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The Meaning of Motion





Author's Notes: Thankyou to my accomplices: Julad - that incisive, opinionated sounding board against which bad writing is caught out faster than a fox in a henhouse; Gwyn Rhys - that alarmingly talented, unquestionably Real Deal; Merry Lynne - who ought to be paid in richer coin than over-effusive thanks but who generously overlooked that and lent me a pair of fresh eyes to clear the dead wood with.

Story Notes: What the world needs right now is debatable at best but I suspect another rehash of post-TSbBS possibilities is low on the list. Which is sensible, given the talented authors who have already had a good spank of that monkey. Did that stop me? Sadly, and in a word, no. I had to speculate for myself. (A poor upbringing.)



There has to be a heart to this.
The words are there already.
Just because the river looks like it's flowing backwards
Doesn't mean that motion doesn't mean something,
That it's incorrect as a metaphor.

--John Ashbery, excerpted from
'When half the time they don't know themselves...'







1


The carpet felt strange underfoot, deep and grasping like greedy hands around his ankles. His father's carpet. Not a sentinel thing, just a 'take your shoes off before you come in' thing. Years of trampling the one house and everyone who had lived in it and now here his father was, barefoot and wanting to show them the floorboards in this new house with a new phone number that Jim had not yet memorized.

"You have to walk over this bit first. It's been kept down with so many different lengths of nailing that I can't get it off like the others." He was gesturing at the carpet, house-proud. "I'm going to haveta get a guy in to take a look at it. Whaddya make of that?"

It was awkward, to say the least.

"Expensive," Jim settled for saying.

"Yeah, I hear so."

"I could probably give you a hand with most of it. Save you the trouble."

"Grace won't like that." His father's eyes sharpened on him. "She won't stand for it."

Jim turned his head. Stared. "Mom? Have you seen her? God, is that what all this--"

"We don't talk about that woman in this house, Jimmy. You know that, goddamn it."

His father swung around and went back into the house, leaving Jim, bewildered, outside.

Blair whistled. "Whoa. Sally wasn't kidding. He's way weirder than usual. He hasn't even lived in this house a month. He's talking about your mother as though she's here or something."

"Christ." Jim rubbed his eyes with one hand. "And he's the same jerk-off he always is."

"C'mon Jim. You didn't come by here to argue with him. Give it a chance. You know the way the two of you push at each other when you meet up. Alpha - alpha, man. It's textbook."

Jim snorted. "Yeah, well, so are you."

"What's that mean?"

"Forget it. C'mon, go inside."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "What, you're pissed at me?"

"I'm not."

"You are."

He was. He should be used to the way it played out every time they came within sniffing distance of his father, this thing that Blair was doing right now. A cookie-cutter Sandburg, who wanted everyone to just get along. And Jim, ghosts and old affections closing in on him, understood the impulse but it rankled anyway.

He turned his face towards the house, away from the uncomfortable view of Blair with one knee bent, ass tightly outlined in his jeans as he struggled with his shoes. They were the ugliest damn things Jim had seen in a while, too. Heavy, leather lace-ups, knotted on either side of each shoe. He had seen Blair wear those a total of maybe four times; a result, he was sure, of growing up in the lunatic paradise of Naomiville where leather as fashion was only a step short of baby-killing.

Not that it mattered, anyway. Here they both were, taking their shoes off and no one, least of all William Ellison, was going to notice Sandburg's attempts to dehippie himself. Jesus. Jim shook his head, a familiar surge of irritation rising behind his teeth. You had to be made of stone not to give the guy credit. Dense stone. All he did was raise Jim's blood pressure while his father remained blind to how hard the kid was trying not to blow him off, to rein himself in. All because he wanted to make it easier on Jim. Which, in turn, had Jim working overtime to hide the heartburn and what a thankless, frigging job that was. Still. He looked down at Blair. He was painstakingly working out each hell-sent knot in his right shoe. Going nowhere fast.

"See you at sundown, Sandburg," he said, unable to resist the tease or the rush of affection that prompted it.

Blair flipped him off as a matter of course without looking up from his shoelaces. "Bite me, man."

"Dirty words for an ex-herbivore."

"You do remember how I keep telling you I've never been a vegetarian, right?"

"Sure."

"But you're thinking, you keep on slipping it into conversation and one day I'm gonna blab how I braved barbed wire at midnight, setting cows free in five different states."

Jim shook his head admiringly, making a point of it.

"What?"

"I was just hoping for some loose talk about you and chickens. This is way beyond expectation."

"How about the part where I tell you what a total dick you are?" Blair asked kindly. "You remember that?"

"Huh. There, I'm drawing a complete blank."

He had no quarrel with the smile that earned him, not when he was at the point of keeping count.

He stepped past Blair and went into the house. It was by the beach and maybe in deference to that, the foyer was painted a pale shade of holiday-lemon that he had never seen in a regular house. It had turned golden here and there where the sun was making little incursions of light through big strips of clear windowpane. A blowfly lay haloed on the windowsill, dying, fatly baffled. The walls made Jim think of the thick wads of lemon-iced cake he once threw up at a party when he was fifteen; the demons (as he thought then) living in his tastebuds had decided to take a stand against it. Everyone else thought he had been out back with the Fontini boys, smoking their father's cigarette stubs.

The foyer opened up into the living room. It was a bungalow-styled house, the first in a row of them right there by the sea. Outside, he could see gulls rollercoastering in the sky, turning slow, showy pinwheels by the waterline. Inside, the din of the tv dominated. A car chase; no, a spaghetti western, the kind the Cascade media mafia favored on hot, sleepy afternoons like these; no, wrong again, it was something to do with National Geographic.

None of those, really.

His father, who had wandered off towards the screen, was surfing channels with a familiar look of disappointment, his mouth curling up in a half-sneer as a guy named Duke saved the West.

"Get you something, Blair? A beer? Jim?"

He felt himself staring, heard Blair accepting and moved out of his way as he brushed past him to the fridge. His father took down three glasses from a cabinet behind him. It was a large square thing with glass panels so you could see how it was lit up from the inside.

Coyly.

With a small, blue frosted globe, slanted in shape.

Like all things that were old enough, it had come back into style again. Jim had had to persuade Blair more than once that it was not something they wanted. He supposed that accounted for the downlights over the kitchen counter, for the new set of chef's knives that had educated Jim on how much a knife could cost if you let it, for the pasta maker that admittedly Blair was using with a zealot's regularity, yapping all the while about the number of artificial ingredients they were avoiding.

Which they probably were.

At least the stores had started taking the damn thing off their shelves and out of the display windows.

Looking at it now, he thought he had probably got off cheap. Not that the way Blair's eyes had woken up for a minute, drilling an I-am-so-Interested-in-this look at the cabinet, boded well for the non-discussion they would end up having about it. Starting with Blair ragging on him for never having mentioned it being here in the first place. Ending with Jim being allowed to pretend he had forgotten about it. Having to concede major frigging ground somewhere in the middle that would come back to bite his ass maybe days from then once Blair had mulled it over to his satisfaction. He scrubbed at the back of his neck and then stopped, not wanting to attract Blair's attention, willing him back into his trance state of perfect-guest.

Jim had climbed up to that cabinet once. Fresh from some recent rebuff, he had destroyed five out of six one-of-a-kind, crystal glasses before being discovered. Discovered, and duly punished. Not that his father had acted in anger. Punishment (discovery) was inevitable but it was not some private vengeance; Jim had never convicted him of that. It was public (in the den, with an audience - even Sally) and wiped clean of sentiment. For the pride that makes you think you can't be caught: 3. For the disregard of property: another 3. For the bad example you set your brother: 3. For the...

And so on, until he too was forced to admit what his father had had no trouble at all in concluding. Freakishness was Jim's problem and he had to give it up before he was branded as freakish. The urgency of the situation, the lack of time - real or imagined - left to correct Jim's ways, the stress of carrying such a vast responsibility and Jim's temper: there was nothing else William Ellison believed he could do. Years later, his father would still offer that up as consolation and Jim would still be unable to reject it entirely.

What? What did you say?

I can hear it, I can hear the train - it's coming.

Well now

His father's face would squeeze itself into a far-away expression before he would get down to it. It made no difference where they were. A kidney and knuckle collision maybe, or a blow down below with Jim gasping for air while his father nodded gravely. Well now. And there would be another, just as business-like, with Jim given opportunity to recover, William Ellison's eyes cast elsewhere out of politeness and time coming to an agonizing stand-still, narrowed to the throb in his kidneys.

He had let the last glass stay standing and Jim could see it now, behind others that had since gone up to join it. As a reminder, his father had said. More in the way of a temptation to sin again, Jim had thought. And sin he did. Though the glass as a matter of strategy remained safe, the clumsy trap scorned (he was a thinker as early as that), little else escaped. But for every sin committed there had been another hopeful, threat-soaked attempt to save him. He was an Ellison, the first-born. He could raise himself up from punishment but he couldn't outrun the love due a father or a son, even an unsatisfactory one.

There had been a hunting trip. A doe, with a second heartbeat that only Jim could hear, with a wild, fibrillating despair that only Jim could smell, had been duly killed in his name. Wanting to please, he had sat around the campfire with his father and tried to help gut her but had not been able. And after they had eaten, his father had scooped out the forming, bonsai-sized animal inside her and said, look here, here, do you see this? Jim had tried his best not to puke up the bitter, fear-spoiled meat lumped on his tongue. Not able. Then there had been shivers and the burn in his nostrils and his father's hard voice, and that had been the end of that.

There had been tickets to the Jags - season tickets. Two of them. Two sons and one father and only two tickets. C'mon Jimmy, do it or Steven goes. Steven goes and you stay. What's it gonna be huh? Man or boy - what's it gonna be? He remembered break neck races home, not with the shouting, arrogant swagger of other kids but with the desperation of gladiators, still a kill short of adulthood. Bonsai-sized. Then there had been the Cobra and the kid who wouldn't be a rat. Him, of course. He was that kid. Which just made Steven hate him more. What had it all added up to but Steven off on a trip and Jim off to see the world, years before they could tolerate each other again.

Once, and only once, there was a visit to the whorehouse. Here, you put it in her here - for chrissakes, you want me to hold it for you? He had had enough hate then for everything to get its own special glossy coating: he had hated the body that housed him and drove his father to these measures; he had hated the bored, swollen curves of the woman who lay under him and the stink of semen in the bedding, clawing at him through layers of polite perfume; he had hated that he could hear his father (who left eventually) standing sentry outside the door. And he had done the thing, swiftly, with his eyes shut once he had guided himself in, miserable and apologies foaming at the edges of his mouth, already bitten bloody from the sheer, undeniable pleasure of it.

Afterwards, there had been things, disjointed events: an hour tramping the woods with Bud; dinner at home alone with his father already on his way to the airport; the taste of metal on his tongue. Quiet things.

Last year had brought some grace, Aaron Foster's obsession clearing the way to a different tension, one in which Jim felt himself on more of an equal footing. Now watching his father as he polished the three glasses, without haste, with a kitchen cloth, he felt only a mild kind of anxiousness that he might be too tired to deal with all this. The unexpected this. The this of Sally on the phone: Jimmy, he's not himself. You should come visit. The this of William Ellison welcoming Blair into his house, getting down glasses so they could drink together. The this of bare feet, of a new house, of water so close that he could smell the salt tang of it.

Glasses, for the love of Christ. Since when had drinking beer out of a glass become a Man's Way, according to William Ellison, Praise Be? He wanted to ask if his father had been to see the family doctor lately, if something was wrong, if he was dying. Instead, Jim sat down and fitted his hand to the neck of a beer bottle, half-listening to them talk. If he had liked his father a little more, maybe had some understanding of him along with the love that was three parts duty, he might have enjoyed Blair's determination.

He might have enjoyed Blair:

The way he adjusted to his father's mercurial attempts at conversation, careful to keep his voice polite, unable to disguise the way his eyes hardened at times, in protest;

The way his right leg swung gently to and fro, distracting Jim in a way no skin-flick ever would, sending him visual prompts of the muscles driving that movement, of the thigh that housed them;

The way his mouth hung a little open when he was honing his focus. On its own, nothing to write home about, maybe even a little too duh for Jim's usual tastes. But put it together with the too-sharp, too-wide eyes and the impression that stayed longest was one of amused, intelligent androgyny; Jim's own particular and private fantasy.

On any other day, at any other time in his life post-Carolyn (and let's be honest - even during Carolyn), he would have watched-not-watched Blair until his eyeballs bled. As it was, he sat there silently, nearly grateful for a new problem to cope with, nearly nostalgic for those long-ago memories when faced with this version of his father. He sat it out for a while until even Blair got thin with words and then dealt with his beer in a few quick swallows.

Ignoring Blair's frown, he spoke over him. "I'm going upstairs to get my gear. You said it was in one of the spare rooms, Dad?"

This time around, his father's voice carried a more familiar tinge of disappointment. It was only the words that didn't suit. "You're going diving in the pool? You know what an extravagance that is, Jimmy? I can't be expected to keep that pool in shape all year round just so you can show up and take a dip when you feel like it, goddamn it."

Blair shot him a startled look. There was no pool. Not in this house.

Jim looked someplace else, not at Blair, not at his father. Of all the thoughts to go through his head, the only one that came along banging a drum for him was of Naomi, pressing for a happy ending, for some way to close off the loop again after the damage had already been done.

Things happen, Naomi, you know? People change.

Jim had looked right at her when he said that, pointing out to her something he could never make his own father understand. People change. You just got to go with it. He had made her believe he meant the indifference in his voice and her face - that strangely-sweetly china face - had deflated as if he was some kind of ship on which her hope had been travelling, all the while sinking. What could he have said anyway? That he didn't want anything to happen? That he didn't want anything to change? That if something had to change, then for chrissakes couldn't it change all the way, all the way till there was nothing there any more that he could recognize? What could she have said to that anyway? And what would he have cared.

It wasn't as though Jim disliked her. He had struggled with it but it was impossible not to bear her some affection. The more time he spent with her, the more he saw shadows of Blair moving around inside her like new teeth trapped behind old ones. But that didn't change what he thought of her. Misadventure and good intentions on a scale that would have tipped over long ago if Blair wasn't balancing it out by the simple virtue of being her son.

And then they had to get together and ruin his life. Mr. Superhero and the foreign-evil-spy herself.

He exchanged a glance with Blair while still wading through that thought and felt guilty at once, even though he knew the way he looked from the outside: calm, tired and slightly irritated.

Undiscovered.




2


Time slid past him, slipping off his sweaty palms, bringing him closer and closer to the dive. It had been precisely one and a half hours since they left his father's house and precisely two hours since they had left without any diving gear for Jim. For one dizzy, thankful minute after going upstairs, Jim had thought he could still get out of it. He hadn't been able to find his long-ago, used-only-once equipment. He had looked. It wasn't as though he hadn't looked, as though he had cheated. He had been true to his word, dragged out of him (and that was another story again), and he had looked. But there was no tank, no flippers, no wet suit, no regulators, no lights, no-nothing. He had stood there in his bedroom, this old-new bedroom, shaking with relief, sweat trickling down the already sticky small of his back.

Thinking.

This has got to be love.

Then, the almost reflexive effort of driving that thought out of his skull, knowing it would come right back, hovering at the edges of his mind like a whipped dog.

And now it was early afternoon and they had been driving for one and a half hours to get to this house outside which Jim was parked like a stooge. This made for a total of eight hours since Jim had woken up, sweating, knowing that today was the day he had promised Blair he would go ahead with the damn dive. The heat was stretching time out of shape, bending the seconds between each minute until he felt like he had already lived through a whole day of steeling himself to face up to it. Of course it was still on. Of course. Blair had come up with a Plan B (an ex-student who spent his summers diving into shipwrecks), had made a phone call which left him looking used up, had swung it. There was probably a Plan C, a Plan D, a Plan E, all the way up to friggin' Z. So here he was: the truck roasting alive degree by sticky degree, the air smothering him with his own smell.

Jim rubbed a hand over his face for the umpteenth time and shifted a little in his seat. The truck was parked facing the street on the reasoning that he could at least treat himself to a view while waiting for Blair to get back. Turned out no one else was dumb enough to be outside on a day like this. He had every window open and rolled down as far as it would go. In front of him was a row of houses, strangely unreal through the par-broiled air coming off the roads. If he squinted, they looked like squat little Japanese dolls from a GI-movie era, swaying and bending at their waists, the illusion convincing even though he knew better.

His mind, more uncooperative than usual, pulled out an image of himself back at the loft, lying on the couch. He could be there right now, a fan aimed at his face, his feet bare and a beer cooling the headache from behind his eyes. Maybe a game to watch and eventually doze off to. He sighed again and sat back up in his seat. There wasn't even a hint of a breeze that he could open up his shirt collar to. He checked his watch. Exactly one minute since the last time.

"I don't do water, Chief. You know that," was what he had said when Blair came to him with this, just the right touch of bemusement in his voice. Nearly a month ago, now.

What he had wanted to do was get up and shake five different types of shit out of Blair. It wasn't enough that they were a pair of circus freaks everywhere they went, everything they did. It wasn't enough that Jim had to watch his partner's eyes avoid his own, every day. Knowing a verdict was coming down for Blair, from Blair, knowing that he, Jim, had no say in it and knowing that it couldn't help but include him in its rip. Damned together or saved together. It wasn't enough that he had to juggle all these piles of shit.

Hell, no. Blair had to breeze in with that tight, hopeful face and bullshit quotient of 2000 plus, talking about the miracle of self-imposed fear and what it could do for them. His stomach roiled lazily as he flashed on that seesawing helicopter ride to Storm Island. Nearly a year ago and he was still overripe with the memory of it, of himself all hamfisted joker and midnight puker, of the breadth of water surrounding him.

"Just hear me out, Jim." Blair's eyes had been alive and sparking with argument, ready to skin cats. "This is the stuff, it really is."

He had taken Jim's silence as a sign of willingness. Of an open mind.

"I met this guy, okay? On the corner of the old Starbucks, not the new one but the one before that, you know, the one with the coffee beans that they found out were weighted with carob and you had that crazy reaction to it and then we had to go get you to emergency and anyway, his name's Hale and he was reading this book and he was friendly so we got to talking and it makes sense, Jim, it really does."

Blair had paused, taken a breath, surveyed Jim's face and shot him a bright, reassuring look. The one he peppered huge tracts of I-read, I-think, why-what-how monologues with. The one that used to make Jim feel warm and welcomed and considered but now stank of frantic handyman-fixit fumes.

"You want to start at the start? I'm just doing my Cromagnon thing over here and I guess I need to buy a clue."

Jim had seen him flinch, just a little. From Jim's anger or his own, he wasn't sure. He had a sudden vision of himself as some irate, never-can-say-goodbye teacher who alternated between seducing and slapping the class genius. (Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. You got that, Jimmy? You wanna be a cop, that's okay. That's a Fine thing to be. Just don't start thinking some faggoty shit about teaching kids. My son isn't going to spend his life gettin' paid peanuts, teaching a bunch of whining nohopers how to wipe their noses. Understand me, Jimmy?)

He could see the set of Blair's shoulders, the old-new line of tension in them. Blair bracing himself, telling himself to be patient, telling himself that arguing with Jim would achieve nothing. That Jim couldn't help being a jerk. Because of The Mess he had Got Jim Into. And right next to that thought sat its twin. Swollen. Staved-off. Faithful. But I fixed it. I betrayed myself right back. He could see it sitting in Blair's collarbone, waking the pulse under his jaw, handling him like a child of its very own.

What his mouth said (which was just as important as what his shoulders had said) was, "Jeez, Jim, you can be such a jerk, you know that? I know it's late. I know, okay? It's just an idea."

Of course it wasn't. This was a Plan. If it was just an idea, Blair wouldn't have that expectant, got-the-solution air about him that only settled into his skin when he had figured something out.

"I'm listening," Jim had said, feeling that something from him was due. Refusing to commit. "Go ahead, talk."

Blair had given him a yeah-right look but started at the beginning anyway. Jim did listen, knowing he hadn't exactly repaid Blair's attempts to breach the gap between them with any sort of meaningful largesse. It wasn't anything he could control. Pockets of Said and Unsaid, Below-belt and Above, had appeared between them like a battalion of angry wasps, laying in their stingers along all the usual thoroughfares, changing the way things happened. Changing the things that were allowed to happen.

He remembered Blair talking to him. "We can't just act as if everything's okay, cause Jesus, Jim - newsflash - it's not. We act like we don't know each other and we're scared to do anything, say anything. So okay, this is kinda flakey sounding. Hey, I'll admit it." Blair had thrown him a nervous, magnanimous look before saying in a softer voice, clotted with honesty, "But I'm getting desperate here."

His eyes had gone from can-do! to a dark, worried shuttered-blue. His hands were steepled in his lap, his hair wet and tangled in places where it hadn't managed to dodge the rain. It had been raining steadily since Jim had got in. He had been watching the water drip down Blair's cheeks even as he dried his hands, wiping them on the back of his jeans.

Jim had known he was staring.

He looked anyway, feeling Blair's gaze coming back at him, an arrow of challenge.

"Here, take this." He had snagged the dishcloth lying behind him, using it as an excuse to disengage himself. "You've got water..." He gestured vaguely at Blair's face.

"Yeah, got caught right in the middle of it. Thanks."

A moment approaching comedy as Jim had watched him use it to dry his hair without any thought for the water on his face. His cheekbones shone wetly, dividing his face up into patterns of shadow and light, naming him as certainly as a fingerprint. Jim could remember every bruise that had rented out space there. He killed the urge that accompanied this sort of thought, without fuss. It was one of many that pulled at him. A fish speared by its mouth onto a line or the deep freeze of a winter morning; it was as tangible as that. So obvious that no one noticed. Except the two of them and even between themselves there was an understanding. Usually.

Feeling reckless, he had glanced up and caught Blair's gaze while his eyes were still on Jim, the blueness turned near-black with focus, dishcloth in one hand, the task of drying his hair forgotten. His heartbeat sped up. He had been looking back at Jim.

It was the first time in a long time that they had openly looked at each other like that. And in doing it, given each other permission to wake up the knowing ghost who had spent the last couple of years with them, fading in and out of the picture, carrying (for them, because they weren't equal to its weight) their not-so-secret secret.

Of the way one set of eyes coveted the curve of flatmuscled arms, and the stolid line of jaw, sometimes knotted with anger and sometimes with humor. Mostly just a point of focus.

Of the way another set of lips wondered how the ridges of muscle rose and fell under younger skin, how they would taste and what they would want to say.

Seeing himself being watched as he watched, in the way that he watched, Jim had had to swallow his desire down. The same, old-new fist of fascination clenching itself around his guts, threatening to spill them out. Wanted. Unwanted. Solicited. Unsolicited.

So his reply was harsher and more unequivocal than he had planned for it to be.

"Look, I appreciate this. I appreciate you trying to do something here but playing Physical Challenge isn't going to help either of us. It's not an answer."

"Oh, and you have the question nailed?"

"No way, you don't get to do that. No way." Jim had found himself on his feet. "I'm not saying I don't appreciate the times you talked me down but I'm not out on the ledge now. This is just a bad idea, Blair, plain and simple. You have to know that."

"For a guy who's not saying he doesn't do appreciation, you don't sound very appreciative."

It had taken him a moment to work through that one. When he did, he was hot with disbelief. "What, I should be? I haven't got enough stress in my life that I need this?"

"It's not about stress, man." Blair levelled a look at him. "Before the dis went public, you would have trusted me on that."

"Can you hear yourself? We're having this whole conversation because of some guy you met at a coffee-shop, who recommended this as a way..." Jim had broken off, glaring at Blair, afraid of finishing the thought.

"Can you hear me? You don't listen any more. You're too busy battening down the hatches but I gotta tell you Jim, this life only happens once. You can't just crawl into your burrow and be done with it."

"Oh for the lov-- look, we're here, aren't we? I mean, shit. Shit. What do you want from me, Blair? I'm up to here with this whole deal."

"You can't even look at me."

"I look. I look more than you know."

"Jim. C'mon man, don't cloud the issue. We can't talk about that now. It's not going to help anything."

"So we talk about what you want to talk about and then you get to tell me, if you don't like what I have to say, that I'm not hearing you, that I'm not looking, seeing, whatevering you. And on top of that, I'm supposed to be fixing things up by facing off my fears. How do you figure that out as my job?" He found he was breathing hard when he came to the end of that sentence.

Blair was pale, and to Jim, he had looked tired in the bargain: dark crescents under his eyes; something stiff in the way he was holding himself. Jim had felt a moment move thickly past them both, full of words to ease the way. By the time he tried to focus on it, it was too late. The thought living in Blair's collarbone had climbed up into his voice with all the delicacy of a cat pawing dirt over its shit.

"Attaboy, Jim. It all makes sense from your end, right? Why should you have to fix anything. I'm the one who fucked up your life, right? Right? Never mind that I'm fucking mine up trying to give you back yours. That's just crackerjack, man."

And he had smiled at Jim, a baring of teeth, as though it was just about what he could expect from him. And under that smile, Jim saw hope, hope that Jim would rise up and make a grand gesture. That Jim would come good. That Jim would say yes. Yes, Sandburg, let's go. Let's go diving into the goddamn sea so I can lose control of my bladder and free us with piss. And along with that hope, was something more intangible. Frightening. He could smell it on Blair. A virginal semen. A seminal virgin. Hope held together with the bitter paste of longing, panicking Jim, putting wormish things on his tongue.

"Is this about the sex thing? Can we just get it done with? I see you looking just like I'm looking." His smile had been perfect, ready-made. "Hey, I can admit it, Blair. Whatever it takes."

Outside, he would have placed bets he looked just as stony as he sounded. Inside, he was appalled, shamed by his own cruelty. Shame made double by having couched the truth inside a lie.

Jim.

Blair said his name.

Not fooled. Not for a moment. Tough neo-hippie witchdoctor punk, smart and full of heart.

"We'll never be like that, Jim. Not now."

Never. Jim's throat had ached with regret. Wormish things slid down it. This has got to be love. Of all the things that were open to him to do then at that moment, he did none of them. Instead, he shrugged, a tight, win-some-lose-some gesture that had Blair walking off to his room, his shoulders silent, his eyes avoiding Jim.

Not that being hurt had ever slowed Sandburg down. Because, after all, here Jim was. Trapped in his truck on a dirty-hot day, counting down the minutes to mark zero.

Feeling like a jerk at the next thought, he looked at his watch again, anyway. Less than a minute between glances, this time. Fifteen minutes at the most, Blair had said. It was close on half an hour now. And counting. A swell of unease soured his mouth, drying it out a little. What if...? Hell if he knew exactly what if. It could be any of the million things that kept on happening to the two of them. Being a weekend with plans, the chances of a fuck-up were that much higher, in Jim's own personal experience.

He dialed up his senses and waited, wide open. Nothing. Nothing unusual, anyway. Noise registered with him in its usual stream of mumble jumble but today it left him room to brace himself until it broke down into words he could recognize. The quiet streets probably helped. They let his eyes find what little movement there was, without too much of his concentration being siphoned off into the effort. He picked out a girl in a flowery summer dress, walking down the road, away from him; farther down, a store clerk was rolling up awnings and hauling trays of overripe oranges back inside. Jim could smell their sweetness mixed in with short bursts of sweat from the clerk as he moved tray after tray, without stopping. It wasn't worth his time to stay open.

Inside the house directly across the road from the truck, he could hear the low, careful tones of two people. A couple arguing. He heard a man say impatiently, "How do I know it's mine anyway?" followed by a trembling gasp from someone else. Then the man again, fumbling out an apology. Jim wondered if it sounded as strained to her as it did to him. The man sounded young. He thought a second on just how sick it would make him feel to know someone could overhear anything so intimate. Flowerbeds in their front yard made him zone out a little, their baby-pink faces crowding his vision with sheets of scrubbed-clean color, like rain across a windshield.

It made him feel mildly anxious. He raised himself out of the would-be zone with an ease that became more ingrained by the day and squinted at the house next door to the arguing couple, his immediate worry cast off. Whatever Blair was doing in there, he wasn't in any trouble. Maybe he was having a hard time talking his ex-student out of the diving equipment. The stuff didn't come cheap or else they wouldn't be here. He had noticed that amongst other things, Blair was no longer all that comfortable with people from Rainier.

Hell, Blair was no longer all that comfortable with him.

He flipped the radio on, wanting to distract himself from the purposeless surge of anxiety that had begun to accompany that thought. Turning the dial, he went through an aborted crash-bang of hard rock; the easy-listening station that reminded him of his father; some souped up version of Indian music with a thumping back beat that made him glad Blair wasn't there to get hold of it; torch songs being crooned by a woman he didn't know, whose voice sounded like swollen, muddy riverwaters. He finally settled on a talk back show - the better to tune it out - and leaned back in his seat, newly alive to the easy way his body turned and twisted once again when he commanded it to do so.

It had taken weeks before Blair's eyes forgot to slide away from the cane Jim had had to use until he got back on his feet. He remembered that. It had taken longer before they had spoken about everything that had happened and even then, what had they really said? The microphones, the media, the relentless calls, the familiar faces in unfamiliar places, the awkwardness of life outside the front door and inside it. All of that had seemed to go on forever. They had changed pizza places without needing to talk about it.

Apologies, he remembered those. From both of them, neither one having much of a notion why or what they were saying sorry for. Like kids who had fallen over for the first real time, made crazy by the amount of blood that spurts from the shallowest of cuts, wanting only to make it stop. Reassurances which failed to meet their mark but filled up the spaces between them, fixing nothing.

Jim, I can explain.

Blair finally emerged, carrying a couple of big duffel bags by their handles, one in each hand. He walked with a measured stride, not exactly a quicktime march but neither was he staggering under what had to be a substantial load in each bag. There was a serious framework of muscle under all that grab-happy grace. Jim knew it, had known it for a while now but still got the same urge to roll over and woof at the sight of it. To add to his good luck, his unthinking, undeserved, how-did-I-get-it luck, he could look out of a window or rise up from a table and scope out all of that for himself.

Habit was habit and even if it felt a little creepy, he allowed himself to take unfair advantage of his senses and zeroed in on Blair standing at the far side of the road, waiting for the lights to change.

He hadn't got tired of it yet. When his bladder woke him up in the middle of the night, he was like some born-again, receiving the Good News. It meant he had a reason to slide out of bed, let his dick gasp itself out and then spend some time listening to Blair in his own room, sleeping. He could hear it when Blair snuffled or rolled over and he could see the thoughtful frown that would cross Blair's face at those times, creasing it briefly before unmaking itself. He could see it as clearly as he now saw the veins running down the inside of Blair's arms, showing the strain of the duffel bags, sharply visible to Jim even across four lanes of traffic. And the line of his thighs, with just the kind of strength in them that Jim liked. And, he thought grimly, he would stop right there. Right there. Before he turned maudlin, or worse, before he had to consider what kind of world it was in which a guy and his veins became a thing to aspire to.

He didn't even consider any other reply when Blair asked him what the matter was. "Nothing, Sandburg."

Then, picking as good a reason as any for his scowl, "What were you doing all that time - weaving the goddamn things together?"

"Cut me some slack any damn time you're ready, Jim."

Just like that, Blair was angry with him. Seriously pissed. Jim could smell it on him.

"I know you don't really buy it but you agreed, man. You agreed. So we're running a little late and your dad didn't hang on to your diving gear. I just fixed all that so don't give me your righteous Doubting Thomas crap now."

"I wasn---"

"What was I doing? Jeez, Jim, you really wanna know? Taking heat - heat for being a sell-out, lying, glory-hound loser from one of my students who I had to hustle to get this oxygen tank for you, breaking god alone knows how many laws about lending this kind of gear to someone else, so don't give me attitude okay? Just ease the fuck up and can the shit parade."

Jim stared at him, feeling his jaw harden. Unbelievable.

"Unbelievable. This is my life, Sandburg. You think spending the day with my dad first off, then waiting who knows how fucking long out here doing the monster mash in this heat, waiting to be treated to an open ocean when you know - you know - how much that shit freaks me out, is attitude? Attitude? You sitting there, saying that to me after I was on the evening news - that's attitude, Chief."

Blair winced and Jim saw how deep the cut went but he was tired and tense and hot and sick, sick of that look, that wounded, I'm-sorry look that took away his right to tell it like it was, to tote up the damage done and make Naomi sweat through it, to make Blair watch her, to sit them both down for a month and explain all the ways in which they had shown him up as a freak.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, his undeclared intentions sat uneasily, more of an extravagance than ever.

"Yeah, well." Blair shrugged, a jerkily casual movement that dared Jim to argue. "I don't need a count-back on where I fucked up, Jim. I heard you loud and clear the first time. If I could take it back, I would, man. I really would. You have to know that."

Jim, with a year's worth of things to say, turned the key in the ignition and said, "I know that. It's hot and... I don't mean it the way it comes out."

"Yeah." Blair's eyes stayed hard for another moment before returning to something less intractable. Less blue. "Yeah, okay."

Jim angled a quick look at him. Some of the spark was tamped down now but he knew how thrilled Blair was to finally get this show on the road. It had taken weeks of tension-filled, argument-loaded wanting from him before Jim had given in. Given up. His will that had held firm against everything Blair had thrown at him - typical extracts from books on overcoming phobia and shows on mind over matter over logic over sense over everything; not so typical instances of bringing home people (friends? ex-students? strangers?) who had overcome phobias by confronting them - turned traitor when he came home late from a stakeout one night to see Blair, asleep in front of a video showing clip after clip of ex-sufferers who had beaten vertigo. He was sprawled on the couch, legs crossed loosely at the ankles, head falling off the edge of the couch arm. He hadn't changed out of his uniform. The patch of skin that Jim had learnt to identify, post-haircut, as the nape of his neck was still a startlingly erotic sight.

On the ground was a sign-up form for a crash course in "getting over an irrational fear of heights". Jim had appropriated it, soundless as a cat mouthing a bird, and taken it with him into the kitchen where he read it line by line, word for word. He had got out some leftover rice and crabsalsacurrywhateverthehell that Blair had made two nights ago and eaten it cold, standing up against the counter, not willing to wake him up with the sound of the microwave. In the end, Jim had put it back in the same place he had found it and gone on up to bed. There he had watched the walls and mislaid every argument that could be used in his favour.

The next morning, across toast and peanut butter and jelly and hot coffee, he said to Blair, "Okay. But don't let what happened on the rig fool you. That was a one-time deal, Sandburg. Got it? If I so much as cough out of place, we'll be cutting your little journey of discovery short."

Blair had stared at him and then nodded. "I got it, Jim. Thanks, man."

He had stayed at the table for careful minutes after Blair left, listening to him moving around in the next room, trying to work out how this had happened. How any of it had happened.

He was still inclined to blame it all on the back of Blair's neck.




3


"We're going to go through that?"

"I can't see any other way of getting to the ocean from here. And we have come the right way, man, you can bet on it."

Next to him, Blair squinted at a sheaf of maps, reading them from the outside in, from the inside out, capable fingers tracing their options.

To give him credit, he seemed just as jolted by the view as Jim was. It had been a while since they swapped the truck for a series of narrow dirt roads and as far as Jim could make out, it wasn't getting any better. The last two hundred yards had been a spectacular exercise in the use of their abdominal muscles as they crab-walked, hunched over, packing their gear down a tiny path overhung with stiff bushes that wanted to string them up by their throats. Now looking at where it led to, he could nearly recommend a whole day spent just walking up and down the path itself.

They were looking down into a small, dark hole that sat in a tumble of granite chunks. It was a long, long way down the slope on which they were gingerly positioned, and, picture postcard, it was not. Or if it was, then it was the kind of postcard that only a backward, cousin-fostering town could provide - the kind that had a guy in a pair of overalls standing next to a giant cantaloupe saying 'a Real big aloha from your friends in Ditchwater, Twelvetoesville'.

"You up for this, Jim?"

"It's your show, Chief."

The exasperated, Earth-to-Jim look he got from Blair spoke volumes.

He shrugged. Playing dumb. "What?"

"You look like you're going to puke."

"You don't look so hot yourself." The retort was immediate and completely untruthful.

Blair, dirt smudges on his jaw, thorn scratches on his fingers, grainy skin and a tired mouth. Jim found himself staring and found his stare met with a darker one, in turn. Alarm leaping in his gut, he still didn't look away.

Not even when Blair said harshly, "You ever going to do anything more than look?"

"Is that why we're here?"

The words, automatic, blooming behind fears Jim hadn't even known he was playing host to.

"Oh, come on. Look at that!"

They both followed the wild exclamation of Blair's hand. Down into the dark maw of the cave opening.

"Okay."

"Fuck okay. You think this is my idea of seduction?"

"You think this is my idea of friendship?"

A moment of pause, of Blair wordless, of bonsai-sized regrets, of accusations that would never be brought home, and then Jim kept going.

"Sandburg, I love you but sometimes you have to just take a pill. You know? I'm taking a breath here. What's wrong with that? What the hell's your rush?"

"Take a pill? How about you find your own vocab?"

"You listening to me?"

"Now you're stealing my lines. I could ask you the exact same thing. Except I don't need to."

"You don't talk to me, Blair. You just keep on hustling me."

"That's what you're calling it? Hustling. Riiii-ight."

He sounded rock-solid, reasonable to even the keenest of Sentinel hearing. Not that Jim needed to rely on his senses, particularly. Years of paying attention to Blair had cancelled out the need for a special advantage. It was history that set fear drumming under his ribcage now, as he watched the curve of Blair's mouth thin out. Fear of losing the way forward, fear that Blair would feel nothing but the antagonism on which Jim had kept him speared for months.

"Blair, I didn't mean it lik--"

"Whatever, Jim. At least I'm trying."

Jim watched him run a hand through his hair, a tired, defiant gesture, and felt himself every inch the bully his father had been.

Still he went on, picking his words. "No, you're pushing. I know it's difficult. But I know where we are. You don't need to push. We're already there. It's not something you can run away from."

"Now who's doing the double-talk?"

"We can't stay the same."

"Oh yeah, I got that, man. I didn't win the spelling bee in grade school but I made up some real fast ground in the in-between years. You just said you love me."

"Yes, I did," Jim agreed, even though it had been longer than that.

"Since when? Since how?"

"I don't know. It just happened. One day you eating toast was a goddamn feature event. I don't know."

Blair stared at him, white-faced. "I don't want to run."

Jim took a second to connect that sentence to anything he had said. When he did, he lurched back into speech. "Look, you can't just dodge this, is what I'm saying. Count your blessings. That's all you can do."

"Count your ble-- Who died and made you king of Trite City?"

Jim hesitated. "You did. You died."

"What? No." Blair was on his feet, hand shoved into Jim's chest. Emphatic. "No. Fuck that. You don't get to leave me because it's too hard, because I died. That's not a valid response."

"Sandburg, I keep telling you best as I know how. I'm not leaving you. I'm just taking a breath. You died, you came back, you kicked my life into my teeth on television. I like watching you eat toast. Give me room."

"Room? You're shutting down on me. You do this all the time so don't go turning it into something else, Jim. There is all this shit going down and you act as if there's nothing we can do but sit here and take it. That's not how life works, man!"

"That's not how your life works. I didn't choose my senses, I didn't choose my life and I didn't choose this." Jim made sure to meet Blair's eyes so he knew this wasn't a problem. "Things go forward by themselves, Chief. You just have to stop, take a breath and look around."

Blair just looked at him, amazed. "I'm the king of change. You try living with Naomi and then tell me I don't know change from choice. Life has to be lived. That's what I'm doing."

"You're scared out of your mind. You think living with Naomi makes you the king of change? The only changes you had to deal with were ones you were already programmed to like. She paid more attention to you than you think, Blair. We both do."

"Yeah, well, I'm sick of the view. It sucks, man. It totally sucks. I could stay where I am and be sorry all day and all night and I wouldn't come close to knowing how much I fucking regret what happened. I mean it, Jim."

"I know, Blair." It was important to Jim to say it even though he knew it wouldn't register on Blair. Blair who was launching into his disclaimer, Blair who would never know how long it took Jim to see that regret.

"But that's how I am. I get on board the ride, you know? I don't hang around, looking over the cliff. That's who I am. I can't apologize for that."

"Okay but before you drag me along with you, could you ask me, once in a while? Because, you know, sometimes I like hanging around, looking over the cliff."

"I don't drag you along," Blair said immediately, flushing even as he repeated himself. "I don't drag you along."

Jim couldn't hear anything even approaching conviction in those words. He kept on going, prepared just for these few minutes, to talk as openly as Blair had dared him to, again and again. "But even when the ride sucks, I'm happier taking it out on you than I would be looking over the edge of some dumb cliff for the rest of my life. I'm on for the ride, okay? Just for the record, that's how it is." Jim put out a hand, dug up grim courage from somewhere and took Blair's in his own. Not in a way that a friend would. There was nothing friendly about the way his fingers were stroking Blair's wrist. "That's how it is, Blair. You don't have to force my head under a ton of ocean. All you have to do is ask."

"No."

"Oh. Okay. That's..." Jim faltered, ambition for all things Sandburg still infecting his voice even as he registered that No.

"No, no, Jim," Blair said earnestly. "I mean, yes."

Then, just as earnestly, "I mean - I mean, no, it's not m--."

"Okay."

"No - I mean, no, this isn't my idea of friendship either."

"Oh." Jim could feel how clammy his hands had got, in the space of thirty seconds. "Okay."

And then there was Blair, all however-many pounds of him, settling onto Jim like a leopard arranging itself on a branch.

And then there they both were, scaring each other with extravagant touches.

Jim wasn't completely surprised but neither was he prepared. Some time later, when paralysis lifted, he found his brain was streaking ahead of him, burning movement into his body. He pushed his tongue into Blair's mouth, luxury undreamed of in that soft, thick touch. They kissed, slowly to begin with, soft, and then harder, hard enough that it was all real.

If Jim had looked down, he would have been surprised to find the water so far away and so innocent of cause when he was having this much trouble finding his breath. He could hear himself taking air in and letting it back out again - loud, forced sounds that reminded him of the trains he wasn't supposed to have heard.

As it was, when they stopped, the only thing he could feel was Blair's hands on him, pressed against his hips, and Blair's breath, a physical presence against his throat. As tight as the grip of Blair's hands was, Jim could feel the tremor in them. He slipped one of his own hands down over Blair's right one where a ring-adorned knuckle was pressing a ring-adorned bruise into his skin. Blair made a sound that vibrated against Jim's brain, some nonsense word of pleasure.

"All right?" Jim asked, stroking Blair's knee with his free hand, obscure ideas of chivalry at war with the feel of hard muscle bunching up under his fingers.

"You can tell me, man. Is it the peanut butter and jelly?"

"What?"

"Peanut butter and jelly. Is it that or the toast that gets you going? Cause, I have to say, I'm surprised. That stuff is sticky. Control freak like you, you'd be zoning out all over the place, hoovering it off the sheets."

"Sandburg." Jim glared. "I don't want to butter my toast and have to think about dirty sheets."

"Uh huh." Blair gave him a shrewd, amused look. "Who mentioned butter?"

"I'm beginning to think we could manage without condiments." He used a hand to grip Blair around the neck and pull him in against his own chest, closer than he already was.

"Wild child."

There was that tone of voice, again, allowing him anything. Struck by a bitter thought, Jim slid a hand up into Blair's hair and pulled his face back until he could see him.

Blair looked at him, irritated and, Jim thought, a little desperate. "What now? What? Can it kill you to join in while I get naked in your honor?"

"It's okay, I just wanted--"

He broke off, helpless in the face of Blair's hand disappearing under his own tee-shirt. A lazy hitch of fabric and Jim was treated to a candid view of Blair's chest, Blair's fingers, shameless in self-worship, rubbing up along corded lines of muscle. The hem of the tee-shirt was sawing across half-glimpses of furred, dark brown nipples. Jim, who had processed Blair's chest about a million times or more, nearly bit his tongue in half at the sight of it now. He could feel his brain regressing all the way back to reptilian.

"Jesus, Blair."

"You like that, huh? Big surprise."

Jim shook his head, smiling back. "Exhibitionist."

"Sure, why not?"

Blair shrugged off the tee-shirt like it was some everyday prelude to conversation. His nipples were tight and pointed and he had a thumb at each one, smoothing over them.

"That's by way of a 'Yes, Jim. I want this, oh baby, more'?"

"I may have to work through some issues with the 'oh baby' part." Blair grinned at him.

"You know what I mean," Jim said, letting his worry show. "I don't want you doing anything because you think th--"

"Hey Jim, what am I, stupid?"

"Look--"

"Three years old?"

"Sandburg."

"Mute?"

"Only in my fantasies."

"There you go. Now we're getting somewhere." Blair turned a contemplative eye on him. "Will you, like, get all 'suck my dick' if I start MarcelMarceau-ing my total commitment to jumping your bones?"

"Will I get all - suck - my - dick," Jim repeated. "Is this what you're asking me in all seriousness?"

"Just for the record," Blair said, half-frowning, half-smiling. "Just for the record, man, I am totally committed to having my bones jumped too. You know? Even-steven, Jim. In fact, I plan to be pretty damn easy about the whole sex thing, as a big picture. If that's okay with you."

Unsummoned, an image came to him of Blair without his clothes on. An alien that he had to reconcile with the untidy, shored up man he had learned his way around. He saw them both that way for a jittery moment, overcast images lacking the dimension of experience. Blair's ass, Jim's fingers pushed into it. One condiment. Two condiment. Three.

An alien act on a familar god.

"I've made a note," Jim said. His throat felt dry.

"A note, huh?"

He eyed Blair. "Yeah."

"C'mon man, you love it. Tell me." Blair was breathless against his throat, his mouth a salty sink-of-teeth into Jim's earlobe.

"I love it," he said, trying to sound reasonable as the warm, welcome strangeness of speaking against Blair's mouth got him harder than he could ever remember being in his life.

Even knowing that thought as the idiocy it really was, he couldn't fault it. Blair, like this, with him, was nothing short of miraculous. It was countering Jim's general shittiness of being in ways he couldn't have imagined before this. If he wanted to, he could admit the way this or at least, the wanting of it, had colored everything between them. For all his talk and finger-pointing, this was a fact. He could not, in faith, deny it. Just as he knew Blair wouldn't come back to it.

"C'mon, Jim. You know you want to get laid."

Blair's voice was everything that he needed to get turned on for a year. Flat, toneless even to Sentinel ears. Exciting.

"Yeah, well. That's pretty much a given." Jim rubbed an awkward, appreciative thumb over Blair's mouth, nearly queasy from the liberties he was being allowed. "Still. There's no point in doing that porno thing with your voice. I'm assuming even you stop short of sewing condoms into your socks."

"I don't do porn. Hardly ever, anyway."

Jim smirked.

"Well, not always. Anyway, you say it like it's a bad thing. Let me tell you, pal, any porno type worth his salt would be packing everything we'd need on our little nature hike here. If you think you're better off, think again."

"If you keep pointing out the downside to all of this, I'm going to lose interest."

"Yeah, right. Spare me." Blair had taken hold of Jim's zipper and was tugging at it. Down a little, up a little.

Jim could feel himself pushing up into the motion, his hips canting in spite of himself, like a bull with a ring through its nose.

"You spinning this out for some reason, Nature Boy?"

"Foreplay," Blair said. Grinning. "I read about it in a book."

Down. Up.

"Sex. I do it in a bed." He caught hold of Blair's hand and pushed down steadily until they both unzipped him. "For you though, I'm willing to make an exception. Here's fine."

An embarrassing relief swept over him when Blair promptly followed suit, going a step further and doing some kind of skin-in-motion thing that took his jeans down his thighs. His dick was pale and hard, a slender, up-curved promise.

"Christ. Jesus goddamn Chr--" Jim stopped, cleared his throat after the fact. "Look at you," he said, feeling each and every year of his age that made up the difference between them. Blair's skin, up close and abundant, had a sheen that Jim hadn't seen on himself for nearly a decade.

Blair. Not-Blair.

"You can talk. You were going to take that in there? With the fish? Man, Jim - there are, like, whole ecosystems in these waters."

Blair.

"All that time with the Discovery Channel and you don't know what fish do in there?"

"I'm clueless, man. Show me."




4


"You know what the Kiswahili think?"

Jim shook his head. They were lying against some very unforgiving bushes, Blair's skin pressed to his like a Band-Aid. He was a facial tic away from rewarding that question with a smile.

He rallied himself. "Depends. We talking the Northerners or the Southerners?"

It was satisfying, in a dim way, to see Blair's face slacken with surprise. "Uh. You're kidding, right?"

In Jim's experience, there were always Northerners and Southerners.

"Sandburg, I never kid about Kisswatwhozits. What do they think?"

"They think that water is the source of human life. During the Maji Maji Rebellion - that's Water Water, get it? - Kinjeketile, the fearless leader of the freedom fighters, got a whole lot of water and treated it with some spit or something like that and then poured it over the fighters. He convinced them that their bodies had become bullet-proof to the German gunfire."

"Germans, huh?"

"I like to keep a little something in hand. Besides, they'd been invited to the party."

Jim could feel a grin threatening to hijack his mouth. "Okay."

"Well, you know how it goes. The Fearless King P. had a soft spot for his son who tricked him into revealing what can kill him. After a number of temptations, he gave in to his son's questions and revealed that he could only die if he was speared right in the belly-buttton."

Jim nodded. "Usual story. Son sticks spear in father's belly button. No witnesses. Son inherits the throne."

"Exactly." Blair stopped, did some slick turn and tuck thing so he could speak into Jim's ear and bit it lightly. "Wow, Jim. Way to get a sense of humor. I should do my MarcelMarceau thing more often."

Jim tried glaring and gave it up as a lost cause when Blair murmured, "I don't know that I dig this cross-eyed thing though. If this is going to happen every time we get naked, what chance are we gonna have with the whole sex-in-public thing?"

"What sex-in-public thing?"

"Oh," Blair said. "I've said too much..."

Jim put a hand in Blair's hair and turning his head towards his own, kissed him thoroughly. "Then shut up."

"Uh...now?" Blair directed a clumsy, over-acted look of dismay at Jim's crotch. "You're gonna have to amuse yourself for a while first, pal. I'm no eighteen year old any more, you know?"

While he was giving up on things, Jim decided to get shot of his newly acquired habit of counting Blair's smiles. "Eighteen. Hah." He snorted and looked Blair over. "You wish, eighteen. Get the spear story over with so we can go hunt down some nice dead cow."

"Ah yeah. There's Mr. Romance again. I was worried for a second. Okay, so, we have the king's son hoping to get the traditional king's ransom from the King's sworn enemy, an opposing King in the neighboring tribal lands. The son's marching along with his father's head under one arm - he was taking it as proof - when along come the rest of the freedom fighters. He loses his nerve, dumps his father's head in this gigantic river - the Liyongo - that he happens to be passing and takes off into the bushes."

"Oh." Jim folded his arms in disapproval and shook his head. "I was just warming up to this guy."

Blair patted Jim's arm. "You and his father, both. So, you know what happens next? You got these bullet proof guys who decide that the King's not dead but really annoyed."

"Annoyed?" Just the right note of pained disbelief in his voice. Knowing how it got Blair going once that hitch of laughter turned up in his voice and desperate - determined, all of a sudden - to get him there.

"So. For fear of the King's wrath, they refuse to draw water from the river and die. They just drop off like flies and they're like, these bigass war heroes, cause they went thirsty and all the scholars of their culture say that water is this symbol of loss of life, of heroes."

"So, let me see if I get this." Jim frowned. "They're bullet proof. But they're wacky as well as bullet-proof. Figures. Must have been the Southerners. They've got some reputation, that crazy crowd of...of cow-herders."

"Mountain goats."

"No cows?"

"None."

"Not even like a side thing? Like, maybe, woman's work?"

"Hate to disappoint you, man."

Jim caught himself grinning. Looky here, ladies and gentlemen of the jewellery. Signs of life.

"Did the Germans RSVP? Because I would think..." Jim made a show of doing exactly that. "...I would think, they're not the kind to turn up with their beer songs and then go home quietly."

He watched smugly as Blair cracked up around the edges and gave in to a body-shaking round of snickers and snorts.

"I think my father's sick," he blurted out, appropos of nothing.

"Sheesh man, you think?" Blair rolled his eyes at him. "He's acting weird, Jim. We should definitely talk to someone cause you know what he's like. He'll get offended or deny everything or... Well, you should know." A grin that tangled itself up in Jim's brain. "You being his son and all."

Then turning serious again, "Or maybe Sally? Are there friends, someone he sees regularly enough that they'd notice changes in him? Could be Alzeihmer's.'"

Jim let him talk, his heart clenching and unclenching at the flippant 'we' in Blair's answer. Not flippant, he corrected himself carefully, in the next moment. Not flippant but maybe without conscious thought. Like something that Blair would maybe always carry a blind spot about, when Jim knew better, knew that the difference between what they used to be and what they were now was already in the air and moving towards them faster each day.

"It could be," he agreed, not wanting to talk about it any more but knowing he'd lost the vote on the art of conversation a long time ago.

Blair moved a little under him, talking softly - lecturing - while pressing the sole of his right foot to the back of Jim's leg, rubbing lazily against the hair growing there. Jim kept his teeth shut against the grumble gathering force behind them, the same comfortable old-new whine of discomfort lacing it. He kept his eyes on the dark, yawning throat of the cave where everything was alien and mutable, where there was nothing he knew. And he kept his arms around Blair, knowing they would stay there until he was done talking, knowing that he would remember this vividly for years, and yet probably never understand.



END