Author's Notes: This is an AU story that somehow happened after I saw Brokeback Mountain last year. I couldn't help comparing and thought Jim and Blair would probably be troubled... but not *that* troubled, because their time and environment is, if not perfect, a very different one. Bottom line - they're both married (not with each other) and in love (with each other). Trouble ahead.

Thank you's go to Lyn for the perfect beta, Lisa and Ines for discussing the story with me and helping it along beautifully that way -- and Hope, who won this story in the 2007 Moonridge online auction and gave her okay to release it right away!

The Passage Of Time

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

1

I knew when I woke up in the hospital that this time, I had stretched my luck just a few inches too far.

Call it a gut feeling, but in between trying to catalogue body sensations, which were a disturbing mixture of pain and numbness, and trying to keep those dials under control, I was sensing the changes before anyone ever had the chance to inform me about them.

To make any move seemed impossible, and so I tried to open my eyes at least, in order to not to be alone with those dire thoughts any longer. My lids were heavy, but I was stubborn, and I finally got a first visual impression of my surroundings. And Sandburg, hovering beside the bed, looking ready to faint.

"Jim," he said, his voice rough from a lack of sleep or something else. "Thank God." He said it like he'd meant it for every God he'd ever studied in those brighter days, another hint that some things weren't like they should be.

I tried to formulate a question, but couldn't get my voice to work. Upon a closer look at him, I noticed he was pale, needed a shave badly. Just how much time had he spent in here?

The piling up of questions and my inability to come up with or get me any answers made me angry, but for once I acknowledged the fear beneath. What the hell had happened to me?

Blair still looked worried, and I wanted to reach out and touch him, assure both him, and me that I was still alive, but I couldn't. It's a good thing we can sometimes communicate in that almost telepathic way - he did it for me, laid a hand on my arm, the touch a small island of comfort in my confused state. Blair kept assuring me that he'd stay, and we'd talk about everything later.

As I slipped into darkness again, two things were following me - the hint of tears in his voice and the fact he hadn't just once said the magic words:

Everything's going to be all right.

Because they would have been a lie, and he knew it.

***

Bits and pieces came back to me, some white flecks remaining on the map of my memory. Together with Sandburg, and everybody who came to visit, Simon, even Carolyn, and the rest of the gang, I figured pretty much all of it out.

When I was a little more back in the real world, I remembered the chase for a perp, which should have ended on the roof of a two story house where he had hidden.

Mike McGregor wasn't a killer, but he'd been involved in drug trafficking, auto theft, robberies - you name it - for the better part of the past few months, evading the police over and over again. Now that there was this chance to get him, there was no way in hell I'd let it pass.

I wanted him off the streets, badly. The house had a porch with a roof over it, well accessible from the main roof of the house, and when McGregor jumped, on solid ground a second or two later, I followed him.

The small roof over the porch, made from wood, had been old. It had held him. It didn't hold me, and so the fall was harder and deeper than I had planned. Bad idea.

That's all I remember - that, and the shot, an instant before I lost consciousness, thinking that maybe McGregor had shot me.

He didn't, I hear from Simon. Back-up was there in time, taking him out before he could pull the trigger. Sandburg nodded at the captain's words, still pale, but shaven now. A good sign, I thought.

I'm stalling now. So here's the bad news, they, together with the doctors, gave me in measured doses, as though minimizing their impact.

My right leg was badly broken, in several places. So what, I'd thought, I know the drill. Sick leave, physiotherapy, an annoying period of desk duty, and then get back to work. Just great. McGregor was dead, and I was still pissed off as hell at him.

No, it wouldn't be so easy, Dr. Harding explained, her heartbeat elevated, gaze sad. She's trustworthy, has handled my bones - or Sandburg's, for that matter - on a fair number of other occasions before. She even showed me the X-rays, which made my stomach churn. It hadn't been just the wooden panes - there had been glass panes lying on the veranda for whatever reason. I'd taken a suspicious glance at my leg, still stabilized in the cast.

"There are a lot of screws in there, right?" I asked. "Hell, the way you sound makes me wonder if all of it is still there."

She sighed. "Jim, you'll have to know that you're going to have a limp. At the very best."

I didn't quite follow her yet. Or I didn't want to, which really doesn't make a difference anymore. "For how long?"

Much to her credit, the doc didn't look away as she gave me the verdict. "That's not all. At this point, there's no saying if you'll sustain full mobility of your right hand. I'm sorry, Jim, but please, hear me out. I'm not kidding you when I say it could be worse. Much worse. I know this is hard, but there are options."

Options?

Part of me wanted to scream at her, but mostly, I was too stunned for such a reaction. It was impossible. In a job like mine, you can't work with probabilities. You need a body that's functioning, you need--

Things I didn't have any longer, as it seems.

***

The only part I had been right about was the extensive amount of physiotherapy - and I wasn't even there yet, but already, it was clear that there would be some irreversible changes.

Sandburg called me on them one night, and I snapped at him in the hope he'd back off. I should have known better.

"Jim, have you even talked to Simon about it? I'm sure he'll help us figure something out, so we can--"

"Us?" I shot back at him, making sure my words were dripping with sarcasm. "There's no 'us' in this, Chief. You can still go to the academy. You're not the one who's crippled."

He looked hurt, and hadn't I counted on it? I sure knew what hit close to home.

After an instant of silence, Blair said, "Going to the academy doesn't make much sense to me when I can't be your partner afterwards."

He knew them, too, the things that hit close to home. That's what made our relationship so dangerous. Too close, too much potential for hurt.

"What's to talk about? I won't be stuck behind a desk nine to five. That's not me."

"I know. But we have to think of something. And we will."

Unexpectedly, he got up, and I wondered what he was up to, until he stood behind me, hands on my shoulders, starting to massage, and then I was just a hair's breadth from leaning into the touch. Embarrassing, how good this felt.

Here I had groused about just everything; how it wasn't clean enough in the loft, how it was too warm, but cold the moment he opened the window, and whatever I could come up with - but this moment, I just wanted him to never stop.

We stayed like that for a long moment.

***

Nothing is ever that easy though.

The day came when I had to face the truth up front, so did Simon. I could tell he was honestly troubled, but it couldn't be helped now.

"There must be other options." He tried hard. "You could do consulting work for the department, hell, Jim, with your experience, it would be a hard loss to take for this unit. For me, too," and I knew he wasn't just talking on a professional level.

"Thank you, but I don't think it'll work. Exchanging roles with Sandburg, huh?"

"Any news on what *he* is going to do?"

I shrugged. "Excuse me if I have other things on my mind at the moment."

"So, what are you planning to do?"

I was ashamed; the guy who never in his life took a single week off - I had no idea.

***

All day, the anger within had grown and expanded, like a weight on my chest that I needed to get off me, some way, any way. Rationally, I knew, neither Simon nor Blair were to blame for any of this. If someone was to blame, well, try McGregor, and if that's not enough, try my sometimes a bit over-the-top ambition.

Back-up had been on the way. I didn't have to jump right behind him. A decision made on the spur of the moment, without thinking.

I couldn't take my mind off it. Was really mad at myself in the first place.

That evening, I met Blair for dinner after the appointment with Simon. It was the first time in what seemed a long time, getting outside. I didn't care much for it now, somehow mortified about the obvious changes, for all the world to see. The limp. It's not that bad when it's because of a healing injury, something you know that'll pass.

But everyone I knew, had heard the truth already. I hadn't wanted any visitors at the loft, left it up to Sandburg to keep them away. A good decision, I thought, remembering the looks and the murmurs at the station.

H and Rafe and Megan had been there too - they hadn't murmured behind my back, but after sensing my mood correctly, they had kept their distance.

A concept not known to Blair Sandburg. He came to pick me up at the station. It wasn't like I couldn't drive, but as long as I didn't need to, that was just fine with me. We went to an Italian restaurant we'd frequented before.

The owner, Carlo, personally waited on us, and like many other times before, he was chatting away cheerfully, asking all kinds of nosy, amiable questions about how we had been.

It wasn't until I noticed Sandburg's warning look that I realized I had been close to jumping up to throttle the poor guy.

The rest of dinner passed in an uneasy silence.

***

It had to come to this, the hair trigger that made the bomb explode.

I'd gotten myself a bottle of soda from the fridge, and a glass from the cabinet. I couldn't get the damned bottle open. Hard as I tried, the cap wouldn't budge, the strength left in my right hand not enough to fulfill this mundane task. It wasn't always that bad, but it happened.

"Damn it!" I yelled, hurling the bottle to the floor. The sound of breaking glass filled me with a perverse pleasure, and I let the glass follow, but it still wasn't enough, and I mindlessly started to pull dishes from out of the cabinets, smashing them against the sink as well. God, I hadn't felt that alive in a while.

"Jim!"

I spun around, faced with Blair who had a very determined look on his face. Get this, I thought. I'm determined, too.

He really is fearless, I knew when he simply stepped into my personal space and tried to take the plate from me. "Jim, stop it. That won't change anything!" He wasn't pleading, simply stating a fact, but I wasn't in the mood to listen.

"Get away from me!"

I was really mad in every sense of the word, but Sandburg wasn't intimidated. "No, I won't. I know you're upset, and you've got every right to be, but destroying the dishes isn't the way -- hell, Jim, can't we for once talk--"

Crippled or not, I'd still have the upper hand in an argument like this, where talking was impossible, and I pushed him back. Not hard, but when he reached behind him on the sink to gain his balance, he grabbed right into one of the shards from the glass.

Seconds ticked by like a movie in slow motion, as the scent of blood brought the rational part of me back.

"Chief, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to--"

"No!" he said angrily. "For once, you're going to listen to me, and it's going to be right now. It's not fair what happened to you, I agree with you there. But it's time you started seeing things for what they are. I was there when you pulled that stupid stunt, man, all the way! I didn't know if you'd make it until the ambulance would arrive. I didn't know if you'd ever wake up. Granted, you have to face a life that's different from what you had envisioned. That's not so easy, let me tell you about it."

He was pacing, and I couldn't do anything but stare at him as his words began to sink in, hoping he wouldn't step on another shard.

"You don't have to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, you didn't lose your senses, or your mind, for that matter. So get a grip!"

He was starting to clean the shards from the floor and the sink while I was still totally immobile. Stunned.

"I won't keep on driving you around, because you can do it yourself just fine. And I won't put up with your moods any longer."

Did that mean he wanted to move out? An icy hand of fear ghosted over my heart, making it clench painfully. In addition to everything else I had lost, I couldn't lose him, too. I wanted to say it, but couldn't get out a single word.

He looked at me wearily. "Did you hear a single word I said?"

"I heard you just fine, Chief."

And I simply walked away, up the stairs, fleeing to the relative privacy of my bedroom.

***

Besides making other people's lives a misery, especially those closest to me, there had been something else, an emotion rising inside and pushed back like an unwanted child. It wasn't something adults did in the Ellison family.

Come to think of it, it was what no one did in the Ellison family.

As I sat on my bed, vaguely aware in the change of temperature, dark and lightness as the evening bled into night, the knowledge brought a new kind of pain, one that had always been there, but I had never seen as something unusual. It had just always been there.

I couldn't mourn.

Not for persons, not for the things I had lost. Not for the life that had been torn from me.

I'd prided myself in my ability to just go on with life, but the truth was, I was a coward, too scared to feel. And that realization was too much too take.

The tears felt hot on my face, scalding, holding memories I had wanted to leave behind me.

Do you really want people to think that something's not right with you?

The footsteps were quiet, unhurried. I didn't look up, but followed their progress with my hearing, until they came to a halt right next to me. Blair sat down next to me, real close. Amazing enough, he didn't say a word, but simply leaned forward and embraced me from behind. Holding on tightly.

I cried harder.

***

The next morning, I felt like someone who'd just recovered from a long illness. Maybe, psychologically, I had. Nothing was solved yet, but today, the sun shining through the windows felt just a little bit warmer than usual, the smells of breakfast in the kitchen a lot more appealing.

I was kind of exhausted, but with the relief of knowing that the worst is behind you. There were vague memories of that unpleasant argument in the kitchen, but later... God, I owed this guy, more than I ever could pay back. Blair had slept up here last night, staying close like the Guide this particular Sentinel didn't really deserve.

And he wasn't planning to move out anytime soon.

Life was looking up.

***

"I must say, I'm surprised. But these are good news. Very good news, Jimmy."

I could sense my Dad's honest delight at this prospect, and while I hadn't been sure walking into his office, I mostly was now.

Everybody has to make compromises, more or less, at some point in their lives. Blair would go to the academy and then become a detective in Major Crimes. I would prepare to take over Ellison Enterprises one day, just as Dad had always hoped I would.

There was no hurry, so I had enough time to learn all I needed to.

Running a business like this, eventually, Blair had said, I'd be able to put my senses to good use as well, with its members making up the tribe.

***

Blair went to the academy. I went to walk in my father's footsteps, but I learned quickly that a cop's instinct - or was it a Sentinel's truth? - wasn't so easily switched off. Which was a good thing, and of course, Blair had been right about it all along.

I went from department to department, getting to know the colleagues, listening to them, and sometimes, when something seemed suspicious, listening in shamelessly. Within the first five weeks, I gladly took the blame for the firing of one head of department who'd been harassing his secretary for long months. She got promoted to chief secretary for her new boss.

A guy in production had sold tools on the side to save money for the operation his two-year-old daughter needed. We worked something out about that.

Those days, Blair and I truly lived in different worlds, even though we still shared the loft. The new life was a good one, much better than I had dared to expect in my previous depressed state, but it also had us drifting further apart.

We tried to save the weekends for catching up, but they were not to be taken for granted, in case something came up, either at the station or in the business.

I missed him.

Though, hadn't we been through worse? Have a little patience. We could always get away for a few days once we had really settled into this new existence. That's what I thought, anyway, and I never even questioned those plans. After all, we had spent most of the day together in those old days, so a little withdrawal was very natural, wasn't it?

Intent on getting home as early as possible one day a few weeks later, I inwardly groaned when Dad asked me into the conference room at 6.30. Right, we were about to expand into the field of manufacturing machines for big industrial businesses, which would have been a big step, and one of the possible partners was supposed to be coming in next week.

Not this evening. But anyway.

I tried not to let my surprise show when my father introduced me to her.

Not that I minded, but a woman who made a fortune out of selling and buying warehouses for industrial means, was rarer yet than a female captain.

Sylvia Warner had shoulder-length blonde hair, clear pale blue eyes, a pleasant smile. Her handshake was firm, her whole composure that of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it. Professional to the bone. I liked her instantly.

When we were all done, I accompanied her to the door, regretting a little that it would have been the most unprofessional thing in the world to ask her out.

Giving me a long look before she stepped into the elevator, she said, wearing that smile again, "Maybe after the contract is sealed."

Perfect timing as the doors closed an instant later.

***

Coming home, I was in a great mood, regarding those prospects. "Hey, Chief, you wouldn't believe--" I stopped myself in mid-sentence, just in time, unable not to smile at the sight.

Blair had fallen asleep on the couch, some Criminal Science journal beside him on the floor, his reading glasses in a rather dangerous position on his nose, ready to slip any moment. I tiptoed closer to him, bending down, and carefully took them from him. My right hand started to shake all of a sudden - damn it, not a good moment - but I managed.

Blair didn't wake up, and I got daring - not that we'd ever say those things aloud, but a moment like this, I didn't find it all that hard to admit how grateful I was to have him in my life. I drew the back of my fingers across his cheek, just once, instinctively, gently.

And froze, when he smiled, opening his eyes. "Jim. Good evening to you, too."

I had wanted to answer with a joke, but scrabbling for words, I self-consciously realized I couldn't find any. "You had dinner yet?"

"Nope." Blair finally got up, yawning. "Sorry, long day. But I'm guessing yours was longer since you only just got here. What about Pedro's? I am so not into cooking and doing the dishes tonight."

"When have you ever been 'into it', Chief?" I said dryly, my face still feeling hot. "Okay, Pedro's it is. You know what? I'm thinking about marrying again."

For a moment, there was no reaction, and I thought I'd have to say it again, but then it turned out that Blair had simply lost his speech there for a while.

"Whoa, man," he said. "You really thought this through?"

I frowned, having had expected a different reaction. "Well, there hasn't been much time yet. I met her two hours ago."

The incredulous expression on his face turned into a smile, his heartbeat settling into a calmer rhythm. "You're yanking my chain here, right, Jim?"

"No," I protested. "Maybe I was a bit rash about marrying, but the rest is true."

"Man, this is incredible." He smiled then, but the tone of his voice allowed various interpretations, and I didn't get it, couldn't help but tease him a little.

"What, you're jealous? I thought you'd be happy hearing something like this from your best friend."

"You only just met her. Do you want me to check for a record?" Just in time, Blair ducked the friendly swat I was going to give him. Once upon a time, that would have been my line.

What was up with him anyway? I took a closer look, noticing, with all my senses dialed up, the subtle hints that he was upset, but trying not to show it. Truth was, I hardly ever went that deep - we'd been working with this 'link' or whatever it was between us, well, but the knowledge of it stirred up emotions I couldn't quite interpret.

"No, I don't want to you to check for a record. Come on, let's get dinner. I'll pay."

I patted his back, strands of his hair tickling my fingers, and as usual, I simply catalogued the sensation and put it away - it didn't mean anything.

***

Sylvia and I hit it off immediately, as predicted. We went out together the evening after the contract had been signed, and believe it or not, we were talking for half of the night. The first half, that is.

With her, there was no playing around, no complicated masquerade - at the end of the week, we pretty much knew that we wanted to stay together. Dad seemed happy with the prospect, Sandburg slightly disapproving, and I still hadn't figured out why.

I'd been falling for her head over heels. Sylvia was an attractive woman, definitely, but there was a whole lot more to me being attracted to her. She was tough, not backing down. Widowed at only 31, she had to take over her late husband's company after an accident that had killed him, and left her barely able to walk.

Syl had learned to walk again, and she had made the company even more successful than it had been before.

She wasn't looking for an illusion of love. She wanted a partner, and I thought that could be me.

***

One evening, to finally get it over with, I had invited Sylvia over to the loft, in order to introduce her to Blair. Both of them usually outgoing and self-confident, it was almost funny how nervous they seemed.

About half an hour before she was due to arrive - great timing there - Blair said all of a sudden, "I've got to tell you something," as if it had only just occurred to him. I was pretty sure that was not the case.

"I met this guy a few days ago; he's a cop from Tacoma, and they're just about to build a new unit there, the Victims' Services department. It sounded like important work - he asked me if I was interested in joining."

I stared at him incredulously. "Say that again? Chief, you're not planning on leaving Cascade?"

"That's what I'm trying to say. I drove down to see the department, and get to know everyone, and I said yes."

I still couldn't find words, and he hastily continued, "It's the best solution, right? You can control your senses on your own now. You're also serious with this lady, which means I couldn't stay here anyway. Which is fine, I'm happy for you, man, really."

"Well, thanks, but... you don't have to go away. I suppose we're going to buy a house, so there's no reason why you couldn't stay here at the loft..." Senses or not, I wanted him to stay close.

"It's for the best," Blair insisted, and I was wondering who he was trying to convince there.

***

To cut a long story short, I proposed to Sylvia, and she said yes. The guys from the gang, together with some of my new colleagues were preparing a bachelor's party for me.

***

I didn't know what was up with Blair. The few times we'd spoken on the phone, he didn't talk much, saying the new job was great, but I could feel the enthusiasm was lacking. He congratulated me on the wedding, but wasn't sure if he could make it, since his boss was going to send him to a seminar around that time.

I found I was totally unnerved when I hung up the phone, still puzzling over the conversation later that evening.

"Don't make too much of it," Sylvia said softly. "You both had to come to terms with a lot of changes lately." I pulled her close to me after switching off the light, trying not to worry about Blair. She was right after all. We had other things on our minds.

I was still mad with him.

***

The bachelor's party was nice so far; I had really missed these guys, and hanging out with them, talking cases over a beer, felt like I had never left. But come to think of it, Simon and the others had called way more often than Blair had in the past few weeks.

Maybe he had adjusted so well to his new life that the old one didn't hold any appeal for him any more.

Sometime around midnight, the doorbell rang. I groaned. "You did not commission a stripper who will now jump out of a cake, did you?"

H and Rafe grinned at each other meaningfully. "Better," Rafe said confidently. "Much better. Wait a second, I'm going."

He returned a moment later, behind him--

I'm afraid I must have been staring open-mouthed - not one of my best moments. I got up, still unable to say something, and he didn't say anything either. Damn it, we hadn't seen each other for months, and now this, while everybody was watching us expectantly--

He smiled, and I found my voice again. "I'll be damned..."

Could move, too. I embraced him, and Blair hugged me back, firmly. God, I had missed him. More than I could have ever admitted.

"They wanted me to jump out of a cardboard cake, but that's where I drew the line," he said, making everybody crack up. I just pulled him close again; couldn't help but think how good this felt. Strange as this may sound, it was as if I'd needed his blessing more than anything else, and I was still fool enough to think that now, everything would come together naturally.

***

It had been good, reminiscing, reuniting with the guys, and I realized a bit ruefully that I still missed them, my former life, the daily challenge. True, I could do without the dead bodies and the deranged killers, but working in Major Crimes, in these guys' company, had been something - especially with this one guy. But time to stop kidding myself; once Blair had left, it would have never been the same.

Or wouldn't he have, if I... whatever; that was water under the bridge now.

I had a new life - and another exciting aspect of it would begin the next day.

One by one, the guys left, and I wondered what accommodations Blair had made for the night. Everybody had been in a great mood and also knocked back quite a few. Rafe, the designated driver and only sober person in the room, had asked Blair if he wanted to join them, but to my pleasure, he hadn't, and I thought about offering him his old room.

"So, how do you like working in that new unit?" I asked, opening one more beer for both of us. The last one, probably, if we both wanted to make it to bed still. For some reason, that thought teased a seemingly forgotten feeling.

It was good to be this carefree for once, and though I had told Sylvia about my senses, on a certain level, it would never be the same, no need to fool anyone.

Blair shrugged, accepting the bottle from me. "It's okay. I've got a nice paycheck. I just don't have you anymore." He sounded wistful, probably from too much alcohol. Or too many irreversible changes; it was hard to tell.

"Now, come on, Chief, you're the one who's been making himself so scarce. I mean we're both busy, granted, but I had the impression you didn't want to come by all that often anyway."

He gave me one of those deep, soul-searching looks that had never failed to stir -- something in me. Not a good moment to analyze it now. Then he pulled his legs up under him, and leaned against me. Right, no surprise there. He'd never been much of a drinker, but when he did, he got melancholy and a little clingy. Not that I minded. This was like a page out of a diary from the old days, and I sure enjoyed his proximity. Always had.

"You're right," he sighed. "I wasn't so inclined to visit."

"But why?" I asked, reaching out to briefly ruffle his hair almost like a reflex. "Sylvia likes you very much. I do - well, that's a given, but you know, you're always welcome."

"Thank you."

I wondered what was going on in his head, as the silence rose between us like mist, creating distance, leaving much to the imagination. I couldn't understand what was all so complicated anyway. Being here, just letting myself feel the warmth of his body beside me, the sound of his heartbeat, all was right with the world - and I was an idiot, but I didn't know until a few moments later.

"Somehow I never thought you'd marry again," he said into the silence, in the same, slightly regretful tone, and still, I didn't buy a clue. Or maybe I had, years ago, and was just too much of a coward to act.

"What, you don't think I'm attractive? I'm hurt, Chief."

He turned around to look me straight in the eyes, and that's when I knew this wasn't a joke anymore. If he'd been the Sentinel, he could have heard my heart beating rapidly, but surprisingly, his seemed calm now.

"You are so totally wrong," he said, leaned forward and kissed me.

I have no excuse, not the long-harbored curiosity at the back of my mind that flared to life. I was going to get married the next day. I should have told him to stop. I should have made him. All I did was wait, and enjoy, wondering why this hadn't happened any sooner, and when I was sure he really meant it, I pulled him close to me.

It wasn't like we were drunk enough to not know what exactly was going on, too long had this fantasy been dancing on our minds, vague but persisting, and now that it was reality, I didn't want to let it go. Even knowing what I had planned for tomorrow.

Very slowly, though, the rational part of me gained the upper hand, and I pulled back, filled with a disturbing mix of longing and confusion, and regret. My hands tingled as if still buried in his hair, the taste of him lingering in my mouth.

I took in the sight of him, eyes darkened, face flushed with a sentiment that was impossible to mistake. I could smell his want - for me. The seconds ticked by, both of us very aware of the borderline we were walking, and it would have been so easy to just...

"Blair, I don't know..." That was a blatant lie, and he must have known it. What I wanted must have been just about as obvious as if I'd drawn it out in bold letters.

"Just tonight," he said in this warm, slightly raspy tone that did interesting things to certain parts of my anatomy. "No strings attached, no expectations, just one memory. Jim. I want to know."

Yes, I wanted that knowledge, too, to kiss him again, and get skin to skin and -- it was impossible. I had already screwed up one marriage, and I wouldn't let this happen to the second one before it even started.

Blair and I were friends, always a bit too close to not be curious. It had never bothered me, and it didn't now, but we certainly missed the point where we could have done something about it.

"I'm sorry," I said.

His fingers, stroking up my arm in a light caress, froze in mid-motion.

"I -- we can't." I leaned forward to kiss him again, a last time, very softly. "I'm sorry, Chief."

His gaze looked like that had hurt him, and maybe it had, and I was truly sorry, but there was no other way. He looked away then, quietly saying, "You know this would have been easier if I'd been wrong about you." When I didn't say anything, he got up from the couch, shrugging into his jacket.

"Where are you going?"

"My hotel's just around the corner. I'll be fine."

"Will you -- will you be there tomorrow?"

"I'll hate it," he said with brutal honesty, "but yes, I'll be there. Neither of us wants the kind of questions the guys will be asking if I don't come, after all the trouble they've gone to in order to get me here."

"Sorry," I said for the third time.

"Yeah." With that, he was out of the door. I don't think I've ever felt that stupid in my life.

***

2

I had lied about the hotel, but I needed to get out of the apartment, desperately. Gone from smashed to stone sober within minutes, and for sure, the thought of drinking myself into oblivion was very tempting. Well, why not. I had nothing much to lose, and nowhere to stay anyway.

Because I'd blown it, so totally and perfectly that even my infamous press conference paled in comparison. How could I have ever been so stupid to let Jim know the truth? How could I have been so stupid to wait this long?

I'd been careless with time and affection, dreaming of that someday, when we'd magically make the transition, and if it didn't happen, then there would be a reason for it -- like, Jim loved me, that I knew, but I'd had no way of knowing what would happen, did I ever dare to cross the line. I'd only ever seen him with women, after all, and with that, I could have lived.

Trying to turn a straight guy is never a good idea, a friend of mine had once said, recognizing the signs before I had. It can be fun though, he'd told me with a wink.

The way Jim had kissed me back less than an hour ago, hadn't seemed so straight at all to me, and who cared anyway, this was between us, and in our strange little universe, the question had always been there. The possibility - before he chose to marry Sylvia. Jim will always go through with a promise, no matter the costs. You could hate the guy for being so damn responsible.

Not that I could. There were times when I'd been mad at him, disappointed, but basically, I'd started out with this big, irreversible crush that developed into something deeper and irresistible over time. Too bad I did not have all the time in the world.

I walked into the bar on the next corner, straight to the counter, where I took a seat on one of the barstools and ordered a vodka. "Never mind. Make that a bottle."

The bartender flashed me a sympathetic grin. "That bad?"

"My best friend's going to get married tomorrow."

"I see," he agreed, placing bottle and glass in front of me. "She pretty?"

"Unfortunately," I mumbled. "Very much."

***

I was going to die. That much I was sure of, the next morning, cowering over the toilet bowl in the guest bathroom of Henri Brown's house. He had invited me, first, when the guys had been coming to get me for Jim's bachelor party, but hinted that I'd probably stay with Jim to catch up. At three a.m., I hadn't had the heart to tell him otherwise, and anyway, I just wanted to stop thinking.

It had worked for a while, but when I went to the Brown's house in order to change, I hardly made it there in time.

Now, there was a knock on the door, and I dragged myself up, wiping my face.

"You look like shit," H said unceremoniously. "What the hell did Ellison do to you?"

I'd almost laughed at that. Broke my heart, pal, that's really all there is to it. This is just me being pathetic about it. "Fraid I did it to me all by myself. Give me a few minutes, and I'll be all ready."

He gave me a dubious look. "You sure, Hairboy? You look like you're ready to keel over."

Now that he mentioned it... "Don't worry. I'm okay."

Deep breaths. Not moving. I had a wedding to survive.

***

I didn't get to talk to Jim much. There was an excessive number of guests, from the PD, from Ellison Enterprises and Partners.

I saw a very happy William Ellison who clasped my hands and thanked me for all I'd done to help the family. He really had changed from the man Jim remembered, and it was a good change. "Isn't this a wonderful day?" he asked, and I nodded. I had the nausea under a dubious control, but if I'd said anything, I would have cried. He would have probably thought that it was because I was so happy for Jim.

Carolyn was there, with a friend of hers, and that made me feel even worse. If she could be without spite - why couldn't I? Right. We'd gone in opposite directions. Once having been in love with Jim, she loved him as a friend now.

They were a stunning couple, James and Sylvia Ellison, and I felt like a jerk to have dared questioned this. I had no right, had I? Jim was very occupied this evening, but whenever his eyes met mine, his gaze was concerned. I wish I could have talked to him alone, told him not to worry, that I'd been stupid and drunk and we'd just forget about it - which would have been the best, really - but of course it wasn't possible.

Early evening, when the party was just getting started for real, I quietly left. I waited 'til I was all alone in my car, on my way back home to where my job and my life was. And I finally cried.

***

Joe Tesci, my current partner, looked up from where he sat behind his desk when I came shuffling in on Monday morning. "Geesh," he said, "I thought it was a wedding, not a funeral you've been to."

"You're so funny," I mumbled, slumping into my own desk chair. "What's up? "

"The usual," he sighed, pushing a stack of files towards me. "Ms. Harris is coming in at ten. The mugging. She's bringing her sister, which probably means we'll be occupied until lunch. After that, we've got a date with Ellen."

"Good," I said absent-mindedly. Ellen was leading one of the local women's shelters, and she always had disturbing things to tell that would for sure keep my mind off last weekend. All in all it looked like we'd be really occupied. It was just what I needed today.

"That's all you have to say? No way, Sandburg, you're not going to get off that easily. First, coffee, and you're going to tell me all about what's been going on in Cascade."

I just gave him a long look, and Joe shook his head. "No good. Now I'm really convinced you need that coffee."

***

Joe was a nice guy, but he couldn't really change the fact that I wanted nothing much at the moment except for clinging to broken dreams and feeling sorry for myself. That was the one thing I always came back to -- it wasn't like Jim wasn't so homophobic, or repressed, or even exclusively and utterly straight, no -- it could have been. Maybe. Probably. Years ago. Months ago.

That door had fallen shut though, and I would have to draw my own conclusions from that.

I spent a few nights cruising the bars, but when it came down to bringing somebody home, I had to realize that I didn't have the guts or the interest to try a walk on the wild side. Call it politically incorrect, but I didn't think the big coming out was looming ahead. There was a time when I'd been interested, but vaguely sure I'd never act on it. Those years working, living with Jim had broken this certainty to pieces, and still I didn't think there'd be anyone else in the world with whom I'd go through with it.

Anyone else I'd trust enough.

I was still so much in love with him. Female company was a welcome, temporary distraction, familiar, and with time, the hurt didn't quite go away, but got bearable.

I hadn't seen nothing yet.

***

So I'd been sleeping around, sue me -- I'd always make sure the subject of safety was taken care of. I didn't need a shrink to figure out what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and it would have to come to an end, but for now, I'd go with it.

Judy Mason was no exception. She'd been a witness in one of our recently closed cases, an elementary school teacher who had given testimony in a case of child abuse. I'd met her while grocery shopping a few days later, asked her out, and she said yes.

A petite woman in her late twenties, brunette, with curves in all the right places and a sweet smile, she was exactly what had always been 'my type'. I wasn't so picky these days anyway, but you could say she fit the bill.

During our first date, I told her that I'd been teaching once, too, opening another old wound. I didn't do it on purpose, but somehow, my desolate state of mind seemed to trigger all the protective impulses in the women I met, so they felt the need to get me to open up and talk. We spent the night together, and for the first time in a while, I found that she was someone I wanted to see again.

***

"Blair, I've got to tell you something." It had been some weeks, and she was calling me at the station. "Not over the phone. Can I meet you?"

I was a mess in a matter of minutes, cursing myself because I'd let myself care for someone again. Shouldn't I have known that I was asking for trouble?

"I could have an early lunch break. Where are you?"

She sighed. "Downstairs. See you in a minute."

I hung up and grabbed my jacket, hastening down the stairs. She stood in the lobby, arms wrapped around her, looking lost, and I felt a wave of affection surging over me. I'd been meeting Judy for several weeks now, and that was a record lately. She was a good listener, and already I'd come that close to coming clean.

Wishful thinking, in the end. Jim certainly had the easier part there, those were his senses, his decision whether to tell a woman or not. Okay. Not a good moment for these thoughts.

"Hi Judy," I said, hugging her close. "What happened?"

She smiled a bit, and at that moment, I was at least sure that it wouldn't be anything of catastrophic dimensions. She leaned against me as we walked out of the station together. "No one died," she said with a little laugh. "Sorry if I scared you. It's nothing that extreme - we will have to talk about this, though. Blair... I'm pregnant."

I stared at her for a too long moment.

"But... how?"

Judy shook her head, her expression between annoyed and amused. "I would've thought you knew, how. Anyway, we know that no means of contraception is hundred percent safe - and it looks like we're the unfortunate ones - or fortunate, however you want to put it."

I still didn't know what to say. I mean, of course I'd thought, like most people, that I wanted to have a family someday, but that was supposed to happen way in the future. Maybe I'd just been kidding myself. Most of my former friends at school were married. I'd just let time pass me by -- and hope for things that'd never come true.

"I can sympathize," she said dryly. "I was speechless myself. I know that wasn't what we planned, but I'll tell you something. I am not going to be a single mother." What she was not saying was just as crystal clear.

I felt a tiny bit of panic snake through my mind; this was impossible, wasn't it? We'd known each other for only a couple of weeks! What goes around comes around. I'd always been smugly confident, I'd be a better father than mine, responsible and reliable and all. Here was the chance to prove it.

"Of course not. I mean... why not? We can do this. I'm sure we can."

The smile spreading on her face was part surprise, part happiness. Right there on the sidewalk, we embraced and kissed, people passing us by shaking their heads at us. Who cared? Things were coming back to normal. I was going to do my share.

We were having a baby!

***

Talking to Jim on the phone was awkward at first, but he seemed honest when he said, "Congratulations, Chief. That's great."

I didn't miss the hint of disappointment, though. I had called him after Judy and I had already been married, with Joe and Dana, a friend of Judy's from school, as our witnesses. It was better this way, and I'm sure he'd see it, too, eventually. As weddings went, I didn't have the best of memories, even though I was now truly looking forward to the baby.

It meant I was catching up.

And it was that thought which gave me the courage to say the things that should have been said months ago. "I'm really sorry about... you know. I don't know what came over me. Well, okay, maybe I knew, but it doesn't matter now. I just want to --"

"It's okay," he interrupted, gently, though making it clear that the subject was finished now. Just as well. Hopefully, I could now stop acting like a coward and we could resume the friendship that had always been extraordinary between us. No need to taint it with impossible fantasies, right?

"Yeah. You think you and Sylvia could come over some time, meet Judy? I'd like that."

It was an honest attempt, and he knew it, acknowledged it, too. "I'd like that, too."

After hanging up, I felt a whole lot better - about everything.

Later that night, after dinner with Judy, I watched her sleeping beside me, imagined what it would be like to be a father, and what it would have been like if things had gone differently after that kiss. Just one last time.

***

As time went by, we'd come to realize that there wouldn't be just the three of us -- the doctor told us with a broad grin that Judy was pregnant with twins. Oh my. At the news, we both would have liked a stiff drink, but with regard to her being, well, pregnant, we didn't follow the impulse.

"I can't believe it. It's not in our family."

I wondered if it was in mine, having no clue, of course. Naomi and I had never talked about these things, and where my father's side was concerned, everything was speculation. Naomi, by the way, didn't know yet that she was going to be a grandmother at all - she'd taken off to India with friends, and was unreachable.

I wasn't sure what she'd think of the news, but that was not our biggest problem anyway. We'd probably have to find a new place to live - again. And next Sunday, Jim and Sylvia were supposed to be coming to visit us.

***

"Are you sure you're doing the right thing?"

"Yes, I'm sure," I answered Joe irritably. I couldn't imagine what he was talking about -- now that Judy and I had overcome the initial shock and she had arranged things with school, we were mostly set and excited about the future parenthood. "So what's your problem?"

He didn't answer me. "Your ex-partner, and his wife, they staying long? I must admit, I'm curious. I'd like to meet him."

I gave him a mock-surprised look. "Why, Joe, I didn't know you had that secret!"

"Don't be silly, Sandburg. The first few weeks we were partnered, you didn't talk about anything else. You worship the ground that guy walks on. So that still makes me curious."

"That's not true," I protested, blushing at his words. We didn't have any more time to discuss this though, as a call came over the radio.

A man was holding his ex-wife and their three-year-old daughter hostage in his house.

***

"Stay back! I swear I'm going to kill her!" This was a disaster in the making. The idiot had his arm wrapped around the woman's throat, and he had a gun. Even though I understood it anthropologically, I never got those men who considered women their personal property. Get real - we're not living in the Stone Age anymore.

I cleared my throat, then said, "You stop it right here, and we can still find a way. I hope you understand we're giving you a chance here, man."

"I don't give a fuck," he shouted back at me. "Get lost, all of you. This is between me and this bitch here."

On the periphery of my vision, I saw Joe approaching from behind. Good. Still hoping that we could end this without anybody getting shot, I took a step closer.

"Sorry, that's not an option. So she's leaving you, huh? Why do you even care that much if you hate her? You can always find somebody else."

Don't I know it?

"That's none of your fucking business! She's taking the kid with her!"

"That's what I would do if my partner threatened me with a gun."

I could see Joe rolling his eyes, then grinning.

"Do you have children? Unless you do, you have no fucking idea, Mr. Cop."

One more step closer. His hand was trembling.

"Sorry, I didn't introduce myself. My name is Blair--" I had guessed he would snort, men like him couldn't help themselves when they heard my name. "Sandburg. And I'm going to have kids soon. My wife is pregnant with twins."

"She screwing around on you, too?"

He pressed the barrel of the gun closer to her throat. Behind them, at the window of the one story house, there was a scared girl staring with wide eyes. What shitty kind of parent would expose his child to this?

"I guess she would if I was treating her like you did with your wife. It's over."

"I wasn't..." the woman pressed out. "We were divorced already when..."

"Shut up!" he hissed, his finger tightening on the trigger.

Suddenly, she went limp in his hold, sagging. Joe and I moved forward at the same time. The man let go of her unconscious body and fired a shot.

There was a sharp pain before a crimson veil fell.

***

I came to in a hospital room, Joe sitting in a chair beside the bed, chiding me as soon as I opened my eyes.

"Hell, couldn't you think of anything better than pissing him off?"

"He... pissed... me off."

Joe was shaking his head, but as my vision got clearer, I saw the smile on his tired face. "Only you, Sandburg. You know, he was so shocked he'd actually fired, he gave up after that."

"Verdict?" I was feeling lousy, but he didn't seem like something catastrophic had happened. Thank God for small favors.

"You'll live. Next time you're not going to take a risk like this. Judy's been here too, she's off to some conference now, but I swear she's fuming."

I shrugged and winced.

"Jim called," he went on.

"You -- told him?"

"I had to. His interrogation techniques are intimidating. He's called three times already."

I wasn't sure if I should be amused or annoyed. About having gotten myself another partner who kept telling me what to do. About Jim's nothing-had-ever-changed, over-the-top concern. Then I remembered the invitation. "What day is it?"

"Tuesday," Joe sighed. "Doesn't look like you gonna be a big help with the paperwork. Maybe you should call off the weekend, Doc says you need some rest."

"I can rest while having visitors," I brushed him off, not looking forward with the confrontation with Judy - or Jim, for that matter - but there was no way I'd cancel when this was the first chance of reverting our relationship to what had always been passing as normal between us. "Three times, huh? Guess I should call him back then."

Joe was rolling his eyes at me. "One of these days, I want to meet Superman," he said with a scowl, and I could swear he was just a tiny bit jealous.

"Just don't take it so hard, will you?"

***

"Chief, thank God you're all right. Are you sure it's a good idea to--"

"Yes, Judy and I still want you to come to visit."

I once had a girlfriend who used to complain that men were so predictable. I used to argue. Right now, though, I could see her point; I'd known.

"You sure about that?" He sounded pleased, though, and I was aware of the warm feeling curling inside of me - nothing sexual. Right?

"Yes, I am."

"So, that was Joe...? Your... partner?"

Oh no, not him, too. This was the guy I'd come back from the dead for, and he could have had much more from me - and he still worried that there could be somebody more important to me. It sounded like he was as eager to meet Joe as it was the other way round. Maybe they could have a duel.

"Joe, right. I hope you were nice to him."

"Sure was," Jim said too quickly, and I had to grin. "I'm looking forward to seeing you," he added.

I hadn't fooled myself, had I? Everything was in order again. We were moving on, but still best friends. It was the best we could ask for. Everything else was just... buying trouble.

***

Judy had been worried about what to cook, and what to wear, and when I didn't give her answers quickly enough, she accused me of thinking that she was fat. It took me a while to console her and learn what the real issue was.

I'd never even considered it before. Jim had expressed his worry, and given me the mother-hen act often enough, sure, but he'd treated me as an equal, so I never once got the chance to obsess on the fact how different our lives had become. Always were, if I was honest. It never really mattered to me that Jim was the Junior CEO of a successful business, and had married a woman with one of her own.

It obviously mattered to Judy.

"Sorry I'm such a bitch," she sniffed. "But this visit is so important to you, and I'm afraid they won't like our home. It sure isn't what they are used to."

I didn't know Sylvia very well, granted, but she seemed kind and honest, not like the picture that Judy was painting. About Jim, I was dead certain.

I pulled her close, laying my hand lightly over her rounded belly. "We'll be fine, baby. They are great, you'll see. And if they don't like it, we'll kick them out."

That got me a small, grateful smile from Judy. At that point, I was still very sure - about going to be fine.

***

It was weird, I reflected as I found myself in a bear hug the moment I opened the door. What our lives had become in a heartbeat. There we'd been, trying to figure out the enigma of Jim's senses, and the true colors of our relationship --

The next you know, I'm a cop and Jim isn't, and we're both married. Must have been temporary insanity that had led me to the fantasy of another outcome...

But it was impossible anyway, him being who he was now, the heir of Ellison Enterprises, me, being a police detective. Even if he had wanted to... I forcibly shook the thought, taking a step backwards just in time to catch the amused smile that Sylvia and Judy shared. Oh, good, the ice had broken instantly.

The other thing Judy had been worried about was to be seen as fat and unattractive, and at that point, I'd been close to shaking her, if she hadn't been, all right, pregnant. Because that was all, wasn't it? She was expecting twins, and I had become really excited about that prospect. So far, she was mostly well, except for a short period of morning sickness, and the occasional depressive moods. What more could we ask for?

Sylvia wore a dark blue business suit, looking great in her tailor-made clothes, but it was Jim who caught my eye once he'd released me.

The transition hadn't been complete, not even with the wedding... but you couldn't ignore it now. Even casually dressed in slacks and a sweater - was that cashmere? - he looked every bit the guy others answered to.

I had never realized we lived in two different worlds even when we lived together.

And now... for a brief moment, the regret was almost unbearable, for a life that never should have been. Ungrateful bastard that I was - back in those days after the accident, I had vowed to do anything, if only Jim stayed alive. So there, Fate told me now.

I smiled. "Man, you're looking good."

"You too, Chief. And you must be Judy. Nice to meet you."

A nervous chuckle was rising in my throat, at how civilized all this was playing out. The last time we'd been alone, I had got drunk and made a pass at Jim. Most of the time since it had happened, I'd called myself a fool, arranging myself with the new life that was there for me, as husband and future father of twins. There was no time for juvenile regrets, for worrying about questions left unanswered.

The look Jim gave me after greeting Judy was... unsettling. As if he'd seen right through me.

And maybe he had.

***

It was good to see Sylvia and Judy getting along well with each other; all her worries had been completely unfounded. Shortly after coffee, they disappeared into the garden, Judy showing the guest around. And there we were...

"It looks great. Very comfortable," Jim said. "Chief, are you happy?"

Why did he have to ask? "Sure I am," I said quickly. "Man, this is great. You know I always wanted a family. Stability and all that stuff - I guess Naomi would disagree, but don't we always try to make things different from our parents?"

"I guess so," he returned quietly, but there was something else in his tone I couldn't quite identify. Disappointment? But that was probably wishful thinking.

"I don't have to ask you," I continued. "The married life becomes you."

"Yeah, it's great. Maybe everybody gets a second chance."

Except for me... but that I didn't say out loud. That moment, Sylvia and Judy returned, and I didn't get a chance to comment.

***

I didn't get off easily though. There was a moment when everybody had said goodbye, and we were waiting in the hallway for the wives who, ever-communicative women, couldn't bear to part yet.

Jim and I stood there waiting. Tension had grown over the weekend, palpable, or maybe it was just my imagination? I was feeling twitchy. Afraid he might bring up *that* moment. Afraid he might have forgotten.

Then he reached up to - I thought he'd pat my face in that brotherly way it had always been his second favorite tease right after getting my hair in disarray - but no, the touch turned into a caress, hand cradling my face.

"Jim..." I didn't know what to say. Finally, I went for the obvious. "They're going to--" It was harshly unfair; how could I not lean into the touch, want more of it?

"I can hear them. They're not done yet." He sighed, breaking the contact, making me miss the warmth instantly. My lips tingling where his fingers had brushed them.

"Look, Chief, I mean what I said. I like my life. That doesn't mean I don't sometimes wish I'd have made other decisions, early enough."

"You mean...?"

"You know what I mean. Take good care of your family."

The ladies joined us eventually, and then Jim and Sylvia were gone before I could even start to face the facts. Those feelings I had first acknowledged the day before their marriage, had gone nowhere. And there was nothing I could do about it either way.

***

The morning I went to the conference where I'd speak to trauma therapists about police work, I hated myself. The world in general, that too, but I think it was me I hated most. Judy was mad at me, and probably rightfully so.

The first night, when we had our home to ourselves again, she'd snuggled close, whispering sweet dirty things that normally never failed to have an effect. I'd been absent-minded for a while, though, my thoughts circling around that single question, //"Chief, are you happy?"//

It wasn't that I was unhappy, just that everything had happened so quickly that I never really had time to stop and think. I couldn't turn around now. There were responsibilities I had accepted, and where would I have turned anyway? The object of my obsession was a happily married man. //Get real, Sandburg.//

Judy had accused me of not being interested in her anymore, which I fervently denied. It wasn't true, and it didn't have the slightest thing to do with her pregnancy. I couldn't give her any real explanation, either.

"Why don't you admit it anyway?"

"Come on," I'd protested, for about the third time. "You know that it isn't about that. I'm just... tired."

"You never were before I got pregnant," she shot back. "Just in case you're wondering, I didn't *order* twins. I hadn't even planned to get pregnant, and I keep wondering if this was all some big mistake."

The sane part of me still tried to calm her down; another, very silly and hardly sane part wondered, //Maybe it was?// But I wouldn't have it that easy, as my father presumedly had, running away at the first sign of trouble. I always wanted to be different from him. And I would.

Still, I felt like a jerk when we lay awake side by side, not talking anymore, and I heard her crying.

We hastily made up before the conference, because we had both been brought up with the belief that it's bad luck to part in anger, but it was mostly on the surface. Everything else would have to wait until I was back, so my guilty conscience kept me company.

***

3

Routine returned way too soon to all of our lives, in spite of all of the unsolved issues that remained after our visit. Sylvia said that she liked Judy, and that they had planned to stay in touch, which I found somewhat surprising.

I mean she was amiable, and good-looking and smart, and still, I felt I couldn't completely warm to her. Maybe it was because I saw traces of Maya, and Molly, and Sam in her, and that hadn't worked out either, because Sandburg had such a talent for picking exactly the type of woman who, in the end, wasn't what he needed from a partner.

I snorted at my own line of thought as I kept packing clothes for my three-day-trip into the suitcase. Did I really know better? For him, at least, I think I did. I mean, I was quite sure that I got it right this time. And still, I had made mistakes.

I hadn't been fair with him. Maybe this time it would have been kinder to tell a blunt lie; no, I never once thought about the two of us...

There was a difference; while I had been entertaining the fantasy within the safe boundaries of my marriage, Blair had been hopeful, acting on it when it already was too late.

Was it really? I wondered.

"Jim! I wouldn't pack that if you don't want to be the laugh of the event."

Sylvia stood in the doorway, shaking her head, smiling gently. I looked down at the object in my hand, realizing it was a tie, a gag gift that had been given to me by the gang on some occasion. It made me grin, thinking I'd wear a tie with Batman on it when dealing with the Japanese business partners I'd meet in Tacoma, while Sylvia would be in charge here.

"Of course not. You are a life saver."

"Anytime."

She stepped closer, stealing a kiss, and I pulled her down to me. The feel of her body against mine was thrilling. I had half an hour before the cab would arrive, and the suggestive expression on her face told me she was aware of it, too. "Maybe I can even do something else for you," she said, starting to unbutton my shirt.

"Well, I'm curious."

***

I made it to the airport in time. Barely. Sometime during the flight, I snapped back into business mode, blessedly oblivious to any open questions, worries that were not mine to have, and the fantasy of what might have happened or still might happen someday.

I had a rather peaceful time up until after the meeting with Mr. Fukiro, even though I couldn't stop my thoughts from wandering back to Sandburg to save my life... he had pointed out the benefits of being a Sentinel in my new profession, and I admit, he'd been totally right about it. I loved what I was doing.

I still had the limp, and sometimes, the nerves in my right hand acted up, but nowadays, I could visit the PD without being bitter and regretful. I even did some consulting on the side, as Simon had suggested all that time ago. I didn't need it for money, but it helped keeping the contact.

Satisfied with myself, I went to bed early that day, getting up just as early to get ready for my presentation at noon.

There was only one other person in the breakfast room.

I couldn't believe my eyes.

***

"Jim! What a coinc-- I hope you don't think I follow you around on purpose!" he said, grinning mischievously before he let himself be pulled into a hug. "What are you doing here?"

"You'd be my favorite stalker, Chief. I've got a business meeting." I was reluctant to let him go, and I was quite sure he'd noticed. "You?"

"Going to be eaten alive." He smiled at my startled look. "I'm going to speak at a conference of therapists that's going to take place here this week, all conservative psychoanalysists. I can just see them snorting about the geek spouting the liberal bullshit."

"You'll have them eating out of your hand in no time." That, I was sure of. "And you're... looking good."

He did. Somewhere, gone unnoticed by me, he'd shed a layer or two and begun showing more of himself. No more hiding behind flannel and over-sized stuff; this was Blair Sandburg, what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

And I liked very much what I saw. Not dressed up for the auditorium yet, he wore dark slacks and a T-shirt, his hair loose. Had I really been so blind all the time, just not seeing how attractive he was? And it wasn't just about clothes.

I had the feeling that today, this *coincidence*, was the point of no return, the window of opportunity opening just once more.

Which way would we choose?

His gaze on me turned wistful. "Hell, Jim, I'm so sorry. I should have never brought the subject up. We both have... responsibilities now."

"That's right," I acknowledged, and he sighed.

"Right about the responsibilities, I meant. Other than that... the timing just wasn't so good."

"You don't hate me?"

"That's a dumb question, Chief." His face fell at my words, and I hastened to clarify. Not missing a beat, knowing I was about to get myself in trouble, caring less, the longer this conversation lasted. "You know, I have an idea. Your lecture's this evening, right?"

He nodded, not quite sure where I was heading with this.

"I'll be done at 6, I hope. I'd like to come and listen."

"You would...?"

"Of course. A little like old times, you know?"

Those old times, when everything was still possible. Who would know, who would care if we pretended just a little bit?

"I'd love to see you," he said, and I knew he was happy. I wasn't sure if he was aware of everything that had just happened. Forty-eight hours until I had to go home...

***

The day passed in a blur, and then I found myself getting ready for the evening, feeling unsettlingly like a teenager on a first date. I knew it was all way wrong, but hell, maybe I had misunderstood and he simply wasn't interested anymore.

Yeah, right, and that's why I had been wandering the internet, restlessly, looking for... answers. My experiences in Vice hadn't exactly provided me with the appropriate knowledge, because it had been about crime, about a market, not a good place to start when you were looking for a relationship, for anything you'd share with a person you cared about.

Probably, the internet wasn't the best place to start, either, but it was the most anonymous way.

That was all about framework, anyway. The core of it... fantasy.

***

I found myself smiling, remembering the cracks the guys in Major Crimes had made back in the early days, about that kid favoring Salvation Army style clothes. That was way in the past. Blair wore a dark suit with a matching tie, his hair tied back, and very distinguished looking glasses, as he strode to the podium.

His audience, a bunch of shrinks, two thirds of them, men, were spell-bound from the first minute.

"I've had a lot of opportunities to have conversations over the course of this conference," he said after the greeting. "I understand that, depending on your training, you might come to very different conclusions from case to case. I work with a Special Victims Unit, and tonight, I'm going to tell about how trauma presents itself in my line of work."

He was brilliant, but then again, I hadn't expected anything else. He had the answer to every provoking question, and didn't let one or two rather arrogant folks faze him with their comments, even made them laugh.

His lecture ended with a thunderous applause. Blair thanked the audience; and when his eyes met mine, he gave me a smile that made me shift uneasily in my seat, shiver, and that promised more than talk over dinner. In a hall full of psychoanalysists. I'd get him for that.

***

Dinner first. A drink or two, all right. Because in this restaurant on the 6th floor of the hotel, with all the conference participants who were having dinner, too, some of them stopping in passing by and congratulating Blair on his lecture, it was really just the two of us.

He answered politely to everyone, but I knew his attention was so totally focused on me, it was like an actual touch. Touch... I felt hot already, shifting in my seat again as he turned his gaze back to me when the next listener had gone back to his dinner.

"I'm sorry, Jim," he said a bit ruefully, and that was maybe because he didn't feel sorry at all. "I had almost forgotten how much fun this is."

Gone were the doubts, the insecurity I remembered from the night before my wedding, and if I was honest with myself, maybe before that. But I didn't want to think of any wedding now, mine, his, anyone's.

"There'll be other opportunities," I said. Talking about teaching. Maybe. It was just so damn good to see him this happy. To look at him and know that the decision had been made, no matter the consequences.

"For most things in life, yes."

And I understood what he was saying. If I turned him down tonight, this would be it, the end of the legend, so to speak. Considering some of the decisions we've made lately, it would have been a rather sensible thing. It wasn't what either of us wanted though. Renew the memory, kiss him again and this time allow myself to feel it, and take that beginner's journey through all the things I fantasized about and was sure he had, too.

I could smell his want, rich and heady, feeding my own. If any more blood was rushing south now, I'd probably faint, so it seemed like now was the time...

I laid my hand over his for a brief moment only, but it was enough to make it clear. "Let's go."

***

The moment we closed the door of my hotel suite behind us, he had his arms around me, and his mouth latched onto mine. The door handle was digging into my back, but I didn't care, just letting myself feel, holding on for all it was worth.

Curiosity was a perfect guide; I couldn't get enough of touching him, skin warming under my fingers as I cradled his face, then reached behind to loosen the hair tie, let his hair tumble down, raw silk under my fingers. Good, so good, but it wasn't enough yet, clothes in the way. His hands slid under my shirt, caressing my chest, leaving me trembling with want, but it was him groaning helplessly. He was hard; I'd known before I lay my hand gently over the crotch of his slacks, the light touch making him quiver and gasp.

If we went on like this, it would all be over in a matter of minutes, right here up against the door. I wanted it to be more.

I stepped back, trying to catch my breath, and Blair looked up at me, his expression slightly dazed. His train of thought was rather clear, though.

"If you're having second thoughts *now*, I'm going to kill you."

I had to laugh, and it felt surprisingly liberating. "Not going to happen, Chief." I took my time to look him over, his rather rumpled state, his flushed face and those wide eyes. I liked how he was almost squirming under my gaze.

"I want you naked," I said. "I want to feel all of you."

With that smile of his, he'd always got to me, but it had been a long time since I had seen his eyes *shine* like this.

We got rid of the rest of our clothes finally, sharing hot, searing kisses, as we lay entwined in the king size bed, aiming for maximum touch. Any resemblance of nervousness was out of the window now; who cared that neither of us had ever done this with another guy. We had thought, and fantasized about each other, and we were making it come true.

It seemed rather natural. That, and there was literally no time for doubts.

Just as the almost compulsive need to taste him, would have been such a cliché if I said I needed to imprint him on my senses, but maybe that was exactly what was happening. Blair indulged me, the happy little sounds he made when I licked a path from his jaw down his neck, a hint that I had to be doing something right.

His nipples hardened under the touch of my tongue, and he moaned, the sound going straight to my groin, almost too much in addition to the feel of his hot skin against my cock. I went on, tasting, licking, nipping the skin, feeling his heaving breaths.

Blair, as it seemed, wasn't much of a talker in bed. He focused on the feeling entirely. I should have known.

I slid my tongue around his navel, and then dipped in, making him shiver violently. Holding him like this, with my hands on his hips, pleasuring him, I felt a sudden, unexpected surge of tenderness that was almost disturbing in its intensity.

It had always been there. I had been good into fooling myself it was always just brotherly affection, but the truth was far from it. I should have known the day I had him up against the wall of his office, pressing against him, that there was something that couldn't just be explained away with righteous annoyance.

Scouting a little further down on the bed, I stroked his hips, gently parting his legs a bit further and then took him into my mouth. Whoa, talk about *power*. He was absolutely helpless like this, as I was holding him down, enjoying the taste and the feel, yes, he was close and I--

"Wait," he gasped, which was perfect timing as I had come that close to a zone.

Reluctantly, I let go of him, and, following a sudden inspiration, I stretched out above him again, kissing him once more, sharing. I was holding his wrists loosely above his head, pulling back enough to whisper, "Can you taste yourself?"

He smiled up at me. I had to catch my breath. I rolled my hips experimentally, the contact almost enough to bring us both over the edge, but he slipped out of my hold, pulling me even closer, and I let myself be flipped over, so that he was above me. Felt good from here, too. He was just radiating intensity tonight, with the same self-confidence that always had come through when he had to find answers to the riddle of my senses.

"Jim, I want to--" He broke off the sentence, as his hand, warm and sure, crept between us to stroke me, gently, still spinning the touch dial nearly out of control. "I want to have everything with you tonight."

His words weren't all that cryptic to me even before his fingers trailed further down between my legs, hesitating, waiting for permission. I hadn't really thought about this - but...

"Everything," I said.

There was something flashing in his eyes. He shouldn't have been surprised. So much had been in his hands, right from the start...

"Do you trust me?"

The answer had always been the same even when I'd been trying to deny it.

"Yes, I do."

***

I had always trusted my body to Blair, when I let him bully me into cutting down on the fast food, let him re-organize my apartment and my life to a Sentinel-friendly environment. So, tonight, now, was really no exception, except maybe for the fact that I could finally acknowledge that I was madly in love with him.

I was resting my head on my arms while he was giving me a massage, different from the backrubs we'd given each other before. Not so innocent. He had me squirming in no time, with touch, with the sound of his voice close enough so I could feel his breath ghosting over my skin, yeah, *witch doctor punk* hadn't been so far from the truth, because I felt kind of bewitched.

And how good that was. Over-sensitized, body trembling with anticipation, I sighed in relief when he slid his finger inside.

"Watch your dials, okay?" Not a problem, really. I was so relaxed, there wasn't any resistance, physically or psychologically. My self-image was just fine, and the only thing that had taken me aback for a moment was that Blair had come perfectly prepared.

"Hell, Jim," he'd said. "I was fooling myself," and there had been a slight tremor to his voice. It was gone now, replaced with excitement, undisguised hunger. "You're gorgeous. I love you, you know?"

I loved him too, with an intensity that freaking hurt, and I couldn't take the waiting any longer, I needed him *now*, and I told him so.

I had to revise my earlier opinion - he *was* a talker. "You feel so good," he said. "You've got such a wonderful body, I still can't believe that we--"

I chuckled. "Stop rambling, Chief. Just do it."

And he did.

***

I had kept my dials cautiously further down, then let them go up all the way. Slow maddening slide in and out, his fingers entwined with mine, his moans bleeding into mine, and then he somehow found the right angle to touch a place inside, in a way I had only read about before.

I felt his lips fastening on my neck, biting down very gently, and that was it, the climax slamming into me in long, blissful moments, made even better by his hand, stroking me through it, and then the tell-tale twitch of his own cock and the following rush of warmth inside of me.

For a while, we just lay there, silent, muscles still trembling with the overload, happy, sad at the same time, because tonight was no beginning of anything.

After a while, Blair carefully pulled out, got up to get a towel to get us both cleaned up a bit, and then he simply tossed it on the floor, crawling under the covers and into my embrace.

"We are so crazy."

"Yes, we are," I agreed, pulling him closer. "But I don't give a damn."

***

The kiss we shared before parting, before leaving the room and going back to our respective realities was almost brutal. Because there was no going back now. We were in the game, had made our choices.

Well, with what we'd been through, what was creating a little additional chaos?

That day, the sky was grey and cloudy, an appropriate background for our goodbye. Hugging, like the friends we were, had been, but make no mistake, because everything had changed by whispered 'I love you's' and everything else we had done last night.

"When can I see you again?"

The urgency, the way his fingers clenched on my jacket, let an early memory flash on my mind.

You're my thesis! I want to write about you!

So many things changed too soon. I took both of his hands in mine, not caring who was watching. Chances were, in the busy hectic surroundings of an airport, no one even cared. "Soon," I promised. "We'll work something out."

***

On the plane, I leaned back into my seat, letting myself fall into the memory. We had slept together for a while, but Blair hadn't been kidding when he'd said, everything, and neither had I.

We'd been making silly jokes, and I'd told him that he'd seemed to have forgotten my age, smugly, because I was right up for it the moment he touched me, greedy for more sensation, for another way of getting under his skin.

And I felt a little more assured, remembering the feel of his fingers, gently preparing, stretching me, as I did the same with him. He just straddled my hips, slowly taking me inside his body, making himself at home. Yeah, I'd thought, wrapping my arms around him. Home. If only we'd known before.

***

It was weird; I can't even say that I had a terribly guilty conscience, because once I'd come home, finding a note from Sylvia that said she'd be tied up at the office until six, and did I want to meet her for dinner at the Palace after that? I was totally back in my old, or new life.

Not uncomfortable in the role of a married businessman, former police detective, a world where Blair Sandburg was a good friend of mine.

The fact that he'd come in my arms tonight, crying out my name, my lover, was on another page, seemed like a hot, forbidden dream. Meeting again? Not anytime soon, I assumed.

***

"I'm worried about Leyla," Sylvia said.

I had driven to the office, saying hello to everyone, given a brief summary of the meeting with Fukiro. After that, we'd left for our favorite Italian, the 'Palace', and that's when she told me she assumed that the secretary had a drinking problem.

"Have you talked to her?"

"Not yet. I wanted to talk to you first... and maybe you can discreetly find out what's behind it. Then we all have that talk together."

"It's a pity. Leyla is good at her job."

Sylvia sighed. "Yes, she is. I hope we can resolve this somehow." She smiled at me, clearly wanting to change the topic now. "So how was your trip?"

"Just fine." I told her all about my meetings with Fukiro, but not that I'd met Blair. It seemed safer somehow. The first conscious lie of many to come.

The next few days, I was listening in on Leyla on occasion, feeling like a stalker. I found out that she had a bottle in her desk drawer, and that her husband was calling her at work regularly, shouting at her.

The days just flew by, and there wasn't any time really, only brief moments to catch my breath, remember, wonder what he was doing, and maybe remembering too. Life went on; we had that confrontation with Leyla, and she promised it would all be better after the divorce was through. We gave her a second chance. Everybody deserved one, right?

Not much later, Judy gave birth to two girls, and we were invited to the baptism. A protestant one. Judy and her family had insisted, and Blair had probably too much of a guilty conscience to argue.

***

I admired them for their patience, grudgingly, even Judy. The girls were pretty darn cute, but still a tad too much of everything for a Sentinel. Maybe it was that, or I was having a fit of totally inappropriate jealousy.

Seeing Blair so totally focused, and yes, happy, why did I ever ask? The memory of the night we spent together, seemed unreal, rude even to obsess on it. But I couldn't help myself.

With the house full of guests, Sylvia talking to Judy on the porch, Sheila and Shelly with their grandparents later, I still found a moment to back him into a corner and steal a kiss. He practically melted into my arms. It was dangerous, exciting, and totally crazy.

"I'm going to Seattle in three weeks," I said, listening for anyone who might disturb us. "Please say you'll come."

He looked doubtful, and it occurred to me that it was maybe not the most clever thing to say at the baptism of his kids - but still. "Where are we going with this?" he asked, and the justified question did much to dampen my enthusiasm. He was right. Where could we ever go?

"Hell if I know, Chief," and he nodded, as if he had expected this answer.

"I want to see you again, too," he ventured after a moment, unusually shyly. I wanted to go away with him right away.

Then the wail of a baby was heard, her sister joining in, and Judy called for Blair. We let go - for the moment.

***

The next morning, when we drove home, Sylvia was rather silent. Not mad with me; I could always tell the difference; so she hadn't noticed anything.

"They're really cute, aren't they?"

"The babies, right." She smiled at that. "The parents, too, kind of."

"Yeah. Syl, you... aren't changing your mind?"

We had discussed this subject early on in our relationship, before Blair had ever met Judy. And we had agreed that children did not feature in our future plans. I wondered if the past few days had made a difference, spending time up close with the newborns.

We looked at each other, then shook our heads, starting to laugh at the same moment. "No way," she said. "They're cute, yes, but it's more fun when you can give them back once they start to cry, or worse. I was just thinking... we've been working so much lately; it was nice to spend some time with you. I wish I could go to Seattle with you."

Silence, again. "Yeah, me too," I said then, not entirely lying, not letting her hear the 'but'. There were so many things I would have wished to be different, but we all had our responsibilities, wasn't that right? Sylvia was going to meet with new customers in California shortly before I'd leave for Seattle. We had both chosen this life, and it provided us with many comforts.

Except the things you couldn't buy... It would have been the easiest way to blame it all on Blair, but even I wasn't that repressed. I was already plotting our next meeting.

***

Some things never changed. I could still feel the shadow of our combined body heat even standing a few feet away from the bed, but my cold-natured partner had drawn the covers higher, once I'd left it for the shower.

He had also ordered a sweet treat from the all-night room service, which he was enjoying presently.

He looked up when I came into the room, and that gaze made me feel very naked, and proud all the same. After a while of what the doctors called reactive depression after the accident, I had gone back to taking care of my body. And it made me smile to remember a younger Blair, stealing glimpses, when we were still living together, blushing when he'd noticed that I'd caught him.

It was all his now - at least for tonight, and tomorrow night, until we would return to our respective worlds. I'd been a little worried about going, because Leyla's still-husband kept calling the office and utter obscenities, making Sylvia and me responsible for the divorce. Leyla had gone into rehab and temporarily replaced by a part-time employee.

Then again, Sylvia was a woman who could handle herself, and she'd told me in no uncertain terms what she'd do should man have the gall to come to the office.

That, and when Blair had called me on the cell an hour before I arrived at the hotel, whispering sweet dirty things over the line, I was ready to forget all about home.

Now, I still stood in thesame place, enjoying his admiring gaze, lazily tracing the ingredients of the Tiramisu I'd soon taste. "There's more in the fridge," he said, putting the small bowl aside.

"That's good," I said, and tossed the towel aside, grinning when his eyes widened.

Unhurriedly, I walked over to the bed, got in there with him, and pulled him close to me, turning until I had him sprawled over me. "How's the Tiramisu?"

He leaned down to lick my lips, then delved in for a kiss and let me have a taste. Forget about cold; his skin was heating rapidly, sliding against mine, and the sweet lethargy from the shower was fleeing as well.

Despite all the downsides that came with them, with sex, the senses had always been a definite advantage. After Blair, that is, because having enough control so a person's heart valve doesn't sound like slamming doors when it's starting to feel really good - makes sense. Other than that, it's simply incredible.

I ran my hands down his back, would have loved this, too, just holding him in my arms, but it was understood that our time was cut short; and everything about us was still so new.

He moved against me as I cupped his ass in my hands, both of us hard again, and I just followed him, blindly, impossibly, what else was new.

When he straightened up, stopping the motion, I groaned with frustration, so close to the edge it nearly hurt. "Way to kill an old man," I gasped.

Blair shook his head at me with a fond smile, and then it was his turn to gasp when I took him in my hand, stroking him, then stroking us both together.

"You're not old. And I want..." He laid his hand over mine, stopping me again - Blair being just a little pushy in bed, big surprise? Not. "I want you in me." That, and he could blush ever so sweetly.

Sometimes I wondered if we'd have been more awkward, more self-conscious with each other if we had more than one or two nights in months together, or if there had been a natural transition from being friends to being friends and lovers.

After having made the decision we'd risk it all, there was only the hunger, the greedy feasting on each other's body and this crazy love.

"Come on over here," I said, already having dialed down almost completely, as though not to spoil the fun. I remembered my face burning as I checked some of the sites on the internet - as opposed to the cool, uncaring mask I had learned to put on when working in Vice, and now, it all felt just natural.

It was a heady feeling, letting my fingers slide into his body, feeling how relaxed he was, trusting me. I loved how he was as responsive as I'd ever dreamed, breaking into shivers from the softest kiss to his spine. Enticed and encouraged, I pushed my fingers deeper, aiming for that spot that would make him... oh yes. His moan turned into a whimper, slightly smothered by the pillow he was pressing his face into.

I had meant to go slow, but he pushed back hard, taking me deeper inside, an almost desperate move.

"Hey." I braced myself over him, not quite holding him down, but not giving him much space to move anyway. "We might not have much time, but there's still enough."

The sound he made was very much like a snort. "That's... kind of poetic, but would you mind getting on with it and fuck me already?"

I chuckled, kissing his neck before raising up again slightly. "Fuck, another time, Chief," I told him. "Just let me run the show for now, will you?"

Making love, I'd almost said, but Blair would get the meaning anyway. I turned up the dials by minute degrees, moving as slowly as possible, drawing the moment out, as I left both of our bodies teetering on the edge.

Slowing down. Picking up on the rhythm again.

Beneath me, Blair was trembling, alternately cursing and moaning, his body in my hands very literally, and otherwise. "Who's killing... who, now? Fuck, Jim."

"Told you, not tonight."

But the dial routine would only work for so long; his body clenching around me, and when I knew I wouldn't be able to hold back much longer. I adjusted my angle so the sweet spot would be continuously stimulated, and wrapped my fingers around his cock, massaging gently. It didn't take more than that.

I held him, while he shook beneath me, coming so hard I could smell tears in his eyes. They might have been regret for just another weekend 'out-of-this-world' ending for us too soon.

My hand still slick from his come, I grasped his hips again, setting the fast rhythm now he'd wanted earlier, and this time, I simply let the dials spin. The orgasm was made even better by the fact his body, impossible as it was, reacted by trying to join in once more.

Still breathless, we lay in each other's arms, and he was stroking my hair while I was tasting the sweat and the tears on his face.

I didn't think I'd want to move ever again, but later, we possessed enough presence of the mind to clean up, cover some parts of the sheet with a fluffy towel, and then settled in for the night.

Blair might have a lot of need for independence, but he was also indulgent when it came to my own, protective instincts. I loved holding him while he slept. Some things never changed, right?

***

The phone rang at 6:34. It was my cell, and I just knew this had to mean bad news before I heard Sylvia's voice. "Jim, I need you here now," she said briskly. "That idiot tried to set headquarters on fire. He's in custody, but..." Her voice trailed off, betraying the bravado.

"Are you hurt, baby?"

I was aware of Blair wincing at the endearment. Couldn't help it at the moment.

"I'm fine, and so is everyone else," Syl said. "We're lucky no one got hurt, but I'm afraid we need to re-decorate the lobby; it's a mess in more than one sense of the word. So, is there any chance you could make it today already?"

"Of course," I said without thinking. "I'll call the airport in a moment to find out which flight I can take. I'll call you when I know more, okay?"

"That'd be good." She sounded tired. "What about the contract?"

"Signed, of course. If I tell them some maniac tried to burn down our office, I'm sure they won't mind me going home. See you later. I... love you," I said, only minutely hesitating before I hung up.

"I'm sorry," was the first thing I said to Blair.

He shrugged. "You have to go. I understand."

"Thank you." I leaned over for a quick kiss, realizing that his heartbeat didn't settle. In fact, it was fast in near panic, and I realized me telling Sylvia that I loved her could not be the reason.

"Are you okay? Judy and the kids?"

He curled up beside me with a sigh, willing to slow time as it seemed. And I found out the next moment. "They're fine. I guess I'm just a little spooked by this undercover gig I said yes to."

I pulled back, frowning at him. "I didn't think you were doing undercover work."

"Neither was I. But this guy is selling his stuff at high school parties. There was an opportunity. And I'm not going to back off now."

I wish I had the power to make him, but the thought alone was ridiculous, of course. So I settled for drawing him close and placing a kiss on his temple. "Be careful."

"Sure." He turned to me for a real kiss, and then I got up to make the call to the airport.

***

4

We managed to meet once more before I had to slip into the personality of a slimy drug dealer. Only the next weekend, we packed up the kids and went to a weekend trip to meet Judy's sister Emily, who wanted us to get to know her fiancé, and there'd be time to pay Jim and Sylvia a visit.

I was looking forward to having a little time off before the real thing started, and I was also terrified. How could we ever act as if nothing had happened?

I loved Sheila and Shelly; gorgeous girls with dark curls, Judy's brown eyes and inquisitive minds even though they couldn't speak yet. And I loved Judy, who had adjusted much better than I had, a proud mother, and a wonderful lover I didn't really deserve. Hell, nothing about this was her fault. It was all said and done before I ever met her.

Just maybe, it would all get magically better once that undercover job was done.

And maybe I was kidding myself, because as it was, there was no way I'd miss out on any of those stolen moments with Jim. Even though it was a bit disconcerting how he'd rent two rooms, and I'd creep out of mine into the double one. An affair, that's what it was.

Would be as long as it lasted.

Judy had stopped at a red light and looked at me worriedly. "Would it be easier if you told me about it?" she asked, and I started, only a moment later realizing that she meant, indeed, the job.

"I'm okay, honey," I said absently, taking her hand in mine briefly. "And it's green, by the way."

"Okay, then."

***

It was difficult. Judy and Sylvia seemed both oblivious, chatting with each other like old friends. Sylvia told us what a shock it had been to see the lobby after the fire.

"I'm so sorry for you, hon," Judy said earnestly, while Jim took his wife's hand into his, and I -- crazy, being a jerk, I felt jealous at this display of affection. What had I expected anyway?

Just because we'd been having mind-blowing sex on a couple of opportunities, didn't mean there was any more 'us' than the friendship we'd always shared. All else was illusion.

"Well, we'll survive. And it's good the insurance paid; it's not like that loser could have afforded to pay us back for the damage he caused."

All the while I was busily studying my coffee cup, because I couldn't look at Jim. Not looking and remembering how he'd looked at me that last night we'd spent together, that kind of look I was only just getting used to, that mix of hunger and tenderness, like I was the most precious thing in his life.

I really had it bad, and I knew it. It would be a while though until we could meet again, because I'd start on the undercover job on Monday. It would take a few weeks at the least.

Jim and Sylvia entertained us with some business stories then, and funny how Judy, who had initially been a bit shy in their presence, was doing great with that kind of small-talk.

I got up to take a look at our two baby girls who were sleeping peacefully. How could I even ask for more? They were perfect. And if I allowed myself to take a moment, I'd be bursting with pride, every time I looked at them, held them, thought of them. They kept us busy, that much was for sure, but they were also the most beautiful babies that had ever been born.

Jim had said so, too.

I could have hated him for disrupting my life like this, except that I couldn't, and hadn't I asked for this?

"You're going to be fine, Chief."

Speak of the devil. I'd jumped very slightly, but the women were on the other side of the room, not noting anything suspicious. I knew he was talking about the undercover job, but that was not foremost on my mind. It would be, once I started, but now...

"Thanks." I turned around, seeing Sylvia and Judy still in conversation. I looked back at the babies in their carriages, and sighed. "Four weeks, I'd say. Can I call you after that?"

Meaning, not just to say hello. "I mean you're busy, too."

"I'll make time," he said, touching my shoulder briefly. Saying all that needed to be said in small gestures; Jim had always been good at that.

***

"Are you sure you're up to this? You're looking a little queasy," Joe insisted, and I was rolling my eyes at him. As if, this afternoon, there'd be any chance to still back out of it. And I don't want to. I want to catch the guy who's selling drugs to kids that aren't even allowed to drive yet; and the creeps that are behind him.

"Well, maybe it's because these people are making me sick," I snapped at him.

He got up to fetch himself a coffee from the vending machine. In half an hour, I was supposed to leave for my temporary apartment, from where I'd call my contact. And I did not like those worried glances Joe had been given me ever since I'd come to the station.

"Oh, and there I thought it had to do with visiting your friend in Cascade."

He placed another coffee in front of me, and even though I would have liked to tell him to mind his own business, I had to admit I needed that coffee. Sheila, the firstborn of the twins, had come down with a fever the other night. Needless to say, Judy and I hadn't gotten much sleep. "You have no idea," I said grumpily, taking a sip of the coffee. "And thanks."

He grinned. "I know you, pal." More serious, he continued, "You don't have to worry about a thing, okay? You just do your thing; I've got your back."

"I know. There's just never a good time for disappearing for four weeks, you know?"

He just nodded. "I guess it's time to go now."

***

My contact was as good as his word, and got me to meet the man who seemed to be second in command, a Peter Bolton, the same night. It was almost funny if the context hadn't been beyond serious, the way he sized me up, coming to the conclusion that I looked like someone who'd be interested in and able to handle drug trafficking. It was good that criminal thugs had the same prejudices as everyone else.

"Well, yeah, I guess we could use someone like you. Mikey here has highly recommended you, and I suppose you could make good sales with that pretty face of yours. Kids are going to trust you."

I could have puked all over his shoes. The guy with the pretty face would fasten the cuffs on him sooner that he'd thought. "That's cool, man," I said. "So I can start right away?"

"Ah, not so fast!" Bolton wagged a meaty finger at me. "You're going on a trial run with Mikey tomorrow. You pass the test, you work for us."

I gave him a shrug. "Fine with me. See you tomorrow then."

It was that easy. I almost felt light-headed, walking out of the shabby office.

***

The next evening, Bolton offered me side business and hinted at a possible meeting with his boss in two weeks. That was as long as I had to last with them, at least, because scooting out kids who might be most likely subjects for long-term buying - listening closely, I learned soon that the man behind Bolton was running several more branches of criminal activity.

And I had to prove myself, or I wasn't ever going to see his face.

At night, alone in my ratty apartment, hating myself for looking the other way, all in the name of the bigger cause, I missed Jim badly. I was trying to tell myself it was because he would have understood, not judged, but the truth was, I simply wanted him to be the one I'd be coming home to after this.

Dream on.

***

"You saved her life. Thank you so much."

The man's eyes were bright. It was true what he'd said; when I had called in reinforcements, we managed to free her and other runaways from a brothel run by the boss of the guy who'd called himself Bolton, but whose real name was Androvich. He was wanted in relation to a list of crimes as long as my arms.

The family would have to deal with what had been done to her.

I would have to deal with shooting her pimp, very rightfully so, because the guy had been very ready to off me, and the girl as well. That's because he'd either end up in prison or would have had to answer to Androvich, and it was hard to say which would have been worse for him.

He had been, as I knew now, only twenty years old.

I flinched at a tentative touch to my shoulder, and turned to Joe, who was regarding me worriedly. "Welcome back, partner," he said, pulling me into a brief, firm hug. "What do you say, we clean up this mess, start on the report and then go knock back a few later?"

Joe was a good guy, I knew, and I didn't want to disappoint him. He knew my answer, though, already, when it took me too long to give one.

"You take care of yourself? Not be alone tonight?"

"No," I said. "I promise. Could use a little help with that cleaning up part though..."

Simon had always been pleased when I was writing Jim's reports, but Joe was definitely the master. He didn't even share most cops' known hate for paperwork, on the contrary, he always said he liked wrapping up things, because it gave him a sense of closure. Go figure. "Not a problem," he said, and I smiled at him.

"Thank you. Maybe we can go for a drink or two on Friday."

***

I called Judy and told her I needed some more time with the case, but I'd be home the next day, evening at the latest, and that all was well with me.

"Thank you for calling."

I could hear that she was crying, and that made me feel like a jerk, but it didn't make me change my mind. "Of course. Are you and the girls all right?"

"Yes. Yes, we are. We're all missing you."

"I miss you too," I said, not really comforted, even though it wasn't exactly a lie. "I'll come home as soon as I can."

"You do that. I love you."

Immediately after I had hung up, I dialed again.

"Ellison?"

He still answered his cell phone with the same impatient snap of his name. The business introduction was much more formal. I had never gotten over expecting him to say, 'Major Crimes, Detective Ellison.' Come on, get a grip now.

"It's me," I said. I had driven over to the next bigger town, checked into a hotel. This was beyond crazy. It would take him up to two hours to get here - if he made it quick.

"Chief. It's good to hear from you. So everything went down all right?"

"It did," I said, dismayed to hear the quiver in my voice. If I had heard it, then there was no chance in hell he could have missed it. "Can you... can you come?"

The hand that held the receiver was shaking. I was fine, right? I was still alive. And it wasn't like the guy had just been coincidentally in this place. He'd been in business for four years already, slipping a classmate drugs at a party, later moving on to the bigger game. He'd made decisions. Just like I had when I pulled that trigger in order to keep more girls from ending up in an alley with a needle in their arm like that classmate had.

There was a minute hesitation, almost impossible to notice, but I did. Then Jim said, "Where are you?"

I gave him the place and directions, and he said, "Wait up for me, okay?"

"I will. Drive carefully."

"Don't I always?" Jim asked with mock indignation, and I had to laugh despite myself.

"You're not reassuring me there. See you there." Then I got daring, saying the words I withheld from my wife just minutes ago, "I love you." Not so daring, I hung up on him before he could answer.

***

Life. Like his skin heating under my touch, his body welcoming me, taking me in. There weren't many words needed, just this connection.

Jim knew better what it was like to come home from an assignment like this, when you had been someone you wouldn't want to be with under the best of circumstances, but who was still crucial in preventing or stopping worse case scenarios. People didn't start calling you a hero before you knew how to leave your conscience behind to a certain degree.

If he was tired from the long drive, it didn't show. The first look he'd given me was the concern I'd seen on Joe's face too, but it had soon turned into another expression, of understanding. Not such a surprise to find that Jim knew what I needed even before me.

He kind of took charge, getting us both naked, stroking me until I was so hard it almost hurt, sliding the condom on me.

I knelt between his legs, unable to utter a single word at the sight of him, spread out like a sacrifice to me, the street lamp from across the street caressing the planes and angles of his magnificent body.

"I'm the one who zones, remember, Chief?" he said with a hint of amusement, hypersensitive fingers skimming over my cock. I shivered, still not moving. "Go ahead," he whispered.

My body was ahead of my mind, finally inside of him, finally home. Jim wrapped his long legs around mine pulling me closer, forcing me deeper inside, and some kind of instinct just took over.

He met me for every thrust, my need feeding his, until the world around us ceased to exist.

In any case it felt like that when I finally stopped seeing the accusatory eyes of the youth who'd tried to become a bigshot criminal, and the young women he'd forced to prostitute themselves, or the looks Bolton had given me openly, waiting for the opportunity that, thank God, had never come.

So good to be here, with him, knowing he must have dropped everything at home to come here. I wanted him with me all the way. Just changing the angle a bit and telling him to dial everything up did the trick, and then I was coming, too, not even realizing that I was saying his name over and over again like a prayer. Might be a myth that you can really pass out in a moment like this, but I sure felt close to it as I simply slumped into his waiting arms.

"It's okay. I'm right here," Jim said, kissing the top of my head, holding me.

I didn't want him to worry, didn't want to break down and make him think I couldn't handle my job, because that wouldn't have been the truth. I'd done it, but...

"I just don't know how you ever did it, this undercover shit."

Jim's hands on me, clutching just moments ago, were gentle now as they stroked up and down my back. For the first time since I had returned to my true identity, whatever that was these days, I felt myself relax some. Able to take a deep breath. There was a moment of silence as he seemed to consider my words.

"There's no remedy, I guess," he said after a while. "As long as the benefits are bigger than the losses, you just try to carry on. Sorry if that sounds like a cliché."

"It's not that easy."

"No, it isn't."

I wondered if I should tell him about the dead pimp, then I decided otherwise. That wouldn't change anything. Being with Jim right now was what made all the difference. It wasn't really a cliché, because he knew all too well what kind of benefits and losses he was talking about.

Why hadn't we just the hell held on when everything was still possible?

I thought that this would be what I'd always miss most, how our lives had been entwined on all possible levels, work-related, friendship, a kind of love we hadn't understood, or just had been too cowardly to act on until it was too late.

***

I could tell something wasn't right when Judy stiffened in my embrace.

I pulled back. "What is it? Are the girls--"

"The girls are fine," she said coolly. "Blair, where have you been?"

"What do you mean? I told you I--" I might have been known to obfuscate on various occasions, but the truth was, I wasn't a very good liar. Not with people who meant something to me.

"Right. And I met Jenna yesterday, and kept wondering why Joe was home already, telling her everything went down okay. When you said you two had so much work to do yet?"

I wasn't up to the confrontation. Not now. "Please understand. I needed to be alone for a while, so I checked into a motel. I'm sorry."

Judy looked at me a long time, but didn't see through me, because her face softened. "Was it bad?"

Both of us suddenly realized we hadn't seen each other in weeks. "I'm so sorry," she said, hugging me close. "Sorry. I was so scared for you. Come on in. The girls want to see you, too."

Later that day we were all settled together in the living room, having a glass of wine together while the girls were on their blanket, occupied with their toys. I wouldn't leave all of this behind or even risk it again, I swore to myself. There would have to be consequences.

***

I had called Jim. We had talked for a long time, and in the end, he did see my point. We should at least try. He almost turned me around at the last moment, saying, "I love you, too."

That's why he would go along with whatever I said.

It didn't mean there wasn't any regret on either side, but it was the right thing to do, wasn't it?

***

The captain had been pleased with the quick progress on the case and hinted very soon that he'd like to see me doing some more undercover work. I didn't know if I was so pleased with that - I had had my mandatory appointment with the department shrink because of the shooting, and I felt I'd gotten some closure about it. Not like those things have to happen every time, but still -- I wasn't so keen on going there again.

"I hope you told him no!" Judy was staring at me incredulously.

"I told him I'd think about it. He's my boss."

"Sure, but -- isn't your job dangerous enough already? Last time I couldn't get any decent sleep the whole time, and Blair, the twins knew it, too, that something wasn't right."

Somehow I had known that wasn't all, and I was right. Well, basically I agreed with her. I didn't like that kind of work where the thin blue line got kind of blurry at times. And I didn't think I was as good at it as Captain Garner claimed I was. "I'm sorry about that. I'll try to talk him out of it, okay?"

She smiled, leaning over to kiss me. "That's good. I've been thinking... how about some more family planning next year? We've proven to do pretty well for a couple of beginners."

I took a step backwards quickly. "Are you...?"

"No, not yet. Hey, you don't think I'd talk to you first?" She was rather amused though.

"Sorry again. Next year - sounds like an idea." I'd always frowned at couples who were trying to 'repair' their relationship with just another baby, but at the moment, indeed, it didn't seem like such a bad idea.

The way her face lit up reminded me why I had started dating her in the first place. While she was attractive, it was the way she didn't take herself, and even life, too seriously, and it was exactly what I had needed when I had met her, the guy who was desperately trying to drown himself in self-pity.

It's not enough to survive a crisis. You still got to prove you're able to move on.

***

And I learned soon that it was something I was totally incapable of. Figures. In all the years I'd been working as a cop now, I'd never really silenced the anthropologist within. And even though I'd been the one to move on, I'd never stopped missing sharing my life with Jim, not just the intimate relationship, but what we'd had before that, the little things in everyday life.

It's not like I didn't have a good life. Judy was often working from home, preparing classes and stuff, and depending on the shift I worked, we could spend more time together than most couples we knew.

The everyday life was good, too. We even had her parents babysitting for us sometimes.

Naomi finally came back to the U.S. and seemed totally baffled to find out that she was a grandmother now. When I got hold of her, she came to stay with us for a week that was cut short to four days eventually; neither she nor Judy really told me why.

At first, everything seemed good, and she teased me, "I knew my son couldn't make anything but beautiful children!"

Maybe that was what had pissed Judy off. Or later, when Naomi asked about Jim, because let's face it, she'd always acted the in-law around him.

"He's doing great, really," I'd said, feeling like a three-year-old being caught with his hand in the candy jar. Naomi gave me a quizzical look, and Judy was rolling her eyes.

***

Next was Emily and John's wedding, and I'd almost turned on my heels when I realized that Jim and Sylvia were among the guests. In my mind, I'd been trying to find the perfect words to make the break, to make it all sound very sensible, and maybe I did, but after that, I found I had to halt our communication in order to go through with my noble plans. That's why I hadn't answered his emails, harmless as they had been, because we were cautious with everything that could be evidence.

Judy was sitting next to me, smiling, calling forth memories of our own wedding, being pushed aside by images you shouldn't have in your head in any church. But my resolve was hard to keep with Jim sitting not far from me, just there across the aisle; and I was struck by a sudden, irrational anger. It wasn't just us, sharing a secret, pushing it into a darker corner of our lives, because even if we had dared to drag it into the light, we wouldn't have *this*, our love recognized by both the country and the church.

I was truly feeling sorry for myself, right, but I shouldn't have cared so much when I'd just made my decision, for my family, should I?

***

Blame it on the champagne. Maybe. I had tried, in a quiet moment when we passed each other in the gallery, and he cut right to the chase: "Why didn't you answer my calls?"

"Hell, Jim, it's nice to see you too," I snapped. I realized, though, that he couldn't read what had been on my mind all the time. "I'm sorry. You know..." I took a look down the gallery, making sure that no one was watching us. "I've been thinking."

"You're scaring me here, Chief," he said dryly.

"We can't go on like this."

There was no answer, as he was waiting for me to continue, but his stance had just become a little more rigid. I didn't really know how to say this. That was mainly, because I didn't want to say it. That conversation over the phone had been hard enough; saying it face to face would make it final.

Downstairs, there was my wife with our beautiful girls; I loved them, and still, all I wanted this moment was to start all over, have this life with Jim I'd always dreamed about. No more hotels and secrecy, but the whole nine yards, for better or worse.

That was something that had never changed.

"So what is your conclusion?" Jim asked after a while, a small smile playing over his lips.

Bastard. He knew me too well. Sometimes, I thought those senses enabled him to read my mind as well, see through all those smoke-screens and obfuscations I'd been relying on forever.

"I want it to end. And I don't want to."

He laid his hand over mine where it rested on the banister, and we moved just this tiny bit closer to each other. It was dangerous. Somebody could come up. Just for this moment, I didn't care. "That's not very conclusive." He wasn't making fun of me; Jim was as far from having any solution for this mess than I was.

"We need to... I don't know, meet somewhere we can talk. We need to figure this out somehow." Didn't sound so bad, did it? Sensible. I undid it all when I took one step closer, and Jim pulled me away from the banister, closer to the wall, out of sight, and touched his lips against mine, softly. Hands on my face, caressing, until the kiss became all but gentle, and he didn't let go until we both were breathless. "I guess we do," he said. "Let's go camping. Somewhere out of here. I could make some time at the end of the month."

"I'll be there."

"We should go back down."

"Yes, we should." I followed his gaze across the hallway to the door left ajar, the guest bathroom, shivering pleasantly at the speculative gleam in his eyes. "No way, man. You can't be serious."

"It's a long time 'til the end of the month, but..."

Next thing I knew, he was pulling me close against him, his hand skimming over my chest, then coming to rest on my crotch lightly. I bit my lip to stifle the moan. "Your choice, Chief."

"Damn you."

"Yeah, well. I love you anyway."

***

"You know, it's not like we have all the time in the world before they're going to miss us."

Once upon a time I would have thought I'd feel stupid like this, exposed, my pants pooled around my ankles, but the look on Jim's face was definitely worth it. A moment ago, I'd wanted to give him 'the talk', worried, confused, but all of it had changed again in a heartbeat. Here, with him, I felt safe, even teasing him a little while downstairs my sister-in-law had what hopefully was the happiest day of her life.

He was right behind me in a heartbeat, nibbling on my neck while his hands were busy on my body. "Better?" he asked.

"Oh... right. Yes, definitely." I braced myself against the wall, palms flat against the cool tile while his touches kept burning me up. A little down and dirty tonight, because time was short.

"Say, how come you're always topping when we only have a little time?"

Jim leaned in to suckle on my earlobe, efficiently enough to cause a full body shiver, then whispered, "Because I'm the senior partner." This was beyond silly, we weren't partners in any sense of the word these days, but who cared. I chuckled, nervous, happy, horny.

He checked that Emily's almond body lotion was indeed water-based before putting it to good use, and then I leaned my forehead to rest against the tile, giving myself over to him.

This wasn't the gentle lovemaking we'd indulged on other occasions, but hard and fast. Jim had learned my body well, knew what worked, and I couldn't hold back the moans anymore, driven, helpless. I was actually glad when, a second before my body shook with the force of my orgasm, he put his hand over my mouth. "Easy," he whispered.

I stroked my tongue against his palm, and that's when he came, too.

***

The next morning, the newlywed couple had invited everyone to brunch before they left on their honeymoon; after that, everybody went on their way home. Still, Jim and I managed to share a quick kiss in the garden, early, undisturbed by anyone.

Another four weeks, and we'd be going camping, and the best thing about it was that we wouldn't have to lie about it to anyone. Nothing suspicious about two friends, guys, retreating to the wilderness for a couple of days, right?

As I sat in the backseat, the girls sleeping next to me in their safety seats, I thought I was learning to handle the guilty conscience pretty well. What you don't know... I had cut down on the hours, so Judy could go back to work, and it wasn't much of a sacrifice, because I wanted to spend time with Shelly and Sheila. Next to finding that fax a certain nurse had sent me years ago, they were certainly the best that had happened in my life, and I was still determined to show what a better father I was than the phantom man I'd never known.

And still, the blood was rushing to my face at the memory of those moments in Emily's guest bathroom. Not that it should have been any surprise.

Our relationship had always been intense, something of an addiction. Sharing the vision, all that time ago at the fountain, had only cemented it.

How could you blame us?

***

Judy waited until the twins were fed and all bundled up in their beds. She closed the door of their room softly, turned on the baby phone.

Back in the living room, she poured herself a whisky, from the bottle we'd never touched, that had been given to us as a gift. She drank it in one and poured herself another one.

"Whoa," I said, not understanding. "What's up with you?"

"What's up with *me*?" Her voice rising with each word. While I was still standing there, dumbfounded, thinking there was no way she could... She threw the contents of her glass right into my face. "Just how dumb do you think I am?"

"Judy, what the hell is going on?" I wiped my face, reminding myself that getting loud as well won't solve the problem here. "Can't you just tell me instead of throwing things--"

"Oh, shut up," she snapped. "You -- and your very best friend. Just for how long have you two been fucking each other?"

I felt myself blanch at her words, still wanting to deny, but foremost having the irrational notion I should clarify, that no, it wasn't just that. However, I could still think rationally enough to realize *that* would have only made her madder.

"I'm sorry."

Not good.

"That's the most stupid thing I've ever heard!" She stormed past me into the kitchen, opening the door of the fridge, and slamming it shut again.

I followed her, cautiously reaching out to touch her arm, but she brushed me off.

"Please," I said. "Let's talk about this, okay?"

"Now what's to talk about? And don't touch me, save that for your fuck buddy!"

"Stop it!" I was angry, too; maybe I didn't have the right, but I couldn't stand it. "Don't you talk about Jim like that!"

"I'll do whatever I goddamn please!" Judy still had the glass clutched in her hand, and the next moment, she threw it at me, high enough to nearly hit me in the face. Obviously pleased with the effect, she pulled a plate from the cabinet, but this time, I ducked, and it shattered against the wall. Upstairs, Sheila had been wakened by the noise and began to cry.

"See what you've done! Now get out of here!"

"What are you talking about?" I asked incredulously. I still didn't get it.

"Look at yourself; you're not even trying to deny it! I want you to go, now. You can get your stuff tomorrow, I'm too mad to deal with you now."

"How did you know?"

Slowly, the reality of her words began to sink in, and I was getting afraid. I didn't want everything to break apart. I didn't want to go and leave the girls behind.

"Is that important now?" The look she gave me was full of disdain. "I saw you kissing. Not the kind of kiss you'd give a *friend*." The way she said it sounded like a slur itself, but I thought, hoped, that she was calmer now, and I could maybe turn her around.

"You don't understand," I tried once more. "Why don't you let me explain and we--"

"Get out," she yelled, and this time, I didn't harbor any more illusions she could possibly not mean it.

***

My stomach churned with worry as I sat in my car, wondering where I'd go. Wondering whether she was on the phone with Sylvia already, and would Jim blame me? Another secret told, another perceived betrayal? No, I couldn't think like that now.

I had to reach him somehow, warn him. We'd learned our lessons long ago; not talking, delaying the things that needed to be said could only turn out catastrophically.

I drove to town, and then past the city limits, feeling a bit calmer, the further away I got from what had been my home. I knew Judy was feeling betrayed and angry right now, but she couldn't deny that I was the father of her children, and we owed it to them to find a solution.

An hour later, halfway to Cascade, I finally made the call. I heard voices in the background, realizing Jim had to be at work, in some meeting. There was a woman's voice. Sylvia's.

I was caught between panic and self-disdain. What fucking right did I have?

"Chief, are you okay?"

I swallowed. "Yes. Yes I am. But you're busy now; can we talk tomorrow, maybe?"

"Sure thing. I'm sorry."

"Not a problem. I'll call again."

"Looking forward to it. See you."

Hanging up, I decided that I wouldn't bother with looking for a place to sleep, but simply park my car somewhere and stay there. I'd been sleeping in my car before at other times in my life, but I'd never felt so all alone.

And I finally cried.

***

When I called Jim again the next day, I was proud to sound almost normal. I'd sneaked into the house, knowing Judy would be at work, the twins with her mother, and I showered, packed up some clothes.

I was about to leave when I turned and went back into the girls' room, looking at the now empty beds, touching their pet animals. Feeling like an intruder already. No. I wouldn't let that happen. They were my children, too.

A little more determined, I left the house and went to find a room for the next few days. I was almost relieved. Judy and I would be civil with each other again, sure, but I'd probably fooled myself into thinking that we'd last forever. I should have known from the way we started out . none of this was Judy's fault and I felt like a bastard for bringing it down on her.

Jim said he'd have the afternoon off, and asked if I was up to planning the camping trip. The smile audible in his voice, oblivious. A lump came to my throat, but I forced a positive tone. I doubted now the camping trip would go ahead, but I needed to be able to talk to him alone, tell him what had happened, so I simply said, "Sure am. I can't wait to see you."

***

That afternoon, we didn't sleep together. We had a coffee in the restaurant attached to the hotel, then went upstairs afterwards, and I told Jim what had happened.

He drew me closer, saying, "I'm sorry. That must have been tough."

I swallowed hard. "Yeah, it was. She was so mad at me, and what was worst, she was right about it. I should have never married her. I should have had the guts to tell you how I felt early enough."

"You're not the only one to blame," he reminded me, and I was wondering if he was going to say more, but the silence kept hanging between us then, minutes ticking by. What were we going to do?

"I don't know if she's going to tell Sylvia."

But if she did, both of us would have to make a decision. As I was contemplating that, my heart was beginning to beat faster. Impossible for Jim not to notice.

"If she does, we'll deal with it."

It wasn't what I had wanted to hear. Maybe it was crazy, but I'd somehow hoped that the cut Judy wanted to make, would mean something for us, too. Another chance for our lives to right themselves.

"Does it matter?"

Again, it took him just a tad too long to answer. "It's complicated," he finally said. "More depending on it than just the two of us."

"I know that." Being here, lying next to him, in this moment of relative peace, I could acknowledge how tired I really was. I didn't want to lie anymore either, and at least with Judy, I didn't have to anymore. This was supposed to be a new beginning. "But isn't this where we've headed all along?"

Jim kissed me very gently, and suddenly, the questions about the future drifted farther away, as he slid his fingers into my hair. Still such a big turn-on, not just for him. I felt myself smile, much more content than I probably had the right to be. I rested my hand on his chest, a jealous, possessive gesture.

"We are perfect together." This had been true on every level we had been relating to one another. The mystical aspects were more in the background now that Jim could control his senses, and let's face it, the job he did these days gave him a lot of responsibility, but it was not nearly as dangerous as the one as a detective in Major Crimes had been.

Now was our time.

If we didn't take it, we'd be fools.

"Yes, we are." But the tone wasn't right, and I soon found out why. "I'll always want you in my life." Uh-oh, this was Jim being sensible and responsible again, which gave me bad memories of the night of his bachelor's party. "Sylvia... I don't know. I can't simply leave her like that."

"You said you loved me."

"It's the truth."

"But you love her more?"

With a sigh, Jim got up, turning his back to me. I got up, too, futilely trying to shake the feeling that this could all be just a bad dream. "I guess that's all the answer I need." Hastily, I began to pick up my stuff, which wasn't much anyway. All of a sudden, I couldn't stand to be in the room any longer.

"Chief."

I was already at the door, when that one word made me turn around, and Jim had known, had counted on it. He crossed the space between us slowly, and I met him halfway, walking into his embrace.

"Give it some time, okay? We need to think this through."

I'd almost said that *thought* probably wasn't the issue, but I felt too tired to argue with him now. "I guess the camping trip is off now?"

"I'll call you. I promise you, Chief, we get this sorted out somehow."

Maybe I was ungrateful, but that just wasn't enough for me. "So call me then. I guess I need to go, get back to work." How crazy had I been to think he'd just take me home - and send Sylvia on her way?

"I don't love her more," Jim said then, and I believed him, but it didn't mean a happy ending was within reach for us.

***

I went back to my room, back at work later, on time for the night shift. Joe tried to get me to talk, but I brushed him off.

"Whatever!" he said with unveiled exasperation. "Captain Garner wants to see you. You'd better get going."

Not good. I had hoped to get through a nice and quiet shift so I could use this week to get my life back to something resembling order. Work out things with Judy first. Work out things with Jim then.

A little hesitant, I went to knock on the captain's door. "You wanted to see me?"

"Sandburg, come in. Have a seat." There was a small pause, then he said, "I hear there's some progress on the Henderson case."

I had a hard time not groaning, because I could imagine where he was going with this. "Right. We might get closer, but--"

"It would be better if somebody went inside. Given your success with Androvich, I'm thinking you'd be rather perfect for the job."

"Sir... to be honest, I was going to ask you for a few days off."

"You are aware that this is a bad time, aren't you?"

"Yes, sir." Seemed to be a bad time for everything.

"Rest of the week," he bargained. "And you'll nail Henderson afterwards."

I had the sudden, nasty thought that maybe then, if something was at stake, it would be easier for Jim to make up his mind.

"Deal," I said, and Garner gave me a pleased smile. "Now get out of here before your partner dies of curiosity."

***

The next time I called, the chief secretary of Ellison Enterprises told me that, sorry, Jim wasn't available. I sent him an email, but didn't get an answer back. The written word could be too compromising, especially now that Judy knew, but I found out that she hadn't told Sylvia yet. There was no saying if Jim ever would.

I was desperate. And it was my fault, wanting to rush things, not wanting to be stuck in the nebulous place where all Jim and I had was a dirty little affair, and I was going to negotiate visitation rights with my wife, something I'd never imagined would happen. I'd come back to the house, hoping we could just talk, and to my surprise - and relief - she was ready to do it.

Sheila and Shelly weren't there, but with Judy's parents. I missed them already.

"I don't know if you remember, but I told you once I wouldn't let anybody cheat on me. I meant it. And with the way you two kissed, I don't think there's anything left worth saving between us."

I couldn't even find it in my heart to disagree with her, but one thing was still true. "I never wanted to hurt you." I winced at my words. They sounded lame even to me.

"Brilliant mind that you have, I would've thought you'd figure it out, but anyway. All right, Blair, you pretty much know the schedule. I won't keep the girls away from you, as far as I'm concerned, you can visit them as often as you want, but call ahead. And stay away from them when you're doing the undercover stuff."

She gave me a tight smile, but for some reason, I remained wary. It couldn't be that easy, and it wasn't like I hadn't fucked up. Knowingly.

"How do you mean that?"

"The last time you came home - and I won't start about how Jim was the first person you wanted to see - you were wound up so tight I was afraid you'd break something."

"What? Come on, you know it's a lot of stress, and I--"

Shot someone. I could feel my face flush, but I had stopped myself in time. It wasn't something I'd bring to our home. Her home. What the hell ever.

"It's true. I understand it's stress, but the girls don't need it. When you're done this time, give it a little time before you come to visit, okay?"

Thinking about this conversation later, I couldn't help but feeling there was a contradiction somewhere in this.

***

"It's... it's not that easy."

I should have known. It never had been with Jim, and still I loved him madly. I should have been more patient. Demand too much, and he'd draw back. I'd had that lesson already.

But I seemed to have forgotten, or repressed it. "Now what's the problem?" I had asked before we parted. "You're worried your Dad will disown you, finding out you're gay?"

Jim frowned, and I almost expected him to tell me he wasn't gay despite everything we'd shared together. It was really a bad time to discuss the semantics of sexual orientation, and I should have read the signs earlier. It had been a bad time to discuss 'us', but I'd been frantic, afraid to miss another moment that would turn out to have been crucial.

"I don't think he would," he said in the same fake-joked tone I had chosen. More serious, "Neither of us has a job where a coming-out would be enthusiastically welcomed, you know."

"I don't care. The secretary of our department lives with the librarian."

He raised his eyebrows at me, gauging if I was kidding him. Hell, it was true. People talked and gossiped, but they left them alone. Why should it be any different with us?

"You're a cop," he said, sounding a bit annoyed, as if this was a truth I had been trying to deny. "That's a whole different story. And me -- I can't make that decision at the drop of a hat. Chief, we need to think this through."

Hadn't I heard that not too long ago? "What's to think through?" I was getting angry, sounding more frantic, though. "I think it's very simple. Do you want to be with me or not?"

"I don't like ultimatums," he'd said, making me flinch, because it was the last thing I had expected. Being sensible, responsible, had gotten us into this mess already. I didn't want to think about my freaking career now.

"All right," I said. "I understand."

I left without looking back.

***

I still don't know how it happened, but it was maybe the prospect of another undercover job looming in the near future, Judy being seldom available - I guess she was seeing someone - and me not seeing Jim - all into one.

I missed the girls. Judy sounded fairly sympathetic, but no, she didn't have any time this weekend, and maybe I should take some time to get really settled and then take them in for a whole week? She was probably baiting me. I didn't care.

On that weekend, I got drunk and went looking for company, and I found it.

I caught him watching me as I passed him on my way to the counter, wondering if I should buy another drink, or just leave this place and forget about the whole idea.

I guessed him to be my age, handsome, dark hair, wearing a black shirt and jeans, and when he noticed I'd noticed him looking at me with this obvious interest, he smiled. I smiled back at him.

He got up, followed me to the counter and introduced himself. Then he offered to buy me a drink.

***

I knew it was so damn wrong, but I felt unable to stop it; scratch that, it was a sorry excuse. I didn't want to stop it. It would be just about the sex, no strings attached, not the breathtaking intensity I had with Jim, for only moments that would probably never trade into a life together.

It wasn't much later when I found myself in a motel room, sprawled on the musty-smelling bed, feeling slightly dizzy. It was weird, being naked with a man not Jim, getting hard from his touch. He wasn't really rough, just impatient, and damn Jim anyway, because I couldn't stop thinking about him, couldn't stop comparing to the way he'd always worship my body.

It was over all too soon, and here I was, the sweaty and sated body of a man who meant nothing to me curled around me.

Blair Sandburg, still the fraud.

***

5

I was worried about Blair, and angry with him at the same time. I contemplated all this on a Sunday afternoon when Sylvia and I had been invited to Dad's house. All these social strings attached, how could he, the anthropologist, ask me to cut them all at once?

Syl didn't deserve anything like that. I'd need to find the right moment to talk to her, and maybe it was kind of naïve, but I wanted her to understand; that she'd never done anything wrong, that it was all me.

And Dad... he'd been so happy and relaxed ever since the marriage. Recently, he'd said with a wink that one or two grandchildren would make it all perfect. I'd managed to talk him out of the grandchildren business - I hoped - but… Somehow I still had a hard time imagining *that* conversation.

For me, it was all sorted out, easy enough when we were together to see a future laid out that didn't have rushed encounters in motel rooms in it, but the everyday life we'd already had together. We'd had everything but the sex. We had the opposite now, and had needed damn much time to realize what we really wanted, and still, it wasn't that easy.

It would have been different in Cascade, in Major Crimes with the other detectives, hell, the boss being our friend, but with the lives we were leading now, you didn't just come out like this. It had to be well prepared, or you ended up in chaos.

"You two don't come here nearly often enough. Why don't we all go for dinner tonight?" Dad suggested. "You never know when there might be another opportunity."

We agreed, and he continued, "You both did a great job with the Japanese business partners, both here and in Seattle. The staff trust you, Jimmy, and Sylvia, I don't have to tell you that they adore you."

Only I caught that her smile was, while pleased, also a bit indulgent. They trusted her, too, because she was damn good in what she did. Dad had no problem accepting women in business, but his compliments sure were old school.

"I'm glad." I wasn't quite sure what he was up to.

"Let's celebrate together. I want us to meet with the lawyers first thing in the morning and get the paperwork done. Jimmy, you've kept me waiting for this day - but I think it's finally time. I want you to step into my place."

***

I spent the rest of the evening slightly shocked, trying to talk him out of it. I didn't think it was the right time; I was still learning, and I had Sylvia, which would probably not last forever, but that, I couldn't say to either of them.

What was he thinking?

Ever since the decision had been made, I'd been taking endless classes, sat listening to him for long evenings, talked with Sylvia who had gone into business years ago, and yes, I had done what I could, but I'd also counted on Dad to carry the torch for a few more years to come.

We'd had that dinner later. "You know, I have even given up the idea of a few grandchildren. You're a natural, Jimmy, and you've already proven it. Everything else, you can learn."

There was no way I could have told him no.

***

Weeks passed, and still I hadn't heard from Blair. Worry outlasted angry after a while, when I couldn't catch him on his cell. I had called the motel where he'd moved shortly after the break-up with Judy, but the clerk could only tell me he'd moved out a while ago.

I was almost ready to approach Judy the day the call came in. At first, I didn't recognize the name.

"Joe Tesci," he repeated. "I'm Blair's partner."

***

My first reaction had almost been to snap at him, as I, after all this time, wasn't used to hearing anyone else but me referred to as Blair's partner, and I didn't like it a bit. When he came to explain the reason for his call, it quickly vanished into the background.

"Then why the hell didn't you call me earlier?"

"Blair made me promise not to do it. But this isn't right. He went back to work as if nothing happened, gave the department shrink a load of bull, but the truth is, he's ready to snap. He won't listen to me, or even the boss. Captain Garner made him take a leave, and that's where we are now. You are my last hope."

Standing by the window of my 15th story office, I was trying to keep up with the multitude of information - trying to speak past the lump in my throat. "How could his cover have been blown?"

"We don't know yet," Joe said. "In any case, it wasn't his fault, but he thinks it was, no matter what anyone says. Would you talk to him?"

"You think he'd talk to me?"

Tesci laughed mirthlessly. "I'll tell you something; Blair's a great guy, and I like working with him. There's one thing I gave up on, though, and that's trying to measure up to you. It's just not possible."

"Excuse me?"

"You know what I mean. I'll give you the number; and I hope you'll be making that call."

I promised.

***

"Jim, this is not a good time. I'm busy."

"I happen to know for sure that you aren't. I miss you. Why don't you come here and spend a few days with me?"

"The way you say it I'm quite sure Sylvia's in the room," Blair said dryly, "No, thanks. I've got enough wife trouble at the moment."

I could have almost fooled myself. But listening more closely, I could hear his heart racing. He wasn't as calm as he pretended to be, and Joe had given me a pretty clear picture as to why. It was 36 hours before we found him.

"Sylvia is not here. I want to see you, talk things through, and plan the future, okay? Chief--"

"I'm going to kill Joe!" he said with emphasis. "What did he tell you?"

"Enough. All I'm asking is that you take some time to decompress, and we've got lots of space."

"Doesn't it occur to you that I'm just not feeling like vacation time with you and Sylvia? Sorry about that, man."

I sensed that he was about to hang up; time for pulling the big guns. "What if I need to see you?"

If he didn't relent, I'd drive there myself. Even over the phone, I could clearly make out his distress. An undercover situation gone bad was one thing... but 36 hours... It wasn't like the snapping happened right away, but I trusted Tesci's assessment.

"This isn't about vacation time. Chief, please believe me, I know what I'm talking about. I'll come and pick you up, and you'll stay here for a while. We'll figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. I promise you."

There was silence, which wasn't really silence to me, because I could hear the hitch in his breath, his struggles to keep himself together.

"I hope you don't know," he whispered, and I wished I was right there that moment, be there for him.

"I'll be there as soon as I can."

***

I talked to Sylvia and felt like a jerk when she made the same suggestion immediately.

"We have lots of space. I know we're both kind of busy at the moment, but I guess rest is the most important thing here, right?"

"Thank you."

"Blair has always been your best friend," Sylvia said, oblivious. "Of course we'll try to help. Did..." She paused for a moment. "Did Detective Tesci say what exactly happened?"

I knew her question was merely pragmatic, in order to find out what we'd be dealing with, but I couldn't tell her; felt like it would have been too much of an invasion of Blair's privacy.

"When they knew that he was a cop, they tried to make him give up information. You know," I said vaguely, and she nodded.

"I'm sure Judy does what she can, but there are some things that you understand better, having been a cop and all."

"I think so."

***

A lot can happen in one and a half days. It wasn't that long in Starkville, at least not from the moment things went downhill, and it had still felt like an eternity. The thugs Joe and Blair were after found out he was a cop and *then* had him for that time.

I realized that I was driving too fast, too aggressively, and I forced myself to step off the gas pedal; no need to take this rage on the road. I needed to get to him safely, and get him safely back. Ever since Joe had called, the images had been on my mind with a maddening intensity. And it had been weeks ago... He should have called me sooner.

Blair had rented a small apartment shortly before the assignment; and it was where he waited for me. I thought about the comfy little house he had inhabited with Judy and the twins, and felt a pang of guilt as I climbed the narrow stairs of the apartment building. He could do much better, financially. He just hadn't bothered.

Finally, he opened the door to me, taking too long for someone who was busy and all right, and I got to hold him again.

***

Sylvia stood on the porch as we arrived, waving. When we got nearer though, I didn't miss the way she tensed with holding back the instinctive movement of covering her mouth with her hand.

Glad she had controlled herself that much, I cast her a grateful look, and she smiled, though I could tell that it cost her. Which wasn't a surprise. I had had at least Joe to warn me.

"Blair," she said warmly, shaking his hand. "I'm glad you decided to take some time off here with us. Just make yourself at home."

"Thanks, Sylvia."

There was a moment in which no one said anything, and before it got too uncomfortable, I suggested, "you must be exhausted. Why don't you lie down a bit? I'll bring your stuff, and Syl and I will make dinner."

He simply nodded at this, testimony to his desolate condition. I'd almost hoped he'd be protesting, showing some of his usual stubbornness, if only for the record. A quiescent Sandburg is a sign of trouble - if we hadn't been knee-deep in it already.

We had given Blair a room on the first floor, so he wouldn't have to bother with the stairs, but even the walk from the car to his room seemed almost too much. It didn't take a Sentinel to see that he was trembling. "Sorry," he whispered. "I told you it was a bad--"

"Don't say that." I dialed up a little, establishing that Sylvia had started chopping vegetables in the kitchen, and then took my chances.

I pulled him into my arms, mindful of the injuries I knew had to be only just healing, and kissed him softly. "God, I missed you." What had he thought wanting to go back to work when he could barely walk?

Blair's smile was a little crooked, but a beginning, I guessed. "Missed you too. That's why..." he mumbled between more kisses, "...it is a bad idea. We should have just met as usual. A weekend. Hotel. Privacy, man."

"You need rest. Spending some time away--" From your life, I'd almost said, but that would imply that I wasn't in it, which was in reality true, but after almost three years, neither of us was ready to deal with that fact. "From it all."

We remained like that for a while longer, in this close embrace, hungry with longing and foolish need. Then I gently released him. "Try to get some sleep. We'll wake you for dinner, okay?"

"Perfect." This time, the smile didn't quite reach his eyes.

***

Sylvia waited until I had closed the kitchen door behind me. "My God. He looks terrible."

"Yeah." I couldn't deny it. "He'll pull through, though, given enough time." I said it because I felt I needed to emphazise it. When he let me into his apartment, all smiles and trying to pretend, offering me a coffee with shaking hands before we got on the road, I'd known. Joe - he didn't know half of it.

She looked a little doubtful still, but nodded. "I'm really sorry this happened, but you know, days like these I'm glad you're not a cop anymore." Shaking her head. "I'm afraid that didn't come out right. It's a shame things like this happen to anyone. He's a good man, always trying to help everyone. Must be hard on Judy, too."

Judy was the last person I wanted to think about now.

Time stretched between us as we kept on working together silently. For a million times I had wondered how we could have gotten ourselves into this situation. I loved Sylvia. She was a good friend, a tough woman who hadn't bent with life's blows, a trusty initiate to the secret. I once had fallen in love with her, deeply enough to venture on a second marriage - and I had been an idiot. Because there was no cure from the addiction.

No, I don't love her more.

***

Soon after dinner, Sylvia excused herself, saying that she had an early meeting the following day.

Blair and I stayed in the living room, and I watched him staring into the flames of the fireplace morosely for a while. "You want to turn in, too?"

He shook himself as if out of a spell. "Crap, I've been doing nothing else for the past few days. I don't need the department shrink to tell me that's a depression in the making. Guy's already pinned PTSD on me."

He looked a bit embarrassed, as if having revealed too much already.

" They giving you grief about getting back to work?"

"That's it exactly," he sighed. "It was bad, all right, but they got me out, and I'm *fine.*"

Right, I could see that. And I'd told myself the same lies before.

"It's not the worst problem at the moment anyway. I can't afford to dwell on it."

I got up and walked around the table to sit beside him, pulled him to me carefully, and he came without resistance, leaning against me. I could feel the weariness radiating off of him.

"So what else is going on?"

"Judy wants to remarry."

"That's quick." For a split-second, I wondered what the problem was when we were looking for a chance for the two of us, but I knew before he answered.

"She told me very early on that she had no intention of being a single mom, and I guess she's serious. I can even understand that, but the new guy... He wants to adopt Sheila and Shelly. They are going on all the time about how they need an intact family. Sometimes, I don't even know myself what I should believe."

"You're the kids' dad. They can't make you do that just like that."

I'd never been particularly fond of Judy, but I downright hated her for this. Faults aside, she didn't understand a thing about Blair's situation. Hell, she hadn't proven to understand a whole lot about him, or nothing between him and I would have ever happened, right?

"What's he like?"

"He's okay. Another elementary school teacher. I guess she's got it right this time."

There was hope in his voice, and I wondered what the hell I had intended by bringing him here to the house I shared with Sylvia. All I knew was that this time, I would have to make a decision. Any way.

Not tonight though.

***

I'd been having this thought on my mind ever since I had spoken to Joe. Back then, when I had left Starkville again, we had been going camping. I hadn't known how much I had needed it until we had arrived there, no humans within miles, blessed silence all around.

I supposed it would help Blair, too, because taking a closer look, I knew the shrink hadn't talked PTSD for nothing. He flinched at the slightest noises, flinched from touches.

After breakfast, when he was sitting on the porch, meditating or maybe memorizing, I took Sylvia aside and made a suggestion. She listened to me, gave me a long intent look then and said, "Well, I guess I could hold the fort for a week or two, but you know this is an exception. Everybody was very okay with Bill's decision, but I guess they expect you to be available."

"This is an exception," I said. "You see how he is now. I'm sure it would help."

Sylvia nodded. "I can imagine that. So go, but leave your cell phone on, right?"

"I will. Thank you."

I knew that it had to happen sometime, but moments like this, I truly dreaded the moment I would have to tell her the truth. We could have succeeded.

***

"Yesterday you said I needed rest. Now you want to go hiking in the mountains?" Blair asked dubiously. "I don't get you, man."

We were all alone in the house, Sylvia being at her early meeting, and so I took the liberty of leaning close - the movement slow and predictable so as not to startle him - and ran my fingers though his hair, relieved when he leaned into the touch. "No hiking or camping. Fully furnished cabin that's got all that you need, including a big tub... and you should see the bed."

"I'd like that."

"Good. So we're going?"

He leaned into my embrace, and I could have felt the weariness in every fiber of his body, even if I wasn't a Sentinel. Close to the end of his rope.

"And what's going to happen after that?"

Of course he had a right to ask this question, even if I found myself unable to come up with an answer yet. Taking too long.

"All right," he said, withdrawing. "We're going, but first, we're going to have breakfast. I'm starving."

***

I had hoped Blair would relax once we were out on the road, just the two of us again, but that didn't happen. He was tired, had slept badly, but jerked awake soon after he'd nodded off for a few moments.

I still didn't know what exactly had happened. Not from him, but the information Joe had given me... I'd sensed a bit of hostility on his part, and wondered how much he really knew or guessed. The fact that he'd chosen to call me anyway, told its own tale.

While we drove in silence, I contemplated my life so far, and what I wanted to do with it. I imagined Simon calling me, as he did on occasion, or going to a poker night of the Major Crimes unit. Jim Ellison, Sentinel, and honored guest.

There had always been talk, but had they truly suspected?

Hard to tell until the truth came out.

***

We had dinner on the small veranda, a fire crackling in the outer fireplace, warming, comforting. It was all so calm, so harmless, that I dared to ask questions that had mostly been taboo when we were together before.

"So how are the kids? You seen them lately?"

"Briefly." A shadow crossed his tired, yet beautiful features. "Judy isn't happy having me around since the PTSD crap."

"But why?" I couldn't truly imagine unless the reason was malice. PTSD or not, Blair was one of the gentlest, most caring people I've ever met, and I've never seen him any different with his daughters, no matter what he'd been through.

Blair shrugged. "I guess she wants this perfect little family, and I just don't fit in it any longer. Beats me. The first time we met, she testified in a case of child abuse. She says, a few more sessions with the shrink, and I can come back. Not sure if she isn't just holding out on me."

That was definitely all the proof I needed for the way this - experience - had changed him. The Blair Sandburg I knew would have fought - and known he would rightfully so.

Then again, I'd seen that expression before, around the time the mess with his dissertation leaked. Did I do this to him, too?

It had been the reason why I had sometimes thought about cutting him loose - because the burden of his pain weighed too much, and it was me, always me, adding to it.

Judy wouldn't be any happier to leave the kids with a gay couple, I supposed. In retrospect, it seemed so stupid we hadn't come to a decision back then when we had a life together with much less strings attached.

"I guess it's really time to come clean now, isn't it? We should have done it much sooner."

"Says the man who got married first."

"Well, yeah." I couldn't deny the truth in that.

He gave me a wistful smile. "It's not like I didn't make any mistakes." His heart was starting to beat faster, but I didn't make too much of it, yet - thought he was referring to the mistakes we both shared.

"Whatever I did" - he said it slowly, as if it was of the utmost important that I'd get this. I listened more closely.

"Whatever. It was never anything like what we have together."

Now he got my attention, and somehow, I knew Blair wasn't talking about all the times he didn't want to raise Judy's suspicions, caught between the love for the woman he had married, and the undeniable attraction that had always been there between us.

"What are you talking about?"

He was oblivious, even I was, to the warning that had crept into my voice. I had no right when we had never really set the boundaries for our relationship straight, but the idea of what I thought it was let some old instincts rise to the surface. No. He wouldn't--

"I'm sorry about it, okay? You weren't exactly available back then, and I--"

"No. Don't tell me you--"

I'd gotten out of my chair, and he got up, too, shaking his head in what seemed exasperation. "I can remember it very well. I wanted an answer, and you talked about ultimatums. You know, Jim, in some way, nothing ever changed. You're still ready to believe I'd betray you at the drop of a hat, and guess what, I think this time I did--"

I couldn't stand it, couldn't stand the idea or the images... or the guilt that came with it, and that must be why the caveman rose back to the surface, an eerie déjà-vu, as I had him crowded against the wall once again. No sexy moment.

"What? You want to deny that everything I said is true?"

He was mad, and so was I. "How could you! I can understand about being with your wife, because I guess we're even where that is concerned. You said you--" Loved me. I only realized I was shaking him when he was struggling against my hold. "You loved me so damn much you couldn't wait to get yourself fucked by the next best--"

"Fuck you, Jim! You have no idea what you're talking about!" He pushed back, angrily. "Every two months average. We have a weekend, maybe twenty minutes in someone else's bathroom, and those are the good times. I can't live like that!"

"You never told me. I--" I couldn't wrap my mind around this. Him. My lover with another man. I wanted to punch the other guy. I wanted to--

But before this got any more out of control, Blair slipped out of my grasp, muttering about how this whole trip had been a bad idea, and stalked back into the house.

***

I sat back down; partly, because I wanted to give him privacy, partly because I couldn't believe what kind of jerk I'd been, again, to the man who'd been my best friend practically from day one, and only recently escaped from a serious trauma.

It was never anything like what we have together.

Then why did he have to go there? Even now, the red hot anger rose again. Another man, touching him. 'Caveman' much, Ellison? Well, yeah.

Oh damn, for a moment I had totally forgotten about the reason why we were actually here, but it wasn't hard to remember when I listened in on him, the staccato beat of his heart, the gulping breaths he took as if he'd just run a marathon. This - was definitely my doing.

Joe had said that he'd spent two days in the hospital, gave a scarce statement and yelled at the department shrink for trying to get him to talk. Wanting to go back to work. Shutting everyone out. Hearing someone say this about Blair, of all people, it wasn't right.

Seemed like the surface was cracking now.

But this time, I was going to get it right.

***

I found him in the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed, bent forward, beside him a half-packed bag he'd only unpacked hours ago.

Cautiously, I sat down next to him.

"Go away," he said, the words muffled by his hands that were pressed against his face. Trying to keep it in, trying so hard to keep it together.

"Not a chance."

"So what?" he asked, finally looking up at me with red-rimmed eyes. "You're going to punish me?"

"No way, Chief. I just don't get it... All right, let's leave that aside for the moment. Come here."

He looked doubtful, not moving.

"I won't lie to you," I said quietly. "I hate the thought. But I also think we have more important things to take care of right now."

Blair just kind of gravitated towards me, letting himself be pulled into an embrace, but his body was tense, not yet trusting, not really. It might have to do with me losing it out there on the veranda, just minutes ago. But that wasn't all.

"I can't," he whispered against my chest. "I just can't... there's no use in looking back, okay? It happened. It can't be undone. All I'm trying to do is to move on, okay?"

I didn't exactly object, but pulled back a little to kiss him and let my fingers wander deeper to start unbuttoning his shirt very slowly.

"Still want me to come along?"

I wasn't thinking of slow seduction; not when he was still shivering like someone coming down with a fever. Tonight, in the fading light of dusk, all I wanted was to hold him close, to reconnect, to recover a place that hadn't been touched by anything those bastards had done to him.

Blair had worn a high-collared T-shirt ever since I'd picked him up yesterday, and I immediately knew the reason when he pulled it over his head now. My shock must have shown on my face. He acknowledged it silently, but didn't try to convince me it hadn't been anything but hell.

An unsuspecting spectator would have to look real hard, but the thin line was easily visible to me, winding around his throat where - what had been? A wire? Something that had cut into the skin.

"You may want to stop it here. Not very sexy," he said, slowly losing his fight for composure.

I proceeded with the careful, tender undressing even when the tears started to fall, kept touching him, reassuring him even when the reminders of burns and cuts all over his body made me want to slip into a vengeful rage from time to time.

I got rid of my clothes as well, and that somehow made sense, being this close, skin to skin, to warm against the chill this subject brought up, when Blair talked about his too long captivity at the hands of the criminals his colleagues could finally apprehend.

I simply held on.

***

Later that night, I made a promise to him, silently, as he slept. It wasn't like I could do much to save him from the dangers of his job that had once been mine, too.

There was something I could do, though.

I'd been standing there, watching him for some time already, glad he looked relaxed in sleep. Younger than he should have - and still, he wasn't that kid anymore I once dragged into a dangerous world, feeling guilty about it, but unable to find other options. He'd been a married man. Was a father. A police detective. My Guide, I thought, as I lay down next to him.

My lover.

It was time to let the world know.

***

I came back home, earlier than planned, but with a bag full of promises. I had convinced Blair to take a few more sessions with his department's shrink. "Don't antagonize the man, Chief, okay?" And he'd laughed, the most beautiful sound in the world. He'd be okay.

We would be.

The conversation with Sylvia was difficult; but also surprising. She was home when I returned, having expected me. Having expected me to want to talk to her.

I could easily remember why I'd thought we would work out. She didn't yell. She didn't throw dishes at me either.

"You're such a coward," she said, quiet anger and disappointment in her voice. "How many years did you need to come to this conclusion when all your friends knew it all along?"

I didn't have any brilliant answer, especially when her calling me a coward was more matter-of-fact than it was a slur. She was so embarrassingly right. "I'm sorry."

"No, you aren't." She gave me a crooked smile. "Don't even try to pretend. And while I'm mad at you now, it's not like this comes as a total surprise. You and Blair... it was just always damn near impossible to get in between, you know?"

She didn't start to cry until after I'd left the house, knowing but not caring I'd still hear.

***

I hadn't shared the news with Dad or Simon yet, but Sylvia and I had begun negotiating our relationship, and what would be left of it. Always having depended on her own money, she didn't really need the house though I had offered it to her.

Blair and I talked on the phone each night, painting a picture together of a future we both thought we deserved. Until that one day when he didn't call at the usual time, and it took me a few restless, anxious hours to finally get him on the phone. The moment he started to talk, I knew something terrible must have happened, and then he said, "Judy. She was in an accident."

***

6

I don't know how I ever made that call, being as upset as I was. Keith wasn't much better, and for once, there was not a trace of competition between us. Oh, he knew Judy had thrown me out, and that I had other plans than coming back, but the few times I'd seen him, I'd almost been able to read his mind.

Would I stand in the way of his and Judy's dream of a perfect little family?

In the end, it wasn't my decision. I had had many sleepless nights, had raged and cried, and in the end, signed everything they wanted me too. Because I loved Sheila and Shelly, and I wanted nothing but the best for them. Visit them, support them best I could, of course I would do that, but I understood Judy's motivation. Having grown up without a father myself, I didn't have a lot of arguments.

I don't blame Naomi for anything, because we had a good life together, but it didn't change the fact that there were question marks in my life. There'd never be any in the twin girls' lives.

Or so we'd planned.

In tears, Keith told me that the doctors didn't have much hope, and I should hurry if I wanted to see her. This whole conversation seemed unreal to me. I sat on the unmade bed of the apartment I'd only recently moved into, in this chaos of unpacked boxes and furniture that needed to be built up, shaking.

He talked some more, gave me a number and the address of the hospital that I somehow managed to jot down, said how the kids were all right, with his parents, that they really loved the twins, and would help giving them a good home.

I didn't listen too closely.

He told me again to hurry, and then we hung up, and I left.

***

Judy didn't make it. I knew when I ran into Keith in the hallway; the look on his face revealing everything. Time continued to play cruel tricks on each of us. If they'd met sooner... if I'd arrived minutes ago...

I was allowed to see her for a moment, too, and I staggered backwards at the sight of the woman I had married, made love with, made the most beautiful children in the world with. For some reason, her face had remained relatively unblemished, save for some minor bruises and cuts, but there was still no denying, her injuries had been too severe for her to survive.

A drunk driver had caused the accident, and died in it, too, not that I could spare him any thought.

A while ago, I had felt hopeful anticipating the future. Now, I was only afraid of what would happen next.

***

I knew I had to keep it together, for the girls at least. Days after the funeral, I spent some time with them at Keith's parents' house, the elderly couple regarding me curiously.

Shelly and Sheila didn't really understand what was going on, but they understood very well that everybody was upset, and they were too. Mommy would never come back again. As I held them, trying hard not to join in on the crying, I was wondering if I was being punished for real this time.

Mrs. Coulton came in, carrying a tray with tea, milk and cookies. I thanked her, and after a moment of awkward silence, I asked her to sit down, which she did with a sad smile.

"You are good with them," she observed.

"Thank you."

"You know, Keith always said he couldn't understand how anyone could be stupid enough to leave her and the girls behind - but that he was very grateful towards you, because they could be together. It's so unfair."

"That it is."

I wasn't sure if we were really talking about the same thing at that moment.

"You know, Mr. Sandburg..." She paused as if to choose her words carefully. "You're not quite what I had expected. Not that Judy ever said much," she added quickly.

Well, how did an unfaithful husband, father, look like? "So what am I that you didn't expect?"

Again, she considered her words, but looked straight at me when she spoke them. "Responsible. Dedicated."

I'd almost told her 'thank you', a third time. "I made a mistake. Judy and I both did. But it's more complicated than that, because the girls are not a mistake."

"I agree. Must have been some difficult decisions then."

I found it hard to answer her, when reality seemed to dissolve around me. Sleeping next to Jim in yet another hotel room, or more precisely, not sleeping, jealous of time, watching him, not wanting to miss a minute of feeling the warmth of his body next to mine.

Judy, scratching me out of her life the moment she found out. Judy, who'd never be back again. Dead.

Jim's voice over the phone, soft, sympathetic, caring. "I'm so sorry, Chief."

Unreal.

"That's right. Mrs. Coulton? I'm sorry, could you take them just for a moment. I'll be back soon."

"Not a problem," she said.

"And thanks for the tea. See you."

***

I was driving, aimlessly, just going where the road took me, a disturbing summary of my life. Hadn't I tried hard? To be good at a job I hadn't chosen in the first place, to do it when the main goal, to stay Jim's partner, hadn't been an issue any longer, because job-wise, we had parted at the crossroads.

I tried to be available to my children, if not faithful to my wife... but in the end, she and I had parted, too, and maybe we would have been able to make it work; no one could say for sure now.

Where would I be going from here?

Maybe I could contact Simon, ask him if there was a spot open in Major Crimes, back where it all started. I wondered if Jim had talked to Sylvia, or his Dad, about the changes we dreamed of, living a taste of them in those feverish nights. It wasn't that I didn't trust him, but with the latest development, it just seemed too much to ask for.

We hadn't exactly planned how everyday life would be - kind of a mix of the fond memory of when we were living together with the incredible intensity we've found with each other in bed.

Not the last time though.

The images came rushing back without warning, the ones I could barely talk about without falling apart. As it grew darker outside and I drove on, I tried to recapture the feeling of Jim holding me while I told him, but it was far away now.

We had apprehended him, too. The one who'd betrayed me, almost responsible for the death of not just me, but the witness and her daughter, was a colleague. A quiet one, not conspicuous in any way, married, a father of three. Dedicated to his work. And yet, he'd told the crime lord I'd been working with hand in hand, trusted, who I really was.

I didn't remember everything about those 36 hours. They wanted to know where the witness was, and I knew they would have no qualms about killing her, and her daughter. She'd been the crime lord's fiancée, turning on him just when she became aware of the body count in his organization.

They were going to add me to it, but it would take a while yet, a while spent naked in a barren room, strapped down, being asked the same questions over and over again. Wrong answers all the time, a bored-looking goon alternating between the knife and the tazer.

There came a moment when they got really annoyed with me; that's when Jackson picked up the wire.

Just remembering it, I start gasping. I did back in the cabin, when Jim was there, and he whispered to me, telling me to breathe, touching me gently. I didn't have that luxury now.

Fortunately for me, I managed to pull off the road before the panic attack rose to its full effect.

***

I didn't know how many hours had passed since my hasty retreat from the Coulton's house, but I'd driven for quite sometime before I stopped at that parking lot, sick, lonely, and incredibly cold.

I got myself a coffee from a Seven Eleven that only helped with the cold, but somehow seemed to make the other two worse.

Miserably, I curled up on the seat - I'd really must have driven a long time, because exhaustion sent me into an uneasy sleep, once again back at Jackson's, body and mind awash with shame, anger and pain.

And it was even worse this time, because in the corner of the room, watching, stood Judy, her clothes blood-soaked the way I'd seen her the last time.

I woke up screaming, chilled in my clammy clothes.

Where did it all go so wrong? I could hardly blame Jim for needing some time to make a cut. This assignment, though, it had seemed doomed even before it began, because I went inside with that horrible feeling already. The man at the bar whose name I'd never learned. Exchanging barbs with Judy at that time. Missing Shelly and Sheila. Missing Jim.

So many mistakes.

I'd once done a good job, juggling the different aspects of my life, Jim, my studies, the observer's job, relationships, and yes again, Jim, my long-lasting obsession. I'd prided myself on being his Guide once.

Was all of it gone? I had mixed it all up somehow. How could I have ever... other pictures came back in disturbing clarity, the short exchange on safety, the rushed, frenzied sex that hadn't brought what I had hoped from it, only a stale, empty, guilty feeling. Walking out of the room, walking right into Jackson's trap.

Jim had been quite rightfully mad at me - so what if he was only feeling obliged, guilty himself now, that the job he once brought me in, had taken its toll on me?

Did I really deserve him?

***

"Can I bring you something else, hon?" a concerned voice asked.

I looked up at the middle-aged waitress with bleary eyes, and thought that she probably had reason to sound so concerned. After the first nightmare, others had followed, leaving me almost suffocating in that prison of regret.

"No, thank you, I'm fine."

"You don't look the part, if I may say so."

I gave her a wry smile. "Heard that before today. Guess a good breakfast will work wonders, and this looks great. Thank you."

She understood that she was dismissed, and it was back to me and my miserable self.

I was scared as hell. To go back to work. To lose my children.

And I was scared that Jim and I wouldn't work out, because if I was honest, it was what I'd built my life upon, time after time.

It was one dream I wouldn't be able to see crumble.

***

There were three messages on my cell phone. One of them was from Judy, and that made me start, until I remembered that I hadn't checked it in a while. The other two were from Jim, the last one urgent --

'Where are you?'

For some reason, I had to chuckle at the image of Jim writing an SMS; he'd once told me to call him if I wanted something, because it was embarrassing how his teenage niece could do this much faster. The gazes from the waitress had turned to dubious.

Damn, I couldn't even say for sure. If I asked her, she'd most likely call an ambulance or the police, and I could do without both. PTSD, I'd never admitted it, but it rang very true for me now.

I really needed to hear Jim's voice, and we'd have to clear some things between us.

Have a long talk with Keith, about the twins' future, because damn, I wouldn't give them up, no matter how much of a stable situation he could give them.

***

I began investigating my surroundings first, before I made the call. Found the sign of a city I'd never been to before - I had really gone way far, in more than one sense. It would have to do.

I left my car behind and went a few steps before I started to dial.

Jim picked up a split-second before I could hear the first ring, and before I had the chance to obsess about it, he spoke. "Where the hell are you?" He didn't sound angry, just sick with worry, and I felt a pang of guilt.

I had asked him to come, then ran away. I really hadn't made much sense lately.

"I miss you," I said tiredly. "So very much."

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Not really."

"Why don't I come to get you, and you're staying with me until you've got everything cleared?"

I held my breath.

"And then after that, of course."

"What about Sylvia?"

"She's gone for San Francisco, building up our new office there."

I resisted a hysterical giggle at the thought that somehow, all of Jim's wives ended up in SF.

So what about me?

"Wait for me," he said.

***

Even with the way Jim drove, it would take a couple of hours to get here. Time for me to get around, to sort things out for myself.

There was a beach nearby, and I went along the boardwalk, eventually taking off my shoes. I liked the feel of the sand under my feet, the water swirling around my ankles, almost meditative.

Letting go.

Maybe a first, tiny step only, but I needed it in order to gain direction again.

Jim called me again, later, when he was within the city limits, for specific directions, promising it wouldn't take long. God, I hoped so.

***

I couldn't hear his heartbeat like he could hear mine, of course, but it was as if I had developed some sense for him, too, over the time, feeling when he was around.

I watched him walking towards me, purposefully, and most uncaring that the pantlegs of his slacks were dragging over the wet sand.

And then the last bit of distance between us was closed, and I had to hold on real tight to make myself feel it wasn't a dream. We hadn't seen each other since I'd gone home from the cabin, wanting to bring order into my life, only to have it disrupted once again.

"Thank God you're okay," he whispered, kissing my cheek and then my mouth, his hands in my hair, and while I liked this very much, I had a little trouble understanding the urgency.

"Why shouldn't I be?"

Jim gave the answer without releasing me. "I asked around... and I found out you were with the guy's parents, but the mother told me you'd left suddenly. I was scared for you."

It took me another moment, and then I got it.

"Oh no. You didn't think... no, you hear me? I might have done some stupid things, but that was not on the list. I just needed to be alone for a while. Believe me."

I sighed, relieved when I felt him relax against me. "Always ready to assume the worst of me, right?"

"That's not true. I worry. That's what you do when you love someone."

"I can live with that," I said. My smile had to have been looking rather crooked, because my eyes were growing bright at the same time. "Beware. You're not going to get rid of me easily."

We were silent for a moment, another instant on the edge of -- something.

Then Jim smiled back at me, in a way that had always seemed private, only for me. Or maybe I'd jealously and delusionally thought so. Anyway...

"You ready to come home with me, Chief?" he asked, holding out his hand.

We'd been stretching our luck very far. It had still brought us here, and after all, there was only one answer I could give him.

"I am so ready!"

The End

BACK