Chapter 72

He was there, man, he had it cold. So alive it felt like flying, and yeah, maybe he'd been a little nervous walking in at first, his dissertation committee sitting around the conference table looking about as cheerful as the four horsemen of the apocalypse - five horsemen, counting Buckner - but once he'd opened his mouth, the words had come just like he'd planned, better than he could have hoped. The last decade of his life had been spent preparing for this moment, and now it was here, it was real, he was actually making it happen. He was answering their questions practically before they were asked, anticipating every objection, turning their skepticism inside out. He had the raw data, the lab results, the facts and figures -- he had Jim, down to the last little toenail. The portrait couldn't have been any more complete without Jim sitting beside him.

Best of all, his committee was listening to him and their eyes were alight with interest, their heads nodding in unconscious acceptance. Every fact in the world wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't been able to make them hear him, but he had slipped past the barriers of academic detachment, the ingrained habits of a lifetime, a world view which decreed there were no wonders any more, no Sentinels. His words were as brilliant as his theories and the fire he felt had transferred itself to them; he had made them want to believe in Jim Ellison. He wished Jim could have been with him to see it, to share in the perfect moment of vindication of those years of data gathering.

Jim understood, though. Blair had explained how this would work, and Jim was waiting for him -- back home, wasn't he? Back at the loft. Probably planning to take him out for a nice dinner or something, to celebrate. Jim would beam with pride and boast about Blair's success to anyone who would listen, as if he hadn't had anything to do with it himself, until Blair would get embarrassed and have to protest. He couldn't wait to get home.

That is where Jim was, wasn't it? Once Blair began to think about it, he wasn't so sure any more. They had discussed all this, they must have, and it was really starting to bug him that he couldn't remember what he had told Jim, or what Jim had said in return. This was a big deal, maybe the biggest deal of their lives together. Of course they had talked about it. Why couldn't Blair remember the conversation?

His voice faltered for the first time. Stoddard barked a question at him about some claim of his, an interpretation of certain Huichol dream art, and Blair just turned his head and looked at the man, realizing he had no idea how to answer him. No, that wasn't quite right. The answers were still there, locked up in his head, but they didn't seem to matter any more. It certainly wasn't worth the trouble of arranging a flow of words around his thoughts and putting the effort into speaking them out loud. Not when he didn't know where Jim was. Here he'd been so happily on his way toward building his academic career on Jim's shoulders, and he couldn't even remember the last time he'd seen his friend. What the hell was the matter with him anyway?

He pushed himself back from the table, shaking his head mutely to the rain of questions from his dissertation committee. Something was wrong, he could feel it. He should have known all along, but he'd been so wrapped up in himself, so pumped over the opportunity to show Buckner and Stoddard and the rest that their faith in him hadn't been misplaced, that these years riding along with a cop on the Cascade PD hadn't really been the wild goose chase they had all thought it was, that he had completely forgotten about the only man whose opinion really mattered. But it wasn't too late. He'd make it up to Jim. Surely there was still time. Jim had been so patient with him for so long. Jim would let him explain this time, too.

Then Blair heard it. Faint and so far away at first it might have been the crowd at the stadium on the other side of campus. Could have been, but he knew, as he got slowly to his feet, the blood draining from his face, that it wasn't any game. Not those cries. They celebrated something far too dark.

"What do you think you're doing?" Buckner demanded furiously. "Blair, this is your career you're throwing away. This is your whole life."

Only then did Blair remember Buckner had already thrown his own life away. It had happened more than a year ago. Blair had dropped a handful of dirt on Buckner's coffin himself, and then as he walked away afterward, Jim had slung his arm around Blair's shoulders, told Blair if it helped any, he should remember the things Buckner had done right in his life, not the wrong choices that had finally killed him.

All this time Blair had been sitting here proudly defending his dissertation to a dead man while Jim -- Jim was out there somewhere, in the midst of that angry, hungry mob. Blair staggered to the door and flung it open.

The tension left Blair's body slowly, and Jim felt it subsiding, the sense of exploding anguish confined within his embrace deflating as the tears slowed and sleep washed in behind them to claim Blair at last. Jim pressed his cheek to the back of Blair's head, the tickling, soft cushion of hair drawing the tears from his face, wicking them away from him the way Blair's presence had pulled so many other poisons from his system.

Blair was breathing through his mouth, a little noisily as his throat loosened, and the ghost of a smile touched Jim's lips, thinking of how loudly Blair would be likely to snore. His own sinuses weren't entirely clear, but the slightly plogged feeling was almost a relief after being so dry for so long. They were both going to snore like lumberjacks, so he supposed it was fair enough.

The smooth planes of Blair's back, lean muscle over sloping bone, were a comfort against his chest, but the gentle heat that warmed him to his soul was focused on his body through the burns on his flesh like the sun shining through hundreds of tiny magnifying glasses. Pain sparkled over his breast and he loosened his grip, letting his arm slide carefully away from Blair's chest without letting go entirely. He tipped back a little, out of contact with Blair only enough to let some cool air flow between them, but all it did was leave the burns still flaring in the cold as if they were scattered coals glowing fitfully in a bed of ashes. Each point held its moment and memory of creation within like the molten core of a star, so sharp and clearly distinct from the others, yet tied together in constellations of time and agony.

Jim squeezed his eyes shut and tried to think of something else. The stars were distant and beautiful and free of pain, so far above he could sense the eons of time it had taken for their light to reach him. He remembered the stars, but it seemed like it had been years since he had seen them. Blair was right, they needed to go camping soon. He sighed, low and quietly, and cast loose from the anchor holding him to earth, aiming for the stars. The infinite darkness between them caught him in its soft folds and carried him into sleep, back to the beginning of time.

Jim was on his way home, and he was happy. It had been a long day and the weariness was a weight in his limbs, but his heart was buoyant with anticipation of a quiet evening. Maybe a book, maybe a game on TV, it didn't matter because Blair would be there to share it with him and make the experience richer. Finding himself so utterly domesticated was amusing enough to bring a small smile to his face, but it was also comfortable, even comforting, and that made him happy too. Best of all, he'd called home when his shift ended and Blair had been there, and had offered to make dinner. No special occasion, just a random impulse of affectionate generosity, and that made Jim happy in the best way.

His favorite parking spot was open and there were no stairs to climb to reach his front door. Inside, the loft held everything he loved: space, warmth, color, the smells of home and good food, and the sight of Blair, sprawled on the couch amid a pile of books. Papers spread all around him in a scruffy halo defining his arms' reach and, scattered among them, Jim could see bits and pieces of the complex collection of flotsam that accompanied him like an aura. He looked up and smiled, and Jim's happiness crested, filling his soul and expanding outward until his whole universe was complete. There was nothing else he needed, and he would have been satisfied if time had stopped at that moment so the rest of his life could be lived within its perfection.

There was a cold, opened beer in his hand and he took a deep swallow, the rounded hoppy flavor giving everything a golden glow that felt familiar. The association wasn't entirely pleasant, though, and Jim shifted uneasily, suddenly realizing there was a shadow off to the side that he didn't want to look at. A twist of anxiety beginning to sour the taste in his mouth, he fixed his gaze on Blair, hoping only to see those twilight blue eyes looking back at him with all the simple emotion they had always bestowed on him.

At first it was so, and he lifted the bottle for a salutary drink, but then Blair's eyes shifted to the side, his smile faded, and he stood up off the sofa. Books, papers, and scattered artifacts slid away, vanishing as they hit the floor, and Blair was sitting at the dining table waiting for him, hands folded stiffly where they rested in front of his chest.

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