Blair had to laugh at the look of skepticism on Jim's face when he came home to find Blair sitting at the table elbow-deep in pumpkin guts.
"Aren't you a little old for that, Chief?" Jim asked, eyebrow raised.
"Nah -- it's a tradition, man! You're never too old or too young for traditions."
A shadow crossed Jim's face, leaving a frown in its wake. "Right," he said brusquely, and headed upstairs.
Blair had just finished scraping the insides of his pumpkin when Jim returned in a T-shirt and sweats, passing into the kitchen to grab a beer.
"You ready to start yours?" Blair called into the kitchen.
"Are you ready to start your pumpkin?"
"My pumpkin." Jim came to stand by the table, looking at Blair like he'd started speaking Swahili.
"Sure." Blair reached under the table and pulled up a second pumpkin. "Here, I figured you should have the taller one," he offered with a laugh.
"I have a pumpkin." Jim's voice unexpectedly raised at the end of what had started out as a statement, turning it into a question that had Blair suddenly wanting to track down William Ellison and dump his big bowl of pumpkin guts on the bastard's head.
"Um, I'm thinking that pumpkin carving wasn't an art that was cultivated at your house." He tried to keep his tone casual, though he was feeling anything but.
"No..." Jim answered slowly, his eyes glued to his pumpkin. "At first Dad said we were too young to do the cutting ourselves, and taking out the insides was too messy. Sally would carve one, though, and Stevie and I would watch, from a clean distance. Then later Dad said we were too old for that sort of nonsense."
"Nothing in between?"
Jim didn't answer right away. "Not that I remember," he finally said, looking at Blair with frustrated, wistful eyes that made Blair want to just hug him close and pat his head and tell him and show him that everything would be OK.
Of course, if he did that, everything would not be OK, he realized with an rueful but internal smile, and Blair pushed the feeling firmly down. He knew Jim would not respond well to anything resembling pity -- not to mention anything resembling non-platonic interest. Upbeat, chipper, friendly... yeah, he could do that.
"Well this is the perfect time to start, then!" he announced brightly. "Roll up those sleeves, man, this is going to get messy!"
How does he do that? If it were anyone else, I'd be out of here... but it couldn't really have been anyone else. No one else would have bought me a pumpkin, and no one else is able to reduce me from world-weary cynic to needy kid in a matter of moments... thank god.
Jim continued to stare at the pumpkin, taking in the smooth texture of the shell, a bit of mud caked in a few spots but otherwise unblemished.
"Well this is the perfect time to start, then! Roll up those sleeves, man, this is going to get messy!"
The matter-of-fact tone dragged a small smile to Jim's face, and he automatically began to do as Sandburg had asked.
Thanks, Chief, he thought. That could have gotten a lot messier than those pumpkin insides if you'd wanted to take it there...
"So what do we do?"
The grin on Blair's face was worth the weirdness inherent in grown men carving jack o'lanterns, Jim decided.
He carefully followed Blair's directions and cut the top off, not making a perfect circle even though instinct told him to do so. "You won't be able to fit the top on easily if it's too symmetrical -- make a notch in the back or something," Blair had warned. "I'm a Sentinel, of course I can get it back on," he'd argued, but he did it Blair's way. As usual.
He was somewhat hesitant about the next instruction, though.
"Really, Jim, the spoon just gets in the way -- just go ahead and grab those pumpkin guts!"
"I'm not sure they really qualify as guts, Chief."
"Stick your hand in there and you tell me." Blair nodded his head with an air of satisfied superiority.
I can't believe the things I let him talk me into...
It didn't seem quite as slimy as it looked... at least not at first. He scooped a handful of seeds out without much trouble.
"Put them in here, Jim." Blair looked up from drawing a face on his pumpkin in crayon to indicate a smaller bowl half full of seeds. "I'll clean them up and roast them later."
"Of course you will." Jim deposited the seeds.
"I suggest pulling as much of the gunk out with your hands that you can, then using the spoon to scrape the sides."
Jim sighed, and stuck his hand back into the orange mess and went for more seeds, sitting in strange little piles inside the pumpkin. He hadn't spent a lot of time in his life contemplating what the insides of a pumpkin might be like, but he didn't really expect this -- things weren't quite as attached in there as he thought they ought to be.
Seeds largely out of the way, he had no choice but to confront the stringy mass of dark orange slime in the center of the pumpkin. He sighed again, with more vigor, but Sandburg didn't react. He had started in on pumpkin surgery, wielding some strange little pumpkin saw with an air of determined concentration. Trust Sandburg to have specialized tools -- what was wrong with a kitchen knife?
Seeing no way around it, Jim sunk his hand into the fibrous mass and pulled. The strands slipped right through his fingers and left them coated with some sort of pumpkin concentrate.
He tried again, feeling his way to where the strands were connected to the shell of the pumpkin. The feeling of the cool pumpkin fibers sliding across his palm and through his fingers was fascinating.
Almost like threading your hand through someone's hair, but with industrial-strength slime added, he thought.
And, as usual, the thought of his hand in someone's hair immediately turned his focus to Blair and his inescapable hair-based fantasies of his partner, his imagination suddenly captured in a bizarre amalgamation of vivid non-Blair sensation and equally vivid Blair fancy...
"Jim! Come on, man, snap out of it, OK?"
Suddenly Jim realized two startling things: 1) Blair was leaning across the table and swatting his left arm, and 2) his right hand, still tangled in pumpkin guts, felt like it was being eaten by a swarm of hungry army ants.
"Shit!" He yanked his hand out of the pumpkin, sending spatters of pumpkin pulp and two seeds flying, and ran for the kitchen sink.
Blair was close behind. "What is it, Jim? Are you OK? Oh man, I think you zoned there and I didn't even notice! I'm so sorry!"
Blair skidded to a halt beside him, and they both looked into the sink as Jim gingerly rinsed the pumpkin off his hand.
In a way, seeing the raw, red skin actually made him feel better -- at least the pain wasn't in his head. But it obviously made Blair feel worse.
"Oh my god, Jim, I am so sorry! This is all my fault -- I should have never made you do this, it was stupid, and then I was so absorbed in trying to design the perfect jack o'lantern that I didn't even realize you were zoned!"
"Hey, come on, it wasn't your fault, Chief. How could you know I'd come down with the pumpkin plague here?" Jim reassured him as he gently soaped his hand. It was easy to feel charitable when in his concern, Blair was distractedly rubbing Jim's back and leaning his whole body close to Jim's side.
"Well, I should have been paying more attention!"
"You aren't my babysitter, Sandburg. I'm a big boy now, OK?"
"Yeah, but... I feel bad. Sue me." His lips quirked in a sudden smile, and Jim had to smile back, even though he felt about ready to claw his own hand off.
Finally convinced he'd removed all traces of the offending pumpkin, Jim gently patted his hand dry on a kitchen towel.
Blair shook his head. "Aw, man, that does not look good."
"Feels like shit, too," Jim agreed.
"Let me grab the special lotion, OK? You sit on the couch and I'll be right there. We'll get you fixed up in a jiffy!"
Jim smiled again at the return of perky-Blair. Nothing got him down for long... and that was just one of the things that Jim loved about him.
He sat down on the sofa with a sigh... it would be nice to have Blair pressed up against him like he'd been in the kitchen when it didn't involve life or limb. But he tried not to worry about it too much -- it wasn't going to happen, and it couldn't lead to anything good to dwell on what wasn't to be. Fantasize, maybe, but not worry.
Now that the pumpkin was no longer on his skin, the pain aspect of the equation was almost gone, but the itch factor had skyrocketed. Before he even realized what he was doing, he'd started to scratch at it.
"No! Jim, you know better, that's only going to make it worse!" Blair hurried over with the cream made with oat flour, aloe vera, and about a hundred other bizarre organic ingredients that Jim couldn't be bothered to remember but which he had to admit had a rather nice scent to them. "Come on, give me your hand, and I'll put it on for you."
A definite up side to the whole pumpkin plague business, Jim decided.
"Feel better?" Blair asked as he smoothed the cream over the reddened skin.
"Mmm," Jim rumbled in response.
"So did you zone on the sensation of the pumpkin itself, or your skin's reaction to it, or what?"
"What? I don't know."
"I'm just curious -- you almost never zone on touch, and you haven't zoned at all in months."
"I was just... thinking, I guess, and got distracted by the feel of the pumpkin. I don't know." He shrugged. This was not an area he needed Blair delving into, but it could be impossible to distract his partner when he got his teeth into something.
"Sorry? I told you, it wasn't your fault."
"I mean, I'm sorry to have brought up bad memories -- I didn't mean to cause any problems, you know that, right?"
"Sure, Chief. And I wasn't even thinking about the history stuff, it's OK." Apparently Blair was determined to feel guilty about something.
"What were you thinking about, then?"
Pressing your naked body down on the bed while my hands are buried in your hair... come on, Chief, can't we drop this?
He tried to project nonchalance. "Who cares, Sandburg? Pumpkins, I guess."
"The innards do have such a strange texture, don't they?"
"Are we about done here?" As they'd talked, Blair had spread the lotion across all the affected area, partway up Jim's forearm. He hadn't missed a spot, but Blair's touch was so soothing...
"Maybe just one more light coat... it's really helping, Chief." A little too much, maybe.
"Sure, no problem!"
Jim watched Blair's strong hands as he worked, one holding Jim's hand how he wanted it, the other lightly spreading the anti-itch moisturizer into his skin. He loved Blair's hands, always so capable, broader and sturdier than his height might suggest...
He realized that he was on the verge of a second zone, and quickly focused on another sense. Smell -- he could smell the various elements that went into the cream that Blair had found for him at a speciality shop after a particularly bad reaction to some chemicals he run into in a warehouse last year... and something else. Something... Blair.
As Blair's fingers stroked his, Jim realized that the touch had become almost a caress, and that it wasn't just soothing his skin, but stimulating the rest of him. As he felt himself begin to harden, he suddenly realized what the scent was that he was catching from his partner -- Jim wasn't the only one aroused.
A surreptitious glance at the growing bulge in Blair's jeans confirmed it, and without thinking Jim's eyes flew to his partners'.
"It was like hair," he blurted, and couldn't stop himself from looking towards Blair's curls. Oh my god, what did I just do?!
"What was like hair?" Jim could hear caution but also hope -- he'd been doing his own study of Blair almost as long as Blair had been studying him, even if the anthropologist didn't realize it, and Jim could read many of his nuances by now. Perhaps he hadn't just ruined everything...
"The pumpkin innards. It reminded me of hair, between my fingers... that's what I was thinking about." This time the glance at Blair's hair was intentional, and obviously noticed.
Their gazes caught, and locked, and Jim realized that they both were holding their breath. Jim released his when he felt Blair's fingers moving past the reddened area on his forearm, cream forgotten as he gently explored and massaged Jim's arm past the elbow and onto the upper arm.
Jim let out a sound that wasn't quite a moan, but which could only be construed as appreciative.
Blair continued to stroke his arm, and dropped his eyes to watch the movements of his hand. "You were... thinking of me?" he ventured softly.
"I always think of you." No turning back now...
"Oh god... Did you know that Halloween was originally celebrated by the Celts as Samhain at this time of year? The end of summer and the start of winter, and that was when they began their new year as well."
"I don't think I knew that."
"It just... it seems very fitting, you know? Because this... I'm thinking this is a new beginning here. Am I... understanding things right, Jim?"
The tentative tone tugged some final heartstring loose and Jim pulled Blair to him firmly, nuzzling the hair beside Blair's ear. "You're right, you're always right, Chief," he whispered as he finally tangled his good hand into the hair that he'd been eyeing for years.
Blair just laughed as he moved in for the first kiss of the new year.
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