In Thicket

by Martha, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

"So why don't I go destroy my notes? How about that?"
Blair Sandburg - Nightshift

"All things are made bitter, words even
Are made to taste like paper"
Charles Olson - "In Cold Hell, in Thicket"

The battery was dead. Again. Jim lifted his hands like he was making an appeal to heaven, then dropped them heavily on the steering wheel.

Blair heard himself give a snort of laughter that didn't have much amusement in it. "I guess miracles only last for so long, huh?"

"Yeah." Jim looked at him, and for an instant Blair thought he was going to say something more. Instead Jim pushed open the door on his side of the truck and swung himself out. "Rafe. Hold up."

Turning his head to follow Jim's progress across the parking garage, Blair felt a sudden, sharp twinge. He stopped trying to look behind himself and rubbed at the aching muscles at the side of his neck, surprised by the pain. It had all happened so fast that all he really remembered was having been far too late and not nearly strong enough to stop Victor Smallwood from firing. The rest was only helpless rage and, way deep down, a rather ridiculous sense of embarrassment as Smallwood hauled him around like a sack of potatoes in front of Jim, most of Major Crime, and a representational cross-section of Social Services patrons.

Of course, he should probably be used to it by now, Blair thought glumly, turning his head to the other side and gingerly testing the sore muscles. Being ignored, tossed around, left behind. It was practically a way of life around this place. And if he was wallowing, wasn't he entitled, at least a little bit? The past twelve hours had pushed him to his limit, and he thought the thing that pissed him off the most had been reaching the elevator a few steps behind Jim, just in time to see the elevator doors closing in his face. Jee-zus, Jim, talk about being childish.

Blair gave himself a mental shake. He needed to get over it already. So Jim hadn't held the elevator for him. Was that really the worst thing that had ever happened to him? So Jim had called three years of his entirely literal blood, sweat, and tears a betrayal of trust and friendship. Hey, no problem. And even if there was a problem, sulking about it wouldn't solve anything. Jim had tried to apologize. As much of an apology as Blair was ever likely to get, anyway. He'd even extended an olive branch, of sorts, by asking if Blair still had time to turn in his first chapter.

Well, he would have time if Jim ever got the truck started.

He got out and went to see what the hold up was. Jim was leaning against Rafe's brand new, fire-engine red Probe, his head and shoulders halfway in the driver's side window so that Rafe couldn't drive away. "You could borrow a battery from the shop, Ellison," Rafe was complaining.

"I'm just asking for a jump here."

"The last time I jumped somebody I blew the whole electrical system. I'd like to help but --"

"For chrissakes, you're not gonna blow your electrical system," Jim said without raising his voice. "C'mon, it's been a real long night, and I just want to get home."

"Yeah, fine, all right," Rafe submitted with bad grace. "Get out of my car."

Jim stepped back, and Rafe hauled around and pulled close into the space next to Jim's truck, stopping with a jerk. "Gotta hand it to you, man," Blair said under his breath. "You've got a real way with people."

When Jim turned his head Blair made a show of getting out of range, but Jim didn't play along. He just looked exhausted. "I'm trying to get you to school, Sandburg. Pull out the jumper cables, would you?"

"Right," Blair said. "They still under the seat?"

Jim had walked around to the front of the truck. "No, at home in your underwear drawer," he snapped. "Where the hell do you think they are?"

There, that was the cranky Jim Ellison Blair knew and loved. He was wondering about the weariness on Jim's face, though, as he walked back around, leaned into the truck and rooted around under the passenger side seat. More than just exhaustion. Jim had honestly looked hurt by Blair's little comment about his social skills. As if Jim had something to be hurt about. Exactly whose dissertation got stolen here, Ellison? Who accused whom of betraying three years of friendship?

Taking a deep breath, Blair tried to let it all go. He pulled out two wadded-up Natural Energy Bar wrappers, getting melted carob on his fingers in the process, then hauled out the cables. Rafe was trying to construct some complicated dirty joke about the probability that Blair really did keep jumper cables in his underwear drawer, but he let it die when Blair came around with the cables.

Blair ducked his head under the hood of the Probe and clamped the cable to the battery.

Jim took my dissertation out of my notebook, he thought. The fact of it still flabbergasted him. James Death-Before-Dishonor Ellison sneaking around like a kid stealing his dad's Playboy. What had gotten into him? It didn't fit anything Blair thought he knew about the man. If he'd been so bound and determined to read it, Blair would have expected him to simply take the damned thing, fending Blair off with longer arms and superior strength if he had to. God knew, he'd watched Jim set off on those roads to hell more than once, and when he did, it was usually with all flags flying. Covert ops or not, Jim didn't sneak.

"The red one goes to the positive terminal," Rafe said nervously. He was leaning over Blair's shoulder, watching so closely Blair had to jostle him out of the way to stand up.

"I know, I know, I've got it."

"Let me have your knife," Jim said, taking the other end of the cable from Blair. "The terminals are corroded."

"I'll do it. You need to be careful not to touch that shit."

Jim just stood there, his free hand palm up, waiting for the knife.

"This is stupid," Blair said, dropping his voice a little, useless as it was with Rafe standing not three feet away and petting at the side of his little red car as though it were a skittish horse. "Hello, Jim, battery acid. Would you just let me do it?"

He might as well have been arguing with Jim's truck for all the response he got. Snorting in exasperation, he finally tugged his pocket knife out of his front pants pocket. Jim took it without a word.

"I'll try to start it," Blair said as an excuse for his retreat. There wasn't room for him to duck between the cars from the front, so he walked all the way around the back of Jim's truck to get to the driver's seat. Rafe said something Blair couldn't quite hear - - maybe he was finishing the underwear/jumper cables joke - - and Jim actually laughed, bitter and brief. "What?" Blair demanded before pulling himself up into the driver's seat. "What is it?"

No one answered him. Rafe was attaching the final black clamp to a bolt on his engine block, and Jim gave Blair a thumbs-up without turning his head. The keys were on the dashboard. Blair scooted to the end of the seat to reach the gas pedal.

So. Jim had read the dissertation and compromised three years of Blair's research. No way to take that back, no way to undo it. Every test result, every question Jim answered about his senses from now on would be influenced by what he had read. Blair'd never get a truly honest answer from him about his senses again.

Nothing happened when Blair tried the ignition.

"Damn, " Jim said calmly. "Take the key out."

"You're clear. Go ahead."

Jim reached under the hood, readjusted the clamp on the battery, and straightened up. "Try it again," he said, never looking in Blair's direction.

This time the engine coughed unenthusiastically into life. Blair stayed behind the wheel as Jim and Rafe unhooked the cables, then slid over to the passenger side as Jim pushed the hood down hard.

Three years of research. Perhaps any hope Jim ever had of gaining complete control over his senses. Gone, just like that. What had Jim been thinking? How could he have done something so short sighted and stupid? Blair felt the anger coming back and didn't try to stop it. How could Jim have thought he had the right to jeopardize all their work together? Maybe it had been some twisted attempt to prove that although Blair was writing the book, Jim was the one still in control. That would be in character. Control Issues-R-Us, huh, Jim?

Blair wanted to throttle him.

Jim slid into the driver's seat, raised one hand in farewell to Rafe, and said, looking straight ahead, not at Blair, "Drop you off at school?"

"Uh, no, actually I need to enter these corrections on my laptop back at the loft."

Jim turned to check behind him as he backed out of the parking spot, and watching him, trying to decide just how angry he really was with Jim, Blair realized he could see the toll of the last twenty-four hours on Jim's face. His skin was pale and thin, looking as though it were stretched too tightly over his cheek and jaw bones, even his lips thin and colorless. Fine lines were visible at the corners of Jim's mouth and eyes. He was getting older, and it showed after a sleepless night.

"It's almost noon," Jim said. He sounded hoarse. "You sure you're all right for time?"

"I'm good. As long as I get everything in Dr. Rhys' mailbox by five there shouldn't be any problem."

Plenty of time. No problem. I just need to rethink the premise of my entire dissertation, but there's no problem at all here, Jim.

Blair couldn't recapture his anger, though. It had slipped away from him as he looked at the lines on Jim's face, and mostly he just felt tired, almost as tired as Jim looked. Jim took it slow driving out of the garage, as though it was too much work to manhandle the big truck around those sharp turns at his usual speed. Blair thought about offering to drive, but Jim would have just turned him down, so he didn't. The sunlight outside the garage was thin and piercing. He saw Jim squint his eyes shut and fumble for his sunglasses case on the seat, so Blair found it for him first, pulled out the glasses and set them in his hand.

"Thanks," Jim said, but the dark glasses didn't hide the tired blue of his eyes from Blair's view.

The damage was done, Blair decided. He could either keep sulking about it, or he could figure out where they went from here. He sat up a little straighter and took a deep breath. Jim's eyes darted in his direction, but he didn't speak. So Blair's original view of his thesis was untenable now. As much as he hated losing his ideal of a pristine, unassailable study of a modern day Sentinel, it really wasn't as though all his research had to be pitched out. He just needed to adjust his focus to acknowledge the fact that his subject knew what he was writing. The trick would be to get over the inconvenience to one hapless researcher, and try to construct a more dialogic, even synchronic work. Jim the Sentinel from day to day. Blair could write about the way Jim dealt with the anthropologist who was dogging his steps as well as every other advantage and disadvantage of his heightened senses. The progress they had made together over the years, working together so Jim could learn a measure of control. The setbacks as well. Like last night, for instance. It would be painful at times, but in the long run it might be a more honest, certainly a more compelling work.

Maybe he should have tried to write it that way from the beginning. He'd made a conscious decision to go with a more old-fashioned formalist tone fairly early on, though. Blair was making some pretty extraordinary claims. If he had allowed his admiration and respect to bleed into the language of his thesis, surely that would have been one more excuse for his committee to dismiss his findings. They already had reason enough without Blair looking like he had a bad case of hero worship for his subject.

Especially since, sooner or later, Blair was going to have to admit that Sir Richard Burton seemed to have gotten it dead wrong as far as sentinels were concerned.

"Hey," Blair blurted out, distracting himself since he was too tired to go down that road right now, "what do you say we stop somewhere to grab a bite to eat?"

Jim shook his head without taking his eyes off the road. "We turn off the engine before the battery's charged, it won't start again."

"We could swing by Yaxche Maya, and you could keep the engine running while I run in and get us an order of padadzules or something to go."

Jim shrugged. "Thought you said that food gave you heartburn."

"Yeah, well, sometimes it's worth it."

Jim didn't say anything more, but when they reached the intersection with Burlington he turned left, heading toward the restaurant. Good, Blair thought. Some decent food in their stomachs, and all of this would seem a little more manageable. Maybe he'd even be able to think rationally about where his research was headed, and how he was going to convince his committee that he hadn't been chasing his own tail all these years.

He'd started out wanting to prove Richard Burton's long-discredited observations about sentinels, and who could blame him for thinking that having found a living, breathing sentinel had been one heck of a step in the right direction?

Bang! Holy Grail time.

Wrong. In fact, the last three years had been an interesting study in just how wrong it was possible to be when you think the Holy Grail has dropped into your lap.

In the seldom-reprinted afterword to The Highlands of Brazil, Burton had written that every village had its own sentinel. And that was the first problem, since the only sentinel Burton actually seemed to have met in person was a member of the Guaja peoples, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers. By definition, they didn't live in villages. But OK. In 1861 anthropology didn't have a well-defined professional vocabulary. Maybe Burton had really meant "band" or "tribe", not village at all.

But that was a solution that only raised more problems. In hunter-gatherer societies, individual bands consisted of twenty-five people or so. If Burton meant that every group had its own sentinel, then the genetic advantage which resulted in a sentinel's heightened senses showed up in one person in twenty-five. In fact, of those twenty-five individuals, at least half would have been children, and a child sentinel couldn't have been much use as a watchman. Now Blair was down to one person in every thirteen being born a sentinel. And that was a hell of a lot. He should have been hip-deep in sentinels by now.

Better to suppose that, Guaja or not, when Burton said village, he really had meant village. Non-state horticulturists living in population centers as large as 300 people or so. With that assumption the number of potential sentinels in the population dropped to one per 150, depending on whether women and children were tested or ever served as sentinels. That was better. A little. It all started to fall apart, though, as soon as Blair looked in his own backyard.

All his work with Jim had convinced him that Jim's senses were a result of the way his brain processed sensory input, and whatever other differences people had from region to region and from generation to generation, the brain itself was notoriously conservative. Blair shouldn't have to go to South America to find more sentinels. There should be others right here. The greater Cascade area had a population of roughly three million, so if Burton was right about the incidence of sentinelism in the general population, then there should be around twenty thousand sentinels right here in Cascade alone.

Uh huh. So tell me something, Sir Richard Francis Burton. Where the hell are they?

The funny thing was, once Blair had found Jim Ellison, he really thought he might start finding some of those other sentinels. They were probably all around him, their special abilities misdiagnosed as pathologies ranging from ADD to chronic pain syndrome. After a few months of living with Jim and studying the way Jim reacted to stimuli, Blair knew he would recognize another sentinel when one crossed his path. He could spend fifteen minutes with a child on Ritalin and come away reasonably certain that her hyperactivity wasn't caused by heightened senses. He wasn't likely to mistake a petit-mal seizure for a zone-out. During several memorable months two summers ago he'd sat through involuntary commitment hearings at the county courthouse until he was practically ready to start wearing a little aluminum foil helmet himself to block the cosmic rays, but he never saw any evidence that those schizophrenics off their meds really were hearing voices from way, way outside their own heads.

"Closed on Mondays," Jim said.

"What?" Blair looked up as Jim turned the truck around in the deserted parking lot outside Yaxche Maya. "Oh, damn. Well, how about the Andes Cafe?"

"It's on the other side of town. What about your paper?"

"Let me worry about that. I've got five hours still, I told you. I think I can take a break for lunch."

Jim sat for a moment more at the parking lot exit, and then he turned left, heading toward home. "I'm pretty beat," said the only sentinel in Cascade, his hoarse voice rasping. "A sandwich at home be OK with you?"

"Yeah, sure, man. Whatever."

So no more sentinels had been forthcoming. Blair hadn't expected to find just one or two, either. Now that he knew where and how to look, he should have been able to find dozens. And even though he hadn't, he hadn't been ready to throw Burton out the window just yet. No, he'd decided early on that the manifestation of heightened senses must have everything to do with isolation. The kind of isolation that was rare in heavily industrialized population centers, unless, say, you happened to be an army ranger left for dead in the jungles of Peru, or a stressed-out detective alone on stakeout for four days out in the woods. So there could still be thousands of potential Sentinels within a stone's throw, but absent the proper environmental stimuli, they -- and Blair -- would never know. He'd fooled around with ideas for testing for these theoretical sentinels, but after three years, he still had nothing feasible. Nothing he could possibly get the funding for at any rate. Besides, the more he got to know Jim, the more he knew he couldn't squander his own too-short time and resources looking for other sentinels. Not when Jim was right here, and needed him so much.

So he gave up looking for the rest, and along with it, the possibility that his dissertation would be anything but a case study. He had a sample of one. One sentinel. And one didn't prove anything. One was an anomaly. He couldn't generalize from one, couldn't really prove that Richard Burton had been right all along, probably never would get the funding to look for other sentinels on the basis of it, but he was trying his damnedest anyway because Jim needed him, and what did Jim call it? A 'violation of trust and friendship.'

Jesus, Jim.

Blair could feel his cheeks reddening with the heat of emotion. Damnit, he had decided he wasn't going to think about this now, not while he was hungry and tired and had exactly four hours and forty-five minutes to get his chapter turned in.

Must have had too much coffee last night. Between that and the leftover adrenaline rush he just couldn't seem to turn off his racing thoughts. It would help if Jim would say something, not just sit there beside him with both hands on the wheel, staring out at the streets of Cascade through his dark shades and blinking a little too often. His eyes must be tired, just like the rest of him. Just like they both were.

"Hey," he said, once more trying to banish the weariness and anger by the sound of his own voice. "With everything that's been happening I forgot to tell you. The anthro department's holding a roundtable next Thursday night you might be interested in."

The one eye of Jim's that Blair could see in profile blinked again. The silence stretched out long enough for Blair to start considering his options -- either pretend he hadn't said anything, or else repeat the question while trying not to sound pissed off, which he was, when Jim said solemnly, "I have to wash my hair that night."

Blair laughed out loud in sheer relief. "Come off it, at least hear me out. This is right up your alley. It's about Napoleon Chagnon. You remember -- I gave you a copy of his book about the Yanomamo a couple of years ago while we were working on recovering your memories of your time with the Chopec."

"I remember." There was a pause, then Jim said, sounding almost wistful. "That was a good read."

"Yeah, that text's a classic. Well what's happened is, a journalist has just published a book in which he claims that Chagnon exploited the Yanomamo in really horrible ways during his years there as a researcher. There's a bunch of stuff, but the worst is his claim that Chagnon deliberately released a contagious measles virus into the Yanomamo population that killed hundreds, maybe thousands. Supposedly it was a warped attempt to prove some insane eugenics theory. It's probably the biggest scandal in anthro since the Thai Affair or Project Camelot. Anyway, it's gonna be a pretty intense discussion, and I just thought you might be interested."

A long moment of silence. Then, "Oh yeah," Jim deadpanned. "Beats dinner and a movie any night."

Blair felt himself grinning, and left it at that. He'd get through this after all. He'd gotten through worse. They both had. Like the day he'd finally met Jim's father and then realized later that night, as Jim told him the rest of the story in halting, broken sentences over too many beers, that Sir Richard Burton really had gotten it wrong after all.

For two and a half years Blair had ignored the non-appearance of all those other sentinels by supposing the ability remained latent unless triggered by fairly extraordinary sessions of isolation. And then out of the blue it turns out that little Jimmy Ellison had had heightened senses all his life -- and his father had known about them. Like getting hit by lightning, that day had been for Blair. Some weird, slow-burning kind that made his heart skip a beat or five before spreading outward along the nerve endings, tingling a little as it seared everything in its wake. There had been no time to stop and regroup just then, because as shocked and stunned as Blair had been, Jim had been so much worse.

Thinking about that time now, Blair felt a stab of sympathy for the big, cranky, ungrateful guy sitting next to him. Poor Jim. Man. For days Jim had crept around with that stern, broken look in his eyes, and nothing Blair could say or do had seemed to make any difference. He thought Jim's pain had probably been making him a little nuts himself. He vividly remembered lying wide awake long after midnight one night, and as he listened to Jim tossing and turning sleeplessly overhead, he had been rather seriously trying to plot the perfect murder of one William Ellison. More than twenty years of repression, denial and fear heaped on Jim's head, all because his father was afraid of what the neighbors might think. How did you get past something like that? How could you ever forgive it?

Blair had been seeing a grad student in English lit around that time, and when he'd mentioned that his room mate was having a tough time dealing with his father, she'd dug up a great Larkin poem for him about parents.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you . . .

It made him laugh, and for some reason laughing had made him not so angry with William Ellison anymore. When he quoted the lines to Jim later, Jim hadn't laughed, but one corner of his mouth had quirked up, and a few minutes later Jim had suggested this might be the weekend to finally replace the rickety old vanity in the bathroom, and that's what they had done. It had taken twice as long and cost three times as much as they expected, in the nature of all home improvement projects, but it had been something to keep them busy that weekend. By Sunday night, they had a new vanity with four drawers in the bathroom. Jim ceremoniously filled three of the drawers with Blair's stuff ("so it doesn't need to sit by the sink or on the side of the tub anymore, you get me, Sandburg?"), and the stern, broken look had been gone from Jim's eyes.

He should really hunt up Julie some time and thank her for having shown him the poem. Funny how it had helped. He wasn't sure how that worked. Maybe it was simply acknowledging the universality of what seemed, while you were drowning in it, such an intimate, personal agony.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Or maybe it was even simpler than that. The hyperbole of that last, bleak stanza was as funny as it was depressing. No matter how bad things seemed, the solution was still worse. And of course, the wonderful thing about Jim was how un-fucked-up he really was. William Ellison had tried, in that hapless way of all parents, to fill him up with his own faults, but the only ones which had really stuck were the ones that, in the grand scheme of things, just didn't matter all that much. Even his fear of being different, and heaven knew, Pops Ellison had done such a good job on that score Jim had repressed his senses for decades. If somebody needed him, though, Jim would do what he had to do. Even take up the devastating burden of those senses again. He was the fucking bravest man Blair had ever known.

(It makes me sound like a coward, Jim had said.)

Blair took a deep breath, suddenly feeling like somebody had walked over his grave.

Yeah, they needed to talk about the diss, when they both were calmed down. Jim simply hadn't understood. Blair's writing had to be detached and clinical, because it was the only chance in hell he had of getting his committee to take the thing even half-way seriously. He used a professional vocabulary to make it possible to talk about the difficult things without tearing his heart out. Jim did the exact same thing. Words like 'exit wound,' 'intruder,' 'time of death,' and 'minor.' The words which let Jim deal with things that were too important to look straight at all the time. The words that let Jim be a cop. Blair would just have to get Jim to understand about the words that allowed him to be an anthropologist.

"You're sure your car will get you to school?" Jim asked. He turned tightly into a parking place in the middle of Prospect, hesitating before he pulled the key out of the ignition. "I don't know if the truck will start again."

"Yeah, I think so. It was running OK this time yesterday."

Jim turned to him, one eyebrow rising above the frame of the sunglasses, an expression that made Blair grin again as Jim let the engine die. It was gonna be all right, he thought determinedly. Things had worked out this long. Jim's reaction to that chapter didn't mean their friendship had turned some permanent corner here. It was just a rough patch, and they would work their way through it.

He jumped out of the truck, his notebook with the first chapter tucked under his arm. Maybe he'd even figure out a way to get his dissertation written, even though Burton had gotten it so wrong.

That had been the slow-burning lightning that still crackled along Blair's nerve endings when he allowed himself to think about it too much, and frankly, man, the last six months or so, the truth about Richard Burton's findings had been one of those things he just hadn't been able to look at straight. Blair had been rationalizing his failure to find any other sentinels by supposing it took extraordinary circumstances for sentinel senses to manifest themselves. But guess what, he'd gotten it ass backwards for two and a half years. Extraordinary circumstances had caused to Jim repress his senses, not recover them. If Burton had been right, then there really should be a sentinel around every corner, and Blair knew damned well there wasn't.

Had Burton just made a wild guess? On the basis of one meeting with one individual? A meeting which had to have been conducted through an interpreter. Linguist that Burton had been, Blair didn't believe he could have become fluent in Ge during his six months in Santos. Not even taking into account the fact that Burton had been drinking so heavily during those months that his wife petitioned the home office to transfer him to Damascus before he drank himself to death. It had been during those lonely, miserable months that Burton had written his fantastic account of heroes among us. Sentinels, guardians and watchmen of the tribe. God, Blair had loved that. The idea of them had gripped him by the heart, and he'd never let go.

Was it all just a fairy tale after all?

Jim reached the street level door and held it for Blair. Remembering the elevator doors slamming in his face last night, Blair even managed another quick smile for Jim, who was, it seemed, not evidence of any theory of human society and evolution at all, but only one man in a million. One in ten million, perhaps. Blair supposed he would never know.

So what was he gonna do? Could he turn in the first chapter of a dissertation that he maybe didn't believe in anymore? What was he going to tell his committee? What was he going to say in chapter two?

And then, from behind him on the stairs -- more evidence of how tired Jim was, that he was content to take the stairs one step at a time behind Blair -- he said, "Did he do it?"

All Blair could think, confusedly, was that somehow Jim had figured out what he was thinking, and was asking him about Richard Burton. He turned around to face Jim on the landing. "Did he do what?"

Jim passed him and started up the final flight. He was tired, but it didn't mean he intended to stand around discussing things on the stairs when home and rest were so close. "The anthropologist you were telling me about. Chagnon. Did he cause an epidemic?"

"What?" Blair stopped dead. For a moment he couldn't even catch his breath. Then he bounded up behind Jim. "What do you mean? Of course he didn't do it. That's the incredible thing, that such a ridiculous claim could get any serious media attention at all. First of all, Chagnon and his colleague were using the Edmonston B vaccine, which is as safe as live attenuated vaccines get, and besides, there's never been a single case of a live-virus measles vaccine leading to contagious transmission from one human to another, so how the hell could Chagnon have planned an epidemic triggered by vaccines? It's totally nuts. He was trying to stop the epidemic that was spreading from the Catholic missions, not spread it."

Jim was fitting the key into the front door. Blair had had trouble with it sticking lately, but of course, it never happened to Jim. He pushed it open with his shoulder and Blair scooted in behind him, his notebook clutched to his chest. "But come on, Jim, the medical evidence is just proof of what any rational person would already know. I mean, Chagnon is probably the most famous anthropologist alive today, and he owes all that to Yanomamo themselves. An anthropologist would never forget that. The people who allow you to study them are giving you your career, your livelihood, the future respect of your colleagues--"

Jim hung his coat on the hook and started up the stairs. Blair followed him, still talking a mile a minute. It spooked him badly that Jim could have asked the question in the first place. What kind of ghouls did he think anthropologists were, anyway? "And not even counting all the concrete help your informants give you in the field -- which you can maybe repay, maybe -- they're also giving you their honesty, and that can't ever be repaid, even if you're completely honest with them yourself, and believe me, that's hard to do."

Jim laid his gun on top of the dresser with his handcuffs and the cell phone. He didn't say anything, but he glanced over his shoulder for an instant. "You take your informants' secrets, sometimes against their will," Blair explained, feeling a little frantic in his desire to make Jim understand this. "You owe everything you ever hope to accomplish as an anthropologist, hell, as a member of the human species, to the people you're studying. That Chagnon would murder hundreds, maybe thousands just for a dubious piece of research that he could never make public -- who could believe a story like that? And that book's a finalist for the National Book Awards. What does it say about the way the general population sees anthropologists if claims like that can be taken even halfway seriously?"

Jim shrugged a little. Or maybe he was simply stretching after wearing his shoulder holster for the past thirty-six hours. He brushed past Blair and padded back down the stairs. "I'm making a roast beef sandwich with the leftovers from Sunday night," he said without looking back. "You want one?"

Blair didn't answer.

('After I let you stay at my place. I get you a job at the department. I mean you don't have enough data you got to go digging into my ex-wife's life?')

('We have three years of ours lives invested in this thing,' he had snapped back at Jim. 'I'm not going to start shading any of it because you're starting to feel a little threatened.')

The slow-burning lightning he'd been living with for so long suddenly turned to ice, and it felt as though every stressed nerve ending was splintering along a million tiny fault lines. Blair's legs wouldn't hold him up anymore, and he sank down onto the top step, watching Jim below him cross to the refrigerator, take a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, twist off the cap and take a sip. Deep inside Blair felt himself continuing to fracture and break over and over again, and the cold was under his scalp, and it was a solid, aching lump knotting his bowels and belly, and it had him by the heart like a mailed fist.

What kind of an anthropologist would forget how much he owed to his informant anyway? Even if his committee was riding his ass, even if every theory he'd ever advanced was crumbling underfoot, even if he was in danger of losing his funding and even, by the way, if said informant was a cop who started to get pretty grumpy after about thirty-six hours on the job.

"Is that a yes or a no on the sandwich?"

"No," Blair said, feeling like he was choking.

Jim shrugged. "Your quinoa stew is just on the verge," he said, pulling out mayonnaise, horseradish and mustard jars and setting them on the counter. Half a head of lettuce came next, and a jar of kosher pickles. "You don't eat it today, I'm pitching it out before it stinks up everything in the fridge."

Get up, Blair told himself. Get up and walk down the stairs.

He lifted his hand before his eyes, expecting to see that it was shaking, but apparently all the trembling was on the inside, because his hand looked steady enough. He straightened, getting slowly to his feet. He wasn't dizzy, or in danger of falling. He got down the stairs just fine, left foot, right foot, all the way to the living room. It was still a sunny day outside. The balcony was bathed in light. His laptop was on the dining room table, the trailing electrical and modem cords a danger to life and limb. He was still holding his notebook clutched to his chest, as if he expected Jim to try to wrest it from his grip.

He wished Jim would. Take it from him and throw the whole thing out into the bay, the laptop sailing along after it.

He made himself sit down at the dining room table and turn on the computer. Jim put two slices of bread in the toaster for his sandwich. Then he got down a knife and carved himself a slab of roast beef. Now the kitchen smelled like toast and cold meat. Blair opened his kilim-covered notebook, which had been a birthday present from Jim from a year ago. His birthday had fallen on his second, maybe third day out of the hospital, and the bullet hole through his thigh had been aching like blazes. He remembered sitting propped up sideways on the sofa, bitching about everything and feeling pretty goddamned sorry for himself. Right up until the moment Jim had come down from his bedroom carrying a brown paper shopping bag from the New Moon Gallery and handed it to him saying, "Happy birthday, Sandburg. Sorry it's not wrapped."

It seemed like a million years since Jim had smiled at him like that.

His chapter lay inside the notebook, in the black plastic binder with the title showing through the cut-out. He'd put it together as though he were ready to submit his entire dissertation, not just turning in a preliminary chapter. So he could see what it would look like when the work was done, pretend that he was all finished and about to submit the work that would make his name as an anthropologist.

All thanks to an informant who hadn't protested when a week had turned into three years.

Blair's hands clenched into fists, balling tighter and tighter until his fingernails bit into his palms. Then he let go and reached out to lay open the folder, and he saw that his hand had begun to tremble after all.

(So why don't I go destroy my notes? How about that?)

There, see, he'd given Jim a choice, and Jim let him know he was all right with the dissertation after all. A breakdown in communication, that's all that had happened last night, and it hurt a little, but it didn't mean Blair had failed as a scientist, as a researcher, and most especially as an anthropologist and as Jim's friend.

The smells in the kitchen were making him sick. Horseradish, vinegar and dill as well as meat and bread as Jim prepared his sandwich. Almost felt like he was coming down with something. Maybe that's what was wrong. He was exhausted working these long hours with Jim and trying to get a draft of his intro finished at the same time, and his overtaxed immune system had finally let him down. Probably had a fever. That's why he had the shakes, why the entire world seemed like such a bleak gray place despite the sun streaming in through the skylight.

(You know, I thought we were friends, Jim had said.)

Blair wiped his eyes, trying to focus on the words flickering on the screen. They wavered on the typewritten page as well.

He wasn't really sick. And he knew why Jim had stolen his chapter and read it in secret. He knew.

Jim sat down across the table from him, studiously not looking toward Blair, the computer, or the hard copy draft. His sandwich was cut into neat halves. "Plenty left over if you want one," he said, still not looking at Blair, and he began to eat in small bites, chewing methodically. He washed every bite down with a swig of water, as though he wouldn't have been able to get it down without it.

Blair paged through the hard copy, and his hand-written corrections seemed to be bleeding across the pages. He couldn't read complete sentences, but words and phrases jumped out at him.

Chemical sensitivities.

Estrangement from natal family.

Inability to cope with disorder.

Unusual drug reactions.

Guilt complex.

Fantasy prone.

But come on, Jim, it's not as bad as it sounds, Blair thought, and though he felt like screaming, he didn't speak out loud. They're just words, man. Shortcuts to describe a range of symptoms, like your tendency to repress trauma and your hallucinations and your lucid dreaming. Just because I have a label for your experiences doesn't make them any less important or real. The words don't have anything to do with our friendship, Jim.

(It doesn't read that way to me, Jim had told him.)

Blair squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head. But he'd told Jim. He'd told Jim that he would rather be friends. He'd even offered to destroy everything, if that's what it took to make things right again.

Jim hadn't answered. Just stood there looking at him, and hadn't said a single word. As though words were all bitter and used up now. No savor left to them anymore.

"You remember Julie?" Blair burst out, and his voice was a lot louder than he'd expected. Jim looked up, seeming a little startled. Half the sandwich still lay untouched on his plate.

"Julie?"

"You remember, Julie Shapiro. In the English Department. Legs?" He waved his hand under his chin.

Jim still looked blank. And tired. And not at all interested.

"You remember, man, she had that poem about parents, and not having kids yourself."

Jim nodded, picked up the other half of his sandwich, then put it down again. "I remember the poem," he said.

"She has these two favorite sayings -- have I told you this before? And the first one is, no two people ever live in the same universe, and the second one is, you can't talk yourself out of a situation you behaved yourself into."

Jim raised his eyebrows.

"The thing is, Jim, I think the two of us, I'm afraid we're not in the same universe. We probably haven't been for a little while now."

"No argument from me," Jim said, and pushed the plate with the uneaten half of a sandwich on it toward Blair. "I'm not gonna finish this. You sure you don't want it?"

"No," Blair said helplessly, and somehow the point he had thought he could make here had already slipped away from him. He watched as Jim got up, carried his plate to the sink, got out the saran wrap and carefully wrapped up his sandwich and put it away in the refrigerator. His exhaustion made his movements exaggeratedly neat and slow. Jim looked like a man picking his way through a minefield.

"I'm going to take a shower and hit the sack." Jim put away the horseradish sauce, not looking in Blair's direction. "Your car doesn't start this afternoon, you're on your own."

"Right," Blair whispered, and paged through his hard copy again as though he could actually read his notes. The bathroom door shut behind Jim, and then for long moment there was no sound at all. Blair imagined Jim looking at himself in the mirror, and he wondered if Jim saw a good man reflected back at himself, or if he only saw a tired cop. Or a lonely sentinel, perhaps. The only one of his kind.

Blair swallowed hard. Did Jim know that? Did he suspect? He'd never asked Blair about the possibility of other sentinels, and Blair had never told him about the tens of thousands he'd expected to find right under their noses if Blair Sandburg and Richard Burton had been right. Seemed a little strange, Jim never asking, since Blair knew Jim's greatest fear was of being alone, being different.

Just as well Blair hadn't told him, as it turned out. At least he didn't have to share this spectacular failure with Jim as his entire thesis crumbled away under his feet. If he were honest with himself, though, he had to admit it could hardly have been chance that he'd never allowed a word about other sentinels to slip out. Sentinels in history, hey, no problem. In corners of the globe remote from Cascade -- well, he'd said a cautious word or two, but after Borneo, he'd even watched those remarks.

Blair already knew why. He'd known all along. Being alone and being different were the biggies for Jim, no doubt about that, but they weren't the same thing, because Jim could even stand being different, as long as he wasn't alone. As long as he had Blair.

Blair let his dissertation cover fall closed. Then he closed his notebook too, laid his head down on top of it and shut his eyes. That's why Jim hadn't wanted to know about other sentinels. If there were others, Blair was sure to leave him some day. And that's why he had stolen Blair's chapter and read it in secret. He'd been trying to figure out when Blair would leave him, the one question Jim would never be brave enough to ask him face to face.

Blair had known all along. He must have. He'd clung to his original idea for his thesis long after giving up hope of finding any corroborating evidence, allowed himself to become the kind of scientist he despised, so in love with his pet theory he couldn't stand to let it go.

Just, in Blair's case, it wasn't a theory he was in love with.

He heard the pipes clank behind the kitchen wall, then the shower beginning to run. He kept his eyes closed, and wondered if Jim had found the answer he'd been looking for when he'd read that chapter. Funny. For all Jim's anger and all his hurt, Blair honestly didn't know. He tried to think it through, but he had been so focussed on how tired Jim was that he'd entirely overlooked his own exhaustion. Just a few moments with his eyes closed, though, and the sound of rushing water carried everything away. Almost everything.

One of Jim's hallucinations was visiting him for a change, which was certainly fair enough, Blair had to agree. He could hear soft, heavy footfalls padding through the living room, and even with his eyes closed he could see the black panther, its head down and the tip of its long tail lashing in the barely suppressed ecstasy of the hunt. As the beast drew near him, though, its long, powerful legs began to crook and shrink. Its snout flattened and lengthened, and its teeth grew long over its jaws. Scales broke through the dense black fur, and Blair wanted to run, but he was tied to his chair with jumper cables, and he could only watch, panting with fear, as the alligator crossed the floor to him on bowed legs. It was still black, blacker than despair, with green eyes and white teeth, and when he was close enough to take off Blair's legs with a single snap, it spoke to him in Clarence Oddbody's voice.

"Come on, Sandburg, wake up."

Blair sat bolt upright in his chair. Jim was wrapped in a bathrobe, shaking his head at him. "Maybe you better have some coffee before you sleep right through your deadline this afternoon."

"I wasn't asleep," he protested, rubbing his eyes. Jim shrugged and walked away, climbing the stairs to his bedroom. The loft smelled like steam and Jim's shaving cream, and Blair wondered how long he'd been out. He looked around for the time. One-fifteen. Jim was right. He had better get a move on. But maybe he'd take a shower first, too. Just to clear the cobwebs.

The mirror was still fogged over from Jim's shower, save for the circle in the middle he had wiped clean to shave in. Tiny droplets of water followed the streaks in the glass. Blair looked at his own reflection and saw a bleary-eyed grad student who'd been burning the candle at both ends for far too long. Nothing to show for it now but a puddle of wax that had once been the trust and respect of the best and bravest man Blair knew.

He wanted to put his fist through the glass.

It would have made a hell of a mess, though, and wouldn't have solved anything. Blair imagined glass shards in his arm like alligator teeth, and with a shudder he turned away. He stripped quickly, leaving his clothes in a pile on the mat, and stepped into the bathtub. The droplets on the floor of the enameled tub left from Jim's shower were already cold, and when he pulled the shower curtain shut behind himself, more cold drops shook free. He felt them across his back and thigh and shivered. Goosebumps rose on his arms and legs, which were as white as his stomach. A long time since he'd been out of Cascade. A long time before he was likely to see a tropical sun again.

He thought about the way the Peruvian rain forest had smelled and sounded, there on the banks of a nameless river running through the heart of the Almaguas Valley. He remembered the look on Jim's face as Blair urged him to follow his spirit animal. Still skeptical, still Jim, but so desperate to believe.

"Fantasy prone" was the way it read in the dissertation.

Blair turned on the shower and made it a hot one. He shampooed his hair twice, and then wrung the water out and massaged conditioner from the root to the tips, and left it in while he soaped himself from head to foot, keeping his head craned back to avoid washing out the conditioner. His neck still ached from Victor Smallwood's manhandling, but the hot water seemed to help. He reached around the outside of the curtain, groping in the second drawer of the vanity and getting water all over the floor looking for his razor. He shaved before rinsing the conditioner clean, and the hot water was finally beginning to cool by the time he turned off the tap. He couldn't remember the last time he'd allowed himself such a luxurious shower. There was never time. He'd wash his hair fast, slick it back to keep it out of his eyes, run a razor over his face while he dripped dry on the bathmat, be ready to go in ten minutes flat.

Made him wonder what he'd been in such a hurry for, all these years.

He blotted his hair as dry as he could with a towel, then combed out the snarls carefully, one at a time, taking care not to break the ends. The rare luxury of being fastidious seemed to cleanse his mind like meditative breathing. He dried himself off, hung the wet towel on the rack beside the toilet, and picked up his bundle of dirty clothes. They smelled like the night at the station, of cigarette smoke and unwashed bodies, even of Smallwood's cologne. He threw the whole bundle into the laundry hamper, as usual without separating out his underwear, but then he thought about it, and pulled out his undershirt and briefs and threw them in with Jim's whites instead. All the shortcuts he'd taken over the years for the sake of expediency hadn't done him any good. It must be time to start doing things differently.

He opened the bathroom door, shivering in the colder air, and crossed naked to his bedroom. He'd given up worrying about those balcony windows a long time ago. If anyone was really so desperate they were watching with binoculars from across the bay, then more power to them, man.

For some reason he thought suddenly of helping Jim to the bathroom when he'd been blind on golden. The way Jim had held on to his arm, the way he cocked his head in the direction of Blair's voice. He remembered Jim sitting on the side of the bathtub while Blair shaved his face for him, blind eyes wide open, a frown of concentration wrinkling his forehead. He had been trying to remake the connection through an act of will. Concentrate hard enough and he would see again. Just like Blair had told him.

When Blair had realized what Jim was doing, he'd had to put the razor down for fear his hand would start to shake. No matter what he'd told Jim, now matter how desperate, no matter how much guesswork was behind it, Jim believed every word. Desperately, absolutely.

"Unusual drug reactions" was how Jim's blindness got classified in his dissertation.

Blair's room was a disaster, papers and library books piled all over his shelves and desk, scattered teacups with rotten tea-leaves floating in a half inch of moldy liquid, unfolded laundry heaped on his bed. And it had definitely been too long since he'd changed his bed linens. He found a clean pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt from the pile and got dressed, moving slowly because he was tired and the side of his neck ached. He could still feel the chill after the warmth of the shower, and he kept dressing until he wasn't cold anymore. He pulled on a sweatshirt, then an oversized flannel button-down over that, and a pair of fuzzy wool socks on his feet. The button-down was Jim's and he thought he should really wash it and give it back to him.

A t-shirt was draped over his alarm clock. He pushed it away, and saw that it was still only 1:35.

Plenty of time to clean up around here.

He carried the tea cups to the kitchen, balancing two in the palm of his right hand, carrying the third in his left, but didn't wash them out yet in deference to Jim sleeping upstairs. There was probably a tea pot or two somewhere in his room as well, but he supposed he'd find them as he cleaned up, since they weren't immediately apparent. He gathered up dirty clothes next, separating the whites according to his new plan in life, and carried both stacks into the bathroom to throw them in the hampers. Already he'd made visible progress. He folded the clean t-shirts that were heaped on his bed and put them away in his dresser, along with the socks and underwear. His button-down shirts he put on hangers and hung together on the hook behind the closet door, to iron some other time. When Jim wasn't trying to sleep, say.

The red clay Yixing tea pot was on his desk after all. He hadn't seen it before behind the pile of clean socks. He carried it into the kitchen and left it by the sink, resisting the urge to lift the lid and take a peek at the liquid he could hear sloshing inside. He wasn't sure how long it had been there, and no doubt interesting things had been brewing in the meantime. Oh well. It would probably speed the seasoning of the pot, right?

He noticed, as he padded back to the bedroom, that it was easy to avoid looking toward the dining room table where his laptop was still on and open, his notebook beside it.

His room was definitely looking better. Almost habitable. He pulled off the bed linens and wadded them together. Throwing them into the bathroom hamper filled it up so high the lid wouldn't close anymore, but that was all right. He needed to do laundry tonight anyway. He got a fresh set of sheets from the hall closet and it occurred to him that he'd never had the luxury of a second set of linens before moving in with Jim. These were king-size, with a border of roses Blair supposed were a legacy of Jim's marriage, and when he folded them double with deep, deep hospital corners, they worked perfectly well on his futon. He shook out the comforter and spread it on top, then gathered the pillows that were scattered in various corners of the room and arranged them along the back of his bed. In the process he found the second tea pot that he'd known was back here somewhere, a white china affair with a gold border around the lid which he also assumed must have been Carolyn's.

Their marriage had been in trouble anyway, Carolyn had told him, but Jim had been so careful, such a gentleman, even as they grew further and further apart. She regretted the affair now, though at the time it had seemed like the only way to get Jimmy's attention, or at least, to break through the reserve that stifled all her attempts to communicate with him. And it had worked all right. Briefly. When she told him, he had reacted with a few moments of terrifying rage. Then the shutters came crashing down again, and he had brought the marital dissolution agreement to the station for her to sign within the month. Carolyn had already ended her affair, but that hadn't mattered to Jim. He had shut her out of his life with such finality and abruptness, it was as though he'd been preparing for it all along.

"It was the dinner invitations that used to spook me," she had confessed to Blair over lattes that afternoon at the coffee house around the corner from the station. "I didn't want him to forgive me. I wanted him to be mad -- I wanted him to be something -- but no, here he was not six months after our separation asking me if I'd like to have dinner, the same way he would have asked Simon or Joel to dinner after a tough day at work. It was like I'd never really mattered to him at all."

Carolyn had gotten it wrong, Blair thought, carrying her teapot to the sink and leaving it with the growing stack of dishes from his bedroom. Jim never forgot or forgave betrayal. He couldn't. It carved a chunk right out of the man's heart and left ragged, terrible scars. Jim might smile, might learn to be civil to his brother Steven again after twenty years, might invite his ex-wife to dinner -- he might even offer to drive Blair Sandburg to school so he could get his intro chapter turned in on time. But on the inside he'd been broken in ways that could never be put right again.

Blair gasped, then bit his lip hard to choke off the sound.

Back in his room again, he stacked up the library books to return to Rainier. His own books he replaced on the bookshelves one at a time, in order. It had been a while since he'd tried to actually get everything on his shelves, and his collection had grown in the interim. He had to shift entire armloads of books down a shelf in order to fit the new acquisitions in alphabetically, and ended up with two dozen books (by authors with last names beginning with T-Z) that wouldn't fit on the shelves at all. He left them in a neat stack by the foot of the bed and stepped back to survey his handiwork. The only thing left, really, were his notes and papers, but he didn't think he could bear to go through them right now.

He didn't force himself to. He sat down at his desk and thumbed through them quickly, just to pull out the student papers and class notes for his survey section. His own notes he piled up on the far side of the desk, then he stood up and backed away from them, as though they were the alligator from his dream and might suddenly turn on him, white teeth snapping. He risked a look at the clock, and saw it was only 2:15.

He shouldn't have been surprised, he thought, walking out to the living room and flopping down on the sofa so he could look at the blue sky outside. Only on the longest afternoon of his life could he clean up his whole bedroom in a scant half hour. It felt good to sit down, though. He was pretty tired. He was probably hungry, too, but the very thought of food made him queasy, so he just continued to sit. As the quiet settled around him, he realized he could hear the soft hum of his laptop, and he wished that he had turned it off.

Sprawled on the sofa, he thought about Jim's old threat to cover his furniture with plastic, and he even smiled a little until he thought about the dissertation. "Inability to cope with disorder." The house rules. The terms under which a man who so valued his privacy and solitude had allowed Blair into his life and space. An act of pure kindness and great generosity.

Blair had made that data, too.

It had to be. If Blair's work was to do Jim any good, surely it all had to be data, but Blair had never explained his universe to Jim. And Jim had come stumbling into it, found all his vulnerabilities, all his secrets and all his fears splayed across the pages. As naked and defenseless as a laboratory rat on the dissection board.

The next time Blair noticed the sky, it wasn't clear and blue anymore. Heavy clouds had blown in from the sea, their gray underbellies tinted red from the sunset, and Jim was coming down the stairs, rumpled with sleep, saying, "Did your car start all right? I never heard you leaving."

Blair turned his head carefully and looked at the clock in the kitchen. 6:15. So it was finally over.

He thought he would be relieved, and he was, deep inside, but on the outside he felt a few mortifying tears well up in his eyes. He blinked quickly, trying to clear them. Jim looked at him on the way to the bathroom but didn't say anything more. In his absence, Blair surreptitiously wiped his eyes, then stood up and stretched. His back cracked, and his left foot was asleep. He limped to the dining room table and closed his laptop. The resulting silence as it powered down seemed the respite he'd been waiting for all afternoon.

The toilet flushed in the bathroom. Water ran in the sink and then Jim reappeared. His hair was smashed flat on one side from sleeping on it wet, and he looked so vulnerable, somehow, padding through the kitchen barefoot, in plaid flannel boxers and an open, unmatched flannel shirt. Blair had an urge to wrap the man up in a blanket and put him back to bed.

"You did go to school," Jim said slowly, looking across the dining room table at Blair. His face was no longer dull with drowsiness, but instead sharpening with suspicion.

Blair even considered lying, but it was only a fleeting thought. "No," he said. "I didn't go."

Jim came around the table, and his eyes were dangerous. "I thought this -- this magnum opus of yours had to be turned in by five."

"Yeah. Yeah, it did. You've gotta show 'adequate progress toward your degree' to even be considered for fellowships next year. It's pretty safe to say I'm out of the running now."

"And you just sat here. All afternoon you just sat here and let the deadline come and go." Jim's voice had dropped to a bewildered, furious growl. Then he lashed out with the flat of his hand, and for an instant Blair thought Jim really had sent the laptop flying. He'd only gotten the notebook, though. It sailed across the room with surprising speed for such a bulky object and slammed into the back of the sofa, spilling papers everywhere. "Jesus, Sandburg! You put me all through this, and then you just throw it away?"

Blair made a show of looking at the notebook, splayed open on the floor, pages crumpled beneath it, because it was easier than looking at Jim's face. "Great." he heard himself say. "Great, that really helps a lot. Look, I'm gonna do a couple of loads of laundry. You got anything you want me to do?"

As he turned away, Jim grabbed the sleeve of his shirt and yanked him back, hard. "You don't do this to me," he moaned at Blair. "You don't fuck me over and then tell me it was all for nothing."

"Don't make me," Blair said, his voice breaking. "It won't help. Julie's right. Words are useless. I can't talk my way out of this."

Jim let him go, but he didn't step back, and he wouldn't look away, and Blair found he had to try all the same, because nothing was worse than the expression on Jim's face.

"The way I've been acting these last few days you probably won't believe me," Blair said, and he made a miserable attempt to laugh, "but the American Anthropological Association really does have a code of ethics. And way up there in paragraph A it says that an anthropologist's primary responsibility is to the wellbeing of the people or population he's researching. It's more important even than the search for the knowledge. And I believe that, Jim. I believe that with all my heart. If you, or the Chopec or the Yanomamo aren't more important than anything a researcher could learn by studying you, then the whole profession isn't worth shit. If just reading the intro of my dissertation makes you feel like you've been fucked over, then it's not worth shit either."

Jim just stared at him, like he more than half-way suspected Blair of yanking his chain, and Blair couldn't blame him a bit. He'd already known there was no talking his way out of the biggest mistake of his life. He turned away from Jim and sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. "And I shouldn't have told you that you couldn't read what I was writing. Yeah, you signed that consent form, but in a situation like this, consent is an ongoing process. Especially once we'd developed -- well, a covenantal relationship. You had every right to read what I was writing about you if you were worried about it. Especially something with the potential to make the kind of impact on your life this would, if it were ever published."

He wondered if he stopped now, if it would be enough for Jim. He sat in silence for a few moments, waiting.

"Then why'd you do it?" Jim asked.

Blair wanted to weep, but instead he smiled without raising his head. Good old Detective Ellison. Of course he wouldn't stop looking for answers. "Why do you think, man? I fooled myself into thinking it had to do with scientific objectivity." He had to claw the words out of his own heart one by one to tell Jim the truth. "But really, I must have known you'd freak if you saw the things I was writing about you."

"I freaked." Jim's voice was hoarse. Blair heard the scrape as Jim sat down in the chair next to him. "I'm still freaked."

"I know -- I know it sounded rough," Blair said, every word dredged up and thrown out between them, bitter because he hadn't said them in time. Months ago. Years ago. "That's the nature of a psychological profile. Jargon always sounds bad, especially when somebody's using it to describe the personal details of your own life. It's not so different from a police report in one sense, you know? Everybody looks bad in those. Even the witnesses and the victim. Maybe especially the victim. If I have to, I'll stand by what I wrote about you, but I screwed up by not preparing you for this. Of everything I screwed up here, this was the worst."

He finally raised his head. Jim was sitting beside him, hands flat on the table before him, staring straight ahead.

"So I've been trying to figure out why I did it. Why I wrote all that stuff that was so personal in the first place, that I knew would hurt you so badly if you ever read it, because the hell of it is, Jim, it didn't have any place in my dissertation to begin with."

Once Blair had spoken those words out loud, the rest of them followed. The truth that he'd been hiding from himself for so long. "My entire statistical universe consists of exactly one -- one -- sentinel. I can't prove anything with that. Without other sentinels to compare you to, it doesn't matter a rat's ass that your marriage failed or that you arrange the spice cabinet alphabetically or how you remember your PIN number."

The words spilled out, every consequence he'd never allowed himself to look at. "Look, my committee would have nailed me for including all that personal stuff, because it doesn't mean anything in isolation. And then the human subjects oversight committee would have reamed me a new one anyway, because I never filed an update when I switched from interview and non-invasive sensory measurement to participant-observation. After Brackett it seemed too dangerous to have that sort of information on file at the university. And still I went on writing down all that personal data I couldn't publish. It's like I've been blind or something. Out of my head. I don't know."

Blair gestured violently with one hand, fighting back the old temptation to evade truths that were hard to say. "No, that's not right. I do know, Jim. All that stuff I collected about your life. Practically from the very first I've been confusing what I wanted with legitimate research. And what I wanted was to know everything I could about you. Everything I could pry out of you, everything I could get from your friends and coworkers--hell, I even tried to pump your dad for information. I think I've been a little crazy these past three years. Like I've been trying to possess you, somehow. Like I'm halfway in love with you."

Jim turned to look at him at last, and for all his years of watching Jim, he wasn't sure how to read the expression on Jim's face now. Weary, skeptical, confused, angry. And a spark of something that was none of those things, and which gave Blair the courage to say the other thing he'd known for years but never looked at straight before. "Like you're halfway in love with me, too."

Jim didn't say a word. But he didn't deny it, and he didn't look away. His face was still haggard from exhaustion, even after a few hours of sleep, and his eyes were dark as twilight shadows moved across the loft. Blair reached up and laid the back of his fingers against Jim's cheek, wishing it could really be that easy. Jim flinched at his touch, and his troubled blue eyes closed. Blair turned his hand to cup the angle of Jim's jaw, and bent forward to kiss Jim's mouth. He felt Jim trembling as their lips touched.

Jim's hands came up and rested on Blair's shoulders. Their kiss was open mouthed but fragile, both of them moving with care. Blair breathed in Jim's breath, trembling at the sweetness and the painful thunder of his own heart, but he didn't resist as Jim took his head in both hands and eased him away. Jim's eyes were closed when he whispered, "Love doesn't solve anything."

Blair felt a sad urge to laugh. Poor Jim. He had that right. If the past twelve hours were anything to judge by, being in love just made things worse. So he slipped off the chair and stood between Jim's knees, ducked his head and found Jim's mouth again, tasting the tears he'd heard in Jim's voice. He laced his fingers together at the back of Jim's neck, then turned his face from Jim's lips to say what had always been more important to Jim than love, and there was no bitterness in the words at all. "Maybe it's already too late, and you don't want me here anymore, but unless you tell me to go, I'll never leave you, Jim. I promise. I promise."

Jim's thighs closed hard against Blair's knees. He wrapped his arms around Blair's waist, and pressed his face to Blair's chest. He held on without speaking, his breath coming in irregular gasps. Blair touched his bowed head with his fingertips, then with his whole hand, and Jim's ragged breaths eventually grew easier. He turned his head against Blair's chest. "Your fellowship," he whispered roughly, the pragmatist even now. "Chief, your career. What were you thinking?"

Blair laughed softly at that, his head bowed low over Jim's. "Screw the fellowship. It's about time for me to take out student loans like the rest of the world."

"That's not an answer," Jim complained, holding him tight.

"I know."

"Your dissertation."

"Do the words 'thin blue line' mean anything to you?"

"Oh, Christ," Jim moaned, and he might have been laughing, too, Blair wasn't sure, but he hugged Blair so hard that Blair grunted in protest. Then Jim let him go, and Blair stepped back to look down at him. It was too dark by now for him to see the color of Jim's eyes. "We've gotta talk," Jim said.

"I know."

"Did you ever get anything to eat this afternoon?" was the next thing Jim asked, and Blair didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

"No," he whispered.

"Because there's half a roast beef sandwich in the fridge."

Blair put his hand on Jim's chest, warm under his open flannel shirt, and Jim curled forward, silently asking. "I know," Blair said, and now he was crying just a little as he touched Jim and thought about the future. "I know, Jim. I know."
***
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