Can You Hear the Tit-Willow Cry?

Blair let himself into the apartment and tossed his keys on the table just inside the door. It was a habit he rather disliked since he was always forgetting them on the way out. He was used to having his keys on him at all times -- or at least in his clothes, when they were piled by somebody's bed or couch. But something about Jim's apartment made him feel as if he ought to try and live like a normal human being. So he left his keys where keys, apparently, were supposed to be left.

Giving them a glance to remind himself - keys, table, by the door - he moved on. Kitchen? Room? He wasn't sure what he felt like doing. He knew he ought to get something to eat as he hadn't eaten all day. But he knew all too well the mood he was in, and deciding to eat something would lead to standing in the kitchen, staring into every cabinet and into the fridge until he admitted he hadn't a clue what he wanted.

Naomi's friend Rick had told him that if you don't know what you want to eat, then you aren't hungry. He'd found that as a grad student he'd had to amend that statement slightly. If you aren't willing to eat what you've got, then you aren't hungry. That worked for visiting small tribes in the middle of forests, too. None of this mattered. He wasn't going to eat anything so there was no point in heading for the kitchen.

Trouble was, he didn't want to do anything in his room, either. All he had was studying, papers to work on, and exams to write. Nothing worth doing. Nothing *interesting*. He slumped onto the couch and stared at the far brick wall. He could think up some new tests for Jim, but recently his partner had been avoiding the whole 'Sentinel' issue, balking at any mention of tests and dismissing any questions of how his senses were behaving. Probably just needed a break.

Blair realised -- they probably *both* needed a break. Maybe that's all it was. He sat up a bit, thinking through his next few days' obligations. One seminar which, to be honest, he could miss without even borrowing anyone's notes. A lecture to give on comparative religions in early agricultural societies -- which he could foist off on Harry who was doing his thesis on that very subject. He'd be delighted to ramble on for an hour about his pet topic. And then tomorrow was his night to prepare dinner, but that was easy. He could leave something in the freezer, or just put some pizza coupons in a prominent place. No problem. He could clear tomorrow and the day after with ease -- and take off for a four-day weekend.

He felt better just for having made the decision. Jumping up, he headed for the phone.

An hour later Blair settled comfortably behind the wheel of Davis' jeep. He'd used up half of the favours owed him to make this little vacation, but it was worth it. The tension was already seeping out of his shoulders, and he wasn't even going to be leaving town for a couple more hours. In exchange for the jeep he'd promised to run some errands, so Davis could stay in the lab and finish a project -- Chemical Engineering. Blair hadn't asked what the smoking vials were for.

He was already packed for his trip; his duffel and camping gear were always repacked after a trip, since he never knew when the urge to drop everything and take off would hit him. The MRE stash would have to be restocked after this venture, he'd noticed. Living off the land was one thing, but sometimes you just *had* to have dessert.

He drove the jeep through downtown Cascade, enjoying the sensation of driving a vehicle with a working transmission. Driving up to the Chelan Mountains would be heaven. Why Jim wouldn't let him drive the truck, he still didn't understand. But it didn't really bother him; as long as he had something to tease Jim about, he was happy. Threatening to drive his truck worked beautifully.

"Oh, shit."

Speaking of Jim... he probably wouldn't appreciate coming home and finding Blair missing. By tomorrow he'd have APBs out. The man probably wasn't used to folks just getting up and leaving of their own volition with no warning. He scanned the roadside, and found a payphone. He pulled over and searched the ashtray for change.

On the third ring, Jim answered.

"Hey, Jim! How's it going?"

"Blair?" Jim sounded surprised to hear from him. "What's wrong?"

Blair laughed. Trust him... "Nothing's wrong, man. Can't a guy just call in the middle of the day and check on the morale of Cascade's finest?" He had to be careful what he said, since the lines were routinely tapped. Another thing he teased Jim about, calling up one day and saying those three little words - make me come.

"Uh-huh... what do you want? And I need my truck all day."

"You are *paranoid*, Jim. Did I ever tell you that?"

"Is there a reason you called? I have to be in court in an hour." Jim sounded happy to be teasing him. Blair grinned.

"Well, no, not really. Kinda. I just wanted to let you know, so you don't decide I've been kidnapped. I'm taking off. Got my class tomorrow covered, and I just... need to get out of here, man."

"Oh?" Jim's voice had taken on a guarded tone. "You mean for the weekend?"

"Yeah, for the weekend." Blair heard Jim let out a breath and realised -- not calling would have been *very* bad. He carefully added, "I'm just heading east for a hundred miles or so. I can call tomorrow, and Sunday morning on my way back home."

"East, huh? Anyplace in particular?"

Blair couldn't decide how much of the casualness in the question was feigned. He knew that his and Jim's relationship was important to the other man, but he hadn't expected the note of.. what? in his voice. Caution? Schooled nonchalance? Which meant Jim was hiding something like concern or even fear. He shook his head and answered the question as best he could. "Well, there's a reservation out by Pateros. I've got a friend who lives there -- well he did last year, the man's about 100 years old so there's no telling." Blair grinned when he heard Jim's laugh. "But I thought I might drop in and see him. Spend a couple days sleeping outside, you know." A thought occured to him. "Uh, Jim? Do you wanna come?" He didn't really want Jim along, because part of getting away meant getting away from people you'd been surrounded by. But Jim had too much work to say yes, and the asking might just address some of that caution he'd not heard earlier.

Although he felt fairly certain about his relationship, he kept forgetting how *un*certain the other man was. Sometimes Blair thought Jim had been more secure in their friendship before they'd become lovers. But other times, in fact every time after Blair said 'I love you', Jim's whole bearing would shift subtly, and Blair would feel as if nothing could be better in either of their lives than this. But he *still* had to get out of town once in a while, or go nuts.

"Thanks, Chief, but I can't." Blair smiled. The relief in his love's voice was obvious. "Call me when you get the chance, though, so I know when to come looking for your body."

"Will do. Take it easy." I love you, he thought.

"Yeah. Have fun." I love you, too, he heard.

When Blair hung up the phone he stared at it. Jim was just so easy to handle, once you learned how to read what he didn't let show. And when you *remembered* to read it. Blair shook his head and got back in the jeep. Jim liked his world stable. Odd, for all that he been a soldier and was now a cop, risking his life on a daily basis. But mortal danger didn't mean chaos, and Blair knew his friend greatly disliked chaos.

That was why he got so defensive when his senses wouldn't behave. They were out of control -- chaos. Or when Blair forgot about the rules he laid down, or left his clothes or dishes scattered about, and why Jim had jokingly complained every time he'd visited Blair at his warehouse before it blew up. Why he'd been so afraid when Blair had mentioned maybe leaving suddenly, for a year to study, after he'd grown to depend on having his Guide around.

Granted, it hadn't only been fear of chaos, that time.

Unfortunately Blair thrived on chaos. He'd grown up in it, and while he didn't necessarily like it, he knew it best. So although he let himself settle down, move into a well-ordered apartment and well-ordered lifestyle, he needed this. Take off, shake this up, and invert things for a bit. Drive east with only -- though he wouldn't tell Jim -- a vague intention of going someplace in particular. If he ended up at Jon's place, then he did. If not, well, that's why he borrowed a jeep.

How they didn't end up killing each other, Blair didn't know. He grinned. Probably just neither willing to bury a body. But maybe if he set the building on fire.... Laughing, Blair entertained himself trying to remember the entries in Davis' "101 Ways To Stop Your Roommate From Annoying You" as he completed the errands.

The mountains were glorious. Blair loved staring at them as he drove. The air was warm -- for Washington -- and the wind whipped the strands of hair which escaped the tie. He resisted the urge to yelp, as there was still plenty of traffic about. He'd only been driving for an hour, and he was barely past the city limits.

But oh! He felt great. So much better than he had all week. He wasn't ready to start delving into why he'd been down lately; the wind was clean and the sky was blue and the clouds were white (ok, almost mostly white) and everything was going grandly. It might have been fun to have Jim along, to talk with and joke with and share the camp-out chores with and snuggle into a shared sleeping bag with. But then Jim would have brought his truck, and done all the driving and there wouldn't have been an open-top to let the air blow by. He'd just have to save up his jokes for Monday when he got home.

An hour's more driving brought him to a small town, barely big enough to have more than a gas station, cafe, and a token house or two. He stopped, filled up the jeep, and borrowed more change from the ashtray. Jim wasn't at his desk, so he left a message on the answering machine at home.

"Hey, Jim. It's me -- like you're going to not recognise my voice, right? I'm in.. uh.. Washington still, I'm sure. Everything's cool, but this is probably my last chance to call you. I'm still alive and I figured you'd want to know. I'll call you Sunday, sometime. Bye."

He didn't realise he'd been hoping to talk to Jim until he hung up, and felt the disappointment. Oh well -- four days would't hurt him, not really. Not seriously. He went inside to pay the man.

They ended up talking for an hour, about baseball and cards and whether those covered wagons really could have made it across the Columbia river during the rainy seasons. Blair couldn't later remember who'd brought the subject up, but he finally left the tiny store with a half-plotted plan to talk Stacy into building one for her senior project, so they could test it. With a glance up at the sun, he realised he'd be late getting to his usual crashing spot, on his route east. No matter. It wasn't like RJ's truck stop would have a no vacancy sign up. Everyone just parked in the lot and slept in their vehicles.

Sunday afternoon, the same gas station. The same answering machine. "Hey, Jim. It's Sunday, I think. That's what Fred says, anyhow. I'm on my way home, should be back in a few hours. I'm gonna be *starved* when I get there, so I'm gonna stop and pick up some Thai food. Or Chinese. Or, hang on..." Blair checked his wallet. "Both. I'll see you tonight." He hung up. With a wave for Fred, who'd changed his mind completely about the feasibility of river crossings, he climbed back into the jeep.

"Remember to wash this thing, okay?" He said aloud. "You forgot last time and Davis nearly made you clean his *lab*." Shaking his head, he tried to forget the stench of used petri dishes and test tubes. Much easier to visit a carwash.

The drive back was mostly uneventful. It gave him time to anticipate getting home -- would Jim be there? Would he have anything planned? Would he be on a case, and not get home 'til late?

Suddenly his stomach muscles clenched. Was he all right?. What if something had-- Blair stopped that thought. It wouldn't help to worry about it, nothing he could do about it now but go home. Which he was already doing. Besides, he had a feeling Jim was fine.

But he drove a little faster.

"Blair!" Jim's smile was the first thing he saw when he opened the door. Blair returned the smile, and dropped the bags of food on the floor beside him. He stepped forward enough to let the door close, and then Jim engulfed him in a hug. His lover started to kiss him, then pulled back. "Blair... why don't you take a shower?"

Blair laughed. "What, don't you like the taste of me four days' gone?"

Jim wrinkled his nose. "Um.. ask me that again when you've cleaned up."

"Fine." Blair unshouldered his duffel, and dropped it next to the food. He continued stripping as he walked towards the stairs. "But if I leave the food down here, you'd better leave me some."

Hands on his hips stopped him. "How could I eat it all, if I'm upstairs with you?"

Blair glanced over his shoulder, and unzipped his jeans. "Now *that* sounds like an offer I can't refuse."

"You think I'm offering to scrub your back?" Jim followed him up, and Blair kept shedding clothes.

"I don't care if you scrub anything. I just want you away from the food." Blair laughed, then jumped as Jim's fingers dug into his ribs. He ran for the bathroom, with Jim on his heels. "You wouldn't attack a naked man, would you, Jim?"

"Watch me." Jim closed the bathroom door behind him, and advanced slowly. He waited for Blair to turn the shower on, and then began stripping.

"Believe me, I'm going to watch *very* closely."

Blair was amused that the first thing Jim did was give him a good scrubbing. Admittedly, being soaped up was one of his favourite thrills -- Jim's hands running over his body, as if impersonally, wiping soap on, then away. He had a hard-on from the lingering touches before he was even half clean, and then Jim made him stand still for a shampoo. He tried protesting, but Jim just pinched him.

"Do that again and it'll be over before you can kiss me."

Jim just chuckled and continued washing Blair's hair. The thick gel smelled faintly of henna, and Jim's fingers massaged his scalp as they worked the soap into lather. Blair found his head nodding, unable to keep his neck tense enough to hold steady. Jim kept working, pulling gently on the long strands of hair, brushing a bit of soap away from his eyes. Blair wanted to fall to the floor and let the hot water wash him completely away. Too soon, though, he was washed and rinsed and completely clean. He turned to face Jim, to demand his kiss. Jim handed him his toothbrush.

"Ready for inspection, Detective."

Instead of replying, Jim leaned over and -- finally -- kissed him. It was long and slow, and Blair was glad he'd come home hours earlier than originally intended. When they broke for air he held his lover tightly. "I missed this.. I missed you, Jim."

"I missed you, too. Maybe next time you can wait until I have a free weekend." Jim didn't sound reproachful, so Blair smiled.

"I wish you could have been there, this time. I could have used your help." He nudged Jim, letting him feel his erection.

"Looks like you still need some help. Why don't I just take that...." He pulled Blair close again, and Blair felt himself falling, all over again.

"Oh god, Jim. I love you."

"I love you too," came the whisper in his ear, right before he came, himself.

Blair curled up on his side, wool blankets faintly scratching his bare skin, and finished the last of the lo mien. It felt good, to be clean and warm -- and cuddled -- again. He looked for the last packet of soy sauce, and squirted it into the carton. Arms encircled him from behind.

"You going to finish that?

He wriggled, delighting in the feel of Jim's body, pressed up against his, warm and naked as he. "Of course," he answered as he manoeuvred the chopsticks to his mouth. A finger trailed delicately across his chest. "No," he scolded.


"No." Blair aimed for his mouth, wondering if Jim would make him drop it.

A chin rested on his shoulder. "Please?"

"Oh for... why didn't you make yourself supper?" He turned his wrist and let Jim eat the noodles.

"You said you were getting Thai *and* Chinese. Enough for both of us."

Blair let out a laugh. "Not a chance. Not after the week I've had."

Jim pulled him over, partway onto his back. Blair looked up at his lover's serious face. "What happened?"

Shaking his head, Blair explained. "Not while I was gone. With all the work I was doing this weekend, I think I ate up *all* of Jon's stored food. I meant before." He relaxed against the pillows, stretching his legs against Jim's.

"Was something wrong?" Jim asked him quietly, looking calmly into Blair's eyes; Blair could tell that somewhere, deep inside, Jim was hiding another fear. The same one he'd hidden last Thursday?

Blair leaned forward and kissed him. "Not really. There was, but it's all fixed, now. Or it will be, in another hour or so. I'll tell you about it and that'll be the end of it."

"About what? Blair, what are you talking about?"

"I hadn't been eating very well, before I left. For about a week or so -- had too much on my mind, and I just didn't... feel like eating."

Blair hated seeing the expression that came into his lover's eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?" The quiet concern was filled around the edges with hurt. Blair reached up and caressed Jim's cheek, knowing that the pain would go away but hating to see it, even for a moment.

"It wasn't something I could tell you -- I didn't really know anything was wrong. I just felt out of sorts. Usually when I feel that way, I take off for a few days, let things stop... after a while everything's back in perspective." He hoped Jim would hear the confidence in his voice, let him know it was really all right.

"So you're okay now?"

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay now."

Jim opened his mouth, said nothing, then tried again. "I wish... I missed you, you know. I wish you didn't have to leave like that." He looked directly into Blair's eyes, meeting his gaze squarely. "I kept worrying about you. What might be happening, whether you'd been in an accident -- there was no way to reach you, no way to know if anything was wrong until I missed your call. I was going nuts, Blair. I can't...." He stopped, swallowed, and then spoke carefully. "If you have to do it again, could you go someplace where there are phones? Or take my cell phone, at least?"

"Oh god, Jim," Blair pulled Jim's face down, kissing him long and deeply. "I'm so sorry. I didn't realise..." He kissed him again, feeling Jim's hand at the back of his head, accepting the apology, accepting the loving. "I didn't think you'd be so worried. I do this all the time, man. I'm so used to it. I never thought--"

"Just stay near phones, next time, okay?"

Blair grinned. "It's a deal. But... maybe next time you can come with me."

Jim smiled, and Blair saw that subtle shift again. "I'd like that." Nothing better than this, Blair knew. Together. "So how was Jon?"

The question startled him. "It's pronounced 'yohn' actually. Not 'yawn'. Spelled J-O-N."

"Whatever." He interrupted Blair's academic monologue with a knowing smile. "Did you see him?"

Blair shifted a bit in the bed, wondering how he was going to explain the rest of this. "Yeah, I did. Umm.. this is the part I'm going to have to explain. It might take awhile."

Giving him a curious look, Jim said, "Okay. What happened?"

"Jon's dead. And he told me something important I have to take care of."

"I'm sorry... how did he die?"

"I don't know. He was dead when I arrived. Probably just old age."

"Then how did he tell you something important?"

Blair gave his friend a smile.

On Friday, mid-morning, Blair pulled to a stop. He'd left the paved road several miles behind and was -- surprisingly -- headed for Jon's cabin. No one had driven up here in a while, as evidenced by the amount of fallen trees and growth blocking the path, making him wonder if the old man *was* still alive. Jon didn't drive, but the res kids usually made it up here a few times a year.

Blair hefted the thin tree trunk out of the way. Too bad Jim wasn't here, he grinned. He was enjoying himself, though, and had to admit it was nice in part because he was alone. Jim would probably have made him stop at the Motel 6 last night and pay for a bed, instead of snuggling into a sleeping bag in the back of the jeep. Not that there would have been *room* for both of them in the jeep.

A few more miles and Blair stopped in a clearing. It was Jon's driveway, as the trail to the cabin itself was a footpath. He pocketed the jeep keys and slung the duffel over his shoulders. The walk up would be short, unless he took the long way, north, around to the edge of the valley. Smiling, Blair headed north.

Within twenty feet he had forgotten about the city he'd left, the jeep, the driving, all the things that had weighed him down since the last time he'd escaped. One thing he'd always admired about Naomi was her ability to leave *things* behind when they moved. Moving three or four times a year kept the number of material goods to a minimum, but somehow stuff always collected and had to be vanquished. As a student traveling the world, he'd found his ease with living light, an advantage. Somehow, though, in the last couple of years he'd begun acquiring again and *not* letting it go.

Some of it was nice, like the pots and pans he'd gained use of by moving in with Jim. Some of it was, technically, not his -- the items he was using in his studies, which would return to the Natural Museum when he was done. Some of it, though... he felt his shoulders tense. Some of it he couldn't explain.

He looked up, realising he'd been walking without *seeing* anything around him. It was a shame -- the woods were so quiet, so peaceful here. A bird landed on a tree nearby, and he watched it hopping along the branch. It sang out, warning him away. He detoured slightly around the tree, and continued on. He could hear, now, the stream below. The rains must have been plentiful lately, for it sounded full. Maybe he'd go down tomorrow and see. It would depend on if Jon needed any help, with repairs or preparing his winter stores.

When he stepped into the cabin's clearing, he stopped. If Jon was here, he'd not been outside in weeks. The flowers and grasses had overgrown the footpath heading for the well, and the one heading towards the valley. He hadn't noticed so much on the way in -- the deer kept it tidy enough, and Jon never went that direction anyway. Blair looked around, scanning for signs of his friend. Nothing.

He headed for the cabin. The door creaked as it swung open, and the smell hit him hard. Staggering backwards, he pulled at the leather doorhandle, shutting the door again. He shook his head, trying to clear it. Jon -- or something -- was dead inside.

He couldn't tell how long, and laughed at the thought -- glad he didn't have that much experience with corpses. He dropped his pack, and dug through it, looking for a handkerchief. Tying it around his face, he went back inside. Jon's body was lying in bed, looking sedate. Decayed, and sedate. Blair slowly surveyed the cabin's single room. Now what? He noticed the cloth didn't cut the smell entirely, but it made things bearable. He went to the trunk at the end of the bed; inside he found a blanket Jon's grandmother had made. He pulled it out and took it over to the bed.

Jon was lying straight, as if the old man had passed away peacefully in his sleep. The smile left on his face made Blair wonder what he'd been dreaming about, when he died. He visually checked the body, and saw nothing unusual, nothing he ought to remove before.... He spread the blanket over Jon, and wrapped it carefully around. He tucked the corners in, and stepped back.

"Ok, Jon. Let's see if you ever fixed your window latch." He reached up to the first window, right above the bed. It opened with an easy push, and latched wide. Blair smiled. The second window in the kitchen area worked as well. Digging Jon's old gloves out of the pile of work clothes by the door, Blair grabbed the axe and headed outside.

Two hours later he had a small pile of wood cut from storm-felled trees around the cabin. He dragged it all to the clearing behind the cabin for chopping, setting some branches aside for a bier. He sat down on one log, and opened the pack he'd brought outside with him. Jon had a small stash of dried foods left from the previous winter and Blair was rapidly working his way through it. His MRE stash would probably survive this trip intact, Blair realised. He couldn't very well leave any food lying around the cabin, letting it go to waste.

By the end of the day he'd prepared enough wood for the pyre and bier. He'd cleaned out the cabin of everything biodegradable -- except Jon's body, which he left in the bed. He'd tossed the moldy food over the cliff and buried a couple things he didn't want to identify. Then he spread his sleeping bag out on the ground outside, and stared up at the stars until falling asleep.

The next morning he prepared for Jon's funeral. He built the bier, and dug through Jon's belongings looking for the things he'd want burned with him. Gathering them up, he placed them outside by the pyre. Then he sat down beside Jon's body, and waited.

He remembered the first time he'd met Jon. He was fourteen years old, spending the summer running away from the couple his mom had left to babysit him. He never managed to run far, and was returned to them regularly by friends or authorities. Usually he managed to cadge a night or three away before being returned; once he'd slept on a sympathetic police lady's couch for a week, before admitting to her his name and current address.

He wasn't particularly unhappy with the couple, he'd just been unsettled. It wasn't the first time his mother had gone off on her own, leaving him in others' care. She always came back, and he knew she always would. But he'd run a bit farther than usual, this time, and found himself beside the most breathtaking mountains he'd ever seen. He decided to stay there, forever.

Jon had found him sleeping under a pine tree and taken him to the cabin to teach him how to fend for himself in the woods. Jon had never mentioned his going back, and he'd never asked. At the end of the summer Jon walked with him to the res, where he found his mother waiting -- Jon had sent a message along, weeks before. After that Naomi dropped him off with Jon a few times, when she wanted to be alone.

"I never did learn how to throw a spear, did I?" Blair grinned, seeing Jon's face wrinkle in fond disgust as yet another spear wobbled, and missed by yards. Blair had promised then to always carry spare change so he wouldn't have to depend on his hunting skills to feed himself.

The morning sun began peeking through the southern window, and Blair knew it was time. He gently carried Jon's body outside, and placed it on the pyre. He put Jon's favoured possesions alongside him: a flute, a small leather bag he'd never been alllowed to look in, a scrap of woven cloth, once used to wrap Jon's son in. Blair never found out what had happened to the boy, or his mother. There was also a photograph of himself, taken when he was sixteen, which he'd given Jon during a spring vacation.

With everything in place, he gathered the rest of the wood, and built up the pyre. The wind was gentle, no worries of forest fires today. The birds were singing far away, as if knowing what had happened, what was going to take place. Blair picked up a bundle Jon had prepared -- perhaps he too, had known what was going to happen -- and opened it. He spread the dried herbs throughout the pyre, and then picked up the sage smudge. Something had been wrapped up with it, he didn't know exactly what. But holding it carefully, he took a match and lit first the sage then the smallest branches of the pyre.

As they caught, he slowly moved the burning smudge back and forth, letting its smoke be the first to touch the wrapped corpse, then to mingle with the wood then with the smoke of the fire itself. "Thank you, Jon," he whispered as the pyre began to burn.

He sat down with the smudge half burnt, lying at his feet. The sage smoke drifted around him, as the breeze played with the swirls of smoke. He watched the flames and listened to the crackle, wondering if anyone down below would see, and know what the smoke meant. He'd kept the pyre small, not wanting forest rangers appearing in droves.

"Don't worry, little guide. They'll know what it is."

Blair looked up. "They won't think it's your cabin on fire?"

Jon shook his head. "The ranger for these parts is an old friend of mine. He'll know."

"Good." Blair considered for a minute whether he should ask. "Jon..."


"What were you grinning about?"

The dead man sat down beside him, a mischevious twinkle in his eyes. "When I died, you mean?"

"Yeah. Were you having a good dream or something?"

"Oh, no," shaking his head. "I was awake. Was thinking about Hesta."

"What?" Blair gaped. "Jon! She's like thirty years younger than you are! Besides, she's in love with Hank."

Jon gave him a wistful smile. "I know. Why do you think I was only thinking of her?"

"Man, you are too much. Even dead you're too much."

They fell silent for awhile, then Jon looked at him. "So. How are you doing with your favourite charge?"

Blair felt himself blushing. The last time he'd talked with Jon, Jim had just been an acquaintence and co-worker whom he'd been quietly lusting after. But from Jon's tone of voice, he knew better than that now. "We're doing okay."


It was that infruriating tone! The one that said 'I know everything, so why not tell me and then you'll know it too'. Blair sighed. The body would take a while to burn, so he wasn't going anywhere for some time. Might as well talk about it. "I think we're doing okay. It's hard to remember how to treat him. I mean, I go from being his friend to his guide to his lover in the space of seconds, and he's just standing there looking at me like... like I don't know what. Like I've gotten him off-balance and he doesn't know what to do about it. So he just... waits, until I calm down and then everything's fine again. But he doesn't like it -- sometimes I think he wishes things were different."

"And asking you to stay calm is like asking the river to stop running."

"Thanks, Jon." Blair said drily. "But you're right, I can't... change who I am for him. I don't think he'd want me to. But I don't want to leave him... uncertain all the time. I want to do something, but I don't know what." His voice dropped, as he realised the decision he'd been avoiding. "I don't want to have to go back to being friends, when we were both mostly happy and both secure in what we were to each other."

"Could you?"

Blair shrugged. "If I had to. I'm Jim's friend, first and foremost. I can't... imagine not being with him. If that means, not being his lover then... I can do it."

"And what of being his Guide?"

"What of it? I'll still be that, no matter what."

"You're certain?"

"Very. Unless we stop being friends, I'll always be his Guide."

Jon smiled suddenly. "Then you have no problem, little guide. Do you?"

"Jon, I wish you wouldn't do this."

"Do what?"

"Be... mysterious. Telling me things I'm supposed to know, and letting me figure them out on my own."

"How can I teach you, if I don't show you?"

"See what I mean? You're doing it again!"

Jon laughed. "Perhaps I should say this one thing, clearly for you. You are Jim's Guide. That will never break. He may one day chose to cease following you but that will not change who you are. You will never leave him."

"Is that a question or a statement?"

"What would you do, if Jim asked you to leave him?"

Blair considered the question seriously, ignoring the stab of pain the thought brought him. "I'd hang around, just out of sight, waiting for him to need me again. Or just... realise he needed me."

"Yes. So. You need to tell him that."

"Ok, you lost me again. Tell him I'd stalk him if he asks me to leave?"

Again Jon laughed. "No. Tell him the other things."

"The.. oh. Jon, how do you know this stuff?" Blair felt the breeze again, brushing smoke -- of one kind or another -- into his face.

"The same way you do, little guide. It's what is inside us, what is all around us. Everything that is, can be touched, right here." He didn't move, as he spoke. When he fell silent, he gave Blair another smile. Then Blair blinked, and Jon had disappeared.

"What was in that smoke?"

"It doesn't matter, Jim. What matters is... how am I gonna put this? Jim, you are my best friend. I love you more than anything, anyone. You are the most important person in my life, and being with you is the most important thing in my life." He saw how Jim's gaze changed as he spoke. Smiling, then quiet, then gazing at him with a goofy smile -- happy delirium -- lurking in the corners of his mouth. "I think you need to understand just what you mean to me. *That's* what Jon told me. What I need to tell you."

"And what's that?" The grin was tugging harder, now. How Jim controlled it, Blair didn't know.

Blair picked up Jim's hand, and held it. "I am always going to be here. Whether I'm in the same room, or halfway across the world, I am going to be here, with you. Because this... *you* are where my heart is. I will always return to you, because I can't live without you." He paused, to gently kiss the fingers he held. "Jim, will you let me stay with you, forever? Live with you and love you and guide you when you need me, but most of all, will you let me be a part of you for the rest of your life?"

Jim just stared at him. Blair could see his jaw clenching, throat muscles moving as he took in what he'd just heard. "Blair, are you asking me to marry you?"

"No. I'm asking for something much more important." Blair answered the light question seriously. He wasn't sure he could explain what he wanted -- writing up a partnership contract was nothing like what he felt inside. "I'm asking for... a place, right here. For always." He placed his hand on Jim's chest, right beside the beating of his heart.

Jim didn't move. Moments passed, as they looked at each other, Blair slowly carressing Jim's hand, waiting for an answer. Then Jim leaned forward and kissed him.

"I love you. You'll always have a place, here. Forever. Always..." Jim stopped, and shook his head, rubbing his thumb along the inside of Blair's hand, where Blair was holding his.

Blair suddenly smiled. "Thank you." He knew it was sometimes hard for his lover to verbalise what he meant; the caress was as much an acceptance as the words had been. Not only an acceptance, Blair realised, but an invitation. "Do you wanna celebrate?"

"Always." Jim took his face tenderly, and kissed him again.

Ten minutes later Blair found himself being propelled towards the bathroom. "Jim! What *now*?"

"You're shaving."

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