Author's disclaimer: The world of Sentinel legally belongs to Petfly, Paramount and UPN. This is for love, not profit. Hmmm. Maybe they should consider that. = )
The forest was older than time, and thick with old secrets. The path the young man in motley walked was rough and overgrown, scarcely more than a ribbon through the towering trees. The thick canopy cast a green pall over all, with only the occasional ray of sun daggering through. He paused a moment in one such golden pool, trying to warm his too-cold flesh. The shadows were dark and chill, and fingered at his bones; they were all he had known for a very long time.
Once, in another place and time he'd had a name, but now all he knew was that he was a seeker, incomplete and searching. He wasn't sure where this path led, but it pulled at him all the same, inexorably, inarguably. Words like 'fate' and 'kismet' bubbled up and sank again, too pale to even catch the shade of what drew him onward. It was as though a piece of his heart had been cut from his body, and called to him from the depths of the forest.
He stretched in the sunlight, letting it ripple across his skin, set fire to his hair and eyes. In the deep of the forest, bright eyes watched with fear and longing as the young man in motley shone red and gold and chestnut, flared in the borrowed brilliance. The seeker sensed the regard, but could not pinpoint the source. He let a shiver walk down his spine, erase all that the brief sun had done. He sighed, picked up his pack and resumed his journey.
The path ended abruptly in a wall of thorn and withy. The thorns were as long as swords, curved like scimitars and gleaming wicked; they looked hungry. He craned his neck to the left, then to the right, but the wall stretched on for as far as the eye could see, and the path itself disappeared under the wall. He set down his pack, pulled out one of the battered brown books it carried and tucked it under his shirt, close to his heart. He bound his hair back, braiding it tightly and tying it off with a length of fabric ripped from his spare shirt. He then crouched to the ground and began to worm his way through the briar wall.
The thorns were hungry; more than once they pinned him in place, pawed at his chest and face. Each time he thought he was done for, each time he was afraid to draw breath for fear of being pierced through, he closed his eyes and pushed on. All the while he talked, muttering about the strange things he'd seen in his travels, the wonders he'd found in his books, the stray thoughts that wandered through his terrified brain. The more he talked, the more flexible the thorns became, the smaller they seemed.
After a time he could stand, could walk upright. The path became visible once again, and smoother than it had been in weeks. The wall became little more than a tangle of bramble, and the thorns were almost gentle in their caresses. Just as he thought he'd cleared it, one branch caught him with a vicious swipe, clawing its way across his chest. He looked down to see three long scratches welling blood, and he hastily pulled the book out before it could be stained. He unbound his hair and used the rag to staunch the flow.
As he stood there, waiting for the bleeding to stop, he paused to look around him. A long formal lawn, punctuated by a garden of thorn bushes, stretched out long and sere before him, sloping upwards to a slight hillock. The gentle swell was crowned by a large stone house, almost a mansion; it squatted dark and awkward in the harsh sunshine. Something flitted in one of the windows, and for the second time that day a cold chill walked down his spine.
A rustling behind him caused him to spin around. The wall was behind him, and what he thought mere brambles had metamorphosed into an impenetrable thicket. He dropped to his knees, trying to find the way he'd come in, but it was gone as though it had never been. The thorns he prodded were immovable. So, there was no going back. He shrugged. In a way, that made things easier. He stood again, and started towards the house.
The front door swung open even before he'd gained the top step. The switch from brilliance back to darkness blinded him for a moment, and he hesitated in the hallway. A little ways ahead another door opened, and he heard the whisper of matches, and candles flaring to life. Obviously he was being beckoned. Curious, he followed, and found himself in a small, well-appointed library. The vast array of books made his single tome seem battered and forlorn, until he realized that they were too shiny, too glossy. None of the spines had been cracked; the leather of their bindings was untouched by human hands.
"What kind of fool has a thousand books and doesn't read them?" he wondered aloud.
The seeker turned, dropping low in terror as the roar rumbled through him, turned his guts to water. A large, lean shape filled the doorway he'd just come through, and for a moment he thought it some grotesquerie, for though it had the body of a man, the face was black and sleek and feline. A moment's study told the young man it was a thin mask, carved in some dark stone, like obsidian, and bound over the face with silk straps. "Uh, hello. The door was open...." he began weakly, only to be cut off by another roar.
"SILENCE!" The figure huddled in the doorway, clutching his head as if to cover his ears. "Just.Be.Silent."
The young man stood quietly, waiting for the other to straighten, to speak. A few minutes later his apparent host strode forward, grasped him roughly. "I heard your hearbeat, like thunder in my ears. Who are you, and how the hell did you get in here?"
The young man regarded his host a moment, dark blues eyes going darker still as he pondered what to answer. When at last he spoke, his voice was feather soft, little more than air and sighs. "I don't know who I am, yet. I think I'm on my way to becoming. As for how I got in here -- I just followed the path. I get the distinct feeling that I was meant to come here. That I was meant to come to you."
Blue eyes flared ice-bright behind the mask. "Do you, indeed? We'll just see about that!" With a snarl his host sprang from the room, letting the door slam shut behind him.
The seeker shook his shaggy head reprovingly. "For someone who hates noise so much, you certainly do make a lot of it." He returned his attention back to the bookshelves, and began to browse until his host returned.
The sun had long since set by the time the man in the beast-mask returned, much subdued. "The wall is as thick as ever. I can't even begin to understand how you got in here so easily...." he trailed off, lifting his head and sniffing at the air. "But perhaps not easily, after all. I smell blood."
The young man pulled out his shirt, peered down to see three livid scratches, scabbing over. "Not without a small blood sacrifice, no," he admitted ruefully. "I think these will scar. Badly, if they get infected."
The beast-man came closer, still sniffing the air, his movement wary. He stopped before the seeker peered down at him, and with a sudden, darting movement dropped his head to the other's chest. A long, pink tongue flicked out, snaked roughly across the wounds, and licked them closed in short, firm strokes.
The young man's eyes fluttered closed against his will. Without conscious volition his hands drifted over the beast-man's shoulders, shaped the fragile curve of the back of the large skull as the warm tongue lapped across his breastbone, the slight ridges of his ribs. A small, soft noise slipped from his mouth as it rasped across a flat brown nipple.
At the noise, the other stood back, eyes glacially impersonal despite the terrible intimacy that had just passed between them. The seeker looked down, and found the wounds closed, and little more than thin pink lines. "Okay, so maybe they won't scar after all," he said shakily, his words awkward in his mouth.
His host inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. "It would seem as though you're stuck there. I'll have the servants show you to your room. They'll tend to all your needs. If you find yourself lacking occupation, feel free to use the library. Apparently it has suffered in the hands of a fool for far too long." The beast-man turned stiffly, earlier grace forgotten, and stalked from the room.
The young man winced. "Well, that went well. Not." He glanced around, saw a small, branched candleholder hovering a few feet to his left. "Uh, invisible servants?" he guessed aloud. The candleholder bobbed in agreement, as though nodding, and then floated forward. It paused once near the door, perhaps checking that the young man was following. The seeker shook his head. "Well, this will be interesting."
The days passed quickly enough for the seeker, who found much to do in exploring the house and grounds and especially the library. He never saw his host, except for brief, distant glimpses as he rounded a corner or entered a room. It was as though the other would tolerate his presence, but no more. It was moderately insulting.
After a time, the young man grew tired of the silence, and he took to talking to the air. As the days continued to slip past, he came to sense when the servants hovered near, even if they did not do anything to call his attention to their presence. He began addressing his comments to them, telling stories of his travels and reading aloud from the books he pulled from the library shelves.
Gradually, the air changed, grew warmer. Sunlight through the window streamed richer, more golden; sometimes, he thought he could hear voices in the distance. The servants took to hanging about him, as though they liked the noise of him, the liveliness that followed in his wake. It was as though the house were coming to life again.
One evening, after a rich meal served before the fireplace in the library, he was reading poetry to what felt like four or five of his invisible minders, when the door opened suddenly. He looked up to find his host hovering uncertainly there, watching him with puzzled eyes. The young man tucked his finger in place and closed the book. "I can leave, if you want," he offered, voice as feather soft as the last time they'd spoken.
The beast-man shook his head abruptly, and the reflected firelight gleamed in the sharp planes of his mask. "No...I, no... I thought ... perhaps...I might listen," he said awkwardly, his low voice raspy with disuse.
The seeker nodded, and resumed reading, voice a little softer. His host moved hesitantly into the room, took the wing chair by the fire, within easy reach of the young man. As he read, he felt fingers hover lightly over his head, tracing the coils of his hair. After a time, he stopped reading, and just enjoyed the soft caresses.
"I like the sound of your voice," the beast-man said at last, for all the world as if he were revealing some miracle. "I've grown...accustomed to it."
The young man shifted slightly, peered up at the other man. "Thank-you," he replied, accepting the miracle.
"Maybe...maybe we could have dinner together. And...read together, afterwards." The words were soft, a little fearful beneath the rumble of the voice.
The seeker pressed his head against the absently caressing hand, like a cat leaning into a pat. "I'd like that," he replied gently.
His host pressed back, his hand big and warm against the curve of the seeker's skull. Then he stood and was out the door before another word could be spoken. The young man drew his legs up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them and rested his chin in the small valley between his knees. "So we're still walking the path, after all," he murmured at last. He felt his silent witnesses gather about him, and they seemed, to his mind, glad.
One dinner became many dinners. Dinners became breakfasts and lunches as well. Reading became walking and running and riding. Talking became laughing and dreaming. Days passed quickly, moved by like clouds scudding across a summer sky. The beast-man's voice was no longer rusty, and his blue eyes thawed, learned how to smile. The seeker felt each day as another step on the path, felt it grow and expand inside him even as the brown grass turned green and the garden of thorns became a rose walk.
One day, sitting in the middle of the rose walk, on the edge of a small ornamental fountain that in the last few days had suddenly, inexplicably come alive with darting minnows and golden koi, he pause mid-sentence and stopped to stare at his friend. He reached out a tentative hand, stroked the column of the larger man's throat, feeling the pulse flicker and thrum beneath his fingertips.
"I can feel your heart, too. It's everywhere, you know. It's the last thing I hear when I go to sleep, the first thing when I wake." The beast-man shook his head in wonder. "I used to think I wanted silence, shadows. I thought...I thought it was...safer," he said, fumbling over the words, lightly clasping the hand that caressed him.
The young man let his hand stroke up, curve over the jaw and the soft whorl of an ear. A moment later he felt the silken strap that held the jaguar mask in place. "I want to know you," he said at last, his voice a little hungry. "I want to see your face and know you. Take off your mask, please. I want to know you," he said again, beggingly, breathlessly. The thin, pale scars on his chest throbbed in memory of their meeting.
For a moment the beast-man froze, a glyph in stone. The seeker watched as sky-blue eyes shifted from disappointment, to fear, to rage. They flared icy-hot even as the bigger man surged to his feet. "How dare you! How dare you! How could you!" the beast-man sputtered, raged, howled, the jaguar in his voice as well as in his face. He twisted the younger man's arm, shoved him away with a violence born of terror, and then ran off, back towards the house.
He did not see as the seeker toppled back into the fountain, did not see as the young man's skull struck stone. He did not hear the splash of a body sinking into water, did not hear a single choking cry as water filled the seeker's nose and mouth, and taught him silence at long last.
The seeker felt invisible hands pulling him out of the water, and in that half-way place between death and life thought he could hear the servants' voices at long last.
"It's over, baby."
"It's not over."
"It's not over."
"IT'S NOT OVER!"
He felt his body pulled and pummeled and pushed, felt the water shifted from his lungs. The strange, alien voices continued to speak around him, but not really to him, except for one voice, over and over again.
"Sandburg. Blair. Oh, god, Sandburg."
He felt something cool and slick against his chest, and then lightening struck him, and he felt nothing at all.
He awoke outside the thorn wall, back in the dark forest. His motley was wet and ragged, and his skin was scored in a hundred different places. He realized with a pang that he was back where he'd begun, that he'd gone back to the start rather than proceeding onwards.
<That is because you've not finished.>
The seeker looked up, to find himself staring into a sapphire gaze and sleek black muzzle. A broad, rough tongue swiped out, licked the blood and water from his face. A heavy paw stretched out, patted his cheek.
<And I had such great hope of you, too,> it said a little sadly at last, sitting on its elegant haunches before him. He realized that it was the same as the mask his beast-man had worn, a jaguar black as night.
The seeker stared at the jaguar. "He was my path, wasn't he?" the young man asked at last, voice little more than a rasp. The big cat nodded, eyes slitting closed. "And I failed. What is the price of the failure, then?"
The jaguar stretched, black coat rippling in the green shadows. <You will be here, forever. He will die. He is dying even now. Just as he is your path, so are you his.>
The seeker closed his eyes, fought weak tears that threatened. "Are you sure he's dying?"
The jaguar nudged the young man, nuzzled him under the chin until he forced him to open his eyes. Lapiz lazuli met sapphire, and the cat's eyes were grave. <I can feel him slipping away, willing himself to die. Between fear and guilt, he's being eaten alive, like a cancer inside him.>
The seeker took a deep breath. "I have to go back, don't I?" he asked at last.
The jaguar blinked slowly. <You don't have to do anything. The choice is always yours.>
The young man turned, looked at the wall of withy and thorn. If anything, they were thicker, wickeder than they'd been the first time he pressed through. He could see his own blood gleaming on the dark curves. "I'm scared," he admitted.
The beast snorted indelicately. <Only fools are never scared,> it said scathingly. A heavy head rested atop the younger man's wild curls. <So, Seeker. What do you choose?>
The young man reached up, stroked until the big car purred. "I can't just sit here. I've got to at least try to get to him. I can't leave him to die." There was a quiet vehemence to the words. The big cat swiped the side of his head with one last lick before moving away.
<I'm glad. Good luck, Seeker.> The jaguar faded back into the trees even as the young man began to crawl towards the hedge.
The thorns were ruthless, catching in his hair and clothes, rending them until they were little more than tatters. Sweat and blood poured over his brow until he was blinded, until they filled his mouth and gagged him, but still he pushed on, still he crawled forward, feeling his way along the tenuous path with hands and knees. He crawled until they were bloody and raw, and then he dragged himself along.
More than once he stopped; more than once despair threatened to overwhelm him, but the voice that haunted the in-between time was with him, buzzing in his ears.
"Please don't leave me."
"...not without you...can't without you...won't without you."
"I love you."
Suddenly the seeker knew what he sought, understood the missing piece of his heart, and the knowing rallied in his veins and spurred him on despite the seemingly impenetrable thorns that would bar his way.
It was all about love, above and beyond everything else.
He emerged into the daylight at last, cast out from the hedge as a ship is thrown ashore by an angry ocean. He staggered to his feet, a mess of blood and sweat and tangled hair, and stumbled towards the castle, with the word 'love' ringing in his ears.
He found the beast-man by the fountain, somehow impossibly small and shrunken. The skin of his hands was pale and bluish, and his breath came in ragged, panting gasps. His head was bowed as though the weight of the mask would snap his fragile neck in two.
The young man struggled to the other man's side, pulled at the dead weight until the heavy head was cradled in his lap. With gory, nerveless fingers he scrabbled at the straps, whispering and muttering all the while.
"already know you. always known you."
With a wild howl he bent his head, tore at the straps with his teeth, slipped and slid until his mouth covered the other man's cold, gasping lips. He let his fingers tangle in the soft hair at the back of his beast-man's skull, let his lips slide over the mask's mouth to the slow-warming lips that peeked through. He felt the other suck the breath from his body, felt the other grow warm beneath him. With a low, hungry moan he plunged his tongue into the mouth beneath his, pushing his heart and soul into the body of his beast-man, and in the process finally finding the piece of himself that had always been missing.
Blair Sandburg's eyes opened slowly, to find Jim Ellison pitched forward in the chair he sat in, his face and arms sprawled on the hospital bed that the young anthropologist was currently occupying. He forced his heavy hand to lift up, careful of the I.V. port and tube, and let it curve gently over the back of the Sentinel's skull. "Jim." He winced at his ruined voice.
The cop started, eyes opening to peer blearily at his Guide. Recognition lit them, set them afire. "Blair? Oh, jesus, Sandburg! Blair!" The Sentinel's voice was as ragged as the Guide's. He tried to speak, tried to say a thousand things, but Blair forestalled him by pressing the big man's head towards him, pulling at him inexorably, inarguably. Words like 'fate' and 'kismet' bubbled up and sank again, too pale to even catch the shade of what drew them to each other. A heartbeat, a blessedly familiar heartbeat later, he found his mouth covering his Sentinel's. Blair breathed two words into the other man's mouth, and it echoed inside them both.
With a low, hungry moan Blair plunged his tongue into the mouth above his, pushing his heart and soul into the body of his Sentinel, and in the process finally finding the piece of himself that had always been missing.
Jim pulled back, shaken to the core but not denying anything. A big, callused hand reached out, stroked sweat-matted curls, traced down over the face of his Guide. "Blair, I'm so sorry. I've been...."
"An asshole," Blair supplied as the older man trailed off helplessly. Jim nodded in mute agreement, and Blair smiled at him. "Yeah, we'll have to talk about that, later. But we will talk," he rasped, reaching out to grab the hand that traced the pulse at his throat. "Shit, I hurt." He felt his eyes start to drift closed, but forced them open again by a sheer act of will. "But for now, I love you, man. That's what's important. Remember that." He tumbled headlong into sleep, his Sentinel's hand held firmly in his own.
The mask melted away beneath the heat of their kiss, and for the first time he saw his beast-man's face. He kissed each inch of skin with ruthless hunger, and barely even noticed as the distant thorn hedge flared into instant, riotous bloom. The air was heavy with the scent of roses as he tumbled headlong into love and if not happily ever after, certainly a damned good chance at it.