Nature's Blindness

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Nothing's mine but most of the words — the song lyrics belong to U2. Everything else belongs to PetFly. Please go away if you're under 18.

Author's notes: Sorry this took so long — on the other hand, it's sort of two! two! two stories in one! Ok, so this is the end of the arc, and the implied beginning of the next one. Thanks (wince) to Miriam and Anne/Sigrid for... uh...uh...for helping me grow stronger. Because they say that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and you two nearly fuckin' killed me. But not quite (evil grin, sotto voce humming of "I Will Survive"). Thanks also to Destina for batting beta cleanup. Warning: gratutitous fetishization of food. Query: if the food scenes are more erotic than the sex scenes, are we approaching realism?


Love is drowning in a deep well All the secrets and no one to tell Take the money Honey Blindness

SCENE ONE: "It's not subtle, man."

"So — like — are you ever going to talk to me again?" Blair asked with a sigh.

Jim looked up irritably from the last chapter of his book. "I'm talking to you. In fact, I'm talking to you as we speak."

"So to speak." Blair rolled his eyes and fidgeted with his thin hospital blanket.

"I talked to you not ten minutes ago." Jim stared resolutely at the page in front of him, but the type was suddenly blurring under his eyes. "I asked you if you wanted to play cards."

"Yeah, and too bad there was no Boswell around to record that scintillating conversation. Posterity has lost something, man."

Jim closed the book and slammed it down on the nighttable. "Look, what do you want from me?"

"I want you to talk to me," Blair replied. "And I want you to stop reading those goddammed police procedurals. It's not subtle, man."

"Subtlety was never my strong suit."

Blair made a face. "Ain't that the truth."

"It's just nice to know that — somewhere, somehow — someone is following procedure," Jim said through clenched teeth.

"Yeah. In fiction," Blair snorted.

Jim crossed his arms angrily. "Well, that's your specialty, isn't it? Fiction? My life used to be about — " He stopped, abruptly, hearing the nurse's cart pull up outside the door. "Goddammit," he muttered.

"How are you feeling, Detective?" the nurse asked as she came in.

"Uh — just fine." Blair seemed taken aback. "Great."

The nurse reached for Blair's tray, and then looked from it to Blair with disapproval. "You didn't eat your Jello."

"I, uh..." Blair flashed a guilty look at pile of red jiggling cubes and winced. "I'm sorry — I just can't face any more Jello," he confessed. "I mean — don't get me wrong. I appreciate it. The Jello — and the fact that you brought me the Jello. Jello's...very nice. I'm just sort of Jello-ed out, here."

Jim let out an exasperated snort and gestured toward the door. "Could you just take the tray and go, please?"

"He doesn't mean that," Blair intervened, flashing the nurse his sunniest smile. "He's just a little stressed out right now."

"Whatever you say, Detective." She picked up the metal tray and gave Jim a dirty look as she strode past him.

"Sheesh, man, " Blair hissed at Jim as the door closed behind her. "Could you try and be a little nicer? That woman's gonna stick me with a hypo in about five minutes — and I'd like her to find a vein, if you don't mind."

"Well, I'm not in a particularly nice mood." Jim slid back in his chair and crossed his legs. "In fact, I'm in a downright shitty mood."

"No kidding," Blair said, rolling his eyes.

"I'm here reading murder novels when I should be out working a murder case."

"Attempted murder," Blair corrected absently, shoving the lap table away on its metal arm.

"But I can'twork the case," Jim continued, glaring at him. "I can't even get started on the case! I've got one suspect missing, and one suspect I can't touch. The only person I'm even close to arresting is you."

Blair snorted dismissively.

"How does obstruction of justice sound to you, Chief?" Jim asked with a thin smile.

"You'd never make it stick," Blair deadpanned.

"Try me," Jim muttered.

"I think I changed my mind about the talking thing." Blair waved him away. "Read your book."

"Yeah, well, that's about all I can do. Thanks to you."

"You're looking at this all wrong, you know," Blair said, his voice suddenly gentle. "We haven't lost."

"It sure fucking feels like losing," Jim spat. "I mean — you're wearing a backless nightie, I'm sitting here with my hands tied, and Barnes and Ziegler are probably out having frappaccinos."

Blair shook his head rapidly. "No, no, no — Barnes isn't an issue, and we've come up trumps on Ziegler. We've won, man, believe me — "

"How the fuck have we won?" Jim demanded furiously, sweeping to his feet. "Alex Barnes killed you and you won't even identify her!"

"We only win if I don't identify her," Blair insisted. "Don't you see, Jim — we finally have some leverage to — "

"Fuck leverage!" Jim felt rage welling up inside of him; he felt trapped, utterly bricked in. "What about justice? Where the hell does justice figure into this scenario of yours?"

Blair's face flashed with guilt and he looked away. "I don't know," he admitted. "It's not the first thing on my mind, to be honest."

Jim opened his mouth to tell Blair that it damn well should be — but he was interrupted before he could explain further. "Detective Sandburg," the nurse trilled. "Time for your injection!"

"Saved by the bell," Blair muttered, waving her in. "Yeah, okay — bring it on."

"I'm gonna get out of here for a while, okay?" Jim said tightly, brushing past her.

"They're releasing me at five," Blair reminded him.

"I'll be back at five, then," Jim said and shoved his way out the door.  

SCENE TWO: "We're all on drugs over here."

"You can't seriously be thinking about indicting Sandburg for obstruction of justice." Simon raised his eyebrow.

"I don't know, I'm thinking a lot of crazy things lately. The damn kid's driving me crazy — you've got to talk to him, Simon."

"Me?" Simon snorted. "You think I want to go crazy? Thanks but no thanks, Jim."

Jim beat his fist softly against the conference table. "Somebody's got to talk to him. Talk some fucking sense into him. Convince him it's his duty to make a statement."

"Well, I could try — but you know Sandburg." Simon yanked his glasses off and carelessly flung them onto the table. "He's a stubborn little bastard," he said, rubbing his eyes. "And as long as he keeps claiming that he doesn't remember..."

"He remembers," Jim muttered. "He's just a dirty, rotten, stinking liar."

"A stubborn, dirty, rotten, stinking liar," Simon corrected.

"Yeah. Plus he's short," Jim added savagely.

"Very short," Simon agreed. "On the other hand — face it, Jim, the kid's got more than a couple of extra brain cells to rub together. You know him best — what the hell is he on about?"

Jim blew out a long, irritated breath. "Well, I mean — if I had to guess..."

"Guess," Simon said tersely.

"I don't think he wants to go to court," Jim muttered. "I think he's afraid that the whole Sentinel thing will come out in court."

Simon's eyes narrowed. "And why would he think that?"

Jim rubbed his forehead — there was just no good answer to that question. There was only the truth. "Because Alex Barnes is a Sentinel," Jim admitted finally. "And Paul Ziegler knows that I am, and — "

Suddenly Simon Banks was on his feet — a six-and-a-half-foot wall of towering, angry captain. "She's what? He knows what?"

Jim slumped in his chair, defeated, which only had the unfortunate effect of making Simon Banks look even bigger. "Ziegler knows I'm a Sentinel," he confessed lamely. "He found Barnes and sent her to pump Sandburg for information."

"And you were going to tell me this exactly when?" Simon demanded.

"Look, forget that for a minute, okay?" Jim retorted, deciding to go on the offensive. "Forget the Sentinel thing — Sandburg's a fucking police officer, and someone tried to kill him. How would you treat this if it were any other cop? If it were any other case?"

"Generally," Simon said tightly, "we'd have the cooperation of the fucking victim, Jim. Who wouldn't be a stubborn, dirty, rotten, stinking liar. Just for starters."

"Well, yeah, but — " Jim began defensively.

"Plus — I wouldn't have a bunch of completely indefensible reports." Simon bent over, shoved a pile of manila folders across the table at Jim. "You know what Rafe and Brown say? They say that Sandburg was dead at the scene. They say Sandburg stayed dead for over twenty minutes. The EMTs say the same thing. You have any idea of what the cross-examination is going to be like? They're gonna claim that we're all on drugs over here."

"Yeah, okay, that's a problem," Jim sighed. "But — "

"Not to mention that if Ziegler decides to tell what he knows, my two best detectives are gonna spent the rest of their lives in the tabloids, hanging out with Elvis and being abducted by aliens."

"They killed Sandburg!" Jim shouted, slamming his hand down on the table. "That's all that matters!"

Simon crossed his arms. "You mean they tried to kill Sandburg."

"I mean they killed him, Simon," Jim said wearily. "They fucking killed him. Rafe and Brown are telling the truth. He was stone cold dead."

Simon sat down slowly, shaking his head in mute denial. "That's impossible," he said finally. "It's some sort of mistake..."

"It's no mistake. That's what happened."

"But then — " Simon sputtered. "I mean — Then how — ?"

Jim raised his head. "You really want to know?"

Simon glared at him. "Hell, no! I'm a Baptist!"

"Yeah, well, that's just great, Simon." Jim blew out a long, frustrated breath. "That's just great — thanks a lot."

"Jim — this is out of control, do you hear me? This is now officially out of control!"

"You think I don't know that?" Jim rose to his feet and began to pace. "How the hell do you think I feel? I don't know how to handle this — I'm lost, here, man! So I'm trying to do my job, be a cop, just stick to the fucking facts." He took a deep breath and went on, ticking the points off on his fingers. "Paul Ziegler had custody of Alex Barnes. He sent her to talk to Blair Sandburg. Blair Sandburg ended up in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the shoulder and two lungs full of fountain water. That's attempted murder, Simon, and normally we arrest people for that."

Simon's face was expressionless — he wouldn't meet Jim's eyes, didn't seem to have any answer.

"Well, don't we?" Jim demanded.

"Yeah. Yeah, we do." Simon paused, and then looked at Jim narrowly. "Except, you know — when people start coming back from the dead? I'd say that all bets are off. I'd say that normal's gone flying out the fucking window, Jim."

Jim clenched his jaw — the walls were closing in, he was getting that trapped feeling again. "So what the hell am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know. Go talk to Sandburg," Simon rubbed his temples. "Because whatever you end up doing, you're not gonna get far unless Sandburg's with the program."  

SCENE THREE: "Hospitals and violence and crazy-ass shit."

Jim slammed the door of the truck and walked slowly up the path to his father's house, hesitating for a moment before ringing the bell. Stephen Ellison opened the door a minute later, looking both surprised and pleased to see him. "Jim, hey," Stephen said, pulling the door open wide.

Jim stepped into the cool, dim interior. "Hey yourself. You got a few minutes?"

"Sure. Of course," Stephen said, then tilted his head to peer beyond him at the path.

Jim instinctively looked back over his shoulder. "What?"

"Nothing," Stephen said, shutting and locking the door. "I just thought Dad might be with you."

Jim frowned. "Why would Dad be with me?"

"He said he was going to the hospital," Stephen explained.

"He did? When?"

"Oh...about a half-an-hour ago," Stephen said, glancing down at his watch. He looked up at Jim and then jerked his head toward the kitchen. "Come on in — have some coffee. You look like you could use some."

"Yeah. I could," Jim admitted. "I could really, really use some."

He followed his brother into the kitchen. Stephen had turned the table into a makeshift desk — it was covered with legal pads and uncapped pens, and a laptop computer was glowing with a complicated-looking spreadsheet. "Hey, I'm sorry," Jim said, "I didn't know you were working."

"No big deal." Stephen pulled two mugs out of a cabinet. "I needed a break, anyway."

Jim sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. "Me too, man. Me too."

Stephen filled the two cups with coffee, brought one over and handed it to Jim. "So how's it going?"

"It's going. Sort of," Jim amended. "Not really — I don't know, I'm just so fucking frustrated."

"Blair's okay?" Stephen asked with undisguised concern.

"Blair's fine," Jim said with a sigh. "He's great — they're releasing him today. He's a little loopy from the meds — but then again maybe he's always been like that and I just never noticed."

"Well, I mean..." Stephen said, sitting down in the opposite chair, "that's the important thing, right?"

"Right. Yeah." Jim quickly changed the subject. "So what's all this stuff?" he asked, gesturing at the papers spread out over the kitchen table.

"It's just notes," Stephen said. "I'm helping a bunch of venture capitalists put a business plan together. An internet lottery system," he added, rolling his eyes. "I've told them it's a stupid investment — we've got no idea about the future of web gambling in the U.S. — but whatever. It's not important."

"It sounds very important," Jim took a sip of his coffee, which turned out to be soothingly hot and strong. Strong coffee, normal conversation — that's what he needed. "Millions of dollars and all that."

Stephen shook his head. "Not compared to what you do. You deal in life or death stuff."

Jim shrugged and tried to deflect the conversation back to normality. "I'm sure your clients think this is pretty life and death — I mean, I can't imagine the amount of money that — "

"Money," Stephen interrupted, "isn't anything to these people. They expect it — they think they're entitled to it. Even if they lose, they win — they call it a tax write-off and make money anyway. But it doesn't make them happy — they're none of them happy, believe me." He stopped for a moment, looking thoughtful. "You know, I hope that Dad likes my girlfriend as much as he likes Blair."

So much for the change of subject; he couldn't seem to get away from Blair today. "I'm sure he will."

"Because Dad really likes Blair, you know? I mean, I can hardly believe it. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..." Stephen grinned suddenly. "For example — just this morning. He couldn't wait to get over to the hospital — he had this big biography of Nixon — "

"Wait — Richard Nixon?" Jim asked, frowning.

"No, Phil Nixon — yeah, of course Richard Nixon."

Jim shook his head. "I don't follow you."

"He bought it for Blair," Stephen explained patiently. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. And he just couldn't wait to — "

"What the hell does Blair want with a biography of Richard Nixon?" Jim interrupted.

Stephen boggled and threw up his hands. "Like I know. It's some sort of weird Dad bonding-gesture."

"Hmmph," Jim said and leaned back in his chair. "Dad never gave me a biography of Nixon."

"Well, don't look at me," Stephen replied. "I didn't get one either."

"Maybe he was gonna make us compete for it," Jim suggested dryly. "Maybe there was going to be some sort of triathlon and the winner would get the biography of Nixon."

Stephen grinned at him. "I'd whup your ass, old man."

"Like hell you would," Jim snorted. "Besides — Dad already gave me a coffee machine."

"When did you get a coffee machine?" Stephen demanded.

"A while ago. It makes espresso and cappuccino," Jim gloated. "And it looks like a rocket ship."

"Wow," Stephen mused. "You think he'll give me a coffee machine if I marry Elaine?"

Jim started. "What? I mean — are you thinking of marrying Elaine?"

Stephen suddenly looked embarrassed. "Well, yeah. I mean — definitely, yeah," he mumbled, flushing red around the collar of his polo shirt.

Jim found himself laughing helplessly. "You jerk!" He leaned forward and smacked Stephen in the chest with the back of his hand. "When were you going to say something?"

"It just happened," Stephen confessed, looking oddly pleased. "I — uh — emailed her."

"You emailed her?" Jim repeated.

Stephen coughed. "Yeah."

He couldn't seem to get it through his head. "You proposed marriage to a woman by email?"

"Well, yeah," Stephen repeated defensively. "I mean, I didn't want to put her on the spot."

"You couldn't wait 'til you saw her in person?!" Jim asked in bewilderment.

Stephen glowered at him. "No, I couldn't, okay? It was just — the time to ask. Things were going crazy around here. All this life and death — you getting shot, Blair getting shot, Dad being — oh, hell, I dunno. I mean, all right, maybe that wasn't the best reason to finally do it," Stephen admitted, "but, I mean — you live a crazy life, you know?"

Jim sighed and scrubbed at his face — no way of getting away from Blair or his crazy fucking life. "Yeah, I know."

"Just — hospitals and violence and crazy-ass shit...." Stephen trailed off with a wave of his hand. "And I found myself thinking about Elaine, and she just seemed so sane and normal and..."

"British," Jim supplied with a faint smile.

"British, yeah," Stephen agreed. "Sane and normal and British, and I just suddenly thought — man, I don't want to lose that."

Jim found himself moved by the simple words, by the simple, sincere emotion in his brother's voice. "Well...congratulations. That's great news. Terrific news."

Stephen looked suddenly worried. "It's the right thing, isn't it?"

"Sure sounds like it," Jim assured him. "I mean, hey — if she's the one you reach out for when everything feels like it's going to hell — well, that's it, isn't it? That's the whole fucking thing, right there."

Stephen seemed to consider this. "I never thought about it exactly like that."

"Maybe you haven't been through enough hell," Jim suggested wryly.

Stephen looked at him searchingly. "How are you really, Jim? Are you okay?"

It wasn't a question he could really answer; it wasn't an answer Stephen could handle if he did. "I'm fine," Jim said finally.

"You didn't have a whole lot of recovery time. I mean, you were barely out of the hospital before — "

"Yeah, well, we're thinking about renting a ward," Jim said sardonically.

Stephen frowned. "That's not funny."

"No," Jim admitted. "I guess not."

"Do they know what happened?" Stephen asked.

"Sort of," Jim hedged. "It's...complicated."

"Is there anything I can do?"

Jim studied his brother's face — even at thirty-six, Stephen still seemed so dammed young to him. Younger than Blair, even — despite the bounce and the Keds, Blair had at least been around the block a couple of times. Whereas Stephen — with his pale skin and his honest eyes and his M.B.A. — Stephen seemed like he had never had to deal with anything more difficult than their father's complicated affections.

"Nah," Jim said finally. "Everything's fine, everything's gonna be cool." He reached out and briefly squeezed his brother's hand. "Go back to London. Plan your wedding. Send us an invitation — we'll be there." And suddenly he was swept to his feet by a wave of affection, yanking Stephen off his chair and into a tight hug. "I love you, kid," he muttered, raising one hand to ruffle his brother's hair. "I always did — and if Dad doesn't buy you a coffee machine, I will."

"One that looks like a rocket ship?" Stephen asked.

"You bet."  

SCENE FOUR: "A modern day Machiavelli."

When he arrived back at the hospital at a quarter to five, Blair was dressed, Blair was packed — and Blair was curled up, sound asleep, on top of his neatly made hospital bed. Jim leaned against the wall and studied him carefully — Blair looked, well, sort of like a big sloppy dog. After nearly a week in the hospital without benefit of gel or conditioners or whatever goop Blair was currently using, Blair's hair had given up all attempt at civilized behavior and had reverted to its primal state. Blair's mouth was hanging open slightly and he was sort of drooling on himself. His left hand was clutching his glasses. His right hand was resting on a thick biography of Richard Nixon.

No English rose, this, Jim decided. Still, though — Blair Sandburg was the guy he was most likely to reach out to when things went straight to hell.

He pushed away from the wall and approached the bed. "Time to wake up, Chief," he said softly. "We're going home."

Blair opened his eyes, looking groggy. "Right, yeah," Blair said, pushing himself into a sitting position. "Sorry. Fell asleep." He tucked the eyepiece of his glasses into the top of his shirt, then raised one arm and swiped it across his mouth. "Aw, yuck, man..."

Jim picked up Blair's bag and slung it across his good shoulder. "Yeah, you could kind of use a hose down, Chief."

Blair yawned hugely. "Save the sexual fantasies 'til we get home, okay?"

Jim pushed the wheelchair out of its corner. "Come on — I'll give you a lift to the truck."

"I need my bag," Blair said blearily.

"I got it."

"And my prescriptions." Blair shoved his unruly hair away from his face and peered around the room. "There's like twelve of them. They're around here somewhere."

Jim went to the nightstand, picked up the slips of white paper, and tucked them into his shirt pocket. "Got 'em."

Blair nodded and got up off the bed. "And look — your dad brought me — "

" — -a biography of Nixon," Jim finished. "Yeah, I heard all about it."

"I think that's very nice," Blair said, sitting down in the wheelchair with the book in his hands. "I guess...I don't know enough about Nixon or something."

Jim laughed despite himself as he pushed the chair out the door. "Well, now you'll know all there is to know."

Blair flipped his glasses onto his nose and scrutinized the book. "Nixon's a pretty interesting guy, really," he mused, scanning the jacket flaps. "Sort of a modern-day Machiavelli."

"Great," Jim muttered as he pushed Blair down the hallway toward the elevator. "The perfect fucking role model."

Blair's wild head of hair jerked up sharply. "Hey. I resemble that remark."

"Yeah," Jim said, stabbing the DOWN button. "You do."

Blair sighed and closed the book. "You're still pissed with me, huh?"

Jim thought about this for a moment. "Pissed...doesn't really convey what I feel for you, no," he said, pushing the wheelchair into the elevator when it arrived. "It's a lot more complicated than that."

Blair craned his neck to look up at him. "So? Spill."

"I love you and hate you in alternating five minute bursts. I think it's Sentinel equivalent of hot flashes. I have these moments of profound relief that you're okay, and then I fantasize about shoving your wheelchair off a cliff."

"Wow," Blair said, looking impressed. "Way to get in touch with your feelings, there."

"Thanks," Jim said as the elevator door binged! and opened. "I've been working on it."

He pushed Blair out through the lobby, and through the front automatic doors, which whirred open. "I can get up now, right?" Blair asked, once the chair hit the sidewalk.

"Yeah, if you want," Jim said, stopping short.

"I want," Blair said, getting up. "Be nice to do something normal for a change."

Jim nodded and pushed the wheelchair back in through the double doors while Blair got up on his toes and stretched hugely. "God, it's good to be outside," he said, looking up and down the busy downtown street, at the buses, at the taxis, at the accumulating rush hour traffic. "It's good to..."

Blair trailed off and looked away, and Jim came up behind him and gently touched his arm.

"Truck's over here," he said quietly.

"Yeah. Right." Blair took a deep breath, and started walking toward the truck.

"We need to stop at the pharmacy?" Jim asked, once they were inside and belted in.

"Yeah," Blair replied. "And then — how do you feel about tacos?"

Jim did a double-take. "Tacos?"

"Yeah. Tacos. I want something that's really, really bad for me — I've been eating mush for a week. I want fat, I want sour cream — hell, I want something crunchy. I don't think those people understood that I had teeth," Blair confided. "There was nothing wrong with my teeth, you know?"

Jim smiled and pulled the truck out into traffic. "I know. All right — you want tacos, you get tacos. We'll stop by The Taco Hut and get take-out."

"That's beautiful, man," Blair said with a happy sigh. "That's music to my ears."  

SCENE FIVE: "So. Like-are you going to kill me, or what?"

Blair's prescriptions cost over a hundred and ten dollars, though their insurance would ultimately cover most of that. The tacos, on the other hand, were only twelve bucks — and Jim wasn't at all surprised that Blair tore into the first of his right there in the truck.

"God, I needed this," Blair said, wiping guacamole off his chin. "Human food. People food."

Jim briefly took his eyes from the road to glance at him. "Yeah, I know what you mean. They're really not trying with that mushy stuff."

"Yuseddit," Blair said, stuffing the end of the taco into his mouth. "Mmmph," he added, closing his eyes and chewing in slow joy. He swallowed just as Jim pulled the truck into a spot in front of the loft. "Man, if I never see Jello again it'll be way too fucking soon."

Jim switched the ignition off and pulled out the key. "Home sweet home, Chief." He picked up Blair's bag and the Nixon book, and Blair followed him across the street, clutching his precious bag of tacos.

The elevator was working and was actually waiting for them on the ground floor. "Here," Blair said, fishing through the brown paper bag as they slowly cranked upwards. He came up with a semicircle wrapped in tin foil. "Want one? They're goooood."

"Yeah, okay," Jim said, tucking the biography of Richard Nixon under his arm and accepting the taco. "Twist my arm."

The elevator opened and Jim found himself having to juggle the taco, the book, and the keys as he approached the front door. Finally, he managed the lock, and the door swung open. They drifted inside and made a beeline for the kitchen table.

Blair ripped the brown paper bag down the side, scattering tacos everywhere. "I suppose," he said, looking pleadingly at Jim, "there's no way I can have a beer, right?"

"No fucking way, no," Jim said, sitting down opposite him and unwrapping his own taco. "You can have water or juice or tea."

"Oh, all right," Blair sighed, peeling the tin foil off his second taco and taking a huge bite. "So," he said, still chewing. "Like — are you gonna kill me, or what?"

Jim glowered at him. "I'm not going to kill you."

"But you want to, right? Just a little?" Blair encouraged.


"You said you wanted to push my wheelchair off a cliff," Blair pointed out.

"Yeah. I was kidding. Ha-ha." He took another bite of taco.

"You know, there's really no such thing as a joke," Blair said. "At least according to Freud. All humor is actually a mode of expressing fear, or aggression — "

" — again with the Freud — " Jim muttered.

" — or sometimes raw sexuality. Some primal emotion that civilization finds otherwise unacceptable. So what's your joke about? Fear, aggression, or lust?"

"Trick question," Jim replied with a sigh. "It's D — all of the above — and you damn well know it."

Blair nodded slowly at this, then finished off his taco in two bites.

"You're not really going to indict me for obstruction, are you?" Blair asked, licking sour cream off his fingers.

"Don't be stupid." Jim rolled his eyes. "You've been a cop for a year and a half now — don't you know an idle threat when you hear one?"

"Hey — just checking." Blair got up and went into the kitchen. "You want water, or juice, or what?"

"Beer," Jim said.

"You bastard." Blair banged the bottle down on the table in front of him before sitting down with his juice. "You know, I'm seriously debating a third taco," Blair said, staring at the bag.

"Go for it," Jim said. He took a long swig of cold beer and then slowly wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

Blair glared at him. "You suck," he said and grabbed another taco. "So — you're not going to kill me and you're not going to arrest me." He unwrapped taco number three. "Does that mean we're on the same page?"

"Chief, we're not even in the same book," Jim replied, disgruntled. "We may not even be in the same library. Or the same town. Or — "

"Okay, okay, I get the picture," Blair said, raising his hand. "Maybe we can start with the planet and work backwards."

Jim shot him a look.

"All right — the solar system, okay?" Blair sighed and shoved his taco away. "Look, man, it comes down to this. This is what chess players call a stalemate. Ziegler's got the Sentinel thing on us. We've got attempted murder on him. Right now, neither of us can move without the other one using what he's got, you dig?"

"No," Jim said, slamming his beer bottle down. "I don't 'dig.' This is what cops call 'getting away with murder'. This is generally considered to be a pretty bad fucking thing."

"Well, hey, look on the bright side." Blair slid back in his chair and crossed his arms. "It's the end of our perfect closure rate, right?"

Jim leapt out of his chair, furious, fighting the urge to beat Blair about the head. "You dumb bastard! Not this case! This is not the goddammed case I want to lose!"

"We have to lose this case." Blair looked at him apologetically. "We only win if we lose. I'm sorry, Jim — I really am — but I just don't see how it works any other way."

"I'll tell you how it works," Jim said, looming over him. "You tell the fucking truth for a change. You say, 'Alex Barnes shot me.' We put an APB out on Barnes and pull her file. We find out she's in Ziegler's custody and we indict them both for attempted murder."

Blair looked up at him tiredly. "Forget Barnes. We won't find her — she's MIA."

"What do you mean — we won't find her? We'll find her!"

"Not in any way that matters." Blair reached for his juice and finished it off in a long swig. "She's gone, man — she's history."

Jim shook his head, uncomprehending. "What do you mean — history?"

"I mean she's dead." Blair looked up at him, met his eyes. "Or nearly dead. Dead enough — she's not going to trial, anyway."

Jim stared at him. "How the hell can you know that?"

Blair didn't seem to want to answer that — he got up out of his chair and went into the kitchen for more juice.

"Well?" Jim demanded.

Blair fumbled the carton out of the fridge and filled his glass. "I just know."

"How?" Jim asked, drifting toward Blair.

Blair turned and put the glass down next to the sink; it sort of clunked and wobbled on the countertop. "She kissed me," he confessed, staring down at the stainless steel drain. "That night. And when she did — it sort of opened a connection. Patchy, scratchy — not like ours — but, like, you could get there from here. Like dialing a real long distance."

Blair reached out for the glass again, closed his hand around it. "The connection's closed now," he said, turning around. "Wire's burned up. I don't know if her body's dead, but her brain is. Wherever she is, she's out of it now."

"Goddammit," Jim muttered, awash with utter frustration.

"Yeah. Bummer, right?" Blair shook his head and came back toward the table. "So, see — it's pointless to indict her. Waste of taxpayer money. That leaves us with Paul Ziegler...and...well...I just can't get behind arresting Ziegler, Jim."

Jim stared at Blair. "You can't get behind it," he repeated flatly.

Blair sat down again, looking uncomfortable. "Yeah. You got it."

"The man got you killed and you can't get behind it."

"Right," Blair said with a little cough.

"The man's been harassing us, threatening us, trying to blackmail us — and you can't get behind arresting him."

"Right," Blair said, staring down at the table top.

Jim shook his head slowly. "What the hell kind of cop are you?"

Blair kept his eyes fixed on the table. "Maybe...not a very good one."

"That's bullshit!" Jim shouted. "Total bullshit! For god's sake — why are you doing this?"

Blair extended his arms out on the table and locked his fingers together, studying them like they were the most interesting thing in the world. "It's...complicated," he said finally, not looking up. "I got a bunch of reasons. Which one do you want?"

Jim threw his hands into the air. "Any one!"

"Well," Blair sighed, "first — there's the strategic reason. We're better off threatening Ziegler with prosecution than actually prosecuting him. I mean, we've finally got something on him — a way to buy his silence. It's the stalemate thing — he says one fucking word about the Sentinel thing, and I suddenly remember what happened and we arrest his sorry ass." He looked up finally and met Jim's eyes. "We prosecute him now, we lose the only card we've got."

Jim clenched his jaw. "I don't like that reason. I don't like rewarding blackmailers for their bad behavior."

Blair sighed and nodded, as if he expected this. " about the empathic reason?" he asked, his voice growing oddly distant and cold. "How about the fact that I'm just fucking like him?"

Jim felt utterly floored by these words, and sat down slowly. "Bullshit," he whispered. "You're nothing like him."

"I'm exactly like him." Blair looked suddenly tired. "He's...obsessive. And — well — I understand obsession, Jim. Me of all people on earth."

Jim shook his head vehemently. "He's a liar and a cheater and — "

Blair looked away again. "And I'm not?

"No! Not — I mean, you're not — " Jim sputtered. "You're not that kind of liar and cheater and — "

"Oh, lookee who's turned into Mr. Fine Distinctions," Blair muttered.

Jim slammed his palm down on the table. "This is not a fine distinction! This is a fucking distinction a mile wide! Can't you see that?"

"Did you read Ziegler's file?" Blair asked, looking up at him.

"Fuck that fucking, fucking file!" Jim yelled. "I'm sick to death of that fucking file!"

"But it explains everything, Jim," Blair said quietly.

"What the fuck is so important about that file?" Jim asked tightly. "Why does that file justify fraud and blackmail and murder?"

"It doesn't justify it," Blair countered. "It explains it. It fills in the blanks. Because it's — well, hopeless." He sighed and scrubbed at his face. "I mean — that was the thing that really struck me. How fucking hopeless it is. A twenty-two year old case — you read it, you saw the pictures. Five dead boys, killed in 1978. It's old news, bottom of the barrel stuff. No one's ever going to work that case again — there's no leads, no hope, nothing.

"That's just the kind of thing that could drive you to psychics and quacks and ESP," Blair said quietly. "That's just the kind of thing that could drive you nuts — especially if you had a personal interest. And Ziegler's got both a personal and a professional interest — that's his job, man, he's in charge of the Fed slush pile. Files and files of totally hopeless cases. And at the bottom of it — your brother, face down and stabbed to death.

"I mean — you could see where a person could get obsessed. Or I can, anyway." Blair was suddenly breathing in short, sharp pants again, like he had those first few hours in the hospital. "I...understand obsession, Jim." He pushed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Because obsession is — I mean. There's some part of me. That can see it. That thinks — that I would break in exactly the same way. Like if a nervous breakdown were a dotted line — then mine's in the same place that his is."  

SCENE SIX: "I won't let him be above the law."

Jim reached out and seized Blair's arm. "You think I don't understand that?" he hissed. "You think I don't understand that sort of obsession?"

Blair stared up at him with dark eyes. "No — I know you do. I know you do, Jim — that's my point."

"You don't think I understand what a thing like that can do to you? I do know — I totally fucking know."

"I know," Blair said, softly. "I know you do. And that's why — "

"But it doesn't make him above the law," Jim said, rising out of his chair and beginning to pace. "You hear me? Obsession doesn't justify breaking the rules — "

Blair slowly got to his feet, looking sick. "Don't say that."

"Why not? It's the truth."

Blair shook his head vehemently. "Jim — think about what you're saying..."

"I know what I'm saying!" Jim insisted.

"You don't!" Blair shouted — and Jim stopped and stared at him, surprised and shocked. "You dumb-ass!" Blair yelled — and suddenly Blair was right up in his face, gripping his shirt and shaking him furiously. "Will you just use your fucking brain for a minute? I've been committing fraud for years! I committed fraud against Rainier, I committed fraud with every report I ever wrote for the PD! You committed fraud every time you signed off on something I wrote, every time you testified in court and didn't mention the Sentinel thing!"

A wave of nausea overcame him — he understood, now, why Blair looked so sick. "That's not the same! " he managed, but he could feel the blood draining out of his face. "It's not the same at all — he got you killed!" That was the important thing — that was the one fucking fact in this whole mess. He clutched onto it tightly — but it was like clutching broken glass.

"Yeah — he did — because he was so fucking focused on avenging his brother's death that he couldn't see the larger picture! Obsession is like blindness, Jim — believe me, I know!" Blair tightened his fingers and gave him another hard shake. "So take a look at the fucking larger picture, Jim! Forget about what happens to us if the Sentinel thing comes out — think about the larger goddammed picture for just a minute! One whisper of this and everyone from everyone from Veronica Sariss to Garrett Kincaid is gonna file for appeal! IA will come down on us like a ton of bricks — don't you see what you'd be setting into motion? We'll be setting killers back onto the street left and right! — and what kind of justice is that?"

Jim squeezed his eyes shut against the words. "No..."

"Yes! Don't you see, we're neck deep in this! We can use the legal system as a means, but not as an end — -not for us! It's not there for us — that's not where's we're gonna get our justice from, Jim! The courtroom's not our place!"

"He's not above the law!" Jim roared. "I won't let him be above the law!"

"You stupid shit!" Blair yelled, yanking his face down so that they were abruptly nose to nose. "Ziegler's not above the law — you are!"  

SCENE SEVEN: "Welcome to reality, Jim."

And the world was spiraling out of control, now — the walls were crashing in, everything was going straight to hell in the face of that simple truth.

"Right..." Blair was nodding slowly, holding his eyes. "Right... You're getting it, now — welcome to reality, Jim."

And he didn't know what to do, where to put himself — and so he found himself reaching clumsily for Blair, clutching two handfuls of fried, coarse Blair-hair. And Blair tasted reassuringly sane — like marinated beef and guacamole and corn chips. Strong arms came around his back, held him tightly; Blair was kissing him hungrily, now, one hand rhythmically caressing the back of his neck.

He shoved Blair forward until he was hard against the kitchen table, then heaved him upwards and onto it, sliding between muscular jean-clad thighs. Blair hooked his legs around Jim's and flexed his arms, jerking him closer, into a deeper kiss. This was the only sanity there was, the only dammed thing that made sense anymore. There were only the two of them, hovering high in the air, flying high above the law and unprotected by it.

The thought staggered him, terrified him — but Blair was holding him tightly, holding him up, roughly kissing his mouth and his chin and his jaw. The only sanity there was — his hairy, hard, male lover, clutching on to him, lying for him, guiding him through this frightening blank space where there were no rules.

He'd thought he'd left the jungle, re-entered civilization, but he hadn't. His world didn't have the clean lines of law and justice — instead, it was a dark wilderness of carnivorous creatures, of fear and aggression and lust.

But if he didn't have justice, he had something better — Blair Sandburg's hot breath on his face, muscles flexing, heart pumping — alive, alive. He groaned and took control of the kiss, shoving Blair backwards, flat against the table, and nearly crawling on top of him. You didn't get both — in a world where they could have gone to court, Blair would still be cold and dead. Instead his tongue was in Blair's hot mouth, and Blair was sucking on it, sucking him, tightening his legs around him and humping upwards —

Got to fuck him. Got to fuck him. The thought was pulsing, pounding in his head, blotting out everything else, all other lines of thought. Beneath him, Blair humped upwards, rubbed against him — a dog in heat. He fisted the wild hair, gave Blair a final, deep kiss — and then pulled back to flip him over, to bend him over the table.

Blair's fingers scrabbled for purchase against the wood surface. His shirt was rucked up under his armpits, and Jim quickly shoved jeans and underwear down the lightly-hairy legs. "God, come on!" Blair moaned, lifting his hips and offering his ass to Jim. "Come on, do it already!" He gripped Blair's hips and kissed the small of his back, then kissed lower, and lower —

" — yes! yes! ohhhhh! — " and Blair was gasping now, face contorted and pressed hard against the table as Jim tongued his hole. He could feel the effort it took for Blair to stay still, he could tell that Blair was practically at the limits of his restraint, and so he didn't tease. He just held Blair tightly and tongued his hole open, focusing only on the gradually stretching muscle, and the low, deep, gratifying sound of Blair's moans.

When he was ready, he straightened up and roughly unzipped himself, then braced his hands on Blair's cool, smooth hips. Blair shuddered at his touch and spread his legs even further apart, wanting him, wanting —

He slid his hard, leaking cock forward into Blair, watching as the muscles in Blair's thighs and back shuddered involuntarily, as Blair's fingertips found the edges of the table and curled around them tightly. God, so sweet, so very sweet — he slid his palms up Blair's sweat-damp back and then down again, feeling the muscles twitch under his hands. So hot and solid and alive — he bent forward and covered Blair's body with his own, wrapping tight arms around him as they began to move together.

Blair twisted his head backwards and whispered, "Jim, touch me...please..." and so he lifted Blair's shoulders with one forearm and slid his other hand down over Blair's sweat-slick chest and abdomen to his cock. Blair's eyelids fluttered and he moaned, and Jim tilted his head forward and brushed his lips against Blair's ear, Blair's temple, whatever parts of Blair's face he could reach. He fondled and caressed Blair's warm-hard cock, Blair's heavy balls, as he jerked into him needily, fucking him until they were both trembling and coming with soft gasps.  

SCENE EIGHT: "A bonus."

He pressed his face into the damp tangle of hair at the nape of Blair's neck — Blair was warm and boneless beneath him, like he'd melted into the hard wood surface of the table. "You okay?" he muttered to Blair. "You wanna move?"

"N'uh," he heard Blair say. "Jus' fine..." so he just closed his eyes and relaxed against Blair's pliant body, attuned to the sensuous feeling of letting himself go soft inside Blair.

"I love you," Jim said after a while.

"...yeah, I know. I love you, too..."

"I know. It's the only thing I do know," he confessed softly. "I'm sorry for being...stupid."

Blair's body began to shake beneath him — Blair was laughing. "Get off me."

Jim lifted his head. "What?"

Blair's face was split in a huge smile as he shifted beneath him. "Get off me, man — you're getting heavy."

He peeled himself off Blair and stumbled backwards to his feet. Blair pushed himself up, off the table and turned — shirt still high under his arms, jeans down around his ankles. He looked sexy and sort of ludicrous, and he leaned back against the table and regarded Jim with an amused grin.

Jim looked down at himself — okay, so he was wearing a shirt and no pants and looked pretty silly himself. He looked up again at Blair — Blair's eyes were smoky blue and wandering all over his body.

"Stupid, huh?" Blair asked finally, apparently having finally re-discovered his face. "Well, yeah — maybe you are. About some things, anyway. But I never said that brains were a requirement, did I?"

Jim found himself grinning helplessly. "No," he admitted. "No, you never did."

"Nope," Blair confirmed; his eyes were off and roaming again. "I mean, you've got the body, and the senses — frankly, I'm pretty happy that you know how to turn on the stove."

Jim laughed and moved his hands to the top of his shirt, started undoing the buttons.

Blair's eyes followed his hands. "Any brains that you have are strictly — you know, a bonus," Blair added vaguely.

Jim pulled the shirt off his shoulders and let it drop to the floor.

" said..." Blair appeared to completely lose his train of thought as Jim took a step towards him, totally naked now.

"I said?" Jim repeated softly.

"...something about...a hose down?" Blair looked up at him hopefully.

Jim reached for the wadded fabric of Blair's shirt and tugged it upwards, over his head. "Yeah. Yeah, I did." He dropped Blair's shirt onto the growing pile of clothes near the table — and then smiled with genuine pleasure and surprise as Blair threw his arms around his neck and kissed him hard.


A little death Without mourning No call And no warning Baby...a dangerous idea That almost makes sense

SCENE ONE: "Fuck cholesterol."


Jim stopped with a sigh at the door to the bullpen and turned around. "Turkey? You just said roast beef."

"Changed my mind. Turkey," Blair repeated. "No," he said a second later. "Not turkey. Turkey's boring. Even with mustard it's boring."

"Right," Jim said patiently, shifting his weight and crossing his arms. "So what am I getting?"

"" Blair sat at his desk, staring into space. "Get...uh..." He stopped and snapped his fingers. "Chopped liver."

Jim burst out laughing. "Chopped what?"

"Chopped liver," Blair said and made a face at him. "Hey — it's good," he protested. "It's tasty. And it's serious-ass comfort food, m'man."

"It sounds serious-ass disgusting," Jim offered.

"Do you like pate?" Blair asked him.

"Not particularly, no."

Blair looked disappointed. "Oh. Well, then, never mind. But that's what I want — chopped liver. On a bagel."

"And where exactly am I supposed to get chopped-liver-on-a-bagel here in the land of Wonder Bread and gourmet coffee?"

Blair tilted his head to the side. "You got a pen?"

"Oh, geez," Jim groaned, but he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out his notebook and pen. "All right, all right," he muttered, drifting back toward the desk. "Lay it on me."

"The place is called Abe's Delicatessen, and it's on Fifth and Central. But if you remember, there's a bunch of one-way streets over there, so you have to go under the 7th Street overpass and — "

"Right, right — yeah. I know where that is," Jim said, jotting down Abe's Deli, 5th and Cent.

"Tell him it's for me and he'll give you extra," Blair said.

"You know," Jim said, snapping the tiny notebook closed and tucking it back away in his breast pocket, "the point of my running out to pick up lunch was that it's supposed to take less time than actually going out and eating lunch."

"You'll like Abe's," Blair insisted. "It's a great deli."

"They've got goyish food there?" Jim asked wryly.

"Best cold cuts in Cascade," Blair confirmed. "Abe's got everything. Just don't ask for a corned beef on white with mayonnaise," he advised with a grin.

"Gotcha," Jim said, and turned back for the door. Then stopped, as something occurred to him. "Hey, Chief?"

Blair looked up again from his computer screen. "Yeah?"

"This chopped liver you want — isn't that, like, incredibly bad for you?" Jim asked, quirking an eyebrow. "Isn't it, in fact, a heart-attack on a plate? The way I remember my biology classes, the liver is what actually makes cholesterol, no?"

Blair nodded and steepled his fingers together, considering this. "Well, yeah," he admitted, nodding sagely. "But, shall I put this?" He thought for a moment and then said, "Fuck cholesterol, Jim."

Jim laughed and shook his head. "Well, that's a pretty clear way of putting it."

"Just fuck cholesterol for right now — I'm alive, I'm healthy, and I want chopped liver on a bagel. I am in the midst of a cultural and culinary awakening. I am returning to the food of my ancestors. I have decided that man does not live on sprouts alone."

Jim let out a low, soft whistle. "Wow."

Blair turned back to his computer screen, waving Jim off with a flick of his hand. "Go, now, to Abe's Deli, and fetcheth the chopped liver," he said, and Jim nodded and obediently headed out to the elevator.  

SCENE TWO:  A white flag.

He went down to the garage, and had just started the engine when his cell phone rang. He pulled it off his belt and flicked it open. "No changing your mind again," he said. "It's Abe's or nothing."

"Uh..." the voice said, and then he heard only tense breathing.

"This is Detective Ellison," he barked into the phone. "Who's this?"

"It's...uh, Paul Ziegler."

He felt conscious of the weight of the phone in his hand, of the creak of the plastic as his fingers tightened around it. "What the fuck do you want?" he hissed.

"Look out the passenger side window," Ziegler's tinny voice said in his ear, and he turned and stared out the side window. The black Towncar had tinted windows, but his vision instantly pushed through them. As he watched, he saw Ziegler open the window a few inches, and then shove a bit of white fabric through.

A handkerchief, he realized, staring at it.

The handkerchief bounced and jolted as Ziegler waved it.

A white flag.

"I've got something to tell you," Ziegler said into his ear. He watched as Ziegler pulled the handkerchief back into the tinted window, which whirred up. "Something you ought to know."

So tell me," Jim said.

"Come to the car," Ziegler suggested, and Jim let out a harsh laugh.

"You've gotta be kidding. I'm not getting into your fucking car." He looked over again at the Towncar — even though Ziegler was apparently alone, apparently unarmed, it still wasn't any kind of smart thing to do. "You want to tell me something, you come over here."

He watched Ziegler closely as he processed this, as he began nodding slowly to himself. "All right," Ziegler said, and he could hear the nervousness in the man's voice. "I'll come to you. Don't move — I'll be right there."

Jim watched through the tinted window as Ziegler snapped his phone shut and tucked it into his inside jacket pocket. Then Ziegler picked a manila envelope up off the passenger seat and appeared to take a steeling breath before opening the car door and stepping out.

Jim slid his hand to his shoulder holster and felt the grip of his gun before pulling his hand back and resting it, casually, on the steering wheel.

Ziegler crossed the short distance between them, looking every inch the bureaucrat in his suit and tie, and reached for the handle of the passenger door.

"Get in," Jim said brusquely, and Ziegler got in and pulled the door shut behind him. "So talk," Jim added, hands clenching the wheel tightly.

"Let's drive," Ziegler suggested quietly, eyes searching the garage. "I don't think...we should be seen together, under the circumstances."

Jim considered this, and then nodded and started the engine. "Fine," he said, then shot Ziegler a sharp glance. "Are you armed?"

Ziegler looked taken aback. "No," he said. He seemed to understand that his word wasn't good enough, and pulled open the lapels of his jacket, turned out the outside pockets, even tugging up his pants legs briefly to show that he wasn't wearing an ankle holster.

"Fine." Jim put the truck into gear and pulled out of the garage. Ziegler seemed to relax a little once they were away from the police station, and undid the clasp of the manila envelope. "What's that?" Jim asked tightly. "Another fucking file?"

"Well, yes. It's a different case, though." He handed Jim a group of glossy black and white photographs and said quietly, "We've got her. I thought you'd want to know."

One glance at the photograph in his hand and he understood: Ziegler had tracked down Alex Barnes. He looked at the photo just long enough to see that it was Alex, that she was unconscious, sprawled on the ground in an unidentified location — -and then he handed the photos back to Ziegler and focused on driving, not wanting to crash the truck.

"Hold on," Jim muttered to Ziegler. "Let's just get where we're going and then we'll talk."

Ziegler nodded slowly, accepting this. "Where are we going?"

"Abe's Deli."

"Okay," Ziegler said.

He drove them to Abe's Deli, over-conscious of Ziegler in the passenger seat, over-conscious of the way he moved, the way he smelled — the unfamiliar scent of his aftershave, the wool of his suit. Over-conscious of the fact that Paul Ziegler was sitting on Blair's side of the truck, in what was and would always be Blair's place, and he heard Blair's voice in his head.

I'm exactly like him.

He flicked on the right turn signal and slowly pulled the truck into the parking lot of Abe's Deli. "Lemme see those pictures," he said, switching off the engine and wheeling on Ziegler.

Wordlessly, Ziegler handed them over, and this time Jim let himself look closely. It was Alex Barnes, all right — and god, she looked like shit. Sprawled on the ground like a rag doll, she had twigs in her hair and a long, ragged cut down her left cheek.

"Where did you find her?" Jim asked, slowly flipping to the next picture. Barnes — same position, different angle. The next one — Barnes' cut face in close up.

"In Peru, of all places," Ziegler said, and Jim's head jerked up. "Yeah," Ziegler said, significantly. "Interesting, isn't it?"

Jim declined comment, and returned his attention to the photos.

"I put an APB out on her as soon as I could; I knew that I was the only one who could do it — she's my responsibility." Ziegler sighed and shoved one hand through his dirty blond hair. "Not that I'll admit that to anyone else."

"Keep talking," Jim said quietly; the next picture of Barnes showed her being loaded on to a stretcher.

"There's not that much to tell, really," Ziegler replied. "I started the machinery looking for her, and she turned up in Peru. Local boy found her, deep in the jungle; he notified his tribal elder who notified the local police. I had my people there before the police even got to the scene." He stopped, pulled another bunch of papers from his envelope — Ziegler's envelopes were starting to take on the quality of Mary Poppins' carpetbag. "Once we knew where she was," Ziegler continued, "it was easy to trace her movements backwards. I found the flight she had taken to Colombia — and the helicopter she chartered from there..." He stopped, shoved the papers back into the envelope. "These are for you," he added, putting the envelope down on the dashboard.

"Where is she now?" Jim asked.

Ziegler shot him a sharp look. "You haven't asked what happened to her."

Jim just glared at him.

"All right — the thing is, I don't know what happened," Ziegler admitted. "Frankly, I was hoping you'd know. Or that Sandburg would," he added. "The doctors can't explain it. Physically, she seems to be fine. But she's comatose — brain dead." He took a deep breath and then brought his eyes up to meet Jim's. "I had her air-lifted back to the States — she's here, now, in a high-security psychiatric hospital. But she's comatose — tubes, wires, machines."

"Good," Jim muttered under his breath.

"I knew you'd want to know where she was," Ziegler said. "And I know that you've got no reason to be well-disposed to her. But still — do you think you might ask Sandburg about it? Show him the papers and ask him what he thinks?" Ziegler waved a hand at the envelope.

"I might," Jim said cautiously, putting the photographs down on top of the envelope. "Why didn't you ask him yourself?"

One side of Ziegler's mouth curled up in a lopsided smile. "I got the idea," he said dryly, "that you didn't appreciate me communicating with him directly."

"You got that right," Jim muttered, turning his head to stare out his own window.

"And that, however much you scare the shit out of me," he heard Ziegler say, "I'm better off approaching you directly. I can understand why you don't want me near Sandburg after what happened."

Jim jerked his head back to stare at Ziegler. "You're right. I don't."

Ziegler raised his hands. "Okay. Like I said — I got that, I'm not stupid. But maybe you can ask him about Barnes for me, okay? Just...if there's anything I could or should do to help her..."

"She killed him," Jim spat. "You killed him. Why the fuck should he want to help you or her?"

"No reason," Ziegler said instantly. "I get that. Just — I think I might have broken her somehow," Ziegler admitted. "I didn't mean to, know, whatever Sandburg's doing just isn't as easy as he makes it look..."

"All I care about," Jim said softly, dangerously, "is that that woman is in a maximum security facility."

"She is," Ziegler promised.

"And that she ain't getting out. I don't care if she ever comes to or not — you goddamm make sure that she doesn't get out."

"I will," Ziegler said vehemently. "I swear. She's not going anywhere."

"Because she's a dangerous bitch, Ziegler. And she's fixated on Sandburg now. I don't want her to ever get near him, do you understand?"

"I understand," Ziegler said.

"She ever gets near him again — I'm holding you responsible. I swear to God — anything happens to him and you'll — "

"I understand," Ziegler repeated softly.

"Do you?" Jim demanded, suddenly angry again. "I don't think you understand anything — I think you're so wrapped up in your own goddammed problems and your own goddammed cases that you don't bother to spare a thought for anybody else. We're all just pawns to you, Ziegler — you're completely involved with your own obsessions, and you're fucking blind to everything else."

Ziegler just stared at him for a moment, and then nodded once, curtly. "That's...probably true."

"You bet it's true," Jim said tightly. "You bet your ass it's true." Blair Sandburg had said so, so it goddammed had to be true.

"Honest to god, I never meant for anything to happen to him," Ziegler murmured. "You don't have to believe me, but that's the honest truth."

"I don't give a shit what you intended, Ziegler," Jim said, reaching for his door handle. "I gotta go get some chopped liver."  

SCENE THREE: "Such a nice fucking kid."

To Jim's surprise, Ziegler got out of the truck and followed him into Abe's Deli. The building was large and cool — one long white refrigerator counter ran along one side, and was filled with exotica of all kinds, containers of things that he didn't even recognize. Abe clearly figured that he was dealing with an educated consumer, because the meats and containers weren't identified. There were only prices — $4.99 a pound, $7.99 a pound, $5.19 a quarter pound, etc.

Jim approached the crowded counter and took a number, resolutely ignoring Ziegler, who wandered around the store behind him, looking incongruous in his black wool suit. He waited a few minutes, watching attentively as a little old lady ordered a quarter pound of whitefish and a single knish, and as a couple of yuppies ordered corned-beef sandwiches with mustard for lunch. And then it was his turn.

"I need, uh...chopped liver on a bagel," Jim said to the elderly man behind the counter.

"Yeh?" the man asked, wiping his hands on his apron. "What kind of bagel you want?"

Dammit. He hadn't the faintest idea — Blair hadn't said. "I — uh — I don't know," he admitted. "It's for my partner, Blair Sandburg. He said I should mention — "

The old man's face crinkled into a grin. "Yeh, Blair — Blair likes an onion bagel," the man said, reaching to pull one out of a bin with a pair of stainless steel tongs. "He's a good boy — haven't seen him around lately."

"He hasn't been well," Jim said, and the words came out sharper than he intended, because Ziegler was there, because Ziegler was listening.

He wasn't watching Ziegler's face, but he saw the effect his words had on the old man. "What the heck happened? Good God — young kid like that..."

"He had to go into the hospital," Jim said, knowing that was all he needed to say — and saying it made him feel suddenly, oddly young. It was a long time ago — a bygone, more innocent age — when 'going into the hospital' was instantly synonymous in polite company with serious illness or injury. A generation ago, the hospital was where you went to die.

Of course, in Sandburg's case, the hospital was where you went to recover after you died, but trust Sandburg to stand every fucking cliche on its head.

"God damn it," the old man spat, making each syllable distinct. "That poor kid — such a nice fucking kid." He picked up a gigantic knife, and wielded it with grace to slice Blair's onion bagel. "But he's okay, now, right?"

"Right," Jim granted. "He's much better. And he wants chopped liver." He watched as the man scooped into a container of — well, sort of mid-brown gloppy paste — and smeared a generous amount onto the halves of onion bagel. The whole thing was then neatly wrapped in white butchers' paper. The guy then reached for a clear plastic container and filled that with liver, too — then snapped the top on and extended it to Jim.

"Give this to the kid. Tell him — from Abe."

"Thanks, Abe," Jim said, accepting both the bagel and the container.

"What else can I get ya?" Abe asked, wiping his hands again on his apron.

Jim ordered himself a corned beef sandwich — with mustard, on rye. Abe nodded approvingly and fixed it, heaping on such a generous portion of corned beef that Jim doubted whether he'd manage to get the thing into his mouth. Still, he could always eat it in parts. He wondered whether Abe always dished out portions like this, or whether just being a Friend Of Blair got you this kind of treatment.

The white-wrapped sandwich that Abe eventually handed to him was about the size, shape and weight of a brick. "Anything else?"

"I dunno — what else does Blair like?" Jim asked, peering into the long case. "I mean — I'm here, I figure I could maybe bring him something special..."

The old man grinned, nodded brusquely, and began working. Five minutes later Jim found himself with a big paper bag full of things that he couldn't identify, some of which looked good, and some of which seemed fairly frightening, but all of which seemed to have been sincerely and staggeringly discounted for Blair Sandburg. He turned, with the bag in his arms — and bumped into Ziegler, who was standing right behind him, looking intently into the refrigerated case.

"What do you want?" Abe asked Ziegler, and Ziegler ordered a toasted salami and swiss sandwich.

Jim frowned at him and Ziegler shrugged apologetically. "Well, I'm here, you know?"

To Jim's satisfaction, the sandwich Abe prepared for Ziegler was much more modest than his own — clearly Abe could tell that Ziegler was no FOB.

They moved to the cashier's counter and paid, and then Jim jerked his head toward the door and Ziegler followed him back out to the truck.

"Good deli," Ziegler said with a little cough after he'd belted himself in.

Jim started the engine and glanced back over his shoulder as he pulled out of the space. "Yeah, Sandburg knows his delis. Make sure you put that little tidbit in his fucking file," he said, and turned the truck back toward the station.  

SCENE FOUR: A bad sign.

Jim saw Ziegler back to his car, and they had a brief, awkward parting conversation.

"Are you going to prosecute me?" Ziegler asked, crossing his arms and leaning back against the door of his town car.

Jim answered the question with a question of his own. "You gonna expose us?"

Paul Ziegler stared at him for a moment and then nodded slowly, reaching back to brush a dirty-blond forelock out of his eyes. "All right, I got you — you're proposing a stalemate. I shut up about what I know and I stay out of jail. You shut up about what you know and you stay out of the papers. That's what you want?"

"That's what Sandburg wants."

Ziegler tilted his head to one side. "Right. That and chopped liver."

"That and chopped liver, yes."

Ziegler was eyeing him speculatively, and the look unnerved him. Because he'd seen that look before, because it was a look he'd seen on Blair Sandburg's face. That sense of fascination, that sense of gears turning, things clicking into place. "And you'll go along with that?" Ziegler asked.

"For now. Yeah."

"Because that's what he wants?" Ziegler pressed.

"Because he's a good man," Jim replied, clenching his jaw. "And because strangling you might land me in jail." He smiled thinly — no teeth, all threat.

"Right. Yeah." Ziegler swallowed hard, and reached for the handle of his car door.

Jim turned and made his way to the elevator, carrying the bags of food and Ziegler's latest manila envelope. He made a detour to the break room to store all the extra food in the fridge, and thought about marking the white bag with his usual warning: "Do Not Touch. You Bastards." On the other hand, he thought with a smile, the food itself was its own deterrent — the pasty brown stuff and the white fishy stuff and the pink slimy stuff would probably be enough to put off even the hungriest of cops.

He left the chopped liver and the corned beef sandwich out on the table and went into the bullpen to find Blair.

"What the hell happened to you?" Blair offered as a greeting. "I sent you to Abe's, not to Israel."

Jim smacked his forehead. "Oh, Abe's! Not Israel..."

Blair laughed and shook his head. "So where is it?"

"Lunch is served in the break-room," Jim said, jerking his head toward the door.

"Cool. Great." Blair got up and followed Jim back down the hall. "Did you give my best to Abe?"

"I did," Jim said, pushing through the door and heading for the table. "He sends it right back atcha."

"Yeah, he's a real sweetheart." Blair sat down and unwrapped his bagel happily.

"Well, he thinks you're a sweetheart, sweetheart," Jim said with a grin.

Blair looked at him over his glasses and grinned back. "Oh, fuck off, you," he said, and took a gigantic bite out of the bagel.

Jim sniffed the air inquisitively. "Oooooh, that's not good," he said, wincing slightly.

"Au contraire, mon frere." Blair sounded vaguely offended. "It's very good. It's delicious, in fact. Wanna bite?" he asked, waving the bagel in front of Jim's face.

Jim jerked his head away from the linoleum-topped table. " thanks."

"You might like it, you know."

"Uh, maybe," Jim conceded. "But — do you really want me addicted to another high-fat, high-cholesterol food?"

"Hmmph," Blair said, clearly recognizing this for the pathetic ploy that it was. "I guess not."

Jim unwrapped his own sandwich. "Listen — how worried about this should I be? I mean — when you do the Jewish comfort food thing, it's usually a bad sign."

Blair raised an eyebrow. "A bad sign?"

"Yeah," Jim said; he felt fairly sure of his ground. "Not like I'm a scientist or anything, but I've noticed a correlation between what you eat and how freaked out you are. Chopped liver seems like a bad sign. Latkahs? Bad sign. Ditto whitefish salad. I've never seen you eat matzoh ball soup," Jim added, "so that may be a sign of the apocalypse."

"No, Jim," Blair sighed, "it's a sign of Passover."

"Well, same deal, right?" Jim asked.

"Sure. If you're an ancient Egyptian." Blair rolled his eyes.

"Still, though, the resonances are there..." Jim pressed.

Blair tilted his head to one side and regarded Jim thoughtfully. "You know, I don't think I like the new, analytical you."

Jim tried to raise his unwieldy sandwich to his mouth. "Of course, all bets are off if your mother's in town."

"Of course," Blair agreed, nodding gravely.

"In that case, Jewish comfort food represents regression rather than sublimation."

"You're mad that I called you stupid, aren't you?" Blair asked warily.

Jim took a bite of the corned beef and continued talking as he chewed. "Certainly Freud would say that you've formed a positive association between the food of your childhood and — "

"Because I was only kidding," Blair interrupted. "I mean — you know I was kidding, right?"

Jim swallowed and grinned at him. "Yeah. I know you were kidding. And now I'm kidding you, dickwad."

"Except you're not, though," Blair said with a frown. "I mean — that's not a bad analysis, there. The ancient-Egyptian-plague-thing is a little wonky, but the freaked-out-regression-sublimation thing is pretty much dead on."

That stopped Jim cold, and he put down his sandwich. "It is?"

"Yeah," Blair admitted, ripping a piece off his bagel and shoving it into his mouth. "Probably. I mean, I don't think I'm done processing this whole thing. And maybe I need extra fat in my diet to be able to process this sort of stuff."

"Well, in that case, I guess I'm processing a lot," Jim said, and Blair burst out laughing.

"Oh yeah!" Blair hooted. "You're totally processed! You're Cheese Whiz, man!"

"You know," Jim said, idly scratching at the back of his neck, "if you need any help processing from the processing master over here — I still have a couple more big words memorized that I haven't used yet."

Blair smiled at him and punched lightly at his arm. "Thanks, man. I might take you up on that. If only to see what else you've got in your lexicon."

"In my what?" Jim asked, playing dumb, and Blair squeezed his arm briefly, affectionately, before returning his attention to his lunch.  

SCENE FIVE: "Because he's a good man."

Not being on active duty always seemed to make the day seem longer to Jim, Even when the hours he worked were actually fewer; there was something about being tied to a desk that gave him a restless feeling. It seemed to physically slow down the hands of the clock. Blair didn't seem to mind it quite so much — he was just better trained at the whole sitting-down-at-the-desk thing. But it seemed like he'd been off active duty forever, between his recent injury and then Blair's. He had to forcibly remind himself that it wouldn't be forever, that it wasn't forever, that it was just a couple more days, now, and that he could take it.

Still, though, by a quarter to five he had already fetched the food from the break-room refrigerator and was reaching for his jacket, antsy to get home, to get the fuck out of the bullpen. Blair looked up at him with a grin and seemed to understand, and so they stole off a couple of minutes early and were already in the truck when the clock struck five.

"Whattya want to do, tonight?" Jim asked, glancing across the cab of the truck at Blair, relieved to see Blair in his proper place there. Blair, not Ziegler.

Blair shrugged, stretched, yawned. "I dunno. I don't think I'm up for much. Food, maybe a movie, maybe a game if there's one on."

"Might be baseball," Jim said, doubtfully.

"I could do baseball," Blair replied. "Nice slow pace, lay on the sofa, don't miss anything if you snooze for a while. Sounds just the thing, really."

They fell into a comfortable silence for the rest of the drive home. Blair was right, Jim thought — the sofa and a long, slow baseball game was just the ticket. Somehow sitting around all day doing nothing was, if anything, more exhausting than being out in the field, and if anything, he was more tired than Blair, who jogged up the stairs to the loft ahead of him with what he thought of as enviable energy.

Thankfully, Blair had his keys out as they approached the door to the loft, since he himself was carrying a large paper bag full of food that he couldn't identify. The door swung open and instantly Jim saw the two cardboard boxes. "Shit," he muttered, grabbing Blair and shoving him backwards, quickly interposing his body between his partner and the door.

"Bomb?" Blair asked, backpedaling furiously.

"No," Jim said, after a second. "No," he repeated, turning to Blair. "They're just boxes — nothing dangerous."

Blair sighed and slumped against the wall of the hallway in relief. "Shit, man. What the hell's going on here?"

Jim took a step into the apartment. "I don't know."

"Well, where the fuck did they come from?" Blair asked, coming in and slamming the door behind him. "Someone broke into the house..."

Jim quickly looked around the living room, eyes darting to all items of value; they were all there. "Who breaks in and doesn't take anything?"

"Fucking Ziegler," Blair muttered, warily approaching the two large boxes. "It's gotta be him, Jim — who else could it be? Goddammit, I was wrong, wasn't I? We should have prosecuted the fuck, because it's always gonna be like this, he's always gonna be probing and intruding and violating — "

Jim crouched down beside one of the boxes and tried to tug it open, but it was securely fastened with layers and layers of duct tape. "Give me a knife, will you?" he asked, looking up at Blair.

Blair stomped into the kitchen, yanked the utility drawer open, pulled out the box-cutter and brought it over to Jim. Jim took it wordlessly, flicked the blade up, and began cutting into the tape. "Dammit," Blair murmured, evidently awash with self-loathing. "Dammit, dammit, dammit, Jim — why the fuck do I have to overthink every goddammed thing...?"

"So stop thinking and give me a hand with this." Jim handed Blair the box cutter, grabbed the edge of the cardboard, and yanked, pulling up through a layer of heavy-duty staples. He caught a glimpse of white cloth underneath as he pulled the other side up, and then reached into the box and pulled out a handkerchief.

"What the hell is that?" he heard Blair ask; the handkerchief smelled like Paul Ziegler's aftershave. Underneath it was a note, on FBI stationary; underneath that were piles and piles of pale yellow file folders.

He put down the handkerchief, and picked up the note. It was handwritten, short, and to the point.

Because he's a good man, the note said, and Jim was suddenly aware of Blair standing over him, peering over his shoulder.

"What the hell does that mean?" Blair asked in a tone of obvious exasperation, and when Jim replied, his voice sounded oddly distant to his own ears.

"I think Ziegler's sent our files back."  

SCENE SIX: "Talk about a mixed message."

They spent the next two hours squatting on the floor, going through all the files — hell, Ziegler had more on them than they'd even imagined.

Midway through, Blair looked over at Jim with a strained expression on his face; he had one thick file open on his lap, and was surrounded by a dozen others. "God almighty, Jim..."

Jim shook his head wearily. "Yeah."

"I mean — God!" Blair sputtered incoherently.

"Yeah," Jim said, and rubbed idly at his strained eyes. "Yeah, I know."

And after a while they silently repacked the boxes, and drifted to the sofa, and collapsed on top of it, staring out into space.

"You think he...?" Blair asked.

"I don't know," Jim answered.

"Because — I mean — I'm suspicious."

"Yeah. Me too."

"He broke into our house."

"Yeah," Jim said. "He did."

"Way to say he's sorry," Blair snorted. "Talk about your mixed messages."

"Very mixed," Jim agreed.

"And what's up with that note?" Blair asked, frowning quizzically. "'He's a good man?' Who is?"

Jim coughed into his hand. "Um — you are, Chief."

Blair's eyebrows flew up. "I am?"

"Yeah," Jim admitted.

"And you know that — how?" Blair demanded.

Jim sighed guiltily and let his head fall against the sofa back. "I saw him today," he said, addressing his words to the ceiling. "I took him to Abe's Deli."

Blair sounded utterly flabbergasted. "You took Paul Ziegler to Abe's Deli?"

"Yeah," Jim said, adding defensively, "It just happened, okay?"

"You took Paul Ziegler to Abe's Deli?!"

Jim closed his eyes and sighed. "Yeah — yeah, I did, ok?"

"This I gotta hear," he heard Blair say. "Start talking."

Jim took a deep breath and started talking. "He showed up at the garage waving a white flag," he began, and heard Blair sigh quietly as the white handkerchief quietly clicked into place. "He wanted to talk, but not there. So I took him with me to Abe's Deli."

"And what did he want to talk about?" Blair quietly prompted.

"Alex Barnes," Jim admitted. "He wanted to tell me that he'd found her. She's brain-dead, like you said — he's got her in a high-security facility outside of town."

"Oh." Jim opened his eyes and raised his head and looked at his partner; Blair was sitting there, looking thoughtful. "Well," Blair said finally, "that was nice of him, I guess. To tell you that."

"He wanted our opinion on the thing," Jim said. "On what's wrong with her. Or really your opinion, once he found out that I had no clue and no inclination to get a clue."

Blair shot him a sharp look. "He wanted my opinion?"

"Yeah. Cause you're a Guide. He thinks you could maybe help her."

Blair suddenly covered his face with his hands, and then shoved them back through his hair in a gesture of clear distress. "God help me, Jim — maybe I can, but I don't want to," he said, raising agonized eyes to meet Jim's.

Jim instantly sat up. "Fuck — of course you don't. She — that bitch — she — "

But Blair was already shaking his head. "It's not just me," he said. "I mean — not that I ever want to run into that woman in a dark alley or anything," he added ruefully. "But it's not just me, Jim — if Alex were around, she'd want to kill you, too." Jim frowned at this but Blair nodded quickly. "She would, Jim — because you're standing in her way. That was the problem — she wanted me to choose. And if it's a choice between catching her or dropping you... that's no choice, Jim. No choice at all." Blair sighed and sank back even deeper into the sofa cushions. "So I don't think there's anything I want to do, there."

"That's fine," Jim said quickly. "No reason you should. I told him that — I told him that there was no goddammed reason you should want to help that woman and — "

He stopped suddenly, because Blair was looking at him sideways, and he got the sense that Blair didn't quite approve of the way that he'd put that.

"Right, yeah," Blair said, sounding somewhat...disappointed. "I mean, that's the gist of it, anyway."

"Good," Jim mumbled, letting himself relax a little.

"But what about him?" Blair asked, after a moment.

Jim frowned at that. "What about him?"

"Well — I mean — he sent the files back," Blair said, gesturing toward the boxes.

"Yeah? So?"

"So...I mean...maybe there is something we could or should be doing there." Blair looked away. "You know — with his case."

"You want to help him?" Jim asked, staring at Blair's profile.

Blair shrugged but didn't meet his eyes. "Maybe. Maybe it's something we should think about anyway." He sat there, apparently thinking hard, and then turned to Jim and said, "I mean, maybe we could go surfing."

"Surfing?" Jim repeated, not having followed that leap of thought at all.

"Yeah. Would you teach me how to surf?" Blair asked.

"I — uh — sure," Jim said, frowning. "But — ?"

"I'm not too old or anything, right?" Blair asked, interrupting Jim's question with a question of his own. "I mean — I've never done it before."

"Why are we talking about surfing?" Jim said, seizing control of the conversation. "How did we get from Ziegler to surfing?"

"We could go surfing in California," Blair replied. "If we were to go to California. And we could go on Ziegler's tab, if we helped him."  

SCENE SEVEN: "I could stare down that fucking ocean..."

"Whoa whoa whoa ho whoa-wait — stop!" Jim said, raising his hands.

Blair stopped. "Wow. That was articulate."

"Chief, that was a world class fast-one you just pulled right there!" Jim protested. "We can talk about Ziegler, or we can talk about surfing — but like, one at a time, okay?"

"But they're totally intertwined," Blair argued. "I mean — potentially, man — it's a win-win situation for us. We can do good and make good at the same time."

"What happened to the fucking stalemate?" Jim countered. "That was the shortest fucking stalemate in the history of diplomacy!"

"Hey — he broke the stalemate," Blair replied. "He sent the files back."

"If they're the original files," Jim muttered.

"If they're the original files — but they look like the original files, though, right?"

"He could have kept copies."

"He could have. But then why send us the originals? Why send up the white fucking flag?"

Jim stared narrowly at Blair. "You want to investigate his case. You want to go to California and investigate his case."

"I could push Ziegler into giving us a huge fucking expense account," Blair said, dangling the prospect in front of him. "We could fly there first class, get a house on the beach, and I could stare down that fucking ocean and learn to surf..."

Jim's head was spinning; he wasn't sure what he was even arguing about. Stare down that fucking ocean — was this about the case? About Blair? About guilt? "You want to go to the ocean," Jim asked, watching Blair closely.

"Hard to surf without an ocean," Blair objected.

Jim raised an eyebrow. "You...wanna talk about that particular choice?"

Blair sighed, shrugged. "Well, okay...I think it would be a good thing for me to face a large body of water right now. Plus I think it would be fun. I could use some fun. Is that okay?" he asked, frowning.

"That's fine," Jim replied instantly.

"I mean, I think I'm okay with it. know, drowning and everything." Blair took what seemed like a deep, deliberate breath. "But, I'd rather be a bit proactive, here," he added. "I don't want to spend my life in the kiddie pool, you know?"

Jim found himself grinning helplessly; the idea of Blair Sandburg in the kiddie pool just seemed ludicrous. "No," he granted, reaching out to yank at Blair's hair. "You're not really a kiddie-pool sort of person, Chief."

"So you'll teach me?" Blair asked.

"Of course I'll teach you," Jim replied, swatting his arm. "I just think that your sudden interest in water sports — "

"Heh heh," Blair murmured in his best dumb-ass voice. "You said water sports."

" — is probably worth having a conversation about," Jim finished, swatting him harder.

"Let's see if I can do it first," Blair said. "I might just suck."

"Surfing's easy — you'll pick it up quick."

"Remember how I roller-skate," Blair pointed out.

Jim remembered and quickly hid a smile behind his hand. "Okay, so maybe you'll need a little practice," he admitted. "But you're athletic enough — you'll catch on."

"I'm kinda limited, though," Blair told him. "Basketball, baseball, soccer...I do your basic ball sports, but — "

"Heh-heh," Jim said in his best dumb-ass voice. "You said 'ball sports'."

Blair punched his arm. " — I've never been all that good on wheels."

"Can you skateboard?" Jim asked, reaching up to clutch at his bruised arm.

Blair snorted. "No, I can't skateboard."

Jim hmmed thoughtfully. "Well, I mean — it's easier to surf if you can skateboard or roller skate. What about skiing," he asked, "can you ski?"

Blair shook his head. "Sorry, no can ski."

"Well, at least you can swim. That's something, anyway." Jim reached for Blair's hand and laced their fingers together. "How the hell did you get through childhood without learning how to rollerskate or ski?"

"Well, you know, you need equipment for that stuff," Blair replied — and Jim cringed, because suddenly he was computing the terms of Blair's childhood in dollars and cents, and he didn't like how the numbers added up. He'd asked another stupid fucking question — god, Blair was right: he really was stupid. "But I'm in great shape," Blair rushed on, apparently reading all this on his face. "I'm in the best shape of my fucking life, Jim — so whatever, I'm sure I'll pick it up easy, like you said."

"Blair, I'm sorry, I didn't mean — " Jim began.

"You just worry about teaching me. And let Ziegler pay for it, man — I think that Paul Ziegler should be made to pay for my little piece of proactive therapy," Blair added with a savage smile.

"Well, I could get behind that," Jim allowed. "But — give me some time to think about it, okay?" he added, tugging Blair closer to him. "This is a big thing you're talking about, and — well, I just need some time."

Blair slid one arm around his neck and dropped a quick kiss on his cheek. "Okay," he said. "You think about it," but there was a quiet, familiar confidence in his voice.

California, here we come, Jim thought glumly, and let his head fall back against the sofa.  

The End