Practice Makes Perfect

by

Rosemary

Originally published in the zine Primal Instincts 3

 


Normally, sunrise was Detective James Ellison's favorite time of the day. There was nothing that could match the magic of watching a crystal clear night sky give way by subtle hues to the blazing blue of day. That moment when the sun finally cleared the eastern horizon, that instant when the first rays of warmth caressed the frigid Washington air was filled with such promise that it never failed to lift his spirits.

That was normally. This morning was a whole different story. His five day protected witness escort job had been cut short when his charge keeled over with a heart attack last night. After a harrowing night of CPR, ambulances, and emergency rooms, Jim felt drained to the core and dead tired. The shrill blare of that ambulance siren was still throbbing through his bones. How he hadn't zoned out on it or gone into aural shock was still a mystery to him.

In the two months that Jim had been coping with his freakishly enhanced senses, he'd learned that the danger of zoning-out was always worst when he was overtired...like now. Fatigue bled away his control faster than it did his energy. If he let his focus slip even slightly when he was this tired, he ended up stepping out in front of trucks and the like when Blair wasn't around to catch him. So, the weary Sentinel was doing his best to ignore how the magnificent sunrise was tinting the sky to his left the orange and salmon shades of the Good Humor Fruit Pops he'd favored as a kid.

Concentrating on his driving, Jim kept his red-rimmed, tired eyes fixed on the road as he made for home.

At last, the loft came into sight.

Blair's green Corvair was parked out front. In view of the hour, that was hardly surprising. With the bizarre schedule the kid kept, the only time Blair saw the rising sun was when he was dragging himself in from the previous all-nighter.

Jim pulled in beside the classic car and turned the ignition off. For a long moment, he just sat there soaking up the early morning quiet. Somewhere down by the beach, he could hear a sea gull's piercing cry. It cut through the sparrows and starlings' chirping coming from the nearby trees like a katana blade through silk.

Realizing how close he was to zoning on the gull's call, Jim rubbed his hand over his stubbled chin and opened the truck door. The blast of cold air instantly sharpened his senses, hitting him like a cold shower might a normal man.

Unfortunately, Jim was too far gone for even an ice bath to have much effect on him. All that mattered was that he was finally here. Sighing in absolute relief at being home, he hauled his weary body out of the driver's seat and headed for the front door.

Even from the first floor, he could smell Blair's presence wafting down from a space that had previously borne only his own scent. This was still the hardest thing to get used to, everything having these potent scents that normal people couldn't even detect. To be fair, the kid didn't smell bad. In fact, with all those natural shampoos and oils Blair used, he smelt better than most. Jim was just finding it hard to get used to Blair's aroma being all over his personal space.

Unconsciously, he found himself searching out his temporary house-guest's heartbeat. The slow, steady rhythm instantly told him that his manic Guide was in deep sleep.

So far, so good, Jim thought. Maybe he'd be able to slip in, have a quick breakfast, and hit the sack before the hurricane that was a running-late-Blair started its 'over did the snooze button' early morning scramble.

Jim opened the door to his loft, and froze on the threshold. Instinct had him reaching for his gun as his shocked gaze roamed over the living room. The place looked like it had been burglarized. The sofa cushions were scattered over the rug in front of the fireplace. The bare frame of the gray couch was littered with books, papers, dirty clothes and used tissues. The end tables were almost buried beneath several layers of filthy dishes and notebooks, all of which were balanced in precarious strata.

A quick glance to the kitchen area showed the table to be all but hidden by take-out food bags and half-filled containers of malodorous remains. And the sink...the dark, lurking mountain of foul pans, mugs, and plates completely hid it.

Jim didn't have to go into the bathroom to see the mess. From the front door, the mounds of used towels Blair had left on the floor were clearly visible. He didn't even want to think about what state the basin and tub must be in.

Three days. He'd only been gone three days...

Jim couldn't conceive how a single human being could even create this much mess in such a short period of time.

Very deliberately, Jim replaced his gun in his holster. This was one conversation he didn't want to have with a loaded piece in his hand. He tried to defuse his temper, to count to ten and step back from the fury, but...the half-eaten tuna fish sandwich stinking up the room had to have been there all three days.

Jim got to the pause between two and three in his mental counting, then found himself roaring at the top of his lungs, "SANDBURG! GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE NOW!"

Jim heard the physical start the man sleeping behind the flimsy curtain in the spare room gave as he startled awake. Blair's heart tripped into double time as he gasped and moved. "Huh?"

"SANDBURG!" Jim bellowed.

A moment later, the curtain parted. His curls looking like a neglected azalea bush, Blair stood in the doorway, blinking at Jim as he visibly attempted to wake up. The kid looked like he was wearing hand-me-downs, so loose were the oversized gray sweat pants and blue tee shirt he wore. "Jim? Is everything all right, man? What…?"

"All right?" he yelled over the sleep-fogged inquiry. "What the hell's been going on here? Look at this place!"

Obviously straining to gather his wits about him, the half-asleep Blair stared past him.

Jim was surprised by the play of emotion across those sleep-fogged features. He watched as Blair's sleepy confusion gave way to horrified understanding. "Oh, God...you're home early. You said you wouldn't be back until Friday. It's...it's only Wednesday...isn't it?"

Under any other circumstances, Jim would have been amused by the absent-minded professor not knowing what day it was, but there was absolutely nothing entertaining about the devastation behind him. "What kind of person leaves a tuna fish sandwich out for days! This place stinks as bad as it looks."

"Jim, I'm really, really sorry, man. But with all the work we were doing on that Lucas case before you left, I had a lot of catching up to do. I swear the place would have been neat as a pin by Friday. I didn't mean to--."

"You never mean to," Jim cut in, too angry to even think about what he was saying. "But this shit still happens all the time. We agreed that there were certain rules to your living here..."

"I know, but you weren't here and I was so busy..."

"Those rules apply whether I'm physically in the loft or not. This is my home you just trashed--."

"Jim, I am sorry. I'll clean it up. I promise," Blair swore, appearing legitimately stricken.

The kid was always genuinely repentant after a screw-up, but this one was the one that broke the camel's back. "You bet your ass, you will. I want this place spotless by the time I get home tonight. Is that understood?"

"Yeah, man. Anything you say. I didn't mean to..."

Jim took a deep breath, moved in spite of himself by the open apprehension in those huge blue eyes. "I know you didn't, but...obviously, this just isn't working out, Sandburg. You told me that your staying here was temporary, that you'd be out in a few days. That was twenty-four days ago. I'd like you out by Friday. Understood?"

Jim hardened his heart to his unwanted guest's reaction. Before Blair could catch himself, his face crumpled. Mortified, Jim realized the kid was going to cry. But then at the last minute, Blair pulled himself together. His emotion-torn gaze slipped past Jim to the mess in the living room, before Blair grimaced and gave a crest-fallen nod. "I hear you, man. I'll be gone by the end of the week."

"Good. Now clean up this mess!" With that, Jim turned to stalk into the kitchen for some breakfast. If he tried to sleep with this anger eating at his empty stomach, he'd have an ulcer before noon. It didn't improve his mood any when he had to wash a frying pan, plate, and cutlery just to make a couple of eggs.

Attempting to defuse his fury, Jim concentrated on the physical task at hand: mixing milk, eggs, and butter, then tending the eggs as the scrambled mess began to solidify.

Funny, Jim thought as he poked at the gelatinous mass of congealing food with his spatula, he'd never really paid attention to the metamorphosis the eggs went through while being scrambled. With his Sentinel-enhanced vision, the change was quite a show. His sight wasn't quite as precise as an electron microscope, for his amplified vision didn't get down to the molecular level. But he nonetheless saw the transformation at a level that was nearly awe-inspiring.

Spellbound and exhausted, he watched while the fractured yellow goo hardened, the white particles becoming more pronounced as the yellow darkened. And the smell of it...

Transfixed, he watched the yellow parts get darker and darker, until the edges turned brown. His nostrils twitched at the change in odor. The brown coloring spread through the eggs, darkening in places to black. After a short time, the black began to crackle almost angrily, then puff and quite suddenly spark. The golden flames leaped up, dancing hungrily across the brown remains, consuming his breakfast as...

"What the--?"

The frying pan and its blazing contents were yanked out of his line of vision by a familiar, fine-boned hand.

As if sheltered by a wall of cotton, Jim vaguely heard an angry, sizzling sound, then more smell. But the noise was too far away to have any true meaning. All there was in his world were the trails of flame, dancing like a living thing against the backdrop of his retinas.

"Jim...Jim, man. Come on, you're zoning. Do you hear my voice? You know I'm here?" Blair's irritating questions intruded like a mosquito buzz into his consciousness.

Absorbed by the still vivid images playing through his mind's eye, Jim tried to tune the intrusion out.

Further distractions followed. From behind his entrancing web of remembered flame, Jim felt his elbows clutched, then he was forcibly turned around. The inner kitchen replaced the sight of the stove where the magic had taken place. Jim felt his cheeks then. They were being pressed between warm palms as Blair's face blocked everything out.

"Listen to me, Jim. Hear me. You're all right. Just overtired. Feel the breath you're taking. Feel it enter your chest. Feel it run through you. That's it. Follow the breath. When you breathe it out, those images are going to start to disperse. You're going to hear my voice a bit clearer. Hear my voice, Jim. Grab onto it. Follow it back out. That's right. That's the way..."

Suddenly scared to realize that he was once again lost in one of those never-never lands of his senses, Jim grabbed onto that familiar drone like a drowning man would clutch at any piece of flotsam that came his way. But Blair's voice wasn't flotsam. It was a life line, guiding him back to control.

With a shocked gasp, Jim started back into the here and now.

Utterly disconcerted, he found himself frozen in the kitchen with Blair's hands cupping his face. The kid was standing closer to him than a lover as Blair gazed into his eyes with open concern as Jim tried to retrace what had happened.

"I was making eggs," he muttered, bewildered. Looking over his right shoulder, he saw the fire-blackened frying pan on top of the mound of filthy dishes in the sink.

"You were overtired and zoned-out again," Blair explained. As if realizing their circumstances, Blair quickly removed his hands from his face and stepped clear of Jim's personal space. Blair's expression and attitude seemed to anticipate a rebuke.

Totally mystified, Jim was about to question the weird withdrawal when he remembered. The mess, the fight they'd had...he'd thrown the kid out.

And not five minutes later, Blair stood here talking him out of another of those whacko zone-outs, as gentle with him as ever.

"What?" Blair asked, concern radiating from the slender form as he unconsciously moved closer, almost in spite of himself. "You all right, Jim? I mean, it was, like, just an ordinary zone-out, right?"

"If you can call something like that ordinary, then, yes, it was just another ordinary zone-out," Jim carefully answered, staring at Blair with the feeling that he'd never really seen him before.

"Then what's up?"

"We were fighting a couple of minutes ago. I threw you out," Jim said, not sure if he were reminding Blair or asking him a question.

A shadow darkened those expressive blue eyes. Blair seemed to brace himself before he asked, "Yeah, so?"

"So how can you be so...supportive..?"

If possible, Blair appeared even more hurt by his question than he had by his demand that he move out.

"You think I'd let you burn yourself just because we were having a stupid fight? Get real, man." Blair looked like he might say more, then he appeared to reconsider. "Don't worry. I'll get the place cleaned up before you get home tonight."

Jim opened his mouth, his exhausted mind searching for the words that would make everything all right, but they just didn't exist. He looked around the wreck of what had once been his apartment, the memory of those warm hands on his cheeks, moist breath, and Blair's worried gaze slicing through his conscience. Suddenly, the mess didn't seem so damn important. But how to say that?

"Do you need me today for anything?" Blair asked.

Normally, those deep blue eyes would be focused squarely on his gaze when Blair was speaking to him. Jim had never met anyone who looked into his eyes quite the way Blair did. But now Blair's gaze strayed away from him like an abused stray on the street, like if he got too close, he'd get kicked.

His sense of shame increasing by the second, Jim found his own gaze dropping as he hesitantly answered, "Simon wanted me to give a warehouse down on Water Street the once-over this afternoon..."

"What time?"

Stunned that Blair would even consider accompanying him after that blow up, Jim both asked and answered, "Three-ish?"

"Fine. Can you pick me up at the University? The Corvair's dead again."

So, his Guide didn't even have a vehicle to haul his stuff out with, Jim guiltily realized. "No problem. Blair, look..."

His small frame practically sparking with suppressed emotion, Blair cut into his stumbling attempt at an apology. "I'll see you then, man."

With that, the kid made his escape, moving almost too fast for even Jim's enhanced senses to apprehend. All he knew was that he was suddenly left staring at the closed curtain that separated Blair's cubby hole of a room from the living room proper.

Jim stared at the flimsy, vibrating material, thinking how emotionally unsatisfying that drape must be. Were their positions reversed, he knew that he would have been wanting to slam a door to make a statement. Sighing and bone weary, he promised himself that he'd square everything with Blair after a few hours shut eye.

Abruptly finding himself not the least bit interested in breakfast, Jim stumbled upstairs to bed.

*~*~*

"Jim, have you got the 432 on Lazlo?" Captain Simon Banks paused by Jim's desk to question on his way to his office.

Jim's gaze traveled up the tall black man, passing over his friend's black suit and burgundy Nehru shirt, over the once-broken jaw, stopping when he met the dark liquid gaze through Simon's glasses. Jim stared at the oil deposit on the lenses, wondering how the hell Simon saw through the damn things. Just looking at the dirty glasses made his fingers ache to clean them.

"Yeah, I've got it right here in my jacket," Jim assured, dragging his sluggish form to the coat rack on the other side of the bull pen.

Jim still felt like hell, both physically and emotionally. After that blow-up with Blair this morning, he'd found it impossible to sleep, his guilt eating away at him. Now, weary and aching, he felt inches away from collapse. Merely keeping his eyes open was an effort almost beyond him. Knowing that he was only halfway through his shift didn't help in the least.

Hating this dragging feeling, Jim quickened his steps. He was digging through the last pocket of his brown suede jacket when he recalled that he'd been wearing his warmer, navy pea coat during the Lazlo case. With all the excitement this morning, he'd never gotten around to cleaning out his pockets.

"Damn," Jim cursed, wondering if anything would go right today.

"What's up?" Simon asked from across the room.

"I left the 432 in my other coat," Jim grimly reported, aware that he hadn't made this kind of screw-up as a totally green rookie.

"We can't close the Lazlo case without it, Jim," his captain unnecessarily reminded him.

Jim was all too aware of how vital the 432 was. Until that form was filed, the witness he'd left in that Spokane hospital last night was still officially under their protection. If anything were to happen to Lazlo before the 432 was filed, it was Banks' department that would be held accountable.

"I know, sir. I'm supposed to pick Sandburg up in an hour. I'll swing by my place on the way," Jim promised.

"Good enough." Simon's smile faded as he studied his fatigued detective. "You okay, Jim? You look a little tired."

"I'm fine," he lied.

"You got that warehouse on Water Street covered?" Banks checked.

"That's what I'm getting Sandburg for."

"When you're through with the warehouse, just drop the 432 off on my desk and head home. You look like you could use some serious down time," the captain commented.

"I must look bad if you're sending me home," Jim found the energy to joke.

"Seriously, Jim, you look like hell. Get the form, check out the crime scene, then get some rest. Please."

Touched by the concern that had been so noticeable in its absence during the high-profile Switchman case, Jim nodded. "Will do."

"Good. Now, go get your sidekick." Simon grinned, visibly enjoying the wince Jim gave as he grabbed his coat and left the office.

It was raining again when Jim pulled out of the police garage. In Cascade, daily precipitation was almost a given, but that spectacular sunrise today had promised a better showing than this soggy gray day. Sighing, because the weather was right in line with his luck so far, he headed towards his loft.

Fifteen minutes later, he found himself back at his place. Steeling himself to ignore the mess, Jim unlocked the front door and stepped inside. A peculiar sense of déjà-vu settled over him as he slammed to a stop. His uncomprehending gaze moved over the interior of the room, as if he'd made some dreadful mistake and stepped into his neighbor's apartment.

No, Jim told himself, the furniture was definitely his, as were the coats hanging on the wall rack and the mail in the basket beside the door. This was definitely the same place he'd walked into this morning. The only difference was that every trace of garbage and mess had been removed. The glass table, sink, floors, couch... everything was spotless.

How...

The thought cut off as Jim realized what must have happened. Blair must have used his free periods between classes to rush back here and clean. Recognizing how difficult that must have been for his currently wheel-less associate, Jim felt the last vestiges of his anger slip away.

Damn.

Abruptly, he wished that he'd been just a little bit nicer to the kid this morning.

Mentally promising to make it up to his Guide, Jim turned to the coat rack. His pea jacket was right where he'd left it. A quick search of its pockets revealed the neatly folded yellow paper that was the 432 form. Jim tucked it safely in his shirt pocket, backed out of the pristine clean loft and locked the door behind him.

All the way to Rainier University, Jim found himself marveling over Blair's thoughtful act. Even though he'd told Blair to get the place cleaned before he came home, he hadn't really thought his roommate would be able to swing it, not with the schedule Blair kept.

The cynic in Jim kept insisting that it wasn't a thoughtful act at all, that Blair had trashed the apartment and it was therefore his responsibility to clean it. Although the cynic was one hundred percent right, Jim also understood how busy his associate was. This Sentinel Project had turned Blair's already hectic schedule into utter chaos. Between the time spent with him at the station and crime sites, Blair's full academic pallet had become nearly unmanageable. Sometimes the juggling act Blair did with dividing his time left Jim's head swimming. He appreciated how difficult a time his Guide was having fitting everything in. It was that very pressure that had no doubt caused the mess Jim had walked in on this morning. Chances were, if he had come home when scheduled at the end of the week, the place would have been spotless.

Not for the first time in his life, he found himself wishing that he had a longer fuse. Blair hadn't deserved that scene this morning.

Determined to make his apologies the first order of business, he pulled into Rainier's parking lot. As he was leaning over to search through the pickup's glove compartment for the university parking permit Blair had gotten him, Jim's enhanced hearing unconsciously canvassed the campus for his Guide's familiar voice. It took only the space of a couple of heartbeats to locate the surprisingly deep tone. Main building, third floor – Blair was in his office.

Jim froze in the act of leaving his truck as his sluggish mind untangled the meaning behind the distant sounds he was monitoring.

"Jay, come on, buddy," It was the oddly desperate note in Blair's voice that focused Jim's attention on the conversation. Normally, he did his damnedest not to eavesdrop on private matters, but in his current exhausted state, he didn't have a choice in the matter.

Jim found himself wincing as Blair continued, "You promised me last year when I let you crash at my place for five months that if I ever needed a place to stay, I could call you. Well, I'm calling you now, buddy. All I need is floor space for one week. Seven lousy nights."

A stranger's muted voice replied, "Look, Blair, I'm really sorry, man. I told you how things are with Cindy and me. We've just been together a month."

Jim realized that he was over-hearing both ends of a phone call.

Blair answered after a moment, "But you've got three rooms, Jay. It's not like I'd be sleeping in with you two." Blair's strained voice sounded close to breaking. "Look, you're my last hope here, pal. I've called everyone else I can think of, and they're all in worse straits than I am. I'm not asking for a hell of a lot here. Just a corner until I can make other arrangements. Seven nights, tops."

A sigh, no doubt muffled by Blair's head blocking the phone's ear piece followed, then this Jay character's voice hardened with resolve. "Blair, you already told me that you're still paying off that computer that got blown up when your place exploded, that that's why you haven't been able to afford to get your car fixed. We both know that we're not talking temporary here. You move in, and it's gonna be long term. Cindy just agreed to live with me last month. We're still working things out. I can't have you screwing things up with her."

"Jay, please?"

Jim winced to hear his associate so openly beg...for fucking floor space to sleep. He couldn't even imagine ever being in such desperate straits. No roof overhead, no bed, no one who'd even let him sleep on a goddamned floor out of the rain...

Jim had never met this Jay guy, but already he hated the creep.

"I'm sorry, Blair, but the answer's still no. I hope you understand..."

"Yeah, right, buddy," Jim himself would have sneered the last, but Blair didn't even sound angry. Just defeated. "See you around."

A click announced that the connection had been cut.

Several moments of absolute silence followed before Jim heard his associate release a long breath and whisper, "Oh, God...what now?"

The knowledge that it was he himself who had brought Blair to this state lay heavy on his conscience. The kid had saved his life at least three times in the last two months and he was putting Blair through all this because of a messed up apartment?

Feeling every bit of the slime he knew himself to be, Jim sat frozen in the truck, trying to figure out how to undo the damage. If he went upstairs now, Blair would know he'd overheard everything...

After a minute or two, Jim reached for his cell phone.

"Hello?" Blair's voice didn't hold even a glimmer of his customary enthusiasm.

"Blair, it's Jim. I'm pulling into the University now. You want to meet me in the parking lot?" A lie seemed to be the only way to salvage the situation.

"Sure, Jim, I'll be right down." There wasn't even a pretense of false cheer in the low voice.

His conscience eating at him, Jim sat watching the silver glide of raindrops down his fogged up windshield. The rain even seemed to handle life better than he did, he glumly acknowledged, watching how the raindrops melded smoothly together rather than using the Ellison approach to problems and butting heads.

Blair was a lot like those raindrops, Jim thought. The kid was firm and decisive in his path, but at the same time, Blair was also able to adapt himself to any given situation.

Three minutes or so later, Jim saw the building's doors open. His bareheaded Guide rushed into the downpour, bent over as he ran so that his upper body shielded the precious contents of his backpack. As usual, Blair had neither an umbrella nor a hat.

Jim reached over to push open the passenger door, amazed at how drenched Blair was from just that short sprint to the truck. His cold reddened face and bedraggled curls made Blair look like he'd been camping out in bad weather for days. "Hi."

"Hi," Jim replied to the subdued greeting, his nostrils flaring at the wet Blair scents as the other man closed the truck door behind him. He had to admire his companion's courage. If their positions had been reversed, there was no way he could have sat down beside him like nothing had happened this morning. Although Blair's eyes looked almost haunted, his features pinched with worry, there was no hint of resentment or anger in Blair's attitude towards him. The kid was just...quiet. Which was a little spooky in itself, Jim decided.

As Jim watched a large raindrop drip off the tip of his soaked partner's nose, he felt his guilt settle upon him anew.

"Blair?"

"Yeah, Jim?" Blair turned attentively towards him, not shirking his gaze, open to whatever he might say.

"This morning I was out of line," Jim forced himself to hold those eyes, "I had a shitty night, got no sleep, and I took my bad mood out on you. I, ah...overreacted. I'm sorry. I...I hope you'll consider staying."

The long lashes dropped to veil those sea blue eyes. Blair turned to face his condensation fogged window, asking lowly, "You've been out here a while, haven't you?"

"Huh?"

"The windows are all fogged up, like you've been sitting out here a while. You heard me on the phone before, didn't you?" Blair's tone sounded positively dead, not a trace of feeling.

Unable to lie in person like this, even to spare the kid embarrassment, Jim found himself stumbling to explain, "It wasn't intentional. I just homed in on your voice and...I'm sorry."

"You don't haveta apologize," Blair sighed. "And you don't haveta feel sorry for me. I..."

Jim cut in before his companion could finish, "The only thing I'm feeling sorry about is my poor behavior this morning."

"Yeah, right," Blair shot back with uncharacteristic sarcasm. "Like you'd really be apologizing and asking me to stay if you hadn't overheard me begging someone for floor space. I know how pathetic that sounded, man. Believe me, I'm intensely aware of how pathetic that was."

Those passionate eyes darted back to the fogged window, but not fast enough to hide the rise in color in Blair's cheeks from him. "Let's just skip this scene and I'll be out by Friday, all right?"

Jim felt his stomach twist into a huge, painful knot. Christ, but he hated emotional scenes like this. No matter what he did, it always seemed to be the wrong choice. But as much as he would like to do what Blair was urging and drop the issue, he couldn't just let it go, not when he knew himself to be in the wrong here.

"Look," Jim said at last, "this isn't about you, Blair. And it really wasn't about you this morning, either. I've got a temper and you got hit with it full blast. Maybe you haven't noticed, but control is a pretty big issue with me."

"I, ah, noticed," Blair hesitantly admitted, turning back to look at him, the slightest trace of irony in his tone and expression.

"Yeah, I suppose it'd be hard not to," Jim allowed, smiling a little himself, "but what I'm trying to say here is that I really hate it when I lose control like that."

Totally serious now, Blair protested, "You had cause. The house was a complete wreck and..."

"And it would have been neat as a pin had I come back on schedule, right?"

Blair's eyes lowered as he denied, "That isn't the point."

"Maybe not, but you didn't deserve to get hit with that this morning. I overreacted and I've felt bad about it all day. That phone call I overheard made me feel worse, I admit that, but I came here intending to apologize for losing my temper. That's the God's honest truth, Chief. I hope you'll accept my apology and stay."

"Why?" Blair asked in a small voice, not looking up from the backpack on his lap.

"What?"

"Even without the fight this morning, why should you want me to stay?"

Jim's mind flashed back to those warm hands cupping his face in the kitchen this morning, Blair's worried voice guiding him clear of the zone-out. It had been too long a time since anyone had cared about him that way. But how could he explain that?

"You mean why – aside from the fact that you keep me from killing myself during those freakish zone-outs?"

"They're not freakish. They're totally natural for people with Sentinel abilities," Blair automatically protested, seeming not to realize why such an attitude might be another reason Jim wanted him around. "But, yeah, aside from that."

"That's a pretty big aside from, Chief. You've had a huge impact on my quality of life. But aside from that...and the fact that you've saved my ass at least three times on the job in the last two months, maybe I want you to hang around `cause I like having you there."

"Huh?" For one of the few times in their short, but intense association, Blair appeared totally speechless.

To his own surprise, Jim found himself grinning. "When we're not squabbling over the small stuff, we get along really good, Chief."

The cautious look that earned him seemed to take his measure, as if Blair suspected he was the butt of some mean-spirited practical joke. After nearly a minute, confusion claimed Blair's expression, "You almost sound like you mean that."

Hearing the question behind the quiet words, Jim blanked all humor from his face and replied in utter seriousness, "I do mean it. I hope you'll stay."

"For how long?"

Jim shrugged, hating to be put on the spot like this.

But he could see the kid's point. Jim knew that if their positions were reversed, he wouldn't be able to relax while knowing he could be tossed out on another's whim. "I don't know, Blair. How about until it doesn't work anymore?"

"I thought we were at that point this morning," Blair said softly.

Jim released a long, drawn-out breath, "I'm a hothead. I explode over stupid stuff, but then I cool down. This morning...Chief, did you ever consider what a three day old tuna sandwich, a tower of dirty dishes, and collection of old take out containers smells like to someone with Sentinel abilities? I've always been something of a neat freak, but since my senses kicked into hyperdrive, it isn't just personal preference anymore. It's survival. Things like that are an assault now, like if someone spilt a gallon of ammonia on your bedroom rug or put a whole box of moth balls in your underwear drawer."

Sincere regret pinched Blair's impish features, "Jeez, I never thought about it that way. I am sorry, Jim."

"I know. So am I. Can we just...take the apologies as read and get on with life?" Jim could hardly believe how relieved he was to see Blair's Cheshire cat grin restored to his face. Frowns definitely didn't suit his buoyant partner's style.

"Sounds good to me. One other thing, though, Jim."

"Hmmm?" Jim asked as he turned on the de-fogger. They'd been talking so long that all the windows were completely cloaked with gray steam now. Anyone passing by would no doubt be wondering what they were doing sitting so long in the University parking lot...or speculating on what they were up to. Jim was almost used to that now. Ever since Blair had started tagging along with him, there had been talk at the station. And, since the kid had moved in, it had been almost non-stop.

"How much rent do you want me to pay?" Blair asked from out of nowhere.

"Rent?" Jim blankly echoed.

"On the room," Blair qualified, looking as uneasy as Jim felt.

"It was a storage room, Blair, not a one-room studio, for Christ's sake."

"But I'm living in it now. I can't just live off you, man," Blair heatedly countered.

About to protest, Jim closed his mouth, thinking about how he'd feel in Blair's shoes. After a moment's thought, Jim tentatively suggested, "How about you give me a hundred a month towards the utilities and you stock all that weird food you eat, and we'll call it even. Sound fair to you?"

"Fair?"

"Is it too much?" Jim quickly asked.

"I was paying $850 on my last place, man. It's not fair to you."

Jim blinked. He wasn't used to having these kinds of debates. A little amused, he realized the present discussion was very similar to the one Caroline and he had had when they'd first moved in together. "You were also working a second job back then. With the time you spend at the station and helping me at crime scenes, you don't have that option anymore."

"But that's my choice, Jim," Blair insisted.

"And this is mine. There's no reason why I should be the only one to benefit from our...association. This way, if the house rules get to be too much, you'll be able to save up a little cash to move out."

"It's still not enough..."

"For a tiny room with poor lighting and no privacy?"

"It's got heat, hot water, no rodents, plus, it's a half hour closer to campus. I should be paying you…"

"Blair, you will be paying me," Jim interrupted, comfortable now that they were back to their normal bickering.

"Yeah, but..."

"Look, I haven't been exactly appreciative these past few months, but what you do for me makes a major difference in my life. And it's not like living with me is gonna be any gravy train. The last three weeks must have given you some clue what living with me is like."

"I haven't complained, have I?" Blair questioned, his eyes and expression utterly open, like he didn't have a single problem with his dictatorial roommate.

"No, you haven't," Jim slowly acknowledged, remembering how fast things had fallen apart with Caroline once they'd moved in together. By three weeks, he and his new wife had been at each other's throats on an almost daily basis. Oh, they'd made up afterwards, but even this early, it had been clear that Caroline and he just didn't suit each other long term. Whereas Blair...the kid put up with more rules than Jim had ever dared foist on his wife, and, so far, there hadn't been a single complaint or grumble. Not a one.

Almost as if he'd sensed the question behind his reply, Blair added, "Take it from someone who's spent their entire life going from one roommate to another, you're really not that hard to live with, Jim."

"Yeah, right," Jim snorted, "Tell me another one."

"Seriously," Blair insisted. "You don't know what it's like out there, man. Before Larry and I moved into that warehouse, we roomed with a guy from Atlanta who left me with a $300 phone bill and no forwarding address. Before that, we were in on a house with three other guys. One bathroom. On any given night, there were at least eight people sleeping there. The bathroom was disgusting. The music never stopped. It was one non-stop party."

"I thought you were a party kind of guy," Jim said, genuinely confused. He'd been certain that his own life- style was way too stifling for this free-spirited sensualist.

"Not when I'm working on papers and doing research, I'm not. There was never a single moment of peace in that place. It was the same with that Atlanta guy. So, if you think I'm gonna complain because you like some peace and quiet and want things clean, you're wrong. It's a refreshing change."

"And it doesn't bother you to live your life in a fish tank?" "Jim checked.

"What?" Blair blinked in surprise.

Jim paused, debating. He didn't want to freak Blair out if his roommate hadn't thought about these issues, but he had to be up-front about these things. Otherwise, he'd be living his entire life feeling like a damn voyeur. "Most people would find it...unnerving to live with someone with my abilities. There isn't much in the way of privacy with me around, Chief. Most people I know couldn't live with someone who could hear every time they roll over..."

The perceptive scholar immediately saw through his polite veneer. To Jim's shock, Blair exploded into earthy chuckles, not fury. "I'll bet rolling over isn't all you've heard! And here I'd thought I'd been quiet. What gave me away?"

How can he not be angry...or embarrassed, Jim marveled. Stunned and blushing like a school boy, he hesitantly offered, "Your heart and respiration rates went crazy. I didn't mean to...intrude, when I ...realized what was going on, I tuned you out...to the best of my ability."

If their positions had been reversed, Jim knew he'd be furious, but Blair didn't even seem upset. Instead, the researcher in him appeared intrigued. "And when I...finished, could you, like...smell..?"

Jim was reserved by nature. He'd never had a conversation like this in his life. Part of him wanted to snap that this wasn't something civilized people discussed, but the part of him that had been tormented by these freakish senses these last three months couldn't stand the isolation to which such social niceties condemned him. Blair's lack of shock was strangely emancipating. So, instead of reprimanding, he found himself cautiously nodding, "Yeah. Hearing and scent were both involved."

"Wow, you're even more sensitive than I thought," Blair whispered. After a minute, the excited anthropologist sobered, "Are you, like, sure that you want me to stay?"

"Huh?" Jim had no clue how this had gotten back in his court again. Fascinated, he watched his unshockable Guide's cheeks fill with color.

"That's not something I can live without, Jim. If it bothers you, I better just look for another place."

"I didn't say it bothered me," Jim quickly corrected. "I just...thought you should know before you made your decision to stay. A thing like that could destroy a friendship."

Blair shook his head, damp curls bouncing everywhere. "Nah, I'm cool with it. But, just out of curiosity, how can it not bother you? Don't take this wrong, but, you struck me as someone who might be...uptight about that kind of thing."

"Are you asking me if I...get off on over-hearing that kind of thing?" Jim questioned with tight control.

Blair quickly shook his head. "No implications implied. I know your hearing doesn't come with an off switch. I was just...curious. You do come across as pretty straight-laced, Jim."

Jim stared at his hands on the wheel for a long time before answering. When he spoke, he felt like he was making a confession. "What goes on in a person's bedroom should be private. If you're living with me, it's not."

"That's not by your choice. That's nature," Blair said softly, seeming to sense the need for consolation that Jim himself hadn't even acknowledged until he felt his Guide's compassion envelop him. "Right now you're just an open sensor. We'll work on control. In time, you might be able to tone down your...awareness of such things."

"And you could still live with me knowing that whenever you..." He shut up, aware that he was going to talk his Guide out of the loft if he kept this up. But, as with so much of his life these last three traumatic months, his emotions were tethering at the breaking point because of the freak his hyperactive senses had turned him into.

"Jim, we're both male animals, okay? These things are a fact of nature with us. Your knowing when I...whack off is no different than your knowing when I use the bathroom. We both do it. You're just more aware of my bodily functions than I am of yours. If you can live with it, so can I. All right, buddy?"

How many people could have been this...accepting, Jim wondered, astonished. He was flooded with a warm sense of gratitude. If Blair had wanted to, the kid could have made him feel like a complete degenerate. For that matter, Blair could have sold his secret to the highest bidder and turned his life into a hellish freak show. Instead, Blair went out of his way at every turn to assure him that he was normal, that his senses were no big deal, just something he had to get a handle on. He honestly didn't know if he would have made it through this ordeal without Blair's unflinching support.

"Jim?"

"Ah, yeah?" he started out of his daze.

"Is it okay?"

"Is what okay?" Jim had totally lost track of the conversation.

Appearing slightly apprehensive, Blair recapped their last exchange, "You being more aware of my bodily functions than I am of yours."

"Perfectly okay, Chief. Perfectly okay. What do you say to us checking that crime scene for Simon and then getting some chow?" Jim asked, his attention moving to less controversial topics.

"Sounds good to me." Blair grinned, happy as a child.

An unfamiliar sense of wellbeing settling over him, Jim put the truck in gear, glad Blair was staying.

*~*~*

There was something really magical about fireplaces, Blair thought. The dancing flames reflected in his black wire framed glasses warmed his face as he drew away from the hearth after successfully having lit the logs, without igniting himself.

Though proud of his accomplishment, Blair was still slightly uneasy. The hearth hadn't been lit since he moved in. Although no fires wasn't one of Jim's endless list of house rules, Blair couldn't help but worry if maybe it was just one of the rules they hadn't gotten to yet. But...what's done was done. The logs were here, so he'd used them. If Jim had a major problem with that, he'd just replace the logs and steer clear of the hearth in the future, but, oh, man, was that ever gonna be hard. He loved fireplaces.

Cuddled up on the rug in front of the roaring flames in his comfy gray sweats and deep blue robe, a cup of hot spiced cider at hand, his student's exams piled high beside him, and an entire night of free time in which to grade the papers, Blair was the spirit of contentment. He could hear the wind and rain howling against the terrace doors, but inside all was warm and cozy.

Settling down into his comfortable sprawl, Blair simply could not believe his luck. After all those years of scrounging to make the rent on sleazy little dives, of enduring overcrowding, noise, vermin, and cold, Jim's loft felt like pure paradise. That the person who was sharing this space was also a living, breathing, fully on-line Sentinel made the entire experience seem unreal to him. He couldn't have dreamed this situation up if he'd tried. It was just too good to be true.

He kept waiting for the bubble to burst. From the moment he'd fast-talked his way into Jim's life, Blair had realized that he had a very limited window of opportunity to observe his subject, that Jim would tolerate his intrusion into his life only as long as his senses were out of whack. Every time he figured out some new way to help Jim control his enhanced abilities, he knew he was working against his own best interests, making his presence redundant. As soon as Jim was fully in control of his abilities, he'd be out the door. That was a given.

But, even though he knew it shortened his time with him, he just couldn't stand by and watch Jim suffer, no matter what it cost him. For better or worse, in violation of every bit of his scientific training, he had become personally involved with his subject. The short-tempered detective wasn't just a field study any more. Jim had become a friend...perhaps the best friend he'd ever had. When Jim no longer needed him, when he got sick of having him around and finally kicked him out, it was going to hurt. A lot.

Three weeks ago when they'd had that blow-up over the messy house, Blair was certain they'd reached that point. His desperate scramble for alternate lodgings had taught him a painful lesson about fair-weather-friends. It hurt to realize how shallow so many of his relationships were. And, when all was said and done, who was it who'd come through for him? Not the buddies he'd helped out in the past, not the girlfriends he'd spent his last penny indulging, no, it was the very man he'd goaded to explosion point.

Blair still didn't fully understand what had motivated Jim's change of heart that day. It wasn't pity, as he'd feared. For the most part, Jim genuinely seemed to like having him around. But he was still wary about relaxing here, of becoming too comfortable. Already, he was beginning to think of the loft as the stable home he'd always longed for, but never found. Getting too attached to this place could be a lethal error.

But, for now, he was warm and safe in front of a gloriously crackling fire, the soft strains of Celtic harp music flowing over from the CD system. At this point in time, Blair was content to follow his mother's philosophy of embracing the moment. For, certainly, he couldn't imagine a nicer moment...well, maybe if the lovely Christine Hong were here beside him it might be a bit more pleasant, but even so, it had been so long since he'd been in a real home like this and not some college flop house that he was content to savor having the place to himself for a while.

Startled to have his solitary plans shattered almost at the same instant he'd decided to enjoy the empty loft, Blair looked over his shoulder as the front door rattled and opened. Confused to see his roommate back so soon, he checked the cable box on top of the TV. He wasn't crazy. He hadn't been sitting here for more than an hour. The glowing red letters read 11:03.

Jim was supposed to have been out on a big date. 'Don't wait up for me, Chief. I'll be late.' had been the last words out of Jim's mouth when he left. Blair knew that his new roommate was a little straight-laced, but his grandmother didn't even consider eleven o'clock late.

"Hi, ya, Jim," he greeted as his friend entered.

Jim froze just inside the threshold of the front door, staring at Blair as though he'd forgotten that he lived there. "Hi."

The reply was low, almost forced.

Blair watched Jim remove his long black overcoat and hang it on the rack of hooks beside the door. Something about Jim's deliberate movements caught his full attention. He'd been observing his Sentinel now for nearly three months. Although he didn't yet know every peccadillo of Jim's character, he didn't look as though he'd been out for a night on the town. There was absolutely nothing relaxed about the tension-gripped body. Jim's jaw was clenched tight – a sure sign of trouble. The cop's big hands were balled in fists, his expression hard, almost angry, and Jim had just walked in the door. If Blair didn't know better, he'd swear Jim were spoiling for a fight. His partner had that sharp edge about him that he recognized from childhood as meaning trouble.

Blair shivered as he was caught watching and that baleful glare pinned him. With his muscles upon muscles, Jim was always big and intimidating, but from his position on the floor, he seemed a titan, positively terrifying.

"You got something to say, Sandburg?" Jim demanded, his eyes the same cold blue as an enraged white wolf's.

Not knowing what the hell was going on, but unnerved by that stormy expression, Blair gulped. Jim was ordinarily so playful with him, that most times he managed to forget what he was dealing with here. Then, all of a sudden he would slam up against the killer inside...like those rare times Jim's enhanced senses had him crazed and the bigger man would jack him up against a wall in his frustration with trying to deal, or times like this, when he got just a peek at the dangerous predator Jim kept so firmly leashed inside himself. When he ran into this other Jim, he would remember that his roommate was the ex-Ranger, Captain James Ellison, the covert ops agent who'd shut down a major rebel strong-hold by single-handedly holding down a jungle mountain pass for eighteen months. A man didn't get those kind of credentials by being a boy scout.

Scared, but trying hard not to show it, Blair shook his head. "No, man. You're home early is all. I thought you had a date."

The minute the words were out, Blair knew he'd made a mistake. Jim's jaw muscle started to twitch as his face turned to granite.

An icy shiver blew down Blair's spine. Once that jaw started going like that, Armageddon was never far behind.

"Yeah. I had a date. Now I'm home. What of it?"

Blair knew that there were three ways to play this scene. He could respond in kind to the aggressive stance and end up a good-looking corpse. He could take the wise man's course and make tracks for his room. Or he could take a dance with death and try to find out what had changed Jim's elation to this deadly fury in the scant hours they'd been apart. Somehow, the first two choices had never been real options. As had happened so often since he'd met this man, he found himself courting annihilation.

"Nothing. Just glad you're back." Blair tried a smile to see how that would work, half-certain it would be shoved down his throat. Suddenly, he knew exactly how those flutists he'd seen in India felt the moment the hooded cobra flared up its head and started to weave to their music. Dealing with Jim when he was in this kind of mood had that same feel of handling some lethal predator that could never really be tamed. It might seem quiescent at the moment, but the potential for sudden violence was always lurking there right below the surface. "Want some hot cider?"

For a moment, Jim simply stared at him, visibly primed for explosion. Then the big guy took a deep breath, slowly released it and gave a negative shake of his head.

Almost sagging with relief, Blair watched his roommate stalk into the living room, lithe and poised on his feet as a hunting cougar. For all Jim's size, there was something very feline and graceful about the way he moved. Especially tonight. In those black slacks, black turtleneck and gray silk jacket, with the killer staring out of his eyes, Jim was lethally attractive. The aura of danger which clung to his sleek form only added to his appeal.

Naomi's mother would have called Jim a shayggutz, which as far as Blair had ever been able to figure out from his passing familiarity with Yiddish, described the epitome of male Aryan beauty. Whatever it meant, he knew that his grandmother would have viewed Jim that way, and his childhood association with her made him apply the term to his friend now, even though he was still somewhat sketchy on its literal translation.

As he did whenever such suicidal notions arose, Blair brutally thrust them aside. It was hard enough living platonically with someone he liked as much as he did Jim without adding to the problem by dwelling upon what an absolute knock-out the man was. He might court death on a daily basis while following in Jim's footsteps, but he didn't have a death wish. He knew where any overtures in that direction would get him with the super-straight cop.

Jim paused behind Blair. Looking as if he'd frozen mid-way in sitting down on the couch, Jim stared at the crackling fire as if trying to process its presence.

Blair was abruptly reminded that this was the first time since he'd moved in that a fire had actually been lit in the hearth. The worry he'd experienced building the fire returned three-fold. Wondering if he'd violated yet another of Jim's anal house rules, he quickly offered, "I hope you don't mind."

"Mind?" Jim repeated in that distracted tone he got when his senses were teasing him.

"That I lit a fire."

"I like fires, Blair. That's why I have a fireplace," Jim snappishly replied.

"I just never saw you light one before. I thought that maybe you didn't want the hearth used," Blair explained, glad to see what he was beginning to consider his Jim staring out of Jim's eyes. Most of the hard, angry edge had left the chiseled features. Jim wasn't relaxed by a long shot, but he was no longer on a hair-trigger detonator.

"I just...there just didn't seem to be much point to it after Caroline left," Jim admitted, rubbing a hand over his face. More than weary, Jim sounded almost...defeated.

Blair turned his back to the crackling fire, so that he could stare up at his troubled friend. That one line revealed so much about Jim's character, he recognized. The reserved detective had a hearth he hardly ever used, an exquisite home that he kept emptier than that dump of a warehouse Blair had so recently inhabited, and a solitary lifestyle that made the monks at San Sebastian's look like real party animals.

At first Blair had thought the bleak barrenness of Jim's life a result of the cop's busy schedule; though Jim had been better lately, those first few months Blair had known him, he was hardly ever even in this place. But now he was beginning to see that the explanation was far more complicated than simple busyness. It was almost as if when the woman Jim had loved had walked out on him, she'd taken Jim's heart with her, leaving behind only a series of brittle shells – of a man, of a home, of a life – that all looked healthy from the outside, but were really empty inside. From the outside, Detective James Ellison looked like the most together person you could encounter. Only now was Blair beginning to see the desperate loneliness of the wounded soul that lived within that outer veneer of perfection.

It wasn't so much that Jim preferred this Spartan existence, Blair recognized, more like the man was hurting too much to do anything about it on his own.

Blair had gotten his first hint of this last week when he'd casually mentioned to Jim that the kitchen was a little stark when it came to pots and pans and the like. Before he'd been able to suggest that they go shopping together and split the cost of the necessities, Jim had handed him his credit card and told him to order whatever they needed for the place. Just like that. No debates on cost or how useful each item would be. Just 'get what we need'.

Recalled to the present, Blair saw his companion's far-away gaze move between him and the fireplace.

"It's kinda nice to come home to a roaring fire," Jim said softly.

Blair smiled, genuinely pleased by the admission. Seeing how his smile seemed to calm Jim somewhat, he suggested with studied casualness, "Can you sit down for a few minutes or do you have something to do?"

"Not anymore," Jim denied, shaking his head as he took a seat on the couch behind Blair.

Taking his chances, Blair pushed his wire frame glasses back up his nose, stared up at Jim and asked, "You wanta talk about it? Did something go wrong tonight? You seem a little...wired."

"You could say that." Jim surprised him with an answer. Blair had half-expected all that anger to erupt. Even though Jim had freely offered that much to him, the reply didn't exactly come easy, he realized. From his troubled countenance, the big guy looked like he was wrestling with some heavy duty demons. "Tell me something, Chief."

"Sure, if I can."

"That journal that you found out about guys like me in..."

"You mean Sir Burton's monograph?" Blair checked.

"Yeah. Did Burton say anything about the percentage of Sentinels that...go insane?"

The chill that shivered down his spine was colder than the one he'd experienced when he'd thought himself in mortal danger. Slowly shaking his head, Blair softly denied, "No. What happened tonight, Jim?"

The brilliant eyes evaded his. Fixing his gaze on Blair's mug that was sitting on the coffee table separating them, Jim asked, "You mind?"

Blair shook his head, watched while Jim took a sip of the cooling cider. Once he'd swallowed the spiced juice, Jim stared into the mug for a moment before beginning in a quiet tone, "Tonight was...the first time I've tried to be with a lady since these whacko senses kicked in."

"And?" Blair gently probed, cautious of hurting. Whatever had happened, it wasn't good.

"Let's just say that at a very crucial moment, I zoned out. Completely. For a while, she thought I was dead, then...things went downhill quickly from there."

"Damn," Blair breathed, pushing his exams aside, he edged closer to his friend, drawn by the understated suffering.

His entire body appearing hard as stone, Jim raggedly whispered, "I can't take much more of this, Chief."

Blair was off the floor and at Jim's side before he even decided to move. Folding one knee beneath him, he settled onto the couch, facing Jim. Reaching out, he laid his hand on a rock-tense bicep. "You're going to be fine once you get a handle on this. I'm sorry you had to go through this. I should have anticipated the problem. Can you tell me precisely what happened?"

Jim's sharp glance dug into him, making Blair expect the worst, but after a quiet moment, all the bluster seemed to drain from Jim. "Sure. Why not? It can't get much worse, right?" Jim broke eye contact. Staring firmly into the dancing flames, he spoke in the uninflected tone of a soldier making his report. "We were doing fine, having a great time. I felt...it was amazing...the degree of sensation...every touch, every caress was mind-blowing. I never felt anything like it in my life. Just her breath against my skin was more arousing than touches were...before…"

Blair shivered at the erotic imagery. Watching the flames' golden light flicker and shift across those ruggedly handsome features, it didn't take much imagination to picture what Jim would look like at the height of coitus. All flushed and glowing like now, but his eyes would be different, Blair decided. There wouldn't be any of the shadows that were haunting them now.

Pushing those notions firmly aside, Blair reminded himself that he was Jim's Guide in these matters. He was supposed to be helping him sort through these problems, not indulging in vicarious thrills. Forcing himself back into the safety of scientific detachment, Blair asked, "And then?"

"And then I zoned on how good it felt. Next thing I knew, she was in hysterics, pushing me off her."

Blair shuddered. "God, that must have been awful."

Those surprisingly long brown lashes swept down to veil Jim's lowered gaze. "I felt...I don't know, like a rapist or something. Though, in all honesty, I never made it that far. Everything shut down before that point. She was...so upset...I really don't think I can live this way much longer, Chief."

Blair could see that. The normally together cop looked like he was at the end of his rope. It was his job to bring Jim back from the edge, he reminded himself. But how? He'd never read or heard anything like this. Still, right now the man seemed to need reassurance as much as anything else. That, at least, he could give.

Putting as much encouragement and confidence into his tone as possible, Blair softly offered, "Hey, it was a first time here, man. You have to be a little easier on yourself..."

"Easier?" Jim interrupted. "I scared that poor woman to death tonight. She never wants to see me again and I can't say that I blame her one bit."

"There are other women, Jim," Blair counseled.

"Look, I'm not you. I don't have a different girl for every night of the week..."

"We're getting a little off track here," Blair gently broke in, not wanting to become the focal point of all Jim's angry frustration. "What we need to do here is find a way to bring the focus you have when you have sex alone to when you have it with a partner. Once we determine...what?" he questioned when Jim's face went blank as a computer monitor after the hard drive switched off.

"This conversation wasn't a good idea," Jim announced. "Thanks for trying, but I'm going to go upstairs now and..."

"And what? Whack off? Are you going to spend the rest of your life with only your own right hand for company?" Maybe he should have thought twice before saying something like that to the often reserved older man, but nothing made him madder than when Jim copped that imperious, arrogant attitude with him.

Something deadly flashed through those incandescent blue eyes before Jim got a hold of himself. Without further ado, Jim rose to his feet.

Blair's hand shot out on pure instinct to stop his companion's retreat. "Look, I'm sorry, man. That last comment was way outta line, but this isn't something you can run away from. All we've got to do is figure out how you focus alone and move that to..."

"Let go of me, Blair," Jim coldly demanded.

Blair ignored the unspoken threat, both hands now anchoring Jim in place where they clutched his left elbow. They were both aware that the ex-Ranger could escape any time he wanted. Short of shooting the larger man or drugging him, there was no way Blair could keep him here if Jim really wanted to be gone. In a way, he was almost testing the man to see if Jim would use force against him, even when pushed to do so.

But, close as it was, in the end, Jim just stayed put, his eyes sparking fire as he practically sneered, "As usual, you're operating under a complete misconception here, Darwin."

Jim pronounced the word Darwin so close to Darlin' that for a moment Blair was completely distracted. He acknowledged that he wanted this man way too much. Desire was coloring all his interactions with Jim these days. "Huh?" he managed at last, as brilliantly articulate as ever.

Completely bewildered, Blair watched something he could define only as shame replace the anger on Jim's face.

"What you're suggesting isn't going to work because I don't have any focus to borrow from," Jim stiltedly reported.

"But when you do it alone..."

Those cornered eyes pinned him. Looking as uncomfortable as he could get, Jim admitted, "I don't do it alone. I can't. I haven't been able to finish without zoning out since these frigging senses kicked in."

The confession looked like it had been wrenched from the depths of Jim's soul. As soon as the words were out, all of Jim's anger seemed to deflate as he sagged back against the rainbow striped afghan.

"God...why didn't you tell me about this before?" Blair asked, too horrified to bother with social niceties.

Was it any wonder Jim was on such a short fuse? Over three months without even the solace of his own right hand...Blair knew if it were him, he would have cracked up long before this.

"Get real, Blair. This isn't something that a guy wants to go around advertising. I wouldn't have told you now, except..."

Except that Jim had reached the end of his rope.

Blair gave the tense arm under his hand a quick squeeze. "Oh, man. Can we just leave the macho bullshit at the door from now on? When you have a problem that's a result of your senses – a problem of any nature – I need to know about it, okay?"

"It's not macho bullshit, I..." Jim finally looked at him. The tormented gaze ripped right through him as the upset Sentinel demanded, "How would you feel if you were me? Would you want something like this in some damned thesis or book?"

A cold, sick feeling of dread spread through Blair as he understood what Jim was telling him. His friend had been suffering alone in silence for three months because Jim was afraid this highly sensitive problem would become public knowledge?

"Jim, man, I'm your friend. Nothing, and I mean, absolutely nothing goes into my thesis that will publicly embarrass you. You've got my word on that. I'm here to help you, not exploit you. You're not a lab rat. You're my partner."

He didn't really expect to be believed. Blair had seen how incredibly private this man was, so he wasn't expecting much. He'd seen Jim freeze out his own ex-wife with heartless disregard to her feelings for him, and, from Caroline's comments, Blair guessed that it had been the same story before their divorce. So what chance did some science nerd, some hippie kid Jim barely knew, have of getting through if Jim had kept the woman he'd married at arm's length?

But Jim's gaze didn't close him out. For several eternities, those Siberian cold blue eyes watched him, as mistrustful and cautious as a wild, wounded beast. By slow degrees, the arctic chill left Jim's frozen features. His facial muscles relaxing somewhat, he uneasily asked the 64 thousand dollar question. "So how are you going to help with this?"

And he, of course, had no clue as to the answer. Buying time, Blair met Jim's question with one of his own, "First, let's make sure I understand the problem. It's not like...typical impotence. You, ah...don't lose your..." he floundered under that stormy glare.

But, for some unexplained reason, Jim didn't lance into him, seeming to take pity on his plight. "I can get it up just fine, Chief. I just can't do anything with it once it's up there."

Blair gave a slow nod and pushed his sliding glasses up again. "Okay. So what we're dealing with here is just your basic zone out. Your sensitivity is heightened now...when the pleasure kicks in, you zone out. Is that about right?"

Jim nodded. "So what do I do about it?"

"I think we need to handle it just like the other zone outs."

"I am not taking you on my dates," Jim firmly denied, before adding, "Not that I've had that many lately."

"No, that wouldn't work. Even if you were willing, I can't see any of the women you date allowing me to sit on your bedside and take notes." Blair grinned. "Now, if it were one of my girlfriends..."

To his intense relief, a tiny smile cracked Jim's set mouth.

Seeing it, Blair extemporized, not really meaning the offer, but just wanting to see his troubled friend relax. "I know this cute blond psych major who is, like, so into cops, man. She might be persuaded..."

"No," Jim interrupted, his smile full-fledged now.

"No?" Blair checked, acting crestfallen, so happy that Jim was once again teasing him that it was all he could do to hold in a giggle.

"No," Jim firmly settled the issue.

"Okay, no psych majors. We'll just work through it like we do all your other zone-outs."

To his puzzlement, Jim's smile broadened into a grin. Blair had been expecting core meltdown at that suggestion.

"Right," Jim chuckled. "What are you going to do? Come sit on the bed and watch me do it?"

Keeping his gaze and tone as level as possible, Blair carefully replied, "Actually, that's probably exactly what we're going to have to do." Seeing Jim's eyes go wild with fury, he quickly added, "That is, providing you really want to get past this road block."

"Are you out of your mind?" Though his expression made it plain that Jim could have roared the words, the question was couched in that same deadly whisper that had been the precursor to Blair finding himself jacked up against the wall on the first day Jim had come to his office. "That's ..."

As the sputtering Sentinel searched for suitable invective, Blair quickly countered, "It's the only thing I can think of. If you have a workable alternative to suggest, I'm listening."

Jim glared at him as though Blair were personally responsible for this problem. "I won't do it. That's all there is to it."

Blair shrugged. "Fine. That's your choice, man. You want to spend the rest of your life living like a monk, more power to you."

Blair got up off the couch to reclaim his seat before the fire in the little island of rug left among the sea of exams. The silence he left behind him was deafening. It wasn't exactly icy; rather, there was a tense sense of anticipation about the quiet, rather like the sensation experienced while watching those last ten seconds tick away on the detonator of a C-4 package.

Finally, Jim broke the nerve-wracking tension when he asked, "That's it?"

Shoving his glasses back up his nose and his hair out of the way, Blair looked over his shoulder and calmly asked, "What's it?"

"Normally, when you come to me with one of your hare-brained experiments, there's usually two hours of wheedling and arguments before you accept no for an answer."

Blair sighed, all too aware of how often in his enthusiasm he steam-rollered the reserved detective. "This isn't an experiment. It's your life. How much control you regain over it is entirely up to you, man. This isn't something I can force you into. I'm as uncomfortable with the idea as you are, but it's the only thing I can think of, short of hiring a sex-therapist...and even there, I still think you'd need me around the first few times.

"I know you just want me to hand you some kind of magic formula for control, but I don't have any easy answers. Every gain we've made so far has been through practice and hard work. And, as much as you don't want to hear this, I think it's gonna be the same for this hurdle, too, but I'm not sure, so I'm not gonna insist. Remember, I'm as new to all this as you are. Sir Richard Burton wasn't a Guide, he was an observer. There isn't any curriculum for me to follow to get you through this. I'm making this up as I go along. I never guided anyone through stuff like this in my life. I know that half the time I drive you nuts with my ideas, but I'm feeling my way through the dark here the same as you are, Big Guy."

If the silence had been heavy before his confession, the quiet that followed it was downright oppressive. Waiting for an explosion, primed for another temper outburst, Blair was surprised when Jim loosed a drawn out breath and sagged against the couch.

"Sorry, Chief. Guess I do expect miracles from you. I shouldn't have mentioned this. I'll just..."

"Just what?" Blair asked, responding to the pain Jim was working so hard to conceal. "Suffer in silence for the rest of your life? You're a healthy man in his prime, Jim. Sex isn't something you can give up, not if you want to stay sane."

"Yeah, but this is my problem. I can't expect you to..."

"I'm here to help you. That's why you keep me around, remember?" he desperately tried to lighten the mood.

But Jim wasn't buying into it. Although he did crack a tiny smile, the close-shorn head gave a firm, negative shake of denial. "This is different."

"How? It's a zone out, the same as any other. The stimulus is a bit different than normal, but basically, it's the same problem we've faced and overcome with every tactile experience."

Jim stared at him with such unnerving intensity that Blair wanted to squirm, but he forced himself to sit still, to act like what he was suggesting was no big deal.

"Are you telling me that you could do that? You could seriously sit there and watch while I...while I..."

"Jim, I'm an anthropologist. I've been all over the world. Not all societies are as inhibited about sex as we are. It really isn't a big issue."

Now Jim was watching him like he'd just grown a third eye in the center of his forehead. "News-flash, Chief. I don't care if everyone in the world does it in the middle of Times Square with six major networks filming it live, I don't."

"We're not talking about strangers here, Jim. It's just you and me, Sentinel and Guide. This is strictly confidential. Just think of me as a doctor. I've almost got my doctorate, you know. I'll be one in a few years."

The edge of the hard line that Jim's mouth had become twitched at his attempt at humor. "I wouldn't do it with my doctor watching, either, Chief." After a moment or two of silence, Jim questioned, "Why should you even care? Most guys...well, most guys would just wish me luck."

"I'm not most guys. I'm your partner, your Guide, and your friend. If this were me, I'd be going out of my mind about now," Blair confessed, very aware that he wouldn't be handling this problem nearly as well as Jim had.

Jim snorted and commented, "You couldn't make it a week without..."

"You're right. I couldn't." Blair paused to consider, then went on and said, "But, then, you'd know that better than anyone, wouldn't you?"

"Huh?"

Feeling the heat in his cheeks, Blair forced himself to continue. "You've got a front row seat every time I do it alone. I know that it's not intentional, that you can't help hearing, but you are...an observer, of sorts. I'm aware of that every time I do it...but, I trust you. I trust in your... integrity, that you're never gonna throw something personal like that in my face."

"What's your point, Chief?" Jim demanded.

"Just that...I'm sort of asking you for that same kind of trust here, Big Guy. I know it's difficult, embarrassing, even, but...I'm still asking you to let me help." Blair held his breath, unable to think of anything more dangerous than harassing an already irritable Jim Ellison.

His face as unreadable and ungiving as a stone cliff, Jim simply stared at him. After a minute, the powerful chest rose and fell as Jim vented a heavy sigh. "You're really serious about this?"

Blair nodded. "I'm really serious."

"And there's nothing I can say that will convince you to let it drop?"

Sensing victory, Blair gave a small, almost bashful smile. "Not a thing." Most people would have thought Jim's face inscrutable at that moment, but Blair could sense the uneasiness lurking behind the soldier's mask. "Does that mean I win?"

Blair heard his roommate swallow from where he sat on the rug six feet away. Then Jim gave a tight nod and asked, "What...what do you want me to do?"

What Blair wanted to suggest was that they move upstairs, but he sensed how near a thing Jim's decision to trust him enough to try this had been. If he let Jim think about it too long, he might bail on him.

Blair scanned the fire-lit loft. The dancing flames were highlighting the room in rich honey-gold hues, sending shifting shadows scuttling through the darkened corners. Outside the draped patio doors, the wind and storm still howled full force, but all was warm and cozy within. The soft harp music drifting over from the CD added the final touch. The place couldn't have been more sensual if Blair had planned for a seduction here tonight.

"You comfortable?" he asked the black-clad detective.

"Yeah, I guess," Jim shrugged."

"So why not just do what you gotta do now?"

"Here?" Jim stammered.

"Sure. Why not? It's cozy, comfortable. I'll sit down here and grade papers, and if you start to zone, I'll just talk you through it. Same as usual. Okay?" Seeing how Jim's uncertainty was no longer veiled, reading how close his friend was to flight, Blair calmly suggested, "Why don't you just pull the afghan over your lap and I'll make like I don't know what's going on."

Another tight nod, then Blair turned back to his exams.

The silence behind Blair was both tense and deafening. After a few minutes, he heard some shuffling that sounded like fabric being moved, then the loud 'jzzzurrr' of a zipper being undone.

Blair honestly tried to concentrate on the test paper before him, but knowing what was going on behind him made his senses swim. The fact that the freshman handwriting all looked like Sanskrit didn't help any either. Maybe it was the fire crackling a few feet away, but he suddenly felt very hot...and it was strangely hard to breathe. He could feel the sweat beading on his brow, and on his nose, making his damn glasses even more slippery. The blood roaring through his eardrums sounded louder than the storm raging outside.

Yet, behind him, all was ominously quiet. Blair knew because he was straining to hear the furtive movement of flesh on flesh, but there was nothing. No heavy breathing, no telltale friction noises, no stifled groans or body shifting for a more comfortable position...there was no sound from the couch at all.

Five, maybe ten minutes of that nerve-wracking silence passed before Jim shattered it with a soft, "I can't do it."

Schooling his own features, Blair glanced up at his companion, trying to keep the mood casual. Instantly, he regretted everything: forcing Jim to try this, pretending that he had all the answers when he barely knew what the hell was going on; he even regretted glancing up at his roommate. Jim looked...mortified was the only description for the tension-locked man. Jim's rugged face was bright red with humiliation. His partner looked like he wanted to crawl away and die. The bigger man couldn't even meet Blair's gaze. He had the afghan clutched over his lap like a maiden defending her virtue.

Aching with sympathy for the proud man's plight, Blair quickly assured, "It's all right, Jim. I don't know that I could, either."

The last was an outright lie, Blair acknowledged. He was hard already just thinking about Jim touching himself that way. But telling Jim something like that wasn't going to help the situation any.

So, instead, Blair took a few deep breaths to ease the pressure. When he thought he could move without betraying himself, he turned fully around to face his friend.

"This isn't going to work, Chief," Jim announced.

Taking comfort from the fact that Jim had used his nickname rather than the 'Sandburg' Jim employed when angry or irritated, Blair cautiously agreed, "Not this way, it's not. I've got another idea, but I don't think you're going to like it."

Understatement of the century. Blair knew that the straight-laced cop wasn't going to go for it. In fact, he knew he'd be lucky to make it out of this scene with all his teeth intact.

"What other idea?" Jim suspiciously asked.

"Do you trust me, Jim?"

"Huh?" Jim focused on his face at the strange question, some of the unnatural color leaving the embarrassed detective's cheeks.

"Do you trust me?" Blair repeated.

"Of course, I trust you." Jim answered after a moment. His exasperated tone was immensely reassuring to Blair's oft-times insecure mind.

"Could you...close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to relax?"

"I could do that." Jim paused, then asked, "What's the catch?"

"The catch?" Blair opened his eyes very wide, putting on his most innocent, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-my-mouth expression.

"I'm sensing a hell of an and here, Chief. What's the small print?"

Blair sighed. So much for trust. Going with honesty, he asked, "Promise not to rearrange my dental work first?"

Jim actually smiled at that, answering in that lazy, almost flirtatious tone that wrecked havoc with Blair's blood pressure, "No promise. What's the game plan, Coach?"

"You close your eyes and let me try something. You don't like it, I stop immediately and you don't kill me. The you-don't-kill-me part is, like, the really important portion of this exercise, okay?"

"I'm intrigued. What do you have in mind?"

If Jim had been a different kind of guy, he probably would have had it figured out already, but being who he was, Jim honestly didn't have a clue. For some reason, Blair found that utter naiveté very endearing.

"This is a show, not tell, sort of deal, big guy."

"How are you supposed to show me anything if I've got my eyes closed?"

"Look, can you just trust me on this...please?" Blair pleaded.

"Trust you...and don't kill you," Jim said uncertainly.

Blair put everything he was into the grin that followed. "Yeah, you got it down pat."

Jim nodded and gave him a bemused smile. "Okay, so I close my eyes and..." Jim suited action to words, closing his eyes as requested.

"Relax," Blair encouraged. Rising to his feet, he approached the couch. Pausing to take a deep breath himself, he pushed the mug of cider they'd been sharing aside and sat down on the coffee table. After a moment or two to accustom Jim to his proximity, Blair shimmied over until he was sitting between his partner's wide-spread legs...a place he'd always wanted to be.

The breath catching painfully in his chest, Blair reached for the afghan in his roommate's lap...only to have his hand intercepted by a grip harder than an iron manacle.

"What do you think you're doing?" Jim growled, his eyes snapping open.

Blair gulped. "It's kinda obvious, don't you think?" Chilled by Jim's expression, he reminded, "You were supposed to have your eyes closed."

"I did. I felt the change in temperature. You still haven't answered my question."

Storing the temperature information away for future research, Blair shrugged. "You said you couldn't do it the other way. I just thought..." He waited for the expected outburst, the scene that had been inevitable since the night he'd moved in with his het roommate, the part where Jim called him a 'perverted fag' or something of the sort and threw him out. If he were lucky. The unlucky scenario, the one that seemed far more probable in view of Jim's icy cold expression, was the one where he was carried out in a body bag. "You, ah, did promise not to kill me."

"Is this your idea of a joke?" Jim hissed, his eyes so full of fury that they actually seemed to sear his skin.

Feeling the fear-widen his gaze as he stared at Jim's incandescent blue eyes, Blair gave a mute shake of his head. Finally finding his voice, he whispered, "I wouldn't do that, Jim. It just seemed...the most workable option."

"I know that your lifestyle is radically different than mine, Blair, that you're not always too particular about the gender of your dates, but I don't go for guys."

Blair gulped, the action hard and painful in his tight throat. He didn't even want to consider how Jim knew about the one guy he'd dated since he'd moved into the loft. "I'm not asking you to have sex with me, man."

"No? Then what's your hand doing over my crotch?"

"Doing what you can't do yourself. It's exactly the same, Jim," he argued, bolder now that he'd survived the initial shock intact. But he was still highly aware of the grip that had yet to release his captured wrist.

"Not quite the same, at least, not from where I'm sitting."

"You gonna break my arm, man, or can I have it back now?" Blair asked steadily, watching that granite profile.

His features immobile, Jim released the hold.

Blair quickly snatched his hand back and rubbed at his reddened wrist. "It's a hand job, Jim. That's all. It could be anybody's hand."

"But it's not anybody's. It's yours."

"This isn't like we're making out or something. We're doing it to get you through a zone-out. The same as we do all our other exercises, only..." Blair gave a nervous smile and hopefully offered,"...only this one you might actually enjoy."

"I don't have sex with men," Jim firmly repeated.

Losing patience, Blair shot back, "By your own admission, you don't have sex with anyone anymore, including yourself. If you don't want that to be the story for the rest of your life, you better give this a try."

Jim's glare would have made an army back down. Blair just met it and held it, doing his best not to falter. And by some incomprehensible miracle, his bluff won through. The ex-Army Ranger did not turn him into chopped meat or toss him out into the storm. Instead, it was Jim's gaze that dropped.

"I know that you mean well, Chief, but..."

"But what?" he interrupted the soft-voiced refusal. "What do you have to lose? If it works, it works and you're back in business again. And if it doesn't..."

"Our friendship could be shot to hell," Jim grimly completed.

"Nah, no way, man." Blair smiled, brimming with affection for this proud and difficult man. "We're stronger than that."

"Blair, I just can't..."

"Sure you can," he soothed. "It's not like you have to touch me or do anything that might disgust you. All you have to do is lean back and close your eyes. You can even pretend that it's someone else doing it, if you want. Why don't you pretend my hand belongs to that pretty lady you were with earlier?"

Jim gave a firm shake of his head. Even that small gesture seemed powerful, as everything about him did. "I'm trying to forget that ever happened."

"Okay. Just picture last month's centerfold, then. Miss October. All beautiful bouncy boobs and shiny blond hair. Go on. Close your eyes and give it a shot."

That piercing blue gaze turned his way, indecision replacing the earlier fiery denials. "You sure you...don't mind?"

Blair found himself inexplicably choked up. "Mind? It was my idea, and it'll be my pleasure. With any luck, it'll be yours, too. Now, just lean back and relax, okay?"

To his complete astonishment, Jim leaned back against the couch cushions, his eyelids drooping shut.

"Good," Blair praised, his own respiration quickening at Jim's show of trust. "I'm going to move the afghan now and touch you. Okay?"

Somehow, he felt the need to ask permission this time. He stared at Jim's face. Lethally handsome, but not the pretty-boy, movie star bland, boyish perfection that was so in vogue these days. Jim had more character to him than a dozen Tom Cruises and Ethan Hawks put together. His rugged, chiseled features were like a natural wonder, like the Grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon. The strong lines and planes of smooth skin were that intimidating.

The neck beneath that dark roll of sweater was thick and powerful, like a knight's, the heavily muscled neck the mark of a true fighter. Blair watched Jim's Adam's apple bob in a nervous gulp before he gave a mute nod.

Blair's shock was genuine. He had never imagined he'd win this particular argument, not in a million years.

Still anticipating a violent rejection, he reached for the boldly striped afghan shielding his partner's lap. A gentle tug, and Jim was bared to the firelight.

Blair's breath caught in his chest as he took in the circumcised beauty that was straining from between the folds of Jim's open black trousers. Not even half erect, and the man was huge. As he watched, transfixed by the sight, the meaty flesh deepened in color, turning wine dark as it filled with blood and expanded further.

"Jeez," Blair breathed, licking his lips in helpless appreciation, "You're amazing. That nickname I gave you really suits you, big guy," he lightly teased, pleased by the flush his playful words brought to his reserved friend's cheeks. Sensing how his voice had calmed the nervous Sentinel in this no-doubt scary first time experience, Blair continued, "Don't worry. I'm going to take care of everything. You just relax and enjoy it, man."

Getting his own libido firmly under control, Blair reached out to collect the massive shaft in his palm. The springy flesh felt good, natural as it nestled in his hand. Jim's scent was incredible, all sweet musk, the barest hint of cologne, and the natural fresh smell that was particular to Jim. He could have happily drowned in that smell.

Jim sighed as Blair experimentally tightened his grip.

"Like that?" Blair checked.

Jim gave another silent nod and gulped. The heavily muscled chest beneath the black turtle neck rose and fell a little bit faster as a thin sheen of sweat beaded Jim's high brow.

"Good. I'm only going to do things you like. This feel good, Big Guy?" Blair questioned as he began to slowly pump the thick cock to complete fullness, the pad of his thumb lightly brushing across the sensitive glans on every up-stroke.

The small sound Jim made deep in his throat was like none Blair had heard from this controlled man. As he slipped his free hand down below to familiarize himself with those heavy, velvet-soft testicles, that tiny cry transformed into a groan that sounded like it was wrenched from the depths of Jim's soul. Then, like a damn bursting, all of Jim's imposing barriers seemed to shatter completely.

"Yesss...God, yesss....please, Blair...please..."

"You don't have to beg me, not ever," he whispered, his own voice so thick with emotion as to be unrecognizable. "That's it. Go with the flow, man. You can do this, Jim. Just feel it. Feel my hand...sliding over you. Your cock's so hard, so thick. You're beautiful, man. All power and strength. Feel that power, like skyrockets going off inside you. Big, bright, explosive as the Fourth of July."

"Aaahhh..." Jim gasped as his head tossed from side to side.

Blair stroked the shaft harder, pumping straight down to the base with its patch of wiry pubic curls. His attention was divided between the impressive results of his work and the play of expression across Jim's transformed features. Rapture had softened the stone cliff to something more approachable, something softer that longed to be kissed.

Damn, but the man was incredible, Blair thought. Jim was absolutely the most attractive guy he'd ever touched. With his close-cropped head thrown back, strong mouth parted in helpless pleasure, the sheen of sweat burnishing his skin as the firelight danced across him, and that archetype of primal masculine beauty rearing up from his open pants, Jim was the most erotic fantasy he could imagine. Seeing him this way, all Blair wanted to do was crawl onto Jim's lap and worship him from head to foot.

But this wasn't about what he wanted, Blair reminded himself. He'd promised Jim a simple hand job, nothing complicated, nothing that would offend his inhibitions. It was a miracle that Jim had trusted him even this far. Come hell or high waters, he was determined to stick to his promise. Anything else would jeopardize the trust that he'd labored so long and hard to earn, not to mention what it would do to their friendship. Even if he did stick to plan and nothing went amiss, there was still every possibility that his straight partner was going to hate him for this.

So, Blair did his best to ignore his longings and concentrate solely on Jim's pleasure. It wasn't all that difficult to do. Lately, he'd discovered that simply putting a smile on the serious detective's face gave him a bigger blast than most of his dates did. Which either meant that his dates were pretty pathetic – which they weren't – or...or something more was going on here than simple male bonding.

At first, Blair had thought that his fascination with James Ellison as a person was a by-product of his professional obsession with Sentinels. It made sense that he'd be interested in all the facets of the subject he'd searched for so long and hard to find, but it was more than that. The deadly military dude who'd walked into his office three months ago was probably the closest thing to the physical embodiment of all that Blair had abhorred in Jim's type for years. The guy was up-tight, judgmental, temperamental, and basically a royal pain to be around. They should have hated each other on sight. By rights, they should hardly have been able to communicate at all, given their wildly disparate backgrounds and lifestyles. But, and here was the funny part, Blair had never understood any human being as fundamentally as he did the man whose cock he was currently working. Almost from the start, he'd seen beneath the prickly, distant, short-tempered facade Jim presented to the world, seeing the all-too-vulnerable heart Jim kept hidden beneath that iron shield. By slow degrees, Jim was letting him inside those formidable protective barriers. Tonight was either a major break-through or the death knell of their friendship.

The truly maddening part was, Blair wouldn't know which until everything was over and done.

Whatever this turned out to be, Blair was enjoying the opportunity to touch this attractive man in this intimate fashion.

As he watched Jim's face transform with passion, Blair wondered if he'd be able to recognize the signs of incipient zone-out. Jim's expression was already so abstracted as he concentrated on inner sensation that Blair was worried that he wouldn't be able to identify that vital moment of transition, that instant when Jim's concentration crossed over from normal focus to hypnotic fixation.

Blair need not have worried. The zone-out happened just as Jim had described in his earlier encounter. One second, everything was fine. Jim was responding like any guy Blair had done this to, grunting and cursing, his head thrashing from side to side, chest heaving for breath. Then, in the blink of an eye, that all changed. If Blair hadn't been forewarned, the suddenness of the zone would have scared the hell out of him. Even knowing what was happening, the zone-out was intensely unnerving.

Mid-head-thrash, almost mid-pant, Jim froze like one of the victims of Mr. Freeze in the old Batman TV series. All expression seeped from his raptured face as movement completely ceased. Blair stared from the slack facial features with their eerily vacant gaze to the rock hard shaft he still held in his fist, fully understanding why the poor girl Jim had been with earlier had thought him dead. Even having seen Jim zone ten or twenty times a week for the last three months, here in this sexual setting it was especially frightening.

Blair took a deep breath and called out as normally as he could, "Jim? You with me here?"

No response, which wasn't at all unusual for his first attempt at contact. Blair squeezed the moist shaft he held in his palm and tried again, "Jim? Come on, buddy, come back to me."

Still nothing.

Venting a sigh, Blair began his normal litany, using the steady stream of sound to lure the sensation-wracked Sentinel back to him. In reality, this zone-out was no more severe than the dozens of others Jim had endured; it just struck at a very dramatic moment.

Finally, after over five minutes of constant coaxing, those fair lashes swept down in a blink as Jim emerged from the be-fogged seas of over-stimulation.

"Christ, not again..." Jim practically pleaded, his eyelids sinking shut as his entire body quaked with barely suppressed emotion. Jim's despair was so intense that it made Blair almost long for a return of the blankness of zone-out. At least that wasn't painful to watch. This barely contained misery was gut wrenching.

Sensing how close this proud man was to total breakdown, Blair quickly assured, "Hey, we're doing fine, Big Guy."

Those piercing blue eyes stared at him as though he were dangerously deranged. "This is your idea of fine? I..."

Thinking quickly and talking faster, Blair interrupted the frustrated diatribe before it could get started. "We had to see where you lose it and what form your reaction takes." Blair smiled encouragingly, "I know I'm good, but you didn't really think that just the touch of my hand was gonna cure you; did you?"

Humor proved the correct approach. Jim's cheeks flushed with color as he gave a sheepish, "I...guess not..."

"Now that we know that it's just a regular zone-out, we'll handle it like we do all the others."

It was perhaps too much to hope that Jim would fail to ask the truly sticky question. But with his usual contrariness, Jim shot back with a soft, "How?"

"Let me worry about how, okay? You just work with me on this." Blair bluffed, trying to sound like he had everything all worked out. "Now, where were we?"

He smiled softly at the whimper that met the squeeze he gave the somewhat deflated flesh in his hand, absurdly grateful that one of the zone-out's symptoms wasn't a loss of erection. Jim was still hard. It wouldn't take long to get back to where they'd lost it when Jim's senses had taken him on an internal walk-about.

"That's good," Blair approved as his friend once again began to respond to his manual manipulation.

"Blair?" Jim called in an urgent tone.

"Yeah, Big Guy?"

"Please...if you can stop it, don't let me lose it again like that...it...it hurts when I ..."

Knowing all too well what it was like to be left on the brink with his balls tied in knots, Blair ached for his partner's plight. Jim had to be hurting, bad.

Blair removed his left hand from the soft furred testicles he'd been fondling and lightly touched Jim's cheek. "You're not gonna lose it again. I'm right here with you, buddy, and I'm going to take care of you. Just relax and go with the feeling, okay?"

Scared and vulnerable were not emotions Blair was accustomed to equating with this powerful, self-reliant individual. To see them there in Jim's face now, in a setting where only pleasure and joy should be shining on his face, was heart-breaking. Like a kid trying to believe some implausible assurance an adult were attempting to give, Jim gave a doubtful nod.

Strangely moved, Blair stroked the chiseled cheek and strong jaw and vowed, "It's really going to be all right this time, Jim. I promise. Just trust me a little longer, okay?"

Another nod. Jim still looked unconvinced, but he forced a brave smile.

"I trust you," Jim gruffly admitted.

Blair shivered as he stared down into those fire-lit features, seeing his own image reflected back in Jim's enlarged pupils. It wasn't just an impulse to kiss that Blair experienced then, but a compulsion so strong it required every ounce of his strength to resist those beautiful lips. What Jim would do to him were he to give in, he couldn't even imagine. But he wasn't going to find out, not until they got this problem under control and Jim was healthy again. Then he could take his chances and let the straight cop bounce him off the terrace for his impertinence. Right now Jim was just too vulnerable to play games with.

Getting the suicidal urge under control, Blair removed his hand from the tempting face and returned it to Jim's hot and steamy groin.

Though undoubtedly a sexual act, there was something impersonal about a hand job. Like Blair had insisted before, it could be anybody's hand. But a kiss? That was too intimate. As much as he still longed to kiss Jim, he knew that Jim would be freaked out by the emotional connotations of two men kissing.

So, he stuck to the game plan and brought his partner up to full splendor with a few minutes of skilled manipulation.

This time, Blair kept a careful watch on Jim's face. The sweat dripping down Jim's face, the gasps for breath and mumbled curses all assured him that his friend was truly enjoying his ministrations. As much as that thrilled him and hardened Blair's own body, he fought to keep his scientific detachment. It would be so easy to get pulled into this erotic web, but Jim was counting on him to stop him from zoning. He knew he'd never be able to do that to the best of his ability if he were sharing Jim's pleasure.

Even with the scientist's distance, Blair still wasn't certain that he'd catch Jim at that crucial moment of cross-over.

As had happened before, Jim's attention seemed to draw more and more inwards as he neared orgasm.

When that abstracted light once again entered Jim's gaze, Blair froze his hands and sharply called out, "Jim?"

"Mmmmm?" the panting Sentinel replied, more zoned than here.

"You're about to zone. I need you to pull back from the pleasure for a minute."

"Feels too good," Jim irritably refused, pleading, "Finish it, Chief, please?"

"If we don't dilute your focus now, you're gonna lose it again, man," Blair patiently reminded.

"Damn you, get on with it! What kind of cock tease are you anyway, Sandburg?" the frustrated man growled.

Blair sighed. Jim never responded well to any of his suggestions. Was it any wonder the aroused cop would have trouble with this particular exercise? "The kind of cock tease that's gonna walk out and leave you here in ten seconds if you don't work with me on this. Understand?" he gave the distended cock a hard squeeze to accentuate his point.

"Shhhiiit...." Jim hissed, "Please..."

"Understand?"

"I understand that I'm gonna fucking kill you for this," Jim sobbed, biting his lower lip as he gasped for breath. There was so much pent-up rage and frustration in the man that it wasn't just sweat running down his cheeks at that moment.

Blair hardened his heart against the tears. If he weakened now, Jim would zone, and he'd promised not to let that happen again. "You can kill me after you come. But you gotta come first. You can't do that if you're zoning and you're gonna zone-out any second if you don't work with me here. Got it?"

Jim gave a tight nod. The ex-Ranger's enraged eyes promised bloody retribution when this was done.

Reading that violent vow, Blair shivered, actually frightened of Jim for the first time. He tried to console himself with the thought that at least he wouldn't have to search for a new domicile in the near future. Jim could keep his remains in a nice urn in his prison cell.

"Okay, Jim, I need you to divide your attention for a while. It's gonna feel good, real good, but you can't lose yourself in that. You've got to try to concentrate on another thing at the same time."

"What other thing?" Jim practically wailed. "All I can do is feel... your hand...my dick...."

Blair thought fast. "Try concentrating on your breathing," he instructed as he recommenced pumping that iron hard shaft.

Within seconds, Jim's gaze took on that abstracted glaze again.

"You're not concentrating," Blair scolded, stopping all movement.

"I...my breathing's too erratic. Can't keep track..." Jim's expression took a frantic edge. "Please, Chief...please..?"

"Okay, we'll try something else. Can you hear my heartbeat, Jim?"

"Yeah."

"All right. I need you to count the beats while I'm doing this for you. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, count the beats..."

Realizing how close to incoherence the frustrated Sentinel was, Blair appealed to his companion's protective streak. "Jim, it's very important that you do this for me. Vital. If you don't listen for my heart...it could stop and I could, like, die, man. If you don't listen for my heart, I'll die. Do you understand?"

"Yeah," Jim nodded, licking the dripping sweat and tears off his upper lip, "If I don't listen out your heart will stop."

"And you don't want that to happen, do you? You don't want me to die, do you, Jim?"

"No...no, don't die..." Jim begged like a feverish child waking from a nightmare.

His throat choked up by the degree of emotion Jim was exhibiting for him, Blair asked, "So what are you gonna do to keep me from dying?"

"Count your heartbeats," Jim whispered. "Right?"

"That's right, Jim," Blair approved. "Thanks, man." After a few moments of steady pumping of the cock in his hand, Blair quizzed, "How am I doing, Jim? Is my heart still beating?"

"Sixty-six...sixty-seven..."

"Good," Blair smiled, intensifying his handwork.

"Ahh...seventy-four...God...seventy-seven...I'm...eighty-three...coming...!"

With a senseless roar that shook the fire-lit living room, Jim finally exploded.

Jim went off like an uncapped fireplug, gushers of creamy white semen spurting free.

Watching it rain down on Jim's turtleneck, open trousers, and his own moving fist, Blair couldn't help but think that all the pent-up semen from the last three frustrating months rushed forth in that cataclysmic outpouring.

Spellbound, Blair watched as climax transformed Jim's features into something truly splendid. This was the kind of man poets had written of in olde: divine beauty, pure power, and strength, encapsulated in human form, never so attractive as at this moment of ecstasy when mortal flesh celebrated the triumph of life in the most ancient urge of all.

The potent streams of ejaculate pulsed like they'd go on forever.

At last, Jim seemed drained. The geysers stilled. The shaft deflated, curling down to rest against its velvet pink testes until its next eruption.

Nearly awed, Blair sat very still in his seat on the edge of the coffee table. Almost as an afterthought, he released Jim's flaccid cock, withdrawing his sticky hand. He wasn't quite sure what to do with the organic evidence of their act. Should he move to get a tissue to clean it off his hands or just rub it on his robe?

Now that Jim had actually achieved orgasm, everything had changed. Jim might very well want to keep that promise to kill him.

Seeing the frown lines pull at Jim's formerly relaxed features, Blair tensed inside. Briefly, he wondered if Jim had his shoulder holster on beneath his silk jacket.

The long, fair lashes fluttered, then parted. Jim's gaze homed in on him as expertly as the bore of his handgun would.

"Are you all right?" Jim surprised him by asking in a subdued whisper.

Expecting World War Three, Blair blinked in astonishment at the un-angered tone. "Huh?"

"Your heart. It's beating nearly twice as fast now. If I stop listening to your heart, you'll die, remember?" Jim actually smiled.

"Sorry. It-it was all I could think of," Blair lamely apologized.

"It worked. I never thought I'd be able to...do that again. I...felt every minute of it, didn't lose it once..." Jim marveled.

"You're...not mad at me?"

"Mad?" Jim appeared totally perplexed as he roused himself enough to close his pants.

"Before, you said you were going to kill me..." Blair reported before his common sense kicked in enough to warn him that reminding this capable fighter of that promise probably wasn't the wisest move he'd made in his life.

A strange, fleeting emotion touched Jim's eyes before he said gently, "The really important portion of this exercise was I don't kill you – remember?"

"Ah, yeah. I just didn't think that you would." Blair breathed a sigh of relief.

"I always try to remember my promises, Chief," Jim said, deeply serious all of a sudden. "And, even if I hadn't made that promise...how could I be mad at you for that?"

Uneasy now that they were treading on his own sensitive spots, Blair looked down at his lap where his semen-splattered hands were clasped together. He wanted to squirm and hide, but as tempted as he was, he didn't back away from the issue. "Some would. It might have been just a hand job, but I am another man. Some guys can't handle that."

Blair flinched at the unexpected touch which followed his admission, relaxing as he realized that it was just Jim's fingertips, skimming his jaw-line, lifting his chin back up – not raised in anger against him. Smelling the lingering traces of musk on Jim's palm, Blair gulped and tried to suppress a shiver. Allowing his head to be guided back up, he braved that intense gaze.

"It wasn't just a hand-job. You saved my sanity, Chief. I owe you for that."

Gratitude being the last thing he wanted from this man, Blair quickly denied, "You don't owe me anything. Not for that."

"How'd I know that you'd say something like that?" Jim gave him one of those rare smiles, so bright with affection that it just about melted Blair's bones. Then Jim sobered and said very simply, very sincerely, "Thank you, Blair."

Blair felt his face warm. "You're welcome, Jim." he replied in kind, both of them laughing at the serious exchange. Once they'd sobered, he softly informed. "Anyway, it's not like you're completely cured."

"What?" Some of the rosy glow of aftermath seemed to dim from Jim's face.

"I nearly lost you a couple of times. You were fighting me all the way. Do you really think that you'll be able to hold your concentration without me there coaching you?"

Blair hated killing his friend's joy this way, but he knew the reserved man wouldn't be very open to this topic of discussion if they let it go too long.

"What are you saying? That I'm never going to be able to have sex without you there to talk me through the zone-out?" Jim's expression was lost somewhere between outrage and exasperation at the absurd suggestion.

"No, it just means that we're going to have to work on your concentration. Practice a couple of times a week..." Blair, who was trying to figure this out in his head, wasn't really aware that he'd spoken that idea aloud until he noticed Jim's expression.

"Are you saying that you'd be willing to...do this a couple of times a week?" Jim appeared totally floored by the suggestion.

Blair shrugged. "Unless you're totally repulsed by the idea, I don't know how else you're going to learn to control the zone-out. Are you?"

"Am I what?" Jim asked, seeming more than a little lost.

"Repulsed by the idea?"

Jim slowly shook his head.

"Great. Then we'll work on it later in the week." Too tempted to kiss that bewildered air away, Blair forced himself to ignore the impulse and bounce back into teacher mode. "I hope you don't mind if I get back to those exams now. I, ah, really have to get them graded by morning."

Jim blinked, his focused stare doing things to his blood pressure that Blair would rather not dwell upon.

"No, of course, I don't mind. I'm going to go grab a shower and sack out." Jim was halfway to the bathroom when he paused to call "Blair?" in a tentative tone.

"Yeah?"

"Thanks again, Chief. For everything."

Unable to believe that things had gone this well, Blair smiled up at his roommate, "Anytime. It was my pleasure," he assured, meaning the words.

Jim nodded, an oddly serious air seeming to cling to him as he disappeared into the john.

*~*~*

It was strange how a person's entire perspective on life could be changed in just a few short months, Detective James Ellison thought as he took another bite of the mouth-watering chicken and rice dinner that had been waiting for him when he'd walked in tonight. Six months ago, had he arrived home at eleven p.m., dinner would have consisted of a bowl of Cheerios or, more likely, nothing at all until breakfast.

But everything had changed since Blair moved in. Now, when Jim got home late, there was usually a hot meal waiting for him. Even when he'd been married, he'd never gotten this kind of attention. Five hours late, and the kid had waited dinner on him. Caroline would never have done that. Although his ex-wife had been a cop as well, and understood the time demands of the job, she'd never been anyone's idea of a homebody.

Not that Jim would ever have classified Blair as the domestic type, either, but his new roommate surprised him on almost a daily basis. Looking around the colorful additions to the loft, the afghans, throw pillows, kitchen utensils and other small, personal touches that had arrived soon after Blair, Jim barely recognized this comfortable home as the same place he'd been using primarily to sleep since Caroline walked out. So many small changes, so many new additions, all of which made the loft into a home.

The addition Jim appreciated most was the organic one sitting across the table from him. His Guide was currently twittering on about his day like a happy little sparrow. Blair...astounded him. There was no other word for it.

How anyone could be this enthusiastic and cheerful at the end of a nineteen-hour day of teaching, police work, and paper grading totally bewildered him. But here the kid sat, practically turning handstands to raise his spirits. He still didn't know why Blair went to such trouble for him. All he knew was that no other soul on Earth had ever looked out for him the way Blair did.

"Want some more?" Blair asked as he brought his own empty dishes over to the sink.

"No, thanks. I'm full. It was great, Chief," Jim complimented, stretching his long legs out in front of him as he watched the slender form move around the kitchen. The kid was never still, never quiet. Even now, Blair was humming to himself as he loaded the dishwasher. Realizing that since Blair had done the cooking, it really should be he himself on clean up duty, he protested, "Hey, I'll get that stuff. You cooked. I'll clean."

The curly head shook in instant refusal. "Nah, you look really wiped. Relax."

"But..."

Blair shot him one of those high-voltage grins that generally foreshadowed something truly outrageous. "If you feel that guilty about it, you can buy me dinner tomorrow night."

"Oh, I can, can I?" he mock-growled, unable to keep the corners of his mouth from twitching upwards.

"Yeah. At Vincenzo's, say around seven?" Blair actually batted his eyelashes at him.

Jim couldn't hold his laughter in at that point. It exploded from him the way his anger usually did, fierce and uncontrollable. But this felt so much better than anger ever could. He was learning that this kind of laughter fed his soul. It could make the stress of a whole shitty day dissolve like sugar in rain. When he calmed, he rubbed at his tired, tearing eyes and shook his head. "You're shameless. You know that?"

Still grinning that Cheshire cat smile, Blair nodded. "Yeah, that's me. Shameless. The question is – am I fed?"

Struck by the grace of movement as the blue-jeaned figure crossed the room to take his plate from him, Jim took a deep breath, looked up into the mischievous face, gave up any pretense of restraint, and grinned back, "You're fed. Vincenzo's at seven."

"That's great. Thanks a lot, Big Guy." Blair put the final touches on his spell of befuddlement, responding as though the dinner invitation had been Jim's idea from the first.

Running a hand over the peach fuzz of his buzz cut, bone-weary, Jim watched his roommate tidy up the kitchen. Not for the first time, he wondered how Blair did it. No matter how irritable or snappish his days left Jim, Blair usually managed to make him laugh when he got home. And the kid did it with such style and ease that it didn't even seem like work to him. More like something Blair equally enjoyed.

Finally beginning to unwind from the strains of the day, Jim reached for the mail that was stacked on the side of his place mat. Absorbed in the usual deluge of junk, he was only subliminally aware of Blair returning to his schoolwork in the logjam of loose papers and books scattered on the living room rug in front of the fire.

"Good night, Chief," Jim called a short time later as he exited the bathroom, heading for the stairs and bed. "See you tomorrow night at Vincenzo's. Don't forget. Seven o'clock." He reminded the absentminded professor. Tomorrow was Blair's busy day. His roommate had classes from eight a.m. till five-thirty.

"Right. Seven. I won't forget," Blair pushed his glasses back up his nose as he glanced up from the paper in his hands. Blair was still in his favorite spot, sprawled in front of the hearth, soaking up the heat like a contented cat as the dancing flames behind him sent sun-bursts of russet flares through his curls. "Ah, Jim?"

"Hmmmm?" He paused.

"You want some company? Get some practice in?"

Jim froze on the steps, a painful lump clogging his throat as the breath caught in his chest. For the past month, this was how it started – with Blair's casual inquiry.

This could have been the most awkward, embarrassing situation of his life. Needing someone to coach him through sex was downright pathetic. But Blair made it so damn easy for him. Blair always offered, always fielded the inherent awkwardness with that madcap sense of humor of his, turning what should have been a humiliating ordeal into some of the most erotic experiences of his life.

Not that Jim could ever admit that to his roommate. They weren't supposed to be doing this for fun, but Blair made it feel so natural that he couldn't think of it in any other terms.

"You're busy," he denied, not wanting to become a burden to the other man's generous spirit.

"Not anymore. Should I come up for a while?"

Jim couldn't understand why Blair always sounded like Jim were doing him the favor.

As usual, he found himself mutely nodding assent to the offer, unable to speak, lest his traitorous voice betray how important these little practice sessions were becoming to him.

"Good. I'll be up in a minute," Blair smiled, looking oddly relieved.

Once upstairs, Jim quickly stripped. After peeling back his heavy yellow comforter, he slid between the blue sheets, the coolness of the cotton leeching some of the heat from his burning flesh.

There was a part of him that simply could not believe that this was happening. If someone had suggested six months ago that he'd be lying in his bed with a painful erection poking its way through the bedclothes at the thought of a skinny little guy coming up to give him a hand job, Detective Ellison would have sent the nut scrambling for orthodontic work and psychological counseling, in that order. Sometimes, even now, he'd look at Blair in the cold light of day, and be completely unable to picture the unconventional scholar before him in the scruffy jeans and mismatched shirts as the same person who brought him to the peaks of pleasure at night.

"You all ready, Big Guy?" Blair asked, pausing at the top of the stairs.

Startled out of his ruminations, Jim focused on Blair. "Yeah. You want the light on?"

He hoped the kid would say no. The firelight reflecting up from the living room lit the place bright as noon to his Sentinel vision. Blair looked...incredible in the soft, shifting illumination. Blair's skin had a burnished glow to it, while the eyes behind those wire-frame glasses were enormous in the lower light, glinting bright as sapphires. And what the firelight did to those moist, sensuous lips did not bear close examination, not if he wanted to keep this on the professional level upon which they'd agreed.

More and more, Jim was finding it increasingly difficult to resist the urge to pull his partner down into the bed with him and return some of the delight Blair so generously dispensed.

"Nah, this is fine," Blair replied. "The firelight's sorta sexy; you know?"

His hearing picking up the sudden increase in his partner's heartbeat, Jim opened his mouth to question what was wrong when Blair cut him off with a tense, "Sorry."

"For what?" Jim asked, hearing the thickness of desire in his own voice. When Blair wore that uncertain, puppy-dog expression, all he wanted to do was cuddle him. But that was against the rules.

"I shouldn't have made that 'sexy' comment. I forget sometimes that this is supposed to be...another training exercise."

Blair's worried expression telling him just how concerned his Guide was about his possible reaction to the confession, Jim decided to be a little honest in return. "I'm glad you forget."

"You are?" Blair asked with child-like wonder, his body visibly relaxing as he walked towards the bed on his lithe, little cat feet.

"Yeah. It makes it easier for me, like it's less of a chore for you."

Jim's admission had an unanticipated effect. About a foot away from the bed, Blair froze, a stricken expression scrunching his features. "Do I make it seem like a chore to you?"

Wishing he'd kept his big mouth shut, Jim stumbled to explain, "No, you're always...fantastic about it. I just can't help thinking that this can't be easy for you."

"Easier than you might think," Blair mumbled, the words coming through with bell-like clarity to Jim's enhanced hearing.

"Huh?"

Blair gave an explicit what-the-hell shrug and grinned. "It's not like you're exactly repulsive, man. You put an ad in the paper for someone to do this for you, and I guarantee you'll have takers lined up from here to Mexico."

Jim chuckled at the image, patting the empty space beside his hips so that Blair would know he was welcome. "Simon would love that."

"I, ah, don't mean to disappoint you there, Jim," Blair said with mock-seriousness, "but I really don't see Simon in that line."

"No?" Jim was laughing so hard inside at the thought of his super-straight captain applying for this particular job that he could barely breathe. "I'm crushed."

"I guess you'll just have to make do with me." Blair chuckled as he eased his butt onto the mattress.

"Looks like," Jim smiled, warmed by their by-play.

"Can we get rid of this sheet?" Blair asked, giving a theatric wag of his eyebrows. Although his glasses were a lot thinner, the action reminded Jim of Groucho Marx.

"Sure." Jim took a deep breath as his Guide peeled back the thin layer of concealing blue cotton.

Sometimes Jim worried about what Blair thought when he would find him already erect at the mere thought of what they were about to do, but Blair only smiled at the revelation.

"God, you're perfect here, Jim," Blair whispered, his respiration rate increasing as his eyes roved his naked form. "You're like some chiseled Greek sculpture."

Blair always said something kind at this point to break the tension. Although Jim didn't usually go in for sweet talk; he appreciated the effort. Blair always managed to sound like he meant whatever he said.

"You mean cold and made of stone?" Jim half-joked, all too aware of the image many of his coworkers had of him.

"You know, you have a serious problem when it comes to taking compliments. What I meant was well-proportioned and perfectly formed. The color's not bad either. Juicy-looking, sort of wine dark. A succulent tower of power."

Jim felt his cheeks blaze at the poetic description. Blair was talking about his cock, for Christ's sake, not some girl's smile. "Blair, you don't have to..."

"I don't have to do anything," Blair cut into his protest. "You can't fault a guy for admiring a work of art, can you?"

Jim knew his face was blazing hotter. "You're the first guy who's ever admired it." For that matter, Blair was the first person, period, to compliment him so openly on his physique.

His curly head gave a negative shake as Blair chuckled and corrected, "No, Big Guy. I can promise you that I'm not the first guy to admire it. I'm just the first who thought he might have half a chance of living after admitting to it."

Jim grinned at the absurd assertion, shaking his head.

"What?" Blair laughed. "You don't believe me, do you?"

"Not a word, Chief. Not a single word. You'd sweet talk the honey right out from under the bees."

"I'm gonna sweet talk some honey out of you right now, man." Blair grinned. "You ready?"

Jim gave a tight nod. He'd been ready on the stairs when Blair had first suggested it.

"You got my heart, Jim?" Blair checked.

"Got you covered. Two hundred sixty-two beats since you left the stairs."

Blair blinked. "Seriously?"

Jim nodded, unwilling to elucidate. Mentally, he knew that Blair's `if you stop listening, I'll die' spiel was simply a ploy to keep him from zoning. Maybe it was because Blair had introduced the concept at such a highly emotion-charged moment, but ever since that night, Jim found himself unconsciously straining to catch Blair's distinct bio-rhythms. Sometimes, he would wake up with a start in the dead of night, panicked because he'd stopped consciously listening and couldn't find Blair's heartbeat. Then he'd remember that his roommate was out on a date that night. Apparently, that tribal protector stuff Blair was always going on about was a little more than the anthro-babble he'd first taken it for.

As naturally as though reaching for a piece of bread at the dinner table, Blair stretched out a hand to collect him.

Jim gasped as that sweaty palm encircled his length. The pressure was just right, Blair's grip certain, secure in its ability to please. There was no awkwardness at all, not a hint of the rush to get this over with, which Jim had originally expected and would have fully understood. If anything, Blair handled him with a sense of...reverence, like his Guide found it some enormous honor just to be able to touch him.

"Mmmmm...that's good," Jim approved as that knowing hand began to stroke him.

As ever, Jim felt ready to explode at that first contact. The more they did this, the more he began to realize how impossible it would have been for him to conquer this problem on his own. The sensations were simply too enhanced. They'd barely started, and already the pleasure shooting through his loins was as sharp and consuming as climax used to be before his senses had kicked into hyperdrive. Now, it was no wonder to him that he'd zoned-out at the crucial moment. A hand-job was intense enough to blast him into the stratosphere these days. He couldn't imagine holding it together for actual penetration. "You with me, Jim? How's my heart?"

"Three seventy four..." Jim automatically supplied, accustomed to Blair's intrusive pop quizzes now.

"Okay. Hold onto my heartbeat now," Blair breathily instructed. "I'm gonna add something new to the mix."

Tensing inside, trying to pull his focus from the quicksilver delight trilling inside him, Jim wondered what his companion was up to now. He could barely endure this level of stimulation. Blair couldn't seriously believe he could take any more, could he?

"Aaaaahhh...." Jim groaned as his left nipple was gripped and lightly squeezed.

"You like that, Jim?" Blair hoarsely whispered, his voice strangely thick.

Gasping for breath, his head beginning to thrash under the build-up of sensations, Jim looked up into Blair's flushed face and implored, "More...please…?"

Their very first night together, Blair had told him he never had to beg with him. Once again, that proved true. All he had to do was ask to receive.

Too dazzled for further speech, Jim watched that curly head lower over his chest. He cried out loud as Blair's mouth found his nipple. That vibrant tongue did things to the tight pebble of flesh that he'd never imagined possible.

Needing some form of touch himself, his hand jumped to the back of Blair's neck. Finding the band that was holding all those curls captive, he pulled it loose and dug his fingers deep into the fragrant cascade. Chamomile, wood-smoke, and Blair...a truly enticing combination.

Blair was generally fairly quiet during their encounters, but as Jim's hand played through his hair, he released a strangled moan.

If he'd been a little more together, Jim might have been alarmed by the marked increase in his Guide's heart rate. However, at the moment, he was stretched so taut with feeling that he simply noted the phenomenon.

The rational side of his mind tried to prepare him for the cessation of that incredible sucking, reminding him that such service went far beyond a simple hand job.

To his amazement, Blair didn't stop after pleasuring both nipples to capacity. Instead, the kid followed the near invisible trail of hair down the center of his chest, Blair's wicked tongue playing over the pronounced washboard of his abs, making him feel more than the human nervous system was designed to handle.

The delight was so fierce, so bright, like a shimmering star rising out of the ink black bay, stunning and all- consuming as it flared through his every cell...

"Jim! You with me, man? My heart...have you got my heart?"

Jim blinked back from the near-zone-out, automatically searching for Blair's heartbeat, momentarily alarmed by its wild tattoo.

"I'm...with you...don't know...the number of beats anymore...sorry..."

"It's okay," Blair gave a tense chuckle and admitted, "I don't know who's improving more – you at staying centered, or me at catching you as you start to zone. How you doing, buddy?"

Lulled by that cheerful voice, Jim gasped out, "Fine."

"You up to some big boys' games?" Blair questioned.

"Huh?"

"We'll have a test run. See how you cope with something not in the game plan. Sound okay to you?"

At that point, vivisection would have sounded great to him, providing that it ensured completion. So, he nodded approval.

"One thing I gotta know beforehand, Jim. Stay with me here, man," Blair ordered in his best Guide voice. "It's important."

"What?"

"Have you been tested? For HIV?" Blair clarified at Jim's no-doubt blank response.

Deciphering his friend's question, Jim nodded again and added, "At the hospital, when we met. I'm clean. Why...aaahhh...."

Blair's descending mouth blasted all thought from him as his partner lapped at his belly button.

Blair's tongue was astonishing. It played over his stomach like a restless wind, leaving moist shivers in its wake. Others had touched him like this in his life, but not since the change. His Sentinel senses turned the foreplay into the sheerest ecstasy.

Jim was hanging onto that excited heartbeat like a lifeline when Blair decided to cut him loose from all moorings and send him scuttling into the maelstrom.

His partner's question should have warned him as to what Blair intended, but he was as shocked as a green schoolboy when that passion-swollen mouth sucked in his length.

The wet heat was phenomenal. Every pleasure dial shot off the chart as sensation after sensation hurled through him with all the subtlety of a SCUD missile. Spiraling down on it, all Jim could do was feel and try to remain present.

The slurpy delight broke off quite abruptly. "Jim, my heart...don't let it stop, man. We got a new count?"

"Two...two-twenty…" he mumbled breathlessly, snapping back to his main responsibility in life. If he didn't listen to make sure his partner's heart was still beating, Blair would die. It was the mantra he lived by at these moments of heightened experience.

Then Blair's mouth had him again and all that existed was pleasure. Jim's hands were buried in sable-soft curls, directing the bobbing head. His heart and soul were consumed by the ecstasy this generous spirit was lavishing upon him. Blair's soft tongue was a hidden, secret admirer, intent upon his complete undoing as it delicately tortured his glans between hardy sucks.

And the suction itself...the juicy heat of that wet mouth laved the consuming fire of his cock, even as it stoked the flames and made him burn brighter. Jim's nervous system was incandescent now, the delight the nuclear heart of a shining star. Meltdown was inevitable, and when it came, his very bones seemed to liquefy in the out-pouring.

Pulse after powerful pulse, the thick streams of ejaculate bathed the back of Blair's throat. The kid swallowed every single drop, Blair's hands working his cock the entire time as though hungry for more.

The unsuspecting Sentinel was completely blown away by the experience. Spellbound, his gaze fixed on the other man as Blair leaned over his groin, the curl-crowded head bobbing in its service. Dazzled, he imprinted the image on the back of his retinas, storing every facet of it in his memory, lest he forget.

All too soon, it was over.

Jim sighed as Blair pulled back.

Limp as a wet dishcloth, Jim stared up at the sensual sorcerer who had just altered his view of reality, the magician who'd transported him to planes of existence that he'd never suspected existed.

Slowly, Blair rose up from his hunched over position, wiping his knuckles across his swollen red lips.

Jim stared at that mouth, longing to taste it. All he could think about was the fact that it was the friction of his cock that had swollen those lips to their present sensuous condition. He wanted to kiss his Guide so badly that it was an actual physical ache in his suddenly twisted gut. On some level, he realized that these feelings were dangerous, but the larger part of him no longer cared.

The only thing that stopped him was the effect such an act might have on Blair.

Jim knew that he'd really screwed up big time tonight, begging the kid to go down on him like he had, when all Blair had signed on for was a simple hand-job.

True enough, the fellatio had been Blair's idea, but he hadn't done it until Jim had begged him for more. He knew what a soft touch his Guide was. It had been criminal to take advantage of his kind-hearted friend that way.

And if Jim needed any confirmation of that last fact, he need only take in the timid way Blair met his gaze. Blair appeared shell-shocked, looking for all the world as though he expected to be violently reprimanded at any moment.

Horrified, Jim realized that Blair was shaking uncontrollably. His rushed breathing sounded like it was just this side of one of those anxiety attacks to which Blair had warned him he was prone.

"Ah...I'm like...really sorry, Jim," the kid stammered, visibly blanching as their gazes met.

"What?" It was hard enough to think through the afterglow and his own guilt without trying to decipher what his often incomprehensible partner was feeling. Blair went on about the strangest things, sometimes.

"I, ah, got carried away. That...that wasn't in the game plan."

Jim moved his hand to touch the nearby jean-covered hip. Stunned, he saw Blair flinch, as though he expected to be struck. Not for the first time, he wondered what kind of past his friend had had. For all Blair's optimism and joy, there was a lot of hurt lurking right below the surface. "You think I'd be mad at you...over that?" Jim asked, his voice so thick with emotion as to be all but unrecognizable.

"You'd have every right to be," Blair chastised himself, looking down as though unable to hold his gaze in his sudden, inexplicable shame. "I..."

Jim reached out to lift the stubbled jaw back up, needing to see those beautiful eyes. "You made me happy," he said simply.

"You're really not mad?" Blair checked, seeming unable to believe the truth before his eyes.

"Not in the least. Anytime you want to re-write the exercise that way, be my guest."

Blair loosed a deep sigh, visibly relieved. His expression lit up like a Christmas tree. "Thanks, man."

"I think you've got things a little backwards here, Chief. Thank you," Jim corrected.

"Anytime. It was my pleasure. Really." Blair was practically giddy over his lack of anger. "I'm gonna turn in now, Big Guy. Sleep well."

As if needing some further contact, Blair reached out his right hand to cup Jim's cheek.

Touched by the strangely intimate gesture, Jim gasped in a breath. He shivered, aroused by the scent of his own musk on his partner's palm. Unable to stop himself, he turned his face into Blair's hand and planted a kiss on the sweaty skin. As he did, his tongue flicked out in a quick sweep of the sweaty skin. The salty taste of Blair shot through him like a jigger of rot gut.

He heard the catch in Blair's breath, almost felt the physical shock of his gesture pulse through the slender form. Blair shuddered, his gaze hot and more than a little unfocused.

Of course his eyes were hot, Jim mentally reprimanded himself. The kid had just given a blow job and gotten nothing in return. Belatedly, he realized that his Guide must go to bed with his balls tied in knots every time they practiced.

For an insane moment, Jim seriously considered inviting his partner to spend the remainder of the night in his bed. The longing was certainly there, on both sides. But...the tenderness aching inside him was already enough to melt him. If he let this oddly incongruous sensualist any further into his heart, there'd be no going back; there'd be no keeping up this 'just friends' pretense.

He was in too deep to play those kinds of games. Jim knew himself far too well. He'd never been good at sharing a lover, while Blair...the kid didn't know the meaning of commitment or exclusivity. Blair had a different woman on his arm every time he saw the kid. Blair would welcome his partner having these heavy feelings for him about as much as he would a dose of the clap.

Jim knew he wasn't 'in love' with the kid yet; it was still just heavy infatuation. There was still some hope for him. If he kept it at this level.

So, as much as he hungered to do otherwise, he turned his face away from the seductive warmth of the hand cradling his cheek, gave Blair's jeans-covered hip a farewell pat and wished, "Sweet dreams, Chief."

"Yeah, you too," Like a sleepwalker awaking mid-wander, Blair pulled himself together and stumbled towards the stairs.

"Oh, Blair?"

"Yeah, Jim?" Blair still sounded as though he expected a reprimand.

"Don't forget. Vincenzo's at seven."

Even without his enhanced senses, Jim would have felt the heat of the grin his reminder earned him.

"It's a date. Goodnight, Big Guy."

Still listening out for that madly accelerated heartbeat, Jim followed his partner's progression down the stairs.

Normally, he would have rolled over and fallen asleep during this stage of the proceedings. The sex usually left him totally wiped out, with barely enough energy left to thank Blair and wish him a proper goodnight.

But tonight, things were different. The salt from Blair's palm was still sharp on his tongue. Every nerve ending he owned was tingling with a restless yearning, all his senses focused on his Guide as Blair stripped down in his dark room in preparation for bed.

Stunned, Jim realized that his Sentinel abilities were up in full hunter mode, only the prey he was scoping out wasn't the adversarial kind.

As clearly as if he were standing in the tiny bedroom with Blair, Jim heard him unbutton his shirts, unzip and remove his jeans, peel back the bed-sheet, crawling in in his boxers, undershirt and – Jim reached out a little further with his senses – his socks, because Blair's feet were always cold. A metallic click heralded the removal of Blair's glasses, a louder snap denoting their safe storage in their case for the night. Then, Blair lay back against the sheets with a weary sigh.

Jim waited for his partner's heart to calm down, for Blair's breathing to stabilize, but that didn't happen. For what felt like forever, Jim could hear his Guide just lying there in the fire-lit darkness, the kid's heart pounding louder than the drums in some of that damn punk stuff Blair sometimes preferred.

After about twelve minutes of that tense waiting, Jim heard his partner's bed sheets rustle again, followed by the unmistakable sounds of friction, the dry slide of skin over skin. Jim's ears detected the nearly inaudible brush of pubic hair as it was inadvertently bent.

Jim felt his cheeks burn as he realized what was going on, why Blair had lain so long in the darkness, tensed with a sense of waiting. Blair had been waiting. For the man with the bionic hearing upstairs to fall decently asleep.

Well, could anyone blame the kid, Jim thought as he tossed restlessly in his too-empty bed, his imagination supplying all-too-well the appropriate imagery to accompany the sound effects from below.

How many people could do what Blair did twice, sometimes three times a week without getting any themselves? Jim knew he couldn't have done it. And they were both very aware of the fact that Blair was no disciplined martyr when it came to his libido. It only made sense that Blair would go and whack off after one of their little practice sessions.

What didn't add up were the sounds that followed. After a few, brief minutes of steady pumping, Jim heard his Guide explode with a choked-back sob, a sound that somehow had little joy to it.

The loft was temporarily filled with the scent of Blair's coming, the musky, heady aroma of spilt-semen. No one with normal senses would have smelt it from this distance. Hell, most people's sinuses were so clogged that they wouldn't have smelt it if they were in the same room with Blair. But to Jim, the fragrance was as inundating as lilacs at full bloom.

After that first blast began to dissipate, Jim expected his friend to roll over and fall immediately asleep, Blair's S.O.P. after masturbating.

But tonight, another odd noise followed, something that bore an unsettling resemblance to a muffled sniffle. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up straight at that sound. His olfactory senses kicked in for confirmation, easily pinpointing the briny scent of fresh-shed tears.

Blair was crying?

Alarmed, Jim sat up in the bed. Part of him wanted to race downstairs and demand to know what was wrong...to offer comfort. But his more cautious side reminded him that he wasn't supposed to know about this. Blair had purposefully waited long enough for him to fall asleep before he'd indulged himself. His Guide had a right to cry in the privacy of his own room. Jim couldn't demand explanations for something hurtful that Blair obviously didn't want him to know about. If Blair wanted him to know what was wrong, he would broach the topic in his own good time. God knew, his Guide wasn't exactly verbally challenged. When he was ready, Blair would talk about it.

But, even so, Jim couldn't shake the guilty feeling that he was somehow the cause of this misery. It was murder to lie there, listening while his closest friend cried almost soundlessly into his pillow down below him.

No longer sleepy or even remotely aroused, Jim kept his silent, distant vigil, not closing his own eyes until Blair gave a shuddery sigh and finally surrendered to sleep.

*~*~*

"You did a fine job, Jim," Captain Simon Banks praised as he approached his senior detective behind the EMS vehicle. In his night-black camouflage outfit and heavy black kevlar vest, Banks was a sleek and deadly figure. "Lash isn't going to be bothering anyone again. Ever."

From where he was being treated on the back of the truck, Jim looked up at his captain, meeting his superior's gaze over the blond medical technician's head as the paramedic dressed one of his numerous cuts. Jim was also still in his flak vest and stealth gear, his body still unconsciously primed for action.

He'd seen more than his fair share of it today. That two-story fall through the rotting warehouse floor during the final struggle with the crazed serial killer had jarred every bone in his body. Every muscle, every joint, every piece of connective tissue he owned still throbbed from the jolting impact. He felt bruised and battered straight down to his very bone marrow. And now that the adrenaline high was beginning to fade, he was starting to get the shakes. Normally, that type of action didn't affect him this severely. But this time, the threat had struck too close to home. If it had taken him just five minutes longer to figure out that duck pond drowning angle, Blair would most certainly be dead right now.

"Hey, Jim. You with me?" Banks called more insistently, his expressive, handsome face cocked to one side in open concern.

"Ah, yes, sir." Jim blinked, forcing himself into the present moment.

What had been an abandoned, desolate street twenty minutes ago was now a sea of flashing lights, police and emergency vehicles, coroners' wagons, news teams...the place had transformed into a zone-out producing circus of noise and confusion. The only certain thing in Jim's world right now was the steady heartbeat in the truck behind him.

Got your heart, Chief, he silently promised.

"How's the kid doing?" Simon gently inquired.

"They're checking him over now. He's banged up pretty bad from the fight back at the loft. He put up quite a struggle." Jim couldn't help but feel proud of his friend. Blair hadn't made it easy for the head-case, not at any point of the abduction. Jim knew cops who wouldn't have had the wherewithal to argue with Lash the way his partner had a few minutes ago. "That bastard got some of that tri-chloral ethanol into him."

"Damn," Banks cursed. "Sandburg did great, though. You both did. That duck down angle was awful slim. I have to tell you, I honestly didn't think that we had a chance in hell of finding the kid alive. That Sentinel stuff is mighty impressive. I'm proud of how well you handled this, Jim, seeing how it was your own partner at risk."

Uncomfortable with the praise, Jim shied away from it. "We just got lucky this time, Simon. By my way of thinking, it was way too close a call. Another ten minutes and..."

Jim winced as Simon gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. His muscles felt like they'd been pounded with a sledgehammer.

"And nothing," Banks interrupted. "You got there in time. You saved the day and put down that psycho. He isn't going to be bothering anyone ever again. I know that you're strung out from the stress, Jim, but don't go belittling your accomplishment. There isn't another man alive who could've found Blair with the evidence you had to go on. It was close, but you got there in time. That's what you have to concentrate on."

"Thanks, Captain, but -- " Jim's words cut off as an urgent "JIM!" sounded from within the EMS vehicle behind him.

Without even thinking to excuse himself, and trailing adhesive tape behind him as he pulled back from the still-working med tech, Jim scrambled into the ambulance.

"Detective Ellison!" the blond paramedic outside admonished, cutting the dangling tape.

But it was nothing to Jim, who was already kneeling beside the stretcher upon which his pale and shaken Guide rested.

"Right here, Chief," Jim assured, casting a quick, repentant 'sorry' at the two paramedics he'd all but jostled out of his way in his haste to get to his partner.

The stocky black woman near Blair's feet gave Jim an understanding smile, while her Latino partner shook his curly, dark head with the exasperated air of someone who'd been trying to out-talk a Sandburg for ten minutes or more. Jim, who'd been monitoring their discussion, could sympathize with the poor guy. Blair had been I'm fine-ing the tech for the last ten minutes.

"How're you doing, partner?" Jim asked as Blair popped up to a sitting position.

"Please, Mr. Sandburg," the Latino technician pleaded, "lie back down."

"Don't worry, man. I keep telling you – I'm fine. Jim, come on. Tell them I'm okay, would you?" Blair asked, falling into his best used-car-salesman mode.

Not for the first time, Jim thought that his partner would make a lethal con man if the kid ever put his mind to it.

"I'd like to help you out, Chief, but I think you should lie back and give these people a chance to do their job," Jim replied, Blair's health one of the few things that he was unwilling to leave up to his fast-talking partner.

"I did, but they..."

"Come on. Lie back, Blair," Jim instructed, putting just a bit of pressure on the other man's chest.

With a drawn-out sigh, Blair subsided against the padded mattress, his pulse rate picking up immediately as the kid practically bristled with emotion.

"What's up?" Jim asked, amazed by how smooth, how...soothing his own tone sounded, where just a few short minutes ago, he'd been ready to fall apart himself.

Almost unconsciously, Jim's hand reached out to smooth a couple of sweaty curls back from his partner's clammy brow. Shock, he automatically diagnosed, picking up on the shivers Blair was trying very hard to disguise.

"I keep telling these guys that I'm fine and they keep insisting I've gotta go to the hospital. And I, like, so don't want to go there. Can't you talk to them?" Blair started, speaking faster than most people could think.

The male technician with the MENDEZ name tag protested, "Detective Ellison, your partner is exhibiting symptoms of shock and is sporting numerous contusions. In addition, Mr. Sandburg was forced to imbibe an unknown substance which..."

"It was tri-chloral ethanol. An 0.3 solution. Not enough to harm him," Jim supplied, pulling the blanket Blair had tossed aside back over his friend.

Blair clutched onto Jim's hand as he finished fussing with the cover, his blue eyes huge and filled with fear as he practically begged, "Please, Big Guy, I don't wanna spend the night in the hospital. I can't...not after tonight. Please?"

Jim tried not to cave. He tried to remain professional and objective, but...after being kidnapped from his own home by a psychotic killer, the last thing his hippie-child, witch-doctor partner needed was to spend the night in a sterile institution that Blair was scared of when fully well.

Not giving his Guide an immediate reply, Jim turned to the two paramedics. "Aside from a mild case of shock and some bruising, is there anything wrong with him?"

"Not that we can see," the black lady with the name tag that read LARSON answered, "but we're not doctors, officer. They're going to want to observe him..."

"I was an Army Ranger. I've had medic training. I'll take him home with me, keep an eye on his vital signs. If it's anything more than shock, I'll get him straight to the nearest hospital," Jim promised.

"Detective, you've suffered a trauma yourself," Mendez protested. "You should also be going in for observation..."

"Look, Mendez, a night in a noisy hospital filled with strangers isn't going to do either of us any good," Jim argued. "He needs to be home, where he knows he's safe. Any sign of trouble, I'll rush him straight over to Mercy Hospital with the sirens blaring. Good enough?"

"No," Mendez answered, his angry gaze moving to Blair, who'd popped back up into a sitting position, "but as Mr. Sandburg is conscious, I can't force him to accept medical treatment at this time. I can only strongly urge him to do so."

"Thanks, man," Blair looked ready to burst from relief, "but Jim is right. I'll be much better at home."

"You mind if he takes the blanket?" Jim asked as his partner bounced off the gurney.

"Be my guest," Mendez shrugged.

"Thanks for all your help, Enrico, Angie," Blair beamed, sweet as honey now that the nightmare patient anti-Blair had been laid to rest.

"Take care, sweetie," Angie Larson grinned, seeming amused by his victory.

Her unmollified partner added, "And if you develop any headaches or palpitations..."

"I'll bee-line for the hospital. Promise." Grabbing Jim's arm, Blair moved quickly towards the open back door, wincing at his first incautious movement. "Thanks, Jim. You're a life saver." A moment's pause, then Blair added, "Literally."

At the back of the vehicle, they both froze, their aching bodies cowed by the four-foot drop to the ground. And somehow, that ridiculous hesitation made everything all right again.

Jim looked over at his companion's pale, strained features, to find his own reluctance mirrored there. At nearly the same instant, Blair glanced at him. When their gazes touched, the absurdity of the situation seemed to strike them both. Just the idea that they'd be scared of a four foot jump, on this night when one of them had been kidnapped by a psychotic killer and the other tackled by said killer and knocked through a floor, to fall two stories down, put the entire situation in perspective.

Blair cracked a smile, then a giggle. "Oh, man. It's been too long a day."

"You can say that again, Chief. Come on, I've got a plan," Jim grinned. Grabbing hold of his partner's elbow, Jim guided them down to a seat on the cold metal floor of the EMS vehicle. Swinging his long legs over the side, Jim gingerly eased his weight onto his feet.

"You're a genius, man," Blair praised, giving a tired smile.

Jim took hold of Blair's elbows. "Come on, buddy, let's get you home," he said as he gently lifted his smaller friend down to the ground. Blair's hands clutched at his biceps, clinging to him even after Blair was steady again. Standing close as he was, Jim could feel the tremors that were still coursing through Blair's body.

"Thanks," Blair murmured, finally releasing him. Now that he was free of the threat of hospitalization, the strain was beginning to catch up with the kid. Blair's gaze roved blearily over the organized confusion of the crowd scene.

"The truck's back at headquarters. We came in by boat," Jim informed. "We'll hitch a ride home. Hang on a moment and I'll..."

Blair grabbed his arm as Jim made to leave. "I'll go with you. Okay?"

About to protest, Jim realized that his partner didn't want to be left alone here. Not that he could blame him. Lash had to have been holding Blair for close to an hour and a half. That was ninety minutes more than Jim ever wanted to spend in a sociopath like Lash's company. He hadn't particularly cared for the guy when he'd thought him to be Dr. Bates. Being at that whacko's mercy had to have been the most terrifying experience of his young associate's life. Jim was amazed that Blair was still holding it together as well as he was.

"Hey, Captain." Jim guided Blair over to where Joel Taggart was standing on the sidelines. There wasn't much for the big bomb expert to do at a kidnapping scene, but, as with most of the cops Blair worked with on a daily basis, Taggart had insisted on being part of the rescue squad. Jim was touched by how great everyone had been about this. All the major crimes detectives had responded to the situation as though Blair were one of their own.

"There you are!" Joel's grin would have melted a polar ice cap as he stepped forward to pat Blair on the back. "How are you doing, Blair? God, you gave us a scare!"

Blair forced a tired smile. "I'm doing great, man. Thanks to Jim here."

"Yeah." A huge grin lit the captain's round, affable features. "Your partner here really ripped up the town trying to find you."

"We're trying get home, Captain," Jim said. "Any chance of hitching a ride with you back to headquarters?"

"No problem. I'm parked right over there," Taggart's double chin gestured towards a gray sedan parked behind the police barriers. "They're just bringing the body out now. I heard it was a real freak show in there."

Taking his partner's arm, Jim firmly guided Blair away from the warehouse entrance. Even though Lash would be in a body bag, with the evidence of how thoroughly Jim had dealt with this threat to his tribe safely hidden beneath thick black vinyl, the removal of the corpse was something that Blair definitely didn't need to see.

Jim nodded in response to his coworker's comment about the head-case he'd just dispatched. "It was bad, all right. The worst I've ever seen. The guy was a complete psycho."

Once beside his car, Taggart opened the rear passenger door first and motioned Blair in.

Blair's hand shot out to grab Jim's elbow as they paused in front of the open door. Blair gulped, looking as though he wanted to say something, but was unable to find the words.

Jim didn't need any explanations. He could read it all in those over-wide, frightened eyes. The poor kid had been through hell and back tonight. Blair was doing his best to play it tough, to keep a strong front up for the cops with whom he worked so closely, but after the night he'd put in, Blair simply didn't have that much left to work with.

"It's okay, Chief," Jim quietly assured. "Let's get you settled here, okay? I'll be sitting right in front of you. All right?"

The brave nod that Blair gave him just about closed up Jim's throat with emotion. Blair bit his lower lip, which was reddened and swollen as though he'd been thoroughly kissed. Knowing that it wasn't pleasure that had caused the swelling, that it was a result of Lash's forcing the sedative upon him, made it hard for Jim to think straight; he was still so angry at the dead man. For a long moment, Blair just stared into his eyes, Blair's fear obvious, then he sank into the back seat without protest.

Sensing that independent action was a little beyond his partner at the moment, Jim grabbed hold of the seat belt and strapped his friend in.

"Oh...sorry," Blair started fretfully, moving to help as Jim secured the fastening.

"No problem, buddy. Just relax. We'll be home before you know it," Jim promised, not quite knowing what to do with the protective impulses welling up inside him. He had this urge to crush Blair to his chest and just hold him there forever. Only Taggart's presence prevented him from acting upon the impulse, and, had it been just Joel, Blair, and him, someplace other than a major crime scene buzzing with their coworkers, Joel's presence probably wouldn't have made that much of a difference.

"Jim?" Taggart said as Jim slid into the passenger seat.

"Yeah, Joel?" Jim asked, belatedly unhooking himself from his kevlar vest and stowing it safely at his feet so that he could comfortably don his seat belt.

"Why don't I just drive you guys straight home? I'll pick you up on my way in tomorrow. You can get your truck then. Does that sound good to you?"

"That sounds wonderful." Jim all but sighed with relief. "Thanks."

"My pleasure." Pulling out of his parking space, Taggart paused to let the coroner's wagon precede them. "I still can't believe what went down with that guy. I had lunch with Bates, I mean, Lash, yesterday. It gives me the willies to think about it. You know?"

Jim glanced back to where his partner was staring out at the flashing lights. Blair's blank expression made Jim wonder if he wore that same empty look during zone-outs.

"Yeah, Joel, I know exactly what you mean," Jim agreed.

Joel proved very comforting to have around after such a demanding wrap up. The good-natured explosives expert kept up a steady stream of undemanding, distracting chatter. Rather like Blair usually did, Jim realized.

Less than fifteen minutes later, they pulled to a stop outside of the loft.

Blair had remained silent throughout the trip. If it hadn't been for the sound of Blair's respiration and heartbeat, the unmistakable tang of the sweat of his fear, and the chemical smell of the sedative that had spilt on the kid's clothes, Jim would never have even known that his partner was in the back seat. A totally quiet Blair was an unnatural, almost eerie occurrence.

Jim pulled his own bruised and battered body out of Taggart's car and opened the door for his partner. He watched as Blair fumbled the seat belt off, Blair's intense expression making it seem like a life and death survival test that he manage the task himself. As difficult as it was for Jim to hold back, he didn't want to embarrass his friend in front of Taggart by forcing unneeded assistance upon him.

Moving as though every muscle ached, Blair carefully eased himself out of the car.

"Thanks, Taggart," Jim said. "See you in the morning."

"Yeah, thanks, Joel," Blair stirred himself enough to acknowledge.

"Take care of yourselves, guys. Get some rest." Taggart flashed one of his grins, the one that made him look like everyone's favorite childhood teddy-bear. "And I sure am glad that Jim got there in time, Blair. The place wouldn't be the same without Simon and this character bellowing at you every five minutes."

"Thanks." Blair managed a smile.

"Come on, slugger. You need some serious down time." Jim said, taking his partner's elbow and leading him towards the loft.

In all the excitement, Jim had managed to forget that the place had been trashed. The security lock was still intact, but the door itself had shattered under the force of the serial killer's kicks. Inside, their home looked like a twister had torn through it. The couch pillows were scattered, furniture upended, bric-a-brac shattered...Blair had certainly put up one hell of a fight before being taken.

They both froze within the splintered doorway, staring speechlessly at the damage, overwhelmed by the sight.

Finally, Blair broke the silence. "Jim, I'm so sorry."

"Huh?" Jim looked over at his companion at the whispered apology, totally confused.

"The place is ruined." Blair looked almost guilty as his gaze shied away from Jim's.

"And you think that this is your fault?"

Blair swallowed hard. "I knocked a lot of stuff over..."

"You were fighting for your life against a serial killer, for God's sake, not hosting a frat party. Do you think I'd chose a neat apartment over a dead partner?" Jim shook his head, bewildered by the kid's priorities.

"Maybe if I'd been a little smarter, done things right, this wouldn't have happened at all," the exhausted Blair fretted.

"Listen to me, Chief. You did everything right here. The minute that you thought you were being followed, you went to a safe place, locked all the doors and windows, and called the police. It wasn't your fault that Lash got to you before we did. And once he had you, you didn't make it easy for him. I heard you arguing with him. You kept your head, kept him talking...you did real good."

"Yeah?" Blair questioned uncertainly.

"Yeah. Why don't you go grab a hot shower while I call maintenance and see what they can do about fixing the door," Jim suggested.

"Okay. Thanks, Jim...for everything. If you hadn't figured it out..." Blair visibly shuddered at the mere thought. "Just...thanks."

Not knowing how to explain that it had been as vital to him as to Blair that he find his partner in time, Jim settled on a self-conscious, "You're welcome, Chief."

Seeming abruptly nervous, Blair shifted a little closer, gazing up at Jim out of tired, red-rimmed eyes. "Do you, ah...want to practice tonight?"

Jim stared down at his exhausted companion, wanting nothing more than to carry the kid up to his bed and show Blair how glad he was to have him back safe and sound. Only...he knew that there would be no hiding his feelings tonight. Lash had been too close a scare. Everything was still too raw for pretense.

Jim wondered what had spurred Blair to even suggest such a thing. Surely, even his libidinous partner couldn't be thinking about sex after the day they'd just put in. No, it had to be gratitude, he realized, remembering how the kid had just thanked him for saving his life.

Being careful not to word his answer as a rejection, Jim gently refused, "I'd really love to, but I honestly don't think I could keep my eyes open once I hit the bed."

Blair rallied enough to grin, "We don't have to go to bed, Big Guy. We could do it right here..."

Jim tried to suppress the shiver that shook him at the very suggestion. Reminding himself that this was not a good idea in their current state of exhaustion, he persevered, "Right here by the broken front door? We've already given our neighbors enough excitement for one night. Don't you think, Chief?"

Wondering why Blair looked so disappointed when he was getting nothing out of the encounters himself, Jim watched as his Guide bowed to the voice of reason.

"Yeah, I guess you're right. Sorry, Jim."

Hating that hurt expression, Jim awkwardly offered, "Maybe we could get together tomorrow night, if you still want to..."

His question seemed to lay out there naked in the open for an eternity. Jim was way too aware of the fact that this was the first time he himself had voiced an offer, even if it were done in response to Blair's initial suggestion. It was...scary in a way. Blair's invitations were always so spontaneous, so natural. This was too much like asking for a date, frighteningly official. If Blair turned him down, he was going to feel like a complete jerk.

But, as ever, his Guide was willing to meet him more than half way. "Tomorrow sounds great. I'm gonna take that shower now. All right?"

"Yeah, and, Blair?" Jim called as the other man turned to go.

"Yes?"

The need to touch his partner was so fierce that his gut ached. But Jim knew that if he laid hands on Blair now, he'd end up clutching the kid to him with all his might. Since he had no idea how Blair would feel about such a needy, clinging response, he kept his hands clenched at his sides as he lamely offered, "I'm glad you're back, Chief."

"Me, too. Thanks again, Jim."

Trapped by his own desires, tongue-tied to boot, Jim watched as his partner made his slow, cautious way to the bathroom.

It wasn't just muscle aches slowing Blair down. The living room rug was an obstacle course of broken glass and scattered debris of their belongings. Jim resolved to tackle the mess first thing in the morning. Right now he had a door to fix.

An hour later, Jim was more than ready to turn in. Forty minutes of assisting the building's superintendent as the man installed a new door had done nothing to help his abused muscles. A hot shower eased some of the aches, but he still felt like he'd spent six or ten hours being stretched on a rack. He hurt all over, especially his back, which had taken the brunt of that two-story fall.

His body's reaction when he at last shut out the light and lay back on his bed was almost orgasmic. Every cell rejoiced as he relaxed against the pillows, the mattress seeming to absorb the tension from his muscles the way those Bounty paper towels used to sop up water in those old commercials when he was younger.

Jim's eyes were closed, courting sleep, when a sound on the stairs had him up in a sitting position, gun in hand, ready for action, before he even knew what was happening. Hunting Lash had left him wired for light and sound. Instincts honed to such a killing edge couldn't be turned off with a switch as soon as the danger was past. In spite of his exhaustion, he was still on red alert, still primed for battle.

It took only a second to identify the soft tread on the stairs as Blair's.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Jim slid his weapon back under his pillow and propped himself up on one elbow to wait.

In a matter of seconds, Blair's curl-covered head and then Blair himself, cleared the top of the stairs, Blair seeming to sprout up from the floor.

Confused, Jim took in his partner's uncertain expression. Blair was wearing a pair of gray sweat pants, an over-sized blue sweat shirt and thick wool argyle socks. In his arms he held a blanket and pillow pressed tight to his chest.

"Ah, hi..." Blair stopped at the top of the stairs, as if startled to find Jim awake.

"Hi, yourself. What's up, Chief?"

Those night-enlarged pupils shifted nervously away before returning to Jim's face. "Promise you won't laugh?"

Jim nodded, laughter the farthest thing from his mind as he breathed in the fresh soap and shampoo scents wafting over from his visibly nervous Guide.

"I...ah...can't get to sleep down there. I know it's silly, but every time I close my eyes I see him chasing me around the apartment. And when I open them...all that mess just reminds me. Could I, like, bunk down in the corner over there? Just for tonight..."

Jim's heart seemed to literally catch in his tight throat, so visceral was his reaction to that uncertain request. Guilt-stricken, he belatedly recognized just what Blair had been tacitly asking when the kid had offered to 'practice' tonight. It wasn't sex Blair had been after. His traumatized partner just didn't want to be alone.

Blair gulped as the stunned silence stretched on a little too long. "Sorry, it was a stupid thing to ask. I'll just..."

"You'll just get your ass in this bed right now," Jim growled, lifting the blankets as he scooted over to make room.

Blair blinked. "Jim, you don't have to..."

"Get in. We'll both sleep easier."

The speed with which Blair scrambled into the bed told Jim that the protest had been purely for appearance's sake. It was clear that this was precisely where Blair wanted to be.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair sighed, putting his pillow on top of the one Jim had just vacated.

Jim suppressed a grin as his partner spent the next five minutes shifting himself and the bed covers around, 'just getting comfortable'. Blair did nothing on a small scale. Once the hurricane of nervous energy had subsided, Jim gave a fond smile and murmured, "Good night, buddy, sleep well."

"I will...now," Blair mumbled. "G'night."

The words were barely uttered when Jim heard his companion's breathing slip over into the deep, slower pattern of sleep. Comforted by the warmth seeping over from his partner's side of the bed, Jim took a deep, Blair-perfumed breath and followed his roommate down into Morpheus' seductive embrace.

It was with no great surprise that Jim found himself awakened by a panicked shout some time later.

"Nooo! Don't...lemme go! Help! Jiiimmmm!"

Despite the volume of his cry, Blair was still not awake. The kid was fighting with the tangled covers as he had Lash's manacles.

Blinking away the sleep, Jim reached out and grabbed hold of his struggling Guide, the sound of his shouted name still ringing loud in his ears. "I'm right here, Chief," he assured, drawing the smaller man closer.

Blair awoke with a start, freezing in palpable terror as he found himself restrained by a larger body. "Huh? What?"

"It's just me. Jim. You were having a nightmare."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you."

"Ssssh," Jim hushed, reaching his right hand up to smooth the damp curls back from Blair's forehead. He let his hand trail down the lush curls, moving on to rub the warm, hard back. "Go back to sleep, Chief. You're safe here. Anything comes for you, it's gonna have to go through me first."

Blair released a shuddery breath. "Then, I'm, like, totally safe."

As Blair made to leave his arms and return to his own side of the bed, Jim tightened his grip. "Don't...unless you're uncomfortable."

Blair froze, relaxing back against him after an indecisive moment. "No. Actually, it's the first time I've felt safe all night. I, ah, don't think I've ever been that scared in my entire life, Jim."

"Me, either," Jim confessed, sensing how nervous Blair felt after admitting such a thing.

"Huh? You were scared? But you've been dealing with killers for years..."

"It was never personal before today."

"Personal?" Blair sounded totally bewildered.

"Blair, I've dealt with assassins, murderers, and bombers, but psychopaths like Lash are rare, thank God. No one I ever cared about was ever bagged by a serial killer before. When I got in here tonight after your 911 call and saw this place...I was sure we were too late. I figured the next time I'd be seeing you, you'd be in a tub with a yellow scarf around your neck. And it'd all be my fault..."

"Your fault? You're the only reason I'm alive now," Blair corrected, arching up to stare down into his face.

Jim couldn't help himself. He reached up to cup Blair's cheek. His Sentinel-sensitive palm easily detected the differences in the textures of silk-smooth cheek and beard-stubbled chin. "You wouldn't ever have met that degenerate if it weren't for the fact that you were helping me out like you do. Maybe...maybe the project is getting too dangerous. Maybe Simon's right and it's time for you to cut me loose." Jim gave voice to the fear that had been weighing on his conscience for some time now.

More and more, he'd begun to wonder if he had the right to risk Blair's life on a daily basis just for a little help at controlling his senses. Even though their association had been his partner's idea, Blair hadn't had a clue as to the danger he was letting himself in for at the time. And even if Blair did see the risk as an equitable price tag for his thesis, wasn't it his duty as a friend to call it quits now, while Blair was still alive and whole?

"And maybe you worry too much," his Guide shot back.

"You almost died tonight," Jim reminded, confused to suddenly find himself trembling. It was Blair who'd had the nightmare, not him...

"That wasn't your fault. You saved me," Blair insisted.

"But you would never have been at risk if it weren't for me," Jim protested, his gaze dropping away from those too-perceptive blues.

"You don't know that. The way I see it, knowing you was the only thing that saved me."

"How do you figure that?" Jim blinked. Blair had a twisted view of reality that was not always easy to comprehend at first exposure.

"Jim, some things are fated to happen. You can't say that you're responsible for my getting kidnapped by that psycho. If you and I had never met, Lash still could have picked me out of a crowd as his next victim. Only, if that had happened, there wouldn't have been any Sentinel out there, knocking himself out trying to rescue me in time. I'd've ended up in that freak's circle of friends. Just another photo in his rap sheet."

Jim found himself shivering at the very thought.

Close as he was, Blair couldn't help but pick up on it. Fascinated, Jim watched the subtle shift in his partner's expression, seeing the serious features soften. "You really weren't kidding before. This spooked you as much as me."

Since there was no censure in Blair's attitude, Jim didn't bother to deny the assertion. Even so, it was hard to maintain eye contact. After a nerve-wracking moment, Jim lamely joked, "Guess this spoils your image of me, huh?"

Blair gave a firm, negative shake of his head, his features going dead solemn. "I, ah, I've been pretty much on my own since I was sixteen, Jim. Never had anyone to worry about me before. Hell, aside from Larry, no one I ever lived with would even know a serial killer got me until the rent was late."

The joke fell flat. Out of it all, Jim's mind fixed on one thing. The stranger's name, a male stranger. He couldn't help the jealous flare that shot through him as he wondered if this was the guy he'd smelt on Blair that one morning a week or so after they'd first met.

"Larry?" he questioned, hoping the jealousy wasn't showing.

"Yeah, Larry. The Barbary ape. Remember?"

Swamped with relief, Jim gave a dry, "Vividly." Struck by a new thought, he asked, "Do you miss him?"

Blair shrugged, "Sometimes. Larry was a lot of fun. But I know he's better off with that little girl who found him after he ran away from us. They were made for each other, you know? I...I was never home enough. It wasn't really fair to him."

Jim felt another twinge of guilt. When he'd insisted that Blair dump the chimp after the kid moved in, he hadn't really considered Blair's possible emotional attachment to the creature. To be honest, he hadn't thought about Blair's feelings at all in those early days. "I guess I was a real hard ass, making you get rid of him."

Jim removed his hand from his partner's cheek, not feeling he had the right to such liberties. He felt like a first class prick. Barely ever even considering Blair's needs, he'd used this kid from the start: to help him get a handle on his senses, to help him solve crimes...even for sexual satisfaction.

"Nah," Blair instantly denied. "It was for the best. Larry's got someone who loves him all the time now and I..."

"And you?" Jim prompted, wondering if Blair had any idea that he'd found the same thing.

Looking as uneasy as if he were on the witness stand before an especially tricky defense attorney, Blair shrugged and tentatively suggested, "I've found a real home."

After all they'd been through today, even while lying here in his bed, in his arms, Blair still acted as though he expected to be kicked out for making any kind of assumptions about his place in his world.

That thinly veiled insecurity toppled the last of Jim's restraints. He cupped his companion's cheeks between his palms and stated. "You've found a lot more than that here."

Blair's full, swollen lips parted to speak, but no sound emerged.

Blair's confusion was...heartbreaking.

Before Jim knew what he was doing, he was using his hold on Blair's face to guide Blair down on top of him. Panic flared momentarily through those expressive eyes, but there was no protest. Blair neither objected nor tried to pull away as he was drawn into a kiss.

Their mouths touched tentatively at first, as if disbelief and wonder were making them both shy of being too assertive. Then Jim's senses were hit by the pliancy of those abused lips. The swollen pads were so moist, so soft. Sinking into the sensation, all was lost. The touch-starved Sentinel found himself devouring Blair's mouth with the same intensity with which he'd kissed Caroline in front of that restaurant on that rainy night before Blair had entered his life.

It had been so long since Jim had kissed in earnest that he found himself drowning in the experience. Blair seemed equally avid, equally moved by the contact, were the tiny animal sounds the kid was making anything to go by. The pleading, needy noises circumvented every one of Jim's restraints and defensives, being sort of the aural equivalent of that beseeching, puppy-dog look that could get him to do such a personally abhorrent task as speak before a crowd of freshmen. Those sounds were so basic, so unpremeditated; they shot straight to the lonely Sentinel's heart. Blair sounded like he'd waited a life-time for this kiss.

Emboldened by the response, Jim cautiously opened his mouth and flicked his tongue against those luscious lips. He didn't know if Blair would accept such intimate contact from another man...this was light years beyond the anonymity of the simple hand-job Blair usually gave him.

But no sooner had Jim begged entry with his first cautious lick, then Blair opened up completely to him. To Jim, it was like drowning in honey, so sweet and juicy were those succulent depths.

Another man shouldn't taste this damn good, this sweet, his stunned mind thought as his body thrilled at the first brush of their tongues. Blair's tongue was so much like his personality: mischievous, playful...fun. They played tag between each other's mouths, in between trying to suck each other's toe nails up through the kiss.

By the time Blair pulled back for air, Jim had charted every accessible millimeter of his partner's mouth: the teasing tongue, slick teeth, ridged roof, the softness of inner cheek, the juicy saliva glands. Jim memorized Blair's mouth by taste and feel. If he had to, he could have picked Blair's mouth out of a thousand by its distinct flavor.

Gasping for breath, Blair finally broke away.

Dragging in deep hits of cool oxygen, they stared at each other in open shock.

Jim was so very aware of Blair's warmth, his scent. His hands were still resting on Blair's sweatshirt covered arms. He longed to dig his fingers into the material and drag the smaller man down into another of those mind-altering kisses, but...this was something they both had to want.

"I think things just got complicated," Blair breathlessly commented. His eyes were hot and hungry as he stared at him. One hand rose to unconsciously finger his enlarged, reddened lips. They looked sore...chafed.

Jim nodded at the assessment, trying to think clearly. But all there was was the taste of Blair's mouth. "It's always been complicated. You just made it feel easy."

Blair gulped, his gaze dropping momentarily down to Jim's bare chest. The view seemed to perturb him more, were the sudden acceleration of his heartbeat anything to go by. When Blair glanced back up, he looked ragged, stretched to his emotional limits. "I'm still a man, Big Guy," he offered, as if that simple fact was going to change his mind.

Bewildered by his partner's thought processes, Jim pointed out, "You've been a man these past two months. That didn't stop me then."

"That was different," Blair protested.

"It was different for you. I couldn't rationalize it the way you did. It was still sex with a man to me."

"And you're okay with that?" Blair tentatively questioned, appearing almost afraid of the answer he might receive.

"I'm okay with you," Jim specified. "I want you. The rest doesn't matter compared to that."

"You want me?" Blair repeated, an endearing sense of incredulity touching his features.

Jim nodded, keeping a hawk's eye on that stunned face. But there was no sign that his admission was unwelcome. To the contrary, if he didn't know any better, he'd say that his partner was blown away by the discovery.

But that couldn't be. Blair had been sending him to heaven two, sometimes three times a week for the last two months. Blair had to have some idea how much that meant to a man who hadn't been able to achieve orgasm for over three months before he'd stepped into the picture.

Yet, from the astonished air that clung to his young friend, Jim could tell that Blair truly had no clue as to how much he meant to him.

"How do you feel about it, Chief?" he asked softly, rubbing his hands up and down the outside of those wiry arms.

"I don't want to mess up our friendship."

"But?" Jim prompted, sensing more.

"I want to be close to you, man. Have for a long time," Blair said, the nervous set of his mouth told him that his Guide was still worried about how such news would be received.

Though everything inside him was screaming for Jim to roll them over and press his burning need against Blair's willing body, he held back. Though hardly petite, Blair was smaller than him. The kid didn't need to be bulldozed into the mattress on his first night in his bed.

So, instead of forcing the issue, Jim gave a tentative tug on the arms his hands were still clutching, leaving the decision totally up to Blair. All Blair would have to do to refuse was roll back to his own side of the bed.

After the slightest of hesitations, Blair allowed himself to be drawn down.

"Mmmmm..." Jim couldn't hold back his murmur of approval as all that warm flesh blanketed him. Blair was the perfect weight – heavy enough so that the bulkier Jim wasn't afraid of breaking him, but light enough to spend a lot of time this way, were they so inclined. "This close enough for you?"

"Oh, yeah," Blair grinned, shifting to get more comfortable.

Jim gasped at the resulting sensations. He tried not to focus on the hardness pressing his left hip, but he might as well have tried to leap to the moon. He'd never had another man's erection touching him before, never even considered what it would feel like. Knowing that the steel hard lump nudging at him was Blair's cock...it rocked his world, defying every one of his former sexual inhibitions. Blair's erection should have been repulsive, threatening; instead, he found it exhilarating.

"Oh, man, you feel so good..." Blair practically purred, rubbing his palms over the peach-fuzz of Jim's hair while Jim's own fingers carded through the kinky, baby-fine curls. "Too good," Blair said as their heated gazes locked in a moment of complete understanding.

Blair's smoky blue eyes sent a jolt of energy straight to his groin. Reeling under its impact, Jim asked as coherently as he could manage, "That a problem, Chief?"

"Could be." As if unable to help himself, Blair's mouth lowered to trail kisses across Jim's strong cheek and jaw. "I don't want to mess up what we already have."

Jim licked at those no doubt sore, berry-red lips, wondering if his kisses were too much on top of the abuse the tender mouth had taken when Lash had forced that crap upon him. But Blair didn't seem anything near pained by the contact. To the contrary, the kid seemed to thrive on it. When he had them both gasping for air again, Jim whispered, "This is a part of what we have. It's not all of it. I won't clip your wings...won't tie you down."

"That's the problem." Blair shuddered as Jim discovered the wonders of that elegant neck.

"Huh?"

Blair's delicate fingers cupped Jim's cheeks, pushing his face up from the Adam's apple he was currently exploring so that they could look at each other. "You make me feel safe, make me want those kind of roots...and we haven't even done it yet."

Reading how truly disturbed his happy-go-lucky companion was by what was obviously an unprecedented impulse, Jim rubbed his hand soothingly across his Guide's back. "You've got roots here. You've got wings, too. You can use whichever you choose, whenever you need to."

"What are you saying?" Blair arched up to see Jim's face better.

This wasn't something he wanted to spell out, but the issue obviously had to be dealt with before any misunderstandings occurred.

Jim stared up at those intense features, framed by their nimbus of curls. He wanted to gush out the most ridiculous nonsense, to tell the kid that he loved him and had for some time. But that was precisely the kind of complication that Blair was so nervous about.

With good reason, Jim recognized. Like his Guide had said, they hadn't even done it yet and he was ready to vow his undying love. But he instinctively sensed that such an admission would be the death knell of their entire relationship. Blair was obviously already spooked by the depth of feeling between them. Anything more, and the kid might bolt.

"I'm saying that we can be here for each other. What happens outside of this house is your private business and mine. I won't ask you to account for your time, and I don't expect you to ask me," Jim specified.

"Do you mean that we can see who we want, do what we want..." Blair questioned uncertainly, "...and still have this?"

Aware that such issues were far more vital to his free-spirited roommate, Jim nodded. "That's right. No strings. We give each other what we want, when we want..."

"That doesn't sound like your style, Jim," Blair spoke gently, his eyes soft as they evaluated him.

Careful here, Jim's inner voice cautioned, reminding him how well his partner could read him. "This is new to me, too, Chief. And, like you said, we haven't even done it yet. We mightn't even like it much."

"You think?" Blair's smile was pure imp.

"No, but it sounded good, didn't it?"

Blair's quicksilver laugh filled the quiet loft. "God, you make me feel so good."

"I'll make you feel even better if you give me half a chance," he promised.

Blair gulped at the abrupt change in mood. His expression turning deeply serious, Blair lowered his mouth towards his.

Jim met his Guide halfway. Reaching up for the kiss, he melded them together. Drowning in the sweet depths of Blair's mouth, he let Blair's incredible warmth and scent seep through him.

Blair's hands were as active as his lips. While Blair's full mouth kneaded his in a lip-lock, those nimble fingers stroked over his short-cropped hair. Blair seemed as fascinated by the fuzz as Jim was by his partner's luscious curls. Blair played with the totally inadequate length for what felt like centuries, carding his nails over the short bristles, while his palms and fingertips charted the contours of his skull.

Jim wasn't accustomed to lovers taking an interest in his hair. Caroline had always been on his back to grow it longer, something which his strict military background rebelled against. The other occasional women he'd had since the divorce had pretty much ignored his hair. But Blair seemed to revel in the short length.

Jim shivered at the feel of those fingers trying to card through it, unsure why he was so moved by Blair's attention there. It was only his buzz cut that Blair was touching, for heaven's sake, not his cock. Nevertheless, he found himself trembling as though icy raindrops were slivering down his spine.

At last, Blair withdrew for air.

The kid kissed like a gourami, Jim decided as he gulped in a much-needed breath himself, or maybe a blood leech. Once those incredible lips fastened on their target, they didn't let go without a struggle.

"You feel so good," Blair marveled, his fingers dipping down to his thick-muscled neck, trailing over his shoulders.

The tingles tickled through Jim's nerve endings. The sensation started almost like a solitary pebble clattering down a mountainside, alone and not-too overwhelming. But as that sensation tumbled down, it seemed to knock other feelings into motion, sensations avalanching in strength and number until that tiny catalyst transformed into a rock-slide of delight. He was pelted by the conflicting sensory data, the touches, the scents, the tastes, all of it tumbling around inside him. Deluged by the by-products of that single touch, he charted its course, following it from nerve ending to nerve ending across the axioms down his spinal cord. Shooting straight to his groin, the ecstasy coalesced and blossomed like a nuclear explosion achieving critical mass...

"Jim, Jim! You got my heart, man?"

The worried inquiry penetrated Jim's sensual fugue.

"Huh?" Blair's concerned question jolted him out of the encroaching zone. Panicked, Jim searched for that familiar rhythm. Ta-thump, ta-thump...

"Yeah," Jim sighed in relief, focusing on his partner's heartbeat until the pleasure receded to a manageable level. He ran his palms over his Guide's sweatshirt covered back, slipping his hands underneath at the waist to caress that satin-smooth skin. Blair was so warm, so touchable...

"We're doing pretty good here, aren't we?" Blair commented in his Guide voice before Blair's mouth moved to his neck.

Reeling under the sensual equivalent of a Patriot Missile barrage, Jim tried to rally to a state somewhere near coherency. His voice a full octave below his normal range, he agreed, "Mmmm....I'd say terrific myself, Chief. Maybe even outstanding."

"No," the amazing nuzzling at Jim's throat broke off as Blair raised his head to explain, "I mean we're doing great zone-out-wise here. Full body contact and you're still focused."

Finding the scientist's observation not nearly as interesting as what the scientist's mouth had been doing to him a moment ago, Jim gave his partner's sweatshirt a tug and meaningfully stated, "Not full contact. Not yet."

Blair's smile was blinding. "Guess we could do something about that...if you want."

"I want," Jim growled, very aware of the fact that this was the first time Blair had undressed during sex. Normally, Blair remained fully clothed throughout, but, then, of course, Blair had never really shared sex with him until tonight. Previously, his Guide had simply given.

His heart banging around in his chest like a basketball in Meadowlark Lemon's hands, Jim watched his companion smoothly pull the oversized sweat-shirt over his head and toss it off the bed. Transfixed, Jim stared at the expanse of naked chest revealed. He barely even noticed Blair's arms moving as Blair raised his hands to smooth his mussed curls back down, so focused was he on that chest.

Blair was so different from his own boring smoothness. His partner's body hair was dense, almost a pelt where it ran thickest between his breasts. His nipples were tiny pink summits poking out of that fuzzy brown forest. The hair was artfully distributed across the surprisingly wide chest, almost perfectly symmetrical.

"Is everything all right, Jim?"

"Huh?" Jim glanced up, puzzled by the open nervousness.

"Too much hair? I know I'm pretty...simian." Blair's joke fell painfully flat.

"Not simian," Jim corrected, reaching out to lay his palm where the hair grew thickest. Just as he'd imagined, Blair was warm and soft as a very young animal there. "More like a teddy bear. Fuzzy wuzzy was my Blair..."

"Your Blair?" Blair questioned, a catch in his voice.

Knowing from the excited beat of his partner's pounding heart that he hadn't displeased, Jim nodded. "Yeah. My Blair. Do you mind?"

All Jim could see was his own image reflected in those enormous, night-enlarged pupils. Beneath those miniature Jims was an endearing sense of mystification, a warmth that suffused Blair's quirky features until his face actually seemed to glow with emotion.

Blair gave a slow, negative shake of his head. "I don't mind, not at all."

And then they were kissing again, their chests crushing together as they struggled to melt into each other's flesh. Blair was on top of him, undulating, licking, and caressing everything he could reach.

Jim couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this sense of...oneness with a lover. There was no awkwardness, no insecure moments of wondering if his companion liked his body, no worries as to if he was doing this right. His Guide seemed to be feasting on him, delighting in everything...even the taste of his ear canal were that whimpery noise Blair made when he poked his tongue tip inside it any indication. He'd never felt so cherished, so wanted by a sexual partner.

Realizing that Blair was once again falling into the role of worshipper, the partner who did everything while the other laid there and enjoyed his efforts, Jim rolled them over to reverse their positions. No way was he going to let Blair do all the work tonight. He felt it was high time he gave back a little of the joy he'd accepted from this generous spirit.

Careful not to put too much of his weight on his smaller companion, Jim threw his right leg over both of Blair's and leaned across his Guide's torso to get acquainted with the tasty length of that long white neck.

Jim didn't remember human flesh being this soft, this touchable, this loaded with flavor.

Only slowly did he realize that it never had been before. When he'd made love in the past, it had been with normal senses. Now...an entirely new world had opened up to him.

Jim let his tongue rove over Blair's neck, tasting the skin oils there before moving over to the left shoulder. He followed an invisible taste trail down the wiry shoulder muscle to the thick-fuzzed armpit below. The flavor changed the closer he got to the pit, becoming saltier and more acrid. More sweat glands there, he realized.

Like a bloodhound on a trail, he had to sample more. Jim pushed Blair's arm up above his head, baring the hidden region to his sight.

Blair squirmed nervously. "Ah, Jim, what are you doing? You don't haveta... aaahhh..." The polite protest ended on a prolonged sigh as Jim buried his face in his partner's armpit. The kid was a born sensualist, vulnerable to any new form of experience. Blair groaned at the unusual contact like Jim had just gone down on his cock.

For a few moments, Jim was completely lost in the scent and tastes of this lush area. The curls here were so soft, scented and flavored with the sweet herbal smell of Blair's all-natural soap and his Guide's sweat. It was this last that had Jim totally transfixed. The fresh, salty drops beading those curly reddish hairs were totally addictive. He couldn't remember ever being this oral in his life. Between the just-bathed, clean-scented skin and the salty crop of sweat his attentions were encouraging, it was all the fixated Sentinel could do to keep from sinking his teeth into the flesh.

Jim lapped his full there. By the time he followed the normally undetectable oil and sweat duct path into Blair's thick chest hair, his partner was a shuddering wreck.

"Oh, God, Jim...please....yeah..." the kid begged as Jim approached one of the pert buds of nipple peeking up from Blair's plush pelt.

Jim was only too happy to oblige. He sucked the pebble-hard nub into his mouth and spent the next ten minutes delighting the tender pink flesh while his fingertips made forays down Blair's sides and flanks.

With every touch, every taste, Jim became hotter, more focused. By the time he was done, he would know this man's body as he had no other, every millimeter charted with all five senses.

Blair's chest and stomach were completely enthralling. There was simply so much going on there. Blair's heart was an ever-present constant. This close, its pounding was nearly deafening. Jim could actually hear the blood as it gushed through the ventricles, could almost follow its path as it thrummed through veins and arteries. He could feel it move through the blue ribbons of capillaries just below the snow white skin.

As his tasting quest took him lower, new sounds joined the mix. Gurgles and wet noises rocked the entire stomach area below the tender belly, denoting that his partner's digestive tract was hard at work. Listening to those odd sounds, Jim was struck with a strange burst of warmth. It was such an intimate knowledge, these peculiar noises that almost everyone else just ignored. But to Jim's Sentinel senses, they were like a symphony, not exactly musically appealing, but highly organic – the sounds of life...a song he wouldn't be hearing if he'd been just five minutes late in rescuing Blair.

Following those sounds, Jim quickly pushed down his partner's sweatpants and boxers, baring Blair's lower body. Blair gasped at the sudden action. The shocked sound reminded him that this was something he should have asked permission to do.

Looking up at his partner's tensed face, he growled, "Okay?"

Eyes wide, Blair gave a single nod and then just laid there trembling as he watched every move Jim made.

His own breathing harsh and erratic now, Jim finally approached the thick-downed genitals.

The tension in Blair's muscles increased astronomically as Jim neared that area, Blair's heart rate and breathing going into overdrive.

Jim stopped his taste survey at the top of the pubic thatch, pausing to drag in a much needed breath. The air didn't clear his head any. This close to Blair's cock, all he could smell was the other man's sweet musk. The scent was totally inundating, like drowning in roses or gardenias. The musk was thick and cloying, the way a woman would be when she was this aroused, this ready. It got into his blood, danced through his nerve endings like a drug rush, hot and dizzying. He was so turned on by that distinct odor that he could barely see straight.

His hand shaking with suppressed need, Jim reached for Blair's purple-veined cock. The kid was huge here. Blair's long, thick shaft was nearly as big as his own, he noted with shock. Hungry for more, Jim took the new territory's measure. The sweat-sheened shaft seemed stretched to impossible proportions, as though Blair had been subjected to as much pleasure as his body could handle without exploding. Everything down here seemed blood red in color, needy, almost angry.

Considering how hirsute his partner was everywhere else, it was hardly surprising that Blair would have such a thick crop of pubic hair. Jim could almost taste the fragrant, sweaty patch from where he bent over it. Heavy balls hung below, all dusted with that curly dark hair and reeking of musk. It was all so male and foreign to his previous sexual experience that he should have bolted and headed for the mountains.

But the idea of flight never once entered his dazed mind.

It did, however, occur to his partner.

"Hey," Blair's voice was so thick with need, so husky that it was totally unrecognizable, "it's okay, Jim…"

"Huh?" Trying to blink past the sexual haze, Jim slowly interpreted the meaning of the tortured-sounding statement.

"I know you never...you don't have to touch me there. I can..."

Floored, Jim stared at his companion's face, his gaze seeming to stop the words cold.

Blair's beautiful features were twisted with need, almost pained looking. Sweat was running down that set grimace like water in a shower on full force. Blair's swollen, abused lower lip was caught between his teeth as if he were trying to hold in a scream.

Jim had never seen a human being more in need of release. And Blair was telling him not to worry about it. The kid had gotten him off dozens of times in the last three months, sucked him off for the past month, and now Blair was telling him that he didn't have to do anything, not even touch him? There had never been anyone who cared this much about him, he realized, not in his entire life. He could search the world over and never find another person who came close to Blair's heart.

"I want to touch you, baby," Jim hoarsely assured, "Want to taste you, feel you...okay?"

He heard the breath stop in Blair's chest as he emitted a shocked, pained exclamation that was part gasp, part sob. "Anything... anything you want..."

Jim took hold of the springy, sweat-slick flesh. Touching another man's penis probably shouldn't have felt too strange. After all, he touched his own every day. Yet, that moment when he gathered Blair into his palm was like no other he had known. Blair's penis was like a live thing. It jerked in his hand at his first touch, then nestled into his sweaty palm like a tamed dove.

Blair's pleased sigh filled the room as Jim gave an experimental squeeze.

"You like that?" Jim asked for appearance's sake. Blair's body had already told him how much his partner loved it. Garnering confidence, he gave the hungry shaft a few careful tugs.

"Mmmmm..."

"Ready for a little more?"

Those emotion-laden eyes speared into Jim. He watched his Guide rally enough to warn, "I...can't...hold out...much longer, Jim..."

The way Blair spoke his name was a caress that shivered through his blood and danced along his nerve endings like quicksilver.

The scent, feel, and sound of this incredible individual shimmering through him, Jim felt himself begin to float, snared in the rip-tide of imminent zone-out.

His first impulse was to panic, but slowly Jim mastered the urge. He'd trained for this. Even though his Guide was too far gone to catch him, Jim knew what to do.

Taking a deep breath, he found Blair's heartbeat, waiting until its familiar rhythm got him past the rough spot, that moment when he felt himself begin to zone. Focused again, he lowered his head to recommence his taste test.

If Blair had been juicy elsewhere, his Guide was downright succulent here. Jim used the tip of his tongue to sop up the diamond bright beads of preseminal fluid that were seeping from the slit of Blair's circumcised cock. There was a taste to the clear liquid, but it was subtle, something that even his Sentinel abilities couldn't quite apprehend.

He had no trouble at all catching Blair's shout at the moment. The roar of pleasure that sounded as Jim's tongue traced delicate patterns across the spongy head of his partner's cock shook the entire loft. Temporarily deafened, his tongue froze in place.

Blair's tortured whimper brought him back to himself.

Needing more, Jim opened his jaw wide and sucked Blair in. The kid's hips surged up at him like 20,000 volts of raw electricity had just shot through him. The action was so unexpected that Jim almost choked on his mouthful.

He pulled back for a moment, to get past that gag response, then lowered his mouth to the salty flesh again. Blair's flavor was exquisite, like the Thai food he used to love so much. The taste had a bit of everything mixed in. It was sharp, sweet, acrid, salty...it was the purest, most undiluted essence of Blair. From his first taste of it, Jim knew he could live on that flavor.

Surprised that he was actually enjoying this act, it nonetheless took him some time to adjust to the unique aspects of sucking on another man's dick. His first problem was figuring out how to breathe around that thick bulk. It took a bit of doing, but soon he was fully relishing the feel of his partner sliding in and out between his open lips as Blair fucked his mouth like he would a woman. It was a strangely erotic thought, one he'd never entertained before.

Jim gripped those slender hips, guiding his partner's pelvis into a comfortable, steady rhythm.

They were almost there when Blair suddenly grabbed the sides of his head and pushed him off his cock.

Crying out like a nursing calf separated from its mother, Jim sought out his partner's gaze, unable to credit how...hurt he felt at the sudden stop. "Did...did I hurt you?" he asked, that being the only thing he could imagine. Maybe he hadn't been as careful about keeping his teeth from scraping that tender flesh as he'd tried to be.

"No, I...do you want me, Jim?"

The nervous, almost scared delivery totally bewildered his aroused mind.

Too lost in Blair's heady musk and heartbeat for understanding, Jim tried to make sense of the question. They both knew that he'd never even entertained the thought of sucking another man off. The fact that he was doing this for him should have been all the answer Blair needed.

"Huh?" Jim brilliantly inquired, the question making no sense no matter how he turned the words around.

"I mean, do you want to have me...to come inside me?" the raspy voice clarified.

It was like asking a drowning man if he'd like some oxygen as his lungs filled with water.

Appearing ridiculously self-conscious for such an intimate moment, Blair started fast-talking in his nervous, gotta-convince-him tone, throwing words up to cover himself the way a wizard would a glamour. "I mean, it would be the final step for you. You'd know you'd be okay with a woman if you were able to do this with me..."

At that instant, Jim didn't care if he were ever with a woman again. Though his mind wasn't ready to accept it yet, his heart knew that he'd found what he was searching for. It was quite a jolt to his equilibrium. He was almost forty years old; he'd spent the last twenty-two years chasing beautiful women. And this skinny, motor-mouth, fuzzy, male college student was what his heart decided on? It made absolutely no sense, but it was the truest discovery he'd ever made. For whatever reason, Blair was it for him. They were right for each other. They...fit emotionally.

Still, as enamored as Jim was with his friend, it pissed him off royally to hear Blair make such an earth-shattering offer for such a cavalier reason, as though the only reason they were still doing this at all was his problem. "I'm not gonna fuck my partner as a dry run for my next date, Chief."

The feelings hidden behind the throaty growl seemed to penetrate Blair's nervous veneer. A contrite air settling over his sweat-drenched features, Blair spoke in a low tone. "I phrased that badly. I'm sorry. I'm asking you for me. I...I always feel...safest when I do that with someone I trust and... I'd like to share that with you, Jim. If you'd be interested."

Hearing the truth in the quiet delivery, Jim stared into those uncertain eyes.

They were already in so deep they might not ever recover from this night; if they went any further, broke through any more barriers, there was no way in hell either one of them was going to be able to put this behind them and walk away come morning. Sheer self-preservation screamed for Jim to slam on the emergency brakes and slow this runaway train down.

Instead, he reached up to stroke his partner's cheek, his left index finger playing through the wispy curls, forcing the silken length into a ringlet around it. God, but he loved Blair's hair.

As much as Jim wanted to take his friend up on his generous offer, there were some things he had to make clear up front. For the first time since his teens, he felt out of his depth in a sexual situation. "I, ah, don't know if I'd be any good at that, Chief. I've never done it that way before, not even with a woman, and if I zone..."

Blair gave a soft, negative shake of his head, his smile gentle. "If you zone, it'll just take a little longer. That's all. As for not being any good...you're gonna be the best ever, Jim."

"How can you say that?" Jim protested, cold terror opening up inside him. He was so much bigger than Blair. His size, when added to his utter lack of experience, was a recipe for disaster. "You don't know..."

"I do know," Blair whispered, his soft fingertips gliding down his neck. "You could never hurt me, not in a thousand years. Please, Jim...for me?"

Jim wondered if his partner would say the same thing if Blair could see the seething savage lurking just below his tight control. There was a part of him that wanted nothing more than to own Blair – in the most primitive of terms.

"Jim? What do you say?" Blair prodded.

As he was arguing against his own desires, Jim was doomed to failure. His throat choking up at the open desire softening Blair's features, he gave a mute nod.

"Hang on a minute," Blair instructed before leaning over to pull the drawer to Jim's night table open. "You put that cream in here that the doctor gave you last month when you scraped the skin off your palms, didn't you? Ah...here it is."

"How did you know that?" Jim asked, temporarily side-tracked. Though it hardly seemed important in light of what they were about to share, he needed his privacy and didn't like the idea of anyone going through his personal stuff, even Blair.

Blair grinned. "Well, you sure as hell didn't use it. I remember you brought it up here, and it never came down again. I figured you'd dumped it someplace, and here it is."

"Smart, Sherlock, very smart," Jim approved.

"You must be rubbing off on me," Blair smiled, then said, "Though, I'd like you to do a little more than that right now."

"Huh?" Jim blinked, totally caught up in the play of expression across those mobile features. He'd never realized before how...radiant the kid's face was. Blair almost seemed to glow. "A little more than what?"

"Rub off."

"Oh."

"So, how 'bout it, Big Guy? We gonna do the deed?" Although Blair's words were lightly voiced his expression was anything but.

"If you're sure that's what you want."

Blair nodded and handed him the tube of cream. "I'm sure. You know where to put that, don't you?" Blair questioned with that same playful humor that had gotten Jim through the worst of his initial humiliation at needing this type of therapy.

"I think so," Jim dryly replied. "If I need any help, I'll be sure to ask, though."

The moment suddenly upon him, Jim tensed up inside. He'd never worried about his performance before, but...he didn't want to disappoint or hurt Blair.

After a few moments of just staring down at the beautiful young body offered to him, Jim once again lowered his head to his partner's groin. Blair might be ready for this right now, but he himself needed a bit more time.

The nervous Sentinel ran his fingertips between his partner's splayed thighs, trailing over the thick down dusting their insides.

He was rewarded by a gasp from above and an increase in Blair's heart rate. When his fingers had gotten their full, Jim lowered his mouth to the area.

Slowly, he picked up his taste test again, sampling the muscular thighs, moving upwards to the more fragrant regions. Blair's testicles were a complete delight. He nosed through the pubic hairs to the plush living velvet of those full sacs, taking the heavy flesh into his mouth and sucking on it as he had his friend's cock.

Blair went wild at that. His head thrashed back and forth on the pillows while he emitted tiny, pleading noises that shot straight through Jim and drove him crazy with need.

Finally shaking off the strangeness of what he was about to do, Jim immersed himself in the experience. He allowed Blair's scent and taste to own him, the carnal eroticism of this act spurring his novice soul onward.

When Blair was whimpering with want, Jim lifted the other man's bottom up and pressed the kid's knees to his chest, baring the beautiful butt.

His heart pounding like a deranged blacksmith's hammer, Jim stared down at his partner's exposed bottom. Blair was whiter than Christmas snow here, his skin so fair that he could see the tiny blue ribbons of capillaries running the length of the alabaster globes.

Jim swallowed hard.

With his knees pulled up to his chest like that, Blair looked so defenseless, so vulnerable. The level of trust implied here was more than the beleaguered Sentinel could fathom.

Jim wondered if Blair knew how close to the edge the man to whom he was giving himself was right now. The need throbbing through his loins was more than simple desire. It felt like a raging beast, a roaring, starving creature kept at bay by the flimsiest of restraints. And here was Blair, baring himself to that bestial lust, offering himself up in total trust...it made no sense. How could Blair want him to do this? The kid said this act made him feel safe, but to Jim's way of thinking, his partner was in as much danger right now as he'd been with Lash three hours earlier. His control was that fragile.

"You still with me, Big Guy?" Blair softly asked, although his tone told Jim that his Guide knew that he wasn't zoning.

"Still with you," he hoarsely ground out. Jim was almost afraid to touch, he wanted Blair so badly.

A prolonged pause followed, wherein Jim could feel his partner watching his face. Blair's heart and breathing, already accelerated from their love-play, subtly altered. Jim couldn't tell exactly how he knew, but it wasn't a change for the better.

"Don't you...like what you see, Jim? I know it's a lot different than being with a woman. If you'd rather not..." Though Blair was obviously going for scientific detachment, his hurt was almost palpable...to someone who knew him as well as Jim did at this point.

Presented with that brittle, brave veneer, Jim couldn't help himself. He cupped that uncertain face between his palms. Then he leaned forward to take those swollen red lips in a kiss so deep he thought he'd lose himself in the sweet depths, happily zone there forever. His sudden movement inadvertently pressed his aching groin against Blair's butt. Those cool, satin smooth cheeks felt like heaven to his overheated, hungry flesh.

At the contact, Blair groaned deep in his throat. Blair's knees spread a little wider, allowing Jim to sink closer. He came to rest against the furry chest as his partner's hairy legs clamped around his waist, holding him in place.

The taste of Blair, those powerful thighs locking him in place, the heady scent of his partner's musk, the fingernails digging into his bare shoulders...it was all so carnal that Jim almost zoned on it.

But he didn't. Clinging to coherency by a frayed thread, Jim found his companion's heart and let its excited beat call him back from the brink. He rallied his controls and held it together, delivering the most passionate kiss he'd ever shared with another. He sucked on the sexy tongue that had brought him to the heights of ecstasy this past month, drinking deep of his partner's juices. He couldn't recall anyone's saliva tasting this good. Loving the way Blair's mouth avidly worked with him, Jim knew he could live on this man's kisses.

When he felt that he'd know Blair's tonsils by their bumps, he pulled back far enough to raggedly confess, "I want. I just...you're so damn beautiful there. I didn't expect it."

Those brilliant blue eyes scoured his face, as if trying to assess how serious he was. Finally, Blair hoarsely questioned, "Beautiful? Me?" A hollow laugh, then, "You need your eyes checked, man."

"Don't..." Jim pleaded, stroking the back of his right index finger down his partner's beard-stubbled cheek, while his left hand played with the baby fine curls.

"Don't what?" Blair's gaze shied away from him, but not before Jim caught the shadow of the old wounds that sparked in those indigo depths.

"I don't say what I don't mean. You're one good looking guy, Chief."

Slowly, as if afraid of what he might find if he looked too close, Blair's eyes returned to him. After a quiet moment, Blair gave him an oddly sad, crooked smile. "Thanks, but it's just the hair, Jim."

"What?" Jim almost laughed at the absurd protest, his Guide's utter seriousness the only thing that kept it in.

"Before I grew it long, I was just a science geek." Blair shrugged.

Jim's fingertip outlined that full, sensuous mouth, sending a shiver coursing through the hot form wrapped around him. "I wasn't looking at your hair when I made that comment."

Blair gulped and actually blushed.

Sensing that this was as sensitive an issue with his ebullient companion as his own receding hair line was for him, Jim continued trailing his fingertip over Blair's features in the most feather-light of touches. "Did you ever think that maybe it wasn't the hair at all? Maybe you just came out of your shell when you grew it long, let people see the real you?"

That earned him a true smile. "You sound just like my mom. But that's not being beautiful. That's personality."

"Your personality is beautiful," Jim argued, wondering why they'd be having this discussion now, of all times. But somehow, this seemed a moment when absolute honesty was called for. Jim didn't know how much importance his partner placed on the gift he was currently offering, but it meant the world to his lonely heart. "You...shine brighter than anyone I've ever known, Blair. Whether you realize it or not, you are beautiful."

"So maybe I should give up the anthropology thing and try out for modeling, hah?" Blair asked, shuddering as Jim leaned over to nuzzle his neck.

"I'd buy the centerfold," Jim mumbled around an earlobe.

Blair gasped. "You don't need any magazine, man. The genuine article's yours for the taking...if you still want me."

Jim didn't even justify the ridiculous statement with a response. Instead, he sucked on the fleshy ear lobe, his tongue tip playing with Blair's silver hoop earrings as his hands tentatively explored Blair's butt.

The skin beneath his fingers had to be the softest thing Jim had ever had the fortune to sample. Satin and silk didn't do the plush skin justice. The flesh there was just too living to be compared to dead, dyed fabrics. Touching Blair's butt, he was reminded of the tenderest of spring maple leaves, for the flesh there bore the same incredible softness leaves had on the first day they opened up under the sun's loving rays. Or perhaps rose petals or freshly budded daffodils... whatever the comparison, it had to be to something as beautiful, vibrant, and alive as the man below him.

Needing to get a better perspective on the tactile vista his hands were charting, Jim pried himself far enough off his partner to see what was going on down there.

His partner didn't want to let him go even that far. Blair's heels dug into the small of his back, trying to hold him in place, while Blair made a tiny mew of protest at the separation.

"Soon, baby, soon. Let me see you...touch you..." Jim whispered, almost begging.

With visible reluctance, Blair acceded, loosening his heels enough for Jim to move out of the death hold those thighs had on his waist.

Jim ran his right palm over the gentle curve of his Guide's exposed ass. The living velvet was so seductive that he couldn't resist lowering his face. He rubbed his cheek back and forth across the tender surface, marking the territory as his own with his scent glands the way a big cat would.

"Oh, God..." Blair groaned from up above.

Not content with the mere feel of this new pleasure, Jim's tongue peeked out to sample the skin's flavor. With the same maddening slowness with which he'd caressed Blair's face, he flicked his tongue over the velvety cheeks of his Guide's butt. He couldn't even begin to describe the needful sounds that emerged from Blair's throat then. All he knew was that they turned him on even more.

Becoming increasingly aware of where he was on an olfactory level, Jim found himself more absorbed by the sheer eroticism of the act. Almost hypnotized by his target, he moved his mouth inwards, towards the enticing darkness of the crack between the gentle mounds of Blair's cheeks. He could smell his objective. Blair's intoxicating musk overlaid everything else here, but under it, there was the scent of that hidden pucker of flesh. Lingering traces of the herbal soap his partner used almost drowned it out completely, but beneath that artificial perfume was Blair's natural scent.

Never before had Jim found anything relating to this particular orifice arousing, but tonight he almost came as he breathed Blair in. Without hesitation, he pressed his nose and mouth deep into the cleft, searching for the source of the stimuli that had so undone him, only to have his head hauled clear yet again.

"Jim, no..." Blair sounded almost frantic with want, his strained tone telling Jim that it had taken everything his friend had to make that protest and push him off. Blair's face was a frozen rictus of self-denial.

"What?" he rasped, barely able to focus on Blair's features in his blood heat. His lungs were working like a straining bellows, dragging the air in, forcing it out as his heart all but burst with the speed at which it was racing. So frustrated that a part of him just wanted to thrust his throbbing cock deep into that hidden channel, Jim growled, "Blair, do you or do you not want me to do this?"

"Your senses, Jim...that's gonna be totally gross..."

Something inside Jim seemed to constrict, holding his guts in a chokehold before it broke entirely. Beyond words, his hands fumbled out to grasp both cheeks of his partner's ass. Meeting Blair's wide, tortured gaze, he purposefully parted the moist mounds.

Waiting, drawing the tension of the moment around them until it was stretched tighter than a harp string, Jim deliberately ran his tongue tip around his own lips.

"Oh God…" Blair groaned-begged.

Then Jim extended his tongue and plunged it between those sweaty mounds, instinctively homing on his target like a heat-seeking missile.

Blair's scream was piercing. It seemed to shake not only the bed and both their bodies, but the entire loft.

Normally, such a loud aural barrage would have left Jim writhing in agony, but tonight he barely heard it. All there was in his universe was Blair's distinct, slightly metallic, stringent flavor. It flooded his senses, firing every one of his cells with a desire so searing it burnt like hydrochloric acid.

The noise Blair loosed then couldn't be classified as anything other than a full-fledged shriek. High-pitched and prolonged, it pierced Jim's skull like a power drill boring in.

That resounding roar still reverberating through his head, Jim's tongue tip poked out to tickle the tight-puckered, dark red entrance. Swamped with the strong, harsh taste and smell that was so eminently Blair, and so ruthlessly arousing in this setting, Jim rimmed the tight ring of muscle, slowly working his tongue up inside that tiny aperture.

Of all the caresses he'd given his partner so far, this seemed to be the one that rocked Blair the most. Jim could feel his partner's body jolting and quivering like he was undergoing electric shock therapy. Blair was mumbling incoherently to himself as his dark head tossed back and forth on the pillows. Jim could hear the silken brush of those curls across the bed linen.

Although in his present position Jim wasn't able to see anything but the backside he'd squashed his face into; he could feel his partner ripping at the bedding. Funny, he hadn't even noticed Blair removing his hands, but they were no longer on his shoulders. Instead, were the scratching sounds his enhanced hearing was picking up any indication, Blair's fingers were currently clutching the comforter, clawing at the yellow fabric in his rapture as though they'd tear right through it.

Touched, Jim realized that his partner had moved his hands away to protect his skin. If Blair had given his shoulders the same treatment, there would be bloody welts there now.

Finally, his tongue poked through the resistance of that tight ring. Though the soap from Blair's shower still masked it, the flavor became a thousand times stronger here, its bitter bite shooting through Jim like a shot of vodka. The fastidious, inhibited part of him rebelled against what he was doing, but the larger portion of himself, the wounded spirit that had been dying of loneliness rejoiced at the sharing.

He'd been alone so god-damned long that the intensity of this union rocked his entire reality. Jim had never felt so close to another human being in his life, not to the point where he'd stick his tongue up someone's butt hole. The very idea had always repulsed him, but here he was, loving every minute of it: loving the taste, the smell, the utter primitiveness of the act. There wasn't another person with whom he could imagine doing something like this, but with Blair...it felt strangely natural.

Recognizing how few limits he had where his Guide was concerned, his normally-reserved heart threw a silent prayer up to the heavens that his unconventional partner didn't have any dark kinks to his sexuality. For he was under no illusions. He knew if Blair could inspire him to this particular act, there was nothing his partner couldn't get him to do.

Jim tried to push his tongue up that slender channel, but he could only get so far, the resistance was just too strong. Blair might claim he felt safest doing this, but his body proclaimed that this was, in fact, a very rare happenstance. Blair was tight as a virgin.

Needing more, Jim removed his face from between the sweaty cheeks and fumbled for the tube of cream. He slathered some of the white, medicinal-scented lotion on his right middle and index fingers and looked up at his partner's face.

Blair's eyes were clenched tightly shut, his features transformed with sensation. Jim drank in the soft, vulnerable expression, unbelievably happy that he'd been the one to put that pleasure there. He was very aware of the fact that a little less than four hours ago, he'd feared he'd never see his partner alive again.

With exaggerated care, he positioned his fingers over that frighteningly small entrance.

Blair released one of those mewling sounds when Jim's hand moved between his cheeks. The pleading, animal noise was somehow more explicit than a dozen verbal entreaties could ever be. It wordlessly begged for things that Jim had never imagined, dark pleasures of which he'd only read.

Though everything in his aroused system longed to plunge in and claim the saliva slicked rectum as his own, Jim held back. Carefully, with the maddening slowness of melting snow, he pressed his middle finger through the sphincter muscle, almost feeling the jolt Blair's nervous system gave at the penetration.

Jim couldn't believe how tight Blair was around him. That hot channel clutched him like an Isotoner glove.

Though the tiny sounds Blair was making and his accelerated respiration and heart rates all declared how very much his partner was enjoying this, Jim was confused. Admittedly, he'd never done this with another man, but it seemed that someone as experienced as partner claimed to be wouldn't have quite so much... physical resistance to a single finger probe.

"Hey, Chief..." he breathlessly whispered, withdrawing his finger for more lube.

"Mmmmmm?" After a few moments, Blair's lashes fluttered up and the heated gaze focused on him with visible difficulty.

"You, ah, are a pro at this, right? I'm not breaking virgin territory here, am I?" He felt like a fool for asking such a thing after Blair's earlier assurances, but his own inexperience made him terrified of injuring his friend. When Blair had said he knew what he was doing in this before, Jim had felt better about it, but now...Blair's body was telling him an entirely different story. He mightn't know diddly squat about what went on between two men in bed, but he knew what untouched felt like, and every instinct he had was screaming at him that he was courting a virgin here.

Jim had expected a chuckle and a joking 'get real' or something of that nature. What he got was a long quiet, then a regretful, "No, Big Guy, I'm afraid I can't give you that. You're about eight years too late. Why do you ask?"

Jim's awkwardness evaporated as he saw the thinly veiled anxiety which flashed through Blair's eyes, as though Blair were worried that he might be unwanted because he'd been around the track once or twice. "You said you liked this best, but you feel so tight that I just thought that maybe..."

Blair gave a tiny smile. "No, it's just a rare pleasure...a very rare one." As if reading the question Jim didn't feel he had the right to voice, Blair supplied, "Casual doesn't do it for me with this. There's a trust factor involved here. Nobody's met my criteria in an awful long time... Years even."

"And I do?" Jim asked, stunned. Blair had said years.

Blair nodded, his right hand reaching down to stroke his cheek. "You do."

Feeling the pressure, Jim half-joked, "I sure hope I can live up to your expectations, Chief."

Blair's index finger outlined his mouth, his expression oddly pensive as he replied, "You already surpassed them. What you did a few minutes ago with your tongue was...sublime, Jim. I never expected that. After that kind of a preview, I can hardly wait for the feature presentation."

Jim felt his cheeks warm at the praise, a smile he couldn't quite stifle slipping past his guards. "You've got some way with words, Shakespeare."

"And you've got one wicked tongue, Big Guy," Blair chuckled. "I could write sonnets to it. Dying was the summer's grass, when Jim Ellison stuck his tongue up my...umph...oh, yeah...that's it..." Blair approved, cutting off his Pulitzer poem as Jim's finger reacquainted itself with his rectum.

As careful as if he were the first one here, Jim's middle finger slowly pressed up the snug passageway. When he'd sunk in almost to his knuckle, the pad of his finger detected a soft, roundish protrusion on the previously slick wall. Though Jim hadn't any prior experience with this before, he knew what he'd found. Curious, he applied a bit of pressure to the hidden nub of flesh.

The results were transformative. The already full erection Blair was sporting, just a few inches away from Jim's face, jerked and swelled larger. Blair cried out again, the shout dying to a whimper as he lay there defenseless, his knees pressed up tight to his chest as he hungrily watched Jim's face, as if waiting to see what he would do next.

What Jim did was to slowly remove his finger again. After slathering on more of the slick cream, he returned it and a partner to the slippery little aperture.

This time it was easier pressing inwards. Employing his Sentinel senses, he set about learning what Blair liked here. Blair's heart rate, gasps, and shivers turned into an unexpected road-map to his inner hot spots. Just by monitoring the wild start Blair's pulse gave every time he brushed that hidden pleasure button or tried something slightly new with how he pistoned his fingers in and out, he could determine how successful each foray was.

Jim spent a long time stretching the narrow tract, scissoring his fingers open and closed in between well-planned bumps into that hypersensitive prostate as Blair howled and cursed encouragement all the while.

Jim found the erotic sound effects a trial to his own barely leashed controls. The kid was just so responsive, so...vibrant that he could have spent the remainder of his life pleasuring this mischievous spirit.

Blair hadn't touched his cock in what felt like years, but arousing his Guide had left him hotter than most other lover's caresses.

Finally, Blair was soaked in sweat and panting for every breath. Both their cocks were so swollen and distended that it was a toss as to who would come first from pent-up need.

"Please, Jim, now." Blair's whisper was raspy as sandpaper.

Unable to hold out longer, even if he'd wanted to, Jim gave a tight nod and grabbed the tube again. He squeezed a generous glob onto his palm, then quickly spread it over his blood-engorged organ. The touch of that cool whiteness against his burning flesh, for that matter, the touch of his own hand, was nearly enough to send him spiraling into orgasm.

Drawing a deep breath, Jim pulled himself together and hung on until he was sufficiently coated to try the tiny entrance. He was still less than sanguine about his cock fitting where he intended to put it, but the time for denials was long past. Blair seemed to want this even more than he did.

The moment of truth upon him, Jim sought his partner's gaze...only to find Blair's hungry stare watching every move he made.

Gently cupping those milky cheeks, Jim used his thumbs to part the cleft wider. He'd spent the last fifteen minutes stretching the guarding muscle, but Blair still looked too small to accommodate even the fingers he'd been inserting. He couldn't help but calculate the size difference between the thick head of his meaty penis and that totally insufficient opening. He was bigger there than most men, while his partner...though highly well-endowed, when it came to stature, Blair barely met average standards. That hidden entrance to his body looked way too small to accommodate the monster Jim was about to shove up there.

His heart pounding in sudden fear, Jim felt his mouth dry up. He was going to rip Blair apart...

"Go for it, Big Guy," Blair hoarsely encouraged.

"I'm too big. It's gonna hurt you," he croaked.

Blair's hands found his face again, softly stroking over his features. "You're not too big. It's going to work out just fine, promise. Don't make me beg you, man." Blair brushed his temple, the gesture so damn loving it almost melted his bones. "Because I will if you want me to."

Jim gulped noisily. He didn't need begging; what he needed was some assurance that he wasn't going to loose his lust on this trusting soul like a wild beast. And, even if he didn't lose control, how in the name of God was he supposed to fit without ripping his partner apart?

But the glow radiating off those perky features spoke of Blair's utter certitude. He'd never seen Blair this...at peace. There was no restless motion, no nervous chatter, none of the outward signs that so often betrayed his friend's inner turbulence. The only tension Jim could detect in his companion at all was frustrated longing. There was a shadow in those watching eyes that seemed to anticipate abandonment here at the edge.

That doubt clinched it. Whatever else he did, he could never let Blair down. Not like that.

Acknowledging that there truly was no turning back at this point, Jim grasped his throbbing cock in his right hand and carefully guided it towards Blair. For better or worse, he would take this man tonight. He only prayed that he could hold it together long enough to make it good for his partner.

As he'd known it would, his glans dwarfed the puckered anus. They both seemed to draw the same deep breath as Jim nudged through the slick ring of muscle, Blair's inhalation ending on a pained grunt at the extreme stretch.

Feeling the internal protest, Jim froze right inside. The hot, slick grip around him was dizzying. Prior to this, he had never tested just how sensitive his penis was. Blair's mouth had brought him to heights he'd never dreamed of this past month, but this was almost transcendental. He was getting the same kind of feedback from his shaft that he would from his fingertips. He could feel the walls of the channel he was exploring in such vivid detail that it made his senses swim.

Jerking back from the encroaching zone-out, he fixed his attention on Blair's heartbeat...finding its wild acceleration somehow a different pattern than it had been before when he'd been sucking his partner's cock.

Slowly, Jim realized that it was pain causing the stress. Biting his lower lip at how bad he was hurting his partner, Jim moved his hands down to caress Blair's silky butt as he waited for that tight opening to accept him...or reject him, as the case might be. At the moment, he couldn't detect any hint of pleasure in his friend's response. Tensed in his distress, Blair was tighter than a cock ring around his thick shaft.

Blair mightn't be a literal virgin to this, Jim decided, but it had been so long that his Guide's body had forgotten that fact.

Realizing that his partner was undergoing his own brand of zone-out at the unexpected pain, Jim decided that a distraction was called for. He moved his right hand to his companion's slightly deflated penis and began a steady pumping.

As the pleasure hit Blair's system, Jim instantly felt a decrease in the tension in the muscle strangling his shaft. He waited until Blair loosened up a bit more, then sank that much further inside.

"God, you're amazing..." Jim ground out, as he felt that hot channel clutch the first three inches of his cock. The remaining five or six were going to be an effort, he knew, but Blair's pants and grunts made it plain his Guide was hungry for all of him. As they did with most of their exercises, they took this slow and steady, courting responses, rather than forcing them.

Jim had never felt so stretched to his emotional limits before. Knowing what a struggle it was for Blair to accept his bulk, and seeing how very much his partner wanted it, he was flooded with a tender warmth. His heart just seemed to enfold the smaller man, taking Blair into its barricaded safe-holds as it had no other, not even Caroline – whom he'd taken as his wife.

Every second of the excruciatingly slow penetration was the sheerest agony, for them both, and yet...Jim knew that the only way they'd stop was if someone came in and physically ripped them asunder.

Perhaps it was simply the fact that they had to work so hard for this that made this union seem so much more meaningful than his other experiences. There was an intensity here that he'd never known before. Every centimeter he sank inwards, every helpless grunt Blair gave, every comforting stroke that answered those pained outcries was directed by an emotion that was so delicate, so ineffable, that Jim couldn't even label it. All he knew was that he'd never felt it during sex before. Not like this.

For the first time in his entire life, he felt like he was touching a lover's soul. Beneath the pain and the gritty, guttural groans there was some force pulling them towards each other, making them need to join this way, no matter the cost. He could see it in Blair's glazed eyes, feel it in the fingers digging into his shoulders, urging him on, for all that it hurt like hell.

A sweaty, breathless eternity later, Jim's balls came to rest against the curve of his partner's butt. Their gazes locked at that moment, sharing the victory.

Jim felt the legs around his waist loosen and move as Blair carefully rubbed his heels over his back. The odd caress sent shivers quaking through him.

"We're there, Jim. We made it, Big Guy." Blair gave him a huge, gamin grin, one of the blinding expressions of joy that had snuck past every one of his somber soul's guards.

Then Blair squeezed him internally and the entire room seemed to blink out of reality. One second, Jim was sharing that special moment, the next, he was inundated with sensation. That hot, slick track gripping him out of the blue sent him reeling under the unanticipated shock waves of delight. He was set adrift by that internal stimuli, following the ripples of pleasure as they slithered along his neural network from his prick to his belly, up his chest, down his legs, galvanizing his entire system until he was nothing but quivering nerve endings. He was so far into the zone-out before he knew it, that there was no chance of halting his plunge.

"Jim...come on, baby, you don't want to do this now." A familiar voice slowly penetrated the sensual haze blanking his receptors. Recognizing the deep timbre as his Guide's voice, his zoning mind tried to fix onto it.

"That's it, Jim. Hear my voice, follow it out. That's good," Blair encouraged.

As if he had a heavy layer of feathers buffering his epidermis, Jim gradually became aware of fingertips stroking his face.

"Can you find my heart now?" Blair asked. "Get a hold of it..."

Jim reached out with his hearing and finally located that excited ta-thump ta-thump, ta-thump in the fog that had clouded everything but tactile stimuli. He relaxed instantly upon hearing that healthy tattoo. Blair hadn't died when he'd forgotten his job...

"I-I've got your heart, Chief," he muttered, attempting to figure out what had happened.

NO...his mind howled as he took stock of their positions. His cock was still buried to the hilt in his doubled over partner. Horrified, Jim realized that he'd done it again, zoned during intercourse. "Oh, God, Blair...I'm sorry..."

"Sssshh..." Blair soothed, knotting himself up like a pretzel as he stretched his upper body to place a light kiss on his forehead. "Nothing to be sorry about. Just relax, baby, and breathe."

"I don't know how...one minute I was..."

"Shush," Blair cut into the faltering explanation, the tenderness of his touch telling him that everything really was all right. "No harm, no foul. We're just gonna lie here and breathe for a minute, okay? Then we'll get back to rocking the rafters."

The pressure on his twisted spine seeming to become too much, Blair sank back against the mattress, drawing Jim along with him.

Still humiliated by his lapse, Jim leaned forward and pressed his forehead against his partner's furry sternum. His eyes clenching closed, he tried to understand how Blair could be so damn accepting of this.

What kind of freak blacked out at such an inappropriate moment? Blair would be fully justified if he kicked the zombie out of bed.

How could Blair not be angry, he wondered. They'd worked so hard these past few months, training so this wouldn't happen...and the first time he was called upon to perform, he dropped the ball like a Jets quarterback in the final play.

Utterly stunned, Jim felt Blair reach down to spread a trail of soft kisses on top of the crown of his bent head as Blair's fingers brushed across his buzz cut.

Jim lifted his head to stare up into his Guide's face. "How can you be so damn patient with me?"

"There's nothing to be patient with," Blair declared.

"Unless it escaped your notice, I zoned out at the crucial moment again," Jim bitterly retorted.

"We didn't get to the crucial moment yet," Blair softly denied. "Anyway, we're doing a lot better than I expected."

"How's that?"

"I thought you'd zone the minute you got inside."

"I nearly did," Jim admitted, finding his fury slipping away under the soothing fingers that kept playing with his neck and ears. Blair never made him feel like a freak. His Guide could debrief him on these whacko zone-outs and make them sound like the most natural occurrences on the planet.

"What stopped you?"

Jim shrugged. "I was too worried about hurting you."

Blair's eyes softened. "And what sent you over this time?"

"You...you squeezed me."

"Have you still got my heart?"

Hearing a double meaning in Blair's innocent question, Jim gruffly answered, "Always."

"I'm gonna try it again. Try to keep attuned to my heartbeat, okay?"

At his nod of agreement, Blair once again squeezed those internal muscles that had sent Jim over the edge.

The same sensual rush hit Jim as his penis was pressed. But this time he clung to that heartbeat, even as that white lightning tingled through his nerve endings.

"Good, that's great," Blair approved.

"It's better than great," Jim growled. That internal embrace reminding him of where his shaft was, and what they were supposed to be doing, he abandoned their discussion. Blair could debrief him later...much later.

Remembering that sex was supposed to be an interactive pastime, Jim fumbled for his partner's cock. Blair gasped as he collected that velvet steel into his hand and began to pump. As Blair cried out, "Jimmm..." in a pleasure-shocked voice, Blair seemed to become just another human being, as prone to passion and ecstasy as his test subject. The first squeeze Jim gave that hungry prize appeared to jolt all scientific curiosity out of his young Guide, leaving him a quivering, panting wreck.

Only when he was sure that his companion was totally engrossed in pleasure, did Jim slowly pull out and then re-enter that tight channel. No woman had ever clutched him like Blair did. Just moving in and out of that snug entrance gave him the same kind of thrill full orgasm once had.

Jim felt the tip of his cock make contact with Blair's prostate on that initial plunge inward. For the first time in way too many minutes, it was not pain which raised an incoherent shout from Blair.

Barely holding it together, Jim found their rhythm. His system was assaulted on all sides by pleasures – all of which would have been enough singly to induce a zone-out. Together...it was almost more than he could apprehend. The delight shooting up from his fast-moving cock was all consuming. When added to Blair's intoxicating scent, the feel of that hot shaft in his hand and the sounds Blair couldn't hold in, it was almost too much, like the sexual equivalent of a three ring circus.

Somehow, even while riding that passion storm, Jim managed to remember to keep pumping Blair's cock with his right hand as his hips pistoned his shaft in and out of his doubled over Guide. Need was his master, and he would follow its bidding until freed of its shackles. Right now, it was demanding that he make this man his.

Blair seemed to be tied to him in that compulsion. Every time Jim pulled out, Blair used his heels and the fingers digging deep into his no-doubt scratched shoulders to pull him back in.

Together, they fell into a rhythm that seemed to have been waiting for them throughout all eternity.

"Jim, Jim, Jim..." Blair was moaning over and over, that helpless response inadvertently keeping Jim focused in the here and now.

Jim's body was a seething stockpile of unstable isotopes. Blair's welcoming, dark heat was the shower of charged electrons bombarding it. Every thrust, every reluctant withdrawal and rushed re-entry brought them that much closer to melt-down. He could feel every nerve irradiated by the sizzling passion raging between them. If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he could feel...

"My heart, Jim...you got...my heart?" Blair grunted as Jim began to spiral out of the present.

His own heart lurching at how close he'd come to losing it a second time, Jim frantically homed in on the crazed cardiac drum beat that was supposed to keep him sane. He found his aural anchor and clung to it as his body liquefied into molten need.

One final thrust, and reality erupted around him. His cock pulsed with the powerful gusher he sprayed deep into the hidden recesses of his Guide's rectum.

With a strangled cry, Blair exploded as well. The penis he'd been pumping on auto-pilot for the last five minutes jerked in his hand. A hot shower of sticky semen spurted onto both their chests, some of the slick white ejaculate splattering down onto Blair's face as he went off like an open fire hydrant.

The air became thick with the scent of spilt semen...the aroma that Jim had previously only smelt at a distance, late at night after Blair thought he was asleep.

Drunk on sensation, Jim breathed the erotic fragrance in deep, feeling Blair's scent tingle through him like a shot of tequila.

The ecstatic convulsions seemed to go on forever, rocking him to the core, taking all that he was and felt, then offering it to his equally blown-away partner. They were both sobbing with the force of their climax, frozen on that apex of experience as their bodies shuddered and spurted until it seemed they didn't have a drop of liquid left in them to give up. Only when they were drained as dry as sun-baked sponges stranded on the beach as high tide receded did the delight owning them let up.

As suddenly as climax had come upon him, orgasm released the reeling Sentinel. Jim gasped at the sudden cessation of sensation, his body feeling strangely hollow without the delight that had novaed through his nervous system mere moments ago. Slowly, he became aware of his deflated penis slipping out of his partner's body.

Shocked, he heard Blair sob as he withdrew.

Shaking too much himself to be of much comfort to anyone, Jim carefully lowered his Guide's pushed up legs back onto the bed. He winced at the helpless gasp Blair gave as his no-doubt cramped muscles protested the movement.

Rolling to the side, Jim gently gathered the smaller man into his arms, holding Blair as tight to him as he could manage without injuring his friend. They were both so bruised from this evening's fight with Lash that it was a wonder either of them could even move, much less engage in the wild passion they'd just shared. It was strange, but while they'd been loving, he hadn't felt a single one of the injuries that had come close to hospitalizing him earlier.

Feeling his partner shake with emotion, Jim just held him close. He couldn't smell any tears, so he didn't think his partner was crying, but Blair was quivering the same way he'd been when Jim had rescued him from Lash's chains just a few hours ago.

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, depositing soft kisses on the top of the warm head. Blair felt and smelt so good in his arms. He wanted to keep him there forever.

Blair's arms tightened around him as he nodded. Blair pressed a kiss onto Jim's smooth chest, then settled his cheek back against it.

Jim would have liked to have just lain there and enjoyed the sleepy aftermath, but he could feel the mounting tension in the body he cradled as though it were his own. He could almost hear the wheels turning in his partner's busy mind.

Jim would have liked to have pretended that he had no clue as to what was bothering his Guide, but he wasn't good at lying in personal situations. Undercover on the job, he could say and do anything, but in his personal life he liked to keep everything on the up and up.

He knew what was wrong with Blair. The intense emotions they'd just discovered were so far from the uncomplicated hand-job this had all started out as that his partner was scared spitless. Jim couldn't blame him. He was fairly unnerved by what he was feeling for Blair now himself.

Only, Jim knew the differences in their personalities. He himself was older, ready to settle down. As shocking as the present object of his affections was, Jim thought he could handle it. But Blair...

As much as it hurt, Jim knew in his heart that this wasn't what Blair had wanted out of this. Blair felt the same things he did; the kid just wasn't ready for the chains of commitment such heavy emotions entailed.

Which left him with two choices here. He could declare his love, let Blair know what he was feeling. He knew if he confessed the truths of his heart, his Guide would not turn away from him. Blair would do his best to fit into the role in which he had cast him, and part of that free spirit would shrivel up and die trying to fit into his straight and narrow world.

It all came down to one question – did he want Blair on any terms, regardless of the cost his young companion would have to pay?

For a long time, Jim lay there softly caressing what he wanted most in the world as he stared at his own selfish soul. It would be so easy to tie this vibrant spirit to him. All it would take was those three little words, so clichéd that they hardly had any meaning in today's world. But they had power in this situation, the power to wound, the power to bind.

With a shaky sigh, Jim gave another kiss to the top of Blair's head. The wild beat of his companion's heart told him that despite his lack of motion, Blair was far from relaxed.

"Chief?" he whispered.

"Yes, Jim?" Blair almost sounded like he was waiting to hear a prison sentence.

Until the words were out, Jim wasn't fully sure about what he was going to say. "What I said before still stands. You've got roots here; you've got wings. Use whichever you need to."

Blair released a shuddery breath.

The moist brush of its movement across his chest caused Jim to shiver. He felt the warm form he cuddled practically sag with relief.

"Thanks, Jim."

Jim nodded, knowing his partner would feel the motion.

Although common courtesy might have called for it, Jim did not thank Blair for what he'd just given him. Words were insufficient and...he knew that there was a part of them both that wasn't grateful for what they'd discovered. Things were complicated now, hurtful.

From this moment on, Jim knew that he was going to be playing a waiting game. They'd sown the seeds tonight. All he could do now was give his partner the freedom Blair's soul required, and pray that his Guide chose to let those roots grow.

Jim didn't know if he had it in him to watch his partner fly.

But it had to be Blair's choice. Anything else, and he'd be capturing this wild spirit, caging it in a zoo, rather than offering it a real home. And that was something Jim was determined never to do. If Blair came to him, it would be because his partner wanted to, not because he'd ensnared him with cruel declarations.

Knowing he'd done the right thing, Jim closed his eyes and waited for sleep. Although they both lay there, warm and exhausted, it was a very long time before either surrendered, almost as though they were both storing this fragile moment of closeness away in their hearts...as a memory.

*~*~*

It was funny how all of a sudden a person's entire world could come crashing down around him, Blair thought as he lay on the bed in his little room, tears streaming down his cheeks. He'd tried to hold them in, aware that Jim was right outside and would smell them, but his emotions were just too raw to be suppressed. Beyond the curtain separating his room from the kitchen, he could hear his roommate's voice. Jim was still talking to that pretty Federal Agent that he'd had so much trouble dealing with, Agent Drennen, also known in her off duty time as Teresa. Jim had stepped in a few minutes after Maya left, to offer him food and try to cheer him up, but it was no use.

Maya hated him.

Not that Blair could blame the poor girl. He could very well imagine how she felt right now. Her father was in jail, her life totally disrupted because of him. It must have been horrible when she discovered that the first man she'd ever wanted to give her heart to was nothing but a plant, a pretender sent in to seduce incriminating evidence on her own father out of her. God, how she must hate him.

This had to be the sleaziest thing he'd ever done in his entire life, Blair realized, still unable to believe how he'd misrepresented himself to an innocent girl. Such cruel subterfuge went against everything he'd ever believed.

And why had he done it? Because Jim Ellison had asked it of him. He had it so bad for his partner that if Jim asked him to, he'd jump through burning hoops at his bidding. It was pathetic...no, Blair mentally corrected, he was pathetic.

When was he going to get it through his thick skull that Jim didn't want him that way, not anymore. Jim's problem was cleared up now. He could hold his focus during intercourse without zoning. That night they'd made love after Lash had proven that his friend was cured.

And Jim had made it plain the next morning how he wanted things to be between them. That little speech about calling Christine up and getting down on his hands and knees to beg for forgiveness made it plain that Jim wanted them to return to their normal dating patterns. His roommate's goddamned brotherly advice about entering into a committed relationship... with Christine... all not eight hours after Blair had bared his soul and given Jim everything he had to give. Jim couldn't have given him a clearer signal if he'd told him, 'Time to fuck off, Junior.'

Blair had tried to take it in his stride, joking about getting a police badge tattooed on his chest, doing his utmost to silently tell his partner what he really wanted, but...

But once again he was expendable, Blair bitterly recognized. He tried to look on the bright side. They were still friends, able to work together. At least he still had the Sentinel Project to share with Jim. Jim still needed him for some things. He hadn't been kicked out...yet.

But right now, none of that made any difference. He just hurt too much. This last month had been hell, living here in Jim's house, being with him every day...and not being able to touch him. So many nights, he'd ached to ask Jim if he wanted to practice, for old times' sake. Blair would have been more than happy to crawl back into Jim's bed, to let him screw him. He'd have done anything Jim wanted, been anything Jim wanted...

Only, pride was the one thing he had left. Jim still treated him with respect, still interacted with him like he was a friend. He'd lost everything else; he wasn't prepared to lose that as well. So, he held back.

There had been fleeting moments during the past four weeks when Blair had thought that maybe Jim was missing their practice sessions, too; times when he'd catch a wistful expression in those disarming eyes when Jim looked at him and he would think that maybe everything hadn't been lost. But nothing ever came of it. Jim never asked, and he never offered.

Then Jim had seemed to throw him at Maya, and Blair had figured, what the hell? She was lovely, exotic, smart, tenderhearted, everything Blair had once looked for in a woman. And she made him feel special, at a time when his heart was lonely and his self-esteem dwindling. Now, it was so low that Blair would have to take an elevator up twenty stories just to feel like dirt.

All he could hear outside his curtain was Jim laughing and joking with that woman. Jealous, as he'd never been before, Blair rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head, covering his ears. He tried to hold in the sounds of his grief, but his throat hurt so much that he couldn't help the occasional sob.

"Blair?"

He jerked up in the bed at the soft touch to his back, his shielding pillow going flying at his sudden movement. His startled heart was slamming around in his chest like a captured bird at the unexpected touch, almost terrified. His back pressed to the wall, he stared up at his roommate. From his shocked expression, it was clear that Jim hadn't anticipated such a violent reaction.

Already, Jim's handsome features were filled with regret. "Sorry, Chief, I didn't mean to startle you."

Belatedly remembering what his face must look like, his hands scrabbled to his cheeks in a vain attempt to brush his tears away. With his enhanced senses, Jim might know that he was crying, but he didn't feel the need to further embarrass himself.

"D-did you want something, J-Jim?" he asked, hating the catch in his voice. Silently, he prayed that they hadn't been called in on a case. There was no way in hell he could function tonight.

Jim stepped a little closer. Only as the light from the kitchen fell over the tray Jim held in his hands did Blair even see it.

Confused by the dark, Blair wondered what time it was. It had still been daylight when he'd pulled that pillow over his head. Beyond the open curtain in his doorway all was quiet. Blair didn't have to have Sentinel senses to know that Agent Drennen was gone. How long had he been crying anyway?

If he didn't know better, he'd almost say that Jim was nervous as the big man replied in that soft, gentle voice that did things to his heart that he really didn't need right now.

"You've been in here since the bust last night. I was starting to worry. You haven't eaten or..."

Or showered, or shaved, or brushed his teeth...

His cheeks warming, Blair realized that his partner had probably been smelling him all day. It wasn't like he stank or anything. The loft was warm, but not overly so. He wasn't perspiring, but Blair knew better than anyone that things most people never sensed could drive his roommate right over the wall.

"Guess I'm running a close second to that three day old tuna sandwich," he rasped out, his throat raw and dry from all the tears he'd shed. "Sorry, I'll go..."

"Huh?" Jim's shadowed face frowned its puzzlement, then grimaced in understanding. "That isn't what I meant. I just... you haven't had anything to eat since breakfast yesterday, have you?"

"I'm not really hungry right now, Jim," he denied, crawling further back into the bed. He lifted his tear-stained pillow, clutching it to his chest like a shield.

This little cubbyhole of a room was too small. Jim's presence seemed to vibrate through the dark nest Blair had crawled into to lick his wounds. He swore he could feel the other man's body heat warming his chilly flesh. God, this was so unfair, like one of the punishments of the damned. To want someone this much...

"I know, but...have a few bites at least. As a favor to me?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to lash out with a reminder that it was the last favor he'd done for Jim which had left him in this state, but...it wasn't Jim's fault. He knew that he himself was an adult, with free will. He should never have agreed to be part of such a slimy set up. He couldn't blame Jim for wanting to make his case, anymore than he could Maya for hating him for using her. No, the responsibility here was squarely his own.

"I don't..." The refusal died at the disappointment he could just make out on those shadow-draped features. "All right."

After using one hand to carefully shift to one side of the nightstand the ever present piles of books and papers that collected wherever he lit for more than a catnap, Jim placed the tray down.

Blair squinted at its contents, surprised by what his roommate had brought. He'd expected leftovers from the dinner Jim had prepared as a peace offering to Drennen. Instead, there was a small salad, a bowl of diced fruit, a glass of milk, a large bottle of ice cold spring water, and a small stack of Oreo cookies.

Blair gave a sad smile at the last. No matter how health conscious he became, he never outgrew his addiction to Oreos. Naomi always gave them to him when he was upset to make him feel better. The fact that Jim would bring them now, without ever having been told about the Sandburg cure-all, nearly brought a fresh flood of tears to his sore eyes.

"Thanks, man," Blair gruffly acknowledged, not daring to look at his friend lest the waterworks start again.

As he reached for the fruit, Blair realized that it wasn't canned. Jim had raided their larder, chopping up bananas, apples, oranges and...

"You put the persimmons in there?" Blair questioned in his emotion-strained voice as he took in the bright orange glop coloring the concoction. His partner had taken an odd liking to the unusual fruit. Though Blair bought persimmons on a regular basis, they usually disappeared with such speed that he rarely got to sample them.

"Yeah, they sort of remind me of you," Jim chuckled, relaxing some.

"What – stunted and deformed?" Blair tried to joke, throwing back the description Jim had used when he'd first been introduced to the fruit and compared it to a stunted, deformed tomato.

Perhaps it was his hoarse voice or grief-wracked condition that caused it, but his jest fell flat.

Although he couldn't clearly make out particulars in the low light, Blair saw the muscular silhouette that was his partner stiffen. "No. I was thinking more along the lines of unique and in a class all its own."

"You got that last right," Blair darkly mumbled, thinking if he were in India he'd be in the untouchable caste.

"Huh?"

"Nothing. This – this was really thoughtful, Jim," he acknowledged, part of him still stunned. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had catered to him this way.

"It's the least I could do," Jim said stiffly.

They fell quiet as Blair took a spoonful of the fruit. Its sweet juices were the perfect balm for his dry mouth. He'd been crying so much, he was totally parched.

He took a couple of more bites, his enthusiasm waning as the quiet seemed to solidify around them.

"It wasn't your fault, you know," Jim said when the tension was so thick Blair could barely swallow. "You only did what I asked you to, what had to be done."

The spoon hitting the porcelain bowl as Blair put it down rang loud in the room. "I made an innocent, young girl fall in love with me so that I could get the goods on her father. Did – did you know that she wanted to give me her virginity?"

Blair could see that hit the moral cop hard. "You didn't..."

"No, man. I'm not that much of a low-life." Sickened with himself, Blair gave up all pretense of eating and sank back onto the bed. He screwed his eyes tightly closed so that he wouldn't have to stare into Jim's face. The lighting was low, but disgust had a way of standing out no matter what.

"You're not a low-life. You were undercover, doing a job. God knows, you didn't lie to her, Chief. You fell as hard as she did. Worse, maybe. I saw her when she stormed out of here. She wasn't...wounded like this. Just look at yourself. You're bleeding here."

"I deserve it," Blair whispered to himself, wanting nothing more than to curl up into a ball and die.

Blair had never heard a silence as loud as that which followed.

An eternity later, the bed springs creaked, shattering the stillness. Then, Blair felt the mattress move as a heavy weight settled on it. His eyes snapped open at nearly the same instant a warm hand lighted on his shoulder.

Jim was in his bed, lying on his side, facing him. Even on his side like that, Jim was as big as a mountain, all hard muscle and leashed power. But at the moment, his partner had a tentative set to his features that was totally alien to the man's determined character. Jim looked as though he expected to be ordered out at any second.

It was what common sense and pride demanded Blair do. He knew that he was just too damn vulnerable right now. He wasn't up to any grandstanding or any games, either, but he knew himself. He'd be whatever Jim needed him to be...anything to blunt the pain, if only for a little while. He'd deal with the consequences later, when he tried to gather the tattered remains of his self-respect.

Jim seemed to take courage from the fact that he wasn't immediately ordered out of his partner's bed. After a breathless moment in which time seemed to stand still, Jim gripped his shoulders and guided him closer.

Blair didn't fight the pull. Every self-preservation instinct he owned was screeching that his heart was going to get ripped to pieces if he did this now, if he let himself be used again. But he'd lost this fight the first time Jim had called him 'Chief' in that soft, affectionate voice that was meant for the bedroom.

Up close, he could see Jim's eyes glowing a silver gray in the dim light. There was an expression of such gentleness in those chiseled features that he could hardly credit it to this trained fighter. Hesitantly, afraid that if he trusted in it, the moment would shatter, Blair rested his cheek against Jim's chest as his partner rolled onto his back and pulled him into a sheltering embrace.

Jim's heat seeped through his cold form like the welcoming warmth of their hearth-fire. Blair could hear the steady beat of his partner's heart beneath the warm cotton tee shirt. The rhythmic up-down motion of Jim's chest as he breathed was so lulling, soothing the way Naomi's used to be when he would crawl into bed with her as a very small child.

God, how he'd needed this...

Blair tensed a little as his partner shifted, wondering if Jim was going to make his move and shatter the moment. But all Jim did was place one big hand on his back and start rubbing in slow, comforting circles. The gesture was so not what he was expecting that it drew a shuddery sob from him.

"You didn't tell her any lies, Chief. You can't blame yourself. If her old man had been on the up and up, it wouldn't have gone down this way. You'd be together right now."

Blair's throat felt thick again, clogged with a hurt he just couldn't shake. "No...it just wasn't meant to be."

This was what was meant to be, his soul screamed. And then his tears were flowing again at the futility of it all. The wetness soaked into Jim's tee shirt, the dark circle of misery outlining the pert bud of Jim's nipple.

Where these new tears came from, Blair would never know. He'd thought he'd cried himself out. But Jim's gentleness touched off something in him that he couldn't fight. Jim rocked him, rubbing his back, soothing him as though he were a very small child...offering a kind of comfort he hadn't known since that long-ago time.

It seemed like hours passed with Jim holding him like that. Jim didn't release him when his tears stopped again. His partner kept up the soothing back rub long after his convulsive, hiccuping sobs quieted to even breathing.

It was only when Blair gave an exhausted yawn that Jim showed any sign of stopping. His big hand stilled on Blair's sweaty back, but Jim didn't release him. "Feel any better now?"

The soft whisper was like a caress. Blair tried not to shiver, but he was just too open. Jim was a burning heat down his left side, the hard muscled figure supporting half his weight the stuff dreams were made of.

Blair realized all that incredible loving was over. Sadly, he accepted that fact. In good conscience, he couldn't further impose on his friend. What Jim had given him tonight was...more than he'd had in his whole life: someone who cared enough about him to try to make the hurt go away, someone who was more concerned about his well-being than sex... Always an outsider, this was a gift his unconventional soul would cherish for the rest of his days.

Wishing it could have gone on forever, Blair gave a mute nod.

Ever so carefully, the big guy settled him onto the cool pillows on the far side of the bed. Jim moved him as though he would shatter into a million pieces if jolted too hard...which Blair figured was about his emotional state at the moment.

Jim's callused right hand reached out to his face to smooth back his curls, which were damp from tears and sweat.

Blair looked up at the man bending over him, wanting him so bad that he could taste it. But, he couldn't ask for more, not after all Jim had just done for him.

Jim froze over him, just hovering there, indecision plain on his shadow-dappled features. Then Jim bent those final three inches and brushed the lightest of kisses on his forehead.

The tenderness of the chaste gesture stabbed through him. As Jim pulled back, Blair balled his hands into fists. His fingernails dug deep into the flesh of his palms as he fought to keep from grabbing those sturdy shoulders to drag Jim down into the type of kiss for which his heart hungered.

Unable to ask for more, Blair stared up into those shadowed eyes, seeing how strangely softened the rocky crags of Jim's features were by what they'd shared. Aching for this man as he would for a breath of air, he thought that if he could just store that gentle expression away in his soul like a photograph, he might be able to bear all the lonely nights to come.

For the longest time, Jim seemed to hang there, suspended above him like a rising moon. Jim's pale gaze was a ghostly silver in this light. It was fixed almost unblinkingly on him, as though his partner were hypnotized or on the brink of zoning. Then Jim released a shuddering sigh and hoarsely croaked, "God, those eyes of yours..."

And before Blair could even comprehend what was happening, Jim's mouth swept down upon his own. Although Jim's stasis broke in a swift, sudden movement, the resulting kiss wasn't rushed or forceful. As Jim's mouth neared his own, Blair could almost feel his roommate slowing down, reminding himself of all that had transpired in the last forty-eight hours. When Jim's lips actually brushed his, the touch was so careful as to be almost tentative.

Trembling all over, Blair clung to those warm, dry lips. His hands scrabbled up to grab his friend's peach-fuzz covered skull, locking Jim in place as he drew him down towards him, his mouth working for all that he was worth.

At Blair's abrupt pull, Jim's palms shot out, hitting the mattress on either side of his head to halt his fall. The fervor of his response seemed to startle Jim, who'd appeared almost braced for a rejection.

Blair whimpered as Jim ripped his mouth away, nearly lifting him from the bed as Blair tried to drag him back down.

"Please, Jim, please..." he heard himself sob.

"Easy, baby, easy..." Jim soothed, his gaze evaluating as he brushed the sweaty curls clear of Blair's face.

Blair knew his partner saw the way even that simple touch left him quivering.

If anything, Jim looked even more uncertain as he petted his cheek and asked, "Is this what you want, Blair-baby?"

Jim spoke those last two words as one. Just another of the many nicknames Jim tagged on his partner, but this one left Blair weak all over. "Anything...anything you want...only, please...don't tease me...."

"Never...never...sssssh, baby, ssssh..." Jim soothed as he carefully eased his long frame back down onto the bed. Jim turned on his side to face him, shimmying as close as possible without leaning his weight upon him.

"You can..." Blair whispered, reaching out for Jim's shoulder, wanting to pull him right on top of him, so that he'd feel all of that amazing strength and warmth blanketing him. But Jim refused to be budged.

Jim kissed him again, a slow, gradually deepening affair that was as grounding as it was exciting. "Easy, easy," Jim repeated as he gently disengaged. "Just relax..."

Blair released a shuddery sigh as Jim's mouth moved to caress each of his facial features in turn. The feathery kisses started on his forehead, moved to his eyebrows, then down to his eyes themselves. The breath caught in Blair's throat as his partner's tongue tip lapped at his swollen eyes, licking away the sticky salt and residual traces of his tears. Jim was so careful as he moved on to his other features, so cherishing that it seemed to shatter something deep inside him.

Another sob broke free. Horrified, Blair realized that he was on the verge of tears again. But this time they weren't tears of pain. He'd never felt this important to anyone. Jim was...worshipping him with his tongue and mouth.

Ever so slowly, Jim worked his way to his ear, then down his neck, kissing, nuzzling and licking as the big man saw fit. Destroyed by the tender attention, Blair lay there shaking like a malaria victim, afraid that any aggressive movement on his part would break the spell.

When Jim's exploration reached the neck of his tee shirt, Jim raised his face up to stare into his eyes. As their gazes locked, Jim's right hand stroked lazily across his chest. Jim's forefinger brushed over his cotton covered nipple, playing with it until it peaked to a firm nub. While watching his face for his reaction, Jim took the aroused flesh between his thumb and index finger and carefully squeezed it through the soft undershirt until Blair couldn't hold in his moan. It felt so good, so perfect...

It almost seemed as though Jim were waiting to make sure he enjoyed what he was doing, for only when he cried out loud did Jim end his observation and turn his attention back to the area he was delighting.

As Jim's close-cropped head lowered over his chest, Blair expected to be jostled out of his sleepy, pleasure daze so that his shirt could be removed. But Jim seemed to be reading his mind. Instead of taking the top totally off, Jim merely peeled the over-sized tee shirt upwards, leaving it twisted in a narrow band right above his flat breasts.

Blair felt his skin prickle up in shivery goosebumps as the cool air hit it. Then the shock of Jim's hot mouth added to the shivery mix, and he was totally lost. Jim gently sucked on first one nipple, then its partner. He dallied there as if he had all night, as if pleasuring this particular site to its tolerance level were his main goal and not just incidental foreplay. And, brother, did Jim pleasure him there, Blair thought, his senses swimming under the unrushed delight. Always susceptible to this form of love-play, Jim's ministrations left him a complete wreck as his partner used his tongue tip and the barest scrape of his teeth to turn the sensitive pink rosebuds of flesh to an erogenous zone capable of sending him into orgasm.

Blair had never felt so much here. Only slowly did he realize that it wasn't simply what Jim was doing to him that was so earth-shattering. It was the tender feeling underlying every suck, each playful nip, and every stroke of those hard, callused palms down his flat, ticklish stomach. No one had ever... worshipped him this way before.

The scientist in Blair had to wonder just what type of monitors Jim was using on him, whether his Sentinel abilities were coming into play here, for, at the exact moment when the attention started to become too much, his partner released his nipple.

Blair gasped as that oral limpet latched onto his body hair and began to follow its thick path downwards. The slow stream of cool air Jim blew over the slick saliva trail he'd left behind rocked his reality. He'd been attempting to remain quiet so as not to distract his friend, but he couldn't have held the sounds in then had his life depended upon it.

Whimpering, Blair's hands clung to his roommate's sturdy shoulders as he let his partner do whatever he wanted to his body. At this point, Jim could own his soul, just for the asking.

What Jim did was give that same thorough treatment to his belly. Absurdly ticklish there, he would usually be howling when anyone tried to do what Jim was doing with his tongue and fingers, but whatever trick his friend had used on his chest worked equally well on his tender belly. The kisses and caresses were so lulling, yet gently arousing. Blair had never felt such an unrushed flow towards completion in his life.

As had happened up above, eventually Jim's tactile reconnaissance reached another fabric barricade. But this time whatever sensors Jim was using to keep track of his enjoyment of the experience seemed to be on line and operating at full capacity. Jim didn't pause to evaluate the situation when he got to the waistband of Blair's sweat pants. He obviously didn't need to.

Blair knew that the little mewling sounds of pleasure escaping his raw throat more than demonstrated how totally into this he was. God alone knew what the pattern of his heartbeat and breathing were telling Jim.

Without any hesitation, Jim eased down the waistband of his sweats and boxer shorts. He lowered them only far enough to completely bare his genitals. Blair sighed at the sense of release, feeling his penis harden and grown under Jim's gaze.

With the same care he'd demonstrated elsewhere, Jim's fingers reacquainted themselves with his shaft. Those tentative, loving touches were positively exquisite. Jim gathered him in his right palm and gently squeezed his length, while his friend's left hand fondled the heavy, sweaty balls.

It was only as Blair saw his partner's head begin to lower that he stirred himself. "No, Jim...I didn't shower today. That's gonna be major league gross...don'ttttaaaaahhhh..."

His protest ended in a moan as Jim sucked in the head of his cock. Blair just stared at the sight of that cherry red crown disappearing between those amazingly sensual lips.

The fingers of Jim's left hand worked his testicles like a seasoned pro as Jim started a steady sucking. And still, there was no sense of rush to any of it. Jim mouthed him like he was prepared to spend the rest of eternity sucking on his Guide's cock. In the meantime, the fingers of Jim's free hand rhythmically petted his furry inner thighs, as if he couldn't stop himself from touching him.

As he felt that big hand slip between his thighs, Blair rallied himself to offer, "Jim, do you want to...you know?" To demonstrate his meaning as the confused detective looked up from his mouthful, Blair spread his legs further apart, his invitation clear.

Not even the insufficient light spilling in from the kitchen could hide the burst of tenderness that swept across Jim's often stern features at that point. The hardness seemed to almost physically melt from the chiseled visage, leaving behind a softness, a kind of glow that was so much more than mere affection that it knocked whatever breath Blair had managed to hold onto clear out of his lungs.

Stunned, Blair tried to remember if anyone had ever looked at him quite that way, with such feeling that it encompassed his heart like a warm embrace.

Jim temporarily detached himself from his organic popsicle long enough to hoarsely answer, "Not tonight, sweetheart. Some other night when your wings are stronger, okay?"

"But what about you? I..."

"We'll worry about me later, all right?" Blair would have helped Jim murder his own mother if he'd asked it of him in that silken tone.

A lump the size of Jim's pickup truck lodged itself in his chest. Knowing better than to even try to trust his voice, Blair gave a bemused nod, his fingers carding through the stubby bristle that was Jim's hair as his partner once again sucked in his cock.

Blair had put in too emotional a day to last very long after that. Giving himself over totally to the languid waves of pleasure lapping over his nervous system, he floated along, coasting where Jim led.

It wasn't a passion storm tonight or a teeth-rattling foray into sexuality. Rather, the gentle loving felt like damage control to Blair's tormented soul. By just pouring love upon him, Jim made him feel...worthy. His battered spirit soaked up the tender show of affection like desert sand would a rainstorm.

Blair felt himself unfold under it, trusting himself to this non-threatening gift in a way he never could to common intercourse. Jim wasn't getting anything out of this. Tonight, Jim wasn't using him to help him work through his sexual dysfunction or because Blair was a convenient substitute for the real thing. Jim was touching him this way because he wanted to, because he cared enough about him to try and make him feel better. And, as varied as his sexual experiences had been over the years, and as much fun as he'd had in the sack, this was a novelty to him. Especially with another guy.

When Blair climaxed, it was as gentle an experience as the loving had been. All those warm, cherished feelings just seemed to coalesce into a golden ball of delight that burst in his loins with surprising joy.

With a startled gasp, Blair spasmed, his seed pulsing into Jim's mouth as his partner continued to suck him.

His climax seemed equally as healing as erotic, the pleasure strangely cathartic. The staccato star-bursts of ecstasy seemed to sweep all lingering tensions away. All the negative feelings that his tears hadn't been able to expunge felt as though they were voided with his seed.

As the magnesium sparks of delight faded from his neurons, Blair felt completely drained. There was a moment after the convulsive shudders ceased when he felt that the peculiar dearth of pain might bleed over to that familiar, empty void of aloneness, but then Jim climbed back up the bed to lie beside him. When those protective arms gathered him in tight, there was simply no way he could feel lonely, no way he could feel anything but loved.

His eyelids leaden weights, Blair belatedly realized that he'd done absolutely nothing to please his partner.

Every cell he owned felt like the empty casing of a missile after its charge had blasted away. Nevertheless, Blair forced himself to incoherently mutter, "Wha' 'bout you?"

Jim planted another of those light kisses in the center of his forehead. Brushing back the heavy weight of his curls, Jim whispered, "I got what I wanted. Sleep now, partner, okay?"

On some level, he knew he shouldn't ask, but Blair still found himself questioning, "You'll stay?"

"I'll be here," Jim quietly promised.

And then Blair's eyes were sinking shut. With a final shuddery sigh that shook his entire body, he gave himself over to sleep. The very last awareness he had was that of his partner brushing soft kisses over his forehead.

*~*~*

There were habits, and then there were addictions. A habit was a lesser evil. Something not good for you, but something that was still manageable. Something you had a chance of walking away from and surviving. Whereas, an addiction...that was a serious monkey to have on your back. With an addiction, you had maybe a fifty/fifty chance of shaking it. If you were lucky. Most times, though, the addiction won, not the junkie.

Blair knew that he was losing this battle, hands down. Jim Ellison was an addiction he had no hope of shaking, not in this lifetime, he acknowledged as he walked in the door of the loft one Friday evening some three weeks later to find his partner exiting the shower.

Blair was honestly surprised to find his roommate here. It wasn't often that Jim beat him home while his partner was on a high-profile case. But since no leads were turning on those circus-like, million dollar jewelry robberies, Jim had obviously called it an early night.

Wreaths of steam were billowing out from the bathroom behind the towel-draped detective, outlining Jim's hard muscled figure the way smoke would a rock star's grand entrance.

Just the sight of the water beading on that magnificent, smooth chest trip-hammered Blair's heart into overdrive. Frozen in the doorway, he hungrily watched a huge drop of water slide down that soft-looking skin, his gaze homing in on it with almost Sentinel sight.

"Hiya, Chief. How's it going?" Jim's tone and grin told him that he knew precisely the effect he was having on his audience.

With an effort, Blair shook himself out of the sensual spell and hung his jacket on the rack by the door.

"Fine, just fine, Jim," he replied in a subdued tone, going quickly into his room to stow away his backpack and laptop.

Horrified, he realized that he was trembling. Simply from seeing his partner in a goddamn towel! It was just so easy to get lost in this man.

But Blair had promised himself that he wasn't going to give in again tonight. If he didn't cut off this madness soon, they were both going to pay big time.

These last three weeks since Maya had left him had passed like a dream. For the initial three nights after she'd dumped him, Jim had slipped quietly into his grieving Guide's bed and treated him to that same exquisite, one-sided loving that had carried Blair through that first horrible night. And after that, it had been all too easy to fall back into their practice sessions.

But...in his heart Blair knew this was wrong. Not for himself. He was pretty sure that he was ready to deal with the ramifications of taking on a male lover. All the labels and the petty crap were nothing when compared to the kind of love Jim gave him. That was worth the whole world to him. And he would give up the whole world to keep this incredible man from getting hurt...which he knew Jim would be if he didn't put the brakes on this developing romance real soon.

Maybe if Jim had some cushy yuppie job, things might have been different. They might have had a chance, even here in beautiful, backwater Cascade. But with Jim being a major crimes detective in a highly conservative city...it was just too damn dangerous. Blair was all too conscious of the fact that his lover could end up dead from friendly fire if they were ever outted.

LOVER. Hell, Jim would probably freak if he called him that outside of the bedroom, Blair knew.

They never referred to what went on between them outside of the loft. By unspoken agreement, they never hugged around others, no matter how close the rescue. They kept up the same macho bullshit that had characterized them both before they became involved. Outwardly, Jim evinced all the signs of a man who might be trying to win back his ex-wife, while Blair pursued every female under fifty that was still breathing. He still went out on a date with a different woman three, maybe four times a week.

To the outside world, absolutely nothing had changed. They remained two swinging, happy-go-lucky bachelors sharing a pad. Yet, every single night, they ended up tangled together in a sweaty embrace in that huge bed upstairs, with Jim's cock buried deep in his body.

And as of tonight, that had to change, Blair resolved.

Jim had never intended this to go this way. This had started out as therapy, nothing more. Just another control exercise, practice to prepare Jim for the real thing. Only, their little sessions had become so intense, so openly erotic, that Jim really didn't have any need to try and make it in the real world, not when everything was waiting for him right here at home.

Blair didn't doubt for a single second that his partner had legitimate feelings for him. But this wasn't a love Jim had chosen. It was something he'd fallen into, by accident, something that was never spoken of, never declared, always hidden. With the way his feelings were deepening with every passing day, Blair wasn't certain how much longer he could remain content to be someone's dirty, little secret – even Jim's. So, it had to stop now, before they got in any deeper.

However, convincing Jim of that fact might be something of a problem.

"You okay, Blair?" Jim's voice sounded from the doorway behind him.

With a start, Blair realized that he must have been standing here like a statue for some time. Jim was dressed already, in form hugging blue jeans and a simple gray tee shirt that made him look as good as he tasted.

Reminding himself that he wasn't supposed to be thinking along those lines anymore, Blair smiled and answered, "Just fine, Jim."

"You have any plans tonight?" Jim asked, the eager expression in those mercury blue eyes making Blair's stomach dance like the quicksilver they so resembled. "I thought we could stick around here, maybe order in and..."

And fuck like bunnies in front of a roaring fire, Blair mentally completed. That's what they'd done last weekend. All weekend. They hadn't come up for air once.

There was a time when the cautious detective would never have made so forward a statement, but Jim had become much more confident about suggesting their sessions these past few weeks. Probably because the big guy had figured out that he couldn't say no to him...about almost anything.

Swallowing hard, Blair stuck to his guns and asked in a throaty voice, "Jim, could we talk, man?"

"Sure, Chief," Jim agreed, stepping into the bedroom.

Reeling from too much Jim in too little space, Blair took a panicked step back to give himself some thinking room and pleaded, "Outside?"

"Yeah, okay," Jim agreed, as easy and good-natured as he was about almost everything Blair asked of him.

It only made it harder.

They settled onto the couch, close as ever. Jim's legs accordianed out like they always did, his left knee accidentally – or not so accidentally – bumping into Blair's.

Blair took a deep breath and did his best not to stare at the generous mound at Jim's groin that was showcased by his open legs. All he really wanted to do was slide to the floor between those splayed knees and...

That line of thought was definitely not furthering his goal, Blair mentally chastised himself.

"What's up, Chief?" Jim asked, visibly focusing 110% of his attention on him. "You seem...quiet. Something wrong?"

"No, I mean, yes." That patient gaze softened, Jim looking as if he were prepared to wait him out until the millennia passed, if necessary. Gulping, Blair whispered, "God, this isn't easy..."

"What's not easy?"

"Jim, what are we doing here?" Blair started, knowing he hadn't expressed himself very well, but clueless as to where else to begin.

Jim's puzzled face split into a fond smile. "Right now we're sitting on the couch trying to decide what to order in for dinner."

Blair couldn't help but return that smile. "That's not what I meant."

"No?" Jim's entire attitude was so playful, so happy, that Blair couldn't help but feel like an ungrateful monster for what he was about to do.

"No," Blair affirmed. "Jim, you've been so good to me these past few weeks. I never would have made it through without you. You got me back on my feet again and gave me the strength to go back out into the world..."

"Blair..."

Blair rushed on before the warmth in his partner's eyes transcended to touch. Blair knew that he'd never be able to pull this off if Jim kissed him. "And I think that it's high time that I did the same for you, Big Guy."

"What?" Jim blinked, his passion obviously derailed by this abrupt turn in the conversational track.

"This...sexual safety net we've made for each other is great..."

"But?" Now it was Jim steering the conversation.

Telling himself that Jim could not be as anxious as he appeared, Blair tried to ignore his partner's twitching jaw muscle as he continued, "But I think we're both getting caught in that net, tangled up. We're losing sight of the original purpose of these...exercises..."

"Exercises," Jim slowly repeated, his eyes going totally flat as he shut down all emotion.

"Jim, please, man, don't shut me out. Listen to me, please? I'm not saying I don't...like what we do. I'm as guilty as you, probably more so 'cause I'm supposed to be the Guide, but...but this isn't you, Jim. You never planned on any of this..."

"I never planned on our partnership, either, but that turned out pretty good, didn't it?" Blair winced at the almost-pleading note that had crept into the soft voice. "Can't we just go on like we've been doing? I've kept my word, Chief. I haven't curtailed your social life..."

No, Blair silently agreed. Jim had only lassoed his heart, making it impossible for him to see the women he dated as anything but stand-ins for Jim.

"No, you haven't," Blair calmly replied. "But I've curtailed yours. You haven't had a date since we started these practice sessions. That's almost five months now, Jim."

"Maybe I don't need the others anymore."

That too-quiet, serious tone scared him to death. He wanted so badly for that statement to be true. If Jim wanted him that way...but, no, Jim just thought he wanted this. The great sex had blinded him to all the pitfalls such a relationship would entail. Blair knew if he relented now, they'd both be lost.

"And maybe you're just a little gun shy," Blair countered.

"I like being with you, Blair," Jim whispered, sounding like he was being backed into a corner.

"And I love being with you, man. But I also can't help but feel that – to a certain extent – I'm like a consolation prize."

When that wounded gaze turned on him to bleed its pain into his soul, Blair shivered in dread. No one had ever given him this kind of power to wound them before. Jim looked like he'd taken a shot directly to the heart.

"Jim, you didn't choose to be with me. You got used to it."

Jim's mouth opened to protest, "I..."

"You're straight, remember? I don't do it with guys; that's the first thing you said when I suggested these exercises to you..."

"That was a million years ago, Blair."

The quiet, almost calm response totally shook him. "So what are you saying here, Jim?" he asked shakily, giving Jim a chance to blow him out of the water. All it would take was those three hokey words that they both had avoided like the Black Death. If Jim told him 'I love you', there was no way he could force this issue.

But even though those words were there in Jim's troubled gaze, just fighting to get out, what the big cop said was, "Maybe I'm choosing to be with you now."

Blair looked down, needing to mask his disappointment. Jim still couldn't say it. It might be childish, but he needed those words. If he was going to gamble for such high stakes, risk both their reputations and lives for this relationship, he had to know that at least here, in the privacy of their own home, Jim could admit what there was between them. He needed that much of a commitment. But it was obviously still too much of a culture stretch for his conventional friend.

Sighing, Blair schooled his features and looked back up. "This isn't choosing, it's settling. You haven't given yourself a chance to decide. We go this route, you could end up hating me, and I never want that, Jim."

"Hating you?" Jim repeated, as if the concept were totally beyond his comprehension.

"If I just smile now and say 'Sure, Jim, let's go fuck our brains out', we just might spend the next six months or so screwing each other through the mattress. Right now you're high on feelings. We have a lot of fun together in the sack, plus there's a whole gratitude factor going on here that just scares the hell out of me. I helped you regain control of your senses during sex and you're grateful for that. You're deliriously happy to be functioning again, and being with me is a wonderful, sexual odyssey. But some day down the line, maybe in a month, maybe in a year, you're gonna come up for air. That gratitude quotient's gonna wear real thin, and you're gonna look at me and want to know why I took advantage of you in a vulnerable state. Because, whether you're able to see it or not, that's just what I'd be doing here if I just go blithely along with this."

The hopeless romantic in his heart crossed his fingers. This was the part where Jim was supposed to step beyond his inhibitions and tell his Guide that he loved him.

But instead of the firm set of denial that had characterized Jim's earlier expression, this time, Jim's face was creased in a thoughtful frown.

"Are you telling me that...we're ov..." Jim's jaw slammed shut on the rest of the word as he proceeded more carefully, "...that we won't ever be able to practice anymore?"

"No, that's not what I'm saying at all," Blair said tiredly. Jim was different in that it wasn't all sex with him, but as with every other relationship he'd had in his life, sex was what it came down to in the end. And, fool that he was, Blair had actually believed Jim was different. His partner cared about him more deeply than any of the others, but in the end, the common denominator was still the same. His soul aching, Blair was no longer torn by what he had to do. "We agreed that this is something we'll have between us, for as long as we both want it. All I'm saying is that it's time you got back on the horse that threw you. You can't make any decisions hiding here at home."

Jim seemed to take comfort in his answer, for even though he didn't look pleased, he no longer appeared...quietly distraught. No, Blair recognized, it was he himself who could claim that title.

"So what do you recommend, Coach?" Jim asked, not exactly eagerly, but no longer fighting him.

"How about a little outing to get your feet wet? My friend JoJo's R&B band is playing down at Cody's Pool Hall tonight. Why don't we go there for dinner and see if we can make some female connections?"

Jim gave a reluctant nod. "Okay, I'll grab my jacket."

An hour and a half later, Blair was about to admit that the entire idea had been a disaster. They'd arrived at Cody's an hour ago. Blair had scoped out two lovely ladies sitting together at a table for four and charmed Jim and him into their company. The short-haired blonde with the razor edge sense of humor and dancing brown eyes was a school teacher named Glow. Blair had hit it off immediately with her.

Glow's buddy seemed like the perfect match for Jim. Kelly was a quiet, scathingly bright strawberry blonde with the bluest crystal eyes Blair had ever seen and the most amazing peaches and cream complexion. If Blair had created the perfect mate for his partner, it would have been someone like this sensitive lady. She even had a black belt in karate. He couldn't have dreamed her up this good.

And yet, for all that Blair could see that, almost in spite of himself, Jim liked Kelly, his partner seemed to hold himself back from their rip-roaring conversation. Jim sat there like one of those wooden decoy ducks that hunters used. His friend had the look of being present, but he was really a million miles away, almost wooden.

When Jim rose from his chair, purportedly to go get the next round, Blair corralled him before Jim could make good his escape. "Jim, whoa. Where you goin'? What's the problem?"

"You didn't have to pounce on the first two girls who smiled at you here," Jim grumped.

With a shock, Blair realized that it wasn't that Jim didn't like the girl he'd met, more like he was jealous after watching Blair flirt with both the girls. It wasn't the 'I love you' Blair had been hoping for before, but in spite of his resolve to push Jim out of the safe chrysalis he'd barricaded himself in these last few months, it still pleased him that Jim wouldn't want to share him. "C'mon, Jim, that's the way it's done. You gotta hit it, you know?"

Appearing trapped, Jim explained, "Blair, I'm just not really good at this kind of stuff, you know?"

Recognizing that his partner was about to go into the Ellison version of panic mode – which would undoubtedly end with Jim bolting – Blair sought to calm his friend. "Jim, just relax. Take it easy. The important thing is to just roll with it..." Blair broke off as one of the most exquisite women he'd ever seen passed them and very deliberately jostled Jim's arm.

Jim's automatic, "Excuse me..." trailed off into a shocked gape as he took the woman in.

She was a knockout, there was no getting around that. A willowy size four, shoulder length, curly red hair, green eyes...she could have been a fashion model, or high-priced whore. She was certainly dressed for action in that skin tight red dress and black leather coat. There was positively no mistaking what she'd come into the bar for that night.

Blair sensed both their libidos going into hyper-drive as they inhaled the cloying scent of her perfume that lingered in the air. Bars like Cody's just didn't get this kind of high-class talent. He could easily see her starting a riot among the male population if an alpha male didn't stake her out soon. And since he was standing here with the most alpha of men he'd ever met, with the sole intent of getting Jim laid by some willing female, this vision of loveliness seemed like a gift from the gods. This redheaded vixen certainly didn't seem like the settling down type. As much as Blair had liked Kelly, he couldn't see her being a casual fuck, not like this one. In the nanoseconds it took him to evaluate her, he determined that the girl was safe. There was about as much chance of getting a commitment out of this centerfold as there was out of an alley cat in heat.

Caught up in the redhead's allure himself, Blair enthused, "Just roll with it. Ohhh, man..." Seeing from Jim's expression that his partner was about to let this once in a lifetime opportunity pass, Blair laughingly demanded, "What is the matter with you? I swear to God if you do not go over there – I will. Jim, hurry up, hurry up. You're about to get snaked. Go, go, go..." he ordered as another guy approached Jim's dream date.

Smiling, Blair watched Jim scare off the competition, just as he'd known his friend would. As Jim made his introductions, Blair turned back to his own table. With his partner gone, that meant he had two girls to keep amused. No problem, Blair decided, he'd just...

Crestfallen, Blair stared at the now empty table. He made a quick scan of the bar. Glow and Kelly were nowhere in sight. Quite sensibly, the two intelligent women had dumped them after their adolescent Pavlovian response to Miss-Come-Fuck-Me's entrance. Damn, hormones were a bitch.

Abruptly at loose ends, Blair wandered over to the stage to watch JoJo play. His guitarist friend was good, really good, but even with the excellent music pouring over him, Blair found it impossible to keep his attention on the band. His gaze kept roaming back to the corner to which Jim had escorted his new friend.

Jim seemed oblivious to everything other than the redhead: the music, the noise, Blair's watching gaze, everything that would have freaked Jim was passing over him like water over Niagara Falls.

Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly painful for Blair to watch his lover flirt with the gorgeous woman, even though it was precisely what they'd come here for. When he'd suggested this outing, he'd hoped his reserved partner would come out of his shell a bit, have a few laughs, maybe make a date with a girl, but he'd never expected to be forgotten quite this fast. Jim didn't even seem to know he was alive any more.

Well, wasn't this what he'd been working for all these months, the scientist inside Blair demanded, reminding him that the reason all this had started was for Jim to be able to enjoy intercourse again. And, from the looks of things, Jim was going to be having it right there on that pool table in another few minutes.

The redhead's coat was gone and she was sitting on one of the green felt pool tables. A cardinal sin here in Cody's. This wasn't just another yuppie watering hole. Cody's clientele were serious about their billiards. Normally, a dozen patrons would have yelled for the newcomer to get her ass off the table, if the proprietor were so lax as to ignore it. But a woman like that could get away with murder.

Jim looked...hypnotized, there was no other word for it. His gaze never seemed to leave the woman's body. That focused intensity was painfully familiar to Blair. Jim wore it every time they made love.

His heart twisted in his chest and the beer all but made its way back up from his stomach as Blair saw Jim reach out to play with her hair. In a hideously familiar gesture, Jim coaxed the long red locks around his left index finger, twisting it into a ringlet while his right hand slowly stroked her thigh. Blair watched as Jim eased his lower body closer and closer to her...

His heart plummeting, eyes stinging with unshed tears, Blair looked away, unable to take any more. In less than three hours, he'd been totally replaced. That was a record, even for his foul luck.

Well, he'd gotten what he came here for, he decided, a catch in his breathing as he headed for the door. He'd cut the umbilical cord, severing Jim's sexual dependence on his Guide. Jim was once again a free agent.

Whereas, Jim's partner...there was a monkey Blair was going to have to work very hard at taming; that was, if he wanted to keep his friendship with Jim alive. He knew from past experience that there was nothing so inconvenient to a straight man returning to the fold as his discarded male lover.

If he wanted to keep his place in Jim's life, he was going to have to get this jealousy factor firmly under control. He was going to have to support Jim fully on this move that he'd pushed his friend into making.

But not tonight. Tonight was for mourning and for quitting cold turkey. As he made his solitary way to the bus that would take him home now that his ride had disappeared, Blair was forced to accept the fact that he'd be shaking this addiction totally alone. Obviously, Jim had already found his own cure.

*~*~*


Emotions, hormones...his Guide had called the connection between the two a paradox. Then Blair had gone on to say that if anyone ever figured the whole thing out, there'd be no poetry, no art, no music.

But Blair had forgotten the major item. If anyone figured it all out, there'd be no more pain.

From where Detective James Ellison sat, it might be worth the trade off. Ensconced on the couch in the loft's totally dark living room on the Saturday night following the McCarthy bust, he listened to the utter silence of the place and tried to figure everything out. With Blair out on another date, the loft felt as empty as his soul.

Eight days had gone by since he'd booked Laura McCarthy for multiple homicide and grand larceny. Some healing should have taken place, yet the pain was still an open, throbbing wound. Despite his partner's scientific explanation about the effects of pheromones on human sexuality, he was still having some trouble understanding how this had happened. He'd known the woman – what? – a total of three days. How could he have become so engrossed in her, so attracted to her, in such a short time that he'd throw away the most important thing in his life? Oh, he understood about lust and sexual combustibility, but what had gone on with Laura McCarthy went further than that.

It had been almost mind control. Jim had possessed absolutely no independent will in the matter. From the moment he'd met Laura, he'd been hers to do with as she pleased.

In retrospect, he realized the entire event was rather like one of those fairy tales Stephen used to force him to read to him when his brother was a youngster, those fanciful stories about knights and witches, and damsels in distress. Like so many of the bold heroes in those tales, he'd mistaken the female lead's part. What he'd taken as the damsel in distress had actually turned out to be an evil witch intent on controlling him. The spell Laura had cast over him had been a powerful one. He'd fallen totally in thrall to it, was as ready to do her bidding as any besotted fool in those old fables.

But where those stories had always ended happily for the valiant hero, this not-so-valiant cop had screwed up totally. By the time this dullard of a hero had figured his damsel's complicity out, he'd lost his heart's true love. Even now, his soul shrank as he remembered that hurt look in his partner's bespectacled eyes when he'd told Blair to stay the hell out of his personal life last week after the kid had followed him up the stairs with that wine glass to try to prove to him that Laura was a part of it all. And even after he'd hurt Blair so badly, his Guide had still tried to make him feel better about being so completely blinded by lust, giving him that whole paradox routine.

To Jim's way of thinking, the true paradox was how he could love one person with his entire heart and soul, and sacrifice it all for some mindless sex. The only reason he'd gone to that damn pool hall the night he'd met McCarthy was because Blair had asked it of him. He'd humored Blair to keep his partner from suspecting just how deep his feelings for him ran. He'd had about as much interest in picking up women that night as he would undergoing root canal without Novocain. Yet, from the minute Laura McCarthy had bumped into him, Blair had truly ceased to exist for him on a sexual plain. All there had been was Laura and the irresistible urge to rut. Now that she was gone, he had absolutely nothing left.

That wasn't entirely true, he reminded himself, staring at the cell phone Blair had left on the coffee table in front of him with orders to 'call me, even if you just need to talk'. He still had Blair's friendship.

The kid had been turning cartwheels all week to lift his spirits. Blair had been so damn good to him, it astounded him. Were their positions reversed, had Blair basically told him to fuck off once he'd become involved with some hot number, he didn't know if he would have found it in his heart to be so forgiving, so supportive. But that was one of the things he loved most about his partner, Blair's willingness to accept human and Sentinel faults.

But that little line of his about his Guide staying out of his personal life had obviously killed their sexual relationship totally – not that Jim could blame the kid. Not even Blair was that much of a saint. For all his kindness, Blair had made absolutely no sexual overtures. And Jim just didn't feel that he had the right to anymore, not after the way he'd treated Blair once Laura arrived on the scene.

Talk about pearls of great price. Laura had cost him far more than some professional embarrassment. She'd cost him Blair's love...or as much of his love as Jim's commitment-shy partner was capable of freely giving. He knew that there was no way on this planet for him to ever make this up to his friend. The apology hadn't been invented that was big enough to cover the cavalier treatment Blair had received. Somehow, as open minded as his Guide was, he didn't think that even Blair would buy 'evil enchantment' as an excuse. And that was the only one he had, for he had no clue as to why he'd treated Blair the way he had.

Was it some kind of subconscious punishment for Blair being unable to love him the way he wanted, Jim wondered. Yes, he'd been angry that Blair wanted to return to his carefree ways of casual sex, but he'd known all along that he had no chance of exclusively holding his partner. And, granted, the night he'd met Laura, he'd been resentful as hell about Blair dragging him out to that pick up joint, but...

The lock on the front door rattled, then the room exploded in a burst of white light as the corridor's illumination spilled in. Blair stood limned in that brightness like some New Age angel in ratty jeans and black leather jacket, squinting into the pitch black loft. "Jim?"

"Right here," he answered, reaching out to switch on the lamp on the nearby end table.

Blair closed the door as the warm golden light filled the room.

His eyes adjusting to the brightness, Jim's checked the cable box. The glowing red letters read 11:21.

"You're home early." he said, trying not to smell the sweet musky/herbal bouquet that was Blair, trying not to stare. Blair in that black leather jacket was just too enticing for words.

"Yeah, I couldn't stay focused. Figured it was best if I cleared out of there before I was asked to leave. How you doin', Jim?" Blair replied as he hung up Jim's favorite of his partner's myriad coats and jackets on the wall rack.

Blair not able to focus on a date? The kid had to be deathly ill. "You not able to focus on a date? That's gotta be a first. You feel okay?"

"Yeah, I just had other things on my mind."

"Like?" Jim inquired, doing his best not to tense as Blair came into the living room to sit on the couch beside him.

"Like you sitting alone in a pitch black apartment on a Saturday night. How long are you gonna keep this up, Big Guy? I know you really cared about her, but you've gotta move on, man."

Jim was almost stunned that Blair would think this was still about losing Laura. But he couldn't very well say that. So he looked away from the too-tempting vision beside him, staring off at the curtain draped terrace doors.

"Jim?" Blair called in that wheedling, cajoling voice that got Jim to do things that went against his very nature.

"Just leave it alone, Blair. I'll be okay."

"Yeah, right." The disappointed, sarcastic reply filled the quiet room. After a few moments, Blair seemed to rally his manic enthusiasm enough to suggest, "Hey, why don't the two of us go out together? Get something to eat..."

"You go ahead, Blair."

"Jim..."

"Look, it was going out with you the last time that got me in this mess, all right? Just leave me alone, okay?"

The silence was absolute.

Jim made a mental count of how long it would take his partner to flounce off the couch and leave. One, two three...

The cushion shifted.

The breath caught in Jim's chest as a Blair-scented hand caught his chin and forced his face around.

"No, it's not okay," Blair answered, his features hard and determined as only Blair's could be when his mind was set upon something. "I'm sorry you got hurt. I'm sorry she turned out to be such a bad trip, but that does not give you the excuse to stop living. You gotta..."

"What? Jump into some other stranger's bed?" Jim hissed, pushing Blair's hand away. "I'm not you. I can't – " Just in time, he cut off the rest of that statement. His pain was no excuse to attack Blair's lifestyle. His partner couldn't help being what he was.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Blair demanded, staying planted where he was, not moving one inch out of his personal space.

Jim sighed. "Look, we're different people. We deal in different ways..."

"You're not dealing with this," Blair shot back. "You're avoiding it."

Those passionate eyes were so close, Blair's face hanging over him, bright and tempting, and as ultimately unreachable as a rising moon. His partner's breath brushed over his face in a moist, warm stream. Jim automatically catalogued the scents on that exhalation: beer, onions, garlic, vinegar, salad scents, pita bread and...gyro. Blair had eaten Greek food tonight.

Jim wondered if he'd be able to place the woman Blair had dined with if he inhaled deep enough. Was it Marie and her lilac perfume? Cindy and her Chanel? Ann and her Taboo? The bigger question that arose was did he really want to know?

"Jim, would you please stay with me here?" Blair complained. "You look like you're about to zone."

"Sorry. I'm just not in the mood to play twenty questions right now. Just leave me alone for a while. Please, Chief?" he begged.

Blair's eyes looked torn. Almost as if he couldn't stop himself, Blair reached out to grasp his biceps. Looking like he wanted to shake some sense into him, Blair insisted, "Dammit, Jim, she just isn't worth this, man."

And because he was stupid enough to get caught in the lapis lazuli crystals that were Blair's eyes, he heard himself blurt out, "But you are."

"What?" Blair froze. Even his Guide's breathing seemed to stop, Blair became so still as he stared into his face.

Reading the open doubt of a man who'd been told to piss off less than a week ago, Jim whispered, "For the sake of some hormones, I threw everything that mattered away, destroyed everything..."

Part of Jim was afraid that after last week's cruel rejection, Blair would be furious at such a line, but Blair only looked confused.

"What are you talking about? What did you throw away?"

Jim lowered his gaze, staring at the little wisps of chest hair peeking up at the neck of the striped Peruvian tunic his Guide was wearing. The last time Jim could remember seeing it on Blair was the day after his partner had moved in, when that monkey of his had run away. It made Blair look like a bona fide flower child.

"Jim? What are you talking about?"

"Us," he hoarsely whispered, not lifting his eyes, not daring to. Maybe now Blair would leave him the fuck alone...

He waited to be told that there was no us. Never had been, never would be.

But all there was was nerve-wracking silence.

After several centuries, he heard Blair gulp. Then, in his best scientist's voice, his Guide asked, "Are you saying that for this past week you've been...upset about our...partnership?"

Jim nodded.

"Jim," Blair said softly, less of the scientist and more of the man, "I'm afraid I still don't understand. I've been here every day. We haven't been arguing. What do you think's been destroyed?"

Hearing the genuine bafflement in that deep voice, Jim peeked up at his partner's face, not understanding how Blair couldn't know what he was talking about. But Blair wasn't bullshitting him. There was no guile, no suppressed anger, or hidden agenda there, just plain old confusion. "Last week, when you brought me that glass, I told you to fuck out of my private life."

"And you think I'm angry about that?" Total bewilderment.

"I would be. I..."

"Jim, someone you'd been sleeping with was hounding you for personal details about your current relationship. You had a right to tell me to butt out."

"But I..."

"You were obsessed with this woman, man. I could have shown you a video tape of the heist and you wouldn't have believed me at that point. How could I be mad at you for wanting to believe that you hadn't been duped? I've been a fool for some pretty face more times than either of us can count." Blair chuckled a little. Releasing his pinned arms, he settled back down into his seat.

"But I threw everything away for her..." Jim continued, knowing he wasn't making sense. Now that he'd started explaining to Blair, it was just difficult to stop.

"There you go again." Blair gave him a small smile, his puzzlement still obvious. "I still don't know what you're talking about."

His cheeks flaming, Jim spelt it out for his uncharacteristically dense friend. "Our practice sessions. I gave it all up for..."

"Whoa, there. We just jumped from point A to point C without ever touching upon B. How does what happened with Laura have anything to do with...our safety net?" Blair's accelerated heartbeat belied his calm demeanor. Jim loved the term Blair used for the practice sessions.

Jim quietly reported, "Since the night I told you to...get out of my personal life, we haven't..."

"You haven't let me near you in a week, Big Guy," Blair said softly, his pain showing through in his tone. "Every time I've tried to talk to you, all I get are monosyllabic responses. And if I get this close to you physically, you walk away. I figured that you'd had enough and were giving me a message."

Jim's blank stare must have been quite eloquent because his Guide self-consciously continued, "I thought that now that you were...back into the swing of things, that maybe...you might have...outgrown what we were doing. I mean...you never lost your rationality with me, the way you did with her. I just figured..."

"Outgrown you? Are you insane?" Jim demanded.

"She took you to outer space, man. You never had that kind of reaction with me," Blair whispered. "I couldn't...move you like that in a million years..."

Stunned, Jim stared into the down-bent face, reading by the subtle lip-tremor and self-protective veiling of those expressive eyes that Blair really thought he couldn't compete with Laura...on any level.

"You move me..." Jim growled. The utter lack of belief in those injured eyes shattered the invisible barrier that had separated them this last week. Without conscious decision, he found himself swooping down on the perfectly shaped mouth. His hands dug into Blair's biceps, pulling him close to his chest.

With a strangled sound, Blair gave himself up to the kiss, melting against him as if he didn't have the ability to object or refuse. Opening his mouth to his initial probe, Blair's hands came up behind his head, holding him in place as they tried to suck each other's toenails out.

Jim drank in the familiar flavor of his partner's mouth, savoring the subtle spices and not so subtle onion and garlic tastes from Blair's dinner. He could drown in this mouth and still be thirsty for more.

Finally, they pulled apart for air. Hot-eyed and breathless, they stared at each other in varying degrees of shock.

Chest heaving, Jim took in the open hunger on Blair's face. It was true. Blair hadn't lied. He hadn't lost everything.

Jim's shocked mind slowly accepted the fact that his partner wasn't angry at him, didn't hate him for Laura.

What Blair was experiencing was, in fact, far more serious. The kid looked absolutely floored to find that he was still desired. Abruptly, Jim recalled the fear his friend had voiced the night they'd met Laura McCarthy. Blair had said that he didn't want to be a consolation prize, something that he just settled for out of convenience.

And who could blame Blair for feeling that way? This entire aspect of their relationship had started out as a kind of sexual therapy to get him through another sensual hurdle. True, it had become a lot more than that, but how was Blair supposed to know? They'd both been so goddamned careful about voicing their feelings that it was obvious that neither of them truly knew what it was the other felt. Blair clearly had deep-rooted doubts about the very basis of their relationship.

The vulnerability was written there all over Blair's face, that fear that he was going to be used again as a stand-in until the real thing came along. What was perhaps even more disturbing was his Guide's obvious acceptance of that possibility, like Blair didn't expect anything better and wasn't going to push the issue for fear of losing it all.

Shamed, Jim realized that the way he'd treated his partner during the McCarthy affair had only reinforced those basic insecurities. Blair had been dumped like a hot potato. He didn't know how he could assure Blair that it would never happen again, especially since he still didn't understand how it had happened in the first place. But he had to try.

"You move me, Blair. But it's...it's a different kind of attraction than what went on with Laura."

"I know. She..."

"She was...bewitching, in the purest sense of that word. I couldn't think, couldn't breathe in her presence. All I could do was react. It's not like that with you. I never responded to you that way because what we have is about something different than what Laura and I shared," Jim slowly explained, waiting until those amazing eyes cautiously sought his gaze. "I can't tell you that she didn't affect me. I was like a Rottweiler going at a bitch in heat. I didn't see you or know you were there." Disappointment dulled those brilliant eyes. Before Blair's chin could lower to hide his hurt, Jim caught it and guided his partner's gaze back up. "Which was unforgivable. But...it wasn't a choice I consciously made, Blair. The head that was controlling my actions didn't have a brain in it. What I had with her was sex in its rawest, most animalistic sense. Like you said, body chemistry. And that's all I had with her. Hormones. What I have with you isn't based on body chemistry."

Looking as though it would be very easy to break him, Blair hoarsely questioned, "So, what is it based on then?"

No longer afraid that he'd lost the right to touch, Jim gently stroked his index finger down Blair's cheek. "Feelings."

Blair's lips parted, but no sound emerged.

Jim leaned in and tenderly covered the full sensuous mouth with his own. Every cell he owned seemed to rejoice at the contact. Blair's sweet flavor coursed through him like an electric charge. With a jolt, he realized that his soul was back again.

He kept the kiss light, because there was something more he needed to say. He was never going through this again. Not in this lifetime.

"Blair-baby?" he murmured as he pulled back.

"Mmmmm?"

"What happened between me and Laura, it hurt you a lot, didn't it?"

Jim could tell from his partner's expression that Blair didn't really want to answer the question, but as happened each and every time they touched, there didn't seem to be room for anything but honesty between them.

"Yeah, it did," Blair softly admitted, going quickly on with, "I'm sorry, Jim. I know I didn't have any right to..."

"That's where you're wrong, Blair. You had every right." Jim looked away for a second, trying to decide how best to phrase what he needed to say. "I think one of the reasons why my reaction to Laura was so primitive, so physical, was because there wasn't any room anywhere else for her. My heart and mind were already filled – with you. I know that this is probably the last thing you want to hear, Blair, and I'm not saying it to change your lifestyle in any way, but..."

"But?" Blair's entire body seemed to be quivering. His gaze was focused like a laser sighting on him, boring into his soul as it dug for the truth, hanging on his every word.

"But I can't do the singles' scene like you want me to. I can't play those games any more, Chief, so please don't ask me to. I-I've fallen in love with you, Blair."

"You...love me?" Blair shakily repeated, as though the concept were totally beyond his capacity to comprehend.

The fragile expression in those bottomless eyes told Jim that was exactly the case. "I love you. I'm not settling on you, or hiding from the rest of the world. I'm not besotted with gratitude or using you as an easy lay. I am in love with you. That feeling is exclusive and I'm not about to pretend that it's not."

Horror-stricken, he watched as the fine quivering that had been shaking his partner exploded into tears. Great going, Ellison, he mentally chastised himself, you really did it this time. Blair was probably gonna want to move out now...

Jim realized that he must have totally misread the situation. Blair obviously didn't want these kinds of chains, this kind of emotional snare.

"Oh, God, Jim..." Blair muttered. "Hold me, please..."

Bewildered, he gathered his shaking Guide closer. Blair wasn't reacting as though he was contemplating flight. Commitment-shy philanderers allergic to avowals of love didn't cling to their admirers this way. They made tracks for the door so fast that the carpet smoked. Whatever was going on with Blair, he wasn't repulsed by his announcement.

So, even though he didn't understand, Jim held Blair close, scattering soft kisses across the fragrant hair on top of Blair's head as his Guide clung to him for dear life. Although there were no sounds of distress, he could feel a steady stream of tears soaking the front of his black tee shirt. Concerned, he whispered, "You okay?"

"You-you meant what you said before, Jim? You weren't just...saying that..?"

"Why would I just say something like that?" Jim wondered aloud, as ever bewildered by his partner's thought processes.

"Maybe...to make me feel better about Laura. A couple of times before, people have said that to me because it was what they thought I wanted to hear, because they knew that telling me that would get me to..."

Jim's throat just about closed up with emotion. He knew that Blair had been on his own since he was sixteen. The inner brightness his partner had was rare. It attracted all kinds of predators, people who lacked their own inner light and wanted to steal a little of someone brighter than themselves. This young explorer had probably blundered into countless poseurs in his search for love, perhaps so many that Blair didn't allow himself to openly hope for real love any more. Whatever his past, Blair obviously didn't feel himself worthy of being loved.

"I don't say what I don't mean, Blair. If I tell you I love you, you can bank on that. I don't want to get you to do anything, except maybe be happy. That's it. I swear."

Blair stared up at him then, gazing into his face long and hard.

Whatever Blair found there, it must have been enough, for his soft palms cupped both his cheeks as Blair used his weight to press him back onto the couch.

"I...I love you, too, Jim." Blair said the words like he was afraid the sky was going to cave in on him.

"You don't look too happy about it, Blair," Jim softly observed, trying to hide his hurt. Love was supposed to make things better, not screw them up.

"If I didn't love you so much, I'd be delirious, shouting it from the roof top, only..."

"Only what?" Jim dug, never having had a puzzle like this one. Blair had seemed happier when he thought he was being used.

"You're a cop, Jim. Loving me could get you killed."

"This one I gotta hear," Jim just barely kept his laugh in. Blair looked scared to death.

"If they find out down at the precinct that you're gay..."

The label startled Jim, but he didn't refute it. "Blair, every cop at the station knows you live with me. Of them all, there are maybe three who don't believe I'm sleeping with you."

"What?" Blair squawked, endearingly shocked.

"Blair, look at me. I'm forty years old. I don't date. I don't really mix with the others. Out of the blue one day, I bring in this young, good-looking kid as a full-time observer. He hangs around the station, goes everywhere I do, signs my name to reports, worries about me, makes me eat right, in general – this guy spends most of his time taking care of me. Then, two months later that kid moves in with me. We still go everywhere together, do everything together. What else were they supposed to think, except the obvious?"

"You never said anything," Blair said softly.

"What was the point? When you first moved in, it would have sent you packing, and then later, after we started 'practicing', it was true."

"You didn't tell me at the beginning because you...you wanted me to stay here? Before we were lov...before we became involved."

Jim didn't think he could get any mushier inside, but the way his guts twisted at the way Blair stopped himself from saying 'lovers' just about liquefied him. "Go ahead. Say it. LOVERS. Before we were lovers..."

"But, we weren't. I mean..."

"Blair, I've told you before that I could never look at it the way you could. It was never just control exercises to me. In my mind, and in my heart, we've been having sex since last fall," Jim explained.

"Oh, man," Jim was relieved to see his partner giggle, "and here I thought you were going to lose it the first time someone made a comment. I can't believe you never said anything...or that they never said anything to me. Why didn't they?"

Jim looked down, wondering how to explain this. "I...I had a friend at the station a while ago." Jim carefully edited out the fact that that 'friend' was his former, dead partner. "Everyone thought this guy was dirty. That he took bribes. There was always talk. Then, one night he disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances. A lot of money disappeared around the same time. I...I knew he didn't take the money. He-he's dead somewhere. I just can't prove it, but...when people started to accuse him of stealing that money, when he wasn't around to defend himself, I-I just lost it, Blair. Totally. I hospitalized two cops. Pulled a three month suspension. Nearly lost my badge. All because someone said my friend was dirty. I-I've changed a lot since you came into my life, relaxed, become friendlier. I think everyone's so grateful for the change, that they don't want to question the source. They all remember what I was like when I took down those jerks, Blair. No one wants an instant replay of that monster, especially me."

Blair's gaze softened. "You could never be a monster."

The absolute conviction in that statement was humbling. Jim wondered if Blair would feel quite so certain if his Guide ever discovered the particulars of what he'd done in his country's name while in Covert Ops, but with God's help, Blair never would. Jim was never letting that monster out to play again.

Jim allowed himself to be kissed and soothed for a few minutes. It was almost like Blair was trying to take away those old hurts.

Eventually, Blair got back to their original conversational track. "I guess it was stupid of me, but I never even considered what my living here must look like to the rest of the world. I'm sorry if it caused you problems."

"Don't be sorry."

After a quiet time of unrushed kisses, Blair asked, "Can I ask you something, Jim?"

"What?" The way he was feeling right now, he'd give Blair the keys to his truck without hesitation.

"What...what do you want from this love?"

Both the question and the hesitation behind it puzzled him. "Huh? What do you mean 'what do I want?' – I want to love you."

"I guess I'm not making myself clear here. I've never been down this road before. You've got to give me some ground rules here...about what you expect from me."

Instantly understanding Blair's apprehension, and experiencing a good deal of it himself, Jim thought about his response. His wild bird wanted to know how small his cage was.

At last, he offered, "I don't want anything you can't freely give me. I can't give you a list of House Rules on this one, Chief. If you need to...be with others...I won't like it much, but I won't stand in your way. Just don't rub my nose in it, okay?"

Blair looked away, then asked in a tiny whisper, "And if I don't want the others anymore? Can I, like, think of us as...as a couple?"

His Guide sounded like he still expected to have his hopes dashed before his eyes.

Jim touched Blair's right cheek, so filled with emotion that he could barely swallow. "Listen to me, and understand this. I am yours. I love you. You don't have to think of us like a couple, because we are a couple. Got it?"

As if it were still a bit beyond his comprehension, but he was willing to be convinced, Blair gave a slow nod. Then he questioned in a playful tone, "Wanna practice?"

"No." When panic flared in those stunning eyes, Jim clarified, "No more practice runs, babe. You're the real thing." And with that, Jim buried himself in that succulent kiss, determined to spend the rest of his life proving those words.

The End

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