The Long Fall - Tangent

Fall came early to Cascade, bringing cold rains and changing leaves before September had even ended. But most of Major Crimes was still planning to make it to the annual Softball in September game--a little cold weather wasn't going to keep them from kicking the asses of those hotshots from Vice. No way in hell.

They got lucky, too. That Saturday dawned clear, becoming the first cloudless day in at least two weeks. The sky overhead was bright blue, cloudless, and the temperature rose steadily to a pleasant fifty degrees.

Sandburg wrapped flannel around himself anyway. Jim could never quite figure out why the kid acted like he was an iceberg. The minute they got into the truck, the heat Sandburg was radiating began to itch across his skin and make him wish the old truck had air conditioning. Rolling down the window helped some, but not enough. And then Sandburg started complaining.

"Come on, Jim, it's got to be forty degrees out!"

"Fifty, Chief. And anyway, forty degrees is practically tropical around here this time of year. You know that."

Sandburg growled, clutched his flannel closer. "Maybe balmy to you, man, but I'm freezing. Show a little courtesy, huh?

"Sitting next to you is like sitting next to a space heater," Jim muttered. "If I roll up the window, we'll both bake."

"That's just it, Jim. I lose heat fast. Help me out. Roll up the window." Sandburg reached over and grabbed hold of Jim's shoulder, his warm hand sending little shivers of light into Jim's skin, down his back, straight to his groin.

Fuck.

This was not even a new argument. In fact, they had it roughly once a month, no matter what the weather. Jim always figured that he'd be prepared for it this time, but somehow he always ended losing. Mostly because Blair touched him and that was it, his resistance was gone.

He rolled up the window, grunted when Blair said, "Thanks, man." He intended to be quiet for the rest of the ride--not sulking, no, brooding over his inability to win an argument with the short jerk he was stuck with--but the day was too beautiful. His sensitive nose caught clean, crisp fall scents and the deep blue of the sky was amazing.

Sandburg kept on talking, too, mostly about his ineptitude on the field and his love for the game, touching on subjects like world peace and cheeseburgers as he went on. Against his will, Jim listened, responded when Blair expected a response, and made mocking comments whenever there was a pause. Another battle against Sandburg lost.

He wondered idly just how many times he'd fought with Sandburg over the past few years and how many times he'd given orders and had them disobeyed, and how many times he'd been talked out of self-righteous anger. At least once a day, every day, he was pretty sure. Sometimes more. For such an easy-going person, the kid definitely managed to hold his own in a fight.

Then again, there were times when Jim wondered if Sandburg was really as easy-going as he seemed. People who crossed him definitely tended to regret it.

"Steamroller," Jim muttered, but either Sandburg wasn't listening, or he just didn't care. Didn't matter. Certainly didn't make it any less true.

Blair reached over and put his hand on Jim's knee, squeezing, ostensibly to draw Jim's attention. Where was there any evidence that Jim wasn't already paying attention; that he hadn't, in fact, been paying attention pretty much without a break since they met? It was just a part of the game Sandburg liked to play with him, the one that seemed to have no rules and no point, other than driving Jim out of his head.

Actually, sometimes he was sure that the game was supposed to drive him into bed with the kid, and that wasn't going to happen. Not for lack of wanting it, sure, but because Jim didn't really want to play. If Sandburg had looked at him earnestly and said, "Jim, take me to bed," he'd have done it in a heartbeat. But there wasn't any earnestness, openness, there were just touches: casual, not so casual, intense, provoking. Little comments. Looks.

And Jim wasn't falling for any of it, no. The kid couldn't have his way in everything.

*****

Still, he found himself bringing Blair presents of warm things before the month was out. Stores were starting to put winter clothes in their windows, and Jim literally could not go past a display of gloves, scarves, or winter hats without taking a second look.

First had been a scarf in bright shades of blue. It had caught his eye for the color scheme--who would have guessed that there were so many shades of blue in yarn? Sentinel eyesight caught shades within shades, variations on the theme that the maker had not intended. It pleased him, so he went into the store and touched it, found the knit to be soft and not quite perfect, which also appealed to him. The minor deviations from pattern were intriguing and he found himself thinking about the person who had made it, how she had stopped here, picked up again later, how she had been distracted here and let the stitches get a little looser, how she had obviously gone too fast near the end and missed a few loops.

He loved it. Not for him, no, he wasn't really into scarves except for in the dead of winter, and this was a scarf that deserved to be worn as often as possible. So he brought it home for Sandburg and found himself as pleased by the look on his partner's face as he was by the scarf itself. The present made him happy. So he did it again.

The same store had a hat that matched. When Sandburg tried it on after Jim brought it home, the electric shades of blue had made his eyes seem huge and his skin even duskier. All the different shades of brown, black, red and gold in his hair suddenly seemed much brighter. Jim liked that, too.

It wasn't really cold enough to warrant hat wearing but his partner wore it anyway, and Jim noticed that people sometimes did a double take when they saw him, and not just because it was forty degrees out and there was a guy in a knit cap. No, they were admiring the same things that Jim admired, although probably to a lesser degree because they didn't have the heightened senses, and they didn't really know Sandburg. The real pleasure was reserved for him, who could see farther than any of the strangers could even dream of seeing, and who knew Sandburg better than even their other friends could dream of knowing him.

Next, gloves. Supple, supple leather, soft. Finer to the touch than the scarf, nearly delicate. But lined with fleece inside, obviously functional. He pulled them onto his own hands to test for size, found them a little tight in the finger and loose on the palm, and judged them perfect. This time he didn't even think to himself that he was buying them for any reason other than to give them to Sandburg, and that was okay. That was fine, really. Was there a rule in the book that said a man couldn't buy presents for his friends without making a big internal fuss about it? Maybe in some macho rule book, and he thought of himself as plenty macho...but he was also a good friend. A considerate friend. And Sandburg was always losing gloves. An extra pair would come in handy.

So he gave them to Blair. He was almost as entranced by the texture as Jim had been, and Jim wished for a second that his partner had heightened senses too, so that he would know just how perfect they were, all the way through. But maybe Blair didn't need the senses to know the truth, because he handed the gloves back to Jim.

"Put them in your pockets," he said, and Jim raised his eyebrows. "So I can't lose them. Hand them to me when I ask for them, and take them back when I take them off. That way we know where they are."

Ridiculous idea, Blair asking Jim for gloves whenever he needed them, but...the image also made Jim feel warm, in a pleasantly primitive place. He liked being needed, no doubt. Even for such simple and basic things as warmth.

Well, maybe especially for such basic things. Double especially from Sandburg.

That thought gave him a few rough moments, but then he told himself that it was just because he didn't have a wife and kids to take care of, and he was definitely a caretaking kind of guy. Of course he'd take care of Sandburg. He was just making up for something missing in his life.

He decided to date more, but put the gloves in his winter coat pockets. And then he kind of forgot about dating. Work got busy, that was all.

Really. That was it.

***

He spent way too much time in court through the middle of October. It seemed like he couldn't just wrap up the testimony for one case before he had to cross the hall to sit on the stand in a completely different trial. Sandburg's schedule obviously wasn't much better, but he still got out early once in a while. It seemed to Jim that he never did. That the most frequently used words in his vocabulary were Your Honor. And that staring into the blank face of jury member after jury member was going to permanently warp his eyesight.

Not that it wasn't already warped, in a way. A nice, screwed up, Ellison kind of way.

So he wasn't in the best of moods when he came in the door and there was Sandburg sitting at the kitchen table with his arms buried up to the elbow in a fat, nearly fluorescent orange pumpkin. The smell was sweet and spicy and nearly overwhelming, but that wasn't what bothered him. It was the sight of his best pot being used as a seeds-and-guts receptacle and slime spread across his favorite knife.

"Sandburg..." he growled, heading for the fridge and a beer--please God, he prayed as he stalked into the kitchen, let there be beer. Blair didn't look up. All of his attention was focused on the inside of his new toy. Jim could hear the rough scraping noises of a spoon against the moist walls of the pumpkin, and since the sound conjured to mind gruesome and unpleasant images, he decided against getting a snack while he was at the fridge and just settled for a drink. There was a God, he decided when a quick scan yielded two bottles of his favorite microbrew.

He took a bottle with him and settled into the chair across from Sandburg. "Mind telling me what this is about?" he asked, gesturing widely, taking in the pumpkin, the guts, the seeds, the messy utensils.

"Pumpkin carving," Blair muttered, then put the tip of his tongue between his teeth and went back to work. For all his intensity, and with his hair flowing wild around his face the way it always did, he might have been an artist, working on a masterpiece. Jim felt amused for a second, which helped ease the tension of a day spent in court way more than the cold beer did, but then he realized that there were two more pumpkins sitting on the floor by Sandburg's chair, awaiting his attention.

"I know it's pumpkin carving," he said with a patience he really wasn't feeling. "Mind telling me why?"

Sandburg grunted, then leaned back in his chair and reached for the towel sitting by his elbow. "Pumpkins are a very traditional Halloween kind of thing, Jim," he said, as if Jim didn't know that much already.

"But we are not traditional Halloween kind of guys." Jim chugged some beer and stared at his partner, wondering if Blair really had gone around the bend this time. Maybe there'd been one more court appearance than even he could handle. Who knew what would send people over the edge?

For that matter, maybe it wasn't Blair who was crazy. Maybe it was him. Maybe pumpkin carving made sense, and he was so far off his rocker that he just couldn't see it.

"Anyway, did I miss something, or is it still two full weeks until Halloween?" he asked, and Blair looked up from his contemplation of the pumpkin's insides, or lack thereof.

"One week and six days," he said, too cheerful for Jim's taste. "But I like my pumpkins to be all withered and gooey."

Jim stared. So, he could rule out the fact that he was crazy and say conclusively that it had been Sandburg all along.

"Pumpkins," his partner continued, "are supposed to frighten away evil."

"But they attract the little kids at Halloween," Jim protested. Blair laughed.

"And we all know that the smaller they are, the more evil they're likely to be, right?" He shook his head, laughing. "Sometimes, Jim, your anti-social tendencies scares me."

Jim wasn't anti-social. He was selective, and told Sandburg as much. All he got in response was more laughter, a few muffled snorts, and the bright flare of warmth that his partner's happiness could give him.

He frowned and concentrated on picking the label off his bottle of beer while Sandburg took to carving the pumpkin with what looked to be the world's smallest saw. It was a toothpick with teeth. It was approximately as effective as the edge of a fingernail. It was perhaps the most ridiculous thing Jim had ever seen. But Sandburg was humming happily as he sawed away, and Jim just sat and pretended to ignore him and shook his head in bemusement when the pumpkin eventually had a face that looked just like Simon, with cigar.

"You are a very strange man," he said, when Blair was working on the second pumpkin. He had mostly forgotten about his horrible day at court and was finally relaxed. It wasn't just the beer, either.

"You're just as bad," Sandburg promptly replied, and then he reached for the last pumpkin. "So get to work. There's another saw in the junk drawer."

Jim shrugged, grabbed the other saw, and got to work. When he was done, there were two remarkably lifelike faces sitting on Blair's side of the table, and a third lopsided, bulbous, strange little creature on his.

Blair laughed again, and this time Jim laughed too, genuinely amused by the fruits of his labor. "Pumpkin soup for dinner?" he asked through his chuckles, and Blair nodded, rose with the big pot of guts in his hand.

"You know it," he said, and the look on his face made Jim catch his breath and shift in his chair before he excused himself to take a shower. He didn't exactly think, "close call," but he couldn't ignore what he was feeling either, which was strange.

He wondered if it meant that Blair was winning again, and rolled his eyes at himself. Of course Blair was winning. Blair always won. The real question was, what kind of game were they playing, anyway?

***

It had started when he bought the scarf, he was pretty sure. Or when he'd started giving in on things like window rolling and red meat. Or maybe the day they'd slammed to the ground and held their breath as a dump truck passed overhead. How was he supposed to know? He was a guy. Mostly, that stuff didn't matter. And when it did seem to matter for a minute, who was he supposed to ask? Blair was just as much a guy as he was. Blair didn't remember birthdays. Blair didn't remember more than two holidays out of three.

Besides that, asking Blair would tip his hand. Couldn't do that, wouldn't do it on a dare.

But he kept bringing home small presents, frustrated now by his inability to stop, grumbling if Sandburg dared to thank him. They were practical little fucking things anyway, not like he'd started bringing home roses and wine.

And if he felt increasingly like he was courting Sandburg, that was too damn bad, because he wasn't. He was being nice. He was biding his time until Blair broke the rules to his own game and did...something. Whatever it was that Sandburg did when he got tired of dangling prospective lovers on strings.

Not that he could think of any dangling lovers in his partner's past. At all. Period. Mostly they seemed to get the instant gratification thing from Blair. It was just him dancing on a string, so far as he could see.

And the hell of it was, he couldn't decide if that was or wasn't a promising thing.

***

Blair dressed up like a warlock for Halloween. Jim did a lot of staring.

"I've known you for years and years and you've never gotten into this whole Halloween thing," he complained when he got tired of staring.

Blair ran his hands through the bowl of candy he'd set out on the counter and then swirled the cape over his shoulders so that it swished into place and irritated Jim. It was black and covered with iridescent stars, moons and lightning bolts. Every time Blair moved, he glittered. It was almost too much for a normal man to take.

"This fall is different," Blair said calmly. The doorbell rang and he smiled while Jim did his best to hide in the couch cushions. He couldn't help but hear the high pitched squeals of the little monsters, ballerinas and rock stars at his front door, and Blair's low, deep laugh mixed in, but he tried very hard. He liked kids, really. He just didn't like sugar-high kids with rolls of toilet paper hidden in their bags.

"Why is it different?" he asked, when Blair had shut the door. His partner stared at him for a minute. He looked strange with the wizard's cap on his head, dressed all in black the way he was, with the cape and everything--but barefoot. Jim wanted to go get the blue scarf and hat, make his partner put them on. And socks. Three pairs. Unfamiliar Blair-wear made him itch.

"You tell me, Jim." Blair's voice was very, very quiet. Jim shifted on the couch and tried to pretend that his jeans weren't feeling just slightly more constrictive than they had a minute ago.

He couldn't tell Blair. Blair was not going to win this round, no way. Jim Ellison was in charge of his life, no matter how many scarves he brought home or how many times he rolled up the window, how many pumpkins he carved and bare feet he stared at.

There were more kids at the door and he was saved again, for a moment. He went out onto the balcony, telling himself that he was not sneaking away from his partner, no. He was sneaking away from the hordes of small children clustered around the door, their chocolate stained hands reaching for the edges of Blair's cloak. He hoped that Blair was warning them to bring all their candy home and have their parents check it over before they ate it, but was doubtful that any of them would listen anyway. He certainly wouldn't have, as a child.

Blair opened the balcony doors and came outside with him. "Hiding?" he asked, idly, and Jim gritted his teeth.

Not from you, he almost said, but that would have been a give-away--well, Blair would have thought of it as a give-away--so he said. "Not likely, Chief. I just needed cold air. Better get inside before you turn into an ice sculpture."

He didn't go away, of course. Just came to stand beside Jim and leaned against him companionably. "You have got to relax, man," he said easily. "Chill out. You're going to have a heart attack one of these days."

I wouldn't, if you and I weren't playing some kind of stupid game, Jim thought. Then he said it out loud, and stepped away from Blair.

Silence spun out between them for a minute. "It's not a stupid game." Blair was very quiet. "And we're not playing anyway. I'm just...expanding our horizons a very, very little bit."

"My horizons are quite broad enough, thanks," Jim muttered, but he moved back again, hoping that it was a small enough movement that Blair didn't notice. Dumb hope, sure, but it was all he had.

"Not broad enough if you're going to get all freaked out." Blair looked at him in the moonlight. He was still wearing the stupid wizard's hat and cloak, and for a second Jim could have believed that he really was magic, but seconds pass and he'd learned a long time ago how to let uncomfortable thoughts slide out of his mind when he needed to.

Although, really, he wasn't sure why the idea of expanding his horizons, as Blair put it, was uncomfortable. He'd been kind of thinking about doing the same thing for years. Just kept hiding the thoughts when he had them, but...he couldn't forget.

And part of him knew why he was uncomfortable, knew it wasn't the expanding part of the deal, but the fact that Blair was kind of in control of when and how. The kid apparently had no problem with moving forward, now. Jim didn't either, in general...it was just that he was moving a little more slowly. And unhappy with the fact that Blair was ready and willing to go faster.

Control freak, he told himself, and knew by the light in Blair's eyes that he was thinking the same thing.

Blair laid a hand on his arm, gripped tight for a second. Smiled. "I'm gonna change the rules," he said slowly. "From here in on, it's your move. As long as you keep moving forward, anyway." And then he turned and went back into the loft, leaving Jim out on the balcony wondering why, even when he won, it felt like he'd lost. Wondering if even this was part of the kid's plan, and exactly what he could do that would be moving forward at just the right pace for him, and still surprising for Blair.

He'd figure it out, and Blair-the-Magician wouldn't know what had hit him.

***

"Your move." The words rang in Jim's mind a lot, distracting him when he least appreciated being distracted. But wasn't that just the way Sandburg was? Annoying as all hell and impossible to get rid of.

Not that he was trying very hard to get rid of him anyway. Or trying at all. He'd done that once, and he was smart enough to realize that it had been possibly the worst idea he'd ever had. Maybe it was some mystical Sentinel thing, like they couldn't be separated without bad things happening, or maybe it was just luck, or maybe it had just been that one time and they'd be fine alone--but he wasn't going to risk it.

Who was he kidding? Risk it? Like that was his only reason for keeping Sandburg around? Maybe he'd been lying to himself about the real reasons for a couple years but Sandburg's little games had brought them all out into the open. The least he could do for himself was be honest about this shit.

He wasn't so sure he was going to be honest with Sandburg. As the long fall continued, slow and steady, bleak now with the promise of winter, he admitted to himself that honesty would probably have them tossed into bed in seconds, and he wasn't sure that was a good idea. Well, it was a good idea, an idea that sparked a variety of hot fantasies, but there were still questions.

Sometimes he wanted to look at Sandburg and say, what are your intentions towards me? Like a nervous little virgin or something. Sandburg'd probably laugh, but it wasn't funny to Jim--he didn't know. And it was vitally important that he figure out what Blair was going to want from him after before he attempted a before.

Was it seduction with meaning, or was it really just a game? Was it a Sentinel thing or a "them" thing, and did that really matter? Would they let people know or would they keep it to themselves--

Would they even have to let people know or would it just show?

Screw it. He'd take what he could get and hold on as long as he could, and if he did it right then it wouldn't matter what Sandburg's intentions had been. It would only matter what their intentions were.

***

He thought that maybe pursuing Sandburg would work. Just gunning for him, all out seducing him. But when he'd trapped his partner against a wall one day, stood too close and cocked his hips at an angle that brought them even closer, he'd looked into those bright blue eyes and seen laughter there. Knew that a forceful seduction was anticipated, perhaps even desired. And while it would have been...amazing...if he just gave in and did what he was expected to do, it would have given Sandburg even more power over him, and Jim got the feeling that that would have been a bad mistake.

It wasn't that he needed to be in control all the time. Really. It just seemed like a bad idea to let Sandburg hold the reins too firmly. The kid was just too likely to do something dumb if he was the one making all the decisions, like giving and giving and giving and not letting Jim do anything for him in return, or asking Jim to take things from him that Jim was sure he wasn't supposed to have.

He trusted Blair to treat him well, yes. Maybe too well. It would be just like him to completely ignore his own needs and tell himself all the while that everything was going along just as it should. Jim didn't want that. They wouldn't last like that, not very long. He was pretty sure that was the cause of death in all Sandburg's relationships--he burned himself out by giving too much, being too available. Took things too fast and too deep. Not even Jim wanted that much from him--

Well, all right, so he wanted more. But more, in his mind, was probably a little different than Sandburg expected. He wanted to give, not to take. He wanted to offer and not just receive.

Fast and furious were out. For a while he thought that meant he should seduce Sandburg, slowly, patiently. But when he let his hands linger a little too long, when he held Sandburg's gaze despite the fact that there was no need for it, he realized that he'd been doing that all along. The seducing thing had been going on for years. No wonder, he thought, Sandburg is ready to move fast. I've been moving slowly ahead for years.

So, apparently, slow and patient were out, too. Jim wasn't sure what was left. Sudden? Meeting Sandburg at the door naked, wrapped in cellophane? Naked under an overcoat? Seemed a little crass. Stupid. But...what else was there?

He decided, yes, really sudden. So the kid didn't have time to prepare for Jim to hit him.

That thought made him feel a bit better, but then he kept thinking, today's the day, and not following through. And then Naomi was coming for Thanksgiving, and he couldn't leap on his partner with his mother in the house. They ate too much turkey and drank too much wine, and a few days later Blair was getting ready to drive her to the airport and he said, "Give me those gloves, Jim," and Jim fished them out of his coat pockets. He handed them over. Naomi looked at him for a very long minute while Blair shrugged into a sweater.

"Do you promise to be good to him?" she asked, not very subtle or anything, but what did either Sandburg know about subtle? Jim smiled at her, a little, wondering how mother and son could be so alike and so completely different.

"Jim promises," Blair grumbled at his mother before Jim could say anything. "Don't go poking your nose into this, all right?" And Jim stared at Naomi, watched her roll her eyes at her son with great affection, then reached out to hug her.

"I'll be good to him," he breathed in her ear when she squeezed him tight. He held her very carefully--she was cool and thin, little, and very fine boned. Smelled like Blair on a few different levels but Blair was sturdy, warm. Maybe it wasn't fair to compare a man to his mother, but what else did Jim have, really? He'd never touched a man like he touched Blair and it wasn't like there were any male Sandburgs around. Then he added, "If he lets me," as he released her. She smiled at him and nodded, understanding.

He stood at the doors to the balcony and ate a little of the leftover turkey while Blair drove his mother to the airport. It hadn't snowed yet, but he could taste it in the air--winter was nearly ready to come down from the mountains. Jim could tell it would be a harsh one, could feel it in the atmosphere, was ready for it. Had fantasized about staying closed in with Sandburg while it snowed outside, as the pace of the city slowed to the winter halt.

Last winter, they had spent several long days on the couch together--sitting at opposite ends, of course--Sandburg reading something anthropological and Jim reading the novels that his partner had filed away on every spare inch of bookcase space. He had his own books but even then it had felt...good...to read something Sandburg had already pored over. The kid had a habit of taking a highlighter to his novels and going over his favorite places, and Jim had lingered over that kind of thing, letting Sandburg's favorite words seep into his mind.

Never having been human, you do not realize how enslaved they are to the pressures of the ordinary.

Drinking that godawful hot chocolate he made with skim milk.

Whatever road I may take, the guiding star is within me, the guiding star and the lodestone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.

Arguing over who got control of the stereo for the afternoon.

Our kind of love isn't a sword. It's a light. Not a fire. Just a small light, bright enough only to read love letters by and to keep the animals at a growling distance.

Smelling Sandburg fresh from the shower, wrapped in sweatpants and a T-shirt and his robe, on the couch with one of those highlighters in hand, this time going over his school books, still managing to laugh when Jim made a joke.

Yes, he still remembered. But maybe this winter, they could do things differently. They could curl together on the couch. They didn't have to read. Maybe they could just make out like teenagers all winter, who knew?

If he was lucky and Sandburg wanted more from him than just a few nights, anyway.

***

He hadn't exactly decided to wait up for his partner, but found himself lying on the couch for a couple hours, a tape in the VCR, with a glass of the white wine Naomi had brought sitting on the coffee table. He didn't look away from the television when he heard Blair's car come down the street but his focus definitely shifted, away from his plans and wants and doubts and to the simple pleasure of anticipating Sandburg's arrival.

He took the stairs two at a time, Jim could tell. Pounded up them with all the energy of a kid let out of school and running wild. Jim smiled a little, sipped his wine, put the glass back on the coaster. For a long time, Blair's energy had been tempered, and Jim had alternately worried and thought, well, maybe it was time he matured. But it had been back lately, almost like before--he was definitely less hyperactive now, but still racing with enthusiasm for life. It was a good thing to see. Jim hoped, really hoped, that he had something to do with it but expected that Blair was just bouncing back from the stress of his diss being released too soon, the academy, being a rookie. It probably had nothing to do with him--

And really, that didn't matter. Jim didn't care, as long as the kid was happy, healthy. Still with him.

Pathetic, he mocked himself, but he didn't finish the thought because Blair burst through the door and knocked it right out of his mind.

"Brrr," Blair complained, peeling off his jacket and tucking his gloves in Jim's pocket. "Snow is coming, man. Wouldn't surprise me if we got some flakes tonight."

The fire was glowing and they were home, together. Jim had a hard time imagining true coldness. But he could definitely smell the snow in the air, and grunted agreement.

Blair crossed the room to plop down on the couch by Jim's hip. Automatically, he moved back and onto his side, giving Blair room to sit. There was another couch and a perfectly good chair, but why would Sandburg take space and comfort when he could have closeness and torment Jim?

"Get lost, kid," Jim said, trying for crotchety-old-man, managing only to sound only like a randy, raspy teenager. He hadn't even known his voice could still go that high.

Blair just laughed at him and twisted sideways, kind of resting most of his weight against Jim's hip and stomach. This, Jim told himself as he stared intently at the television--not focusing at all on what was playing, of course--this would be a good time for sudden.

But he couldn't do it. He just didn't have it in him to take the leap, and since he didn't want it to be Sandburg's move--

Oh, screw it, he thought. Just get fucking over it, and let him take control. You can figure it all out later.

He looked at his partner, found Blair staring down at him. "Jim?" Blair asked. "What's going on in that big prehistoric brain of yours?"

Jim shook his head. Blair studied him for another long minute, then a slow smile crept across his face. "Oh," he said, almost too low for even Sentinel hearing. "Oh, I see." And he leaned down and his mouth closed over Jim's, and that was it. The absolute fucking end of the game. Jim reached up and latched onto Blair's shoulder, holding on tight to make sure that his partner couldn't escape, couldn't take the warmth and the sweetly spicy taste of his mouth away, and he groaned. The End. Game Over. You have twenty-two million bonus points.

Blair laughed against his mouth and the sound made Jim vibrate. He opened his mouth wider, inviting Sandburg in, sucking gently on the tongue that invaded his mouth, determined to make it good. To make it last as long as possible, this first kiss.

Blair's tongue disappeared and Jim followed it, instinctively seeking it, until suddenly he realized that he was inside of Sandburg in a very mild--

Oh, God, not mild at all but hot, sweet, raging--

A wonderful kind of way. He went crazy for a minute, exploring, memorizing the way Sandburg's teeth were slick and sharp and the roof of his mouth was smooth and high, the way his lower lip tasted when Jim sucked it gently, ran his tongue over it. He went adventuring in this new and mysterious territory, wishing he could leave a flag, a marker, somehow claim it as his own, hoping Sandburg'd let him do just that, afraid that this would be the only kiss. That his only claim would be on his memories.

And then Blair broke free, panting. Jim kept his eyes closed, felt Blair's gaze on his face. Felt and heard his partner calm his breathing. Then Blair spoke.

"I want you to take me upstairs and fuck me until something pops loose," he whispered, and Jim shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. God, that sounded--bad because he wanted it so much, but good because it was the only thing he'd really wanted in years. And it was being offered, and he was weak, and this would probably be the only chance he had.

Yes, he thought, maybe he whispered. Yes. And if Sandburg just wanted this one night, this one crisp fall evening spent in his bed, that would have to be enough. Jim would just have to use his big prehistoric brain and hold onto the memory until he took his last breath. Yes.

"Let's go," he said quietly, and Sandburg smiled. Stood. Stretched out his hand and pulled Jim off the couch.

"Finally," he murmured, his blue eyes bright with heat and anticipation. "Let's go, Jim, and finally get it done."

Jim let Blair pull him up the stairs, hoping with every step that he would not regret this.

***

Blair wouldn't let him turn the light on, but that didn't matter because Jim just dialed up his sight a little and the room was bright as day. He saw everything. The scar on Blair's leg. The way his hair curled wildly everywhere, not just on his head. The small, dark nipples, one with marks from the ring he used to wear. The six pack he was starting to develop, the hint of softness he would probably never lose no matter how hard he tried. It reminded Jim that for all his energy, Blair was not a very young man anymore. Reminded him that his stomach was starting to soften a little bit too, and more of his hair fell out every day, and the dentist had just found two new cavities. Imperfection. Age.

Not important. Jim slipped his hands down Blair's sides, felt the goosebumps, heard Blair moan, and that was what mattered.

He dipped a fingertip into Blair's navel. Traced it down the thin trail of hair to his groin. Blair moaned again, sounding a little tortured but mostly delighted, and Jim leaned down to redo his path with his tongue. The taste of Blair's skin, lightly sweaty now, scented, just like he'd imagined it would taste...the rightness of it slid over his tongue and warmed him. Steadied him.

He wrapped his hand around Blair's dick, felt his partner gasp and heave. Yes, that was good. Felt strong and hot and solid in his hand, more real than anything else had felt in a long time. He stroked his thumb across the tip, gathering and spreading the moisture that had already begun to collect there, and wondered why the hell he'd been so stupid, so blind, and waited so long for exactly this.

He lowered his head, intending to taste Blair there too, but hands on his head stopped him. He looked up and met his partner's gaze, knowing that the man beneath him was nearly blind in the darkness but somehow sensing that Blair could see into him, his eyes, no matter how dark it was.

"Let me go first," Blair whispered. "I'm too close."

But Jim didn't care how close he was. He wanted the taste on his tongue, pre-come and come and softening flesh, all of it. So he shook his head and ignored Blair's sigh, wrapped his mouth around the hardness he was holding so carefully in his hand, and sucked.

It made him gag, a little. Made his jaw hurt. He knew he was being sloppy, too--not a good blowjob, all in all, but hell. He was just learning. And Blair seemed to like it, moaned and writhed and shivered like Jim was really onto something. So he kept going, kept noting with fascination how Blair's scent and taste changed, changed again, intensified as he approached orgasm.

And then Blair groaned, said part of his name, just the beginning of his very short name, and Jim knew it was a warning. He didn't care. This was what he wanted--

Maybe it was because he wanted to be in control, maybe. He didn't care. And when Blair's hands clenched into fists by his hips and he thrust up, began to spill into Jim's mouth, it didn't seem like either of them really cared.

Orgasm didn't slow Blair down for long. Jim had rested his head on the bony sharpness of a hip, waiting, while Blair caught his breath, expecting there to be a moment of silence and stillness. Instead, Blair moved fast, caught Jim offguard and had him flipped on his back in a heartbeat.

"Payback time," he said, and his voice was like nothing Jim had ever heard, not from him. Soft and intense and hungry. Predatory, in a way that Jim hadn't known that he could be predatory. "Close your eyes," was all the warning that he got, and then the lamp beside the bed was turned on and the world went up in a white-hot blaze of glory.

It wasn't just the light. Blair's mouth had descended upon him, his tongue coming out to streak hotly down the center line of Jim's chest, his abdomen. It came so close to his navel that his stomach muscles tightened, quivered, and then the heat disappeared, only to come back a second later and close over his nipple.

He arched his back, gasped. He hadn't been prepared for that, not at all, and his entire body felt tight and pulsing, electrified.

Blair didn't linger long on any one part of Jim's body, obviously preferring to launch a blitzkrieg style attack of mouth and hands, drawing responses from Jim's body that he had never expected it would give. Pulling him out of himself until he felt more open and vulnerable and naked than a child--and entirely lacking in a child's innocence.

How does he know this? Jim wondered, the thought bordering on jealousy, on insane jealousy, but then Blair's mouth closed on his dick for the first long, slow touch so far, and all he could think was, will he teach me? I want to make him feel this good--

And then he couldn't think at all.

***

After, Jim sprawled across the bed on his stomach. One arm and a leg kept Sandburg pinned to the mattress. Jim was ready and waiting for him to break free, to hop up and disappear downstairs or something, to be casual and dismissive, to make a joke, but he didn't. He just ran his fingers through what was left of Jim's hair, rubbed the back of his neck, smoothed across the part of Jim's forehead that wasn't buried in the pillows.

It was chilly. The fire had long since died out downstairs, and Jim hadn't turned up the heat. The blankets were undoubtedly soiled and he'd have to make the bed again unless he wanted to either freeze or wrap up in the wet spot--he shuddered at the very idea--and then reconsidered. If Sandburg was going to go back downstairs to his bed, maybe Jim'd sleep in the dirty linens. Just to hold onto his scent. To pretend, if only for a night, that Sandburg was there.

Compromise. He'd sleep on clean sheets but leave the dirty ones in a pile beside the bed. He was a Sentinel. He had that great sense of smell thing going. He didn't actually have to sleep in the mess he'd made to remember the scent.

Sleep in the mess he'd made. Well, all right, so he wouldn't be doing that in the literal sense, but wouldn't he have to sleep despite the ruined tangle of his relationship with Sandburg? He hadn't waited to find out what was really going on; he had let Sandburg move him too fast, and now he'd have to pay the price. Being alone.

You won't really be alone, he told himself. Even if Sandburg doesn't see this as being important and life-altering, he'll still be around. He'll never leave. He might not love you, but he depends on you nearly as much as you depend on him, and he isn't going anywhere. You'll never be alone the way you were before him. He'd never let you.

He made himself let Sandburg free, rolled onto his back and rested his arms on his stomach, containing his body to one half of the mattress. He still felt a little warmth from Blair's body, despite the chill in the air. He held onto it. Better the memory of warmth than nothing at all.

Sandburg stirred, sighed. Jim didn't look at him, couldn't. He didn't quite feel in control yet--

Unfortunately, Blair must have, was maybe drawing control from the fact that he had won after all, because he rolled over and flopped down on Jim's chest. He had sharp elbows and he planted them on Jim's pecs, rested his chin in his hands and smiled.

"How many minutes do I have to wallow before you kick my ass out of bed so you can get fresh sheets?" he asked. His eyes were gleaming, warm, maybe even tender. Jim thought, screw it, I am never remaking this bed, but he couldn't say that. Instead, he said, "Three, Sandburg. Better get a move on."

And now Blair frowned, took his elbows off of Jim's chest. He searched Jim's eyes, and Jim tried not to show what he was feeling.

"You kicking me out of the bed for good, Jim?" he asked, quiet now and very serious. Maybe even slightly hurt.

Jim blinked. He hadn't expected hurt. He had expected--relief? Acceptance? Happiness? Who even knows any more, he told himself. He's Sandburg. He'll always be exactly what you least expect.

He fished around for the right thing to say. "No," came to mind instantly, as did, "Not if you don't want me to," and "Not in a thousand fucking years, moron."

He asked, "Do you...want to stay?" and then held his breath, trying to look casual, like it didn't matter whether Blair stayed or went, whatever, just so long as the sheets got changed.

Blair smiled, but it was a serious kind of expression, not echoed in his eyes. "Maybe," he said, and it sounded like "Yes," to Jim. "Maybe for a few years. Say, fifty? Fifty-five?"

Shocked, Jim stared. Oh. Not three minutes. Sandburg was ready to count in years. Decades.

Surprise, surprise, Mr. Ellison. You just cashed in your twenty-two million bonus points, and you've won the grand prize!

Fifty-five years sounded good to Jim, really good, so he nodded. Watched Sandburg's face lighten. His smile was suddenly reflected in his eyes and he dropped his head to brush his lips across Jim's, went back for a deeper kiss.

And Jim found, when the kiss had broken and they were staring at each other, that it was important for him to say, "I didn't know what you wanted. I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do if you were only after a short-time thing--"

Blair's eyes, such a bright shade of blue, softened. Warmed a little more, though Jim would have doubted that was possible. "Jim, Jim, Jim," he murmured, reaching out to brush long, broad fingers across Jim's cheekbones. "How could you doubt that I wanted forever?"

"How was I supposed to know if I--if we--were different for you, Sandburg?"

"I don't know--maybe that fact that I've been here for what, five years now?" Blair smiled. "I really thought that was a hint."

Jim shook his head. "Maybe. But it wasn't a big one." He hesitated, continued only reluctantly. Words were not his forte, necessary as they were. "You didn't give me a sense of certainty. Of permanence. Only words would have done that, and words weren't part of your game--at least, not the ones I wanted."

"I thought I was playing by your rules, Jim," Blair said. "Less talk, more action."

Jim rolled his eyes. "So the one time you decided that you were doing things the way I wanted them done was the one time I wanted something different, right? Of course. Just my luck."

Blair grinned, ghosted a kiss across Jim's mouth. "I don't know. I don't think your luck was all bad."

Jim tangled his hands in Blair's hair and pulled him back for a deeper taste. "Maybe not," he whispered. "Maybe it was good luck after all."

"The best luck." Blair smiled at him, then settled down to rest his cheek on Jim's chest, and Jim closed his arms around that strong, sturdy body, holding on tight. Mentally prepared himself after the long, hard fall for long, easy winter nights spent curled around each other in bed.

But first things first--as long as Blair was planning to hang around, they had some business to attend to. Jim tapped Blair on the cheek with the palm of his hand, said, "Get up, Chief. We got some sheets to change."

Blair looked up, and his eyes were bright. "I was actually just thinking that maybe we should get a little more wear out of them first..."

Jim found that to be an entirely practical idea, one with which he could agree wholeheartedly, and he rolled Blair onto his back so that they could get started--

And outside the loft, the first snow began to fall.

The End.

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Author's Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sue and Lisa for beta reading a little above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks also to Patt, who dragged me into this whole mess in the first place and pushed me to write something a little longer :) and best wishes to those members of MME who need them. You guys rock.

This one's dedicated to Trisha, who left, because being a spy is a Big Deal and I'm sure I'll find someone to discuss Peter S. Beagle with while she's gone.

So I gave Blair my taste in literature, and my habit of outlining favored bits. Most of the highlighted parts I rewrite into a little leather journal and reread--a lot. [G] The three quotes were taken from three of my favorite books. I couldn't help myself. In case you're curious, they were:

Never having been human, you do not realize how enslaved they are to the pressures of the ordinary. CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Whatever road I may take, the guiding star is within me, the guiding star and the lodestone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me. Ayn Rand, Anthem

Our kind of love isn't a sword. It's a light. Not a fire. Just a small light, bright enough only to read love letters by and to keep the animals at a growling distance. Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place.

I highly recommend all three. :)