Nature's Conferences

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Not mine, all theirs, blah...

Author's notes: Thanks to Justine and to my most beloved Miriam. Blair's thoughts about environmentalism are partly indebted to the work of Dr. William Cronin of the U. of Wisconsin.


"No, no, look," Blair Sandburg said, reaching into his cup holder for a red pen. He stuck the end into his mouth and tugged the cap off. "Here," he said, pointing the pen at the relevant part of the proposal. "Right here — here's where you need the methodology section, okay?"

Monica Smith flipped her long blond hair away from her face and sighed. "But I did one — I did a methodology section." She tugged the paper toward her, and looked it over quickly before pointing. "Here — I did it just like you said."

"You didn't." Blair shook his head, flipped the paper over, and started scrawling an outline on the back. "The project's in three sections, the methodology's gotta be in three sections, too, ok? So we'll call it Part II — Sections A, B, and C." He glanced up at Monica, whose brow was furrowed with concentration. "You with me, here?" She nodded and he continued. "Okay, Section A is primary text stuff," he said, writing as he talked. "You tell me what texts and why — and I want a correlating bibliography appended at the end."

"Okay, right," Monica said. "I can do that."

"Next comes the theory," Blair said, forging ahead. "Section B — you need to show you've read the relevant theoretical texts so that when you come down to the field research here in Section C — " the phone rang and his head shot up, " — the committee is confident that you know what the hell you're doing. Hang on," he added, grabbing at the receiver. "Sandburg."

"It's me," Jim Ellison said. "I need you."

Blair raised a finger at Monica, who nodded and sat back in her chair. "What's up?" Blair asked.

Jim sighed. "I'm having a little trouble convincing the D.A. of our theory."

Blair rolled his eyes and slumped back in his chair. "Oh come on!" he complained.

"I've explained it to him," Jim said wearily, "but he thinks we need more proof."

"How can we have more proof?" Blair yelled down into the receiver. "For god's sake, Jim — " He stopped suddenly and looked up at Monica, who looked taken aback. "Hang on a second," he said to Jim and then covered the receiver with his hand. "Hey Mo — give me a minute?"

Monica nodded and grabbed the proposal and her handbag. "Sure thing, Dr. Sandburg." She slid out the door and shut it behind her gently.

"How the hell can we have more proof?" Blair hissed into the phone. "Our whole case against Lansing and Whitney depends on the fact that the mythical hitman Alexander Smith doesn't really exist. But there's no way we can prove he doesn't exist! It's a simple fact, Jim — you can't prove a negative! Believe me, if I could prove a negative, I'd quit all my fucking jobs and go to Sweden to collect my Nobel Prize in Mathematics!"

"I know, I know," Jim said glumly. "Look, I'm as pissed as you are, believe me."

"And while the D.A. dithers, Whitney and Lansing are going to get away," Blair argued. "They're the real hitmen, fergodsake!"

"Yeah, well that's just what I'm afraid of," Jim returned. "So I'm going over there — I thought maybe I'd have a little talk with them, try to shake something loose."

Blair exhaled nervously and wrapped the phone cord tightly around his index finger. "You realize that that could backfire," he cautioned.

"Yeah, I realize that that could backfire," Jim snapped back.

"If they don't know we're on to them now, they sure will after one of your 'little talks,'" Blair objected.

"Yeah, I know, I know," Jim said, suddenly sounding dejected. "But I don't know what else to do, Chief. They're gonna get away — I can't let them get away."

"I know," Blair murmured, sympathetically. "Okay, look — I'm with you. It's worth a try, anyway."

Jim sighed down the line. "Thanks, Blair. Meet me over there?"

"Yeah," Blair said, softly. "I'm on my way." He hung up the telephone and stood up, reaching around to pull his jacket off the back of his chair. "Monica!" he yelled, grabbing his satchel and rummaging through it for his gun, holster, and handcuffs.

The door opened and Monica stuck her head in. "Yeah?"

"Grab a pen," Blair said, sliding the holster on over his shirt.

Monica stared as Blair quickly checked his gun and stuffed it into his holster, then attached his handcuffs to his belt. "Monica," Blair repeated. "Pen," and she nodded quickly and grabbed a pen out of her bag.

"Section B," Blair said quickly, shrugging into his jacket. "Theoretical texts, correlating biblio at the back. Section C," he continued, swinging the satchel over his shoulder, "Field research: slow the hell down and explain exactly what you're going to do. Where you're going, what you're looking at, what's the time frame," and he was heading for the door now, "what kinds of records you'll be making — are you planning to keep logs, make tape recordings, shoot videocassette, do interviews, what?" and he was out of the office now and Monica stood next to him, scribbling furiously, as he shut and locked his office door. "You've got to tell the committee that, tell them everything, okay?"

Monica finished writing and looked up. "Okay," she said. "I got it. You think this will do it?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I think it's viable — the committee will pass it once you've jumped through the hoops. Okay, look, I've got to go," he said, backing up away from her. "E-mail me another draft, all right?"

"All right," Monica said. Blair turned and fled for the door, hearing her call after him, "Dr. Sandburg! Thanks!"

Blair raised his hand and waved back at her, then pushed through the side door of Hargrove Hall. He cut across the grass to the faculty parking lot, unlocked the Corvair and threw his satchel onto the back seat.

Buckling his seat belt, he shoved the key into the ignition and turned it: the Corvair produced only a weak-sounding rattle.

"God, no," Blair muttered. "Please. Not now." He stopped, took a deep breath, and then tried again, pumping the gas pedal a couple of times for luck.

This time the Corvair made a really horrible metallic grinding noise, and the goddamned engine still refused to catch. Blair swallowed hard, vowing not to freak out.

"Now, come on, sweetheart," he cajoled softly, caressing the top of the dashboard with his left hand. "Start for me, baby... Now, come on...come on..."

Again, he turned the key; again, nothing.

Blair gritted his teeth. "Now you listen to me!" he threatened. "I haven't got time for this, okay? You are going to start now!" He turned the key yet again and this time the Corvair sort of sputtered hopefully. "Come on!" Blair exhorted urgently. "You can do it — come on, you stupid piece of shit! I'll fucking sell you for parts!" — and then suddenly the engine roared into life.

Blair revved the engine gleefully, and then shifted into reverse and pulled out with a squeal of tires. "Great," he muttered to himself, pulling out of the lot onto the road. "My car's a masochist."

Blair drove faster than he should have down to Iron Enterprises, the company owned by their current suspects, James Whitney and Edward Lancing. Even going well past the speed limit, it took him twenty minutes to get there: Jim's truck was already in the lot.

Blair drove past the truck and pulled up near the building's entrance. He had just shifted the Corvair into park and was about to turn off the engine when suddenly he heard the sound of automatic gunfire, and suddenly the front picture windows of Iron Enterprises exploded outward, shattering in a cascade of glass and bullets.

Blair gasped and threw himself sideways onto the front seat just as a stray bullet smashed into the Corvair's windshield. Glass rained down onto him, and he raised his arms to cover his face and head.

One arm still protecting his face, Blair fumbled in his jacket for his gun, exhaling as his hand closed over its textured grip. Taking a deep breath, he silently counted "one, two, three" before bolting upright, gun pointed straight out the shattered front window, just in case.

A few yards in front of him, James Whitney fumbled with the door of a black Mercedes — and he was still carrying a semi-automatic rifle. For a heart-stopping moment, Blair was paralyzed with fear for his partner — and then he locked that emotion away and forced himself to be cold. Professional.


"Stop! Police!" Blair yelled from the front seat of the Corvair. Whitney turned to look at him — and then in one swift movement he brought up his gun and Blair immediately ducked down again, flattening himself against the front seat, jerking involuntarily at the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of rapid gunfire.

The car shook with the force of the shots, and, with a series of symphonic crashes, the back and side windows of the Corvair shattered. "Goddammit!" Blair thought, gritting his teeth — and then he hurled himself up again and fluidly returned fire.

But Whitney was already in the Mercedes, which turned out to be bulletproof — Blair's bullets ricocheted harmlessly off its tinted side windows and glossy black doors. And then the Mercedes' engine started up, revving powerfully, and the sleek black car lurched backwards, out of its parking spot.

Blair sat amidst the ruin of his car and felt gripped with fury. The goddamned criminals had better guns and better cars! — and he suddenly, vengefully, shifted the battered Corvair into drive and floored it.

The Corvair shot forward, sending broken glass flying backward off its trunk. Blair bore directly down upon the Mercedes, and braced himself as the Corvair smashed into the car's side.

The Mercedes jolted to a stop, and Blair grinned broadly and quickly shifted into reverse. The Corvair's tires spun furiously, not immediately gaining traction, and then the car flew backwards, the Mercedes quickly receding in front of him.

Blair waited, and watched, as the Mercedes sputtered and crept forward a few inches.

And then Blair grinned and floored the Corvair once again.

That did it: the Corvair smashed into the Mercedes again, and both engines simultaneously erupted in a cloud of steam. Blair leapt out of the dying Corvair, and raced toward the driver's side door of the Mercedes. He planted himself solidly and trained his gun on the driver's side door, gleefully conscious of the fact that the bulletproof windows were now protecting him.

"Police!" he yelled. "Throw down your weapon!"

Nothing happened for a moment, and then the driver's door opened a crack. "Throw down your weapon!" Blair repeated, and Whitney's hand appeared with the rifle — which he let fall down onto the concrete.

Blair stepped forward, and kicked the gun under the car. "Now come out with your hands up," he commanded, and the door opened wider, and a distraught looking James Whitney stumbled out, hands raised.

"Turn around," Blair ordered him, and Whitney turned obediently. Blair pushed him against the passenger door, and forced his legs apart; he then patted Whitney down roughly, finding another small pistol in his outside jacket pocket.

Blair pocketed the small pistol and then reached for his handcuffs and cuffed Whitney's hands behind his back. "Detective Ellison had better be okay," Blair muttering angrily, spinning Whitney around and shoving him back against the car. "He'd just better, you hear me?"

"Chief!" Blair turned at the sound and saw Edward Lancing stumbling out of the building with his hands atop his head. He was followed by a battered looking but very alive James Ellison. "I got Lancing."

"I got Whitney," Blair returned, rubbing vaguely at an oozing cut on his forehead. "So," he added with mock seriousness, "I take it your 'little talk' went well."

Jim grinned broadly. "Smashing. As always."

"Literally," Blair said under his breath. "As always."

Suddenly Jim blinked and the smile fell off his face as he stared over Blair's shoulder at the destroyed Corvair. "Jesus, Chief — what happened to your car?"

"That was good work." Simon Banks acknowledged some hours later. He closed the manila folder containing Ellison and Sandburg's report, and slid it back onto the conference table.

"Thanks, Simon," Jim acknowledged gruffly.

Blair was slumped forward across the conference table, resting his bandaged head on his outstretched arms: his head jerked up at the compliment. "How good?" he asked.

Simon narrowed his eyes at him. "Why?"

"Just asking," Blair answered.

Simon sighed, knowing that the answer was gonna cost him something. "Very good, okay?"

Blair grinned at him. "Very good?"

"All right — what do you want, Sandburg?" Simon asked, taking his glasses off and tossing them onto the table.

Blair tried to look innocent. "Who, me?"

"Yeah, you," Simon said. "Come on, spit it out, already — it's late." ." Blair coughed and then confessed: "I need a three day weekend."

"You need a three day weekend," Simon repeated tiredly. "What the hell for?"

"I gotta give a paper," Blair explained apologetically.

Jim turned to look at him. "What paper?"

"I got a last minute invitation to go to the I.S.A.S. seminar," Blair told Jim.

"So go give your paper," Simon said, reasonably. "How long could that possibly take? Even you can't talk that much."

"Har-de-har-har," Blair deadpanned, rolling his eyes.

"I.S.A.S.?" Jim queried. "What's I.S.A.S.?"

"Look," Blair said with a sigh, "the paper's only about twenty minutes long, but — "

"Great," Simon said brightly, sitting up. "You can have Saturday afternoon off. End of story."

Blair coughed. "Except that — uh...the seminar's in Chicago."

"Oh brother." Simon shook his head.

"What the hell's I.S.A.S.?" Jim repeated, crossing his arms.

Blair looked at him. "Institute for South American Studies."

"Oh, of course," Jim said, rolling his eyes.

Blair put on his most pathetic face. "Simon: I used to pretend that I was a cop, remember?" Simon had the good grace to wince. "Yeah, I know — those were the good old days. But now I really need to pretend that I'm an anthropologist, okay?"

Simon didn't say anything, and so Blair rushed on: "Simon, please? I'll pick up an extra shift sometime, I swear. And we already do plenty of overtime, Jim and me."

Simon still didn't say anything, and so Blair decided to unleash the big guns. "Look, Simon," he said, fixing the Captain in his chair with his eye, "I just lost my precious classic 1966 ChevroletCorvair  convertible over this case," and Simon groaned softly, perhaps sensing all was lost. "That car was three years older than I am, Simon," Blair continued relentlessly. "I've had that car for seven years, Simon. That car survived four years of Jim, Simon."

"Oh, god..." Simon closed his eyes.

"I loved that car, Simon," Blair said passionately. " I mean, I loved that car — "

"Okay, okay, okay!" Simon exclaimed. Jim rubbed at his face, hiding a smile behind his hand. "I surrender! Take a long weekend ! Hell — take the week — I'm sorry about your car! Jesus!"

"Thanks, Simon," Blair said gratefully. He stood up and made a vague but complicated gesture which Simon correctly understood as, "I'd hug you if I didn't think you'd slug me."

Simon made a face and waved him away. "You're welcome. Now get outta here — go the hell home!"

Jim stood up, taking Blair's arm. "I'd listen to the nice man, if I were you," he told his partner with a grin, steering him to the door of Simon's office. "Night, Simon!"

"Night, Jim," Simon returned.

"Goodnigh — " Blair began, but Jim shoved him through the doorway into the empty bullpen and pulled the door shut behind them.

Jim grinned at him. "Don't push it," he advised.

Blair grinned back. "You think I went too far?"

Jim's hand took off like an airplane. "Waaaay too far. As always."

"Okay, okay — I'm sorry," Blair said.

"Don't be," Jim said, tossing his copies of the paperwork onto his desk. "It's one of the things I like best about you."

Blair laughed. "No, you're right — I totally overdid it with the car stuff."

The smile fell off Jim's face. "Hey, I'm sorry about your car," Jim offered, sincerely.

Blair snorted. "Screw the car, man — I thought you'd been shot."

Jim looked blank for a moment, and then gave Blair a warm and totally unexpected smile. "So I guess you're gonna need a new car, huh?" Jim said, steering his partner toward the elevator.

"Yeah, I guess so," Blair mused as they walked. "I'm thinking GTO — or maybe an early Mustang..."

Jim chuckled softly and slowly shook his head no.

Blair blinked. "No?"

"No," Jim confirmed sweetly, stabbing the elevator button with his index finger. "I'm thinking that you'll get another gas-guzzling American deathtrap over my dead body."

"Oh come on!" Blair moaned, getting onto the elevator.

"I'm thinking safety features," Jim explained firmly. "I'm thinking like maybe a reinforced chassis and air bags."

Blair looked aghast. "You're not gonna stick me in a Saturn, are you?"

Jim grinned widely as he pressed the button for the garage floor; his blue eyes sparkled. "Hey, now there's an idea..."

"No, no, no, no," Blair protested. "Come on, man — there's gotta be some kind of compromise possible, here."

"I'm thinking Saab, I'm thinking Volvo — " Jim continued.

Blair covered his face. "You're thinking style-less, safe, European biscuit box on wheels..."

Jim snapped his fingers enthusiastically. "Exactly!"

"God help me," Blair groaned as the elevator doors opened.

"How about a Volkswagen?" Jim suggested as they walked toward the truck. "You're a Volkswagen kind of guy, aren't you?"

Blair made a face. "How about an MG?" he suggested hopefully.

"Fat chance," Jim said, yanking the door open.

Blair sighed as he got into the passenger seat. "Well, how about take-out, then?"

"Take-out I can agree to." Jim started the engine. "What kind?"

"Your call," Blair said magnanimously. "You're a grown-up — you can make your own decisions."

Jim shot him a sardonic glance. "Oh, yeah — nice try. "

Blair slumped back in his seat, defeated. "Well, it was worth a shot."

"What do you want to eat?" Jim asked, glancing at him.

"Oh, I don't care," Blair said, with a shrug. "Whatever you want."

"Whatever I want?" Jim asked.

"Yeah," Blair confirmed. "Even Won-der-bur-ger," he added, stretching the syllables out into a tease.

Jim's eyebrow shot up. "Well, hell, I oughta get there fast," he said, moving the truck into the right lane and clicking on the turn signal. "Before the aliens decide to exchange you for a normal person."

"Hey, I'm a normal person!" Blair protested.

Jim grinned at him. "Nah, you'd be studying them, Chief. It's supposed to be the other way around."

Blair laughed. "Be a great book, though, wouldn't it?"

Jim instinctively flung out an arm, holding Blair back against the seat as he turned sharply into Wonderburger's drive-through lane. "What do you want?" he asked, shifting into park.

"I'll have what you're having," Blair said, and so Jim rolled down the window and ordered them each a burger with fries and a large vanilla milkshake. The tinny voice repeated the order back, and then told them to drive up to the window to pay.

Blair pulled his wallet out. "Here."

"No, no," Jim protested. "You don't have to — you hate this shit."

But Blair was waving a twenty at him. "Man, I've got it," and so Jim took the twenty and paid for the food, hauling the paper bags into the car. Blair held the bags on his lap, and foraged surreptitiously for fries as Jim steered the truck back onto the road.

"So: am I invited to this I.S.A.S. thing?" Jim asked abruptly, eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead.

Blair blinked. "Why — do you want to come?"

"Well, am I invited?" Jim asked, irritably.

"Of course you're invited, you doof!" Blair exclaimed. "I didn't think you'd want to come!"

Jim glanced over at him. "Well, what made you think that?"

"Well — " Blair found himself momentarily lost for words. "I mean — it's a seminar, you know? Academics droning on and on..."

"Oh, yeah — like that's foreign territory," Jim snorted.

"You really want to come?" Blair asked incredulously.

"Well, what's it about?" Jim asked, reasonably.

Blair's eyebrows flew up. "What's it about?"

Jim rolled his eyes. "Yeah. What's it about? What's the seminar about?"

"Uh — well, it's sort of an environmental thing," Blair explained. "The impact of first world environmental policies on native cultures in South America."

Jim rolled his eyes and replied, dryly, "Uh-huh — well, that's a completely foreign topic to me. I mean, it's not like I'd have any interest in that."

Blair sighed and let his head fall back against the headrest. "All right, all right — -I'm sorry."

"I mean, it's not like I know anything about South America," Jim continued ironically.

Blair stared up at the truck's roof. "Ok, stop, already — you can come, I'd love you to come."

"I 'm not even sure where South America is," Jim deadpanned. "Is it south of America? Is there a good book I can read or something?"

"You want me to grovel, don't you?" Blair asked, closing his eyes.

"Oh yeah. Big time," Jim said.

"Okay — okay, I'm groveling," Blair said. "I'm an idiot, I'm a moron, I should have invited you straight off."

Jim glanced at him again. "Is that it? Is that the total grovel, there?"

Blair opened his eyes. "What, you want more?"

"I want a fucking engraved invitation, that's what I want," Jim said.

"How 'bout a french fry instead?" Blair suggested, pulling one out of the bag.

Jim shook his head. "I'm still waiting for my invitation."

Blair sighed theatrically and ate the fry. "Okay, okay," Blair said, and cleared his throat. "James Joseph Ellison — "

"Mister James Joseph Ellison," Jim corrected, pulling the truck up in front of 852 Prospect and switching the ignition off.

"Mister James Joseph Ellison," Blair amended. "is cordially invited to attend — "

"Cordially?" Jim queried.

"That's the language, right?" Blair asked. "That's what you say in an engraved invitation."

"Well, who's the invitation from?" Jim asked, turning to look at him.

Blair thought about that for a moment. "Well — me, I guess."

"So — cordially?" Jim pressed. "I mean — is that the word you'd use?"

"It's the word I'd use in an engraved invitation," Blair replied.

"Well, screw that," Jim said, opening the truck door. "I don't want you inviting me anywhere cordially. That's too fucking depressing."

"Picky, picky," Blair said, slamming the passenger door shut and following Jim to their building, carrying the take-out bags.

"Just think of another word," Jim said, holding the glass door open for him. "You're a smart guy."

"I still can't believe you want to come," Blair said, shaking his head.

Jim sighed and stabbed at the elevator button with his index finger. "Yeah, well: I do," he said, sounding vaguely annoyed. "I mean — it sounds nice, you know? A weekend in Chicago, and I get to hear your work, and maybe hear some other interesting stuff..."

"Jim," Blair said softly, feeling unaccountably moved.

Jim exhaled irritably and leaned against the wall. "And I'm kind of pissed that you didn't ask me," he confessed. "I mean — you get to do my cop stuff. Don't I get to do your prof stuff?"

Blair blinked. "Jim — of course."

The elevator arrived and they got in. "I mean — I know we're not equal in this," Jim admitted quietly. "You're a damn good cop...and I'm no scholar — "

"Jim!" Blair protested.

"But I pay attention to the things you tell me," Jim continued, staring down at the ground. "I mean, I'm interested — "

"Jim, stop — for god's sake!" Blair said, genuinely distressed. "Don't — I mean...that's not true, what you just said. That's totally not true."

"Hey, look," Jim said quickly, wanting to reassure his partner, "I just really want a weekend in Chicago, is all." He put on a gigantic grin. "I mean, can't we get Rainier to pay for it somehow? Don't I qualify as some sort of faculty spouse?"

The doors opened and Jim set off down the hallway toward 307. "Hey, don't joke about it," Blair chided, following behind. "You were saying something serious, there."

Jim stopped short at the front door and turned around, raising his hands. "Okay," he admitted. "I was saying something serious. But I'm serious about just wanting a weekend, too. I mean — I want all of it, okay? I want to go to the seminar — I don't get to hear a whole lot of intellectual conversation in my line of work, if you haven't noticed yet. Conversation tends to be more along the lines of: 'Drop it!' 'Fuck you, asshole!' Bang, bang!"

Blair nodded glumly. "Yeah, I noticed."

"And I also want to go to Chicago with you," Jim continued, looking away. "I'd like to get away from all this," he added, waving a hand at the hallway, at the loft, at Cascade, "for a while. And all right — I wouldn't really mind spending a weekend as a faculty spouse, either. I mean, you keep telling me how fucking liberal the academy is compared to the — "

Blair pressed forward suddenly and pushed Jim back against the wall, kissing him intently. Jim looked breathless when Blair pulled his mouth away. "You mean like that?" Blair asked, eyes twinkling. "Liberal like that?"

"Yeah," Jim said darkly. "Like that — are they liberal like that?"

"They're liberal like that," Blair confirmed.

Jim looked indescribably pleased and tried to cover it by growling, "You're crushing the fries. My fries."

Blair grinned at him and shoved the paper bags into his arms.

"So, is that it?" Jim asked, as Blair pulled his housekeys off his belt and unlocked the door. "One kiss, conversation over?"

"Yep," Blair said, holding the front door open for him. "One kiss — conversation over."

"No more talking?" Jim asked incredulously, putting down the bags of food and sliding tiredly into a kitchen chair.

"You've done all the talking," Blair said. "Eloquently. Which I can hardly believe, by the way."

"Well," Jim said, reaching into the bag for a handful of fries, "you keep telling me to express myself and everything."

"Yeah, but who knew you were listening?" Jim glared at Blair, who grinned and moved behind him to massage muscular shoulders.

"Can't help it," Jim said ruefully, leaning back into Blair's hands. "I've got these goddamned senses."

Blair opened his eyes in mock wonder. "Really? You know I might be able to help you with that."

"You think so?" Jim asked.

"Yeah," Blair replied, kneading Jim's tense muscles. "Maybe I can work up some tests..."

Jim moaned appreciatively at the massage. "So I'm going to Chicago, right?"

"Jim," Blair said firmly, "you are going to Chicago if I have to pack you in my luggage. Conversation closed, case over. Now gimme a burger."

That night, Blair lay in bed, staring up at the night sky through the skylight. The day's events were spinning through his head, keeping him up. Teaching. The shoot-out. The car. Jim wanting to be a faculty spouse...

Then again, it could have been the Wonderburger: it wasn't really sitting all that well.

Blair rolled over onto his side and looked at Jim. Jim was sprawled out on the bed beside him: his muscles were relaxed, he was breathing deeply. God, he was a good-looking man...

Blair propped himself up on his elbow and stared intently at Jim's face for a moment, then dropped his mouth to Jim's and kissed him gently.

Jim stirred vaguely but didn't wake up.

Blair whispered, "Jim?"

Jim mumbled incoherently and Blair kissed him again. Instinctively, Jim's lips parted for him; instinctively, Jim submitted.

"Jim, "Blair whispered again, "I can't sleep."

Jim didn't open his eyes. " 'bout a glass of warm milk?" he muttered.

Blair murmured back, "How 'bout you fuck me?" Jim groaned softly. "How about you just roll me over and — "

Jim suddenly moved with amazing swiftness, shoving Blair back down onto his back and pinning him to the mattress. "Oh, yes," Blair breathed. "Yeah, please — " and then Jim's mouth was on his mouth and Jim's hands were on his body.

He felt, as he always felt, that Jim was devouring him; he felt, sometimes, like he couldn't possibly withstand the intensity of Jim's lovemaking. Jim knew too much about him: Jim knew his body almost too well. Where to touch him, how to touch him, how often to touch him — Jim could immediately bring him to a shuddering climax, or keep him teetering on the edge of orgasm for hours.

A perk, Blair thought dreamily, as Jim's tongue trailed wetly across his jaw. A perk of the Sentinel thing. Hell, twenty five years of school was a small price to pay for this

He hissed as Jim's mouth closed around his nipple, as Jim's tongue rapidly flicked the silver nipple ring which pierced him there. God, that was so good — god, he could come from that alone. And Jim knew it — god, Jim was going to kill him...

Jim slowly brought him to full arousal — to the point where he was sweating and panting openly — and then Jim was tugging at the ring, tugging at it with his teeth, gently, rhythmically. He was losing his mind, he was losing it, he was going to come, Jim was making him come, Jim hadn't even touched his cock but he was going to come, anyway — come for Jim helplessly —

And then suddenly Jim raised his head and let the nipple ring slide out of his mouth. Blair moaned in protest; he'd almost been there, he'd been ready to come...

But now Jim was kissing Blair's stomach; Jim's soft lips were kissing down the line of hair that arrowed down from his chest to his belly, and continued down to his groin. Blair raised his hands to caress Jim's head — and Jim grabbed Blair's wrists and forcing them back down to his sides.

He knew then that Jim wasn't going to fuck him. Because recently Jim seemed to be really into sucking him off. Jim could spend hours at it lately — Jim and his penis were having some sort of weird relationship of their own.

As if to prove the point, Jim slid down further and began to hungrily lick at his erection. Blair sighed, and relaxed back into his pillows, wanting to enjoy every moment of it, however long Jim decided he would take before finally granting him release.

He'd be incoherent and weak before Jim was through with him...

And in the back of his mind, he knew that something was weird with this; in the back of his mind, a little voice was whispering that something wasn't quite right.

But — and Jim was gently sucking his balls now; Jim's hands were kneading his thighs and Jim was kissing his balls — he was only human forgodsake! If Jim had decided to spend the rest of his life giving him head — -well, hell, was he supposed to complain about it?

"Whhhha?" Blair lifted his head fuzzily; god, his ears were ringing. "Jim, man — turn off the alarm..."

"Not alarm," Jim returned groggily. "Phone."

The word didn't seem to make any sense at first: the loft was dark, the bedroom was dark, who the fuck would be calling at that hour? "Phone? Oh shit..."

Jim fumbled on the night stand and came up with the phone. "Ellison." He sat up, phone pressed to his ear, and listened intently. "Yeah, yeah, okay," Jim muttered after a minute. "We're coming. Give us a half an hour."

Blair groaned softly as Jim hung up. "We're coming?"

"Yeah," Jim confirmed, shoving the covers aside. "Brown and Rafe have got a body down at the morgue, but they're having trouble making an I.D. Simon wants us to take over the case — being that we've got the entire weekend off..."

"Goddammit," Blair muttered. "I can't win for losing."

"The prints haven't rung any bells, so far," Rafe sighed, leading Jim and Blair into the morgue. "That's the problem."

"I 'd rather have come right to the scene," Jim complained.

"Jim — there was nothing there, I swear," Brown insisted. "One dead lady on the concrete under the 7th street underpass. And nothing else."

Jim nodded grimly and entered the morgue first, holding the door open for Blair. He crossed to the covered figure on the metal gurney and pulled the sheet back.

"Oh, man!" Blair jumped, and whirled, waving his arms as if he could push the vision away. "You might have fucking prepared me for that!"

Rafe looked concerned and apologetic, but Brown just stared at him with mock-innocence. "Sorry — didn't we mention that her face had been blown off?"

"You're a sick bastard, Henry," Blair muttered, turning his back to them and taking a series of deep breaths.

"That's one of the problems with IDing her," Rafe explained. "Though I don't know what Simon expects you guys to do..."

"Chief, you okay?" he heard Jim ask.

"Yeah," Blair answered, turning around. "Yeah."

"Cause I could really use you over here," Jim said.

Blair exhaled nervously. "Okay. Okay." He went to stand behind Jim, trying not to look at the woman on the table.

"S'okay, Chief," Jim murmured. "You don't have to look — just hold onto me, keep me from zoning, okay?"

Blair frowned. "Why, you got something?"

"Maybe," Jim said vaguely, and despite his nausea, Blair was interested. He took another deep breath and casually rested his hand on Jim's back, trying to see what Jim was seeing.

"How old do you think she is?" Blair asked, swallowing hard. "Sixty?" Long strands of gray hair framed the obliterated face.

Jim shook his head. "Younger," he replied: he was staring at her hands. "I think she just let herself go gray — she's not that old." Jim's brow was furrowed with concentration — and then he was picking up the woman's left hand, staring at it closely.

Jim went statue-still, his pupils dilating as he stared at the woman's hand. Blair began to rub Jim's back gently, wanting to keep him grounded. Slowly, like a man in a trance, Jim moved his fingers over the woman's wrist.

"What?" Blair whispered, looking from the woman's hand to Jim's face and back. "What are you sensing?"

Jim's head jerked up and he let the woman's hand drop back onto the table. He turned, and saw Rafe and Brown looking at him expectantly. "I need to have a couple of words with my partner," he told them. "In private, okay?"

Rafe and Brown exchanged glances, and then shrugged. "Whatever, man," Brown said, following Rafe out. "It's your case now."

Blair turned to Jim eagerly the moment the door was closed. "What've you got?"

"Melissa," Jim said softly, with a grin.

Blair blinked. "Melissa?"

"Yeah," Jim confirmed. "Unless she's been wearing someone else's wristwatch. It was engraved on the back: 'Melissa and Eli, 7-8-74.' I could feel the indentation in her skin."

Blair grinned widely. "So I guess we put in phone call to records, huh?"

"Yeah," Jim said, pulling the sheet over Melissa's head. "Meanwhile — you had better come up with an good explanation for how I know this."

Blair sighed. "I always get all the shitty jobs."

Blair went off to pick them up some breakfast, and by the time he got back to the bullpen, Jim was leaning back in his desk chair and looking satisfied.

"Okay," Blair said, handing Jim a small paper bag, "spill it."

"Melissa Ostermann," Jim announced. "Widow of Eli Ostermann, who died back in 1980."

Blair perched on the edge of Jim's desk and pulled a coffee and an egg sandwich out of his own bag. "We got a current address?"

"Who's we, kimosabe?" Jim said, with a smirk. "I made about twenty-seven calls while you were out getting breakfast."

"I had to run an errand," Blair explained. "Figured there'd be no time later."

"Well, you're probably right about that," Jim said, reaching for his paper bag. "I figure we'll go over to Ostermann's apartment, see where that leads us — hey, what's this?" he asked, pulling out a white envelope along with his coffee and bagel.

Blair merely smiled as Jim opened the envelope. "Jesus, Chief — I didn't mean..." Jim seemed at a loss for words as he looked at the airplane ticket. "Chief, I woulda bought the ticket."

Blair glanced around the bullpen and then leaned forward and murmured, "No way — this weekend you're a faculty spouse."

Jim grinned and tucked the ticket into the pocket of his leather jacket. "Come on," he said to Blair. "We'll eat in the truck on the way over. If we don't clear this case by tomorrow, we ain't going nowhere this weekend."

"But no pressure or anything," Blair muttered.

Melissa Ostermann's apartment was in a run-down building in one of the worst areas of town. They walked down the graffittied hallway to the elevator, which was out of order.

"Looks like Mrs. Ostermann fell on hard times," Blair noted sadly as he opened the door to the stairwell.

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "Since the time of the watch, anyway. You don't put an engraving like that on a Timex."

They climbed the stairs to the sixth floor and then moved into the hallway, which stunk of mustiness and cat urine. Jim wrinkled his nose.

"Here," Blair said, stopping at the door. "6C."

Jim reached for the doorknob and frowned: the door was unlocked. He drew his gun and quickly shoved the door open.

"Gee," Blair said, surprised.

The one-room apartment was a mess. The walls were lined with bookshelves, the contents of which had been tossed carelessly onto the floor. The drawers of the desk and bureau were open, and the contents strewn everywhere.

"Well, someone was looking for something," Blair said, carefully stepping over the piles of books toward the desk.

"You sure?" Jim asked, looking around. "It looks just like your office."

"Funny," Blair said, making a face at him. He scanned the chaos and sighed. "Man, I don't even know where to start, here."

Jim crouched down and picked up a smashed picture frame. "Well, here's a photo of our victim," he said, straightening up.

Blair was looking at the books and papers on the floor. "Check out these books, man. Paine. Hegel. Marx. Kant. Locke. Mrs. Ostermann was heavy into political philosophy..." Jim handed him the smashed picture and Blair started. "Oh my god! Jim — I know this woman!"

Jim blinked. "You know her?"

Blair equivocated. "Well, I don't really know her, but I've seen her. She — " Blair waved his hand in the air, fumbling for an explanation. "She was this crazy lady," he began. "I mean — not crazy, just — " Blair stopped short, and then started again. "A lot of weird people hang out around a university. They hang out at the student bookstore, go to campus rallies, that sort of thing. They turn up at all the free lectures and live off of the catering afterwards, you know? Like you see them sticking brie and crackers into their pockets..."

Jim frowned. "And Mrs. Ostermann was one of those?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah. She was a sort of socialist-feminist-poet-type person. You'd see her handing out copies of the Socialist Weekly, or sitting on a bench reading , and sort of mumbling to herself..." Blair shook his head. "I think she was working on some sort of new-age manifesto. She had this plastic shopping bag full of paper that she lugged around with her."

"Okay," Jim said, trying to make sense of this. "So you're saying that Mrs. Ostermann was a sort of university hanger-on?"

"Yeah," Blair confirmed. "I don't think she was stupid, just — well — just sort of deranged, in a weird intellectual sort of way. "

"Okay," Jim said. "So why kill her? Why is she dead?"

Blair thought about this. "Maybe she saw something she wasn't supposed to see," he suggested, snapping his fingers. "I mean, she was always hanging around — maybe she was a witness to — "

He stopped, because Jim was shaking his head. "That doesn't fit," Jim said. "I mean — look at this place. Like you said, someone was looking for something."

Blair nodded in agreement. "Well..." he said, trying again, "maybe she found something that somebody wanted. I mean, like I said — she was only one step up from a bag lady. Maybe she picked up something valuable somewhere — in the trash, or in one of the university buildings..."

"Could be," Jim conceded, looking around the wrecked apartment. "Whatever it is, though — it's probably not here. If it was here, they would have found it, and there wouldn't have been any reason to kill her."

Blair kicked at some of the rubbish on the floor. "How do we look for something when we don't even know what it is?"

"We don't," Jim answered. "We need more information." He pulled out his cell phone and called into the station, requesting that a unit be sent down to secure the Ostermann apartment, then turned to Blair. "Let's go talk to the neighbors."

"You talk to the neighbors," Blair said. "I'm gonna cab it over to Rainier, ask a few questions there."

Jim nodded. "Okay. Check in with me in an hour."

"Gotcha," Blair said, making his way out the door.

"Ellison," Jim said, pressing his cell phone to his ear.

"Yo," Blair said, falling into the desk chair in his office. "What'd you get?"

"The rumor is that she was dealing to support herself and to raise money for the 'movement', whatever that was," Jim said.

"Yeah, that's what I got, too," Blair said. "Apparently she had more in that plastic bag than just paper. Off the record, I got one or two students to admit that they bought drugs from her. Thing is, Jim — if she was dealing, well....wouldn't she have a slightly nicer apartment?"

"She wasn't big time, Chief," Jim said, pushing out the front door of the Ostermann building and crossing to the truck. "I think you've pegged her. In her own weird way, she seems to have been a moral idealist — just selling enough dope to keep herself in books and paper. And then something went wrong — "

"You think she got greedy?" Blair asked.

"I dunno," Jim said. "She doesn't strike me as the type."

"Well, I've had a thought," Blair said, sitting forward.

"Oh yeah?" Jim asked. "Shoot."

"Well, I still don't know exactly what we're looking for," Blair said, "but I think I know where it might be."

Jim laughed and started the truck's engine. "Oh, you do, do you?"

"Yeah," Blair said. "I think I know something that Melissa's drug connections didn't know."

"And what might that be?" Jim asked.

"Come pick me up and I'll tell you," Blair said, dropping the phone back into its cradle.

Jim picked Blair up in front of Hargrove Hall and looked surprised when Blair told him they were going to the Cascade Public Library.

"Okay, here's the thing," Blair explained as Jim drove. "See, most big reference libraries have lockers, cubicles, or small offices that they'll assign to independent scholars on a first come, first serve basis. I mean, you need to prove that you need one, that you're doing some sort of intellectual work, right? — but if you can prove that, then you can get one, for free. " He glanced at Jim and Jim nodded, showing that he understood. "Anyway, I bet that Melissa Ostermann had one."

"I bet you're right," Jim agreed.

"And it's a perfect place to stash stuff." Blair laughed softly, and then added, "Or even to stash yourself. I had one for a while — I slept there for a month before I found the warehouse." A look of mock-guilt flashed across his face.

"Sounds like the perfect place for you," Jim mocked. "Cheap, centrally located, and with hot and cold running books. I'm surprised you moved."

"Well," Blair explained, "you gotta remember that the books were the only thing running hot and cold. After a month of showering at the University gym, I was ready to trade it in for a warehouse full of rats."

Jim shot him an amused glance. "And then you got a better offer, right?" Jim joked. "No rent, nice view, and hot and cold running crooks." Blair felt the smile fall off his face, but Jim didn't seem to notice. "Or should I be honest and say you got one hot and cold running Sentinel?" Jim took his right hand off the wheel and tugged affectionately at Blair's hair.

Jim was still laughing at his own joke as he pulled up in front of the Cascade Public Library, and he was out of the truck before Blair had even realized that they'd stopped.

A few words with the head reference librarian confirmed that Melissa Ostermann did in fact have a cubicle at the library. The librarian offered to escort them there, but Jim waved her off, explaining that they'd prefer to check it out for themselves.

Key in hand, Blair led the way toward the row of opaque yellow-glassed doors which enclosed the small offices. He stopped in front of number five, looked at Jim for reassurance, and then unlocked the door.

The small space was wood-paneled, like the rest of the library, and sparsely furnished. One small bookshelf. One wood desk. One wood chair. One electric typewriter.

Blair stepped over to the desk and inspected the pile of paper next to the typewriter as Jim shut and locked the door behind them. "Oh, lord," Blair said, with a soft laugh. "Dig this: 'It Can Happen Here: Neo-Marxism and the Real American Dream.'"

Jim shook his head and began a more thorough search of the desk. The drawers contained nothing but notes and office supplies: all except the central one, which was locked. Jim unbent a paper clip and shoved it into the keyhole: a moment later he had the drawer open.

"Bingo," Jim said, raising his head to look at Blair.

Blair blinked as Jim pulled two bank-wrapped bundles of cash out of the center drawer and tossed them onto the surface of the desk. "That's it?" Blair said, surprised. "I mean — that's nothing. What is that — five thousand dollars? What kind of meshugana kills a woman for five thousand dollars?"

But Jim had pulled some slips of paper out of the drawer and was flipping his way through them. "Not five thousand, Chief," he said, vaguely, then tossed one of the slips down onto the desk. "United Socialist Workers — fifty thousand." Another slip. "Jewish Defense League — fifty thousand. Howard University — fifty thousand. "

Blair slowly sat down in the wooden desk chair. "Oh shit..."

"World Environmental Federation — fifty thousand. And a dozen more, Chief. Donations," Jim concluded, throwing the rest of the slips down. "And she kept the receipts."

"Well, of course she kept the receipts," Blair snorted, slumping back in the chair. "She was probably gonna file it all on her goddamned tax returns like the good citizen she was."

"Cascade's very own Robin Hood," Jim said, with a grin. "Mrs. Ostermann took from the rich and gave to the poor."

"Yeah," Blair muttered. "And then the rich blew her face off with a shotgun." He sighed. "Well, this is just great," he added, crossing his arms and exhaling, irritably. "So what do we do now — check the serial numbers? We've still got a few bills left..."

But Jim was shaking his head. "Nah, I've got a better idea," he said, checking his watch. "What time's the library open till?"

"Ten," Blair answered immediately, tucking his hair behind his ears. "Why?"

"Plenty of time, then," Jim said, with a grin. "Let's call the evening news — we'll have this case wrapped up by tomorrow, yet."

They sat, along with Brown, Rafe, Megan, and Taggert around the conference table in Simon Bank's office, watching the six o'clock news.

The screen broadcast a blurry shot of the 7th Street underpass, and then one of the photos of Melissa Ostermann that they'd found in her apartment. A pleasant looking lady in her late forties, with a mane of gray hair.

"...the victim has been identified as Melissa Ostermann, of 459 Durilla Street," the bland voice-over intoned. "Ms. Ostermann was a familiar figure in Cascade's intellectual circles..." A shot of the Cascade Art Museum, a shot of the impressive facade of the Cascade Public Library, and then a lingering shot of the Rainier campus. "...and was often to be found at Rainier University, where she participated in a wide variety of campus events."

Cut to a shot of a two clean-cut undergraduates wearing Rainier sweatshirts, standing near Hargrove Hall. "I used to see her all the time," one of the boys said blankly. "She helped me pass my politics midterm. I can't believe she's dead." The other nodded in earnest agreement.

Blair grinned as they cut to a long shot of the Cascade Public Library, and then to the head reference librarian they had spoken to earlier, who was standing outside the long corridor of cubicles. "Mrs. Ostermann was one of our regular patrons," she said, the light of the cameras glinting off her glasses. "She was working on a book, I believe. She was a very nice woman and I can't imagine why anyone would want to kill her." She grew thin-lipped and said, "I think it's shocking."

Dull voiceover guy came back as the camera cut back to the same shot of the 7th Street Underpass. "Police are currently seeking information on this case. If you have any information that might help the police, call 1-800-CRIMETIP."

"And now here's Phil with the weather..."

Simon snapped the television off, and Blair craned his neck to look at Jim. "You think it was too subtle?"

Jim laughed. "Only you would think that was too subtle. Believe me, if they've got any brains at all, they'll be smacking their heads and hauling ass to the library."

Simon Banks was nodding his agreement. "So — does everybody know what they're doing?" He looked around the table searchingly.

Blair nodded quickly and raised his hands. "I'm heading for the library."

Megan said, "I'm coordinating the SWAT team — we'll be ready, Simon."

Rafe said, "I'll be waiting at Russell Street."

Jim said, "I'm going with Joel and Henri."

Simon nodded, apparently satisfied. "Okay, I'll be coordinating communications from an unmarked vehicle. Go get into position." The detectives stood up and filed out of the office, and Simon added in a yell, "Everybody remember to pick up your wires, for god's sake!"

Blair had to keep reminding himself that he wasn't actually reading this book. He kept getting drawn in: the whole scene was just too damn familiar for comfort. The dark paneled wood of the reading room, the long tables, the soft amber glow of the lamps interspersed every few feet, the soft shuffle of bodies and feet. His life used to be like this before Jim came along. Hell, some minutes he felt like he'd spent his life locked away in endless libraries, one very like another....

He shoved the book away and glanced at his watch. God, they'd been oversubtle after all, he thought glumly, rubbing at his weary eyes. Who said criminals had brains? Or watched their TV sets?

But just then a young woman wearing a long black overcoat walked up the aisle, heading for the cubicles. Blair yanked the book back and tried to look like the overworked graduate student he used to be.

As undercover personas went, this one was a walk in the park.

The woman casually strolled to cubicle number five, pulled out a key, and let herself in. Key, Blair thought excitedly. She's got a key — she's got Melissa Ostermann's key...

He got up and shoved the book into his knapsack. Didn't want her to know she was being followed — he'd let her follow him out of the library. He headed for the door out of the reading room, and sure enough — she was back there, behind him.

Except now she was carrying a backpack over her shoulder.

Blair smiled inwardly, feeling proud. Jim had come up with the plan, but the backpack idea was his. Wherever Simon Banks was, he was getting a little red blip on his screen.

And now the red blip would be moving.

Blair walked down the huge marble staircase to the lobby and pushed out of the single revolving door. Once outside, he quickly spoke into the mike concealed underneath the "peace" button on his jacket. "Suspect female, twenty-five to thirty years of age, long blond hair, ponytail, black overcoat."

He scanned the area absently and then saw — because he was looking for it — a black clad figure sliding underneath a beaten-up blue Toyota parked down the block. Blinking, he crossed the street to the bus-stop, noting peripherally that back-pack girl had come out of the library behind him, and was heading down the street toward her car.

Hurryup hurryup hurryup! he thought, trying to look casual. Backpack girl was approaching, and he still hadn't seen the black-clad figure come out from under the vehicle. One of Megan's SWAT guys, he thought, crossing his fingers. Come on, man — get out of there.

But hell — -back-pack girl was at the car, now — she was unlocking the door, and sliding into the driver's seat. Blair flinched as she slammed the door shut, and nervously waited to see what would happen.

The car's lights flipped on, and then the car gave a horribly whinnying sound. Blair stifled a grin, and stared at the concrete sidewalk.

What goes around comes around, baby.

Again the blue Toyota whinnied — again, it failed to start. And then backpack girl got out of the car and slammed the door angrily. She glared at her car, muttering curses under her breath, and then crossed the street diagonally to the bus-stop.

Blair kept his face carefully neutral as she approached; they exchanged disinterested glances. The woman took a few steps into the street and craned her neck to look for the bus. After a minute or so she came back onto the sidewalk, and Blair looked down the road where she had been looking.

And then the woman surprised him by speaking to him. "It's coming," she said.

It was coming. The city bus pulled up at the stop, and the woman turned to Blair and said, "You haven't got any change, have you?"

Shit! Blair thought wildly. Shit, damn, motherfucker! Change — Jesus, they hadn't planned for that. He had enough change for himself, but it hadn't occurred to them that the suspect might need change. Blair searched his jacket pockets — nothing! — and then wormed his hand into his front jeans pocket.

Quarters. Oh, thank god.

"Yeah," he said, calmly. "I've got it." She handed him a dollar and he gave her four quarters.

"Thanks," she said, as the pneumatic doors opened with a whush.

She boarded the bus, dropped the four quarters into the machine, and found herself a seat. Behind her, Blair paid for his own ride and barely glanced at Joel Taggert, who reached for the lever to shut the doors.

Blair steadied himself against a pole as the bus lurched into motion. It was relatively late: there weren't many people on this bus at this hour. Backpack girl was sitting in a two seater sort of in the middle. Henri Brown was sitting across from her, wearing a Walkman — hell, he could hear the Hendrix blasting from here.

And at the back of the bus, Jim Ellison was wearing a baseball jacket and reading a newspaper.

Blair considered where to sit and then thought — what the hell — and sat down next to backpack girl. She looked up at him and almost smiled. "Hey," he said.

"Hey," she returned.

"Lucky to get this bus," Blair offered. "Service sucks at night."

"Yeah," she agreed. "They're cutting a lot of city services, lately. "

Blair smiled: Jesus, was everyone involved with this case an incipient political activist?

The bus slowed down for the next stop. Three people got on: a gum chewing teenager (civilian, Blair thought grimly), an elderly black man (civilian), and Megan Connor.

Next to him, Backpack girl started to chuckle softly. Blair glanced at her and she murmured, "Man, dig that outfit." Blair laughed aloud: backpack girl was talking about Megan, who was wearing one of the hot-pink concoctions that Simon Banks had banned at the station.

"Hey, it goes with the shoes," Blair muttered back, and Backpack girl grinned.

"You gotta wonder what people are thinking," she said softly, as Megan walked past them to take a seat. Blair blew out a nervous breath and then put his smile back on; hell, he knew what the person in question was thinking — she was wondering where the hell her SWAT team was.

The bus didn't slow at the next two stops: nobody wanted to get on or off. As they approached the next stop, Henri Brown yanked the chain and rang the bell: he got off the bus's back entrance just as Rafe got on at the front. Rafe paid his fare and slumped down in the first seat in a very un-Rafe like posture.

Blair sighed with relief as the elderly black man got off next: that was one less civilian in the middle of this mess. He glanced over at the gum-chewer, who was staring out the window, apparently oblivious. Good. Good.

And then backpack girl began to fidget in her seat. "Next stop's mine," she said, reaching up to pull the cord. Blair nodded and got up, so that she could get out into the aisle. She hovered next to him, holding onto the strap as the bus slowed and pulled over. "Nice talking to you," she said.

"Yeah," Blair returned. "You too."

She flashed him a smile and began to work her way down the bus to the front door. Blair glanced backwards, and saw that Jim had folded up his newspaper. Megan was standing, too.

Taggert pulled the bus to a stop and opened the door, and backpack girl hopped off. Jim and Megan exited through the back door and then headed off in different directions: Megan walked off in one direction while Jim followed the woman with the backpack.

Blair watched through the window as the woman turned up a sidestreet and disappeared. And then he leapt out of his seat and said, "We're on!" to Rafe.

Rafe drew a gun out of his shoulder holster and nodded. "So what do we do — do we go now?"

"Not yet," Blair said, pulling out his own gun and hovering by the open door. "We wait for — "

And then there was the sound of distant gunfire.

" — that," Blair finished, and barreled down the bus stairs.

He ran flat out toward the sound of commotion with Rafe at his back. And then he saw the scene ahead: under Megan and Jim's supervision, the SWAT team was herding a group of young men out of a building at gunpoint, forcing them to spread-eagle themselves against the outside wall. "Move it, move it!" Megan yelled; one of the SWAT members shepherded backpack girl past her, and Megan ripped the backpack off her shoulder.

The woman turned to stare at Megan in her pink outfit, and then looked past her and saw Blair. Her stunned expression gave way to a snarl. "You asshole!" she cried at Blair. "You fucking asshole!"

Blair felt oddly ashamed. "Hey, I'm sorry," he replied softly, and he was.

It was early morning when they were finally allowed to go home.

"Way to go, Chief," Jim snorted, glancing across the cab of the truck. "Trust you to chat up the suspect."

Blair rolled his eyes. "I wasn't chatting her up," he protested. "I mean, she'd seen me in the library — it made more sense to talk to her than to ignore her."

"Yeah, yeah," Jim said.

"And plus, I got us a few extra seconds lead time, didn't I?" Blair argued. "I mean, she was nice enough to tell me when she was getting off."

"I'll tell you where to get off," Jim said, sarcastically.

"You are kidding, aren't you, Jim?" Blair asked, worriedly. "You're not seriously having some sort of whacko jealousy moment, are you?"

"Talk to the hand," Jim said, raising his palm to Blair — and Blair laughed, now sure that Jim was yanking his chain.

He batted Jim's hand down. "You jerk."

Jim grinned at him. "What time does the plane leave?"

Blair sighed. "Eleven."

The grin fell off Jim's face as he glanced down at his watch. "Shit."

"Yeah," Blair agreed sadly. "Well — we can grab a catnap now, and then I suppose we can sleep some on the plane."

"Maybe you can," Jim said. "It's pretty fucking loud on a plane."

"You can dial it down," Blair countered, and Jim looked at him hopefully.

"You think?"

"Yeah, sure," Blair said, waving a dismissive hand in the air. "I'll help you."

"That would be great," Jim mused, grabbing Blair's hand and bringing it idly to his lips. "Presuming we wake up in time."

"We'll set the alarm real loud," Blair suggested.

They got home and wearily dragged themselves into the lobby, into the elevator, into the loft. Jim headed immediately for the sofa and sat down hard. "Go ahead, Chief — you take the bathroom first."

Blair nodded and went to wash up. Hell, they'd done it, he thought as he brushed his teeth. They'd closed a murder case in less than twenty-four hours! Now they could enjoy Chicago with a clear conscience — even Simon Banks could have nothing to say about that.

Blair raised his head from the basin and grinned at himself in the mirror. "Jim," he said using a normal tone of voice, knowing that Jim would hear him, "we did good today, huh? Pretty fucking good, if I say so myself." He dropped his toothbrush back into its holder. "In fact, I just did say so myself," he added, giving himself a final winning smile before wandering out into the living room.

"Simon's gotta be happy with today — right?" Blair asked.

Jim didn't answer: Blair moved closer to the sofa and saw that Jim had stretched out and fallen asleep, still wearing his jacket. Blair laughed softly and reached for the afghan draped across the sofa back. He gently covered Jim's sleeping body, careful to tuck the fabric up around Jim's neck: when it was cold, Jim often complained of a sore neck.

He bent down and dropped a kiss on Jim's cheek. "Goodnight, old man," Blair whispered, and then headed up the loft steps to bed.

Jim was shaking him, Jim was shaking him, and as Blair came to consciousness he suddenly heard the loud BEEP BEEP BEEP of the alarm and that brought him right the fuck awake.

"Shit!" he yelled, sitting up.

"Exactly," Jim replied, smirking at him from the side of the bed.

"Oh, shit shit shit!" Blair leaped out of bed and ran over to the closet.

"It's okay," Jim assured him. "We're gonna make it! Don't worry!"

"But I haven't even packed!" Blair yelled, grabbing his dufflebag from the bottom of the closet and hurling it onto the bed. He moved quickly to the bureau and yanked out the bottom drawer, which contained all of his heaviest sweaters as well as a collection of woolen scarves and gloves. Then Blair pulled the drawer out entirely and lugged it over to the bed.

He quickly transferred the sweaters, scarves, and gloves into his dufflebag. "God almighty, Chief," Jim said, laughing heartily. "When your Mommy taught you how to bundle up for the winter, you were really taking notes, weren't you?"

"Up yours," Blair retorted. "Windy City, man! When a town calls itself the Windy City, you prepare accordingly! It's not the Pleasantly Climated City or the Cool For This Time Of Year City — it's the fucking Windy City. That's the nicest way they could think of to phrase it. That's what's on the damn brochure. If there were any truth in advertising they would call it the Freeze Your Ass Off City, but they don't, because they need the tourist trade."

Jim raised his hand in an acknowledgment of defeat and stood up. "I'll make you some coffee," he said, and then muttered, "Decaffeinated," as he headed down the stairs.

"I heard that!" Blair called after him.

Blair ended up taking so long that Jim had to put the siren on in order for them to get to the airport on time.

And then, of course, the plane was delayed.

"Oh, that figures," Blair said, throwing himself down into one of the airport chairs. "That's always the way — hurry up and wait."

Jim sat down next to him and stretched out long legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Chill out, Chief. We're on vacation. Enjoy the view," he added, waving a hand at the bustle of airport life in front of them.

"I hate the view," Blair grumbled. "I hate this airport. I keep thinking that a plane is gonna crash out of the sky — it gives me the heebee-jeebies."

"Oh, yeah, right — as opposed to your normally calm and tranquil self?"

"Shut up."

"Here," Jim said, pulling a couple of dollars out of his jacket pocket. "Go walk off some of that nervous energy and get me a cup of coffee and a donut."

Blair exhaled and waved the money away. "I got it. What kind?"


"Right," Blair said, getting to his feet. "Just wait here."

"I ain't moving," Jim said, sliding further down in his chair and tugging his baseball cap down over his eyes.

The flight had finally shown up on the monitors by the time Blair returned. He kicked gently at Jim's legs, and Jim looked up at him expectantly.

"Here's your coffee," Blair said, handing him the paper cup. "And here's your donut. "

"Took you long enough," Jim snorted, sitting up.

And here's a Chicago Tribune for the plane," Blair continued. "And here's a little present from me," he added, handing Jim a small plastic shopping bag.

"What did I do this time?" Jim asked, frowning.

"You didn't do anything," Blair said, sitting down with his own coffee. "I did. I've been a pain in the ass this morning. This is your consolation prize for living with a pain in the ass."

Jim grinned at him. "What — that's it? This is all I get for living with a pain in the ass?"

"Talk to the hand," Blair said, raising his palm to Jim.

Jim laughed and opened the plastic bag. "Awwwww, Chief. It's the new Santana album."

"Yeah, it's a miracle — he's actually collaborating with some people under forty," Blair returned, with a grin. "Perhaps we can gradually ease you into the nineties before they're over."

"You're just jealous that you missed the sixties and most of the seventies," Jim retorted, ripping off the plastic wrap and cracking open the tape case. "I've always thought that it was particularly apt that there was a man on the fuckin' moon when you were born." He scanned the lyric sheet and then snorted, "Everlast? What kind of stupid name is that?"

Blair sighed. "Okay — well, maybe we can get you into the eighties..."

A voice came over the airplane intercom system and announced that the delayed 11:00 flight to Chicago was now boarding at Gate 16. They glanced at each other and then got up to move to the correct gate.

Finally, they got on line to board. Jim insisted that Blair take the window seat, and so Blair gave in, knowing that that would both satisfy Jim's protector impulse, and allow him to stretch his much longer legs into the aisle.

"Belt, Chief," Jim muttered.

Blair sighed and fastened his seatbelt. "This is like some weird revenge for not having had a dad."

Jim shuddered theatrically. "Chief, if I were your dad, we'd both be on Jerry Springer right now, so just don't go there."

Blair laughed, and abruptly the lights on the plane went off. People fell silent as the plane slowly moved across the tarmac to take it's place on the runway. Blair quickly reached down and pulled a Walkman out of his backpack. "Here," he said, stuffing it into the seatpocket in front of Jim. "In case you need it, okay? I'm gonna try to take a nap — wake me if you want me. Okay?" he added, looking at Jim for confirmation.

"Okay," Jim said, and Blair nodded and settled back in his seat, stuffing the tiny white airport pillow between his head and the airplane wall. The plane suddenly picked up speed, and with his eyes still closed he reached out for Jim. He squeezed the strong, denim-clad leg gently, reassuringly, as the plane took off and they were flung up into the air.


Jim sighed, and tried to relax — dammit, he hated to fly. When exactly he had started feeling that way? It was obviously a Sentinel thing — a post-Sentinel thing, to be exact. He hadn't minded flying before the senses, but now — well, you just didn't wanna hear every tick and whistle on a goddammed airplane. Jim exhaled irritably: each creak and wheeze had him wondering if they were going down.

He glanced over at Blair, who was fast asleep next to him. Sleeping peacefully, like they weren't 30,000 feet off the ground in a shuddering airplane — hell, he could feel the vibrations moving up his spine, straight into his skull. And suddenly there was a groaning, clanking sound from deep in the plane — normal plane noises, these were normal plane noises...

The wires of Blair's Walkman were dangling out of the seat pocket in front of him. "In case you need it," Blair had said — shit, the kid had thought of this: the kid had thought of everything. He patted his pocket idly, feeling the square shape of the Santana cassette, and then pulled it out and reached for the Walkman. Blair's affection was always practical: Blair's affection had a serious impact on his fucking quality of life.

He slid the tape into the machine, pulled the padded earphones over his ears, and pressed PLAY.

Well hell, he thought, genuinely pleased. Who knew? — the guy could still play. He closed his eyes and listened, getting lost in the expressive sounds of Santana's guitar. Now if those damn grunge kids would only stop whining. He stifled a grin, wondering if he could use what Blair had taught him to filter out the vocal track.

God, the guitar sounds were gorgeous: a fucking tapestry of sounds. The guy sure knew how to make the most of his instrument: the melody lines were tangible, he could almost touch them...

"...jim?... Jim?... Come on, man. Come home to me. Come on, now. Jiiiiim...." and he opened his eyes with a start and there was Blair, staring at him, shaking him gently.

He blinked and looked around the plane: it was empty. Two stewardesses hovered a few feet down the aisle, trying hard not to stare. He turned back to Blair, feeling confused.

"We're here, man. We've landed. We've disembarked — well, we haven't, but everyone else has," Blair explained.

Jim frowned. "It's over?"

"Over, gone, finito," Blair confirmed, nodding. "Thank you for flying — now move it, already!"

Jim stumbled to his feet: his back and legs were stiff. Hell, could they make those goddamned seats any smaller?

"Come on, come on," Blair murmured, pushing past him and heading down the aisle. "Thank you!" Blair called cheerily to the nervous-looking stewardesses. "We're going now!"

The two women exchanged loaded glances. "Uh, well, thank you for flying with us."

"You're welcome," Jim said gruffly, pushing past them.

Blair was waiting for him in the empty corridor just outside the plane, and he was laughing softly. "Oh man, oh man! I can't believe you spent the whole flight zoned."

Jim grinned at him and stretched his arms up over his head. "It's the only way to fly, Chief. Actually, I feel pretty good: rested and relaxed and — "

"Well, good," Blair interrupted, "because we've got to get the bags, and pick up the rental car, and find — "

Jim took a step forward and silenced him with a deep kiss. Blair returned it for a moment, and then pulled back quickly, looking nervously up and down the empty corridor.

"Jim," Blair began, but Jim interrupted him.

"This is Chicago, right?"

Blair swallowed. "Well, yeah."

"And no one knows us here, right?"

Blair's eyes grew wide. "Uh — well — I guess n — "

So Jim yanked Blair close for another kiss. And this time Blair didn't pull away; this time Blair's arms came up around his back. And when Jim broke the kiss, Blair's eyes were glittering and oh so blue.

"Hell-o, Chicago," Blair murmured with a grin, pulling Jim's mouth back to his.

So they got the bags and found the car, which turned out to be a very nice 1999 blue Ford Taurus. Alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, cruise control — but Blair seemed deeply disappointed as handed his credit card over to the rental agent.

Jim took one look at Blair's depressed expression and supposed he'd have to give a bit on the car thing. He couldn't have poor Blair wasting away from automotive melancholia.

But if the car didn't meet Blair's expectations, the hotel sure seemed to. The Chicago Hilton was 48 stories tall, and the plushness of the huge lobby augured well for the comfort of the rooms above.

Jim watched as Blair surveyed the bustling lobby excitedly and then dropped his bags down next to an armchair. "Okay," Blair said to Jim, "just hang out here with the stuff: I'm gonna go check us in."

Jim nodded patiently and put his bag down next to Blair's. "Okay. fine," he said, and sat down. He steepled his fingers in front of his face and watched as Blair chatted amiably with the concierge and filled out paperwork.

Blair returned a few minutes later, looking pleased with himself. "I got us an upgrade," he announced.

"I know," Jim said.

Blair's face fell. "You were listening," he accused.

"Yep," Jim said, smugly.

Blair looked at him suspiciously. "Did you hear the desk clerk say you were cute?"

"Yep," Jim said, one corner of his mouth turning up.

Blair tried to look stern. "And?" he pressed, crossing his arms. "What else?"

"And I agree," Jim said, standing up and slinging his bag over his shoulder. "I'm very cute."

Blair laughed and rolled his eyes. "You're really gonna enjoy yourself on this trip, aren't you?"

"Oh, hell, yes," Jim replied, grinning. He raised his hand and waved facetiously across the lobby at the desk clerk, who grinned and waved back to him.

Blair grabbed his bag in one hand and Jim's arm in the other, then dragged them both toward the elevators. "See — this is what repression gets you," he mumbled under his breath. "Apply enough pressure and even the strongest shell eventually cracks."

"Shit," Jim said, admiringly.

"Yeah," he heard Blair answer. "It's a hell of an upgrade, no?"

The hotel room wasn't a room, really — it was almost a suite. A huge king-sized bed in the middle, surrounded by rich mahogany furniture, and then a large living room area, complete with sofa and armchair and coffee table.

"Whoo-hoo!" Blair flung himself over the sofa back and landed on the paisley cushions with an "oof."

"Very mature," Jim noted, taking his jacket off and hanging it up in the closet.

"Hey, come on — this rocks!" Blair said, sitting up and swinging his legs onto the floor.

"All right," Jim allowed. "It rocks. Whoo-hoo," he deadpanned, and sat down on the other side of the couch. "Please tell me that Rainier's paying for this."

"La la la la la," Blair said, covering his ears. "I can't hear you. So listen: here's my suggested plan, okay? It's nearly seven, and there's a roundtable tonight at 8:30 that I want to go to — it's the opening event of the conference. So let's clean up, order room service, rest up for a bit, and then go down, okay?" Blair stopped suddenly and added, "Or, obviously, you can stay here if you want. You don't have to go."

"I want to go," Jim said. "I told you I wanted to go."

"Okay, cool. Just checking." Blair reached out and snatched the hotel's dining guide off the coffee table in front of them. "Hey, dig this," he said. "Filet mignon, chicken cordon bleu — "

Jim pulled the menu from his fingers, and tossed it back onto the coffee table. "Hey, come on," Blair protested. "I'm — " Jim turned sideways on the sofa and reached for the waistband of Blair's jeans. To his surprise, Blair looked almost distressed. "Jim..."

He slid his fingers into Blair's belt loops and tugged him closer. "I want you," he said, bending forward to brush his lips against Blair's sideburns. "I want you again," he whispered into Blair's ear. "Is that a problem?"

"No." Blair's answer was almost a groan. "God, no..."

He smiled inwardly and dropped his head into Blair's lap, fingers scrabbling with the metal zipper. He shoved aside layers of fabric until he could get at Blair's cock: soft and warm and hardening in his hand.

He bent his head to Blair's cock and began to kiss it wetly with his mouth. God, lately he just couldn't get enough of Blair's dick — lately he was having a whole separate relationship with Blair's dick. It seemed to embody something, recently — maybe it was a cliche, but making love to Blair's cock felt an awful lot like making love to Blair in microcosm.

And he was just crazy for Blair, recently. Crazy for Blair, crazy for Blair's cock. For the hot, male sexiness of it — of him.

Because women's bodies were, quite literally, neat: slim and smooth with everything trimly tucked away. Men's bodies were messier — and Blair's was particular messy. Cock and balls dangling out of crisp, dark hair. Patches of hair on his chest; on his belly; under his armpits, soft and smooth. Almost no hair on his arms; gently curling hair on his legs. Long hair and sideburns and beard stubble.



He took Blair's cock into his mouth and began to suck gently. Hot and male and wonderful: he could feel nerves tingling, blood rushing under his tongue, the gently spreading leak of precome over his tongue — he could hear Blair moaning softly above him...

And they said "cocksucker" like it was a bad thing...

That thought made him laugh so hard that he had to let Blair's cock slip out of his mouth or risk choking. He buried his face in Blair's musky pubic hair and snuffled with laughter.

"Uh...Jim?" he heard Blair gasp above him. "You're not laughing at my dick, are you?"

Jim laughed louder and rolled his head slightly on Blair's lap so that he could look up at his partner. "No," he replied, profoundly amused. "Though dicks are pretty funny." He tilted his head forward and licked Blair's dick slowly from root to head.

Blair writhed. "Dicks," he gasped, "are funny?"

"Of course they're funny," Jim said. "Come on: we're guys, we can admit it. Dicks are funny. "

"Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?" Blair asked, looking perplexed.

"Well, both — though I was actually thinking funny ha-ha, " Jim explained. "Some things are just naturally funny."

"Like dicks," Blair repeated unbelievingly.

"Right. Dicks. And fish," Jim added after a moment. "Fish are funny too."

Blair frowned. "You've got one fucked up sense of humor," he said. "Fish are funny?"

"Fish are hilarious," Jim insisted.

"All right, all right — I gotta ask." Blair took a deep breath and looked down at him. "Why are fish funny?"

"Fish are funny," Jim explained, "because they always look so shocked — no matter where they are."

Blair stared at him blankly for a moment, and then started to laugh.

"See?" Jim said, grinning. "I told you."

"Okay, you win," Blair conceded merrily. "Fish are funny."

Jim nodded, pleased at his victory.

"So answer me this, then," Blair pressed. "What's funnier — fish or dicks?"

"Depends on the context," Jim answered, reasonably, and then he put his mouth back onto Blair's dick, and Blair inhaled violently and went very still.

He sucked more urgently this time; his own cock was pulsing in sympathetic arousal, in time with Blair's nerves, in time with Blair's pulse. He stretched out across the sofa, head buried in Blair's lap, and reached down to unzip his own pants, which were now tight and uncomfortable.

Above him, Blair was panting like a freight train. Blair was so hot for him: he loved that Blair got so hot for him, that he could make Blair so hot. He shifted slightly so that Blair could see him — so that Blair could watch his cock sliding into his mouth, so that Blair could see that he was stroking himself in time...

Above him, Blair cried out softly, and Jim knew that he was watching. He slowed, wanting Blair to enjoy this, wanting to enjoy it himself. Slow and easy: he caressed the paper-thin skin under his tongue, he made love to the most fragile part of Blair's body...

And he was going slower, but Blair's pulse was speeding up. Blair was trembling now, and he could feel Blair's orgasm building — Blair was gonna come soon, Blair couldn't be pushed much further. And it was as if the building electricity in Blair's body was flowing straight into his own: he could feel his own neurons firing, could feel pleasure balling up in his spine. He stroked his own cock gently, only mildly stimulating himself: he knew that he would come when Blair did.

Underneath him, Blair tensed (tensed, tensing, tense) and gave a long, shuddering moan (around Blair's cock; he moaned around Blair's cock) and then he — and then Blair — he — Blair — god, release finally — release so good and sweet and Blair's cock jerked and he could feel the splash of come in his hand, Blair's hand, their hand —

So easy to zone on the sweet sweet taste...

"....jim? jim?" and the warm, sweaty hand brushed his forehead, stroked his forehead, large hand on his forehead, in his hair. "...m'not complaining..." Blair murmured drowsily above him.

Complain? What the hell was there to complain about?

Blair was still soundly asleep when he woke up. He glanced at the clock — shit, it was almost eight.

He sat up with a groan and then pushed himself off the sofa, taking the hotel directory with him. He crossed to the telephone and ordered them each a bowl of onion soup and a salad — asking them to deliver it, pronto! — and then went to the bathroom for a quick shower.

He dried himself quickly and slid into a pair of dress slacks and a buttoned-down shirt before going to wake Blair. But Blair seemed reluctant to become conscious: shaking him only produced irritated grunts, and he was finally forced to bellow, "Chief! Roundtable!"

Blair groaned and opened his eyes. "Oh, fuck the roundtable. Who needs to think, anyway?"

"I wanna go," Jim said, stepping back and crossing his arms.

"Okay, okay," Blair said, getting up off the sofa and stumbling toward the bathroom.

"I've ordered food," Jim called to him, sliding a tie around his collar.

"What'd'ya get me?" Blair asked over the sound of rushing water.

"Onion soup," Jim replied, fingers expertly working the knot. "Cobb salad."

"Sounds perfect," Blair replied. He came out of the bathroom and then did a double take. "Jim!" His eyebrows flew into his hairline.

Jim scowled at him. "What?"

"Jim — you're wearing a tie."

"Yeah, so?"

"And a jacket."

"What's wrong with that?" Jim asked, defensively. "What are you wearing?"

Blair laughed. "Uh — this," he replied, gesturing down at his jeans and sweater.

Jim frowned. "I thought you said this was a professional conference."

"Well, yeah, it is, but — well, professional is a relative term." Blair shrugged.

"So am I overdressed, or what?" Jim asked, feeling worried.

Blair considered this. "Well, no — I mean, some guys'll probably even wear suits. Profs run the gamut," he explained. "Like this one guy, Mark Kirschen — he always wears a suit with a bow tie. And then there's a really famous anthropologist called Simon Lindsey — he's six foot five, thin as a rail, and has a pink mohawk. I swear," Blair added, raising his palms as Jim scowled with disbelief.

Worry gave way to embarrassment. "I just wanted to fit in," he mumbled, going to look at himself in the mirror.

There was a knock on the door and Blair went to answer it. "Tough to do, man," he replied, pulling the door open. "Ah, excellent," he said as a formally dressed waiter wheeled in a tray.

"Should I change?" Jim asked Blair as Blair signed for the food and showed the waiter out."

"Nah," Blair said, coming back to stand next to him in front of the mirror. "Never change, man," he added, stretching up to give Jim a consoling kiss.

"You're sure?" Jim pressed, and Blair nodded.

"I'm sure. Now, come on — let's eat. We've only got fifteen minutes or so before it starts."

They took the elevator down to the conference level of the hotel; the elevator doors opened to reveal a table labeled "Institute for South American Studies." Jim followed Blair over and stood a pace or two behind him, uncertain about what they were doing.

Blair smiled at the woman manning the table. "Hi," he said. "S. Sandburg, Blair." The woman nodded at him and looked in a small cardboard box, eventually coming up with a conference badge that read: Dr. Blair Sandburg, Rainier University. "Thanks," Blair said, carelessly pinning the badge to his red sweater. "And we need to register one more," he added, nodding his head at Jim.

"Day-of-conference rate is twenty dollars," the woman told him, reaching for an empty badge.

Blair shot him a glance: his eyes were twinkling. And then he turned back to the woman and said, casually, "Faculty spouse."

It took everything Jim had to keep a neutral expression: he felt like laughing aloud. Weird: stifling laughter used to be easier than this.

The woman simply nodded and threaded the blank badge into a small portable typewriter set up on a side table. "Oh, okay. Name?"

"Ellison," Blair said. "James J. E-L-L-I-S-O-N." The woman dutifully typed the name, and then she yanked the badge out of the typewriter and slid it into a clear plastic holder. "Thanks," Blair said, taking it. "Where's the roundtable?"

"Room C," she replied, pointing. " Right around the corner."

Blair turned to Jim and pinned the plastic badge to his lapel carefully, brow furrowed in concentration. "There," he said, then smoothed Jim's lapels down with his hand, and reached up to straighten his tie affectionately. "Ready to go?"

Jim nodded, feeling strangely anxious. "Yeah. Ready." His throat suddenly felt itchy and he coughed. "I don't have to talk or anything, right? I can just listen?"

"You can do anything you want," Blair said. "They're just a bunch of freaks in a room," he added, moving off down the corner. "Really — that's the experience. Just sit back and enjoy the show."

Jim hadn't been exactly sure what a "roundtable" was, but he was surprised to see that Room C did in fact contain a large, round table. Which seemed a bit literal, he thought.

He surveyed the people in the room. Blair was right: the dress code in here varied from ultraconservative to just plain weird. A guy in a polo shirt sat next to a guy in a full navy suit, and on his right sat a woman who appeared to be clad entirely in black leather. And so on and so on, around the table: the table seemed to seat about twenty-five.

He felt Blair's hand on his arm: Blair was nodding toward two empty seats next to each other. He followed Blair over, stopping short when Blair stopped to greet a woman. "Hey, Laura!"

"Hey, Blair!" Laura replied, standing up with a big smile on her face. "It's been ages — what have you been up to?" She embraced him, and he kissed her cheek.

Jim coughed.

"Oh, hey, yeah, Laura — this is my partner, Jim," Blair said. "Laura got her doctorate — what? four years ago?" Laura nodded. "And then she got a job at — "

"Duke," Jim said. "I can read, Chief." Laura's nametag said: "Dr. Laura Carrey, Duke University."

"Right, right," Blair said, grinning.

A man rose and cleared his throat, and Blair whispered, "See you later!" and hastily moved toward the two empty seats. Laura whispered "Nice to meet you!"; Jim smiled at her and then quickly followed Blair to an empty chair.

"Good evening," the man began, looking around the table. "My name is Lionel Warren, and I'd like to welcome you to this year's opening roundtable. Tonight's discussion is on 'The Natural World' — I'll start with a few remarks on the subject and then we'll move to discussion."

Warren sat down again and reached for his notebook.

"The idea of The Natural World," he began, "pervades scientific, humanistic, and moral discourses. Nature is the objective measure against which we measure human behavior; the Natural World provides us with our economic and imaginative resources. As such, the Natural World is the source of both human success and human humility."

Jim shot a glance at Blair; ten seconds into it and Blair was frowning.

"And yet today the Natural World is in jeopardy," Warren continued, "as human beings undermine the very basis of their existence on this planet. For example, consider the South America rainforest..."

Warren began to talk in earnest about the rainforest, about the eradication of animal and plant life there ("The rainforests may contain a cure for cancer, or a cure for AIDS,") about the acres and acres cleared for logging, and cattle ranching, and oil interests.

Jim nodded to himself: a lot of this was familiar to him. He looked at Blair again: Blair was coiling in his seat like a python, tapping his pen irritably against the desk.

Warren ended his remarks with a passionate argument about how something had to be done to preserve the rainforests in Brazil and Costa Rica and Peru, "because our future as a species depended on our preservation of the natural past."

Jim braced himself as Warren finished speaking: Blair was clearly chomping at the bit.

"I just don't like the way you've conceptualized this," Blair burst out. "I mean, don't get me wrong: I'm all in favor of saving animals and plants and — whatever — but what's with this idea that 'nature' and 'human beings' are in two different categories?"

"Aren't they?" an older man across the table asked.

"Are they?" a blond woman retorted.

"What — I'm not part of Nature? I'm a machine or something?" Blair asked, raising his hands.

Jim turned to look at his partner. "You mean that there were no people in his scenario."

"Yes, exactly," Blair said, nodding eagerly. "I mean, Dr. Warren — you make South America sound like — I don't know — a zoo or something — "

"Or a Disney theme park," the blonde snorted: Jim looked at her nametag: it read Deana Longworth, Smith College. "A tourist attraction for Westerners who want to see giant turtles and exotic birds."

"Hang on, though," another man said: the nametag read Gregory Adams. "Ecotourism is one of the best solutions we've got, isn't it? We encourage ecotourism and hopefully the natives will realize that a Westerner will pay more to see live monkeys than dead ones. Don't knock tourism."

Deana Longworth snorted. "That's the first mention of native peoples we've had." She looked over at Blair. "There's not enough consideration of the indigenous peoples, is that what you're saying?"

Jim was trying to follow all of this: and then suddenly, he thought he had it. "No," he said to Longworth before Blair could answer. "That's not what he's saying. I mean: not just that." He turned to look at Blair. "You mean that people in general are part of the environment: first world people as much as natives."

"Yeah!" Blair said, nearly bouncing in his chair. "Yeah, exactly. I mean, the problem with most environmental discussion is that we all go in presuming that we can distinguish between capital N-Nature (which is ipso facto good, right?) and the unnatural, which has gotta be bad. I mean, is it really so simple?"

"Hmmm," Warren said, steepling his fingers. "That reminds me of the case of that toxic waste dump in Colorado — "

"Right, right," black leather woman said, leaning forward eagerly. "Do you all know the story? There's this toxic waste dump in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It was put off limits to human beings: people have avoided it for decades. And now it's emerged as this amazing Wildlife refuge: all these species have moved in and flourished there."

"Yes." Warren nodded. "So now they don't know whether to clean up the toxic waste or leave it alone. They can't clean the waste without destroying the wildlife."

"So where's the border between human and natural there?" black leather woman pressed. "There's nothing 'natural" about that — and yet, of course it's natural, it's totally natural. It's nature, anyway," she qualified.

"But most of nature isn't natural," Blair snorted. "Or at least, we don't experience it as natural. Or it's not natural from natural causes, so to speak. I mean, let's at least recognize what we're really talking about, here: we're gonna have to go in as human beings to save the rainforest. So then the rainforest won't naturally be there, it'll culturally be there, if you follow me. Sort of unnaturally there. " Blair sighed and tried again. "It'll be there because enough people want it to be there — so you can't take people out of the environmental equation, see?"

"You know," Jim mused, "in Chopec culture, there was no boundary between people and animals." He suddenly realized that everyone was looking at him, and he coughed. "Well, I mean: they consider that people and animals share the same essential qualities — and the same moral system. You might kill certain animals for food, but you, uh — well, you ask them first." He felt his face growing hot. "And then there are some animals — like wolves," he added, turning to look at Blair, "that you don't ever kill. You don't even touch their tracks. The Chopec say that if you kill a wolf you will never kill again."

"See — they're using their environment," Adams said. "But they don't consider themselves apart from it. Is there so much difference between killing animals for food and killing trees for lumber? Both interfere with the 'natural' systems there.'

"No, no," Longworth said. "The point is that it already isn't a natural system. It's already been influenced by the local culture. I mean: in many parts of South America there are almost no monkeys. The locals have eaten them all."

"On the other hand, there's the bat problem," Jim added. Longworth looked confused, so Jim explained, "Local tribes have killed a lot of species that killed the bats. So now they've got all these bats."

"Bat problem," Warren repeated. "So not enough monkeys is a problem; too many bats is a problem?"

"Well, you'd rather have monkeys than bats," Jim explained. "More meat."

"And more attractive to the tourists," Adams added in a huff. "People go to South America to see monkeys, not Dracula."

Black leather woman (Chris Toland, Jim mentally corrected, glancing at her nametag) snorted loudly. "So we're still back to nature as human commodity. When push comes to shove, we don't want what's natural, we want what's useful, right?"

Jim acknowledged the truth of this. "And see, that's the problem with making these arguments to local government. I mean, sure — first world chemical companies might look at the rainforest and see a cure for AIDS, but fat lot of good it does the Peruvians. They haven't the technology to do anything with it. But cash for lumber, or cattle — they profit by that, even if it's only in the short term. On the other hand," he added, "when you're hungry and your country's poor, the short term seems just fine."

"And it's not like we didn't do the same thing," Toland added, sarcastically. "I mean — we Americans have chopped down most of our own forests, haven't we?"

"Not in Washington State," Jim countered. "We're still battling it out in Washington State."

"Wait, wait, back up," Adams said, frowning at Jim. "Are you suggesting that the environmental debate is partially concealing a first-world interest in exploiting natural resources that native populations haven't the technology to take advantage of?"

"Well, that's right, isn't it?" Longworth interrupted. "I mean, that's at least part of what's going on. We don't want native populations to destroy things that belong to them that we might want."

"Hang on," Jim said, raising his hand. "What native populations are you talking about? There's a lot of competing interests there: I mean, the interests of the Chopec are not the same as the interests of local farmers, which are not the same as the interests of the townfolk, let alone the city folk who desperately want Peru to be to a significant world power..."

Jim glanced at Blair for support, and saw that Blair was staring at him, eyes shining with pride.

The roundable didn't so much end as just stop — they'd run out of time. The discussion was still sort of continuing in bits and pieces as people clustered outside in the hallway.

Blair was arguing some sort of fine point with Gregory Adams. Jim smiled and then felt a hand on his arm.

"I really enjoyed you insights into the Chopec," Deana Longworth said with a grin. "How long were you in Peru?"

"About two years," Jim replied.

Deana looked impressed. "Wow — long time."

"Yeah, and it seemed like it, too." Jim said with a grin.

She stuck out her hand. "Deana," she said, formally introducing herself.

"Jim," he replied, shaking it

"So where are you right now?" Deana asked him.

He frowned at the question, suppressing the urge to say: Uh, here? "I'm sorry," he answered instead. "I don't understand you."

She smiled at him. "I mean, what's your institution?" She nodded at the plastic badge on his lapel, which said simply: James J. Ellison.

"Oh." Jim coughed embarrassedly. "Well, I'm not — I mean, I don't — I'm with Blair Sandburg," he said, finally, aiming his thumb over his shoulder at Blair. "He's my partner."

"Oh, I see," Deana said sympathetically, immediately misunderstanding. "Yeah, god knows that in today's market it's really hard for couples to get jobs in the same geographic location. I understand why you'd reject the commuter marriage thing. It's a pain in the ass." She shook her head and sighed. "We were lucky — when I got tenure, Smith created a track for my partner, too. He's in Biology," she explained with a smile, "which is damn convenient for me. I get to use his lab space."

"Uh..." Jim said, feeling lost in this conversation. He looked around for Blair, but Blair was still arguing with Adams.

Chris Toland, aka black leather woman, stopped by Deana's side. "Goddammit," she said as an opener, "I need a drink." She looked up at Jim. "Don't you?" she asked. "Doesn't this shit wear you the fuck out?"

Jim was just opening his mouth to answer when Deana called out, loudly, "People! Let's move this into the hotel bar, whaddya say?"

"No, no," Chris said to her with a scowl. "You know how it works: they'll stand there until they die of thirst unless somebody sets a goddamned example." And then Jim jumped as she grabbed his arm and started pulling him down the hallway. "Come on, James," she said, firmly. "Deana — just come on!"

"Jim," he corrected, craning his neck to look for Blair. But in fact, Chris Toland appeared to be right — now that they were actually moving down the hallway, the other profs were sort of drifting after them, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Blair, too, thankfully.

Toland pulled him onto the escalator and into the hotel bar at the bottom, and then right up to the bar. "Double scotch," she said, and then turned to them. "What do you guys want?"

"You have any decent Chardonnay?" Deana inquired, and the barman nodded.

"I'll, uh, have a Corona," Jim said.

Blair was suddenly at his elbow. "Yeah, gimme a Corona, too," he said, clapping a hand on Jim's back. "You hanging in there?" he asked Jim, softly, a warm smile in his eyes.

"Yeah, " Jim said, honestly. "I'm fine — this is actually sorta fun," he confessed.

Blair started to mock him in a quiet voice. "'I don't actually have to talk or anything, right? I can just listen, right?'"

Jim laughed and leaned back against the bar. "Hey, Chief — I'm just an observer."

Blair broke into helpless giggles, and reached for his beer.

Deana Longworth wormed her way next to Blair. "So Blair," she asked, "is Rainier going to do anything for Jim? I mean are you even in negotiations?"

Blair looked at her blankly. "Doing anything for Jim?" he repeated.

"Oh, brother," Chris Toland said gruffly, rattling her now near-empty scotch glass. "Don't tell me that you guys are in tenure hell, too."

"Yeah," Deana answered Blair. "I mean — at least tell me that they've given him office space and a phone."

Blair frowned. "Office space and a..."

"I wouldn't expect it," Toland interrupted, slamming her glass down on the bar. "I'm in Texas and my partner's in Tennessee and they haven't done jack shit to make our lives easier. The only winner in this whole mess is TWA."

Deana looked at her sympathetically. "You're flying back and forth?"

"Yeah," Toland said. "Every weekend. I go up one weekend, she comes down the next. It's a total bitch."

"You can't keep that up for much longer," Deana said, sympathetically.

"Yeah, well... Kate comes up for tenure next year, and hopefully they'll find a place for me, too. It sure isn't gonna be at my place: they're homophobic fucks." She looked up at the barman. "I'll have another, thanks."

He watched as Chris Toland had a second scotch, and then a third: every time he looked over, her glass was full. Deana had worked her way through what had to have been at least a bottle of wine, and that Gregory Adams guy was drinking...he took a deep sniff...bourbon. He and Blair had just had a couple of beers apiece — they were clearly lightweights in this crowd.

These guys went through alcohol like cops went through donuts.

And after a while, Blair leaned into him and murmured, "...tired, Jim."

Jim nodded and put down his beer bottle. "Okay," he said, slinging an arm around Blair's shoulder. "We're going. " He waved at the other people. "We're going — see you!"

"See you tomorrow, Jim," Deana said, glancing up at him. A lot of other people smiled and nodded at them as they made their way out the door.

"Fun crowd," Jim said, walking Blair over to the elevator.

"Yeah, they're okay," Blair replied. "They're the die-hards: a lot of people won't be here until tomorrow."

They got into the elevator and rode up to their suite. They'd only been in Chicago for a few hours, but already the dimly-lit room seemed like home. Blair tottered inside and collapsed on the king-sized bet. "I'm beat."

Jim hung up his jacket, took off his tie, slid out of his dress slacks. The Hilton provided a pair of courtesy bathrobes, and he shrugged one on, and brought one to Blair. "Well, I gotta admit, that was fairly exhausting," he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Fun, though."

Blair sat up unsteadily and grinned at him; Jim could see that Blair was a little bit buzzed. Hell, he was a little buzzed himself, what with trying to keep up with those drinkers. "Yeah," Blair said, "you seemed like you were having fun." Blair yanked his sweater up over his head, and tossed it onto the floor.

"I was. I did," Jim admitted, handing him the bathrobe. Blair wormed his way out of his jeans and underwear and then slid into the robe. Jim grinned: it barely covered him, but the white terry-cloth fabric pretty much swamped Blair.

He moved to get up but Blair grabbed his arm and tugged him down onto the bed. "You were wonderful," Blair whispered into his ear, and he felt his face grow hot with pleasure at the compliment. "Absolutely fucking wonderful."

And then Blair's arms were around him, and Blair was kissing him with love and passion. He turned toward Blair so that they were laying side by side across the bed, and kissed him back, hungry, sinking his hands into Blair's hair and holding his head close, holding his mouth close.

They kissed for long minutes through a dreamy haze of exhaustion and alcohol, and then Blair's warm hand slid into his robe and caressed his side. So good — Blair was so good to him, so good for him. He rolled Blair onto his back and tugged his robe open, their mouths still glued together. His hand slid down Blair's body — Blair's wonderful, messy body — until his fingertips were ruffling through pubic hair. He grasped Blair's erection in his hand and squeezed gently.

Blair moaned into his mouth, and he began to fondle Blair's cock. Jim slid his mouth off Blair's and moved down his jaw to his neck ; he sucked gently at the pulse point below his ear. He tasted the tang of salt on Blair's skin, felt the blood rushing under his lips, pounding to the rhythm of Blair's heart, of Blair's cock. A beautiful sound, Blair's heartbeat.

Jungle rhythms.

He couldn't help himself, he began to kiss his way down Blair's body, letting himself linger over Blair's heart, the design over Blair's heart, the X that marked his own personal center of the universe. The pounding rhythm was strongest here, and he felt it as a sexual pleasure, vibrations pounding through his skin in time with the drumming in his ears.

With a soft groan he moved lower still, kissing Blair's stomach and tracing the thin line of hair there down toward his cock. Hello again, he thought, bending his head to swipe the leaking crown of Blair's cock with his tongue.

And then suddenly Blair's hands were shoving at him, and Blair was muttering "...hang on...stop, stop." He raised his head and Blair skittered breathlessly away from him, up the toward the headboard.

He looked up at Blair in confusion. "Stop?"

Blair looked distressed, hair dark and wild against the stark white of the bathrobe. "Yeah," Blair said; his face was still flushed with excitement. "I mean — not because — Jim, it's not that I don't like it. God, I love it, I love you — "

Jim frowned. "But?"

"But — I mean, it's just weird, isn't it? I mean, it's great — it's great — but it's weird!" Blair said distractedly, shoving his hair away from his face. "And if you keep going — well, I'm gonna forget how weird it is because I'll be enjoying myself so much."

Jim couldn't suppress a smile. "And that would be a problem?"

"Yes. No." Blair exhaled loudly and yanked his robe closed, pulling it tight around his throat. "Just — I mean lately — you just do that and my brain turns to mush, you know? Which is great, except — I mean: you don't fuck me anymore. You haven't fucked me for ages."

Jim snorted with laughter. "It hasn't been ages."

"It's been at least a month," Blair protested. "Or maybe even two or three — god, my brain's so melted I can't even tell time!" He scratched vaguely at his head. "I mean, this is October already, isn't it? I don't think you fucked me once in September." Blair frowned. "Or in August, either. I don't even think I can remember the last time you fucked me." The frown deepened, and then cleared. "Oh, yes I can — God Almighty. It was in July — it was the morning of that stupid picnic!"

Jim tried to remember. "Oh yeah," he said, suddenly smiling. "I remember that: you came up in your team shirt and — "

"That's three months!" Blair boggled. "That's three months, Jim — July! August! September!" And then suddenly he looked like he'd been struck by lightening. "Jesus Christ — that bitch!"

Jim blinked, surprised. "What?"

"It's because of what she said to you, isn't it?" Blair accused. "She implied that you were dominating me — she accused you of — she accused me of — oh, lord," he said, falling back against the headboard. "That's it, isn't it. It's Carolyn. She's messed with your head, hasn't she?"

Had she? Jim didn't feel particularly messed up. Then again, he usually didn't notice: he relied on Blair to tell him when he was off the rails.

"Hang on, there, Chief," he said, moving up the bed to sit next to his partner. "Chill out a second — I think you're overreacting."

"Four years of work," Blair moaned to the ceiling. "Four years of work and that crazy bitch messed you up in an hour and four minutes!"

"Carolyn's not a crazy bitch," Jim protested. "She's just having a little trouble accepting who I am now."

"A little trouble?" Blair snorted. "You call that a little trouble?"

"Look, Chief — I'm living in a glass house, here. I'm not throwing any stones, okay?" The memory was burning in his brain, burning and searing him painfully. "If you remember," he said heavily, "I had a little trouble accepting who I am now."

He reached out for Blair, moving his hands over Blair's hard chest to reassure himself of Blair's health and wholeness before sliding one hand into the bathrobe, down to Blair's side, to where the appendix scar should have been but wasn't. "I live in a glass house, Chief," Jim muttered hoarsely. "She handled it a hell of a lot better than I did, okay?"

Blair's eyes widened as Jim caressed his side: presumably Blair didn't like to think about it either. "That's different," Blair said, finally, staring down at the bedclothes. "That was just..." He trailed off, and then raised his eyes to Jim's again. "Okay, so fine — she's not a crazy bitch. But you can't tell me that this has nothing to do with what Carolyn said."

"Okay, fine," Jim said, throwing his hands up. "I can't tell you that this has nothing to do with what Carolyn said. Probably it does: she called me a cocksucker, so maybe lately I feel like sucking a lot of cock." Blair frowned: that hadn't been the answer he was expecting. "Maybe lately I really feel like confronting my cocksucking impulses head-on, pardon the pun."

Blair stared at him. "Is that it?" he asked, looking bemused. "I mean — is that all?"

"That's all for me," Jim said. "But that's not all for you, is it?"

He looked at Blair with concern: this thing with Carolyn had obviously been a much bigger deal for Blair than he had recognized. Well, he should've figured that: he had lived with Carolyn, he knew the particular snap of her tongue. But Blair obviously didn't: Blair's idea of an exit line was 'Detach with love'.

"You can't tell me that the fact that you've suddenly turned into my sugardaddy has nothing to do with what Carolyn said, either," Jim said. "I think she hit you a lot harder than she hit me," he added softly, touching Blair's arm. "In fact, being that we're in this delightful intellectual environment, I would go so far as to say that you were projecting."

Blair's swallowed hard, and his face paled. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"You know," Jim said, rubbing Blair's arm softly. "All of a sudden you're paying the bills, you're flying me to Chicago — you're buying me dinners, and presents, and — " He stopped and sighed. "That tool kit last month. And the gray sweater that you said was on sale. And then you took the truck for an oil change. The tape just today."

"I don't spend enough money on you," Blair muttered, looking away.

"You do now," Jim countered. "I don't want to see what your credit card bills look like, lately."

"I've got money," Blair said quietly. "The police money — it's just sitting there in the bank. Better to spend it."

"You shouldn't be taking home that much. Maybe you oughta up your 401K contribution," Jim teased.

Blair shot him a dirty look, and then sighed. "Okay, okay," he admitted. "Maybe Carolyn got to me a little."

Jim pulled Blair into his arms, and smiled to himself as Blair sank bonelessly against his chest. "Maybe she got to you a lot," he corrected, softly.

"Maybe she got to me a lot," Blair mumbled against his shoulder. Jim rubbed Blair's back reassuringly, and then a few moments later Blair muttered, "She called me a parasite."

Jim tightened his grip on Blair. "I know."

The words were muffled by the thick terrycloth of the bathrobe. "I'm not."

"I know."

Blair hesitated. "At least I never meant — "

"You're not," Jim interrupted, letting his cheek rest against the top of Blair's head.

He could barely make out Blair's whisper. "Promise?"

"Promise," Jim answered.



He heard Blair's soft sigh, felt Blair relax further into his arms. "Keep telling me?"

"Yes," Jim assured him, clutching him close. "As long as you want."

Blair nodded against his chest and he could feel his partner's breathing even out. Blair drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally murmuring: "Promise?"

"Swear," Jim whispered back each time, and after a while Blair was sleeping deeply, and the question and answer period stopped.

Blair kissed him awake the next morning, which was very nice: Blair 's full lips pressed warmly to his, and he reached blindly for Blair, wanting more.

"Nuh-uh," Blair said, pulling away, and Jim saw then that his partner was already up and dressed. "I'm sorry," Blair said, "but I wanted to let you sleep as long as possible — it's pretty late. I've got to deliver my paper soon — we've got to eat something and get out of here."

Jim sighed with disappointment. "Fuck sleep," he said. "You should have woken me up."

"I kept you up late last night," Blair said apologetically. "Figured you'd wake up when you ready. But then you didn't..."

Jim nodded grimly and got up. "Should I order food?"

"I just did," Blair said. "Go grab a shower and get dressed: it should be here by the time you're done."

He did and it was: Jim came out of the bathroom to find a lovely looking plate of eggs benedict and a hot carafe of coffee. Blair was sitting on the sofa, reviewing his paper intently; he looked up at Jim and smiled. "Going for the tie, again?"

Jim nodded. "Yeah, I think it's my look for the conference." He sat down to breakfast while Blair finished rereading his paper. "Okay," Blair said, finally, tossing the manuscript down. "I'm ready — I'm good to go."

"What are you talking about, today, anyway?" Jim asked, getting up and putting on his jacket.

"Food," Blair replied.

Jim looked at him incredulously. "Food?"

"Food," Blair confirmed, nodding. "I'm Jewish — my world starts and ends with food." Jim continued to look boggled and Blair grinned at him. "Just wait. You'll see."

"The first question any good anthropologist asks," Blair Sandburg said, from the podium, "is, 'What do people eat?' Tell me what people eat and I'll tell you about their environment, their economic structure, their health, their notions of medicine, about their cultural rituals and practices, about their traditions and their history. In fact, one of the first assignments I give in my introductory Anthro class is for students to gather and examine cookbooks: there's no better way to immediately illustrate the differences between Germanic farmers in Amish Country and the kielbasa-eating residents of Chicago..."

Jim sat up at the front and listened intently to Blair's talk: it was pretty interesting, actually, what Blair was saying — and it certainly began to explain his aversion to Wonderburgers.

It seemed to be going over well with the crowd, too, he thought, scanning the room with his senses. Blair was the third of three speakers on this panel, and the level of energy in the room had dropped considerably for the second speaker — Mark Kirschen, he of the notorious bow ties. Kirschen had, in fact, worn a bright yellow bow tie, but that was the most interesting thing about his entire presentation.

But Blair was winning them back: Jim could hear the murmurs of growing interest. There were more people here today: this room held about seventy-five.

" we're left with a crucial question," Blair was saying; he was wrapping up. "If there are essentially only two ways for a community to function — living upon the land or importing in from outside — how do we preserve environmental balance? As a planet, we are moving from a subsistence model to a trade model. How do we say enough when enough is never enough for trade?"

And then it was over, and people were getting up, and milling about. Several people seemed to want to talk to Blair, so Jim waited until the last of them had gone before approaching his partner at the front of the room.

Blair was gathering the pages of manuscript back together and putting them in order.

"So, Chief," Jim said, drawing close. "Wasn't that just a long way of saying, 'You are what you eat?'"

Blair laughed and then recoiled back theatrically, clutching his heart as if he'd been shot. "Yeah," he said, finally, straightening up and stuffing the paper into his bag. "Which would make you a dick," he added, smiling sweetly at Jim.

Jim burst out laughing, just as Deana Longworth appeared at the back of the room. "Guys? Lunch?"

Blair looked at Jim, who nodded agreeably. "Okay, cool, that sounds good," he called back to her, and so out to lunch they went.

It was nearly four-thirty by the time they got back to the room. They had gone for Mexican with a group of about twelve; he himself had chowed down on some seriously good fajitas, but mainly the group had taken lunch as an opportunity to get smashed on margaritas.

'Good god," Jim exclaimed, sinking down upon the sofa. "Is that all you people do? Talk and drink?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Blair said, collapsing down next to him. "It's sort of the conference experience, really. And sex — there's also a lot of sex going on."

Jim stared at him, shocked, and Blair laughed.

"No, man, I'm serious. You have to remember who you're dealing with, here. These guys," Blair said, warming to his topic, "are gonna go back to their colleges and universities, where they are overworked and underpaid, are dealing with a lot of pretty dim students, and spend all their free time in libraries or staring at the scariest fucking thing in the world — a blinking cursor. Now take these undersocialized and underpaid people, bring 'em to a big city, stick 'em in a fancy hotel, import all their grad school friends who knew them when — and what do you get? They talk too much, they drink too much, and they fuck like mad. " He shrugged, grinning. "And then," he added wickedly, "being anthropologists, they go home and analyze the experience."

"Blair," Jim said sincerely, "you live in one fucked-up world. And you know what? You've come out of it pretty well. You're the most normal person here." Blair laughed and relaxed back into the sofa. "No, I'm serious," Jim insisted and he was. "I take back everything I ever said about you. Every 'neo-hippy-witchdoctor-punky-dorky' comment I ever made. You are a tower of sanity. You are the rock of fucking Gibraltar."

"Aw, shucks," Blair said, putting his feet up on the coffeetable.

"I'm serious, I tell you," Jim said, putting his own feet up on the coffeetable — hell, it wasn't his coffeetable. "You're come through beautifully. You were obviously raised well — I think I might just have to write a nice thank-you note to your mother."

"Oh yeah?" Blair asked, sliding to lean against his shoulder. "What would it say?"

Jim thought about this. "Dear Naomi," he began. "Thank you for doing such a wonderful job raising Blair. Despite his Ph.D., he doesn't really talk all that much, and he isn't an alcoholic, which appears to be a standard in his profession. Despite a fondness for brightly colored shirts, he isn't at all embarrassing to be seen with in public — again, unlike many of the people in his profession. Clearly, this mental stability can be in some way traced to you, or to burning sage, or to a judicious use of feng shui, or to some such thing. In any case, I am deeply grateful, as it appears that I will be shacked up with him for the next fifty years or so. Yours sincerely, blah blah, James Ellison."

He looked over at Blair for a reaction; Blair was just staring at him, almost not even seeing him. And then Blair leaned forward and kissed him, once, gently.

"Let's go to bed," Blair said.

Oh, yes. Hell, yes. He stood and Blair stood and then, on impulse, he reached out and heaved Blair up off the ground, sliding his hands underneath Blair's ass to carry his weight. Blair gave a little cry of surprise, and then quickly lifted his legs and tightened them around Jim's waist. "Yikes, Jim!" Blair said as Jim carried him over to the bed. "You're gonna give yourself a hernia!"

"You're not that heavy," Jim snorted.

"I'm plenty heavy, man," Blair disagreed.

Jim'd been about to drop Blair on the bed, but instead he gritted his teeth and sort of bounced Blair up and down, trying to gauge his weight. "What do you weigh now, anyway?" he asked. "One fifty-five? One sixty?" he guessed.

"I dunno, somewhere around there. One sixty five?" Blair suggested. "I put on some muscle doing the academy thing. Could even be one seventy."

"I could still benchpress you," Jim boasted.

"Yeah, rub it in, why don't you?" Blair said, and Jim leaned forward, dropping Blair on his back and then letting himself fall on top of him, still between his partner's spread legs.

"I'd like that," Jim said, and grinned. He dropped his mouth to Blair's, and they began to kiss — lazily at first, but then with increasing passion. And then he began to pull Blair out of his clothes, and Blair's hands were at the waistband of his pants, and soon they were naked, panting and heaving, and both furiously erect.

"Listen," Blair gasped, staring up on him, 'if you're still getting in touch with your cocksucking side, that's okay with me. I didn't mean to mess with that or anything. We can do whatever you want."

"" Jim teased, staring down at Blair's lips as he spoke: he always found Blair's mouth fucking hypnotic. "Whatever I want?" he repeated, sliding his erection against Blair's hip.

Blair grinned. "Yeah. Anything."

And see, that was exactly it, really. Blair was right — Carolyn had accused him of dominating Blair, of wanting to dominate Blair, and the accusation had stung him because it was true. That was Carolyn's particular satanic gift in an argument: she said stuff that was just close enough to the bone, just close enough to be recognizably you — you distorted through a funhouse mirror, maybe, but you nonetheless.

Did he want to dominate Blair? Oh yes...god, some nights he dreamed of it, and some nights he dared to actually live the dream: some nights he pinned Blair down to the mattress and just used him: used his ass and his mouth and...

He shuddered with lust, and beneath him Blair smiled and slid a hand to the back of Jim's head, drawing his mouth down to his again.

Except that it wasn't the whole truth. Yes, he wanted to dominate Blair; yes, there were still dark, shadowy fantasies there that he could only barely admit to himself, let alone to Blair — but the closet of his mind was filled with a lot more than that.

Because he also dreamed of submitting to Blair. Because he had already submitted to Blair in a thousand small ways, and fifty large ones. Because even dominating Blair was a way of submitting to Blair — it was another way of acknowledging Blair's power over him: over his body, over his senses, over his destiny.

And it had been so good, so good, to submit to Blair, to let himself be guided. It had taken such a weight off his shoulders: he was free to just be himself, now, because Blair would take care of everything else. Blair would always be two paces behind him, ready to catch him watching his back. He had never trusted anyone in his whole entire life — and now he trusted Blair a lot more than he trusted himself.

And if Blair wanted to be fucked, Jim would fuck him. And if Blair wanted reassurance, he would give it. And if Blair wanted another classic muscle car — well, they would have to see about that.

He turned Blair over and pulled his legs apart, then reached over to snag his travel kit off the nightstand. He lubed up two fingers and carefully slid them into Blair, relishing Blair's small exhalation of pleasure, relishing the way Blair pressed back against him, relishing the way Blair wanted it so badly.

He moved his fingers in and out, loving the way Blair's body felt, the way Blair's body clutched at him, opened to him. Then he shoved his fingers in deep and brushed Blair's prostate once, twice, with deliberation — loving the way Blair jerked and cried out his name.

And then he withdrew his fingers, and turned Blair over onto his back, because he wanted to see Blair's face as he fucked him, wanted to see Blair's face and his messy, masculine body...

He tilted Blair's hips up and then began to push into him. Beneath him, Blair's face contorted, and then went slack with sexual pleasure. Beautiful, he thought, and then realized he'd said it aloud: "Beautiful." He slid all the way in and just held himself there for a moment, feeling the way Blair's ass gripped him, feeling the warmth of Blair's body surrounding his.

And then he pulled back, feeling Blair's muscles tighten around him, squeezing him, and pushed back in — out and in — slowly at first and then building speed. Oh man — this was very very good, this was sex the way it was supposed to be, the way you read about. His body felt like a live wire — he could feel his own muscles flexing and hear his heart pounding in his chest. He was alive, he was alive, he was alive and alert and aware of everything

"...ohhhhhh.......ohhhhh......" and he looked down at Blair, and Blair was history, Blair was gone, Blair was shuddering and writhing on his cock, eyes wide and unseeing.

Fucking beautiful.

And Blair was coming hard, coming all over himself, splattering semen on his belly, on his chest. Jim stared down at his lover's body, at the swirls of dark hair and the glinting nipple ring, and the half-erect cock and the splash of semen — and then he yanked his cock out of Blair and took it into his hand.

Just this once — he'd give in to himself just this once. He reared up over Blair and began to jerk himself off. He wanted to come on Blair, wanted to splatter himself all over that wonderful body —

God, he wanted to make a mess.

Blair slept for two solid hours; he was pretty thoroughly exhausted. But finally Blair woke up — sated and happy and very, very sticky — and they got up and took a long hot shower together.

It was their last night in town, and it was Saturday night, so they decided to venture out to see some of Chicago. Blair insisted that he had a hot tip on a jazz club, which seemed like a good enough idea.

Jim wasn't sure exactly how Blair found out about these places, but the club was amazing — they got a nice table for two at the side of the stage and ordered a tremendous dinner. Steak and potatoes and sauteed spinach: a bottle of red wine.

And the music was fucking fantastic. Ah...Chicago jazz. Nothing like it.

Blair moved to the music almost helplessly, Jim noticed with a suppressed grin. His lover's face was flushed with food and wine and the warmth of the room — and the fact that he was wearing two fucking sweaters and a scarf.

They stayed for hours — they listened to the sweet sounds of the brass for hours — and then it was finally time to go, and their hands met over the check.

Jim took Blair's hand in his and squeezed gently. Blair looked up at him, and Jim slowly, deliberately, shook his head no.

Blair didn't let go; Jim didn't let go either. And finally Blair let out a long sigh.

"Promise?" Blair whispered. His eyes were full of desperate sincerity.

"Swear," Jim replied huskily, and Blair finally let go.  

The End