Make your own free website on Tripod.com
imperfect

Imperfect
by Molly
July 2000

"You free Saturday night?" Jim asked at lunch on Monday.

"Maybe."

"Maybe?"

"Yeah, maybe." Blair shrugged and grinned, poking an errant bit of tomato back into his sandwich. "Hey, you know, good news for you. I may have finally learned the joy of being succinct."

Jim snorted. "Your versatile intellect astounds me, Chief. But c'mon. Suffer me the detail this time. Why maybe?"

"Um, because I don't know yet. So it'd be kinda hard to tell you definitively."

"Sandburg-- "

"Okay, okay. See, there's this girl-- "

"A girl."

"Okay, there's this woman. And God, Jim, but she is a *woman*. I'm not sure I can let you meet her. Even you'd have a hard time resisting."

"I'm wounded. Mint?"

"Thanks. So there's this woman. Rika. She's amazing. I mean, god, she's beautiful, but then she's just... interesting. She's interesting, Jim, like she can hold my attention for hours on end, no matter what she's saying."

"Nice voice?"

"What? Oh, well, yeah, but it's also, like... she's perfect. For me. You know? Feels kinda different this time. And she's strong and funny and compassionate and-- "

"Chief, is there a point lost somewhere in that inventory of her qualities?"

"Yeah, man. It's like, I can't say no to her. I'm *wrapped*, Jim, right around her little finger. So see... concrete plans don't work so well right now. If she up and wanted to go to the moon, I just might sell my soul to get her there. And see, I know that's really shitty, and I'm not saying I'm gonna cop out on anything with work or anything. but Rika, last week she mentioned she might like to go to this club on Saturday, see this band there, and I don't know if she still wants to go, so if she does... can't say no to her, man. Just... addictive, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. And uh, Chief? You should breathe now. Biological necessity and all."

Blair rolled his eyes and finally unwrapped the small candy Jim had given him. "I'm breathing just fine. Jim, man... you know, I was wrong. You have to meet her. This is, like... this could be for real, I think."

Jim glanced at Blair, somewhat amused. "So? How long have you known her?"

"Met her a month ago."

"And I'm just now hearing about her? One of these days you'll really hurt my feelings."

"Yeah, right. Look, Jim, I didn't want to mess it up, if that makes sense. Like... it seems different. This is so perfect, I didn't want to jinx it."

"You got it bad, Chief."

"Yeah. I do." Blair took a bite of his sandwich, chewed, then nodded. "Got it bad."

The next night found them in the truck on a stakeout, and Blair frowning. "What's happening on Saturday?"

"Um. What?"

"Saturday. Yesterday you asked if I was free on Saturday. Something happening?"

"Oh. No, nothing. Just asking."

"Okay."

"You going out with Rika?"

"Yeah. We're gonna drop by that club after all." Blair sighed. "Man, this is boring."

"Sorry."

"Yeah, I know. Not your fault."

"Everything okay, Chief? Boredom aside?"

"Wha-- . Yeah, fine. Everything's great, man."

"All right."

It was silent for awhile, because Jim didn't really know what else to say, and Blair for once didn't seem to be much for idle chatter. Jim didn't really know what *to* say to that; there was just a feeling, a slight feeling, that something was wrong and he was in the dark. And so they sat and stared and waited for something of interest to happen in the warehouse they were watching, and eventually Blair muttered, "Huh," out of the blue.

"Huh?"

"Yeah, that's what I said."

"Don't be a smartass, Sandburg. What was the 'huh' about?"

"Nothing."

Jim frowned, suddenly in a lousy mood from staring intently at the warehouse and wondering, why, just why, the Lapaglia family had chosen the dead of winter to get a wee bit careless and start leaving scraps of evidence around. And also why he had to be the one to pull watch duty during the coldest hours of the night. "And don't just tell me it's nothing," he droned out. "People don't generally make monosyllabic utterances of ill-ease or discontent for absolutely no reason at all."

"Whoa, Jim, easy there, man. It's nothing, really. Never mind. Let it go, okay?"

Jim took a moment to actually regard his partner, slumped against the passenger door of the truck and looking for all the world as if he'd like nothing better than to fuse with his jacket and escape the cold weather once and for all. Then he randomly tossed out a thank you to whoever might be responsible for his being better able to hide the fact that cold like this did indeed bother him. It really wasn't worth it, not today and not any other day, to heap that indignity on top of Blair along with everything else.

"I'd rather not," he muttered, softening the offhanded tone of his voice. "Seriously, Blair, you feeling all right? You need to tell me if you're getting sick... you know you don't have to come out here every time."

"Yeah, I know. But... but I do. Don't want you to zone or anything, man. Really, I'm fine."

"You're fine."

"What is this, 'repeat every word Sandburg says' day? Yeah, I'm fine. You know me, I don't like the cold much."

"Mmm."

"Mmm?"

"Oh... Yeah. I do. Know you. So I agreed."

"Huh," Blair said softly.

"There's that huh again. What the hell does that mean, anyway?"

"Huh?"

"Okay, I get that one. Confused tone of voice, asking me to elaborate. But the other?"

"You're asking me to detail the nuances of my random mutters? Man, you must be really bored."

"Yes, I am. And yes, I am. Enlighten me, oh great one. I bow down to your greater use of simple vocal cues."

"Were they all that simple, I shouldn't have to elaborate."

"Sandburg," Jim growled.

"Jim... " Blair sighed and tossed a dirty look out towards the greater world of illegal activity. Much as it was health-hazardous and just plain terrifying, he preferred the action- oriented side of police work to this. Especially when it was cold. "Huh," he repeated, and no elaboration followed.

Jim groaned and shook his head, stuck somewhere between aggravated and mildly amused. It wasn't really a companionable silence, not the type Jim had grown used to, at least. Blair stared out the window. He stared out the windshield. At the warehouse. Typical.

Until eventually Blair spoke again, quiet, cautious, sounding very much like a man having conversations with the angel and devil sitting on his shoulders. "You want to know a secret?"

"Um... okay, sure."

"Well, you asked. You said to let you in the secret. So tell me. You really want to know one of my secrets?"

"Sandburg, you-- okay, shoot. A secret."

"Okay, a secret. I don't want to be out here."

"That's no secret, Chief." Jim frowned slightly. "Your teeth are chattering."

"That's not the secret. The secret is where I'd rather be."

"Reading up on some obscure neo-pagan ritualistic sacrificial practice?"

"Funny, Jim. You know, forget it."

"Fine, fine. Where would you rather be? And if you say out on some hot date, you'll regret it."

"See, there's the thing. Already there. I just wish it were somewhere warmer."

Jim blinked, mostly because the tone of Blair's voice went nearly all the way to convincing him that the meaning implicit in the words was being entirely imagined by his own sleep-deprived, bored mind. He played the last few phrases they'd spoken over in his head, just to be sure, and wouldn't you know, he wasn't imagining things. So he blinked again. "Sandburg?"

"Hmm?" he murmured, and he sounded almost disinterested, but he was worried; Jim could hear the tiny hitch in his breath.

He kept going anyway. "Don't you dare start in on the grunts again, Chief. What did you-- ?"

"Jim, no big deal."

"But... huh."

"Yeah. Huh." Blair shrugged. "Forget it, Jim. It was a secret, and now it's not so secret anymore. Either way, it's reality, and maybe it would be better if you didn't know, but hell, Jim, it's cold out here and that messed with my equilibrium or something because I usually have a little more control over what I let slip, so now you know, and I'd appreciate if you pretended you didn't."

Jim pretended. It was rather easy, because the warehouse exploded three seconds later.

***

The first man Jim had ever gone to bed with had just been there. Not in terms of the situation, necessarily, or the emotions involved. True, that had all been quiet and steady; a comforting stability. But above all else, Zach himself was just there. He was one of those truly regular guys - he wasn't compactly solid like Blair, and he lacked the understated but nonetheless intimidating brawn of men like Jim. Rather, he fell somewhere in between, so average he made something unique out of that.

Pressed for the truth, Jim would find himself a handful of such contradictions about Zach. Intense through all its brevity, their relationship had been one of the most memorable in his life. And yet, he held very few specific memories of their time; it wasn't the sort of thing from which one could garner individual mental momentos. Wild, yes. Important, yes. Love-- most likely. But strangely and innocuously devoid of recollected images. He could think back to groping nights of intensely heated sex, so many different instances they all blurred into a single notion of the past. He could remember that Zach had loved Mexican food above all else, but couldn't name a single conversation they may have had over a shared meal.

And so Zach had just been, and it was how Jim came to think of that part of his life. Six months that just were, which made him realize now that if there was anything that Blair wasn't, it was a "just was".

***

For several days life took on a quality of curiosity. At some point since the official plans had been logged with the county inspector's office, the warehouse had acquired the helpful accessory of a tunnel that led right out the back and to an empty lot half a block down. It took three days to discover this, because though Jim should have been able to see that there was a marked difference in how the rubble was scattered in one spot, he was having more than a little trouble concentrating.

Blair wasn't there. At home, at work - nowhere to be found. A simple fact, but a blaring one, and Jim took more than one occasion to curse humility, uncertainty, and the education system as a whole, all three for making Blair scarce and life that much more difficult for him.

He stopped short of cursing Rika, though. He didn't quite want to go there.

And so Blair had a life to attend to. It happened; Jim knew this. He also knew that it didn't typically happen when a TALK really, honestly, and truly needed to happen-- Blair had the avoidance tendency down pat, but he'd always been there before when it came right down to necessity.

He did a lot of paperwork, finally completing several files Simon had been hollering for. And it was something to do, besides, while he was waiting for Blair to just saunter into the bullpen like always, trade a few barbs with Brown, and collapse in a heap beside Jim's desk. One of these days, it would happen, just like that, and Blair would prop one elbow on the desk, rest his chin in his palm, and ask what they were working on today.

One of these days, indeed. In the mean time, Jim decided Rika must be one hell of an energetic woman, because Blair hadn't been home three nights running. She must be, sure, because this was a stretch even for Blair. He wouldn't avoid Jim unless-- unless there were a really good reason.

He wouldn't. No way.

***

He finally showed up on Monday morning.

"Hey."

Blair tossed a nod in with the casual greeting as he headed into his room, his expression so cheerful and carefree that Jim nearly did an actual double take. "Hi," he returned slowly, turning away from where he'd been washing his breakfast dishes. "You okay?"

"What?"

"Blair, get out here."

Blair appeared in his doorway, holding his half-open backpack and stuffing papers into it. "What is it, Jim? I'm kind of in a hurry here-- I just needed to get some stuff for a meeting I have this afternoon."

"A meeting?"

"Yeah. At the university? You know, my real job?"

"Listen, Sandburg-- "

"Jim, I really don't have time to talk. Sorry, man."

"Yeah. Uh... have a good day, okay?"

"Sure. You, too."

Jim returned his attention to the sink, but his head jerked up at the sound of the door opening. "Chief."

He wanted to think it was the gentle nickname that made Blair turn back, wanted to think the fact that he hadn't uttered it in nearly a week meant something to the kid, struck a chord or something. He wanted to think it, but he didn't, because the reality check part of his mind kicked in and he *knew* that it mostly, if not only, had to do with the soft tone of his voice.

Whatever it was, Blair poked his head back in from the hallway, brow quirked in question. "Yeah?"

"Look, I... " Jim gave up. Jim "I don't just give up" Ellison snapped his mouth shut and shrugged. "Will you be home for dinner tonight?"

"I might have to-- " And he stopped short, glanced at his feet and then back up at Jim. "Yeah. I'll be here, but kinda late. Eight-thirty okay?"

"Sure, that works great. I'm probably gonna stay late anyway, get some paperwork done."

"Cool. Later." And the door shutting behind him was soft, which didn't sit well with Jim.

He left the last two dishes in the sink and went to get ready for work.

***

The day went long but ended early, starting with a tip-off to a major bust and ending a few hours after Jim heard an armored truck being robbed a block from the deli where he bought lunch. He wound up in a drawn-out high speed chase and managed to wreck his truck, too, so the fact that his knee had a close encounter with the dash was just icing on the cake.

Simon sent him to the hospital and then sent him home, all by four o'clock. At seven, the door opened and Blair trudged in. From the couch, Jim heard him lean back against the door and sigh, then start back to his room.

"Hey, Chief."

"Hu-- Oh, hey, Jim. Didn't realize you were here."

"I'm here."

"Less paperwork than you thought?"

"Um. No. I sort of... Well, I got hurt. A little. No big deal."

"No big deal?" Blair appeared around the edge of the couch and stared down at him. "Jim, man, what happened? Where are you hurt?"

Jim sat up and carefully shifted to prop his injured leg on the table. "It's nothing. Got in an accident, jammed my knee up. Nasty sight, but I'll be good as new in a few days."

"You had an accident? How?"

"It happens, Chief."

"Jim, cut me a break here. How did it happen?" Blair demanded, dropping down next to him.

"Um. You're early. I thought you said eight-thirty."

"I am. I did. You're right. Now answer the question."

"Question?"

"Jim-- "

"Sandburg, nothing happened. I just got into an accident chasing this armed car. It's really nothing."

"You just-- God, Jim, you zoned. You fucking zoned, didn't you?"

"A little."

"What was it? What caused it?"

"Uh. Just concentrating too hard on the road, drove past a construction zone just as they were blasting-- the sound stunned me. Spun out, hit a telephone pole. Time to go shopping for a new truck, by the way."

"Shit. Dammit, Jim, I'm sorry. I should have been there, I should have... shit."

Jim gritted his teeth together to keep from automatically agreeing. "Blair, look. I'm serious here-- this one couldn't be avoided. It happened fast, too fast. No way you would have been able to bring me out of it in time, and you could have been hurt. Besides, you-- it's crazy to think you can be around all the time. You-- you have other things to do."

"But, Jim... shit."

"Yeah."

"So. Your knee. It's okay?"

"Yup. About three times the size it should be, and a wicked shade of purple, but nothing's broken, nothing's torn. Doctor said to stay off it for at least two days."

"Okay. Guess I'm cooking, then."

"Gee, you really are as smart as they say."

Blair snorted and got up to go to the kitchen. "Stir-fry sound good?"

"Great."

"Okay. Shouldn't take too long."

"So. Um. Any particular reason you're early?"

"Uh, not really. Something fell through."

"Something with Rika."

"Yeah," Blair muttered, and his eyes were only downcast when Jim couldn't see them. "You know, you'd think I might learn a thing or two. But every single time, man, every single time, I hold out hope that 'We need to talk' might not mean something bad."

"Uh-oh."

"Exactly. Guess it wasn't for real, after all."

Jim struggled to his feet and hobbled to lean against the counter, all his weight on his left leg. "You okay with it?"

"Um. No comment?"

"That bad, huh?"

"That bad," Blair agreed. "But you know... don't worry about it. About me. I can-- it's for the best."

"How so?"

"I just mean... Sooner or later, I would have had to do the same thing, I think. So much for perfect."

"Something was wrong?"

"No, not wrong. Not with her, at least. She-- she's amazing. I still think that. But-- I was fooling myself, man. About the 'us' part of it. About thinking it could work when I-- never mind."

"When you were... what?"

"Jim, this is one of those things I really, really need you to not press me on. Okay?"

"Okay."

"Want a salad?"

"Yeah, that'd be good."

"Sit down. You're supposed to stay off your leg, aren't you?"

"I'm not on it."

"Mule," Blair muttered.

"Shut up."

"You shut up." Blair grinned, and it was all very easy again. "Ranch or vinaigrette?"

"Hm, vinaigrette. Here, I can do that. You do the stir-fry."

"Cool."

Jim worked in silence for a few moments, mixing in a small amount of dijon with the oil and vinegar. "Hey, Chief? It's nothing bad, okay?"

"What's nothing bad?"

"That we need to talk."

"Oh."

***

A few weeks after they met up again, Jim had gone out to dinner with his brother. Steven seemed to be continually absorbing the idea that Jim was capable of really forgiving him, of wanting anything to do with him at all. And so Jim asked, because he had to, because he had to know, just what it was about him that screamed, "Grudge bearing jackass."

Steven said it wasn't anything in particular. It was just that Jim looked to be the type you didn't want mad at you. Just in case.

To Jim that made a small amount of sense. For other people. But for Steven, his brother, to see him as this angry, brooding creature, got under his skin and wouldn't let up. And Steven just shrugged and said that Jim had it right all along. They really didn't know each other that well.

***

Blair didn't say a word; he just went about chopping vegetables and then cooking them. Jim let it go, for then. When Blair was silent, he was silent for a reason, so Jim figured this mattered.

He could let the kid collect his thoughts. Maybe things would go better that way, when they actually got to the spoken portion of their talk.

Blair bustled around with only slightly subdued energy, setting the table and putting the final touches on dinner, then helping Jim ease down into a chair and prop his leg up. He chewed his first bite of food slowly, the swallow pronounced, and after a sloppy gulp of water, he sighed. "Are you pissed at me, or what?"

"Why would I be pissed at you?"

"For ditching out all week. For being a jerk. For... for a lot of things."

"You've got a life, Chief. Hell, thank god you've got a life. I don't know if I could handle you 24/7. Some of us humans can't pull the Energizer bunny routine as expertly as you do."

"So."

"So."

"You're not pissed?"

"Not pissed." Jim pushed food around on his plate, watching the glint of light on his fork.

"But we need to talk."

"We need to talk."

"Yeah. I guess we do."

"You know?"

"I know... I shouldn't have said it. I know that. I've been-- kicking myself, or something, because people don't just go and *say* things like that then expect everything to be okay. Not that I expected everything to go on as if I hadn't opened my mouth, but... I have this problem."

"A... problem."

"Biiiig, scary problem. I screw things up, you ever notice that?" Blair was speaking very quietly now, his tone resigned and weary.

"No. How do you mean?"

"I-- Things, they get so good, so right and comfortable and it's like I have this thing in my head, like an auto-disconnect from my mouth to my common sense, and I say shit that's bound to screw everything up. I should stop myself, but I can't."

"You mean sometimes you want to be able to lie, but the truth just pops out?" Jim asked sardonically.

"Sort of. But it's not a thing about lying, man. It's... omitting. That's an important part of human behavior, you know. The omission. It's vital to self-preservation instincts, privacy and so on. It-- "

"Blair."

"Yeah?"

"You don't screw things up. I keep you around because you actually have this knack for making things better."

"I don't screw things up?"

The disbelieving hope in his voice nearly cracked Jim wide open. "You *didn't* screw anything up."

"I didn't?"

"No."

"Oh." Blair poked at his food.

"Yeah."

It struck Jim that he hadn't seen Blair's eyes in a long time. Not clearly, not focused on him like he'd gotten used to them being. Quick flashes all night, one brushing gaze as Blair had quizzed him on the accident, but other than that... Blair wasn't looking at him.

He needed Blair to look at him. It was a startling notion, one he hadn't really given much thought to before. But just as much as the soothing hand on his shoulder and the voice that could coax him back from mindless stupors, Blair's eyes had their own grounding force.

It felt like withdrawal, in a way, and Jim wanted to laugh at that and cry at it all at once. He had a full-blown Blair addiction, which was just flat-out scary.

But not as scary as the idea that Blair wouldn't look straight at him anymore.

***

In high school, he'd taken chemistry, and he'd been good at it. The best at it, actually, at least in comparison with the other 23 kids in the class. He prayed Blair would never find out about his actual aptitude for science. It would probably be a hooting, gloating, mess of an afternoon. And that was only if it lasted just one afternoon.

And so he was good at it, like he was good at a lot of things. He was an all-around American boy, and rich to boot, and at school it didn't matter so much if he was a freak with a messed up family. All that mattered was that young James Ellison was good at science, and so he learned to hate it, because the other kids had learned to hate anyone better at it than they were. Yet still, he couldn't hide it, because that wasn't his nature. He wouldn't intentionally botch experiments, and he wouldn't force himself to the brink of failing tests. He went about his way, quietly, letting his clenched jaw and pink ears do the protesting, and in the meantime he learned more than how to hate being better.

Yet ironically, it became worse when he encountered something that took some time to get the hang of. Because he'd try, but he'd fail, and then when he finally understood, when it sank into his brain in such a way that he would never forget, he got angry. Because understanding a thing still doesn't force it to make sense, and Jim didn't like having his own educational paradigm challenged that way. He wanted the frustrating confusion to ebb, for the ire to fade away, so that there were only equations and tests and the scarcity of red markings that told him over and over, he was good at this.

He was good at it, and still his father barely glanced at him.

Turned out the army was a better idea than he'd ever imagined. Eventually, Jim Ellison learned to be all he could be.

But he still hated it.

***

Blair insisted that Jim relax while he washed the dishes, which Jim recognized as the excuse for breathing room that it was. Blair dawdled, taking his time, so that it was a half hour, two aspirin, and most of a beer later when Jim glanced up from a slightly sleepy daze and saw the kid watching him quietly, apparently done. "Chief," he mumbled.

"Yeah. You need some help getting ready for bed?"

"Nah. I'll be okay."

"All right. I'm gonna get a shower and grade some papers - let me know when you're ready to go upstairs? No way you're gonna make it on your own."

"Yeah... I think I'll actually crash right here tonight." Jim sighed and rubbed his chin. "Hell, I may just never move again."

Blair's smile was slight, but it was definitely there. "Yeah, you say that now. Sooner or later I'll create such a mess you won't be able to resist cleaning."

"That a threat, Sandburg?"

"That a challenge, Ellison?"

Jim managed a lazy groan. "Go. Shower. Leave me and my pain in peace."

"'Kay."

Taking the last lukewarm swallow of his beer, Jim let his head fall back against the sofa and relaxed, absently listening to Blair's various sounds. Clothes rustled and crumpled on the floor, and the water turned on, and Blair sighed very quietly as the spray of hot water pelted his body, to which Jim sighed quietly, too, his eyes sliding shut, his nerves soothed by hearing all the signs of Blair's body letting go of its tension.

It wasn't eavesdropping if you weren't really trying. Or so he would have thought if he bothered to think about it, which he didn't because that would screw up the entire thing, anyway. Better to just drone on, be the mule Blair accused him of being, so long as being stubborn went the distance in ensuring Blair's heartbeat still echoed its resounding lubdub in his ears.

He felt sleepy, and so he thought about sleep. And the shower sounded a little like rain, so he thought about Blair, out in the rain, probably tilting his face up to taste the drops, and that would make his hair fall back off his shoulders, sway a little, and water would drip from ends and Jim would watch it fall, all the way dow--

He opened his eyes to Blair shaking him. "Huh?" he growled, furious at losing that image.

But there it was again, in a way, in its own way, hovering over him and frowning. "Sorry, man. But you'd kill me tomorrow if I let you sleep like that." Blair motioned to a pile of bedding he'd set on the end of the sofa. "I thought, um. Maybe you should take my bed, take it easy on your knee. I-- I can sleep out here."

Jim blinked. "Huh?"

"Sleep. You know, Jim, end of the day, eyes closed, body relaxed? You following?"

"I was asleep, Sandburg."

"Yeah, and you were also working your way towards one hell of a chiropractor's bill. So c'mon. Let me help you hobble into my room so I can crash already."

Blair leaned close and touched his arm, and that was all he needed to say a firm, "No." Because there Blair was, smelling of honeydew and milk protein and whatever else he used in his hair, and Jim had never pegged himself as the type to learn what witch hazel smelled like, and then there was the gentle prickle of soap, a body-sized wall of clean smell coming closer to him, and he knew, he just *knew* that he'd never be able to sleep if he were all wrapped up in Blair's scent, in Blair's bed, without Blair right there with him.

It was odd, how he didn't really think about Blair as smelling like much of anything. Unless he was afraid, or nervous, or Jim really needed to find him, Blair's scent was just... there. Just part of Blair, one of the so many things that were part and parcel of living with the anthropologist. Didn't used to be like that-- used to be that Blair was so new and different and, to be honest, burdensome, that he couldn't ignore every little detail. Somewhere along the line, it became normal, though. Expected. One of those things that just fit in its own special place, and that changed everything yet again. Police work aside, Jim wasn't much of one for dissecting plain and simple reality; he'd rather let grass smell like grass and Blair smell like Blair.

And there again, was Blair being unpredictable, because all that was out the window, with Jim smelling Blair and Blair touching Jim's arm lightly and everything getting all complicated again. Now he was thinking about it, he was considering and realizing that Blair smelled complicated, too, and that was what this was, complicated, which seemed so odd because most things with Blair had worked themselves out into simplicity. Complicated situation, simple reality. There was Jim, and there was Blair, and on the side there was all this Sentinel stuff that turned out to get easier and easier if Blair was just-- there.

But Blair was more than there, so much more. He was *there*. The day Blair became routine would be the day Jim's existence became more dangerous than it had ever been before. He didn't know how to live without the surprises, anymore. Jim thought about Zach, and then he smiled. Blair had quirks where Zach had a Joe America vibe. Blair had this steady carelessness to his intensity, and Jim really had to admit that the problem with Zach had been-- complacency. Zach was Zach, which was okay, but somehow Blair made being Blair so much more fascinating.

So he supposed that Blair was just Blair, and he was Jim saying, "No."

"No," Blair repeated.

"That's what I said." Jim frowned, fighting irritation. It just kept coming lately, every time he thought about Blair and how things had suddenly gone very awry between them. He shrugged Blair's hand off. "I'm fine sleeping out here, Chief. Really, I'd rather not move now, okay?"

'You sure, man? 'Cause I really don't-- "

"I'm sure, Sandburg. Just-- do me a favor, get me another blanket?"

"Right here." And Blair smiled just secretly enough that Jim knew, knew that Blair had known he would refuse, because there were already two blankets and a very soft pillow. Blair spent several minutes making sure Jim was perfectly comfortable, because that was just what Blair did, and Jim couldn't expect much else.

Couldn't expect, couldn't expect. Of course, these days Jim had been watching how much he actually expected of Blair-- he'd certainly never expected his best friend to blurt out a hidden attraction, nor to abruptly be nowhere to be found. So out the window with expectations, but hell if Jim would figure out what to do in the absence of them.

"'Kay, Jim. Holler if you need anything? I'll be up for a while longer, but seriously, even if I'm asleep. Let me do for you for once."

"You do for me plenty."

"Not enough, man," Blair murmured, apparently unwilling to just let it go. "Not enough."

Jim shrugged and let Blair retreat in silence, but just before the door to Blair's room clicked shut, he called, "Hey, Chief?"

"Yeah?"

"I was just-- Um... did you mean it?"

"Mean... ?"

"You know. What-- what you said? In the truck."

Footsteps padded back across the floor and then Blair was staring at him - cautious, wary, hesitant. His body was tense and his eyes were glinting, a roughened, unforgiving gaze that steadied itself on Jim's heated face. "Did I mean it," he echoed softly.

"Yes. Now that we have a handle on the question, could you answer it already?" Jim muttered, already regretting asking.

Blair opened his mouth and narrowed his eyes, then gave a jerky nod. "I meant it. Of course I fucking meant it, Jim, you think I would just throw something like that out there because I didn't think we had enough tension in our relationship?"

"You think we have tension?"

"I'm not answering that. It's not the point here. I meant it, okay? Can you go to sleep now?"

'Yeah, sure. Good night."

"Okay. Then. Good night."

This time the door actually closed before Jim barked out, "Sandburg!"

It took a moment for Blair to come back, and when he did he folded his arms across his chest and waited. Blair could actually do stoic silence quite well when he really put his mind to it. Jim just sighed, then turned his face away. Odd how he'd never found looking at Blair to be so difficult before. "Okay, so this is a-- You would maybe-- " He blew out a long, irritated breath. "Is this the sort of thing where you might want to kiss me sometime, or not?"

Blair blinked. His face drew back and seemed to want to tuck into his neck, and Jim was reminded of a turtle at the same time as he realized that somewhere along the line, he'd developed a certain affection for double chins. Or at least one in particular, anyway.

Blair was still blinking. "What--" He fell into a chair and stared pointedly at Jim. "What is this, Jim? Do you want to talk and just can't think of a normal, unrepressed way to say, 'Gee, Blair, you said something that threw me for a loop. Could we talk about it, perhaps?' Is that what this is all about?"

Jim flushed and clenched his jaw. "Yeah, so? You don't have to be such an asshole about it."

"What the fuck is going on with you, Jim? Is getting me to bare my soul about things I never really intended to tell you, a cure for boredom?"

"Would you just answer the question?"

"Nope. Won't do it."

"You won't?"

"No."

"Jesus, Sandburg, cut a guy a break."

"No."

"Why the hell not?" Jim snarled.

"Because for once, man, I can't read you. I don't have the slightest clue as to how you'll react to whatever I could say, and no way am I stepping into that. No way."

"Figures you'd pick now to stop blaring your opinions to whoever'd listen."

"You're a jerk, Ellison."

"And you're overly-irritable."

"Pots and kettles are coming to mind here, Jim." Blair snorted derisively. "You know, the one thing I never figured you for was a hypocrite."

"I'm not a hypocrite."

"I'm going to bed."

"Fine."

Blair launched himself out of the chair and stalked into his room, and it pissed Jim off most of all that he still had the presence of mind to not slam the door. He wanted fury, or something; some sign that this really did matter as much to Blair as it did to him.

And so thank God Blair was back two seconds later, pacing at the end of the couch and tossing angry glares into Jim's general vicinity. "Did you really have to bring this up again?" he snapped.

Jim hesitated, confused. "Well-- yeah."

"Why? Just tell me why, and I'll answer."

"Because I, um. Because I've been thinking about it, and-- I want to know."

"You know this is different, don't you?"

"How do you mean?"

"I mean-- Look, Jim, I talk. A lot, you know? Talking, it's what I *do*, man. And so I meet a woman, and I talk to her. And we talk and it's nice because I can do that, and girls like that in a guy, and things go from there. But you-- this isn't what I saw happening when I was talking to you."

Jim knew there had been some deep, valid, and vitally important point to what Blair had just said. But hell if he knew what it was. "Huh?"

Blair came and sat on the coffee table in front of Jim, hands flying. "You know me, Jim. I should be restrained, the way I am with women. It's like-- all options open, right? When I strike up a conversation with any woman, right from the start, there's always the possibility of hey, we could wind up as more than acquaintances, or more than friends. So that's how I go with it, okay?"

"Okay," Jim said slowly. He noticed at the same time that Blair had bluntly graceful hands. Hands that knew exactly how to accommodate themselves.

"Okay, so that's women. With men-- with *you*-- it's different. It's just this whole other reality in my head, and so there you are, in this other reality with other men and married women and whomever else is just-- off limits. See?"

"Yeah." And he did.

Blair added a preemptive wince to his next words. "You jumped realities, Jim. And I don't know what to do with that."

"Oh."

"So. There, man. That's that."

"Okay."

"I'm going to bed."

"Okay."

"Okay? You're sure? I can actually go to bed this time?"

"Sure."

"You don't sound sure."

"I-- I'm sure."

"You're full of shit and we both know it. Spit it out, man. What is it you want to say?"

"Nothing."

"Jim."

"I said it's nothing, Sandburg."

"Whatever." Blair snapped his mouth shut and stood abruptly. "Night."

He'd wanted to take Patricia Dunhurst to the senior prom. She had a perfect body and knew just how to swing it - her long legs and tiny hips and tumbling brown curls. She would talk to him in the halls about graduation, and how she was going to hit it big in Hollywood. And he knew she could, that she had it in her to be so much more than him, and so he also knew that prom was it. Come June, she would be gone, to bigger and better than James Ellison and a fast-wilting corsage.

He knew it too well, apparently, and he'd never asked. He didn't even go. Patty smiled at him the next Monday at school, said she wished they could have danced, and come June she was gone.

Bigger and better. Jim suddenly felt very small.

"Blair."

Blair stopped before he'd even gotten out from between the coffee table and the couch. "I'm gonna hurt you. You're asking for it, you really are."

"MaybeI'dlikeitifyoukissedmesomeday," Jim mumbled, spitting it all out as if Blair could possibly understand.

Which he could, possibly. It seemed so, anyway, because he froze, and a moment later it was no longer possibly, it just was, and Blair was staring down at him and running his hand through his hair, which shone gentle brown in the dim light flowing from his room. But still he asked, "You wanna repeat that?"

"No, not really." Jim shrugged. "You know how it is, Chief; some things just don't pack the same punch the second time around."

"Pack a punch," Blair echoed weakly. "Pack a fucking punch, indeed."

"I'm not a hypocrite."

"I know that."

"Not on purpose."

"Not on accident, either." Blair screwed his face up and squinted slightly, then laughed a bit. "Hell, Jim, I can't do this any more tonight. Good night?"

It felt so good to hear Blair laugh, he had to grin in response. "Yeah, okay. G'night, Chief."

***

It was seven when Jim awoke to hear Blair mumbling something that resembled words into the phone, and then he fell back asleep. At eight, Blair tapped his arm. "Jim. Hey, Jim, c'mon. Wake up."

"What the hell do you want, Sandburg?" he growled.

"I want to get a move on. Listen, I gotta be gone all day. Rachel landed in the hospital yesterday with appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery, but the anesthesia messed her up pretty well, so she just came out of it this morning and called to ask me to take her classes for the day. I gotta go let the first one know it's cancelled, then teach mine, then she's got two this afternoon and I've got office hours. So I gotta get going."

Jim groaned. "Was any of that pertinent to me and my existence today, besides the being gone and needing to go now parts?"

"Oh. Uh, no. Sorry. But anyway, I feel bad, what with you laid up and all."

"I'm fine, Chief. I can still hop with the best of them, there's plenty of food, and Simon said he'd stop by and check in today. Go. Don't be late."

"'Kay. I'll bring something for dinner around seven."

"Man with a plan. Have a good day."

Blair grinned. "It'll be hell, man. But I'll take it out on you later."

"Aw, come one. Have pity on the disabled."

"Nah. See ya."

It was rushed but it was comfortable and over Chinese that night Blair yammered on about one of his students asking him to co-write a paper for a conference. Eventually Jim took a tiny amount of pain medication and fell asleep, and when he returned to work the next week they still hadn't said another word about the entire thing. But they smiled a lot, so Jim let it go.

***

It slipped away like one of those things, things that just seem to happen and never come to fruition. Life went on; Jim went on. And though his thoughts were certainly occupied, far more often than ever before, with the vague concept of what it might be like to kiss Blair, he didn't bring it up again. He was good at keeping things quiet, anyway.

Then one night he stood in the doorway and watched Blair sleep; the quiet of it was strange because above all Blair shouldn't be quiet. It meant something was wrong, in the same way a specific type of babbling meant something was wrong or a particular manner of fidgeting meant something was wrong. And this was strange because of that, because he just wasn't used to seeing Blair quiet, calm, safe, asleep. He wasn't privy to it often enough, clearly.

He was stretched out on his belly, sprawled and taking up space exactly as he should be, as he always did. One knee bent just a bit, with the foot slung over the back of his other ankle, toes hooked around that heel to keep the precarious balance from tumbling.

It could tumble. It really could. Flesh had this horrible rakish way of slipping against itself, having no hold, seeming to want to part with itself. Like magnets, needing to fit in just the right way in order to tolerate each other at all. And of course Jim knew about the tinier frictions, about the way tiny grooves and pores and cells rubbed against each other, caught against each other, fought tiny little wars of clinging, and ultimately failed. It needed sweat; it needed tack. Needed something other than quiet repose and carefree dreaming. Which is what Jim knew, that flesh really did want to meet flesh, that it wanted to meet and stick and stay, have a fucking party with itself, but that it wasn't a winning war, fighting against something bigger, something apart from itself.

And sometimes he hated knowing things like that, about the sad imperfections that his senses wouldn't let him ignore. Like knowing that silk wasn't all that silky, that it, too, had fibers longing to get a grip - he knew and he didn't want to know, because now wasn't about knowing. Now was about seeing, and seeing was believing but believing had nothing to do with knowledge. Seeing, and consequently believing, got nice and deep inside his gut, into every atom of his being, and Jim was quite happy with letting it stay well away from his brain. Too much of the sentinel stuff could get cerebral, too fast, and then he had to think about things he never wanted to know.

Like the way countless inadequacies could add up, become something wonderful, like the sensation of silk against flesh. That might be okay, actually, to know. But then he had to realize the rest, the part that screamed out that conversely, nothing was all that wonderful. Too many times he'd had to take something he loved and break it down, until all that was left was inadequacies piled on top of mistakes; until his entire life seemed to be nothing but a great big heap of happenstance that occasionally created something pleasurable to the senses.

Jim Ellison had come to firmly believe that people quite often think far too much.

Just before he turned, ready to return to his own bed, the scar caught his eye. He'd actually let himself ignore it before, actually kept from noticing. It had lightened a good bit, but was still stark, blaring against the pale skin on the back of Blair's right thigh. And if he closed his eyes, Jim could picture the similar one on the other side of that leg, different only as an exit wound must differ from an entrance. Ripping out, instead of ripping in.

And of course that brought thoughts of bullets, and of Blair's flesh, wounded, mangled, destroyed, and of how it never should have happened because wasn't that what Blessed Protectors were supposed to do, anyway?

Jim shook his head and sighed at the scar, and then he went back to bed.

**end**