Nature's Conspiracies: III
Author's disclaimer: Their guys. My words.
Author's notes: Thank you Miriam for general betaing and thank you Ratbat for letting me rip off your wonderfully dirty mind. Finally there's some sex in this one. Part four coming soon (I'm hoping this will end with part four).
9:18 P.M. WILLIAM ELLISON'S MERCEDES, ROUTE 6
The soft, rhythmic thump-thump-thump of the Mercedes as it rolled over the exposed joints in the road did what nothing else that day had managed to do: it lulled Blair Sandburg into a state of blissful calm.
Blair sank back into the buttery leather upholstery, then rolled his head to look at the dim outline of Jim Ellison in the driver's seat. "Smooth escape," Blair said, finally. "Where'd you learn that? Covert ops?"
Jim shot him a glance; he was smirking. "High school."
Blair grinned helplessly. "High school?"
"Yeah, that was how I got in and out of the house after curfew," Jim confessed. "That was my escape window, there."
"You had a curfew?" Blair teased. "How very 1958."
Jim took one hand off the wheel and reached over to smack Blair's forehead. "I wasn't even born in 1958. And yeah, I had a curfew: 11:00 on weekdays, 1:00 on weekends."
"Sounds like good preparation for the army," Blair said.
"Yeah," Jim admitted. "I guess it was at that."
They drove on in silence for a few minutes, and then suddenly Jim said, "So what the hell are we gonna do?"
"Ixnay!" Blair said instantly, panic again rising up in his chest. "Kabosh! Moratorium!"
Jim looked confused. "Ixnay?"
"Ixnay on the onversation-cay," Blair pleaded, swallowing. "Please? I move that we don't talk about this until tomorrow morning at the earliest."
He could see the tension in Jim's body, in his posture at the wheel. "But Blair — "
"It'll seem better tomorrow," Blair interrupted. "It'll all look clearer tomorrow. Daylight is a wonderful thing, man — it warms the soul. There's a reason human beings are afraid of the dark."
Blair stopped talking and stared out the front window at the pitch-black night: it was like they were driving into a void, each car length forward bringing another patch of asphalt into view. And at that moment, he had the strange certainty that they could drive right off the edge of the earth. At least it seemed that way to him; Jim's night vision probably made this drive a lot less frightening. "Let's just talk about something else."
He heard Jim's soft snort. "How 'bout them Mets?"
"What was your mother like?" Blair asked.
Jim was silent for a moment and then said, "No. Not that."
"Tell me about Yale, then," Blair pressed. "You never told me about Yale."
To his surprise, Jim laughed softly. "I can't tell you about Yale without telling you what my mother was like," he admitted.
Blair frowned. "Why? I thought she was — "
"She was," Jim interrupted. "That's not what I mean."
"Well, what do you mean?"
"Just that — " Jim began, and then he stopped talking and sighed.
They drove in silence for a few long minutes, and Blair stared at Jim's shadowy profile and listened intently to the soft thump-thump-thump of the Mercedes. The car was wonderfully warm — the heating system easily beat out the truck's or the Volvo's — and Blair let himself sink back and just be in the moment.
"Yale was my father's idea," Jim said, finally. "It's what he wanted. I was supposed to go to Yale. Major in Economics. Then get an M.B.A. He had it all planned out."
Jim fell silent again, and Blair forced himself to wait. You couldn't force Jim on this sort of thing.
"See," Jim said, after a while, "you have to understand. I only knew who I was supposed to be dating because I heard it through the gossip mill. In high school, you know? Like you'd overhear some guy say, 'Hey, I really like" — you know: whoever — Cynthia — 'Hey, I really like Cynthia.' And then some other guy would say, 'No way, man — Cynthia's got a thing for Ellison.' And I would think, 'Oh. Right,' and then I'd go and ask Cynthia out."
Blair tried to focus on Jim's face across the dark interior of the Mercedes. He wished he could see better; he wished he had Jim's senses.
"So there I am, right? Dating Cynthia and playing football and making the honor roll. And then Yale — Yale's next, right? So, whatever — I'm packing my stuff for Connecticut. And then suddenly I just thought..."
Jim trailed off, but this time Blair didn't have the self-restraint to wait. "You thought what?"
Jim shrugged, but Blair knew Jim well enough to know that the shrug was forced, not genuinely casual. "I thought: 'Mom wouldn't put up with this shit.' It was like...I felt like I could hear her. In my head." The tone of Jim's voice made Blair shiver. "She was telling me to run for it," Jim confessed softly. "So I ran for it."
Blair's eyes widened. "Oh, wow."
Jim laughed suddenly. "Of course, I did it like a complete chickenshit. I mean, I went to Connecticut. I just didn't go to Yale. I got off the plane in Connecticut and went straight to the nearest army recruiting office and enlisted. Two days later I was on a flight to Georgia. " Jim blew out a long breath. "Eventually, you know, I worked up the guts to send Dad a postcard telling him where I was."
"He must have been pretty pissed."
"Pissed?" Jim repeated incredulously, glancing over at Blair. "He was fucking furious. He wrote me this fucking 27 page letter explaining exactly what a criminally stupid disappointing asshole I was. I mean — whatever — I can see now that it was a shitty thing to do," Jim admitted. "What I did. He must have been scared out of his mind when he called Yale and found out that I never turned up. " Jim banged softly on the wheel with his fist. "And the thing is, I can't pretend that I didn't know it would hurt him. I wanted to hurt him. I wanted him to think, 'My fucking son ran away — I must be Satan.' I wanted to blow a hole right in the middle of him."
"Everybody feels like that sometimes," Blair assured him.
"Most people don't enlist in the army, though," Jim objected.
Blair shrugged. "At least it wasn't the Foreign Legion."
"I didn't know how to join the Foreign Legion."
"Oh," Blair said.
"And I don't believe you ever wanted to blow a hole through Naomi," Jim said accusingly.
Blair considered this. "No," he admitted. "But you know — I think Rainier was sort of my Foreign Legion."
Jim shot him a look. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Blair admitted. "I mean, it was its own kind of message. I didn't want to live with her anymore. I was sick of the moving, I was sick of the guys she dated. I was sick of — like — her agenda. I wanted to live my own agenda."
"Yeah, exactly," Jim murmured, and he was nodding. "I know exactly what you mean."
"I had this stupid idea," Blair heard himself saying, "that when I got to college I would suddenly be — um — normal." He grinned to himself in the darkness. "Joe College. Which was ridiculous — I was still a total and utter freak. I mean, it's not like I could suddenly become somebody else."
"I did," Jim replied faintly. "I became somebody else."
Blair's mouth fell open.
"It was great," Jim murmured. "Those first few years were great. I was just another enlisted guy. A total nobody. And after Basic you all look the same, you all dress the same, you all act the same — "
"G.I. Joe," Blair said quietly, still staring at his partner.
Jim nodded. "Yeah, exactly. Just a guy in line. God, it was great."
"But Jim — you're not just a guy in line. You're fantastically special." Blair sighed and threw his hands up in the air. "I mean, that's what you learn, isn't it? That it's okay to be special — hell, it's great to be special."
Jim's hands flew off the wheel. "Oh yeah!" Jim snapped. "It's just great! Look where the hell it got me! — forced out of my own home, driving through the woods in the fucking middle of the night — "
"Ixnay!" Blair yelled. "Kabosh! Moratorium!"
"Yeah, yeah," Jim muttered. "All right."
11:03 P.M. THE CABIN
The Mercedes' parking lights provided just enough light for Blair to fumble his way to the front door before they snapped off, plunging the area around the cabin into darkness. Jim was already inside, moving around and lighting the oil lamps that they had placed at strategic intervals around the room.
"Thank god," Blair sighed, dropping his knapsack on the wooden table. The bed was invitingly close, and he was tempted to just skip dinner and pass out. "Home sweet home."
"Getting there." Jim looked around the room critically. The place was still pretty sparse: table, bed, couple of rugs and a second-hand sofa. "Let me get a fire going."
"I'll do it," Blair said. He took off his jacket and unstrapped the holsters from his shoulder and leg. "See what you can find in the kitchen, will you? I'm starving."
"Yeah, me too," Jim said, crossing to the pantry door. "This being chased around by the FBI thing really gives a man an appetite."
Blair squatted in front of the fireplace and put some kindling down. "Humor in adversity. I dig it."
"We got some canned soup," Jim reported from behind him. "We got some crackers. We got some tea."
"Everything a growing boy needs," Blair grunted, shoving a small log in place on top of the kindling. "Heat it up, man."
"Roger," Jim said. Blair heard the clanking sounds as Jim pulled out a saucepan and a can opener.
Blair lit one of the long fireplace matches and held it to the kindling. After a few minutes, he poked at it. A tiny flame sputtered, and, impatient, he got up and shoved another log on top. The small flame crackled, turned a hopeful blue, sparked, and then sputtered out. Sighing, he lit another long match and held it to the kindling, turning around at Jim's small snort of laughter. "Hey. You making fun of my fire?" Blair demanded.
"Well, I wouldn't call it a fire per se," Jim said, cocking his head to one side.
"Oh yeah?" Blair straightened up and challenged Jim with a look. "Well, dig this!" Blair raised his arms, shook them out — then aimed his fingertips at the fireplace and yelled, "Shazam!"
The fire suddenly blazed into life, spitting yellow and orange and casting bright, flickering shadows around the room.
"Holy shit!" Jim stared at the fire, and then turned to stare at Blair. "How the fuck did you do that?"
Blair laughed and warmed his hands by the now-roaring fire. "Oh, I just pushed it. Same old, same old. The arm waving was just for effect." He waved his arms again in demonstration.
"Nice effect," Jim said, appreciatively.
"Yeah, I thought so," Blair said and grinned. He turned back to take another look at his handiwork. "It's wild," he mused, watching the orange flames jump and sparkle around the now glowing logs. "The fire wants to burn. It can't wait to get there — and you just give it the tiniest push and it's off and running."
"That's very profound." Jim said dryly. "Fire wants to burn — you should put that into your next book."
Blair frowned and looked over at Jim, who was stirring soup over the ancient range. "I'm serious, man. One of the things I've been learning here is that everything has its own nature. And that you can't mess with that. Fire does want to burn. Just like you want to be a Sentinel."
Jim frowned and opened his mouth as if to contradict that, but Blair cut him off before he could speak.
"You want to be a Sentinel like fire wants to burn," Blair said firmly. "I mean, for all your bitching and moaning and G.I. Joe-ing — well, here you are, man." Blair gestured vaguely around the cabin. "And here I am. Here we are. "
"We're all prisoners of fate, is that it?" Jim asked, turning the burner off.
"Nah. I hate that word. Fate. It's all ancient greekish and full of implied doom." Blair shuddered slightly. "Of which I need no more, right at the moment." He turned back to the fire to warm himself. "I prefer — I dunno. Kismet, maybe. Somehow you got to be an officer. Somehow you got yourself to Peru."
"That was college, not Kismit," Jim snorted. "Five fucking years of night school — "
"Somehow you landed back in Cascade," Blair continued, watching the fire. "Somehow you met me, and I met you. It's like — things — people — have a grain to them. Like wood. And you can go against the grain, but not for long. Because everything wants to go a certain way, according to its nature."
Blair stared at the fire: it was shimmying and moving like a live thing. He supposed that this was how the idea of gods had started. People had this way of assuming that things that move are alive. Fire. Water. Wind. And maybe they were alive in their way. Maybe these things did have some kind of life.
"Blair?" Jim's voice was in his ear now, and Blair jumped, startled. Jim's arms came around him tightly, stilling him. "Hey, hey," Jim said softly, changing his grip from a restraint into a hug. "Relax. I just said it was time to eat."
"I tried to push Ziegler," Blair confessed suddenly. He squeezed his eyes shut: the world was throbbing red behind his eyelids. Like fire — living, alive. "God, I tried to push him but he just really wants to know. He's genuinely curious — it's the way his goddamned grain goes and — "
"Ixnay." Strong arms pulled him close, soft lips brushed his neck. "Come on, you've got to eat something," Jim murmured, steering him toward the rough wooden table, toward tomato soup, crackers, and tea.
11:54 P.M. THE CABIN
After they had eaten and cleaned up, Blair kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the sofa to relax. Across the room, Jim was changing his clothes. They had left some minimal supplies up here — extra jeans, shirts, socks, toothbrushes. Jim had pulled some longjohns and a bathrobe from the closet and tossed them onto the bed; now he was crossing his arms over his stomach and pulling his sweater up over his head, reaching behind his neck to pull his t-shirt up, off his chest, over his broad shoulders...
Blair shifted slightly, trying to make himself more comfortable. His jeans were suddenly way too tight. Maybe Jim had the right idea: maybe he should be wearing something more comfortable. He sucked in his abdomen and shoved a hand down his pants, grabbing the thickening shaft of his cock and drawing it upwards with the blunt head aimed toward his navel.
Comfort taken care of, Blair idly brushed the front of his jeans with his hand and felt pleasure — a shimmering tingle of pleasure that throbbed through his hardening cock, moved down his legs, up his spine. He raked Jim's body with his eyes and felt the tingle turn into a thrumming vibration. Jim had picked up the white thermal shirt, was holding it, scrunching it to slide his arms in — and the way it made his muscles move, the muscles of his chest and arms and back were flexing, tensed and — -
Blair stroked himself again, more deliberately now, dragging the heel of his hand over the rough denim as his fingers moved down to curve over and cup his balls — and god, it felt good, it was so good. Jim was pulling the thermal shirt down over his head, down over the broad chest, down over the tight abdomen and —
— god, the thing fit him like a second skin, clinging to the muscular contours of his shoulders and chest and that fucking incredible stomach. His nipples were hard — and Blair couldn't help himself, couldn't tear his eyes away from Jim, couldn't stop his hand, couldn't stop touching himself, rubbing himself, hard, harder — the feel of his own hand was just so good. Jim was looking at him now and Jim's hair was mussed and he was barefoot and wearing a thermal shirt and jeans. Tight jeans —
And it was pointless trying to control his breathing, because goddammit, Jim was a fucking Sentinel and it didn't take a fucking Sentinel to hear a guy masturbating , like, six feet away from you, did it? Blair groaned softly and continued to work himself roughly through the denim of his jeans, left hand rubbing against balls and perineum while the fingers of the right concentrated on his swollen cock-head, squeezing and rubbing in a milking motion, eventually homing in on the exquisitely sensitive notch where shaft met head. He bit back a groan, teeth chattering... couldn't help it, didn't want to help it, it felt so fucking, fucking good —
Jim turned and walked toward him, bare feet coming down quietly on the hard wood floor. Blair was already breathing hard, and then Jim was standing over him, at the side of the sofa, staring down at him. Blair heard himself gasping and he was rubbing at himself furiously now, because his cock wanted it, his cock was screaming "bring it on!" like it could never, ever get enough stimulation, ever. Like nothing he could feel would ever be enough: not with an eyeful of Jim Ellison. Not with Jim Ellison that close...
"Blair?" Jim's eyes were flashing with an odd combination of lust and amusement.
"I — " Blair tried to gather the breath to explain; he was still working himself. "I get really hot for you, man."
Jim's lip was twitching now. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah," Blair gasped out.
The lip-twitching blossomed into a sultry smile, and Blair let out an involuntary moan. Jim slowly moved his hands to the waistband of his jeans, and Blair's heart started pounding.
Good god, when the hell had Jim become such a tease?
Jim's long fingers were slowly unworking his top button, and Blair arched helplessly into his own hand as he watched. Then Jim's top button was open, and Jim was staring at him and slowly pulling his zipper down, and god, there was his cock, pressing out of the deepening vee of zipper, the thick shaft and underside of the head plainly outlined by the thin boxers —
And then Blair couldn't see any more, couldn't see anything — he was pressing down hard on his cockhead and he could feel his cock jerking in his pants. There wasn't enough air in the universe — he didn't have enough air — and he was wet, he could feel it spreading —
And Blair couldn't see Jim but he could feel him, feel the massive, hard chest and the strong arms, and then he could see the soft whiteness of Jim's thermal shirt and hear Jim's deep voice murmuring, "It's okay, you're okay, you're just coming, baby — c'mon, breathe for me, now — "
Blair nodded and obediently sucked in a breath. Jim rubbed soothing circles on his back. "That's good," Jim murmured. "Very good," and then Jim was kissing his face roughly and shifting them back onto the sofa and crawling on top of him. Blair felt Jim's hand clutch his, and then Jim was pulling Blair's hand to the fly of his pants, to his erection, and suddenly his hand was full of silky-hard-warm Jim.
Jim moaned into his neck and thrust hard into his hand — and then Jim's hands were in his hair, tugging hard at his hair, and Jim was kissing him and muttering, "Want you...want you so damn much...you drive me wild..."
Blair clutched at the soft skin over the hard, thick column of Jim's erection, felt Jim fucking his hand desperately, felt Jim wanting it, wanting him, humping him roughly against the sofa. Blair moaned with satisfaction, because it was so nice being trapped underneath all this warm, horny Jim, so very nice to feel Jim burrowing into him, seeking pleasure from him.
Jim tensed suddenly, buried his face against Blair's shoulder, and came. Blair caressed the back of Jim's neck with his free hand, feeling the sweet, damp skin there. Jim snuffled against his neck for a few minutes before finally raising his head to meet Blair's eyes.
"Hell." Jim's face was sweaty. "Imagine what we could do if we actually took our clothes off."
Blair grinned up at him. "Hey, I'm game if you are."
Jim laughed and cocked an eyebrow at him. "You ready for round two?"
"You got something better to do?" Blair asked, leaning up to steal a quick kiss.
"No," Jim said breathlessly. "Nothing."
"That's the beauty of this house, man. No fucking distractions. Literally."
Jim grinned and pulled back, got to his feet. He extended a hand to Blair and yanked him up off the sofa with a grunt. "I thought it was sanctuary from the men in black."
Blair took Jim's upper arms in his hands and began to propel him backwards, toward the bed. "Good cover story, huh?"
"Very good," Jim agreed, nodding.
"Just an excuse," Blair said darkly.
The backs of Jim's legs hit the bed and he sat down, hard. "You gonna have your wicked way with me?" Jim asked, staring up at Blair.
Blair's mouth was suddenly dry. "Oh yeah. Hell, yeah." He straddled Jim and tugged the thermal shirt up and off his body before shoving his shoulders down, hard, against the bedspread.
9:51 A.M. FRIDAY, DECEMBER 24TH. THE CABIN
Blair opened one eye and mumbled, "Is that coffee?"
"It's instant," Jim said from the kitchen. A spoon clattered into the sink.
"Jim, I love you. Have I told you I love you?"
"Yeah. About forty three times, just last night. "
Blair closed his eyes again and smiled into the pillow. "Hey, well, you said — "
"I know what I said." Blair could hear the grin in Jim's voice. "I must have been delirious or something."
Blair pulled the covers up around his shoulders and burrowed for warmth. "Yeah, yeah, sure, sure. Light the fire, will you?"
"I did," Jim said, sounding distracted. "It's not catching well — give it a shove, will you?"
Blair grunted and shoved vaguely in the direction of the fireplace. The fire roared into life.
"Coffee's getting cold, Casanova." The chair scraped against the wooden floor as Jim sat down.
"You're gonna have to get up and face this, sooner or later."
Blair sighed and sat up. "You sure know how to ruin a guy's postcoital glow."
Jim was sitting at the table, making notes in one of Blair's notebooks. "That was hours ago."
"How soon they forget..." Blair shoved the covers aside and reached for Jim's discarded bathrobe. He put it on and meandered over to the table where Jim was sitting, giving Jim an absentminded kiss on the head as he snagged his coffee off the table.
"I won't expect anything useful from you until you've drunk that." Jim glanced up at him and smirked.
"See, that's what I love about you. You really know me." Blair raised the mug to his lips.
Jim chuckled softly and kept writing; Blair stood behind him and peered over his shoulder. "Hey, no cheating," Jim said, covering the paper with his hand. "Eyes on your own paper."
Blair grinned and collapsed into a chair. "All right, all right." He finished off the mug in one long slurp and then banged it down on the wooden table top. "Okay," he said. "I'm well-rested, well-fucked and the caffeine will be hitting my brain any second now. Let's do it."
Jim nodded and turned a page over in the notebook. "All right. Lemme ask you a couple of questions, okay? You spent more time with this guy than I did."
Blair nodded and leaned back in his chair. "Okay, shoot."
"Exactly how was he introduced to you? I mean, what's his actual status, here?"
"Paul Ziegler. Agent with the Cascade Division of the FBI. From what I gathered, the FBI was involved in our review and they picked Ziegler because he's got a background in Anthropology."
Jim nodded and started scribbling. "Right, okay. So let's say we believe that. Provisionally. What's the timeline?"
Blair thought for a minute. "Okay, well, Simon told you about my promotion when? — last month. So the review was over by then. So picture Ziegler gets assigned to this — what, September? October?"
"That sounds right," Jim said. "He gets assigned to review us — probably because of the goddamned hundred percent closure rate. I bet that off-the-scale numbers like that get routinely reported to the Feds. That's exactly the kind of shit they like to know about. So all right: then what?"
"He gets the proposal I ghostwrote. He gets copies of our personnel files. He gets copies of our paperwork from last year." Blair was ticking these things off on his fingers. "He gets our quarterly evaluations from Simon. That's just, like, for starters — that's basic review shit, right?"
Jim was nodding rapidly. "Right. Okay, so Ziegler gets this shit. Now, continuing hypothetically, he's been picked for this because he knows about anthropology. So that suggests — "
" — particular interest in me," Blair finished. "Right. So add to the list: copy of my submitted dissertation. Copies of all my published articles. My student file at Rainier. My personnel file at Rainier — you getting this down?"
"Yeah," Jim said, writing furiously.
"He reads the dissertation," Blair continued. "He's interested in the dissertation. I write about Peru, you've been to Peru, he sees the cover story on News Update and — "
" — he puts two and two together. Add the Peru reports, whatever military records he can get, and my medical reports." Jim finished writing and looked up, frowning. "Jesus Christ, Blair — this is a hell of a list."
Blair nodded glumly. "Yeah, isn't it?"
Jim was staring down at the notebook in front of him as if it was written in a foreign language.
"Ziegler had a stack of files like this." Blair raised his hand a foot off the table top.
"All right, so here's my problem," Jim said, throwing the pencil down. "What the fuck is he waiting for? This is totally damming shit, here. We're kidding ourselves if we think he doesn't have enough against us. What the fuck is he bugging us for?"
"Maybe he wants your recipe for meatloaf."
"Very funny." Jim said.
"He wants a smoking gun," Blair suggested, more seriously. "What he's got is circumstantial. So he calls us in for this meeting. He knows exactly where we are for that one hour — while we're sitting there, he bugs the house. When else could he have done it?"
Jim nodded slowly. "The bugs weren't there yesterday morning."
"Right," Blair said. "Then Ziegler drops a few threatening hints — enough to let me know that he's on to us."
"And then he sends us home to a bugged loft to discuss it — is that what you're saying?"
"Yeah," Blair said. "He freaks us out, sends us home, gets the whole thing on tape. Presto — smoking gun."
Jim thought about that for a few moments. "Well, yeah. Except that doesn't make any fucking sense."
Blair frowned. "Why not?"
"Look — what you just said makes sense. It's good, I'm sure it's right. The bugs are planted between 3 and 4 o'clock yesterday. Ziegler tips his hand intentionally, sends us home, hopes to get a direct admission on tape."
"Okay, so what's the problem?"
"The problem is — why does he need a direct admission after all this?" Jim gestured at the pad in front of him.
"Because that's all circumstantial," Blair explained patiently. "If he's gonna drag us to Nevada he has to be sure, right?"
"If he's gonna drag us to Nevada," Jim replied with equal patience, "why does he promote you and raise our profile with both the Police Commissioner and the Mayor?"
Blair blinked. "I don't know," he admitted.
"You don't draw attention to people who are about to disappear, do you?"
"Well, no. I mean, I wouldn't."
"Me neither," Jim said grimly. "And according to this theory, Ziegler was on the review board that approved your promotion. He could have vetoed it, no problem — you weren't expecting a promotion. So let's try again: why does he need a smoking gun?"
"Ummm..." Blair leaned back in his chair and stared at the cabin's ceiling. "He wants to convince somebody. Somebody in authority. Higher-ups at the FBI. Or the courts, maybe. Or the media."
"He want to convince somebody," Jim mused; he had leaned forward on the table, head propped on his elbows. "Who the fuck does he want to convince?"
"The FBI. The courts. The media," Blair repeated.
"Why the FBI if not Nevada?" Jim asked.
"Maybe they want to offer us a job?" Blair suggested.
"They don't need a smoking gun for that. They could just ask us. Take us to lunch or something. A smoking gun is sinister, Blair. Why the hell does Ziegler need a smoking gun?"
"I don't know — you tell me, man." Blair threw his hands up in the air.
"I don't know either," Jim said, sounding worried. "But I don't like it. It's a pressure tactic, it's — " Blair sat up straight and they stared at each other.
"Right," Blair said, nodding rapidly. "Right."
"A pressure tactic," Jim repeated slowly.
"Pressure on us." Blair leaned forward.
"Because this — " Jim flattened his palm on the notebook in front of him. " — takes expertise to understand. It's specialized. It needs to be read, analyzed — "
" — whereas a direct admission, everyone gets that. It's conclusive, it's the nail in the coffin." Blair swallowed hard. "Why does Ziegler want to be putting a nail in our coffin?"
Jim looked grave. "Because it's an all-purpose blackmail tool. My best guess is — Ziegler's gonna be asking us to do something that we're not gonna want to do."
Jim's words seemed to hang in the air; the cabin grew still.
Blair jumped at the sound of Jim's chair scraping the floor. "I'm gonna go take a shower," Jim mumbled, and Blair nodded and watched him go, feeling completely fucking helpless.
11:42 A.M. THE CABIN
By the time Jim came out of the bathroom, one towel tied round his waist, another round his neck, Blair had made the bed and banked up the fire and had a bowl of hot oatmeal and a cup of hot coffee waiting for him on the counter.
The cabin was warm and clean and homey looking; Jim looked around and slowly smiled. "Hey, thanks," he said, coming over to Blair. "Is that for me?"
"No." Blair rolled his eyes. "It's for Pedro, my Latin lover. He's in the closet over there."
"Too bad for him, then." Jim grinned and reached for the bowl.
Blair slapped Jim's hand. "Not yet, it's hot, let it cool off. So listen: I've been thinking — "
"You're cute when you're thinking," Jim said, fingering some long strands of Blair's hair.
Blair shook his head and leaned against the counter. "Bring back Jim. I want to talk to Jim."
"Jim doesn't want to talk," Jim said, sitting down on one of the wooden chairs. "Jim is finding all this talk very depressing." He grabbed the towel around his neck and rubbed his damp hair with it.
"But it's not, really. See, that's what I was thinking," Blair pushed away from the counter and moved to stand next to Jim. "We made real progress this morning — I mean, if we really analyze what we said — "
"Blair?" Jim dropped the towel on the table and stared up at him. "Suck me off?"
" — then we're much better off than we — " Blair blinked. "I, uh... You, uh..." The brain-mouth connection suddenly didn't seem to be working.
"Blair...please?" and Blair heard himself say, "Uh, yeah, sure," and then he was sliding to the floor in front of Jim's chair, his bathrobe pooling around him. He pulled Jim's knees further apart, leaned forward to tug Jim's towel off, and then bent down to take the steam-damp, soft-hard cock into his mouth.
Jim made a soft, relieved sound and leaned back in his chair, sliding his pelvis forward, giving Blair more room to work. Blair tilted his head slightly to look up at Jim, reaching to close one hand around the base of Jim's cock.
"....ohhh... oh, yes... please," Jim breathed above him, and then Jim was breathing hard as Blair lazily pulled Jim's cock into and out of his mouth. Not wanting to bring him to orgasm, just enjoying the feel of it and wanting Jim to enjoy the feel of it. Nice and slow, nice and slow — a labor of love, this — hell, Jim deserved this...
"....god...good..." and Blair could actually feel Jim's body relaxing around him, feel Jim's muscles going limp as he sank back against the chair. Blair slid a loving hand up a hairy leg, up over the side of Jim's thigh to his hip. Nice and slow, nice and slow — he moved his hand up over Jim's chest. Jim was leaning back, now — Jim was damn near horizontal, shoulders draped over the chair back, head lolling — and Blair slid his hand up over the hard muscle until his palm was splayed over the center of Jim's chest, until he could hear the powerful thump-thump-thump of him.
It was easier and easier to glide his lips over Jim's cock, which was slick, now, which was glistening, now — so Blair tightened the fist at the base of Jim's cock and gradually began to speed up, bobbing his head up and down gently as he pulled Jim out and in of him, outandinofhim, as he sucked and loved and tasted the hot, hard flesh — and suddenly Jim's heart was jackhammering under his palm and the soft abdominal muscles underneath him were tightening into perfect architectural ridges and Jim was thrusting up helplessly. Strong hands cradled his scalp, fists tightened in his hair — and to hell wth nice and slow, Jim body was a machine, now — Jim was fucking his mouth, now — and Blair moaned and relaxed and let him do it, enjoying the feel of all that thick, delicious cock being shoved into him —
Jim's long, loud groan of completion burned his ears, and he quickly grabbed Jim's hips and held on while Jim shuddered beneath him, not wanting to lose Jim's cock as it jerked and flooded his mouth, Jim was sinking down again, hot ice melting back into lukwarm water, muscles easing down — and Blair sucked softly, sucked Jim into softness before lifting his head.
Jim just lay there in the chair — Blair didn't know you could lay in a chair — head back, eyes closed, totally relaxed and sated. Blair smiled and swiped at his mouth with the back of his hand. "Better?"
"...mm-hmm..." Jim didn't open his eyes, didn't move a muscle.
Blair shook his head and laughed quietly as he got to his knees, and then to his feet. "I'm gonna go take a shower. Anything else I can do for you?"
"...c'n I have my bathrobe back?" Jim mumbled.
Blair grinned and peeled off the bathrobe, draping it over Jim's head on the way to the bathroom.
12:28 P.M. THE CABIN
Blair came out of the bathroom and struggled into sweats and a thick pair of wool socks. Jim was sitting at the table in his bathrobe, writing furiously. The oatmeal bowl was empty and had been shoved aside.
Jim looked up from the notebook and smiled at him. "The oatmeal was good."
Blair waggled his eyebrows. "Just the oatmeal?"
"You are spectacular." Jim leaned back and the chair creaked. "You are the best thing ever and then some."
"Hang on," Blair said. "Let me get the tape recorder."
"Oh, is that what that was for?"
"Yeah. I ain't letting you deny nothing when we're old. I'm gonna be reminding you that I once gave the best head in the west." Blair pulled his still-damp hair into a ponytail as the nape of his neck and sat down.
Jim laughed and leaned forward on his elbows. "Blair, I might forget where we live, but that, I won't forget, I swear."
Blair grinned. "I'll make you a sign to wear around your neck." He held his fingers in a mock square across his chest.
"Yeah — 'Hello, my name is Jim Take me back to the Best Head in the West.'" Jim scratched at the back of his neck and then said, "You ready to get serious?"
Blair sighed. "Not really. Can't we just live here? Like farm and eat and fuck? I could live like this."
"What were you trying to tell me before?" Jim asked.
"What, before you turned into my own personal love god? Like I remember."
"You said you'd been thinking. You said that we made some sort of progress, somehow."
Blair blinked. "Oh, yeah. Right. Well, just that we've pretty much eliminated Nevada, for one thing. I mean, you're right, that doesn't fit with my totally unnecessary promotion. And it doesn't fit with this smoking gun theory either, because the whole idea of Nevada is — what? — us being captured and tested by a bunch of specialists of some sort. People who could certainly interpret that whole mess." Blair flung a careless hand at the notebook. "They wouldn't need me saying something stupid like, 'Hey, Jim. Can you smell that with your super senses? "
Jim smirked. "Right, right."
"So, I mean, that's great news, right? The only downside is that our theory about not going to Nevada is based on the fact that Ziegler already has enough information to send us to Nevada. That we're not already there." They looked at each other and shuddered. "That's the only thing stopping me from dancing around the room, here.
Jim nodded and muttered, "Yeah, that's not a pleasant thought."
"Nevada or me dancing around the room?"
"Either. Both," Jim snorted.
Blair flashed him a grin. "Right. Anyway, the other thing I was thinking was this," he continued, leaning forward. "The fact that Ziegler's still looking for a smoking gun suggests that he hasn't reported this to anybody yet. And if that's true, well, that rocks."
"Wait, hang on," Jim said. "Where are you getting that from? I mean, flip it the other way and it suggests that he has reported us — what's his excuse for continuing the investigation a month after our review is officially over? I mean, somebody's signing off on this, right? Thugs and bugs cost money."
"Hey, I wasn't singing 'The Days of Wine and Roses' or anything," Blair replied. "Okay, you're right — he's spun some story for his superiors about us, something to justify the expense of the bugs and the thugs, but he probably hasn't given them all of that mess." Blair tapped the list hard with his index finger.
"Because then we'd be in Nevada, you're saying."
"Right. Which we're not."
"Right," Jim agreed.
"See, so if Ziegler's working alone on this — if he's the only one who knows — "
"We can boobytrap his car?"
Blair crossed his arms and shook his head no.
"Rig his toaster to blow? Strangle him with piano wire?"
Blair rolled his eyes. "No, no, no, man. Well, I mean — not yet, anyway. We can sort of counter him bit by bit. If he's looking for a smoking gun, we can stop him from getting one. Meanwhile we work on figuring out why he wants it."
Jim nodded. "I've got a few people I can call. Someone'll have an in with the Feds. And I know a bunch of guys who do private investigations — we'll get somebody tailing him. Get a line on his current routine..."
"Yeah, and Ziegler told me that he went to the University of Virginia. And this 'small academic world' thing cuts two ways." Blair pounded his fist against the wood table. "I'll make some calls, too — find someone who taught him. Find out what his fucking senior thesis was on."
Jim grinned. "Okay, this is starting to sound like a real plan." He flipped another page on the notebook and picked up the pencil. "What time is it?"
Blair looked at his wrist instinctively before realizing he wasn't wearing his watch. "Damn, hang on," he said, getting up to snag his wristwatch off the kitchen counter. "It's just about one."
"Okay," Jim answered, nodding. 'It's one o'clock now. Feds are open today till five, I think. If we get moving I can make a couple of calls before everyone goes home for Christmas. Hell, folks just might be in the right mood to bullshit with me." He glanced up at Blair. "What about you — any call you wanna make right now?"
"No university in the world is open on Christmas Eve. Everyone's on break. Still, " Blair said after a moment, "I've got my phone book with me. I dunno, I could make a call or two. Start the ball rolling."
"Good enough," Jim said. "Ok, so here's what we do. Take a half an hour, pull our shit together here, get ready to go. We'll head down toward Cascade cutting west a little earlier — try to find a place to eat that's got a private pay phone."
"Hey, you know," Blair deadpanned, "there's this great little reststop that serves hotdogs — "
"Shut up. Figure it takes us about an hour and a half — by 3:00 we should be on the phone, hopefully. And eating. And then we head back to my Dad's — it gets dark about five..."
"We don't have a chance of getting there before six," Blair interrupted.
"Six is good, six works. Doesn't matter so long as it's after dark. We'll get back in the way we got out, spend the evening with my Dad — he'll like that. Christmas Eve and all. Plus it'll make our whole 'visiting-Dad-escape-route-thing' more credible. We'll open the goddammed curtains; let 'em watch."
"Okay, that all sounds good. But let me ask you this — what about the bugs in the loft?"
Jim grinned and shoved the pad and the pencil toward Blair. "That's gonna be your responsibility."
Blair was taken aback. "Mine?"
"Yeah," Jim said, nodding.
"What the hell am I supposed to do? I don't know anything about bugs. Except of the insect variety — I know my Coleoptra from my Orthoptra, but — "
"Do you just make this shit up?" Jim demanded, glaring at him. "I mean, just — now that we're so close and fucking and everything, I'd really like to know."
"No!" Blair protested indignantly. "I do not just make it up." Jim kept glaring and Blair amended, "Mostly. I mostly don't make it up, okay?" Jim continued to glare and Blair sighed and said, "I didn't make that up, anyway. Coleoptra are — "
"I don't care," Jim interrupted, shoving the paper toward him again. "You don't know bugs, but you sure know bullshit. So write me something, Shakespeare — script me a 'find the bugs' scenario."
"What — you mean, like a play or something?" Blair boggled.
"Right," Jim said, getting up. "You got it. You write, I'll pack us up."
Blair stared down at the pad of paper. "I don't even know where to start!"
"Start," Jim called from across the room, "with me knocking over that damn lamp."
3:47 P.M. JACK'S DINER, ROUTE 5
Jim grumpily reached for another french fry, dipped it in ketchup, popped it into his mouth. He stared across the diner at the phone booth: what the hell was the guy talking about? He'd made all three of his calls in under fifteen minutes — hell, he thought he'd been longwinded. But Blair had been in that fucking phone booth for — what — almost forty minutes, now.
Jim dialed up his hearing again, and heard Blair say, "Nah, I haven't seen Keith in ages, I think he went to Japan. Didn't he go to Japan?" What the hell was this, a fucking class reunion?
"WOULDJA LIKE SOME MORE COFFEE?" and Jim nearly jumped off the vinyl bench as he scrambled to dial his hearing back down. "Hey, didn't mean to scare you, guy," the waiter called from behind the diner counter: he was wearing a stained white apron and holding up a half-full pot of coffee. "You want a refill?" and Jim shook his head no and waved him away.
He looked back at the booth and, thankfully, Blair was shoving the door open and crossing back across the empty diner to their table.
Blair was grinning and bouncing and waving the notebook — that looked like a good sign.
"What?" Jim asked, as Blair slid across from him.
"Wow, oh, wow, man." Blair slapped the notebook down.
"Hey — you want coffee?" the waiter called, and Blair looked over at him and said, "Yeah, thanks." He turned back to Jim and slid the notebook across the greasy linoleum table. "Check this out."
Jim stared at Blair's incomprehensible scrawl while the waiter came and poured Blair another cup of coffee. "What the hell's this? Japanese?"
"Do you have any pie?" Blair was asking the waiter.
"We got apple pie, lemon pie, cheesecake, rice pudding and jello," the waiter repeated mechanically.
"Gimme a slice of lemon pie," Blair said decisively.
"Ice cream, whipped cream?"
"Nah, that's fine. Jim — you want any pie?"
"No," Jim said pointedly.
"He doesn't want any pie," Blair said to the waiter, flashing him a sunny smile.
"Right," the waiter said, and loped off.
"I can't read this," Jim said. "What does this say?"
"Oh, sorry, man — I'm used to typing. Let me just give you the short version." Jim nodded and leaned forward, listening attentively. "So I called up Sarah, who looked up the U.VA. in the M. triple A. and — "
"I'm already lost," Jim said flatly.
Blair stopped and seemed to be trying to brush the words away with his hands. "Okay, take two. I called Sarah and had her look up the University of Virginia to see if I knew anybody who was teaching there when Ziegler was there." Jim nodded once, decisively — this, he was following. "Not like I know when that is, exactly, but he looks to be a couple of years older than me — say, thirty-four, thirty five? But anyway, it turns out that the only person we know there is this guy Frank Sander — but Sander is, like, a hundred years old — "
Between sixty-five and seventy, Jim instantly amended.
" — and he's been there forever — "
Thirty years, Jim thought.
" — and so that was promising, right? So I called him, and he was home, and bingo!" Blair grinned excitedly.
"He remembered Ziegler?" Jim asked.
"Double your money, man — he remembered me and he remembered Ziegler."
"And?" Jim pressed.
"And this is where I gotta look at the notebook." Blair dragged the notebook back and yanked his glasses from out of his shirt pocket, flipped them onto his face. "God, I can't even read my writing..."
Jim groaned. "Blair, the short version?"
"All right, all right, keep your pants on. The salient point is that Ziegler actually did a master's thesis at U.VA after his B.A. — and guess what on?"
Jim threw up his hands. "Sentinels."
Blair shook his head. "No, but close. E.S.P."
"Yep. Guess who coined the term E.S.P.?" Jim looked baffled. "Come on, you know this one," Blair encouraged.
Jim frowned. "Not — "
"Richard Burton. Yep. 1870."
"Oh, come on!" Jim yelled, earning himself a nasty glance from the waiter, who was bringing Blair his lemon pie.
"Totally serious, man." Blair shrugged. "Historical fact. Thanks," he added, glancing up at the waiter.
"Didn't that guy have a life?" Jim muttered.
"Wait, it gets better," Blair said, digging his fork into the pie. "From what Sander remembers, Ziegler didn't believe in any of that stuff. E.S.P, clairvoyance, any of it. Apparently Ziegler's thesis was a nice little cross-cultural examination of psychic mythologies — well, that's what Sander remembers, anyway. He'll dig up the thing when school opens at the end of January. But anyway, Sander says that Ziegler's theory was that what people call a 'sixth sense' is actually — "
" — wait, right, I got it," Jim said wearily. "There's no sixth sense, it's just regular old sensory information, right?"
"Right. So that some people," Blair paused to look meaningfully at Jim, "get more sensory information than other people or are making better conscious use of the sensory information that they have at their disposal. And the average guy reads that as E.S.P."
"I don't know what you're looking at me for," Jim snorted. "You're the one with the psychic visions and the tele-whatsit."
"Fine, fine," Blair mumbled around a mouthful of pie. "I'll glare at myself if it makes you happy."
"Well, it doesn't." Jim sighed. "All right, so what the hell does that all mean?"
"Well, it means a bunch of things. First of all, it's damned interesting that Ziegler's interested in E.S.P and then he goes off and studies criminology and all that stuff. I mean, I don't know — but that suggests to me a personality type."
"What kind of personality type?" Jim asked.
Blair looked suddenly embarrassed. "Well, mine, actually. I mean — it's like this isn't just an academic thing with him. He's Practical Application Man."
Jim raised an eyebrow. "Practical Application Man?"
"Well, yeah," Blair said irritably. "I mean, there's other places I could be right now, you know? I could be on fucking vacation right now instead of — "
"All right, all right, I'm sorry," Jim said. "Tell me more about what it means."
"Well, it also means that Ziegler would recognize Burton's name in my dissertation, if not that particular work. That particular work's pretty obscure. But you know, Ziegler totally played me," Blair snorted. "I mean, he had me explaining Burton to him like he'd never heard of the guy."
"I'm sorry he bashed your ego." Jim swiped a piece of pie crust off Blair's plate. "What else does it mean?"
Blair shrugged. "Well, just that he really is likely to be working alone on this. Hoarding the information for himself." Jim frowned and Blair sighed and averted his eyes. "It's the type, man. My type. When you discover who Superman is, you actually don't go running to tell CNN." Blair stared down at the white linoleum tabletop. "You keep it to yourself. It's like...your own special secret."
Jim reached across the table and covered Blair's hand with his. Blair glanced up at him over the tops of his glasses, face flushed with embarrassment. Jim grinned and patted Blair's hand reassuringly, then called out, "Check, please!"