Far Away

Part Two

4.

Let this, too, be with him,
Humming smoothly when you kiss him
Far away, far away...


Blair's music isn't going to do the trick tonight; as I dim the lights in the bedroom and gently but firmly maneuver his rigid body flat onto his back on the mattress, I can tell by the fierce, almost pained grimace twisting his mouth that he is too agitated to fall under the langorous spell of his favorite cd.


"Come on, Chief; try to relax, just let it all go," I murmur ineffectually as I reach to the foot of the bed to pull the comforter over him. "Everything's going to be all right, time to sleep..."


But as I attempt to arrange the comforter across his chest and tuck it under his armpits, he lifts and bends his knees and begins to kick his legs restively, dislodging the cover from my grasp while simultaneously reaching with both hands to shove it over the side of the bed. No sound escapes his lips as he disposes of the offensive comforter, but his forehead creases with intense concentration as he rolls awkwardly from his back onto his right side and peers myopically down at the crumpled wad of striped material lying in the floor.


"Okay, so no covers tonight," I murmur sardonically, taking a step back from the side of the bed and waiting to see what he'll do next. It isn't always easy to second guess what's going on inside Blair's head from moment to moment, and at times it's best just to back off and give him his space...unless and until he begins engaging in activities that might endanger his safety or send him off into another frustrated episode of rage. I can't tell yet if tonight is going to degenerate into another of his bad spells, so I force myself to stand still and just watch him for awhile, my heart aching for the terrible pall of loneliness that hovers around him like a dark miasma even here in this cozy room.


For another long moment Blair merely continues to lie on his side, one arm flopping bonelessly off the edge of the mattress as if reaching for the crumpled comforter lying in the floor beside the bed; the vague expression of bemused dissatisfaction marring the smooth lines of his face slowly tightens into something approaching anger, and with a low growl he suddenly rolls himself off the side of the bed and crouches down next to the comforter, the fingers of his left hand plucking at its folds till he attains a sure grip on it. In one surprisingly graceful move he rises to his feet, clutching the comforter to his chest and pulling it along with him as he turns and begins to pace restlessly back and forth from the side of the bed to the nearest wall, a distance of about five feet.


"What is it, Chief? What's got you so agitated tonight?" I murmur softly, wanting to go to him and comfort him but knowing there's really nothing I can do right now. His body language screams withdrawal and defiance, and I know that if I were to try and touch him right now, my advances would not be appreciated.


Dressed only in his boxers and a t-shirt, his still-damp hair curling riotously about his face, Blair tightens his already white-knuckled grip on the comforter and pivots to pace back in the other direction, the trailing ends of the cover tangling in his legs as he grimly drags it along with him like some over-sized security blanket. My leg muscles jerk reflexively in instinctive readiness, all set to spring forward and latch onto his arms if he should trip himself up and start to fall; but he manages to untangle himself from the striped material and gives it an angry little jerk as he swivels and heads right back the way he just came, his eyes fixed on the far wall as if viewing some distant point on an impossibly alien horizon.


"Well, I don't know about you, buddy, but I've had a really long day; and going to sleep sounds really good about now." Keeping my tone low and soothing, I move back one careful step and then another, aiming for the overstuffed armchair behind me in one corner of the room. "So I'm just going to shuck off my shoes and socks, get out of these clothes, get ready for bed...that won't be a problem for you, right?"


As I talk I keep backing up slowly, my gaze never leaving Sandburg's rigid form so totally caught up in its maddening pacing; he's begun muttering to himself, chanting words and syllables that are nothing more than nonsensical gibberish for the most part; occasionally an identifiable word sneaks into his increasingly passionate diatribe, but there's no making sense of any of it.


Sighing to myself, I back up one more step and feel the front of the chair cushion nudging me behind my knees; in sync with Blair's dozenth pivot to change direction again, I drop wearily into the welcome comfort of the armchair and briefly rest my head in my hands, shutting out the pitiful sight of my partner's stiffly regimented marching to and fro. Dammit, it's like a sad travesty of some little kid playing soldier at bedtime, stubbornly clutching his blanket and refusing to go to bed like a good little boy. But Blair hasn't been a little boy for a long time, and this is no childhood game. The almost frenetic intensity of his pacing is beginning to wear on my nerves, and I'm dismayed by the sudden surge of annoyance that flares up in me.


"Okay, why don't you just keep marching around for awhile, just like that; I've got a date with a hot shower," I grunt acerbically, lifting my gaze once more to catch Blair's backside as he turns away and takes several carefully measured steps to the wall. He ignores me completely, unfazed by the sharp edge in my voice, and for once I'm grateful he didn't hear me.


Dismayed and vaguely shamed by the hint of frustrated anger I'd allowed to creep into my voice just now, I heave another sigh and shake my head, admitting silently to myself that there are times when I could do with a good, old-fashioned tantrum. Not that I'd ever give in to those feelings, at least not willingly; and NEVER in Blair's presence. None of this is his fault; he's lived through enough hell, and I won't EVER allow myself to be around him unless I'm in full control of my emotions and my temper. I don't want him to ever feel the smallest bit threatened by me or uncomfortable around me; he needs to know, somewhere deep inside his soul, that with me there is always and only safety and unconditional caring.


"Yeah, just keep that in mind, Ellison," I mutter to myself now as I tuck my shoes and socks under the armchair and gratefully wiggle my toes in the floor's plush carpeting. I really, really want that steaming hot shower, but the rational part of me knows that I don't dare risk leaving Blair unsupervised for even five minutes when he's this agitated. If I can just calm him down somehow and get him to fall safely asleep, then I should be able to spare ten or maybe even fifteen minutes of free personal time to shower and change and grab myself a sandwich from the kitchen. After that, I just want to go blissfully unconscious for the next eight hours, hoping like hell that when I close my eyes I won't dream tonight.


God, I'm sick of the dreams--both the ones in which I relive the shooting in each excruciating detail, and most especially the ones in which my grieving mind spins heartbreakingly realistic images of Blair whole again, of the two of us together like we used to be. Those are the worst; those are the ones I awake from sobbing, my chest so tight and hot with rage and mute lamentation that I feel like I'm dying.


When those dreams come, all I can do is get up and walk them off; that or turn to the Blair who lives with me now, seeking out nothing more than his simple warmth and losing myself in the purely physical comfort of drawing his limp, sleeping form into my arms, of burying my face against his neck...just to breathe him in, to absorb his essence into my own anguished body for a few moments of illusory peace.


Irma must know that on most nights I share Blair's bed here, lying beside him after he's fallen asleep and staring blankly up at the ceiling long into the night; at times I wonder if she thinks I'm taking advantage of him sexually, pleasuring myself at his expense when he's in no fit state to even be aware of what's happening around or to him...but I would hope that Irma knows me better than that. We've never discussed it, and I've never felt a need to explain or defend my actions in continuing to share a bed with my brain-injured lover. It's an aspect of our lives that is deeply personal and private to me, made even more so by Blair's helplessness and my need to protect him and keep at least one area of his existence completely shielded from the scrutiny and curiosity of others.


And it's really no one's business but Blair's and mine that the both of us still derive a nameless sense of comfort and safety from sleeping together in the same bed; just hearing the steady sound of his breathing and the strong rhythm of his heart beating in the night can sometimes bring me out of tortured dreams into a semblance of subdued relief, reminding me: Oh. This is reality, this is how it is now. And I can turn to him then, carefully sliding an arm across his chest to pull him softly against me; in the timeless darkness I can nuzzle his neck and murmur my love to him as he relaxes into me in return, one hand clutching at my shirt or rubbing absently across my chest, as though some part of him still longs to comfort me, still yearns to guide me through the treacherous labyrinth of nightmare images lurking in my subconscious. I need to keep him near me, need to keep him safe from wandering off in the night, lost and afraid; and he needs that feeling of protection I offer him, needs the warmth and stability of my body nearby when nameless terrors come to plague his confused mind in the darkest hours of the night.


The sexual aspect of our relationship is virtually nonexistent now, I think sadly to myself as I watch Blair pause at the edge of the bed, finger a loose thread on the comforter and then turn resolutely to march back to the wall again; sex between us isn't completely dead, but any intimacies we exchange now are one-sided--I do the giving, and he receives. It's all about him, about keeping him happy. At first I worried that I would be nothing more than some sort of sick molester if I accomodated my obviously brain-damaged partner in any sexual way; after all, he was unable to either give or deny consent to such things. But as time went on, it became obvious that he retained the natural, libidinous impulses of a basically healthy male animal; and as his purely physical frustrations grew to the point of sleeplessness and lust-confused tantrums and his sometimes chafing himself raw with restless, furtive masturbating, I decided that this was just one more area where I could try to keep him calm and somewhat satiated.


As his general health and strength have improved steadily over the past few months, so too has his libido increased; he has more frequent episodes of arousal now and at such times longs to be touched and stroked and brought to trembling completion. In those vulnerable moments when he reaches out blindly for me, his needs--his pleasure--are paramount. Focusing exclusively on his satisfaction is the only way I can police my own libido and assure myself that I'm not taking advantage of him.


Not that I'm some kind of fucking saint, not by any stretch of the imagination. At times I still experience surges of helpless desire for him, still hunger with a raw, aching need for the sexual closeness and intensity we once shared...and when that happens, it isn't easy to push it all away, to remember that inside Blair's normally-functioning, adult male body lies a severely traumatized psyche, a mind unable to speak its desires or to defend itself and the body sheltering it from abuse.


When every erogenous zone in my own body is screaming for release, there's a part of me that knows I could do it--that knows I could have my way with him, pleasure myself into near insensibility with Blair's body as my own private instrument of release...and he would never be able to tell anyone what I'd done. And it's that part of me that keeps me awake long into the night sometimes, wrestling grimly with the ugly demons of my own primitive lust and the selfish demands of my scarred ego. It scares the hell out of me to admit even to myself that some part of me still wants Blair all the time, that deep in my mind and soul lurks this monster of insatiable need that can think of nothing but pounding Blair's sweet, pliant body through the damned mattress, coming inside him over and over again, taking him, using him in some doomed attempt to purge this pain from my soul...


But again it's love that's saved me from unpardonable sin, helpless love that's redeemed me daily from the bottomless pit of hell; I cherish Blair too damned much to ever hurt him like that, to ever sully the memory of what we once had together in a temporary flash of unbridled lust. There is no way in hell I will EVER abuse Blair in a sexual manner just to get myself off, no way I would ever betray the priceless gift of his presence in my life by coercing him to my own will.


Over the past year I've reminded myself again and again that if I become THAT desperate I can always find a willing sex partner somewhere else, either through normal, day-to-day channels of meeting and interacting with other people or through a strict, cash-only business transaction. It hasn't come to that point yet; even though my body often craves release, something deep and wounded in my soul finds it impossible to make myself that vulnerable to a stranger, to someone who isn't Blair. And the very idea of having sex with someone else--even though Blair would never know about it, would never be emotionally hurt by it--makes me feel so vile and empty inside, so completely faithless. So I keep my needs to myself, use my own hand and my own hopelessly erotic fantasies of being with Blair to bring myself some measure of sexual relief; and for the rest of the time I try to keep my attention focused on all the good things still to be cherished in my time with him.


But it hasn't always been easy. In those first hazy months after I brought him here to this house, to his sanctuary, I was horrified to find myself still lusting after him, no matter that he was just this mostly vacant shell now. My body was undergoing a painful mourning period of its own, still dealing with strongly arousing memories of just how phenomenal sex with Blair always was, still NEEDING that connection between us, craving release as well from all the grief and stress and useless rage that so often overwhelmed me in those first days. I needed to grieve, to face my own needs and feelings with honesty and compassion for myself; but I couldn't do it. I couldn't let myself be that weak, that broken.


So for the longest time I felt like some kind of monster, like the worst sort of twisted pervert for still wanting Blair so badly, for lying awake night after night, so painfully hard and desperate for release that I thought I'd burst. It took a quietly discerning comment from one of the many medical professionals I was running through like water at the time in an obsessive effort to find someone who could FIX my lover--my partner--my soul mate--to make me realize that the things I was feeling weren't obscene parodies of something forever lost but were merely the ongoing, visible evidence of something that had never left me, something infinitely precious and deserving of the greatest respect and honor.


I lusted after Blair because I loved him still--loved him so thoroughly, so hopelessly, so fiercely--that even something as devastating as his severe brain injury couldn't erase the essential core of the bond between us. At first I tried to sublimate my sexual desires and to express my frustrated need to show my love to him strictly through the routine of his basic daily care, coming into physical contact with him only gingerly and with much trepidation; I suppose deep down I was afraid more of myself and my own possible reactions to closer contact with him than I was of any response or lack thereof on his part.


But over time I began to allow myself the careful liberty of touching him sometimes for purposes other than the merely practical; it was the sweetest torment to finally give myself permission to slowly run my fingers through his hair now and then or to stroke up and down his arms or even press my lips softly, over and over, to the nape of his neck before scattering butterfly kisses across his face. At first he stiffened up at the slightest intimation of a touch or caress that wasn't aimed strictly toward caring for his rudimentary physical needs; sometimes he would recoil from me with tiny mews of distress if I so much as brushed the tip of a finger against his cheek or along his back.


But gradually he began to relax around me, even to lean into my careful touch sometimes like a lazy cat in search of a good ear scratching or an affectionate stroking. It amazed me, the degree of simple joy I felt at being able to do even this small bit toward making Blair's life feel more secure to him, more contented. And as the long, slow months passed with no discernible outward improvement in Blair's condition, the two of us managed nonetheless to establish a sort of silent short-hand with each other; I quickly learned to read the unspoken signals he sent out to me whenever he was feeling the need to be cuddled or caressed or gently kissed, and I tailored my responses to him accordingly, being careful never to push too hard or offer more contact or stimulation than he was willing or able to accept. To that extent we were able to maintain some level of physicality in our relationship, and the tactile interaction between us reached a tenuously satisfactory medium somewhere between our mutual need to stay connected and the grim reality of the terrible destruction that had been wreaked upon our life together.


From those tentative beginnings a deeper sensuality blossomed; and now, a year after he was shot, we've reached the point where I no longer recoil and escape from our bed whenever Blair occasionally develops a raging hard-on and begins to whimper with the pain of it, rubbing himself helplessly against me and clawing at me in a frenzy of moaning need, begging me the only way he can to help him, to make it better. Over time I've realized that I can show him my love for him without feeling like a sick pervert, can use my mouth and hands to map the contours of his sleek, beautiful body with exacting precision and with infinite tenderness and care. Each time I curve a palm around his straining erection, stroking and loving him with a mix of gentleness and controlled passion that has him crying out and arching into my hand in helpless ecstasy, I am overcome with the power of it, with the holiness of taking part in such a deeply intimate communion with this man whose name will forever be engraved on my soul.


Sometimes he loses himself completely in the pleasure I bring him, writhing and twisting and sobbing incoherently beneath my hands until I give in and take him into my mouth, suckling and kissing and loving him over and over, drawing it out for hours as he clutches me to him, caught up in wave after wave of simple ecstasy. For me this kind of lovemaking between us is both agony and ecstasy--for mingled inextricably with my own sense of mourning for all that we are unable to share sexually lies the unbridled joy of losing myself completely in his pleasure. God, I love him so much, NEED him so much; and watching him now, so withdrawn and lost and so very far away, is like a slow, agonizing death. I can feel a massive headache coming on, and I realize with mild chagrin that I've been clenching my jaw so tightly that even my teeth hurt.


"Blair...hey, babe, c'mon now, it's really getting late..." I murmur to him, unable to take one minute more of his aimless pacing. Moving with slow deliberation, I rise from the armchair and approach him from the side, carefully extending one hand toward him as he stiffens instinctively and picks up the tempo of his increasingly agitated to-and-froing.


"We never brushed your tangles out, Chief," I announce quietly, stopping for one long count as Blair slides a furtive, panicky look my way and stops abruptly in the middle of his last pass between the bed and the wall. He has begun to tremble, and a frisson of helpless empathy skitters down my spine as I force the tiniest of smiles onto my face and try again.


"Don't you want me to brush out your hair? I know it's easier to manage since we had it trimmed, but it still snarls if you don't brush it out straight before it dries. If you'll get back in bed, I can fix it for you. I know you're tired, babe; I'm tired, too. So, please, just let me get you all snug and settled in for the night. Okay?"


Slowly I take another two steps toward him, and the helpless quivers rippling through his body become more pronounced the closer I come to the strictly delineated trail his bare feet have pressed into the thick carpet. Shit, I think curtly to myself, resisting the urge to lift my hand and scrub it frustratedly through my short hair. It's going to be one of those nights, and I just don't know if I can handle him in my own lousy, exhausted mood.


"Okay, buddy, okay...I'll back off a bit, how's that? Why don't you show me what you want, what I can do to help you go to sleep. It's your call, Chief." As I deliver my little speech I back away again, only one step this time, and Blair's lowered eyes stealthily follow me with a mix of relief and trepidation, his darting attention keeping nervous tabs on this newest phantasm disrupting the helpless solitude of his life.


"Do you want music tonight, or some warm milk? Maybe a few more pages of Huck Finn?" I offer wearily, but his gaze slides away from me like quicksilver as he suddenly drops the comforter at his feet and rushes over to the dresser against the far wall of the room. The heavy piece of wooden furniture is topped by a large mirror, and as I watch in dismayed realization, Blair practically hurls himself at his own reflection, his blue eyes going impossibly wide and dark with some terrible, nameless fear.


Frantically his hands reach out for the matching hands in the mirror, the flurry of his distraught motion revealing a double image of desperate palms pressing--one, two, three, four--against each other through the cold medium of silvered glass separating Blair from his own disturbed reflection. Something halfway between a harsh groan and a choked sob of disoriented terror climbs up from his throat, and the transparent fear on his pale face is dutifully mirrored back at him, its intensity sending a cold chill down my spine. I want to move, want to rush over and yank him away from the cruelly mocking parody of his own reflected fear before smashing to razor-sharp smithereens the hateful instrument of Blair's torment; but I find myself frozen in place, my heart pounding in agitated syncopation with the wild racing of his.


"Not this again; God, not this," I hear myself groan aloud, and as Blair clutches wildly at the unreachable hands in the mirror, I have to close my eyes to the sight as my senses threaten to spiral out of control, flooded with the intensity of his hysteria and with my automatic physical response to his distress.


"I swear I'm getting rid of every fucking mirror in this place!" I growl to myself as I stand with my fists clenched at my sides, my face contorting into a grimace of pain as Blair's wild agitation washes over me in a sickening wave. His pulse and heart rates, respiration, adrenaline and perspiration levels...everything in his body is raging out of control, and the tumultous, pounding rush of blood through his veins sounds so thunderously loud in my ears that it causes me actual pain.


The tang of his horror is sharp in my nostrils, sour on my tongue, and the flare of violent emotion emanating from his body assaults my own skin like burning embers. I can't look at him, can't absorb with my overly sensitized eyes yet another nightmare glimpse of his unreasoning terror; but I know I have to get control of myself and this situation, have to dial it all down and get to him before he hurts himself.


"Dammit to hell...dammit, dammit..." I begin to chant barely above a whisper, lifting a shaky hand to my throbbing head as I take one, two, three cautious steps toward Blair. "Just calm down, Chief, everything's okay, nothing can hurt you here..."


As Blair erupts into a mindless, pitiful keening and thumps his forehead hard against that of his double in the glass, I glide up behind him and stand just out of visual range of the mirror, unwilling to risk what might happen if my reflection should suddenly appear to his terrified gaze alongside his own mirror image. The last time I accidentally wandered behind him while he was staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, the sudden appearance of my face floating behind his own in the glass sent him into such hysterics that I had to call Dr. Inatsch out to sedate him. Since then I've taken care to keep well back or stand off to the side, out of the mirror's range, whenever Blair takes a notion to commune with his own reflection. In the bathroom earlier tonight the glass was so fogged that I had little worry that he would notice my reflection in it, even when I stood close enough to him to take his chin in my hand; but right now I fear I may have no choice but to expose my face clearly to him in the dresser mirror in order to pull him away from the very real possibility that he might crack or shatter the glass and injure himself.


"I have a feeling you are so NOT going to like this, babe," I whisper regretfully now as I reach out and very, very lightly lay a hand on his shoulder. Blair is hunched over the dresser, his forehead still pressed firmly to the mirror, and he jerks convulsively beneath my hand, curling his own hands into fists and hammering them once, twice, very hard, against the dresser mirror.


"No, Chief; I'm sorry, I can't let you do that," I murmur at his shoulder, my hands lifting in preparation for pulling him forcibly away from the dresser. "I won't let you hurt yourself. I'm sorry if what I'm about to do frightens you even more, but I just want you to be safe. I'm here to keep you safe, babe; that's all."


And before Blair can draw back his fists to strike at the mirror again, I step up behind him just far enough to clamp both hands down on his shoulders, tightening my grip and praying my fingers won't leave bruises as he stiffens in renewed terror and tries to pull away from me. A rough, inarticulate cry of rage and fear rips from his chest as he straightens to his full height and gives a strong heave of his shoulders, trying to throw off the pressing weight of my hands on him.


"C'mon, Blair, c'mon, love, you don't want to hurt your hands, you might cut yourself...c'mon, let's just go to bed...Christ, can't we just get on the goddamned bed!" I know I'm starting to lose it with him, can feel the stress and exhaustion and inchoate anger rising in me as Blair continues to fight me, rearing his head back in an attempt to butt me in the face with the back of his skull as he simultaneously kicks out behind him with one strong leg, instinctively trying to trip me up.


What the HELL is going on with you? I feel like shouting at him as I slide my hands down from his shoulders and wrap my arms around his chest, grabbing and pinning his arms against his sternum in the process. God, this makes twice in one night that he's gone crazy on me; before that it was weeks ago that he last had any sort of 'episode' or outburst.


"Stop it, Chief; come on, let it go," I grunt into his ear as he struggles to free his arms from where I've pinned them against his chest. "Please, Blair, let it go, settle down..." He growls something unintelligible, the strong odor of his sweat and agitation rolling off him in waves; and some distant part of my mind thinks resignedly: Now he'll need another bath, dammit.


But for now I have all I can handle, just trying to get him away from the damned mirror and over to the bed. If I can wrestle him down onto the mattress and pin him there till he wears himself out, maybe he'll fall asleep, I muse as I jerk my head sideways barely in time to avoid getting smashed in the face by Blair's head.


"Now, now, none of that," I pant into his neck as he briefly rests his chin on his heaving chest, his lungs straining for air as he jerks his arms against my implacable hold. Suddenly he lifts his wild gaze to his reflection in the mirror, and I realize in the same instant he does that my own face is clearly revealed in the glass behind his. My dismayed blue eyes fasten onto his stunned reflection, sliding across the sudden, shocked leaching of color from his face to the midnight darkness of his dumbfounded gaze as he gapes wildly at the head-and-shoulders image of me visible in the glass.


"Oh, shit," I mutter dejectedly as every molecule of his body goes rigid against me, his disbelieving stare capturing my own anxious perusal in the mirror. In that first, breathless instant of direct eye contact, I can't begin to know what must be going on inside Blair's mind; I can't even imagine what sort of monstrous creature I must appear to be in his distorted view.


"Shh...it's okay, everything's okay," I begin mumbling, my arms tightening reflexively around his torso as our gazes remain locked in timeless stasis in the mirror. "You're safe, Blair, there's nothing to be afraid of..."


My only goal right now should be to keep him from freaking out completely, to somehow divert his attention from my face in the glass before he becomes overwhelmed with fear and things really turn ugly. But I find myself frozen in place, hypnotized by the shock of knowing that for this brief moment at least he actually SEES me and is tremblingly aware of my presence here with him. Oh, God, he sees me...but does he really see ME, Jim Ellison?


It pierces me to my soul to have this trembling awareness vibrating between us and to feel all through me the pain of this overwhelming need I have for him not just to see but to RECOGNIZE me; as his eyes devour me now, sucking me down and down into the chaotic depths of his lost soul, I want nothing more than to climb down inside the twisted labyrinth of his mind and extract the hidden core of his essence from within the maze of his damaged neurons.


How can everything that made him who he was be so close--still contained somewhere within that beautiful cranium--and yet remain so hopelessly out of reach, so far removed from retrieval or repair? Oh, God, I can't bear it; it's bad enough to have him looking at me like this, his heart hammering wildly in his chest as I hold him in place; but to have him be afraid of me, for him to envision me as some sort of monster or demon in his mind, is a cruel joke of fate that's almost too much for me to take.


"It's okay," I repeat, my voice dropping to a rough whisper as tears flood my eyes; oh, Christ, the way he's looking at me now! "It's okay, Chief...I've got you, everything's all right." Blinking away the scalding wetness blurring my vision, I try to dredge up the barest hint of a reassuring smile and then freeze, my own heart stilling completely in my chest, as one low, wondering word sighs from Blair's parted lips:


"J'm..."


And as I gape at him in stunned disbelief, it comes again, his voice stronger this time and lifting into the tone of a question:


"J...im?"


Oh, God; oh my GOD...I can't stop or even control the trembling that overtakes my body now as Blair's incredible blue eyes fill with desperate, hungry tears; everything else in the universe around us disappears as his face transforms itself in the mirror from confused terror to a wild, shining hope. The degree of love and need illuminating his pale features bathes his face in a glow of ethereal beauty that literally steals the last of the breath from my lungs; I can feel myself crashing, burning, DYING from the force of it as it washes over me, and I think dimly that I must be sobbing aloud with the pain of it. It's too much, it can't be real...


Oh, Jesus, Blair...Blair, please...


Speaking in broken, halting syllables, my arms shaking convulsively around the warmth of his body, I hear myself entreating him to stay, begging him to turn around and look directly into my eyes, to see and know the real me and not just my reflection. I'm afraid, so afraid, to move at all, to shatter the wonder of this moment with my insatiable greed for something more, for a miracle beyond any that has ever occurred before. God, just give him back to me now, give him back, I cry out from deep inside my soul; and for one exquisite moment I really believe it can happen.


"J'm..." Blair's voice is a low, agonized groan, the dull veil of confusion that's dimmed his vision and his thoughts this past year lifting just long enough for one brief, stunning glimpse of light and life and intelligence to blaze through; for one infinitesimally precious second, he's back with me, breathing me in, fingers scrabbling frantically at my body as our gazes stay locked in the mirror,two sets of eyes wild with need and wonder and awed confusion.


And as my heart shatters within me, he leans his head back against my shoulder, the scent of his hair rising up into my face, its incredible softness making me drunk and weak with need and hopeless love. I hear him whisper tenderly, brokenly, words that make no sense, syllables that are technically nothing more than gibberish but are infused with such fathomless yearning that my heart stutters and breaks anew within my chest. Desperate beyond all reason to sustain between us this tenuous, trembling link of gaze on gaze, of bodies touching, fingers grasping, I lose control, go too far....


I destroy everything.


In one fatal move I send him away again, back into the darkness of his fractured mind; growing so damned greedy, so fucking STARVED for the brilliance of his soul's light pouring over and into me once again, I spin him around to face me, breaking without warning the fragile connection of our melded gazes in the mirror. Almost instantly I realize my mistake, but it's already much too late. Overcome with helpless horror, I can feel the brutal severing of that fine thread of conscious awareness that has spun itself like gossamer between us; and even as I take Blair by the arms and feel my fingers digging cruelly into his flesh, my harsh voice crying out my rage and grief and denial, the light in his soul dims and rapidly dwindles into darkness, dying down and further down into cold ashes once more.


"No," I whisper brokenly as he stands stiff and empty again before me; the terrible vacancy in his expression now is an abomination beyond the power of mere words to describe, and the horror of what I've just done instantly drains all the strength from my body. Overcome with grief, I drop like a stone to the carpeted floor of the bedroom, mindlessly pulling Blair down with me in a boneless heap of arms and legs as my throat pushes out a sob of raw intensity. Helpless to control the shudders wracking my body, I clutch Blair to me and begin to rock back and forth with him, some distant part of my mind dully aware that he has begun to whisper fiercely to himself again, emitting a relentless sussuration of broken syllables and intermittent humming that is all the more poignant for the bewildered note of sadness underlying the sounds rising from his throat.


What did you do? a voice screams hysterically at me inside my head, fiery shards of agonized guilt and self-loathing tearing into my soul. You-stupid-fucking-son-of-a-bitch...what have you DONE?!!


"Blair," I murmur helplessly, knowing he can no longer hear me, feeling the near-complete withdrawal of his body and what's left of his soul away from my touch, from my ravenous need. "Chief..."


But he's gone again, gone far away, lost and alone as always; I did this, I pushed too hard, wanted too much too soon, wanted for all of this to have been nothing more than a bad dream coming to an end at last...But I see now that these past few minutes were the true nightmare. Blair was never really with me, I know that now...I had to have imagined it, had to have hallucinated the sound of my name on his lips and that brief, blinding glow of awareness and recognition in his eyes. Blair can't come back; a brain as damaged as his will never spontaneously recover.


"I'm sorry, babe; I'm so, so sorry," I murmur now into the side of his neck as I clutch him to me, breathing in the scent of sweat and soap and fading fear that still lingers on his skin. Suddenly he surges up, pushing strongly and stubbornly against me in his determination to get away; unprotesting, I let him go, huddling in on myself in silent devastation as he heads with single-minded purpose to the nightstand beside the bed. As I watch dully he rummages about on its surface for his glasses, the ones I always keep there for him; with calm steadiness he places them on his nose and reaches once more for the tattered copy of his favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic book before climbing serenely into bed. Automatically he reaches out to pull the comforter over his legs and scowls in puzzled displeasure as he realizes it isn't folded down at the foot of the bed where it should be. Its inexplicable absence disturbs him, and he begins to bounce one foot up and down on the mattress in mute frustration, his fingers twisting and wringing the rolled-up comic book as he whispers distractedly to himself.


"Here, Chief; it's right here." Dully amazed by the resigned calmness of my voice, I pull myself to my feet, feeling incredibly old and battered and empty in every cell of my body. "What do you say we call it a night?" I continue wearily as I move across the room to pluck the striped comforter off the floor.


Blair ignores me as I approach the bed; but as I gently settle the comforter over his legs and tuck it up around his waist, he gives a relieved sigh and immediately settles down. Delicately his fingers smooth out the crumpled comic book before he opens it to the first page with something like reverence; behind the lenses of his glasses his eyes take on a studious intensity as he narrows his gaze to the animated hijinks of the irrepressibly rowdy little boy Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, his lips moving soundlessly as though reading the captions to himself. But his gaze never wavers from one particular picture on the page, and his fingers never move to turn to the next page. He is gone again, his unnaturally serene countenance the chilling antithesis to that one, stark moment of desperate sanity I was so sure I'd surprised in him mere moments ago.


Indifferent to the hot tears filling my eyes now, I reach on the nightstand for Blair's hairbrush and crawl carefully onto my side of the bed, moving slowly and deliberately so as not to startle him. When I shift his pillow out from behind him and wedge myself carefully at his back in its place, he stiffens for a moment and cocks his head to one side, as though listening for the furtive rustle of some unseen intruder; but I'm used to this. This almost feral wariness on his part has become routine for us both, and I pause only briefly to give him time to adjust to my presence before lifting the brush and drawing it gently through his almost-dried curls.


"You like that, don't you?" I murmur softly as a tiny ripple of pure, hedonistic pleasure shudders through his body with each langorous pull of the bristles through his hair. "Feels so relaxing, makes you sleepy, doesn't it?...Come on, Blair, time to put the comic down, time to rest now..."


And as he begins to sag bonelessly forward over the forgotten shape of his comic book, I lean in to press a slow, soft kiss to the tender nape of his neck. My tears fall like salty pearls onto his skin there; and as he gives one last, contented sigh and allows me to slide him down onto his back, I settle his pillow under his head, slip his glasses off his face and then stretch myself out carefully next to him, turning onto my right side so I can gently stroke his arm, his chest, the hollows of his collarbones.


As my fingers brush lightly across his forehead, his eyes close and his breathing slows and steadies into peaceful sleep; and it is only then that I allow myself, at last, to lean over him and press my mouth gently, so gently, to his. I say nothing, whisper no soft words of love to him this night to send him into dreams of warmth and of safety. Inside I am shattered, inside my heart is a growing darkness that cannot be driven out; and as I rise in the deepest watches of the night to stand in the shower and flay my numbed flesh under scalding jets of water, I repeat to myself that it never really happened, that he never spoke my name with such love, such sorrow, glowing so briefly but so fiercely in his eyes for me...just for me.


"It wasn't real," I whisper furiously as I try to scrub away all memory, all feeling, all pain. "It wasn't real." But as I stand under the shower head till the water runs cold and unforgiving on my skin, I see over and over again the sacred light of brief ensoulment in Blair's eyes, hear my name--so beloved--on his lips, endlessly repeating in my head. And I know that my own, desperate selfishness has ruined everything, that I took the hope of a miracle offered to us both and stamped it blindly into dust beneath my feet. And that's the one thing I'm not sure I can survive.

5.


Haunting all the talk and stalling
Every hope of sleep
Calling to some distant longing
Another soul within your sheets...


The bedroom is still in darkness when I awake, dragging myself up from exhausted snatches of intermittent sleep to find that Blair has snatched most of the comforter for himself and is little more than an inert, dimly outlined lump on the far side of the bed. Grimacing at the dull throbbing in my head, I roll over onto my side long enough to cast a jaundiced eye at the alarm clock on the night stand; as I read the silent numbers glowing back at me in cool neon-blue, a mute groan of frustration catches in my chest. 5:03 a.m. Great, just great; what was that, a grand total of maybe three hours of shut-eye all night? And not all at once, either.


Well, no matter; sleep is over-rated, anyway, I think dourly to myself as I roll over onto my back and lie staring up at the dim ceiling above me. Chronic insomnia has become the rule rather than the exception these days. With my left hand tucked beneath my head, I become idly aware that my other hand has begun to stray across the mattress and the space separating me from Blair, my fingers fumbling almost furtively in the pre-dawn darkness as they seek out the familiar warmth of his sleeping form.


There's no response from him when my hand touches the curled-up huddle of his body beneath the striped comforter, and the slow, even rhythm of his breathing assures me that he's deeply asleep right now. Thank God, I muse wearily, my mind filling with vivid images of the past five hours passed in this bed, hours spent wrestling with a repeatedly waking and agitated Blair and with the demons inside my own heart and head. I don't want to think about it, don't want to relive it all again; but I seem unable to help myself or to drive away the scenes replaying in my mind.


When I first got him to sleep last night, sometime after eleven, I'd hoped he would be out for the count, so exhausted by the incident with the mirror that he wouldn't stir again till morning. It seemed possible at first; he'd slept like a baby the whole time I was in the shower and for maybe another half hour after I'd climbed carefully into bed beside him and closed my own eyes, haunted by images and feelings that wouldn't let me rest.


But his peaceful slumber didn't last; around one a.m. he began to stir, muttering restlessly and sliding his arms and legs against the sheets in short, jerky motions that grew increasingly agitated as the comforter became entangled around his waist. Carefully I worked it out from around him and then moved down to his feet, taking a heel in each hand and gently but persistently pulling downward till I had his legs straightened out on the mattress. Murmuring softly to him, I began a slow, steady massage from the soles of his feet all the way up his thighs to his hips, working stubbornly through his initial resistance and gradually loosening his taut muscles till he lay boneless and quiescent beneath my hands, his short grunts of agitation fading away into occasional sighs of sleepy pleasure.


With my eyesight dialed up, I could see his face quite clearly, even in the darkness of our bedroom; but as soon as I'd satisfied myself that he was calming again, I dialed my sight back down until his features were little more than a pale blur in contrast to the dark swirl of hair on his pillow. It just hurt too much to look at him clearly, to catalogue the details of his face and of his expression as he drifted off into oblivion and then compare them in my mind to that devastating moment of intelligent awareness that had flashed so briefly in his eyes when he saw me--really SAW me--in the mirror earlier.


No, I couldn't think of that now; better just to let it all go. The whole mirror incident was merely some bizarre fluke, maybe a cluster of misfiring neurons that had somehow unlocked for one brief instant a faded memory in Sandburg's mind. That deceptive millisecond of seeming recognition was nothing to become excited about, no cause for hope or celebration. Blair's brain was incapable of bouncing back from the terrible injury it had received over a year ago, at least as far as regaining his former intelligence and higher cognitive abilities was concerned.


So as I lay wearily in the darkness beside him, I ordered myself to forget about it, to push it aside as easily and as completely as Blair seemed to have already done; but even after I'd settled him back into sleep again and had draped myself exhaustedly alongside him, I couldn't erase from my soul the excruciatingly painful memory of that moment before the mirror. For it to have really happened was a medical impossibility, I knew that much; but I also knew that it HAD happened. And I didn't know why, or exactly what to do about it.


Maybe, against all odds, Blair's brain WAS somehow beginning to heal itself, I mused uncertainly as I listened to him breathing next to me; it wasn't totally inconceivable that the doctors and specialists could have made a mistake, a simple error in judgment concerning his case...


But you saw his x-rays and eegs and MRI scans, saw the horrible path of destruction that bullet tore through his brain, I argued with myself well into the night, reaching out to rest a calming hand on Blair's chest each time he moaned or muttered or twitched restively in his sleep. There's just no way such extensive damage could ever fully be repaired, not enough to make him like he was before. So stop torturing yourself over it--stop thinking about the look in his eyes, the way your name sounded on his lips...forget the almost unbearably intense tone of wonder and desperation in his voice when he called out to you...forget the way he leaned against you, his hands reaching back for you so hungrily, so trustingly...


God!...Sleep, just let me sleep, why the hell can't I SLEEP?...It was almost a relief when Blair came awake again around 2:30 am, threshing and groaning and pushing wildly against me as I tried to settle him down once more. My murmured words seemed to have no effect on him, and the more I tried to press him back down, the more agitated he became. He kept trying to get up, thrusting his hands against my chest with angry little grunts and blocking my legs with his knees when I tried to straddle him to hold him still. Realizing that I was probably over-reacting in the aftermath of his earlier outbursts, I gave in after a few moments of useless struggling with him and watched as he climbed out of bed and padded rather grumpily off to the bathroom.

Way to go; he needs to take a piss and you try to hold him down, I groused to myself in weary chagrin as the bathroom light clicked on and the distinct sounds of urine splashing into the toilet bowl sounded loud in the late night silence around us. At least, after much therapy and endless repetition, he'd been able to learn basic self-help skills again in the long, laborious months since his injury, I thought numbly to myself as I waited for his return to bed. And if I hadn't been so tired and so distracted, I would have sensed that he needed to take a leak, I castigated myself as I stumbled to my feet in preparation to go check on Blair's progress.


Just as I was about to head into the bathroom after him, the sound of the toilet flushing assaulted my ears, followed shortly thereafter by the hesitant trickle of water in the sink; so he'd remembered both the task of flushing and of washing his hands, too, I thought absently; he didn't, always. Then I found myself stiffening in apprehension at the realization that he would have to stand before the bathroom mirror to wash his hands. God, I CANNOT do this again tonight, I groaned to myself, taking a reluctant step toward the light-filled doorway and trying to prepare myself for a sudden, hysterical outburst on Sandburg's part. But at that moment the light clicked off and his shadowy, tousle-headed figure shuffled back into the bedroom, angling directly for the bed with his head down in bemused concentration.


Thank God he was only half awake; he probably didn't even notice the mirror at all, I sighed in relief as I watched him crawl back into bed. There was something so innocently vulnerable about him as he tugged at his pillow and squirmed from his back to his belly, trying to get settled in again; I couldn't help the ripple of gently amused affection that rose in me at the sight of him coming to rest face down with his knees tucked under his chest, his cheek pressed into his pillow and his boxer-clad ass poking up like an oversized toddler's in the dimness.


Helpless to contain the surge of love rising up in me, I slid carefully back into bed and pulled the comforter over him, leaning in to press a gentle kiss to the back of his head. "God, how could I NOT love you, Chief," I whispered against the soft tendrils of hair that tickled my lips. "I promise that no matter what happens, I'll always be here for you; I'll never stop loving you, babe, never..."


And for a brief period I drifted off, my subconscious somehow comforted by his presence next to me. The clock read almost 4 am when next he jerked awake, his legs scissoring and kicking convulsively as he came up fighting, fists clenched and swinging in tandem with his flailing legs as a furious, garbled litany of sounds and syllables erupted from his throat. He clipped me a good one on my left cheekbone before I managed to get a firm grip on his windmilling arms and wrestle him onto his right side on the mattress.


"Easy, Chief, easy," I murmured as I wrapped my arms around his torso from behind, pinning his arms to his chest and flinging my left leg over both of his to hold them still. "It's all right, everything's okay..."


But my voice trailed away as one familiar word in the midst of Blair's incomprehensible diatribe pierced the muzzy fog of exhaustion in my brain. My heart pounding sickly in my chest where it pressed against his back, I instinctively tightened my grip on his rigid body as he began muttering doggedly to himself, over and over again:


"Jimjimjim..."


Ah, God, why is he doing this: why NOW? What the hell is going on here? I thought feverishly to myself as Blair stiffened against me and thrust his head back, hard, into the hollow between my neck and shoulder.


"Shh...it's all right, babe...I'm here, right here with you, it's Jim..." Futiley I tried to calm him down, tried to capture his inward-directed attention through the sound of my voice in his ear, through the gently persistent pressure of my arms around his chest and my leg pinning both of his to the mattress. It seemed to me that on some level he WAS aware of me, aware to an extent I couldn't recall ever having witnessed since he was injured; in the brief space between one heartbeat and the next, I experienced the disconcertingly strong sensation that some part of Blair's lost mind actually heard my voice alternately soothing and adjuring him. And even as the thought came to me, he went absolutely still in my grasp, waiting for some mysterious sign or signal I couldn't begin to decypher, much less transmit to him.


For one tremulous instant every cell in his body seemed to go silent in the midst of the frenetic life dance taking place beneath his skin; every molecule of his being seemed poised on the knife edge of some momentous revelation--a revelation fraught with the potential to unleash enough raw, screaming power to scorch and shatter everything in Blair's immediate vicinity.


Including one nerve-frazzled Sentinel, I mused wearily to myself as Blair grunted once and went limp against me, his lips again whispering incomprehensible secrets in a monotonous cadence that chilled me even as it burned a path of sorrow deep into my soul. The barely audible string of sounds emerging from his throat instantly shattered the illusion that some wondrous event had been just on the verge of unfolding, and I felt a sudden clutch of exhausted desperation as Blair jerked in my grasp and began to moan dully, the sound low and defeated and filled with nameless grief at having drawn so near to actual communication, only to fall helplessly back into the gaping maw of his terrible solitude.


"Go to sleep now, Chief: please, just go to sleep," I whispered roughly into the shell of his ear, into the darkness surrounding us. "I'm here, everything's fine; you can rest now...We're both tired, so tired...I need for you to rest, to be still--"


And then he murmured it again, so softly but so clearly: J'm.


My muscles went lax, helpless against the onslaught of devastated emotion in my chest; and Blair took advantage of my momentary weakness to push back against me, to briefly shove me away before rolling with sudden, feral grace to straddle my stunned body and make me his captive.


It's all right, everything's okay, I wanted to tell him, tried to tell him; but the words climbed halfway up my throat and then stuck there, forever unsaid, as he screwed his eyes tightly shut and forced harsh, needy syllables from between his lips. The sounds he made were hesitant and horribly garbled, and as he loomed above me in the dimness, his fingers digging painfully into my shoulders where he'd pinned me to the mattress, he appeared to be trying to organize the disjointed, hoarsely discordant syllables falling from his mouth into recognizable words.


Blair's whole body shook with the force of his wild frustration, his fingernails digging painful grooves into my flesh; and as much as I wanted to offer frantic encouragement to his horrific struggles to speak, I couldn't. I couldn't speak, couldn't move. I was frozen with shock and with the helpless, despairing notion that this had to be a dream. He had never done this before, never shown such a heightened level of awareness concerning my presence in his lost, lonely world; and the realization that he was finally trying--straining with every molecule of his taut, grimly intent body to forge some sort of tangible connection between us--ultimately gave me the strength to
lift shaky hands to cup his face. Tears welled hotly in my eyes, but Blair's eyes stayed shut tight, as though he was searching inside himself for the secret code that might unlock the rules of grammar and language that now seemed beyond him. I could sense the frustration rising within him, could feel the growing tension in the amazingly strong muscles of his upper thighs as he clamped them tightly against my legs and emitted a long, low groan of such terrible loss and pathos that my skin grew chilled goosebumps and the hairs on my arms and legs stood up.



And as he lifted his hands from my shoulders and began to claw wildly, blindly, at his own chest, his unbelievably strong fingers ripping and gouging at the cotton material of his t-shirt, I surged up and flipped him over onto his back again, reversing our previous positions as I straddled his legs and held him down.


"Stop it...stop this, Blair...goddammit, ENOUGH!" I roared into the midst of his hysteria, and as he suddenly went limp beneath me and began to sob in broken gasps, I let my head drop against his heaving chest, my breath rattling harshly in my lungs in tandem with his agitated respirations.


"Shh...okay, it's okay, it's okay," I heard myself murmuring mindlessly, repetitively, as his hands came up to clutch at my shoulders, fingers digging into my flesh and tugging at me with mute desperation. Needy, so infinitely, tragically lost and needy, so alone...


His pain overwhelmed me, merged seamlessly with my own in the predawn darkness until I couldn't bear it, couldn't think or breathe or hear or see; I was zoning on our joint despair, careening out of control on wave after wave of unmitigated need and misery. And as his hands pulled me in close and closer, his body shaking beneath me with the force of his inexpressible suffering, I was overcome by such a rush of love and sorrow that the only way I could express it was through the touch of my hands on him, through the press of my body over his, forcing him down into the mattress, holding him in place as I used my fingers to slide his t-shirt up around his chest.


"It's going to be all right, baby; I love you, see how much I love you, only you..." Choking the words out through tears of helpless bereavement, I lowered my mouth to the dark nub of his left nipple, laving the pebbled, swifly hardening protrusion with teeth, tongue, and lips as Blair stiffened momentarily and then melted into the caress, a low groan of tortured hunger rasping from his chest. Ignoring the fingers that scrabbled at my head, tugging roughly at the short strands of my hair in an attempt to draw me even closer, I continued on my course of seduction, spilling heedless tears onto the heated skin of his chest as I slowly worked my way to his other nipple.


"Good, babe; I'll make you feel so good," I crooned soothingly to him as my hands wandered up and down his torso, fingers sliding like a whisper along the elastic waistband of his boxers to be met with the answering, hungry thrusts of his hips bucking against me, begging for a release he craved strongly but could no longer fully understand.


"I'm here with you, I'll never leave you...always here, love, always..." I promised him brokenly as I kissed my way down his body, soothing his trembling with slow, steady strokes of my hands on his flesh, with gentle nips and licks that had him moaning and whispering fervently, the nonsense words hushed and oddly reverent on the still air between us. And as I finally took the hard, throbbing center of his need into my mouth--loving him almost more intensely in my heart in that moment than my soul could withstand--I felt the crest of his desire surging bitter on my tongue, just as his voice called out to me roughly, mournfully, from so close above and yet a million miles away: "J'M!"


And then he slept, falling deep and hard and fast into total nothingness, into the safety of oblivion, as I collapsed beside him and wept my way, alone and inconsolable, into my own black abyss.

***

But now it's almost daylight, almost time to get up and face another round of this life, of this pain; and for the first time in a long time I'm absolutely terrified. I'm so afraid that last night really was nothing more than a temporary aberration, that he'll never again say my name in that tone trembling with the unmistakable blush of awareness and of helpless need...


But I'm almost equally afraid that he WILL display more instances of expanded consciousness, of dim recognition, and that it will be on a scale just intense enough to plunge the both of us into even more emotional pain and suffering than we've already endured to date. In a sense that would be a far worse fate, to live out our days with intermittent and unexpected flashes of comprehension on Blair's part that can never be retained and will continually slip away again, leaving him even more withdrawn and confused and angry...


It won't be like that, I think furiously to myself now as Blair growls in his sleep and thrusts one bare, vulnerable foot out from under the comforter. There has to be a reason why he reacted the way he did last night; there has to be some sort of medical thing going on with him, maybe some sort of...change...taking place inside his brain. And it can only be an improvement, right, whatever it is? Oh, God, please let him be improving, please help him get BETTER! my soul cries out mutely as the first, fragile glow of dawn begins to creep into the room.


"I think it's time to call Dr. Inatsch, Chief," I whisper to his sleeping form as I slip from our bed to go to the bathroom. "I know you won't like that, but I need to find out...I need to KNOW something here, before I go fucking nuts waiting for the other shoe to drop."


And when I've returned from the bathroom, still muttering intently to myself much in the same way Blair so often does, I find him stirring fitfully in the middle of our bed, his arms and legs probing the empty spaces around him as though searching for something lost, something missed. Climbing carefully over his increasingly agitated form, I untangle the snarled sheets from around his torso and toss them aside before settling myself alongside my lover's sleep-warmed body, my hands reaching to pull him closer.


For one long second he resists my advances, his forehead wrinkling in drowsy confusion; but then I both see and hear him sniffing curiously in my direction, as if possessed of heightened senses like my own. Something like relief smoothes the lines from his face as he breathes in my scent, cataloguing and recognizing me; and a smile creases my face in return as Blair relaxes against me, his hands moving to clutch lazily at my waist.


"So, who's developed sentinel awareness NOW, Chief?" I murmur as I press a soft kiss to his chin. "And who's become the guide in this relationship? But I gotta warn you, I will NOT get my ear or my nipple pierced, not even for you."


Lazily I feather kisses across his cheeks and down the bridge of his nose, teasing myself a bit with the unfulfilled need to press my mouth to the inviting warmth and fullness of his; as my lips hover a scant whisper from their longed-for goal, Blair huffs sleepily against my face, the featherlight exhalation of his breath tickling my sensitized skin. And as I struggle against giving in to the sweet allure of his lips and kissing him full on the mouth, his blue eyes blink open and stare hazily up into mine, seeming for one brief instant to actually see me and ALMOST recognize me here with him before the usual opaque shutter slides down over his gaze, silently but effectively blocking me out.


It's astounding, really, the depth of pain that surges up within me as the precious link between us severs with stunning abruptness, leaving me unbearably lonely even as I continue to cradle Blair's unresisting body against my own. I can't be angry with him; I WON'T be angry with him for not seeing me with either his eyes or his mind this morning, for not being able to understand what's happened in his life--in OUR life, together. For we ARE together, my soul cries fiercely, even as my tortured mind tries to deny it. Whether Blair's aware of that fact or not, we ARE together. And I won't give up on him, CAN'T give up, even when it hurts this bad, even when it feels like I'm dying and going crazy and burning up with rage all at one and the same time...


I WILL stay in control, I order myself grimly, fighting the impulse to tighten my hold on Blair, to SQUEEZE him so hard against me in a desperate and ultimately futile effort to pull him out of his own lost head and back into daylight. Get a grip, dammit! I swear at myself; and as the sweet, familiar scent of Blair-skin wafts up into my nostrils, I am suddenly overcome with peace, suddenly made soft and pliable with the gentle force of my love for him.


"Come on, Chief," I murmur now against his silky hair as he snorts once and tries to roll away from me. "Come on, we need to get you up and dressed before Irma shows up to make your breakfast and teases us both for being lazy bums this morning. Don't you want some of Irma's special scrambled eggs and french toast? Oh, and coffee; can't you just smell it brewing already?"


Blair mutters thickly and stubbornly tries to curl in on himself, his fingers fumbling instinctively beneath him for the missing comforter that fell over the edge of the bed earlier. His eyes are puffy with a mixture of sleep and leftover exhaustion, his cheeks lightly scratchy with stubble; his hair, trimmed not so long ago, still manages to riot wildly around his head as he burrows into his pillow, muttering disconsolately to himself over the loss of his comforter. Grumpy gus, I think at him with a brief surge of tenderness; then, with a sigh of surrender I retrieve the crumpled mass of down-stuffed material from the floor and drape it over him again.


"Why don't you sleep in this morn, champ?" I murmur affectionately; and as Blair clutches the comforter up around his chin with a mute sigh of pleasure, I bend down to press a light kiss to the top of his head. I dress quickly in the brightening shafts of sunlight streaming gently in through the partially draped windows before slipping quietly out of the master suite to go start that coffee. I have a feeling it's going to be another long day, and God knows I could use a little something to jump-start my weary body in preparation for the hours ahead. I'm more often tired these days and getting older by the minute; but I know more certainly than ever now that as long as there's one breath of life left in my body, I will never stop trying to bring Blair back, to have him fully present with me here in the hallowed halls of his sanctuary, here in our lives together. The thought seems to lend new strength to my flagging body, and as I step into the quiet kitchen it seems I'm also taking a symbolic step forward into a new future for this sentinel and his guide.


6.


If someday you love me
If in truth someday you love me
Far away, far away...

Let the words within you
Whisper to you how I miss you
Far away, far away...



"C'mon, Fuzzy; what do you say to a little shave this fine morning?"


Keeping my tone light, I gently take Blair by the shoulder and steer him toward the small, sunny deck leading off the master bedroom. Dressed only in his boxers, Blair absently clutches the towel I've just handed him and allows me to direct him out into the morning sun, his blue eyes blinking owlishly as I get him settled onto the tall bar stool I keep on the deck just for this purpose. His eyes are still a bit puffy, but considering the agitation he experienced last night, he looks amazingly well rested. Too bad I can't say the same about myself, I think wryly now as I squint my own bloodshot eyes against the sun and get Blair safely centered on the stool.


"We can't have Irma thinking you've turned into some sort of scruffy derelict, now, can we?" I tease affectionately as I gently pry the towel from his fingers and drape it around his bare shoulders. His skin is soft and startlingly white in the strong morning light, and I find myself brooding over the notion that I should take him outdoors more, get a bit of color into him. But he isn't exactly into vigorous outdoor sports these days, I concede to myself with sad irony as I squirt shaving cream into my hand and warm it a bit with the heat from my palm before carefully spreading it along Blair's jawline and chin and just above his upper lip.


"We could walk more," I muse distractedly to him as I reach for the safety razor and begin to shave the right side of Blair's face. He sits quiescent before me, still drowsy and slumping a bit, and as his head dips down toward his chest, I slide a finger under his chin and gently tilt his head up straight again so I can more easily finish my task.


"You like walking...well, sometimes," I amend wryly as he chooses that moment to wrinkle his nose as if in disapproval. "And it's good exercise--for both of us," I continue as I finish with his chin and begin carefully shaving above his upper lip. "I'll have to start coming home earlier, take you out sometimes for a bit of simple hiking. Would you like that, Chief?"


Blair doesn't answer, of course, just sighs and leans into me as I gently wipe the shaving cream residue from his face with a warm, wet cloth. I follow up with a light application of soothing aloe gel to minimize the razor burn and skin irritation he sometimes gets; and as my fingers smooth the clear lotion along his jawline, he briefly turns his head and nuzzles his left cheek against my palm, his lips almost grazing my skin there. He's never done that before, NEVER physically responded to my ministrations while shaving him, and I freeze instantly, my heart beginning to thud in my chest as an expression of sublime contentment transforms Blair's delicate face into something indescribably beautiful.


Oh, God...God. I can't take this, can't contain the incredible, overwhelming surge of pure love that rises to a pulse-pounding crescendo within me, battering and beating relentlessly at the carefully constrained walls of my heart. My throat tightens helplessly as Blair sighs into my palm and rubs his satin-smooth cheek against my hungry flesh, the springy curls alongside his face flashing like burnished fire under the rays of the sun.


Suddenly I'm choking back a harsh sob of love and need and infinite sorrow, fighting a silent, tortured battle within my soul as half of me longs to yank my hand away from the exquisite agony of his touch and the other half of me never, ever wants this contact with him to end.


"Hey...hey, buddy," I murmur brokenly instead as his blue eyes drift closed and a low, contented hum slides up from his throat. For one beautiful moment he rests the full weight of his head into my hand, his breath warm and trusting against my palm; and this feels so holy, so perfect, that all I can do is close my own eyes and merely stand before him in an attitude of silent reverence.


The sun sends down warm blessings, gently radiating its golden benediction onto the crowns of our heads as I allow myself--after months of denial--to finally, fully open all my senses to the man before me; feelings and sensations, sounds and scents that I've kept carefully muted and subdued for so long now, suddenly flood into me through the simple contact of Blair's cheek against my palm--and it's all too much, the raw power of it catapulting me into an immediate zone-out of profound sensory overload.


I feel EVERYTHING now and at maximum intensity; every wild, sweet, frenetic thrum and hum and rush of blood and life and energy surging through Blair's body; my palm is on fire from the unwitting brush of his full, tender lips against my super-sensitized flesh, and the conflagration spreads from my hand to my fingers to my arm, then up into my shoulder and neck before roaring into a blazing inferno of unadulterated sensation throughout my whole body.


I can smell his blood in his veins, can taste his essence through my skin, can hear the tumultuous surge and crash of cells and molecules, of plasma and corpuscles pounding through his bloodstream in an exultant symphony of life and vitality. I'm deafened by the steady cadence of his heartbeat, by the efficient bellows of oxygen whooshing in and out, in and out of his rhythmically inflating lungs; his life force sucks me in, melds my own stunned, erratic body processes with his until I can feel my heart taking on the rhythm of Blair's heart, can feel my respirations slowing in sync with his peaceful breathing.


I am completely drawn into the heated core and pulse of him, my own essence blending with some elusive, quicksilver thread of Blair-ness that pulls me up and up, away from his heart and lungs and into his head, into that place so damaged, so ravaged by a heated metal projectile. I don't want to be here, don't want to be this close to the shattered crater of what was once the busy command center of Blair's consciousness; desperately I try to withdraw, try to pull myself out of him and back into my own body, back into the outside world.


But he won't release me; I can't escape this--I'm trapped within the devastated ridges of his scarred, blasted neurons and destroyed brain cells, jarred and jolted and stunned by the sluggish, erratic sizzling of misfiring connections that strobe like weak lightning from his brain into the grief-sickened core of my soul. He was hurt so badly, so severely; the dead, shriveled blackness which is all that remains of once-healthy brain cells surrounds and entombs me in claustrophobic silence, crushing my soul with the immensity of the damage done to him.


Jesus, I can't do this, can't be here; I can't witness this, can't experience this savage desecration of my lover's beautiful mind and hope to ever emerge from it with my sanity intact. Let me go; oh, please, Chief, let me go! I moan to him inside his head, my head, the two of us joined, frozen, helpless. I don't know what to do, don't know how to fix this; I don't know how to bring you back! I scream into the ruin of his mind.


And then I hear him, his voice small and distant and so unbearably sad: Jim. And faintly--so faintly that even my heightened senses can't be sure I'm really hearing it--
miss you...so much...


For an agonizing nanosecond--an interval of time too brief to even measure--something SLAMS into the core of me, hitting me with all the desperate, chaotic force of a raging tsunami. It's Blair--MY Blair--vibrant and aware and crackling with the near-demented fury of his own loss and grief and need. And as my soul is scoured raw beneath the full onslaught of his distress, tortured words launch from the bombed-out crater of his mind and burn themselves into every particle of my being: Alone, so alone...Help me!...


Help me...


But there's nothing I can do, nothing to hold onto as the overwhelming measure of his pain rips our conjoined souls from the tenuous tether connecting us and hurls us violently apart once more, my frenzied roar of rage and denial sucked away into nothingness as the link is broken. When awareness returns I find myself lying flat on my back on the sun-drenched deck, the savage thundering of my heart threatening to burst the over-stressed organ right through the wall of my chest.


"No! God...no," I hear myself groan brokenly, every cell of my aching body echoing the terrible cry of a soul in extremis. "Blair..."


And it's only my desperate concern for him that gives me the strength now to stagger to my feet and lurch over to the toppled bar stool and Blair's hunched form huddled next to it, his arms locked around his knees as he rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, whispering and whispering to himself as he stares straight ahead into nothing.


"It's okay, Chief; come on, it's all right," I murmur shakily as I kneel and place tentative arms around him, gently stilling his compulsive rocking movements. "You didn't hurt yourself when you fell, did you? Let me see, let me check you over..."


I keep my voice light and soothing, ignoring the fine tremors running like a low-voltage current through my body as I coax Blair to his feet and run careful hands down the length of him. He flinches under my touch, his legs trembling like those of a skittish colt on the verge of bolting; through the headache pounding in my skull, I can smell the light sheen of perspiration rising on his skin, and I force down the sudden surge of dizziness and nausea in my body as I order myself to get a grip and to focus only on Blair's needs now, only on his well-being.


"You're fine, tough guy," I murmur lightly to him, lifting an unsteady hand to brush an errant tendril of hair back from his forehead. "Everything's going to be okay..." It feels so surreal, standing here in the cheerful morning sun with the love of my heart unresponsive before me, the vacant flatness of his eyes seeming to refute the earth-shattering epiphany we both just survived, the same epiphany that's still convulsing my insides and churning them into a chaotic mishmash of desperate hope.


"We're going to get through this, Chief," I vow to him as I gently take his face into my hands and press a kiss to his forehead. "You see, I know now--finally, after so long--I KNOW. I was too afraid to look closely before, too shattered to understand; and I'm so sorry for that. So, so sorry, Blair. I hope you can forgive me; I hope you can trust me to do the right thing now."


I'm weeping as I speak, thinking ruefully to myself as the tears fall that I've cried more in the past twelve hours than I have in the last year. But it's fine, it's okay, because I know that I've descended as far down into the depths of Hell as it's possible to go; and now it's time to head back to the light, back to the life that's been waiting all along. And I won't be making the trip alone.


"I heard you, love; I FELT you, all through me," I whisper now against Blair's slack lips, revelling in the faint exhalation of his breath against my mouth. "I know you've been lost and very, very sad; but you're still here--" Lightly I press my palm against his forehead, signifying his mind, then I lower the same hand to press it over his heart, the cradle of his spirit.


"And still HERE," I murmur as I touch his chest, my soul glorying in the steady drumming of his life force beneath my hand. "And I'm right here with you. It's time, I think, to start the long road back now, the both of us."


Blair whimpers once, growing restless in the face of my one-man revelation; and a gentle smile lifts the corners of my mouth as I pull him against me and cradle him with infinite tenderness, one hand cupping the back of his head while I rub slow, soothing strokes up and down his spine with my other hand.


"You see," I continue musingly into the soft cloud of his hair; "I've been just as lost as you, so filled with grief and rage and loneliness that I shut down the very thing I actually needed to access more deeply than ever before. I denied my gift in favor of listening to everyone else's declarations of finality and doom; I forgot that all the doctors and experts and even our closest friends don't know what you and I know, what we've always known. There's so much more to existence than what the eye can see, than what the hand can touch, Blair; both you and Incacha taught me that once upon a time. Forgive me for not remembering, for not retaining the lesson. But I remember now; there are kingdoms within realms within principalities, all within an infinite number of universes. And the freed soul can travel anywhere it wishes between them, without limits."


As Blair squirms furtively against me, his fingers coming up to twist in my shirtfront, I press a kiss to the crown of his head and finish consideringly: "I think I've figured it out, Chief; our minds are just mini universes themselves, including yours, infinite in scope and possibility. But since your injury we've all put limits on your brain's parameters, claimed it to be something permanently damaged, something fixed and organic and incapable of restoration beyond a minimal point. Well, do you know what I say to that, Chief?"


Laughing softly now, I tilt Blair's head back just enough to look down into his face, into his beautiful, bemused, slightly perturbed face that I want to smother with kisses...But instead I settle for giving his nose an affectionate tweak as I end my impromptu oration.


"I say bullshit to that, buddy. Bullshit, do you hear me? You're in there, Blair--the REAL you--and I think you've been 'on vacation' goddamned long enough now. And I don't give a shit what the inside of your brain looks like or what anybody else says--from here on in we're going to do this OUR way...the right way. I confess I'm not quite sure what that way is just yet, but I'll figure it out. Okay?"


Blair huffs impatiently against me at that, his hands pushing at my chest; and even as the continued blankness in his eyes causes a painful twinge to center over my heart, I hold secure in my soul the memory of that one, astounding moment when I realized that neither his spirit nor his intellect were irretrievably destroyed and gone.


"I've missed you so much, Sandburg, so much; but you've been here all along--just playing hide and seek, eh?" I murmur as he frees himself from my light hold and disappears through the open glassed doors back into the bedroom.


"Well, that's okay," I add under my breath as I gather up the shaving things and follow him inside. "It's going to be time soon enough to yell 'Ollie, Ollie, Oxen-free!' and coax you out from your hiding place. And then tag, buddy, you're it; the whole freaking world will be your playground--OUR playground, together."


And as I herd my reluctant charge into the bathroom for a quick wash-up before getting him dressed, my soul feels unaccountably lighter and freer than it has in a year's worth of long, dark months. Suddenly my senses go on alert, tracking the approach of Irma's car up the winding drive to the house, and I urge a balky Blair to hurry, realizing with some surprise that I'm actually starving this morning.


As I steer him from the bathroom to the bedroom closet and pull out a worn but clean pair of his jeans and a choice of three shirts for his perusal, I can't help searching his face for any sign of the awareness that has surfaced on at least two occasions since yesterday evening; to all outward appearances Blair is once again snugly esconced in his private little world, but when he very pointedly repuditates my offering of his gray shirt and reaches for the red one instead, a smile of quiet delight stretches across my face.


"You go, Chief," I murmur approvingly as Blair tugs the red shirt down over his head and fumbles at the three open buttons at the neck, clumsily working each one into its proper slot. When I approach him with his hair brush he catches sight of it from the corner of his eye and snatches it rather brusquely from my hand, moving to the mirror to tame his rioting curls himself. For one suspenseful instant I freeze up, apprehensive about the possible outcome of his looking into a mirror again; but his expression registers nothing more than a sort of fretful annoyance as he wrestles the soft bristles of the brush through his thick hair. And I'm content merely to stand back and witness the always-encouraging sight of him taking control over even this minor level of his own care and the routine of his day.


"Beautiful, babe; you're beautiful," I grin when he's satisfied himself that enough grooming has transpired and carelessly drops the brush onto the dresser. For a moment he looks lost again, standing frozen in indecision as if unsure what comes next; and I take my cue and step forward as he turns away from the mirror muttering irascibly to himself, his body stiffening with the beginnings of agitated confusion.


"Time for breakfast, Chief, remember?" I urge gently; and when I reach to lightly curl my fingers around his left arm, he relaxes almost imperceptibly and allows me to lead him from the bedroom to the kitchen, where I can already hear Irma busily preparing breakfast.


"I have a feeling things are about to get a lot livelier around here, babe," I murmur to Blair as we follow our noses to the source of the delicious aromas of coffee, scrambled eggs, and bacon wafting through the house. "I just hope Irma and I together will be enough to handle Hurricane Sandburg once you're unleashed full force onto these peaceful shores."


Blair's only response is an impatient tug forward against my hand as he recognizes the smell of his favorite guava juice concoction; and as he practically drags me into the sunny kitchen, I can't tell if the amazed expression on Irma's face when she catches sight of us is due to Blair's uncharacteristic exuberance or to the almost certainly goofy grin on my own face.

7.


For if someday I wander
Then, too soon I too will wander
Far away, far away...

Far away, far away...

Calling to your heart, and stealing
All the want away...


"Something's happened," Irma deduces shrewdly as I settle Blair at the kitchen table
and slap lightly at his fingers to forestall his attempts to snatch up a steaming-hot biscuit from his plate.


"What makes you say that?" I murmur evasively as Blair gives an angry little grunt and
stretches furtive fingers back toward the enticing food; when I lift a warning hand over
his plate, he makes a sudden feint to the right, slips in under my palm and whisks the
fluffy piece of bread off the plate with the speed and agility of a born thief.


"You sneaky little bastard, you," I say admiringly as Blair briefly juggles the hot biscuit
from hand to hand before quickly pinching off a crusty corner and popping it into his mouth.


"Hot enough for you?" I chuckle as his lips purse in an almost comical moue of discomfort; before I can push his glass of juice in his direction, he's already reaching for it, curling his fingers around it and taking a long gulp while Irma stands over him and shakes her head in rueful chagrin.


"Sorry, Jim; I should have let them cool a bit more first," she apologizes, but I merely shrug my shoulders and give her a philosophical grimace.


"He has to learn," I retort simply but can't help myself from reaching out to gently inspect first one and then the other of Blair's hands for any evidence of burns. "No damage here, though his tongue might not be too happy for awhile," I add drily as Blair jerks his hands from my light grasp and stubbornly reaches again for the discarded biscuit. It's cooled off by now, and he munches happily on it as Irma sets a heaping plate of eggs and bacon in front of me.


"This looks great," I sigh appreciatively as I tuck my napkin into my lap and dig my fork into the middle of the scrambled eggs. "You really went all out this morning in the breakfast department, Irma. Some sort of special occasion?" I tease, and Irma merely lifts one eyebrow and gestures pointedly from me to Blair, who's now eyeing the second biscuit on his plate with a mix of frustrated longing and suspicion that curves my lips into an amused smile.


"You tell me, Mr. Ex-Detective," Irma snorts lightly as Blair decides to live dangerously and snatches up the second biscuit, an expression of relief flitting across his face as he realizes that this one isn't hot like the first one was. As he crams a disgustingly large chunk of the bread into his mouth, Irma and I share a brief grin, and then I shrug nonchalantly and shovel a forkful of eggs into my own mouth, stalling for time.


"When the two of you come sailing in here with some sort of bizarre energy sizzling all around you like a live wire, then I begin to think somewhere in my tiny brain that just maybe something unusual is up with at least one and maybe both of you," Irma continues musingly, her gaze keen on my face as she pours two cups of coffee and settles down at the table with them. Keeping one steaming cup for herself, she slides the other over next to my plate and fixes me with a bold, exaggeratedly patient stare that has me sighing in resigned surrender. And I thought Sandburg could be stubborn.


"Okay, okay," I mumble around a cautious sip of the coffee; it tastes wonderful, strong and full without being too bitter, and I inhale appreciatively and sample one more taste before setting the cup back down and giving Irma a wry smile. With just the smallest extension of my senses I'm able to note the slight increase in her heart rate and respiration and realize that, despite her sardonically cool exterior, she's itching with curiosity underneath.


"I know what you're probably going to say," I begin somewhat defensively, already projecting ahead to the Irma List of Logical Explanations most likely lying in wait for me when I tell her about last night and the whole thing with the mirror. "But before you say anything, just let me say that I KNOW what I saw and heard, and it didn't just arise from my own wishful thinking."


"Fair enough," Irma nods gravely, and I take another nervous sip of coffee to marshall my thoughts before plunging in and describing last night's events, starting with Blair's freak-out under the willow tree to the moment he recognized me in the bedroom mirror.


"So you're saying he actually looked right at you and KNEW you--right there, in real time, so to speak--not mistaking you for a ghost or a shadow, but truly SEEING you?" Irma murmurs softly as my voice trails away into nothing.


"It all seemed to happen so fast," I hear myself mumbling softly, "and of course I pretty much froze--I'm not sure for exactly how long--when I saw...when I saw what was there, in his eyes. But I didn't imagine it; I KNOW it was real! God, I just keep repeating myself, don't I? But if you'd only been there, if you'd SEEN for yourself...I know that in reality the whole episode lasted only seconds, but God, time just seemed to stop when that expression of startled AWARENESS flared to life in his eyes when he looked at me--I mean, really LOOKED at me, Irma."


My voice is tight with emotion, and a faint tremor has begun in all my limbs, causing me to grasp the handle of my coffee mug so tightly in an effort to control the shaking that I can feel minute cracks from the pressure of my fingers snaking their way along the tiny fault lines in the ceramic material. A fine sheen of perspiration has broken out on my forehead, and Irma's hand tightens on her own coffee mug in tandem with the death grip I have on mine as she gives me a searching look made up of equal parts concern and empathy. I see no disbelief in her gaze, for which I'm almost pathetically grateful; but at the same time I find myself oddly disappointed by the aura I sense from her of cautious scepticism and of judgment reserved.


But what was I expecting, I think resignedly to myself as my erratic heart rate slowly settles back down. No one loves Blair like I do; no one--not even his own mother--could ever begin to IMAGINE how fucking devastating this whole nightmare has been and how desperately I've missed the vibrant, energized man who whirled into my life one day out of the blue, appearing as if by magic at a time when I was barely hanging onto my own sanity and stealing my heart and soul despite my gruffest efforts to keep him at arm's length.


Like anyone could keep Blair Sandburg at arm's length for more than five minutes after meeting him, I think wryly and then feel a sudden, sharp stab of grief as my gaze slides down the table to the man currently tearing his third biscuit into carefully symmetrical pieces before arranging each fragment around the edges of his plate with obsessive precision. At least that magnetism was true of the OLD Blair; the man sitting near me now is still much loved by those who were once closest to him, but it's a love intermingled with so much pain and grief for the unspeakable tragedy that his life has become that it's driven all but a handful of occasional, uncomfortable visitors away from our door.


Our days now are more often lonely than not, I muse with a hint of old resentment still stinging deep in my gut for all the extended friendships that have fallen by the wayside in the past year. I've tried hard to keep up a semblance of normal living for myself, have forced myself to venture out into the world and interact with others, to work and keep myself busy and not give in to the almost compulsive urge that sometimes hits me to withdraw from everything and everyone and hide both Blair and myself away here forever, completely cut off from all those clueless people out beyond these walls. All of them selfishly going about their lives, I think ungraciously, knowing I'm not being completely fair but not much caring. Continuously living up close and personal with what was done to Blair has made it hard for me to relate to old friends who have quite understandably moved on with their lives, navigating their days as if the monstrous evil that was done to Blair was of no importance at all in the big scheme of things, as if the extinguishing of the once-blazing light of quick intelligence in his eyes was of no consequence ...


Ironic, how I move through crowded streets and deal with numerous clients weekly and even go to lunch on occasion with those old friends from...before...and yet the terrible, soul-crushing loneliness never goes away. And it's paradoxically easier and yet so painful to come home at the end of another bruising day to find Blair waiting for me, mute and quiescent and as lost inside the dark corridors of his mind as I am lost in the midst of all those people who CAN see me and talk to me and yet can never understand how empty I feel, how goddamned LONELY it is to hold Blair in my arms, breathing in his scent and listening to his beloved heartbeat but finding myself unable to bridge the impossible chasm stretching between our souls.


And that is why last night HAS to be something more, I think grimly to myself now, barely aware that my hand has inched across the table to encircle and then lightly caress Blair's wrist, every molecule of my being suddenly hungry for physical contact with him as something savage and scared and terribly, terribly needy deep in my soul surges to life, declaring that last night wasn't just some damned anomaly, not just some meaningless misfiring of damaged neurons...


Suddenly I realize that I've almost done it, that in the past year I've almost allowed the last, bitter dregs of hope in my soul to dry up completely and blow away into nothingness; and the realization sickens me. God, babe, I'm so sorry, I think to the bemused recipient of my slow, deliberate caresses as Blair gazes down rather blankly at my fingers on his arm. I almost forgot what it means to still have hope, Chief, but I won't forget again; I promise you. In silent apology I brush a thumb gently across the back of Blair's hand, and my heart seizes with a rush of helpless love as Blair's speculative perusal of the gesture suddenly softens into a small smile of pleasure so spontaneous and so trusting that it literally takes my breath away. My God, I love you so much, Chief! my heart cries out to him; and I want so badly for him to look at me--to SEE me again--that I don't know if I can bear it.


But his blue eyes refuse now to lift to mine, and the amazing, softly luminous smile on his face has faded already, sliding away into the blankness that I've come to hate with a passion because it means he's lost to me again, that he's gone to that dark, empty place inside himself that no touch, no sound, no light can reach. Almost irritably he pulls his hand away from my grasp, fumbling aimlessly with his glass of juice and the silverware on his plate and knocking stray bits of biscuit off his plate into the floor. His rejection, though all unwitting and unintentional, still hurts more than I care to admit;and as I pull my own hand back jerkily, flinching as if the brief contact with his skin just now has burned me, I can feel Irma's sad gaze on my face and have to bite back a sudden, defensive impulse to snap at her in retaliation for her glimpsing too much, for her seeing too deeply into the heart of my private pain.


"It makes me sad sometimes that I never had the privilege of knowing the two of you before Blair's injury," Irma says suddenly now, her tone gentle and all too discerning; as she speaks her eyes follow the aimless movements of Blair's fingers flinging bits of bread off his plate to the floor, and her expression mellows from somber regret to a smile of strangely wistful tenderness.


"I've seen the photos of the both of you, the ones you've scattered about the house," she continues softly, her tone pensive. "And in all of them there's just something so...immediate...something so charged and vital and lively between you. He was such an ANIMATED person then, wasn't he? In those pictures his spirit just shines from his face and eyes; and if I might be so bold as to make a further observation...so does yours. You were very happy together, weren't you?"


For all of three seconds I bristle at this invasion of my privacy--of OUR privacy, Blair's and mine. But this is Irma I'm talking to; this is the only other person in the whole damned world who's seen the both of us at our very lowest--who's been right here through all of Blair's many medical crises and his unpredictable, sometimes violent behaviors--and who has yet to tell me to take this sorry job and shove it where the sun doesn't shine.She's seen ME at my worst, as well, time after time, and she's never flinched in her duties, never stopped taking the same excellent care of the both of us that she's always done.


And it suddenly shames me now to realize that in all that time she's never nosed around or pried into the more intimate particulars of my relationship with Blair before he was shot--or since. Ever the soul of discretion, she's moved through our daily lives here as efficiently and as unobtrusively as is humanly possible, never pushing for more information than I've been willing to give, never attempting to drag up the past or cajole me into sharing nostalgic vignettes concerning the glory days of Sandburg and Ellison. So it's almost surrealistic now to have her suddenly bringing up the topic of the BEFORE version of Blair Sandburg--and by extension, the BEFORE history of Blair and Jim together--her gaze warmly steady but just the tiniest bit apprehensive on my own as she tries to gauge my reaction to her uncharacteristic outburst of curiosity.


"We were unofficial partners at work, roomies, best friends for several years before the...accident," I murmur after a long moment, speaking into an expectant space disturbed only slightly by the usual kitchen background noises of humming refrigerator, ticking clock, and percolating coffee. "About four years after we first met, everything between us became...more. More intense, more intimate, more...COMPLETE. We were...good together. Damned good. Oh, we were nothing alike, and we drove each other crazy sometimes; but crazy in the best sort of way, you know? We just seemed to balance each other out somehow. In retrospect I know it was a gradual thing; but in my mind I still carry this image of myself--good old, straight-as-a-board, stick-in-the-mud cop Ellison--just looking at Blair one day and of just being hit by this--this EPIPHANY of love for him. Of KNOWING that I wanted to be with him for the rest of my life, in any and every way possible."


I can hear the scratchy roughness of unshed tears in my voice as I speak, my mouth seemingly acquiring a separate will of its own as it abruptly releases the secrets of my inner soul for Irma's serenely empathetic perusal. I can feel the dull rush of heat climbing my neck now to tinge my face in roseate shades of love and of helpless remorse, and as a tightness born of loss and bitter regret clutches at my chest, I both feel and hear myself heave an angry sigh as my hand pushes away the coffee mug, its now cold contents sloshing disconsolately against the rim.


"How long, Jim?" Irma asks into the heavy silence between us, her warm hand sliding carefully across the table toward mine. When her slender fingers are resting no more than an inch from my own she lets them settle gently onto the tabletop, waiting for a signal from me, waiting for my response or perhaps for my curt refusal to answer her question. When I remain silent, some part of my mind distractedly fastening onto her steady heart rate and respirations, she merely keeps silent along with me, the two of us forming a deceptively peaceful foil for Sandburg's semi-agitated shredding of foodstuffs on his plate.


For the space of sixty seconds, then ninety, I process the question she's put before me, viewing it from a variety of angles and evaluating all the nuances of meaning inherent in the inquiry; how long, how long, how long, resounds in my head in exact cadence with the ticking clock on the wall, and with a loud sigh I am finally able to lift my eyes and allow Irma's patient gaze to draw me out--just a bit--from my long, self-imposed isolation.


"A little over a year," I say quietly, a world of mingled gratitude and sorrow evident in every syllable emerging from my mouth. "We'd been lovers for about that long when...when it happened. Of course we'd been trying to keep our relationship quiet for the sake of our careers, but I have a feeling we weren't all that successful--at least not in front of all the people who knew us best. Still, we managed to muddle along, managed to keep things just ambiguous enough to stave off any really serious inquiries as to the exact nature of our relationship. We had busy lives--happy lives, for the most part--just grateful we could be together, both at work and at home in private. Neither of us was entirely sure where the whole relationship thing between us was ultimately headed, but we knew it was good. I'd never felt so...contented...so at home in my own skin, so at ease with my soul. And I think it was the same for Blair. It seemed that the world was suddenly a place of limitless possibilities for the both of us, you know? God, everything was just so--so--"


"Perfect?" Irma finishes gently as my hands rise in a futile attempt to sketch the indescribable, to capture the ephemeral essence of the depths of beauty and emotion that had always flared white-hot between Blair and myself whenever we were together. Frustrated with my inability to capture the ineffable, I watch my useless hands drop heavily back onto the table now as a small grimace of denial twists my lips.


"No, not perfect," I correct her evenly, my gaze shifting to Blair's silent form as he tilts his head to one side and scrutinizes the wreckage of his breakfast with a critical eye. "Blair and I were far from perfect. God, the arguments we used to have! Everyone always thought I was the scary one, the angry one; but if you ever got Sandburg good and riled, your best bet was to turn and run in the other direction, as fast and as far as you could. Believe me, one pissed-off anthropologist in full rant mode was a hellava lot scarier than a balding, middle-aged police detective any day of the week."


"I can imagine," Irma remarks now, her eyes glinting with a touch of ironic humor as she takes in Blair's increasingly annoyed mutterings at the breakfast table. He's dropped his favorite spoon, the only one in the whole silverware drawer with an ornately stylized handle, and now its absence on his plate has captured his notice and raised all the alarms in his ominously stiffening body. "Granted, I know I witness more of...THAT side of his personality these days, due simply to the nature of his condition," she continues carefully as both of us move in a well-synchronized ballet of scooting chairs and bending backs and fingers sweeping through crumbles of biscuit on the floor to find and retrieve Blair's spoon.


"But even taking his...current limitations...into account, it's apparent to me that Master Blair has a stubborn streak a good half mile wide, at least," Irma continues with a grin as she closes triumphant fingers around the missing spoon a scant second before my own grasping hand can take the prize. "Here...here, you unrepentant mess-maker, stop eyeing MY spoon and take your own," she grumbles good-naturedly to Blair when we've both straightened up again in our chairs to find him scowling suspiciously at the plain-handled spoon nestled inside Irma's coffee mug.


"He was always so PASSIONATE about everything," I try to explain as I resettle myself in my chair, my tone frustrated as I struggle in vain to describe the essence of the man sitting with us at the table.


"Even about spoons?" Irma retorts with a gentle smile; and as she carefully slides Blair's beloved eating utensil into the hollow of his curled palm, I hear myself snort out a brief chuckle of sardonic agreement as we both watch Blair's grip tighten around the spoon, his agitated posture slumping almost instantly into relieved quiescence as a small half smile of satisfaction curves his lips.


"Yeah, especially about spoons," I smile, but the sorrow lying like a heavy weight just beneath my words is a palpable presence at the table, one which swiftly quells any lighter aspects of the discussion.


"Well...I never got to see how you were with each other back then, in another time and place," Irma begins very seriously, her brown eyes holding mine as Blair takes his spoon and begins to tap it in a monotonous rhythm against the edge of his plate. "But I do see how you are with him now, in THIS time and place; and I see how much you still love him, how deeply you cherish his presence in your life, even though his condition also brings you such emotional pain. And my gut tells me that on some level he feels your love for him, Jim; he KNOWS. And maybe--at least in this particular case--it's going to prove true that love can work miracles."


"Miracles?" I scoff lightly, a touch of ugly cynicism flaring to life in the stiff smile I aim Irma's way. "After a year now and counting, I'm supposed to still believe in the existence of miracles? If they do exist, then I'd have to say God has peculiar notions concerning His timetable for doling them out to those in such dire need. Or maybe, if love IS the key, I'm somehow to blame for not loving enough after all, for not being strong enough, for not having faith..."


"This isn't about some great, cosmic punishment, Jim; it's not about the things you've failed to do or be. Maybe it IS about faith, to some extent; but even Jesus himself said that if you have faith only as big as a mustard seed--"


"You can move mountains," I finish somewhat drily, and Irma shrugs, a slight smile of agreement hovering around her mouth. "Well, I don't need to move any goddamned mountains," I continue quietly, unable to hide the angry frustration in my voice and not really caring if I sound blasphemous. "I just want this man sitting here right now banging his fucking spoon on his fucking plate like a bored four year old to wake up tomorrow and open his eyes and say to me, "Good morning, Jim, love of my life; how the hell are you, and what did I miss while I was doing my imitation of a steamed vegetable for the past year?"


"Oh,Jim..." Irma sighs quietly, her eyes damp and dark with pained empathy as she reaches one slender hand and lays it carefully atop my left forearm. "I believe that you DID notice something different about Blair last night; I believe that maybe he really did respond to you in a new way, a different way than he normally does. The fact that the doctors couldn't cure him or repair his brain injury doesn't automatically preclude the possibility that Blair might still experience some level of healing on his own. Even now, with all our medical and scientific advances, we know next to nothing about the brain's potential for regeneration and for re-establishing neural connections; it doesn't necessarily require a holy miracle from God for such improvements to occur. What you saw last night--that sense you had that Blair KNEW you for a small interval of time--might very well be a signal that some sort of healing or new activity IS taking place in his brain. This could be very exciting news, Jim! But..."


And here Irma grinds to an almost embarrassed halt, her fingers picking absently at the rolled-up cuffs of my shirt sleeve as both our gazes lower and fasten onto the restless, agitated gesture. I can sense the sudden, nervous increase in her heart rate, can smell the faint tang of the perspiration breaking out beneath her breasts and on her forehead as she awaits my response; and as Blair suddenly pushes his plate away and erupts from his chair with an unexpected surge of energy, I reach with my right hand and cup it over Irma's anxious fingers.


"But...I shouldn't go off hysterical and half-cocked," I finish for her, my gaze softening on hers as we both sit listening to Blair's haphazard progress down the hallway just beyond the kitchen. He's heading toward the tv room and his usual morning routine of videos and illegible scribbling in one of his many journals, and I find myself suddenly anxious to follow after and see if maybe today he'll show signs again of greater awareness of his surroundings...and of my very real presence in the midst of his fractured world.


"Don't worry; I know that special type of Hell already, the one where you allow unrealistic hopes and pipe dreams of some impossible,longed-for improvement to wreak havoc with your common sense and what you know to be true," I assure Irma tiredly. "I dealt with my fair share of that nonsense early on, back in the days when I still thought a so-called miracle really might be possible. But this...this new thing, the recognition I surprised in his eyes last night...I'm telling you again, I did NOT imagine it. And maybe nothing more will come of it; maybe that's as far as it's ever going to go with him. It could be that the rest of his life will see him staying just as he is now, with only brief, sporadic episodes of snapping into focus just long enough to SEE me and then forget again..."


My eyes never leaving Irma's, I carefully disengage my arm from her grasp and rise to my feet, one hand reaching for my coffee mug and its cold contents. As I lift the mug to my lips and breathe in the bitter essence of the dregs of dark liquid within, a sense of resolute determination as strong as the brew before me flows into the center of my chest, strengthening my will and breathing new life into the tenuous wraiths of hope that have lain dormant for so long, so deep within the core of me.


"That being said, I'm still calling Dr. Inatsch today," I inform Irma as I return my mug to the disordered breakfast table. "I know Blair isn't due for his next visit to him for another two months, but I don't want to just let this go by; if there IS something new going on inside Blair's brain, I want to find out just what it is and what it could mean. I don't think that's over-reacting; and if it is, screw it. I'm still calling for an emergency appointment."


"I'll hold good thoughts for the both of you," Irma nods quietly, her brown eyes calm but lit from within by the subtle glow of the same cautious hope I feel burning in my own taut gaze. "And I've enjoyed our talk, Jim," she adds, her tone softening in a rush of tenderness. "Thank you for sharing your memories with me, for helping me to see more clearly the Blair that still lives so vividly within your heart and soul. I don't think I need to tell you just how important the two of you have become to me, how much I value and cherish the both of you..."


"Oh, come on, none of that mushy stuff, especially before noon," I retort lightly, waving away the rest of her speech before the sudden lump of emotion in my throat chokes me into doing something really maudlin and embarrassing. "You do enough for us as it is; declarations of undying devotion are not required."


"Undying devotion, my ass," Irma snorts, taking her cue from me and rising gracefully to her feet. "Just try to say something nice around here--try to have one smarmy little moment--and all those prickly, self-protective male hormones kick into high gear, raising drawbridges and slamming down portcullises faster than the eye can follow. Men!" she huffs and rolls her eyes heavenward as she begins to gather up the plates and mugs from our breakfast.


"We love you, too, Irma," I murmur, leaning in to press a brief, affectionate kiss to her cheek; and as I leave the sunny kitchen in search of the love of my life, I am comforted by the small, breathy puff of Irma laughter that rises gently on the morning air behind me before blending into the comfortable clatter of her regular, post-breakfast clean up. Once again I realize just how lucky--how blessed--Sandburg and I are to have her here with us; and as I make my way to the tv room to see which video my other half has chosen for the day, I discover that for the first time in a long while I feel a tiny flutter of something other than weary resignation stirring in my breast.


~End~

(to be continued in the sequel, "Fade to Gray")

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