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Thursday had been tough. Heíd had to chase not one, but two fleeing suspects, both involving gunfire and an eventual tackle, and Jim Ellison was wiped. He cranked his shoulder slowly, intermittently trying to ease the ache as he drove the long trip home, a heavy rain hitting the windshield, the SPLAT! of each individual raindrop on the glass and the thunk-drag-thunk of the wipers aggravating his dull headache. No Guide to help him tone down the sensesóand somehow the damn dials worked less and less with the continued absence of Blairís input. It was probably the way things were meant to be, otherwise Guides could have been temporary instructors, not the permanent partnerships Blair had always implied.

A sense of futility washed through him, leaving an odd dullness behind. No more keen observations, no more speculations, no theorizing and hypothesizing, no more arcane lore flooding from that hyperactive mouth and agile mind. The words still flowed (nothing to sneeze at), sometimes unencumbered, sometimes halting, uncertainólostóbut the mind behind them was no longer his brilliant partner. Blair was functioning at about a four-to-five year old level, and the gains seemed infinitesimal sometimes when compared with the seizures that still occurred all-too-frequently for Jimís comfort.

It was just . . . hard. Too hard. He missed his partner, his friend. He missed the strength heíd come to lean on. Jesus, he was tired.

Jim sighed once, pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to alleviate some of the pressure, then worked his shoulders again, unconsciously, and shifted purposefully in the seat. Tough shit. Youíve got a couple hours of therapy exercises to face, not to mention that the kid is gonna take one look at your sad-assed face and know something is wrong. He might not be the old Blair, but . . . .

But, somehow, Blair was often still attuned uncannily to his moods. Sometimes, like the four-year-old he seemed to be internally, the man was focused solely on himself, absorbed with his own concerns and fears to the exclusion of anyone else, the needs of others nonexistent in his limited universe. But, far more often than with a true child, Blair would study his former lover with a quiet frown and ask, "Whatsamatter, Jim?", or "Jim, whatís wrong? Are you sad?", or "What hurts, Jim?", the tone of his voice lower than the higher, lighter register it generally encompassed, something oddly closer to his old "guide voice", unconsciously comforting. Jim usually covered up whatever heíd been feeling, reassuring the other man that nothing was wrong, brightly suggesting something to change the subject, distract his broken Guide, but that seemed to work only some of the timeóand less and less frequently with any kind of total success. More often than not, Blair would go along with the change of subject, but remain faintly troubled, giving Jim uncertain glances as they played or talked or read or watched TV, as though it were difficult for him to believe that his adored Ďmost loveí would lie to him, but something in him knew things werenít completely right with the man who was his entire world.

Up to this point, Blair had seemed to make few connections with his former life. Heíd known his mother, calling her "Mommy", rather than the ĎMaí or ĎMomí or even ĎNaomií heíd used before (and Jim had never really understood how anyone got in the habit of calling a parent by their first name, but heíd always just relegated it to being part of the vast Sandburg Zone and left it at that), but had seemed to know that he belonged with Jim, somehow, although neither had ever brought up much about their previous relationship. Blair had seemed oddly incurious and accepting, and Jim had felt simultaneously devastated and relieved at Blairís lack of questions and his odd passiveness regarding his current life respective to his past. Maybe part of that was due to the fact that regaining any use of his faculties was a fucking miracle, and something to be cherished. Maybe Blair himself was confused about his former life and mulling it over until it made some sense to his current childlike mind. He was more hesitant, now, about vocalizing his thoughts. Where once ideas had spilled from him in a tumble of words, now he stopped and haltingly puzzled through the simplest of things in the damaged pathways of his brain before verbalizing his thoughts, and when the words came, they sometimes came with heartbreaking uncertainty, faltering as though Blair somehow did know that he was lacking some knowledge heíd previously possessed.

Christ, some knowledge. How about everything, every-fucking-thing? You didnít witness the destruction of a mind like Sandburgís and then say, "oh, well" and move on. You mourned it and grieved and tried to get past it, and then you watched a man whose thoughts had been quicksilver struggle to comprehend counting to twenty and you died all over again, grieved all over again, a hundred times an hour, a million times a day.

Fuck.

And then you tried to back off from it, tried to see the positive side, tried to remember how good this warm, trusting, reasonably happy person could make you feel when you got right down to it and looked at everything from a relative point of view. Because things were peachy, relatively speaking. Blair wasnít dead. Blair wasnít hooked up to a vast array of tubes, or a respirator. He wasnít in a vegetative state, or relegated to a wheelchair.

He was getting better, still. Still progressing, if in small increments.

Amazingly, that didnít cheer him up. Astonishingly enough, tonight he just felt bitter and depressed and wholeheartedly pissed off. Contrary to all of this fucking great news, the urge to just go on a rampage and break into microscopic pieces the sick motherfucker who had done this to his Guide was like some kind of underlying, single-minded imperative.

Right. Iím on a mission from God, he thought with an audible snort, darkly amused, his anger lessening just a bit at the vague attempt at humor, and he relegated the urge for revenge to the back burner. Oh, it would happen, but Ellison wasnít in any big hurry. There were a lot of options, all of them untraceable, all of them unconscionable, all with a certain macabre appeal, and Ellison planned to sift through them, anticipating, before deciding which held the most satisfaction. Prison, even for a cop, was too good for Henderson . . . particularly since the bastard was being kept apart from the general population for his own safety. Jim snorted again at that, and hoped the rat-fuck enjoyed his peaceful solitude while he could. Heíd destroyed something beyond price, and Jim didnít even need to get his own hands dirty to take the son of a bitch down.

As the house came into view, Jim sighed in some disapproval at the not-unexpected sight of his once-Guide, once-lover standing on the porch as he had every day so far this first week back at work, waiting for Jimís return in the pouring rain. "Jesus, Chief," he muttered, knowing that people didnít really catch cold or flu or develop pneumonia from standing in the cold and the wet, but worrying anyway, despite what was obviously a multitude of layers protecting his loyal young friend, the topmost layer a practical gray slicker with a hood. The face within that hood broke into a delighted grin, and Blair started his daily flight down the steps to meet Jim, thankfully taking it slow on the slippery wood. It was then that Jim noticed the unopened umbrella in his hand, and grinned himself. "What a maroon," he said fondly, his mood suddenly lightening at the manís approach. Blair met him as he got out of the truck. "Hey, Chief, wouldnít that thing work better if it was open and over your head?"

Blair handed the umbrella over, and wrapped his arms around the larger man. "íS not for me, Jim, itís for you. Iíve got my raincoat on, man, see?" He looked up at Jim with that Look, that damned, adoring look that without fail wiped away huge amounts of stress and lightened Jimís outlook on life in general, then guilelessly added a smile to it for good measure, a smile that said, Iím happy to see you, I love you, you are my entire universe. "Open it so you donít get wet."

Jim did as he was told, then held the umbrella over both of them as he locked and shut the truck door, then accompanied Blair to the front door where his caretaker, Emma, was waiting, obviously having kept an eye on her charge in case of the seizures that were becoming less frequent, while allowing him some autonomy. "Hi, Emma." "Jimís home." The two men spoke simultaneously, and Jimís tone was nearly as cheerful and contented as his Guideís, their arms still looped casually around one another.

"Hi, Jim," the motherly woman answered, smiling at them both. "Tonight, youíre on your own for dinner, fellas."

Jimís face fell exaggeratedly. "Guess the grace periodís over. Back to the old grind." Emma had fixed dinner and had it ready when Jim arrived home the first three evenings of the work week, despite his insistence that it wasnít necessary. The food had been good, too, the old-fashioned kind of home-cooked stuff youíd expect from somebody who looked like Emma.

"Actually, Iíve been fired from that duty by our friend, here," she said good-naturedly, reaching out to tousle Sandburgís curls. "Seems he missed cooking with you. He was very diplomatic about it, though. Corporations could learn a thing or two from his methods."

"Teaching was always Sandburgís specialty," Jim agreed quietly, hugging the younger man to him with a flash of memory: Blair, delivering the tail-end of a lecture with animated enthusiasm and passion to a class of spellbound freshmen, while Jim lounged at the back of the hall waiting for him, interested despite himself. Now, the memory brought with it a twinge of sadness, of renewed loss. It happened so often, Jim just as quickly shoved it aside with practiced near-ease. It almost didnít hurt.

"Teaching?" Emma questioned carefully. She hadnít been told much of anything about Blairís former life; Jim had simply given her the basics regarding his current needs and regimen.

"He was a teaching fellow at Rainier, working on his doctorate in Anthropology," Jim said simply, all too aware of the concerned blue gaze directed up at him from the figure plastered to his side. "Probably a good idea not to . . . " His eyes flicked meaningfully down at the smaller man, and the woman took the hint immediately.

"No, no," she agreed readily, dropping the subject as requested. She gave Blair a friendly smile, and said, "Iíve got to get moving, youngster, if Iím going to get home through this rain. You want to get my things for me?"

Blairís concerned frown lingered speculatively on Jimís face for a moment, then he squeezed his friendís waist gently and said, "Sure, Emma," his tone serious rather than the usual eager agreement. His arm slid slowly from around Jim, and he seemed a bit preoccupied as he made his careful way into the kitchen, the braced leg dragging somewhat.

"How did he do today?" Jim asked, as he asked every evening.

"A lot better today. He was kind of quiet after you left, but he didnít seem frightened or upset . . . I think he was just missing you." Emma smiled. "He talks about you all the time, you know. ĎI wonder what Jimís doing; is Jim eating lunch now?í Today he kept saying that he thought you had a headache; it was kind of an odd fixation, I thought." Her tone was affectionate.

I did have a headache. Most of the day.

"Maybe heís just worried about it affecting his other fixation. Camping On Saturday." She chuckled. "That boy must really love camping. When he wasnít talking about your day or your headache, thatís all I heard from him. He was really cute; heíd get this look on his face, like it was his fondest dream come true, and sort of hug himself. I think itís done him a world of good, taken his mind off the daily separation anxiety, you know? He ate lunch today like heís been starving for a weekónot too far from the truth, considering how he picked at his food the first three days," she commented wryly, "and he might get tired out early tonight. He didnít really take a nap; he just laid down for a little while on the couch and closed his eyes, but he never really slept. After a while, he said he wasnít tired and just wanted to look at Ďbooks and some old stuffí for awhile.í I think he went through some photo albums and notebooks from a box in the storage room. I hope that was all right, that he was allowed in there." Emma raised her eyebrows questioningly, presumably in reaction to Jimís frown.

"Yeah. Yeah, thatís okay, Emma," he said, a little absently, wondering what had prompted Blairís foray into the extra bedroom full of unopened boxes. Maybe it was just curiosity, something oddly lacking from Blairís personality in the first months of his recovery. "Itís just a lot of our old stuff that I havenít found a spot for yet." If rummaging through the boxes gave Blair satisfaction, great. Heíd wondered lately, anyway, if he shouldnít go through some of Blairís many artifacts and masks and fetishes and pull some of them out, spread íem around the place. Heíd felt unsure about it though, about what kind of reaction it would spark, and had subsequently let it slide.

The subject under discussion returned bearing raincoat, purse, umbrella, clear plastic rainboots, and a rather battered hardback book with no dust jacket. As Jim relieved him of the coat and helped the older woman into it , Emma said, "The bookís for us to read, Blair. Letís just leave it here; maybe Jimíll read some of it to you later. It was a favorite of my boys when they were growing up." That last to Jim.

He focused in on the titleóGorilla Adventure, by Willard Priceóand grinned. Heíd read that series himself when he was in the fourth and fifth grades. Jim wondered absently if Blair had read them in his boyhood. Maybe Naomi would know. Or maybe not. By the time Blair would have been nine or ten, the books would have already been kind of outdated, and Naomi might not have approved of her son reading about the adventures of two boys who helped their father capture wild animals for zoos, although that was probably unfair. Jim got the impression that Naomi had never censored her sonís voracious appetite for books. In any case, theyíd be new to Blair now.

Almost as though he were reading Jimís thoughts, Blair said, in some disapproval, "I liked it, so far, but . . . they should take pictures, right, Jim? The animals belong in the wild."

This, from the man whoíd once had a Barbary ape watching TV for weeks on end. But, to be fair, Blair had always been interested in animal conservationóeven now, a nature program was one of his favorite pastimes, and he remembered information from the shows that Jim never expected, astounding him days later with questions heíd obviously been ponderingódeceptively simple-sounding questions to which Jim frequently did not have answers, like, "Do you think the one kind of animal knows what the other animalsí sounds mean?" or, on a more philosophical plane, "Jim, is it right for the people taking pictures of those baby lions getting killed by the big lion . . . you know, they didnít stop it. Is that right?" Heíd had to think about that one for awhile. "We-e-ell, I dunno, Chief. I think, even though it looks really close-up, the guys behind the camera are actually pretty far away. Theyíre just using a special lens to make it look close-up. Besides, what could they do? Anyway, thatís what happens in nature. Theyíre just showing us the bad stuff along with the good, yíknow?" Blair had sighed. "Yeah. I know. Those babies looked so scared," heíd said quietly, almost to himself. "I wanted somebody to save them." Jim had given his shoulders a squeeze. "I know." Even Jim had thought it was kind of sad. But those scenes didnít stop Blairís interest in every nature show he could find, everything from Wild Kingdom reruns to Krattís Creatures and Nature. Not to mention the psych and human behavior courses on at the crack of dawn Saturdays on the local access and PBS stations. Jim didnít think Sandburg understood half of what was being said, but he sat there anyway, like a sponge, silently riveted to the screen and soaking up the images as he absently spooned cereal into his mouth or mechanically chewed his toast, while Jim slumped bleary-eyed over coffee, having been called out of bed at an ungodly hour to assist his friend in getting out of his, into his brace, and in front of the TV.

He didnít even want to think about the manís passion for The Discovery Channel. Heíd missed a fair number of football games after an application of those deadly weapons known as Blair Sandburgís blue eyes, pleading with him to forego football for some documentary on open heart surgery, or the mysteries of animal migration, or strategies from WWII (actually, that last heíd enjoyed), or whatever. It wasnít like Blair actually knew what was on and argued for any one program specifically. He just picked up the clicker, homed in unerringly on Discovery, and stubbornly insisted on watching whatever popped up on the screen. Jim thought Blair knew about his guilt at those times; he had toóhe used it like a precision tool to get his own way.

"Hey, Jim . . . right? JIM." Blairís grip on his arm and his insistent voice brought Ellison back from his reverie.

"Uh, yeah. Right, Chief. They oughta just take pictures."

Emma had retrieved a plastic rain hat from the pocket of her coat, and, keys in hand, was ready to leave for the day. "So. See you tomorrow, Chief ?" She smiled.

Blair shook his head, and replied firmly, "Emma, only Jim calls me ĎChiefí."

"Sandburg . . . " Jim said carefully, unsure the words deserved a rebuke. It was Blairís right to choose his own names and nicknames, to reject usage he didnít approve, just like anyone else . . . and something in his chest warmed at Blairís assertion that ĎChiefí was solely Jimís territory.

Blair looked up at him questioningly, hesitating, and Jim grinned down at him reassuringly. "Youíre pretty adamant about that." There was a note of praise in the teasing words that Jim couldnít hide.

"Thatís okay, Blair." Emma took it in stride. "See you tomorrow, then?"

Blair smiled at her, untroubled once again. "Yep. Tomorrow. Friday. And, on Saturdayó" The smile broadened, lit up the room.

"On Saturday, you go camping." Emma finished for him, and laughed. "God save us." She waved as she went out the door, and Blair stood and watched her get in her car and drive off, waving one last time in that odd childlike way heíd always had of closing the fingers down over the palm. Even before the shooting, heíd waved like that. For some reason, rather than annoying Jim, heíd always found it strangely appealing, that this grown man waved good-bye like a three-year-old. Well . . . it had annoyed him at first, just like everything about Sandburg had annoyed him at first.

The little bastard had grown on himóinsidiously, sorta like a fungus. Jim grinned at Blair as he shut the front door and shut out the cold, and Blair smiled back, innocently, his attention moving to the metal fastenings on his raincoat, prying each one open with some difficulty and a great deal of concentration. Jim itched to just do it for him, but Blair would (rightly) object if Jim tried it, so he stayed where he was and just watched.

"Whaddaya want for dinner, Junior?"

Blair frowned in thought as he struggled with one of the recalcitrant fastenings, and Jim wondered what he would say. When Blair had done more than half of the cooking at the loft, his tastes had been exotic and varied. And healthy. Now, his palate seemed a lot more limited, and he had developed a heretofore nonexistent taste for sweets. Like the kid he often seemed to be.

"Whatíve we got?"

The question surprised him. Usually, Blair simply pulled some favorite preference out of his head, expecting the makings to automatically exist, somehow.

"Iím not sure, Chief; let me check." He hadnít scoped out the fridge and freezer for a few days; heíd taken Blair for fast food both days last weekend, sticking to the drive-thru, and Emma had done the cooking every night since. He opened the refrigerator and stared into it. "Hot dogs, cheese, stuff for salad, broccoli, eggs, milk. Lessee whatís in the freezer . . . hamburger, chickenó"

"Cheeseburgers, man. And salad. And tater totsóhave we got tater tots?"

Jim searched for a moment. Sounded good to him. One small silver lining to the big cloud: Sandburg now enjoyed hamburgers and pizza with the rest of America. "We have tater tots," he announced momentously, as though the last words should have been Ďlift offí, and held the bag aloft in triumph.

Blair nodded, still preoccupied with his raincoat. "Tater tots. All right! And cheeseburgers. Letís toast the buns, huh, Jim? And Everything salad." (Jimís term for a salad with something more than just lettuce and tomato, coined when lettuce and tomato was the only kind of salad Blair would tolerate . . . as recently as last week.) Jim looked at his friend in puzzled but pleased surprise.

"Hey, Chief, great! Since when did you decide you liked Everything salad?"

Blair hung up his coat and shrugged a little. "Just felt like it." The coat dropped from its precarious perch, and Blair sighed, laboriously bending over to pick it up and carefully re-hanging it. "Stay, coat!" he muttered with a scowl. This time, it did, and Blair joined Jim in the kitchen.

"Iíll help," he offered, touching Jim on the arm as Jim put the package of hamburger in the microwave to defrost.

"You bet your ass you will," Jim agreed in a mock-growl, gently cuffing the younger man on the side of the head. Blair gave him a brilliant smile.

"Iím gonna tell my mom that you keep hitting me," he said smugly, maneuvering to one side of the refrigerator door to open it, and holding on as he leaned in to retrieve two kinds of lettuce, the bag of tomatoes, and an onion. He eyed the rest of the ingredients dubiously, then turned awkwardly toward the kitchen table with his hands full. "Not gonna spill it, not gonna spill it, not gonna drop it," he murmured to himself as he walked the few steps to deposit the vegetables on the table. "Yess!" he said softly in triumph, then carefully made his way back to the fridge for more salad ingredients. "Itís too cold and rainy to go in the pool, right Jim?" He once again grasped the edge of the fridge tightly to lean down for a cucumber, a green pepper and a bag of radishes. He pondered for a moment, still bent unsteadily, then grasped the celery, as well. "Carrots," he reminded himself in evident exasperation with his own forgetfulness, and leaned in again with infinite care.

"Yeah, Chief. Weíll have to do the indoor exercises tonight." Jim sighed inwardly; they were a pain in the ass compared to the ease of the water routine.

Apparently, Sandburg was aware of that; he looked at the larger man apologetically as he lurched back to the table and dumped his ingredients on it a little hastily, catching himself from overbalancing. "Iíll work really hard, Jim. Iíll work so hard that you can just sit back and watch me, Ďkay?"

Jim eyed the other man closely, and gave a rueful smile. "Doesnít work that way, buddy. Iíve got to do the work with you, give you the resistance."

"Whatís Ďresistanceí, Jim?" the tone was more one of grasping for a forgotten concept, asking for a reminder than for an initial definition.

"Itís pushing against something, not just letting it bowl you over. You know, you push against me, and I provide the resistance by pushing back." He demonstrated with his hands, palm to palm.

"Resistance," Blair repeated to himself, imitating the palm gesture. "Resistance." He nodded. "I remember, now." He started to sit, then pushed himself clumsily back to a standing position. "Bowl," he told himself, then added a list. "Knife, cutting boardóJim, you have to do the onion, right? It needs the sharp knifeógiant fork, giant spoon. Can I do the carrots in that thing with the turny handle? You have to do the tomatoes, too." He washed his hands conscientiously, then went through the long process of retrieving the items he needed, while Jim agreed with him about the tomatoes and onion, and got down the mini, manual food chopper and set it on the table. He could make the entire salad in a fraction of the time it would take Blair (not the least of the time loss due to the fact that Blairís fine-motor control wasnít up to sharp knives, making it necessary for him to settle for a slightly-serrated table knife that could get through the celery and radishes and cucumbers, if not very easily. Jim would cut the carrots into chunks that could go into the hand-cranked chopper, and would retrieve the results when Blair was finished to avoid Blair touching the sharp blades.) But Blair needed the practice, and he hated feeling uselessóand Jim could time the rest of the food to accommodate him. It wasnít the smooth efficiency with which they used to mesh, preparing a meal in tandem, but it still felt good to work together. Comfortable. Jim no longer had to exert much control to keep himself from taking over Blairís efforts to help, and only offered assistance when it was really needed, and Blair was getting better at a variety of tasks, negating the need for much help.

"Your headacheís better, huh, Jim?" The blue eyes fixed on him briefly, penetratingly, before returning to the task at hand.

In some astonishment, Jim realized it was. Had it simply been a case of stress, alleviated when he came into his home and the comforting presence of his Guide? Damaged or not, there was still something about proximity to Blair that soothed his frayed nerves, that grounded his senses. But . . . how did Blair know what he was feeling?

"Howíd you know that, Chief?"

A minute shrug. "You donít look so scrunchy."

"Scrunchy??"

Blair demonstrated a pained face, features pinched and, well . . . scrunched.

Jim smirked, amused. "Yeah, well . . . I guess I donít feel so scrunchy."

"Good," Blair said softly. Then, even more softly, big-eyed and solemn, "I donít want you to hurt, Jim."

Jimís heart constricted at that. After a moment, he crossed the kitchen in two long strides and cupped Blairís cheek, rough with five oíclock shadow, hunkering down beside Blairís chair to look up at him. "I know," he said, just as softly. He smiled gently at this man who had been his lover, and who still loved himóand was lovedóbeyond reason. "Thanks, Chief." He stroked the skin beneath his fingers a couple of times, the bearded portion prickly on the upstroke, catching the rough places on his fingertips, the skin smoother, softer over the cheekbone and temple, then gave the cheek two quick, affectionate pats before he stood . . . wanting instead to kiss him, needing to kiss him. Not on the cheek. Not on the forehead . . . .

Jesus, forget it. Stop. Just . . . .

He remembered the feel of that mouth opening beneath his, remembered the scent and taste of his Guide. It was only a little different nowómedications had altered it, but underneath the chemical changes was still an essential olfactory signature that was intrinsically Blair Sandburg, and he wanted that scent surrounding him, that taste on his tongue, wanted to bury himself in it in ways that were not just platonically affectionate, wanted to feel whole again. He backed off fast, went to take the thawed hamburger out of the microwave.

Those eyes were still looking at him, wide, utterly open, utterly vulnerable, studying him intently, and Jim couldnít take itóthat beautiful, beautiful face, those eyesócouldnít function under what felt like the gentle scrutiny of his very soul, of things best kept under wraps, and he said softly, "Better keep moviní on that salad, Chief. Iím starting on the burgers."

Blair complied, once again busying himself with clumsy cucumber slices. "Just one more day, and then weíll be camping. One more day," Jim heard him say in a low voice that was nearly a whisper, and the words were filled with a longing and a sheer, almost reverent sense of wonder and happiness that washed over Jim and made him so glad he hadnít said Ďnoí to the whole idea. It wasnít like he couldíve said no, anywayóno way in helló and it wasnít much of a hardshipóthey still had all their camping equipment in the cabinís attic, and setting up a tent for one night was the easiest thing heíd ever done to make Blair this happy.

"So, Sport, weíve got hot dogs, and weíve got marshmallows and chocolate bars and graham crackers for this little outing Saturday," he said, quickly slapping hamburgers into shape between his palms and seasoning them, not looking at Blair, trying to get a little breathing space. "What else do we need?"

"Sleeping bags," Blair responded promptly.

"Thatís okay, Iíll take care of that stuff. I was thinking more along the lines of food. Stuff to do."

"Where are we going to make a fire?" Blair asked.

"I can clear a spot, no problem. Food, Chief, think food."

"Hey . . . beer!"

Jim gave him an apologetic look. "Canít. Not with your seizure medication."

Blair didnít seem too disappointed, merely sighed, then nodded in acceptance, absorbed in his thoughts, and in tearing the lettuce into the salad bowl.

"Hey . . . donít make the pieces too small, remember?" Jim cautioned. Blair nodded again, looking up at him with a quick, sunny smile before returning to his task. Seeing that the other ingredients were coming along at a reasonable pace, Jim pulled out a skillet and turned on a burner beneath it. "You want Worcestershire sauce on yours?"

Blair considered it. "Whatís that?" he asked finally. Jim pulled the bottle out of the fridge and showed it to him. Blair regarded it dubiously.

After an agonizing moment of indecision, Jim said, "Iím starviní, here, Chief. Iíll make a couple with, and a couple without. You can taste it and see if you like it, deal?"

"Okay," Blair agreed easily, returning to his salad prep. His next query surprised the hell out of the Sentinel. "Donít you have to turn the oven on, Jim, for the tater tots?"

Jim looked over at him in pleased astonishment. Sure, Blair knew the potatoes went in the oven, but the concept of pre-heating it was a new concept gained . . . or possibly remembered. "Yeah. Did Emma tell you that?" he asked curiously.

"Emmaís at home," Blair reminded him. "You said it the last time we made TV dinnersógotta turn the oven on for awhile, first. Every time. Right?"

"Absolutely." Jim turned the oven to the specified temperature.

There was a comfortable silence for a moment, broken only by the sounds of Blair painstakingly sawing celery into bits, and the sizzle of hamburgers, then Blair said slowly, pensively, "I remember doing this before. You and me, makingócooking." He smiled a little, clearly reminiscing. "It was at the loft." Silence again; then, the smile audible in his voice: "You had an apron. With flowers on it. I thought it was funny."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim growled menacingly.

"Yeah." Blair wasnít fazed; he simply grinned to himself as he started on the green pepper with more enthusiasm than finesse, then snorted. "Man, you looked funny in that apron. Really funny." He laughed.

"Ha, ha, Sandburg." Jim scowled, keeping up the pretense.

"You looked like a big dork," Sandburg clarified happily, snorting again.

Again, Jim felt that twinge of astonishment, of excitement, as Blair used a term he hadnít employed since his former life. He was ecstatic at being called a big dork. "What did you say?" he threatened, grinning so hard it hurt. Oh, yeah, say it again.

"You looked like a big dork," Blair offered with a small, gleeful hee , still focusing on his green pepper pieces.

Jim couldnít help it, he moved to Sandburg and bent to put his arms around him from behind in a quick, gentle hug, brushing his lips across the top of the curly head. "Love you, you little dork," he murmured.

Blair didnít turn around, or stop what he was doing for more than a brief instant, but Jim could still hear the delighted smile in his voice. "Love you, too, Jim. You big dork."

Jim squeezed him a little harder before letting him go and standing up. He went to flip the burgers, then pulled cheese slices from the fridge. Good olí pasteurized processed American cheese food product, Jim thought happily. Getting out hamburger buns, he stuck them on a cookie sheet in the oven to toast for a short time while dumping tater tots onto another cookie sheet. "How hungry are you?" he asked, pausing with the bag suspended mid-tilt.

"Me?"

"I donít see anybody else in this room I could be talking to," Jim said dryly.

"Oh . . . well . . . I dunno. Hungry."

"Really hungry? Really, really hungry? Emma said you ate a pretty big lunch," Jim reminded.

"Do lots of tater tots." Decisively, Blair cut to the chase as he picked up the Ďgiant spoon and forkí and started mixing the salad, adequately, if not too adroitly.

"Gotcha." He slid the potatoes into the oven, checked on the buns, and set the timer. Quickly getting a knife and slicing onion and tomatoes, he dumped them into Blairís salad bowl, pulled out the toasted hamburger buns and asked, "You want the cheese melted over the burger in the pan, or slapped cold on top of it when it goes on the bun?"

"Melted, man. I like melted." Sandburg gathered up the spilled bits of salad from the table and put them back in the bowl.

Blairís sudden appetite was an improvement. And a relief. Jim hoped like hell it lasted. Compliant as he usually was, his friend had quietly resisted eating much over the past months, requiring that every meal be turned into a long session of coaxing, appealing to his sense of loyalty and his need to please Jim in order to get a bare minimum of sustenance into the man. Blair ate, eventually, but it was so obviously without pleasure and took so much effort for so little result that it made mealtimes a little difficult.

Now, he was apparently ravenous. Unless his eyes were just bigger than his stomach. Sometimes, what he thought he wanted (or, more often, what he thought Jim wanted him to want), and the actual extent of his appetite were wildly divergent. Jim shrugged. That was what the fridge was for; Jim was good at finishing up leftovers.

He looked over as Blair struggled out of his chair and went to the fridge, peering inside, then emerging with two bottles of dressing. He fumbled one of them, almost-but-not-quite catching it before it fell. "Shit." Luckily, it was plastic, and, after exhibiting a quick look of annoyance, Blair sighed, took hold of the refrigerator door and carefully eased down to pick up the bottle. "Sorry, Jim."

"íS okay," Jim said easily, putting a steadying hand under Blairís arm and nudging the refrigerator door shut. "No big deal."

"It didnít spill," Blair agreed. He placed the bottles on the table carefully, and reached a little clumsily for the vegetable leavings on the table to start cleaning up.

"Let me get that," Jim offered.

Blair shrugged him away. "I can do it," he said, his voice a bit sharp.

"Yeah, I know you can," Jim said amiably, "but I can do it faster, and weíre about ready to chow down, here." He didnít bother to wait for a reply, just efficiently picked up the mess around Blairís persistent efforts, depositing the bits in the trash then bringing the waste can over and holding it out for Blair to deposit the pieces in his own hands. Blair complied, but his look was reproachful.

"I could do it, Jim," he said, sounding hurt.

"I know, Chief," he reiterated gently, feeling a little guilty even though it was such a non-issue. "We just did it together, okay?" he offered.

Those eyes looked at him, resigned. "I guess," Blair said reluctantly, clearly not agreeing, but unwilling to fight over it.

Without thought, Jim put the arm not holding the trash can around the other manís shoulders and bent to touch his head to Blairís. "Donít be mad at me, huh, Chief?" he coaxed softly, apologetically. He felt a hand pat him on the back and he smiled. "Iím just really hungry."

Placated, Blairís expression cleared at that. "Okay."

Jim released him, then, and set out utensils and two glasses of milk, then loaded up their plates and brought them to the table, where Blair managed to get more salad on their plates than on the table, and the two men spent a few moments applying dressing and the mustard and other necessary burger accoutrements Jim had grabbed from the fridge, then dug in. Eyeing his friend with open satisfaction, Jim watched Blair eat with enthusiasm, enjoying the sight.

They didnít talk much, too busy cheerfully emptying their plates, except for Blairís contemplative suggestions around a mouthful of cheeseburger as to the camp-out menu, and Jimís teasing admonitions not to talk with his mouth full, spoken around his own mouthfuls. And every once in awhile, Blair would stop everything for a moment and just gaze at Jim with sheer happiness, and say with a sigh of contentment, "Weíre going camping. Weíre really going camping."

"Yeah," Jim snorted once, inwardly just as pleased by Blairís obvious pleasure, "in the backyard."

"Yeah," Blair said enthusiastically, hands expressively waving away the disparaging tone of Jimís comment. "Weíll have a big fire. Weíll be in the tent . . . " He hugged himself, as if trying to contain all of his excitement.

"Someday," Jim promised, "weíll go fishing again, camp in the wilderness."

Blair nodded at that, but apparently the excitement of an imminent camp-out in the backyard was far greater than that of some hazy future trip to parts unknown.

Jim idly thought back to one of their fishing trips before, the water clear, Blair grinning at him with that damn fishing spear held aloft in triumph, the not-too-shabby catch in his other hand, raised proudly . . . . Simon had joined them on that trip, and Jim wondered again if he should make overtures toward a reconciliation with his old friend. He was still angry, he acknowledged, standing to clear the table, still felt a sense of betrayal, still partially blamed Simon . . . but Simon was concerned, was worried about Blair, genuinely wanted to see him. Jim looked over at his friend, who was getting awkwardly to his feet to clear his own dishes from the table, and thought it might just make Simon realize what, ultimately, his dismissal of Jimís suspicions had done to Blair, if he were confronted with the results. Let him see it, let him face his mistake, let him take his share of the guilt.

Jim silently took the plate Blair handed him at the sink, and said, "Hey, buddy, think you can get the exercise mat down and spread it out on the floor? Iíll do the dishes, weíll watch the WNBA game for a few minutesólet our food settleóthen itís workout time."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair said, having recently rediscovered the phrase. It always sounded a little incongruous when paired with his big-eyed, innocent expression, and Jim laughed.

"Great." He swatted the other man lightly on the backside. "Get to it."

"Another hit. More hitting," Blair noted without rancor. "Iím telliní my mom, Jim." He left the room cheerfully.

When Jim heard Blair wrestling with the fairly heavy mat, he called out as nonchalantly as he could manage, "Blair, do you remember Simon?"

The movement and grunts of effort from the living room ceased abruptly, and Jim heard Blairís heartbeat accelerate. There was no response for a very long thirty seconds, then a hesitant, quiet voice said, "He didnít like me."

Oh, jeez . . . how to explain to Blair his former relationship with the Major Crimes captain? "I . . . Chief, I think he just pretended not to like you . . . an act, sort of, to make him look . . . tough, I guess. Strong."

The sounds from the other room resumed, but, again, for a long moment there was no reply. "He . . . wasnít nice to me. He yelled at me," Blair finally said, contradicting Jimís words, but sounding a little uncertain of his conviction.

"He just liked to give you a hard time," Jim said reassuringly. "I mean, he went fishing and to ball games with us and stuff, remember?"

Another pause. "I donít know." Rustling, a dull thud as the mat hit the floor, a sound suspiciously like Blair stumbling and following it down and a quiet ow. "I guess."

"Are you okay? Did you fall?" Jim queried, alert, but not unduly worried. Blair fell a lot, his large motor skills still dicey, particularly in the lower extremities, when signals from the brain sometimes got tangled up and consequently made him clumsy; heíd gotten pretty good at catching himself and minimizing the damage.

"Yeah, on the mat. I hit my funny bone on the coffee table. Iím okay." That last rang out in cheerful reassurance, warning his Blessed over-Protector off.

"Good." Jim finished up the dishes, and dumped the skillet in the soapy water to soak, then ventured uncertainly, "Blair . . . um, what if I let Simon come by for a short visit?"

"Tonight?" Blairís heart pounded again, and his voice sounded scared and unhappy.

"No, not tonight," Jim replied quickly, moving to the living room to see his friend fighting to open the exercise mat. So far, the mat looked like it was winning. It was only half-open, part of the accordion folds beneath the Guide sprawled disheveled on top of it, hair in his face. As Jim watched, Blair painstakingly got his knees under him, moved with agonizing difficulty onto all fours, then struggled to kneel upright, panting as he ran a hand back through his sweaty hair. Slowly, he walked backward on his knees, the braced leg only partially cooperativeóBlair leaned onto his stronger leg for each Ďstepí back and manually moved the weaker beyond where it was able to travel under its own power, then repeated the process until he was far enough back to allow the space needed to finish unfolding the mat. "I was thinking sometime soon, though." Blairís convulsive swallow was audible as he put his weight onto his right arm and stretched out with the left to tug the accordion open the rest of the way with a subsequent grunt. "Heís, uh, been asking about you, wants to know how you are."

Mission accomplished, Blair pushed himself upright again with effort and knelt there, very still, his fists clenched white-knuckled at his sides, his hair hiding his face. "No. Heíll think Iím . . ." The words faltered. " . . . stupid," he finally whispered. Devastated by the pain in that one word, in the other manís posture, Jim opened his mouth to speak, but found himself speechless at this evidence that Blair was aware of what he lacked, and Blair interrupted him, head still lowered, not looking at Jim at all. "He doesnít like me, Jim. He doesnít like me."

Jim moved to Blairís side, dropped down beside him and pulled him close, wordlessly rocking him for a moment. Finally, he said, "Thatís not true."

Blairís head nodded sharply, contradicting Jimís words. "He doesnít like you to be with me."

"Well . . . that might make him uncomfortable, how close we are, but thatís tough shit, Chief," Jim said in a low voice, breathing into the sweaty curls, inhaling the dizzying scent of Blairís shampoo. Hastily, he tried to dial down his sense of smell, with limited but adequate success. "But even so, heís a friend. Really. Heís worried about whether youíre okay."

Blair shook his head repeatedly, then moved to pull away from Jimís embrace. "I want to watch basketball," he said unsteadily but determinedly, his vulnerable stance, his tone begging Jim to let him change the subject. "Okay, Jim? You said we could." He didnít look at the older man, and his voice wavered again.

Jim dropped it. "Okay. WNBA. But just for a while. Iím kinda beat, and we still have to do at least an hour of your exercises."

Blair nodded silently and crawled over to the couch, looking pretty beat himself as he dragged himself up and settled onto it at one end, passively waiting for Jim to get the remote and turn on ESPN. Jim had a brief, heavenly fantasy of skipping the therapy session for one night, but dismissed it sternly. No way was he starting down that slippery slope. Blair needed the strengthening routine. There were lots of nights when it was tiring, but it had to be done. Tonight was no different.

Sitting on the other end of the couch, he glanced over at Blair as they watched the game, seeing his friend begin to relax as he became involved with the action onscreen. A moment later, he checked again, to find Blair checking on him. He grinned, and Blair smiled back a little shyly, then grew serious again. "Jim?" he murmured.

"Yeah?"

"Címere; lie down here." Sandburg beckoned with his hand, then patted his leg, wanting Jimís head in his lap.

Jim hesitated, not certain it was such a great idea . . . but Blairís expression was so entreating, his eyes so full of that look of adoration that Jim sighed, capitulation pretty much a foregone conclusion. He gave up. Stretching out on his side, he pillowed his head on Sandburgís near thigh, facing the TV and getting comfortable. "Okay?" he asked.

"Yeah," Blair said softly. One hand rested warm and comforting on Jimís shoulder, the other began slowly stroking his hair with a gentle touch. It felt good, soothingóuncomplicated. Lulling him in the uncanny way Blairís touch always did.

"Doní let me fall Ďsleep, Sandburg," he cautioned drowsily after a few moments of that hypnotic caress. "Gotta do yír workout."

"I know. We will," Blair promised.

A moment later, Jim was right on the edge of dropping off when Blair said, almost too softly to be heard, "Simonís your friend, isnít he, Jim?" There was a note of wistfulness in his voice that puzzled Jimís half-somnolent brain.

"Yeah," he answered vaguely, still closer to sleep than awareness. Things were still rocky between them, but, yes . . . he thought he and Simon could salvage the fragments of their friendship.

Silence reigned but for the low volume of the TV for a few moments, those fingers still ghosting through his hair tenderly.

"Okay. He can come," Blair whispered simply. He pressed a quick, audible kiss to Jimís shoulder, then a second slower, more contemplative one.

Jim awoke fully at that. "What made you change your mind?" he asked his friend gently, feeling Blairís mouth still resting against his shoulder.

Blair heaved a soft sigh. "Heís your friend. You have to help me all the time, but he can do things. You should go fishing, Jim. You should go to a ball game." That wistful note was back.

Heíd said theyíd done those things with Simon. Blair meant that he should do them again, now, with Simon. With Simon, and without Blair. Because Blair required help all the time, and his Guide was offering him an out, a break.

Oh, god. Oh, god.

Jim reached back and up, rubbing that head full of curls. "Weíll go soon, Chief, okay?" he said with studied casualness. "You and me. We should go fishing; we should go to the ball game . . . and weíll see about asking Simon."

"Thereís a lot of steps at the ball game, Jim," Blair said dubiously, his voice vibrating through Jimís shirt as his lips moved against Jimís shoulder. "What if I have to pee?"

"Weíll sit close to the bathroom."

"I might not make it. I might have an accident. And the seats are high up. What if I get dizzy?" Great. His own personal, earnest devilís advocate, trying to get Jim to see what a burden he was.

"Iíll hold onto you, Blair; I wonít let anything happen to you. Iíll stick to you like glue," Jim promised firmly. He softened his voice, wheedling a little. "If I go to a ball game, I want you there, huh? Otherwise, we might as well watch it here." His fingers tightened around a handful of soft hair, tugged on it for emphasis. Without volition, his hand lingered, fingers sinking into silken tendrils, the mass of curls twining around them, filling the spaces between them, warm and damp from sweat closer to the scalp. Playing with it brought the scent of Blairís shampoo and conditioner forth, wafting it through the air around them and Jim inhaled deeply, picturing Blair, shirtless, as heíd clung to the edge of the kitchen sink that past Sunday, bent forward so that Jim could wash his hair for him, his body wedging the smaller man in place so that he wouldnít fall as he maneuvered his head under the faucet. Jim had gotten an erection, feeling that firm, malleable ass against his thighs, and heíd quickly shifted to place the side of his hip against his partner so that Blair wouldnít feel the hard length of him poking the small of his back. Now, he ruefully let go of Blairís hair, ruthlessly told his burgeoning erection to get lost, and decided that some good old-fashioned hard exercise was a good idea. For both of them. The Simon issue was obviously an uncomfortable one for his friend, and he didnít like the direction it seemed to be leading Blairís emotions, causing this unexpected self-doubt.

"I donít know, Jim. Maybe. Sometimes . . . I donít like it when people stare at my bad leg."

"Theyíre curious, Chief. Thatís all. Theyíre probably just wondering what happened, whatever. You know how people are. You stared at other patients in PT when you were in the temporary care facility, remember?"

"Yeah," Blair replied slowly, his tone a little lighter than it had been. Unable to speak much yet at that time, he had stared, openly and at length, intently absorbing every movement around him as though searching for any clue to help him with his own hard road back to mobility. But it had been something more, too. Some tenacious fragment of the Guide and anthropologist within the man had been almost instinctively at work; Jim could have sworn itóa residual abiding interest in human interaction, blue eyes cataloguing every grunt of pain, every moan, every murmur of encouragement and muttered curse of frustration with the same odd empathy and emotions-on-his-sleeve that had more often than not always characterized his observational M.O. Detachment had never been Sandburgís strong point. He could do detachment, feign objectivity, but it was simply a mantle of Good Science, and almost diametrically foreign to his nature.

Jim shrugged, turned onto his back to look up at Blairís curious frown. "So, people stare at other people, even when theyíre not different. It doesnít mean anything bad, necessarily. Besides, first they look at the brace, and then they look at that gorgeous smile, eh, Chief?" Jim grinned and lifted a hand to lightly slap the other manís cheek. "I gotta tell ya, the brace isnít whatís gonna stick in their minds."

"Hitting again, Jim," Blair warned, cheering up.

"Yeah, yeah; youíre gonna tell Naomi. So, now youíve got me keyed up about this. We could go to a Jags game . . . maybe Simon could get us some great seats; he knows Arthur Dell, the teamís owner, remember."

"He does?" Blairís tone was doubtful as he obviously cast his mind back to try to remember, visibly torn between his apprehension regarding Simon and the lure of choice seats.

Jim raised his hand as though swearing a vow. "Scoutís honor."

Blair digested that thoughtfully until Jim said briskly, "Okay, off your butt, Sandburg, and on the mat. Enough lazing around; we can watch the rest of the game from the floor. Time to make good on that promise to work hard tonight." His mouth said the words, but his body wasnít ready to move just yet. Subsequently, he grinned when Blair said, "I canít get off my butt, Jim, till you get off my leg." Jim noticed, however, that Blair had resumed stroking his head. Heaving a deep breath, he said, "Right," determinedly, and rolled up and onto his feet in one quick move, then extended a helping hand to his partner, hefting Sandburg to his unsteady feet and keeping hold of him until he had his footing. Blair followed him amicably to the mat, and got himself down onto it, lying back so that Jim could remove the brace, eyeing the procedure intently, brows knitted in concentration.

His Guide had been in dead earnest when heíd sworn earlier to work really hard. The exercises, simple as they would seem to an able-bodied person, were arduous for Blair, and he and Jim were both drenched in sweat by the end of the session two hours later, Blair having insisted on the full drill, pushing himself beyond exhaustion by simply switching muscle groups when one area trembled from over-exertion. As they did some comparatively easy stretches and range-of-motion movements to cool down, Blairís right leg was seized by painful muscle cramps, tremors running along the quads and calf muscles, his leg jerking spasmodically. He cried out once, then pressed his lips together tightly and surged upward to frantically grab at his thigh with both hands, instinctively massaging the muscles with a desperate grip. Jim quickly took hold of the calf and worked at the spasms there with knowledgeable fingers, digging in and rubbing to the litany of Blairís whispered, "Shit, shit, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, ow. Ow, ow. Ow, ow. Oh, man, oh, shit."

He was white with pain when the agonizing tremors finally eased, going limp with relief as he lay back down, and Jim continued to firmly and efficiently knead the muscles in his leg with a sure grip, then worked the length of the other leg for good measure. After a moment, Blair resumed the range-of-motion exercises with his arms, clearly too tired to move, but persevering anyway, and Jim carefully worked his feet and ankles, aware of what his Guide needed more from instinct than from the routine. "Better?" Jim asked softly. Blair simply nodded.

"Bath," Jim said uncompromisingly, knowing it was the better option for fatigued, overworked muscles, and completely unwilling to go over the arguments against showers. Upshot: showers werenít safe, and Blair couldnít manage them alone, and Jim didnít trust his body anymore not to react. For a long time, guilt and sorrow had kept attraction and arousal for his altered Guide non-existent; now it occurred regularly and at willóperfectly normal if his partner were a functioning, consenting adult.

Blair wasnít. End of story.

He wasnít a child, either, of course. He was something strangely in between. Something Jim loved deeply. Sex just wasnít an option anymore. Now if he could just get his libido to take note of that undeniable fact, life would be one hell of a lot easier.

And that meant avoiding showers where he would have to undress and get in with his wobbly Guide. Sure, he helped a naked Blair in and out of the tub, touched him while washing his back (tried not to look while Blair knelt with his help and washed his butt, his genitals), but at least he was still dressed and could conceal his reaction to the man.

Gotta install that bench and handrail so he can sit in the shower. And get a rougher textured bath mat.

It wasnít procrastination. It was just that making the place accommodate Blairís needs was an ongoing processóresearching the changes as much as implementing them. The adaptations werenít things you thought about, or knew even existed, until they were necessary. But the shower setup could enable Blair to be more independent, and could allow Jim to hover on the other side of a closed curtain to monitor for difficulties. This weekend, he promised himself as he checked out the bath wateróBlair liked it hotter than Jim would have made it on his own and had consistently complained that the water was too cold, that he was freezing, so now Jim tested the temperature according to his friendís preferences, a nude Blair waiting in tired silence on the toilet seat.

"You got pretty sweaty, there, Chiefówant me to wash your hair?"

Blair nodded. "Itíll stink if you donít."

"Okay." It wouldnít, really, to normal senses, but Jim did find it mildly unpleasant, and he realized that Blair meant his response with that in mind. It was a chore; Blairís hair required more than a quick going over. It was a lather-rinse-repeat process (heavy on the rinsing, with Blairís thick profusion of curls), followed by a conditioner combed through first with fingers to loosen the worst of the snarls, then a wide-toothed de-tangling comb, then another rinse. Thankfully, Blair just usually let it dry on its own to promote the curls, which tonight meant a towel-drying, then a towel on the pillow when he went to bed with it damp.

Jim had never once thought of asking him to cut it, even now, when he would have given a small third world country to just fall into bed. Or at least, never since his first, initial contempt of the anthropologistís appearance, of beauty that even then had discomfited him with a twinge of interest, of desire that did not sit well with his macho sensibilities. That reaction had faded fairly early in their relationship as Blairís courage and loyalty, his tenacity and willingness to go to any lengths to help Jim edged out his previous distrust, and heíd been able to appreciate Sandburgís beauty as simply part of Sandburg, pleasing, but no more remarkable than any of the other traits that bound him to his Guide. The hair was a major component to the appeal, and if it took half an hour to wash it, then that was what it took.

Getting Blair into the tub ("Feels great, Jim," Blair said with a sweet, blissful smile, eyes closed as he sank into warm water), Jim kept a secure grip on his upper arm as he helped the other man back to dunk his hair under, then sat him up. Kneeling beside the tub as Blair obligingly tipped his head way backóexposing a strong throat and prominent Adamís apple that Jim avoided noticingóhe quickly worked up a lather and scrubbed efficiently at Blairís scalp, the vigorous ministrations of his fingers jostling the other manís head matter-of-factly. Blair simply endured it complacently, bringing his hands up to help keep the soap and water out of his eyes as Jim used a plastic jug to scoop and dump water over his hair. Soap in the eyes was not something Blair endured, calmly or otherwise, and Jim did his best to avoid it after his first misguided, unconcerned, be-a-man-about-it attempts to rinse Blairís hair months agoóthe results had not been pretty. Oh, all the soap was out of those streaming curls; it had been the streaming eyes, the barely verbal curses and the baleful red-eyed glare that had originally clued Jim in, prompting the be-a-man retort. Removing the fists knuckling at his eyes, Blair had given Jim such a look of disbelieving reproach that Jim didnít know whether to laugh or be ashamed of himself.

"Hurts, Jim," Blair had said angrily, eyes squeezing shut against the sting, and had fumbled to take the plastic container from Jim, frustrated when Jim didnít let him. "Stop it! Me." Jim had ignored him that time and just gotten on with the job.

Consequently, Blair had avoided shampooing for over a week, and resisted violently when Jim finally insisted, manhandling him into it until they were both soaked, Blair was shaking with rage and anticipated discomfort, and Jim had to force his head back for the rinse cycle, hand tight enough on his Guideís jaw to leave bruises. (Even then, he reflected, he hadnít made the logical threatóto just cut all the hair off and wash the remainder with a soapy washcloth.) It had been a lesson that had prompted Jim to pick up a bottle of baby shampoo, which Naomi regretfully told him didnít work on adult scalps when Blair called her to haltingly complain.

So now Jim had learned, and washed Blairís hair in the kitchen sink when he could, and took great pains with the rinsing procedure when they were stuck with the tub, Blair cooperating willingly once he realized Jim was trying to make it a pain-free task. With the therapy exercises a daily thing, Blairís hair was either sweaty or chlorine-soaked by the end of the session, and required washing a lot more often than had been his wont before the shooting, when twice a week was sufficient. They were going through his conditioner like it was going out of style, he noted ruefully as he worked it liberally through the tangled mass, starting on the endless task of de-tangling. Blair spoke up as he began to work on the opposite side from Jim.

"I could do this part all by myself," he offered, and, in fact, he was capable of it, if slow.

"I donít know about you, but Iím beat, Sandburg," Jim confessed. "We do it together, it gets done faster"óand you have an excuse to touch him and look at his naked bodyó"and we can both hit the sack."

"Okay." Blair sounded relieved.

Eventually, the hair was done and rinsed, Blairís body was clean, and Jim got a tight grip on his wet arms and assisted him up and out of the draining tub, wrapping a large bath sheet around him, then toweling his hair vigorously until it was merely damp. Blair stood there passively, yawning, before surprising Ellison by sliding his arms sleepily around Jimís waist and simply holding him, resting his damp head on Jimís shoulder. "I love you, man," he said quietly.

Jim returned the embrace with some trepidation, but his body thankfully didnít react with more than a warm rush of affection, of love and belonging, that Blairís arms always bestowed on him. "I know. I love you, too."

He let Blair hold him a moment longer, needing it, then slowly released him with a pat on the arm and picked up a hand to check his fingernails, glanced down at small, nicely shaped feet to assess the state of his toenails. (Blair had always gone on and on about how elegant and aesthetically whole or complete or some other bullshit New Age-speak Jimís feet were, waxing rhapsodic, but Jim couldnít see it. But Blairís feet were small and precise, and he just liked them.) Thank god, no clipping required.

Seeing that his partner was moving in slow-mo, Jim took over the drying-off, then hustled him into the boxers and t-shirt Blair had voted for a few days ago, banishing the pajamas Jim had been putting him into each night (ĎMan, they twist me all up. Get rid of íemí), then turned the unresisting man to face the sink and handed him his toothbrush. Blair fumbled with the toothpaste cap, took three attempts to get paste on the bristles while Jim stood there wondering if it was ever gonna happen, then slowly and carefully brushed his teeth. After spitting one last time into the sink, he tried to aim the toothbrush handle into the small hole of the holder, and finally gave up with a sigh, his fingers uncooperative, and simply passed it back to Jim, who took it gratefully and stuck it in the slot.

"You want me to read to you before bed? Or you wanna watch some TV?" Jim offered. It was a little before Blairís internal clock usually declared lights-out, but his flagging demeanor had exhaustion written all over it, and Jim hoped the answer would just be Ďbedí, which was where heíd be headed right after.

The curly head shook slowly. "íM really tired. Arenít you tired, Jim?" he said, the question clearly rhetorical as Blairís gaze assessed his condition. "You said you were beat."

"I am."

"Gimme another hug." Without waiting for Jimís foregone consent, Blair hugged him again, fiercely, then smiled up at him. "ĎNight, Jim."

"ĎNight, buddy." Jim squeezed him back. "The railís down, so you can get into bed. Iíll bring you your medication."

Blair nodded, and headed off to his room, limping gait unsteady without his brace, hand trailing along the wall, his voice floating back. "I donít like the rail, Jim. I feel trapped."

"Not open for discussion, Chief," Jim said amicably from the kitchen. When he reached Blairís room, the younger man was ensconced in the bed, the covers a little out of whack, his damp hair on the pillow.

"I forgot the towel."

"Iíll get it." Jim gave him his medication, then got the towel and placed it over the pillow as Blair lifted up to accommodate him, then straightened the covers around his Guide. He was pulling up the rail and locking it into place, when Blair said softly, "Kiss me."

Jim looked at him for a moment then leaned down to gently kiss Blairís prickly cheek. Blair grabbed his shirt front before he could rise and leaned up to kiss him backóon the mouth. Flustered, Jim turned so that the kiss landed on his cheek instead, the soft, warm pressure of Blairís lips lingering, and felt Blairís unwavering gaze as he stood up, feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. "Uh, gĎnight."

Blair closed his eyes tightly. "ĎNight," Blair said, and the weariness in his voice didnít seem to stem solely from physical fatigue.

"One more day, then camping. One more day," the fervent whisper followed Jim out the door as he shut off the light.

"Yeah, Chief," he said softly. "One more day." A familiar scent from Blairís bath-warmed body drifted out with him, and he realized why he had felt uncomfortable at Blairís kiss. It wasnít like Blair didnít occasionally kiss him on the mouth, but the kisses were never . . . they werenít . . . The smell wasnít just soap, or Blairís natural scent, but also . . . pheromones. They were faint, but they were present. Blair hadnít given off pheromones since before his injuriesóor, at least Jim didnít think he had. No wonder heíd felt odd.

Fifteen minutes and a quick shower later, he fell into bed, and, nearly asleep, turned up his sense of hearing and listened for the comforting sounds of his Guide sleeping.

He got one hell of a shock.

Breathing, not slow and even as expected, but quick, hard. Panting. Heartbeat pounding. Smell kicked in: scent of pheromones and arousal heavy in the air, redolent with pre-ejaculate. More sounds: small vocalizations of need, rustle of bedclothes, movement of the mattress . . . friction of skin on smooth, taut skin, its rhythm increasing. It went on for what seemed like an eternity while Jim lay there, his heart pounding, the sounds inexplicably terrifying him for a moment or two. Finally, with a small choked sound, Blair obviously climaxed, the scent of semen hitting his nose. Then, a soft sigh, more rustling sounds . . . was Blair cleaning himself up? Eventually, heartbeat and respiration falling into sleep rhythms . . .

Without thinking, his own heart still racing in that odd panic, Jim got out of bed and padded down the hall to Blairís bedroom and stood in the open doorway. Bringing up his sight, he gazed into the dark room at his sleeping partner, the smell of male arousal and completion still strong, Blairís body sprawled loosely, utterly relaxed, his features peaceful. Beautiful. Mouth slightly open, dark lashes contrasting with pale skin. Jim shivered, watched a moment longer, his heart gradually slowing to normal, then ruefully went back to bed, not sure what he felt, not sure what was causing that weird hollow in the pit of his stomach.

Finally, the day catching up with him, he slept.


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