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Notes: Thanks to Owlet and Wolfling for betaing! This story starts in the middle of the episode "Night Shift" and proceeds to go its own merry way. Inspired by the episode, cmshaw's wonderful missing scene "Torn", and Merry's review of the ep. I hadn't read any of the other stories based on NS before this was basically finished, so any other similarities are just a result of GMTA. :-)

Summary: Blair deals with the ramifications of his offer to destroy his work.

Warnings: Spoilers for "Night Shift". No sex, lots of angst, strong language.

Dream Deferred by the lady of shalott

        What happens to a dream deferred?

        Does it dry up
        Like a raisin in the sun?
        Or fester like a sore-
        And then run?
        Does it stink like rotten meat?
        Or crust and sugar over
        like a syrupy sweet?

        Maybe it just sags
        like a heavy load.

        Or does it explode?

                - Langston Hughes, "Harlem"

"So I'll just go tear up my notes."

Blair flung himself out of the break room, trying not to start hyperventilating. Practically running to Jim's desk, he dropped into the chair and gripped the edge of the table with white-knuckled hands, staring blindly at the desk calendar. He didn't know what he was going to do. His eyes trailed over the desk surface and landed on the smooth black report cover, the neat little rectangle exposing the title of his thesis. A swallow caught in his throat, and he looked up at the break room just in time to see Jim walk out and head for the interrogation rooms. The detective never glanced his way.

Slowly, he picked up the bound chapter, letting his fingers stroke over the laminated cover, feeling the solid weight of its pages in his hands. Three years. Three years of being a stranger in a strange land, trying to fit in and keep up, getting bruised and bloodied along the way. Three years of danger, of tension, of brutal exhaustion. And all along the way, this had been a Holy Grail for him, mingled excuse and reward and heroic quest all in one.

It was good -- he knew it, knew it was the best thing he'd ever done. He'd poured hours of himself into this one tiny little chapter, only the preliminary to the bright, shining whole, and yet it had seemed almost no effort at all, the words and analysis slipping out of him as if he were only putting down things he'd always known. No obfuscation, no concealment, no shading -- he'd done all of those in papers before; some measure of that academic kind of deceit was almost expected if not required in his discipline. But not here. Every single word had been paid for with blood and sweat, and more than a few tears, and they were all true.

He'd imagined the day he would give it to Jim. Not this scrap, but the complete volume, crisp printed pages with not a mark on them, bound neatly together in the dark blue binding he'd already picked out. Jim would read the little dedication planned for the first page -- 'To Jim. It's about friendship.' -- and smile just a little, the rare shy smile that meant he was pleased and a little surprised.

He'd also imagined another day, after Jim had finished reading and signed-off on the dissertation, after the research project was over. After Jim was no longer his thesis subject, but just his friend, and he could finally say all the things he'd been swallowing for three years in a perhaps futile attempt to keep some tiny smidge of a claim to objectivity.

How had he read things so wrong? He'd wanted to share his passion, to give people unfortunate enough not to have a Sentinel of their own a chance to glimpse the wonder he'd discovered. How had Jim found so much poison in what he'd intended to be a gift?

He opened the cover, skimmed through the pages. Yes, here was that phrase... here, a few pages later, another. But he didn't understand why Jim had picked those few things out among everything else he'd written. Yes, Jim was territorial and wary, but he needed those qualities -- they were part of why he defended his territory and the people under his protection with such intense devotion. It just seemed so obvious.

He flipped ahead, looking for the brief mention of the interview with the 'subject's ex-wife'. Now that he'd had some time to think a bit more, he remembered how that had happened. Perhaps a month after he'd started working with Jim, Carolyn had taken him out to lunch to not-subtly grill him about his 'relationship' with Jim, and had instead ended up spilling her guts to him about her relationship with Jim instead. He'd written about it in his research diary, then used the notes without really thinking about the way he'd gotten the information originally. Guilt touched him, and he snatched up a red pen to cross out all the information he'd gotten from that conversation.

His hand paused over the paper, then let the pen drop again. What was the point? No one was going to see it now. Almost violently, he loosened the clasps and pulled the scribbled and marked pages out of the binder. He pushed up from the desk and walked over to the shredder. The blades winked at him in the light, a jagged-toothed maw waiting hungrily for the pages he held. "At least it'll be recycled," he said out loud, trying to pretend he wasn't tearing apart inside.

He looked out at the chaos of the bullpen, the battered and motley crowd drifting in almost comical contrast between the ordered rows of desks. Had it really been so long since that first day? He grinned as he remembered his naive question -- "This isn't a typical day for you, is it?" -- then felt the smile fade like a ghost as he saw Jim stalk by on his way to Simon's office. His gaze fixed on the man he'd called partner, friend, brother for three years, as if he could somehow see through skin and bone and into Jim's heart.

"I call it a betrayal of trust and friendship."

How could Jim say something like that to him? Betrayal? To do what, write the truth as best he could? Standing over the quietly humming shredder, Blair felt anger stirring. He looked down at the pages and read through the offending passages once more. The doubts swirling through him since Jim's accusing words in the garage suddenly found themselves at bay as he studied every paragraph intently. He hadn't been wrong. This wasn't some litany of Jim's faults -- in fact, it was practically adulatory. He dropped into an empty chair and stared down at the pages. Why was Jim so upset over this? Because he just didn't want to have it published at all? No matter what it said?

Blair's jaw clenched almost painfully with tension. Every refusal to do a test, every veto of documentation, every disparaging remark Jim had made about his dissertation -- they all rose up out of memory and paraded in front of him. It made for unpleasant reminiscing, especially when he compared it with his own attitude towards their relationship.

When had he ever put his work and the dissertation before Jim's needs? How many times had he delayed and delayed some more, just to make sure he still had an excuse for working with Jim? Even now, with a deadline looming in front of him, here he was, next to a shredder -- a fucking shredder! -- ready to destroy the culmination of three years of research, not to mention deep-six his grants and the best part of his chances of actually having a career. All because Jim was wildly overreacting to a preliminary draft of one chapter of his dissertation.

He stared down at the pages and faced facts, a quiet sort of panic brewing in his gut. If he didn't hand this in, his grants would disappear. If his review committee wasn't too disgusted, Ranier would probably keep him on as a teaching fellow for a year or so, then politely show him the door if he didn't find any more funding -- which would take a sizable miracle, given his current track record of non-production. And then... the spectre of student loans loomed large. The minute Ranier cut him loose, the creditors would come knocking on his door.

And what kind of job could he get to pay them off? Despite Jim's calling his police observer position a 'job', it didn't qualify -- the only pay he got was when he assisted on a case that happened to have some reward money. He'd be lucky to get a job teaching social studies at some rural high school that had trouble getting qualified teachers. And after twenty years or so doing that -- and probably working a second job -- he might be able to pay the loans off. Forget about ever doing any more meaningful research. Forget about ever actually being a professor, or going on another expedition. Oh, and forget about sticking around Cascade and being with Jim.

Eyes starting to burn, he wondered bitterly how Jim would react if Blair offered him a choice between their friendship and being a cop. Oh yeah, real tough question there. Jim was all set to 'call it quits' on their friendship and their partnership over a hasty reading of his paper. He'd probably be glad to see Blair trash the manuscript and disappear from his life -- after all, he had a handle on the senses now. He didn't need a short, long-haired 'neo-hippie' tagging along with him anymore. Especially not when said hippie was inconveniently owed a debt Jim didn't want to pay.

It was suddenly hard to breathe as he thought about that. He'd been so sure that Jim, on some level, shared his feelings. All of them, not just the loving friendship that they shared now, but the secret desire that couldn't be spoken, not yet. He had convinced himself that he could read Jim so well, that Jim was just quiet and undemonstrative, not uncaring. That his frequent snide remarks were just the friendly teasing of a man who'd never learned how to openly share his feelings. Now, with one dream crumbling into ruin around him, the others quickly started to follow.

So, what was he going to do? He looked down at the pages and looked at the shredder. He could go back to the desk. Pick up the binder, put the pages back in, head over to Ranier. His committee would be meeting around noon. Plenty of time to finish making his edits, print out a fresh copy. Plenty of time afterwards to go to the loft, pack up his stuff, move out. He had, as he'd told Jim, more than enough material, and he'd already reached all of his conclusions. He could finish his dissertation in a couple of months if he no longer had the distraction of police work hanging over him. With a PhD under his belt, he could sign up for some post-doc expedition, head off to some remote country for a few years, forget he ever knew a James J. Ellison. Jim didn't care about him, why should he give a damn if Jim was bothered by the dissertation? They'd had a deal, and he'd more than paid up his half. No one could blame him for using the research.

He laughed at himself a little bitterly. Sure. As if. Even if Jim was being unfair, even if Jim was overreacting, even if Jim didn't give a flying fuck about the happiness or future of one Blair Sandburg -- there was no doubt that he really was upset by the dissertation. And the idea of deliberately hurting Jim... it was so alien that Blair was surprised he'd even managed to entertain the thought. Standing up, he looked at his paper and dropped it in the 'TO BE SHREDDED' bin. He couldn't quite bring himself to dump it directly into those waiting jaws. Easier to just leave it sitting in the pile.

Turning his back and walking away from the stack was like leaving part of himself behind. As he sat back down at Jim's desk, dry-eyed, he found that picking up the phone to call his advisor was almost easy after that. "Amanda? Hi, it's Blair. Sorry for waking you up." A comfortable numbness seemed to envelope him as he explained what had happened, in vague terms. No, there was no chance of handing anything in. No, an extension wouldn't help. Yes, he understood what this meant. Yes, he'd come and explain to the entire committee. It was over very quickly, and he lay the receiver down gently, wondering at his own calm.

His eyes roved over the desk randomly, then stopped on the report binder, a forlornly empty shell. He considered having hysterics for a moment, but settled for picking it up and dropping it into the trash. Packing up the rest of his papers and pens only took a few moments, his lap desk unpleasantly light without the chapter. He shrugged into his jacket and made his way to the elevator.

Stepping out into the garage, he remembered that he'd come in with Jim and didn't have his own car. So he headed out onto the street and started walking, the lap desk under one arm. The streets were almost empty, a hush settling over them in the pre-dawn hours. The occasional car sped past. But for that, he might have been the only person alive in the world. Crossing over a bridge, he stopped and leaned on the railing, looking down at the mirror-black surface of the river. He wondered idly whether Howard Blake had spent a night like this once, somewhere far away, realizing that everything he'd built his life on for years was gone. It would be very easy to disappear right now, he thought. He felt practically invisible already.

It took him another hour to get to the loft. He locked up behind himself and went to his room, setting the alarm for 10, and fell into bed without bothering to take his clothes off. He stared at the ceiling, deliberately not-thinking, unable to fall asleep.

Jim came home just as he'd decided to give up on sleep and go to the university early. Blair could hear him standing hesitantly in the kitchen, then puttering around and making himself a snack. Without saying anything, Blair came out and sidled around the other man to get at the coffee. "I was worried when you left like that," Jim finally said.

Blair's hand trembled just a little as he poured the dark brew into a mug, but he didn't respond.

"Look, Chief, I'm sorry, all right?" When Blair still didn't speak, Jim pushed back his plate with a clatter and stood up. "Dammit, will you talk to me?"

Something snapped. "Fuck you, you son of a bitch," Blair said venomously, whirling on a startled Jim. "Talk to you? About what? You got what you wanted, didn't you? It's over. Shredded, gone, in the trash. Along with my grants, my career, and probably the rest of my life. Of course, you've pretty much got control of your senses now, you don't need me around anymore, so that shouldn't cause you any worries." He gulped harshly for breath. "Hey, it's a nice bonus for you. You get rid of the thesis and get rid of me at the same time. But you know, I'd really rather than you just said that you couldn't deal with having something published about you instead of throwing that crock of shit about betrayal at me."

Jim's face went queerly blank, one hand tight on the counter's edge. "You shredded it?"

Blair felt himself settle back into the cushion of numbness after the rush of anger passed. Almost gently, he said, "You didn't give me much choice, did you? You made it pretty clear it was you or the thesis. Not that I'm going to be able to stick around too long after this, but I'd have to be a cold bastard to just steamroll ahead with the dissertation once I knew that's how you felt."

"What... what do you mean? Why-- can't you get other grants?" Jim stumbled over the words.

"Grants don't go to people who've spent three years supposedly working on a dissertation only to come up empty the day of their first peer review meeting." Blair drank the unsweetened brew, the bitterness sliding over his tongue. "And Ranier doesn't renew Teaching Fellow positions indefinitely."

"Then why the hell did you shred it?" Jim demanded. "Did you really think I'd want you to fuck up your career over this?"

Blair lifted his head from contemplation of the dregs in his cup and stared at Jim. "Jim, just how did you think that dumping three years of research was not going to fuck up my career? I know that you think anthro is pretty much a joke, probably because I've been a pretty crappy anthropologist for the last three years, but believe it or not, we are expected to produce eventually."

"I didn't want you to dump all your research..."

"Oh yeah. Right." Blair laughed a little shortly. "You haven't wanted me to do research, from day one. I don't remember a single time you did a test without griping about it, and any time I've so much as mentioned my dissertation, or my work, the only comments you've made has been to either put it down or demand the right to sign off on it before I published."

"Maybe that's because it would have been nice to know that you were helping me for me and not just because you wanted a goddamned lab rat!" Jim suddenly shouted. "Jesus, how could you be my friend and... and analyze me like that? Like I was some kind of specimen on a slide? And a pretty fucked-up specimen at that."

"Don't-- don't even do that to me again, man, okay?" Blair raised his hands, closing his eyes. "You know, whatever insecurities you have, you can just keep them inside your own fucking head. Don't decide that I'm feeding them to you." He opened his eyes and stabbed a finger at Jim, his voice tight and intense. "That chapter didn't describe a 'fucked-up specimen'. It described someone who has an amazing gift. Yes, it described his limitations. It described some of the negative aspects of the gift. It described a human being. A human being who transcends his limitations to actually try and help people." He swallowed hard. "It described somebody that I respect the hell out of, and that I thought was a friend. I put my fucking heart into that thing, and you treated it like it was a knife I was stabbing into your back.

"And now you're saying that it bothered you because you thought I was just helping you because I wanted a lab rat? Let me tell you something. I gave up six offers to go on expeditions, ignored chances for thousands of dollars in grant money, delayed my dissertation for two and a half years... If I hadn't been so busy helping you for YOU, I'd have my doctorate, a year of postdoc if not more, and probably be someplace a hell of a lot warmer than Cascade, with very few bullets flying at my head!"

Feeling his throat grow tight, knowing that if he went on for long, he'd be crying soon, Blair finished, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get over to campus and explain to five people why I have nothing to show for the last three years." He stalked towards the door.

Jim reached out and grabbed Blair's arm. "Wait. Blair... Jesus. I..." The normally iron-hard voice was thick and choked. Blair looked up at him, Jim's pain stabbing at him, clamoring for attention. He didn't want to deal with it -- he had his own pain now, dammit, and Jim had no right to dump anything more on him. He tried to pull loose even as Jim clutched at him harder. "Blair. Please. Let me... oh God. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Please --"

"Stop it!" Blair screamed at him, wrenching free. "What else do you want from me? I gave you everything I had. I gave you three years of my life -- hell, I almost died for you! -- I gave you my time, my head, I even fell in love with you, and I just threw away my whole fucking career for you. I don't have anything else, okay? I'm done. So you can just stop pretending that you give a shit about me, because I can't give you anything else!"

He ran out the door and flung himself down the stairs so fast he skidded and fell twice. Ignoring the bruises, trying to ignore the rest of his pain, Blair struggled into the Volvo and drove towards campus with the determined carefulness of someone who knows he's dangerous. He managed to hurry from the parking lot to his office without seeing anyone he knew, spots forming in front of his eyes as he desperately regimented his breathing. Only when the door was shut did he let go of even that little control, crumpling to the ground and letting the panic attack take full hold.

He wasn't sure how long he stayed like that, curled into a tight ball, sobs and choking gasps warring for space in his constricting throat, but he was limp when the attack finally spent its fury. He lay on the floor for ten minutes more, breathing cautiously, before he risked getting up and tottering over to the couch. Exhaustion drove him into an uneasy sleep.

Blair woke only a few hours later and sat up. Scrubbing his face with his hands, he slid to the floor, folded himself into a cross-legged position, and repeated a quiet mantra a few times. After he finished, he looked out the window at the sunlight spilling over the manicured lawn and let the warm normalness of it carry away the remains of his panic. He still felt wobbly, but not with the same queasy sensation that the whole world was falling away beneath his feet.

He got up and sat at the cramped desk. Starting up his computer, he considered the options a little more rationally than he had last night. He'd done enough research to write an acceptable if slightly half-assed dissertation on Sentinels in general, even without his case study on Jim. Even if all of his grant money got cancelled today, he could probably scrape by for a few months without getting a job, especially if he sold the Volvo and his laptop and crashed here in his office instead of having an apartment. He could shower in the gym and cook on the little portable electric burner he kept around mainly for brewing extra-strong tea. With nothing else going on, he could finish the dissertation quickly enough to make up for this original setback.

'Setback' -- what a bloodless way to think about it, he thought, dropping his head into his hands. His original twisting fright gone, he could acknowledge now that he hadn't been fair to Jim. Jim was his friend -- he did care, and he wouldn't have wanted to make things this tough. Jim had spoken and reacted out of fear, out of misunderstanding.

Blair clung to his certainty of that much tenaciously. But he couldn't overlook that when push came to shove and he'd done his best to explain what Jim had misread, the older man had stayed hard and angry, refusing even to work with him anymore, forcing him to offer to destroy his work and throw it all away. He rubbed his forehead. How could Jim have thought something so obviously stupid as the idea that Blair was still working with him just for the research? How could Jim have asked him to give up everything like that?

It was already 11am, he noticed, and forced himself to put aside those intensely painful thoughts. Time to get to work. He could probably appease the committee somewhat by putting together a schedule of the completion of his thesis and giving it to them after he apologized for the delay today. Deliberately keeping his mind only on dates and numbers of pages, he hit the keys and started to work.

A few minutes shy of noon, he snatched the last still-warm copy out of the tray and dashed up the back stairs to the room where his committee was meeting. He paused outside and held the copies in his mouth while he pulled back his tangled hair and wrapped a tie around it just to keep the mess out of his face. Maybe it was time to cut the hair, he thought suddenly, thinking that the gesture would be appropriate -- a kind of mourning. He shook his head at his own melodramatic turn of thought and pushed open the door.

Amanda looked up from her reading as he came in and gave him a wide smile that stopped him in his tracks. "Blair! Blair, I don't know whether to scold you for scaring me to death this morning or to praise you for this." She indicated the packet she was reading. "Come on in, the rest of the committee will be here in a few minutes."

He stumbled forward and sat down in bewilderment. "Amanda, what-- what is that?"

His advisor looked up at him in surprise. "What do you mean? It's your introductory chapter." She reached over and poked him. "The one you claimed wasn't going to be handed in."

"But where did you get it?"

"One of your friends gave it to me just fifteen minutes ago. Are you telling me you didn't know about this?" Puzzled, she looked at him for an explanation, holding out the black binder.

Blair flipped through, noticing all of his marks and corrections... this was it, the copy he'd left to be shredded. An odd light-headedness floated through him. "No," he answered, his voice a little strange to his own ears. "I thought it was gone."

"Well, it's not just not gone, it's wonderful. This is the first introductory chapter that I've enjoyed reading more than my weekly romance novel," she said dryly.

Gathering his wits back up, Blair raised his head. "Actually, um, I have to make some pretty major changes. I realized today... actually, last night... I've kind of lost my objectivity where my main case study is concerned," he admitted quietly. "I'm going to have to get rid of a lot of the material from that."

Amanda nodded slowly. "I was worrying about that. Just from reading between the lines, it sounds like you've been working with this -- man? woman? -- very intensively for quite some time."

"If it's okay, I'd rather not even identify the subject that much," Blair said quickly. "The sentinel is kind of leery about being identified." He paused, then repressed a tiny grin that suddenly wanted to bubble to the surface. "We can use 'she' as the default pronoun, I do that in a lot of the rest of the paper."

"All right. Well, it does sound like you're a little too close to her to make really objective comments. But as an introductory description, leading into the real analytical part of your work, it does do very nicely, especially if you tone down the theories in this section in favor of straight description." As three of the other committee members walked in together, she lowered her voice and quietly asked, "Did this 'loss of objectivity' have something to do with why you didn't think you were going to hand this in?"

Blair just nodded silently, then turned to greet the others, carefully folding up the schedule he'd brought and leaving it on the chair next to him.

A couple of hours later, the meeting was over. The committee had swamped him with questions and comments, but overall everything had gone pretty well. He hung back, waving goodbye to the five faculty members as they filed out of the room. Once they were all gone, he shakily dropped into a chair, clutching his manuscript, and let himself try to figure out what had happened.

Obviously, Jim had somehow rescued the paper and gotten it to them. Why? Out of guilt? Blair nibbled on his lip in worry, knowing that his comments from the night before would have really hit home with his partner. Jim hated owing anything to anybody, and Blair had carefully avoided letting Jim know about all the opportunities he'd lost due to their partnership for that very reason. Well, Blair amended, that and to avoid Jim telling him to take those opportunities when Blair was perfectly happy giving them up.

He sighed and let his head drop down onto folded arms. Now he'd ruined that, too. He'd made his own choices, and he had no right to throw them in Jim's face now. It was a guaranteed result that Jim would feel guilty and horribly indebted. Jim had probably felt the same way Blair had felt last night -- that he had no choice but to do something that tore him up inside in order to make things right.

The hand on his shoulder was a complete surprise, and he nearly propelled his chair into the wall in reaction. Jim held up his hands defensively as Blair bounced, startled, out of the chair.

"Man, you scared the life out of me," Blair gasped automatically, reaching out a hand to lean on the desk.

"I was waiting near your office, but then I saw your advisor heading back to hers, so I figured you were done..." Jim's voice trailed off uncomfortably. "How... how did it go?"

Blair sat back down and looked up at Jim a little helplessly, half his brain trying to come up with an answer, the other half still wondering how they were going to salvage their friendship out of this. He waved a hand aimlessly. "Fine. It went fine. Thanks to you." He pushed a hand into his hair. "Jim--"

"Blair--" Jim started at the same time. He stopped and pulled up a chair. "You first."

Taking a deep breath, Blair plunged ahead. "Look, Jim, what I said last night... I had no right to say those things to you. My career choices -- those have been my decisions, and I did just what I wanted to do. I wasn't being some kind of martyr. And I really wish you hadn't brought this here. I wasn't trying to guilt you into doing this -- well," he interrupted himself, "actually, I probably was, on some level, and I shouldn't have. I'm really sorry, man." He looked up briefly, eyes sad. "I calmed down once I got here and got a little sleep, and I figure, I can take out all the stuff from our research together and still have enough for a dissertation--"

Jim reached out a hand and pressed two fingers to Blair's lips, cutting off his words. "My turn now, okay?" he said gently, waiting for Blair's nod before he went on. "Did you say anything about your choices last night that wasn't true?"

"No, but Jim--" Blair subsided as Jim raised a hand.

"Okay. Chief, if you were trying to make me guilty, you had a right to. Not because you made those choices, but because I... because I still kept treating you like you were just in this thing for what you were getting out of it. I shouldn't have needed to be told about all those things to know that that was a crock of shit."

Jim folded his hands and looked down at them for a moment before going on. "You know I didn't ask for these senses. All I wanted was to be a good cop, do my job, have a normal life. Then all of a sudden I get screwed up, and you come out of nowhere with all the answers. I just... I got scared," he admitted. "I didn't even know you, and suddenly you were practically in control of my whole life. And for all I knew, you were going to take off any minute, once you got all the material you needed, or something better came along. It made me feel like I had a little control, if I could think that you needed this too. If you were getting something out of our partnership. And then I kept throwing that in your face when I practically made it up myself. And I'm sorry for that -- not just for last night, but for all the other times."

"Jim, you don't need to apologize, okay? I know that. I've known that for a while. I thought it made you feel better, thinking that. I didn't mind, and whenever you made a crack about it, I let it slide, no big deal. I didn't think you really believed I was just in this for the dissertation." Blair sighed and slumped back in his chair. "I was really stressed out last night. Things just got to me a lot more than they usually do."

"Just because you can usually take ten times as much abuse as a saint before blowing up doesn't give me a right to dump a load of crap on you to make me feel better," Jim said. "And I've done a little too much of that. It's just that lately... well, I stopped wanting to believe that you were in this for the paper. I wanted to think that you were doing this for me. And by then, I'd already gotten myself halfway convinced that you were only in it for the dissertation." He laughed shortly. "Jesus, I can't believe how I fucked this all up."

"Whoa, hang on, man. Credit where credit is due, okay?" Blair reached out and rested a hand on Jim's arm. "I knew that you were nervous and kind of freaked-out over the dissertation, and I knew how badly you wanted to have some kind of control over what was going to be said. I shouldn't have left you to find out I was starting to write it by accident, and I should have explained it to you, not made stupid comments about how you couldn't read it until I was done, ha-ha."

Jim shook his head. "Blair, I don't... I don't care about the dissertation. I don't care what you write in it." He looked intently into the younger man's eyes, choosing his words carefully. "What I do care about... is what you think... how you feel... about me." He stopped, eyes desperately hopeful.

A little dizzily, Blair wondered if his thumping heart sounded as loud to Jim as it did to him at this moment. "Don't you know? How can you not know?" He found himself smiling even though his eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Jim, you... you're everything. Just... everything."

Hesitantly, Jim reached out a hand and cupped the back of Blair's head, leaning in slowly. Blair decided he wasn't having any of that and promptly latched onto Jim's lips with his own. They both slid precariously close to the edges of their seats as they wrapped arms around each other, awkwardly trying to arrange their legs so they could press as close as possible.

When they broke apart, Blair dropped his forehead to Jim's chest and gave a little breathless laugh. "Oh man. I feel like I've been stuck on a roller coaster for a week."

"Funny," Jim said, his voice dazed with joy, "I feel like I've just gotten off one."

They nestled closer and let their embrace push aside all other questions for the moment. Secure in Jim's arms, in Jim's trust, Blair felt the world slip back into place.

/ Finis /