New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Sudden Death-Overtime
by Dasha

Summary: A Four Point Shot epilogue.

Disclaimer: Not my characters. Not my universe.

Notes: Martha says I owe the community something for helping me keep my sanity and bringing me so much joy when I was so far from home for so long. She's right, although this doesn't even begin to cover the debt. Still, here it is. Accept it with my grateful sentiments.

I also owe the community for teaching me that culture and experience are not the only things that influence perception and cognition (duh). Society assumes that the norm is almost universal and any aberrations are pathological. But while sentinelism is fictional, dyslexia, fibromyalgia, and (for example) an astonishing talent for engineering aren't (and aren't even all that rare), and can sometimes influence the perceptual universe as radically. It took me long enough to get that, but I have it now. Thanks for that too.

And finally, for Martha, who not only gets into other people's universes, but reproduces them well enough to take other people there too.

Through the steel hatch, Jim could hear the men trapped in the sub coughing and scrambling. The slap of hands and feet on rungs fumbled and rang unevenly as they stumbled toward escape. Sentinel sight easily cut through the smoke and darkness when he opened the hatch-but the trails of vapor that escaped coiled around him in a burning cloud. Coughing, Jim fished into the hole, catching Kincaid by the collar just as the terrorist lost his footing.

He hauled them out one at a time. Kincaid. McBride. Watters. First the Sunset Patriots, then the crew of the submarine. He checked them for weapons and tossed them onto the deck, where they lay, choking and weeping, as Simon and the Jags made their way down the dock. When it seemed he had the last of them, Jim leaned over the still-smoking hatch, listening to see if anyone was left. He longed to rub his own damp eyes, but his hands were itching from the residue on the prisoner's clothes, and touching his face with them would only make the burning worse.

Nothing. Machinery sounds. The air circulation. Running computers. There wasn't anyone left inside. Jim slammed the hatch shut and turned away. By the time the black and whites arrived, the prisoners were kneeling on the dock, covered by a heavily armed professional basketball team. Jim's hands itched and his throat and eyes burned, but he wasn't worried; Sandburg had said there wouldn't be a repeat of last time, and Sandburg knew about these things.

It was familiar chaos after that; cuffing and removing Kincaid's men, confiscating and counting the weapons, paramedics rounding up the Jags and coaxing them in to be examined, the state police and the CPD arguing over jurisdiction and griping about the ATF and the FBI (who were both on the way and would want jurisdiction)....Just another day in paradise.

He found Blair sitting with Daryl on some crates near the road. They were leaning forward with their heads together, Blair doing that thing he did, focusing totally on the person he was with, hanging on every word, making them feel like the center of the world. He wondered if Blair meant it-he had always seemed to like Daryl. But maybe he was just doing his job: the anthropologist had put his skills at the disposal of the department in exchange for being allowed to ride with Jim, a silent deal with Simon. And you could say that for Blair-he kept his deals. He never took anything you didn't agree to and he always delivered what he promised and more. Jim could see how taking care of Daryl might be just part of the package.

Like taking care of Jim.

Jim spun on his heel and stalked back down the way he'd come. He was not going to start that again. He knew he wasn't being fair. Blair had been completely up front about what he was asking-and what he was offering. It wasn't his fault Jim hadn't understood when he'd taken the deal.

On the other hand, it *was* Jim's fault that Blair came to the attention of people like Kincaid. Jim's fault he walked into danger instead of away from it. Jim's fault Alex had thought a graduate student presented a meaningful threat.

He paused at the edge of the dock, wiping his stinging hands on his pants and trying to get his breath.

Dammit. What was wrong with him? He had Blair, alive, here. Five weeks ago he couldn't have asked for anything more than that.

The hand on his arm made him jump. "Jim? You OK?"

"Fine," he said.

"You sound a little hoarse." Blair was watching him with the same intensity he had shown to Daryl before.

Jim waved casually toward the sub. "A little of the gas got me. It's nothing I haven't done before."

Blair's expression shifted for a moment before settling on a stiff sort of sympathy. "Oh. Right. Ouch." He glanced around. "Listen, Simon said we could go home, unless there's something else you want to do here?"

"Sure. Fine."

"Um...where's the truck?"

***

Jim had ridden down from the arena on top of Kincaid's truck. Shit! On top of the truck. What had he been thinking? Well, obviously he'd been thinking that Simon and Daryl and Blair were in that truck, not to mention most of the Jags, and it was Jim's job to stop Kincaid. But, Jesus, Jim!

Blair pushed those thoughts out of the way in a hurry. Jim had been tear gassed again: Calm was the word of the day. Right. Calm. We can do this. We've done this before. *As long as he thinks it is nothing to worry about, I can keep it nothing to worry about*.

He talked one of the uniforms into giving them a ride home. Blair was surprised when Jim agreed to be taken straight to the loft, rather than all the way back to the arena for their cars. He supposed it was a good thing-the quicker they got Jim showered off and turning dials down the better-but he gave in quickly enough to make Blair think he might already be feeling pretty sick.

Inside the loft, Jim headed straight for the shower, shedding clothing along the way. Blair bundled the discarded clothing in a plastic garbage bag and tied it off, before finding a pitcher and the salt and making a batch of tepid eye-wash.

Maybe it really wasn't so bad. Last time Jim had needed help to undress.

How long had it been? Ten months? Eleven. It had been bad. The police had pinned down an escapee from Starkville in a second story apartment over by Bayview. The building had been evacuated, the neighborhood closed off, and the SWAT team deployed. Jim and Simon had moved closer to the wall, crouching under the hedge so that Jim could listen for the location of their quarry. When the SWAT launched their gas grenades one bounced off the window frame and landed upwind of Jim and Simon.

There was no question of getting Jim's gas mask on; he began vomiting almost immediately. Nor was there a way for Simon to pull Jim out of range, not when their man might still come out shooting.

When Blair had arrived he found Jim sitting on the curb of the rear parking lot. His eyes were almost swollen shut, his exposed skin was bright red, and he was still coughing. On the ride home Jim had said nothing, and Blair had had to remove his clothing and guide him into the shower. It had been bad.

Now . . . wasn't so bad. Jim was independently mobile. He was talking. Really, he was going to be fine.

When Jim emerged in his bathrobe he frowned at the chair Blair had pulled over to the sink and the pitcher on the counter. "You don't have to-"

"Yes, we do." Blair pointed at the chair.

"You said it wouldn't be a big deal next time."

"I said it wouldn't be if we took care of it. This is taking care of it." He pointed at the chair again, and this time Jim came over, leaning back to settle his head into the nest of towels at the edge of the sink without being told. "Try to keep your eyes open as much as you can."

"I know the drill."

With the salt water, Blair carefully washed Jim's eyes. Every few seconds they had to pause so that Jim could sit up and breathe. A towel in Blair's free hand had sopped up most of the water that missed the sink, but after he rinsed the saline from Jim's face and shooed him into the living room, Blair dutifully mopped up the floor as well. Tonight was not a good night for Jim to be annoyed by little things.

"How are you feeling?"

"OK."

Blair gave himself four rounds of I am relaxed, and tried again. "Could I have the laundry list?"

"My hands have stopped itching, my eyes are almost normal....My nose and throat still burn a little."

Blair squatted beside him. "That's good. That's real good." He paused. "Tell you what, Jim. Why don't you just turn the pain dial to off."

The response this time was surprise rather than irritation. "What ever happened to 'pain is a warning'?"

"That's just it, Jim. This stuff is designed to give a false warning. It will try to tell your body that something terrible is happening, when it isn't. You don't need to listen to that. Turn it all the way down." He waited in silence while Jim closed his eyes and performed near-miracles with his own nervous system. For the first time, Blair began to relax. Yeah, this was it. This was the point where Blair should have caught it before, now, after the irritating chemicals were washed away but before Jim's body had a chance to get caught in the feedback loop of reacting to its own reactions and focusing ever-more tightly on ever more tiny traces of irritant.

After a few minutes Blair asked, "Hungry?"

"Hmm. Beer?"

Blair thought about that. Last time he had fed Jim some soup and a glass of ginger ale. The food hadn't seemed to make any difference-although perhaps this was because Jim had eaten so little of it. Beer? He couldn't think of a reason why not, and finally brought one back from the fridge.

On the second swallow, Jim put the bottle down and pushed it away.

"What?" Blair asked, trying not to sound tense.

"Tastes funny," Jim said, smothering a cough.

"Did you brush your teeth?"

"Yes, mom," Jim growled, closing his eyes and leaning back into the sofa.

"Maybe you should turn taste down too-"

"It isn't important, Sandburg. Leave it alone."

It was important. Anything that reminded Jim's body that there was a pollutant in his system-I am relaxed. *Damn right you are, Sandburg! And you are going to stay relaxed. Jim is not going to hear you panic this time*. But it sucked, trying to fool a sentinel. Even if you controlled your face and your voice, your heartbeat and body temperature would give you away.

That was what had happened last time, and it could have really screwed things up. Blair had come out of his room for a drink of water just after midnight to find Jim leaning against the dinner table, panting, and he'd panicked.

"Jim-What's wrong?"

"It burns, Chief. All the way down. It's like breathing acid....I can't get my breath."

For a moment, the panic had won, and Blair had frozen, wanting to scream or be sick, standing silent and rigid instead. All he had to work with here was theory and a lot of tentative conclusions that were probably wrong anyway. And he would only get one chance. And if he screwed up it might be Jim's life this time.

But Jim had been looking at him, waiting for Blair to produce a miracle and make it all better. "Wow." Blair said, and his voice hadn't sounded terrified, it had sounded kind. "You must be miserable!"

Jim had looked away. He hadn't been fooled by that little misdirection.

Blair had hurried over to him, hoping to repair his mistake. "Listen, Jim. I know it's bad. It's...scary. It's scaring me. But it isn't as bad as-as it feels. To either of us. Now, work with me here. Have you tried dialing it down?"

So this time Blair wasn't going to panic. This time he understood what was going on. He knew what to do about it. Nothing bad was going to happen. *That's my story, and I'm sticking to it*. He almost laughed at that, wondering on how many layers you could lie to yourself.

"Glad you find this amusing."

"Sorry." Blair swallowed. "I'm a little tired. I must be getting punchy."

Jim slitted his eyes open. "Be pretty ironic, I guess. I mean, if I dropped dead when you're so close to being finished."

Blair shut his mouth hard. Jim was in control now. He had all the dials down, and they were staying there. If Blair jumped up screaming, 'you are not dying!' or something similarly hysterical, he would only add to Jim's anxiety and shake that control.

"The project was a success, but the lab rat died. What would your advisor say?"

Blair forced himself to take a slow, deep breath. "Jim, I am hearing you. I really am. This is important, and we need to talk about it-but let's not talk about it right now, OK?"

Jim didn't answer, and Blair got up slowly and went to the kitchen.

Mistake, mistake, he knew. Jim would see this as abandonment. But Blair couldn't be close to Jim now-not when his heart was pounding this hard and not when he was this likely to say something he couldn't take back later. The panic was coming from too many directions at once now to handle, even though he knew what Jim was thinking.

If you could call this thinking. When Jim was scared, it wasn't like having a conversation with a normal person. If a normal person said "I am overwhelmed, I am pissed at you, and I need some space," it meant they were overwhelmed, pissed at you, and wanted some space. If Jim said "I am overwhelmed, I am pissed at you, and I need some space," it meant he was hurting, scared to death, and about to do something stupid and/or dangerous. When Jim was scared, he started taking random, vicious, preemptive strikes against his worst nightmares. As dearly as Blair would like to break his partner of the little habit of venting all over *him*, it would have to wait.

He turned on the kettle and began to rummage in the tea cabinet. He needed something to drown out the taste of tear gas. Chamomile was not going to be up to it. Ginger? Jim liked that, if it wasn't too strong. He reached for the box, listing the properties of ginger in his head: *mild stimulant, elevates blood pressure, anti-nausea... Nothing too awful, even if he over-reacts. I think this is a go*. His hand hovered over the marshmallows. Jim disliked the texture, but it was a great soother and was the least likely thing to cause a negative reaction in Jim that he could think of.

Oh, God, he didn't want to do this again! Last time had been bad enough for a lifetime. It had been bad enough for all future incarnations forever. Last time-

Last time, he had led Jim over to the couch and sat down beside him, trying to stay calm and reassuring. "Jim, I need you to relax for me." And Jim, just the way Blair taught him, had taken a slow deep breath.

The coughing fit that brought on must have lasted three minutes. In the end Jim had surged upward, pushing Blair out of the way and stumbling onto the balcony. Blair had followed more slowly, trying to figure out what to do next.

Jim had been hunched over the railing, breathing hard. As Blair came up behind him, Jim had glanced back and then waved at the phone Blair had snatched up on his way out. "Gonna-use that?"

"Only if we really need it. This is a sensory thing. We can get on top of it."

"If you're waiting for me-to get on top of this-call now. I can't-"

Blair had stepped a little closer, careful not to make Jim claustrophobic in a world that already had too little air in it. "This is the last resort, if nothing else works, because if they come here, they are going to treat this like an allergic reaction, and it's not."

Jim had frowned.

Blair had slid an arm loosely around his waist, still not crowding him. "It isn't an allergy. It's an-an irritation. No, listen to me. Tear gas is designed to tell the body that something terrible is happening to it. And it does a really good job-the nerves believe it, the mucus membranes believe it, the tear ducts believe it, the part of the brain that registers pain believes it. The thing is, it's all a lie."

"No gas now."

"Your body is reacting to traces other people can't even register. Or to your own reaction. Or to the original stimulus even after it is withdrawn."

"Which?"

"It doesn't matter." Blair had shaken his head impatiently. "What matters is that it isn't an allergy. And if I call an ambulance, they will treat it like an allergy. Maybe antihistamines." He had known Jim was paying attention, because he had looked a little alarmed at that. Antihistamines turned Jim's world into a sensory nightmare. "Probably, it would be steroids, and some of them might be OK, but I did some reading on this, and the most likely thing they will do first is epinephrine. That's sort of fake adrenalin, right? It is supposed to reduce swelling and stuff, and maybe it would do that, but maybe it would just make you really...alert. If your senses started spiking, this could get a lot worse."

"Blair," Jim had rasped. It was worse, now. Breathing in was hard, a hoarse gasp that took too long. Breathing out was harder. It took even longer and sounded like a tiny orchestra tuning up. *And if I can hear this, what is he hearing?* Bad news, given the fact that Jim's consciousness had a much greater effect on his 'involuntary' physical responses than other people's. Everything he felt and heard drew his focus to the site of the problem, when what he needed to do was stop trying to respond to the 'contaminant.'

"Jim, I want you to listen to my voice, and nothing else. The only thing you need to hear right now is me."

"Just you."

"That's right. Just me. We are going to start by relaxing-don't look at me like that. We're going to do it another way. Make your right hand into a fist, the tightest fist you can manage...Good... OK, now release it."

They had gotten through Jim's upper body and Blair had been wondering if he could convince Jim to sit down so they could work on legs when Jim had suddenly turned toward him and dropped his forehead onto the top of Blair's head. "Jim?"

"I can smell it. Right now," he had whispered.

"Jim, your senses are hyperactive."

Jim had only spared breath for a grunt, but it was a deeply disgusted grunt.

"I'm serious," Blair had continued gently. "Your body registers everything, detects everything. Your body reacts to stuff that doesn't even exist, as far as my body knows."

In his arms, Jim had shuddered. "I know that," he had whispered hopelessly.

"But you've also got an edge. No, listen! You have a control over your body that it usually takes religious specialists years to learn. Decades. If they learn it at all. And you just do it naturally. So just do it. Stop smelling it."

Jim had pulled him closer, and Blair had brought the other arm up to loosely encircle him. "You're doing great, Jim. You are getting this really fast."

"Don't patronize me." It had almost been a normal whisper. Jim's breathing was still fast and shallow, but it was nearly silent now, and no longer desperate.

"Hey, I'm trying to be encouraging here. This is positive feedback. You could try it sometime."

Jim's single laugh had turned into a cough, and Blair had pulled him closer, gently rubbing his back. "Easy, Jim. It's OK. Just relax. It's almost over."

From there, though, it had been over. Soon after that he'd been able to coax Jim back into the house and settle him on the couch and give him tea and -damnit! Blair had thought, *well, now we know what to do, and if it happens again I'll be on top of it right from the start and we won't have to do this again*. Only here he was in the kitchen picking out tea and hiding from Jim's very creative verbal abuse and wishing to god he knew what he was doing-

He could hear Jim wheezing. From here.

Pretending to be calm, he put the tea down on the counter and slowly approached the couch. "Jim?" he said softly, crouching down beside him.

"Go away," Jim gasped. He was hunched forward, hands digging into the sofa cushions.

This was going right on schedule. Was there a problem? Yell at Blair. Still have a problem? Push Blair away. There had gotten to be a kind of rhythm to it, especially lately, but as hurtful as it was, Blair didn't have time to address Jim's emotional defenses now. His body was turning on him. Jim had been caught in the mother of all diversionary tactics, and since the enemy was all flash and no substance, his physical defenses had nothing to attack but his own body.

"Jim, let's try-"

"Sandburg, I can't-deal with you-now."

"I'm trying to help you!" It sounded more impatient then he intended, but perhaps a little anger would get Jim's attention.

"Then find-" He stopped, coughing, and the cough was just a series of quiet squeals. "Find-someone I-can trust!"

Blair rocked back on his heels. The only reason he wasn't screaming was that he couldn't breathe himself. He hadn't known that he'd fucked up this badly. He hadn't known he'd so thoroughly failed Jim. And now it was too late to do anything about it.

He retrieved the phone and returned to his place on the floor. "Who's it gonna be? Simon?"

Jim glanced at him. "What?"

"Do you want me to call Simon?"

Jim shook his head and batted at the phone. "Daryl needs him."

"OK. Megan?"

"No," Jim choked.

"She'll understand, Jim. She knows about you. She's smart. And she's a cop, one of the brotherhood." Blair tried to smile at the joke. Jim shook his head again. "Damn it!-" The tea kettle went off, interrupting Blair, making Jim flinch.

Blair raced to the kitchen, snatching the kettle off the burner and turning off the stove at the same time, then running back to Jim. Forget the tea. It had been a pathetic offering to begin with. If Blair didn't have anything more helpful than tea to offer Jim, then he might as well give up now.

And he didn't. Have anything better than tea. He didn't have anything at all. He was, in fact, part of the fucking problem. And it didn't matter that last time he-he himself-had been enough, because this time Jim didn't trust him. This time Jim didn't believe it when Blair told him he could control his body. This time Jim's brain didn't accept that his sensations were lies.

"I'm so sorry..." It was a stupid thing to say, but Jim glanced over at him.

"Not your fault.... Know that." He was speaking so softly Blair could barely hear him. "You did everything you said you would. Kept your promises. Better. Just didn't mean the same things to you."

Blair reached for Jim's hand, and Jim let him take it. "What didn't? I don't understand."

"Friendship. Trust." Jim looked back at the floor. "Just didn't mean the same--things."

Oh. He couldn't think anything more than that. The emptiness spread out from him like a huge, cold ocean. Swallowed them both-had swallowed them *weeks* ago, Blair just hadn't known it. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Had to have a guide. Had to." Jim paused. His breathing was getting quieter, and it wasn't a good quiet. There was too little air, moving too slowly. "And then. I thought it wouldn't. Matter."

***

The dampness on his hand caught his attention like an electric shock. Strange that he could hear the traffic on the street and feel the loops of his terry bathrobe and notice the brightness of the single lamp in the room, when all he could *think* about was breathing. How could there be anything in his world but the weight on his chest and how badly he wanted just one deep breath? But all his senses were turned up to eight or nine, and he couldn't get them down. He looked at their hands, knotted together, and could see reflections on the surface of the tears. Salt water refracted light differently than fresh.

He didn't want Blair crying. He didn't want him hurting, blaming himself for what was going wrong here. Blair had done his best, and it wasn't his fault that the magic didn't work anymore.

Jim had gotten himself into this. He had realized when he'd found Blair after....after Her... that it didn't matter that Blair couldn't give Jim what he wanted. He'd only wanted Blair--as much of Blair as he could get, under any terms. He'd thought that Blair's not sharing those feelings wouldn't matter.

But here he was, needing his guide to tell him how to get out of this, and all he could think when he heard Blair's voice was that there were worse things than being alone.

Hadn't Dad taught him that? Hadn't Laura? Hadn't Lila? Being played with was worse than being left, but he kept doing it to himself, tying himself to people who didn't really want him for himself. It wasn't Blair's fault he didn't love Jim. Blair didn't even belong in the list with the rest of them, because he, at least, had given Jim everything he had promised. If he didn't have anything more to give, anything real to offer, that was Jim's problem. And even knowing that, Jim had stayed. So, no, this wasn't Blair's fault.

The beep of the phone turning on sounded like a car horn. Jim jumped. Damn it, the kid was calling Simon, and Daryl was going to need his dad tonight. "No."

"I'm calling 911, Jim, I have to," Blair said dully. "Told me . . . they couldn't help." Jim couldn't face dealing with this and an ambulance, a hospital. Not at the same time. He closed his hand over the phone.

For a moment, the hand that was holding Jim's squeezed so tightly that their bones ground together. "I said it wasn't the best solution. But it'll be enough. They'll fix this. It's gonna be all right."

And the stunning thing was, this was a lie. It wasn't a half-truth like that flat, careful sympathy Blair had been handing out all evening. This was purely not true. Even if Blair's voice hadn't given it away, Jim was touching both of his hands, and this was a lie!

"Jim, come on. Work with me here. We'll call for help, and then you'll just have to hold on a little longer, and they'll come and *help* you." Gentle words, hopeful words. When Jim looked up, though, there wasn't any hope in the eyes that looked back. This was despair. This was desperation. This was I'll-do-anything-even-though-I-know-it-won't-help-because-there-*is*-nothin g-else. This was I'll-take-him-on-any-terms-please-just-let-him-live. Jim knew that look. He'd been on the other side of it.

"Jim, let go of the phone. Please." The terror that had been hiding under that patient, competent voice was clearly audible now.

"Tell me again. How do I--stop this?"

Blair closed his eyes. "It's deceiving you, Jim. It's just a little irritation. Don't pay attention to it. Don't feel it. Turn it all off, just don't let yourself react. Shift your attention and focus on something else. Damn." He stopped, his teeth grinding together. "It's no good. You'd have to believe me, and you don't. Just let go of the phone."

He'd have to believe Blair. Which should be easy enough-he knew when the kid was lying.

Of course, two hours ago, he'd been watching Blair comfort Daryl Banks, wondering if he really gave the shit he seemed to, or if he was just being sympathetic because sympathetic was his job, part of the deal he'd made with Simon.

Had he really not been able to see the difference then? Or had he just not trusted himself to believe what he was seeing?

Exhausted, Jim leaned back into the cushions. He didn't let go of either Blair's hand or the phone, so Blair was forced to climb onto the couch and kneel beside him.

"Jim, I will do anything you want. I mean it. I'll burn my notes. I'll get out of your life tomorrow. I'll do anything, if you will just let go of the phone." Blair was crying, but both of his hands were full, and the tears ran unimpeded down his face.

Jim breathed. He shoved the breath. In. And out. And out. Not enough. He wanted to pant, to gasp, but he was choking. Dials, Ellison. Turn it down. Just make it stop. It was getting hard, though, to ignore his growing panic. "My body. Mine. I choose. The focus." The words formed silently. He tried. He closed his eyes and tried to find the dials. "I choose. What I feel."

But he couldn't find the dials and he couldn't decide not to be aware of these things. They were real. He could taste the tear gas. It burned his hands where he'd touched the Sunrise Patriots' clothing. It stung his eyes, his throat. His swollen airway was real, and the horrible weight on his chest...He was gasping now, short, uneven snatches of air that didn't give him any relief. He let go of the phone and used that hand to grab Blair behind the head and pull him closer. "Chief. Help me." He wasn't sure he was speaking loudly enough for Blair to hear.

Something brushed against his lips and prickled bluntly against his tongue. Several somethings, flat and rough and tiny. Almost before he could catalog the sensation, taste burst outward, startlingly vivid. Herbal shampoo. Cream rinse. Two hypo-allergenic styling aids. Hot dogs. Salt. Blair-sweat. Each separate element was sharp and intense, almost shockingly so. They were normal, mundane, things he might smell a dozen times every day.

He began to separate out the different ingredients in the shampoo.

***

The strands of hair shifted on his tongue and disappeared. Jim leaned slightly forward, following them. A hand pushed him back. "Oh, no you don't. You've been gone long enough. It's time to come on back."

Jim sucked in a deep breath and was coughing it back out before he realized that the breath had been easy and the cough wasn't trapped in his chest. His eyes flew open.

"Easy. Easy, buddy. You're OK." Blair sounded relieved, almost giddy. The overly calm sympathy was gone.

"Sandburg."

"Right here, Jim. You back?"

"Yeah, I'm back." He closed his eyes, taking a sweet, painless breath.

"Jim? What do you need?"

What an odd thing to ask. As though Jim could be counted on to tell anyone what he needed, even assuming he could figure out what it was in the first place. Besides, Blair always knew what he needed.

"Jim? What can I do? Tell me what to do." Blair seemed...tentative, uncertain. That was strange, but Jim was tired; he could figure it out later. Right now he wanted to rest.

"Don't need anything. Got you."

Blair laughed a little. It wasn't a happy sound. "Oh, yeah. That's good. Nothing to worry about now."

Jim groped and found the front of Blair's shirt. He pulled him forward and held him still with both hands. If Blair would stop talking about things that weren't important, they could sit here and rest. That would be very good.

"Jim. I really screwed up here. Remember? I know you better than anyone. I knew how you'd react. What you'd think. And I was-so afraid you would think the worst, and so busy hoping so hard that you wouldn't...that I didn't see you already had. And-And Jim, I knew something was wrong. I knew. But I just-I never did anything about it until it was so bad that when you got into trouble I couldn't help you."

Blair was not going to stop talking. Jim sighed. "But I've got you now." That was plain enough. The important issue was covered, and any details could be discussed tomorrow morning. Or, even better, tomorrow afternoon.

"Yeah, Jim." Blair's voice caught.

"OK, then." This was good. Maybe they could go to sleep. This was good. Except-"If you really ...how could you..." Jim wasn't able to finish. He didn't want to talk about this now. He didn't. The words came out anyway. "How could you say all that?"

"What I wrote."

"Yeah." What Blair wrote. About Jim being weak. About Jim being some kind of coward.

Blair folded Jim in his arms, laying his cheek against the top of Jim's head. "Yeah."

"You analyzed...everything."

"Yeah."

"I didn't know a lot of that stuff."

"I know."

"I'm not exactly a prize."

"I never loved you for being perfect." Jim tensed, and Blair held him more tightly. "I never had a choice about you, Jim. Your faults-Jeez! Did you think I wouldn't notice? But it doesn't matter how badly you piss me off, any more than it matters how brave you are, or how gentle, or how smart...even though you are the bravest, gentlest, smartest person I have ever known. None of that matters because-pay attention. This is important-When you're scared or angry or being an absolute idiot, you are still the center of the world. I couldn't change that if I wanted to."

"Oh." Jim tried to get his mind around that. "But you wrote all those things down."

"Yeah. I wrote all those things down." Blair sighed. "I wrote them down so I could...understand them. Things can't hurt us if we understand them."

Dimly, Jim thought, *Yeah. Right. I understood Veronica Sarris pretty well. I understood Alex, and Lash. Oh, and Garrett Kincaid; nothing mysterious there.* As far as that went, he understood Dad, and that didn't help a whole hell of a lot. But if Blair believed this...Damn, the kid was an optimist. Because he never stopped trying to explain.

"I fucked it all up, Jim. It doesn't matter-my detailed notes, my fantastic analysis." He snorted bitterly. "It hurt you anyway. This sentinel stuff. My research." He shuddered. "Me."

Jim was reasonably sure he would have no idea what to say even if he weren't exhausted.

Blair changed abruptly, resurrecting his professional demeanor. He covered Jim's eyes with his hand and reached across to turn on the light. He efficiently, gently examined Jim's hands and arms, parting fingers, pressing gently on the short nails. "Your color's good. I don't see a rash here, Jim. Zoning may be the way to go with this." The guide voice, which Jim had grown to loathe. Because the friendship it promised, the trust it evoked hadn't meant the same things to Blair.

Jim closed his eyes, pulling away. Blair caught his head, turned his face into the light, "Dial back your sight and open your eyes, Jim. I need to see them." He could hear tears under the guide voice. The face hovering an inch from his own was weary and sad. "It looks pretty good. I think maybe what you need now is sleep."

Oh, yes!

But he couldn't sleep now. He hadn't explained. Blair didn't understand.

"Can you make it upstairs?"

"No." And he shoved Blair sideways and down and sideways some more, until he was on the other side of the couch and almost sitting.

"Jim? What--?"

He dropped his head into the newly made lap and blocked out the light by pushing his face into Blair's stomach.

"Oh." Blair said. He shifted a bit and pulled down the afghan to tuck around Jim's shoulders. "Oh. OK. You've got me."

End