Chapter 12


"And how did you feel, Jim?" Gerard asked.

Jim flushed.

"Fantastic," he said embarrassedly. "How was I supposed to feel?"

Gerard chuckled.

"I don't mean physically," he said. "How did you feel about what Blair did to you?"

Jim raised his eyebrows.

"Fantastic, like I said. Glad that he felt ready for that, you know, happy that we were making love. Amazed that he wasn't having another panic attack. A little afraid that I'd scare him or choke him or something, I guess."

Gerard grinned broadly, shaking his head. Jim and Blair glanced at each other amusedly. The Look had been achieved.

"You two. I wish to God I could write about you two, not that anybody would believe me anyway. You break every rule of psychology that I've ever learned, and you manage to do it so damned casually."

Jim shook his head.

"What am I supposed to be feeling that I'm not, then?" he asked a little defensively. "I mean, I didn't do anything but lie there and enjoy it. What's so tough about that? I thought Blair was supposed to be the one having trouble with this."

"Jim, you've been heterosexual for your entire lifetime, you've been the aggressor in every sexual encounter you've ever had, you've only had any kind of sexual contact with Blair once or twice, and you're completely comfortable with him penetrating you anally and taking charge of your lovemaking? You don't have any idea whatsoever how incredible that is?" Gerard shook his head. "Don't get me wrong here, Jim. I'm delighted if you're adapting that easily. I just want to be sure you're not just swallowing any negative feelings for fear of hurting Blair or looking narrow-minded or something."

Jim shrugged.

"I thought most of this out early on," he said. "Back when I wasn't sure whether Blair would ever want me at all, whether he'd ever even want to try making love with me. I figured that however nervous I might be about some things, it couldn't amount to a hill of beans compared to how scared he has to be. Besides, if there's one thing I can be absolutely sure of in this world, it's that Blair would never, ever deliberately hurt me, not to mention that Blair was pretty much asking my permission every time he breathed. With those things in mind, what's to be uncomfortable about?"

Gerard burst out laughing and turned to Blair.

"Blair, is he really that 'point A to point B' or is he pulling the wool over my eyes?"

Blair laughed ruefully.

"Sorry, Gerard, with Jim, what you see is pretty much what you get. I'm the obfuscator of the pair. Believe me, he's a lousy, rotten liar."

Gerard chuckled again, shaking his head, and refilled the tea cups.

"So you're telling me you were completely, 100% comfortable with the whole thing, Jim?"

Jim grimaced.

"Well . . . "

"Uh-huh." Gerard sat back. "What was it, the sex or the intimacy?"

Jim shrugged sheepishly.

"I'm not used to being so close to somebody all the time," he said. "I don't mean physically close. The sex doesn't really bother me so much – I mean, sex has never been all that important to me, you know? Up until lately, I mean. Fine, I don't really know what I'm doing – neither does Blair, so I guess I don't feel so clumsy. But being so close to him, all the feelings . . . sometimes I feel way out of my depth."

Gerard nodded.

"Here's where the precociousness of you two, if you'll allow me to use that word, works against you," he said gently. "You've had an emotionally intimate relationship for some time, but you've always couched it in terms of friendship or, as you've told me, written it off to this bond between Sentinel and Guide which I don't even pretend to understand. Blair, you're a lot more used to thinking and talking about and showing your thoughts and feelings than Jim is, and even before the rape you'd already acknowledged your feelings about Jim to yourself, had time to think them through and accept them. I don't think you realize what a huge headstart you have on Jim in that area."

Blair looked upset.

"I didn't think I was pushing him," he said miserably.

"More like he's pushing himself," Gerard corrected. "Have the two of you talked about Jim's marriage and divorce much?"

Blair frowned; Jim shook his head silently.

"Jim, how would you sum up your marital sex life?" Gerard asked him.

Jim grimaced.

"In a word, not so hot," he said. "When things were okay between me and Carolyn, I don't know, it was still pretty mediocre, and after things started to fall apart, the sex was rotten or there just wasn't any. I mean, even at the best of times, me being a cop and working all kinds of hours didn't make for the best possible sex life." He didn't say that Carolyn had always told him he was a horrible lover; that was a little more detail than he was comfortable sharing.

"In your marriage counseling records, lack of intimacy and poor communication are the problems that keep coming up again and again, at least as Carolyn's main complaint," Gerard said. "Do you agree with that?"

Jim sighed and nodded.

"It wasn't Carolyn's fault," he said. "She was always trying to get me to talk to her about my feelings. It wasn't even that I didn't want to. But sometimes her nagging about it made it that much harder."

"It's always been that way with us, too," Blair interjected softly, his eyes widening in realization. "Every time I've pushed you to talk to me about your feelings, you've always reacted badly."

Gerard nodded.

"Given the emotional abuse Jim and his brother were subjected to by his father, and finally his complete alienation from his family, that's not really too surprising," he said. "Remember what I said at the deposition about the way you touch people, Jim? That's always been your safe avenue of showing your emotions. Maybe you felt safer and more comfortable verbalizing your feelings when Blair was weak and dependent, but it's less comfortable now that he isn't so vulnerable. Maybe it's harder now for you to tell him you love him?"

Jim nodded sheepishly.

"I'd say you're still making excellent progress," Gerard said encouragingly. "The sex is one thing, but I'm also hearing a lot of cuddling, backrubs, holding, kissing, caressing. You're comfortable with that?"

"I love it," Jim said softly, blushing.

Gerard nodded again.

"Touch has always been your favorite means of expression," he said. "And I think it's a fantastic way for you to get used to the intimacy between you and Blair. I'd like to give you an exercise to try, all right?"

Jim nodded a little hesitantly.

"I want you to take one of Blair's hands in yours," Gerard told him. "Don't look in his eyes right now, look at his hand. Now, just his hand and yours, I want you to make love to Blair. Just your hands touching his, nothing else, I want you to show him everything you feel for him."

Jim took a deep breath, cradling Blair's hand in his. His Guide's hands. He'd always loved them – strong yet deft, capable and nimble, never still, always there when Jim needed them. Slowly Jim traced the outline of Blair's hand with a featherlight touch. He traced the lines in Blair's palm, then softly explored each finger. He brushed over the soft skin with the backs of his fingers, savoring the fine texture of the warm skin, then slowly caressed Blair's knuckles with the pads of his fingers.

He gradually became aware that Blair had stopped breathing. He glanced up to meet the love and wonder in his Guide's eyes.

"Oh, wow," Blair said softly, reverently. "Oh, wow."

"Isn't it amazing, how much you can express through touch?" Gerard said, softly so as not to break the mood. "Jim, what I'd like you to work on between now and the next session is expressing yourself to Blair. Try to make it your practice to tell him something intimate every day, in words, if you can. If you can't do it in words, do it in touch. But just to be safe, I want you to tell Blair what you're doing. When you're having trouble telling him what you feel, say, 'Blair, I need to play Show 'n Tell.' Blair, encourage him if he seems to be clamming up on you. Don't demand, don't press; give him a way around his difficulty and say, 'Jim, show me what you're feeling.' Will you both try that?"

Blair nodded.

Jim cleared his throat.

"Sure," he said. "Yeah, I can do that. Try, I mean."

"Good." Gerard turned to Blair. "Okay, Blair, let's turn to your feelings about the incident. How did you feel about it?"

Blair grinned.

"Well, pardon me for saying it," he said, "but fantastic. I mean, I loved that Jim trusted me that much, I loved making him feel good, I loved feeling, I don't know, functional. I always loved pleasing my partners, you know. In a way it felt better to make them feel good than it did – well, you know what I mean."

Jim snorted.

"Is this more of his 'hey, take care of the next guy' thing?"

Gerard tipped his cup to Blair.

"No, it's called 'empathy,' and it doesn't surprise me a bit," he said. "Blair's empathy rating was extremely high. What that means is that he's simply a very considerate lover who gets off on pleasuring others. It obviously doesn't mean he doesn't care about his own physical pleasure. What it means is that emotionally he gets more out of pleasing others: the emotional reinforcement of knowing he's making someone else feel good, pride in his prowess as a lover, all those good things. I think part of it's the fact that he rarely had time to establish deep emotional bonds in childhood and more recently has shied away from emotional attachments with his lovers. He hangs a lot of his self-worth on his ability as a lover."

Blair blushed; Jim grunted acknowledgement.

"Yeah, well, as long as I'm not on the receiving end of all that generosity all the time," Jim said amusedly. "You know, Chief, I want some of those good feelings too sometime. I love making you feel good too."

"I know." Blair took Jim's hand, giving him a look of such love that Jim flushed. "I thought we'd work on that, you know, on our vacation. Making each other feel good."

"Sounds good to me, Chief," Jim said quietly, squeezing Blair's fingers.

"That's a good idea, as long as neither of you push the other, or yourselves, too fast," Gerard cautioned. "I'm not real worried about that. The two of you seem to be good at watching each other's comfort zones. Don't be surprised if just the change of scenery makes a big difference – a positive difference. I generally suggest to my patients that at some time they take at least a weekend away from home, even if they only spend it in a motel nearby. Getting away from all the baggage for a while can be a really liberating experience. Just keep the lines of communication open, take it nice and slow, and concentrate on the love, not the loving, if you get my meaning. Don't let the physical outpace the emotional. And take your cell phone, just in case you need a consult, okay?"

Jim nodded.

"Just a few tips, in case you don't mind secondhand advice on gay sex from a heterosexual man, gathered over the course of a lot of group therapy sessions?" Gerard suggested.

Jim snorted.

"You can't know any less about it than we do," he said, although he felt his cheeks heat. "Go ahead, Doc."

"Well, if he had to pick a nickname, at least he picked one I'm used to," Gerard chuckled. "Okay. You've watched the videos, you've read the books, you're starting to play. I know what both of you worry about the most is anal penetration. My suggestion is, when you're comfortable enough to move beyond fingers, invest in a couple of good-quality silicone dildos and experiment with those as an intermediate step before actual intercourse. If either of you needs to slam on the brakes in the middle of things, it's a lot easier to say no to a dildo than your desperately aroused partner. And it's a lot easier to be slow and gentle and concentrate on your partner's needs when you're the active partner if your own pleasure isn't at stake."

Jim felt his blush reaching epic proportions, but he realized Gerard was right. Better for now if they took turns with their pleasure so that Jim could focus his attention on Blair's reactions. He'd never forgive himself if he ever got so wrapped up in his own pleasure that he frightened or even hurt Blair. Embarrassment was nothing compared to that. And it wasn't like he didn't know the location of every adult shop in Cascade, either, from his Vice days.

"Okay," he chuckled weakly, glancing at Blair. "Make a note on our to-do list – groceries, sporting goods store, PD, drugstore, sex shop."

"PD?" Blair asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Yeah, we've got to pick up your books for the detective's exam, and your sidearm, and we've got to drop off the evaluations from Dr. Worth and Dr. Atherton," Jim told him. "Now, you don't get to take the books with us – it's a vacation, and you're not studying – but we can get in a little target practice. You've got to take another test, you know, with your detective's exam, and I thought a few tin cans on a fence would do for practice while we're at the cabin."

Blair sighed.

"Okay, okay, target practice," he said, grimacing.

"Hey, that's something we need to work on," Jim said, glancing at Gerard. "Blair and guns."

Blair groaned.

"When we get back, okay? Can I, like, confront one major life crisis at a time?"

"Good advice," Gerard laughed.

"And I'll talk about me and guns," Blair said firmly, "if Jim will talk about the tupperware thing."

"Tupperware?" Gerard grinned. "This may actually be a new one on me. Fair's fair, Jim."

"Okay, Chief, you've got it," Jim agreed with a grin, squeezing Blair's shoulders.

Jim enjoyed the sporting goods store, mainly because Blair was like a kid in a candy shop. Jim relished watching Blair try on everything, joyfully debating between this vest and that vest without even looking at the price tag. Jim felt a pang that he'd never even thought to take Blair shopping for clothes. Hell, a lousy gift certificate could have put that expression on his best friend's face. Now the opportunity was gone forever.

"Hey, try on some hiking boots with me," Blair coaxed, pulling Jim into the shoe department.

"You're the one who needs those, Chief," Jim said amusedly, letting Blair pull him.

"I've seen yours, the toes are ready to wear through," Blair argued. "Come on, let me buy you a pair."

Suddenly Jim felt uncomfortable.

"What's the occasion, Chief?" he asked, forcing a casual tone.

"The occasion." Blair deliberated. "Well, let's see. There's my graduation from the police academy, the successful closure of my criminal case, the settlement of my civil case, my official instatement as your partner, our first vacation as a couple, my first successful experiment with fellatio, or our first simultaneous orgasm. Personally I'm voting for the orgasm thing, but take your pick."

Jim couldn't stifle a chuckle. Suddenly an idea occurred to him.

"Well, I pick . . . Blair and Jim fall in love," he grinned. "And I'll tell you what, Chief. You can buy me a pair of hiking boots if you let me buy you something. Deal?"

"Deal," Blair said immediately. "You can buy me that fishing hat, okay? The one that almost matches my jacket."

Jim shook his head.

"Not here," he said mysteriously. "I've got something particular in mind to buy you. Something special."

"Ooooh, a surprise," Blair grinned. "I can't wait. Deal anyway. Okay, but I'm going to buy you the fanciest hiking boots in the place. Come on, big guy, your feet are mine."

"My feet and any other part you want," Jim whispered in Blair's ear as they walked into the shoe department. Blair shivered and smiled lasciviously.

They left the sporting goods store laden with more bags and boxes than Jim could carry, and he adamantly refused to let Blair take part of the burden; Jim had to pull the truck around to the door so they could load up their purchases. Then Blair wanted to go to a department store to do a little more clothes shopping, but he surprised Jim by buying a digital camera, too.

"I've wanted one of these ever since they came out," he admitted. "I can take pictures and download 'em straight to my laptop. Hey, can I take my laptop to the cabin with us?" he begged. "Just for pictures, I promise. I'm not even taking anything to work on."

"Okay," Jim agreed indulgently. "But only to play with your new toy. Promise?"

"Promise," Blair grinned.

"While you're shopping electronics, you ought to buy yourself a new computer," Jim told him. "Something, you know, top of the line, with all the bells and whistles."

"I will when I get back," Blair told him. "If I bought a laptop now, I'd want to sit and tinker with it for hours and hours, and even if I left it at home I'd be thinking about it, itching to get my hands on it. So I'd better wait."

Jim grinned and squeezed Blair's shoulder.

"Good things are worth the wait," he teased.

Grocery and drugstore shopping went more quickly. Blair maintained that there was no need to fill Gerard's limited prescription for tranquillizers and sleeping pills, but Jim insisted.

"Call them a safety net if you want," he said. "But once or twice you've been thankful to have them around, and way out in the boonies it won't be easy to fill those prescriptions if you need them."

Blair and Jim turned varying shades of red as they surveyed items near the feminine hygeine section.

"Um, Jim, do you really think we need to be worrying about this stuff yet?" Blair said falteringly, trying to simultaneously read the back of an enema kit and appear not to be reading it.

"We talked about being prepared and keeping our options open," Jim said, hastily dropping the kit into the basket and covering it with a magazine. "Now that we're also talking about putting fingers and things up there, I think we need to be clean for that kind of thing."

"We?" Blair asked in a small voice.

"All right, I need to be clean," Jim said hastily. He cupped Blair's chin firmly. "Nothing ever before you're ready, baby. Ever. You know that."

Blair smiled and nodded, but it was a very faint and unconvincing smile. Jim hurriedly paid for their purchases, but when they returned to the truck, Jim didn't fasten his seat belt; instead he took Blair in his arms and pulled him close, regardless of who might see.

"Talk to me, Chief," he said softly. "What's the matter? Did you really think I'd push you into something you don't want?"

Blair buried his face in Jim's shoulder.

"It isn't that," he said, his voice muffled.

Jim stroked Blair's hair, a gesture he knew was as involuntarily calming to his Guide as Blair's voice was to him.

"Then what is it, baby?" he whispered. "Come on. You can tell me."

"I just – " Blair was trembling now. "I feel so guilty. I mean, you're prepared to give me – everything. Anything I want. And I want to give you everything, too, I really do, so much, and I don't know whether I'll ever be able to. And I know this isn't as easy for you as you're letting on, you can fool Gerard but you can't fool me, and if you can get past all that, then why can't I?"

"Hey. Hey." Jim pushed Blair back slightly so he could wipe the tears from his Guide's cheeks. "Remember what we've talked about, you know, surfacing too fast? It takes time, baby. You can't force it. It takes as long as it takes."

Blair sniffled.

"Yeah, but it seems like you're decompressing a lot faster than me."

"Maybe I am," Jim said steadily. "But that isn't the point. I've been down longer than you, Chief, but you went way deeper than I ever did. Okay, maybe you think we're surfacing at different rates, but I don't agree. We've got different issues. Right now you're all hung up on the sex part, and you're looking at all the negatives and it's hard for you to understand just what miraculous progress you have made. Remember what Gerard talked about with us? It isn't the sex that hangs me up."

Blair sniffled again and looked up at Jim with red eyes.

"Huh?"

"Sex has never been a big thing for me, Chief," Jim said simply. "Mostly because during different parts of my life I was either in the military or the PD and working so many hours I never got any, or I was married to Carolyn and things were rolling downhill fast, or these crazy senses had come back and screwed everything up. It's hard to have a good time with a lady when you're worried to death about zoning out or something. Do you know that since I admitted to myself that I wanted you, that I loved you, I look forward to making love more than I ever have in my life? And just what we've done so far feels better than anything ever has. Anything. It's like you brought me to life in bed, baby. To me that's such a miracle that the fact that it's a man I'm in bed with is a whole lot less strange than the mere fact that I want it so much, I like it so much. Can you understand that?"

"Uh – " Blair flushed. "Not really. I mean, you're the one who observed that I'd hump a table leg. I mean, I've always had pretty active drives."

"And it looks like you've jump started mine with them," Jim chuckled. "But you know what hangs me up, baby? Not sex. Love. Everyone I've ever loved has hurt me. Every single person. My mother died, my brother turned into my enemy, my father – well, you know that story. Carolyn divorced me. It seems like every woman I've ever started to have any feelings for has either died or betrayed me or used me or left me or tried to kill me, or some combination of the above. Do you have any idea how terrifying it is to risk my heart again, especially when I love you more than I ever loved any of them?"

Blair swallowed, his eyes echoing Jim's pain.

"Oh, man, I never thought of it like that," he said softly. "I mean, I've had a pretty long conga line, as you put it, but, man, my heart's come away pretty much unscathed except for maybe Maya. And my mom was kind of unconventional, but one thing Naomi never ever did was made me feel unloved. Abandoned sometimes, yeah – like now. But she always cared, and she always showed it."

Jim said nothing, although he privately felt that any woman who made herself so scarce in her child's life, who couldn't even be reached when he was raped and nearly killed, wasn't showing a whole lot of love.

Blair reached up and stroked Jim's cheek.

"Man, I never even thought," he whispered. "You never talk about being afraid, about hurting. I wish you would."

Jim grimaced.

"I told you, it's hard for me to talk about things like that. I thought you needed me to be strong for you."

"No, man," Blair said, gazing into Jim's eyes. "I just need you to be Jim for me."

Jim swallowed.

"Okay, babe," he said softly. "Here's the bottom line, and in words, too, so stick up for me with Gerard. I love you, more than I ever believed I'd be able to love anyone. I never thought I'd fall in love again. I never wanted to fall in love again, and it scares the shit out of me because I'm afraid of needing anyone, and I need you more than the air I breathe. But I love you, I can't help myself, and every day you show me in a thousand ways that my heart is safe with you. It's not that easy, you're going to have to keep proving it to me over and over and over, but we've made a good start, and I promise I'm not going to give up, that I'll just keep trying. Because you're worth the risk."

Blair closed his eyes briefly.

"Oh, man, I'm gonna start crying again," he whispered, biting his lip.

"No you're not." Jim kissed him firmly. "What I said is exactly the same thing as you're doing; I just put it into words. Usually that's your specialty, so I'm taking my fair turn. So we're even, we're both confronting our problems, we're both trying, neither of us is going to give up on the other or on ourselves. So kiss me like it's going out of style and let's get on to the naughty part of our shopping, which will put us one step closer to a crackling fire, a soft bed, and nobody for miles around to hear our moans and screams of passion."

Blair's tears vanished instantly in one of those thousand-watt smiles Jim loved more than his first morning cup of coffee, and Blair kissed him like it was their last five minutes on earth. They came up only when oxygen deprivation became a serious threat. Blair's eyes were glowing.

"I guess that solves that," he gasped. "Come on, Jim, let's move on to the naughty shopping and the crackling fire, okay?"

Before the sporting goods store, Jim had mentally picked out the most mainstream of the sex shops in Cascade for their purchases; post-shoe department, he'd revised that choice. Blair's eyebrows shot up when Jim parked the truck in front of Cornucopia, a very decisively gay-oriented store.

"Wow," Blair said. "Somehow I figured you'd pick someplace a little more – well, heterosexual, for lack of a better word. The kind of place where they'd figure you were buying a toy for your wife or something."

Jim grinned.

"Too late," he said. "I bought my sex books here."

Blair broke out in laughter.

"So did I," he gasped. "And the video, too. Wow. I guess there's one shop in Cascade where we're both out."

"Let's go, then, Chief," Jim said, grinning, "and put another crack in the closet door."

They browsed – Jim with flaming cheeks, Blair wonderingly, their silent musing occasionally broken by a "Hey, Jim, look at this!" At last they converged on a shelf of dildos.

"Wow," Jim said doubtfully. "I didn't know these silicone things would be so expensive."

"Not a consideration, man," Blair chuckled. "I kind of like the idea of spending settlement money on therapeutic sex toys. Anyway, these silicone ones are supposed to be the best kind, smooth and easy to clean and all." He eyed the collection dubiously. "So – um, what kind of, uh, parameters do you think Gerard had in mind?"

"Well, I suppose we're supposed to end up with something kind of, um, comparable to the real thing," Jim said uncomfortably. He picked one up. "That's about the size of yours."

Blair picked up another one.

"This is about your size, isn't it?"

"Mine isn't blue. I admit to blue balls a time or two in my life, but never a blue cock."

"The color doesn't matter, man." Blair grinned. "Sometimes I think you have eyes in the back of your head, but I don't think even you have eyes up your butt."

Jim looked around frantically.

"Keep your voice down, will you? The clerk's looking at us."

Blair snorted.

"Uh, Jim? What do you think he'll think we were gonna use 'em for anyway? Discreet paperweights or something? The guy works at a gay adult store. I doubt he's going to be too shocked at the idea that, hey! we might be planning to insert dildos into bodily orifices."

Jim sighed and kept his voice low.

"Yeah, but why would anybody make a blue dildo?"

"Ummm . . . so people can color-coordinate their sex toys?" Blair hesitated. "Do you think we should get a couple of, um, smaller ones? Kind of work our way up, like the fingers?"

"That's probably a good idea," Jim agreed. He picked out a very slender model, hardly thicker than his finger, then one a little thicker, then a larger 'intermediate' size. "You think that's okay?"

Blair nodded, looking over their other choices. "Hey, look, this one comes in blue, too – and this one! Let's get a matching set."

"Yeah, but this one doesn't," Jim said triumphantly.

"I'll ask the clerk if he's got a blue one," Blair said cheerfully.

"Oh, no, you don't," Jim said firmly. "We are not falling into that stereotype – becoming gay and then – " Jim grimaced. "Decorating."

Blair snorted.

"Jim, I've been decorating your loft since I moved in."

Jim shuddered.

"Don't say that."

"It's true. Your loft was so bare that just putting in an extra wastebasket was decorating."

"Okay, you got me there," Jim admitted. "But I'm telling you this, Chief, if you start doing flower arrangements, we're gonna have a serious talk."

"Let's get some lube, too," Blair suggested, ignoring the comment. "We didn't get any KY at the drugstore, and besides, I can tell the smell kind of gets to you. Let's see if they have anything you like better here."

Several varieties of lube had sampler bottles – one of the advantages of Cornucopia over the more mainstream shops – and Jim sniffed his way along the row, finally picking a bottle of fairly thick gel.

"This one smells okay."

Blair carefully read the label, poring over the ingredients.

"Okay, nothing bad here," he said. "And it's recommended for anal sex, too. Cool."

Jim looked at Blair's open, wondering expression and felt suddenly excited.

"You know what, Chief?" he said. "I'm packing that tape. I know Steven's got a VCR down there, since reception's so lousy. I have the feeling we might want to watch it again."

Blair smiled at him, a smile with heat behind it.

"You do that," he said.

They found another video Gerard had recommended, called "Discovery," and bought that too. Jim locked their purchases in the truck, then surprised Blair by leading him into the shop next door, the reason why he'd picked Cornucopia in the first place – Rituals Body Art.

"Hey, man, what's going on?" Blair chuckled as they walked in. "You want to get matching tattoos or something?"

"Or something," Jim said mysteriously. He knew the proprietor; Gary Whitten had helped them out on a few cases when Jim had needed information about particular tattoos.

"Hey, Ellison!" Gary said, shaking Jim's hand. "Good to see you, man."

"You too," Jim said. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg."

"Hey, Blair, how do ya?" Gary grinned, shaking Blair's hand. "What can I do for you guys today? I thought you were long gone from the vice scene, Ellison. You ready to actually do a little business for a change?"

"Could be," Jim grinned, shocking the hell out of Blair. "What have you got in the way of nipple rings?"

"Hey, I've got the best selection in town," Gary bragged. He unlocked a cabinet. "What are you looking for, basic stainless steel, what?"

"Gold," Jim said. "I want something special."

Gary raised an eyebrow.

"How special is special?"

"Really special," Jim said, meeting Gary's eyes solidly.

Gary grinned.

"Way cool. Okay, special it is." He closed the cabinet and opened a safe at the back of the office, closing it again before bringing a small case to the front. "See what you think."

Jim leaned over the case, smiling. The rings in the case were arranged by gauge. Most were set with one or more gemstones, some gaudy, but immediately Jim saw what he wanted – a simple gold hoop set with a single flawless, brilliant diamond.

"That one," Jim said, pointing. Blair gasped.

"Oh, wow, Jim, you've got to be kidding," Blair protested. "That's got to cost a fortune."

"Well . . . I can maybe cut a deal for a friend," Gary grinned. "Seeing as how Jim kept the protection rackets out of our neighborhood and played straight, you should pardon the phrase, with the gay bars when he was in Vice. For someone real special, hey, Jim?"

Blair swallowed.

"Uh, yeah, it's for his – "

"His partner," Jim said firmly, taking Blair's hand. "In all things."

Gary's grin broadened and he winked.

"Welcome to the family," he said simply. "Don't worry, guys, it's safe with me." He quoted a price on the ring, and Blair blanched, but Jim nodded, and Gary took out the ring. He hesitated before closing the case.

"You know," Gary said slyly, "matching rings for you two would really be something."

"Uh – Jim's not – " Blair began, but once again Jim interrupted him.

"Good idea," Jim said, looking Blair in the eye. "Fix me up."

Gary got out his supplies, and Blair pulled Jim aside.

"Jim – man, the idea of you doing this is – well, there's no words, man," Blair said softly. "But are you sure? Really sure? I mean, it's going to hurt. There's no way around that, Jim, and what if you zone or – "

"I won't." Jim smiled. "Blair, I've been shot, stabbed, clubbed, knocked through walls, you name it, on the job since my senses returned, and I've never zoned on pain yet. This can't hurt any worse than some of those injuries. And yes, I really want to. I like the idea of us having matching rings. We can't wear them openly, but maybe this is even better. I mean, our rings are like our love life – private, but always a part of us."

"Well – " Blair was softening, Jim could tell. "Okay, but if you're going to buy my ring, I get to buy yours. That's the way it works, you know."

Jim sighed but nodded.

"Okay. I buy yours, you buy mine. That's fair, I guess. And feel welcome to hold my hand while I'm getting this done. I'm a little nervous."

"Jim, I'd hold your dick if I thought it would help." Blair followed Jim back to Gary's chair. Jim pulled off his shirt and sat down; Gary reclined the seat back slightly.

"Now, I'm going to put in a stainless steel starter stud," Gary told Jim. "Rings, especially one with a stone, catch and pull easier. You don't want that while your nipple's healing, and you're in an active job. You know how to take care of a piercing?"

Jim nodded, gesturing to his left ear. Blair's eyebrows shot up when he noticed the hole.

"I had it pierced as part of an undercover operation when I was in Vice," Jim explained. "Haven't worn an earring in years." He chuckled. "I thought you were supposed to be an observer, Chief. That wasn't very observant."

"Okay, then." Gary swabbed antiseptic around Jim's nipple. "I'm going to put a forceps on your nipple. That'll pinch. What I want you to do is take nice, deep breaths, slow and even. I'll tell you when I'm going to do the piercing, and I'll do it on an exhale. Don't hold your breath, breathe into it, let the pain go, okay? Just keep your breathing nice and slow. It'll only hurt for a second. You with me?"

"Got it," Jim said. He smiled when Blair took his hand. Blair's hand was sweating. "Don't worry, Chief. I'm fine." He didn't wince as Gary placed the forceps, but Blair went pale. "Come on, Chief, breathe with me. You're the breathing expert, and you look like you need it more than I do."

They breathed together, gazing into each other's eyes. At last Gary spoke.

"Ready, Jim?"

Jim nodded, keeping his breathing even and his eyes on Blair's.

"Here we go, then."

It wasn't bad, not nearly as bad as Blair had made him fear. It hurt worse when Gary released the forceps and inserted the stud, but then it was over. Jim looked down. His nipple was slightly swollen, probably from the forceps, but the pain was only a mild ache and there was only a drop of blood. Gary carefully swabbed it away and applied a little more antiseptic, then taped a piece of gauze over Jim's nipple.

"How soon can I put the ring in?" Jim asked.

"As soon as it's completely healed," Gary told him. "Generally about a month or six weeks. Come in if you have any problem. I'll give you a care sheet, nipples are different than earlobes, but your partner should know what to do and what to watch out for." He glanced at Blair. "Want to put your ring in now?"

Blair shook his head.

"I'll put mine in when Jim can wear his," he said quietly. He squeezed Jim's fingers again.

"That's nice," Gary admitted. "Make a special evening of it, nice bottle of wine, scented candles, write each other mushy poetry. Or say the hell with it and fly to Vermont for the works." He grinned. "I'm happy for you two. Hey, don't be a stranger, you guys. I give discounts for repeat customers."

All errands finished, they returned to the loft and put the perishable food in the refrigerator; then they packed everything else, Blair beaming as he folded his new clothes. He gave Jim a conspiratorial grin when Jim packed a special overnight bag with the dildos, enema kit, lube, baby wipes, Blair's ointment, massage oil and the videotapes and books. Jim chuckled as he zipped "the sex bag" closed. He was never going to be able to use that duffle bag for his gym stuff again.

When everything was packed, they programmed the coffee maker and prepared for an early night's sleep, since they planned to get up well before dawn. Blair insisted on cleaning and tending Jim's pierced nipple; Jim amusedly let him.

"I'm going to tape some more gauze over it," Blair said.

"Chief, Gary said to let it get air," Jim argued.

"Yeah, and that's fine when you're awake, but if you roll over and catch that stud on the sheet, it's going to hurt like hell," Blair reminded him. "One layer of gauze will be plenty breathable."

When they were curled comfortably in bed, Blair spoke quietly in the darkness.

"Jim, do you mind if I try something?"

Jim hesitated.

"Well – we were going to get up early, and I'm kind of tired. Aren't you?"

Blair chuckled.

"Not that kind of something. Mind if I explain?"

"Go ahead." Jim turned the light on again. "What?"

"Well – I was thinking about what Dr. Atherton said," Blair said slowly. "About how fast I healed. He's said the same thing a couple times before when I got hurt, and I did. I healed up really fast, faster than I ever had when I was young, but this time even more so. I mean, those bruises practically vanished overnight. And I started thinking, and I sneaked a look at my medical chart, and that made me think again. What I noticed is this: I've been healing faster since we've known each other, even faster since I moved in with you. But this last time it's been fastest of all."

Jim was silent for a moment.

"You think, what, something about the Sentinel-Guide thing makes you heal faster?" he said skeptically.

"The doctors have noticed it about you, too," Blair told him. "Since I've been around, I mean. Don't you remember them saying it when you got shot and stuff?"

Jim thought back. Yes, he did remember something of the sort, but he'd shrugged it off. He'd always had a good constitution. Funny, though, he'd never gotten such comments back during his military career or his Vice days, now that he thought about it.

"So something about the Sentinel-Guide relationship – " Jim said thoughtfully.

"Not 'something'," Blair corrected. "I think it's pretty basic. I think it's proximity, or maybe touch."

"Touch?" Jim repeated.

"Uh-huh. Look at the correlation," Blair said. "Say my healing rate before I met you was X. Well, when I met you and started working with you, it became X plus one. Since I moved in it's been X plus 2, and this last time, where you've been taking care of me, it's been way more than X plus 3. I think some part of my body recognizes you and responds positively, and you're the same way. You've healed faster and more completely since I've been with you, and best of all when I've taken care of your injuries. It makes sense for Sentinel and Guide to have that kind of symbiotic relationship, doesn't it? I mean, we function that little bit better when we're together. Gerard's remarked on it time after time, that our relationship breaks all the rules of trauma psychology. It's obvious that the bond between us is helping me heal emotionally. Why not physically?"

Jim thought about that for a moment. It was true, over the course of his friendship with Blair, several doctors had remarked on the speed of his healing, and several of them had wondered at the fact that he'd had no lasting impairment or nerve damage from his gunshot wounds. Hell, even he had noticed the lack of residual ache and extensive scarring from his injuries. Could his Guide's presence and touch actually have that much effect on him? And he on Blair? But everyone had remarked on Blair's healing this time, and Jim had seen it for himself. It was fast, faster than normal, and unless Jim was willing to attribute some kind of psychic healing ability to Blair himself, Blair's explanation was a likely one.

"Say you're right," Jim said slowly. "What's the experiment?"

"Well, you had your ear pierced before you ever knew me, and I had my ear and my nipple done before I ever knew you," Blair said practically. "I remember how long it took me to heal. Do you?"

Jim thought back.

"Yeah, about a month for it to pretty much heal all the way, like Gary said," he said. "I didn't have any problems like infection or anything, but it did stay sore for a while."

"So here's the experiment," Blair said. "While your nipple's healing, I take care of it, okay? I'm going to sleep with my hand near it, and I'm going to touch it as often as we remember. And we'll see if it heals any faster than your ear or my piercings. Okay?"

"That doesn't sound like a bad idea," Jim said amiably. "Okay, Chief, we'll do it your way. Just do me a favor and be careful with the hand, okay? Or you may find out how fast I can wake up."

"I'll be careful," Blair promised. He bent down and ever so gently kissed the wounded nipple through the gauze. "I'd never, ever hurt you, Jim."

"I know, Chief," Jim said, stroking Blair's hair. "Ready to go to sleep?"

"Uh-huh." Blair curled up into Jim's side, his hand on Jim's chest near the gauze pad. He kissed Jim softly, and Jim turned out the light.