Chapter 45

It had been only a couple of months into their partnership, but Blair had known even at the time that they were building something unique and powerful between them. He had believed, without being utterly sure, that Jim harbored the same feelings, the same instinctive knowledge there was more to their partnership than convenience. Despite their comfortable affinity he hadn't wanted to ask Jim about it and take the chance of pushing something too new and fragile out into the open where it might be damaged while it was still forming. The symbiotic understanding they already had at that point was a continuing revelation, an opening of doors he hadn't suspected could exist, and he was content to walk alongside Jim and open them together. It was much later before he realized how far from fragile their bond had been, even in those early days.

Blair had been sprawled comfortably on the couch reading when Jim had come back from the four-day conference on advanced crime scene forensic procedures. Four days of sitting on hard chairs in over-heated, crowded panel rooms had left the sentinel with a stiff back and a cranky mood, only exacerbated by spending the nights in a hotel that used a citrus based cleaning product so pervasively Jim had complained of tasting it all day long. His call the night before seemed to have been at least subconsciously intended more as a fair warning of what to expect than as simple confirmation of his expected return.

The warning hadn't gone unheard, or been wasted. From the oven a pan of lasagna was filling the loft with its rich, delicious aroma, redolent of oregano and a hint of fresh rosemary under the thick scent of baking cheese. As Jim had come through the door and taken a deep breath, Blair watched the melting away of the unpleasant citrus aftertaste, made visible by the tense lines of unhappiness easing away from the corners of Jim's eyes as he paused after shutting the door and took a second breath. For a moment it seemed as if he were starting the calming, meditative breathing Blair had taught him, then he shrugged his shoulders, dropped his keys in the basket, and crossed the floor to the stairs without more than a perfunctory nod at Blair, as if deciding not to risk finding out he couldn't say anything pleasant quite yet.

Nodding his understanding and giving Jim a mild smile of welcome in return, Blair had retreated to his book, but he was suddenly far less interested in the description of the Kaobawa's ritual invocation of the hekura spirits than he was in Jim's progress unpacking. It was easy to track the mellowing change in Jim's attitude by the quickly decreasing violence of his activity. Smiling gently to himself without even realizing it, Blair listened to the steady evidence of decompression as Jim went from forcefully throwing his unpacked laundry, to tossing items as he extracted them, to moving across his bedroom to replace them, his footsteps changing rhythm as the calm of his home penetrated and then permeated his soul.

It wasn't too long before Jim finished his unpacking and came back downstairs carrying his shaving kit. Without really thinking about it, Blair expected him to head straight for the bathroom to put the last few things away, and looked up in surprise when Jim paused next to the sofa and tossed a plastic bag at his lap. "Don't say I never gave you anything," he said, a half-smile lighting his face as he continued toward the bathroom.

Laying aside his book, Blair untwisted the opening of the hotel dry cleaning bag and dumped its contents into his lap. "Hey!" The little containers of shampoo and conditioner were the same brand and type he habitually bought for himself. He smiled happily at Jim as he emerged from the bathroom and headed straight for the fridge to retrieve a beer.

"That's the right stuff, isn't it?" Jim asked, bringing a second beer over and handing it to Blair. "It smelled the same, anyway."

"Yeah, it's right." The three pairs of miniature bottles were nothing more than the ones supplied free daily by the hotel Jim had stayed at, but they meant more to Blair than the negligible amount of money he'd save not buying them for himself when he traveled. They meant even more than the unnecessary call the night before to inform him of Jim's expected return, couched amid complaints about the boring talks, uncomfortable chairs, and bad smells, none of which had kept Blair from understanding that Jim had called just to talk to a friend after spending most of a week alone in a crowd of his colleagues.

The small offering tossed in Blair's lap meant Jim knew the same thing he did, had recognized that even when apart they were both travelling toward something together, and was acknowledging their shared destination with these souvenirs of the journey they were on. One Blair had hoped at the time, staring down at the collection of samples held in his hand and unaccountably unable to speak for a few moments, would not end for a while yet.

One he knew now, as he straightened in the shower and enfolded Jim in his arms with all the tenderness in his heart, would never end.

Jim felt the unspoken vow in Blair's embrace, the strength of his affection transmuted into a gentleness that made his determination invincible. One more promise being made, in a night full of them, falling like leaves in autumn to color the space around their lives. Around his waist he felt the flex and twist of Blair's forearms as he unscrewed the top off the little bottle, and then the clean, familiar scent rose from it. He remembered dumping those into Blair's lap so long ago, and how he had felt at the time, wondering if Blair knew how much he was trying to say with the casual gift. The smallest smile pulled at the corner of Jim's mouth, just shy of the point where the pain started. Of course Blair had known, that was why he was here now, why the promises being made over and over sounded so familiar. They had made them to each other before, without speaking the words.

He could tell Blair remembered that day, too. It was in the way he leaned forward, making the necessary closeness a deliberate offering of his own, the simple gift of a heart returned in kind. So instead of repeating his own promise, Jim asked hoarsely, "You haven't used those up yet?"

The movement at his sides and back paused on the cusp of pouring, then resumed with more care as Blair tried to get the cap back on without spilling what he had in his palm. Jim felt the laughter in Blair's voice when he replied, "Are you kidding? When would I have a chance? The only times I've traveled since I hooked up with you, we end up sleeping in places where the only running water for a hundred miles is the rain we can't get out of." His sideways cant to replace the bottle on the low shelf was quick, and as he straightened and raised both hands to his head, he added, "At this rate I'll still have a full set left when I turn 50."

The planes of Blair's pectorals shifted and bunched as he started massaging the stuff into his hair, finding it slow going at first. The salt and grimy sand streaks resisted lathering, and the tangles kept the shampoo from penetrating very quickly. Jim tried to relax, letting his arms rest easily around Blair's ribs, careful to keep his head back far enough to avoid being smacked by an incautious elbow. It took a little time, a few caught breaths and muttered curses, before the white foam began to build and provide any relief, and Jim could tell when it happened not just from the expression on Blair's face slowly losing a subliminal tenseness, but also in the way his whole body lost an edge. It was, he thought, the same invisible softening he had gone through himself when the irritation of the sand had been smoothed from his skin, and Jim felt the first small measure of pride in himself he had known for a very long time. He had gotten Blair to tend to himself, and it had been needed, and for the present that was as close to doing something directly for him as Jim could get. However much he wanted to give back the kind of caring he had received, he was practical enough to realize this little favor would have to suffice for a while.

The foam was thin and dribbled through Blair's fingers as he worked at it, trailing down his arms and neck. His face twisted in frustration, and he growled, "Going to have to do this again. Maybe I will run out of it before I'm that old." He leaned his head back into the spray, nearly over- balancing himself but clearly unconcerned, trusting to Jim's arms so solidly around him that he could not fall. Eyes squinted shut, he twisted his neck from side to side, trying to get the bulk of the sand to rinse out with the shampoo.

It was working. Jim could feel the grains cascading over his arms, little pointy corners bouncing on his skin as they tumbled over and downward. They hurt, like everything else in the world, but it didn't matter, there was nothing that could have made Jim give up his steadying embrace, save Blair's direct wish.

"Knew I shouldn't have put the top back on," Blair muttered, blinking his eyes open cautiously and squinting to the side to orient himself. He looked up at Jim, still squinting a little against the water running down from his forehead, and asked, "You OK with this, Jim? We can get out now if you want, really."

The tightening of his arms had been what Blair felt, Jim knew, and so he deliberately loosened his grip, giving Blair the leeway to lean sideways again. "I'm fine," he whispered, then cleared his throat and said it again, more firmly. "I'm fine." He wasn't, he was manifestly a very long way from fine, and Blair knew that too, but he wouldn't call Jim on the lie because he wanted to believe it so badly.

Instead, he did what Jim wanted him to, reaching for the shampoo bottle and pouring another dollop of the soap into his palm, arms around Jim once more despite how awkward it was. "Thanks, man," he said very softly as he set the container aside and straightened once more, somehow keeping his back arched so his stomach was pressed against Jim's.

"When those run out, I'll get you some more," Jim said. "I promise."

A single shiver ran through Blair as his breath hitched, and then he was rubbing the stuff into his hair with both hands, as if he were at home on a lazy Saturday morning. His voice betrayed his understanding of how much Jim was saying, all the same. "I know you will."

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