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Used To Be So Handsome and Casual

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The night that the world as Blair knew it ended wasn’t marked with portents or omens. No lightning split the sky, no moon shone blood red, no creeping dread crawled up his spine.

He had papers to mark and a deadline for posting the results; that was all. Jim had headed out the door, with the strong implication in his last remarks that Blair might not see him again that evening. That had pricked up Blair’s metaphorical ears. Jim might look to date, but seeking a straight-out hook-up wasn’t usual. It also, Blair reminded himself, wasn’t his business. Jim could do what he liked. Blair might be coming around to realizing that it could be worth encouraging Jim in the thought that one of the things Jim could was, well, Blair, but hey… Later. Tonight there were papers to mark. Tactics for figuring out what was going on with Jim, and where things could go with the both of them, could wait. Blair could let a few ideas simmer in the background.

Marking papers kept him going until two in the morning. Blair was sipping a cup of tea before heading for bed and barely enough sleep to see him through the day’s later demands when Jim walked in.

“Hey, man.” No answer. Jim silently hung his jacket by the door. Blair wasn’t worried. Courtesies between the two of them were always comfortably casual. “Looks like I ended up waiting up for you after all,” he joked. There was still no answer from Jim. When he looked back on this - afterwards, whenever he could bear to - Blair would consider this the moment when thunder should have rolled in the skies; when the hairs on the back of his neck should have lifted. Not that any warning would have changed things.

He stood. “Hey, are you okay?” Jim stood by the door, his hand clenched around the coat hook through the fabric of his jacket like he needed to hang on for support. His head was bowed, and then he straightened and walked straight to Blair and kissed him.

Blair had thought about this before now. He’d seen Jim kiss a few times, not often, because Jim wasn’t much for public displays, and yes, Blair had made some very private mental notes of the sort that would never belong in a dissertation. Notes about the approach – how gentle hands might cup a jaw, or stroke a lock of hair. The downwards lean, because Jim was tall and his partners were generally shorter than he was; Blair would fit right in there. The closed eyes.

This kiss maybe could have started like that, except that Blair had questions, like he always did, and he drew back from the approach. “Jim?” Jim didn’t respond, and he didn’t smile, although he looked into Blair’s face like Blair was fresh water and Jim had just crossed a desert. The knowledge that something was wrong caught Blair with sharp teeth, and he tried to pull back further. No hands cupped his jaw. Instead, one strong arm clamped across Blair’s back and dug into his ribs and the other caught his hair. Jim’s mouth was hard on his, and one of Blair’s teeth pinched the inside of his lip with sharp, bright pain while Jim’s tongue thrust into Blair’s mouth without finesse or care.

Blair was frozen with shock a few seconds, unable to move, and cold through. He tried to wrench out of Jim’s grip on him, but Jim was strong. Blair did manage to twist his face away. “What the hell! Jim, what the fuck is going on with you!”

Jim said nothing. Neither did Blair, unless grunted effort to break away counted. Struggle on its own wasn’t going to do it. Fighting, fighting to hurt might, but this was Jim, Blair’s friend, his very best friend, silent except for the rasp of his breath as he kissed Blair’s neck, even while Blair’s scalp burned at the clutch of Jim’s fingers in his hair.

“Jim, Jim, you need to talk to me, Jim, please, you need to say what’s wrong, please, will you - just – talk!” Nothing - no words, no explanations. Everything so very, very wrong.

He was too close to get the momentum for a knee to the balls, and lifting his hands earlier to push away meant that a hand grab to the groin would be obvious and easily blocked. Jim was half-hard, getting harder. Blair gritted his teeth and kicked sharply at Jim’s shins. Jim grunted, but there were still no words. Was he high? Blair didn’t know. He’d like to know; but even more he wanted to get away and escape something acknowledged by the tightness in his gut, even as he refused to think about what that something was or try to put it into words. He got an elbow in somewhere tender if Jim’s flinch was anything to go by, and fled for the door, finally free.

The illusion of a chance crashed into nothing as Jim tackled him to the floor. Blair cried out then in shock and rage, fists and feet flying, but Jim’s hands caught in his hair, his damned fucking hair again, and Blair was turned onto his stomach. One hand was iron about his wrist and wrenched Blair’s arm back in a hold that made him bite off a scream as he was jerked upwards to his feet and propelled towards his room.

“You’re breaking my arm, Jim, you’re breaking my arm, please, come on, please, no, no, no!”

The loft went past him in a snapshot whirl – the blinds were pulled down at the windows. Blair’s tidy stack of papers and his unfinished tea were on the table, there was the sofa where they sat and watched tv; all that neatly ordered, happy life receding with every painful step. Nothing like that night when he’d fought Lash, and left chaos behind him. He’d fought harder then, but that had been Lash, and this… this was Jim, breathing hard because Blair might not be fighting the way he had with Lash , but it still took effort to push him along even with one hand twisting his arm and the other digging into his hair and pulling on his scalp. This was Jim behind him – and in front of them both the door to his room loomed like a pit into hell.

Blair dug in his heels, to no avail, unless you counted a hot streak biting into the awful throb in his shoulder and arm, and he began babbling useless entreaties again. “Jim, just stop, it doesn’t have to be like this, we can talk about this, listen to me, please.” Still that terrible silence. Not an explanation, not an insult even. No taunts that this was what he’d wanted, so why wasn’t he happy about it? There’d been no alcohol on Jim’s breath when he inflicted that kiss, nothing to explain this nightmare.

Blair had no lights on in his room, but he could see well enough by the rest of the loft’s illumination, and here they were, there was his bed, and here was Blair prone on it with his heart beat filling his chest and nauseated terror filling his gut. And here was Jim settling his weight, trapping Blair. It wasn’t the hand reaching for his belt buckle that made him writhe and buck in desperate denial – it was the gentle kiss pressed behind his ear. “Bastard!” he yelled. “You bastard, stop, stop!” A heavy sigh then, something quite separate from the deep breath of effort, followed by the awkward wrestle to shift clothing. Blair screwed his eyes shut and pressed his face into the bedding. A hiding place, any hiding place from this, but there wasn’t one, and Blair knew it all until the red hot, sawing pain of penetration broke something deep in him that wanted simply not to be aware. This wasn’t happening. He wasn’t here.

He chose to acknowledge miserable reality some time later. Jim was gone, and Blair had no idea whether he was gone from the loft or simply gone to his own bed. He lifted himself wincingly from the futon, and with shaking hands pulled his clothes together. He found his wallet and his keys, and with heart-stopping terror made his way to the door. Every sound in the loft was a thunderclap in his ears, and that included the soft rustle of linen that confirmed that Jim was indeed upstairs. Blair noted that tremor in his hands wasn’t getting any better as he opened the door and shut it again, quiet as a mouse. An equally quiet walk down the stairs followed, and then he was out on the street.

It was dark, and laceratingly cold. Blair shook all over now, but he stumbled to his car and slid into the driver’s seat. “Oh god,” he whined as he sat properly and lifted one foot to press the clutch down. He got the car started and pulled out, unsure of where to go except for away, far, far away. He was over the eastern side of the Campion Avenue Bridge when he saw the lights of an ATM, and realized that now was as good a time and place as any. He had $125.77 in his wallet and pockets if you included his lucky c-note, and something like $500 in his checking account. It wasn’t all his resources but it was everything he could get now. The credit card in his wallet he dismissed. Credit cards were traceable, but that Blair had been in the Woodhill area? It was well within Cascade city limits, and wouldn’t drop any clues to whatever he chose to do next.

The pain in both his ass and his shoulder had settled to a vicious throb while he drove but the shuffle and stretch to get out of the car needed a slow, clenched teeth effort. He got his cash and then eased himself painfully back in again. His next stop was a twenty-four hour drugstore, where he bought painkillers, bottled water, and a humiliating selection of creams and first aid items. Those, he did put on his credit card in a confused, vindictive impulse that he regretted as soon as he was out of the store He bolted some of the pills, and turned his car towards Olympia until he found a motel on its outskirts with twenty-four hour check-in. He registered, grabbed some burnt tasting coffee from the snack station in the foyer and hid himself in a cheap room, sipping the terrible coffee while he paced the small space, wincing now and again when movement turned to awkward pain.

Eventually he trekked into the bathroom with his first aid supplies. There was blood on the inside of his pants, but the cloth was heavy enough and dark enough that the stains weren’t that noticeable from the outside. The underwear was a smeared disaster. He washed himself, applied his creams, and rolled a wad of gauze between his buttocks. He hadn’t thought to buy any clean clothes, and that was what left him leaning against the motel washbasin, gasping and weeping with his pants and underwear around his ankles. The crying wound down in time, leaving him blank and empty. He gingerly lay on the bed, fully clothed because he didn’t want to be under the covers. Even their light weight felt like a trap, a potentially betraying encumbrance. He had to be able to move if he needed.

The next morning he drove into Olympia proper, with his bloodstained underwear and the first batch of gauze bundled into the drug-store bag and sneaked into the first trash bin he saw. He bought a t-shirt and socks and underpants and changed in the store’s men’s room, moving carefully and noting the shadows of bruises all over his body. Smacking onto a hardwood floor would do that. On the way out, on impulse he bought a plain notebook and a packet of ballpoint pens. He bought more coffee and a hotdog that tasted of nothing, and parked his car …somewhere. There was grass, and a marina, and he sat in his car with the notebook and pen in his lap, making occasional notes, trying to make sense of what had happened. Had Jim been drugged? Some sort of fugue state, a new variation of a zone? Something purely sentinel, or something purely Jim Ellison? And how crazy was that? Hadn’t Blair over and over told Jim that his senses were an intrinsic part of him, a gift from his ancestors? Blair been so delighted with it all, and he thought that now was the time to draw lines between what was the sentinel and what was the person?

His hand cramped painfully around the cheap pen. His writing, what he could read, was incoherent bullshit. Most of it was crossed out, with lines scored into the paper deep enough to rip it in places and mark the unwritten paper too. He ripped it all out and screwed it up as small as he could and dumped it on the floor of his car. His hair fell across his face. The motion of it, the itch of the strands across his skin, the feel of it on his fingers as he irritably pushed it back, was unbearable. This, he could figure out. There were barbers in Olympia and a solution to one issue at least.

He found a little hole in the wall place that had a space for him because it was still early in the business day, and sat down carefully.

“When you say you want it all off, just what are you aiming for?” asked the barber. He was probably Blair’s age, his own hair blond and fashionably swept back from his face along a centre part.

“Just… off. Not, uh, bald, but short enough that nobody’s going to tug on it.” Blair swallowed. “That shit’s annoying, you know?”

The barber smiled with professional calm. “Sounds like it sure could be.”

“Look. I was assuming that you’d just use some clippers on it.”

“I can do that. I’ll start with the highest guard; once it’s gone it’s gone but you can always go shorter if you want. “

Blair shut his eyes. He was sick of seeing himself in the mirror. “Yeah, sure.”

He wondered if he’d gotten a non-chatty barber, or if he was giving off serious ‘don’t talk to me’ vibes because matters proceeded in a quiet that was disturbed only by the hum of the clippers.

“You want me to trim up these sideburns while I’m at it?”

“Don’t let me take you out of the groove, man.” Even with the towel and cape tucked around him, his neck felt bare and exposed. He’d forgotten what it was like to not have the weight and warmth of long hair. He sat in the chair, contained within himself, and not thinking. Not thinking, not talking, just listening to the clippers, but he was unexpectedly all too aware of the man standing over him. He broke a sweat for a few seconds. He didn’t know why, the guy was close, sure, but not that close, not leaning heavily into him.

He’d been sitting long enough that there was throbbing discomfort in his ass. You’re safe, he told himself, (he was never going to feel safe again) and you can stand up and walk out of here any time you please.

“Are you done?”

“Tell me what you think and I’ll tell you.”

Blair opened his eyes. You could see a bare kink in the hair that suggested the way it curled when it had been longer, but it met his stated requirements. He wasn’t bald, but nobody was going to anchor their hands in this. “It’s fine, thanks; I guess I’d better pay you.” He stood with equal care to when he’d sat.

It wasn’t an expensive haircut, but he walked the street to his car aware of how his cash was melting away. He had to think. He had to, but what he did was go to ground in another cheap motel room and spend the day watching tv programmes for the light and sound and company.

He dozed off early in the evening and woke to a bang on the door with a pounding heart and flailing arms. The little clock radio on the night stand showed 11.14 in green digital numbers. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching the door, feeling sick. It’s just some drunk, Blair told himself, somebody mistaking their room, but he knew who it was. He knew who it had to be.

“Jim?” he called.

There was more banging on the door, made with a fist judging by the reverberation to it, and Blair considered his options. He could wait Jim out, let him bang fruitlessly on the door until Jim gave up (he wouldn’t give up, Blair had a gut deep certainty about that) or until some other irate motel patron saw him off. Blair could use the motel phone to call the cops. That raised a painfully swallowed bubble of hysterical laughter in him. And if he tried to wait Jim out, or if he called the cops, what then? All the while, the noise at the door continued. He said Jim’s name again but there was no answer except the monotonous assault on the motel peace.

If he called the cops, if he sought help from the desk? What would< happen? Would that shake Jim out of whatever confusion he was in? And if it didn’t? If Jim stayed silent and single-minded? However it shook down, there would be need for an explanation. At best there would be an agonizingly humiliating scene, where last night’s events would either have to be admitted to in front of strangers, or else somehow hidden. Would Jim remember even, and what would he say or do if he did? What could Blair say or do if he didn’t? At worst Jim might spend the night in a jail cell or mental ward, with consequences Blair at his best could never have fast-talked away to anyone like, say, Simon Banks. And Blair wasn’t at his best right now.

Whatever Blair chose, there was more disaster, a final spiraling crash still to come. He shut his eyes and chose, for tonight anyway, a private desolation. Think of it as an experiment, he thought, and soaring on reckless determination and no small amount of terror, said quietly, “I’m coming, Jim. I’ll open the door.”

He did as he’d said he would, stood aside as Jim walked in, and shut the door against the world and discovery with only a moment’s fantasy of making a run for it. Jim’s broad back was to him for just a moment, the shoulders of the windbreaker jacket he wore spotted with rain. Then he turned with that awful, silent attentiveness on his face. Blair stood still. He felt his hands knotting into fists and he forced them loose while Jim wrapped his arms tightly around him and nuzzled – no, he nosed – his way across Blair’s skin. There was scenting there, several seconds’ worth before Jim registered the shorn hair. His head lifted. With a small frown he ran one hand through the cropped strands, and then cupped Blair’s head in a careful, tousling stroke. Feeling the new lay of the land, perhaps, with no sign of either undue pleasure or displeasure for that matter, while Blair concentrated on keeping his breathing steady and his thoughts calm.

“Jim,” he said softly. Here was the crucial part of the ‘experiment’. “Jim, I won’t fight, you can do what you like, but you can’t fuck me, okay? Anything you like but not fucking. I’m too sore.”

This murmured condition was silenced by a kiss, forceful and selfish like the one in the loft that marked the beginning of this, and Blair endured. It gentled as Blair stayed calm, and he was directed towards the bed. When his mouth was free again he kept up the quiet offer of anything except fucking while Jim neatly and directly stripped off Blair’s clothes. He found the gauze Blair had folded between his buttocks and a small frown pinched his brows.

“Like I said, man. No fucking. No fucking, please.” Blair eased himself onto the bed, wincing as he put too much weight on his sore shoulder. A day of hiding behind cheap motel curtains hadn’t eased the aches that ran through him and he laid his head down on the pillow with a pained sigh. Jim watched him. The unnerving, focused silence didn’t break, and then Jim took off his own clothes with the same speed as he’d stripped Blair and climbed on the bed to straddle Blair across his hips and look at him with narrowed, searching eyes. Blair shut his eyes, and flinched violently when a hot, broad palm pressed into the skin above his sternum. The hand was followed by a mouth – kisses, licks, sucks and nuzzles across his chest and belly, a couple of apparently pleased, deep, inhalations against his armpits. Blair delved into what resources he had left, and tried not to shake.

Jim made to turn him, and the panic that Blair had kept at bay surged up from his gut and into his mouth. “No, no way, I told you. No fucking.” He’d been passive under Jim so far, but instinct made him grip Jim’s shoulders, made his hips buck under Jim’s in a desperate counter-offer. It was accepted. Jim’s arms reached between Blair and the cheap motel sheet to hold onto Blair in his turn, and the big, very hard cock slid against Blair’s abdomen, insistent, quicker and quicker, while Blair’s face heated in the furnace of Jim’s frantic, panting breath. Blair kept his eyes shut, and judged the burn where Jim’s arms pulled too tautly against the skin of his back an acceptable trade-off. It took longer than he might have expected. Jim did make some noise at last, a long low groan as he finally finished.

What now, Blair wondered, and tried to shift into a more comfortable position. Jim was very heavy, and very warm. Blair might count this experiment a success in its way, but just what happened now? He pushed at Jim, trying to encourage him to lift, or roll away. Jim did lift himself. Blair might have thought he’d be sleepy; wasn’t the guy who rolled over to sleep after a good orgasm a cliché for a reason? But no. In another time, another circumstance, Blair could have been very flattered. Gratified, delighted even, to have this level of Jim’s sexual attention and focus. But all he could feel now was weary irritation. The guy had just come. Why still look at Blair like he was the best possible midnight snack?

Jim moved down the bed and gently handled Blair’s cock. Not going to happen, Jim, Blair thought, but uneasy dismay moved in him, the realization that stimulation didn’t have to be wanted to have an effect. Jim didn’t smile precisely, but his eyes narrowed and there was something approving in the relaxation of his face. And then he took Blair’s cock into his mouth.

Blair gasped with shock. He truly hadn’t expected this, not after the brutally straightforward satisfaction that Jim had taken up to now. He shoved himself up on his elbows and tried to move away, but the iron grip on his hips reminded him that whatever passed for thought in Jim Ellison’s mind right now wasn’t interested in brooking any denial. Blair dropped back to the mattress and pressed the crook of his bent arm against his face. He didn’t need to see this, he didn’t need to think of anything except for the weight of his arm against his face and the way that the flush on his face completely outweighed the heat of his arm. There wasn’t any hiding from the heat of Jim’s mouth on him, the mix of friction and slickness, the way that Jim gently fondled his balls. Jim was good at this, he realized, and bitterness welled up and overflowed in the first tears he’d let loose in front of this man.

“Will you stop it?” he begged. He beat uselessly at Jim’s shoulders and back with clenched fists. Useless, futile, because he still couldn’t bring himself to truly hurt Jim, despite everything. “Just stop it!” he begged again, and then bit his hand. His hand was still caught in his teeth when he came, the sweetness of the orgasm ruined by sickly, sour shame.

Jim had seemingly learned one thing from last night. He settled himself into the bed behind Blair with a strong arm clasped firmly across Blair’s waist. Blair squirmed (he was full of experimentation tonight, wasn’t he?) but to no avail. Jim wouldn’t let go. Even as his breath slowed its rhythmic waft against Blair’s neck, that arm stayed tight against Blair’s body. He wasn’t going anywhere, and in the light cast by the nightstand lamp Blair stared blindly at the door just a few feet away. There was a stupid, hopeless part of him that could even take comfort in the weight and warmth of Jim’s body, and he was exhausted. His own breathing slowed and he dropped into sleep, until he woke to the same lamp light paling in the daylight filtering through the curtains.

They must have moved during the night. Blair was turned towards Jim now, but a possessive hand had curled around his wrist. This presented several problems, not the least of which was that Blair desperately needed to empty his bladder.

“You’re going to have to let go of me, or I swear I’m going to wet this bed,” he muttered, not actually expecting any response. But Jim’s eyes opened, and the hand around Blair’s wrist loosened. Blair freed himself and stumbled into the bathroom. He used the toilet, one hand pressed against the wall for support. Had that been awareness in Jim’s eyes? Were they moving on to the next phase of this catastrophe? There was only one way to find out, and that was to walk out into the other room and see what was there to be seen. Blair flushed the toilet. He washed his hands and dried them with great care, and then opened the door and walked out on shaky, hollow legs.

Jim was sitting up in the bed, the sheet clenched to his abdomen with a white-knuckled grip. He looked at Blair with horror and said, “Sandburg?” It was raw and uncertain. He didn’t remember, Blair realized. He might not remember, but Jim still had to know what had happened. Blair knew to a fine point exactly how sensitive Jim’s sense of smell was, and that alone must be cueing Jim in. Never mind any contextual clues, like the state of the bed, their naked bodies, and oh, yeah, whatever expression must be on Blair’s face right now.

Blair remembered the last couple of days just fine and he didn’t have strength left to deal with Jim’s distress. He stood naked at the foot of the bed. What did it matter? Jim had obviously wanted to see Blair’s body, he might as well see it in whatever passed for his right mind.

“Listen up, Jim. Do me a favour, huh? I’m going back to Cascade. Give me a day to get my stuff out of your place before you come back. Think you can do that for me?”

Jim, wide-eyed and silent, simply nodded. Then he swallowed with a dry, insectile click. “I… yes.” He found a little more of his voice while Blair put on his clothes as fast as he could. “What… what happened?”

And what did you know. You really could see red, have the haze descend. “You know what happened, Jim. You know what happened as much as I do. You follow me back and I will kill you, man. You understand me? I’ll fucking kill you!”

Blair fled, his feet screwed sockless into his shoes, half expecting Jim to chase him, to shout something and break the shocked, automatic assurance he’d made from the disarrayed motel bed. He pulled out of the motel parking area half mad with fear, his escape heralded with a shriek of brakes and a horn blast from another driver on the road.

He ignored it all and kept on driving.

~*~

Jim pulled into the parking lot down from Prospect, noting the time. The day-log piece of paper still sat on the passenger side. His arrival time teed-up with his departure time and he tucked it neatly folded into his pants pocket and got out of the car. A woman he didn’t know pulled into a park a couple of spaces down, her window open in the heat. She was noisily singing along with American Pie ‘cuz fire is the devil’s only friend’, and then smiled, abashed, when she saw Jim. Jim didn’t smile back. Her response was to lift her window and stay in her car. That seemed to be a reaction he got a lot these days – walk around, cross the road, stay in the car, avoid his eyes. Must be his friendly and welcoming demeanor.

She was none of his business. All Jim needed was to get home, eat his supper, and note his journals. It was a habit that took time out of his day (and that was funny, huh, Ellison) but he couldn’t sleep if he didn’t do his tally, account for how he’d filled the hours.

When someone knocked on the door, Jim’s first impulse was weary irritation. Anyone he’d want to see knew better than to call in without warning.

“Who is it?” he bellowed towards the door, hoping that the aggressive volume would scare off the intruder.

There was a pause and then another, louder knock. “Oh, I hope you’re someone I can deck,” Jim muttered, and stood and walked across the room. He unlocked the door and yanked it open. He was ready to yell, for venomous sarcasm, for outright threats, whatever would send this person on their way, but all of those intentions turned to blank ice in his mind and his body when he saw the man standing there. It was Blair.

Maybe he might once have recognized who was there before opening the door, known him by the rhythm of his breath and heartbeat, recognized his scent. But Jim and enhanced senses weren’t exactly friends these days. He stared at this ghost from the past standing in the hall. “What…” was all he could say.

Blair shouldered his way into the apartment and stood not far from the door with a hard, determined expression on his face. He didn’t look to have changed very much, at first sight. The shorn hair had grown out into something more luxuriant, not the mane he used to wear but long enough to frame his face; he wore his earrings and there was a beaded, braided leather bracelet around one wrist. The poised stance, the cold look in his eyes, the dismissive tilt of his chin, those were new, although Jim didn’t need sentinel senses to see the strung nerves underneath.

He shut the door, and leaned against it briefly before he pushed away and left it clear. Left it for Blair to have a way out.

“Sandburg.”

“Jim. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“You could say that.”

Blair walked towards the kitchen. “You and I have to talk, man.” He ran one hand over the table with the look of someone steeling themselves to something unpleasant. “Got any beer?”

“Have I…?” Jim nearly choked. “Yes I have beer. What the fuck has that got to do with it?”

“I want a beer. You probably will too, wet your whistle, oil the wheels of social interaction, loosen inhibitions.” Jim averted his eyes at that last barb. Whatever this was about, it didn’t look like reconciliation was any part of it. He wouldn’t expect it. Blair had left many of his things behind him in his flight from Cascade, and had a friend pick them up for him later. Jim had slipped a letter inside one box, declaring his willingness to face charges, if that was what Blair wanted. He’d never heard back. Maybe Blair had finally found that letter. Maybe that was what this was about.

Blair found the beer in the fridge. Surprisingly he put one on the table for Jim too, opened, and gestured that Jim should join him in sitting. So Jim sat and watched the flow of effervescence funneling into the air.

Blair took several swallows of his beer, before he asked, “Why did you rape me?”

Waves of heat and cold prickled Jim’s skin. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” Blair didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look disbelieving. He leaned forward across the table, a man on the edge of his seat, waiting with troubled eyes for – what? How could Blair expect any answers when Jim didn’t have a clue, had spent the last months floundering in horror and confusion. “I don’t remember. You talked about throwbacks to primitive man. Maybe I just got a little primitive one night and decided to take what I wanted.”

“Two nights,” Blair corrected. “Two nights, Jim.”

The beer in front of Jim remained untouched. He didn’t think he could pick it up and bring it to his mouth without smashing it against his teeth, and he clenched his hands into fists in his lap. “I’m not interested in arithmetic here. The sentinel thing got messy, and I fucked up, and you very understandably decided to never darken my door again, until tonight.” His throat hurt, and he didn’t want to talk about this. He’d admitted too much already, and his hand rubbed in all too transparent reflex across his mouth.

“You decided to take what you wanted. So what was that, exactly?” It was a cop’s question to an unwilling confession, but not a cop’s attitude.

Humiliated heat crawled over Jim’s face. “I’d have thought that was obvious.”

“Actually no. Because our minds aren’t straightforward, and there’s a ton of nuance and interpretation attached to quite basic events. You could have wanted to get your rocks off and I was the nearest warm body. You could have chosen to humiliate me for daring to be attracted to you. I have to admit, that was one thought that crossed my mind. That the sentinel thing got, as you put it, messy and you wanted to put me in my place.”

Jim shook his head.

“Yeah, that didn’t tee up for me either, because I thought I knew you, I thought that I knew what sort of man you were, you know?”

Jim wished that he could still figure out dials, so that he could block his hearing. He’d thought he’d known what sort of man he was too.

“So I was attracted, and you were attracted too, and instead of just fucking it out or trying to have a conversation like adults somehow we ended up … like this. And we didn’t know how.” Blair shifted in his chair. “I don’t think you’d be surprised if I told you I was a mess when I left. I was desperate for some sort of healing, so I threw myself into a lot of therapy, meditation, all the weird shit, right?” One eyebrow lifted, daring Jim to comment, to roll his eyes. Jim just sipped his beer, and tried not to get lost in the sheen of the table.

“Rebirth therapy, oh man, I tried that, crawling out of blankets, I nearly suffocated myself.” This seemed to amuse Blair. “Dream therapy, trying to make sense of it all.” The edge of almost-laughter tipped into something else. Blair’s voice trembled. “But there wasn’t any sense to be made of it, was there? Did you make any sense of it?”

If Jim moved his head just so, the pattern of light coming off the polished surface of his table changed completely. “I don’t remember anything to make sense of, except that I hurt you and you left.” The beer still sat on the table. A swallow or two might ease the strain in his throat. Or maybe Jim would choke on it.

“Hurt.” Jim waited, waited for Blair to say that awful word again, ‘rape’, but the moment passed. “I didn’t find any sense, but I found a path.” Jim’s attention sharpened at that. There was a tone he remembered, passionate, enthused, something of Blair from the time before. But the openness, the desire to share from that time wasn’t present. Bright-eyed and gloating, Blair was a man hoarding a secret. Blair had said that they hadn’t known how they’d ended up facing each across Jim’s table – but that held the implication that now Blair had figured something out. “I found a path,” he said again. “Sort of shamanistic in tradition. Definitely New Age, Mom would be proud, or maybe she wouldn’t.”

“Look, Chief, I’m glad you found what you needed, but is there a point to this?”

“My point, Jim… Look. This is like a case. I have a suspect, I really think I do.”

Jim startled himself with the rusty chuckle that came out of his mouth. It started slow and then worked itself up to a full-throated laugh, not quite sane all the better to fit in with the rest of this scenario. The sickly laughter ran down.

Blair sat at the other side of the table, his arms crossed, looking like he was ready for some unhinged laughter of his own “Yeah, I know, man. Have you got it out of your system?”

“You have a suspect. Listen up, Columbo. There were two people involved in what happened, you and me. I went crazy, and it looks a lot like I dragged you down with me. Christ, Blair!”

“Listen to me, Jim. That’s the least you fucking owe me, so you listen.” Blair fumbled in an inside pocket of his jacket and drew out a piece of paper. It had been neatly folded but was still a little bent and crumpled. Blair passed it across the table to lay it down in front of Jim.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” he asked, stupid in shock and anger.

“Well you can start by looking at it.”

Jim unfolded the paper and did exactly that. It was a sketch, done in rough, dark pencil lines. It showed a woman. She was attractive and something about the shape of her face and expression suggested a woman closer to forty rather than twenty-five.

“Am I supposed to know her?”

“You tell me,” Blair said.

Jim stared at the picture. He hadn’t seen Blair in nearly a year, hadn’t heard directly from him since he left Cascade, and however he might have dared to imagine their meeting, this wasn’t it.

“Do you know her?” Strain tightened Blair’s voice, and Jim glanced at him, afraid of where this was going, this crazy meeting, Blair’s obvious belief that this stranger was a part of their trap and tangle.

“I don’t know, she’s sort of familiar…” And then a shudder ran through him.

“Bingo,” Blair said softly. “Who is she?”

“I don’t know her name, I just remember her face. She was a one-night stand a while back.”

“Would a while back be just before you raped me?”

Anger and self-loathing rose in Jim like bile. ‘I don’t remember,’ he wanted to say, ‘I don’t remember, so maybe it didn’t happen the way you think it did.’ But the stink of blood and sex in that Olympia motel room stayed in his mind, along with Blair’s wild-eyed, frantic flight, and the gap of lost time Jim discovered after. Blair had left the futon behind him when he abandoned the loft, and stale as the bedding was when Jim returned it had told a worse story even than the room in Olympia. “Yes,” he said, like he was in the dock. “It would have been shortly before that. No more than a day or so.”

Jim laid the drawing carefully back down on the table.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“I drew it. Let the sub-conscious do its thing.” Blair tilted up the beer bottle and emptied the last of it. “Never understood why you drink this generic crap. I mean, I get it, it’s the Wonderburger of beers, but…. Tell me what you remember about her.”

“It was last year. I was out. I met her in a bar, we talked, we went back to her apartment, we had sex. There isn’t anything else to remember, because it was nearly a year ago and not that important.”

Blair tapped his index finger on the table. It shouldn’t have sounded like a judge banging his gavel. “Wrong, totally about it not being important, although I’m not surprised that’s your perception of it.” He grinned, wide-eyed despite the stretching of his face. It was, even without its current context, an unhinged expression. “It’s actually exceedingly important and we need to find her.” Jim was taken back a couple of years, to a wild-eyed, wild-haired young man clapping his hands together and exclaiming, ‘Bang, Holy Grail time!’

Jim didn’t have a grail. He had a beer bottle and hands that felt steadier now. He took his first swallows. It was there, and it was something normal amidst the unreality of this conversation. “And how do you suggest we do that?”

“I have to think about this, make some preparations. But we’re probably going to be checking out bars.”

The crazy laughter threatened a return. Blair had been sitting in Jim’s home (their home once) for however long this encounter had taken, the first time Jim had seen him since that ghastly awakening in Olympia, and they were going bar-hopping together?

“Is that so?” Jim stabbed a finger onto the drawing, right between the eyes of the woman depicted there. “Why? I know who she was to me, which was pretty much nothing. Why is she anything to you?”

“You’re not listening,” Blair said feverishly. “I told you she was my suspect.”

“How?”

Blair stared at Jim across the table. “I kept dreaming about her. This woman in this sketch that I drew. You want to know what I kept dreaming, Jim?”

“Probably not, but if it’s important then you’d better tell me.”

“Have you ever dreamed about jungles?”

Jim would have sworn that he didn’t move a muscle, not even a twitch of an eyelid, but apparently he was wrong.

“And the answer to that is yes. Sneaky, man. All this stuff that you kept bottled up inside.”

Jim’s beer bottle clattered a little as he tried to put it back on the table. He’d gotten the shakes again.

Blair leaned forward. “I don’t know if this is going to make things better or worse for you. I’m still figuring it out myself. I mean, I didn’t know what I was going to find, and it’s been a while, you know?”

It had, indeed, been a while. “So tell me what it’s all about then. Let’s get on with it.”

“So. Jungle. Something that rings a bell for you, and I’m kind of pissed with you about that, Jim, because there was clearly something going on under the surface that you didn’t see fit to tell me. More than everything else going on under the surface that you didn’t want to tell me about.”

“So you could make a chapter about it in the diss, Chief?” And now the old nickname slipped out, laced with sarcasm, pushed up by sullen anger. Bright rage flashed in Blair’s eyes, but it stayed no more than a threat.

“We are way past the dissertation, now, way past. My dream…. I see this woman, and she has a stick, a cane, I guess, and when she swings it down it makes a pretty vicious noise. And she’s using it to drive a jaguar, a black jaguar, on. It’s not fighting her. It’s down low, not like it’s hunting, but just because she’s whipping it on, laying that cane around its haunches, and they come into a clearing, and there’s a wolf. And the jaguar leaps at the wolf and it rips it open, throat and belly, whatever it can reach. And she’s laughing, and then I wake up and I’m sweating or screaming, and sometimes it’s both.”

It was like the chair Jim sat on was falling through space, down and down while the wind whistled about his ears. “Sounds like a shitty dream,” he said, freefalling while he sat at his own familiar table.

“Yeah, shitty.” Blair took up the paper and held it up, the woman’s face staring Jim down. “And if it wasn’t for her, and for the fact that you recognize her, if it was just the jaguar and the wolf I’d say it was processing, it’s my mind translating events into symbols. But she’s there, Jim. She’s there and I plan on finding her, and we’re doing it together.”

“Together? Why? I can tell you where I saw her, whatever that counts for when it was months ago, and you know what she looks like.”

Blair smiled. “Anyone would think you didn’t want to spend time with an old friend, Jim.”

“Don’t…”

“Don’t what, man? Don’t be sarcastic? Don’t nearly scare myself to death at the idea of walking into your apartment?”

“Then why come here at all and spin me this line about nightmares and finding some woman I fucked? I haven’t seen you since that morning in Olympia, and I get that, I get it, so why are you here?”

“Because I want some answers! And so should you!” Blair shouted, shoving his chair back to loom over the table. Jim flinched in the emotional blast, and Blair took a hold of his temper with visible effort. “Because the Jim Ellison I knew would never have done what you did, not without some sort of force or duress. You’re not that person, Jim. You don’t think that’s good news?”

“Even if this crazy bullshit of yours is true, it doesn’t change a thing. I still raped you.” The word came out more easily now, because Jim could be a vicious son of a bitch; hadn’t Blair had ample proof of that already?

“Yeah, I know.” Blair was downcast again. “But it still matters to me, man, it still matters. That you were under an influence.”

“Yeah, sure, I was under an influence. So we’re back to me either being mad or bad, Chief. It doesn’t matter in the end.”

Blair made an exasperated gesture of ‘enough’ with one hand. “Would you trust me to hypnotise you? To dose you?”

Jim trusted Blair about as much as he trusted himself, but time was past for worrying about that. “You can do it if that’s what you think you need. I take it you have some witch doctor brew in mind?”

Blair shook his head with a wry smile at Jim’s indirect answer. “Yeah, yeah, I do, I didn’t want to think too hard about this, no counting the chickens before they’re hatched, but you’ve confirmed what I needed to know, and I just need a day or so. To get ready.”

 

“Then you’d better get ready then.”

~*~

Blair had said that he’d need a day to get ready. That was fine, but Jim had no idea what the aftermath was going to be. He’d need a day or two (or maybe more, the mess he’d been after Blair fled the loft and Cascade was vivid in his memory). Jim needed to get ready too.

“Simon, I need some time off. From tomorrow. I know it’s short notice, but it’s important.”

Simon leaned back in his chair and stared at Jim from across his desk. “Is this because Blair Sandburg is back in Cascade?”

Jim went cold with shock. Surely Blair hadn’t approached Simon.

“I saw him downtown a couple of days ago. Just walking through a mall. Daryl’s birthday’s coming up, and I was shopping, you know how that goes.”

Jim nodded, speechless, waiting to hear what Simon had to say.

“And there he was. Pleasant. Making small talk about how long it was since we’d seen each other. He even remembered that it was Daryl’s birthday soon.” Simon paused. “We had a few words and we went our own ways, and I’ll tell you something. That boy had the special spacey calm that I associate with really good drugs or cult religion. Or both. Is he in trouble, Jim?”

“I don’t know.” Lying to his boss, and not for the first time. “But he wants us to get together for a day or so while he’s here.” Satisfaction and grief ran in an ugly merge under Jim’s skin. Blair hadn’t been calm when he sat in the loft with him. The spacey calm provided by Blair’s New Age shamanism wasn’t proof against Jim Ellison, nor should it be.

“Is that wise?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well.” Simon drew it out, looking past Jim for a moment before he met his eyes again. “Getting all buddy-buddy together when you had a breakdown when he left-“

“I did not-“ Jim tried to say more, but Simon held up a stern hand. No more lies, that hand decreed, and Jim bit back the protest.

“You had a breakdown,” Simon said with gentle steel,” and you held onto your job by the skin of your damn teeth, Detective. And I don’t know why Sandburg left, or why you went to pieces when he did, but it was a heavy scene, and I’d like to avoid a repeat. If I can.”

“It’s just a few days, Simon.” He couldn’t argue that he had leave stored up any more. It was gone, swallowed up along with the booze he’d swilled until he’d forced himself into a stilted, irritable discipline of days measured out in cheap notebooks.

“Just a few days.” Simon spoke with heavy patience. “Fine, take your days. I suppose you want them from right now?”

“I’ve got a couple of files to tidy up, and then yes.”

“Get,” Simon said with a frown, and Jim obeyed, not without a habitual glance at the clock on the bullpen wall. He tidied up his paperwork and went back to Prospect to wait for Blair.

 ~*~

Blair showed up at the loft the next day just as he’d said he would. He held a shabby vinyl carry-all, which smelled vaguely of something herbally medicinal. He wore jeans and a grey shirt and a leather jacket, like a man ready for a night out on the town with a friend. The hoops he used to wear were replaced with a couple of plain gold studs, and there were a couple of rings on his fingers, and some complicated braided arrangement of beads and leather around his wrist. Jim knew he was looking too much, especially when Blair looked back and raised his eyebrows in question. Jim flushed and turned his attention back to the sandwich he was making.

“You want anything while I’m here?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Blair said. He came to watch, leaning on the kitchen island. “Plain old ham and mustard on white bread. That shit’ll kill you before your time, man.”

“It’s a sandwich, not a gun,” Jim said with fake tranquility, and sliced the sandwich, put the fixings away, the knife in the sink. He hadn’t eaten much lunch, unsettled by the change to his routine and the wait for Blair, and figured he should eat now rather than later. He simply couldn’t imagine sitting in some bar with Blair over a tapas plate while they did whatever Blair had planned – while they tried to hunt down Blair’s ‘suspect’.

“So, what’s the plan, coach?”

“We go find her,” Blair said simply.

“I’m still foggy on how that works.”

“It’s connections, man. Trust me, it’s connections. You to her, so me to her via you. Trust me, this is going to work. Synergy. Bigger than the sum of parts. You’ll get it.” Blair spoke with the fervor of the true believer, and Jim chose to humor him.

“Where do you want to start with the synergy? I remember the bar I met her at, but there’s no reason to think that she’ll be there.” Jim picked up half of his sandwich, with little appetite.

“It’s a good place to start.”

“So we go there, and she’s not there, and what? We wander Cascade’s night spots? Move out into the suburban bars if we have no luck downtown?”

“If that’s what it takes.” Blair laughed. “Think of it as a quest.” A quest. Blair had a whole different grail these days, it seemed. The bread was fresh, the ham was good, but Jim’s bite of sandwich went down hard. “Know what, I think I’ll make some coffee for myself,” Blair said. “You want some?”

“I’m fine. Make yourself at home.”

It was a reflex courtesy. That was all, but Blair gave him a look. Jim kept his attention on his snack, and Blair made his coffee. The late afternoon wore on. Jim did small chores, channel surfed from the couch a while. Blair read a book, a slim paper back with a cheap cover, and sat quietly on the rug for a while, in a familiar meditation pose. He didn’t go into the empty room that used to be his, didn’t look towards it. Jim wondered, not for the first time, why Blair even wanted to be here. They could have met downtown.

Eventually, Blair rose. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.” Another thought struck him. “How are we getting there? You brought your own car? Do you…” Did Blair want a ride? Intend to be in the same, small space as Jim? Words failed him.

“We’ll stick together for this,” Blair said simply.

“Okay. So this is the synergy starting, is it?”

Blair smiled. It wasn’t reassuring. “Something like that. And we need to be focused on the same goal, which doesn’t include teeing up our parking spaces, you know?”

“I’ll take your word for that, Chief. So, your car then? You’re parked nearby?”

“Yeah. Come on, Jim.”

They left together, like all the times before everything had gone so wrong. Down the stairs, out onto Prospect, a short walk down the block. The evening was mild for Cascade. A fresh wind blew.

Blair had the old Volvo. “This thing still back-firing all the time?” Jim asked.

Blair gave him a look, a look that spelled out plainly that Jim’s awkward conversational starters were noted and humored just the same as Jim had humored Blair upstairs.

“I found a good mechanic. He does it for the love as much as anything. With this thing he’d need to, would be your next remark, right?” It was friendly, not barbed, and shaded uncomfortably close to the serenity that Simon had found unsettling. This new Blair was a creature of unexpected moods and changes, and Jim acutely missed the Blair who’d shared the loft. (And whose fault is that, a small, grinding voice asked inside him.)

He got in, and Blair pulled away onto the street; there was no more leg room than there’d been before. The interior smelled of incense sticks and stale coffee. Jim had never been a man prone to claustrophobia, but it threatened now that he was enclosed in this tiny space with Blair Sandburg, breathing perforce exactly the same air. What if this ‘quest’ was some delusional debacle borne of trauma and self-deception? Would Blair blame him for its failure? And if the quest was real, and Jim failed? The metal bent itself a little closer. Or if Jim lost time again, and faced god knew what new awareness, and Blair’s agonized, furious face all over again?

Jim swallowed down sticky-thick saliva. “Sandburg…”

“What, man?” Blair glanced at him. His face sharpened at whatever he saw, but he kept driving. Traffic was getting heavier.

“How do you know you’re safe with me? If what you think happened, happened.”

Blair’s tension unwound a little, and Jim tried to relax when he saw that. “What happened…. You need, she needed, one needs, to actively exert that kind of power, and once it’s done, it’s done. Two nights, just over forty-eight hours, and you knew your own conscious mind again.” He made a turn towards a parking building on Green. “She has sweet memories and a scrapbook about you, now. Metaphorically speaking.” They spiraled up the levels, the low concrete looming over them. “You’re safe, Jim. But there’ll be someone else out there who’s not.”

“Okay.” Jim shut his eyes. “If you’re expecting me to use the senses for this? I’m kind of rusty.”

“It’s okay. Think of yourself as, I don’t know. A metal detector? I need you to confirm the treasure, but I’m the one who’s looking. Like I said. It’s both of us, not just you, not just me.”

“You’re just full of metaphors tonight, aren’t you?”

Blair grinned. “A lot of things need metaphors to be expressed and understood.”

Jim shrugged, and got out to stand in the concrete and metal starkness of the parking garage. “I think I met her at the Publisher. We figure out where we go from there?”

Blair nodded. “Sure. Let’s go get our bearings.”

The Publisher was so named because it sat between the buildings that housed both Cascade’s papers. Jim realized that he’d barely walked Green Street since his one-night stand. There’d been one case, he thought, but otherwise… his life had closed down tight as the jaws of a trap since then. Work, the gym, the supermarket ten minutes’ drive from Prospect that stocked the necessities of daily life including cheap stationery. The mass of pleasure seekers wandering the streets might as well be aliens. Blair strolled beside him, and Jim thought miserably that he might as well be an alien too.

The Publisher sat on a corner. The Green Street side boasted a big plate window but the Preston Street side was the old brick, and Jim leaned against the masonry walls. He remembered very little of that evening, he realized. It wouldn’t have been so very memorable at the best of times, and meeting the woman, going back to her home (was it her home? Was it a hotel room?) had been totally eclipsed by everything that followed. Blair wandered up to the door, and pretended to be perusing the food and drinks list displayed there.

Blair came back and leaned on the wall beside Jim. They didn’t quite touch, but if Jim reached out just a little he would feel Blair’s body heat. If he reached out in a different way, unused for so long, he’d know Blair’s scent too. Blair’s voice was low but perfectly audible against the background of bar patrons and street traffic as he said, “How are you doing?”

“I don’t know.” Jim stared down at the grimy sidewalk. “This is stupid! I don’t know what the hell to do here!”

“Then just do what I tell you.”

Jim’s breath caught in shock, but he found his voice after a moment. “And what would that be?”

“Tell me what she was like.”

“You’re the one who drew the goddamned picture, Sandburg!”

Blair’s voice was the only sound in all the busy city. “Tell me.”

Jim drew breath in hard through his nose, and shut his eyes. “Dark hair, long but carefully styled. She was probably about my age. Slim, the willowy sort, more diet than exercise by her looks. Brown eyes, heavily plucked brows, subtle makeup. Office skirt and blouse, but with the buttons undone as much as she could get away with.” There was an image nearly forgotten forming behind his shut eyes. “Her voice was deep, just the right edge of too deep for a woman’s voice.” He faltered, because he felt… weird. “She looked at me, very direct, and I thought, what the hell. It’s not like I was out there looking for true love.” He opened his eyes then. That weird feeling was growing stronger, as if the street, the city, everything around him except Blair, was two-dimensional. Like the pop-up books of his childhood, just paper cut-outs that he could walk behind and around if he chose.

“Is she nearby?”

“What are you doing, Blair?” He was the only solid thing that Jim could see, grounded, like a tree, like a lightning bolt.

“I’m guiding you down a path. You know her, she knows you. You’ve touched her, she touched you, and that’s where all this shit started. Blair’s voice was soft, a whisper in a vaulted building echoing back and forth. “Is she nearby?”

“Yes.”

“Then show me where.”

Jim turned and walked, down Preston to where Hinton Street ran parallel to Green. Hinton was all sixties concrete blocks, and the bars were more down market, but it was busy just the way that Green Street was on a Friday night. He walked under the harsh lights, past bright neon, through the soup of cigarette smoke and booze and cologne and sweat and car exhaust, to stop short outside a door.

“Wait here,” Blair said.

Jim stood there, and for the first time he really believed everything that Blair had told him. He didn’t accept it because he’d been told, he wasn’t investigating anything, or humoring anybody. He believed it because of the formless, gut-deep rage that flowed through him. Something, someone, past that door was a threat, a danger. He didn’t remember a thing, still didn’t know precisely what danger he sensed, but the hairs on the back of his neck rose anyway.

“Wait here, Jim.” Jim growled his displeasure, but peeled away from the door to loiter a couple of yards away. “This won’t take long.” And with that, Blair went in.

He made his way through the crowd and went to the bar, ordered himself a beer. Jim followed Blair without a thought, using physical awareness and skills that he’d ignored for the best part of a year. Hearing was always his best skill, and he knew every inch of Blair, knew the rhythm of his steps, the sound of his breath, the rustle of his clothes; he effortlessly reconstructed Blair’s progress through the crowded room.

Blair moved from the bar. Jim heard the steadying breath, the increase in heart rate, and then he sat beside his target. “Hey there,” Blair said. “Busy tonight, isn’t it?”

Jim tried to think of her as the drawing Blair had done. Grey lines on white paper, but memory filled her in as a person, someone real that Blair sat next to, and was deceptively trying to flirt with. This Blair he remembered far too well – wide-eyed and smiling, over-intense sometimes, trying his luck and succeeding often enough, with his successes arousing what Jim had refused to recognize as jealousy.

“Busy enough,” she said. If Blair’s flirtation had been the real deal, he’d be sunk in the water right now. Whatever she saw, Blair didn’t have what she was looking for this evening. Jim remembered the gloss of her hair, and the frankly beautiful line of chin and jaw and the intelligence in her eyes, and wondered what she’d seen in him. Nothing good, and he clenched his hands into fists.

“Can I buy you a drink?” Blair asked. Jim ‘saw’ one hand move to land briefly on her shoulder. She sat still under it, but Jim knew that her mouth twisted.

“I am really not interested,” she said, very level. “I suggest you go talk to somebody else.”

“Oh, hey, sorry, no offense,” Blair said, his face fallen in familiar disappointment (she thinks you’re a dork came back to Jim, a far distant echo). His hand reached out once more, some half-drunken guy being over-familiar and patting her arm, and she did move away then. And so did Blair, moving to stand at the bar and sip at his drink. It was soon abandoned, and Blair came out.

“Let’s go,” he said and they walked back towards the parking building, at a brisk pace.

The city around them became a place rather than a hunting ground, but the reality of belief still sat in Jim. There was danger, and it needed to be dealt with. “So what now?”

The hapless persona that Blair had worn in the bar was entirely wiped away. It was a hard, glittering glare that was turned toward Jim. “Now? We go back to your place, we take some drugs, we go to bed.”

Jim was left speechless, and Blair laughed. Jim could get to hate that laugh. “Sorry, my sense of humor gets a little inappropriate sometimes. What I mean is, I have something to help us focus, and you’re going to be taking practically homeopathic levels of it, because sensitivities; my doses are more ritual these days than actively psychoactive. But we’ll need to lie down, this is dream-space stuff.”

“Dream-space,” Jim said, doubtful still. He understood, after a fashion, but remembering Blair talking with her didn’t make him think of dreaming. It made him think of walking back in there and breaking her neck. He would take the years in prison as a former cop, or the risk of a noose around his neck, and gladly so.

It was probably all over his face, that irrational desire, or maybe Blair could read his mind now that he’d made himself into the witchdoctor that Jim first insulted him as. Blair touched Jim for the first time since he’d come back, a one-handed grip across his wrist, warmer than the cuffs they would put on Jim for the murder his atavistic heart desired, but no less harsh. “She takes pleasure in sending people out like emotional suicide bombers, she gets off on it, she feeds off it. We weren’t her first, we won’t be her last, unless somebody stops her. And that somebody is us.”

Blair released him but Jim’s skin still registered the heat and pressure. Jim looked around them, at the passing foot traffic, Joe and Jane Schmoe out for a good time. “Relax, Chief. I get that she needs to be stopped.”

“You… remember?” Blair looked half-frightened at the idea.

“No. But the senses kicked in somehow. It’s not like I didn’t intellectualise what you told me,” –Jim tapped mockingly at his temple- “but something more instinctual kicked in listening to the two of you. She’s dangerous, even if I don’t know how. But you don’t think that ’dream-space’ is… too easy on her?”

Another of those hard smiles crossed Blair’s face. “There’ll be justice. I promise you that.” It sounded like the prayers in St Sebastian’s, like the songs Incacha sang across the tribal fire, like the sentence of a judge. “Come on. Let’s get on with it.”

They went back to the loft. Blair brewed something noxious at the stove, while Jim watched from the kitchen table and his heart ached at this false shadow of good times. How long would Blair’s scent last in the loft once he was gone again? Blair poured his brew into a cup for himself, a small medicine glass for Jim, and indicated the bedroom with a glance and a lift of eyebrows. “You ready?”

“As I’ll ever be when I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. But that’s been all of tonight, hasn’t it?”

“That’s why I’m the guide,” Blair said matter-of-factly. “Time to do this thing, Jim. You’ll know what it is when it comes to it, trust me on that.”

“Sure,” Jim said and walked up the stairs, Blair behind him.

He took off his shoes before getting on the bed. Blair grinned at that and, at Jim’s pointed expression, took off his own. Neither of them undressed any further.

“Here,” Blair said, proffering the little medicine glass. “Drink this and lie down.” It tasted as foul as it smelled, bitter and cloying, sticking to the tongue like syrup although there was no trace of sweetness in it. Jim made a face and obeyed. He laid his head on the pillow and stared up at the ceiling, not at Blair Sandburg who stood, sipping the awful stuff in his cup before he too lay down, leaving as cold and decorous a distance between them as the bed’s width allowed.

“Okay, Jim, you might think you’re clueless here, but you’ve done the start of this plenty of times before. You’re safe. Nothing is going to happen to you.” There was an edge on Blair’s pronunciation of the word ‘you’ that left Jim chilled. It was one thing for Jim to have thoughts of vengeance – he’d always known he was the sort of son of a bitch who held a grudge, but his sunny Blair? It was something new, another thing to mourn in the changed world. “Just close your eyes and think about breathing. Just gentle, in, out…” Blair’s continued on, a calm, meaningless drone. Jim felt himself beginning to drift into sleep, and let it happen. If it wasn’t what he was supposed to do, Blair would let him know.

He opened his eyes to a place he’d seen before – a jungle, dark and blue lit, filled with life. But this time, Jim wasn’t himself, wandering and confused and confronted by cryptic messengers. He was a black jaguar, and he had a task. He turned, and found himself face to face with a wolf. Shame filled him, and fear. The fur around the wolf’s throat parted in jagged patterns where it no longer grew; the patterns followed the lines of scar tissue, and Jim’s teeth had left those scars. He dropped to his back, lifting his paws, showing his own throat and his belly, and waited. The wolf approached, and tentatively touched its nose to his. Jim kept his eyes shut, half expecting teeth in his throat before the wolf nuzzled, no more than that, at Jim’s throat, whimpered, and then stepped back.

‘Not now, not that,’ the wolf’s eyes seemed to say, and so Jim got to his feet and padded on alone. He didn’t even have to truly hunt his prey – there was a trail of malicious power well-trodden down and worn with her scent. He knew where to find her now, but she had always known where to find him. He’d slept and licked at the wounds that she’d put on him without him knowing, while she had spied, and gloated. He could smell it, and he followed the trail at enraged speed.

It led to a clearing, and a vast tree, dead but still upright, where she sat cradled in a twist of branch. Jim eyed it - a tree he could climb, but the branches were sere and untrustworthy looking. There was the risk of falling. Also, she wielded a thin, wicked looking cane, and Jim remembered the sting of it now. Streaks of pain ran under his fur, under his skin, not be seen but there all the same. He set himself to climbing anyway. Some branches creaked ominously under his weight, and whenever he looked up to see the woman, she sat sure and secure, looking down at him unafraid.

He found a branch that left him almost within reach of her, at which point she lay along her own branch and whipped at him with her cane. He backed off as it landed with a bitter sting across the top of his head and his sensitive muzzle. He snarled in pain and fury, and backed off before feinting another approach towards her. More stinging blows snapped down, and he retreated, but only so far.

“Need another lesson, do you?” she muttered, and followed him down – snarl, feint, blows, retreat, and again, and again, until uncertainty grew in her face despite how Jim gave way against her. Finally Jim was on the ground, prowling still, and taunting her even though his entire skin felt on fire. She should have been secure in her power over him and unafraid of seeing him off, but his persistence had unnerved her. She stayed in the embrace of her tree, but couldn’t resist leaning down from a low branch for one last flurry of strikes. Jim withstood them, waiting for the moment.

There was a blur of grey, coming from behind the woman where she wouldn’t see it. The wolf leapt, and caught her wrist in his jaws. She screamed and tumbled to the ground, the wolf, Blair, twisting with it and landing on his feet alongside, her wrist still caught, bloody, in his mouth. The woman screamed over and over, trying to wrench herself away to no avail. The thin, vicious cane lay on the ground out of her reach and Jim waited, his hackles rising. The screaming sickened him, and it didn’t stop when Blair released her. Wolf eyes met Jim’s in silent command and he leapt onto the woman, who tried scrabbling away on her backside, the mauled arm pressed to her chest. Jim’s pounce shoved her fully helpless to the ground, caged within Jim’s legs. She stared at him in wide-eyed terror as he heard Blair’s voice in his head – “Do it, do it, finish it!” and put his teeth to her throat. The taste of flesh and blood was vile, but Jim took some satisfaction at the cracking sound of cartilage and bone. The screaming faded into a frantic gurgle, and then silence.

~*~

Jim woke. The low light of the bedroom was too much, even with his eyes shut. He felt disoriented, fitted into the wrong shape, and there was an unfamiliar weight on the bed next to him. He turned, squinting even though the lamp was behind him and saw Blair still asleep; he was peaceful, vulnerable too. Familiar and beautiful to Jim, and missed so much. The memory of the dream rolled over him, like a huge breaker wiping out a surfer, and with it came …earlier memories. Hairs lifted on his nape and a cold nausea spread through him. Jim backed away from the man on the bed with him like a cat withdrawing in the face of a slavering, snarling dog. He remembered last night but he remembered everything from those two fall nights, too.

Silence was a desperate imperative and he somehow got down the stairs without giving in to the impulse to simply throw himself over the edge of the bedroom railings. He stared around the living area in panic – that was where he’d forced Blair to the floor, behind him was Blair’s old, empty room where the worst of the first time had happened; his home and its comfortable furnishings were turned to a wasteland out of a nightmare. The big glass door looking out over the bay beckoned and he made it out to the balcony and cowered on its floor, shivering in the early morning dark with no refuge.

He remembered it all.

The woman in the bar. Going back to her apartment for serviceable sex that didn’t actually change the fact that he wasn’t in bed with the person he wanted, but that left him lying in a friendly glow afterwards, anyway. Blair no doubt had a scientific explanation for the fact that when someone had just made you feel good that you felt, however briefly, well-disposed towards them. Willing to lie in a warm embrace and gently nuzzle their hair. Make a little conversation.

But the conversation grew intrusive, and Jim wasn’t a man to stick around and let a casual hook-up ask ever more personal questions. The normal outcome would have been some sarcastic put-downs, bad tempered pulling on of clothes, and an angry departure. But there’d been little that was ‘normal’ in his life it seemed, and this casual hook-up sat astride him just as he was about to leave her bed. There were few spoken words on his part, no blows, but he’d left defeated and utterly abased, despite all his bitter struggle.

I don’t want to talk about this, he’d told her. Not to you, and not to him. (Then don’t talk. You’re right, there’s no need for talk.) That’s not what I want, he’d whispered, quiet and desperate. (Yes it is, and you should have it. You can have it.) She’d gone into his mind like an angler gutting fish, and dragged deep, utterly selfish impulses to the surface and he’d gone home and he’d done - everything that he’d done. He’d hurt Blair, and when Blair had run Jim had somehow tracked him down, just like he’d tracked her down, and hurt him some more for good measure, and he’d enjoyed himself. He’d been starving and thirsting and there had finally been satisfaction until he woke in that Olympia motel room.

He’d told himself that he wanted to know what happened those nights, that not knowing was worse, and he’d been wrong. So utterly wrong.

~*~

Blair woke, and felt the change in atmosphere around him immediately. When he’d walked into the loft, he’d had an image persisting in his brain – the loft as a dry gulch, rocky and sterile and with a small, stagnant pool at the bottom, green and still with algae. And in the middle of that pool was a rock with a thin, apathetic jaguar asleep on it. He’d wondered if last night would unlock Jim’s memories, and that guess was confirmed. The air around him now stank with fresh disturbance, filthy clumps of algae flew through the air, and the jaguar flailed in the middle of the pool, close to drowning.

The suspicion that Jim might remember had shaped much of Blair’s strategy for the past night. Maybe he could have found the woman through Jim, walked her tramped-down path in Jim’s mind back to her stronghold – and he would have known everything that Jim now knew in the process. No sane man wanted to relive his rape from the rapist’s point of view, and Jim… God, Jim would never forgive Blair that knowledge either. He gathered some strength for the ordeal, brushed down his rumpled clothes, and walked down the stairs, quiet in his sock feet.

He found Jim crouched out on the balcony, head bowed, eyes shut. Blair was quiet but Jim knew he was there and stretched out an arm, his hand up and his palm outwards, trying to keep Blair where he was. A very traditional gesture of authority and denial, but it wouldn’t have worked even if Jim’s hand hadn’t shaken like a leaf in a storm. It had been their earliest dynamic – Blair in Jim’s face whether he wanted him there or not, and Blair stepped out into the cold morning air and sat down opposite Jim at the other end of the balcony. There was silence for a while, until Jim shifted, no longer crouching, but sitting propped against the wall like a dying gunfighter in an old movie. Fine tremors still shook him, but he ignored them and Blair together, sitting against the wall with his eyes shut and his face sickly pale.

Blair stared at him with giddy confusion. He’d spent a lot of emotional energy focusing on one goal – confirming that his dreams meant something, that the woman’s face meant something, and that the plans that he’d made in case of that validation came to their due, satisfying end. Justice. Understanding. It still sang through his blood, but Jim’s distress muddied everything. Blair always knew that what happened those two awful nights was twisted from a line drawn from everything worst in Jim, but he’d hoped for a reason, an excuse, any excuse. With that hope’s vindication, any genuine desire for Jim’s suffering had ended. Watching the grey-faced, wounded man on the balcony hurt; it hurt the Blair who’d been Jim’s friend, who remembered their friendship as one of the best parts of them both, and it frustrated the Blair who’d discovered a new power in himself, and who knew he could fix things. Could he fix Jim? (The jaguar heaved itself from the pool, miserable and still caked in filth…) He moved towards Jim, put out a hand (and the jaguar snarled and raked a vicious paw at him. He barely dodged it.)

“What the fuck!” Jim snarled like the jaguar behind Blair’s eyes, and stood, graceless and shaky, but threatening all the same. “What the fuck was that!” He took a gasping breath. “Going to fix my hash like you did that bitch? Well, I guess I deserve it.” He didn’t sound resigned, despite his words.

“No!” Blair protested. “It’s not like that. I could help you, idiot!” Okay – not perhaps the best approach he could have made.

“Oh, you could help?” Jim shouldered past him into the loft. “Stay out of my head, Sandburg. Some things can’t be helped.”

Blair shut his eyes a moment, and grabbed at some calm. “I’m going to disagree with you on that. But for now, I’m going to make some coffee. You want some?”

“I want a shower. Make coffee if you want.”

This ungracious permission given, Jim made for the shower. Blair made coffee, and the aroma was spread through the loft when Jim stalked out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist to go upstairs. Blair watched him without embarrassment; he knew precisely how well a shower washed away that level of distress. Jim was just better at putting up a veneer of control than Blair had been. Jim came back down in jeans and a dark grey sweater that Blair remembered liking on him. He came over to the table, but he didn’t sit down.

“I know I wrote that I was sorry in that letter I left in one of your boxes. Did you ever see that?”

Yes, Blair had read that letter: its apology, its offer of restitution and the acceptance of any charges Blair might make. He’d read it and he’d burned it.

“I saw it,” was all he said.

“I told you I was sorry, but I didn’t really get what I was sorry for, even if I knew the basics. I…” Jim paused and swallowed hard. “I am sorry. For everything that happened.”

Blair bowed his head to stare at the table. “It’s okay Jim. I forgive you.” He looked up, at Jim’s very worst stone-face. “I always wanted to forgive you. To have a reason to forgive you.” And that was no more than the truth.

“You shouldn’t.”

Blair shrugged. “You know me, man. Always the weirdo.”

The stone cracked, just for a moment. “Don’t-“ And then it creaked back into place. “Guess I will have some coffee,” Jim said. He poured a cup and sat down. “So what now?”

“I don’t know. I had a couple of goals, but I’ve more or less achieved those.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know what you meant, Jim.” Blair sighed. “And I still don’t know.” He sipped at his coffee. “You didn’t get much satisfaction out of last night, did you?

Jim’s eyes turned cold. “Was I supposed to? Get some satisfaction?” He put a very ugly twist on the word. “Enjoy myself?”

It was as if the ground trembled underneath Blair. He had enjoyed last night, in a grim way, because he and Jim had worked together with power and strength. It was what he’d loved about their life before, even if he hadn’t really admitted it to himself then – that he and Jim had been bigger than the sum of their parts together. That Blair especially had been bigger, or a part of something bigger at least. He’d liked that from the start, and then he’d grown up a little, and realized that there was more than sentinel and guide and academic validation, there was Jim and Blair and a personal connection that had broken him when he’d lost it.

He’d thought he’d put himself back together. Looking at the still very much broken Jim Ellison across the table from him, he wasn’t so sure. He didn’t like that uncertainty, and with a belligerent tilt of his chin he declared, “I’m not sorry she’s stopped. I’m not sorry at all.”

“No, I don’t suppose you would be in the circumstances. Was this a purely personal excursion into being psychic judge, jury and executioner, or is there more to come?”

“Oh, come on! It’s not like I could call the cops on her! What court was going to try her!”

“So you used me to get to her.”

“I didn’t use you! I worked with you, yeah, just like we used to work together. Come on, Jim. I get that everything is raw right now, but…”

“You just wanted to invite me into the big wide wonderful world that you’d discovered.”

“Yes! And give both of us some closure.” And get you back, he wanted to say, but his throat closed around the words. Blair wasn’t getting the old Jim back any more than Jim could have the man Blair had been before.

Some of the harshness in Jim’s stare softened. “Okay.” His hands were clasped around the coffee cup, and he hadn’t lifted it to his mouth, not once. “Look. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think I need some time alone. You said it – things are raw.”

“I’m… I don’t have any particular commitments. I can stay in Cascade a few days more. Is it okay if I come back tomorrow? Or we could have lunch somewhere. Dinner.”

“I don’t know, Blair.”

“Damn it!” Blair stood. He wanted to shake Jim, and shuddered inside instead with the effort of control. This isn’t the time, he reminded himself. “Jim. Even if all this ends up being two friends who figure out they’re headed different directions in life, that’s what I want, okay? Two friends who reconnect even if they go their own ways, because that’s a hell of a lot better than what we had going before last night.”

Jim sat silent, and even without anything that Jim would have seen as interference or violation, Blair knew the silent struggle inside, that mix of self-disgust and desperate want, the need for someone to make it better even if the only person who could was the wellspring of the distress. Been there, done that, buddy. I know how it goes. (And you owe me, Jim, you owe me.)

“Call me tomorrow,” Jim said.

“I will,” Blair said. “So, I’ll go. Give you back your fortress of solitude, right?” He’d moved around the table to the door, and all he saw right now was the back of Jim’s bowed head, the neatly trimmed hairline (because even in catastrophe, Jim Ellison had standards, and his own little rituals to hold the cracking world together). “Tomorrow, Jim,” he said softly, as he let himself out the door.

Once out of the door he very nearly tumbled down the stairs to the sidewalk below. Inside his car, leaning on the steering wheel, he veered wildly between recalling last night’s victory and its painful aftermath. He stared out at the buildings and the morning sky. It was barely past eight, and he’d met one challenge only to acknowledge the next one.

You just wanted to invite me into the big wide wonderful world that you’d discovered, Jim had told him. True, absolutely true, and the beginnings of concepts and ideas of where a sentinel fitted in that world were already springing forth in the back of Blair’s mind. But there’d been another world stolen from the two of them, and Blair wanted it back, wanted at least the possibility of it, with all the fierce obsession he’d given to his search for a sentinel.

It would take time. It would take work. But Blair wanted it, never mind his soothing words to Jim. No way was he nursing the two of them through the end of a friendship. Blair wanted more than that, much more - and he was going to get it.

Well, you used to look so handsome and casual
Now you're looking supernatural