Nature's Ascent

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Nothing's mine but the words...

Author's notes: Thanks to Owlet, Sigrid, and Miriam for betaing this in its various stages (there were many). And thanks to Marmoset for bringing up the idea of "competition" on Senad. This is sort of an interlude story between Conspiracies and the next couple of stories, which are doozies. Sorry to have been so slow but RL has been hectic. Next story coming soon. Oh, and yeah — happy birthday to me!

"I'm losing it!" Blair yelled.

"I've got it!" Jim insisted.

"Put it down!" Blair yelled.

"I've got it!" Jim repeated. "Just drop your end!"

"I'm not dropping my end! Let's just put it down!" Blair was getting red-faced, and the tendons in his neck stood out, glistening with sweat.

Jim gritted his teeth and shook his head. "I told you, I've got it!"

"You want to give yourself a hernia?!" Blair yelled at the top of his lungs. "Just put the fucking thing down already!!!"

There was no arguing with that tone. "All right, all right!! On the count of three!!" Jim relented. "One! Two!..."

On three, they both lowered the huge purple paisley sofa onto the steep staircase between them. The sofa's feet barely touched the stairs themselves and the whole thing was wedged tightly in the narrow stairwell, slanted upwards into space like a heavily upholstered guided missile.

"You stupid, macho fuck," Blair said, slumping exhaustedly against the wall.

Jim resisted letting go of the sofa — he wasn't gonna take his hands off the thing until he was damn sure that it wasn't going to slide backwards and crush him like a bug. That would be embarrassing, to say the least, and he had always harbored an irrational fear of dying stupidly. "I told you, I had it."

"You say that one more time," Blair warned, "and I'm gonna come down there and beat you senseless."

"You and what army?" Thankfully, the sofa seemed relatively stable, and Jim finally dared to take a step away from it.

Blair crossed his arms and glared down at him. "Me and the army of reasonable people who know that one man can't carry a sofa, you asshole!"

"Oh, that army." Jim flexed his arms and twisted from side to side, trying to stretch his back muscles out — god, he was gonna be sore, tomorrow. It was finally beginning to hit him that he really wasn't as young as he used to be, though he was dammed if he was gonna concede the point to Blair.

"Why the fuck didn't they take Megan's apartment?" Jim asked. "Megan's apartment at least had an elevator."

"Sarah's is bigger," Blair muttered, reaching up behind his head to redo his ponytail. "And cheaper." Jim heard the muted snap of the elastic band as Blair finished and dropped his hands.

"And on the fifth fucking floor." Jim wiped his face with the hem of his white t-shirt; he was sweating like a pig. He looked up at his partner, who didn't look like he was in any better shape. Blair's hair was dark with sweat around his temples and at the nape of his neck; his t-shirt had patches of damp at the chest and armpits. They'd better cool off before they went outside again or they'd both end up with pneumonia. "Oh, well," Jim sighed, "at least this is the last of it."

"Yeah, and why the hell did we leave this thing for last?" Blair groused.

"Because it was at the back of the truck."

"Oh. Yeah. Right."

"Guys?" They looked up; two flights above them, Megan was peering down over the railing, her dark hair pulled back at the nape of her neck. "You all right down there?"

"Yeah, fine," Blair called back. "Just taking a break."

"There's cold beer up here," Megan said encouragingly. "And I'm about to order Chinese food — any requests?"

"Spare ribs," Jim said instantly, earning himself a nasty glance from Blair. Well, Blair could go to hell — he deserved spare ribs.

"Right," Megan said. "What else?"

"Beef lo mien," Jim called up to her. "And some dumplings."

"Just have them bring the whole cow over," Blair said, rolling his eyes. "Jim will just kill it and carve it here."

"What about you, Sandy? Requests?" Megan asked.

"I'll eat whatever," Blair said, stretching his arms up over his head.

"Right, okay," she said, and disappeared from view.

"You wanna try this again?" Blair shook his arms out, then cracked his knuckles.

"Ready when you are, Chief."

"You're such a big man."

Jim grinned. "You know it, pal."

They moved back into position, crouching down and getting a grip on the sofa's underside.

"On the count of three," Blair said, and Jim nodded rapidly. "One! Two! — "

With audible grunts, they heaved the sofa up again, and began to move slowly up toward the landing. When they got there, Jim saw that it was narrower than the last two, and they did a lot of exhausting and ultimately useless maneuvering trying to get the sofa turned around and aimed up the next flight.

"It's got to go up on its end," Jim concluded finally, setting the sofa down.

Blair blew out a long, frustrated breath and roughly swiped his arm across his sweaty forehead. "Yeah, okay."

They gritted their teeth and hoisted the sofa upward into a seven-foot-tower of paisley, and then dragged it around toward the next flight of stairs.

"...god...damn..." Blair was muttering; he was using his entire body weight to shove the sofa around.

"That's it, that's it," Jim encouraged. "Okay, now let's get it down — -pull the top toward you — but be careful, don't be under it!"

"Right, yeah," Blair said. He climbed onto the fifth step and raised his arms, bending his knees a little and taking the weight on his biceps. Jim pushed the paisley tower over, toward him.

"You got it?" Jim craned his neck to see around the hulking sofa. "You wanna switch places?"

"No, I got it, I got it," Blair replied through clenched teeth — and in fact, he did seem to have it. He lowered the sofa back down to the floor, though at the last minute it slipped from his fingers and hit the staircase with a loud thump.

"Oh, brother," Blair sighed, shaking his head.

"No, it's good, it's good, we're all set up," Jim said. "Three flights down, two to go."

Blair flexed his arm muscles again, trying to keep them warm and loose. "Jim, I officially apologize for having volunteered us for this. This bites."

"Nah, don't worry about it," Jim assured him. "I would've volunteered us if you hadn't."

"You just have all the spare ribs you want," Blair sighed, and coming from Blair, that was the ultimate concession, the ultimate benediction.

"Thanks," Jim replied with a smile. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be," Blair said, dispiritedly, unconvincingly.

Jim wedged himself between his edge of the sofa and the wall of the landing, preparing to lift again. "I hate to break it to you, Chief," he said with a smirk, "but you're really not cut out for a life of manual labor."

"From your mouth to God's ears." Blair crouched down to pick up his end. "On the count of three?"

"Yeah," Jim said. "One! Two! — "

And on three they lifted and began to take the steps slowly, one at a time, moving steadily upwards with the large purple monstrosity. Blair backed up onto the next landing, and Jim shoved forward until Blair yelled, "Okay, stop, stop! Time to up-end again!"

"Okay!" Jim called back, and then he was grunting and shoving his end upward until the sofa was again balanced upright on its arm.

"Lord almighty," Blair groaned, coming around the side of the sofa.

"Almost there," Jim assured him. "Let's just get this thing turned around."

"Right, yeah," Blair said, and together they shoved and turned until the top of the sofa was pointing up the next flight of steps, and then Blair moved himself up the staircase to guide the sofa back down into a horizontal position.

Once the sofa lay securely at rest on the stairs, Blair fell forward onto the overstuffed cushions in a feigned collapse.

Jim grinned. "Now, look — I can't carry both you and the sofa," he said, reasonably.

"Just lemme take a short nap..." Blair mumbled, burying his face in the purple paisley fabric. "I'm totally wiped."

"Think cold beer," Jim advised. "Think Chinese food."

Blair rolled over onto his back and regarded him thoughtfully. "Ain't no Chinese food gonna be making its way past me," Blair objected. "Unless Megan pulls it up to the fifth floor with a rope. Me and this sofa represent some serious hallway constipation."

Jim smiled and sat down on the sofa's plump arm. "Okay, five minute break," he granted, glancing at his watch.

Blair waved his hand. "Come over here. Come try this puppy out." Jim thought it over for a moment before climbing onto the sofa and sprawling comfortably between Blair's denim-clad legs. He let his head fall back onto Blair's chest and relaxed, staring up at the dingy hallway ceiling.

"S'not bad," Jim admitted, stretching his legs out and crossing them at the ankles. "It's comfortable enough. I can see why she kept it."

"Yeah, it's long," he heard Blair say from behind him. "Wide. Pretty soft. I'd appreciate it more if I hadn't had to carry it around all day."

"I'd appreciate it more if it wasn't the ugliest fucking thing I'd ever seen." Jim closed his eyes for a moment and let himself relax, enjoying the way Blair was idly massaging his shoulders.

"Yeah," Blair mused. "It looks like it used to belong to Prince."

Jim stifled a grin. "Oooh, that's cold."

"Hey, you said it was ugly," Blair objected.

"I didn't say anything about Prince," Jim said sanctimoniously.

Blair snorted. "That's cause you don't even know who Prince is."

Jim snorted back. "I do so know who Prince is."

"Oh yeah?" Blair demanded. "Who is he?"

Jim kept his voice neutral. "He's that guy who dresses like Megan."

Blair burst out laughing, and smacked Jim's arm. "Oh! Yeah! Right! — and I'mcold! I'm gonna tell Megan you said that," he added wickedly. "I'm gonna tell her you think she dresses like Prince."

"And I'm gonna tell her about the unfortunate accident you had here on the stairwell," Jim retorted.

"All right, you win," Blair ceded. "Y'big bully." Blair's hands gripped Jim's shoulders, strong fingers kneading the tight muscles there. That felt great, and Jim let his eyes drift closed. "Hey, Jim?" Blair asked a moment later.


"You ever think about seeing other people?"

Instantly, Jim's eyes were open and he was sitting up, turning around to glare at Blair. "What the hell kind of stupid question is that?"

Blair had his hands raised in a defensive posture; he looked genuinely shocked at Jim's reaction. "Hey, I was just — "

Jim found himself gesturing wildly at the narrow stairwell, at the two of them awkwardly sitting there on Prince's sofa, unable to put into words: what the hell kind of conversation is this to have here??

" — asking the question," Blair said regretfully. "I didn't mean to freak you out or anything. It was a genuine question."

"Well," Jim spat angrily, crossing his arms, "do you ever think about seeing other people?"

"Me?" Blair asked, sounding utterly surprised. "No, never."

Jim exhaled irritably. "So then what the hell — ?"

"I just wondered if you did, that's all," Blair explained.

"Well, I don't," Jim retorted.

"Well, okay. That's good, I guess," Blair said, clambering off the sofa towards his end at the top of the stairs.

"Oh, no, you don't." Jim instantly followed Blair off the sofa and fisted his t-shirt to hold him in place. "What do you mean — you guess?"

Above them, Megan's head appeared over the railing. "Everything okay, guys?"

"Fine!" they yelled up in unison, and Megan nodded and vanished again.

"What do you mean — you guess?" Jim asked again, shaking Blair a little as if he could shake the answer out of him.

Blair sighed and looked away. "Nothing, really. Just that...well...I'm the only guy you've ever slept with."

Jim frowned. "Yeah, so? You're the only guy I want to sleep with. QED, end of conversation."

"Yeah, but how do you know?" Blair looked up at him; his blue eyes were wide and deadly serious. "I'm not the be-all and end-all, Jim."

Jim tightened his fist in Blair's shirt. "Yeah, you are. You are for me, anyway."

"But you don't really know that." Blair looked distracted. "I mean — you don't really have any basis for comparison."

Jim shook his head. "This is a moronic conversation."

"You never know, you might really like sleeping with someone else," Blair pointed out.

"This is a totally moronic conversation," Jim said, letting go of Blair's shirt and pushing him backwards.

"But how do you know?" Blair pressed.

Jim rolled his eyes. "Because I know. Look — why would I sleep with someone else hoping that they'd be as good as you when I've already got you? Sounds fucking counterproductive to me." Jim turned and stepped up onto the sofa, then carefully walked his way over it and jumped off the other end onto the landing. "You're being a weirdo," he concluded.

Blair looked pathetically relieved. "I am?"

"Yeah. A total freaking weirdo. You're on Mars."

"You're not just saying that to make me feel better?" Blair asked suspiciously.

"No," Jim replied. "I mean it with all of my heart."

"Thank god," Blair sighed, visibly relaxing. "You have no idea how much that means to me."

"Any time," Jim offered. "On three?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. On three."

They finally got the sofa up the last flight of steps and down the hallway to Sarah's apartment. As they approached the doorway to 5A, Megan and Sarah suddenly appeared and between the four of them they dragged the paisley beast into the living room, setting it into the obviously empty space that the women had cleared for it.

"Beer?" Sarah offered, once the sofa had reached its final resting place.

Blair collapsed onto the sofa. "Please," he said, and Sarah turned and pushed her way through a white swinging door into the kitchen.

Jim took another assessing look around. The living room was large and white — white walls, white ceiling, billowing white curtains — with high ceilings and bay windows on two sides. The overall feeling was of air and space, although the room's spaciousness was being seriously tested at the moment by the jumble of boxes and suitcases and odd pieces of furniture that they'd lugged up there. Still, Jim thought, he could see why the two women had decided to live here rather than in Megan's place, a much smaller, doubtlessly overpriced one-bedroom downtown.

"It's great, isn't it?" Megan enthused; she was wearing a t-shirt and an old pair of jeans, had a streak of grime across her cheek, and looked unbelievably happy.

Blair smiled up at her. "It rocks, Megan."

"Yeah, it's a really nice place," Jim agreed.

"It's huge," Megan said happily, sitting down on a large cardboard box. "Three bedrooms. Bath and a half. I'll give you the grand tour later."

Sarah pushed back through the swing doors, holding four beers by the neck, two in each hand. She went around and distributed the bottles, which were gratifyingly icy.

Jim was just taking his first swig when an insistent buzzer sounded. "Shit," Sarah said, "it's the Chinese food."

"I'll go," Megan said, instantly standing. "Where's my purse?"

"There's money on the counter," Sarah replied, and Megan went over and picked up the bills.

Jim reached for his wallet, then remembered he was wearing sweatpants and looked around for his jacket. "Wait, wait," he said to Megan. "Let me give you — "

"Shut up, Ellison," Megan said, and left the apartment.

Jim appealed to Blair. "Shouldn't we give her some money?"

"No way, man," Blair said; he'd kicked his sneakers off and made himself comfortable on the paisley monster. "Them's the rules. We move stuff, they buy dinner." He took a long swig from his amber beer bottle.

"He's right, Jim," Sarah confirmed; she was sitting down on the box that Megan had just vacated. "You obviously haven't moved house for a while."

"Not for years," Jim admitted. "Thank god." He crossed to the sofa and smacked Blair's sock-clad feet; Blair lifted them so that he could sit down and then instantly replaced them in his lap. "The last time I helped anyone move — well, I guess it was my ex-wife."

Blair kicked him lightly in the stomach and Jim glared at him. "Well, it was," Jim protested.

Blair shook his head. "It was not."

"I helped Carolyn move her stuff out," Jim insisted. "And believe me, she didn't buy me any dinner afterwards."

"The last time you helped anyone move," Blair corrected, making a face at him, "it was me. You helped move — me — in," Blair said, punctuating the words with more mock kicks to Jim's stomach, "and, for the record, I did buy you dinner afterwards, you schmuck."

"Oh," Jim said, thinking about it. "Well, yeah. I didn't really count that, I guess."

"Yeah, and why not?" Blair demanded.

"Well, at the time, I didn't realize that you were staying."

Blair smiled at him. "Yeah, well, lucky for you that I've got no sense of time. Speaking of time," he added, turning to Sarah, "why the hell did it take Megan so long to move in?"

Sarah groaned. "It was her stupid lease — they wouldn't let her out of it until now. The bastards. The only good part of it was that we moved some of her stuff here in bits and pieces."

"There was more than this?" Jim asked incredulously, and Sarah laughed.

"Oh yeah," she confirmed. "Megan brought most of her clothes here, already. And the towels and sheets and stuff. This was just — well — the heavy stuff."

"Oh, thanks a lot," Blair said, rolling his eyes at her.

"No, thank you." Sarah grinned and drank her beer.

At that moment, Megan re-entered the apartment carrying two huge shopping bags. "Okay, everyone! Time to eat!" She glanced around the apartment and then frowned; Sarah's dining room table was covered with boxes. "God, where are we going to eat?"

"On the floor?" Blair suggested. He got off the sofa, and crossed to take the bags from Megan. "We'll just put the stuff on the coffee table and sit on the floor."

"You're sure, Sandy?" Megan asked doubtfully. She glanced at Sarah, who just shrugged. "Jim, is that all right with you?"

"It's fine," Jim said, gently easing himself off the sofa and onto the thick gray carpet. "I'm starving, I'm not going to stand on formality."

"Me neither," Blair said. He knelt down next to Jim and started unpacking the paper sacks.

"You wouldn't know how to if you tried," Jim pointed out, and Blair flung a plastic packet of duck sauce at him.

"God, this is a lot of food," Blair said, pulling out carton after carton after carton.

Jim grinned in anticipation. "Bring it on."

"I'll get plates," Megan said.

"And more beer," Sarah reminded her.

"And more beer," Megan confirmed, disappearing into the kitchen.

Blair was opening the white paper cartons. "I think this is chicken with peanuts. This is — I dunno — some pork thing. Here's your spare ribs," he said, handing the third carton to Jim. "Suck 'em up, man. This is...the beef lo mien. We also got chicken with broccoli. Two orders of dumplings — god, how much food did you guys get?"

"Hey, we're hungry too," Sarah said, and then she yelled, "Megan?"

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" Megan yelled back, and then a second later she reappeared, astoundingly carrying not only plates and forks but four fresh bottles of beer.

"Now, that's technique," Blair said, appreciatively.

"I can carry up to eight pints," Megan boasted, managing to hand Blair a bottle while still holding on to the other three.

"I'm impressed," Blair said, toasting her and taking a swig.

Plates now on the table, Jim sucked on his spare ribs as he watched Blair and Megan and Sarah serve themselves, picking over the various white cartons like starving creatures, handing them around and trading off before finally digging in to eat.

"S'good," Blair mumbled, mouth full.

"S'great," Sarah concurred.

Blair shoveled another mouthful in. "Gotta get the number for this place. I'm sick of our Chinese place."

"Sarah, can you get some serviettes?" Megan asked, licking soy sauce from her fingers.

Sarah swallowed her current mouthful and slid her plate onto the table. "Yeah, sure," she said, and then she leaned over and gave Megan a quick kiss on the mouth before getting up and heading into the kitchen.

Jim blinked and instantly looked away, over at Blair, who was happily eating chicken and broccoli and didn't even seem to notice what had just happened. Jim stared at him, and Blair raised his eyebrows at Jim as if to ask: what's up?

Nothing, Jim thought, staring down at his two remaining spare ribs. Nothing was up, he supposed.

Carefully, he reached out for a tub of white rice and spooned some onto his plate. Think about that, he thought. Rice. Beef lo mien. Dumplings.

"The lo mien is terrific, Jim," Megan said to him. "That was a good call."

Jim looked up at her and nodded. He felt suddenly, keenly aware of where he was, who he was with. Sitting there, on Sarah Marshall's plush gray rug, eating Chinese food off the coffeetable, drinking beer.

He suddenly wondered exactly how he had gotten there. The contrast between where he was right now and where he would have been five years ago was so marked as to be utterly astounding.

Sarah returned with a thick handful of napkins, which she put down on the coffeetable before sitting down next to Megan.

"Did you try the lo mien?" Megan asked her.

"No, is it good?" Sarah asked, and then Megan was nodding and spooning some onto Sarah's plate.

Blair sighed happily and slid his now-empty plate back onto the coffeetable. "I was a total pig," he announced, ignoring the napkins and wiping his hands on his jeans instead.

"You were hungry," Megan said. "Those stairs really give you an appetite."

Blair reached for his beer. "I was still a pig, though."

"There are people who pay money to climb stairs, Megan," Sarah noted. "Think of it as a free Stairmaster."

"Yeah, I guess I'll get great legs after a couple of months," Megan said.

"You've already got great legs, and you know it." Sarah placed a possessive hand on Megan's thigh and patted it gently.

"So how's the diss?" Blair asked Sarah.

"Oh, it's fine," Sarah said with a shrug. "Time just goes so fast, you know? I start writing, and I look up and it's dark already."

"Don't even start," Blair said firmly, raising one hand.

"Hey, I think it's amazing that you're getting any academic work done at all," Sarah said.

"I find that pretty amazing, myself," Blair confessed. "I told you I presented at ISAS last fall?"

"No, you didn't tell me," Sarah said, eyes twinkling, "but I got the whole story from Deana Longworth."

"Oh god," Blair sighed, and slumped back against the sofa next to Jim.

"She was very taken with Jim," Sarah said with a grin.

"Well, who wouldn't be?" Megan teased. "Just look at the man — he oozes charm." Jim scowled at her, just to make the point.

"Please, please, please tell me you kept your mouth shut," Blair begged.

"Of course I kept my mouth shut," Sarah replied. "So tell me the story — you guys had a good time in Chicago?"

Blair smiled helplessly and leaned into Jim's side. "God, we had a great time in Chicago..."

And Blair started telling Sarah and Megan about the highlights of Chicago, but all Jim was conscious of was the soft murmur of Blair's voice, and the warmth of Blair's body against his. Feeling oddly-self-conscious, Jim draped his arm around Blair's neck, pulling him closer. He felt totally alive, totally aware, in this moment. He had Blair close to him — this close — outside the loft, in public, in Cascade. Sarah and Megan were sitting close together, too, holding hands idly, long girl-fingers gently interlocked as they leaned back against the loveseat and listened to Blair talk about the roundtable and jazz nightclubs and the exploits of drunken academics.

And it was nice, Jim reflected as he drank his beer, to just sit and talk. Nice having Blair slouched up against him. Nice just casually slinging his arm around Blair's neck. Nice to just sit and be with people who knew, who didn't mind if Blair sat close to him, who didn't mind him touching Blair.

Lost in thought, he watched Megan and Sarah and Blair talking earnestly, and it was like watching television with the sound off. It was all — just — so — normal, he thought, as his eyes scanned the room, taking in each of their faces. Just some people. Hanging around in their old clothes, drinking beer and telling stories. It was a regular "Miller Time" moment, sitting there with his friends and —

His bit his lip, trying to stifle a grin.

His boyfriend. Jesus Lord — guess tonight is kind of special. He turned his head and looked at Blair and tried to see him like that.

Not as partner, or shaman, or guide. Just as his thirty-something boyfriend — was that how Megan and Sarah saw him? What exactly did Megan and Sarah see?

"Jim, what are you smiling at?" asked Sarah suddenly, interrupting the conversation.

Blair turned his head to look at him. "What, he's smiling? Take a picture."

"Shut up, Sandburg," said Jim, raising his hand to gently yank at Blair's hair.

"Sorry, Megan, go on," said Sarah and Megan launched back her story, which seemed to have strayed pretty far from Chicago. Something about the outback and a bar and —

Thirty-something, Jim thought, losing track of the conversation again as he stole glances at Blair — at his thick, dark hair, at his overripe features: eyes, nose, mouth. But Blair wasn't as young as he used to be, either. He had to face it: neither of them were.

Still, though, Blair was beautiful: his eyes sparkled with life, his face was mobile and expressive. Jim supposed that those qualities would be with him forever, no matter how old he got, no matter if there were already two or three strands of gray in the tuft of chest hair peeking out of Blair's v-neck, no matter if there were some faint laugh lines on Blair's face that hadn't been there five years ago.

He was struck, suddenly, by the intimacy between them — the intimacy between him and Blair seemed like a living thing, something tangible that he could reach out and touch. He understood, suddenly, that he had rights to Blair, that Blair had rights to him. Rights to touch in ways that others couldn't touch, access to parts of Blair's body and mind and soul that were marked specifically for him, and him alone.

And Blair had...well, who else would he let get this close to him? outside the loft? in public? in Cascade? Blair was lying back against him like he was that big, ol' purple paisley sofa, and Blair had just settled himself in and made himself comfortable. He'd never, ever let anyone do that before — never thought he could.

He heard Blair's voice in his head — You don't really have any basis for comparison. God, Blair was stupid. He had his entire life for comparison, his entire goddammed life

Beside him, Blair stiffened, and Jim suddenly had an acrid taste in his mouth. A bitter taste, the taste of anger — and he watched as Blair's face grew strained. He'd missed something, he realized — something important — and instantly he tuned back into the conversation.

Megan looked as tense as Blair did; she was leaning forward toward Blair, and Sarah was rubbing her back reassuringly, in long strokes. " — nobody said anything, Sandy, I swear —

Blair was shaking his head. "You don't know that. You don't know who said what to whom."

"Nobody'd do that to you and Jim," Megan argued. "Nobody'd want to — "

"I know you find this hard to believe," Blair's deep voice was hard as a diamond, "but not everybody in the Cascade P.D. likes me as much as you do. And Jim isn't exactly Mr. Popularity, either. Sure, you told him we were 'detail-oriented and precise' — and like, Ted Roberts down on four told him that I was Ellison's bum boy — "

"Well, aren't you?" Jim deadpanned.

Blair elbowed him, hard. "Fuck off, you," he retorted, not without affection, then turned back to Megan. "Albert Ludd probably told him that I'm a useless, hippy fag hired to placate Cascade's commie liberals. And god, what do you think Frank Mitchell said? That guy masturbates to the CPD Handbook — what the hell do you think he told Ziegler about my unprecedented rise to the top?"

"Mitchell. Ludd." Megan dismissed them with a wave of her hand. "He'll see through those assholes. I mean, whoever this guy is, he can't be stupid — "

"You don't understand!" Blair ground out. "Ziegler doesn't want to see through them — he's looking for dirt on us."

Blair was all coiled muscle now, body hard and inflexible, and Jim began to rub Blair's arms, willing him to relax. "God, I hate that guy," Blair said, tightening his hands into fists. "I hate that guy so much..." He turned his head to look at Jim. "I swear, man, when I get my hands on that rotten, interfering, anthropological poseur — "

Jim hooked an arm around Blair and tugged him back against his chest. "You'll wipe the floor with him," Jim assured him. "No doubt in my mind."

"I'll clobber the sonofabitch," Blair said, seriously.

Sarah looked at Blair, her brown eyes brimming with sympathy. "Would it really be the worst thing in the world to be outed?"

Blair stared blankly at her for a moment, as if he didn't quite understand the question, and then he said, deliberately, "No. No, it wouldn't."

"I mean, you're good cops," Sarah insisted. "Captain Banks would back you up. Your friends would support you and — "

"This isn't about that." Megan murmured, laying a dissuasive hand on Sarah's arm.

Sarah looked confused. "Well, what is it about, then?"

Blair ignored the question. "Being outed would be pretty damn bad, Sarah. We could be split up, for one thing. As a team. And that would be bad."

"Well, you'd survive, wouldn't you?" Sarah asked with a frown. "So, big deal: you'd meet for lunch and — "

"It would be bad, Sarah," Jim confirmed quietly. He tilted his head forward slightly, briefly ghosting over the back of Blair's head with his nose and mouth, feeling the soft hair against his lips, against his cheek. He was grateful for this space, for this moment, for the freedom to touch Blair like this, right now. Maybe some things had to stay secret, but maybe not everything. Maybe not all the time.

Sarah sighed and raised her hands in surrender. "All right. If you say so."

"I say so," Jim said, and in front of him, Blair's head bobbed, seconding the point. "But it isn't gonna happen," he added.

"Oh, brother," Blair muttered.

"It's not going to happen," Jim said more distinctly, wanting Blair to hear the resolve in his voice. "I'm not going to let anything happen, okay?"

"You stupid, macho fuck," Blair said softly, and relaxed against him.

"I just don't get it," Sarah complained. "I mean, why is this asshole bothering people?"

"Because," Blair said with a sigh, "that's what assholes do."

"Is there any way we can help?" Megan asked.

Blair shook his head. "No. You did us a huge favor, just telling us this whole story..."

"Well, I know one way to help," Sarah said with a warm smile. "More beer?"

Jim nodded and Sarah got to her feet, headed into the kitchen. One more — one more and then they'd think about leaving. Except he was already thinking about leaving; he wanted to take Blair home, wanted to be alone with him, wanted to explore the intimacy between them with his fingers — feel its contours, trace its shape. He knew that Blair, in his arms, would understand — Blair would understand and make their excuses.

Except maybe they didn't need excuses. Not here, and not now.

They helped clear up the food, and found their jackets, and hugged Sarah and Megan tightly before leaving. Jim held on to each woman in turn, feeling absurdly grateful, and absurdly unable to articulate his gratitude. And then he was following Blair out of the apartment, and back down through the dim stairwell where they'd spent most of the day. He followed Blair's light, tripping steps down, and down, and around the high, iron railings, toward the ground floor.

The bulb on the second-floor landing had burnt out, and Jim reached out and grabbed a handful of Blair's blue nylon windbreaker.

Blair stopped short and turned around, an inquisitive expression on his face. Maybe not laugh lines, Jim mused. Maybe frown lines. Maybe just thought lines. He took Blair's arms in his hands, hearing the nylon crackle softly under his fingers, and gently steered him back against the faded and chipped wall of the landing, wanting to wipe those heavy thought lines away.

He cleared his throat, trying to find his voice. "How about a little competition?"

A faint smile crossed Blair's face, and then slowly blossomed, leaving nothing but laugh lines behind. "Yeah," Blair said, raising a hand to clutch at Jim's bicep. "Yeah, okay. Just like old times..."

Except it wasn't like old times anymore — everything was different, everything had changed. Certainly he had changed — and Blair had changed him. Blair, the be-all and end-all.

So maybe they weren't getting any younger, either of them.

And maybe that wasn't such a bad thing, all in all.

"Let's go home and take a shower," Jim began, leaning forward and brushing his lips along Blair's cheek. "A long, hot one — I'm sore, you must be sore. I want to wash you in hot water," he murmured, looking for words and finding them — words for Blair, winning words, "wash you all over...everywhere...inside and out. I'm going to wash you slowly — and very, very carefully — because you're going to need to be clean for what I want to do with you, you're going to have to be so, so clean..."  

The End