Cycles VII

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: These guys are mine, so there.

Author's notes: Warm thanks to Owlet and Miriam Heddy for betaing. This story will make very little sense if you haven't read the other Cycles, and it wouldn't hurt to have read the Nature series either.

It was dark when Daniel Casey pulled his car up in front of 852 Prospect; his mind was still turning over the conversation he'd just had with Daryl Banks.

Daryl Banks. Who had actually known James Ellison. Who called James Ellison "Uncle Jim." Daniel sighed and closed his eyes — the very thought warmed and reassured him. Uncle Jim. Daryl Banks had talked about James Ellison with respect — admiration — love, even.

Casey snorted to himself as he got out of the car. That made a very welcome change from Dr. Victor de Guzman. De Guzman had called Ellison "cranky," "grouchy," "irritable."

Hah. Well, that just showed how much he knew — what the hell did Victor de Guzman know about James Ellison anyway?

Casey slammed the car door shut. For that matter, what the hell did Victor de Guzman really know about Blair Sandburg? So what that he'd known the man for years? How on earth could you understand Blair Sandburg if you didn't know James Ellison?

Because nothing about Blair Sandburg made any goddamned sense if you didn't know —

The first soft sob penetrated his thoughts, and Casey's head shot up as he froze in place on the sidewalk, listening. Sobbing — the soft sounds of —

— and suddenly he was running, pushing through the glass doors to the lobby, charging up the stairs to the third floor.

Sonia. Sonia. His Sonia — his Guide — was —

His hands were shaking as he fumbled for the keys. Get to the Guide. Get to the Guide. Finally the lock turned and he shoved the door open, heart pounding, breathing hard with fear and adrenaline.

She was sitting on the living room floor with her back against the wall of Blair Sandburg's office. Her head was bent forward, braced in her hands; her shoulders were shaking.

In an instant he was kneeling beside her and had taken her hands in his. "Sonia?" he whispered, squeezing her hands tightly. "Sonia, what?"

She raised her head to look at him, and Casey blinked. She was laughing — or so it seemed, anyway. Sonia Cortez was half-laughing, half crying, and her mascara had run in dark smears around her reddened eyes, giving her an owlish look.

"Hey," Sonia sort of hiccuped, and then the tears began to fall again, even as she laughed.

"Sonia, what happened?" Casey asked with soft urgency. He sat next to her on the floor and tried to tug her close, but she balked and pulled her hands away.

"Oh, nothing," she said raggedly, rubbing irritably at her cheek. This only smeared her makeup worse; now she had long, black streaks across her face. "Nothing. It was just — " Sonia waved her hand toward the living room, and Daniel followed the movement of her hand but didn't see anything.

An intruder? An accident? What?

But Sonia was laughing softly again and Daniel turned to look at her. Beautiful. He found her so beautiful — her dark hair mussed, her face flushed with emotion, high color on her cheeks. She looked alive, and wild, and slightly out of control — and suddenly he felt a wrenching physical desire for her. He'd never felt desire like this: strong and hard and implacable.

"Daniel," Sonia said, "I want out."

Quiet. The world grew quiet. And then, slowly, sounds filled his ears; the sounds came back one by one like instruments in the first movement of a symphony. The first thing he heard, oddly enough, was the sound of Sonia's eyelashes brushing together as she blinked at him. And then he heard the gentle rush of her breathing, and the thump of her heartbeat.

And then he heard his own pulse-which was oddly steady, creepily steady, considering that the world had just ended.

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

Sonia let out a long breath and then looked at him sorrowfully. "I'm sorry," she said, and indeed she seemed sorry. "Daniel, I'm so so sorry but I just can't — " Another burst of hysterical laughter escaped her suddenly, and she covered her face with her hands.

He wanted to touch her, to hold her — but there was no way to do that now. He wanted to comfort her — he wanted to take comfort from her — but instead he moved away slowly, inching away against the wall of Blair Sandburg's room, putting space between them.

"I understand," he said, finally, and it came out as a hoarse whisper. "I understand perfectly," he said, more clearly. "I don't blame you — if I could get out of this, I would. I would, too."

Sonia dropped her hands and stared up at him, excitement shining in her glistening eyes. "Daniel, you can get out of this. You can. Not yet but — soon." He frowned at her, and she nodded eagerly. "It says so — in the book. Sandburg's book," she explained breathlessly. "Six months — Ellison was given a choice after six months. He didn't have to — and you don't have to, either. Daniel, you can fly again!"

And suddenly it was if she weren't there; suddenly he felt like he could see straight through her. "Fly again?" he echoed faintly.

"Yes!" Sonia exclaimed. She reached forward and seized the arm of his jacket. "In six months you can let the senses go dormant! You can go back to the Air Force, I can go back to my job, and — "

And we can both forget this ever happened. He blinked, and her tear-streaked face came into focus. She hadn't finished the sentence — she hadn't finished her thought — but that was what she meant.

We can forget this ever happened.

He nodded slowly and pulled his arm away from her hand. That was what she wanted. She wanted this to be over, she wanted to forget him, Ellison, Sandburg, all of it, all of them.

That was what she wanted.

Well, he could give her that.

"You're right," Daniel Casey said, trying to keep his expression neutral, trying to keep his eyes blank. "I remember that part. I read that too."

Sonia smiled at him hopefully. "You can say no. That's an option — that's part of the choice. I mean, what's the point of a choice if you can't say no?"

"Right," he agreed, carefully. "That's no choice at all."

"You could fly again," Sonia repeated enticingly.

"I could fly again," Daniel agreed.

"And if you say no," Sonia continued, " — well, then! — it's just a matter of keeping you alive and well for the duration." She looked around the loft, and then looked back at him. "You're safe here, aren't you?" she asked. "You feel comfortable here — you don't generally zone here...?"

"Right," Daniel agreed, nodding. "I feel safe here — I don't generally zone here." He saw where this was going, where she was going. "I can just hang out here for a while," he suggested, as if it were his idea, as if he had thought of it. "Stay at home more. It'd only be for a couple more months..."

"Exactly!" Sonia burst out. "A couple of months. Because you already had the senses when you came here, right? You were still in the Air Force when they came on line! So it can't be that much longer — and then you can have your normal life back."

"Maybe even only six weeks or so," Daniel said, and he couldn't help but smile at her, because she was starting to look so happy — god, he was making her so happy. "I mean, it's been a few months already," he added, warming to his theme. "I saw a bunch of doctors in the force. I saw a bunch of doctors before I had to resign..."

"There you go, then!" Sonia said, triumphantly. "And then you go to a new doctor, and you get him to give you a clean bill of health, and you go back to work!"

"Yes," Daniel said. "Yes, that's a good idea. And then this will all be over."

"Exactly," Sonia agreed with immediate enthusiasm. "And then this will all be over."

She stopped suddenly and stared at him; he was careful to keep his expression enthusiastic.

"I mean..." Sonia added slowly, brows knitting into a frown. "You're okay with that, aren't you?"

Daniel made himself laugh. "Why wouldn't I be?" he asked. "Hell — of all people — why wouldn't I be? Believe me, this whole experience has been a misery — "

Her face cleared. "It has, hasn't it?" she asked, seeking reassurance. "I mean, you said — you wanted this to go away, didn't you?"

"I wanted it to go away," Daniel repeated, and god knows, that was the truth.

Had been the truth. Was the truth. Had been — was.

"Just because they did it," Sonia said, and Daniel didn't have to ask who they were; he knew who they were, "doesn't mean that we have to. Casey, I'm not Blair Sandburg. I'm sorry, but I'm just not. He — this was his interest. He was already interested in this. This was his Holy Grail — he'd spent his life waiting for this."

Daniel stared at her and then nodded slowly. "No — yeah — I know. And I'm not Jim Ellison, either, " he said, and that was true; god knows, that was true. "He was already a cop. He was already a tribal protector. He'd already been to Peru..."

"They were suited for this, goddammit!" Sonia cried. "But I'm not! I just can't handle — " She was staring across the living room again, staring at something that wasn't there. "I mean, the whole thing," she finished finally, tearing her gaze away. "The whole Sentinel thing. The whole Guide thing. Powers and visions and — "

She shuddered, and again he had the urge to hold her.

And again he repressed it; he couldn't do that now, he'd never do that now...

"I want my life back," Sonia said baldly. "I want my life back, Casey. I can't handle the responsibility or the hallucinations or any of it." She blew out a deep breath. "I'm committed to the book now — I'll see that Sandburg's book goes to press. I'll get a research assistant to help me proof it and — "

"I'll do it," Daniel interjected immediately.

She frowned at him. "What?

"I'll do it," Daniel repeated. "I'll do the proofing — I'll do whatever you need."

Sonia opened her mouth, then shut it again. "Daniel, you can't — "

"I need to," Daniel insisted. "I need to do it, I — " He stopped and took a deep breath. "Sonia, I want to do it. I have to do it. I can't let a stranger — " He bit the words back and then said, more calmly, "If you can't do the work yourself — then let me."

She sighed and then nodded. "Okay. If that's what you want."

"That's what I want," Daniel said, and he meant it; he couldn't handle the idea of someone else touching Blair Sandburg's work, of putting Blair Sandburg's labor of love into the hands of some disinterested grad student on work-study. "I owe it to him," Daniel said quietly. "I owe it to both of them."

Sonia raised her hands; it was as if she were pushing them away, pushing him away. "Okay, fine," she agreed. "Fine. You want to do it, you do it. I'll give you the advance money — you do the work, you produce the copy. I'll have somebody bring the stuff to you tomorrow. Take it all — the proofs, my files..."

"Fine," Daniel said.

"Fine," Sonia said. She got up and needed to put a hand against the wall to steady herself. "We'll do the bare minimum — just put the thing out as he wrote it. That's fair, isn't it? That's enough, isn't it?"

"Sure," Daniel said, watching as Sonia took a few uncertain steps forward toward the sofa, and picked up her handbag.

"It'll give you something to do while you're here," Sonia said, backing away from him toward the door. "It'll pass the time."

"Absolutely," Daniel said. He stood up but kept his distance as she backed away; she wanted to escape, and he would let her.

He could give her that.

"It'll be my way of paying the rent," Daniel added, waving a hand around at the loft and forcing a smile.

"Right — yeah." Sonia smiled back at him. "So we'll pay our debts, and that'll be that."

"That'll be that," Daniel repeated.

"I'll have someone bring you the stuff tomorrow," Sonia said, reaching for the doorknob.

She wouldn't come herself. She was making it clear: she wouldn't come herself. "Okay, great," he replied.

They stared awkwardly at each other across the room for a few long seconds. "Later," Sonia said, finally.

"Later," he echoed, and then she was gone, and the door snicked shut behind her.

But there would be no later, would there? There would be no later. She wanted out — god, who could blame her? She wanted out.

Suddenly the air was stifling, suffocating, and Daniel Casey stumbled toward the balcony doors. A few steps brought him out into the cool night air — god, there were stars, he could see so many stars...

And suddenly he knew for sure — he didn't want to give the senses up. They were hishis gift — and he wanted them.

All right, maybe he hadn't always wanted them, but that was before he knew what they were, before he knew what you could do with them. And maybe it was worth it all — the pain, the suffering, the inconvenience. Maybe it was worth all of it, just to see stars like these...

But not without a Guide. Impossible without a Guide. Everything was impossible without Sonia — everything was fucking pointless without Sonia. He knew, from Blair Sandburg's book, how hard it was — how hard it could be. The pain, the suffering, the inconvenience he had experienced — that was just the tip of the iceberg. He wouldn't make it alone. He couldn't make it alone.

Even James Ellison couldn't have made it alone.

Sentinels who went it alone ended up dead — or insane — or —


God, he didn't want to go dormant.

He wanted the senses. And he wanted Sonia. He could give up the senses for Sonia; at least then he'd have something else that was beautiful, some other beauty in his life.

But it didn't work like that. It was both or nothing — all or nothing — and he was going to have nothing. Nothing at all.

I like you, she had said. Honest to god I do.

Like. She liked him.

He stared up at the stars, and took a few unthinking steps forward, craning his neck to get a better look. Beautiful stars — he'd never seen such beautiful stars. His knees hit the low brick wall of the balcony, and he braced himself on the wall with his hands, leaning forward, still staring up into the sky.

So beautiful. The stars. He wished that Sonia could see — if she could only see...

Suddenly the light streaked in the sky; the stars were bleeding, melting. He raised a hand to his face and irritably brushed the wetness away from his cheeks. He felt a sudden, aching pain in his gut, and he bent over the balcony wall, trying to breathe in the cool night air, feeling the painful scrape of the brick against his palms.

Dizzy. He felt dizzy. He was teetering on the brink; he was falling; he was going to lose everything —

He heard the soft thrumming growl moments before the jaguar attacked him, knocking him over sideways onto the balcony floor and landing hard on top of him, pinning him down. Jesus H. Christ it was heavy! — heavy and solid and rippling and fucking growling at him — and he was going to die, he was going to be ripped apart, he was going to die, going to die, please not like this —

But he didn't die. Above him, the jaguar shimmered, and changed shape, and then he was staring into pale blue eyes.

Daniel Casey blinked hard — dear god, it was HIM! — and he stared for long moments into Jim Ellison's eyes and then he couldn't help himself: he lifted his head and kissed the side of Ellison's mouth once, gently, in salutation.

And then suddenly he just lost it — he completely and totally lost all semblance of self control and started sobbing. And he couldn't help that either — god, he was an idiot, a moron, "Hello, Mr. Ellison, nice to meet you and — waaaaaah!" but it was as if every stress he'd been under since this whole thing began, every stress he'd been repressing, suddenly burst out of him, suddenly shattered him entirely.

Because the last normal moment he'd had was months ago, when he'd been doing a routine maneuver and he'd been staring out at the lonely blue sky and then suddenly he'd heard the clouds. Suddenly he could hear the fucking clouds and he'd never even known that clouds made noise — and that was it, really, that was the end of sanity and normality as he'd known it. Because then the textured grip of the controls were ripping the flesh off his fingers and the instruments were dissolving in a burst of flashing light and he'd been lucky to make it down alive.

Totally fucking lucky, though maybe it would have been better if he'd crashed right then. He would never have known what he'd lost, what he was losing, going to lose. His sanity. His senses. His Sonia.

James Ellison rolled himself into a sitting position on the floor, pulling Casey with him, and so suddenly he found himself sobbing onto the front of Ellison's shirt. Ellison's arms were around his back, around his shoulders — and, well, this was just lovely. Exactly how he'd wanted to appear before the man he idolized — as a quivering, weeping wreck.

"Shhh," an unfamiliar voice soothed: Ellison's voice. "Shhh, it's okay — it's going to be okay."

And then dimly, Daniel heard the lonely sound of a wolf howling, and that was strange, because there hadn't been a full moon tonight, only stars...

A warm hand was rubbing his back, and eventually he began to pull himself together. He tried to control himself, tried to breathe normally, but it was hard, so fucking hard...

Dimly, Daniel heard the sound of wood creaking — a chair creaking — and then a voice.

"Nice of you to finally take an interest," Blair Sandburg muttered.

Daniel felt Ellison's chest vibrate as he snorted. "Yeah, well, it looks to me like you need a little help, here."

"Hey, look, I'm trying!" Sandburg replied defensively. "Okay, okay, maybe this hasn't gone exactly according to plan — "

"Well, I hope not," Ellison shot back. "Cause the Guide's making a run for it and the Sentinel's a fucking mess. I mean — I hope that wasn't the plan."

"It wasn't the plan," Sandburg muttered.

"Cause it would've been a crummy plan," Ellison observed wryly.

Daniel heard Sandburg moan. "He would have died, Jim," Sandburg said softly, sadly. "He wasn't going to find his Guide — I had to do something, didn't I? This was worth a shot, wasn't it?" Another weary sigh. "I mean, hell — how was I supposed to know that she'd be so resistant to the idea?"

"Not everyone's like you," James Ellison said, and there was a warmth and affection in his voice that hadn't been there before. "Not everyone could have handled it all the way you did."

"I guess," Blair Sandburg replied, sounding confused. "I mean — if you say so. But I really just can't understand how she could..."

How she could abandon her Sentinel. Abandon him. Oh god — he wouldn't make it. There was no way he could make it. He felt a suddenly stabbing pain in his head — the air was bruising his skin —

Ellison's arms tightened around him. "Can you give me a hand, here?" Ellison asked with quiet urgency. "The kid's spiking."

The creak of the chair nearly burst his eardrums and he cringed, his body seizing with tension. Ellison's hands clutched at him, and then there were other hands on him, cool hands on his back, on his neck. He couldn't help but lean into them, be drawn to them — those cool, comforting hands.

Guide hands.

"It's not over till it's over, dammit," Sandburg muttered above him. "He shouldn't give up so easily — "

"Give the kid a break," Ellison objected. "He's just been rejected by his Guide — that's a hell of a shock to the system."

"I know, I know," Sandburg answered softly, and then there was a cool strong hand on his forehead. His skin stopped burning, and he began to calm, finally. "It's going to be okay," Blair Sandburg whispered to him. "It's going to be okay — just calm down."

Daniel felt his body moving toward Blair Sandburg's, felt like a plant turning by nature toward the sunlight. Sandburg's arms drew him close, and then there were hands stroking his hair, stroking his face. The world started to assume its proper shape — he could hear his heart rate slowing to something like normal as Blair Sandburg murmured assurances to him.

Finally he was able to open his eyes, and he could see James Ellison sitting beside him, watching him carefully, solicitously. For the first time he got a good look at the man he admired — Ellison had a kind face and warm eyes, surrounded by a faint crinkle of laugh lines.

"You okay, kid?" Ellison asked with soft concern.

"Yeah," Daniel answered hoarsely. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean — "

"It's okay," Ellison interrupted. "Believe me — I know," and Ellison's mouth twisted into a wry, sympathetic grin.

Sandburg's hands kept him grounded; he felt like he could actually converse without falling apart. "My senses — they've been all over the map," he explained, swallowing hard. "And then Sonia — my Guide — Sonia..." His chest tightened again and he had to forcibly focus his attention on Sandburg's soothing hands. "I'm so fucking scared," Daniel confessed finally. He felt humiliated and stupid, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

To his surprise, he heard quiet laughter — above him, Ellison and Sandburg were laughing.

"Oh, well," James Ellison said, and amusement colored his voice, "I wouldn't know anything about that. Fear is a foreign concept to me — right, Chief?"

Sandburg was shaking with mirth. "Oh yeah. Foreign concept. Absolutely."

Daniel opened his eyes, feeling confused. He was pretty sure that this was sarcasm, but he couldn't imagine that Captain Ellison had been as afraid as he was, as afraid as this. "Were you really afraid at first?" he asked, squinting up at the Sentinel.

"At first, at the end, and during most of the middle," Ellison admitted with a grin. "Actually, scratch that — I wasn't afraid: I was fucking terrified." He looked over Daniel's head at Blair Sandburg. "Chief — didn't you end up writing about that? Didn't you do, like, four volumes of that sucker on my so-called 'fear-based responses'?"

"Naaaah," Sandburg answered affectionately, hands still moving absently over Daniel. "I ended up cutting a lot of it — I didn't want posterity knowing what a total wuss you were."

Ellison grinned. "Awww. That's sweet."

"But you know — I bet fear is at the heart of this." There was a new excitement in Blair Sandburg's voice. "Her fear. Sonia's fear. I mean — all in all, Daniel's been doing pretty well. "

Daniel took a deep breath and slowly pushed himself up into a sitting position. "It doesn't — I don't feel like I've been doing all that well."

"Believe me," Blair Sandburg said, "you're doing great. I mean, don't take this the wrong way — but I thought that you were going to be the problem. But it isn't you — it's Sonia — she's the one having the fear-based response."

"Well, can't you do something about that?" Ellison asked his partner.

"Like what?" Sandburg asked, shrugging helplessly. "I mean — this is a whole new thing to me. Guide fear, for god's sake!"

Ellison raised an eyebrow at him and Sandburg immediately clarified. "I'm not saying I was never afraid, Jim. I was — you know I was. But it was later, it was about other things. I wasn't afraid at this stage of the game — I was still naively smug, if anything. Fear came later." Sandburg sighed and leaned back on his hands. "Who knows? Maybe she's smarter than me."

Ellison shook his head. "It's not that, Chief. It's just that she never wanted any of it in the first place. Believe me — I understand that. I didn't want my senses, at first. I wanted my old life back."

"You were afraid of change," Sandburg opined.

"I was afraid of everything," Ellison corrected. "But you turned this liability into an asset — you made me see what it could mean, what it could be. So I changed my mind. But what's in it for Sonia?"

Blair Sandburg sat up straight, looking poleaxed. "What's in it for Sonia?"

Ellison crossed his arms. "Yeah. I mean — the Sentinel gets the senses, and he needs a Guide to make that work. But what's in it for the Guide?"

Sandburg's mouth worked soundlessly. "What's in it for the Guide? What the hell does that mean?" Sandburg exploded. "Being the Guide is what's in it for the Guide! I mean — " he sputtered. "I mean — "

"That's a little tautological, isn't it?" Ellison asked him, raising an eyebrow. "The great thing about being a Guide is that you're a Guide?"

"Exactly!" Sandburg replied passionately. "It's everythingeverything's in it for the Guide, you know?"

"Well, Sonia doesn't seem to think so," Ellison said. "She doesn't seem to share your view of the experience."

Blair Sandburg stared at them for long moments before bursting out, "I just don't understand that! I mean — how could she not?" He stared down at the balcony floor, seeming distressed; his face crumpled. "You're saying I miscalculated. You're saying that I fucked up."

Immediately Ellison was at Sandburg's side, had pulled him close. "No. That's not what I'm saying."

"I fucked up, didn't I?" Sandburg muttered against Ellison's shoulder.

"No," Ellison assured him, rubbing his back. "You're only human, Chief — well, you know, sort of," he amended, and Sandburg gave a little muffled snort of laughter. "Okay, look — maybe you projected a little. Maybe you over-identified yourself with Sonia."

"Objectivity was never my strong suit," Sandburg murmured.

"It just never occurred to you that she might reject her role — or her Sentinel," Ellison murmured into his Guide's hair . "Because it never occurred to you to reject me. Despite everything, the whole holy fucking mess of it — "

"Jim," Sandburg said, tilting his anguished face up to look at him. "I could sooner have cut off my arm..."

And Daniel had to turn away then, because James Ellison pressed his mouth to Blair Sandburg's and kissed him. Daniel turned his head away, and then closed his eyes for good measure, feeling embarrassment and jealousy in equal parts.

It wasn't fair, he thought bleakly. Blair Sandburg had promised that his Guide would love him. But she didn't — she didn't love him the way Blair Sandburg loved James Ellison...

He heard soft breathing, and the gentle rustle of fabric, and then Sandburg's muted, awkward cough. "Jim... Daniel is — "

"Goddammit, Blair," Ellison muttered roughly, "I'm going to be out in the afterlife, at least." Sandburg's murmur of protest was abruptly silenced, cut off by Ellison's mouth, and then there were only the muffled sounds of passion.

And then the soft howl of a wolf. Daniel's eyes shot open, and he jerked his head toward the noise — and there it was: a large gray wolf crouched next to where James Ellison was sitting. Daniel knew that the wolf was Blair Sandburg — intellectually, he knew that — but he couldn't help but skitter away from it across the balcony floor. Sandburg or not, the animal was fearsome looking...

But Ellison seemed to have no such fears; he simply reached out with strong arms and stroked the animal's fur like it was just a big, friendly dog. And to be fair, the wolf reacted as if it were just a big dog, licking Ellison's face and whimpering happily at the touch of his hands. Ellison yanked the wolf into his lap and scratched its sides roughly, and then he patted its head and pulled on its ears.

The wolf gave Ellison's face a final affectionate swipe with its tongue and then bounded out of his lap. It trotted back and forth a few times across the length of the balcony, pacing, stretching its legs, muscles flexing. And then the animal stopped suddenly, and turned toward Ellison, and then coiled, poised to spring — and then it was running and flying into the air, front paws extended —

— and it dived straight into Ellison's chest and vanished in a crackle of electricity.

Ellison gasped and shuddered, his expression twisted into something between pain and ecstasy, his eyes screwed tightly shut. He took a slow, deep ragged breath and then seemed to relax as he exhaled; when he finally opened his eyes to look at Daniel, they seemed to have changed color slightly...

"He means well," Ellison said, a little breathlessly. "Honest to god, he does."

"Oh, I know," Daniel inserted quickly. "I know — I never doubted that."

"And he's right more often than he's wrong," Ellison added, his hand drifting idly up to his chest, gently fingering the place where the wolf had disappeared. "It's a bit frightening, really, how often he's right about things."

"He wasn't right about Sonia," Daniel said, bitterly.

"We don't know that yet," Ellison objected. "It isn't over till it's over — Blair's right about that, too ."

Daniel sighed. "But she told me, very clearly — she wants out."

"Daniel, let me tell you something," Ellison said. He dropped a hand on Daniel's shoulder, and Daniel shivered at the touch. "There's a big difference between what people say and what they mean. Not for guys like Blair, maybe — Blair says what he means, unless he's deliberately lying, which is a whole other story." Ellison waved that idea away. "But for people like me — well, it took me years to mean what I said, to say what I felt." Compassion shone from Ellison's blue eyes. "I know where Sonia's coming from — I know better than Blair does, better than you do, probably. She's frightened of all this, and so she's running like hell. Which is sensible, really."

"You didn't run," Daniel objected.

"But I wanted to," Ellison confessed.

"But you didn't," Daniel pointed out.

"Because of Blair," Ellison said, looking away. "It was only because of Blair — I couldn't leave him. He was — " Ellison stopped, sighed. "I dunno — he was like this oak, you know? He just planted himself in the middle of my life and — I just couldn't leave him. And he just wouldn't budge. He just planted himself deep in the ground and decided to love me. And I didn't want to love him — but he was still there. And I struck out at him — and he was still there. I fought him and I hit him and it was like fighting the tide, like fighting the ocean — like fighting myself. Futile. Pointless. He wore me down," Ellison explained softly, "like water wears down rock. Like fire melts iron. Nature does that, you know," Ellison mused. "It's beautiful...and terrifying."

Ellison looked up darkly and met Casey's eyes. "It's not what people think it is. A day in the park, neatly manicured lawns and kids playing frisbee. That's what people think of when they think about Nature: maybe their imaginations extend to a weekend of camping — a wildlife preserve — or a long hike on a well-mapped-out trail." Ellison slowly shook his head no; his expression deadly serious. "It's volcanoes, Daniel. Earthquakes. Fires and floods and tornadoes. It's humiliating — it's humbling — the tidalwave and the undertow, batting you around, sucking you down. It's like being lost in a thunderstorm — soaking wet and lightening flashing overhead and not knowing if you're going to survive. It's beautiful. It's terrifying. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Daniel nodded gravely, feeling his heart pounding in his chest, hearing blood rushing in his ears. He did understand; he understood exactly what James Ellison was saying.

"Maybe you have to be the oak." Ellison stared at him meaningfully. "I don't think I could have been — but maybe you have to be."

"The oak..." Daniel repeated quietly.

"Yeah. Elemental. Rooted."



"I'll try," Daniel said, meaning it as a promise to James Ellison, hoping that Ellison understood it as a promise.

"Try," Ellison said, and then suddenly he was gone; suddenly, jarringly, Daniel was alone on the balcony floor, alone in the cool night air.

"I love you," Daniel blurted, unable to stop himself, but his voice sounded frighteningly faint to his own ears as he stared up into the beautiful, terrible darkness of the night sky.  

The End