Sleight of Hand
 Author: sharilyn
 Rating: R for bad language, violence
 Summary: a dream, a song, a bad guy on the roof, angst and owies and so forth
 Archive: SA and BIA, thanks
 Disclaimer; not mine, don't own them or mean infringement of any sort


 and now the fic itself!

 Sleight of Hand
 by sharilyn

 Something is definitely wrong with Jim. Oh, not physically; healthwise, he's in great shape, and his senses have been humming along well within normal parameters--normal for a sentinel, at any rate. Mentally he seems fine, too, if a bit distracted of late; and I have to admit that, despite whatever it is that has been eating at him, he hasn't yet allowed it to interfere with his ability to focus on the job and concentrate on our current roster of cases. So, yeah, for all intents and purposes he seems outwardly okay, and no one else in the bullpen seems to have noticed anything amiss with him.

 But they don't know Jim like I do; and over the past few days it has become apparent to me that on an emotional level (for lack of a better term), things aren't quite right in Ellison World. The worst thing about it all is that he hasn't even bothered to deny it or to get irritated with me for my increasingly pushy probing into the condition of his heart and soul; in lieu of a more heated reaction to my poking and prying, he's simply erected this blank, inpenetrable wall of bland affability on every side that's kept the true state of his spirit almost completely hidden from me. And I don't mind saying that in addition to driving me CRAZY with frustration, his resolute silence concerning ANY personal matter beyond the barely superficial has me worried half sick. If this keeps up, I'm going to be the one heading for a breakdown; and Jim, who's usually sensitive to his guide's mental/emotional well-being, hasn't got a clue this time around. The very fact that he's blind to
 the effect his behavior is having on me keeps all my warning bells clanging shrilly at all hours till I've become half convinced that this days-long headache pounding inside my skull is going to become a permanent fixture from here on in.

 "Sandburg! You gonna sit there chewing on your bottom lip all day, or are we gonna go nail this dirt bag?" Jim's voice cuts sharply into my fretful musings, and I jerk guiltily back to my surroundings to find my partner at his desk next to mine, wide shoulders shrugging quickly into his jacket as he simultaneously roots around in his bottom drawer for his backup gun. "Get a move on, Chief; while you're sitting there daydreaming about your next, great romantic conquest, Stubbert could very well be slipping right through our fingers." Jim's tone is commanding but not overly annoyed, and I mutter something vaguely apologetic and reach for my own jacket, a huff of exasperated air escaping me as Jim strides briskly out the door without a backward glance.

 I will not yell at him to wait, I will NOT yell...I think sourly to myself as I scramble out the door behind him; H and Rafe shoot me amused grins as I fumble my way past their desks, and I make it out into the hallway barely in time to catch sight of Jim's fast-disappearing form turning the corner to the elevators. My stubborn decision to hold my silence breaks down quickly at the threat of being forced to take the stairs, and I can hear the aggrieved tone in my voice as I holler, "Yo, Jim! Wait up, man!"

 Jim merely lifts one hand over his head and waggles his fingers mockingly in my general direction, not bothering to turn and check my progress; why should he, when to his sensitive ears I must sound like a herd of elephants clomping down the corridor? And he can probably smell the rising tang of the perspiration gathering on my skin as I struggle to reach the opening elevator doors, making it to Jim's side just as a carful of chattering passengers disembarks from the claustrophobic moving box.

 "Gee, thanks for waiting, partner," I grumble as I finish pulling my jacket on. The tangled mass of my unbound hair gets half caught down the back of my jacket collar, and I yank irritably at it as the elevator clears and Jim absently snags my arm and drags me inside with him.

 "Slowing down in your old age?" he quips as the doors close on us, but the usual bantering note is missing from his voice, and his gaze is distracted, not settling on me but flitting restlessly over the array of buttons on the control panel beside the doors. The button for the parking level is lit, and for a brief instant Jim's attention zeroes in on it with laserlike intensity, that dark, almost predatory glint of pure pleasure in his sentinel abilities flaring to life as it sometimes does when he lets himself do what comes so naturally to him now. As always a strange little tingle courses down my spine at this visual demonstration of my partner's enhanced senses, and I sigh silently to myself at how easily and completely the 'guide' aspect of me is drawn to the 'sentinel' nature that is part and parcel of who this man is. As many times as I've witnessed Jim utilizing his enhanced senses, it never gets old. And whether he uses them in a trivial fashion or calls on them
 during some dire emergency, the end result is the same for me--wonder and admiration and a sense of simple gratitude for having been allowed to become a part of Jim's life these past few years. He's become more than just a doctoral subject and a temporary roomie; Jim has become the best friend I've ever had, and that makes it all the more difficult and hurtful now to feel so shut out of his heart and spirit.

 "Old age, my ass," I mutter softly as the elevator carries us smoothly downward. The words are more obligatory than heartfelt, a reply for the mere sake of replying to Jim's comment; and Jim merely snorts once and is silent, his gaze sliding across my face almost boredly before focusing once again on the control panel. I want to say something more, something so much more important than this meaningless drivel; but the importuning words I long to unleash on my maddeningly impenetrable partner dry up and die inside my mouth as the elevator pauses in its journey to allow more passengers to enter from other floors. As bodies of all shapes and sizes squeeze into the confines of the elevator, I find myself wedged up against a side wall while Jim is forced to the back wall to make room; for some reason the increased physical distance this creates between us is almost as distressing to me as the recent lack of communication between us, and for a moment Jim's attention centers
 fully on me, his concentration narrowing on me as if he senses my discomfort and is unsettled and concerned by it.

 That's it, Jim; open up, SEE me here, needing you to just let me IN, to TALK to me, I try to send to him through the press of bodies in the moving conveyance. And for just an instant I surprise something that looks very like sorrowful affection and could it be...fear?...in his mute gaze before a stout woman with stiffly sprayed hair and way too much perfume backs up against him, her immediate proximity almost overwhelming Jim's senses. He flinches in instant, genuine physical pain and presses himself as far back into the wall away from her as he can get, his eyes screwing tightly shut and his nostrils flaring wildly as he struggles to dial down what must be to him the godawful stench of chemicals and scents and makeup this woman is giving off.

 "Jim!--" I hiss sotto voce, instinctively trying to push my way through the press of bodies to reach his side; but he manages to lift one arm and flaps it weakly at me in a negative, shooing motion, his eyes opening to agonized slits as his chest sucks in tight, laborious gusts of stuffy elevator air. Get control, man, c'mon, get your vision and respiration back online, I urge with silent intensity, and my hands curl and uncurl uselessly at my sides as I fight the urge to manhandle my way to my partner's side, uncaring that such an action might not be well received by our fellow passengers.

 Fine...I'm fine, Jim mouths at me now, his lips forming each word with an overly careful precision that tells me he's still anything but. You jerk; you hopeless, fucking moron! I want to rail at him, but instead I force myself to stand still, feeding all my frustration, worry, and anger into the heated gaze I lay on him in lieu of pulling my 'mother hen' routine on his ass. At that moment the slight 'ping' announcing our arrival at the parking level sounds, and I remain rooted to the spot as bodies filter ahead of me out of the elevator, waiting tensely till I can reach Jim unimpeded and help him navigate his way to the marginally fresher air of the employee garage. He accepts my hand on his right bicep with ill grace, silently resisting for a fraction of an instant before his taut muscles relax and he allows me to steer him out of the elevator and over to his truck.

 "You know, you're really starting to piss me off," I growl at him as I slap his hands away from their fumbling attempt to retrieve his truck keys from his jacket pocket and dip my fingers down inside the lining to filch them myself. "One way or another, Jim, before this day is done we're talking about whatever the hell it is that's bugging you. And DON'T give me a line of bullshit that there ISN'T anything wrong," I add as his face twists in an angry grimace of incipient denial. "Now, can you drive this heap, or do I need to get behind the wheel? Geez, how the hell do you expect us to corral Stubbert if you can't even string two sentences together to let me know what is UP with you? I cannot function like this, you know that, man." And before my increasingly pissy partner can get a strangled word in edgewise, I've slapped his keys into his palm, shoved him rather ruthlessly into his accustomed place behind the steering wheel, and circled around to let myself in on the
 passenger side.

 "Anytime you're ready," I grit out, refusing to give in to the part of my soul that is screaming at me to HELP YOUR SENTINEL! Like hell I will, I argue with myself as I busy myself fastening my seatbelt and then sit with arms crossed over my chest, waiting while Jim sits rather dazedly in his seat and tries to pull himself together. I'll help the big ox when he's willing to come clean with me and stop handing me a stinky load of crap everytime I open my mouth in simple concern, I snip at myself as Jim roughly clears his throat and then rasps out, sourly:

 "The day I let you drive my truck is the day they put me in a home. And if you can't handle snagging a useless little weasel like Stubbert, then you can just stay in the truck while I bring him down. I don't need your theatrics right now, Darwin." Jim's words are cutting, even somewhat arrogant, but the pallor of his complexion puts the lie to his shaky bravado, and I merely snort disgustedly at him as he shoves his key into the ignition and starts Sweetheart with more force than usual.

 "Well, fuck you very much," I whisper, turning my face to the side window as Jim roughly accelerates and has us careening out of the parking garage like some multi-ton, mechanical bat out of hell. This isn't like me, I think to myself with weary dismay as Jim does his best to give half the motorists in Cascade massive heart attacks with his driving style. I know by now that where Jim and touchy-feely emotional stuff is concerned, I have to be patient, have to slowly and carefully coax things from him over hours, days, weeks sometimes; and my harshness just now was uncalled for. Indeed, the same instant the ugly words leave my mouth I already want to take them back; but one surreptitious sidelong glance at Jim's stone face stops cold my latent attempt at an apology. Shit, I think dejectedly as Jim suddenly draws himself fully upright behind the wheel and takes one long, measured breath that shows me he has his haywire senses under control again, which at least is one less
 worry now for me to mull over. His voice coolly dispassionate, he begins to inform me of the details I need to know if I'm to help him apprehend Rick Stubbert on drug trafficking charges; and I force all the miserable personal crap between us down into a small, dark place at the edge of my consciousness to be dealt with later. For now I just have to concentrate on being the guide and partner Jim needs and on keeping the both of us safe, something I know he is brooding over as well.

 *****

 This is not good, I think to myself as Stubbert grinds the barrel of his handgun with painful force against the underside of my chin. His other hand is wrapped with excruciating savagery in the tangled mass of my hair, yanking my head back hard into the wall of his chest behind me, and I can't lower my face enough to get a look at Jim crouched some five feet away from us on the roof of Stubbert's apartment building. But I don't need to see his face to know the expression that must be inhabiting my partner's strong features at this moment; it has to be pure, unadulterated fury blazing in his fierce stare, backed by iron-jawed determination and a brand of private terror that he will never let Stubbert see. Only I would be able to recognize its presence if I were able to tilt my head down just enough to meet Jim's gaze with my own; and I want to call out to him that it's okay, that none of the bullshit posturing between us earlier meant a damned thing. We both know what's
 really true, and if it somehow happens that it all ends for me here on this roof today, the only thing that will have ultimately mattered is that I love Jim with all my heart and I know he loves me, too. He's my partner, my pal, and the truth and power of the bond between us will be the grace note that will help send me on my way to whatever's next after this life. But damn if I'll go without a fight; I hope Jim knows that, too, and I hope he knows that I'm praying he'll keep a cool head and control of his senses and not do something crazily dangerous to himself in order to distract the focus of Stubbert's rage away from me.

 "You don't think I'll take him out? You think I'm bullshitting you when I say I'll fucking blow his faggot head off and toss him off this roof?!" Stubbert screams now, his heart pounding so furiously inside his chest that I can feel it vibrating like a wild thing against my back. A spray of saliva lands wetly on the back of my neck as Stubbert unleashes a string of expletives Jim's way and then leans in to rasp harshly in my right ear: "Ready to die now, you little prick? You wanna feel your goddamned brains splatting out through your ears, or would you rather feel your head explode like a ripe melon when you hit the pavement four stories down?"

 Obviously there's no correct or desirable option to pick in response to his half-crazed ranting, and I don't bother trying to frame any kind of answer, seeing as how I'm too busy trying not to choke and gag from the intolerable pressure of the gunbarrel's tip now digging agonizingly into my throat. I can hear Jim saying something to Stubbert in low, enraged tones that leave little doubt as to the deadly intent behind his words, and my mind is swiftly becoming a raging, chaotic whirlpool of half-formed escape plans and disjointed surges of fear and sorrowful regret that weave in and out of my increasingly shaky consciousness as I struggle to stay on my feet. Funny, how the rush of adrenaline flooding my system in relentless waves seems to be draining the strength from my legs rather than lending me super stamina to get through this. Wimp deluxe; you suck, man, I silently castigate myself just as Stubbert yells something wild and murderous and Jim yells something back and I
 see--just barely and only with a wild downward rolling of my eyes--my partner lunging up desperately toward us from his crouched position even as Stubbert suddenly yanks me backward with incredible violence, the gun in his hand jerking away from my throat to aim at Jim instead, to fire a deadly fusillade of bullets even as Stubbert continues mindlessly backing up far, too far...and with dual bellows of startled horror the both of us are suddenly falling and falling, Stubbert's panicked, clenched-fingered grip on my hair never letting up, his other hand and the arm it's attached to snaking desperately around the front of my chest to press me close, so close, against him, my back to his front as we fall and fall and tumble in a disgustingly intimate jumble of entangled legs...and I don't want to know if Jim is shot, if he's dead or dying now even as I wrestle-grapple--howl with the terror of mine and Stubbert's onrushing deaths, fighting uselessly to be free of his hold on
 me, to die with some measure of autonomy and dignity instead of landing in one conjoined, liquified puddle of guts and splintered bones on the hard pavement far below...And I imagine I can hear Jim screaming rawly from up on the rooftop's edge, his voice carrying the anguished echoes of my name all over the city with the intensity of his grief and horror. God, I'm sorry, Jim; so sorry...I try to say it aloud, to form the words even if only quietly because I know he'll still hear, unless he zones from the trauma of it all he should hear me, crystal clear...but before I can say anything, before I can even fully realize oh-my-god-I'm-dying-right-now-in-seconds-in-a-blink, something hits me HARD, hits Stubbert hard,too, and rips us away from each other and it hurts oh god it hurts and now comes the nothing, now--

 *****

 The first thing I'm even remotely able to focus on is Jim's face, looming over me in an exaggerated, larger-than-life supersized version as my fuzzy brain cells attempt to make sense of the scrambled signals being sent to them via my blurred, almost certainly hemorrhaging eyes. I'm feeling totally lost, devastated, and just plain bewildered, and everthing on and in me hurts, even my hair. Especially my hair, as seemingly every single follicle on my scalp screams out in unremitting agony. Ouch, I think I say; but my ears, if they're really functioning at all, seem to hear only one thick, garbled, drawn-out sound that goes something like this: nnnnnnnnnnnnnggggggggggghhhhhh h...

 And I can't understand anything, I don't know what the FUCK is going on, but I am vaguely aware of my heart thumping like a dying horse inside the agonized cavern of my chest, and I'm sure there must be blood, lots and lots of blood and there should be splintered bits of wet, shiny white bone and the pulpy glop of intestines and stomach smeared artfully on hot concrete...why this should be true I don't know, but I seem possessed of some dim, faltering knowledge of certain death crazily juxtaposed alongside the equal certainty right now of continued bodily existence, cause after all how could I be dead and still feel so incredibly CRAPPY?...But I thought I was falling, I thought Stubbert killed me, killed us both...and Jim's face is still there, the mouth on that face moving and the face so white, so so white and slowly slowly coalescing into clearer, cleaner lines, the formless blob of its center solidifying into recognizable features like a nose and two eyes and still
 that mouth moving, exclaiming, sobbing harshly, and all I want to ask is: "HUH?" But even that is beyond me, and I think I would like to reach up and cup Jim's wet, so salty wet cheek in my palm and whisper "Hush, hush, it's all right, see, it's all right, sentinel," but everything hurts so much, so so much that all I can do is lie there and cry noiselessly, the bits and pieces of me screaming to be put back together, to not be so broken and hurting. And I wonder vaguely if I'm still dying, if the falling was just the first act and now I will die and die and die forever and poor Jim will have to sit beside me and watch it happen, that must be why he cries so now, his face so wet and twisted with anguish, his eyes black holes that are the memory of endless horror repeating over and over in their depths...But now he's trying to smile, his voice is saying my name over and over like a mantra, like a prayer, and his hands are touching me, stroking my face so, so lightly and
 carefully, and as the feathery pressure of those long, slender digits lights like butterfly feet on my skin, I think dazedly that he never told me he was such a powerful magician, so good with sleight of hand to make me believe I'm really still alive, that I'm not really splattered all over some grungy alley redolent with the stench of rotting garbage.

 "You didn't fall, Chief, you never fell, at least not all the way. That bastard Stubbert is dead, but not you, never you. Listen to me, Blair, listen! You're alive, you've got to hold onto that thought, you have to SENSE yourself, feel your arms and legs intact, all your guts and organs still tucked safely away inside...Yes, I know you're scared, I know you don't believe me... but you're here, you're right here with me, the rescue squad got you down off that fire escape you landed on on your way down...do you hear me, buddy, do you believe me now? Blink if you understand, Chief; God, give me a SIGN, here! I still haven't told you why I've been such a withdrawn jerk, I know you're gonna want to hear this one, hear how stupid I've been, how I let a dream and the lyrics to one particular song get inside my mind and fuck with my worst, hidden fears about you, about us...God, are you LISTENING, Blair, are you with me now?"

 And he sounds so distraught, my Jim, my partner, my friend, that I try to do it, try to really and truly believe that I am NOT dead but still alive, and I can see in his eyes when he realizes that I've done it, that I've made myself believe and so now I really CAN do it, I think, I CAN be alive for me, for him, even though being alive means hurting like a serious sonofabitch...And as a sudden flurry of frantic activity begins all around me now, with nameless uniformed figures poking and prodding and moving and hurting me oh so much, I force my barely seeing eyes onto the vision of Jim's grimly anxious but strangely comforting face above me and I think I would like to hear about his dream and this damned mystery song that tore him up so inside but I also think what a cheap shot on his part, to try to manipulate me into living, into staying with his stupid, anal-retentive self when he should know I don't need any other incentive than the simple need to be with him, going on
 together still for as long as we can on this plane...And I try to tell him that, but all that emerges from my throat is that damned, mush-mouthed moaning, and I am beginning to shake all over with terrible pain and shock and frustration; but then I feel Jim's large, warm hand on my forehead, settling like a benediction, and I hear him murmur softly and with such feeling: "Chief..." And I focus my eyes just long enough to see, really SEE, into his eyes, and I read there his understanding, his comprehension of the sentiments I cannot express. And I try to write myself a mental note to remember to ask him about his dream later, and the song, and to help him be his old self again because I AM his guide and that's what I do...but then one more gentle caress of his hand on my forehead reminds me that he is my sentinel and he is busy doing what he does, standing guard over me, keeping me alive. And I WILL live, but right now it just hurts too much to stay AWARE of it, and I know
 it's safe to let go, so I do, welcoming the blessed blackness with its relief from all this pain.

 *****

 "And that was the dream I had, " Jim sighs, a somewhat rueful expression twisting his face as he reaches for the bottle of vinagrette dressing on the table. "Stupid, huh? But it just seemed so...realistic, like there was maybe some sort of alternate but equally valid parallel universe thing going on and I might just wake up to realize that the dream really WASN'T a dream but REALITY and all that time when I thought I was awake and working with you and sharing the loft and using my senses everyday, THAT was really the dream and what I thought was the dream would turn out to be my real life...I know, I know, call the men with the white coats and butterfly nets, huh? In the cold light of day it does seem so ridiculous. But I gotta confess, Chief, it had me seriously spooked."

 A half-embarrassed, half-apologetic look flickers across Jim's face as he absently drizzles dressing on his salad and waits for my considered response to the details of the dream he's just shared with me, and I pick distractedly at my own plate of food before setting my fork down and focusing all my attention on the man sitting across the table from me.

 "Man, just hearing you describe the dream depresses and scares the hell out of ME," I say with quiet intensity, and as if to emphasize the veracity of my statement, an ominous shudder runs through my still recovering, still too-thin frame. "That WAS a horrible dream, Jim--a nightmare, if you will. At least from where I'm sitting. If the life you lived in your dream was true, then all I can say is how sad...how totally, completely, unbearably sad. Hell, I didn't even REALIZE how sad such a reality would be till you described the dream and all the details of how it made YOU feel. I think it makes me feel even worse, to imagine a life without you and your friendship in it, a life where you became a uniform cop and turned your back completely on your senses and we never even met, one where I never even knew about you,  or that you existed...Hell, maybe I didn't even exist. And to hear how miserable your dream self was in that 'reality', how empty and lonely you felt
 there...God, Jim, it tears me up inside. Thank God you finally told me about it, finally got it all out into the open so we can exorcize the darkness and grief it's left behind in its wake and bring our REAL life together back to center stage."

 I can't restrain myself from stretching a hand across the table now to lightly cover Jim's where it rests beside his plate; and instead of withdrawing in embarrassment from my touch, Jim gives me a slightly bemused, affectionate half smile and gently manuevers his hand beneath mine till he's able to curl his fingers lightly around my own.

 "I should have known you wouldn't trivialize it, that you'd understand," he murmurs regretfully, his blue gaze quietly intense on mine. "But I wasn't ready to admit...well, to admit that this partnership, this friendship and this bond between us had gotten so intense, had become so powerful. I guess on some level I found it frightening to have such strong feelings for someone. And before you say anything, let me reassure you that it has nothing to do with our respective genders or any sort of subconscious homophobia or some such nonsense," Jim adds as he absently traces my knuckles with one strong but gentle finger.

 "It was just the act of facing the truth that you've become such an integral part of my spirit that floored me," he continues thoughtfully now. "Because the second the realization hit me of just how much I value your presence in my life each and every day, this terrible, overwhelming fear of how awful, how unbearable, it would be to suddenly NOT have you here just washed over me in wave after wave of misery and desolation. I guess the dream was the natural psycho-emotional fallout from this fear I was trying to repress. And with each repetition of it, night after night, the feelings of hopelessness and loss just got worse. There I was in the dream, living a perfectly safe and ordinary life as a uniformed patrol cop, nothing overtly horrible or heinous going on; but it was the most awful existence, Chief. You weren't there, and my senses were gone, just washed out to a dull, monochrome gray, sawdust and ashes in my mouth, cold darkness in my heart. In the dream I couldn't
 seem to care about anything, but I couldn't bring myself to really LIVE my life, to go back and fix things that were wrong and to remake myself into something better, into the man I somehow sensed I was supposed to be but never became."

 Jim's voice is quiet and calm, but the intensity of suffering in his eyes rips at my soul and sends a helpless shiver of dread through me at what MIGHT have been or might be now if even one tiny detail of our reality here together had been switched or changed in the past. Bad enough that I'd almost lost my life at Stubbert's hands that day seven weeks ago; it would have been unbearable if I hadn't had Jim to see me through it all. Thank God Stubbert's deranged shooting that day on the rooftop had missed Jim for the most part; he'd escaped with nothing more than a crease in his left side where a hot bullet grazed him. And even after enduring weeks of slow, grueling therapy to recover from a broken clavicle, busted ribs, bruised liver and kidneys and a sickening concussion, I realize now just how precious my life is to me, and how much more precious my life is with Jim as my best friend and partner.

 "But a Pearl Jam song?" I can't resist saying now, wrinkling my nose in wry disbelief, and Jim gives my hand a slight, warning squeeze as he directs a mock-fierce scowl my way.

 "Hey, Chief, hold off with the ridicule, at least till you've read the lyrics," he chides gently, and as I watch he goes over to our joint cache of music cd's in the stereo cabinet and rummages about for a minute before pulling a particular cd case from the stack. Opening it up, he removes a small, stapled book containing song lyrics to Pearl Jam's album, Binaural, and brings it to me, his fingers rifling through the pages till he's found the song he wants. Silently he hands me the booklet, and as I begin to squint myopically at the tiny lettering, he gives me a look of fond exasperation and moves over to the coffee table to retrieve my glasses. Once he's placed them securely on my nose, I take up the song lyrics booklet again and silently read the words set down under a song titled "Sleight of Hand." Immediately I see what Jim means; I see HIM so clearly in the lines of the song, and I can't help the giant lump that rises in my throat as I scan the song in its entirety
 and then slowly close the booklet.

 "Wow," I murmur softly, my eyes damp as they settle on Jim's sorrowful countenance. "Just...wow. No wonder it freaked you out when you heard this song hard on the heels of having had that dream. It's--it's almost like the universe was trying to tell you something, trying to show you some deep, intrinsic truth about yourself. Are you okay now, Jim? I mean, is there anything I can do to help make all this..not so intense? To make you KNOW that our life here and now is what's real, what's important?" I shift sideways a bit in my chair as Jim squats down before me and rests both hands lightly on my knees, his gaze warm and quietly earnest on my face; and as I smile uncertainly at him, wanting only to erase those last, vestigial shadows from his eyes, he smiles back at me and murmurs reassuringly:

 "You don't need to say or do anything more than what you're doing right now, Chief, just being here with me, just being yourself. You're my guide, Blair, in so many ways other than just with my senses. And you're my friend and my brother. My life right now is pretty close to perfect; and I won't ever again let anything so silly and insubstantial as a dream change or affect what I know to be true. Thank you for helping me see that."

 "Hey...you're the one with the super-sharp vision," I reply with a note of affectionate teasing. "You would have seen it clearly all on your own, sooner or later. I'm just glad I could do MY part in this partnership and help you focus on it SOONER rather than later. So...how about we chill for now with the whole dreams and heavy grunge music combo and just enjoy our dinner before it gets cold?" I add, and Jim gives me the first genuinely carefree smile I've seen from him in an age.

 "You don't have to tempt me twice," he announces and moves to take his seat at the table again, reaching for his napkin with a decided twinkle in his eyes. "That last piece of sinfully rich and delicious chocolate cake is calling my name, babe; and once I polish off the rest of this roast, that slice is MINE."

 "Well, it WOULD be if I hadn't eaten it last night for my midnight snack," I retort gleefully as I dig into my mashed potatoes. "Looks like it's gonna be pound cake with sliced strawberries for you tonight, Diet Man." And as Jim growls and throws his balled-up napkin at me, I discover that for the first time in weeks my appetite has returned with a happy vengeance.


 SLEIGHT OF HAND

 Pearl Jam

 Routine was the theme...he'd wake up...wash and pour himself
 Into uniform...something he hadn't imagined being...

 As the merging traffic passed...he found himself staring
 Down...at his own hands...
 Not remembering the change...not recalling the plan...

 Was it?...

 He was okay...but wondering...about wandering...
 Was it age...by consequence?...Or was he moved by
 Sleight of hand?...

 Mondays were made to fall...lost on a road he knew by heart...
 Wrapped in the same old walls...It was a book he read in his
 Sleep...endlessly...in his sleep...

 Sometimes he hid in the radio...watching others pull into their homes...
 While he was drifting...
 On a line...of his own...off the line...on the side...
 By the by...as dirt turned to sand...
 As if moved by sleight of hand...

 When he reached the shore of his...clip-on world...
 He resurfaced to the norm...
 Organized his few things...coat and keys...
 Any new realizations...would...have to wait...

 Till he had more time...more time...

 Time to dream...to himself...waves goodbye...
 To his own self...see you on the...other side...
 Another man...moved by sleight of hand...

 THE END~