NOTE: Please, to those of you who might be inclined to skip over Neruda's poem to the main body of the story, I beg you to read the poem, anyway, as it resonates so perfectly with events between Jim and Blair through "Sen Too" etc. and very aptly fits Jim's mindset of that period. It sort of fits with the body of my lame fic, as well, so I hope everyone will go ahead and read the poem, which is very beautiful and powerful!

Summary: Set shortly after Blair's drowning and the events at the Temple of the Sentinels, this is a rather meandering J/B conversation dealing with the partnership/friendship issues raised from Alex's intrusion and interference in their lives.

Sealed by Fire

by sharilyn

*** The Dream by Pablo Neruda

Walking on the sands I decided to leave you.

I was treading a dark clay that trembled and I, sinking and coming out, decided that you should come out of me, that you were weighing me down like a cutting stone, and I worked out your loss step by step: to cut off your roots, to release you alone into the wind.

Ah, in that minute, my dear, a dream with its terrible wings was covering you.

You felt yourself swallowed by the clay, and you called to me and I did not come, you were going, motionless, without defending yourself until you were smothered in the quicksand.

Afterwards my decision encountered your dream, and from the rupture that was breaking our hearts we came forth clean again, naked, loving each other without dream, without sand, complete and radiant, sealed by fire. ***

 

"Can I get you anything else before I head out, Chief?"

Jim's voice came quietly from the darkened kitchen, his tone subdued and deferential; and Blair sighed from his cozy nest on the couch and hoarsely cleared his throat before replying, just as quietly,

"Naw, man, I'm good. You've wasted enough of your evening puttering around here; why don't you go on now and carve out a bit of free time for yourself? You know, relax a little, have a little fun? I think I can hold down the fort here till you get back." Blair aimed a weary, somewhat fuzzy-around-the-edges smile in his roommate's general direction and hoped like hell that it was enough. Please, please, pick up your jacket, Jim, and then your keys, and walk to the door, Jim, just walk like a good sentinel...

"I can stay in if you need me; it's not like I had any great plans lined up, anyway," Jim half-demurred instead, the strangely diffident tone in his voice sending a thin chill of foreboding down Sandburg's spine. "Maybe we could just watch tv; I mean, with all the damned cable channels on the thing, there's gotta be SOMETHING halfway decent that we could check out. Or we could start a new game of chess--"

"For God's sake, Jim, just GO, already!" Blair heard himself exclaiming on a sudden, explosive gust of sound and fury that surprised him every bit as much as it did Jim. Almost instantly an _expression of stricken remorse twisted Blair's pale features, and his gaze rested on Jim in mute contrition as the other man slouched quietly into the living area, his broad shoulders slightly hunched beneath the facade of careful blankness in his eyes.

"Sorry, Jim; that was completely uncalled for," Blair sighed, his illness-shadowed eyes dropping to watch his own hands twisting distractedly around each other in his lap. "I didn't even know I was going to snap like that; guess I'm not as 'tranqed' up on my meds as I thought, eh?" His lame attempt at humor falling short, Blair wrinkled his nose in a grimace of self-deprecation and wearily dragged himself fully upright on the couch, swinging his sweatpant-clad legs gingerly over the side as he patted the sofa cushion beside him.

"I guess, as much as neither one of us wants to deal right now with the proverbial elephant in the living room, we might have backed ourselves into a corner till there's no way out but through. So. Are we ready to do this, to have that dreaded 'talk' we've been avoiding since the temple?" Choking back a series of rattling, phlegmy coughs, Blair curled one fist loosely over his chest and gave his roommate a level stare that let him know the ball was in his court.

"I thought you couldn't wait to get rid of me," Jim snorted dryly, a hint of amusement glinting briefly in his eyes; but behind the try at levity lay a heavy mantle of guilt and pain that seemed to drag the detective's slumped shoulders down even further. "Look, Sandburg, maybe you're right, maybe we DO have to talk about...things...sooner rather than later. But I'm just not sure I want to get into all of it now, tonight. I just didn't really feel like going out after all and thought that maybe, if we just spent a little down time together first with no demands or expectations--"

"It's been over a week since we got home, Jim, and in between my valiant attempts at coughing up both lungs, my stomach, and a good portion of my spleen with this damned pneumonia, we've done a whole lot of nothing but tiptoe around each other, making obligatory nice noises and being oh so careful not to tread on each other's toes. And quite frankly, I'm sick of it. Literally. It's the main reason I wanted you to go out tonight and give the both of us some time to ourselves. It just seems to me that you aren't EVER going to want to clear the air where the whole Alex debacle is concerned, and if that's how you want to play it, fine for you. Wallow in your denial all you please--make excuses for your mistakes AND mine."

Blair's voice, which had been rising in increasing ire and frustration, tapered off now to a shaky sigh as he gave a disillusioned shrug and continued more gently. "But I'm tired, Jim, and still weak, and I'm also juggling about a dozen different toxic emotions that have been keeping me awake at night at least as much as the damned coughing. So I just can't deal with this unspoken, half-assed agreement that okay, yes, we SHOULD talk--someday. Some distant, far-off, impossibly-too-late day, dammit. I love you, Jim, I really do; and you KNOW I do. But lately it's become a fine line around here between a healthy balance of love and loyalty and a plain old poisoned relationship. We both have so much anger and confusion and enough unresolved issues between the two of us to keep a whole city's worth of head shrinkers working around the clock trying to get our problems sorted out."

"You love me? I mean, still? Even now, even after...?" Jim spoke up softly, cutting into Blair's subdued diatribe as if nothing in his partner's rant had gotten through to him save for those three magic words. A wistful, almost painfully vulnerable tone accompanied the string of questions, and Blair released a small huff of air that was equal parts fondness and exasperation.

"God, Jim, have you not been paying the LEAST bit of attention these past coupla years? You are SUCH a moron. Jim Ellison, super cop and mighty sentinel of the city, finally buying a clue." Rolling his eyes at the tall man hovering uncertainly next to the couch, Blair reached out a hand and latched onto Jim's arm, unceremoniously tugging his roommate down onto the cushion beside him.

"Why the hell else would I have put myself--no, make that plural, put BOTH of us--through all the shit we've endured these past few weeks if I DIDN'T love you? Remember when I turned down the trip to Borneo, what I said to you then concerning my reason for staying here?" Blair's fingers plucked distractedly at Jim's shirt sleeve as he gazed earnestly into his partner's wary face, and after a long moment Jim cleared his throat and dredged up a shaky response.

"You said it was all about friendship, Chief; I'll never forget that. OR the look on your face when you said it. I--I remember worrying then that you weren't thinking clearly after all we'd just gone through rescuing Simon and Daryl, and that you were giving up too much of yourself and your own dreams for me. But at the same time I was pleased, SO pleased and proud that you might actually WANT to stay here, riding along with me on my shifts, instead of trekking through the jungle with Eli Stoddard discovering God knows what marvels of anthropology. It was only after a bit more time had passed and I got to know you even better that I finally realized I had been more than a bit egocentric about the whole deal, that you hadn't only stayed for me...you stayed for YOU, too. Because this was truly where you wanted to be." The glow of quiet gratification in Jim's blue eyes as he risked a brief glance at the man sitting beside him brought a sudden lump of pure feeling to Sandburg's throat, and before the delight in his best friend's gaze could turn to guilty dismay and self-castigation, Blair reached up to capture Jim's strong jaw in one hand and force the sentinel's acute gaze firmly onto his own.

"Bravo; you got it in one," he applauded with the smallest note of sardonic humor livening his solemn tone. "And when all the shit started up with Alex, I think that we just forgot...forgot the hard, gritty, freaking awesome day-to-day scope of what this friendship--this bond we share--means to us. So much was happening, there was just so much confusion and new challenges with your senses and the whole dilemma of being faced with another sentinel invading your territory...And I was the one who made it that much easier for her to launch her plans. We didn't stay focused on our partnership together; we were so caught up in Alex's dog and pony show and our own sad little roles in it that we lost sight of the very thing that should have--that WOULD have--made us strong enough to take her down before things went as far as they did."

"I thought I needed you away from me," Jim began slowly, drawing back from Blair's fingers on his jaw and seeming unable to fully meet Sandburg's eyes as he tried to explain what had gone on in his mind and heart over the past few weeks. "Part of me told myself it was because of this vision I had--a vision that could have been interpreted as you being injured or even killed because of me. Hell, maybe even at my own hand, or so the vision seemed to warn."

As Blair began to shake his head in instinctive denial that Jim could ever purposefully harm him, Jim managed to bring up a small, rueful half smile that let the other man know he appreciated his partner's stubborn trust. But his blue eyes remained somber as he laid one hand gently on Blair's knee, asking his forebearance as he continued his explanation. "So I told myself the only way I could protect you from the vision was to push you--no, DRIVE you--away if necessary. But that rationale was only partly legit; there was another part of me that just felt like you were...like you were stifling me, strangling me, holding me back from the things I wanted to do."

You mean from the SENTINEL you wanted to do, came the swift, disgruntled message in Blair's eyes just before his lips twisted into a grimace that was half apologetic and half sardonic. His gaze settled uncertainly on Jim's face to see if the detective had intercepted that particular silent missive, and a faint flush not from his fever rose higher in his face at the knowing glint of humor in Jim's eyes. At least he isn't mad at me, Blair thought silently to himself and then stared down in startled confusion as Jim's index finger began a slow, methodical caress starting at Blair's kneecap and gliding softly halfway up the front of his thigh.

"It's taken me awhile to figure it out, Chief," Jim was murmuring to him now in a low voice that sent a sudden, helpless shiver down Blair's spine. "But it finally became clear to me that my...attraction...to Alex, for want of a better word, was somewhat misplaced."

As Blair merely continued staring dumbly at the sentinel, blue eyes slightly glazed with a combination of fever and growing stupefaction at the direction this conversation seemed to be heading, Jim almost regretfully stilled the hypnotic movement of his finger on Sandburg's leg and moved off the couch to kneel on the floor between his guide's loosely parted thighs. He could hear the sudden, frenetic increase in Blair's heart rate and smell the surge in nervous perspiration rising on his roommate's skin, and as these familiar identifying markers sank deeply into every fiber of the sentinel's conscious and subconscious awareness, Jim felt the last of his doubts and reservations fade silently away.

"It was you, Chief; it's always been you, practically from the first minute I met you. And I know I've chosen one hell of a convoluted way of revealing my deepest inner feelings to you. But it's like you just said about this whole 'dealing with it' thing; I'm definitely getting tired of the fucking elephant in the living room and so, yes, I AM ready for this talk." His own serious blue eyes gazed into a mesmerized pair of equally blue orbs, and Jim forced himself to wait for Blair to either jump on board for the breathless ride ahead or abort the whole mission before things went any further.

"Let me get this straight," Blair began dubiously after an extended nonplused moment. He made a valiant attempt to keep his features carefully blank, but the array of conflicting emotions battling for dominance on his expressive face made for a fascinating study. "You're squatting here telling me that when you were busy trying to suck Alex's tonsils right up through her mouth it was actually just a case of subconsciously transferring...um...'erotic' or romantic feelings you were feeling for ME onto HER?"

Jim winced at the almost shrill note of disbelief in Blair's voice but had to admit that he really couldn't blame his guide; worded that way, the revelation of his amorous feelings for his roommate did seem rather sudden and almost, well...creepy. But Jim knew that there was nothing sudden about it; he'd been hopelessly lost in the other man for years now and had just been too stubbornly blind to see it. Ironic, he snorted silently to himself, that someone with almost preternatural vision couldn't see what was right in front of his face.

"Well...it sounds so BAD when you put it that way," Jim sighed lamely now, and was surprised when Blair let loose a short bark of laughter, a welcome sparkle coming back into his eyes at the glumly aggrieved tone in Jim's voice. Jim couldn't help the crinkled smile lines that radiated out from his own eyes in response to the brief return of good-natured humor in this man he'd come to love so deeply; and for his part Blair's tense stance relaxed marginally as he heaved a small, exasperated groan and sank back against the couch cushions behind him, his legs falling open a bit more on either side of Jim's crouching form in a near-symbolic lowering of his guard. For another moment the two men merely studied each other in the lengthening shadows of the late afternoon light slanting into the loft, Jim's _expression a tenuous mix of regret and hope and Blair's more cautious and somewhat brooding.

Now was not the time to plead his case or make excuses, Jim sensed instinctively; now was the time to shut the hell up and let Blair ruminate on this strange new tangent their friendship seemed to be taking. In his heart of hearts Jim found himself truly hoping that where his friend was concerned, the idea of the two of them embarking on a deeper, more permanent kind of relationship wasn't entirely novel or unexpected; something in Blair's tone earlier, when he'd reiterated his love for Jim, had set off a whole series of tiny bells and whistles in the sentinel's radar concerning his guide and had given him the courage to take things even this far. But as Blair gazed inscrutably down at him, Jim ducked his head and waited in an attitude of uncharacteristic meekness, his spirits sinking as he contemplated the heavy weight of the painful issues still requiring their attention before they would truly be free to move ahead.

"When I...drowned..." Blair began suddenly, his voice so low only a sentinel could have clearly made out the words. Jim froze inside, a cold fist of dread and remorse knifing into his heart as he forced himself to stay still, to listen to the words that would bring back one of the worst, most horrifying moments of his life. But he knew this was right; this had to happen right now, just like this, between them. And he would try to hold it in, the abject misery and self loathing he still felt each time he contemplated his failure to be there for his partner and to protect him.

"When I drowned," Blair began again, doggedly, fists lightly clenching and unclenching on his thighs as he pushed the ugly words out into the open, "all I can remember is thinking to myself, with the last of my consciousness and my energy: 'I wonder if Jim senses this. I wonder if he'll--if he'll feel me going.' Cause I know, if our positions had been reversed, I would have felt YOU leaving, Jim. Leaving life...leaving ME." Sandburg's voice was thick with tears, and Jim felt sudden, scalding wetness filling his eyes as he lifted his anguished gaze to Blair's.

"Chief..." he choked, fingers moving without conscious control or volition to dig tensely into the tops of Blair's thighs; but Blair shushed him quietly, almost tenderly, leaning forward with a rasping, half-sobbed breath to stroke the nape of Jim's neck before wearily resting his own forehead against the amazingly soft hair on the crown of Jim's head.

"Don't cry, Jim," Blair murmured roughly now, calm despite the slight tremor in his voice that betrayed just how vividly his recent near-death experience still resonated within him. "I'm not bringing this up to make you feel sad or bad or guilty," he continued softly, the slight stirring of his breath tickling through the short strands of hair on Jim's head. "The reason I'm sharing my last, dying thought with you from the fountain is because I want you to see and understand that the final image I held in my mind was an image of your face, so vivid and so close and so comforting. If I had to go, it felt RIGHT to go out that way, holding you in my mind, in my heart. In my eternal soul. I suppose I wanted...wanted in some spiritual or metaphorical sense to take you with me, to make sure that wherever I was headed next, I wouldn't go there feeling all alone. I would have YOU there with me, some part of your strength and your courage and the wonderful friendship you've shown me since I moved in here with you. And while I was so fucking sorry to be going at all, I felt to the depths of my being that you and I never can or will truly be apart."

And as Jim raised wide, slightly stunned eyes to Blair's face, his guide chuckled hoarsely and slid one warm hand lovingly along his sentinel's cheek, down to the strong line of his jaw. "Of course, that might not be something you're exactly in the mood to hear right now, in light of the whole business of admitting that you just wanted to be rid of me."

Before Jim could voice a protest, Blair gave a quick, gently negative shake of his head to take away any implied sting in his words and slid two fingers directly over Jim's mouth, their soft pressure against Jim's lips sending the detective's heart into overdrive. God, it felt so good to feel those fingers there, to smell and taste the slightly salty tang of his partner's skin against the sensitive skin of his own lips. Some primeval part of Jim wanted to open his mouth and draw those two strong, slender digits inside his own wet warmth, wanted to lick and suck and kiss those fingers in a mute, incoherent attempt at making Blair understand that he'd never meant it, that he'd never, ever wanted to be permanently separated from the verbose human dynamo that was his partner, his roomie, the best damned friend he'd ever had...and more. So much more than that, so much deeper, and Jim just couldn't understand how either of them had ever let things spiral so wildly out of control, how a slutty psycho bitch like Alex Barnes could ever have gained such an embarrassing hold over him, to the point where he'd treated the most important person in his world like shit.

"I don't think I have the energy for any more of this right now, Jim," Blair cut into the other man's dark thoughts, bringing Jim's self-flagellation to an abrupt halt. "I know, I know, I'm the one who sort of started the ball rolling, so to speak; I just didn't realize I'd wear out so fast, dammit. But hey, I promise we'll work through this mess; we WILL work through it, won't we, Jim?" At the first tinge of quiet desperation entering his guide's voice, Jim reached to clasp his hand firmly over Blair's hand on his cheek and mutely turned his face to press a kiss into Sandburg's palm.

"We will, Chief; you know we will," he husked softly, and the absolute certainty in his voice released a strangled, quivering sigh from Blair's cough-ravaged throat.

"I do love the hell out of you, Jim," Blair whispered then, his body drooping forward with a mixture of relief and exhaustion, and Jim gladly leaned in and accepted the other man's full weight, his strong arms wrapping securely around Blair's torso and bearing him back with exquisite gentleness till he'd settled his sick friend's body comfortably back in its cozy nest among the blankets and plumped-up pillows he had arranged for Blair earlier in the day.

"Love you, too, Chief," Jim whispered back as he leaned in and pressed a long, slow kiss to Blair's slightly fevered forehead. "Just rest, and know that from here on in I have you right where I want you--beside me. Always."

And as the words registered in his exhausted mind, Sandburg's gaze fastened on Jim's with the same level of fiercely intimate connection that Jim was feeling for Blair in his own heart. Maybe Alex had tried to destroy their unique and powerful bond through the unforgiving oblivion first of the fountain's waters and then through the ritual waters of the temple; but the ties that had been forged between this sentinel and his guide were as strong as the strongest steel, forged and sealed in the purifying fires of their love, respect, and loyalty for one another. As Blair's tensed muscles finally grew limp, allowing him to drift peacefully into a healing sleep, Jim dared to press the lightest of kisses on his partner's lightly pursed lips and sent up a silent prayer of thanks and gratitude for this, his greatest gift and blessing.

The End~

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