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Notes: More a series of pre-slash vignettes than anything else. Many thanks to Bronwyn, my beta reader, for all her help with this story!

Summary: Jim and Blair in the big city.

Warnings: none

New York, New York
by the lady of shalott

Blair bounced through the door, tossed his keys in the basket, and executed a triumphant pirouette before heading to his room to shed his backpack. Over on the couch, Jim looked away from the droning reporter on the local news, an unwilling smile coming to his face at his partner's energetic entrance. "Had a good day?" he asked, returning his attention to the screen.

"The best, man! Finals are so over! No more papers to grade for a month at least." The young anthropologist poked around in the fridge and pulled out a beer before heading over to the other couch and sinking down with a happily exaggerated sigh. "How about you? You're home kind of early."

"Yeah, well, I finished up the paperwork on the Dubrovsky case. Then Simon tells me I've racked up too much comp vacation time and as much as orders me out of the station for the next two weeks." Jim didn't bother concealing the irritation in his tone. "Brown told me the commissioner's found a hotshot pet shrink who's big on people taking time off and not working late."

"Actually, that's pretty sound, psychologically speaking. In a high-stress goal-oriented work environment, it's easy for people to get into the habit of overworking themselves. And even though some people actually can keep that pace up, most people get burned out quick." Blair tipped back the bottle and polished off the last of the beer, setting it down on the table with a clink. "Thing is, those few people who can manage it set up a vicious cycle, since their coworkers will try to keep up with them."

"And the point, Sandburg?"

Blair pointed a stern finger at Jim, "The point is, everyone needs to take a break sometimes." He grinned at the scowl on the other man's face. "Besides, just think of all the paperwork you *won't* have to do for the next two weeks."

Jim sighed and slumped back a little against the couch and muttered, "I'll have plenty of time to think about it. What the hell am I supposed to do for two weeks?"

Shrugging, Blair suggested, "Go camping?"

"In December? I'm not a masochist, Chief."

"Hey, chill out, big guy. We'll think of something. I don't have anything to do for the next two weeks either, except work on my dissertation. Hey, maybe we could--"

"No! No tests. I'm supposed to be relaxing, remember?"

Blair looked downcast for a brief moment, then brightened, "Well, we can do holiday stuff. Get a tree, decorate the loft..."

"If we get a tree this early, it'll probably end up as nothing but a heap of dried-out pine needles on the carpet by Christmas," Jim pointed out mercilessly.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Hey, man, do you want me to throw you in the dryer or something? Because you're looking an awful lot like a sopping wet blanket right now."

"Sorry," Jim apologized briefly. "I just can't believe Simon sprang this on me. I should have known something was up when he didn't give me another case last week." He flicked off the TV set and leaned forward to put down the remote, catching sight of a slip of paper as he did. "Oh, right. Here," he handed Blair the note. "There was a message from Naomi on the machine -- she wants you to call her."

"212 area code -- she must be in New York." Blair snagged the phone and dialed. "Hi... hey, is that Carlos? It's Blair, long time no see, how're you doing? ... Great, glad to hear it... Everything's great here... Listen, is Naomi there?"

With a conscious effort, Jim dialed down his sense of sound to avoid hearing the other side of the conversation after the first few words were exchanged, but found himself unable to tune out Blair's voice. "Naomi? Hi! What's up?" After a brief pause and a few easy "Yes" answers to whatever Naomi was asking, Blair suddenly bounced upright on the sofa. "He does? Really? Oh wow! Listen, does he mind if I bring a friend?" After a minute, he apparently got an okay, since he looked up at Jim with eager eyes.

Jim let his head fall back. "Why do I have the feeling I'm about to be shanghied into something crazy?" he asked the ceiling.

"Crazy? Only if you consider a free trip to NYC crazy, big guy." Blair grinned. "Naomi's going to Rome for the next couple of weeks, and Carlos wants to go with her, but he's too paranoid to leave his apartment empty for that long -- he got robbed blind a couple of years ago. And he's got so many frequent flyer miles, he's willing to toss in a couple of free tickets if we're prepared to babysit the place."

Blinking, Jim asked, "Just how does Naomi know this guy?"

Blair shrugged. "Naomi probably knows about as many millionaires as she does people who are flat broke. So? Are you up for it?"

"I guess so. After all, someone's got to keep you out of trouble, Chief," Jim said.

Blair made a face at him, but turned back to the phone. "It's all set, Naomi! Just let me know when the flight is once you've got the tix." He rang off after a little more conversation and promptly flew into his room to start packing.

"Here are the keys... the fridge is stocked, cleaning service comes by at 2 every day, groceries come in on Saturday morning. Have fun! Bye, sweetie!" The door slammed shut behind Naomi and Carlos only moments after it had opened to let Blair and Jim into the apartment.

"Lucky our plane wasn't delayed," Jim said, shrugging out of his coat. He stretched with an audible crackle, his muscles protesting after having been cramped into a too-small airplane seat for the cross-country flight. "So have you ever been to this place before?"

"Nope," Blair answered, dumping his coat on top of his bag and heading for the kitchen with the unerring aim of someone who hasn't had anything but airline food for six hours. "Man, I am starved -- hope there's something good here... oh, yeah! Mmmm..."

Jim grinned as Blair disappeared into the fridge, making small noises of appreciation for whatever he was finding. "Why don't you put something together -- I'll put our bags away." He picked up the duffels and headed down the hallway, nudging the first door open with his shoulder. *Nice,* he thought, looking at the huge, circular bed in the middle of the room and the nighttime skyline glittering through the high windows beyond. He dropped Blair's bag just inside the door and went looking for the second bedroom -- with no luck. *New York apartments,* he mentally sighed and dropped his bag on the large couch in the living room before heading back to the kitchen. *At least it's long enough for me,* he thought. "So, Chief, what have you got?" he asked, dropping into a seat at the table in the kitchen.

"I'm not up to cooking, so I figured we'd just snack." Blair put down some toast and a plate of cold cuts and cheese, along with a container of sour cream and a small jar of caviar.

Jim eyed the jar hopefully. "Sevruga?"

"Absolutely! So awesome." Blair spooned a dollop of the black globules onto his slice of toast. "Mmmm... I haven't had this stuff in years."

"Me either," Jim savored the explosion of flavor. "Wow. Better than I remembered."

"Hey, why don't you try using the dial imagery we've worked on for handling your pain sensitivity to--"

Jim raised a hand sharply. "What did I say about tests while on vacation?"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Jim, you can use your senses outside of police work and testing. Like for enhancing the sensation of eating caviar. Have some fun with them once in a while, you know. And that kind of casual use would probably improve your control -- get you to the point where handling the senses is reflexive."

Shaking his head with a grin, Jim pointed out, "Sandburg, I turn up the dial on caviar, and I'm going to be zoned-out for a week."

"Man, you can be a real wimp sometimes." Blair teased, diving in for another bite.

"Hey, you want to spend the rest of this vacation talking me out of a zone, I can oblige..."

"On second thought, keep that dial turned down."

They talked idly about plans for the trip until they finished the rest of the food. Blair yawned. "I know it's still pretty early, but I am wiped. Do you want to go out?"

"Nah, I'd rather hit the sack. After we do the dishes, Chief," he said warningly, as Blair gave every indication of heading straight to bed.

"Come on, man -- you heard Naomi. No way are we doing dishes on vacation when there's a cleaning service that gets paid to do it for us." Blair piled the dishes haphazardly and deposited them in the sink, running a little water over them as a halfhearted concession.

Jim eyed the mess disapprovingly, but gave in with a shrug, then headed for the couch.

"Why are you sleeping on the couch?" Blair asked.

"Only one bedroom, Sandburg. It's no big deal, this is big enough for me."

"OK, well, we can trade off..."

"Sorry, Chief -- it's thanks to you that I'm even sitting here in the lap of luxury," Jim sat down to take off his shoes. "The bed is yours for the duration. No arguing!" He pointed at the door. "Get to sleep so we can head out early."

Blair raised his hands in mock defense. "Yes, 'Mom'." He pushed open the door and stopped. "No way!"

Jim grinned to himself at Blair's reaction as he took off his shirt and folded it neatly. *Sandburg's just too cute when he gets excited.*

Blair wasn't exactly excited, though. "Come on, Jim, you are not sleeping out here on the couch when there's a bed big enough for at least six people in here," he protested. "We can share -- I promise I don't thrash or anything."

Jim hesitated. "Are you sure? The couch--"

"Will leave you with a stiff neck and a sore back. Uh uh. My turn to say 'no arguing', big guy."

Jim shrugged and picked up his clothes. "Whatever you say, Chief," he said cheerfully. He finished stripping to his boxers in the bedroom, observing with resigned amusement as Blair shed his clothes with total disregard for where they ended up and bounced onto the bed... which squished. Jim blinked and shook his head, then stared at the bed.

"Whoa! Waterbed!" Blair experimentally poked the mattress, then squirmed under the covers. "Definitely cool."

Jim climbed onto the bed, which gurgled -- ominously, to his ears -- and shifted beneath his weight. He lay back cautiously and stared at the ceiling, getting used to the sensation. "This is pretty comfortable," he admitted finally, reaching down to pull the covers over himself. "Night, Chief," he said, switching off the lamp on his side of the bed.

"Night, Jim," Blair turned his lamp off and curled up on his side.

Moments later, Jim heard his Guide's breathing even out into sleep. *I guess he's used to sleeping in strange places.* He closed his eyes and eased his senses open to scan the area, a habit he'd picked up over the past few years. Reassuring and steady, Blair's heartbeat washed over him. Closer than usual, it overwhelmed the strangeness of the other surrounding sounds and muffled the lurking noise of the city outside. Jim unconsciously smiled as he fell asleep almost immediately.

Jim reached up an arm and rubbed his eyes, yawning a little and blinking at the sunlight pouring over the bed. He eased up onto an elbow, rubbing absently at the stubble on his cheek as a weight slid off his shoulder onto the sheets. *Huh? Oh, Blair,* he absently identified the mop of brown curls stirring beside him.

A complaining grumble emerged from the tangle. "Wha' time 's it?"

Jim focused his eyes and zoomed in on the face of his wristwatch. "9 am, Chief. Not that early."

Blair moaned. "That's *6* am Cascade time, Jim."

Jim climbed out of bed and laughed as his partner promptly pulled the covers back over his head. "Yeah, but we went to sleep in New York time!" An indecipherable mumble was the only answer, but the smell of coffee and frying bacon reached Jim in the shower a short while later, informing him that Blair had managed to drag himself out of bed.

Heading into the kitchen, Jim poured coffee for them both and set out plates. "So, what's the game plan for today?" he asked, straddling a chair and looking up at Blair. Jim felt a weight he hadn't really noticed for its constant presence lift from his shoulders as he watched his Guide putter around the stove, still looking sleepy with his hair tousled. *No danger, no responsibilities, no chance of being called in to work, nothing to do but relax. I could get used to this.* He shook his head at his own thoughts. *Hell, I'm getting soft.*

Blair dished out scrambled eggs and bacon, then sat down. "Well, since this is your first time in the city, I figured we could check out the touristy stuff -- go up to the top of the Empire State Building, see Saint Patrick's Cathedral, walk down Fifth Avenue -- you know, the displays this time of year are amazing -- Saks Fifth Avenue usually has lines outside their windows -- then check out the tree at Rockefeller Center, maybe go ice skating there..."

"All of that in one day?"

"Well, whenever we get tired we can just take a break or stop and come back here. But none of that stuff will take very long on its own..."

"You're in charge, Chief," Jim surrendered.

Jim ignored the 25-cent telescopes perched around the rim of the roof in favor of exercising his sight. The frigid air was clear, and he could literally see for miles in every direction. He focused on the Statue of Liberty in the distance and grinned as he actually found himself able to see small figures moving against the openings in the crown.

"Man, it is cold up here!"

Blair was shivering hard enough that Jim could hear his skin moving against his clothing. "Come on, Chief, let's get you inside before you turn into a popsicle," he said, putting his arm around the other man's shoulders to steer him back into the souvenir shop in the middle of the roof. "We can see the view through the windows, anyway."

Blair nodded affirmatively. "Last time I was up here, it was summer. I didn't think about how cold it would be up this high without any cover from the wind." As they got back inside, he danced around a little, trying to get warmed up. "Ow, ow, ow," he chanted, taking his gloves off and rubbing his hands together. "I think I got frostbitten."

Jim just shook his head and wrapped his hands around the icy ones. "Better?"

"Much..." Blair's voice rose suddenly on the end of the word, cracking into what sounded like a choking cough.

Eyes narrowing, Jim stared at his Guide's eyes, which were shining with a light that usually meant trouble. Then he heard the heartbeat -- muffled oddly, but definitely right behind him. He whirled, ready to go for his gun -- and found himself staring at a gorilla. He jerked back automatically and bumped into Blair, who sat down on the floor with a thud and went off in peals of laughter. He heard the guy inside the gorilla suit choking down laughter too as he reached down to pull Blair up. "Very funny," he said, trying for a sour tone but unable to keep from chuckling.

"You jumped like you saw a ghost! That was great. Hey, you in there, is this a gorilla hangout or something?"

The gorilla pointed to the sign around his neck. "King Kong," Jim read. "Well, that makes sense."

"Thanks, man," Blair said to the gorilla. "That was totally priceless."

"Come on, Sandburg, I'm getting you out of here before the rest of the menagerie shows up." Jim caught Blair by the arm and tugged him towards the escalators. "Let's go see the cathedral -- that should be nice and peaceful. I'm not up for too many more of these sudden shocks."

Sighing with satisfaction, Jim pushed his chair back from the table as the large platter of injera bread was cleared away and cups of strong coffee brought. "You know, at first I thought you were making a bad joke when you said you wanted to go to an Ethiopian restaurant."

"I'd have taken you before, but there aren't any good Ethiopian places in Cascade. Actually, I don't think there are any of them at all. Not that this is really authentic -- real Ethiopian is more vegetables and less meat and spicier -- and not beef. Goat is the meat you usually get there. But the Americanized version is still good, and this restaurant is pretty close to the real thing."

"Let me guess. You've been to Ethiopia?"

"Yeah, a while ago, in my undergrad days -- I was on a trip to the source of the Blue Nile. Man, it is beautiful out there. We should take a trip sometime -- maybe follow the migration of the herds over the Serengeti for a little while. I didn't get to do that while I was there."

They settled into companionable silence as they finished the coffee and paid the bill. Finally done, they wandered out of the restaurant and into the cold night air, turning up their collars. Blair led the way to the avenue, where they caught a cab back to the apartment.

Looking around as they came back in, Jim was pleased to see the effects of the visit from the cleaning service. Blair immediately started ruining those effects by dumping his coat on the couch and heading into the bathroom. "This is definitely a good time to try out the hot tub," his voice floated out as water started gushing.

"Do you know how to work that thing?"

"There are instructions right here... oh.... um, they're in Swedish... Well, it's a hot tub, not brain surgery. How hard can it be?"

"Famous last words, Sandburg," Jim called back, picking Blair's coat up and hanging it with his own in the hall closet. He joined Blair in the bathroom, waving at the clouds of steam that billowed up from the sunken tub. He watched his partner fiddle with the dials for a while, until suddenly bubbles started churning the water into a nice froth.

"See?" Blair exclaimed, already undressing eagerly. "You know, to properly appreciate this, we really ought to have a bottle of champagne... no, better yet, champagne and strawberries. Or even better, champagne and raspberries with some Chambord liquer..."

"Do we have any of these things?"

"Well... no. But it's fun just to speculate." Blair carefully climbed into the tub. "Ohhhhhhhh..... ahhhhhh....."

"Wow, you're speechless," Jim observed in amusement, stripping off his clothes. "Now *that's* impressive. Maybe I should get one of these for the loft." He stepped into the churning water and settled onto the submurged ledge with a groan of pleasure. "Oh yeah. This is definitely on the shopping list."

"Where would it go?"

Jim thought about it, then blandly answered, "Well, sharing a bed with you isn't that bad, Chief. We could convert your room..."

"Hey!" Blair sat up, then saw the grin trying to break out over the Sentinel's face. His eyes narrowed briefly as he relaxed again. "Well, you know, I can live with that. Of course, if we convert the spare room, I'm going to have to grade papers and put books and all my other stuff somewhere..."

Jim blanched. "On second thought, never mind."

"I win," Blair smugly declared.

Later that evening, they lazed on the bed together, Blair reading while Jim watched a Rangers game. "Want me to turn it off?" Jim asked as Blair put the journal aside and pulled his pillows down.

"Nah, I can sleep with it going," Blair said drowsily, pulling the blankets around a little until he was comfortably cocooned. "Just don't stay up too late, or it's going to be me dragging you out of bed tomorrow."

"Not a chance."

Jim returned his attention to the screen and watched for the last half hour of the game. He clicked off the TV and settled down on his back. Stretching out a little, he accidentally nudged Blair, who murmured softly and turned towards him in response. He felt the oddest urge to gather up the smaller man in his arms, pull him close. Pushing away the impulse, Jim muttered to himself softly, "Yeah, Sandburg would really appreciate being turned into a security blanket."


Jim held still, hoping he hadn't woken Blair. A soft tickling of silky hair along his chest and left arm set his senses to thrumming as Blair edged up closer, snuggling into his side, pillowing his head on Jim's shoulder. *Right... well, as long as he's comfortable...* Jim relaxed into sleep.

Blair headed straight for the kitchen, unbuttoning his wet jeans and squirming out of them at the same time as he set a kettle on. "That was great! Man, I didn't know you could skate like that." He pulled out two mugs and emptied hot cocoa packets into them. "I'm definitely having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea of you going out for figure skating lessons."

"Hey, I didn't want to," Jim protested, pulling off his sodden socks and pants and carrying them into the bathroom. "I was on the hockey team in college, but we ran out of funding and couldn't get enough ice time for regular practice. The figure skating coach offered to let us have one of their weekly sessions if some of us would pair off with enough of the girls to let them enter the pairs competition."

"Just doing your duty for the team, big guy?"

"You got it." Jim brought out a couple of bathrobes and took off the rest of his clothes in the living room, relaxing on the couch and rubbing his calf muscles.

"Uh huh. So were the rest of the guys properly appreciative, or did they tease the hell out of you?" Blair carried the steaming mugs out.

Jim smirked as he accepted a cup. "They stopped teasing when the three of us who got stuck doing the figure skating wound up with dates with all of the girls on the team."

Blair shed the rest of his clothes and pulled on the other robe, flopping onto the couch bonelessly. "Same thing happened to me with ballroom dancing," he said, happily plunking his bare feet onto the glass-topped coffee table. "Although I was planning on it when I signed up for the class."

"That's my partner, the..." Jim mumbled the last word too badly to make out.

"Huh? What did you just call me?"


"Come on, man, give?" Blair tried out his best hopeful expression.

Jim remained obdurate. "Uh uh."

"I'll... I'll tickle it out of you!"

"I'm not ticklish, Sandburg."

Blair gave him a truly evil look. "Wanna bet?"


Blair pounced onto Jim, pulling open his robe, and proceeded to trace the tips of his fingers over the other man's midsection -- about a millimeter away from the skin. "I suspect," Guide said conversationally as Sentinel began to twitch and squirm, "that your sense of touch will automatically be dialed up in response to a barely-present stimulus. Direct touch would probably be too strong to evoke a ticklish response, but this should--"

"Enough! Stop! Help!" Jim squawked as he started to laugh helplessly. "Not... not fair!"

"What did you call me? Confess!"

"Aagh! No... you'll never drag it out of me -- aaah!" Jim struggled to get away as Blair mercilessly kept up the torture. "Okay, okay, I called you <mumble>."

"I didn't quite get that..."


Blair stopped momentarily. "You called me a studmuffin?" he said incredulously. "Man, that definitely calls for at least five minutes of tickling."

"In five minutes I'll be dead of asphyxiation!"

"Serves you right -- mmph!" Blair got a mouthful of pillow as Jim defended himself with one of the couch cushions and managed to get safely away to a corner of the couch.

Panting heavily and grinning, the two of them sized each other's positions up. Jim strategically barricaded himself in with a few more of the cushions when Blair looked like he was about to jump on him once more. Blair frowned in disappointment, then apparently gave up and went back to drinking his cocoa. *He has to come out of that corner sometime,* he counseled himself evilly, then felt a shiver for no reason. Looking up, he found Jim looking suddenly alert and wary with the 'listening' expression he'd come to know very well. "What is it?" he asked quickly.

"Someone's trying to unlock the door... three people. Get into the bedroom," Jim ordered. Backing into the room after Blair, Jim reached into a drawer for his gun and tensed sharply as he heard the locking mechanism smoothly open. "They've got a key," Jim whispered, clicking the safety off.

"Oh!" Blair suddenly exclaimed, smacking his head. "Jim, we're freaking out over the cleaning service." He pointed to the clock. "2pm, that's when they come by."

Jim sniffed and caught the acrid odors of cleaning liquids. He groaned as he put the safety back on and replaced the gun in his holster. "Damn, nearly gave me a heart attack."

The door came open. "Hello," called the perfunctory voice of a young man who didn't expect an answer. "Whoa, looks like someone had some fun in here this morning," they heard him tell his companions.

Blair grinned at a suddenly blushing Jim and stepped out of the bedroom. "Hey there," he said cheerfully to the three college-age guys pulling a cart of cleaning supplies into the apartment. "Sorry for leaving stuff all over the place, we just got back in a little while ago."

Jim looked around the bedroom and made a halfhearted effort to pick up the clothes scattered all over the place, then gave up on Blair's stuff and just put away his own. He stepped back out into the living room to find Blair chatting up the cleaning team.

"So, we've done the touristy things -- we were thinking of going out clubbing tonight. Know any good places?" the anthropologist was asking the guy dusting in the living room. "Oh, hey, Jim, this is Mike," he introduced the young man. "He, Pete, and Giovanni are students at NYU -- they're running this cleaning gig for spending cash."

Jim nodded, "Nice to meet you."

"Hey," Mike greeted Jim casually, flickering an appraising glance from the taller man back to Blair, raising an eyebrow momentarily before answering Blair's question. "No problem, man. So, what kind of mood do you want? Drinking, dancing, people-watching, or something really wild?"

Jim's eyes got nervous as Blair's eyes lit up. "Define 'really wild'?"

"Well, there's the debauchery contest over at Velvet tonight -- person who does the most depraved things for the night wins. It can get pretty crazy, but it's always good for generating stories you *don't* tell your parents."

"You've never met my mom," Blair grinned as he looked up at Jim hopefully.

*Why do I even bother?* Jim asked himself as he tried to demur, "Maybe we could try something a little milder?"

"Cascade is milder, Jim," Blair pointed out. His expression got even more hopeful, if that were possible.

Jim sighed. "OK, Chief. But I reserve the right to haul you out of there if it looks too dangerous."

Jim inhaled deeply, grimacing at the sweat-tinged flavor of the air, as he finally maneuvered Blair off the floor and up to the bar, the younger man still doing little dance steps in time to the music. "Sandburg, would you try slowing down for just five minutes? I swear, you're like a hummingbird on speed. Two Heinekens," he told the bartender.

"The energy level here is just so amazing! Oh, thanks," Blair accepted a bottle from Jim. "It's great to be in the middle of this kind of synergy, you know what I mean?


Heedless of Jim's answer, Blair kept going, "The whole crowd of people just feeding off each other and reinforcing the uninhibited atmosphere. You know, I bet I could do a really cool study on the micro-society that's created within a dance club over the course of an evening..."

"Put away the brain for a while, Darwin," Jim poked him good-naturedly. "Haven't you got enough research projects going?"

"Come on, man. Just check the place out from an observer's perspective." Blair leaned against the bar and waved around at the crowd, eyes bright as he did just that.

Jim sighed a little, then followed suit, absently letting his vision wander over the shifting waves of the mass of people, automatically noting down appearance and identifying features with the practiced eye of an investigator. After a few minutes, he frowned slightly and leaned over towards Blair. "Is it just me, or is there something out of whack here?"

Blair glanced up at him, eyes dancing. "You mean, other than the fact that all the guys are with guys and all the women are with women?"

"Sandburg, are you telling me you brought us to a gay bar?"

"Well, first of all, I didn't know. But this isn't a bar. It's a club. The music's good, the drinks aren't too overpriced, and the crowd scene here is awesome, so who cares? It's not like you were planning on picking someone up, were you?"

"Sandburg, I'm not worried about not being able to pick someone up. But if we were in a straight club, it would be a lot easier to avoid anyone else on the prowl. Women aren't as likely to try to pick up guys, even in someplace as crazy as this, and they take no for an answer a lot faster."

Blair patted his arm. "Don't worry, big guy," he grinned. "I'll fight off the ravening hordes."

"I wasn't worrying about them hitting on me," Jim said pointedly.

"Oh, come on. Who's going to hit on me?" Blair scoffed.

Jim folded his arms and leaned back against the bar to wait. Gratifyingly enough, a few moments later, a strikingly handsome African-American man, his head shaven and T-shirt tight enough to display well-defined muscles to advantage, came up to Blair.

"Hey, Beautiful. You look kind of lonely. Care to dance?"

Jim felt all his muscles tense as the man reached out a hand to stroke Blair's cheek. Without making a conscious decision, he found himself gripping the guy's wrist. "He's not lonely, and he does not care to dance," he said sharply.

The stranger gave Jim a quick once-over as if making an assessment, then stepped back with a casual shrug. "No problem, man. Didn't realize he was taken." He nodded to them both and slipped back into the crowd.

Jim watched carefully until he was sure the man had headed away, then turned to Blair only to find his partner dissolved in giggles. "Fine, Sandburg, laugh it up. Next time I'll let you get dragged off."

"Come on, Jim. The guy was making a pass at me, not kidnapping me. All I needed to do was say a polite 'no, thanks' and I'm sure he'd have gone on his way. You need to lower the intensity on those Blessed Protector instincts of yours, you know?"

"He was about to pet you, Sandburg, in case you didn't notice. And you need to turn up the intensity on your self-preservation instincts. Don't stand there looking out at the crowd like you're cruising -- you're just asking to be hit on."

Blair rolled his eyes. "The whole point of being here is to watch the crowd, man. I don't care if I get hit on -- it's not like I have to say yes."

*Great. I'm going to be spending the rest of the night on Sandburg Protection duty.* Jim sighed and ordered a drink from the bar as Blair kept looking eagerly around, bouncing a little on his heels in time to the pulsating music.

A stunningly beautiful woman encased in a dress masquerading as saran wrap sauntered up towards the bar on Jim's other side, ordering a rum and coke in a husky voice. Her hand brushed Jim's arm as she took the drink. "Sorry," she murmured, giving him a glance that was anything but apologetic.

"No problem," Jim felt his senses twitching as he looked at her. *Please don't let those damn pheromones start in on me here,* he thought prayerfully. But his cock remained quiet, and he realized it was more of a sense of something out-of-place.

"Come here often?" she purred.

"No, he doesn't," Blair answered pointedly, sliding his arm around Jim's back.

She glanced at Blair, raising an eyebrow. She then looked back at Jim expectantly.

Annoyed at her dismissive attitude towards the younger man, Jim slid his arm around Blair as well. "Like he said, no, I don't," he answered curtly.

"Pity," she murmured. "Feel free to find me later if you're interested in more fun than he can provide," she told Jim archly with another glance at Blair. "We could try for a prize in the contest."

"He'll be busy," Blair snapped as she headed back off.

Jim eyed Blair. "So whose protective instincts need to be turned down here?"

"Fine," Blair mimicked his earlier words. "Next time I'll let you get dragged off."

Jim blinked at the emphasis, then paled. He turned and stared after the woman. "No..."

"Yep." Blair was grinning like mad. "Don't tell me you couldn't tell," he teased. "Unless maybe it's just been so long that anyone is starting to look good..."

"Shut up, Sandburg," Jim muttered darkly. He downed the rest of his drink and set down the glass. "Stay here, I'm heading to the bathroom." Blair nodded cheerfully and went back to people-watching.

Jim kept his hearing tuned to Blair's heartbeat as he shoved through the crowd and into the tiny, squalid bathroom, but lost his focus among the reverberating beat when the stench from the stalls hit his nostrils. He tried not to breathe as he quickly used the facilities and rinsed his hands, avoiding the incandescent pink of the provided soap. "I'm going to need a serious drink after that," he muttered beneath his breath as he finally escaped from the chamber.

Making his way back towards Blair, he was unsurprised to find a couple of bepierced leather-clad men pressing an invitation on the younger man with more than polite vigor. He came up behind them, folding his arms across his chest. "OK, you two, hit the road."

They turned to him, the taller of the pair straightening to his full height and glaring down at Jim. "You want to repeat that?"

Jim smiled thinly. "Sure. Hit. The. Road. Now. He isn't interested."

"Sorry," Blair said brightly, edging around the two and sidling up to Jim. "He's just so strict with me."

Jim glared at him. "Sandburg, I can't leave you alone for two minutes, can I?"

"Hey, this was not my fault," Blair protested.

"Right. You probably batted those baby blues at them." Jim touched the tip of Blair's nose. "That's it for the night, Chief. I'm taking you home before you get into any more trouble."

"What? No way -- it's only eleven!"

"Chief, I seem to recall we agreed on leaving when I said so."

"I seem to recall I didn't agree to anything of the sort, you just assumed it. Come on, man, the night is young! Let's dance some more."

"Why, so you can attract even more attention?"

"Hey, I've only been asked to dance! You're the one who was being invited to participate in unspeakable acts of debauchery." Blair waggled his eyebrows, grinning.

As the two bickered, the strangers glanced at each other and shrugged. "They are so married," the shorter one observed. They strolled away with faint grins on their faces, while both Jim and Blair stared after them, mouths agape for a moment.

"Not another word, Chief. We're out of here." Jim grabbed Blair and led him out of the club.

The next afternoon, they headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art after some intense coaxing from Blair. As they wandered through one exhibit, Jim eyed the small patched rug hanging on the wall in front of him with a decided lack of appreciation. "What makes this thing so special? It's pretty ugly." he whispered to Blair, ignoring the disapproving looks he got from several of the other museumgoers.

Blair whispered back, "It's a pashmina rug. There are only forty rugs like it left in the world, and it's got almost 2,000 knots per square inch. They were made in India centuries ago." He gestured towards a curling leaf in part of the pattern. "Dial up your sight and take a look at the weaving in here," he encouraged softly enough that only Jim could hear.

Focusing his vision, Jim zoomed in on the patch of green wool and found himself suddenly lost amidst a mystifying tangle of ropelike cords twisted around each other. He tried to follow the patterns to some kind of end without success, dizziness washing over him, pursued by nausea. A warm sensation suddenly intruded, offering an anchor, and he seized on it, surfacing from the maze to the steady stream of subvocalized words issuing from Blair's lips and the comforting pressure of his Guide's hand on his shoulder.

"Man, that was not too bright of me," Blair said ruefully, tugging him over to a bench and pressing him down. "Are you OK?"

Jim automatically reached over as Blair sat down next to him, his hand sliding up to the back of his Guide's neck and settling there as if to ground himself. "Yeah, just give me a sec here, Chief," he managed as his off-kilter senses re-established themselves.

Blair recognized the warm presence of Jim's hand absently, more as a connection than a caress. He took Jim's other hand in both of his, rubbing his thumbs over the callused palm in a reassuring pattern. "Hey, why don't we go up to the roof garden and get you some air?" he suggested in sudden inspiration.

Jim nodded and stood back up, his hand never leaving its secure position as they wound their way through the galleries and out into the small courtyard and sculpture garden on the museum roof, or even while Blair bought a steaming cup of coffee from the small pushcart there. They wandered over to a secluded corner, sharing the dark, unsweetened brew and kept close by the Sentinel's grip. Jim's hand started to slowly move against Blair's skin, tracing small circles of warmth.

"Mmm," Blair sighed, leaning back against the railing and letting his head roll back slightly over Jim's fingers. The movement pulled Jim a couple of steps closer. Blair opened his eyes again and looked up at him with a relaxed, casually sensual smile that made his entire mouth an invitation.

Jim found himself bending forward before he thought about it, froze just a short infinity away from his partner's lips. *What the hell am I doing?* He was too close now to back away and pretend he hadn't just been diving in for a kiss. And too close to pretend he hadn't noticed Blair leaning forward to meet him.

A swallow. "Jim?"

"Blair..." Throat clearing.

They stared at each other blankly for a few minutes. Blair finally broke the silence. "Look... why don't we get out of here, go back to the apartment... we can grab some lunch..." he stammered a little, looking down.

Jim felt a tightness close around his throat at Blair's suddenly awkward behavior. *Oh God. Brilliant, Ellison. Just fucking brilliant. Go ahead, destroy your whole life because you can't control your goddamn hormones.* He straightened up, backing away from Blair with a palpable sense of loss as his hand left the warm skin.

Looking up, Blair grabbed the hand as it slipped away. "Hey, man," he said softly, tugging on it until Jim looked at him, the bleakness in his partner's eyes like a shock of cold water. "You're still you, I'm still me. You know, friends, partners?" Reassured as Jim's hand relaxed a little and clasped around his own, he took a deep breath and went on, "If... if we..." he floundered momentarily "if we take this to... I don't want to say the next level... if we take this step -- you know, man, here I am babbling like an idiot, the least you could do is give me some sign that you're not just waiting for me to let go of your hand so you can run for the hills."

Jim laughed out loud as relief surged through him. "No, Chief, I'm not running anywhere," he said quietly, squeezing Blair's hand. "I think you've got the right idea -- let's head back to the apartment. It's freezing up here."

A grin broke over Blair's face in response. As they turned to head out of the museum, he tentatively lifted Jim's hand up towards his neck. Jim paused for a heartbeat or two, then settled his hand back into place. Blair smiled up at him and slung an arm around his waist.

-The End-