Kitchen Song

by Martha, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

(an afterward to Snake Oil)

You better come on
In my kitchen,
Babe, it's bound to be rainin' outdoors.

Robert Johnson, Come on in My Kitchen
(Recorded November 23, 1933)

The scratches on Jim's face still itched. More than once on the stand he stopped himself from reaching up to touch the scabs. Weirdest thing. He figured it must have happened in his sleep. He had trimmed his nails too far back in consequence, and his hands still felt naked and useless, like he couldn't untie his own shoelaces. But then, everything felt exposed and awkward this week. He was aware of a creeping sense of inexplicable helplessness that was all the worse because he thought he might be able to explain it if he pushed hard enough.

He wasn't pushing. What he was doing instead was keeping Sandburg within reach. Like now, for instance. He knew Blair was right on the other side of the courtroom wall, working on that paper of his. Jim knew that, he knew Blair was waiting for him. But he couldn't help it. Every time there was a lull in the cross-examination for an objection or instructions to the jury, he would reach out for Blair, looking for the sound of his fingers on the keyboard, the easy rhythm of his breath, the steady beat of his heart.

Sandburg should have finished that paper months ago. Jim wondered why he had any sympathy at all with this desperate push to meet a deadline the little professor had known about for nearly a year. But Jim couldn't even pretend to be impatient with Sandburg's procrastination. Instead he felt enormously and rather foolishly protective both of Blair and that stupid paper. He'd even volunteered to talk to the head of the department, if Blair thought it would help. Explain how hectic things had been at the station lately.

Blair had just grinned. "Thanks, Dad. I can manage."

There were scratches on Blair's face too. And bruises spreading across the underside of his chin. Blair had seen Jim looking at them, leaned forward and given him a quick hug, thumping him on the back. "It's OK, man, really. I got it under control."

And Jim knew perfectly well Blair was talking about more than the paper. It had been five days now since they had driven up to the Point. Stood and watched the surf in the drizzling rain. Before that loomed something Jim could not look at, but it was all right. Sandburg had it under control.

Jim wished he could write the paper for him, a thought that made him grin. Then he saw the DA look up at him, worried, so he wiped the smile off his face and went back to listening to Blair's fingers on the keyboard. It sounded as though the writing was going well. Sandburg's typing was erratic as ever, but there were no pauses, just a constant, irregular tapping and clicking that made Jim think of a handful of jacks tumbling slowly down a wooden staircase.

The sound of progress was an enormous relief because truth to tell, that damned paper seemed to be sucking the life out of Blair. Every day the circles under his eyes were darker, and this morning Jim had seen Blair's hands trembling as he reached for his first cup of coffee. The whole thing was getting way out of control. Sandburg needed to finish his paper up right now, today, turn it in and be done with it. Then they could both get some rest.

Most of the morning and afternoon Blair had been one floor up in the county law library, where he could plug in his computer and save the battery. Jim had been able to hear him there too, if he listened carefully, but it cost him more concentration than he could really afford with Dan Singleton sitting beside his attorney and glaring at him, and he was selfishly glad Blair was so close now.

And then, there it was. That little flourish of keystrokes Jim always associated with the end of the evening. It meant Blair was saving what he had done and was about to turn off the computer. Aha, he was right. There was the off switch. Jim almost smiled again, realizing how well Blair had him conditioned.

The DA and one of Singleton's attorneys were still arguing something in front of the bench, so Jim allowed himself to continue to listen to Blair. He heard a deep, long sigh, and wasn't entirely sure what it meant. There was the zipper. Blair was putting the laptop away in its case. Then a dull thump Jim couldn't identify at first. Surely Blair wouldn't have put the computer down so roughly? Besides, it was a thump against the wall, not the floor.

Oh. That had been Sandburg's head hitting the wall behind him. Jim winced in sympathy. Not a good sign.

Dammit, he needed to get out of here. They both needed to get home. Sandburg shouldn't have been coming to court with him all week in the first place. Ridiculous. You'd think Jim couldn't manage on his own any more.

And anyone thinking that would be right, wouldn't they? Jim looked down at his hands, lying empty in his lap. It was time to go home. Come on, already. Dismiss court for the day and let us all go home. Blair was just sitting there now. Not even talking, and Jim knew the corridor outside the courtroom was full of people. He wondered if Blair were sleeping. He listened. No. Breathing wasn't that slow, heartbeat not that easy. Sounded as though one foot were tapping restlessly, fingers drumming on something, perhaps the computer case. Then Blair stopped all at once, stilled his foot, made his hand lie still. Jim thought he could hear his fingers spreading across the grain of the case. It was a little unnatural, that sudden cessation. He had probably figured out Jim would be listening to him.

Jim occupied himself by glaring at Dan Singleton, and had a moment of bleak satisfaction when the man finally dropped his eyes. It was a fleeting victory. The two attorneys at the bench were going on endlessly, the judge looking over their shoulders at some point in the distance. Then at long last. Jim had been concentrating on Sandburg and missed the instructions to the bailiff, but the jury was rising, and Jim was dismissed from the stand. Thank god. About time. He walked straight down the central aisle and pushed his way out the doors, not noticing the people who got out of his way.

The air outside the courtroom was a few degrees cooler, and there was Sandburg. Jim had pictured him exactly right. Head against the wall, computer on his lap in the case, his hands flat on it. He didn't move when he saw Jim, except to smile. Jim sat down beside him on the bench. "Ready to go home?"

Blair sighed, still smiling. "Yeah." He still didn't move. "How'd it go? Are they going to need you again tomorrow?"

"'Fraid so."

Blair closed his eyes. "OK."

"You don't need to come with me tomorrow. Your paper --"

"I finished it just a little while ago. No masterpiece, but at least it's done."

"Hey, that's great," Jim insisted, worried by Blair's blank, unhappy look. "We'll swing by the university so you can drop it off. And you know what," he went on, trying to work up some enthusiasm for the both of them, "We should go out tonight. Celebrate. Maybe try that Ethiopian place after all. It can't be any worse than Simon's steakhouse was."

Blair shook his head. "No, I'm sorry, man. I'm not ready to turn it in yet."

"Why not? Because you need to run off a hard copy? Can't you do that at your office?"

"No, Jim," Blair said, sounding as thought it were an effort to be patient. Then he sighed and made a gesture of apology with both hands before dropping them again. "I'm not trying to be difficult, but it's a real rough draft. I need to let it sit for a few hours, then give it another read-through at the very least. Plus I've got to double-check my references and the footnotes. I haven't even looked at most of the bibliography in nearly a year."

Jim put his hand on Blair's shoulder and shook him gently. "Chief, is it, or is it not finished? Because if you can call this thing finished by any stretch of the imagination, then I think you'd be a helluva lot better off turning it in tonight and getting on with the rest of your life."

Blair tightened his hands possessively on the laptop for a moment, as though he were afraid Jim was about to pull it away from him. "It's finished, it really is. The hard work is done. One more night, I swear. I'll turn it in in the morning on the way to court."

Jim looked at him unhappily, wondering if it were worth arguing about. Probably not. He didn't have a hope of winning, and both of them were too tired for this anyway. "OK, Sandburg." He stood up and pulled Blair to his feet. "Let's go home."

---

The ride was quiet. Jim was concentrating on not telling Blair he should turn the damn paper in and be done with it, and Blair had pulled some xeroxes out of his backpack and was trying to read them by the strobing yellow streetlights. "That can't be good for your eyes," Jim finally said while they were sitting at a stoplight.

"Probably not," Blair agreed, unconcerned. "But I just remembered this bit in the Byczynski article I probably should stick in there somewhere. I think I say something about it in the footnotes --" He began digging around in his backpack, papers sliding across the seat and slipping down onto the floor. "Damn it --" He groped for the lost papers, and when he couldn't reach them, he unhooked his seatbelt so he could climb half out of the seat to retrieve them.

"That's it," Jim said calmly. He pulled the truck to the curb, turned off the ignition and turned on the cab light. "You've had a year to finish this paper. If it's suddenly so important it can't wait ten minutes till we get home, then we'll sit here until you finish. That might be the best thing anyway. Then we can drop it off at school, and neither one of us will have to hear a word about it again."

"Aw, Jim," Blair said irritably. He climbed back into the seat and refastened his seatbelt. "Give it a rest."

"That's what I'm asking you to do. I'm tired of watching this, Sandburg."

"What? Watching what? In case you haven't noticed, I'm the one who's been trying to live two separate lives for the past year. It's not always so easy, man! Sometimes things don't come out totally even. You gotta cut me some slack, because things haven't worked out quite like I planned recently, you know?"

"I know," Jim said quietly. "And I want to help. But you've got to tell me how."

"Oh man, I'm sorry. Forget it, I'm out of my head." His voice broke. "God, I'm sorry, Jim," He pushed the backpack out of his lap violently. It hit the floor of the cab with a thump that made Jim tremble for the laptop, but Blair didn't seem to notice. He just sat up, taking a deep breath. "Sorry. I'm just tired, I guess. Stupid. Like any of this matters." He reached his hand out and laid it on Jim's shoulder. "So long as you're all right."

"I'm fine, Chief," Jim said softly. "You're the one who-" He couldn't continue. He put his hands on the steering wheel and held on tight, trying to will away the shudder that crept down his spine, the hot, dark curl of fear there in his gut.

"Jim," Blair breathed. "Oh, Jim."

The snap of the seatbelt releasing again, and Blair's arms were around him, trying to pull him in.

Jim didn't think he'd let go of the steering wheel. He didn't see how he could have, but his own arms were around Sandburg, clutching the back of his shirt. He was turned awkwardly in the seat with the shoulder strap cutting into his neck and shoulder. Blair held on tight, murmuring something, and after a time, Jim began to make out the words.

"You're OK, Jim," Blair said. "You don't need to think about it. Safe now. We're both safe."

Of course they were safe, the rational part of Jim's mind insisted with some impatience. But something deeper moved him to pull Blair close against himself so he could feel Sandburg's heart beating against his own, his breath warm against the side of his neck.

"It's OK, it's OK," Blair kept saying. "I know, but it's OK, now." Bland, blanket reassurances that were supposed to hold back so much, and they couldn't possibly. And in the meantime, the damn seatbelt was about to strangle him. Jim released Blair for an instant to free himself from it and then pulled Blair back to him. Sandburg knelt up on the seat, his head above Jim's, arms locked around Jim's back.

Holding Blair that way the shock of fear began to dissipate. Terrible as it was, Jim couldn't maintain it. Unlike Blair it had no name, no existence, no being, and once it was gone, he realized the state Blair was in. Sandburg was trembling with exhaustion. His sweat was sour and cold-smelling, his shoulders thin under Jim's arms.

"Chief," Jim murmured, and pushed him back.

Blair was reluctant to let him go. His arms relaxed only after Jim pushed him more determinedly. Then Blair sat back, and turned his face away. Jim caught his head with both hands and turned it back.

Sandburg's face was marked by the traces of the thing Jim could not ask about and dared not remember. He moved his hand down and traced the scratches on Sandburg's cheek. He felt the pucker and roughness of healing flesh in parallel lines down Blair's face. Blair's eyes were wide, alarmed, but he remained where he was, kneeling on the seat beside Jim.

Carefully, then, and very gently, Jim peeled down the collar of Blair's turtleneck, and lay his open palm against his bruised throat. Yellow and purple streaks escaped his attempt to encompass them, painting the underside of Blair's chin and bleeding down to the hollow of his throat. The worst of it was warm under his hand, scabbed where the skin had been broken. Blair brought his own hand up and covered Jim's, holding it here. His eyes were calmer, though he was still trembling, leaning his shoulder against the seat back as he knelt there facing Jim. His voice shook too when he spoke, but he kept his grip on Jim's hand, making sure Jim continued to touch the healing wound.

"No --" Jim shook his head slowly.

"Yes," Blair insisted. "You don't need to go there ever again. Don't need to look at it, don't need to think about it, man. It's over. You destroyed it. You saved my life." His voice broke. "Jim, you were so strong. You saved both of us."

Jim wanted so badly to believe him. But he had nothing except Blair's words, and the terrifying mist that had fallen between the past and the present. Nothing penetrated but flashes, shadows and suggestions. The possibility of unspeakable things. Blair was honest and strong. But he would lie like a dog -- dammit, and cringe like one too if he thought he was protecting Jim by doing it.

"Jim," Blair said, interrupting his thoughts. "Jim, look at me."

"I am looking at you," Jim said, his voice a whisper.

"You've got to do something for me. You're going to hate it, I know. But I'm asking you to do this. For me."

"I don't know if I can."

Blair smiled, sad and sweet. "Aw, c'mon, man. You don't even know what I'm going to ask yet."

"Sandburg, please."

"Look, I'll make you a deal, OK? You listen to me, and I'll let you drive me to the University. I'll print up my paper and drop it off. Tonight. Right now. You with me on this?"

Jim nodded cautiously. "Glad you're finally talking sense," he said, and his voice sounded utterly false in his own ears. He tried to retrieve his hand, but Blair wouldn't let go.

"No, first you gotta listen to me, and you have to believe what I'm telling you."

Jim shut his eyes for a moment. "I can't decide what I will and won't believe, Sandburg. My brain doesn't work that way. You tell me the truth, I'll believe it. Anything else -- "

"Geez, Jim, you think I would lie to you? About THIS? Oh man. Oh, Jim. I really screwed this up, didn't I?" Blair released him suddenly, not quite pushing him away, but he retreated to the far side of the passenger seat, as far away from Jim as he could get. "No, it's OK," he said then, preventing Jim from saying anything. "Don't worry about it. It's OK. You're losing more of the memories every day, I can see it. And once there aren't any more visual cues -- once my neck's all healed up, and after we get the glazier in here this weekend to replace the clerestory, it'll be like nothing ever happened."

"Then help me remember," Jim said hoarsely. "Tell me why I hurt you so badly."

Blair's eyes widened. "No. I told you. It wasn't you."

"It must have been," Jim said, keeping his voice calm with an effort. "The perp's not behind bars. There's no police report. Nobody's out looking. And I'm missing four days out of my life. Of course it was me, Chief. I've known that all along."

"What have you been doing?" Blair asked miserably. "Have you been thinking about it all this time? Trying to figure it out? Oh, Jim, you promised you wouldn't. You promised."

Jim shook his head again, sadder than ever. "I'm sorry, Chief. I can't control my thoughts that way." He turned around in the seat, put the key in the ignition. "We still going to campus, Sandburg?"

"No," Blair snapped furiously. "No we are not." He surged angrily across the seat, put his hand on Jim's shoulder and tried to drag him around. "You haven't listened to me yet."

Jim dropped his hands off the steering wheel. "All right. Go ahead. I'm listening."

"No, you're not," Blair said. "I know you're not, because I have to keep telling you the same damn thing over and over again."

"It doesn't matter how many times you tell me a lie," Jim said softly. "You still can't make me believe it. No matter how much I might want to."

Blair's shoulders sagged. "I know, man. I know. But I can't tell you the truth. Just a piece of it is all. And you're going to have to trust me, and make do with that much of it."

"I don't know if I can," Jim said. "Not when your life is at stake."

"Both our lives, Jim. This scratch on my face. The bite here on my throat. I can't tell you who did this to me. But I can tell you why. Jim, this is the truth. This is what happened. It's like -- it's like we were under siege."

"I don't want riddles."

"I know! Just hear me out, Jim. You said you would give me that much, now come on."

Jim nodded once, tightly.

"And see, through it all, I was the weak link. OK, I know I'm mixing up my metaphors here, but you know what I mean. It thought it could get to us by attacking me. So it hurt me, thinking I would run, or that when you figured out what was happening, you would make me run. Either way, we would be separated, and it would win. But it didn't work. I didn't leave you, Jim. I stuck right by you. And you knew I was strong enough. You let me stay. You let me help you, and we beat it, because you trusted me so much."

Jim shut his eyes and dropped his head. "You're asking more from me than I can give you, Chief. I'm sorry."

"No, I'm not," Blair said. "Jim. You've got to stop this. I'm not kidding around here. You've got to put it out of your head for once and for all. I know it's tough right now, when you're reminded of it every time you look at me, but it's going to get easier, I swear. These scratches, this place on my neck, it's all going to heal, and the bad stuff you're scared of in your own head, it's going to heal at the same time. We've just got to get through the next couple of weeks and --"

"Sandburg, stop. You're not getting this."

"No, Jim, you're the one who's not getting it. I want you to-"

"No." Jim turned away. "It's not going to be like that." His hands were on the wheel again and he was staring straight ahead. "It's going to get worse, not better. If what you're telling me is the truth, then I've got to live with the knowledge I could hurt you that way and then just forget it as soon as the physical evidence is gone?" He gave a short, bitter laugh. "I know you, Chief. You probably think you can live with the risk. You think you'll be able to duck next time, get out of the way. Well, I can't live with it. I've let things go on too long as it is."

"Jim, for the last time, it wasn't you. It was -- not -- you."

"Please, Blair, stop lying to me. I can't listen to it anymore."

Blair shut up. Jim could hear his throat working as he swallowed convulsively. Jim didn't say anything either, and the silence stretched out forever. Until Blair unlocked the passenger side door and swung it open. Still Jim didn't say anything. Not until Blair's feet hit the pavement. "Chief," he said then. Too quiet. Blair wasn't a sentinel, he shouldn't have been able to hear him. He did, though. Something stopped him from slamming the door shut behind himself.

He didn't say anything, though, and he wasn't looking at Jim. Jim could feel the heat from Blair's flushed face, hear the racing pulse, smell how he was sweating despite the cold, damp drizzle.

"Sandburg, get back in the truck."

Blair snorted and slammed the door shut behind himself.

Jim sat in the truck and just watched him walk away. It was raining harder now. By the time Sandburg had reached the corner his hair was plastered to his scalp. His shoulders were hunched, his head ducked down as though that were some protection from the downpour. He waited for the light to change at the corner, shifting from foot to foot, hands shoved deep in his pockets. The windshield was fogging, but Jim could still see him though through the glass. The light changed. The streaks of red reflecting in standing puddles of water on the sidewalk turned to green, and Blair stepped off the curb. A Mercedes turning right didn't wait for him. Blair backed up hastily as the sedan pulled by too fast, too close. A plume of water arched from the street in its wake. Blair shook himself irritably, though he was already soaked, and ran stiff legged across the street. Jim watched as long as he could see him. It was a good long ways. A quarter of a mile, even in this weather.

Jim told himself they were both doing the right thing.

Well, not quite. If Sandburg had any sense at all he would have stopped at the first phone booth and called a taxi. Not surprising, though. When his emotions were engaged, the professor's self preservation instincts were untrustworthy at best. Not enough sense to get in out of the rain. Not like Jim Ellison. Jim didn't think with his heart. He lowered his head until his forehead was resting on the steering wheel. So there had to be some logical reason he was letting Blair leave this way. Some logical, sensible explanation for this. It couldn't be an irrational belief he could protect Sandburg from anything, and a blank, embarrassed despair at the realization that in fact he could do no such thing.

It could have nothing at all to do with his suspicion that, all of Blair's protests aside, Sandburg was most in danger from Jim Ellison himself. Of course, it had been that way from the start, hadn't it? You think Sandburg would have jumped under a garbage truck by himself?

Traffic was heavy tonight. Blair was probably making better progress on foot than the cars that were crawling down Main Street.

Jim was out of the truck and running hard before he even realized the decision had been made. The same light that had caught Blair was red for Jim too, but he didn't wait, dodging around the car in the first lane, waving the car in the next lane to a stop, and once the way was clear sprinting for all he was worth down the empty sidewalk. The downtown shops had closed and lights shown out of empty windows. Jim's running footsteps were loud in his ears. He heard the echo off the buildings across the street. Back and forth, echoing and re-echoing. Rain was in his face, down the back of his collar, stinging his cheeks. He splashed through standing puddles on the sidewalk.

Blair was still a long block away when he heard Jim. He glanced over his shoulder but kept going anyway, shaking his head, hands up, palms out. "Jim --" He was muttering to himself, "Don't do this. It's too much. I just can't handle any more tonight." Jim caught up to him a moment later, still running hard. He grabbed a fistful of Blair's wet coat and swung him around, using Blair to help himself stop.

Blair knocked Jim's arm away and stumbled back. His face was angry, a stranger's countenance. "Jim, I am not interested in this," he said in a voice as cold and angry as his face. "Please, just go home and leave me alone."

"Don't be an idiot, Sandburg." Jim reached for Blair's shoulder again, taking hold of his coat. "We're both going to end up with pneumonia."

"Dammit, Jim, I said no." Blair tried to shake himself free.

Jim simply tightened his grip, bringing his other hand up to grab another fistful of the sopping leather coat. "For the last time, Chief, not like this."

"What the hell does it matter?" Blair wailed at him, a shocking cry of grief. "Jim, you don't trust me, you don't believe me, what the hell does any of it matter any more?"

"No!" Jim roared back. He pushed Blair back two long strides, Blair dragging his heels and stumbling against him, until Jim had him pinned against the wet brick facade of a storefront. Blair stopped struggling, and just stared sullenly up at him, his face streaming with rain. Jim was hardly thinking anything at all by then. Nothing rational, nothing sane, that was for sure. Just a stupid, blind impulse to keep Blair from slipping any further away.

But he couldn't hold that heart, even though he was gripping Blair's shoulders so hard. With every passing moment the gap was widening. Jim could see the distance in Sandburg's dull blue eyes, stretching out so fast before him. "Chief," he said, despairing, and let Blair go. He held Blair's head with both hands for an instant, but that was no better, he couldn't make Sandburg see him.

The burden of his loss was a crushing weight. It drove Jim to his knees, and he knelt in the rain before Blair, too lost even for grief. The rain beat down on his shoulders, on his bowed head, and all he could think about was how different the little things were going to be now. Like that damn rice cooker Blair had just badgered him into buying. Five pounds of basmati rice. Jim wouldn't eat that much rice by himself in ten years.

He curled forward, thinking dimly he ought to get out of the rain, but there seemed so little point. Come on, Ellison, he told himself, get a grip here. So Sandburg's leaving. You always knew he would some day. Funny thing. That wasn't a whole hell of a lot of comfort right now.

Then the warmth touched his face. Lips pressed to his temple for an instant. A cheek laid against his own, bristles, warm skin. Blair clambered down beside him on the sidewalk in the rain, half kneeling, his arms around Jim's neck. Jim reached up carefully with one hand. Blair didn't speak, and that was a strange thing. He touched the back of Blair's head, then spread his fingers wide, cradling as much of the wet scalp as he could encompass, assuring himself that this silent stranger really was Blair Sandburg.

He put his arms gently around Blair's shoulders, not holding on too tight. After a time, Blair's arms loosened, too. He was crouching awkwardly before Jim, and as he shifted his weight, Jim took the opportunity to pull back just enough to see Blair's face by the yellow glow of the streetlights. The grief Jim found there was more than he could bear. "C'mon, please," Jim said, "If nothing else, we gotta get out of the rain."

"I'm sorry," Blair whispered. "I don't know what else to tell you. I've already told you everything I can. If that's not enough, then I don't know what to do anymore."

Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders and found they were shaking from the cold. "Come on. Get up. We'll talk about it at home."

Blair didn't get up. He bowed his head so he wasn't looking into Jim's face anymore. "Sandburg, what do you want me to say?"

"That you're not afraid anymore."

"But I am afraid," Jim said.

Blair flinched, but he raised head and looked at Jim. "What are you scared of, man? Of what's already happened? It's done, over with. Gone."

"No," Jim said. "I'm scared of the future."

Blair lurched to his feet. Jim reached for him, afraid he was leaving again, but he wasn't. His hands were on Jim's coat, trying to drag him up too. "No," Blair said. "No, Jim, you've got to get this NOW, dammit, or it will win, and I'm not going to let that happen. Not after everything. Not after so much." He took Jim's head in his hands, reaching up to do it once Jim was on his feet, and gazed up at him so seriously, so sternly. "We're gonna go through this one last time, all right? And then I'm through, you hear me?" His voice was just a whisper, choked with tears. "Are you looking at me?" he demanded as well as he could. Jim just nodded. "Now honestly, Jim. Honestly. Could you ever hurt me?"

Jim shut his eyes. "I have."

Blair cuffed the side of Jim's head to make him open his eyes. "That's not what I asked you, dammit."

Blair was breathing hard with emotion, swallowing as he waited for Jim's answer. Looking up as he was, his throat was bared, and the yellow lights blackened the fading bruises. Blair's anger somehow made him seem terribly vulnerable to Jim at that moment. His knowledge of things Jim could not himself face made him seem, for the same paradoxical reason, almost desperately innocent. And Sandburg was right. No matter what reason and logic told him, the truth was, Jim couldn't have hurt him. He loved him more than his own life.

He dragged Blair to him with a groan. "No," he said. "No, I couldn't hurt you."

"About time, " Blair said to Jim's chest, and began to weep.

"Hey," Jim said at last. "Easy, easy." Blair nodded, and wept all the harder.

"Chief," Jim said at last, lowering his head, his lips close to Blair's temple. "Can we go home now?"

Blair nodded again, trembling violently, but Jim was no longer sure if it was from his silent weeping, or from the cold and the rain. "Come on," he said, easing Blair away enough to wrap his arm around Blair's ribs and urge him forward. "Or do you want to wait here? I could run back and get the truck, be back in just a second." Blair just tightened his arm around Jim, wordless.

Jim said, "OK, never mind." He was shivering almost as hard as Blair was by now, and the rain was coming down in sheets, driving across the deserted sidewalks. Traffic crawled through the deluge, headlights stabbing though curtains of water. The gutters were roaring, and Jim could hear the thunder of water rushing away through the overtaxed sewers, and the sound of the rain hitting a hundred roofs all around, the hollow ping of it on the glass of the stores.

Blair held on tight, stumbling determinedly along at Jim's side. The truck seemed miles away. Sandburg was going slower and slower, leaning more heavily against Jim with every step. Finally he came to a stop, despite Jim's gentle attempts to keep him moving forward. The rain washed down over both their bare heads, beat on their shoulders. Jim's shoes were full of water. "Sandburg," Jim said. "Let me go for the truck." He tried to ease him back under the awning of a locksmith's shop. "This is ridiculous. I'll just be a minute."

Blair wasn't buying it. He looked up at Jim, blinking against the rain. "Man, Jim," he gasped out, exasperated. "What is it with you and lousy weather? Doesn't it count unless we both get soaked to the bone in the process?"

He sounded so much like the old Blair Sandburg that Jim could have kissed him. He contented himself with patting that rain-drenched face twice. "I'm not the one who jumped out of the truck, Sandburg," he said, growling with affection. Blair laughed, whapped Jim in the gut, and took off at a clumsy, stumbling run. After a startled instant, Jim caught up to him. "Sandburg --"

Blair turned, jogging backwards for a few paces. "I hate the rain, Jim! Just for the record, just so you know, I HATE it, man!" He turned back and would have run head-on into a lamp post if Jim hadn't been close enough to snag his shoulder and pull him away.

"Sandburg, when you end up in the gutter, I am not carrying you the rest of the way."

Blair just laughed, then put on a last burst of speed and covered the final block to the truck. When he got there he collapsed against the passenger side, breathing hard, waiting for Jim to unlock the door. It wasn't locked. Jim opened it for him and Blair rolled his eyes and crawled in, shaking so badly Jim gave him an arm up. Jim slid in on the other side and cranked the heat as soon as the key was in the ignition. Blair's teeth were chattering. Water dripped on the seats. "So it's OK if I turn the paper in tomorrow morning, all right, Jim?"

Jim just shook his head. "Easier ways to win the argument, Sandburg."

"Who was arguing?" He grinned momentarily, then wrapped his arms around himself. "Aw, man, this sucks," he moaned. "Can we please go home now?"

"On our way," Jim said, putting the truck into gear.

Blair took a long, shuddering sigh. Jim spared a glance at him once they were in traffic again. Blair was staring straight ahead, still shivering, hair plastered to his scalp and dripping on his shoulders. He was still taking those deep, long breaths. Long inhalation. Holding it. Letting it go. No, not quite letting it go, despite all they had said in the rain. Jim found his hands tight on the steering wheel. This was intolerable, for both of them. It couldn't continue.

No, Jim thought then. No, it wasn't continuing. He trusted Blair with his happiness, his life, his very soul, if that meant anything. Everything that Jim was, everything he hoped to achieve, everything he needed in this life, all of it had been handed over into Blair's keeping. And all Blair asked in return tonight was that Jim trust himself. He would try. For Blair, he would try, difficult as it was.

He reached out and caught Blair's wrist. It was a stretch at first, because Blair still had his arms wrapped around his own shoulders against the cold. But Jim caught his left wrist, and tugged, and Blair allowed him to pull his arm down until he could clasp Blair's cold hand in his own. He held Blair's hand the rest of the way home, steering with his knees when he had to change gears. Blair's palm warmed against his, and as it did, Blair's breathing evened as well, no longer measured and deliberate as it had been, no longer a method of control. Jim finally had to let Blair's hand go to park the truck. Blair seemed unwilling to release him. Or maybe he was just half asleep. At any rate, he kept holding on until Jim lifted his own hand well away. He patted Blair's knee twice, then swung into the nearest place he could find on the street outside the loft, which was nearly half a block away. It was after six, and most people were home already.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim said. "I should have let you out closer. Just a minute. I'll pull back around."

"Don't do that," Blair said. He sighed and sat up straighter, managing something like a smile. "Somebody'll get our place. You'd end up having to walk back even further." He fumbled for his seatbelt. Those hands of his, usually so eloquent and sure, were slow and clumsy this evening.

Jim watched him unhappily. "Sandburg--" he started to say. But Blair flashed him a grin and swung the door open. The rain was still coming down in sheets. Blair flinched back from the spray just for a moment, then hoisted his backpack up onto his shoulder and jumped out into the deluge in the same determined, awkward burst of energy. Jim wouldn't have been surprised if he'd landed on his tail. Fortunately Blair kept his feet, wavering just a little. "Coming?" he asked, then slammed the door behind himself.

It was too close to a replay of earlier in the evening. Jim followed quickly. Catching up with him, Jim wrapped his hand around the shoulder straps and took the backpack. "I got it," he said. Blair let him take it.

The rain beat down mercilessly. The fog had lifted a little, and there were good smells in the air rising above the reek of wet asphalt and everything tossing far below in the storm drains. Coffee beans. Hot milk. Yeast. Suddenly Jim was ravenously hungry. He flung his arm over Blair's shoulders, supporting him and hurrying him along. At the door to the stairwell he stopped and told him, "You head on upstairs and get in the shower. I'll get us a couple of espressos and bring them up. You got your key?"

Blair turned his face up to Jim's, looking as though he wanted to agree to whatever Jim was asking, but just couldn't quite figure out what it was. "Right," Jim said. "Never mind."

Tonight of all nights, the perennial 'out of order' sign was strung across the elevator doors. Jim didn't quite push Blair up the stairs, but he stayed one step behind him the whole way, his hand on the small of Blair's back the first time he stumbled. "Sorry about this," Blair said at the second landing. He was leaning into Jim's support. "I always crash after a paper. I think it's one reason I procrastinate so bad." He was all but swaying. "Get all high strung and emotional, too. I'm sorry, man. Always think the next time it'll be different, but it never is. At least when I was livin' in the warehouse there was nobody else around for me to take it out on."

"Come on, Sandburg," Jim said. "Home stretch." The upstairs hall was cold and drafty and damp because the window was open at the far end. No big mystery who had left it open, but this wasn't the night for a lecture. Blair leaned against the wall and watched, dull-eyed, as Jim unlocked the front door. It was chilly in the loft as well, and seemed shut-in and dark. The plywood over the shattered clerestory windows blocked the lights of the city, but didn't keep out the cold night air.

Jim ushered Blair in first, still half-thinking that once Blair was in the shower he might run downstairs and get them some of the coffee that smelled so wonderful and one of the loaves of pain ordinaire just coming out of the oven. They were intended for the morning customers, but Jim was a regular -- they'd let him have one of the fresh ones.

But Blair took one reluctant step into the loft, and stopped dead. He looked up at the boarded windows, then his head swept around, watching the shadows and the darkness. He wrapped his arms around his own shoulders and just stood there, shivering, blocking Jim's way as well. He was dripping all over the floor, the water running from the ends of his tangled hair and from his shirt tails, spreading in a slow puddle around his shoes.

"Chief," Jim said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Let's get inside and get dry."

Blair started as though waking from an unpleasant dream. "Sorry," he mumbled, moving forward.

"Wait a minute," Jim stopped him with the hand still on his shoulder after Blair had taken only a step. He shut the door behind themselves and pushed the deadbolt home. Blair looked back for a moment at the sound, but didn't say a word. "Hang on. You wait here."

He gave Blair's shoulder a reassuring squeeze as he sidled into the room around him, then kicked off his own sodden shoes and set Blair's backpack down carefully under the coat rack. "Jim," Blair protested. "It's not going to make any difference what --"

"Humor me," Jim said, and found a grin to offer Sandburg. For a moment it worked. An answering smile spread across Blair's face. Jim turned and ran lightly through the kitchen to the linen closet, as though that would somehow keep him from dripping quite so much water on the floor. He grabbed the biggest bath towel he could find and carried it back to Blair, who was standing right where Jim had left him. His eyes were huge in the darkness, darting around the corners of the room.

"Here we go," he said, draping the towel over Blair's shoulders and wrapping it around tight. "Now just stand there a minute more."

"Jim," Blair pretended to complain, but the smile was back, at least a shadow of it as Jim knelt and tugged his left shoe off. Blair steadied himself by resting a hand on Jim's shoulder as he did, laughing a little, still trying to tell Jim the floor was already soaked, it didn't matter. But he raised his right foot without resistance and let Jim pull that shoe off as well.

"Shower," Jim said, standing up and putting his arm around Blair's towel-clad shoulder.

Blair nodded. "Turn up the heat?"

"You got it," Jim assured him, steering him past the dining room table, down the hall and into the bathroom. "Get in the shower, Sandburg. Stay there till you're warmed up. I'm going to run downstairs and get us something to eat, how does that sound?"

Blair nodded quickly and unhappily. "Sure." He was standing still once, this time in the middle of the bathroom floor. "Sounds great, Jim. One thing --"

"What is it?" Jim reached around him and turned on the space heater full blast. When he looked back, Blair was no longer meeting his eyes. He was looking over Jim's shoulder, out the open door into the dark hallway.

"Turn on some lights on your way out?"

"C'mon, Sandburg," Jim said, gruffly. He unwrapped the towel from Blair's shoulders. "On second thought, I don't know if I really want anything from downstairs anyway. Maybe I'll just heat up some chicken soup or something instead."

Relief shone in Blair's eyes. He nodded, quick and grateful, and began clumsily unbuttoning his shirt. "No, it's OK," he said then, not looking at Jim. "If you want to go out for a while, it's OK. Don't know what my problem is. This place just isn't all that cozy these days, is it? Don't understand what the deal is --" His voice was rising, and he broke off before it could crack. He took a long, shuddering sigh, let it out slowly. "Sorry," he whispered. "Thought I was over this by now. Guess it's something to do with getting the paper finished. Like I've got time to think about it now."

Think about what? Jim longed to ask him. For god's sake, Chief, what happened here? But he didn't voice the question. He had promised Blair that he wouldn't.

Blair had dropped his head and was working on getting the rest of the buttons on his shirt undone. The wet cloth resisted his numb fingers, and finally he growled in frustration and yanked furiously.

"For pete's sake," Jim said gently. He undid the last two buttons himself, then helped Blair slide the shirt off his shoulders, taking it and hanging it on the hook on the on the back of the door. When Jim turned back, Blair was trying to maneuver his wet undershirt off over his head, and not doing a very good job of it. One arm was still trapped, his elbow stretching the fabric.

"Easy, Sandburg," Jim said again, "You're gonna rip your shirt like that." He took the hem and pulled it up over the elbow Blair had gotten hung on, but now the shirt was pulled over his face, Blair still grumbling and yanking at it ineffectually. It would have been funny, if Jim hadn't known why his partner was so tired and cold and clumsy.

"Blair, stop," he said quietly, and took his wrists in both hands.

Blair went suddenly still. With his arms above his head, there was nothing to stop Jim from seeing the other marks on Blair's body. The bruises above his sternum reminded him of contusions left by the Iceman's bullets.

But these were in the shape of human hands.

Jim swallowed hard.

"Jim?" Blair said.

"Easy," Jim said again, amazed his voice sounded so calm. He worked one hand gently under the ribbed collar and pulled the shirt the rest of the way off. Blair began to shiver harder than ever, though the little bathroom was warming fast.

"Thanks, Jim," Blair said, taking the shirt back and pitching it toward the clothes hamper. He missed. "I think I can handle it from here."

"I'll just go heat that chicken soup in the microwave. It'll be ready by the time you get out." Jim tried not to look at those terrible bruises, but his eyes dropped without his volition for a moment, and something of what he felt must have shown on his face, much as he tried to stop it.

The faint smile that had been on Blair's face vanished. He crossed his arms miserably over his chest and turned away, as though he were ashamed. "Sorry," Blair whispered. "I forgot. But it's OK, now. Really, man, it is."

"Chief --" Jim began, and then broke off. (For the love of God, why did I hurt you that way? Why did you forgive me?) But instead of asking questions he knew Blair wouldn't answer, he put his hand on Blair's shoulder. Blair pushed back against that contact with a muffled groan. Then he turned to Jim and threw his arms around him, heedless of Jim's wet shirt, and hung on like he never intended to let go.

Jim didn't know what to do with his hands. They hovered above Blair's bare shoulders, afraid to accept trust he knew he didn't deserve. But he couldn't hold himself aloof from Blair's love, and finally he let himself cradle Blair's head in his open hand. He crossed his other arm over Blair's shoulders and carefully pulled him closer, holding him as he shivered.

And now that he held Blair, he couldn't bear to let him get away again. He couldn't bear it. Blair knew it too. It's why he made all those unreasonable, nonsensical, impossible demands in the truck and in the rain. He knew how defenseless Jim really was.

"Chief," Jim murmured at length, talking to Blair's bowed head. "The shower. You're freezing."

Blair just nodded. He didn't say anything, and he didn't let go.

"OK," Jim said, talking as much to himself as to Blair. He smoothed his hand over the damp head pressed so hard to his shoulder. "Take as much time as you need. I'm not going anywhere. Everything's all right."

Blair's fists clenched against Jim's back, and he made a muffled sound that could have been a grunt of laugher or exasperation. It was probably both. "Oh, man!" he said gruffly to Jim's shoulder. "Do you know how long I've been waiting to hear you say that?" He yanked on the back of Jim's shirt, then wrapped his arms tight around his back again.

"I know," Jim said, making himself laugh as he stroked the back of Blair's head. "I'm sorry." He glanced down and saw the faint lines that crossed the small of Blair's back and sides. Scratches, healing slow. Fingernail scratches always did. Jim closed his eyes to shut out the sight, but it was too late. Already his mind was trying to outrun the horror here under his own hands. It was the sheer mindlessness of it that he couldn't understand. Blair looked like he'd been mauled by a wild beast.

Jim took a deep, slow breath, trying to stay calm. It was hot in the bathroom, but the skin on Blair's back was cold where Jim spread his hands against him. He felt the panic rising again, and he held Blair tight against it, trying to find his control there. Not this time. He wouldn't let the fear stop him again.

"Jim?" Blair asked. He tried to draw back, but Jim couldn't release him. He clenched his fists and held on too hard, his forearms locked across Blair's shoulders. Closing his eyes, he tried to see. He was breaking his promise, but this would be the last time. If there was nothing, then he would shut all this down forever. He would find a way to survive with this, because Blair had told him he had to. But if there were any way to know --

Forgive me, Chief, he thought, tucking himself around Blair as tightly as he could.

A sharp, white pain started at the base of his scalp. It burned like ice, slicing cold and inexorable through defenses Jim had never been aware of building. His head dropped back. He stared blindly at the ceiling, and was granted a cruel instant of sight. Blair, flat on his back on the dining room table, looking up at him in anguish and horror, his face twisted with pain. Those were Jim's own hands scrabbling at his chest, and it was Jim's strength that pinned him there.

But Jim was fighting too. He remembered the struggle, his own terror and desperation. And Blair gasping aloud, telling him what to do, guiding him even as Jim's hands hurt him.

There it was in the shadows, twisting the shape of the light. The thing Jim could not face, that his mind would not let him see. But Blair's voice never faltered, and never doubted that Jim could do what he asked. Jim was fighting so hard. He remembered it now, and how frightened he had been. And he remembered rising above the fear to send the devil back to hell, because Blair told him that he could.

It ended with a slap. The cold pressure against the back of Jim's scalp vanished. His arms were still locked around Sandburg, but he couldn't support them anymore. His knees buckled, and he would have fallen, pulling Blair down with him, except Blair realized what was happening, and he shoved Jim back against the wall, groaning in anger, supporting him with his own body. He clutched fistfuls of Jim's wet shirt in both hands. Furious eyes blazed up at him. "What are you doing? Dammit, Jim, what do you think you're doing?"

Jim shook his head dazedly, trying so hard to pin it down. Just a fragment, the tiniest shard, something, anything so he could remember the truth. Hopeless. It slipped away even as he clutched at it, and he felt the burn of self loathing begin again, creeping out darkly from the shadows of his heart.

(It's all bullshit, Ellison. You're losing your mind. You nearly killed Sandburg, and he's just too star struck and too damned stupid to tell you the truth.)

"Talk to me, Jim!" Blair was shouting at him. He tried to shake Jim, but Jim wasn't to be moved. Threads tore in the shoulder of his shirt. Blankly, hardly aware of what he was doing, he brought his hands up and pushed Blair's away.

"Jim!" Shouting over and over again now, batting furiously, childishly, hopelessly at Jim's hands as Jim kept him away. He couldn't accept the distraction of Blair's touch now. His head rolled back against the tiled wall, his eyelids flickering. A flash in the darkness. There was Blair's voice in his memory, guiding him through the struggle Jim had been afraid to face alone, against such an intimate horror.

But he couldn't grasp it. Even to keep Blair, he couldn't hold the memory of that violation. Grief tore a sound from his throat. It should have been a scream, but it was nothing but an open-mouthed groan, as if he were choking.

Blair was the one who screamed. "JIM!"

He wasn't strong enough to push Blair away anymore, and Blair wasn't strong enough to hold him up. He could feel Blair's arms clumsy and desperate around his back, but his knees were folding up, his own arms loose and empty at his sides. Back to the darkness as he slid down the bathroom wall, taking Blair with him. He was a freak, a monster, a brute. He had tried to destroy the kindest, bravest soul he had ever known. If he wasn't stopped -- if he didn't send Blair away -- the next time he might succeed.

One last flicker. So faint, so far away he almost missed it. Such little things. A smell, here in the loft, like a stagnant pond. The sight of the big sentry palm out there by the window tipping slowly sideways, its pot shattered beneath it. The trust that shone out of Blair's eyes. Jim's determination not to disappoint that trust. Not ever, no matter what the cost.

He lunged, despairing. He had to have it. He had to keep that, somehow. There had to be a way.

He didn't know that his body was acting out the struggle in his mind. He didn't feel the cold tile under his hands and knees as he crawled frantic and blind, reaching with his hands for something he had to hold in his head.

There. Ah god in heaven, there it was. Blair on the beach that rainy morning before court, shivering and cranky, grouching at him for dragging them out there, wet hair plastered to his scalp. Jim embraced the memories violently, lashing the ghosts to the flesh, binding them together until they were one. He would not forget again. Not again. Not again. "Not again," he said out loud. "Not again." Fixing the memory with speech. "Not again."

He closed his eyes, satisfied that he had it, then opened them to find himself crouching over Blair on the bathroom floor. The two of them were backed in the corner against the bathtub and the wall, and Jim was holding Blair's shoulders off the floor. Blair's fists were still wrapped in his shirt, and he was staring up at Jim with such grief and horror on his face that Jim felt tears come to his own eyes. "Chief," he whispered, stricken. "I'm sorry."

Blair tried to say something, but he couldn't get the words out. Just violent gasps of air, as though there weren't enough oxygen in the room.

"Hush," Jim murmured roughly. "It's all right now." He knelt over Blair, helping him sit up. Blair held himself tense in Jim's arms, dragging violent breaths one after another.

"Take it slow," Jim pleaded with him. "It's all right now."

"Jim --" Blair panted out at last. "Jim -- you --"

"I know," Jim said. He finally let Blair go, and when he did, Blair scooted away fast, to crouch on the floor like a wet and angry animal. His hair hung over his face. His sides were heaving, belly sucked in hard with every indrawn breath, panting furiously and painfully.

Jim didn't allow himself to reach out to him, though he needed to so badly. Instead he waited as long as he could bear it, then said simply, "I know. I promised I wouldn't."

"Dammit!" Blair whispered furiously. "What's the matter with you? Do you have any idea how bad you scared me?" He had to stop to breathe, then managed to get the rest out. "Why the hell are you so stubborn?"

Jim couldn't stand the distance any longer. He crawled closer, so he could reach out and push the hair out of Sandburg's eyes. "It's the next best thing to being strong, Chief," he said, his hand still holding back a tangle of wet hair. "If I was as strong as you, maybe I wouldn't need to be so stubborn. But I'm not. So I've got to make do with what I have."

Blair's mouth was drawn into a sad, angry line, lips pressed together tight. His I'm-not-listening expression.

"I tried," Jim said, finally dropping his hand. "I tried anyway, but you always expect too much of me, Sandburg. You expect me to measure up to your standards, and this time, I just couldn't do it. I had to do things my way instead of yours. I'm sorry."

Blair's expression softened. His breathing was becoming quieter and easier. "Jim," he said at last, and then didn't say anything more for while. He drew his knees up and sat looking earnestly him. "Jim," he said again, at long last. "Are you all right?"

Jim nodded. "I think so."

"Did you remember?" All at once, Blair sounded so sad and tired.

"A little. Not much. Just impressions. Some of the emotions. Enough."

Blair squeezed his eyes shut. "It's that important to you? In spite of everything I told you?"

"Yes."

"You couldn't -- you couldn't just trust me?" Blair tried to keep his voice steady, but it wavered and broke anyway.

"No," Jim had to say. "Not about this." He reached out again, this time to lay his hand on Blair's chest. "I know this heart too well. You'd give your life for a stranger without a second thought. For me, Sandburg, I'm afraid you'd hand over your soul."

Blair took a hitching breath, eyes wide now, watching Jim's face.

"I tried," Jim told him. "But I'm not sure you understand. It's been tearing me up inside. Every time I looked at you, I could see where my hands -- god help me -- where my mouth had been on you. It couldn't go on. It was destroying me."

Blair's eyes darkened. His mouth turned down, and for a moment Jim thought he was getting ready to explode again. Jim couldn't blame him. He knew he wasn't getting his words out right. He was just making things worse.

"Jim," Blair said at last. "I'm so sorry." Tears swam up, but none fell. "I never meant to get things so wrong. See, I thought this was the best way, because it had hurt you so bad. I just didn't want you to hurt anymore."

"I know," Jim said. "You didn't get anything wrong." He put his hands on Blair's shoulders, gripping hard. "But you couldn't go on like this either. It was eating you up too."

Blair closed his eyes and turned his face away.

"You did everything alone, carried all the weight by yourself for so long. But it's over now, and you need to rest. Please let me help."

Blair's empty hands curled into fists. He didn't look up for a long time, and when he finally did, an emotion like anger or confusion smeared the blue of his eyes "How?" he asked.

"I don't know," Jim admitted. "But you have to let me try."

Blair made a weary, hopeless gesture with one hand. "No," he mumbled. "No, I don't know. I don't think so. You don't understand."

"I know I don't," Jim said, undeterred. "You'll have to help me."

"God, Jim!" In sheer frustration, Blair smacked him in the chest with the back of his hand. "Don't you ever give up?"

"You're freezing," Jim said quietly. "I'm gonna run a bath instead of a shower, all right?"

"I don't want a bath," Blair said mulishly. He tried to pull backward out of Jim's hands. "I don't want a shower. I just want you to do what I tell you for once in your goddammed life. I don't think that's asking too much. Is it? Just once?"

"Whatever you say," Jim agreed. He pulled Blair close, wrapping his arms tight around those trembling shoulders.

"Stop patronizing me," Blair complained softly, his arms going around Jim in turn.

"Never," Jim told him honestly as Blair's head dropped on his shoulder. "Easy," Jim said, "You can let it go now."

Blair gave a short, uneven laugh, not lifting his head from Jim's shoulder. "That easy, huh?"

"That easy," Jim said.

"Well, it's gotta be less work than fighting you about it any more," Blair whispered grumpily, tucking his head down a bit and wrapping his arms tighter around Jim. He was still shivering, goosebumps standing up all down his arms.

"Glad to hear it," Jim said. The bathroom floor was cold, and the way Blair was still shivering in his arms was beginning to worry him.

"Come on, Sandburg." Jim kept one arm locked tight around Blair's back, but with his other he groped over the side of the bathtub and managed to reach the fixtures. There. A twist, and water gushed out. It took it a while to warm up as always, but soon steam began to rise. The sound of splashing water changed as the tub began to fill.

"Jim, this is stupid," Blair muttered. "I can manage by myself here."

"I know you can," Jim said. "Let's take it one step at a time, OK?"

Blair nodded his head against Jim's shoulder, then patted him on the back and released him, sitting back. "See?" he said, as though simply being able to let go of Jim had proved something.

Jim got to his feet slowly, feeling the cold himself despite the steam roiling up. He was bone tired, with an ache in his joints and at the bottom of his lungs that felt like the beginning of a nasty cold.

He reached a hand down to Blair, but Blair didn't even notice. His back was propped against the side of the tub, which Jim knew it must be freezing cold, despite the hot water filling it on the other side. His head was down, and he was working on unbuttoning his jeans with a single-minded determination.

"Might be easier if you stand up," Jim offered quietly.

"I got it," Blair said grimly, not looking up. His hair was beginning to dry, hanging in damp curls on his shoulders. Unfastening the last button on his fly at last, he pushed his jeans down over his hips with an awkward wiggle. The boxers were next, pushed down to his knees in a damp tangle. Then he bent forward and tugged at his jeans from the ankle, working them down off his legs with a groan. He looked up then and saw Jim. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his shins, shivering. "You still here?"

Jim reached down again. "C'mon, Sandburg. Into the tub."

This time Blair took his hand, and let Jim pull him to his feet. "I've got it under control," Blair announced. He was shaking so hard that he had difficulty straightening up, even with Jim's help. Shudders ran down his frame one after another, and even though he managed a rueful grin for Jim, his fingers latched around Jim's arm fiercely.

"Doing great," Jim said, supporting him.

Blair took a deep breath. "Sorry," he said. "Don't know what the deal is tonight. That paper --"

"No more about the paper, got it?" Blair nodded seriously. His throat was green and black with spreading bruises. The ones on his chest were worse, red and tender looking. "Just want to make sure the water's not too hot," Jim said. "So hold on for me here, OK?" He locked his arm around Blair's waist and half knelt to feel the water filling the tub. He'd begun to sweat from the steam and the heat, but Blair was still shivering violently.

"Feels OK," he announced. "Now you're just gonna step in, OK? I've got you."

"Jim, this is stupid," Blair complained, gripping Jim's forearm violently. "I know. Humor me."

"All I ever do," Blair grumbled, lifting one foot with an effort and stepping into the tub. "Ah!" he complained when he felt the heat of the water. "Oh, shit." "You all right?" Jim asked worriedly, starting to pull him back. "Is it too hot?" "No, I'm all right," Blair said miserably. He moved his hands up to grip Jim's shoulders as he set the other foot in the tub, moaning. "Dammit, Jim," he said. "It hurts."

"I know," Jim said, steadying him. "Just take it slow. You're half frozen. It'll start to feel better in just a minute."

Blair nodded skeptically. He clung to Jim's shoulders, teeth chattering. Jim held his upper arms, feeling the tremors. Steam rolled upward. Blair's feet had turned bright red in the water, but his legs were white and covered in goosebumps. "What's the matter with me?" Blair got out in a whisper. "I'm totally falling apart here and I don't even know what the matter is anymore."

"It's been a rough afternoon," Jim told him. "Come on. Let's try to sit down now. You ready?"

"Is that the understatement of the year or what?" Blair laughed shakily. "Look at you, man! You're fine! You're totally fine! You can walk ten miles in the pouring rain and carry me home and face everything and not even break a sweat and here I am --" Blair suddenly tried to pull away, splashing water, stumbling on the slick surface of the bathtub. "It's just too much! Look at me, Jim! I'm in pieces here. Pushing you so hard and trying to do the right thing and screwing up so bad I tried to walk out -- what was I thinking? What the hell was I thinking? I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it. Aw Jim, you've got to believe me. I was just trying to help."

"Sandburg, stop." Jim pulled him back, his hands on Blair's arms, holding him tightly. It frightened Jim a little, trying to restrain Blair like this. He felt a hot flush creeping up his face, and a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, but he held on anyway.

Blair looked up at him with enormous, worried eyes, and didn't try to pull away. "What's the matter with me, Jim?" he asked again. "Have I finally lost it?"

"No," Jim said. He pulled Blair to him, tucking Blair's head against his throat and wrapping his arm around Blair's bare shoulders. It was awkward and more than a little uncomfortable, the side of the tub pressing against his shins, steam from the hot water rising against his face. Blair groaned. His hands knotted in Jim's wet shirt and he held on hard. "No," Jim said again. "You're not losing it. You're finally letting someone else take their share of the burden. I know how long you've been carrying this, and how it's beaten you down. But I'm here now. I've got you, and I'm not gonna let go."

Blair said something that was completely muffled against Jim's chest. Jim simply tightened his arms around Blair's shoulders and held on. The water level in the tub was starting to concern him, but he could hardly stand to let Blair go even to turn off the faucet. He held him close, not talking. Even Blair's tailbone was bruised, an ugly blue and black halo around his coccyx. Jim waited, tensed, for the fear and anger to return, but he felt nothing but tenderness, holding Blair cradled trustingly against him.

But he was still shivering violently, and being pressed against Jim's wet shirt and jeans must be uncomfortable. Jim supposed it was selfish of him to prolong the embrace, but he needed the reassurance of Blair too badly to ease him away just yet. Blair's mind and body both were naked and bruised, but the battle was over now. He had been strong enough for both of them, and was strong enough to let Jim carry him from the field.

Blair sighed, his head pressed harder against Jim's throat and shoulder. The running water made a hollow, muffled sound as it splashed into the full bathtub. Jim eased his arms away so he could take Blair's head in both hands. Blair let him tilt his head back enough to gaze up again into Jim's face. Blair's eyes were still dark with exhaustion and pain, but there was a calm there Jim hadn't seen in days. Perhaps not since that morning at the Point. It had been raining then too. With the surf crashing behind them and the fog coming in low over the water, Blair had held him and forgiven him. Jim remembered that, he always would. And now he knew better what Blair had been prepared to carry alone.

All at once it didn't seem as though there was enough room in his own chest to accommodate the beat of his heart, it felt so achingly full and tender.

He pushed a damp tangle of hair off Blair's forehead, and then on a foolish, happy impulse, bent his head and touched his lips to that cold brow. Blair laughed at him then, beaming up at him, his teeth still chattering, his fists still knotted in Jim's shirt.

"Sit down, Chief," Jim said gruffly, "We're about to get water all over the bathroom floor."

Blair nodded, not trying to speak. He lowered his arms and gripped Jim's forearms tightly as he knelt, hissing as the water crept up his legs.

Jim knelt too, supporting Blair as well as he could, murmuring encouragement as Blair grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut. "Aw, man!" Blair complained at last, carefully stretching out one leg and then the other, sitting at last. "So much for fathering kids in this lifetime."

Jim patted his face, and Blair opened his eyes. "Hang in there, Sandburg. The water's not that hot."

"Easy for you to say."

But he lay gingerly against the back of the tub all the same and scooted down an inch at a time until the water was as high as his neck. Jim reached out and finally turned off the running water with his free hand as Blair shut his eyes again, peacefully this time. He was still holding Jim's hand. "Better?" Jim asked. He could see it was. Little residual shivers still shook Blair, but the intervals in between were growing longer and longer.

Blair sighed, the lines of tension slowly leaving his face. His grip on Jim's hand loosened, but he didn't let go. Jim shifted gingerly, moving from an awkward crouch so that he was sitting more comfortably on the floor by the tub. Blair's eyes fluttered open. "Jim," he said, squeezing his hand once. "You need to get dry."

"OK," Jim agreed. "In just a minute."

Blair nodded and his eyes drifted shut again. His shivers were subsiding, and there were even a few beads of sweat rising on his forehead from the heat of the water. Jim could smell the hot scent of salty perspiration, paradoxically clean and reassuring. Blair was still holding his hand. The ends of his hair were floating on the surface of the water, and there were still goosebumps on the arm he rested on the side of the tub so that he didn't have to let go of Jim's hand. It was probably uncomfortable, Jim thought regretfully. "Here, Chief," Jim said. He wrapped both hands around Blair's for a moment, then gently lifted Blair's arm from the side of the bathtub and tucked it at his side, releasing him. Blair let his arm sink into the warm water immediately, but the little sigh that escaped him wasn't entirely happy.

"You had any dinner yet, Jim?" he asked drowsily.

"Just getting to it," Jim said, making no move to get up.

"Maybe get something from downstairs?" Blair said slowly, his tongue sounding thick. "Hey." He interrupted his own thought. "Jim, oh, man. You wanted to get a couple of espressos, didn't you? I totally spaced. I'm sorry." He was slipping down further in the tub. His chin touched the surface of the water, and his eyes were still closed.

"I don't think so," Jim said. He couldn't stop himself from reaching out again and laying his hand on Blair's head. Blair cracked open one sleepy eye to look up him, seeming amused. "Probably more caffeine isn't what either one of us needs tonight."

"Jim," Blair said, sleepy and calm, sunk so far down in the tub that his breaths sent tiny ripples across the surface of the water. "Do me a favor, man."

"What's that?" Jim's hand was still resting on the damp curls on the top of his head.

"Go get dry, please. You've gotta be freezing."

"I'm OK," Jim said, meaning it for the first time in days.

"I know that." A tiny smile lifted the corner of Blair's mouth. "But you're soaking wet." He opened his eyes sleepily, concern showing then. "Oh, I know you'd like a shower. Want me to go ahead and get out?"

"Sandburg, stay put."

Jim patted the side of Blair's face twice. His cheek was flushed from the heat of the water, and he was still smiling, muscles bunched in his jaw and over his cheekbones. Jim could feel the gentle tension of that easy expression under his fingertips, and he let his hand linger a moment longer. "I'll get some dry clothes on and start dinner. You just soak. Got it?"

"Got it," Blair said. "Soaking." He eased down another few millimeters, and Jim at last crawled to his feet, supporting himself on the side of the tub as he did. He was surprised to find Blair was right. He was chilled to the bone. He hadn't noticed before. Now that he had noticed, it still didn't seem very important, except for the stab of guilt. How on earth had he let Blair go out in weather like this? Walking for blocks in the rain, trying to hold both of their lives together, and driven to the verge of despair by Jim's own stubbornness, that need to know that he hadn't been able to let go of, even in the face of Blair's desperate pleas for trust.

Ice prickled around his heart. For god's sake, what had he come so close to doing? Had it really been worth it? The memories he had fought so hard for seemed all at once inconsequential as nightmares. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else ever had. He had to let Blair know that, somehow.

He didn't realize how long he had been standing at the side of the bathtub gazing down at the man who had given him his life back a long time ago, and now his soul, until Blair opened his eyes and looked up at him. "Uh, is there something going on here I should know about?" The little smile on Blair's face became a grin. Jim grinned back, though his heart was so full he wondered that he didn't start to cry instead.

"Jim," Blair said.

"What?"

"Dry clothes. Dinner."

"OK," Jim said. He took a deep breath, wondering if he could find the words. "Chief --"

Blair stopped grinning. The expression in his eyes was still calm and happy, but he looked somber, almost grave. As grave as anyone could look submerged to his chin in the bathtub anyway. "I know," he said. His voice got softer. "Believe me, I know."

"Stay there till you're sure you're warmed up," Jim told him, instead of what he had wanted to say.

"I will," Blair said. "Thanks for letting me have the tub first and everything. I owe you."

"Yell if you need anything."

---

The rest of the loft felt very dark and very cold after the light and steam of the bathroom. Jim lit the gas logs, but the flames themselves seemed cold and remote. He padded upstairs to find a change of clothes, shivering, and listening to every splash from the bathroom. Blair was lying very still, all except for one foot tapping on the bottom of the tub. Tiny waves lapped. Jim was focused so closely on the sound that he tripped on the top step and nearly went sprawling headlong. He caught himself, cursing mildly. Rain beat down on the skylight, and a cold wind crept past the plywood boards over the missing windows.

He found a pair of sweats waiting where he expected to find them on the bottom shelf, but his last clean sweatshirt was missing. Sandburg had helped himself, no doubt. Jim knew he was a couple of weeks behind in the laundry right now. A sudden violent bout of splashing from below startled him, and he grabbed his robe and started down the steps, hearing the sound of water draining away. Blair was getting out already, despite what Jim had told him. Nothing surprising about that, of course -- Blair doing exactly what he wanted, despite Jim's instructions.

At the bathroom door Jim stopped and knocked, suddenly unwilling to intrude on Blair's privacy despite all that had happened tonight. The distance seemed vast, and the shadows in the corners of the living room were very dark and very close. Why hadn't he turned on more lights? "Sandburg, you OK?"

The door swung open violently. Blair had appropriated the white bathrobe Jim kept on the hook on the back of the bathroom door, and he looked pink and warm and startled. "Way to give a guy a heart attack," he complained, and pushed past Jim into the hall. Jim saw him darting a glance at the far corners of the living room as well.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"You told me to stay till I was warmed up. Well, I'm warm now," Blair announced. He turned, his chin jutting, daring Jim to test his defiance.

Instead, Jim put his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I know," he admitted softly. "I feel it too. My own home, and I keep expecting the boogey man to jump out of the closet any second."

Blair took a deep, shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, man," he whispered.

"For what?"

His face twisted. He shrugged, and tried twice before blurting out, "For being so relieved that it's not just me anymore."

Jim felt it like a blow. The need to protect, to defend the better half of his own soul, his regret for all the time Blair had been alone. "Don't you believe it, Sandburg," he growled, his hands heavy on Blair's shoulders. "It'll never be just you again, you hear me?"

When Blair looked up, his eyes were swimming with tears. "I just got so tired," he said. "I wanted to, Jim, but I couldn't."

"Chief," Jim said, helpless, furious at something he couldn't touch. Dammit, he thought they were past this. No, he wanted them to be past it, but it couldn't happen that quickly, as much as he wanted it to.

"This really sucks, huh?"

"No," Jim said, and pulled Blair to him, cradling him hard against his chest, wrapping his arms around his back and holding on so Blair would know.

Blair didn't embrace him in turn, but he laid his head on Jim's chest with a quiet sound. Jim tightened his arms around Blair, feeling his skin still hot from the bath through the terry cloth, feeling the guilt and regret as well. He wanted to take it all from Blair and he couldn't, he knew he couldn't. He could only stand here like this and tell Blair the truth. "I've just got one thing to say to you," Jim whispered gruffly. Sandburg's hair was damp against his cheek. "The next time you walk out on me like that -"

"Jim," Blair said miserably. "It was only because you wouldn't --"

"The next time you walk out on me like that," Jim repeated, talking over him, still holding him tight, "I want you to be sure and take my weapon."

"Jim?" Blair whispered, bewildered.

"It wouldn't be safe for me to have it around."

"Jesus, Jim, you're really starting to scare me here." Blair sounded a little bit frightened, but more than a little angry too.

"I don't want to scare you," Jim said, meaning it. "We've both had too much of that."

"Then what are you telling me, man?" Blair had gone rigid in his arms. He raised his arms and clutched at the sleeves of Jim's robe.

Jim kept him folded close, but he raised his head, the underside of his chin resting on the top of Blair's head. What a dark, cold, lonely place the loft was tonight. How odd for him to see his own home that way, as if he still thought Blair might be gone from it. What a deep melancholy the possibility had wrought. "You're my whole life," Jim said calmly, no idea anymore of not telling Blair the plain truth. "Everything that still makes sense, everything that still matters. It's only because you're here with me."

"Jim," Blair said helplessly. He put his arms around Jim's back, and Jim could feel how they were trembling. "Jim, I don't -- Aw man, it's just me. Just Blair Sandburg. I can't -- I didn't mean --"

"I know," Jim told him gently as Blair buried his face against his chest and shoulder, "I know you didn't mean to. And I know you'll have to go someday. That's why I'm telling you now. I know you wouldn't want me to do anything permanent. And I'm afraid I might. I'm just not as tough as you, Chief."

"No," Blair growled. His head came up, pushing Jim's away. His voice was angry but his eyes were soft with love. "No, damn it. You're my life, Jim. You're not pushing me out the door like that. Not now, not ever. I won't let you. You hear me? You're the one with the sentinel eardrums. You hear me, man?"

Jim gazed down at that beloved face, scratched and bruised, dark with a five o'clock shadow, wet hair tumbling back in chaos over the shoulders of the white robe. Those burning blue eyes. Jim's hands came up and held Blair's head so he could drink in the sight of that love for as long as his soul needed. Blair wasn't exactly smiling, but his lips were pressed together as if in serious thought. His eyes betrayed him, they always did.

"Jim, you're still scaring me," Blair said at long last, his voice soft. Jim felt the movement of Blair's jaw with the palms of his hands when he spoke, and to him, Blair didn't look scared at all. His arms were still around Jim's waist.

"Sorry," Jim said, unrepentant.

"You wouldn't -- Jim, you didn't really mean that, did you? I mean, it's been a crazy night, that's all, and I've been out of my head. We both have. I just need to hear that you didn't really mean that the way it sounded."

Jim's hands slid back till his fingertips were laced together at the nape of Blair's neck. The base of his skull was such a warm, fragile weight in his hands. "I've meant every word I said," Jim told him. "It's only the ones I didn't say that were wrong."

Blair grinned, lopsided. "You're making less and less sense," he said. "You know that, don't you?"

Jim just smiled in return, the sight of that familiar grin on Blair's face filling his heart with peace. But then Blair turned grave again. "It's just -- Jim, I know what I am, and it's just not that much. Nobody's ever counted on me before. And now you tell me that -- god, Jim -- it's just that you deserve so much. What in the world's gotten into you, counting on me like that?" He didn't sound upset or frightened, just confused. And he still showed no signs of letting go.

Jim laughed softly. Holding his head carefully still, he bent his head and pressed his cheek to Blair's temple, feeling the tender pulse beating against his own face. "I don't know why you're acting so surprised," he told Blair gently. "You marched into my life the day we met, and you haven't backed off since."

Blair laughed too, then. Quiet and hoarse, a few chuckles Jim felt rumbling against his own chest. "I guess I was sort of pushy, huh?"

"Good thing for me," Jim said. "I needed to be pushed." Suddenly it wasn't enough, and he put his arms around Blair and pulled him as close as he could again. "You saved my life," he whispered, almost afraid to say it out loud. "Over and over again, just by being next to me. You're the blessed protector, Chief. I'd think a smart guy like you would have figured that out a long time ago."

"Well, yeah," Blair said to Jim's chest, almost laughing again. "Just didn't want to hurt your feelings."

Blair was starting to shiver again as the heat from the bath left his skin. Reluctantly, Jim released him, and when Blair showed no signs of letting go, pushed him back with more force. "C'mon, Sandburg." He put his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned him toward the bedroom. "You need to either get dressed or get to bed."

"It's like seven o'clock," Blair grumbled. "I'm not going to bed." But he allowed Jim to push him gently through his bedroom doors. His footprints had left wet tracks down the hall from the bathroom. "You still going to heat up some soup?" he asked, his voice so quiet he might have been talking to himself as he knelt on the bedroom floor and began rooting though a pile of clothes. He looked over his shoulder when he realized Jim was still standing right behind him. "I know," he said mournfully. "It was my turn to do the wash. Sorry. I'll get caught up now that my paper's done."

He looked back a second time when he realized Jim hadn't moved. Jim knew he ought to say something, if only that yes, he was going to heat up the soup. But nothing seemed adequate to his feelings, such love, such gratitude, such a fond and slightly desperate sense of protectiveness. "Chief," he said at last, ridiculously inadequate, "you need me to lend you a pair of clean sweats?"

"I got em already," Blair announced, sheepishly. "A couple of days ago, actually. I know I should have asked. Oh, there they are," he went on, pulling them from halfway under the bed.

He kept looking up at Jim with an expression that Jim couldn't quite puzzle out, so he finally said, with difficulty, "I'll just go heat that soup up now," and left Blair alone.

The first thing he did was turn more lights on and push up the thermostat. He hadn't gotten back to the kitchen before Blair came out, still in the robe. He'd pulled on the sweats, rolling them up at the waist two or three times, half a dozen times at the ankle, it looked like. The elastic would never be the same. He was still barefoot, still shivering, and his eyes darted around the loft before coming to rest on Jim. He nodded to himself and visibly relaxed, almost managing a smile. "Dinner ready yet?"

"Not quite," Jim said, crossing the intervening space fast. He took Blair's arm, holding on gently but quite firmly just above the elbow, and guided him to the sofa. "Just getting to it. Hungry?"

Blair didn't sit down. "No, not really."

Jim put his hands on Blair shoulders. "You've got to eat."

"No, I'm really not hungry, not yet," Blair insisted. "My stomach's still kind of tied up in knots, you know?"

Jim stood looking down at him, his hands resting on Blair's shoulders. "OK," he said softly. "Whatever you think. We can wait a little while." He felt Blair's shrug, and the deep breath he took.

Then Blair looked up at him again. "You know what would be good right now?"

"What's that?"

"Do we still have any brandy left?"

"I don't know. I think so. Are you sure that's such a good idea? Wouldn't some food be better?"

"Jim, I've had it with good ideas, believe me." He took a deep breath, and shuddered as he let it out. "Never quite turn out the way you think they will."

Jim held on tighter. Sandburg's shoulders were rigid with strain, and he looked up at Jim with a weary, half-defiant and wholly guilty expression on his face. Jim couldn't stand it. He didn't know what to tell Blair anymore. Blair had risked everything to give Jim his peace again, and he should be able to rest now. He deserved his own peace too. They both did, or all Blair's courage had been for nothing.

It came to him so suddenly then that it never occurred to Jim to question the impulse. He put his hands on Blair's face, cupping the hinges of Blair's jaw in the palms of his hands to hold him carefully in place. Blair's ravaged throat was exposed by the open robe, as were the tender red marks spreading out across his breastbone. Tears came to Jim's eyes, but this time they weren't of grief or guilt. He ducked his head, having to bend his knees to manage it, and laid his face against Blair's throat. Whiskers prickled against his cheek. He could feel the warmth from the contusions, the rough places where broken skin was mending, and the vibration in Sandburg's voicebox when he gave a moan of surprise.

Blair held himself very still at first, and then his hands came up and touched Jim's face. His pulse beat strongly against Jim's cheek and brow, and after a long moment, Jim turned his head and pressed his lips first to the tender place under Blair's left ear. Blair trembled, and his fingers spread wide against Jim's scalp. Jim kissed him a second time, moving down his throat, closer to Blair's stigmata. The third time he kissed Blair, his lips were pressed to the darkest bruises, to the place where the imprint of Jim's own teeth remained above Blair's larynx, and he lingered until Blair's racing pulse began to slow.

Then he raised his head and looked into Blair's eyes. For only an instant he doubted. He couldn't recognize that expression at first, and wasn't sure he knew what it meant. But that was only because it had been so long. An eternity since Blair had been at peace. Blair was looking back at him calmly, utterly relaxed now, completely open. Jim felt himself grinning helplessly in response, but Blair's expression remained the same, accepting Jim's love as he always had, as though it were self-evidently his due.

"You're right," Jim said, his voice hoarse. "Brandy sounds good."

Blair laughed out loud, a sudden shout of joy. Then he dragged Jim's head down and kissed his mouth. "Aw, Jim," he said. "Jim."

Jim beamed down at him, his hands still cradling Blair's face. "Hi, Chief."

"Hey, man," Blair said, still grinning, but his voice was soft, and a blush that had nothing to do with the hot bath spread across his face. It darkened the scratches healing on his cheek, so Jim lowered his head and lightly kissed them too. When he drew back, Blair's eyes were closed, and though he wasn't grinning anymore, a calm, satisfied little smile was on his lips. A long time seemed to pass before he opened his eyes again to look at Jim.

"How's it going?" Jim asked softly, as though they hadn't seen each other for a long time.

"All right, man." Blair seemed to realize then he was still holding Jim's head, and he dropped his hands reluctantly, though he patted Jim's back afterward. "You were gonna find the brandy?"

"Right," Jim said. He dropped his hands to rest on Blair's shoulders. "Just sit down and take it easy for a minute, you think you can do that?"

Blair raised both hands in surrender, trying for his wide-eyed, innocent look. "Hey, I've been trying to take it easy all night."

"Right." Jim bore down gently, just enough to get Blair to sit down on the sofa, then shook out the Navajo blanket folded over the back and tucked it around him.

Blair sat quietly as he did, a little scowl on his face that did nothing to dim the joy shining in his eyes. When Jim was finished he complained, "You're gonna be impossible, aren't you?"

"Afraid so. You're just going to have to bear with me here."

"Like I've got a choice," Blair grumbled.

Jim patted the top of his head. "Not really, no." Blair nodded, still pretending to frown, and Jim was surprised by how difficult it was for him to turn and leave Blair, even though he was only going as far as the kitchen.

He looked over his shoulder after pulling a couple of glasses from the cabinet, and found Blair watching him closely, almost anxiously from across the room. He smiled back at him and Blair rolled his eyes and worked one hand out from under the blanket. "What'd you do with the remote?" he muttered. "Always getting lost. You'd think a guy with as many house rules as you would have a place for the remote."

Good. There was maybe a quarter bottle of brandy left. He snagged the bottle and carried it back with the glasses. "Got news for you, Sandburg. I'm not the one who always loses it."

"Right, blame everything on me," Blair said, but he was too tired even to go to the effort of sounding martyred. Instead he tucked himself into a tighter ball on the couch, accepting the glass when Jim handed it to him. Jim raised his own glass, but Sandburg, oblivious, brought the glass to his mouth with both hands and took a deep swallow, shivering as it went down. Only then did he notice Jim. "Cheers," he said weakly.

"Cheers," Jim agreed, and took a much smaller swallow of his own. Blair finished his drink, shuddering like he was gulping cough syrup, and put the glass down on the coffee table too hard. Jim thought about telling him what a waste of good brandy that was, but instead he reached out with his free hand and pushed a lock of Blair's damp hair back out of his eyes.

Blair sighed, his breath heavy with brandy now. "I'm gone. I ought to just go to bed."

"OK," Jim agreed quietly. "It's been a long day."

Blair laughed, pulling his feet up onto the couch. "What are you talking about? It's not even eight o'clock yet, is it?"

"Not quite, no."

"I can't go to bed now. I'd be awake at three a.m. and I'm telling you, that's not what I want to be -- " He broke off too fast and looked miserably away from Jim. "Sorry. Sorry. It doesn't matter."

Jim could have wept. Instead he put his glass down and turned Blair back to face him. "I know," Jim told him. "So, three in the morning was when I -- when it happened? Is that right? While you were sitting up working on your paper?"

Blair stared at him, trembling. Jim found that he was shaking too. He put one hand on Blair's shoulder and slid the other around to the back of his head, tangling in Blair's damp locks, holding him gently.

"Yeah," Blair said at last, barely moving his lips. "It was three in the morning."

Jim thought Blair would go on, but he fell silent for a long time then, watching Jim's face seriously, still trembling though his shivers began to subside as he pressed his head back against Jim's hand. When he finally did talk again, his voice was a little louder and just a little more certain. "Never felt alone like that before, you know? That's what really spooked me. I didn't know it was possible to be so alone."

Jim looked into those serious blue eyes, and thought, that's what scared him? It hadn't been how close Jim had come to tearing his throat out. Not the possibility Jim might turn on him and finish the job at any minute. Just the loneliness of carrying a secret he couldn't share.

"I'm sorry," he told Blair quietly. One hand still cradled the back of Sandburg's head, but he brought his other hand up and laid it softly along the side of his face.

"No," Blair said, and would have shaken his head if Jim hadn't been holding it. "No, we've already been through this, and it wasn't --"

"I know." Jim brought his head closer to Blair's. "It wasn't my fault. I'm sorry anyway."

"No," Blair said, his voice no less stubborn for being so quiet. "I must not be explaining this right. See, Jim, I knew all along that you were stronger. I knew it. It just took me so long to figure out how to tell you. Hell, to figure out what to tell you. And then I screwed that up too, and aw, Jim, I never got the chance to tell you before, but I did screw that up, bad. Letting you see -- this --" Blair's hand went to his throat. "It was the worst thing I could have done. I don't have any excuse. Just, I was tired, I guess. I got careless."

"Sandburg, stop."

"You don't know, Jim. You just don't know. That look on your face -- the one thing I tried so hard to save you from, and there it was, suddenly, right in your face --" He closed his eyes.

"Listen to me, Blair." The memory was uncertain, dreamlike, and he was afraid to push too hard, for fear of distorting it beyond any hope of retrieval. But he remembered the sharp good smell of oranges and sage and sawdust. He remembered Blair backing away from him in fear. Oh god, he remembered that. He would never forget it. And he remembered his despair, so vast and terrible he was willing to accept anything Blair offered in its place, no matter how ludicrous. He couldn't remember Blair's words now, but he remembered Blair's expression as he knelt over him, trying his damnedest to convince Jim that up was down, day was night. Whatever Blair had demanded he believe instead of the self-evident truth.

Jim smiled at himself then. At both of them. Blair's eyes were still closed unhappily, lost in guilt because he hadn't been able to spare Jim everything.

"All right, I'm listening," he told Jim quietly.

"No, you're not," Jim said, and tapped Blair's chin with the back of his fingers.

Blair pushed his hand away, muttering darkly, but his eyes opened again, and he looked at Jim. His eyes were hooded with sorrow masquerading as irritation, and Jim realized all his words would be inadequate. Hell, Sandburg had used them all, and it hadn't worked on Jim, had it? If Sandburg's eloquence hadn't been enough in the face of this darkness, then Jim might as well not even try.

Not with words, anyway.

He put one hand on Blair's shoulder, the other on his chest, and then asked Blair's permission. "Will you let me?" He wondered, as soon as he'd said it, how he expected Blair to understand that, but somehow he did. Perhaps because the worst was already over, and now they had to deal with having survived. Sometimes that was the hardest of all, Jim knew.

Blair drew himself up, taking a deep breath. He met Jim's gaze steadily. His arms were empty at his sides, defenseless. Innocent and open. Jim knew Blair was remembering those same moments, and he knew Blair was ashamed of what he couldn't help but see as failure, even now. He also knew Blair believed he could take the shame away. He knew that because Blair said, "Yeah, Jim. Of course. Of course, man."

First Jim moved his hand to the back of Blair's head again and drew him forward, bestowing a kiss of gratitude on his forehead. Then he eased the blanket off Blair's shoulders. It was warmer, though Blair was still shivering. He wore Jim's white terry-cloth bathrobe wrapped tight around himself, but he didn't protest when Jim unknotted the tie and gently folded it back to expose his chest.

The material was damp and warm to the touch, as was Blair's flesh underneath. Blair watched Jim's face carefully, seriously, as though everything were explained there. Jim didn't know. Perhaps it was.

Angry red marks spread like a sunburst across Blair's sternum. Jim knew what they meant. He remembered the nightmares better than all the rest. He suspected he was still having them, the way he had awaken every morning the past four days drenched in sweat and more exhausted than when he'd gone to bed.

He laid his hand over Blair's heart, and felt the beat of his life. Blair raised his eyes to Jim's and smiled at him again, gentler this time, his face soft with love. He almost nodded, whether to himself or to Jim, Jim wasn't entirely certain, then he reached out and took Jim's other hand by the wrist and tugged gently, laying it against his chest as well. Still smiling with his eyes and his lips, Blair spread both his hands across the backs of Jim's and bore down carefully, but very firmly, so that Jim could feel Blair's heart as though it were cradled in the palms of his hands. He opened himself to the rush of blood into the chambers, the soft catch of valves opening, muscles contracting strongly as a clenched fist. He swayed closer to Blair, spreading his fingers wide across the bruised flesh and muscle. Under the pads of his fingers, the hair on Sandburg's chest coiled softly, still damp from the shower.

Then Blair spoke. "Jim," he said, completing Jim's world. There was nothing else anywhere but the warm thunder of that voice, surrounding and encompassing him, drawing him closer even as everything else faded away. Only Sandburg's heart remained, pumping strong under his hands. His survivor's heart, and his survivor's smile. "Jim," he said. "I didn't tell you before. I couldn't. But I fell asleep in my office the next day. After that -- after that first night." He adjusted his grip, keeping Jim's hands pressed firmly to his chest. "And in my dream, I saw it. It looked like you, and it cracked open my ribs like I was being autopsied, and it yanked out my heart." He stopped, scrutinizing Jim's face, and Jim could see that certain as he was of Jim's love, he didn't know how Jim would handle something like this.

"I want to know," he told Blair, fingers spread wide across his chest. His voice sounded strange and distant in his ears. "Everything you can stand to tell me. I need to know, because I never want you to be alone with this again." He felt Blair's chest rise as he took a deep breath and held it for a moment.

"I know," Blair said, his voice soft and low. His head dropped forward again. He looked down at the hands across his chest, Jim's and his own, and Jim could hear him swallow once. "Sorry," Blair whispered, his head still down. His shoulders slumped, but he kept his hands over Jim's. "I'm just tired. Can't think straight."

Jim lowered his head too. "The brandy was your idea."

Blair gave a little snort that wasn't quite amusement.

"Maybe you should head off to bed," Jim said quietly. "We can talk about this in the morning."

Blair's head came up at that. "No." He took another deep breath. "No, this is important. I'm trying to tell you the most important thing, I think."

Jim smiled at him sadly. It had been a long night of important things. More than either one of them could handle. Surely it would be better to wait. But he gazed into those concerned blue eyes and said, "I'm listening. Whatever you want to tell me."

"I know," Blair said, almost whispering. "It's just kind of hard to explain, and I want to get it right." Suddenly he let go of Jim's hands and latched onto the shoulders of his robe instead. His face was more serious than ever, almost frightened. He pulled one knee up and turned on the couch. "Hold me?" he asked Jim.

Jim raised one hand from Blair's chest and touched his brow. He felt so close to Blair, Blair's presence was the entirety of his world. It grieved him to realize Blair was still uncertain. With his other arm he encircled Blair's waist and pulled him forward. "Here," he said quietly, again not questioning the impulse. "Lie back."

Blair nodded gravely, and something he saw in Jim's face made him smile. Not a grin, just that pleased, quiet smile of his when everything was turning out all right after all. He turned the rest of the way on the couch, resting his knee against the back, and glanced over his shoulder, gauging the position of the throw pillows. Then he scooted closer to Jim and carefully lay back. His hands were still holding the shoulders of Jim's robe, and he tugged Jim down with him, his insistence belying his earlier fear.

No, it hadn't been fear, Jim realized as he laid his head on Blair's chest, just above the bruises. One arm was still around Blair's waist. He gently worked the other arm around the small of Blair's back as well.

Blair was trembling. He brought his hands up and smoothed them over Jim's head again and again. But there was something else as well, the same thing Jim had seen earlier and misinterpreted. Not fear at all. Possessiveness. It was something he so seldom saw from Sandburg that he couldn't read it on his face when he saw it, but he felt it in the hands that touched and held his head so lovingly. When Blair spoke, Jim felt the vibrations thrumming in his chest, and he tightened his hold as much as he dared.

"It was stupid," Blair said quietly, sighing. "I mean, it scared the hell out of me, it kept me off balance so long it was nearly too late for both of us -- I let it get way too deep into you, Jim." The hands on Jim's head stopped moving for a moment. Jim felt the deep breath then, and the effort it cost Blair not to apologize again.

Instead he kept telling Jim the thing he believed was so important. "Mindless," Blair said. "Like some kind of sick machine. Or, I don't know. A force of nature. Not a hurricane, but a nasty ice storm in April that kills all the flowers. Aw geez, I'm not making any sense here at all, I know."

"It's all right," Jim said, and holding Blair that way, he knew he was telling the truth. Blair did too. He took another deep breath. Jim felt his lungs expanding under his cheek, and knew, although he couldn't see Blair's face, that Blair had closed his eyes.

"So when things were worst. When it tried drive me away from you -- when it -- Jim, when it hurt you -- it wasn't making that stuff up. It was just reflecting us back. Telling us what we already knew, but trying to make it horrible. It wasn't nightmarish bad luck that I dreamed of you reaching for my heart. Or that you dreamed the same thing. In the produce stand -- do you remember that?-- when you realized something was wrong, the first thing you did was tear open my shirt, man. Reaching for my heart. You didn't need to, Jim. It's already yours."

How odd, Jim thought. He didn't remember starting to cry, but he was now, and had been for some time, if the tears running down his face were any way to tell. He turned his face, smearing tears across Blair's chest, knowing Blair could feel them. Bending his neck, he could press his lips to the cruel bruises over Blair's sternum.

Blair moaned deep in his throat, holding Jim's head with both hands. Jim felt the pulse on the inside of Blair's thigh, trapped between Jim's body and the back of the couch, beating hard against his own hip.

"It's all right," Jim murmured. He freed one arm so he could reach up and touch Blair's face. He'd been right. Sandburg's eyes were closed too, but that didn't stop the tears that were flowing so freely down Blair's face as well. He spread his hand gently across Blair's face, then more tenderly still allowed himself to again touch his throat, the contusions hot against the tips of his fingers and the palm of his hand.

He trailed his hand down Blair's chest at last and spread his fingers across the bruises there as well. The old Jim Ellison thought furiously for an instant that Pops and Carolyn had been right after all, hadn't they? Jimmy's love was worse than inadequate, worse than disappointing. He always hurt the ones he loved.

But it was only a ghost. He knew he didn't have to believe that anymore. The man he held in his arms didn't believe that, and neither did he. "Blair," he whispered, and then couldn't go on. He was sorry for that. Blair had managed to tell him what he needed to hear, why couldn't he do the same for Blair?

Because words belonged to Blair Sandburg, that was why. They were his entire world. Without the words to describe it, the thought, the sensation, the very emotion seemed to have no existence for Sandburg. And this was more than words for Jim, as much as he trusted Blair's. He couldn't tell Blair about his own shame and grief and regret, far less about the relief, the forgiveness, the love. For Jim, words were tools one used to accomplish a desired end, and there was nothing utilitarian about the emotions roiling in his heart.

He could not name or speak them, couldn't limit something more vast than his own life. So he stopped trying. Instead he lifted himself over Blair a little, shivering at the cold that rushed in between them when they were parted. Blair's eyes opened, bewildered blue gazing up at Jim.

"It's all right," Jim whispered, beginning with words after all, because this was Blair Sandburg.

Blair was the speechless one now. He blinked, hiding for an instant those eyes darker than rain-washed skies, then gazed up again, the throb of his pulse heavy in his throat. Blair's hands had been on Jim's head, but they dropped and lay at his side, as if he were uncertain. They remained palm up, though, open and utterly trusting.

Propped on his elbows over Blair, Jim put his hands on Blair's chest, over the arch of his ribs, fingers spread wide to touch as much as he could. Then he lowered his head and carefully kissed Blair's mouth.

Blair made a small sound that Jim felt thrumming against his lips. The coil of tension still knotting Blair's muscles began to relax as he returned the kiss, pressing upward with his mouth and his body, though he left his hands where they lay at his sides.

Jim had kept his weight supported over Blair until then, but now he lowered himself gently, careful of Blair's bruised chest, and when he was once again tucked close and warm over his friend, only then did he break the kiss and lift his head to look down at him. Blair's eyes were closed and his lips were parted. His breaths were slow and easy, heavy with brandy.

Jim cradled Blair's head in his hands, letting his fingers thread gently through his hair. The curling locks were heavy and damp. Blair sighed and nearly smiled, then turned his head so he could press his cheek to the palm of Jim's hand.

Smiling himself, Jim kissed him twice more, gently once on his closed eye, and once on the corner of his mouth. Blair's own soft smile broadened at that, and he opened his eyes sleepily to look up at Jim.

Then he lifted his hands at last and took Jim's head. Jim felt the warmth of his palms over his jaw as Blair carefully pulled him down and kissed him in turn, achingly gentle, his mouth open against Jim's, his lips tender and warm.

Jim heard himself moaning, low and quite involuntary, and thought bemusedly that he sounded like a man in pain. He didn't try to stop himself though. He was given over wholly to the sweetness of that kiss. For so long, it seemed, Blair had shown his love in sacrifice and pain. Now at last the evil was behind them, but the love remained, pure and necessary as cold water after a long desert journey. Jim drank greedily, wholly open, allowing Blair everything.

Blair's hands spread against the sides of Jim's face. Jim felt the pulse in Blair's fingertips, slightly stronger in his thumbs. Blair shifted slightly, holding Jim's head carefully to be sure Jim didn't try to move away from him. He drew his knee up and managed to wiggle to one side, making himself more comfortable under Jim's weight. At that Jim couldn't help it. He raised his head just enough to speak to Blair, his mouth still so close to Blair's he could feel Blair's exhalations against his lips.

"C'mon, Chief," he whispered. "Long day. You'd be more comfortable in bed."

"No," Blair complained, and his arms went around Jim's back and locked tight. "Jim, please."

"It's OK," Jim said softly. "Not going anywhere." He laid his head on Blair's shoulder and felt Blair melt away under him. The arms around his back relaxed almost at once. Blair patted the back of his head clumsily once or twice, then sighed with utter contentment.

"Jim?" he whispered.

Jim opened his eyes. Blair's collarbone was under his temple, and the palm of Jim's hand was over the warm bruise in the center of Blair's chest. "Right here, Chief," he said, nonsensically, as though Blair could doubt it with Jim lying over him like this. He felt Blair chuckle faintly, his chest shaking with a moment of soft laughter. Then Blair sighed again, quiet, still, but it seemed to Jim no longer completely contented. Jim ran his hand carefully across Blair's chest and then touched his face. "What do you need?" he asked.

Blair's chest rose and fell. His hand came up and once again clumsily patted Jim's head where it still rested on his shoulder. "Nothing, man," he whispered. "I've got everything I need. Just --" His voice trailed off.

At that, Jim shifted so he could rise up and look down at Blair's face. Blair's eyes were open, rolled up to look toward the ceiling, but when Jim moved he looked down, then away to the side, hardly able to meet Jim's eyes. His lips were pressed tightly together. Frustration, Jim thought it was. With himself. With Blair Sandburg at a loss for words when he needed to ask something of Jim.

So Jim kissed him again, as though the warmth of his mouth over Blair's could free the voice locked inside. Blair tasted of saltwater tears, bath water and brandy, and his lips did open under the soft pressure. He held Jim's head, his body trying to arch up against Jim's, as though he could touch more of him that way, drawing Jim's breath into his mouth as they kissed, sounds coming from his throat that Jim felt clear through to the core of his being.

But it had been a long and brutal day, falling after a long and terrible week. Blair couldn't keep pushing back his exhaustion, and Jim felt him yielding at last. Blair's hands slipped away, and his body relaxed under Jim's. Jim touched his face and then slowly broke the kiss so he could look down at Blair's face again. This time Blair met his gaze squarely, through eyes half-closed with weariness, but midnight blue with determination.

"What do you need?" Jim asked again.

At last Blair was able to speak, and there was no fear. "Just have to know, Jim," he said softly. "I mean, I do, really. Mostly. But if you could -- " he swallowed. "If you could just let me know that you forgive yourself. Really and truly, forever. Everything you think you did. And that you're not afraid anymore. That's all I need."

For a moment Jim didn't know what to say or do, uncertain how to give Blair his reassurance, but he looked down at the bruises mottling Blair's chest, the marks Jim's hands had left while the two of them fought for Jim's soul, and then he understood how simple and direct Blair's need was. Jim had already reconfigured the marks on Blair's throat, kissed him in the places where his mouth had brutalized Blair when this horror had first come into their lives. Blair only needed him to clean the last darkness as well. Accept the marks of past suffering and in that acceptance, take away the shame forever.

Jim knew his expression must have changed once he understood, because the expression on Blair's face changed as well. Once again Blair's hands touched his head, and he pulled Jim's head down, all uncertainty gone, guiding Jim to his heart.

There was a mark an inch or two beneath the arc of Blair's collarbone on the left side, dark purple, in the shape of a fingerprint. With Blair's hands still cupping his head, Jim pressed the first kiss there. Blair's flesh smelled of soap and warm water, tears and sweat. The tears Jim didn't at first understand, until he remembered the ones he had shed himself. Being permitted to touch Blair this way made Jim's heart ache with tenderness. The hairs on Sandburg's chest were still faintly damp from the rain and the bathtub, and he felt the slight wiriness under the press of his lips. Blair groaned out loud at the feel of Jim's mouth soft near the center of his breast, even though his own hands had led Jim there.

Jim smiled, his face against Blair's chest. He worked one arm around under Sandburg's back, and his other hand lay gently on Blair's shoulder. There was a cluster of three bruises lower down, just above Blair's sternum. Short, dark streaks, tinged yellow at the edges. Jim kissed each in turn, feeling Blair tremble in his arms with every new touch. Jim went on, taking back the pain, giving love in its stead.

Blair's moans were low and constant now, and Jim could feel them thrumming in his chest. Sandburg could no more help talking than he could help breathing. Even now, even when he was too lost to form words. Jim stopped for a moment, laying his cheek carefully on Blair's chest. "Easy, Chief," he murmured, and heard how his own voice was none too steady. It trembled with the force of his love and the tender protectiveness that made him want to fold himself ever closer around Blair, hold him like this until there was no more pain for either of them.

Blair's hands still held Jim's head. Jim pressed his head back against their warmth, then shifted down so he could reach the bruises that bled down from Blair's sternum and across his ribs and belly. Blair's stomach quivered under the touch of his lips. His moans were softer now, quiet sighs of relief. Jim's arm was under the small of Blair's back, and he felt Blair try to arch up, exhausted as he was, straining for more of Jim's touch.

"I've got you," Jim said, tightening his arms gently, feeling the heat of his voice warming Blair's skin. "Just rest easy. I've got you."

Blair relaxed again. "I know," he whispered.

It was the reassurance Jim had not even realized he needed until Blair granted it to him. He raised his head to look up at Blair's face, wanting to see the sweet half-smile shining in Blair's eyes. Beneath him, though, Jim glimpsed a shadow, the dark corona of bruises around Blair's heart. He felt the sympathetic pains in his own breast, the dull, unforgiving hurt that made it difficult to straighten up or draw a deep breath, and tears came to his eyes. His hands had done that. His strength. For an instant the blackness came rushing back, sickening him with horror, and he had to close his eyes. He knew it was wrong to think this way, but for just an instant he couldn't remember why, not when faced with the brutal evidence. He didn't say a word, and he didn't move, but Blair knew all the same.

"I'm sorry," Jim moaned, trying to get closer. "I'm sorry, I know. Forgive me." He could hear Blair's head tossing on the pillows above him, feel the shuddering sobs, and it was more than he could stand. He released Blair and tried to get up, thinking somehow the only thing left to him was not to hurt Blair anymore. He had tried as hard as he could, and failed again, and now there was nothing left.

Blair's hands released him. Somehow, he realized blankly, he had not expected that. He had thought Sandburg would hold on anyway. Jim stumbled back from the sofa, away from Blair. Blair continued to lie there, his chest heaving with dry, almost-silent sobs. He'd thrown his arm over his face, covering his eyes. His robe lay open on either side, his sweats rolled at the waist and at the ankle. Jim's robe, Jim's sweatpants too. One knee was still up, his bare foot flat on the cushions.

Jim could go no further. He stopped, trembling with agony. His hands were curled like claws against his forehead, and he looked around at this miserable place Blair's presence had made a home and staggered under the burden of his loss. He had fought back the inevitable for so long tonight, but it was over now. It was so dark here, despite the lights blazing in every fixture, so cold despite the fire leaping over unburning ceramic logs. Sandburg had tried so hard, they both had, and still it wasn't enough to reclaim this home. There was no power on earth that could give them back what had been taken away. Jim didn't hear the sound he made, but he felt the hardwood under his knees and realized he must have fallen.

He covered his face with his hands and remained there on his knees, dazed with hopeless grief. Why had Blair even tried? Salvation was proving as terrible as the alternative. Worse, perhaps, because he was aware, and knew what he was doing and how he was hurting Blair. Sandburg still wept, and every sob was another stab to Jim's heart. He was amazed it could still beat, it was so heavy with pain.

Jim had no idea how much time passed then. He was beyond counting minutes or hours or days. He knelt there on the floor until Blair had exhausted himself weeping and finally lay silent, and the dim, practical self thought he ought to get up and help Blair get to bed. But he couldn't make himself do it, not yet. He wasn't strong enough to face the expression he would see in Sandburg's eyes. The disappointment, the grief. Not yet. That was too much for any man, and far too much for what was left of Jim Ellison.

So he remained where he was, his head bowed, eyes closed, even when he heard Blair moving at last. Sitting up on the couch, rustling around. He was breathing noisily through his mouth, sniffling. Jim could hardly stand to hear it, but there was no way to shut it out. He would hear that sound if he were five city blocks away.

Then came the sounds that made no sense, and even though nothing had made sense since they'd returned from L.A., and he knew that nothing ever would again, still, almost against his will, he raised his head to see.

Blair had already slipped the robe from his shoulders and abandoned it on the back of the sofa. He half-stood, pushing the sweatpants off over his hips and stepping out of them. Naked, he took one step and came to Jim. His face was still white with the burden of the grief he shared with Jim, but his eyes shone with the innocent certainty of his love. He knelt before him, put his hands on Jim's face and said in a calm, low voice that was only a little hoarse from weeping, "It was my fault this time, Jim. Not yours."

Jim couldn't understand. He wasn't even sure if he needed to. All that reached him was Blair's closeness, his hands on Jim's face, Blair's body and his mind and god help them if there were a soul as well, it too was bared in absolute trust, despite Jim's weakness and failure. He couldn't understand it, but he couldn't turn Blair away. He reached out with trembling fingers and touched Blair's lips, wanting to stop the words he wouldn't understand. Blair seemed content to wait in silence. His head bowed, he knelt on his haunches, waiting for Jim.

"Chief," Jim rasped, only to be saying something, since what emerged was nonsensical. "You're gonna catch your death."

Blair gave a gasp, as though biting back laughter or tears. He stopped touching Jim's face and wrapped his arms around his own shoulders, beginning to tremble. Jim lifted his own hand, uncovering Blair's mouth, and once free, Blair tried to explain. Some of the words reached Jim, but it was the sound of his voice that was more important than their meaning.

"I just want it to be all over in your head, Jim. I wanted that so badly I couldn't see how it was messing with you, not knowing. But the worse thing was, I didn't realize how bad it was messing with me too. I thought I had to be strong, to protect you, but the truth is, man, I need you more than ever. So please, Jim, stay with me here. Help me put stuff back together again the way it's supposed to be. I know I want everything to be all right again, tonight, right this instant, and it can't be. But we've come so far, you've brought me so far. Please don't stop now."

And then Blair was silent again. His arms were around his shoulders still, holding himself, rocking on the floor before Jim. Most of his face was hidden by his hair. Crouched that way before him, Jim couldn't see the bruises on his throat, and could barely make out the ones on his chest. They were still there, of course. Blair's hope hadn't erased them, and neither had Blair's forgiveness.

Jim glanced around for a moment at the cold brick walls of his home, the plywood boards over the windows, the firelight reflecting on the glass framing his prints. Then back at Blair kneeling on the floor, open and innocent, asking Jim's permission to return to this place, as cold as it was. Willing to help rebuild this home, even yet.

He had held himself back, not allowing himself to touch Blair as he needed to, but he didn't hold back any longer. He wasn't sure why he'd waited as long as he had, except that there had been so many failures and so much pain tonight, and if there were any way to protect Blair from another of them -- But that was all wrong. He couldn't protect Blair by keeping him away. It would kill Blair as surely as it was destroying Jim, even now. Jim felt a wry, miserable smile on his face. If they were both doomed anyway, they might as well go down together.

It seemed foolishly simple after so much pain, but then the most important things usually were. Jim knelt forward. Careful to touch him nowhere else yet, he tenderly kissed Blair's forehead. He sat back and waited for Blair to look up at him. Blair's eyes were still hooded with sorrow, but after a moment's hesitation, they met Jim's all the same. Blair reached out then and grabbed onto Jim's open house-robe, and used that grip to pull himself closer. Jim's arms hung loose at his sides, much as he longed to enfold Blair and bring him close. "So you want to give it a try?" Blair whispered in a ragged, broken voice. "See if we can try to get things back to normal around here?"

Jim touched his forehead to Blair's, and finally allowed all the love he felt for this foolish, devoted, beautiful man to rise up in his heart. A long, heartfelt sigh released the last of his doubts. The past was still here between them, manifest in the marks on both their bodies, but it was only a shadow, and Blair had been right all along, just like he had been trying to tell Jim all night. In the light of day, the shadows would finally fade away.

He cradled Blair's head in his hands, drawing him closer. Blair's eyes widened and his hands shifted on Jim's robe, clutching tight. But there was no fear in his open eyes, and no uncertainty. Just his love and hope. "Chief," Jim whispered. "I don't even know what normal is anymore."

Blair smiled. "I'll tell you what normal is." Hands still wrapped in the thick folds of Jim's robe, he pulled himself up until he was kneeling up enough to look Jim in the face. "Knowing that you're my life. When you're happy, it's like I'm on top of the world too, and when you're hurting --" His voice dropped. "Geez, man, I can't stand it. I'd do anything to stop it. You, um, you know that, don't you?"

Jim could only smile. Then he brought Blair's face to his own and kissed his lips. He still held Blair's head, and Blair had not yet embraced him in turn. Then Blair's mouth opened under his. Blair tilted his head to the side and pressed upward, touching Jim with his bare chest, with his forearms, trapped between them as he drew closer, but not with his hands.

The sweetness of Blair's lips under his own, the warmth of that body pressing so close to his own, Blair's perfect trust and absolute love -- Jim wanted to cry aloud, but he couldn't lift his mouth from Blair's. He thought he still needed to ask, but the need to take Blair's pain away, to continue taking Blair's pain away, was so intense he couldn't stop. There was a tentativeness when he finally let his hand slip down and rest on Blair's shoulder that Blair felt immediately, though, and Blair was the one who broke the kiss.

Jim followed him as he pulled back, unable to let him go, and Blair sighed and smiled at him. He brought one hand up and touched with his fingertips the lips he had been kissing moments before. "Please," he said. "Please, Jim."

Jim only nodded. There were no words for him anymore. He took Blair's hand in both his own, turned it over and pressed his mouth to Blair's open palm. A shudder went through Blair, and he knelt up straighter with a gasp. When Jim raised his eyes, he saw Blair's head was back, his throat working, his chest rising and falling with hard, short pants. He knelt with his knees apart, hiding nothing from Jim. The evidence of his body's response to Jim's touch seemed paradoxically innocent to Jim. A night of paradoxes, all of them signaled by the transmutation of pain into love.

Still holding Blair's hand in both his own, Jim drew him closer, then kissed the tender spot on the inside of his wrist, feeling the beat of Blair's pulse warm against his lips, the fine bones, the delicate ridge of his veins. "Jim --" Blair moaned like a man at prayer. A shiver convulsed him, so different from the shivers of cold Jim had watched all evening, and though he had restrained himself as long as he could, trying to wait for Jim, he could wait no longer. Jim felt Blair's fingers splay open wide. Blair pressed himself closer, straightening his arm, offering it to Jim as he was offering himself.

Jim kissed the inside of Blair's elbow, cupping his arm with both his own hands. Blair's heartbeat was like thunder in his ears. Blair was panting and trembling, his free hand clutching at Jim's robe and then releasing it over and over again.

Jim raised his head to look at Blair's face, flushed and beautiful, tears standing in his eyes yet. He laid his hand tenderly on his brow, feeling the heat there, and whispered, "Easy. It's all right."

Blair laughed out loud, making the last unshed tears fall. "I know," he said. "Jim, I know, I --" He broke off and laid his hands on his own chest for a moment, covering the worst of the marks.

Jim lifted Blair's hands away from his chest. "Let me, please."

Blair nodded, but he had to swallow twice before he could get the words out. "Jim, anything. Anything." He swallowed again. "Please." And then, as though everything about his body and his upturned face were not telling Jim already, Blair spoke the words. "I love you, Jim."

Jim hardly realized he had reached for Blair, but his arms were around him, holding him as close as he could, and he was kissing Blair's face over and over again, slow and gentle and thorough, his forehead, his closed eyes, the flushed cheeks, the hinges of his jaws, the underside of his throat, cherishing the rough, soft sounds Blair made as he shivered in Jim's arms and pressed close. And though Jim had not believed words could tell Blair how he felt, evidently he had been wrong about that, as about so much else, because he was telling Sandburg, between every kiss, "I love you, Blair. I need you. I love you, too."

Jim felt Blair's hands restless and warm against the back of his head, pulling him closer, and every time Jim spoke Blair flinched against him, as though the words touched something so vital and true he couldn't hear them without a physical response. He had fallen back until he was against the sofa, his head thrown back and his hair spread across the cushions. Jim knelt over him, kissing his mouth, one arm around Blair's back, his other hand open over the bruise on Blair's chest. Jim's heart ached in his own breast, as though he were the one who'd been hurt. But it was an ache of pure love. He groaned with it, his breath muffled in Blair's mouth, and Blair groaned too. The sound was near enough to real pain for Jim to draw back then and look at him.

Blair's lips were parted, breathing as if it took an act of will. He opened heavily lidded eyes and gazed up at Jim, exhausted, dazed with love, reaching for Jim still. Jim smiled to keep from crying. He caught Blair's reaching hand in his own and held it between them. "Chief," he whispered, feeling dazed and exhausted himself. "It's late. You're tired. You need to sleep."

Blair chuckled weakly, his head rolling back and forth on the sofa cushions. Jim watched the pulse in his bruised throat, listened to its throb, echoed in Blair's heartbeat steady and strong under the heel of his hand. Blair grabbed Jim's robe with one clenching fist and drew him back. Jim went willingly, taking Blair's mouth again, his other hand moving up to the nape of Blair's neck. He tasted Blair's mouth gently and slowly, waiting for Blair to answer each tender advance.

Blair responded with sleepy fervor, writhing against him, touching as much of Jim as he could, then holding himself still for a moment or two before he began to move again. Trying to be careful for Jim, he realized with a rush of tenderness. Even at a moment like this Blair worried about overwhelming Jim's senses.

It was probably a valid concern, Jim thought in a wry, distant corner of his mind. His entire world was Blair. The slick warmth of Blair's tongue against his own, the ridged smoothness of Blair's teeth, the taste of his mouth, still salty with tears, growing bitter from the brandy. Blair's body shook under his own, in all his vulnerable beauty. Touching Blair like this, feeling him respond this way -- it was all too much. Jim felt splayed open and utterly vulnerable, as though a harsh breath would rip him away.

But he didn't shut down, and he didn't pull away. He wanted to open more, to give everything to Blair, to accept everything Blair would grant him in turn. He moved his head, feeling the warming air from the fireplace on his wet lips, and buried his face against Blair's throat and shoulder. His heart rejoiced at the way Blair's body arched hard against him, and at the sound Blair made then, a sharp little grunt of pleasure that cut through Jim so sweetly he moaned too.

Now that his mouth had been freed, Blair started talking again, quiet and a little frantic, as though there were no other way to expel air from his lungs. Mostly Jim's name, over and over again. Jim whispered, laughing with joy, "Easy, Sandburg, easy," against his throat, but it didn't calm him noticeably.

And Jim realized, as he went back to kissing the tender juncture of Blair's neck and shoulder, holding him more tightly as Blair squirmed against him, crying out in senseless, ecstatic gasps, he didn't want to calm Blair down. He wanted him lost in his arms, senseless to everything but Jim's hands and Jim's mouth and Jim's body. Blair returning his touch a thousandfold, so overwhelming Jim could do nothing but give more, wanting nothing in this world or the next but Blair's pleasure, Blair's joy. He smoothed his hand over Blair's chest moving away from the bruises, and spread his fingers over the solidity of Blair's breast. Muscle, flesh, curling hair, the nipple pebbled under the palm of Jim's hand.

Blair's head tossed as Jim kissed the hollow of his throat again, and Jim smiled, feeling a pleasure so sweet it made him cry too as a whimper of joy broke from Blair's lips. Jim whispered, "Blair," before kissing him yet again, drawing Blair's warm flesh between his teeth, tasting his skin, feeling for the ways of touching Blair that made him flinch in little starts of ecstasy, "We should get off the floor."

Blair moaned something in response. He was still clutching Jim's robe with one hand, fist locked as though he were incapable of letting go, and his other hand moved over Jim's back, up to the nape of Jim's neck, then down his back again, clumsy with exhaustion and passion, but gentle all the same. When Jim stopped kissing his neck, and laid his face against Blair's throat, trying to let him answer, Blair stilled his hand for a moment, then began the restless movement again, muttering in incoherent frustration.

OK, so getting off the floor wasn't going to be so easy. Jim tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders and lifted his head to kiss Blair's mouth again. Blair's lips opened eagerly under his, and Jim allowed Blair to draw him in. Blair's tongue brushed over his teeth, and Jim heard the muttering sound that came from his own throat.

He tilted his head, bearing down over Sandburg, wanting more. Blair's hand was spread wide over his cheek and the side of his head, fingertips brushing the curve of Jim's ear with a delicacy that seemed, in one sense, so at odds with the half-frantic thrashing of Blair's body under his own. Blair's exploration of his mouth was just as careful, though, as his hand on Jim's head, and the combination of such violent need and such achingly tender care from Sandburg was driving Jim out of his mind.

Panting with the effort to remember what had seemed important just a few moments ago, Jim tore his mouth away from Blair. Both of them groaned at the separation. "Please," Jim gasped out. "You've gotta be freezing. At least on the couch, Chief?"

Blair's eyes cleared for a moment. His breathing steadied, and he looked at Jim calmly. "I love you so much," he said quietly, as though that answered the question.

Jim didn't ask again. He pulled Blair forward so his back was no longer against the sofa, and eased him the rest of the way down, until he lay on his back under Jim, hair spread across the rug. His eyes were beginning to glaze again. The fist still wrapped in Jim's robe tugged insistently.

"Right here," Jim breathed, letting Blair pull him down. He kissed Blair's mouth first, lost in the feel of Blair's body under his own. Blair's legs were spread wide, one knee up, his arousal hot against Jim's belly. Blair's hands trembled as they stroked Jim's head, and Jim shook too as he pressed his tongue into Blair's mouth and felt Blair opening wider, everything he was yielding to Jim.

He couldn't touch enough of Blair. He wanted to be everywhere, to encompass him completely. He ran his hands up and down Blair's sides and arms, his chest, his neck, his face, his tangled dark hair on the rug behind his head. He kissed his chin, rough with the day's whiskers, and the underside of his throat. He touched his lips to the darkest bruises, secure in his forgiveness, his heart so light he felt the buoyancy in his chest like a sweet hot summer wind, then ran his tongue across Blair's throat before moving to the side of his neck where he could touch and taste more freely.

Blair thrummed and moaned beneath him, making desperate, lost sounds that died away again and again in sighs of violent pleasure. Jim's weight pinned him to the floor but Blair moved anyway, shivering constantly, struggling to touch more of Jim, to accept more of Jim's touch. Jim breathed hotly against Blair's neck, just behind the point of his jaw, then smoothed the hair away and whispered in his ear, "This is me, Blair. What was before --" Words failed but Blair understood. The hand on Jim's head bore down, pressing him closer.

"Please," Blair mumbled roughly. "I know it's you."

Sighing, Jim touched Blair's face in reassurance as he kissed and licked the sensitive flesh below Sandburg's ear. His damp hair still smelled of bath water, and very faintly of the rain. Blair twisted, straining upward, still talking to Jim though the words were jumbled and incoherent, the way he was panting them out. Jim let his hand glide down Blair's throat and stroked down Blair's trembling stomach, still worrying a tiny sensitive spot on Blair's neck with his lips and tongue. Sweat had broken out over Blair's body; he tasted salty and smelled of sex. The rest of the world shuddered into oblivion as Jim reached for him.

"Please," Blair groaned suddenly, breaking out of his dazzled pleasure to form words. "'s'all right, Jim. For both of us. Please. So I'll know it's all right."

As though he could have refused Blair anything, Jim thought in a bemused corner of his mind. He laid the palm of his hand over the hot shaft of Blair's cock, pressing back carefully against the softness of Blair's belly. Blair arched against him and cried out, and it was a sharp, low animal sound, wholly lost, utterly Jim's.

Jim held himself still for a moment, his face against the warmth of Blair's neck. He was aware of his own state, now, and realized he was trembling too with the force of his own agonizing arousal. His entire body ached with his need, his scalp hot, even the soles of his feet feeling alive with heat. Where he was actually flesh to flesh with Blair, it was more than heat, it was a sweet pure flame that consumed all doubts. He had never loved his senses more than he did at this moment, never been more grateful to Blair for them.

Where his face lay against Blair, his bare chest against Blair's, one hand trembling along Blair's side, because it made Blair tremble too, and oh sweet god in heaven, the palm of his other hand sliding up just to cup the slick wet head of Blair's straining cock -- there were no boundaries anymore. Sandburg's reactions were his own. When he lowered his head to kiss the hard little knot of Blair's left nipple, he felt the bolt of sensation in his own groin an instant before Blair's hips thrust helplessly upward.

He wanted this to last forever. He could not imagine anything else in life but going on touching Blair this way, holding him, feeling every touch reflected back more tenderly than he had given it in every shudder of Blair's body. He almost believed it could go on forever if he held Blair carefully enough. He gentled his hands on Blair until Blair's most violent shudders began to die away, leaving Blair splayed beneath him, breathing in sobs.

Then Jim began again, moving carefully, curling over Blair so he could rub his face over Blair's chest, feeling the soft, wiry hairs under his cheek. He held Blair's erection still, his fingers and the palm of his hand cradling him and moving slowly, pressuring him in the tiny, easy ways that kept Blair stuttering and helpless, so beautiful in surrender that Jim kept his own face turned away, nuzzling Blair's chest. If he saw in Blair's eyes what he felt in Blair's body, it would send him over the edge, he knew it, and he didn't want that yet. This was going to last forever.

There was a light, empty openness Jim felt in his head and in his belly, and a curious sort of buzzing sensation under the surface of his skin. He felt like a man who'd walked in dreams and shadows all his life, until now. He brought his other hand up and simply brushed the pads of his fingers over Blair's nipple, still damp from Jim's kiss, and heard the change in Blair's heart beat, felt it under the side of his face.

Moaning in response to Blair's own moans, he lifted his head and kissed him there again, moving slowly, giving both of them time to adjust to every new pleasure. His lips caught the hard nipple, rolling it a little, before his tongue scrubbed across the top of it, and he felt it too, like a wire drawn tight from his own breast straight to his groin, burning with heat. He raised his head, gasping Blair's name, and heard Blair gasping his own.

Ah, god, he thought in ecstasy. They were going to kill each other at this rate. He felt Blair's chest shaking then, a chuckle whispered from Blair's hoarse throat, answering Jim's own laugh. He didn't realize he'd laughed out loud until then. Perhaps he hadn't. "Glad --" Blair panted out, struggling to form words through the daze of pleasure. Jim kept his hands still, to let him speak. "Glad you think it's so funny, man."

Then Jim really did laugh, a hoarse shout that freed his very soul. He lifted himself over Blair and kissed him hard, holding his head with both hands, fingers and palms cradling his skull and feeling his soft hair, warm and damp. Blair kissed him back violently, teeth against Jim's teeth, tongue pressing back into Jim's mouth as his hips bucked up under Jim's weight.

Jim groaned. His arms slid around Blair's shoulders, one hand on the back of Blair head. Blair's hands were restless on his back, but they calmed then, one sliding up to hold the back of Jim's head as well, the other spreading wide against the small of his back. Jim felt the heat of Blair's palm there in the center of his back like a promise of warmth still to come.

Jim's hips had begun to thrust in helpless reaction to the force of Blair's response but as Blair's kiss became gentler and deeper, he slowed down as well, until he was rocking gently against Blair, slow, circular strokes that made Blair moan against Jim's mouth every time their cocks brushed, still separated by the soft cotton of Jim's sweats. When Blair's head finally dropped back, Jim lifted his own head to take in the sight of him, dazed blue eyes gazing up, parted lips swollen and very red, wet from Jim's mouth, a smooth flush over the olive skin, darkening his cheeks and throat, even spreading hot over his chest.

He was so beautiful Jim could do nothing but begin all over again. Still holding Blair's head he kissed Blair's brow once, and then over and over again, simply because he wanted to, feeling the heat against his lips, tasting the clean sweat. When Blair's eyes closed he kissed them as well, lingering to feel the quivering of Blair's lashes, the unimaginable fragility of the tender flesh there. He had the foolish, sentimental thought that he was kissing away Blair's tears and smiled to himself, even as he tasted their tracks on Blair's cheeks.

Blair's hands were under Jim's robe now, smoothing their way down Jim's back, and as Jim turned Blair's head to the side so he could trace a line of sweet, slow kisses from the corner of his mouth all the way to the soft hollow behind Blair's jaw, Blair's hands found their way under the waistband of Jim's sweats. Jim felt his warm fingers spread across his hips, gripping a little, trying to press Jim down more forcefully.

"Easy," he breathed into Blair's ear. "We've got time."

"Forever," Blair said. "I know. Forever."

Jim felt a burn like dry ice. It passed through him fast and hard, a wave of sensation that left his mouth dry, his lips tingling with sensation, his cock burning with sweet warmth, his entire body shuddering, suddenly drenched in sweat. He held on tight, his head buried against Blair's shoulder, wrapped around Blair as closely as he could, steadying himself as the world spun in wonderful, lazy circles, everything upside down and out of place. Jim had never known such chaos. He'd never known such happiness.

Blair wasn't leaving. He wanted to stay. He wanted to be here with Jim forever. Jim felt as though his heart were breaking under the weight of his joy. He lifted his head at last and looked down at Blair's beautiful face again, heavy-lidded eyes, an indescribable smile lifting the corners of his open mouth just a little, so calm and certain while Jim reeled with the amazed wonder of it all.

"Forever," Jim whispered back, watching Blair's face as he said the word. "Forever."

Blair's eyes closed. His head dropped back, exposing his bruised throat to Jim, asking without words. He only sobbed a little, fingers gripping Jim's hips hard as Jim found the same warm, tender place under Blair's ear that he had kissed and worried gently before. He caught the soft flesh between his teeth, giving Blair pleasure where once his mouth and body had been used to hurt him.

Feeling Blair arch under him, panting with joy, suddenly Jim wanted everything right now. He wanted to see Blair utterly lost and shuddering in his arms, nothing left but the pleasure Jim could bring him. This was the moment to bring Blair to completion, to baptize their new beginning with Blair's ecstasy. He worked his hand between them, Blair's belly quivering at the touch of his fingers, leaving goosebumps in his wake, and wrapped his hand around Blair's cock. He stroked harder than he had before, but then Blair stopped him, begging, "Please," even as he thrust up into Jim's hand.

"Shhh," Jim said, lifting his head from Blair's throat, his voice almost as ragged as Blair's. He stilled his hand, letting Blair return from the summit. "It's all right," he said again, when Blair was trembling under him, but calmer. "You can let go now. I want you to, Chief."

Blair managed a weak little laugh, and his own hands slid back, palms hot against Jim's ass, fingers trembling and radiating heat. "Together," he whispered. "You're the sentinel. You think you can get us there together?"

Jim kissed his mouth again, then breathed, "Yes," against Blair's face. Blair sighed and shivered. His eyes opened wide for a moment to gaze up at Jim, adoringly, then closed again. One hand still lay under the waistband of Jim's sweats, fingers spread wide against the curve of flesh and muscle where Jim's buttocks met his thigh, kneading gently. Blair's other hand came up and tugged ineffectually at the collar of the house robe Jim still wore.

Jim understood, but he could hardly stand to take his hands off Blair even long enough to shrug free of the robe. Blair helped as much as he could, tugging and pulling the robe down off Jim's shoulder on one side. When he couldn't push the robe any further, he ran his hand over Jim's bared shoulder and down his chest, finding one peaked nipple and teasing it harder between his thumb and forefinger. Jim growled with pleasure, his back arching, then hunching forward over Blair again, blind and lost, stupid with ecstasy. He tried to say something, but nothing came from his throat but sounds that made Blair laugh, and slit his eyes open again.

"C'mon," Blair panted, shivering as well even as he laughed. He laid his palm flat against Jim's chest and pushed back. "Jim, the robe. Please."

Jim took Blair's hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing his palm, the inside of his wrist, then each knuckle, the pads of his fingers, tasting him, closing his teeth gently, licking and sucking. Blair's laughter became a groan, and the hand on Jim's buttocks clenched harder. "Jim," he complained, not sounding all that unhappy. "Please --"

Jim laid Blair's hand against the side of his face and held it there with his own as he looked down at Blair. "What do you want?" he asked him softly. "Can you tell me?"

Blair gasped. "What do you think I want? Jim, you. Everything you'll let me have. You."

Jim kissed his mouth and then sat up over Blair, only their groins touching. Blair's hips began rocking up in an involuntary movement, but otherwise he was still, watching Jim through his heavily lidded eyes, breathing hard. The robe slipped from Jim's shoulders. Blair groaned and reached for him. Jim balled the robe together and leaned forward to tuck it behind Blair, pillowing his head, as Blair's hands spread eagerly across his chest. A draft over Jim's bare back made him shiver, but Blair's hands were hot and gentle. He remained that way for a moment longer, half-kneeling over Blair so Blair could keep touching him that way.

Blair smiled up at him. "Aw, Jim," he whispered, his hands moving slowly and gently, as though memorizing every touch. "You just don't know."

Jim smiled back, though he could feel his lips trembling. Blair's hands on him shattered everything so tenderly, so completely. "What is it?" he asked. "Tell me."

"Nothing. Everything." Blair pressed his lips together. They were swollen from Jim's kisses, and Jim wanted to bend forward and kiss them again. "I don't know." His hands slid up to Jim's throat, caressing, stroking. "It's just so much. Please hold me."

"Blair," Jim said. He lowered himself carefully, tucking his arms around Blair's trembling shoulders, feeling the warmth of Blair's chest against his own, his bare arms around Blair's shoulders and back. "I'm holding you," he said, and kissed Blair's forehead. "As long as you want. As long as you need me."

"Jim," Blair sighed profoundly, shivering at the warmth of Jim's body tucked around his own. Blair's arms were wrapped around Jim's ribs, hands spread wide across Jim's back. He strained up little to press a chaste kiss to Jim's lips and then settled back, eyes closed, though Jim still felt the tiny shivers that ran through him, and the way his hips still twitched from time to time, involuntary little thrusts against Jim that made them both moan. "Oh, man, Jim."

Jim kissed him just as carefully, and laid his cheek next to Blair's. "You were going to tell me something."

"Mmmm," Blair said, settling. His breathing was getting slow and deep, the shivers less frequent. His hands moved gently across Jim's back and his arms slipped down as he relaxed more until his hands were on the soft places at Jim's waist, under his ribs. "Makes sense," he murmured, not caring he wasn't making all that much sense himself. "Feels so good."

"I know," Jim whispered, turning his head to press a soft kiss to Blair's temple. "I love you too."

Blair whimpered, a speechless little exclamation of joy, writhing under Jim, kissing Jim's throat and chin and cheek and jaw in a flurry of sweet little touches. Then he relaxed again with another long, deep sigh. Jim felt his chest rise and fall, and as he tucked his head next to Blair's again, he felt the flutter of Blair's eyelashes as they closed.

Blair was exhausted. He should be in bed, Jim thought with tender regret, his arms tightening around Blair's shoulders, nuzzling his face against Blair's neck and shoulder, feeling and hearing Blair's quiet groan.

"No," Blair mumbled drowsily, as if Jim had spoken out loud. "Want you."

"I'm right here," Jim assured him, kissing his cheek. "But we've got time."

Blair turned his head blindly toward that kiss, straining for Jim. "Shh," Jim whispered before Blair's lips met his own. Blair's hands came up, clumsy but certain, and held Jim's head as he kissed Jim. Blair's body lay almost still under Jim's but his mouth was warm and sweet, his kiss so naked and hungry Jim could do nothing but give Blair everything he wanted.

Jim began moving again, slowly, carefully, still lost in Blair's deep kiss. He felt the curls of the hair on Blair's chest tickling his own smoother chest, the slow thunder of Blair's heartbeat, the heat and pressure of Blair's groin pressing up against Jim's own heat. His sweats were becoming an intolerable impediment, but he couldn't unwrap his arms from around Blair long enough to deal with them. He simply bore down harder, feeling the answering throb from Blair's heavy cock.

When Blair's head dropped back at last, Jim looked down into his sleepy sweet face, eyes bluer than the sky, lips parted, panting breathlessly, flushed with passion. His hands still held Jim's head, but the love in Blair's eyes held him more firmly. Jim's arms tightened around Blair's shoulders, thinking he couldn't possibly hold Blair tight enough in return, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

Blair smiled, almost shy, so beautiful and ridiculous with his arousal pressing hard against Jim's groin, then he shut his eyes and whispered, "Don't stop."

"No," Jim agreed, and kissed each closed eye. "Never. Thought we got that straight already. Never."

"Going to make holding down a job an interesting challenge," Blair said. He opened his eyes and laughed, and the feel of Blair's laughter, his chest shaking under Jim's weight, the way his throat worked as the happy sound escaped him, the way it sounded in his ears -- all of it shuddered through Jim and he wondered for a moment if he were zoning, everything seemed so gloriously intense, so exquisitely beyond his control.

He heard himself give a shout of laughter, and thought, no, not zoning. He didn't laugh when he zoned, and he certainly didn't feel like this, so alive, so full of joy, experiencing everything, not losing himself at all, but finding himself at long last.

And so damn turned on he couldn't string two thoughts together. Didn't think he could construct a sentence if his life depended on it. But that was ok. Even Sandburg seemed at a loss for words. He was craning his head up so he could reach Jim's throat, and the feel of that hot mouth gentle against the side of his neck, and then more insistent, lips, tongue, teeth, so gentle, so careful, maddening, unbearable -- oh god don't let him stop don't let this ever stop --

Blair was killing him, slowly, carefully, lovingly. Breaking him down into his component parts and lavishing that same hot sweet attention on every atom of his being. He was losing himself, he couldn't speak, he couldn't think, he was having trouble breathing. One of Blair's hands trailed down his back, the other cupped the back of his neck, holding Jim in place as he worked his way up the soft place under his jaw, reaching the ear lobe, nibbling carefully, his tongue flicking out then, hot, gentle, wet. Jim felt as though he'd never been kissed before in his life.

And he knew he'd never been loved before. He realized how close he was then, and with a groan, he released Blair, planting his hands flat on the floor and pushing himself up and away from Blair's sweet touch. Blair's eyes focused on his face with difficulty, and he seemed confused, but only for an instant. He spread his hand over Jim's face, caressing Jim's lips, and whispered between panting breaths, "Sorry, man." He didn't look very sorry. "Got carried away."

Jim groaned. His hands still planted on either side of Blair's shoulders, he lowered himself enough to kiss his lips. Blair responded with gentle fervor, tasting Jim's mouth as carefully as though this had been their first kiss, and his hands were busy, though just as gentle, as they slipped down under the waistband of Jim's sweats. The warmth of those beautiful hands made Jim moan into Blair's mouth, and Blair laughed again, muffled and ecstatic.

The waistband caught on Jim's furious erection as Blair tried to work the sweats down past Jim's hips, and Jim's moan became a gasp. Blair wrapped his hand around Jim's cock and with the other hand managed at last to get Jim's sweats down as far as his thighs, then held him like that, his other hand on the small of Jim's back, kissing him and waiting as the first, most violent shudders coursed through Jim.

When Jim finally lifted his head away from Blair's mouth, he wasn't at all sure he would be able to speak. And nothing very coherent emerged. He wasn't sure what he was saying. He wanted to tell Blair how much he loved him, but with Blair's hand holding him, Blair's face gazing up at him in perfect love -- and yeah, ok, there was a touch of smugness there, and Jim didn't begrudge him that -- he felt pretty damn smug himself, so sure he was of Blair's love -- and Blair's body spread beneath his own, aroused, insanely beautiful, lying there for Jim alone, forever -- Jim honestly didn't know what he said.

It must have been all right, though, whatever it was, because Blair's expression softened, and who would have thought it? A new blush heated Blair's olive cheeks, making them glow. He whispered to Jim, "You're so beautiful. I want you so much. I love you so much."

The shudders began even before Blair began to stroke him, firm and gentle, tender, insistent. Jim had no defenses. He didn't want any. All he could do was hold Blair's head, take his mouth, kiss him with violent joy as ecstasy broke through him.

Not the way he'd planned it, not the way Blair had asked for it, but Blair was taking it now, sweeping him away, helpless in Blair's arms. Everything was broken beyond repair, a glorious devastation. There was an aching hollow in the center of his gut and fire in his extremities. He felt himself thrusting helplessly, gasping, trying to breathe, trying to kiss Blair gently while everything else was ripped from his control. He was drowning in the taste of Blair's mouth, in the feel of his soft hair, almost dry now, in the heat of his body and the trembling of Blair's fingers even while they stroked Jim so surely. He would have liked to reach for Blair too, but he didn't have enough control for that. He was consumed by the spiral of pleasure as it coiled faster and harder, rushing through him, then turning him inside out and leaving him bereft, ecstatic and complete.

He collapsed over Blair, breaking the kiss at last, but only so he could bury his face against Blair's shoulder as the aftershocks twitched and trembled through him. Dear god, Jim thought, clutching Sandburg tighter, feeling with unspeakable relief Blair's hands coming up and tightening around his shoulders too. Oh dear god in heaven. I'm still alive.

Blair was talking to him. One hand was patting Jim's back carefully, his head rolled to the side so Jim could feel his jaw working as he talked. "Easy, man. It's all right. I've got you, Jim. I'm right here. I've got you."

Jim couldn't even lift his head. Couldn't even speak. His breathing was ragged and he thought it was a damned good thing his heart was strong, the way it was thundering away in his chest right now. He turned his face and kissed the warm hollow over Blair's collarbone because he couldn't do anything else.

Blair chuckled softly and happily. His hands were gently rubbing Jim's back, slow and easy. "So beautiful," he was murmuring to Jim, his voice muffled with laugher that sounded oddly like swallowed tears. "Your eyes. Your face. Aw, Jim, you don't know."

Jim wanted to tell him that he thought he did understand, but he couldn't manage words. Or much of anything else, except this. He tucked his arms more tightly around Blair's warm, exquisitely tense body, feeling the way Blair thrummed against his own sweet lassitude, and went back to kissing that soft place between Blair's neck and shoulder.

Blair felt so good. Jim couldn't touch enough of him and didn't have the strength to try, so he concentrated on this, the fine grain of his skin against his lips and tongue, the soft hair on his chest matted to his skin with sweat, the taste of him, salt and sex and even the brandy threaded faintly through the taste of his sweat. Jim wondered if he would ever be able to smell brandy again without getting hard. The thought made him laugh, and his laughter made Blair laugh, too. He held Blair tighter, feeling the aftershocks anew, a twitch at his groin that was very near pain in his present state. He licked and kissed his way across Blair's chest, lavishing gentle attention on the dark bruises, indulging himself elsewhere with tiny nips and bites between the kissing and tasting, because they made Blair moan and tremble and cry softly, "Aw, Jim, please. Please."

There was nothing else. There had never been anything else but the two of them entwined on the floor, Jim's passion slick and hot between their bellies as Jim slid down further and rubbed his cheek over one dusky nipple. The tender scratch of Jim's whiskers made Blair grunt, his hips coming up for a moment, and Jim turned his head and opened his mouth over the hard nipple, tasting carefully.

Blair liked that. Jim could feel the sudden rise in heat and tension. Blair squirmed in his arms, muttering and groaning. Holding Blair down with his own body, he brought his hands up and cupped Blair's strong, lean pectoral as he tongued and tasted and finally drew the tender nipple between his teeth, worrying it without force, just tugging a little, pressing and tasting. The tastes changed, subtle but unmistakable as Blair's excitement rose and the tiny bud under Jim's lips grew harder. So intoxicating, so good. Jim never wanted to stop. He saw no reason why he would ever need to. Forever, Blair had said. Forever. Blair's half-frantic cries rang in his ears. His body jerked and flinched under Jim's, and his hands caught at Jim's head, spread across his scalp and then held on. One of Blair's heels drummed against the floor in a persistent, irregular rhythm.

The sudden spike in Blair's heartbeat brought Jim back to himself. He stopped, a little worried, and laid his head on Blair's chest, running his hands down his sides, gentling and soothing. "Easy," he whispered. "Easy. It's all right."

Blair groaned.

"Shh," Jim whispered. "I'm sorry. You should be resting."

Another groan. Blair's hand clenched into a fist at the back of Jim's neck, and he drew a long, shuddering breath. Jim felt his chest rise under his face and it was an effort not to turn his head and go back to worrying the nipple he felt erect and tender just under his cheekbone.

"Jim," Blair managed at long last. His voice was very hoarse. If Jim had had the strength for it he would have sat up enough to stop the painful effort of speech with another kiss, but since he couldn't right now he lay where he was, feeling Blair's voice thrum in his chest. "Have you lost your mind?"

Jim nodded, feeling the way Blair trembled against the brush of his scratchy cheek. "Don't know, Chief." His own voice sounded hoarse too, come to think of it. "Maybe. I think I like it."

"Oh come ON," Blair complained fretfully. He touched Jim's face, his hand sticky and wet. His body moved in incomplete little jerks and twitches under Jim's weight. "You're killing me. You know that don't you? You're enjoying it."

"Mm-hmm," Jim agreed happily. His tongue flicked out and lapped at the palm of Blair's hand. Blair was so responsive even that touch made him gasp out loud. He seemed to forget whatever it was he was trying to tell Jim, abandoning it to arch luxuriously under him, shivering and sighing.

Oh, that was nice. It was all so nice, it all felt so good. A little stupefying, maybe, a little overwhelming, but good. Not surprising he would be dazed, he thought, as he gently caught Blair's wrists and pressed them to the floor, then turned his head and once again caught the straining bud between his teeth. He'd never been so happy in his life.

Blair's whimpers were growing frantic by the time something else occurred to Jim. He kissed his way carefully across Blair's breastbone, tender over the dark bruises, not even grieving at the sight of them because he knew them as marks of Blair's love and sacrifice, and of his own strength, empowered by that love, when suddenly he realized how strange this happiness was.

All his life, the joy of physical release had been followed by sorrow. It didn't matter whether he was with a partner or alone, the pattern was the same. Blank, empty grief. Hollow, pointless, infinitely sad, and all the worse because he could never explain it. Biology, he finally convinced himself. Post-coital depression. Nothing to worry about. Happened to everyone. But it didn't help when he had curled away from Carolyn, hiding his face to keep her from seeing the sorrow there. How could she have understood? He hadn't understood himself.

But there was no melancholy now. No grief. No regret. A glorious exhaustion like he couldn't manage to crawl up off the floor if his life depended on it, but no sorrow.

The floor. Aw, Chief, I'm sorry. We're still on the floor.

He turned his head again and rested carefully on Blair's chest. His heartbeat was still thundering away. "Blair," he said. "The sofa?" Blair mumbled something as Jim worked his way across Blair's chest and found the other nipple. A nub of hardness, but the skin around wasn't goosepimpled yet, and felt so soft under his lips.

He was still holding Blair's wrists, Blair's arms stretched flat, and he could feel the way the muscles flexed under the palms of his hands as Blair's hands clenched into fists and then spread wide again and again. Blair's body moved differently when his wrists were pinned, a long undulation from his chest all the way down to his feet, as though unable to touch Jim with his hands, he had to compensate with the rest of his body.

He kissed and licked the tender nipple, no teeth this time, more gentle and slow, enjoying the way Blair moved under him too much to want to change anything. What perfect bliss, what complete joy. He couldn't imagine wanting anything else in his life ever again. He wouldn't, he realized suddenly, when Blair arched frantically against him and whispered, "God, Jim, please. I love you."

Nothing else would ever be so important.

Oh lord, and he wanted to then. It would take so little. His hands, his lips on Blair -- seeing Blair's beautiful face lost in ecstasy --

He understood why Blair hadn't been able to wait, but Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly, calming himself, slowing down. The long drag of warm air across Blair's nipple, still wet from Jim's mouth, made Blair flinch, and he moaned and gave a soft little lost cry.

Jim smiled against Blair's chest and finally released his wrists. Blair grabbed his head, fingers warm against Jim's scalp, and held on a little too hard. His whole body was taut as a stretched wire. Jim's slightest movement made him thrum deliciously. Jim strained up so he could press a soft, wet kiss to the hollow of Blair's throat, and Blair cried out again, his head jerking to the side, one heel still drumming against the floor.

"Careful," Jim whispered, moving up the bared side of Blair's throat, kissing and tasting thoroughly along the way. He had shifted to the side, resting some of his weight on one elbow, and ran his other hand down Blair's ribs, to the slight, soft indention of his waist, and then to the curve of his hipbone. "Don't hurt yourself."

Blair made a strangled sound that could have been Jim's name.

Jim lifted his head, rubbed his cheek against Blair's, then looked seriously into those dazed blue eyes as his hand drifted across the flat of Blair's hip, stroked the side of Blair's desperate cock with two fingers, and then slipped carefully between his straining thighs to catch the soft balls together in the palm of his hand. Blair lay very still, panting breaths like sobs, keeping his eyes open, fixed on Jim's face.

Jim lowered his head and kissed Blair's mouth, shaking almost as badly as Blair as he felt Blair's thighs parting further. Blair's head tilted back, his mouth opening under Jim's. One knee had dropped to the side so that he lay splayed beneath Jim, trembling in hard little jerks as though he was about to shake out of his skin, but his mouth was tender and soft, breathing in Jim's breath.

Jim cupped his hand carefully, his fingers brushing the curling hair on the inside of Blair's thighs, before closing around Blair's soft vulnerability. The flesh there was so thin, wrinkled and soft. Jim sighed as Blair's tongue pressed gently in past his teeth. Jim still felt a shimmering afterglow of pleasure, a sweet, heavy pressure low his belly and tightening his throat, a sensation that reminded him for some unknown reason, of being very thirsty, and delaying for a moment that first sip of water. The wanting was as good as the fulfillment would be.

He would never stop wanting Blair.

Blair's tongue pressed more deeply, more insistently. His hands shifted on Jim's head, then he encircled Jim's neck with one arm, holding Jim to him. He was still shuddering, his heart pounding in his chest.

Overwhelmed, helpless in Blair's arms, Jim kissed him back more forcefully as well, teeth against teeth, lips wet and pressed hard, tongues slipping together. He held Blair firmly, feeling the fragile orbs slipping together under the thin, cool skin.

Blair froze.

Jim let go at once, moving his hand to Blair's thigh, releasing his mouth as well to look down at him in concern. It had felt so right, from the beginning, everything so in sync, reflected back to him so tenderly. He'd even felt the warmth between his own legs, the edge gone in the aftermath of his orgasm, but perhaps all the sweeter for that, languorous as that brandy, sipped slow.

No, he couldn't be wrong. "Blair --" he whispered, afraid of the answer all the same. There had been so many wrong answers in the past weeks, and even asking for them had been wrong. But not this. Surely not with this.

Blair began to breathe again. A long shiver, from his toes to fingertips, and then a hard gasp. "Jim?" It came out as a plaintive whisper. "Don't you dare stop now." Jim bent his head and closed his eyes with kisses. "Never."

"Jim," Blair said again, as though Jim were in danger of wandering off somewhere. "Jim?"

"Shh," Jim said, pressing a kiss to his cheekbone. "It's all right." He ran his hand down Blair's thigh then up again. The soft hairs were beginning to mat with sweat. Blair managed to open his eyes.

"Jim," he said for the third time. His voice was shaking as badly as the rest of him. Another long shiver seemed to ripple down the length of his body, and he strained upward, seeking Jim's touch. "Anything you need." He rocked his hips up against Jim as he said it, and his own wantonness made a new blush spread across Blair's cheeks, mottling his chest and throat as well. "Anything you want."

"Blair," Jim whispered. He shifted so he could hold Blair's head in both hands and gaze into that beloved face. Blair closed his eyes for long moments, then finally opened them again. He was still shivering, and at irregular intervals his dick twitched, the wet head hitting Jim's belly, making them both flinch with pleasure.

"I already have everything I want," Jim said. Blair's eyes were still wide, shining as though he were on the verge of tears, and the whole world lay within.

"Now," Blair said, his voice startlingly loud and clear for just a moment. "Jim, I love you, love you so much."

Jim shifted to the side again, and slid his hand down Blair's belly, fingers and palm in the slick wetness between them, sticky where it had begun to dry. He wrapped his hand around Blair's cock and stroked him gently and slowly, but as relentless and steady as Blair had been with him. Blair arched under him with a yelp that could have been "yes," or "please," or "Jim," and fell back again, head tossing from side to side.

To stop the restless movement, Jim caught Blair's mouth in another kiss, and despite the way Blair's body twisted and strained under Jim's hands, he answered Jim's kiss with such sweetness, so gently, that Jim felt as though he were the one on the verge of being lost.

He had to slow down, for himself, if not for Blair. He slid his palm around Blair's cock, slick and hot and twitching in his hand, and pressed forward, until the shaft was cradled softly against his own belly. He tasted Blair's long, slightly desperate sigh, never breaking the kiss.

Blair was clutching at Jim's shoulders, his fingers digging into muscle as his body grew tenser, straining toward completion. In response, Jim handled him still more gently, moving slowly though just as purposefully. He curled his palm around the shaft as he stroked up, twisting and closing his hand where the head flared, then wrapping his fist around the head of Blair's cock as best he could, feeling the heat, the tears of passion leaking slick and hot, making his hand glide easier over the silken skin.

Then down again, even more slowly. And again. And again. Blair had stopped kissing him back. His jaws were clenched, harsh, desperate breaths panting out through his parted lips. Jim kissed his lower lip, feeling it tremble, then the side of Blair's mouth, then the soft part of his cheek, then both closed eyes, before nuzzling down against Blair's throat and shoulder. "Do something for me?" he whispered, and stopped his hand for a moment to let Blair answer him.

Blair groaned.

Good enough, Jim thought, smiling against Blair's throat. He had no words for his feelings. An insane, reckless joy thundered in his heart, flamed through his mind. He had never felt so pure, so strong, so alive and free. Ironic, he supposed, since he knew how completely he was in thrall. "Blair," he said, beginning to stroke him again, even more slowly and carefully than before. "For me. Relax. Stop pushing. I've got you. I'll take care of you. I won't let you go."

Blair moaned deep in his throat. Jim could feel the desperate tension in the body he held. Blair's back was arched hard, hips and shoulders pressed to the floor, head rolling back. Blair's hands were digging into Jim's shoulders with painful force, but he managed to open his eyes again and stare up at Jim, the expression on his face a little frantic.

"I've got you," Jim whispered. "Easy."

"--Can't--" It came out as an explosion of voice, so soft, but violent with tension. "Jim--" More control now. He sounded as though he were sobbing. "Jim, it's too good -- I can't --"

"I know." Jim lowered his head again, cheek pressed to Blair's face, lips close to his ear. His hand slid up again, encircled the crown, cupped the shaft, then down again, very slowly, very tenderly, feeling every twitch in the engorged shaft. Blair's hips rocked in response. Jim heard Blair's breath catch, and he kissed Blair's temple, the shell of his ear, the side of his throat, then the warm hollow between the points of his collarbone. "But I've got you, Chief, and I'm not going to let you go."

He felt Blair's head nodding. The first breath Blair took rasped like a death rattle, but the next was easier, and the next was slower still.

"That's right," Jim said, his lips moving against Blair's throat, "That's right, like that."

The tight arch of Blair's back relaxed. He settled down against the floor in almost imperceptible degrees, his breaths softer, more regular. Jim was still talking, his hand moving carefully. "You saved my life. You saved my soul. Blair --" He stopped, hearing the harsh edge in Blair's breaths. He raised his head and looked down at Blair's face again. Blair's eyes were half-closed, his face flushed dark with passion. A damp tendril of hair was plastered to one cheek. A helpless, bewildered laugh escaped Jim. "And you're so damn beautiful, just looking at you makes me feel like I'm about to lose my mind."

Blair groaned something close to a laugh too, and shook his head as he finally let everything go. He released Jim's shoulders and dropped his arms. His head lolled back, muscles losing their tension with the abruptness of a house of cards coming down. He lay almost still, save for the rise of his chest as he took long, measured breaths, and the little flinches and jerks of his cock. The tender strife between them was gone. Blair lay utterly open to him, allowing Jim to hold him poised on the cusp, utterly vulnerable, naked with trust.

Tears blurred Jim's vision. He touched his lips to Blair's, and Blair's mouth opened under his. His mouth was so sweet. Jim tasted more deeply, and as his hand moved on Blair with all the gentleness and love he knew, Blair continued to yield. His lips, so soft and full, relaxed further, opening widely enough to permit Jim everything. Jim shifted his head to one side, pressing deeper, taking what Blair offered. He ran his tongue over the smooth ridge of Blair's teeth and then slipped deeper into the warmth of Blair's open mouth. Blair lay so still, but with each careful stroke of Jim's hand, Jim could feel the throb of pleasure that shook Blair to the very core. Jim felt it too, a diffuse, irresistible heat spreading through his entire body, a tide of ecstasy mounting in his veins and sweeping everything away but this. The pleasure that had silenced Blair so tenderly, taking him further and further away from himself every time Jim's hand slid down his cock, taking Jim with him, carrying them both away. Jim could have laughed when he realized the truth. Blair's perfect surrender had only bound Jim more irrevocably.

The wrench of joyful need pushed him further. He closed his fist around Blair, and the languorous strokes became a tight, close up-and-down, moving velvety hot skin relentlessly over the shaft and head. Hard and heavy as iron, save for the pulse Jim felt beating against the palm of his hand. Blair's mouth had gone slack under his, and a low cry whelmed up out of his throat, humming against Jim's mouth. But the tension, the passionate striving, never returned, even as Blair began to arch helplessly from the small of his back. Jim had to see his face. He broke the kiss with slow care, but as careful as he was, Blair followed him, straining for Jim's mouth. Jim moaned with laughter and kissed Blair's lower lip in reassurance, before lifting his head enough to look into his face.

Blair's eyes were wide open, and fixed on Jim, and the expression Jim found in those stormy blue depths undid him completely. He had never seen Blair so lost, so helplessly, desperately out of control. But even at this extremity one thing remained the same. The calm, unquestioning faith in Jim that had always shone out of those eyes shone there still.

Jim was the one who cried out. He claimed Blair's mouth again, tender despite the violence of his love, and rolled forward, resting his weight on Blair so he could wrap one arm around Blair's shoulders and hold him closer, his other hand trapped between them, knuckles scraping his own belly as he pleasured Blair. He felt the gathering storm, and knew the rush to completion was inexorable. He was no more capable of stopping than Blair. He stroked the length of Blair's cock one more time, closing his hand when Blair shuddered, his entire body tightening, trying to bring his hips up off the floor. Jim shook too. Ice prickled down the length of his spine, and it seemed each separate nerve ending burned with the heat of Blair's ecstasy. Overwhelmed, Jim laid his cheek against Blair's and whispered, "I love you," and then held him as Blair came.

The hot pulse spilled through Jim's fingers and splashed against his belly. Jim felt a sympathetic rush of heat, a hollow ache in his chest and a hot, stinging sensation in his extremities, spreading warm and irresistible from his own suddenly unsated cock. He felt it jerk against Blair's heated thigh. Dear lord, hard again, and shuddering from Blair's pleasure. He felt it all, more intense, in its way, even than his own orgasm had been. The ecstatic weakness in his limbs, the sweet heat spreading up from his groin and down from his throat. His right nipple still burned from Blair's loving pinch minutes before, and he still felt the exquisite friction of Blair's beautiful hand on him.

Blair twisted under him. Jim closed his hand, moving carefully as shudders wracked Blair. He could feel the first desperate heat of ecstasy relaxing into something sweeter and somehow even more overwhelming.

Jim heard himself panting with it. Blair was breathing in long, noisy gasps, his hips moving in a slow, hard undulation under Jim's weight. His head was back, the throat bared again, mouth open, though nothing but his breaths escaped him.

Blair's eyelashes fluttered on his flushed cheek, impossibly demure and beautiful as his body continued to shake and buck, pressing upward against Jim's body as though the pleasure that had stolen speech and thought and reason from him weren't enough. As though Jim's touch were more important than what that touch had done to him.

"Shh," Jim whispered to him, his heart breaking with love. He gentled his hand on Blair, drawing out every last shudder of pleasure as long as he could. At last Blair lay almost still again, save for the rocking of his hips and his head turning from side to side, as though seeking something he expected to find very close. "I'm here," Jim told him softly, soothing him as Blair began to shiver. His arm was still around Blair's shoulders, and he shifted so he could reach up and cradle Blair's head in the palm of his hand, stopping the restless seeking. Blair gazed up through half closed lids, eyes quite unfocused. He was moaning every time he exhaled, making soft little trembling sounds. "I'm here," Jim said again, his own voice breaking. "Blair, it's all right."

Blair's lashes fluttered, and suddenly those naked blue eyes were open very wide and looking straight up at Jim. His lips moved. "Yeah," he whispered, almost managing a smile. "Yeah, Jim, I noticed."

Jim felt as though his heart were about to pound right out of his chest. He swooped down, not quite laughing, and kissed Blair's smiling lips. Blair met him, his own mouth warm and alive, and there was a subtle difference in the taste in the aftermath of Blair's passion, a soft musk that drew Jim in more deeply than before. He kissed Blair passionately, lingeringly, as though they hadn't just made love on the living room floor, or as though they might never see each other again, as though it were the first kiss or the last they would ever share.

Blair was gentle at first, exhausted, sated. Jim had seen the look of stunned pleasure in Blair's eyes as he bent his head to kiss him, and knowing he was the reason for that expression on Blair's face made Jim feel a bit dazed and overwhelmed himself. He drew back for a moment, hearing and feeling Blair's breathlessness, but Blair strained after him with an inarticulate moan of need that Jim felt like a fist closing around his very soul.

So Jim could do nothing but kiss him again, his own lips soft so he could feel the all the warmth and tenderness of Blair's trembling lips. When those lips parted, seeking more, Jim tasted more deeply, his mouth opening as Blair kissed him back. Blair was still shivering, sudden, brief shudders that seemed to have nothing to do with the cold. It wasn't cold in the room anymore anyway. It was gloriously warm in the loft, even though there were goosebumps rising on Jim's naked back.

The air was heavy with the scents of the evening. The loft smelled to Jim like warmth and safety. Rain, hot bathwater, brandy. Everything else. Blair. Sex. It hung around them like a haze of incense, familiar and yet impossibly exotic now that his and Blair's passion mingled wet and hot between them. Jim could feel Blair's stomach muscles quivering in reaction still, and there was a muscle twitching uncontrollably in Blair's thigh.

Jim wondered if he could calm even those last tremors if he kissed Blair gently enough. He was still holding Blair's softening cock, petting and stroking slowly and very, very tenderly, soothing him. Blair sighed, still kissing Jim, and stretched, arching luxuriously up against his hand.

Jim was supporting the weight of Blair's head still, holding him so he could continue to taste Blair's mouth. Blair's tongue pressed insistently back, even though the rest of him lay quiescent under Jim, and Blair finally managed to raise one hand and lay it gently at the small of Jim's back. Blair's palm was damp with sweat, and so hot Jim felt it like a brand. He moaned happily at the gentle touch, and felt Blair's lips smiling under his own.

Jim smiled back, then laughed softly, because he couldn't kiss Blair and grin at the same time, and now he couldn't stop grinning. He nuzzled his cheek against Blair's and whispered, "Thank you."

Blair laughed too, more breathlessly, sounding bewildered. "Jim," he said, or something like it. "You -- I don't --"

"It's OK," Jim said. He kissed the tip of Blair's nose, and smiled down at him, thinking he had never seen anything in his life more beautiful than Blair Sandburg at this moment, dazed with pleasure, clinging to Jim in the aftermath so trustingly. "I know."

And suddenly those startling blue eyes shone with tears. A single drop fell, rolling over Blair's temple to be lost in his tangled hair. "Chief," Jim whispered helplessly, seeing the mist before his own eyes.

But with more strength and purpose than Jim would have thought him capable of, Blair threw both arms around Jim's neck and pulled him down hard. "I never knew it could be like this," Blair whispered fiercely, his voice hoarse with passion. "God, Jim, I love you so much it hurts." His arms tightened, and Jim could feel the tears wet between their cheeks.

"Blair," Jim said in return, all he could say. "Blair." His hands were under Blair's shoulders, the point of each shoulder blade resting against his palm.

"You don't know, Jim," Blair whispered. His voice was iron with certainty, despite how soft it was. "I've never -- it was never--" He groaned in frustration, utterly beyond speech, so Jim nuzzled his cheek against Blair's, then turned his face to kiss the soft flesh of Blair's throat, just under the hinge of his jaw. The bristles were rough against his lips, and Blair's pulse was still ragged and fast.

Blair gasped, his body shuddering under Jim's. His forearms were still locked across the back of Jim's neck. "Will you tell me?" Jim managed to ask, the second time he tried. He kissed Blair again, touching his lips to the hollow above his collarbone, where fading trails of bruises from his throat and chest met in a yellowish smear.

Blair made a sound that was not quite a word, then moved his hands to either side of Jim's head and with the strength of being certain, despite the trembling weakness in his body, he lifted Jim's head so that he could gaze up into Jim's face. Tears were wet on Blair's face, and bright in his eyes. "Kiss me," Blair whispered, nothing coy in his tone. "Kiss me, and I will."

Jim kissed him. Blair moaned, meeting Jim's kiss carefully, lips barely parted, the kiss of men who had been soulmates before they became lovers. Too soon, Blair eased away, as though he were being careful not to take advantage of Jim's gift, and Jim couldn't help sighing when the kiss ended.

He felt Blair smiling, though his face was too close to Blair's to see it. "Thanks, man," Blair whispered, his voice so low Jim felt the vibrations in his arched throat. They bubbled up suddenly into a laugh. "Like I'm thanking you for a lift from school," he said, half-choking on his laughter. He put his arms around Jim's neck again and squeezed so hard Jim grunted, and Blair laughed again. "Listen to me," he said seriously then, unwinding his arms so he could run his fingertips up the back of Jim's neck, through the short brush of hair.

"I'm listening." Jim dropped his head and touched another brief kiss to Blair's warm lips.

Blair accepted the kiss gravely, and when Jim raised his head again, Blair's eyes had burred with emotion once more. "It's just, nobody ever loved me enough to want so much of me. Not ever. Jim, I didn't even know."

"Yes you did," Jim said. His own voice sounded almost as hoarse in his own ears. "Nobody was ever so gentle with me." He stroked his hand over Blair's face, lifting a few tangled strands from Blair's damp temple and smoothing them back. He lowered his head and kissed Blair again, and Blair's lips parted so eagerly that Jim had no choice but to linger this time. Blair's mouth was sweet and open to him, and Blair's tongue pressed back into Jim's mouth, soft over his lips, slick and insistent over his teeth, hungry for him, even now, when his body lay sated and replete under Jim's.

Continued.