Author's Notes: This story was first published in the zine Crossroads, which was put together and edited by the marvelous Seah. Though it's only appearing on the net now, "Paranoia" was actually written (if I recollect correctly) just after my story "Stay", sometime back in...98? If you look at the list of my fic, you'll see that was quite a while ago. Hopefully you'll see this as a charming throwback to my earlier style. If not, take comfort in the fact that writers really do improve over time. (grin).
Sandburg! Jesus, Sandburg! — and damn if the bastard wasn't twice his size! Twice his size and four times his weight and a thousand times uglier, the ape was straddling Sandburg's chest, and his fat, ugly sausage fingers were tight around Sandburg's throat, holding fast despite Blair's desperate, thrashing efforts to throw him off.
The world blurred by as Ellison reacted, throwing himself forward and using all his weight to knock the guy off his partner, grabbing the big, meaty hands and ripping them off Sandburg's neck. And the ape was stupid enough to fight him, but he was slow and lumbering in his movements. Ellison seized a jacket lapel, pulled back his arm, and made a fist, and the fat man's eyes widened in sudden animal fear.
"Kill the guy — " he said confusedly, and then Ellison's fist flew forward and smashed into his face; his head lolled backward and he slumped unconscious to the floor.
Sandburg had rolled to his side and was curled up, gasping for air; his hands hovered protectively around his neck.
"Are you okay?" Ellison asked, crouching next to him, and Sandburg coughed, and sucked in another deep breath, and nodded. "I swear to God, you're a trouble magnet," Jim said worriedly, watching closely as Blair's pale face gradually lost its bluish tint and returned to its normal color.
"You're sure you're okay?" Jim pressed, and Blair nodded again, this time slowly sitting up to prove it. Jim frowned as Blair's hands dropped away from his neck — his throat was encircled by a necklace of raw, fingerprint-shaped bruises. "Jesus, Chief," Jim whispered, instinctively reaching out to touch. They were warm — warmer than the skin around them.
"I'm okay," Blair said scratchily, and then he cleared his throat and repeated, more convincingly, "I'm okay. Thanks for your help, man. I needed it." He sighed and smiled ruefully at Jim. "It's just my dumb luck, you know?"
"Wait here! Just wait here!" and Sandburg nodded eagerly and ducked back behind a row of trash cans. Ellison gripped his gun and moved slowly to the iron door, pushing it open and stepping into the warehouse. Stealthily, he took out one thug — a bang to the head with the butt of his revolver. A few minutes later and he had crept up and disarmed another one.
Where the hell was Lockwood?!
And then his ears picked up on a CRASH from the alley, and Jim hissed "Shit!" and kicked the wall next to him. He wheeled and ran back out the door, ducking quickly as a garbage can lid whaaaaanged past his head and clattered into the outside wall.
"Sorry!" Sandburg yelled.
Lockwood turned and fired his gun at Sandburg, who yelped and disappeared back behind the trash cans. Jim pointed his own gun at Lockwood and yelled, "Freeze! Drop it!" Lockwood swung the gun around and they blinked at each other for a moment, stalemated.
And then a beer bottle flew through the air from Sandburg's direction and exploded as it smashed into Lockwood's head.
Lockwood's face contorted and turned purple and he turned furiously back toward Sandburg. Jim took advantage of the opening to barrel forward and tackle him to the floor.
But Lockwood hardly noticed — he still clutched his gun and waved his arm with demonic determination over Jim's shoulder, trying to get off another shot at Sandburg.
"Kill him!" Lockwood screamed. "Kill him! Kill the — " and Jim hit him with a hard right cross to the jaw, knocking him out.
Jim sighed and pulled the gun roughly from Lockwood's hand. He turned to see Blair edging forward, eyeing Lockwood nervously.
Blair looked at Jim and made a face. "Well. Some whacko, huh, Jim?"
Jim sat back in his desk chair and looked over the report on Lockwood's arrest, making sure he had dotted his "i"s and crossed his "t"s before signing off on it. It all looked okay, and he signed the final page and heaved himself out of his chair, headed for the photocopier.
At the next desk, Blair looked up from the police computer and shot him a quick smile. He grinned back and stood at the copier still grinning thinking of Blair's well-hurled beer bottle and the look of fury and surprise on Lockwood's face. When the machine stopped whirring, he grabbed his copies and a bunch of inter-office envelopes and returned to his desk. One copy to records, one copy to Simon Banks, one copy for the D.A., one copy for God Almighty¬ó. He labeled the various envelopes quickly and efficiently, and then slid the last copy into a file folder and labeled it: "Lockwood."
He pulled out his bottom desk drawer and thumbed his way through his personal files. J-K-L. Laad. Lash. Leibowitz. He slid Lockwood into its proper place — and then frowned.
Jim glanced furtively at Blair, who was still intently typing, paying no attention to him. He pulled Lash's thick file out onto his desk and began to glance through it — one ear instinctively monitoring the click-click-click of the keys under Blair's fingers.
Lash's psychological reports. His own case report, detailing Lash's kidnapping of Blair, how he found Blair in a dentist's chair at the warehouse — bound, gagged, and terrified. Lash in a fright wig — having to fight him, having to shoot him, kill him —
— and then suddenly, under the click of the computer keys, he heard a low-pitched whine.
A faint burning smell.
And suddenly Ellison leapt out of his chair, and grabbed at Blair's hands, and yanked him away from the desk, from the computer —
— just as it suddenly crackled and blew out, the monitor shattering outward, blasting glass across the chair Blair Sandburg had been sitting in, mere seconds ago.
"Holy shit!" Blair yelled. The bullpen came to a sudden halt and everyone froze, and then clustered around Blair's desk wearing concerned expressions. "What the fuck was that?" Blair asked wildly. His face was tense, and he looked frightened. "I've never had that happen before — I've never seen anything like that before!"
"A power surge?" Rafe suggested, and Blair turned to him and mimed desperate confusion.
"Maybe," Jim said, bending over the destroyed computer with a frown.
"Let me call the building manager," Simon Banks said, striding purposefully into his office. "See what the hell is going on. Turn everything off and unplug it," he called back over his shoulder. "Unplug your equipment, people! Computers, desk lamps, anything electrical!"
The crowd around Blair and Jim dispersed as everyone went back to their desks to follow Banks's orders. "You sure you're okay?" Taggert lingered to ask Blair, and when Blair nodded Taggert patted his shoulder and went back to his desk as well.
"Geez, man, this freaks me out," Blair said to Jim. "Computers are supposed to be our friends, right?" he added, trying to make light of it. "Or at least, I always thought they were my friends." He stopped and shook his head at the shattered hulk of machinery. "Hey," Blair said suddenly, "someone should run down the hall and tell Sam and Roger and Carmen. Hang on — I'll be right back."
"Sure," Jim said, watching Blair dash out of the bullpen and down the hallway.
But he felt somehow sure that this wasn't going to happen to anyone else.
Because this kind of thing only seemed to happen to Blair Sandburg.
Paranoia, he supposed, shaking his head suddenly and moving dazedly back to his desk.
Or was it?
Was it paranoia if something was actually out to get him?
Jim couldn't shake his growing feeling of unease; it stayed with him for the rest of the afternoon, through the ride home, in the loft that evening. He had just finished putting together a light supper of soup and sandwiches when Blair emerged from his room, dressed to go out.
"Hey," Blair said guiltily, coming close, "is some of that for me?"
"Oh — it's just that I've got plans. Isabel invited me to this party," he added, gesturing down at his blue silk shirt in explanation. "I'm really sorry, Jim — I should have said earlier."
Jim stared at his partner, and fought back the desire to say: Don't go. Don't go out, it's not safe.
"Jim, are you okay?" Blair asked, frowning, and Jim blinked hard and shook his head as if to clear it.
"Yeah, I'm fine, Chief," he said, turning away and ladling himself a bowl of soup. "Don't worry about it — you go out and have a good time."
"Okay," Blair said slowly. "Okay," and then he crossed to the door and took his leather jacket off the hook. Shrugging into it, he turned speculative eyes toward Jim. "You sure you're okay?"
"Get outta here, Chief," Jim growled back at him, and Blair smiled, face clearing.
"All right, all right, all right," Blair replied. "I won't be too late — see you later."
Jim waved a dismissive goodbye toward Blair as he left the loft, pulling the door shut behind him. Jim slid a spoon into his bowl of soup and then picked it up in one hand, taking up his sandwich plate in the other. He brought the food into the living room and set it down on the coffee table before settling back into the sofa and picking up the remote control.
Food. Beer. Game.
But as he chewed his sandwich and watched the players running up and down the court, his mind kept straying.
Kincaid bustling Blair out to the helicopter, an angry hand on his arm, a gun to his face, his hair flying in the artificial wind of churning rotating metal blades.
Blair shrinking fearfully against the far wall of an elevator, blue eyes staring up at him through the video monitor.
The sound of gunfire in a parking garage, the smell of gasoline, the feel of gray flannel covering the crumpled body in his arms.
Accident. Coincidence. Sandburg's dumb luck.
Food. Beer. Game.
Just dumb luck.
"Oh fuck," Jim swore, and he switched the television off irritably with a flick of the remote control. He got up and crossed the room to the satchel he had left under the coat rack. He brought the bag to the kitchen table, rummaged in it, and pulled out the thick file marked: Lash.
He slid into one of the kitchen chairs and began to read.
Lash's psychological reports. His own case report. A photograph of the men's room at Major Crimes — the large, block-lettered question: "Who Am I Now?" A photograph of Lash's cell at his last psychiatric institution — a frightening thing, the picture of a disordered mind. The walls were covered in writing — always the same horrible question, over and over. In ink. In blood. In mashed potatoes and pureed peas.
Who Am I? Who Am I? Who Am I?
Jim grimaced and heard Blair's voice in his head: "Some whacko, huh, Jim?"
Yes. Oh hell, yes. Some whacko indeed.
And then he frowned, using sentinel sight to look deep into the picture, deep into the room which to his eyes now looked three-dimensional. And he heard himself breathing hard. Because he could see it: it was there. Faint. But there.
Scratched into the wall in the corner — scratched so lightly that maybe no one else had ever seen it — maybe no one except a sentinel could see it.
But it was there.
Kill The Guide.
Jim pushed the folder away. Impossible. That was impossible. Lash hadn't even known Sandburg existed when he lived in that cell. And how the hell could he have known that Sandburg was called a guide? So it was totally impossible. He was losing it, he'd had too much on-the-job stress; he needed a vacation.
Because it was impossible.
So why was he shaking? Why was it that suddenly, to sentinel senses, the world seemed to be utterly humming with threat? He felt that now that he had tuned into it, he could see danger everywhere — in every person, in every object — like hands coming out of the darkness, reaching for Sandburg's throat —
Shit, where was Sandburg?
Party. Sandburg was at a party.
Just a party.
Jesus Christ, he had to calm down. He took a deep breath. Even if it was true, even if he wasn't paranoid — what was he supposed to do about it? Who was he supposed to arrest — Blair's crazy karma?
And Blair was a grown man, nearly thirty — he'd never consent to being watched twenty-four seven.
Even if he could figure what to watch for.
Even if he could figure out what was going on.
Even if he could figure out who or what was after Blair.
If there was something there at all.
A lot of ifs. A lot of ifs and no facts. No proof. Just coincidences and accidents and instinct and a sense of growing dread —
He looked up suddenly when he heard Blair's step in the hallway, and glanced at the clock. Eleven-thirty. Shit. He'd been lost in thought — and he stuffed the folders back into his satchel and tossed it under the table just as the door opened.
"Hey," Blair said in greeting, and Jim tried to look relaxed.
"Hey yourself," he replied. "Have a good time?"
Blair shrugged and headed toward the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of water. "Yeah, it was okay, I guess. Same old, same old, you know? Like, I felt that I had heard all the jokes before. It was that kind of party." He leaned against the kitchen island and regarded Jim intently. "What did you do tonight?"
Jim stretched theatrically. "I started watching the game and then I got guilty and did a little paperwork."
Blair grinned at him. "You're such a good boy."
And then Jim sniffed the air, and frowned, and leapt to his feet. "You're hurt," he said, crossing quickly to Blair.
"No, I'm fine," said Blair, wide-eyed. Jim ignored him, and ran assessing hands over Blair's neck, shoulders, chest, back. "Jim!" Blair yelped. "What the hell is the matter with you?"
And then Jim was crouched before him, running his palms over Blair's legs. Then he nodded to himself — he could smell the cut on Blair's knee, knew it was oozing blood. "You cut yourself," he said quietly, looking up at Blair.
Blair was looking down at him with a startled expression on his face. "I did?"
Jim got to his feet. "Yeah," he said tensely, because it was happening again, happening again — Blair was hurt, hurting.
"I guess," Blair said, sounding confused. "I mean, I tripped before — "
Pushed. He was pushed. Jim felt he knew this with all certainty — felt that he could see the hands, see the hands pushing Blair's back, pushing Blair down —
" — but I didn't think I broke the skin."
Jim took Blair's biceps in his hands. "Where did it happen?"
"Jim, it's no big deal!" Blair replied forcefully. "So maybe I cut myself — it's just a cut, right?" He stared at Jim's face, then looked down to where Jim was touching him, holding his arms tightly. And then he looked up at Jim's face again, and his own was clouded with concern.
"It's just a cut," Jim agreed, letting go of Blair's arms and stepping back. "Go and put some antiseptic on it — middle shelf of the medicine cabinet."
Blair didn't move. "Jim, you're acting weird. What's going on?"
"Nothing," Jim said brusquely. "It's nothing. Go take care of that cut."
"Okay," said Blair hesitantly. "But Jim — "
"Middle shelf, medicine cabinet," Jim repeated, and Blair sighed and nodded and headed off to the bathroom.
Shit. Jim squeezed his eyes shut and put a hand out against the island to steady himself. He felt like he already knew the whole story — he could see it in his mind, like a movie. Sandburg on the corner, crossing the street to his car. The hand, coming out of nowhere, out of the crowd — shoving at the small of his back, pushing him into the street, pushing him down. Blair crashing on all fours to the pavement, scratching the palm of his left hand, gashing his right knee — but blissfully not in traffic. Not in traffic: not this time.
What the fuck was he going to do?
When he opened his eyes Blair was standing in front of him, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, a gauze bandage taped to one knee.
"Jim, talk to me," Blair said quietly. "I feel like there's something going on here — something you're not telling me."
He opened his mouth to deny it again —
— and then he suddenly looked at Blair's face. And had an idea.
"It's nothing," he said, crossing the room to stand by the balcony doors, to stare out over the water. He watched Blair's reflection in the glass speculatively, wondering if Blair would be true to form.
Thankfully, Blair was true to form: he immediately crossed the room to stand near Jim and crossed his arms. "It's not nothing, is it?" Blair demanded. "Come on — spill it — tell me what's going on."
Jim grinned inwardly, keeping his outward expression calm — calm tinged with perhaps the slightest hint of guilt — as he turned. "It is nothing," he insisted weakly. "I mean, it's just that I feel — no, nothing. It's nothing."
"It's your senses, isn't it?" Blair asked, frowning. "You're having problems with your senses."
Jim hesitated just long enough before saying "No" to turn Blair's suspicion into absolute certainty.
"You are, aren't you," said Blair wearily, letting his hands fall to his sides. "Why the hell don't you tell me these things?"
Jim put on his roughest voice. "Sandburg, I don't need you hovering around me all the time!" Mentally, he crossed his fingers — if Sandburg went for this, he wouldn't have to worry about keeping an eye on Blair.
Blair would be keeping an eye on him.
"You do if you're in trouble," Blair said firmly. "That's what I'm here for, remember?" and Jim couldn't suppress the thought: Amen, brother. "Come here," Sandburg added, grabbing Jim's arm and pulling him to the couch. "Sit down and tell me what the hell you're feeling."
"Sandburg — " Jim said irritably, feeling that it was best to put up some token resistance. Blair would expect it.
"Don't ¬ëSandburg' me," Sandburg answered, climbing onto the sofa next to him. "Just start talking."
Shit, Jim thought. Now he actually had to invent some damn sensory problem — one that was compelling enough to keep Sandburg close, where he could watch out for him.
He sighed and rolled his eyes, buying a few seconds of extra time while his brain raced.
"Look, it's just that — well, things have been sort of especially acute, lately," he said finally, deciding to stick as close to the truth as possible.
"Acute? Acute how?" Blair asked, frowning.
"Like — like I'm seeing things that aren't there," Jim answered, thinking of the scratched phrase on the wall of Lash's cell. He shuddered slightly, uncontrollably, at the memory. Kill The Guide. "Or maybe they are there — that's the thing, I don't know," he explained. "Like the blood — your cut — I could smell it. I knew you were hurt before you did. It was overpowering my senses."
"But the cut was there," Blair said meditatively.
"Yeah, that was there, but I don't know if the other things I'm sensing are there, you know?" Jim asked. "It's making me — I don't know — jittery. Anxious. I feel like I'm jumping at shadows, Blair — "
"Okay, okay, calm down," said Blair, laying a soothing hand on his arm. "We can handle this, okay?" and Jim took a deep breath and nodded. "Though you should have told me," Blair admonished as an afterthought. "I wouldn't have gone out if I'd known you were suffering, here. I knew there was something wrong," he added, almost to himself.
"Blair, look, I'm dead tired," Jim said, getting up. "Maybe I just need some sleep."
"So, fine — we'll just do some basic control exercises, first, okay?" Jim nodded reluctantly, and headed for the loft stairs, Blair following. "Lie down," Blair directed at the top of the stairs. "Get comfortable," and Jim kicked off his shoes and obeyed, stretching out on the bed. Blair sat on the edge beside him. "Okay, now close your eyes and picture your dials," Blair began.
"Lights," Jim said suddenly.
"What?" Blair asked.
"Lights. Turn the light off."
"Oh. Right. Okay," said Blair, and he reached out and turned the bedside lamp off. "Now, picture your sight dial. Take a deep breath, reach out, and turn it down to a comfortable level. No more shadows. No more shadows, Jim," he murmured soothingly. "Are the shadows fading?"
"Yes," Jim answered softly, wishing it were true. "Yes," he lied. "They're fading."
"Now hearing," Blair said quietly. "Deep breath, deep breath — now find your level, turn it down to your level."
"No more whispers," Jim murmured. "No more threats."
He heard Blair's quick intake of breath, and his eyes flew open. Blair reached out and squeezed his hand reassuringly. "No more whispers," Blair repeated softly. "No more threats."
Jim stared at Blair through the darkness, then squeezed his hand back tightly.
"Jim, what are you hearing?" Blair whispered fearfully.
"Nothing," Jim answered quickly. "Nothing. My levels are down to normal now. Everything's normal now. Now that you're here." He tightened his grip on Blair's hand and added, quietly, "Stay here, okay?"
Blair looked shocked for a moment, then he swallowed hard and nodded vaguely. "Okay," he said, lying down on the bed next to Jim in his shorts and t-shirt. He squirmed a bit, settled himself and closed his eyes.
Jim sighed, and closed his eyes too, feeling Blair's hand warm within his. He felt relaxed — fully relaxed — for the first time in weeks. Because Blair was here, and safe.
For the moment, anyway.
He woke up the next morning, still fully dressed, Blair's hand still reassuringly clasped in his. Blair was curled up on his side, but he had managed, somehow, to flip the blanket up to cover his body.
He sat up and stared at the sleeping figure of his partner. Asleep, Sandburg looked quite solid, really.
Why did he seem so much more vulnerable when he was awake?
The pattern, once detected, was unmistakable; the hum of potential violence, once heard, was impossible to tune out. He was the police officer — and yet Blair was the one to be hospitalized time and time again. His eyes searched Blair Sandburg's face and saw the innumerable tiny scars; his memory recalled the series of butterfly bandages that had decorated his partner's face.
Kill The Guide.
Accident? Coincidence? Paranoia? He closed his eyes and pressed hands to his suddenly aching head.
"It still hurts, doesn't it?"
Jim looked down, and saw blue eyes staring up at him from the mass of blankets.
"Just now," he admitted. "I slept great all night — it was just now."
Blair shoved the covers aside and sat up. "Try to dial it down," he said, frowning. "Try to keep it under control until I can figure out what's wrong."
Jim nodded, wishing that he could just dial it down. But he was dialed down already — this was just a plain old, garden-variety, stress headache. Hell, it would have been great to have a dial marked "worry."
And then Blair surprised him by reaching out to massage his temples with gentle fingers. Which felt — well — wonderful; his body relaxed, the pain in his head seemed to dissipate. He closed his eyes and grunted his pleasure.
"Better?" he heard Blair ask a minute or two later, and he opened his eyes and said, truthfully, "Yes."
"Good," Blair answered quietly, letting his hands fall back into his lap. "Look, I'm just going to run to my office quickly, okay? And then I'll meet you at the station and stay with you for the rest of the day — keep an eye on you."
"Yes," said Jim. "Please," and Blair nodded and scrambled off the bed.
"Have you been eating anything different?" Blair asked, pausing at the top of the stairs.
"No." He wasn't going to get dragged into a series of dietary tests, that was for sure.
"Sleeping differently?" Blair pressed.
"Maybe," Jim answered, feeling that this was a safer symptom. "Maybe I haven't been sleeping so good, now that I think about it."
Blair nodded, processing this. "Well, maybe exhaustion has triggered some new hyperawareness in your senses," he speculated. "I mean, exhaustion can do some pretty trippy things to people who aren't sentinels, right?" he added, smiling.
"Right," Jim agreed, smiling back.
"Well, whatever," Blair sighed. "We'll figure it out, don't worry." Jim watched as Blair disappeared down the steps to his room, and then sighed gratefully. Sandburg was going to cut his day at the U. short and come to the station, where Jim could watch out for him, watch over him, protect him. Protect him from from, well, whatever.
And hopefully he could figure that mess out before Blair solved the problem of his sudden fictitious "hypersensitivity."
But the stress headache was back in full force by a quarter to two; there was no sign of Sandburg, no answer at his office or cell phone, and he was getting distinctly worried.
When his phone finally rang he grabbed at it. "Ellison," he barked.
"It's me," Blair said wearily, and Jim felt his stomach clench at Blair's tone. Something had happened. Goddammit! Goddammit! Goddammit!
"What?" he asked quickly. "What is it, where are you?"
"Hey, look, I'm sorry," Blair said defensively. "It isn't my fault. I had a little accident with my car — "
"Where are you — ?" said Jim, already on his feet, already grabbing his jacket, already heading for the elevator.
"I'm at Barney's garage, over on — "
Jim interrupted him. "Stay there!" he barked. "Just stay there!"
"Jim, it's no biggie, it's just — well, you know my car," Blair said. "The brakes — "
"Just stay put! I mean it!" He slammed the cell phone shut.
Blair was sitting on a bench outside the garage wearing jeans, his leather jacket, an unhappy expression — and a brand-new band-aid on his temple. Jim got out of the truck and slammed the door.
"You didn't need to come," Blair said defensively as Ellison approached. "I was just gonna take a cab to the station."
"What happened?" said Jim tightly, standing over him and crossing his arms.
Blair raised his palms. "Hey, look — it's an old car, shit happens, okay?"
"You could be hurt," Jim said angrily. "You are hurt — what happened to your face?"
Blair reached up and touched the small bandage, then gave a dismissive snort. "Believe me, Jim, the only place I'm hurting is my wallet. These guys are absolute bandits," he added, jerking his head toward the garage. "Do you know how much they want to fix the front end?"
Jim tried to bring his raging emotions under control. "Tell me what happened."
"I don't know," Blair sighed. "I got in the car, I started it, I pulled around the lot to the gate. I went to stop to show my ID to the guard — and the car had other ideas, man."
Jim found himself having to work to control his breathing. "Go on."
"It just wouldn't stop, is all," Blair moaned. "I ran over a parking barricade and an azalea bush, and then crashed into a student kiosk. I wasn't going fast — I was just in the parking lot, so there was no real danger." He sighed. "But the car looks like shit."
"Where is it?" Jim asked, frowning.
Sandburg made a face and gestured toward the middle bay of three. Jim instantly turned and strode off toward it, and Blair blinked, jumped up off the bench and followed him.
"Hey, look — you don't have the best record with crashes yourself, you know!" Blair called after him. "You've had a lot more cars than me!" Jim didn't respond, and he heard Blair's defensive yell: "It's not as bad as it looks!"
Jim walked into the garage and froze as he saw the Volvo. The front end was crushed in; the windshield was spiderwebbed. Jim felt suddenly dizzy; he put a hand against the car's crumpled hood to steady himself.
He heard Blair whisper his name, he felt Blair's hand splayed against his back.
He raised his head to look at the cracked windshield and cringed in sudden horror. Blair was in the car, a gash across his forehead, blood running from his nose, head lolling back against the seat: neck broken.
"Jim," Blair hissed. "Jim!"
His guide: broken.
"Jim!" and Blair was grabbing at his coat, and Jim blinked hard as his guide tugged him around and shook him. He stared suddenly at Blair — the living, breathing Blair — and saw his anxious, fearful expression. "Jim, please, man — "
He reached out and pulled Blair hard against his chest, wrapping his arms tightly around Blair's back, holding him close. Blair was warm and solid in his arms; he could hear Blair's heart beating, his blood thrumming.
Alive. Blissfully alive.
Dimly, he heard Blair murmuring his name over and over, trying to get his attention. Dimly, he felt Blair twitching nervously, trying to pull away — and he clutched tighter. Dimly, he felt Blair sigh and relax and then acquiesce, felt Blair raise his arms and wrap them gently around his waist.
He squeezed his eyes shut, and felt the vision of a dead Blair fracturing into little pieces and dissolving, fading away into nothingness. He slid one hand up to Blair's neck, working it under the thick hair to touch the warm skin there. Blair's pulse was strong and reassuring under his fingertips, and he calmed.
And then Blair turned his head slightly and pressed his face into Jim's neck.
And as the vision faded he became aware of Sandburg's hands sliding under his jacket, under his sweater, gently touching the small of his back, and he felt Sandburg's breath tickling his neck and — oh, fuck.
He gulped. Sandburg had just pushed them over the very thin line that he had been treading, that they had always been treading, he and Sandburg. The line between friendship and — oh, God. Damn. It! what the hell was he supposed to do about this?
Like he didn't have enough problems!
"I'm thinking that there's something else going on here," Blair murmured into his neck.
— but I could be wrong, Jim finished in his mind, and he waited expectantly, but Sandburg didn't say it. Damn him! Give me the opening, for God's sake — just give me the chance to say, "No, you're wrong, you've got it wrong, it's just that I'm trying to stop your beautiful face from being splattered all over the pavement, I'm trying to stop some demon-possessed serial killer from cutting your head off and using it as a centerpiece for his dinner table."
But he couldn't say that, even if Blair gave him the opening. Which he didn't.
Okay, okay — what he should do was pull Sandburg's arms from around his waist and push him backward sharply (not harshly, not hurtfully, but just in a firm but friendly Sorry-You've-Got-It-Wrong sort of guy way) and then back off, keep his distance for a while till things got back to normal between them —
Except he couldn't push Sandburg away under the circumstances, and he couldn't — shouldn't — daren't — keep his distance.
He took Sandburg's biceps in his hands and pushed him back slightly, just enough to remove Sandburg's lips from his skin, Sandburg's hands from his back. Still holding Sandburg's arms tightly, he gave him his best disgruntled glower.
But Blair just stared up at him curiously.
"Mr. Sandburg," the mechanic yelled from the doorway, and Blair frowned and pulled away from him suddenly, leaving him feeling surprisingly anxious and empty. "I've got your estimate."
Blair made a face and walked over to the white-clad attendant. "What's the damage?" he asked, taking the clipboard from his hand. "Oh brother," he muttered, running a nervous hand through his hair as his eyes scanned down the page. "You guys want anything else? A pint of blood? My first-born child?"
"Just Mastercard, Visa, or American Express," the mechanic replied humorlessly, and Blair smiled tightly.
Jim pulled out his wallet and stepped forward. "Chief, let me take care of this."
"Jim, this isn't your problem," Blair said instantly.
"I know. Don't worry, you'll pay me back," Jim said firmly, taking out a credit card.
Blair grabbed his hand. "Jim, really, I can't accept — "
"Blair, really, I'd like you to shut up about it now."
"You haven't even seen the bill," Blair objected.
"You haven't seen me getting really, really pissed off," Jim countered, "which I'm about to in a minute, so drop it, Chief. I'll front the cash, you'll pay me back." He shook off Blair's hand and extended his card to the mechanic, who took it over to a side counter to take an impression.
"Jim," Blair argued, and Jim crossed his arms and turned away from him.
He started as he felt Blair touch his back. "We have to talk," Blair murmured, sentinel-soft.
"Later," Jim replied quietly. "Go wait in the truck." Blair hesitated. "Please go wait in the truck," Jim repeated, and Blair dropped his hand and walked out of the garage.
Jim sighed as the mechanic came back with his credit card slip. The situation was getting worse by the minute — now he had not only Blair the guide but Blair the pop-psychologist to contend with. Not that he could blame the guy — certainly he was sending out some pretty strange signals, and it was Blair's nature to overanalyze everything anyway.
Hadn't the guy actually minored in psychology?
Jim signed the slip and slid his card back into his wallet. Well, at least there was a bright side. If Blair thought he was not only having sensory problems but also on the verge of a coming-out crisis at the age of thirty-nine, he'd have to pry the kid off him with a crowbar.
He couldn't help but laugh as he walked back to the truck.
He got into the driver's seat, conscious of his partner's assessing stare from across the cab. "Belt," he said and Blair's eyebrows flew up questioningly. "Seatbelt," he explained patiently, and Blair nodded and pulled the seatbelt across his shoulder and fastened it.
Blair seemed surprised that Jim turned the truck toward the loft.
"What about work?" he asked as Jim made the final turn onto Prospect.
"What about you being in a car crash?" Jim countered.
"It wasn't a car crash," Blair said wearily. "It was just the kind of shit that happens to me all the time!" and the words were like a punch in the gut, and he slammed on the brakes.
"Jesus, Jim!" Blair hissed.
And his headache was back with a vengeance, throbbing and pounding through his skull like a jackhammer. He bent forward slowly and laid his aching head on the steering wheel.
And then he heard Blair laughing softly, and felt Blair's warm hand on his neck, massaging it. "Well," Blair admitted ruefully, "I guess that what with me being in a car crash and you having constant sensory spikes, we pretty much shouldn't be at work today, anyhow. We're a pretty sorry pair, all in all."
Jim rolled his head sideways to peer at his partner. "Pathetic," he agreed.
"Simon's lucky not to have us," Blair said seriously, and Jim's lip curled in a slight grin. "Come on," Blair said, returning the smile. "Let's park this puppy and go upstairs."
They walked up to 307 in silence, but Jim was tense, nervously anticipating conversation. He wondered what the hell he was going to say when Blair finally screwed him to the wall and demanded an account of his behavior. He couldn't tell him the truth — there was no proof of anything, and his explanation sounded paranoid and patronizing in the extreme.
But, surprisingly, Blair didn't initiate a conversation.
Blair merely shoved him toward the sofa, and bustled around the loft, returning eventually with a hot compress and a cold beer. He pushed Jim gently backward so that his head was tilted against the sofa back, then laid the warm washcloth over his eyes and put the beer in his hand.
Jim sighed as the heat penetrated his skull, and blindly lifted up the beer for a swig. It was cold and tasted great and he sighed happily. "This," he confessed, "is pretty fucking good, Chief."
"We aims to please," Sandburg said from behind him. He felt Blair's strong hands touch his shoulders and begin to knead the knotted muscles there; he groaned and shifted slightly to give Blair better access.
After a few minutes of this he had relaxed substantially, and his headache was again beaten back into submission. He raised a hand and pulled the now-cool washcloth from his face, leaned his head back and looked up at his partner, who was still standing behind him.
He knew he was asking for trouble but he couldn't help himself. "So where's the third degree?"
Blair blinked at him and took his hands off Jim's shoulders. "What do you mean?"
"Where are the ten thousand questions?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged, and went into the kitchen to get himself a beer. "I don't think I have any, really."
"Oh yeah?" Now that was frightening: Sandburg without questions.
That meant Sandburg with a conclusion.
"Yeah," Blair confirmed. He regarded Jim thoughtfully and leaned against the countertop, swigging his beer.
Jim knew he should count his blessings, let it go, but he just couldn't. "So what are you thinking?" he asked suspiciously.
Blair took a deep breath and nodded to himself. "I'm thinking that this isn't primarily a sense thing," he answered, setting his beer bottle down on the counter with a soft thud.
Dammit. Sandburg was on to him — which he should have figured. You should never con a con artist, you should never lie to a champion obfuscator. And don't fuck with the guide. "Oh yeah?"
"Yeah." Blair chewed his lower lip thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on Jim. "I'm thinking that this is... something else."
Jim swallowed. "What do you mean?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know," he said, crossing back to stand behind Jim again. "Something else."
Blair put his hands back on Jim's shoulders and began massaging again. Jim sighed and helplessly relaxed back into his guide's hands. "What kind of something else?" he asked.
"Well, you've been sort of possessive lately. Touchy-feely," Blair added thoughtfully, one hand straying up to the base of Jim's skull and rubbing gently. Shit, that felt good.
And then Blair bent down and rested his cheek against the top of Jim's head. "What do you think?" he murmured.
Oh brother, Jim thought desperately. How the fuck do I play this? He had wanted Sandburg close — well, he had gotten his wish, hadn't he?
Careful what you wish for.
"Look, I don't know," Jim replied finally. "I only know that right now I feel better when you're around, okay?" And that much, at least, was true.
"Okay," Blair answered softly.
"I don't know about 'something else' — I don't know what that means," Jim explained with quiet desperation.
"Okay," Blair said again. "Okay. No pressure, no rush, no problem." He straightened up. "We'll play it your way."
Play it my way? Play what my way? And what's my way, anyway?
"Do you want to come take a nap?" Sandburg asked suddenly.
He nodded, because a nap sounded damned good — and then he blinked. Come take a nap? Come take a nap? He turned to stare at his partner. "Come take a nap?"
"Yeah," Blair said. "Come take a nap. With me," he added, clearing the matter up. "In my room. Do you want to?"
— Okay, yes.
Jim groaned and covered his face with his hands. Oh god, I am in so much fucking trouble, here.
"I mean, you don't have to," Blair explained quickly. "It's just that I'm feeling kind of tired, and so I'm going to. And you can come if you want." He paused and his blue eyes narrowed suddenly. "If you think it'll make you feel better," he added carefully, speculatively.
Little bastard, Jim thought with gruff affection. Smart little bastard. He laughed, once, quickly: this thing of trying to play chess with Sandburg — this was a sucker's game. The little bastard had all the moves.
He crossed his arms and considered the opening Blair had just given him. Take a nap. Well, he could do that. He wanted to do that, actually. He wondered if Sandburg would be taken off guard if he said yes. Or was he just walking into a trap? Could he get back from here? He could if he was careful. Could he maybe even use this to his advantage? If he kept Sandburg's brain engaged on these lines, he might be able to get some answers. Solve the problem. And then he could back off, re-establish his boundaries, and they lived happily ever after: The End.
"Okay," Jim said, watching Blair's face closely. He was pleased to see that his partner was a little taken aback after all.
But he recovered fast. "Okay, then," Blair said, nodding, and then he turned around and headed into his room.
Jim got to his feet and followed him. He watched as Sandburg kicked off his sneakers and scrambled onto the bed. Jim slipped his own loafers off and lay down beside him. They lay there, side by side, eyes closed, breathing quietly in the dim afternoon light.
It took Sandburg all of seven minutes to close the distance between them.
Jim smiled to himself, feeling Blair's body warm and solid against his. He took a deep breath, rolled toward his partner, and gathered him into his arms, pulling Blair's back hard against his chest.
Say what you would, Jim mused idly, it felt good to hold the guy. Maybe it was a sentinel thing, or just a creature comfort thing, but it felt good to cuddle Sandburg like this. It was like some huge Protector alarm had been finally switched off; it was like some part of him that was always cold was finally warming up.
He tucked his face into the back of Blair's head, into the mop of soft hair, and waited until his guide was relaxed and heavy in his arms.
"Blair?" he whispered softly.
"Can I ask you something?"
He felt Blair tense. "Sure."
He couldn't help but smile. "Do you think that a sentinel has a genetic imperative to protect his guide?" he asked quietly. He could feel confusion grip the body in his arms: whatever Blair had been expecting, that wasn't it.
Hah! he thought. Score one for me.
"Do you think that a sentinel has a genetic imperative to protect his guide?"
Blair swiveled in his arms, turning so that they were now face to face, bodies pressed together. "I don't know," he answered, frowning. "I guess." Jim raised his arm and curled it around Blair's head, pulling Blair's cheek against his chest. He closed his eyes, knowing that Sandburg was still thinking. "I mean, the guide is a member of the tribe, right?" Blair mused.
"Yeah, but I mean beyond that," Jim explained. "Beyond the ordinary member of the tribe."
"I don't know," Blair said thoughtfully. He was quiet for a minute and then he asked: "Do you feel like you do?"
Trust Sandburg to come up with the key question. He ignored it, thinking that a little distraction was in order, and began to rub the palm of his hand against Sandburg's broad back. Blair gave a little grunt and nuzzled his face against Jim's shirt-front. Score two for me, Jim thought triumphantly.
He kept caressing Sandburg's back, and waited until he felt Blair's hand tentatively slide onto his hip before asking his next question.
"You know the whole temple thing?" Jim asked. "The whole spirit animal thing, the whole mystical aspect of this?"
"Yeah?" Blair answered warily. "What about it?"
Jim set his mouth for a moment, trying to think how to phrase it.
"Well, we trust it, don't we? I mean, it seems like — well, like a force for good, doesn't it?"
Blair pulled his hand off Jim's hip, tilted his head up to see his face. "Yeah. Yeah, it does. So far as I know, anyway."
Jim nodded thoughtfully. "But did you ever think that — well, almost everything has two sides, doesn't it? I mean, there's usually a dark side to everything. You ever think that — that maybe there's another side to the mysticism? I mean, good isn't good unless it's defined against something else, right? Something not so good." Jim stared into space over his partner's curly head. "I mean, I can't believe I'm overarmed, here," Jim said, frowning. "I've been in a lot of battles and they just don't work that way. If they give you weapons, they expect you to use them. Maybe this sentinel thing — maybe I'm supposed to be fighting some equal but opposite enemy — not just street thugs."
He looked down at Blair and found his partner staring at him, open-mouthed. "Well?" Jim asked.
"I think you're getting paranoid," Blair said frankly.
Jim sighed. "Well, that's just great."
He woke up alone on Blair Sandburg's rumpled bed. It took him a second to remember where he was, and what had happened — but his clothes were still on and no bodily fluids had been spilled, exchanged or otherwise summoned forth, so he figured that things were okay — he was still a few giant steps away from The Point Of No Return.
Well played, he thought to himself. Slow and steady wins the race.
He ran an idle hand over his head and heard a clatter from the kitchen. Blair had probably gotten up to make dinner.
In the kitchen.
There were knives in the kitchen. Knives and fire — water and electricity in close proximity — hell, the place was a deathtrap! and the thought propelled him out of bed and through the door.
Blair looked up at him as he emerged; he was chopping up tomatoes with a large knife. "Hey," he offered in greeting. "I thought I'd make some of that pasta you like... the stuff with the feta and the pine nuts. Ow! Dammit!" he cursed as the knife slipped, and he quickly slipped his cut finger into his mouth.
Jim nearly jumped out of his skin. "Jesus Christ, Sandburg — can't you do anything without spilling blood?" A few giant steps forward and he was beside Blair, and Blair looked wildly startled as Jim yanked his finger out of his mouth and examined it closely. The cut was small but deep, and blood oozed up to the surface as he watched. And he couldn't help it — he just couldn't stop himself; he pulled Blair's hand to his lips, and slid the cut finger into his own mouth.
The look on Sandburg's face was utterly priceless.
He felt the warm, salty taste of Blair's blood on his tongue, and sucked gently to stop the bleeding.
So much for not exchanging bodily fluids.
"Jim, man," Blair said softly, eyes wide, "I want to help you — I'm trying to work with you here, really I am, but — " He stopped suddenly and shook his head. "This is really weird, you know?"
Jim nodded; he knew. He also knew the precise moment that Blair's cut stopped bleeding. He pulled Blair's finger out of his mouth and tugged on his arm, leading him to the bathroom. Blair stumbled along behind him, still in something of a daze.
"I mean, look," Blair said urgently as Jim shoved his finger under the cold-water tap, "I want you to have what you need. I want to give you — don't you see, I'm trying to offer you — ow!" he yelled, jolted back into the moment by the sudden sting of hydrogen peroxide. "That hurts!"
"It's deep," Jim said, focusing his attention on the band-aid. "You don't want it to get infected."
"I don't know why you're suddenly fixated on stuff like this," said Blair, frowning at him. "I mean, hell — I've had worse," and Jim gritted his teeth and ignored that, ignored the sudden dancing Technicolor visions of worse things happening to Blair Sandburg. He finished with Blair's finger and dropped it.
"Or maybe I do know," Blair was murmuring. "Maybe I do know, at that."
Jim leaned against the wall and tried to look casual — like he hadn't just bandaged a small cut on the finger of a thirty-year-old man. "Oh?"
Blair nodded. "I think you're conflating a protective impulse with a sexual impulse. And so your subconscious is sending you on a rollercoaster of paranoid anxiety in order to justify your desire to pull me closer despite deeply ingrained social and cultural prohibitions. Not to mention major sexual inhibitions."
"In English?" Jim asked tightly, playing for time.
"You're fuckin' repressed, man," Blair said, and grinned.
"So you think I'm a closet case?" Jim challenged, stepping forward to loom over him, hoping to intimidate him with his size.
"I know you're a closet case," Blair replied confidently.
"You wish," Jim blurted, feeling like a fifth-grader.
Blair seemed to take the jibe seriously. "Yeah, I thought of that — I mean, I wondered for a while if this was just some major delusional wish-fulfillment fantasy on my part. I had to, like, seriously examine my own head, you know? But Jesus, Jim," Blair added, face suddenly transfixed with amusement, "if you're gonna be sucking on my fingers every time I get a paper cut — well, a man's got to draw some conclusions!"
"What if I said you were wrong?" demanded Jim.
"Further evidence of the depth of the repression," explained Blair.
Jim glowered at him. "What if I punched you in the nose?"
Blair laughed. "What — so we could go through some whole gentle press-the-ice-pack-to-my-face comfort routine?" He shook his head and took a step forward, toward Jim. "Can't we just go to it without the broken nose?"
Jim felt the blood draining from his face, and saw guilt flash across Blair's in response. "Jim, I'm sorry," Blair said quickly. He stepped closer still and laid a soothing palm against Jim's side. Jim flinched. "I don't mean to be blithe about this — I know that this is hard. I know this is a big deal. This is a very big deal, here."
"No means yes, yes means yes — is that it?" Jim countered, and Blair looked suddenly horrified.
"No! No, no, no. No means no," Blair said intensely. "No always means no. I didn't mean — I never meant — Jim, I'm sorry." Blair looked pained, and he started to skitter backward, out of the bathroom. "I'm so so sorry, man — "
He quickly grabbed Blair's wrists. "Wait! Wait! Just wait a second, okay?" Blair turned anxious eyes on him, and waited. "It's — This whole thing — It's too much, it's all happening too fast," Jim stuttered. "It's all too much to deal with."
"I can help, let me help," Blair whispered.
Jim swallowed hard. "How can you help?"
And he knew the answer even before Blair tilted his head up and kissed him — he'd known somehow, he'd known that this was where they were going, where they'd been going all along. Despite everything.
Because playing against Blair was a sucker's game.
Because Blair had all the moves.
And Blair's mouth tasted incredibly sweet — his mouth was wet and sweet like the fruit he remembered from his childhood — fruit that you ate in the summer that was so much better than anything you could buy nowadays.
He pushed Blair against the wall and leaned against him, pressing their bodies together — he felt Blair's strong hands sliding around his waist. Fumbling under his sweater, stroking the smooth skin at the small of his back.
He felt Blair's mouth open under his, and slid his tongue into that wet sweetness, kissing, tasting, loving the taste. Blair moaned and bucked beneath him, and Jim now, finally, let his conscious mind acknowledge his erection, acknowledge that he was hard for Blair. That Blair was hard for him.
And an aroused Blair was a wonderful thing — an aroused Blair was Blair but only more so — more vibrant, more alive: heart pounding and blood pumping and muscles flexing and warm, warm — so warm. Holding an aroused Blair was like holding a fiery summer storm in the palm of your hand — lightning flashes and drumming thunder and the pounding, hissing sound of warm, wet rain. All the forces of nature, bound within the circle of your arms.
And he couldn't help himself — he held Blair's head between his hands, sucked at Blair's mouth, began to hump Blair uncontrollably, blindly seeking pleasure. Mouth, hands, muscles, tendons, cock — Blair was a link to life, a gateway to all that was alive and warm and good. Blair was a doorway, Blair was the exit sign, glowing red in the darkness of his mind.
He'd been foolish to deny it — hell, he wanted this, he wanted it desperately; he wanted Blair. Want, want, want — the pounding rhythm in his head, the pounding rhythm of his hips as he furiously humped Blair against the wall.
He heard the gentle gasp and it sounded like pain — and he realized that Blair was coming — coming — Blair was having an orgasm in his arms. He moved his mouth off Blair's and let his guide suck in desperate gulps of air — Blair was moaning softly and his cock was still jerking in his pants, spurting semen warm and fertile like summer rain.
Jim kissed his way across Blair's face, then buried his face in Blair's hair. He thrust hard against Blair and came himself, groaning loudly. He felt Blair clutch his torso tightly, holding him up — he felt wetness spreading across his groin, felt the strength of Blair's hands, felt Blair's hair soft against his face.
"It's okay," Blair was murmuring to him. "It's okay, you're okay, everything's okay."
He sought out Blair's ear through the cloud of hair and kissed it softly. "Better than okay," he whispered.
He lifted his head and met Blair's eyes; Blair looked indescribably pleased. "Really?"
"Really," he answered sincerely.
Blair leaned forward and kissed his cheek.
"So now what?" Jim asked softly.
"Now what?" Blair echoed. "Now we shower and have dinner."
"What, we're just supposed to go and eat pasta now?" Jim asked.
"Yeah," said Blair, smiling. He raised a tender hand to Jim's face. "Life. Sex. Pasta. You, my friend, need to be re-grounded in life's fundamentals."
So he showered, ate pasta, and then spent a blissful evening on the couch with Blair in his arms. His Blessed Protector switch was off, the hum of danger had abruptly vanished, the knives in the kitchen were just knives again. He buried his face at the back of Blair's neck, felt the warm pulse of Blair's blood thrumming against his cheek.
He was at The Point Of No Return.
He was happy.
"I'm gonna go around to the back. See if I can sneak in somehow," Jim said, pulling out his gun and checking it with a practiced eye. "You stay in the truck, okay? These guys'll be armed and unhappy to see me — I don't want you getting hurt. Call for backup and keep your head down."
"Gotcha." Blair's face was tense and alert. "But you be careful, too, okay?"
Jim grinned. "I'll be careful, I'm always careful. Now go — go!" Blair nodded and ran back toward the truck, and Jim hesitated only a moment before exploding into motion, running around the perimeter of the building, keeping close to the wall, trying to keep out of sight.
Finally he was pressed up against the wall outside the iron door of the building's service entrance. He threw out his hearing, listened intently for a few moments, and decided it was safe to go in. He took the handle and pulled gently; the door was locked. He slid a pick out of his pocket and dropped to his knees before the lock.
Twenty seconds later he was standing on the other side of the closed door.
The corridor was dark, and he readjusted his eyesight. Quietly he moved down the hallway, checking each door as he came to it — finding each of them locked. At the last door he sighed and pulled out his pick again — it took only moments to flick back the bolt, and he stealthily slipped into what his hearing already told him was an empty room.
He shut the door behind him and looked around. The lab was indeed empty. Through the darkness he saw a row of gleaming white lab coats, the glint of a glass case full of equipment — safety goggles, beakers, test tubes, and the like. And then he frowned as he saw the huge white storage refrigerator; he crossed to it and opened it.
Inside were racks and racks of test tubes, sloppily marked with crooked stickers bearing the names of chemical formulas. He pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, and compared the list of banned materials with the tubes in front of him.
He carefully slipped one of the test tubes into his jacket pocket, and reshut the refrigerator door. Turning, he extended his hearing again: there was no sound of human life in the building, just the electrical hum of wires and the whirr of machinery.
Where the hell was everybody?
And then he looked back toward the door and saw the red sign glowing in the darkened room. EXIT. He couldn't help but smile — the sign made him think of his lover. His doorway to life and love and pleasure; his beacon, his guide.
Too bad American exit signs weren't like English ones, he reflected wryly. Over there the doors were marked WAY OUT — and that was Sandburg in a nutshell. Way out. He grinned.
And then his face went suddenly slack as a hundred whirling puzzle pieces clicked into place.
Blair Sandburg. Way out. Butterfly bandages. The heavy quiet. The thrum of violence.
A way out was also a way in.
And then he was running, running back toward the truck, heart pounding, using every bit of his speed, every ounce of his reserves.
He's the gate, Jim thought wildly, bursting out of the building. He's the gate — he's the door — the door from me, the door to me. They go for him first — they have to take him out before they can get to me.
They go for him first!
He rounded the corner of the building, running flat-out — he saw the six uniformed men around the truck and immediately grasped their purpose. It was clear to anyone with any military experience at all that they were in formation, that they were purposefully aligned — and that they were up to no damned good.
Frantic thoughts spun through his brain. He's my scout — he's my point guard — he's the first line of my defenses. Stupid! Fucking stupid! Jim screamed at himself. Eight years as a Ranger, twelve years studying military tactics — he should have known better. He'd been playing it wrong, all wrong, God help him — but he was finally getting it now.
Blair Sandburg was the front line.
Blair Sandburg was the front line, and he'd been futilely trying to keep Sandburg behind him. He'd been trying to get in front of the front line, which was impossible — it just meant that the action was perpetually happening behind his back. It just meant he was constantly looking the wrong way, caught with his pants down, having to make up lost ground.
The security guards had the truck door open and their hands on Sandburg — and they were pulling him violently from the cab, and they had their nightsticks in their hands. And Sandburg was struggling, lashing out with his arms and legs, but he was outnumbered and outsized — each of the guards had at least a foot in height and fifty pounds on him. And then, like a drowning man, Sandburg slowly disappeared within the circle of men.
And his senses felt more acute than they had ever been — or perhaps he could sense it only now that he was expecting it, now that he really believed in it — but there it was. A rush of air — the hum of violence loud and clear, a low, thrumming growl, terrifying in its malevolence — a glimpse of power, crouched muscles, an arching blur as it sprang toward the largest of the guards — the almost imperceptible shudder of the guard's form as the spirit entered him.
The new, yellow flecks in the guard's eyes. The suddenly raised nightstick and the repeated whispered instruction: "Kill the Guide."
He wasn't nearly close enough to stop the first downward, crashing arc of the nightstick, and the other guards immediately followed suit, raining blows down on the unseen figure in the center of the circle. And Jim heard another growl before realizing that it was coming from his own throat — and he sprang into the assembled group, utterly unthinking, driven by pure animal instinct and something near to bloodlust.
He grabbed the collar of one guard and sent him flying backward, using more raw strength than his conscious mind would have ever permitted. And then Jim was in the circle, and he single-mindedly went for the head guard, ignoring the slam of nightsticks hitting his arms, his shoulders, his back.
He had the man in his hands and slammed him up against the side of the truck. The guard looked at him and his eyes were glowing yellow — in recognition? in triumph? — and Jim suddenly realized that he could beat the man in front of him, that he could kill the man in front of him —
— but he would accomplish nothing. The man was a vehicle only; the real enemy was timeless, formless, indefatigable.
The yellow eyes brightened, the man's lips twisted up into a smile. "Kill the Guide," he taunted. "Kill the Guide, kill the Guide, kill the Guide." And Jim could feel fury contorting his own features, and he coiled his muscles to strike the grinning bastard's face. "I will, you know," the man suddenly hissed. "Some day I will — some day you won't stop me — and then I'll be coming for you. I'll come for you, you bastard, and you'll be alone and powerless to stop me."
And he felt like his head was exploding, and he smashed the man's head backward against the hard metal side of the truck — and felt the whoosh as the thing jumped away and disappeared, leaving him holding a mass of crumpled flesh, holding an unconscious man with a crumpled expression. He let him fall to the ground and turned — seeing the slight blur of distortion in the air as the animal leapt away, and then he became conscious of another guard in front of him, wearing an Ames Industries patch on his uniform and wielding an upraised nightstick.
From the sudden look of fear on the guard's face he suddenly realized that his own expression must be pretty terrifying. He took a step forward and the man swallowed and brought the stick flying down — Jim dodged the blow with a sideways step and aimed a well-placed kick into the man's kidney, swinging his knee into the man's solar plexus as he doubled over. He turned to confront another guard — and watched as this man faltered, stepped back, and then turned and fled, followed by the other two still-conscious guards.
Jim ignored their hasty retreat and crouched beside Blair. Blair was unconscious, his face covered in blood and purple bruises — the guards, goddamn them, had aimed for his head. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that head-wounds were deceptive they looked worse than they were, they bled more than they should. Despite everything, Blair's heart was beating hard and strong. He pulled off his jacket, balled it up, and gently slid it under his partner's head; he then took his shirt off and began carefully wiping the blood out of Blair's eyes, away from Blair's face.
In the distance he heard sirens — Blair had evidently called for backup before the guards sprang their ambush. He intently continued working on his partner, now trying to staunch the worst of the cuts on Blair's head using the shirt as a makeshift bandage.
When he next looked up he saw Simon Banks' concerned face — and he realized how he must look, sitting barechested on the ground next to his bleeding partner on a cold November day.
Not that he gave a shit.
"Jim." He only vaguely noted Simon's voice. "Jim, check out of the Martyrdom Motel, already, will you?" Jim stopped pacing, and shot a glance at his Captain, whose large form was uncomfortably seated in a ludicrously orange waiting-room chair. "You're getting on my nerves."
"Sorry, sir," Jim replied indistinctly.
"Jim, I mean it. Sit down, already."
"I can't. I'm too edgy."
Simon sighed wearily. "Look, he's fine."
"The doctor said he's fine."
"I know." He knew; he did know that; he'd been listening closely.
"They're gonna clean him, stitch him, and send him home," Simon said.
"Right." Jim nodded agreement.
"And it wasn't your fault, what happened." Jim shrugged. That wasn't so easy to agree with. Simon cleared his throat and spoke more forcefully. "I said: it wasn't your fault, what happened."
"Yeah," he said, just to shut Simon up.
Simon sighed again, then tried another tack. "Look, you're gonna have more than enough chances to make it up to the kid — you're the one who's gonna get stuck playing nursemaid."
He shot Simon a look. "I won't mind."
Simon rolled his eyes. "Damn martyr complex," he muttered.
"No," Jim corrected quietly. He crossed his arms and leaned against the cinder-block wall of the waiting room. "It's not that."
"You tell me what else it is," Simon replied. "And tell me again when you've brought him breakfast in bed for three or four days."
"I won't mind," Jim repeated. He gritted his teeth and thought hard for a moment — then decided to go for it. "Simon, I'm with him."
"What?" Simon asked.
"I'm with him. With Sandburg."
Simon shook his head. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, I'm with him," Jim said exasperatedly. "You know: with him?"
Simon mimed confusion and Jim sighed. "I'm fucking him," Jim said distinctly, watching Simon's eyes boggle with sudden shock. "Is that clear enough? I'm fucking him, okay? Do you mind?"
"Do I mind?" Simon yelled suddenly, jumping out of his chair. "Like it's fucking any of my business?" Simon stopped suddenly, shuddered, and seemed to be trying to push the thought away with an uncharacteristically nervous flutter of his hands. "Like I fucking want to know about that! Jesus Christ, Jim!"
"So you don't want to know?"
"You bet your ass I don't," Simon said firmly, crossing his arms and glowering at him.
"Fine," Jim said, throwing himself into an orange plastic chair. "I won't tell you, then."
"Believe me, I appreciate it," Simon snorted.
"Well, you're welcome."
Simon opened his mouth to say something else, but suddenly the waiting room door opened and a nurse walked in. "Detective Ellison?"
Jim was instantly out of his seat. "Yeah. Me."
The nurse nodded acknowledgment. "We're pretty much done with Mr. Sandburg, except that he probably needs to sleep for an hour or two. We ended up having to give him quite a few painkillers — he's still a bit groggy."
"Whatever he needs," Jim answered quickly. "I can wait. Can I see him, though? Just for a minute?" Despite everything, Jim knew he'd feel better once he'd seen him.
The nurse smiled at him and nodded. "Sure. We'd better go now, though — he was well on his way to sleep when I left him." Jim and Simon exchanged brief but loaded glances, and then Jim followed the white-clad nurse out of the room and down the hall.
The nurse nodded in the direction of Blair's room, and Jim thanked her and gently pushed the door open.
Sandburg. Jesus, Sandburg.
He approached the bed slowly, telling himself for the thousandth time that it wasn't as bad as it looked. Vitals were nice and strong. Just some bruising, just some bandages. He put his hand out and laid it gently on his partner's arm.
Blair opened unfocused eyes; he smiled dopily. "Hey Jim," he slurred.
"Hey," Jim answered quietly.
"I'm okay, I'm just tired." Blair sounded dazed. "Can I just rest a little bit?"
"Sure," Jim said warmly. "Sure you can — you can rest however long you want."
"'kay. Thanks." Blair's eyes drifted closed; it looked like it had been an effort to keep them open. Still, it wasn't as bad as it looked — not nearly as bad. And painkilling drugs will do that to you every time. Right? Right. Definitely.
He stood there helplessly for a moment, watching Blair sleep, watching the thin, almost transparent skin of his eyelids flutter as Blair's eyes moved nervously in sleep. He squeezed his partner's forearm gently, and whispered, "Blair, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry you're hurt, I'm sorry I didn't figure it out sooner." He sighed. "I'm sorry I'm not as smart as you." He gave Blair's forearm another tiny squeeze, and then turned and went back to the waiting room.
"Jim, I can get it — "
"You should be lying down," Jim protested.
"I don't want to lie down," Blair replied irritably. "I've been lying down for days. Honest, I feel better — I can make my own tea." He grabbed the kettle from Jim's hand and slammed it down onto the stove with a bang.
Jim took a step backward, watching as Blair closed his eyes and exhaled a long breath. "Jim, I'm sorry. I didn't mean — "
"No, it's okay," Jim said quickly.
"It's not okay. Rudeness just isn't okay, okay?" Blair leaned against the kitchen island and sighed. "I just hate being an invalid — which is pretty unfortunate, really, since I get hurt all the goddamned time." Blair smiled ruefully at him, but Jim couldn't find any humor in the remark. "It makes me feel like such a fuck-up," Blair confessed sadly, and Jim's mouth fell open.
"No," Jim said vehemently, stepping forward and taking Blair's biceps in his hands. "It's not your fault."
Blair made a face. "Maybe. But I've gotta be doing something wr — "
"No," Jim said again, shaking him a little. "You're not doing anything wrong. You — you — you're my guide." He wasn't quite sure why he said that.
Blair's battered face creased with sudden worry. "Yeah, Jim," he murmured soothingly. "I'm your guide."
Jim gritted his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. "You don't understand," he said slowly. "You're not — you don't get hurt because you do anything wrong. You get hurt because you're my guide. And a guide is — a guide leads, a guide leads from up ahead, don't you see?"
God, it was so fucking hard to explain.
"The guide leads, the guide's out there — up front — wherever he is — and the position makes you vulnerable."
He opened his eyes; Blair's face was the very picture of confusion. Jim felt frustration boiling up within him.
"They're trying to kill you!" Jim exploded finally. "They'd try to kill you whatever you did — so you're not doing anything wrong, get it? It would happen anyway!"
"Jim, who's they?" Blair asked warily.
"They — him — it. The hyena," Jim added abruptly.
"Hyena?" Blair asked incredulously.
"Hyena. Hyena — Oh fuck it, I'll explain later." He yanked on Blair's shoulders, pulled him close, and kissed him passionately.
In the six weeks since they had become lovers, Blair had put considerable effort into helping him lose his sexual inhibitions. For his part, Jim had managed to overcome Blair's surprising sense of personal modesty, gently coaxing him out of layers upon layers of shirts, t-shirts, and undershirts with a series of whispered endearments. He'd also discovered that Blair's taste in endearments ran from the sweetly romantic to the raunchily pornographic, and was pleased to discover that the skillful juxtaposition of the two idioms ("Come here — Blair — darling — I want to come in your face") produced wondrous effects on his guide.
So he broke off the kiss and whispered into Blair's ear, "I want you. I love you. I want to fuck you — come upstairs with me," and he could feel Blair's sudden shudder of desire — all thoughts of killer spirit hyenas presumably forgotten.
Time enough for that later. They had the whole of their lives left to deal with that.
He gently coaxed Blair up to the bedroom, gently divested him of robe, t-shirt and boxers. He was careful of Blair's stitches, of the bandages, of the fading bruises on his face. He felt passion, and lust, and love — he felt like fucking Blair hard and fast, pounding into him to prove that they were both alive — but he couldn't.
Blair was still hurting, and a little tenderness was warranted.
And so he took it slow, kissing the bruised face gently, caressing the sore ribs gently — vowing it would be the last time, the very last time, that his guide would be hurt like this. The thought echoed over and over in his mind as he kissed Blair, as he slid gentle fingers into Blair to open him, as he turned Blair around and spooned up behind him. The last time, he thought, carefully sliding his erection into Blair's body, feeling Blair slowly open up to let him in, inch by inch. The last time he would make love to an injured partner; the last time injury would dictate the terms of their lovemaking. Blair exhaled a soft, breathy sound of pleasure and Jim smiled and vowed that from now on Sandburg's moans would all be from pleasure.
He tightened his arms around Blair's broad chest and thrust in gently, loving the way Blair's head fell back against his shoulder, loving the way his guide was slowly losing control — and giving that control, that trust, to him. Blair's hands were twitching, making fists of empty air, grasping at nothing, grasping blindly for him. He reached out and grabbed Blair's hand, and Blair sighed contentedly at the contact.
The sigh turned to a groan as Jim moved their hands to Blair's cock.
And then Blair was breathing hard, he was breathing hard, they were breathing hard together — Jim thrust into the welcoming warmth of Blair's body, forcing Blair forward into his own hand. He closed his eyes and gave himself over to the pleasure of it — now that Blair was teetering on the edge of orgasm, he felt it was permissible to seek his own.
God, it was good, so good to be this close, so good to be buried in Blair's body like this. He had desired this closeness forever, but hadn't been able to consciously articulate what he wanted — only now, now that he had it, did he realize that it was exactly what he'd always been missing.
He groaned and pushed hard into Blair — Blair cried out, and Jim knew that he'd hit his lover's prostate. He thrust two more times in quick succession and Blair wailed and spurted come over their hands. The feel of it, the smell of it, made him lose what was left of his own control — he tightened his arms around Blair and fucked him helplessly, fucked the warm pliant body until he was sobbing aloud with the sheer joy of it.
He seized and came, gasping, and buried his face in Blair's neck. "I love you," he whispered, feeling that he had never before understood the meaning of the word satisfaction. This — this was satisfaction. "God, I love you."
He felt Blair's warm hands move to cover his own. "I know," he heard Blair murmur. "I know — I love you too."
He nodded and closed his eyes, drifting off to sleep on a pillow of soft hair. He dozed for a while — and then eventually woke to the sound of his own name on his lover's lips.
"Jim? Jim?" He opened his eyes and saw Blair's face. Blair smiled warmly at him. "Hey."
"Hey," Jim returned, grinning back.
Blair leaned forward and kissed him, once, softly. Then his lover pulled back and regarded him thoughtfully. "So," Blair began, raising an eyebrow. "Tell me about this hyena."
"God, I'm freezing. I'm totally freezing," said Blair, rubbing his arms. He was shivering uncontrollably despite the heat in the truck, despite his wool coat.
"Well, get your gloves, get your hat, throw your scarf on," Jim said, wrapping his own scarf around his neck.
"You're sure I can't stay in the truck?" Blair asked nervously. "I mean, this guy Polchek — he's a nut, right?"
"I thought you wanted to be in on the action."
Blair made a face at him. "I thought I wanted that too. But now I'm not so sure."
"Well, I'm sure," Jim said firmly. "I'm totally, completely, and utterly sure, believe me."
Blair sighed and nodded, then got out of the truck, groaning loudly as he was hit with a blast of icy wind. Jim slammed his door shut and gestured toward his partner. "Come on." He started across the street — and then stopped, realizing that Blair was still several paces behind. "Come on, already."
"I'm coming," Blair said defensively. Jim sighed and waited for Blair to catch up — then took his partner by the wrist and pulled him across the street, toward the Hotel Niagara.
The Hotel Niagara was a dilapidated welfare hotel — the glass in the front door was badly cracked, and the door creaked on its hinges as Jim opened it.
"God, it's still freezing in here," Blair muttered.
Jim pulled his gun and looked around the empty lobby.
"Okay, what now?" Blair asked.
"You're the guide — you tell me," Jim said, gesturing down a long corridor and pushing Blair ahead of him.
Blair took a small step forward and then shot an anxious glance over his shoulder. "You're sure about this? I mean — " He stopped, swallowed hard. "I mean, you're sure you don't want to go first? Lead the way, blaze the trail?"
"No." He touched Blair's shoulder reassuringly. "You go first — I'll be right behind you. I'm right behind you, Chief, honest."
Blair nodded and took a deep breath. "Okay. Okay." He took a tentative few steps, then glanced back over his shoulder again. Jim splayed one open palm against Blair's back; this seemed to reassure his partner, who started walking forward with a bit more confidence.
The first floor rooms started with number 10. They passed 11, 12, 14. And then Blair suddenly took a couple of quick steps forward, pulling away — and stopped short outside room number 18.
Blair turned and regarded Jim with wide-eyed surprise. Jim looked at his partner questioningly, but Blair just looked away, his face going strangely blank.
"What?" Jim whispered finally, and Blair blinked and focused on him. Blair's expression changed to one of disbelief, even as he raised a finger to point at the door.
"In here," Blair whispered incredulously — and then the world was suddenly humming with sound, thrumming with violence, vibrating with the sound of anger and outrage — and Jim heard the small click and leapt forward, shoving Blair away from the door just as it exploded, the ancient wood splintering outwards as the shotgun went off.
He wheeled instantly and grabbed the top of the shotgun, struggled to pull it away from the burly man in the knit cap — the burly man with the angry yellow eyes. They struggled intently for long moments — and then the fire seemed to go out of the man's eyes, and the strength seemed to leave his arms, and Jim pulled the shotgun from his fingers and smashed it against the side of his head just as he felt the whoosh of air brush past him and glimpsed the animal bounding down the hallway toward the exit.
He turned, still brandishing the long gun as a club, ready to take on any other attackers.
But there weren't any — there was just Blair, who had shrunk back against the far wall and was staring at him anxiously. Jim took a step toward him. "You okay?"
Blair frowned at the question, and suddenly glanced down at himself. "Yeah," he said, sounding surprised. He raised his head and met Jim's eyes, and a huge grin suddenly brightened his features. "Yeah!" he said happily, stepping away from the wall.
Jim grinned back at him — he felt like jumping into the air, felt like screaming his triumph to the sky. "Well, okay! Okay! Come on," he added, slinging an affectionate arm around Blair's neck, "let's book this asshole."