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The scream of splintering wood ripped apart the soft silence of the loft at night. Blair's head jerked up from the book on police procedures he'd been nodding over. Jim rolled out of bed, on his feet in an instant. Pounding feet. Voices. Men in fatigues.

Blair rushed around the kitchen table as Jim ran down the steps from their bedroom. Two men grabbed Jim's arms, immobilizing him while a third man cuffed his wrists together securely. Blair lunged toward them-"No!"-and the butt of a rifle was buried in his stomach. The air rushed out of his lungs, and the rifle swung again, the barrel striking his forehead. "Jim!"

Blair couldn't pull in a breath, and his head spun; the room turned a dusky gray. As he fell, Blair heard Jim shout, "Mulder and Skinner!" And then everything was gone.

When Blair woke, the first thing he realized was that his head throbbed horribly. He thought he must have stayed up too long studying and fallen asleep at the table. And there was that terrible nightmare. Jim. God. He opened his eyes and saw the legs of the small table in the hall. He reached a hand up to his head and felt the cut, still tacky with blood.

"No," he muttered. "No, no, no, no." He stood up, ignoring the complaints of his head and stomach, and noticed the ruined door. He felt a scream building inside him, a scream that would bring down the walls of the loft, but what came out was a whisper.

"Jim."

"I keep forgetting which cabinet the glasses are in, Walt. Every time I look for a coffee mug I end up with bowls and plates." Mulder turned away from the kitchen sink, the light streaming through the window showing red highlights in his hair.

Skinner leaned back in his chair, savoring the simple joys of coffee on a Saturday afternoon. Their third weekend in the little house in Crystal City, and it was already starting to feel like home. "What happened to your 'perfect memory'?"

Mulder rolled his eyes and then smirked. "I think I lost it somewhere in your ass. Better let me look for it later on."

Skinner laughed once, dryly. "I don't know where you come up with these things, Mulder, but you're on. Any, uh, other plans for this week-end?"

"I thought maybe we could go to the Home Depot. Shop for some new toys..."

"I don't know, Mulder. The concept of you getting into this domestic scenario is very nearly paranormal."

"Oh, I'm just having fun with the whole house thing. Give me a break."

"If you give me a warm up on this coffee."

Mulder turned to grab the pot and froze as the doorbell rang. He looked at Skinner as the older man stood up. "Are you expecting anyone?"

"No. Probably Jehovah's Witnesses."

"Walt, there's a cab out front."

"What?" Skinner looked through the peephole. "Oh my God." He opened the door quickly, shocked to find Blair Sandburg standing on the porch with a backpack on his shoulder and a nasty gash over his right eye.

Mulder reached out and guided the younger man inside. "Blair! Is Jim here, too?"

Blair shook his head, and Skinner realized that Blair was actually shaking minutely from head to toe. "Mulder, take his bag and sit him down on the couch. I'll get him some coffee."

Skinner quickly poured a fresh mug and brought it into the living room. He helped Blair wrap his fingers around the mug and then pulled an afghan over Blair's shoulders. Taking a few sips of the hot brew, Blair closed his eyes and took a deep, steadying breath.

"I'm so sorry for just dropping in on you guys like this."

'That's okay," Skinner reassured him. "It must have been something pretty important for you to just 'drop in' from Cascade. Does this have something to do with that press conference?"

"No, well, maybe. I don't know."

Mulder spoke up from the other side of the couch. "I e-mailed Jim after I saw the reports in the paper, and he told me that everything was okay with you guys."

"Mulder, I know you know the truth, but does he...?"

"Yeah, Jim told me it was okay to bring Walter in on the Sentinel thing. I hope that's okay with you."

"No, it's better that way. I-I don't know what to do. This is like some kind of a nightmare."

"What happened? What made you come out here?" Skinner pressed.

"Last night, I was studying. Men-soldiers, I think-broke into the loft and took Jim." Blair inhaled sharply and bit his lip.

Mulder groaned, his head falling forward into his hands. Skinner gingerly probed the wound on Blair's head. "They did this to you?" Blair nodded. "Did you get it looked at?"

"No. After I woke up I just packed a few things, got money out of the emergency account Jim set up, and took off for the airport."

"You were unconscious. Does it still hurt? Did they hurt you anywhere else?"

"My head aches, but I think it's just stress, worry. Just bruises, otherwise-I'm okay. My vision's fine."

Skinner placed his hand on Blair's shoulder. "Look, Blair, we're going to find Jim. Mulder and I have some experience in this. I want you to lay down and sleep for a little bit."

"No!" Blair tried to stand up, only to find himself gently pressed down by Skinner's hand. "I have to find him!"

"We will. But it sounds like you didn't get any sleep last night, and you probably have a slight concussion, and you look like shit. Mulder and I have to make some calls. After that, we'll wake you up and get something to eat, and then we'll get to work."

Blair turned and spoke to Mulder, his voice deep with emotion. "Swear to me that we'll get him back."

Mulder cleared his throat and spoke softly. "I'll find him, even if I have to turn over every rock myself."

Blair nodded. "I believe you."

Skinner and Mulder stood up from the couch, and Blair leaned sideways onto the cushions, toeing off his shoes and pulling up his legs. Skinner arranged the afghan to cover him better and then followed Mulder back into the kitchen.

Mulder already had the phone to his ear. "Frohike, I need you to look into something for me..."

Blair woke to find himself in the jungle. In his line of sight, he saw the roots of trees, fallen vines, the ground very close. He looked down to see a furry nose, paws. He was the wolf. He knew there was something wrong. The jungle felt lonely, strange. He couldn't place the feeling until he heard, far off, the cry of the wounded panther.

On four well-muscled legs, he bounded off through the under-brush, the sound drawing him further and further into dark trees. He ran hard, pushing exhaustion aside, until there was suddenly nothing ahead and he dragged his paws on the ground to stop himself short.

The wolf stood on the edge of a cliff, a chasm in front of him. Impossibly deep but not very wide. Narrow enough to see across, but too wide to leap. He didn't know why, but of that he was certain. To leap across that chasm meant only death.

But his eyes met no such obstruction. On the other side of the gap, the powerful black panther lay caught in a trap, a trap chained to a tree. His shrieks of pain rode the wind across the chasm, reaching sharp wolf ears. The wolf could do nothing but lift his head and howl back, howl for his trapped and injured mate.

"We should wake him up, soon, Walt. He'll be mad if we let him sleep too long." Mulder had found out all too little information, and there wasn't much prospect of learning more soon.

"He'll need his rest, whichever way things go with Ellison. And he did look pretty rough."

"Yeah, but he probably hasn't eaten either, and I know that if it were you-"

"JIM!!!" A hoarse shout from the living room surprised both men. They rounded the corner to find Blair sitting up on the couch, panting, obviously trying to regain his bearings. Skinner perched on the arm of the sofa, while Mulder went off to get their guest a glass of water.

Blair inhaled deeply through his nose, calming himself. "I'm okay. Sorry about that."

"Don't worry about it, Blair," Skinner reassured him. "We were just about to wake you up, actually."

"Did you find anything out? Do you know where Jim is?"

Mulder sighed. "We have a few clues, but nothing solid yet. I can tell you that the men who took Jim were not members of any branch of the U.S. military, at least not acting in an official capacity."

"Then who the hell was it?"

Mulder glanced at Skinner. "There are other forces at work here. We're going to order some dinner and try to bring you up to speed. You like Thai?"

"Yeah, um, whatever. I'll take some chicken in peanut sauce. Now tell me what's going on."

Skinner left to get the food, and Mulder sat down in the chair across from the sofa.

"There's a group of men, very powerful men, who we refer to collectively as the Consortium. They form a sort of international shadow government, and their actions impact the lives of everyone living on this planet. I can't tell you everything here, Sandburg, but they have an enemy, and they're willing to do anything to come out on what they perceive is the right side of things.

"Jim is not the first person to have been taken against his will. For decades now they've taken thousands of innocent women. They took my sister. For three months, they had my partner, Agent Scully. They've taken me, taken my memories."

On Blair's expressive face, confusion gave way to horror. He whispered, "Who are they? Why do they want Jim? What are they going to do to him?"

"Jim's Sentinel abilities could provide them an edge in fighting their enemy. As for what they'll do to him, I can only guess. I'm sure you can guess, too. We need to find him, and my sources will hopefully yield some information in that direction, but the larger problem is how to keep him safe after that."

"I know, believe me, I know. We could leave the country. Go to Peru, maybe."

"You think Jim would go for that?"

"Damn it, I'd make him go for it."

In response, Mulder only nodded. Blair shook himself a little and stood up. "Yeah, okay, I'm going to go clean up a little, see if I can tame my hair." Blair disappeared down the hall into the bathroom.

Mulder turned on the TV and flipped channels until the front door opened, and Skinner came in bearing bags of fragrant food. Blair wandered back into the living room and inhaled appreciatively. "Man, I had no idea how hungry I was. I've been so focussed on getting here and finding Jim."

"I understand," Mulder replied, reaching for his container of Pad Thai.

Skinner handed Blair his dinner. "That's why we're here to take care of you. I'm glad you came to us."

"Jim's idea. It's the last thing he said to me." Blair was quiet for a moment, but the scent of his dinner drew him back to the present. "He did some checking on you, Mulder. I think he knew you were involved in some weird stuff."

Skinner snorted. "Weird stuff. That's one way to put it."

Mulder pointed his fork at his lover. "You be quiet."

Skinner seemed about to speak but dug into his beef and broccoli instead.

After dinner was eaten and cleaned up, the three men spent the evening brainstorming possible rescue scenarios, as well as discussing the greater issue of keeping Jim safe after retrieval. By midnight, all three were out of new ideas; they were merely going around in pointless circles. Skinner stood up and started clearing their cups from the coffee table.

"I think we should break for the night. Blair, the bed in the guest bedroom is made up for you. There are still some unpacked boxes in there, but you should be able to maneuver around them. If you need anything during the night, please, make yourself at home."

Blair nodded and looked down. "I don't know how to thank you both for helping me with this and for letting me stay here. We've only met a couple of times, after all."

Skinner shook his head. "Who was it that helped out me and Mulder a few months ago in Cascade? You sat with me in the hospital after that bombing. You and Jim kept a leash on Mulder and had us both over at the loft."

Mulder mock-scowled at his lover and then smiled at Blair. "If I'd found out that Jim had been taken-and you hadn't come to us-I would have been pretty pissed. So, relax. Try to get some rest. My contacts are supposed to call in the morning, and they expect to be able to give us some more specifics."

"Okay, thanks. Both of you. Um, do you think I could make a phone call? It's still early back in Cascade, and I'd like to call our boss."

"Banks? Sure, go ahead and take the cordless into your room so you'll have more privacy."

Blair retrieved the cordless phone from the kitchen, grabbed his backpack from the living room, and retreated into the guest bedroom, closing the door behind him. He knew that calling Simon would be hard, but it had to be done. After fishing out his calling card, he dialed Simon's home number, hoping that the captain would be home.

The line rang twice. "Banks residence."

"Simon, it's Blair."

"Where have you two been, Sandburg? I've been calling the loft all day."

"Sorry, Simon, um..."

"Is Jim there?"

"No. Simon, I'm in D.C. Crystal City, Virginia, actually."

"What?!?"

"Simon, last night, Jim was kidnapped by some men who looked like military. Now, I don't know who they were."

"Why didn't you call me, Sandburg? What the hell are you doing in Virginia? Are you okay?"

"I'm-I'm okay, Simon. You remember Jim's friend, Mulder? The FBI agent? Jim thought that he might be able to...I don't know...help."

"Well, Jesus, kid. Is there anything I can do? Shouldn't we be investigating from here in Cascade?"

"According to Mulder, the people who took Jim aren't the kind of people you can fight using conventional methods. But, there is something you could do. They broke the door to the loft, and I left in kind of a hurry. The place has probably been ransacked by now, but if you could get someone over there, well, I'm sure Jim would appreciate it. When we get him back."

"I'll take care of it. And you take care of yourself, Sandburg. Give me a call tomorrow and let me know what's going on, okay? I'm Jim's friend, too, you know."

"I know, Simon, thanks. I hope I have good news for you."

Blair pressed the button to end the call and lay back on the bed. He didn't think he'd be able to sleep, after the events of the day and his earlier nap, but before he even undressed, his rambling thoughts spun off into dreams of blue forests and vast, unbridgeable canyons.

Mulder watched Blair close the guest room door. "I hope I can get Jim back to him okay. If I can't, it's going to kill him."

Skinner wrapped an arm around his lover's lean back. "If anyone can get him back safe, it's you. And Jim's a survivor."

Mulder turned his head to look at Skinner. "Like you?"

"Like all of us."

"Take my mind off it?"

Skinner tightened his grip on Mulder. "That's what I'm here for. Come on." They moved into the bathroom, where Skinner started a warm shower. Both men undressed, and then Skinner stepped into the tub, pulling Mulder in after him. He pushed Mulder against the tile wall and kissed him, holding the back of his neck with one hand and running the other hand down his warm, wet back until it reached the firm rise of Mulder's ass. His fingers spread against the twin globes, massaging them gently.

Mulder moaned against Skinner's mouth. "I love you so much," he panted, pulling away just far enough to look into Skinner's eyes. "You better plan on sticking around."

Skinner knew what Mulder meant to say, but could not say. He meant, don't get taken, don't get hurt, don't get killed. He meant, I don't want to be in Blair's position. Skinner answered the only way he could. "I love you, too."

He reached for Mulder's conditioner and squeezed some into his hand, rubbing his hands together until they were coated with a slick layer. He reached down between their bodies and, finding Mulder already hard, wrapped his hand around Mulder's long, slim cock. He began to pump, slowly at first and then faster, rougher, building up to a rhythm that had Mulder gasping for breath, clinging to the tile wall with the flats of his hands.

As Mulder came, shuddering, his knees loosening, Skinner wound his free arm around Mulder, holding the younger man to his broad chest until he regained his balance. When Mulder's breath returned to normal, Skinner whispered in his ear, "I plan on being here forever. You better do the same."

The next morning, Blair woke with a start. He lay in a strange bed, fully clothes and covered with a banket. Mulder and Skinner. Virginia. Jim. As he rose, he realized that he could hear voices from elsewhere in the house, and one of them was female. Curiosity warring with anxiety, he opened the bedroom door and walked down the hall to the living room. In the kitchen, Mulder and Skinner stood talking with a petite red-haired woman.

Not wanting to interrupt, Blair hesitated long enough for Mulder to notice his presence. The tall, lanky man waved him over. "Blair Sandburg, this is my partner, Dana Scully. I don't think you two met when we were in Cascade last year."

Scully smiled at him and reached out to shake hands. "No, we must have missed each other. It's nice to meet you, Blair. I'm sorry it's not under better circumstances."

"Yeah, likewise, Agent Scully." Blair was at a loss, uncertain of how much this woman knew about the situation. "So, did Mulder call you in on the, uh, case?"

"Blair, Scully's a medical doctor as well as a Special Agent. I asked her to work with us for two reasons. One, we might need her to take a look at Jim once we get him back with us. And two, I got some more information this morning on where Jim's being held."

Blair gasped, his eyes widening, his body tensing. "What? Where? How do you know?"

"I have some very resourceful friends. They've intercepted some transmissions that seem to indicate that Jim's being held at a clinic in Maryland, about an hour away from here. The boys dug deep enough to find out that the clinic is owned by a company connected to the Consortium."

"Great. Let's go get him." Blair felt the overpowering need to move. He paced in the tight confines of the kitchen, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet.

Skinner spoke up for the first time. "It's not that simple. Security is certain to be tight. We might be able to get in, but the likelihood of getting out with Jim is very low. We need a plan if we're going to have any chance of retrieving him. Mulder's friends are working right now to get the blueprints to the building. Once they fax those over, we can form a strategy."

"For now," Scully added, "I brought breakfast." She pointed to a box of muffins lying on the table.

Blair fixed himself some tea and sat down to wait. He stirred his tea, listening to the tinny clink of the spoon against the ceramic mug. He wished that, like Jim, he could zone out, forget the rest of the world, know only that sound.

Eventually the phone rang, and soon after that Skinner retreated to the study, to dissect the blueprints and determine a plan of attack. Mulder and Scully moved into the living room, where they sat talking on the couch. Blair continued to examine his tea, but from snatches of conversation that drifted into the kitchen, he got an idea of their conversation.

This was Scully's first visit to the house in Crystal City. She had only recently learned of Mulder and Skinner's romantic involvement, and she wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation. Blair got the feeling that their relationship would prove strong enough for her to move past her discomfort. He certainly hoped so for Mulder's sake. The man obviously thought highly of his partner.

Blair tuned out the conversation, consumed by thoughts of his own partner. Listening to the rhythmic tink-tink of his spoon against the mug, he continued to stir his long-cold tea. He let the sound carry him with it, and he drifted away from reality.

His vision flashed blue, and he saw the panther again, now freed from the trap, lost and injured. The panther trained its pale blue eyes on him and whimpered, lying down in the underbrush.

The shrill ringing of a phone brought Blair back to the reality of the hard chair, the cold tea, and his spoon. He heard Mulder answer the phone and looked up as he heard the man gasp, turned to see Mulder looking straight at him.

Blair closed his eyes and didn't even realize he was muttering to himself, "...no, no, no, no," until he felt a hand touch his knee. He opened his anguished eyes to see Mulder squatting in front of his chair.

"They found Jim. He's alive."

Sitting with Agent Scully in the back seat of Skinner's sedan, Blair once again lined the known facts up in his mind. Mulder's friends, who sounded really unusual, overheard a call on the police scanner from Silver Springs, Maryland. A man was found, catatonic, in the bushes outside a major hospital center. Description: Caucasian, 6'1", approximately 190 lbs., 35-40 years of age, brown hair cut short, receding hairline, blue eyes. Vital signs stable, but not responding to anything, not even deep painful stimuli.

Panic once again threatened to overwhelm Blair. Oh, Jim. This is not good. What did they do to you?

The man carried no identification. An unmarked white van was seen in the area where he was found, but no one made note of the license plate numbers. Mulder faxed the hospital a picture of Jim-the photo Blair had taken to carrying in his wallet-and they confirmed that their John Doe was indeed James Ellison.

Blair didn't know whether he wanted to weep in relief...or in fear. Agent Scully-Dr. Scully-had got on the phone with the physician overseeing Jim's care and explained to him that, due to the patient's unusual chemical sensitivities, he was not to be treated with any drugs until they arrived.

Finally, Skinner steered the car off of the Beltway and then, soon, into the hospital's parking lot. Blair entered Jim's cubicle in the ER to find a nurse standing at his side, making notations on a chart. Jim lay very still on the bed. Pale, his features like marble, yet apparently unhurt. A warming blanket covered his body, and an IV dripped down into his arm.

Blair turned to the nurse. "What's with the blanket? And what's in the IV?"

She smiled guardedly. "I'm sorry, that's confidential information."

"I'm his next of kin, and I have paperwork that says I can make medical decisions for him if he is unable to make them himself. Now, what's in the IV?"

She sighed, softening up. "It's just a glucose-saline drip. He was a bit dehydrated, and his blood sugar was low. His body temperature was also a bit low-it's nippy out there this morning-which is why we had the blanket on him. I was just about to take that off, actually, as he's back up to normal. Now we just need him to wake up."

Blair moved closer to the head of the bed and dimmed the overhead light as the nurse departed. "That's my job." Since Jim wasn't actually hurt, Blair hopped up and sat on the edge of his hospital bed. The closer he could be to his Sentinel, the better. He took Jim's lax right hand in his and began gently stroking the back of it with his thumb.

He spoke softly, calmly. "Hey, Jim, I'm here. You're safe, and I'm here, and no one's going to hurt you. I know you're zoned out. I know you're really far away, but it's okay to come back now. I need you to come back and open your eyes. Can you do that, Jim? I'm here, and you're safe, and it's time to come back. Please, Jim. I love you. I love you...

"Imagine my voice as a candle, glowing bright in the dark place you're in right now. The light might be small and very far away, but you can focus on it. Follow my voice, Jim. Follow the light, and come back to me."

Walter Skinner stood with his agents-his lover and his friend-outside the Plexiglas cubicle where Blair sat with Jim Ellison, coaxing the man back to awareness. He marveled at the young man's devotion, his love for Ellison loud and clear in every quietly uttered word. Blair had been at his task for half an hour already, but his voice was still strong. The man had been a teacher, Skinner reminded himself, a lecturer.

There was no visible change in Ellison, but the doctors had reassured them that there was a positive change in his vital signs. His heart beat more strongly, and the EEG showed increasing brain activity. He was coming around, apparently thanks to the efforts of the young man perched on his bed.

Occasionally, Blair would move his free hand to pet the short hair on Jim's head or caress Jim's arm, but always his left hand was in Jim's right. His full lips only stilled when, at some unknown interval, he would bend down to kiss Jim's forehead, his cheek, his lips.

Skinner felt warmth against his back as Mulder embraced him from behind, winding his arms around Skinner's waist. Mulder pressed a brief kiss to his neck and whispered, "I love you," before moving away, ever mindful of who might be observing them.

Blair rested against Jim's solid, but still unresponsive, body. He leaned down over the still form of his lover, pressing his chest to Jim's. His litany remained unbroken except for the occasional kiss.

"Jim, please man, I need you to come back to me. I know they hurt you, but it's safe to wake up now. We're in a hospital, and Mulder's here, and Skinner. I need you to feel my hand on yours, hear my voice in your ears, smell me sitting above you. And I haven't showered in a day, so I'm sure you can smell me, Jim. Open your mouth for a kiss, and you'll taste me. Open your eyes and see me. I'm sitting right next to you, Jim, and you're safe.

"You've been drawing closer to the candle; I know you have. You're closer, Jim. You're very close. All you have to do is wake up and join me here. Come on, Jim. Now."

Blair started when Jim responded, groaning, "nooooo," and fighting against the sheets as he tried to roll over. Blair hopped off the bed, and Jim curled into a ball facing away from him. He groaned again, a world of pain in the single syllable. "Noooooo."

The tiny cubicle suddenly filled with people. A doctor and a nurse entered, with Agent Scully at their heels. The doctor tried to dislodge Blair from his station next to Jim's bed, but Blair resisted, until he felt a gentle hand pulling him from the side. He took a couple of reluctant steps away from the bed and looked up to find Skinner standing next to him.

Skinner handed a bottle of juice to Blair. "You ought to drink that, I think."

"Why?" Blair was surprised to find his voice somewhat dry and thin.

"You've been talking to him non-stop for about four and a half hours."

Blair's eyes widened. "No kidding!" He smiled gratefully and uncapped the bottle, drinking half of it before pulling away and taking a deep breath. "I guess I did need that. Thanks, man."

"No problem. You did a great job with Jim. You must be very dedicated to him."

"Job requirement." Blair tried to get a look at what was happening on the bed. "I can't see over that doctor. What are they doing to him?"

"They're just taking his blood pressure. Asking him questions to see if he's oriented. Normal stuff."

"I don't think he's very with it yet."

Skinner grimaced. "No, neither do I. I think he's going to need you a whole lot more before this whole thing is over."

Blair sighed sadly. "I think you're right."

At that, Mulder tapped on the glass, motioning for Skinner to come outside the room. Skinner brushed past Scully and the medical personnel before making it back to the hallway. "What is it, Mulder?"

"I got a phone call. I don't know who it was, and I couldn't run a trace, but the voice said, 'We got what we wanted from him. We're done with him. You can have him back.'"

Blair followed the doctor into the hallway and stood nervously, his arms wrapped tightly around his midsection. "So, Dr. Tanner, you did a full examination on him? What did you find?"

"Well, Mr. Sandburg, his body was obviously under some stress recently, as evidenced by the dehydration and low blood sugar when he came in here. I'm sure you noticed the mild bruising on his wrists; he must have been restrained."

"Yes, I saw them cuff him." Blair flashed on the memory-Jim's arms pulled back, the sick flash of pain in his gut, his head.

"I'm sorry." The doctor paused. "Are you okay Mr. Sandburg? You look a little pale."

"I'm fine," Blair insisted. "Please, go on."

"There's no sign of any head injury. His blood tests came back clear-just a trace of sedatives, probably from yesterday. We found a small incision on his arm which looked as though a tissue sample had been collected, oddly enough." The doctor looked directly at Blair. "I'm sure you'll be glad to hear we found no sign of any sexual trauma." Blair released the breath he'd been holding. "He appears to be a very healthy man. Physically, that is. Mentally...you can see for yourself. We'd like to admit him."

Blair's head snapped up at that. "What do you think you can do for him here?"

"We have some medications that may be able to help him deal with whatever was done to him. The state he's in---I don't think he's safe to be on his own."

Blair bristled at that. "He won't be on his own; he'll be with me."

"With all due respect, Mr. Sandburg-"

"I am the one who can help Jim here. I got him to wake up. Without me, he'd still be lost, unresponsive. Now, I don't know exactly what happened to him, but you just said that he's physically he's fine. He doesn't need this hospital-he needs me!"

"You did some good work in there; I'm not denying that. But I still think he needs to be under a doctor's care. And where are you going to take him? Back to Washington State? I wouldn't like to see him on a plane in this condition."

Skinner, who had been listening, spoke up. "Dr. Tanner? I'm Assistant Director Walter Skinner of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and I'm a friend of Mr. Sandburg's. And Mr. Ellison's. I'd like to bring them back to my house in Crystal City. My associate, Dana Scully, is a medical doctor, and she's offered to keep an eye on Jim until he's ready to fly home. I agree with Blair that the hospital is not the best place for Detective Ellison right now."

"Well..." The doctor capitulated, defeat clear on his face. "It sounds like he'll be in good hands. But if anything develops, please, take him to a hospital. Here's my card in case you or any doctors treating him have any questions for me. I wish you the best of luck." He handed his card to Blair and walked off to prepare the discharge forms.

Blair re-entered the cubicle to see Jim still curled almost fetally on his side. Blair pulled a chair around to face Jim and sat, wrapping his warm hands around Jim's cool ones. He whispered gently, soothingly. "Jim, hey, Jim? I know you can hear me in there, lover, so I'd like you to open your eyes. We're going to check you out of here really soon, and then we're going to go stay with Mulder and Skinner. They have a nice little house; I think you'll like it there. We can relax for a couple of days before heading back home to the loft. The loft is okay, Jim. I've got Simon on it. Simon's worried about you; I'd better call him soon."

Blair held back a sigh. Jim wasn't zoned; he reacted to stimuli. He knew that Jim was in there, hiding. He didn't know why, but he didn't like it. Time to play dirty. "Jim, would you please open your eyes and talk to me? I need you here, man." Blair let the anxiety he'd been repressing creep into his voice. "We're out of our territory here, and I need my Sentinel, man, so wake up."

Jim inhaled sharply and opened his eyes. "Chief?" His voice was rough with disuse. "Are you okay?"

Blair squeezed Jim's hands and closed his eyes in gratitude. "I am now. I need you to stick with me, Jim. I'm getting you out of here and then you can rest some more. But you're safe, okay? Nobody's going to hurt you anymore."

Fear flashed briefly over Jim's features and his respiration quickened perceptibly.

Blair felt his chest tighten at the pain on his lover's face. "Jim," he spoke softly, not wanting to spook the man on the bed any further. "Jim, I know this is confusing, but I wouldn't be here saying things are okay if we were in danger. I'll take care of everything; you just need to trust me." Blair held his breath, hoping Jim could find the strength to make this leap of faith.

Jim nodded slowly, his whole body relaxing visibly. "I trust you, Blair. Help me sit up?"

Blair pressed the button to raise the head of Jim's bed. When it rose to a sitting position, he steadied Jim's shoulders and helped the taller man swing around so that his legs hung off the side of the bed. Blair started to get Jim's clothes, but Jim grasped his arm with a look of fear and need on his face. In one swift move, Blair embraced him tightly, wrapping his arms around Jim's back and squeezing fiercely, holding on as memories assailed him--the panic of not reaching Jim as the men took him away.

"I'm so sorry, Jim. I couldn't help you. I love you so much." Jim's arms tightened around Blair's back, threatening to suffocate him before Jim relaxed his grip and pulled away.

"It wasn't your fault, Blair." He fingered the ragged cut on Blair's forehead. "They did this to you."

"I woke up, and you were gone."

"I woke up, and-" Jim's face went another shade of pale. "I don't want to talk about it here."

Blair reached up and cupped a hand around Jim's cheek. "Whatever it is, it's okay. We'll talk about it once we get back to Skinner and Mulder's place."

Jim nodded, and Blair moved away just long enough to get Jim's clothes. He was nearly done helping Jim get dressed when the doctor entered the room with Jim's discharge papers.

Dr. Tanner smiled at his patient. "Take it easy, Detective Ellison. Let your friends here take care of you."

Jim nodded and replied softly, "I don't think I have any choice."

As Skinner drove home, he felt a sense of quiet envelope the car. The day's chill had deepened in the evening, and the soft wush of the car's heater felt soothing after the many noises of the hospital. Sunday evening traffic on the Beltway offering little distraction, Skinner stole frequent glances in the rearview mirror. Ellison lay sideways on the back seat, his head in Blair's lap. Blair's eyes were closed, but his hands never rested, continuously moving over Jim's hair, petting, soothing.

Scully was following them in her own car. She had agreed to stay that night on the foldout bed in the study, just in case Jim needed medical attention. Mulder seemed pleased. Though Mulder had said little, Skinner had picked up on the tension in his relationship with Scully, tension caused by Mulder's choice in romantic partners. Skinner wasn't certain, but he thought Scully might be more uncomfortable with the boss/subordinate dynamic than with the issue of Mulder's sexuality.

Moving in together and buying the house had brought things to a head, but she had agreed to come over and work with them. She'd certainly been an invaluable asset at the hospital. Mulder seemed very pleased, and Skinner knew better than to be jealous of the complex relationship that Mulder shared with Scully.

The drive soon ended, and Skinner parked the car on their quiet, residential street. Scully's car pulled in behind his. Blair helped Jim into the house and led him back to the guest bedroom. Moments later, Blair emerged alone, running a hand through his thick hair.

"Guys, I'm going to take a shower and then join him. I think he just needs me close."

"Come have some dinner first, Blair," Skinner prodded. "It's late, and you must be starving."

Blair thought for a moment and then nodded. "Yeah, okay, I just don't want to leave him alone very long."

Skinner nodded at his young guest. "I understand. Why don't you take your shower now? Dinner'll be heated up when you get out."

Blair nodded in gratitude. "Thanks, Skinner."

"Why don't you call me Walter? Or Walt? We're friends, after all."

Blair smiled brightly. "Thanks, Walt."

Clean and fed, Blair made his excuses to his hosts and went off to join Jim in the guest bedroom. In the dim streetlight that filtered through the curtains, Blair could see Jim curled up on his side in the queen-size bed, the covers slipping off his smooth shoulders. Blair undressed all the way and slipped under the sheets, wrapping himself around Jim's broad back.

He felt the need to touch skin-to-skin, to feel his body heat mingling with his lover's, reaffirming their connection. He tightened his arms around the warm body in front of him, and Jim relaxed into the embrace, accepting the comfort unconsciously. Blair rested his head on Jim's shoulder and let the steady wush of breath in his ear lull him to sleep.

Mulder took the plate out of Skinner's hand and dried it before putting it away in the cabinet. "I never would have thought it."

Skinner looked over, curious. "Huh?"

"You, my favorite gruff Assistant Director, have been so good with Blair. What is it Scully said to me once?" Mulder smiled. "You just keep unfolding like a flower."

"Just trying to return the favor. He went above and beyond for me in Cascade, sitting around the hospital room of a total stranger."

"Yeah, keep talking," Mulder scoffed. "You're getting soft."

Skinner growled lightly. "Must be the company I keep. Anyway, if it had been you..." Skinner trailed off. "He's a strong young man, he just needs somebody to be his back-up."

"Don't we all." Mulder glanced at the now-empty sink. "Time for bed."

"I believe it is." Skinner put his arm around Mulder's back and steered him out of the kitchen.

Mulder leaned into the broad chest beside him. "Make love to me?"

"I think that can be arranged." They entered the bedroom, and Skinner pushed the door closed behind them. He grabbed Mulder's head with both hands and pulled him in for a kiss. He felt his lover's full, sensuous lips open, and his tongue slipped in, tasting the richness of coffee and Mulder.

After a long moment, Skinner pulled back, breathless. "I believe you had wanted to look for something in my ass?"

Mulder groaned. "Oh, I do, I do, but tonight-I just want you on top of me, making love to me. Please?"

"No problem, love, I understand. I want to hold you, be inside you."

Mulder pulled his shirt off over his head, and Skinner followed suit, the two men undressing until they stood before each other nude, growing hard in anticipation. Mulder moved onto the bed and lay down on his stomach, pulling his knees up under him.

"No." Skinner climbed onto the bed beside him. "On your back; I want to see your face."

Mulder rolled over, positioning himself, while Skinner grabbed the condom and lube from their bedside table. Skinner rolled the condom on and covered it with lube. Mulder took some of the cool gel on his fingers and spread it on his opening, consciously relaxing and coaxing a slicked finger inside.

"Tsk," Skinner pushed Mulder's hand away. "That's my job." He slid one lubed finger inside Mulder, making sure he was well prepared and relaxed enough for penetration. "Mmmmm," Skinner sighed appreciatively. "Feet over my shoulders."

Mulder complied, wrapping his legs up and over his lover's powerful torso. Skinner grabbed Mulder's hips and pushed smoothly inside. He felt Mulder shudder beneath him, and he looked at Mulder's face, thrilling in the look of rhapsodic joy on his face, his eyes closed, mouth open and gasping.

Skinner pulled out most of the way and thrust in again and again, finding a rhythm. Mulder's hips rose up to meet him, and he knew he had brushed Mulder's prostate as the younger man cried out, biting his lip to stifle himself. Skinner felt himself moving faster and faster, his climax imminent. He tensed shuddered with release, slumping atop Mulder, panting with exertion and satisfaction.

When Skinner opened his eyes a moment later, he found his head pillowed on Mulder's finely muscled chest. Intent on finishing Mulder off so they could both sleep, he quickly pulled away just long enough to discard his condom, then snag a second one and quickly roll it onto Mulder's shaft. Kissing his way down Mulder's stomach, he took the heavy head of Mulder's cock into his mouth. Mulder was close to the edge, rocking unconsciously beneath Skinner.

Skinner sucked Mulder in deeply, and after just a moment, Mulder came, shuddering and spurting inside the condom. Skinner held his lover while the orgasm rocked through him, then removed the condom from Mulder's softening penis. He reached down and pulled the covers up over their cooling bodies and took Mulder in his arms once more. Spent and safe in the embrace, they slept.

Scully rearranged herself again on the sofa-bed and sighed. She had yet to find a position that didn't involve lying on the metal bars that pressed up through the thin mattress. And the mattress wasn't the only thing that was thin. She supposed that Mulder and Skinner had tried to be quiet, but they hadn't tried hard enough. She'd heard the slight, rhythmic squeaking of their bed, capped off with an elaborate groan of relief.

She didn't want to know whose groan it was. She had tried to ignore the fact that her partner and their boss were romantically involved. Sexually involved. She was happy for Mulder, really. He'd become calmer, more stable in recent months. She'd suspected a relationship and hadn't been entirely surprised when Mulder had taken her out for dinner last month and announced that he was moving, buying a house with somebody.

But she'd been utterly floored when Walter Skinner had arrived at their table for dessert and coffee, smiling shyly and reaching for Mulder's hand under the table. She tried valiantly to be horrified by the boss/subordinate aspect to their relationship, but had to admit that Mulder had left proper Bureau protocol behind a long, long time ago.

So there was the gay thing. The thought of their homosexuality...bisexuality, whatever... was most troubling because her knowledge of gay culture did not fit with what she knew of either man. Their history with women aside, neither Skinner nor Mulder seemed the type to wear latex and leather and walk in parades. Although Mulder, well...it didn't bear thinking about.

Scully wasn't quite sure what she'd expected out of their lifestyle, but it certainly wasn't what she found. A nice, modest house on a quiet street, decorated tastefully, if a bit erratically. And their friends-she was always surprised to learn that Mulder had friends. The younger man, Blair, was a bit unusual, but considering his academic background, the long hair was nothing really out of the ordinary. And then there was Jim Ellison.

Scully looked forward to meeting the man when he was feeling better. She knew he was a cop, ex-military, but he clearly trusted his rather more eclectic friend. And Blair just as clearly loved Jim with all his heart. That had been frighteningly apparent during his vigil at Jim's bedside and in the tense hours before Jim had been found.

Watching the four men together, the word that came to her mind was "family." She chuckled at the thought of how a nice Catholic girl like herself had got involved in such a strange, but intensely loving, family of men.

Jim drowned in the bright light that washed through the examination room; the heat of the lamps above him seared his skin. Men smelling overwhelmingly of antiseptic examined him with instruments that invaded every crevice of his body. A scalpel cut his arm, and he felt every millimeter of the slicing motion. He screamed as a chunk of flesh was ripped from beneath his skin.

The sound of his own scream shocked his ears, and he tried to curl in on himself protectively, but he could not move. Straps held him securely at wrists, ankles, waist and forehead. Unable to retreat physically, he sought out the smell of his own blood. Examining the odor layer by layer, he zoned.

Blair woke to find that Jim had pulled away from him in his sleep. Jim lay on his back, muscles utterly tensed, his whole body trembling with the strain. His eyes moved rapidly beneath theirs lids, and his breathing was shallow and quick. Blair placed his hand gently, tentatively on Jim's damp forehead. When Jim didn't pull away, Blair began to stroke the skin lightly, whispering in Jim's ear. "It's just a nightmare, Jim. You're okay. I'm here, man."

Jim opened his eyes, confusion clouding his gaze momentarily. "Chief? What are you doing here?"

"We're at Mulder and Skinner's house, remember? We brought you home from the hospital and put you to bed," Blair reminded Jim.

"Oh, yeah. Geez, I'm sorry, Blair." Jim raised his arm and wiped his eyes with a shaky hand.

Blair placed his hand on Jim's chest and began to rub soothingly. "It's okay, man. You had a nightmare, that's all."

"What-" Jim cleared his throat. "What happened to me?"

Blair frowned, his expression murky in the dim bedroom. "I was kind of hoping you could tell me that."

"I mean...how did you get me back?"

"Oh, that. I wish I could take more credit for that, Jim. Apparently, they got...whatever it was they wanted from you, man. You were found on the grounds of the hospital in Maryland. They must have dumped you there. You were zoned out but otherwise not in bad shape, considering."

"Oh. Thanks for coming to get me, Chief."

"What the hell did you think I was going to do? Jesus, Jim."

"I don't know. Guess I wasn't thinking."

"You want to get back to sleep?"

"No, I don't...I don't think I could."

"You want to tell me what you remember?"

"No. No, not yet."

"I'm not going to let you repress this, Jim."

"I wouldn't expect any less of you, Sigmund." Jim struggled not to clench his jaw. "Do you think you could help me with the dials?"

"Why didn't you tell me you were having trouble with your senses?"

"It's not too bad. They just keep slipping a little bit out of control."

Blair rubbed Jim's arm comfortingly. "You want to sit up to do this?"

"No, let's stay here." Jim turned on his side to spoon back up against Blair.

Blair took Jim's hand in his. "Okay, how's hearing?"

"It's a little high. Skinner snores, and there's someone tossing and turning in another room."

"That's Mulder's partner, Scully."

"Oh, right, the red-headed doctor."

"That's her. Okay, now get a grip on the dial and slowly, slowly turn it to normal. So you can still hear my heartbeat but nothing beyond this room."

"Got it. It's stable."

"Good. Good job, Jim. Now, how's touch?"

"It's going up and down. First the sheets irritate me, then I turn it down, and I can hardly feel your hand in mine."

"Okay, Jim, just relax and turn it very, very slowly until you're comfortable."

Jim concentrated for a moment and then breathed more easily. "There it goes. I'm sorry, Blair. I should be able to do this on my own."

"You usually can. It's been a hard couple of days, so just give yourself a break and let me help. Now, what about sight?"

"That one's fine, actually. The light's pretty low, of course, but I can see you alright."

"That great, Jim. Try turning it down just a notch for good measure. The sun's coming up soon, and it might get bright in here."

"You're the guide." Jim complied, turning sight down a tiny amount.

"How about smell?"

"Kind of high. Let's just say I'm glad you took a shower before coming to bed. Scully is wearing something floral...freesia, I think. From that place in the mall. Makes me want to sneeze."

"Oh, boy. Turn it way down, man. Turn it slowly down to normal."

Jim turned it down until the itch in his nose went away. "Ah, thank you, Chief. Much better."

"Now, how's taste?"

"Hmm, well, I don't know." Jim released Blair's hand and turned around to face him. He tilted his head and kissed Blair's lips, tasting his young lover's mouth thoroughly. "Tastes good to me."

Jim pulled away, and Blair sighed. "I don't know what I would have done without you."

Having no answer to give, Jim pulled Blair in closer and kissed him again, this time on the forehead. They lay in each other's arms until the sun came up, bathing their bodies in its warming light. Finally released from the darkness, they fell back into a healing sleep.

Mulder hung up the phone and turned toward the living room where Skinner sat with Jim and Blair. "The guys said they'll be here in half an hour."

Blair reached his hand up to the back of Jim's neck and rubbed lightly. "You sure you're up for this, Jim?" He and Jim had slept in until nearly lunch time and then spent the afternoon relaxing in their hosts' comfortable home. After checking Jim out and declaring him much improved, Scully had headed home, promising to be available if she were needed.

Mulder's friends, the ones who had helped during Jim's disappearance, had been invited over to discuss the situation. Jim let his head loll back into Blair's secure embrace and sighed. "I'm okay, Chief. We need to talk about what's going to happen. I can't hide here forever."

Blair nodded, accepting that Jim knew his own limitations. Twenty minutes later, a battered van pulled up outside the house, and three men knocked on the door. Mulder admitted them, grinning.

The first man, short and stocky, middle-aged, exclaimed, "Nice place, man! Got any attractive, single neighbors?"

The second man, younger and thin, with scraggly blond hair, added, "I don't know, dude, you guys are yuppies now."

The third man, slim, with a nicely trimmed beard and a tailored suit, ignored his companions. "It's a lovely house, Mulder. Thank you for having us over."

"Thanks, Byers," Mulder smirked, leading the men into the living room, just as Skinner was pulling in some extra chairs. "I guess I should do introductions. Jim, Blair, these clowns are Frohike, Langly, and Byers. Guys, this is Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg."

Frohike stepped forward to shake Jim's hand. "Detective Ellison! Former Army liaison to the CIA counterinsurgency unit! It's an honor to meet you."

Jim surveyed the shorter man speculatively. "I'm not going to ask how you know that. But thank you...for your help."

Once introductions were complete, the seven men settled down to discuss the situation. Frohike, Langly and Byers took turns with the little information they had been able to uncover.

"We believe you were being held at a secure clinic near Silver Springs," Byers explained. "The buzz is that the Consortium is interested in creating some kind of super soldiers. The recent press focus on you two must have intrigued them."

Frohike interrupted, "Excellent paper, by the way, Sandburg."

Blair paled. "You read it?"

Frohike chuckled. "Don't worry, kid, your secret's safe with us."

Blair shook his head. "Oh my God. I never should have written it. I'm so sorry, Jim."

Jim put his arm around Blair and leaned in to speak to him. "It's not your fault, Chief. Don't think that. You couldn't have stopped this."

'He's right," Byers added. "There's been a CIA file on Jim since 1991."

Jim stared. "When I came back from Peru."

"Exactly."

"But what do we do now, to keep Sandburg and me safe?"

Mulder exchanged a glance with Langly. The blond man nodded. "Dude, the safest thing would be for you to get out of the country. South America, maybe. If you can put some money together, we could arrange transportation."

Jim's face hardened. "No. Absolutely not. I belong in Cascade, serving and protecting. Not running away."

Blair appeared un-surprised by his Sentinel's refusal. "There has to be another way."

"There is," Jim insisted. "We go home, and I tighten up security around the loft."

Skinner spoke up. "I know what you're feeling, but those people aren't common criminals. They can't be stopped by good locks."

"What about you three?" Jim gestured at Frohike, Langly and Byers. "How do you know so much about what's going on?"

"We have connections, which we supplement with our technological abilities," Byers replied.

Jim focussed in on Byers. "What's your interest in it?"

"Our interest," Frohike explained, "is in seeing that these bastards don't get away with their crimes against the American public. Plus we have a readership that's very interested in the truth of what goes on behind closed government doors."

Blair looked at Frohike. "Conspiracy theorists?"

"That's one of our many hats."

Blair narrowed his eyes. "You guys are the Lone Gunmen."

"Guilty as charged," Frohike grinned. "Our reputation proceeds us?"

"I had a roommate who was a real conspiracy buff. He talked about you guys like you were gods."

Frohike was clearly pleased. "In the flesh, kid. Listen, there might be another way to keep you two safe. Relatively, that is."

Jim leaned forward. "What do you have in mind?"

"We keep an ear to the ground-closer than usual. We listen for any mention of you or of any Consortium interest in people with special sensory abilities. We hear anything threatening, we tell you, and you do what you have to do."

"How could we possible repay you for this?"

"We broker in information." Frohike paused. "Maybe you could give us a confidential interview about your days in the Rangers, working with the Agency..."

"I don't know about that."

"Just remember this, Jim. The people who are sworn to protect you and represent you are working with the men who did this to you. It's not a coincidence that the lab where you were held was within 20 miles of a military base."

Jim pondered for a moment, thinking of his men who died in Peru, betrayed by their government. He thought of life on the run and his duties in Cascade. Looking Frohike in the eyes, he said, "You've got a deal."

"I don't know, Jim." Blair moved nervously at Jim's side. "This is all so uncertain. What if they take you again, and we can't prevent it?"

Mulder looked over at Skinner, holding his gaze as he spoke. "Welcome to our world."

"Are you sure you don't need a ride to Dulles?" Skinner passed Blair a cup of coffee and then filled up his own travel mug.

"We'll be fine taking a cab. You and Mulder have been great, and I'm sure you need to get to work. I didn't even think about that yesterday."

"Don't worry about it. I have a lot of time coming to me, and as for Mulder-let's just say his boss is understanding."

Skinner winked, and Blair snorted into his coffee at the expression on the older man's face. "As soon as Jim finishes getting dressed, we'll call for a cab and be on our way to the airport."

As if on cue, Jim stepped out of the guest bedroom, still damp from his shower. "Go ahead and call now, Chief. I'll be ready by the time they get here."

"Okay, Jim." Blair smiled and watched until his lover closed the bedroom door behind him, blinking away the rush of affection he felt. Turning his attention back to Skinner, he asked, "Where's Mulder, anyway?"

"Out running. He should be back any minute now, actually." Skinner paused, grinning, as the screen door slammed closed, heralding Mulder's return. "I usually get to the office about half an hour before him, unless he's wrapped up in a case."

Mulder entered the kitchen, breathing heavily and covered in a light sheen of sweat. "You know I'd rather be wrapped up with you, babe." He grabbed the back of Skinner's neck and pulled him down for a morning kiss.

Unmindful of his audience, Skinner nuzzled Mulder's cheek, darting out his tongue to lick a line of perspiration from Mulder's skin. Suddenly remembering Blair's presence, Skinner pulled away, blushing. He cleared his throat. "Blair, I'm sorry-"

Blair shook his head. "Hey, never mind me, man. I do still need to call for that cab."

Mulder reached over to the refrigerator and plucked a business card from underneath a magnet-a magnet that reproduced the cover of a lurid pulp novel from the fifties. He passed the card over to Blair as he headed toward the master bedroom. "These guys are good. I'll be out in twenty."

As Blair hung up the phone, Jim emerged from the bedroom, dressed and looking well-reassuringly well. Blair perceived some newly acquired shadows still in his lover's eyes, but he intended to chase them out as soon as he could after they arrived home. Skinner poured some coffee for Jim, and the three men sat at the table to await the cab's arrival.

Mulder joined them, newly clean and crisply dressed, just as the car horn sounded from the street in front of their house. Good-byes were exchanged along with promises to meet during the summer to fish or camp, perhaps in Canada. Blair leaned forward and hugged both Mulder and Skinner, thanking them for hospitality. Jim shook their hands and finally nudged his talkative Guide out the door. Their only luggage was the backpack Blair had brought with him on his nightmarish and seemingly distant flight Saturday morning.

When the sedan pulled away from their curb, Skinner closed the door and leaned back against it, pulling Mulder into his arms. "What was that excuse I gave Kim yesterday?"

Mulder rested his head against Skinner's shoulder and breathed in the smooth wool of his suit jacket. "Family emergency."

"Mmm, yeah," Skinner sighed. "You know, I think that frail--" he kissed Mulder's warm, inviting neck right above the younger man's collar. "--elderly Aunt Mary may still require my presence today. What was your excuse?"

Mulder gasped as Skinner kissed his neck again, nipping lightly with his teeth. "Bad cold."

"Oh, yes. Well, I think you're still in--" Skinner kissed Mulder again, lathing the abused flesh with his tongue. "--dire need of bed rest. Don't you agree, Agent Mulder?"

"Oh, yes," Mulder sighed, leaning into his lover's embrace. "It shouldn't be a problem. I have a wonderful boss."