their RV.
Jim was relieved to note that, for the most part, they seemed to have their privacy. No one seemed to be looking at them, except...
As they rushed through the camp, Jim picked out only one face staring directly in their direction. There was no mistaking the open hostility in Woodman's handsome features, but Jim figured he couldn't really expect approval from that quarter. Nor did he give a damn. Just seeing those malicious features turned him red-hot inside. Fury flared through every fiber of his being as he thought about how that sick bastard had tortured his acrophobic partner.
"Everything all right, Jim?" Blair uncertainly questioned.
With difficulty, Jim pushed aside the red haze clouding his vision. Now was neither the time nor the place for payback, but he could feel the shark stirring within. He and Woodman would dance soon.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Everything's fine, Chief," Jim absently assured, amazed by how sensitive his Guide was to his moods. He knew that he hadn't been staring at Woodman for more than ten seconds and he'd certainly said nothing to indicate his change of emotion. Yet, Blair had still picked up on the subtle alteration in his demeanor, and had known that it wasn't a change for the better. He couldn't remember anyone ever knowing him that well before in his life.
When they arrived back at their RV site, Sylvia and Sully were long gone. The fire was nothing but water-drenched gray ashes and sizzling stones. Jim could smell the fire-pit's hot rocks from twenty feet away. It was funny, but before his Sentinel powers had kicked in, he'd never thought of stones and the like as having a scent, but, now, just about everything had a distinct odor.
While on the subject of distinct odors, he realized that neither Blair nor himself were smelling very sweet at the present moment.
Reaching inside the door to switch on the trailer's interior lights, Jim paused to let his companion precede him inside. All the way back, he'd been conscious of Blair shivering. The kid's teeth weren't actively chattering, but they might as well have been.
"I thought that I smelt that herb tea in one of your bags. You want a cup to warm up, maybe a hot shower?" Jim gently questioned, sensing how nervous his partner suddenly seemed with him. A little anxious himself, he was wondering if the savagery of their encounter were finally penetrating the passionate daze that had blanketed Blair's better sense.
"Ah, yeah. I put the tea in the cabinet over the range. I'll..."
"I'll get it, Chief." Jim offered, leaving his partner to thaw out near the heater while he moved to get the kettle going. When worried, he always felt better when he had something to occupy his hands, but all too soon the aromatic tea was steeping and he had no choice but to deal with whatever emotional consequences their loss of control had wrought.
He found Blair exactly where he'd left him, in the main living space hunched over the heat vent under the window.
"I'll leave the mugs here to cool," Jim said, tentatively feeling his way through this.
"Sure," Blair agreed, far too quickly.
The dry heat hitting him like a solid wall, Jim shrugged out of his sweater. He couldn't help but notice how his partner's gaze trailed the shower of wood bark, pine needles, and moss that rained to the floor around his feet. His undershirt was speckled with the detritus from the crusty forest floor, as well.
"I guess I really need that shower. Do you want to join me?" Jim had no idea what Blair's answer would be, since he had no clue as to what was causing the tension between them. When Carolyn and he had been breaking up, there had been many scenes similar to this: times when he had no idea as to what was wrong, aware only of the distance that didn't belong between two people in love. Only, nothing that had passed between Blair and him should have caused this kind of withdrawal. Blair wasn't sulking, nor did he seem mad. Sick at heart, he recognized the emotion for what it was. Fear.
Damn...he'd known that caveman act would catch up with him.
"Okay, Chief. What's going on here? You having second thoughts already?" As happened whenever he was worried, the concern emerged as anger.
Blair actually jumped at the brusque demand. Seeing, hearing, and nearly feeling how painful the gulp his partner gave was, Jim watched the younger man stammer for an explanation. "No, Jim, I..."
"Yes?" Jim tried to tone down the intimidation factor, but it was virtually impossible in the cramped space of the RV. Blair just seemed so damn small beside him in these close quarters that it only reinforced his guilt at his loss of control.
Hating the feeling of hulking over his shorter companion, Jim sat down on the couch, reversing the situation so that he had to stare up at his Guide. Before that moment, he'd never really realized how difficult things were for Blair. Sampling how uncomfortable the necessity of looking up to meet another's gaze was, he began to understand just how much courage it took every time Blair got in his face.
"Am I pushing too hard?" Jim asked softly. "I know all this is happening kinda fast and..."
"No," Blair said, far calmer than before. "It's not you. At least, it's not just you. I..."
As Blair was practically standing on top of him already, it didn't take more for Jim to touch his partner than reaching out his hand. He laid it carefully on Blair's corduroy-covered forearm, wondering if Blair were still wearing his coat because he was cold or because he didn't feel comfortable removing it,
Blair stared down at his hand, the size of which made the arm beneath it seem thin as a child's limb. After an extended pause, Blair's slender, chilly hand covered his and his Guide finally met his gaze.
Drowning in the shadowed blue depths, Jim tried to comprehend the open trepidation. Failing to understand, he just treaded those bottomless depths and waited.
"I guess I don't know how to act with you now," Blair whispered at last.
"Huh?" Jim blinked up at his partner, utterly at a loss to understand.
"It's...different than being with a woman. When you're with a girl, things like roles are pretty clearly defined."
"Uh-huh," Jim patiently agreed, going on to ask when Blair made no further comment, "And the roles aren't so clear here?"
Blair gave a slow nod that made every one of his kinky brown, detritus-strewn curls bob as one. "I'm not sure how to act with you now, how much is too much. I know that you hate mushy scenes and the last thing I wanna do is skeeve you out, but..."
"Hold it. Time out for translation. What does skeeve mean?" Jim asked, totally perplexed. He was relieved to see a smile tug at those kiss-swollen lips.
"It's like...gross you out."
"Whoa, there. Am I acting...grossed out?" Jim stuck with the phrase he understood, unwilling to trust the nuances of his feelings to Sandburg-speak. This was already complicated enough.
"No, you've been great, man. Really patient. It's me. I want..."
"Yes?" Jim encouraged.
Blair's gaze dropped to where their hands were joined, his tone tentative as he continued, "You make me want...the mushy stuff."
At the soft confession, Jim's stomach underwent the same fluttery sensation he experienced when the floor dropped out from under him in those amusement park gravity rides. "You've been so...quiet because you've been holding back?"
Blair gave a reluctant nod. "I know that you've never been down this road with a man before. I didn't want to freak you out by...well, you know."
"You being quiet and sending off scared signals freaks me out; though, after that Caveman Jim act I pulled by the creek, I really couldn't blame you for being scared to be alone with me."
"You were incredible back there, man," Blair insisted.
"I was an animal. I could have killed you."
Blair's hand gentled his left cheek, outlining the scab left over from their Peru adventure before stroking over his jaw, then up to the peach-fuzz of his hair. "Nah, no way. You're my protector."
The voltage of the grin was classic Blair – half imp, half satyr, wholly adorable. Jim all but melted under it.
Something bright and yearning flashed through those electric eyes and Blair's hands moved down to his shoulders as if to direct some action, but then the same veil of hesitation cloaked the spontaneous joy of the moment.
"Not a half hour ago, I asked you to spend the rest of your life with me. It doesn't get much mushier than that, Chief," Jim reminded. "Whatever it is that you want, go for it. I'll let you know if anything skeeves me out, okay?"
"Promise?" Blair asked, looking like some waif who'd never known a kind word or touch in his life.
Jim knew that wasn't the case here. Blair had been showered with affection his entire life. It was things like security and stability that had been lacking – and those were the very issues they were attempting to hammer out between them now, he realized. His heart taking another plunge at that insecure, hopeful expression, Jim nodded. "I promise."
As Blair tentatively guided him closer to the corduroy jacket and all those layers that separated him from his partner's chest, Jim knew that his estimation of Blair's emotional state hadn't been far off. Blair was very much like some street urchin trying to trust at that moment. The way he held Jim's head pressed tight to his layered sternum while Blair's long, sensitive fingers stroked his fuzzy buzz cut in open reverence told him how desperate his friend's need for basic reassurance was. It wasn't sex or romance Blair needed at this moment, just some good old-fashioned cuddling, and he'd obviously been afraid that his tough partner would balk or scoff at him.
All that anxiety for one simple hug, Jim wondered, as he wrapped his arms around Blair's waist and returned it with all his might. He rested his head against the warm corduroy, listening as the heart stilled its frantic, captured-dove's wings fluttering and settled into a steadier rhythm. Jim let his hand rub over the tense back and was rewarded with a drawn out sigh. Amazed, he felt his ultra-short hair react to the play of moist breath across the top of his head, the shivery sensation sending frissons of delight shooting through his entire body.
"What?" Blair questioned, proving his own sensitivity where his Sentinel was concerned. Jim knew that he hadn't voiced a sound at his latest discovery. "Is this...too much?"
Hearing the naked worry, Jim shook his head. "No, I like it. It's just..."
"Yes?" Blair asked, sounding as though he still expected to be told to get lost or grow up.
Jim looked at those open features, evaluating. This wasn't something he was exactly comfortable broadcasting to another man, especially someone like Blair who had a different girl every night of the week. Yet, for some reason, he still found himself answering, "You know that I haven't been much of a social whirlwind since this Sentinel thing kicked my senses out of whack."
Blair's simple nod was very reassuring. There was no judgment in those attentive eyes, merely a sense of waiting.
Encouraged by the fingers that continued to pet through the fuzz of his hair, as if it were something Blair couldn't stop himself from doing, Jim found himself opening up completely. "Actually, there's been no one since Laura McCarthy and most of those memories are like a red haze, you know?"
Blair gave another of those accepting nods, the kind that seemed to promise him that he could tell Blair anything and still find that same patient acceptance. "Blood heat. Like what happened back at the creek."
"Yeah, almost like a zone, only, I don't lose it totally."
"Is that what this," Blair hugged him a little tighter to indicate what he meant, "is doing to you?"
"No, but this is the first time that I've been close to someone without going into the Caveman Jim mode and..."
"Your breath against my hair...I can feel it the way I used to feel fingers there," Jim softly reported.
"And my fingers?" Blair asked in his Guide voice, experimentally trailing his fingertips over the stubbly hair in a feather-light stroke.
Jim couldn't help himself. He gasped as the sensations of that deliberate touch raced through his blood like an erotic stampede. "Ah...it's...I..."
"It's okay. I think I understand. Is this better?" Blair asked, increasing the pressure of his fingertips until the touch was firm, no longer teasing.
"Yeah. That's fine."
Leaning against him again, Blair fell quiet.
At first Jim found the absence of chatter unnerving. An utterly silent Blair seemed unnatural, strangely ominous. But as he caught sight of his partner's expression, his closed eyes and the near-glow on his dirt-speckled, scratched face, Jim realized that this silence wasn't a bad thing. It was perhaps the first time in their relationship, where both were conscious and unoccupied, where Blair didn't feel compelled to fill the quiet with nervous chatter.
That merely hugging him would be of such importance to Blair was oddly touching. He wasn't used to anyone wanting to cuddle him this way. Even when he was married, he hadn't indulged in this type of simple intimacy. Carolyn had been as much of a non-toucher as he was himself. But now that he thought about it, he realized that Blair had never fallen into the Untouchable Zone that most other humans occupied. Almost from the very first, he had found himself going out of his way to make physical contact with the mischievous imp who had turned his world on end. A pat on the cheeks, a playful ruffle of those wayward curls...hardly a day went by that he didn't touch Blair in some way, and it was usually he himself who initiated the contact.
Not that Blair ever seemed particularly upset by his attention. As with his darker moods, Blair accepted whatever he dished out with unshakable equanimity. It was only now, when Blair should have been relaxing his guards, that the fractures had begun to show through his partner's facade of false cheer.
Jim squeezed his arms tighter around the slender waist, burying his face in the bulky warmth of Blair's jacket, inhaling Blair until that one precious scent was all there was in his world.
As Blair hugged him closer, the curl-covered head lowered until those luscious lips were pressed to the peach fuzz stubble at the crown of his head, every breath a shiversome barrage to his senses.
Finally, Jim forced himself to pull back, knowing that they'd be at it again on the floor in another minute if he didn't exercise some restraint. Eyes slightly glassy, his breathing hard and rapid, he stared up at his partner's astounded features.
"Do you think it's pheromones?" Blair asked breathlessly, obviously as affected by the contact.
Jim gave a sharp negative shake of his head, rising to his feet to clear his senses. "No, Chief. I think it's love, pure and simple. Come on. Let's take that shower, drink our tea, and hit the sheets. Sound like a plan?"
Blair gave a bewildered nod, looking as if all of this were still too much for him to process.
Blair started. "Yes, Jim?"
"Normally, people remove their clothes before they shower."
The grin was pure Blair. "Yeah, right."
As Blair moved to undress in the three feet of open space that passed for a kitchen in the RV, Jim quickly unfolded the Murphy bed. After straightening out the sheets, he added all of the blankets from the cupboard below before slipping out of his own clothes.
The important things dealt with, he turned naked back to his companion.
Like everything else they'd had on at the creek tonight, Blair's white thermals were speckled with wood and moss chips. Blair looked positively beguiling standing there in his bare feet and disheveled curls, with nothing on but his dirt-speckled long-johns.
Surprised to find the king of assignations still clothed, Jim asked, "Are you still cold?"
Wide-eyed, Blair shook his head no.
The dirt-speckled cheeks filled with color. "I got side-tracked."
"By what?" Jim scanned the spotless counter. There wasn't a book or paper in sight. "What?" he asked, as his partner just stood there shaking his head and giggling.
"Only you could stand there stark naked, giving me a view that would stop rush hour traffic, and then innocently ask what distracted me. You're unreal, man."
Deciding that it was a compliment, of sorts, Jim asked, "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
"Huh?" Jim hesitated at the rueful tone, totally mystified.
Blair's face twisted in a totally classic Sandburg expression, part-grimace, part-grin, all mischief, like the humor would just explode from him in a second. Jim had never met anyone with so expressive a face. No matter how fleeting the emotion, Blair's mutable features captured it. Half the time, Jim couldn't even put a name to the expressions, never mind the emotion behind it. This instance was no different. He sensed the humor, but there was something almost self-deprecating behind it.
"It's not important, Big Guy. Let's get cleaned up, huh?"
Still not satisfied, Jim stepped back to allow his partner to precede him into the bath.
"You sure we can manage this, Jim?" Blair asked as the overhead light he switched on glared down at the postage stamp-sized bath. The shower stall didn't look big enough to hold a ten year old comfortably, let alone two grown men.
"No problem," Jim assured, turning on the hot water. The confidence that had enabled him to survive eighteen months in the jungle rang through his reply; although, looking at the stall, he had to privately admit that he had his doubts. "Are you going to wear those long-johns in?"
Blair glanced down, seeming abruptly self-conscious. "No...ahh, here goes..."
With the air of a man taking a plunge into freezing waters, Blair tugged the thermal top over his head, raining chips of bark all over the linoleum as Jim had done earlier. Blair's eyes stayed fixed on the littered floor beneath their feet as his heart sped up to a ridiculous rate and the breath all but stopped in his chest.
"You want to tell me what's bothering you, Chief?" Jim asked, gently cupping a stubbled cheek to guide the reluctant gaze back up to his face. Up close like this, Jim could not only smell Blair's sweat on the lithe body, but also his own semen seeping out from within his friend. His nostrils flared at the unique, raw odor, his head swimming under the erotic shock of it.
Tentative as a butterfly landing, Blair's gaze met his. Clearing his throat, his partner gave a forced grin and hollowly joked, "It's like...Rumplestiltskin meets Prince Charming Time, huh?"
At first, the comment didn't even register, it made so little sense, but then Jim felt his jaw sag open as he comprehended. His throat tightening up, he made no immediate reply. Instead, he reached out with both hands to carefully brush the kinky curls back from his partner's brow, reading volumes in the uncertain gaze that skittered everywhere in the humid, phone booth of a bathroom before meeting his own. Never had he been so conscious of the difference in their heights and bulk...discrepancies that Blair had told him had been hammered into him from birth as inadequacies.
Swallowing hard, Jim bent the eight inches that separated them to place a chaste, near-reverent kiss in the center of that high, intelligent brow. His voice a tight, raspy imitation of itself, he whispered, "Only if Rumplestiltskin's a balding, battle-scarred cop."
"You're not – " Blair protested.
Jim settled his index and middle fingers over those amazing lips, silencing the objection. "I'm both. It's no insult, just fact."
"And what do you see when you look at this scrawny, hairy body, Mr. Just-Fact?" Blair asked, trying for lightness, but failing.
Jim stared down that artfully dusted sternum, so very different from his own boringly hairless expanse.
"You asked me that before. The answer hasn't changed, Chief. I look at you and I see the most lethally sensual creature I've ever had the good fortune to touch. And you're not scrawny. You're wiry..." he corrected, stroking the strongly defined chest muscles beneath all that downy hair.
"There's a difference?" Blair whispered. His eyes drifted closed as he shivered under his fingers.
"Scrawny implies...a lack of strength. That isn't you."
"I'm still nearly a foot shorter than you," Blair stated.
"So is nine-tenths of the planet. What's your point? You've got the guts to go nose to nose with me without backing down. Very few men can make that claim."
Blair shrugged, a different kind of tension filling his taut form as Jim's fingers followed the inverted arrow of body hair down the center of his torso. "That's because they don't know for sure that you won't rip them to pieces."
"Neither did you at first," Jim reminded. "Anyone can develop muscles, Blair. Courage is another matter entirely, and you've got that to spare. And all that strength comes packed in the sexiest body I've seen in years."
"Right," Blair snorted. "You never thought of me that way in the beginning. You never looked at guys that way before."
"So you had to be something special to turn me around, right?" Jim asked, feeling as though he were arguing with an extremely petulant child.
The tiny room was filled with the musky scent of them both. Every breath made Jim's senses reel the tiniest bit more. Then, Blair reached out to touch the center of his chest and that simple gesture jolted through him like a current of raw electricity.
"You're so...perfect. I look at you and can't understand what you see in me..."
"I feel the same," Jim gruffly argued. "You're so young, so sensual, and vibrant. It doesn't seem right for an old war horse like me to..."
Jim's neck was grabbed, his head hauled down to Blair's. The kiss that followed was fierce, almost desperate.
"You're not old," Blair breathlessly insisted as they drew apart for air.
"And you're not scrawny. You're beautiful," he kissed Blair's forehead, "and seductive, and exasperating, and..." Jim checked the slightly unfocused gaze, reading a degree of stunned acceptance, "and teddy-bear cute."
The spell broken, Blair sputtered, laughter and love shining from his eyes, "Man, how I hate that word. Cute. Do you know its official definition?"
Jim bit back his laughter. With all those dead leaves and bark hanging in his hair, Blair really did look like an enraged teddy-bear coming out of hibernation, but he knew his partner wouldn't appreciate hearing that right now. So, he just stifled his mirth and gave a negative shake of his head.
"It means pretty or attractive in a delicate or dainty way. Or, obviously straining for effect."
"You don't have to strain for effect, Chief. All you have to do is stand back and wait for it to happen."
"We wait much longer and all we'll have is ice water." Blair chuckled, much more himself, for all that he still kept peeking up at Jim from under those long lashes as though he still couldn't quite believe he was really here with him.
Feeling some of that familiar exasperation, Jim demanded, "And whose fault is that? You think you're ready to part with that chastity belt now?"
Grinning wider than a jack-o-lantern, Blair skimmed off his thermal bottoms before lugubriously announcing into the steamy, musky air, "I stink."
"To high heavens. We both do," Jim mildly agreed. "Let's do something about it, huh?"
With a theatric flourish, Jim ushered his Guide under the hissing spray. Any thoughts he might have harbored of a romantic tryst died instantly as they ended up standing on each other's feet in the tiny shower stall. Jostling around, they tried to make room for each other's shoulders, elbows and knees. Blair was giggling so hard that the kid could barely hold himself up.
For a moment, Jim was captivated by the sight, sounds and smells of the experience. The shower spray killed Blair's curls at first blast, turning his hair to a glistening, dark slick that framed the expressive face like a matte around a painting, throwing Blair's features into sharp relief.
Jim's head was reeling under the olfactory barrage, spinning under the stringent scents of sweat, spent-sex, and soaking wet Blair.
And, last, there was the feel of all that hot water bouncing off them, the brush of slick skin against slick skin. Jim could actually detect the temperature differences in the various zones of his lover's body by how Blair's body heat affected the shower spray bouncing off him.
When combined, all those stimuli nearly sent him into a zone-out. Jim was sinking into those tantalizing sensations, letting them overpower him, when all of a sudden, Blair put down all his weight on his left foot. The intense pain instantly snapped him back to reality.
His enraged yelp only made Blair laugh all the harder.
Looking at the nearly wheezing, giggling imp that was his truest love, Jim forced the steel back into his voice as he demanded, "What's so damn funny?"
"Oh, man..." Blair gasped, his face crimson from the convulsive shudders still wracking his slender form. "It's really lucky that small, crowded spaces aren't, like, a major issue with me anymore. It would be so uncool to lose my cookies at a time like this."
Staring down into those outrageous, twinkling eyes, his mock glare faded away. Jim couldn't have held back his chuckles if both their lives had depended upon it. Unable to recall the last time he'd felt this uncomplicatedly happy, he grabbed the washcloth he'd left drying over the top of the stall that morning and soaped it up.
"Close your eyes," Jim ordered, using the sudsy washrag to carefully remove the specks and smudges painting Blair's face. Trusting as a small child, Blair did as bidden, standing still to allow him to wash his face.
Homing in on the excited beat of his Guide's heart, Jim proceeded to clean the rest of his partner's body, his ministrations as much caresses as utilitarian as he took advantage of this opportunity to familiarize himself with the wiry-muscled form that had been given up to his safekeeping.
He was fascinated by Blair's body hair. The thick, soft down seemed to cover everything but the kid's back and butt. In the past, Jim hadn't been able to help but notice how the abundant fuzz would peek out of the very top of the neck of Blair's tee shirts. To see it in all its naked splendor was highly impressive. And the feel of it...wet and slick, it made his drenched partner feel soft as a young otter or seal.
"Too much of a good thing?" Blair nervously questioned as Jim's hands kept returning to his generously downed sternum.
Jim just shook his head and let his soaped hands move lower.
Blair gasped as the washcloth surrounded his cock. As Jim set to work exploring the thickest patch of hair and the bouncy pink treasures it dusted, the sound effects in the tiny stall became quite interesting.
"Turn around," Jim gruffly ordered.
Blair did as asked, shifting so that the spray rained down on his shoulders. It seemed the no sooner had Blair changed position, then he released a pained hiss.
"What?" Jim asked, freezing. There was nothing in the sudsy massage he'd initiated on those surprisingly well-muscled shoulders that should have caused discomfort.
"The water stings," Blair reluctantly answered, moving so that the shower didn't stream down his back any more.
His cheeks flaming, Blair explained, "I'm still sore from...you know, before..."
Instantly stricken, Jim finally figured out to what his partner was referring. Little wonder the kid was sore; he'd only been ravished by a priapismic ape-man twice the size of any normal human. "Sorry, I..."
"I'm not," Blair firmly interrupted his red-faced apology.
"I'm not sorry, so don't you be, okay?" Blair practically pleaded. "Just let me wash that area myself, okay, Big Guy?"
And despite the guilt pressing down upon him, Jim found his heart lifting under that bright-eyed look of expectation. "I...sure," he bemusedly agreed, handing over the soap and washcloth. Jim watched as Blair sudsed the cloth before tentatively sliding it between the cheeks of his ass. That mobile face did its uttermost not to wince or grimace. Nevertheless, he could tell by the accelerated heart rate just how painful the experience was.
Noticing his stare, Blair started talking a mile a minute. "Next time, we'll opt for a lubricant. I've got this great unscented one that shouldn't..."
"You really want a next time?" Jim questioned, judging how extreme the discomfort was in that region by how fast Blair removed the washcloth and rinsed the sensitive area. The realization that he'd hurt his friend, even to the level of temporary discomfort, made him feel like a savage beast.
"I want it now, but I honestly don't think I could take you again tonight," Blair replied in utter seriousness.
Reading the truth of it, Jim gulped, choking on the emotion even Blair's unpremeditated words aroused in him.
"What?" Blair softly inquired, looking up at him as he returned the washcloth and soap to the soap stand, his empathic barometer apparently Sentinel-sensitive where his partner was concerned.
Unable to explain the painful tenderness this oblivious man inspired in him, Jim just shook his head. "Nothing, baby."
The expressive lift of Blair's brows spoke volumes. "Baby?"
Blair thought about it for a minute, then shook his head. "Nope."
As Blair opened the plastic shampoo bottle, Jim reached for it. "Can I do that?"
Blair gave a bemused looking nod and handed the bottle over.
Senses swimming under the sweet chamomile bouquet, Jim concentrated on applying the golden liquid to his partner's hair. It was sort of weird. Blair was so much shorter than him that he didn't even have to bend his head for Jim to reach his objective.
Inundated by the incredible sensuality of all that slick, wet hair, Jim lathered it up and gently massaged his partner's scalp. His sensitive fingertips picked up every subtle contour of Blair's skull, every slight bump and ridge.
"Did you know that back in Victorian England they made a science out of what you're doing now?" Blair's preposterous question intruded upon Jim's sensual bliss.
Jim took in their close-pressed, naked forms, trying to equate the homoerotic portrait they must present with his less-than-informed view of turn of the century England. But, no matter how hard he tried, two wet, naked men entwined in an embrace in no way suggested either science or the Victorian Era. Sighing as he slipped back into the Sandburg Zone again, Jim eloquently inquired, "Huh?"
"Seriously. A hundred years ago criminologists used to believe that they could tell a suspect's propensity towards violence by feeling the bumps on the skull. It was called phrenology."
His fingers tangled in the sudsy mass of curls, Jim bent down to place a kiss on Blair's chamomile flavored forehead, shuddering in fear at the thought of just how much arcane trivia was crammed into the hyperactive brain behind the bones under his lips. "You know, if I were the slightest bit insecure, I'd be making tracks for the door about now, Chief," Jim murmured, doing his utmost to keep the laugh out of his voice. Only Blair could come up with something like that at a time like this!
But Jim had forgotten whom the insecure one was in this partnership. The wet body in his arms froze as Blair's eyes snapped open to stare up at him in panic, seeming oblivious to the stinging shampoo that dripped into his eyes. "W-what?"
Guilty that he'd been taken seriously, Jim allowed the smile to show as he playfully continued, "I'm giving you my all here and you're thinking of Victorian England, for Christ's sake! What's a guy supposed to think?"
"I-I'm sorry, Jim. I..."
Jim cut into the stricken apology. "It's a damn good thing that I know you so well. It's one of the things that I love most about you."
Relaxing a little, Blair asked, "What is?"
"What is what?" Jim was having trouble following the conversational flow while that silky wet body was pressed so close to his.
"What's one of the things you love most about me?" Blair specified. His tone made it plain that if pressed for a guess, he wouldn't have a single suggestion.
Abruptly serious, Jim answered, "I love how I never know what's going to come out of your mouth at any given moment. All I can count on is that you're usually going to make me laugh. No one's ever made me laugh the way you do."
To accentuate his words, Jim kissed that pouty mouth, sucking on the bite-sized lower lip until Blair pushed him off. "There's not enough room in here for where we're heading, Big Guy."
"Then we better get out of here fast, right?" Jim breathed back, glassy-eyed.
"Here, let me..." Blair reached for the soap and washcloth, obviously intent on giving him the same treatment he'd received.
"No, don't." Jim took the cloth and unscented soap from his Guide.
Blair shot him a wounded expression from under those killer lashes. "But it's my turn..."
"You touch me and I'll go off like a firecracker." Jim gasped as he tried to control his runaway desires.
"Oh," Blair blinked. Attempting to step back to give him room, his Guide banged up hard against the stall wall. The noise was unbelievably loud in the quiet night.
Jim winced at the thunderous, metallic bang the flimsy panel gave.
"Ah, what if I wait outside?" Blair tentatively suggested, touching the panel to still its continuous vibrations.
Relieved that his partner had voiced the idea, Jim nodded. "Sounds good. Don't go too far, though. I'm still having trouble believing any of this is real."
"Me, too." Blair gave a shy smile. Reaching up on tiptoes, he gave Jim's cheek a fast peck and hightailed it out of the shower.
As he quickly washed up, Jim automatically monitored his lover's movements, listening to the rubbing sound of terrycloth over wet flesh as Blair toweled dry on the other side of the shower curtain. The chattering of teeth followed as his Guide left the steamy bath for the cooler environs of the RV.
His ablutions completed, Jim quickly dried off, wrapped one of the voluminous blue bath sheets that Sully kept the trailer supplied with around his waist and went off in search of his partner.
He found Blair standing beside the counter in the kitchen area. Blair looked like a Bedouin nomad, with all the bath towels the kid had draped around his slender form. He had one towel around his waist, another draped over his chest and shoulder like a cape, while a third held his wet curls up in a turban. The soft blue of the terrycloth offset the color of Blair's eyes, turning them the vivid shade of blue topazes.
Still unable to credit that Blair was actually his to touch at will now, Jim came to awkwardly stand beside his friend in the cramped kitchen area.
"Hey, there," Blair's smile seemed to mirror his nervousness. "The tea's cooled off."
"Great," Jim reached for the cup, feeling his partner's gaze on his big hand as it all but swallowed the mug. Sipping the sweet chamomile tea while his sensitive nostrils picked up the same scent wafting from Blair's curls, Jim's senses began to swim. In an effort to prevent a zone-out, he turned his gaze the other way. Finding the view of the bed no more calming than that of his partner, he stared down into his cup's goldish-green contents.
"Feels weird all of a sudden, doesn't it?" Blair remarked into the uncomfortable silence that had fallen between them.
Jim raised his eyes to their equally unnerved counterparts. "Guess it's going to take some time to work this into our daily routine. We'll fit it in, though," he promised.
Blair's relieved smile was bright enough to melt a glacier. "Somehow, I don't think this qualifies as work, Big Guy."
As easy as that, the tension was gone. Jim, normally dour, found himself smiling back as everything was suddenly all right in their world. The quiet no longer quite so oppressive, they sipped their tea, watching each other swallow.
Jim was relieved to find that Blair seemed as unable to take his eyes off him as he did Blair.
Finally, Blair drained the last of his tea. After rinsing the mug in the nearby munchkin-sized sink, Blair unwrapped his turban.
Jim had to grin as all that wet hair came tumbling down into his Guide's eyes. The towel had sopped up some of the excess water, so the wet tangle was just beginning to curl again.
"It's 'Cousin It' time," Blair chuckled from behind the thick veil, his hands juggling the damp towel as he tried to part the stubborn curls.
Jim bit back his impulse to do it for his partner, watching as the towel dangling mid-air finally fell to the checked linoleum.
"Damn," Blair cursed under his breath, bending to retrieve the fallen bath sheet.
Several things happened simultaneously: Blair's forehead loudly impacted with the counter edge, all the hair Blair had cleared from his face cascaded back as he bent over and he lost the towel from around his shoulders.
"Whoa, there, slugger," Jim intervened, his hand darting out to prevent his lover from clobbering himself a second time. Jim retrieved the two fallen towels from the floor, watching as Blair parted his hair with his fingers and rubbed at his bonked forehead. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"Only my pride," Blair muttered, sounding resigned.
"Here I am trying to act all sexy and, like, seduce you with my charms and I go and pull a dufus move like that. Typical."
Jim grinned at the chagrined features. "Want to know the really funny part, Chief?" At the inquiring glance Blair threw his way through those killer lashes, he went on to explain, "Dufus moves like that are one of your charms. Can I do that for you?" he gestured one of the towels towards his partner's dripping mop.
Seemingly struck speechless, Blair nodded and stepped closer, his gaze huge and incredulous.
Taking a handful of the now-chilly, wet curls, Jim carefully patted the excess moisture away. Blair stood perfectly still while he worked, his Guide seemingly spellbound by his desire to do this.
"By the way," Jim murmured a long time later, so lost in the silky feel of those curls that he couldn't begin to understand how he'd lived this long without touching them.
"Mmmm?" came contented purr.
"You don't have to worry about trying to act sexy and seductive around me. You've got it down to an art-form without trying."
"Jim, man, don't..." Blair begged, his entire body shuddering in reaction.
"Don't what, baby?" Jim questioned, confused by the honest distress and the wild start Blair's pulse gave.
"You're destroying me here."
There was a pause, then Blair's surprisingly deep voice filled the breathy quiet while Jim continued to work on his partner's mostly-dry curls.
"I, ah, don't exactly have the, shall we say, natural resources that most guys have to catch a woman's attention. Normally, I have to work three times as hard just to be noticed. When it comes to the romantic obfuscation portion of the evening, I'm usually the one doing the sweet-talking. I'm just not used to..."
"Someone telling you how much they love you?" Jim gruffly suggested when words seemed to fail his talkative companion. Sensing how close his guess was to the truth – and Blair's unnatural stillness declaring how touched the kid was by his open avowal – he warned, "You better get used to hearing it, then."
Blair turned around in his arms to stare up at him with those enormous eyes that would have launched a thousand ships or more, had Jim only had them at his command. "All I'm saying is, you don't haveta. I know you hate mushy scenes and..."
Jim silenced the absurd protest by the simple expedient of covering Blair's mouth with his own. "This isn't romantic obfuscation or B.S., Blair," Jim whispered when they finally broke for air. "It's how I feel about you."
If Blair had felt emotionally destroyed before, he certainly looked it now. His face was a study in confusion as his fingers dug painfully into Jim's biceps, as if Blair were holding himself up.
Deciding the hair was dry enough, Jim dropped the damp towel to the floor and homed in on those luscious, swollen lips again. Delving deep, tasting toothpaste, chamomile tea, and Blair, he maneuvered their joined forms into the bedroom.
Getting to the bed without breaking the kiss wasn't quite the feat it would have been back at the loft, since all that was involved was shuffling themselves backwards a total of five feet. Jim stopped them at the bedside. Still feeding at that avid mouth, he gave the towel at his companion's waist a tug to free Blair to the cold night air.
Jim felt the resultant shiver course through Blair's slender body. Cuddling his partner closer, he experienced his own shudders as Blair's roving hands flicked away his towel. The body-warmed terrycloth remained trapped between both their groins until Jim stepped back to allow the last obstacle between him and his lover's naked flesh to drop away.
Although his enhanced abilities had allowed him to see his Guide clear as noontime in the shadowed glade earlier tonight and their subsequent shower had further familiarized him with Blair's body, this was really the first opportunity he had had to look at his friend for the express purpose of appreciating Blair's beauty.
And that beauty was incontestable. As Blair had earlier stated, his attractiveness wasn't that of the usual, hunky male. Compact and wiry, Blair was simply too small to ever meet the exacting standards of classic masculine perfection. But, as with everything else in his unconventional life, Blair seemed to set his own standards.
Though perhaps a bit under-sized to suit most people's tastes, to one entirely besmitten Sentinel, Blair's lithe body seemed perfect. His partner's muscles weren't huge and bulging like his own; rather, they were long and corded like a panther's. Blair possessed a certain feline grace as well. Jim knew that there was no arguing that his partner was a klutz at times, but when Blair wasn't making one of his dufus moves, he was surprisingly poised.
Once Blair's streamlined physique had been perused, the feature that sprang next to attention was his hair. From the long, dramatic curls framing Blair's face to the three or four hairs sticking out on the knuckles of each of his toes, Blair was a furry specimen. Jim had known some guys that were positively simian when it came to body hair, but, fortunately, Blair wasn't one of them. Though inarguably quite hirsute, his body hair was almost artistically placed. The thick patches at groin, inner thighs, and under-arms were a pleasing contrast to the thinner dusting of arms and legs. And Blair's chest...the symmetry of that inverted arrow of hair pointing down to his partner's groin stole Jim's breath every time he looked at it.
Accustomed to a woman's smoothness, Jim knew he should be somewhat disturbed by all this fur, but...it was just so Blair. Blair was warm and fuzzy, and to someone too enamored to see straight in the kid's presence, that made the thick body hair sexy.
Apparently, Blair was also taking advantage of the slight pause to do his own sight-seeing. As their gazes touched again, Blair gulped loudly and whispered, "To say that you're magnificent would be, like, so much of an understatement."
"Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing," Jim said, reaching out to trail that captivating line of hair down the center of his partner's surprisingly well-defined chest. Beneath his over-sensitive forefinger, the brown trail felt softer than the finest Russian sable, the skin beneath it tender as an infant's.
Jim caught the shiver that shook the slender form as his finger briefly dipped into the concave bellybutton, only to emerge and continue its journey downwards. Gooseflesh pricked up on Blair's arms and legs as Jim made a complete survey of his lower belly, mapping every single hair straight down to the thick patch of pubic curls.
His breathing rushed and excited, Blair stood with his head bent downwards to watch.
Even if Jim hadn't been so closely monitoring the tactile exploration his hands were making, he would have sensed his partner's rising erection from the change in temperature as blood rushed to fill the expanding flesh at Blair's groin. Jim studied the scarlet-tipped shaft, impressed by its size, surprised by how erotic another man's genitals suddenly were to him.
Jim's roving fingers brushed over a bony hipbone. Fascinated, he watched the head of that hungry cock flare as the organ bobbed up at him. His nostrils picking up the sudden rush of musk and pheromones flooding the Blair-scented space, it was all he could do to hold it together. The smell of his lover's arousal called to the most basic, primitive side of his nature, urging him back into that Caveman Jim mode again.
Yet, Jim was determined not to lose control like that again. He was still ashamed by what had happened at the creek-side earlier, even though he mentally understood that his breach of control was the result of months of frustrated longing. He'd wanted his first time with Blair to be something special, something that would show his uncertain partner the unique place he held in his life. Although it was a couple of hours too late, he intended to make this experience so good for Blair that the kid would forget all about the savagery of their initial union.
"Hungry critter, isn't he?" Jim asked with a smile, allowing his knuckle to lightly flick the rock hard shaft near the hip upon which his hand was resting.
"Thanks, man," Blair said, seeming genuinely grateful as he reached up on tippy-toes to place a kiss on Jim's jaw.
Utterly perplexed, Jim questioned, "For what?"
Blair's smile was endearingly bashful as he replied, "For not calling it 'a hungry little thing.' I'm afraid he's feeling a bit intimidated standing so close to that." Blair gestured to Jim's own tumescence.
Blushing down to his toenails, Jim urged, "Just ignore the monster, Chief."
The curls shook in a riot of refusal. "No can do, Big Guy. I've been dreaming about that beauty for what feels like years."
"You have?" Jim asked, feeling an absolute cretin. Why it should come as such a surprise that Blair would think of him that way, he didn't know. God knew, he'd fantasized about Blair often enough. It only made sense that his more experienced partner would have entertained similar notions. Yet, he still had trouble thinking of himself as the object of anyone's daydreams.
Jim was expecting some joking comment to meet his idiotic inquiry; therefore, the complete blanking of humor from those impish features threw him completely.
Blair's expression grew tentative as his wide and level gaze fixed on his, then he offered in a subdued tone, "I've needed you in my life since the day I was born, Jim. I dream about you a lot. I just never believed those dreams could come true."
Touched, and not knowing what to say because of that, Jim reached out to gather the other man into his arms. The top of the kid's head didn't even reach his chin, he realized as he cuddled that naked heat close to him.
His hands roved the satin-sleek back, loving its warmth and strength. No one had ever made him feel as much as this enigmatic imp. From laughter to confusion to bone-rattling passion, the gauntlet of emotions Blair inspired in his normally controlled heart was downright stupefying.
"Aaaah..." Blair hissed as Jim's tongue tip dipped into his ear, his fingers digging into his biceps to steady himself.
Unwilling to fight that dizzying rush, Jim gently guided his companion down onto the Murphy bed. Blair melted against the blankets as though he didn't have a solid bone in his body, his sigh turning to a helpless moan at what Jim was doing to his neck.
Loving how responsible the young body was, Jim sucked down the length of the milky white throat, his fingers stroking Blair's sides until his partner was squirming with pleasure.
"Oh, God, Jim...let me up, man. I can't think, can't..."
"Just feel, Blair. Don't think. Don't talk. Don't worry about reciprocating." Jim forestalled the protest he could see growing in those heated eyes. "Let me do this for you, baby. Please?"
Blair appeared to be trembling as much from his words as his caresses. When Jim's mouth closed around a pert bud of nipple, protest became a lost cause as a protracted groan practically exploded from Blair's throat.
Loving the deep, animal sound, Jim pleasured the nipple to capacity, his fingers trailing lightly over the belly below in teasing counterpoint.
Following the trail of body hair, Jim slid his slick tongue-tip downwards over that flat stomach. Reaching the musky mound of pubic curls, he raised his head up to blow a cool stream of breath over the skin he'd just moistened.
Blair actually yelped then, his entire body jerking in convulsive reaction.
"Oh, God...oh, God..." Blair muttered over and over, his head tossing wildly on the pillows as he clawed at the sheets.
Thinking that he'd never seen anything more beautiful in his life than Blair's passion-dazed visage, Jim used both his hands, his fingertips lightly skimming across his partner's inner thighs, where Blair's body hair was thickest. The soft down was plush as velvet there. He almost zoned-out at the lush sensation.
Blair bucked like a bronco, his helpless shout knocking Jim right into incipient zoning.
"Jim...please, Jim..." Blair begged. Twisting, Blair thrust his distended erection up at him in shameless need.
Jim leaned some of his weight onto his partner's knobby knees to anchor his human live-wire in place. Momentarily letting up the pressure on one side, he pushed Blair's legs wider apart.
"Oh, yes...oh, please...anything...anything you want..." his strung out companion promised.
Jim made like he didn't hear, knowing if he listened, he'd lose it.
Once he had those beautifully furred thighs splayed open to capacity, Jim returned his weight to its former position, holding Blair still. Then Jim lowered his head to nuzzle the inside of the furry thighs.
Blair cried out like he did every time they hit freefall, a wild, purely primal outburst of emotion so raw that words could never encapsulate the feelings.
Blair's hands jumped to his head, frantically scrabbling to find some form of purchase in the too-short buzz cut to direct Jim where his out-of-control partner wanted him most. Fascinated with those downy inner thighs, he ignored the grappling for as long as he could. This was just too good to rush, and, from the sound effects rumbling through both their bodies, Blair was loving it, too.
Jim stopped his nuzzling only when those fumbling hands grabbed hold of both his ears.
"Ouch! Easy there, Chief. Those aren't reins," Jim warned, still smarting over the tug Blair had given him.
The kid's heart was pounding like the Chopec's ceremonial drums, Blair's raspy breathing an erratic counter-rhythm. Blair was so far gone that he didn't even apologize, releasing only a desperate-sounding whimper instead.
Taking pity on his strung-out Guide, Jim finally took hold of that beautiful cock. It was stretched to impossible proportions, the flesh red and angry in its need. He gave it a welcoming stroke, lowering his head to tongue the heavy pink balls below.
His senses swimming under the musk, salt, and sweat that filled his reality, Jim struggled to stay focused. He was torn between zoning-out on the exquisite feel of those velvet-soft sacs and losing control completely to slip into that caveman region of savage lust. By a thin, very frayed thread, he dangled over those separate poles of experience, uncertain from one heartbeat to the next which way he would snap.
"Ah, Jim...that's good...so good, man..." Blair murmured as Jim's tongue moved to sample Blair's shaft. Blair's palms stroked blindly back and forth over the peach fuzz of his regulation short hair cut, sending shudders of need coursing through him.
Blair's scream as Jim's tongue tip re-familiarized itself with the thick cock's glans shook the RV. Ignoring the deafening sound, he greedily lapped down the liquid that seeped out of the weeping head, the bitter tang ricocheting through his quivering insides.
All higher thought processes switched off at that instant. Jim existed only to pleasure this young, exquisite creature that had delivered himself so trustingly into his hands.
Jim had never been so aware of the beast within himself. This was something worse than the shark, for the shark targeted only enemies, people who knew they might come under attack. But this animal craved the flesh of the one Jim loved most. That selfish, feral monster inside told him how easy it would be to take Blair again with a single thrust. Hell, he wouldn't even have to alter their positions, what with the way the kid had his legs spread so wide and his pelvis arched off the mattress. Blair was practically begging for it, the beast sneered.
Yet, as viscerally aware as he was of that driving need, he would have castrated himself before giving into it – even though Blair would doubtlessly forgive him, again.
Even as he acknowledged how he burned for the defenseless flesh that was so open to him, Jim reminded himself that this wasn't about his own selfish gratification this time out. He was going to show this waif, who seemed to have had nothing of his own his entire life, the unique place Blair held in one hardened cop's lonely universe. Jim knew he wasn't going to accomplish that by falling back into ape-man mode. Gentleness and love were the tools needed here, and he employed them both mercilessly.
When Jim finally got to the stage of actually sucking Blair's cock, Blair was torn between gasps and whimpers, the slender figure quivering uncontrollably as he made those little crying noises. It was funny how natural it felt to have that powerful shaft thrusting into his mouth. It felt like something he had been doing for decades instead of a talent he'd acquired a few brief hours ago.
Jim felt the balls beneath his stroking fingers twitch and go tight as the energy gathered in that quaking figure. Then, with a guttural groan that seemed to be dragged from the depths of his soul, Blair exploded.
Jim was shocked by the hot streams that filled his mouth and sprayed his throat. Blair's essence was as acrid and tangy as seawater. But he swallowed the bitter gift. His enhanced senses almost made him gag it back up, so sharp was its taste and mucous-like consistency.
Obviously, this was an acquired taste, Jim decided as he forced it down.
Panting for every breath, his face sheened with sweat and almost glowing, Blair's eyes slowly opened. Focusing on him with visible difficulty, Blair reached out an unsteady index finger to touch his lips. "You swallowed it?" he incredulously whispered.
Jim gave a solemn nod and nipped at the finger, stamping down on his own need to bury himself in Blair's tender flesh. The urge was nearly irresistible, he'd held back so long. Quivering under the strain, he tried not to stare too long at those open, passion-flushed features, knowing how little it would take to slip back into savagery. His control was that chancy.
"Was it...did it skeeve you out? With your enhanced senses, it must've been..."
Silencing his fretting lover with his mouth, Jim kissed his partner long and deep. He could feel Blair tasting himself on the saliva they exchanged.
"God..." Blair gasped as they drew apart a century or two later. "You're so quiet," he observed, stroking Jim's frowning brow. "What…?
The inquiry cut off as Jim's erection brushed Blair's thigh as they shifted to get more comfortable.
Blair's eyes widened as he glanced down at the monster. "Damn. Why didn't you say something, Big Guy?"
Feeling strangely exposed, Jim gulped, still not knowing what to say.
"Do you want…?" Blair's thighs parted in silent offer.
Wanting Blair that way more than life itself, Jim nevertheless forced himself to refuse. They still didn't have a decent lubricant. Sore as the kid still was from their previous encounter, he would rip him to pieces if they tried to make do with saliva again.
"No," he rasped, "just..."
Hands shaking with suppressed desire, Jim pushed his partner's thighs closed again before carefully lowering his body down onto the smaller man. Although thin, Blair's legs were strong and athletic. Those thighs gripped his monster erection between them like a steel vise.
Jim groaned at the sensation of being squeezed between those powerful muscles, his body convulsed in shivers as Blair languorously trailed his fingers down his spine. It was all his beleaguered body could do to keep from falling totally onto his partner and crushing him.
Blair leaned up to breathe into his right ear, "Whatever you need, it's yours for the taking. I'm yours."
It was too much for Jim's overloaded system. Like an overexcited teenager, he exploded at his very first thrust against the hardness of those warm-furred thighs. Mortified by his lack of staying power, he froze as he sprayed his seed all over his partner's genitals and loins, the orgasm seeming to go on forever.
Shuddering, Jim collapsed on top of Blair, all energy expended with his coming. Dying of humiliation over his premature ejaculation, he lay there panting and sweating. He buried his face in the curl-draped hollow of Blair's shoulder, waiting for the inevitable joke or comment that was bound to follow. Old man couldn't even keep it up for more than one poke...
But Blair said nothing. Lying there squashed beneath his mass and weight, Blair simply stroked his perspiration slick back, depositing tiny kisses to the peach fuzz hair on the side of his head nearest his mouth.
Centuries seemed to pass before Jim could gather enough strength to move. Belatedly realizing how uncomfortable this must be for his partner – who was supporting all his weight and breathing hard – Jim pushed off and rolled over.
Even then, Blair didn't let go. The kid turned on his side to face him. Blair's arm settled around his waist as Blair's leg covered both of his, the action as natural and unselfconscious as though they'd spent every night of their lives cuddled together like this.
Although Jim was loathe to shatter the affectionate interval of petting and nuzzling, he felt he should make some explanation for what he viewed as his poor performance. He'd never shot his bolt like that so fast in his entire life. "I, ah, guess I was a little fast on the draw before, Chief."
"Huh?" Blair raised up from where he'd been kissing his neck to stare down into his face.
Jim felt his cheeks warm under the other man's openly curious gaze. "I came like you threw a trip wire before. No finesse..."
"No finesse? Are you insane?" Blair demanded. "That was the best ever."
"You don't have to..."
Blair cut off his disclaimer. "I'm not. I'm still thrumming from what you did to me, man. Your touch is still dancing through my blood."
Jim veiled his gaze, wanting to believe, but unable to shake the lingering embarrassment. Control was always the hardest thing for him to give up. Yet, he seemed to lose it in so many ways around Blair. "I wish I could believe you, but I've seen the girls you've dated. I know that you've been done better than with some fumbling novice who can't hold-."
Blair's salty palm silenced the rest. His eyes wide and way too serious, Blair corrected, "Never better. Technique is nice, Jim, but it's not love. No one ever touched me like you did." The hand left his lips to stroke his face and jaw. "And as for the other, you're a Sentinel, man. Extra touchy-feely is part of the territory. I'm amazed you lasted as long as you did."
Reading the truth of that in those earnest, loving features, Jim relaxed enough to ask, "You are?"
Blair nodded, going on to add, "Hell, Jim, everything is heightened for you. You remember what it was like at first getting a handle on even simple stuff like eating and peeing, don't you?"
Recalling how that last item had been uncomfortably amplified at first, Jim actually chuckled. "There were times when that felt like an orgasm...or a religious experience."
"Exactly," Blair grinned, falling instantly into his Guide mode. "This is like that, only more extreme. You said yourself that you've been...out of circulation for a while. Of course, the feelings are going to ambush you at first, but you're getting control over it faster this time."
Blair seemed to hesitate a moment before explaining, "I was sort of expecting Jungle Jim again. You know, an instant replay of the creek..."
And still the kid had gone to bed with him, Jim marveled, touching Blair's cheek to encourage him to continue.
"But you didn't lose it. Not once. Even after I came and offered myself to you, you still held yourself in check – because you didn't want to hurt me. Do you think I don't appreciate how difficult that was for you? I'm your Guide, man. I know the pressure you were under and how much it took to hold back...how much you must really love me. So, don't you dare apologize, you hear me?"
Stunned by the vehemence, Jim gave a meek nod.
Blair leaned forward to kiss him, nearly sucking his toenails up through the contact before he was done.
Duly chastened, Jim subsided against his pillow, unable to recall ever feeling this happy in his entire life.
"Oh," Blair added, bouncing back up onto his elbows to peer down at him again, "just for the record, your technique was faultless, man. Best ever."
Knowing better than to argue, Jim just grinned and cuddled Blair close. The warm weight of the curly head settling on his chest already felt way too comfortable. Instinctively, he knew it was something he'd get used to real fast and then be unable to live without once it was gone.
But it wasn't going to be gone, not ever, Jim reminded himself. Blair had promised him forever.
His senses permeated with the living wonder he held cradled in his arms, Jim finally gave himself over to sleep, knowing that all was right with his world and universe for the very first time in his life.
Since he'd promised to help Sully out the next day by taking a few first-time jumpers down tandem, Jim wasn't able to linger in bed savoring the sensation of awaking wrapped around a sleeping Blair, but the memory of that trusting innocence wrapped all around him carried him through most of the morning.
Not that the jumps were bad. Unlike his acrophobic lover, Jim found the wind and rush of freefall invigorating. And, there was very little in life that could rival the sheer tranquility to be found once the chute opened. Most of this morning's students also seemed to appreciate the beauty of the experience, but even so, Jim still found himself wishing that it were his screaming partner harnessed to him instead of the fun-loving, attractive women Sully kept throwing his way.
Touching ground in his third, textbook perfect tandem landing of the morning, Jim smoothly unhooked himself from the latest adventurer: Suzie or Sandy Something, a petite brunette with a knock-out smile and preference for strawberry scented shampoo. Jim took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, glad to clear his lungs of the fruity scent.
Almost of its own volition, his gaze roved to the valley's western slope where the RVs were clustered like Conestoga Wagons. It was by the sheerest luck that he caught sight of their door opening and Blair stepping out to greet the morning sun.
A single glance made it plain that Blair wasn't out for the day. His partner was wearing a white pair of thermal long-johns, his beat-up hiking boots and his tatty brown corduroy jacket. With his uncombed curls and dark-stubbled jaw, the kid should have looked like a hobo, but as Blair tossed back his hair, the blinding glint of red highlights through those chestnut locks surrounded his head in a glowing aureole that all but blinded Jim.
Jim was so focused on that still figure that he could almost smell Blair, which, after all they'd been up to last night, probably wouldn't be that hard. He froze for a moment, wondering. Could he smell something as subtle as his lover's scent from this far away?
Curious as to its feasibility, Jim tested a theory that his Guide had been tossing around for the last few weeks, something Blair called 'piggy-backing' his senses. The concept was a little too out there for his rational mind to fully accept. Basically, Blair had proposed that he could use his enhanced vision to direct and home in on the target of another sense. His partner had been talking about using hearing as the piggy-backed sense, but Jim couldn't see how the concept would work any less effectively for smell – providing it worked at all, that was.
They hadn't tested the idea yet, but Blair seemed enthusiastic about its potential usefulness. If there was one thing Jim had learned to rely on during this past year together, it was Blair's innate talent for innovating workable uses for these whacko senses of his.
So, for once exploring his abilities without his Guide there urging him on, Jim focused his vision on that beautiful face as Blair tilted his head back to soak up the morning sun. He felt his nostrils flare to catch the wind, his gaze homing in on that beloved target like a laser scope, stretching out, when...
"Oh, Jim, that was incredible! Thank you so, so much!" the excited Suzie (or Sandy) exclaimed as she threw her arms around her oblivious instructor and leaped onto him in an enthusiastic hug.
Jolted back to reality, Jim's military training almost kicked in to deal with the outburst as an assault. Only as the sickening strawberry reek deluged his totally open olfactory sense did Jim recognize the girl as his latest student.
His face blanking of all emotion, he smothered his irritation and self-consciously disengaged from the embrace. "I'm glad you enjoyed the ride, miss."
"Enjoy? It was unreal! Better than sex!" the flushed brunette announced, her honey-brown eyes aglow with near-arousal.
"I wouldn't say that," Jim gently disagreed, silently adding, 'not after a night of sex with Blair.' Recognizing the pheromones flooding the air from the now-familiar tingling along his skin and that ineffable sharpening of his senses, he took a step back from the girl. This kind of trouble he could do without.
Praying that his near-sighted partner hadn't seen the exchange, Jim bent to gather up the yards of rainbow-hued silk that were billowing about their feet in the morning wind.
"Can I give you a hand, Jim?" his student hopefully asked.
Not raising his eyes above her knees as he pulled the chute into a manageable bundle, Jim gritted his teeth and said, "No thanks, honey. I can handle it. Hey, isn't that your friend over there?"
The girl squinted in the direction the cop was pointing. "Yeah, that's Peg. Hey, PEG!" Suzie/Sandy gave an ear- piercing squeal before bolting across the field to another wildly gesticulating co-ed.
"Reaping the rewards of tandem jumping there, old buddy?" Jack Sullivan's cheerful boom sounded behind him.
Jim looked up from his hunch on the ground to stare over his shoulder at where his buddy had just touched down a dozen or so yards away. The lemon-yellow jumpsuit Sully was wearing could doubtless be seen from six or eight miles away on a day this clear. "Did you set that up on purpose?"
Sully's laugh was as thunderous and infectious as ever. "No, man, but I sure wish I'd had a camera. Your expression was priceless." His arms laden with his own gear, the drop zone's proprietor companionably waited for Jim to finish gathering up his parachute. His round face abruptly serious, the big flyer questioned, "They really don't interest you at all anymore?"
"Huh?" Jim blinked.
"Oh." Jim considered it for a minute before giving Sully the truth, "I've got more than I can handle right there at home, Sull. I don't have to go looking for it."
To his relief, his old drinking buddy just grinned and shook his head. "Who would've thought it."
As they started back for the hanger, Jim asked, "So, are you going to keep throwing co-eds at me all day to prove a point?"
Sully howled with laughter. "I've got a 6'2" body builder going up with the next load, if that's more to your liking these days, Jimbo. Let it never be said that Jack Sullivan denied his old buddy his perks!"
Feeling himself color at the outrageous suggestion, Jim backpedaled. "Ah, I guess I'll stick to co-eds, if it's all the same to you."
"I thought you might," Sully chuckled, his laughter-reddened features a sharp contrast to his shocking yellow flight suit.
They were about to enter the organized mayhem of the hanger when a stray glance over at the RV he and Blair were sharing stopped Jim in his tracks.
Blair was still out front in his jacket and thermals, but his Guide was no longer alone.
Looking like an ad from Sports Illustrated in his pristine white jumpsuit with its snazzy red piping, Woodman stood beside Blair. The wind was ruffling through both men's longish hair. While Blair's curls looked like a tumbleweed on the run, Woodman's silken blond length blew as artistically around his face as a movie star's.
Although Jim hated the creep on general principle, the way Woodman was holding onto both of Blair's shoulders and staring intently down into the smaller man's eyes did things to his blood pressure that he'd rather not acknowledge. Just seeing the proprietary manner in which the yuppie was manhandling his Guide roused the shark within him.
As Jim watched, Blair looked over in the hanger's direction. The kid's face immediately transformed from irritated to panicked.
Responding to that emotion on an instinctive level, Jim was all set to hare off across the field to his partner's defense when Blair turned and knocked Woodman's hands aside.
It required every ounce of discipline Jim possessed to keep himself from listening in on the ensuing conversation, but somehow, he refrained. After a sharp comment of some kind to Woodman, Blair threw an uneasy glance Jim's way and gave a nervous smile before disappearing back inside the trailer.
"Oh, Jim, there you are!" A breathless Sylvy called as she ran up to him. "You seen Sully around?"
"Right here, Syl," Jack answered, coming out of the hanger, "What's up, honey?"
"Marcus sprained his ankle on that last jump. He's okay, but he's out of commission. Can you take a tandem up?" Sylvy explained in a rush.
"When?" Abruptly all business, Sully's face sobered as he ran a hand through his wavy dark hair.
Her smile was strained. "Like now?"
"I've got that group to instruct or there won't be any noon flight..."
Seeing his thirty minute break fade like the morning dew, Jim heard himself offer, "I could take another tandem up."
Jim remembered from all those months he used to come up here when Sully and Syl were just starting out just how badly an employee's sudden removal from the roster could affect scheduling.
"No, thanks anyway, Jim. You've already jumped three times this morning," Sully refused, but Jim didn't miss the hopeful light that sparked through his brown eyes.
"Three, four...what difference does it make?" Jim dismissed.
"You really wouldn't mind?" Sylvia questioned, visibly uneasy about overworking the unpaid staff.
"I'd do anything to keep you happy, sweetheart." Jim grinned, glad to see the smile back on her freckled face.
"Even jump with a 6'2" body builder strapped to your chest?" Sullivan asked with suspect sweetness.
"I said I'd do anything for your lovely lady. The body builder's all yours, man," Jim laughed.
"Come on, sweetie. Have I got a jumper for you!" Sylvy promised, hooking Jim's arm through hers.
"Not another co-ed?" Jim pleaded as he was led away.
"How about a sweet, little, old grandmother for a change of pace?" Sylvy laughed, tossing her long hair back from her face in a move that reminded Jim of his partner.
The 'sweet little old grandmother' turned out to be a svelte redhead only a couple of years older than Jim himself. To his intense relief, Mrs. Emily Bowen was not a recent divorcee looking for a potential replacement for hubby number two or three. Her interest in her instructor seemed to be solely confined to what Jim could teach her about skydiving and his qualifications to jump tandem.
Impressed, because of the four people he'd taken down today, she was the first to inquire as to his competency beforehand; Jim gave her a thorough introduction and left her in one of the ground instructor's capable hands to choose a jumpsuit.
Thinking that he could fit a quick hit of caffeine into the five or ten minutes it would take Emily to suit up, Jim left the hanger, making a bee-line over to the main office for a cup of Syl's infamous coffee.
He was just turning the corner of the hanger front when someone rushing way too fast from the other side came crashing into his chest. The runner bounced off him like a rubber ball. Working on instinct, Jim reached out to keep the fool from falling.
"Would you watch where the fuck you're go...oh, it's you." Joshua Woodman's growl turned into a sunny grin as he recognized the man he'd plowed into.
Suppressing an internal groan at his miserable luck, Jim gave a curt nod of recognition. "Woodman."
The blond reached out to grip Jim's elbow, keeping him from moving on. "I've been wanting to talk to you, man. I was just speaking with Blair."
"That's nice." Jim definitely didn't want to have this conversation. That inane grin just made him want to knock out a few of those perfect white teeth. He glared down at Woodman's offending hand and pointedly asked, "You mind?"
"What? Oh, no problem." Woodman removed the hand. The grin got wider and more irritating. "You know, you'd never guess it to look at us, but we actually have a lot in common."
"Is that so?"
The guy had all the sensitivity of a charging rhino. Woodman was so full of himself that he seemed completely oblivious to Jim's lack of interest. Looking pleased with himself, Woodman took his words at face value and nodded. "Yeah. When I first saw you with Blair, I just didn't get it. I mean, it was obvious what he sees in you – that bod of yours is like a Greek sculpture, dude. But it wasn't until I was passing your trailer late last night to get some firewood that I figured out what a looker like you is doing wasting your time with a scruffy little brain case like Blair."
Woodman's self-preservation instincts appeared to be as stunted as his sensibilities, for he didn't seem aware of the shark that was now eyeing him from behind Jim's granite mask.
"It's the meltdown factor, isn't it? That's what you're doing with him," Woodman said.
"The what?" It was almost like talking Sandburg-speak, except this jerk didn't have an iota of Blair's perceptiveness. Just standing this close to Woodman, he was beginning to get a very clear idea of what it felt like to be skeeved out. Simply talking to this loser made him crave a shower.
"You know," Woodman practically leered, "the meltdown factor. You get Blair hyped up enough and he'll do absolutely anything you want. You do it the same way I used to, with the jumps. Scare him enough, and you can get him to scream as loud in bed for you as he does in freefall. He'll fuck like a jack rabbit all night."
Jim gritted his teeth. This guy tortures Blair and then brags about it to his partner? His hands twitched at his sides as he fought to keep them from encircling the neck of this degenerate at the perverted reminiscences, unable to believe that Blair used to make love with this sicko.
Before he knew what was happening, Jim's hand shot out to gather Woodman up by the neck of his slick white jumpsuit. Lifting the sleeze off his feet much as Darth Vader had the rebel at the start of Star Wars, Jim questioned in a deadly calm tone, "Are you insane or do you just have a death wish?"
"Huh?" The shorter man seemed genuinely astonished as he scrabbled for a hold that would allow him to continue breathing. "What's with you, man?"
"What's with me? You don't get it, do you?" Like a cat with a live mouse in its mouth, Jim shook his captive until he heard Woodman's perfect teeth rattle together. Or perhaps it was the single brain cell banging around in the jerk's empty skull.
"Get what?" Woodman gasped, his cheeks a livid red.
"Blair Sandburg is my partner. No one – absolutely no one – speaks about him that way in my presence," Jim clearly defined, his control a chancy thing now that the shark had come out to play.
"Wha-what way?" Absolute incomprehension showed on those superficial features. "Come on, dude, put me down! I can't breathe!"
"Tough," Jim replied, feeling the shark smile with his lips. The color draining from that tan face as Woodman turned a sickly, ashen gray told him that the moron was at last comprehending the scope of his error. "So, you like the meltdown factor, do you, Josh? Enjoy being this side of it? Think you'll fuck like a jackrabbit tonight? Or maybe this isn't quite enough to get you going, maybe I should just drag your sorry ass over to the Sesna and drop you down from ten or twelve thousand feet without a chute. I bet a rush like that would be the ultimate turn on, hey, Joshy-Boy?"
The truly frightening aspect of the situation was the fact that there was a part of Jim that was deadly serious in his threat. He'd like nothing more than to toss this sack of garbage out a plane door without a chute, just to let Woodman experience firsthand the terror the creep had intentionally inflicted upon Blair.
"You-you can't do that!" the kid howled, no longer quite so smug or confident.
The shark had a way of doing that. Even psychotic killers recognized a far more dangerous predator when the shark stared out of his eyes at them.
"Can't I? You signed the liability waiver yesterday when you checked in. Remember that line about the company not being liable even if the instructor causes you injury out of malicious intent? Well, this is the instructor that clause was written for, fly boy."
Obviously experiencing the true definition of terror for the very first time in his worthless life, Woodman's bulging green eyes frantically scanned their surroundings, no doubt looking for rescue. "But you're a cop!"
"Unless it's escaped your notice, we're way out of my jurisdiction. Out here, it's just you and me, man to sleazoid. I'm going to introduce you to a thrill you'll never forget. You've got my word on that, Joshy-Boy."
Maybe it was the shark in his eyes or perhaps the fear just became too much, for panic took its physical toll on the pathetic thrill seeker.
Jim's nostrils twitched at the sudden olfactory assault as his captive lost control of several body functions at once, totally ruining that snazzy white jumpsuit.
Flashing its most predatory grin, the shark politely inquired, "Ready for that thrill now, Joshy-Boy?"
"Jim!" Something intruded into the shark's focused little world. A voice that had no place consorting with such a lethal predator.
At first, Jim nearly missed the sound, so intent was he on retribution. Only as someone fastened onto his forearm did the shark recede far enough for Jim to acknowledge that he and his prey were no longer alone. Trying to comprehend her presence here at incipient feeding-frenzy, he stared into Sylvia Sullivan's huge, frightened brown eyes.
"Hi, honey," Jim said softly, almost normally.
If anything, Sylvy appeared even more unnerved by his calm. Gulping, she gave a forced smile and asked in a tremulous tone, "Hi, yourself. What are you doing, Jim?"
"Just having a little chat with Woody here, Syl. Nothing to concern yourself with," he answered quietly, utterly controlled.
"Do you think you could put Josh back on his feet, Jim?" Sylvia questioned in a tone with which someone might request that the salt be passed to them. "I, ah, don't think he can breathe like that."
Jim thought about it for a moment before giving a slow, negative shake of his head, "I don't think I can do that, honey. Maybe you'd better go back inside for a few minutes, okay?"
"Please, Sylvy! Don't leave me with this maniac!" Woodman begged, tears starting to stream down his scarlet cheeks.
Her too-wide brown eyes darted to Woodman before settling on Jim. "I know that Woody's something of a low-life, Jim, but I can't just leave him here like this. Whatever you're going to do to him, you're going to have to do it in front of me."
"Please go inside, Sylvy," Jim repeated, the shark shaking his captive as the slime started to voice another cry for help. For someone who was supposed to be short on air, Woodman certainly seemed to be doing enough talking.
"Whatever he said, whatever he did, he's not worth this, Jim," Sylvy persisted, gently touching his shoulder. "Please put him down?"
The shark wanted to refuse, but deep inside, he knew Sylvy was right. Jim knew that if he messed Woodman up to the degree that the sadist deserved, that his badge would be forfeit. Worse still, he'd then have to face Blair and explain all this.
Forcing the shark back into the dark waters of his soul, Jim slowly replaced the stinking loser on his feet. Sanity returning fast, he struggled to get his own anger back under control, to feel something beside the shark's cold focus of intent.
"Thank you, Jim," Sylvy smiled, all fear gone from her now. Throwing her long blonde hair back with a toss of her head, she watched him release Woodman.
"You know me too well, Syl," Jim said softly, impressed by how she'd handled the situation. He'd no more be able to pull a violent stunt like that in front of Sylvy than he would in front of Blair. That she'd understood his character that well was a testament to her perceptiveness.
"Mrs. Bowen is almost ready inside, sweetie," Syl reminded as she stepped between Jim and his former captive. "Why don't we go in and have a cup of coffee before we meet her?"
Taking a deep breath upwind of Woodman's foul reek, Jim nodded, "Okay."
"Woody," Sylvia turned to the younger man. "Maybe you should go clean up, okay?"
The humiliated pin-up boy began to nod, then appeared to change his mind. "No. It's not okay. There's something I gotta take care of first."
Before anyone could question him, Woodman lowered his head and charged straight for Jim with a primitive roar.
Unfortunately, Sylvy was now placed between the two combatants.
Jim took in the threat in a second, his response to it pure instinct. With his right hand, Jim tugged Sylvy clear of danger. Almost of its own accord, Jim's left moved up into the charging man's face. He didn't so much back-fist Woodman, as allow the jerk to injure himself on his hand.
"Jim!" Sylvia's startled cry turned to instant understanding as she turned and saw the assault the detective had narrowly prevented. "Woody, are you crazy?"
The dazed man rolled over from where he'd landed in the dirt, a bright red fountain gushing from his nose as colorful rings started to form around his eyes even as they watched. "You 'roke my yose!"
"I'll break a lot more than that if you don't get out of my sight right now, fly boy. And, if there's anything left of you when I'm through, you'll find yourself up on charges," Jim warned.
"'harges?" the outraged Woodman yelped, clutching his bloody proboscis. "You 'roke my yose!"
"And you nearly assaulted this lady." Jim felt his jaw start to twitch as he grew angry all over again.
"You shun of a - " the bleeding blond cursed.
Sylvy grabbed hold of Woodman as he started to make yet another lunge for the Cascade detective. "Don't be an idiot, Woody. You just broke your nose running into his hand. Do you really want to find out what kind of damage an ex-Ranger can inflict when actively provoked?"
"He - " Woodman protested.
"You ran off your mouth again," Sylvy firmly corrected. Obviously, she was accustomed to dealing with the inevitable brawls that developed between drunken weekend revelers. She sounded very much like a teacher chastising an errant schoolboy. "You're lucky to get off with a bloody nose. Now, why don't you and I go over to the office and I'll patch up your nose?"
"'m gonna shue!" Woodman insisted.
Sylvy stepped between them again as Jim started to move towards the jerk.
"You don't want to do that, Woody." Sylvy was the soul of rationality as she took the bleeding man's arm and started to guide him clear of Jim. "Where would you jump if you close Sully and me down?"
The sweet-natured blonde was in Blair's league when it came to manipulation, Jim realized. The dead silence that met her last question showed that she'd hit her mark dead center.
"Jim," Sylvy smiled back over her shoulder at him, "Emily is waiting inside for you. I'll be back as soon as I get Woody seen to."
"Okay," Wishing he hadn't totally lost it with Woodman, Jim watched his old friend lead the hapless loser away. Although it had felt good to let the shark out to play with this monster who'd tormented Blair, he was always slightly embarrassed by the messy clean-up such forays entailed.
Taking a deep breath, Jim turned to find a place to wash the blood off his bruised knuckles before he took the lovely grandmother on her first jump.
An hour later, Jim found himself back on the ground. His arms full of loose, billowing silk, he followed his excited student back to the hanger. Emily wasn't quite as animated as Blair in her normal speech patterns, but she could sure give his partner a run for his money when it came to sheer chatter-speed.
"That was the most incredible experience, Jim!" Emily repeated for perhaps the hundredth time since they'd touched down. Her deep brown eyes were alight, her cheeks flushed with excitement. "You are so good at what you do!"
"Thanks," he felt his own face warming at her praise. Of all the lovely women he'd escorted down this weekend, she was the first he might have taken an interest in under other circumstances. However, there wasn't any room in his world for casual dalliances anymore. All he could think and feel was Blair.
After giving the youthful grandmother a chaste peck on the cheek as he said his goodbyes at the hanger, Jim's ears unconsciously searched for his partner's voice and heartbeat. One by one, he filtered out all the outside noises, just as Blair had taught him, until he was tuned to the frequency where he usually found Blair's heart.
Puzzled, Jim listened to the empty silence, the kind of stark quiet that he'd find when he'd get home to the loft before Blair did. No steady ta-thump, ta-thump, no deep baritone making Jim tingle inside; there was nothing to be heard on the Blair channel at all.
His own heart tripped to a complete stop. Oblivious to the bright noon sun pouring down on him and the groups of laughing people lounging around the drop zone, picnicking and partying, Jim stood there, trying to remember if Blair had mentioned any side trips or errands.
He forced himself to calm down. There were any number of reasons why Blair might not be here on the grounds: from anything as prosaic as running out of milk to needing to commune with nature on the creek-side again.
A glance at the parking lot showed the blue Expedition parked precisely where they'd left it on Friday. Scratch the milk theory, Jim thought, relaxing infinitesimally. Blair couldn't be that far if he were on foot.
Jim upped his detection range as he turned towards their RV, expanding it until it covered the entire wooded valley. Still no Blair.
Confused, but not yet alarmed, Jim climbed the RV steps. Once he got the door open, he stopped dead in his tracks to stare at the chaotic interior. The drawers in which Blair had stored his gear were all open and empty. Blair's damp, dirty clothes from last night, which had been lying in the corner by the kitchen since they'd undressed, were also missing.
Feeling the blood drain from his face, totally stunned, he stood frozen on the threshold, slowly accepting the truth before his eyes.
Blair had left him. Without a single word of explanation, without so much as a damn note, the kid had just up and gone.
Unable to believe that his partner would do this to him after the night of incredible tenderness they'd shared, Jim stood in the empty trailer, trying to find some other explanation for the irrefutable evidence of abandonment before him. But, as Blair and everything his partner had brought with him were gone, there simply wasn't any other explanation. After all but swearing eternal devotion to each other, Blair had skipped.
It was Jim's worst nightmare come true.
He was so shocked that he couldn't even react. All he could do was stare.
After one night of hot sex, Blair had cut out on him. What more was there to say?
Jim's cynical side reminded him how absurd this relationship was from the very start. He'd known all along that the lady-loving Blair would eventually dump him. Only, he'd hoped to have a longer run than a single one-night stand.
Yet, everything he'd learned about Blair over the past year told him that last night wasn't a meaningless fling to his partner. Just the opposite, in fact; it had seemed to have meant as much or more to Blair.
So, something must have happened to send his Guide packing. Jim searched his memory for anything that might have caused his lover to skip out like this – some fight or selfish slight on his own part – but Jim came up blank. They'd woken up cuddling this morning and parted with a sleepy kiss. The last time he'd seen Blair, he'd been stretched across the Murphy bed, grinning at him, teasing him to hurry back soon.
This didn't make a whit of sense. Everything had been fine when Jim left three hours ago, then, wham...his entire universe was crumbling around him.
Desperate to understand, Jim went over every moment of the day until he finally came up with a possible cause. The last time they'd been in actual physical contact was when they'd parted early this morning. But after one of those first jumps, Jim had seen his partner from afar, when he'd been experimenting with that piggy-back theory. And Blair had seen him – at almost the exact moment that over-zealous co-ed had thrown herself into his arms.
Could that be the root of this insanity, Jim wondered. A simple hug? Blair would leave him over that? It seemed inconceivable.
But, try as he would, he could uncover no viable alternative.
A deep, simmering rage beginning to brew over the gross unfairness of it, Jim gathered his own stuff together. He'd just stop off at the hanger, make a fast good-bye to Sylvy and Jack, then head back to the loft.
He and Professor Sandburg were going to have a little chat once he caught up with his errant Guide, a chat that Blair was unlikely to forget for a very long time.
Two hours later, Jim pulled his truck to a stop outside the loft. The drive had done little to improve his mood. Brooding as the speeding Expedition ate up the miles, Jim's shock had given way to a blazing fury.
There was nothing he hated more than being walked out on. Carolyn had done it all the time when they were fighting, but even she had had the decency to let him know what his offense had been. That Blair would just split like that without a word shook everything he believed in. Every time he remembered the gut-wrenching feeling of desertion he'd experienced as he stared around the empty trailer, his anger would flare to near-murderous proportion.
No betrayal had ever hurt this much. Not when Carolyn had left him, or when his mother had walked out on them, or when Stephen had lied about that damn car, or when his father hadn't believed his innocence, not a damn thing had ever hurt like that empty RV. Jim could cheerfully rip the legs off the spineless bastard for toying with him like this.
As he sat there in the truck in front of his place, struggling to master his rage to the point where he could deal with Blair without wringing the kid's neck straight off, his hearing automatically stretched out to encompass his home.
Blair's heart was right there on the Blair frequency. Overwhelming that comforting beat were a series of thuds, the bangs of drawers being opened, and the metallic zzzzrs of zippers being tugged closed. It took Jim a moment to understand what those sounds signified, but when he did, his jaw set like granite as he braced his heart for the worst.
Figures, Jim glumly acknowledged, wondering why he would be surprised by this development. It only stood to reason that someone who lacked the guts to explain why he was leaving would sneak out of their home like a cheap hooker at dawn.
What the hell had he been thinking, letting this opportunist into his heart, he berated himself. He'd known from the start what Blair was. For that matter, the kid had warned him himself that he couldn't be trusted to go the distance. Why in the name of God hadn't he listened?
But he didn't really have to ask why. Jim knew what had circumvented every one of the barriers he'd erected between his heart and the hurtful outside world. He hadn't listened to common sense because he'd fallen in love. The answer was as simple and as complex as that.
His anger abruptly deflated, punctured by the memory of the sweet love they'd found last night. A series of images ran through his mind: his partner limned in starlight as he stood beside the fragrant creek; Blair down on his hands and knees before him on that freezing creek-bank as Jim pounded into that incredible, hot tightness; Blair stretched out on the RV's ridiculous Murphy bed offering his sore body yet again. His mind whirled with the memory of the whispered love-words, Blair's kisses, his taste, the smell of him...
How was he going to live without that?
Abruptly dispirited, he rested his forehead against the cool steering wheel, wishing that Blair had just gone to Borneo last week. At least that way, they could have parted friends. Now...
It was while he had his brow pressed to the hard, plastic wheel that Jim heard a sound that went right through him: a wet sniffle, followed by the soggy honk of a nose being blown. A hiccup-like sob followed, and then Blair's hoarse whisper, "Gotta keep movin', gotta..." which dissolved into the unmistakable, shuddery sound of someone breaking down.
His head shooting up, Jim tried to equate those pathetic noises with the heartless Lothario he'd painted in his mind these last few hours. It just didn't work. Blair sounded as though he'd been crying for hours, like he'd cried himself hoarse already. Jim knew true misery when he heard it, and those convulsive sobs told him that this was practically killing Blair.
Then why the hell is he doing it, Jim's rational side demanded as he reminded himself that he hadn't kicked the kid out. Blair had left him of his own free will. What should he care if the bastard were upset?
But he did care. Probably always would.
Sighing, Jim hauled himself from the truck, leaving his gear behind as he made for the loft in a crisp jog.
Jim entered the house without expectation. All he knew was that he couldn't ignore that kind of pain. He so rarely saw Blair cry; yet, this weekend the kid had done so more times than during the entire year that Jim had known him.
What that said about their new relationship, Jim didn't have a clue. It might mean that Blair had found something that made him feel safe enough to drop all the pretenses he lived by. Or, it could signify just the opposite, that Blair was terrified by the level of intimacy he demanded of him. Whichever the case, Jim was determined to find out before his wild bird made its bid for freedom.
Jim heard his partner's heartbeat trip into hyper-drive as he closed the door behind him. Steeling himself, Jim looked over to Blair's room, unsurprised when his eyes confirmed what his ears had told him back in the car – Blair was packing.
There were half-filled bags and suitcases all over the room. Clothes spilled from the open bureau drawers and the closet. Half of Blair's books and CDs were off their shelves and dumped in cardboard boxes. The tiny, cluttered space behind the fancy French doors was a chaotic mess.
But it wasn't the disorderly room that claimed Jim's attention. Rather, it was the tatterdemalion standing frozen in its center, gaping at the door with his heart racing faster than a startled cat-burglar's.
Stunned, Jim saw that Blair was wearing yesterday's mud and grass stained jeans. The plaid shirt, oatmeal sweater, and thermals were all from the damp pile on the RV's kitchen floor. It looked as though his partner had been so upset when he'd left the drop zone that he'd pulled on the first things that came to hand, which in this case were yesterday's filthy clothes.
Blair's eyes were tear-bright, highly patriotic in their Technicolor misery. The red-ribboned sclera seemed to accentuate how very blue the irises were.
The rest of Blair's face was in a similar ravaged state. His cheeks and nose were near scarlet, and dirty-looking from the tears he'd rubbed all over them. Blair looked like nothing so much as a little boy whose dog had died or whose best friend had moved away forever.
Taking in the emotion-wrecked features, Jim could hardly credit that less than four hours had passed since he'd seen Blair smiling in the morning sun on their RV's stairs. Blair looked as though he'd been crying non-stop for days.
The last vestiges of his self-righteous fury extinguished by his partner's suffering, Jim just stood there, his jaw twitching as he awaited acknowledgment, an explanation...anything.
But even here, Jim was to be disappointed. Unpredictable as ever, Blair remained frozen in place, staring silent, wet accusation at him out of those distraught, puppy-dog eyes that drove him insane.
The tension mounting second by second, Jim waited and waited, until he could bear it no longer.
"What the hell is going on, Blair?" The pressure erupted out of him like a volcano blasting its top.
The slender form jerked a little, then visibly forced itself to still. An unnatural hardness coming over his abruptly shuttered features, Blair's hoarse voice dripped sarcasm as he replied, "You're a detective. Figure it out."
Then Blair turned to the bookcase and dumped a whole shelf of hardcovers into the nearest cardboard box – which unfortunately contained bric-a-brac that had been on the top shelf.
Jim winced at the ominous crash of shattering glass, deducing that his partner's prized ship-in-a-bottle was probably no longer either in a bottle or an intact ship.
"Oh, shit..." Blair's whole body quivered, then he stifled another sniff and moved to the open dresser.
Garnering more patience than he'd ever believed he owned, Jim tried again, "You want to tell me why you're leaving? I think you owe me that much," he added at the insolent tone the silence had taken on.
"That's rich, coming from you, man," Blair shot back angrily before biting his lip and blindly emptying the drawer on top of the mess he'd made in the book box.
"What's that supposed to mean?" When his partner didn't even bother to glance at him, Jim lowly warned, "Blair, I'm running out of patience here. If I don't hear an explanation soon, I'll..."
"You'll what? Kick my ass out on the street? Bust me up?" Blair's tone was one of utter contempt.
It made Jim realize how empty his unspoken threat had been. This man had tamed the shark. Blair knew he had nothing to fear from him.
When several more painfully tense minutes passed in which he watched Blair toss his things into the nearest receptacle with uncharacteristic lack of concern for their well being, Jim finally asked, "All this is because of that hug?"
That, at least, seemed to draw the upset Blair's attention. "What?"
"You're leaving me because you saw that girl hug me this morning?" It sounded preposterous when Jim voiced it aloud and the completely blank expression in those emotion-ravaged eyes told him how completely off base the suggestion was.
Blair simply stared at him for the longest time. Finally, he shook his head, curls bouncing all over the place as he murmured, "Christ, it means so little to you that you don't even know what you did." At Jim's obvious lack of comprehension, Blair elucidated, "I'm leaving you because you lied to me last night."
Bewildered, Jim caught sight of the fresh spring of tears that swelled up from the swollen eyes.
"What are you talking about, Blair? I didn't tell you a single lie last night," Jim swore in utter incomprehension.
Still Blair refused to even so much as look his way. But Jim knew that he'd been heard. As Blair knelt down in front of the bureau to pull out the bottom drawer, Jim's Sentinel vision picked out the tear-drops that splattered down like rain on top of the neat piles of folded jeans inside.
"Blair, you can't just leave without telling me why. Tell me what I did. Let me try to make it right. Please, baby?" His pride stung at the spectacle he was making of himself – the pathetic older man pleading with his hot, young lover not to leave. If it didn't hurt so goddamn much, the stereotype might have been laughable. But Jim knew if this kid walked out the door on him, he might never laugh again.
"Talk to me. Please, baby?" Jim repeated.
Blair's head swung around to face him. "Don't ever call me 'baby' again. I might be younger than you, but I'm no fucking baby. I was gullible last night and believed that crock of shit you fed me, but never again. Never again," Blair murmured almost to himself as he turned back to his clothing and knelt there just staring into the drawer while his tears stained the faded denim contents.
"I didn't tell you any lies," Jim protested, wounded by the utterly unfair accusation. "I swear to God, every word I said was true."
"Yeah, right," Blair sniffed.
And it was only that sniffle that kept Jim from shoving the snide comment down Blair's throat, along with his teeth. Taking a deep breath, he tried again, "All right. Why don't you tell me just what it is you think I lied about, 'cause I sure as hell don't have a clue here, Chief."
The kneeling figure seemed to huddle further in upon itself, as if each one of Jim's words were vicious blows. As he saw Blair's arms wrap around his own chest, Blair hugging himself tight as his entire, tight-strung body quivered with suppressed emotions, something broke inside him.
With no awareness of moving, Jim suddenly found himself kneeling there on the clothes-strewn floor beside his shaking partner. His hand carefully touched Blair's shirt-layered bicep.
"Don't, please..." Blair begged, his eyes squeezing shut.
"Tell me what I did, Blair," Jim urged, unconsciously falling into a lover's voice, Blair's unfeigned pain sliced through every one of his guards in the same way Blair's leaving him had sliced through his heart. "Please?"
A final quiver coursed through that tense figure before Blair sighed and sank back onto his heels, his head lowering in open defeat. "You...you made me believe. In you...in myself. You said you trusted me. Made me believe it was true. You made me feel so important, so cherished, so...trusted. And then you... you..."
"And then I…?" Jim gently urged through an emotion-tight throat, unable to think of a single one of his actions today that might have made Blair think he'd lied about such important issues. His jaw twitching, he rubbed his hand over his face and fought for control. Another minute of this, and he'd be blubbering right beside Blair.
Blair turned to face him, openly accusing. Blair's hand shot out to grab the hand with which Jim was rubbing his stinging eyes. "And then you went and did this," Blair said, pointing to the Jim's bruised knuckles.
Jim stared from his banged up knuckles to Blair's face, totally bewildered.
Obviously picking up on his lack of understanding, Blair released Jim's hand and continued, "You told me you trusted me, that you had faith in me...and then you go and bust Josh up just for talking to me. What kind of trust is that?"
The words made so little sense that it took nearly two minutes for Jim to realize that Blair was serious. "You think I...because I saw him talking to you?"
"Josh came to me, told me what happened. You broke his nose just because...how can you trust me if…?"
"Hold it right there," Jim ordered, too angry to even think about gentling his tone. "I don't know who I want to kill more right now, that bastard or you, for believing him. Josh said I beat him up just for talking to you. Did it ever occur to you to ask me what happened?"
Those tear-ravaged eyes pinned him. "I saw what you did to his nose. God, he's got two black eyes. Just for talking to me..."
"He's lucky that's all he's got. He almost hurt Sylvy," Jim shot back.
"What?" Blair's full attention seemed to settle on him for the first time since Jim had gotten home. "Josh is a loser, but he'd never hurt a woman."
"He was angry and she got between us. He was aiming for me."
"After you broke his nose?" Blair asked with far less recrimination in his attitude.
"No, and I didn't break his nose. He ran into my fist." Tiring of defending himself against this unfair attack, Jim let his hand drop away from Blair's shoulder and slowly rose to his feet.
"What do you mean 'he ran into your fist'? What happened, Jim?" Blair finally asked the question he should have asked before leaving the drop zone.
Coldly angry in his own right now, Jim stared down at his Guide and demanded, "What do you care? Talk about lack of trust. I've already been tried and convicted here."
"You really want to know what happened?" At Blair's solemn nod, Jim succinctly explained the events that had led to Woodman's injury. "I ran into the bastard outside the hanger. The son of a bitch was bad-mouthing you, bragging to me – bragging – about how he used to get off on scaring you. I lost it and was going to take him apart bit by worthless bit," he openly confessed, "but Sylvy showed up and talked some sense into me. I put him down and turned to go, and he charged – right at Sylvy. I pulled her out of the way and let the jerk run into my fist. He broke his nose and went crawling off to lick his wounds. End of story."
At Blair's look of horrified comprehension, Jim continued, "Then after the jump, I get back and find out you've cleared out. No note, no nothing. You might have at least paid me the courtesy of sticking around long enough to verify Woodman's story, but I guess that was a little too much to ask. That would have required trust, maybe even a little faith." That last was a cheap shot, but Jim took it anyway.
Having had about as much of this as he could take, Jim turned his back and headed out of the room. There was some beer in the kitchen. The way he felt right now, two kegs wouldn't help.
He kept walking, too aware of the rumpled figure that once again was dogging his footsteps.
Jim could feel Blair's eyes burning into him as he pulled a Coors out of the fridge and took a long, deep drag of it as he stood before the open door in the center of the kitchen. The cool, foamy brew went down smooth as silk, same as usual, but it didn't help anything. His heart was still broken in a thousand pieces and Blair was still standing there staring at him with that same deer-in-the-headlights look that his Guide had worn since Jim had offered his version of the incident. He withstood the observation for another minute, then reached into the ice box for a second bottle and silently handed it over.
Blair took the beer like it was a primed explosive device, staring at Jim in complete incomprehension.
Blair's body was still recuperating from his breakdown, his breathing still interrupted with those hiccup-like gasps as he stood there blocking the way to the living room.
Jim automatically noted how fast his companion's heart was racing. Listening to the painfully loud swallows, he could only guess how dry his partner must be. The scent of Blair's tears was almost as strong as that of his filthy clothing.
As the quiet dragged on, neither one of them appeared to know quite what to say.
At last Blair broke the nerve-wracking silence with a subdued, "Aren't you going to yell at me?"
Jim stared into those puffy red eyes. The raw fear lurking at their depths hurt. It was like everything he'd said and promised last night was meaningless.
Shaking his head in defeat, Jim hardened his heart and quietly asked, "What would be the point?"
Jim heard Blair's gulp the way he might a death cry.
"I told you I'd screw this up," Blair whispered, "but not even I imagined I could do it this fast. I guess...I guess an apology wouldn't help matters." Blair waited, watching Jim's no doubt forbidding profile before gulping again and answering his own question, "No, I guess not. Well, I'm almost packed, I'll just..."
Jim winced. That was Blair's automatic default in every threatening emotional situation, cut and run. The kid didn't even stay long enough to assess the full scope of the damage, to see how much was salvageable.
Because he's never had anything that had a hope of lasting before, Jim's conscience reminded him. Blair had spelt it out for him on that creek-bank last night when he'd bared his soul and let him see how much he wanted this. What was it Blair had said, that he'd take Jim on any terms he named?
Recalling something else his Guide had told him, Jim got a grip on his own runaway emotions. Taking a good long look at the lost figure wearing yesterday's stained clothing, he recognized that as much as he himself was hurting over this, Blair was hurting more. "You'll what? Finish it for good? Break every one of the promises you made me?"
"Wha-what?" Blair questioned, all traces of remaining color draining from his face.
"Last night, you promised me that you'd never leave me. Not for a woman, not even for Harvard." Jim threw his partner's words back at the trembling figure. "Remember that? Or was that just another of those lies you classify as romantic obfuscation?"
"But...but I already left you...I mean..."
The depth of confusion in those bewildered blue eyes was truly astonishing. Jim realized that on some level, he was dealing with a hurt child here, a kid who'd never had anything stable of his own. Beginning to suspect how often in the past a single error in judgment or behavior had cost Blair everything he knew, Jim felt his heart breaking all over again. The raw misery in Blair's hopeless expression made it plain that Blair thought himself beyond forgiveness.
"We had a miscommunication," Jim said levelly. "That's not permanent, but if you walk out that door now, we won't have anything left – not a partnership, not even a friendship."
"What do we have left now?" Blair questioned, his deep voice rough and hoarse, the sound sandpaper would make if it could speak. "I screwed up. You were defending my honor and I...and I... how can I even say I'm sorry for that?"
"I don't want a damn apology," Jim replied, staying calm and reasonable, trying to let Blair see that everything didn't have to be over. "What I want here is some assurance."
Blair was staring at him as if he were speaking a completely alien tongue. "Assurance?"
"I – I can't stand being left, Blair. I can take arguing and sulking and just about anything else you can dish out, but I don't deal well with desertion. You skip out on me again like that and we're through," Jim clearly defined.
"Aren't we through now? I..."
"You made an error in judgment," Jim said softly. "And we both got hurt by it. You have two choices here. You can compound that error and leave or..."
There was no defining the expression in Blair's eyes at that moment. It was fragile and vulnerable and hopeful all at once.
And suddenly, Jim found himself across the room, gathering that desperate figure into his arms and burying himself in the dry kiss. He delved deep into the dehydrated mouth, letting Blair drink of his juices, letting touch explain what his overwhelmed heart didn't have the verbal skills to articulate.
"You – you really think you can forgive me?" Blair asked when they finally parted.
"This isn't about forgiveness; it's about love, ba..." Jim hesitated over the endearment.
Looking stricken, Blair assured, "You can say it."
But Jim shook his head, remembering how sensitive his lover had been to the age difference, despite all claims to the contrary. If he had his way, he was never going to make his partner feel undervalued or like the junior member of this team again. "No. You were right in that before. You're not a child."
The dark, unwashed curls veiled the emotion-wrought face as Blair looked down, staring at their crushed together chests. "I ruined it."
"You didn't ruin anything, babe," Jim promised, watching the glow that took that face from within as Blair's chin shot back up at the pet name Jim had substituted. "Is that better?"
Blair nodded, then reached up to haul him down into another kiss.
Inundated by the taste, feel and, most certainly by the overly strong scent of this wonder he held in his arms, Jim dizzily gave himself over to the kiss, drowning in the sensations that were Blair.
A long time later, as if from a distance, Jim heard that familiar voice whispering as every feature on his face was covered in kisses, "I'll never leave you again. Never. I promise, Jim."
Then the passion-rocked Sentinel found himself being led to the comfortable confines of the nearby couch, where his errant Guide went out of his way to prove his promises, and then some.