Disclaimers: Jim and Blair and all things Sentinel belong to Pet Fly. Everything else is mine.

Rating: NC-17, for bad words, some horrific stuff, and homoerotic content.

Summary: Things get dangerous. Smut ensues.

General Groveling: Enormous thanks go out to Bone and Uncle Minotaur. They went far beyond beta-reading, and into the realms of-- oh, let's call it midwifery, and perhaps psychic healing. This wouldn't have been at all possible without their handholding and benevolence and impeccability. And patience. And fearlessness in the face of Manic!Author. This story is dedicated with love to both of them.

Feedback: If you're so inclined, at mtriste@hotmail.com.

Author's Notes: Apparently Mairead and Aristide have worked out their differences in my head and learned to get along-- this story was written by both of them. Also, the Sentinel universe seems to be the place I like to hang out and surprise myself in-- this is the first thing I've ever written that could be said to have an actual plot. Those of you staggering in shock are excused :-) I owe an enormous debt of thanks to Detectives Bob D. of the Haverhill Police Department, and Andy M. of the P.E.I. Police Department, for their assistance with research.
 
 

The Dragon

By Mairead Triste and Aristide




The room was dark; a cramped, narrow area at the best of times, now claustrophobically murky. The air itself was black with swirling clouds that seemed like the antithesis of vision, impenetrable not-space that would have horrified the man on the bed, if he hadn't already been past all caring. The needle lay discarded next to his upturned, open right hand; his lungs pulled for air in a desultory, slowing, hopeless rhythm.

There were bright, multicolored smears of chalk on his fingers, glowing like a garish neon rainbow in the cloudy light-- the only bright thing in the room.

And over him, floating; dark discord melting from one form to another as awareness dimmed slowly in his dismal, marbled eyes-- a soft Raphael cloud of strawberry blond hair, fading, fading; a dark thing, hungering.

"Hell opens for you."

Breath. Breath. Breath. One mouth gasping. Then a thin, reedy sound, an airless scream from a broken throat. His face became a rictus.

"This is my body, given for you and for many."

Something wet and clotted dripped on him.

"But watch out for the teeth."

He felt his heart stop, and knew for certain in that moment that there was mercy in the world, after all.

Darkness fell.

"His name was Gustave Letier," Jim said brusquely, ducking around one of the guys from the Coroner's office to examine and then bag a syringe that lay next to the corpse's hand. "Originally from Quebec. According to his sister he was some kind of up-and-coming artist in the French Canadian art scene up until four years ago, when his wife died in a car accident. Apparently after the funeral he quit painting and started drifting, and drinking, she thought. She says that he gave her this Cascade address two years ago, never answered her letters, called her twice a year without fail on her birthday and Christmas, and that's it."

Blair nodded, unable to look away from the man on the bed. There was an insipid vacancy that seemed to be common to all corpses, a vacancy that intrigued him as much as it repelled him-- this is what we come to in the end, my friend, great and small alike; one quick step over the edge between the promise of divine creation and a lump of meat. He swallowed, and found that his throat was dry.

The man on the bed (Gustave), he made himself think (this was Gustave), had something wrong with him that seemed cryptically worse than that common vacancy-- an echo of pain, an impression of torment that suggested, lump of meat or not, that somehow, somewhere, Gustave was still hurting.

Blair wiped his forehead and dismissed that particularly morbid notion, inwardly at odds with his own susceptibility, that vulnerability of feeling that aided him so well in other places, but only seemed to render him unsuitable for this part of the job, for dealing with a dead human being and looking only at that which needed to be seen.

Jim, as always, appeared to be unaffected by it; all business and details and arrangements and straightforward cop efficiency. Watching Jim's adept assessment of Gustave and Gustave's terrible little room, Blair had to wonder if he himself would ever reach that level of proficient neutrality through repeated exposure to these things, or if it would remain forever beyond him, excluded from the realm of possibility due to his own naturally empathetic nature.

Probably that second option. He swallowed again. And even though it made crime scenes into an ever-growing scrapbook of portraits of his own personal version of hell, he was glad of it.

He couldn't draw a deep breath. The room stank. The paper bag in his hands, bulging with its innocent load of sandwiches, suddenly seemed nauseatingly warm.

He'd planned to meet Jim for lunch after his morning class and a few office hours, but as he was wrapping up an ad-lib student conference Jim had phoned, told him that a body had been found, and that their lunch would have to be cancelled because he was currently at the crime scene and couldn't leave.

And Blair, thinking only about what a foul-tempered cretin Jim turned into when he didn't eat, offered to come by with some deli sandwiches-- not even considering what an absentminded dweeb he turned into when he didn't eat, or the fact that looking at dead people played hell with his digestion.

Now, sitting in the truck for a few stolen minutes outside the apartment block where he'd made Gustave's acquaintance, watching Jim mow through something huge and messy and drippy that had been advertised on the deli's blackboard as 'Carnivore's Delight', Blair found himself torn between stomach-churning bewilderment at how Jim could walk away from a corpse in order to stuff his face, and amused wonder over how Jim had managed to get barbecue sauce on his nose.

"You not eating, Chief?" Jim gestured at the white-wrapped package on the seat between them, Blair's untouched turkey-on-whole-wheat.

"You know I can't, man-- I forgot about the dead body thing. I've pretty much resigned myself to an afternoon of stomach rumbles and the starving stupids."

Jim chuckled a little and made some offhand comment, completely unintelligible due to a very full mouth.

"Right," Blair agreed pro forma, and waited until Jim swallowed to speak again. "How'd you get to his sister so fast?"

Jim nodded, drank thirstily from the can of soda perched on the dashboard, and thwacked himself in the diaphragm with a closed fist. "She phoned us, actually. Her birthday was last Tuesday. When he didn't call her she started calling him, and after three days of no answer she phoned the station and requested a check-in. Pedersen and Richards stopped by on their shift this morning, got no answer, and got the manager to let them in."

Blair watched Jim's hands, hands that had so recently been encased in latex gloves and poking at a dead body, now bundling wrappers, stray bits of lettuce and greasy napkins into a ball. When Jim belched enthusiastically, he jumped.

"Sorry, Chief-- didn't get any on you, did I? Anyway, when I got the news I came down, checked it out, and then called the sister-- Mrs. Giroux. She's coming down for the body sometime tomorrow."

He couldn't swallow, and he felt like he couldn't talk-- his throat was too dry. He reached for the can on the dashboard, helped himself, and grimaced a little at the sweetness of it. "Did you tell her he overdosed?"

Jim shook his head briefly, staring off into the distance. "Told her he was dead, that's all. I'm not sure about the O.D. angle. Something's weird about it."

Blair felt a warm tingle at the back of his neck. Jim's hunches always did that to him; as if he were in the presence of someone capable of low-grade magic. The Sentinel stuff always seemed... well, normal, natural; very much a part of Jim the human animal, but the cop stuff, the gut feelings and intuitions that Jim relied on to point him in the right direction-- that was wild. "Accident, you think, maybe; or bad drugs? I saw the needle right before you bagged it--"

Jim turned to him, blue eyes forthright and determined-- lunch break's over, kiddies; Detective Ellison is back on the case-- and Blair felt a small jump of excitement deep in his very empty stomach. "Yeah," Jim agreed blandly, "But I searched that room, what there is of it, and there's no drug apparatus anywhere, just booze. No tracks on his arms, except for the one spot. I'll have to wait and see what the M.E. has to say, but in the meantime I want to take care of some background, do some interviews..."

Jim trailed off, staring at him. It would have been uncomfortable if the close scrutiny had anything at all to do with him, but Blair knew better-- Jim was thinking, that's all; letting the details and questions and possibilities bounce around, and often when Jim did that he seemed to find Blair a handy thing to stare at.

"I don't know, Sandburg," Jim resumed after a short time, "There's something... not right, here. Something I haven't caught onto yet. My guess is that he was murdered."

He could have gone back to his office. He could have said that he was going back to his office and gone home instead, spent some time by himself. Meditation, mastication, matriculation, masturbation-- any or all of them would have been satisfactory, would have helped him somehow find room inside to house these things he'd seen. Quiet time, time to remind himself once again how very precious life is, and to focus on how much he appreciated that-- sentient and loving it; thanks for the chance, so glad to be here.

He could have, but he didn't.

Instead, he stayed with Jim. He stayed with Jim because at the bottom of things, after all was said and done, it was part of his job. A pretty gruesome part of the job, yeah, but-- work is work, after all, and...

And that was just so much bullshit. He stayed with Jim because, despite his own struggles with corpses and what they meant to him, despite the fact that he sometimes felt out of his depth, like frigging Boy Wonder standing impotently at Batman's shoulder (oh, how he hated that!), despite the voice in his head that suggested in no uncertain terms that, for this kind of thing, Jim was just fine on his own... Despite all these things, part of him wanted, needed to see what Jim saw.

He was Jim's partner. No question. And to be Jim's partner, to be as close as possible to what went on inside that thick, stubborn bullet-head (because God knows Jim would never think to like, actually tell him about it), he had to see what Jim saw. He needed that common experience. It was the partnerly thing to do.

It was also, he had discovered over time, the intelligent thing to do. Seeing what Jim saw meant that he got a chance to figure things out-- about police work, about himself; and especially about Jim. When he watched the man in action it was easy to pick up clues and pieces along the way about how Jim worked, how Jim thought; and ultimately, who Jim was-- facts he really didn't think he'd have gotten hold of any other way (except maybe with pliers and a cattle prod, and that was way beyond the call of duty).

And having those facts at his disposal was important, that had become evident-- because every so often it seemed to come down to a question of life or death (way too often, actually, but hell, nobody was making him stay, right?), and then it was all himself and Jim and the moment and what they had, whatever they had; Jim with his vest and his gun and his calls for backup, and Blair with what he had, the only thing he really felt he could count on, his only weapon: information.

Information that might make the difference in any given moment, in any given situation; information that might make the difference between he and Jim eating sandwiches in the truck, and he and Jim lying somewhere very much dead, two lumps of meat who used to be close friends.

So he stayed.

'Mom' Partido had many strange and amazing things on her walls, not the least of which was a large, velvet-framed analog clock whose hands rotated around a spindle that had been planted smack in the middle of Jesus' forehead. The hours were marked off in the gauzy circumference of His halo.

It was the ugliest thing Blair had ever seen; so ugly that he couldn't stop staring at it every chance he got.

Jim cleared his throat. "So let me see if I've got this right, Ms. Partido--"

"Mom!" she insisted sternly, almost lost in the depths of an overstuffed brown leather chair that contrasted strangely with her pale, nearly transparent skin, a tiny, fluffy-haired woman lost under the drape of a drab housedress. "You call me 'Mom', young man-- start calling me 'miz' and I'm going to think you're flirting with me." She laughed heartily, and Blair smiled, and he watched the light shine off her dentures while Jim grinned and glanced at his shoes and actually looked shy for a moment-- and oh, he was never going to let Jim live this one down.

"So Mr. Letier was your neighbor for the past two years," Jim said calmly, having recovered far too quickly for Blair's full enjoyment of the moment. "And you knew that he was a street artist, and he kept fairly regular hours--"

"Oh yes, very regular," 'Mom' interrupted, "I could set The Good Lord there by his ins and outs." She nodded at the clock, which drew Blair in again. "Out the door at ten each morning, nine on weekends, in at eight, every night. My niece, Charlene, took me down to that craft fair they have at the pier one weekend-- bought me those pictures--"

She nodded to a set of three framed paintings on the wall above her couch; one of a kitten in a field of daffodils, one of a bunny on a snowdrift, and one of a baby duckling nosing amongst pussywillows. All three animals appeared to be suffering from big-eye syndrome. Blair blinked at them, and reflected for a moment on the thought that matriarchal totems sure weren't what they used to be in the old days. "I saw him down there-- all set up with about a thousand different colors of chalk, drawing pictures on the street with a box out for money. Not real pictures, mind;" she sniffed a little, "not anything a person would want to look at-- just shapes and forms and big black lines through everything, black holding it all together."

She nodded at them conspiratorially, as if she were about to let them in on a juicy piece of gossip. "If you ask me, it's a wonder he didn't starve to death. Those pictures were... nasty."

Blair felt a stab of terrible, desolate pity. Gustave, shut away from his prior life and his art and his wife, lost to everything and making pictures for pennies on the street, pictures that nobody could understand and nobody wanted to look at; speaking pain in a language that nobody knew. He felt a chill grip him and he tightened his hands on his own knees, trying not to shiver.

"I told him he should take some lessons, maybe learn how to draw people that passed by, you know-- boys and their girlfriends, mothers and babies, that sort of thing." She shrugged, the movement almost imperceptible under her housedress. "Even ships or trees or any blessed thing-- anything would have been better than that ugly, nonsensical trash. I still see them in my dreams, sometimes-- that's how bad they were."

She shuddered, and seemed to curl in on herself. "Damn things gave me the horrors."

Ms. Partido lived in the apartment to the left of Gustave's. When they emerged into the dim hallway Blair took a deep and grateful breath just to see walls with nothing on them, then trailed along behind Jim past Gustave's door to the apartment on the right. The pitiful image that had sunk into him wouldn't leave his mind, and he was too busy staring at his shoes and trying to think of something else when Jim came to an abrupt halt. Blair collided gently with the solid wall of Jim's back.

"Sorry," he said automatically, "Wasn't looking."

Jim paused, one hand raised in preparation for knocking. "Chief?" His eyes were clear and direct, narrowed slightly in concern. "You okay?"

Blair nodded immediately. "Fine, man. Just thinking, that's all. You know-- all the pieces, all the details. Doing my cop impression, right? I'm cool."

"Yeah," Jim agreed, and looked away from him, staring at the door in front of them. "It's a hell of a thing."

Blair's shoulders relaxed all at once, a release of tension so abrupt it was almost dizzying. Yes, he'd said that he was fine, that he was cool, but the truth was... well, the truth was more like he was trucking on under a pretty heavy load that he couldn't seem to put down, doing a fairly good job of twisting himself into knots over the thought of what it might mean to be truly alone in the world. Not the sort of thing he wanted to bring up in the middle of a police investigation.

And Jim, looking away so carefully, full of that polite disinterest which seemed to be an integral part of the macho male communication package that Blair found endlessly fascinating (without ever making any real sense of); Jim had seen and heard him, and offered what solace he could.

It seemed like a terribly small thing to have occasioned such vast relief, but it did the job nicely anyway. When Jim finally turned back to him Blair gazed at him earnestly, trying to look politely thankful and like someone totally on top of it, burning in his britches to do some really serious investigative observing. "Yeah. Think whoever lives here has anything as ugly as that Jesus clock?"

Jim twisted his mouth a little, tongue in cheek, and then followed through with his knock on the door, the sharp rat-a-tat of Authority. "Sandburg, the only thing on the planet uglier than that clock is you when you've got a tequila hangover."

Blair smiled, and felt the last of the oppressive dismay lift away from him. It always blew his mind when Jim tried to take care of him like that-- it was just so fucking sweet.

The door opened.

Constanza DeLuca did not have a Jesus clock. As much of a relief as that was, Blair found himself a little ill-at-ease in her apartment anyway-- there was nothing on her walls, no knickknacks, no books; no mark of personality anywhere within the confines of the orderly and spectacularly clean room to suggest that an actual person lived here.

The woman herself matched the room-- spare and utilitarian, unadorned and impersonal. The 'Constanza' captured her dark hair and eyes, but that was all.

"I knew him, a little. Enough to say hello to. I think he borrowed milk from me once, brought me a new carton the next day. A neighbor. That is all."

Jim nodded at her. "I understand that he kept very regular hours. While he was home, did you ever hear anything unusual from his apartment? Raised voices, that sort of thing?"

She shrugged. It looked like it took some effort. "No raised voices, no. Sometimes he would sing-- the walls are very thin here. He sang in French, and it was always sad. Very sad. I think he was a very sad man."

Blair didn't experience any renewal of his pain for Gustave at these words, because he was too busy being quietly stunned at the glitter in her eyes when she spoke them-- the first sign of animation she'd displayed. He wondered if perhaps she'd known Gustave a little better than she had let on, if perhaps she'd tried and failed to do something about Gustave's sadness-- he wondered what Jim thought of it.

Jim said nothing, only stared at her silently while she stared at him. Blair felt a small spike of tension, fear that Jim had zoned out on something-- it had been a long, long time since that had happened. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.

He was about to clear his throat, to see if the sound would penetrate through to wherever Jim was hiding out, but before he could do it she spoke again. "You are good to do this, Detective; to do justice to this man. Let me give you some tea."

She turned to Blair, and just like that the shine went out of her eyes, and they were once again flat and dull. "Tea?"

"No thank you," he replied automatically, and waited for Jim to decline as well. He was still waiting when she stood, neat and correct and strangely blank in her denim jeans and high-necked blouse.

"Very well. Just for the Detective, then." She turned and left the room quickly.

Blair waited until she was out of sight, and then went over to where Jim was sitting, staring off into space at the spot the woman had occupied. "Jim?" he whispered as quietly as he could, "you with me, here? Hey, buddy, come on--"

He put one hand on Jim's shoulder, and at once Jim straightened and looked around at him, blinking almost as if he was sleepy. A zone-out, then, for sure. Blair felt a knot of worry nest deep into his stomach.

"Chief?" Jim had that look about him, the confusion and disconcerted embarrassment common to him in such moments. It had been a long time indeed since Blair had seen that look, but he remembered it well.

"It's okay, Jim. I think you zoned a little bit. It was just for a few seconds." He kept his voice light and unconcerned, deliberately casual, and squeezed the shoulder under his hand gently. "You're going to have to talk your way out of tea if you don't want to actually drink any. Good thing she didn't try to sell you life insurance while you were out there surfing the waves, man."

His hand fell away as Jim stood, refusing to meet his eyes. Blair saw a muscle bunched tight at the back edge of a clearly defined jaw, and his own spirits sank. Apparently casual and unconcerned wasn't going to cut it-- Jim had zoned, and now Jim was bound and determined to simultaneously get upset about it and ignore it-- everybody out of the pool, Detective Ellison's got himself strapped to the death-by-denial machine. Again. Goddamit.

Blair followed mutely as Jim headed towards the small, astringent kitchen that branched off the main room. His stomach rumbled, queasy with emptiness and frustration. Control-- Jim hated being out of control, he knew that, and that was understandable and comprehensible and reasonable but God it seemed like a waste of time and energy to him-- like getting upset about it was ever going to make it easier to stay in control? Not. Like the way he knew that Jim's impending session of silent constraint was counterproductive? Yup. You bet.

Like he couldn't do a fucking thing about it?

Not at the moment, he couldn't.

As always, when faced with this version of 'Mr. Hundred Percent', Blair indulged in a brief and compelling, but ultimately unsatisfactory fantasy of getting Jim locked in a room with a tape recorder and a hypo full of sodium pentothal. At least it allowed him to keep a straight face, rather than indulging in overtly pushy behavior and thus giving Jim an excuse to further isolate.

Jim planted himself in the doorway to the kitchen and cleared his throat. "Ms. DeLuca, excuse me-- thank you for your offer of hospitality, but we've got another appointment we need to keep." Past the leather-jacketed line of Jim's arm Blair saw her nod silently, her face never veering from neutral calm. There was one cup on the counter in front of her, and one of those steeping-spoons for making loose tea.

Blair almost got smacked in the sternum by Jim's elbow when Jim reached for his pocket, and he took a hasty step back. "I'm going to give you my card. I'd like you to give me a call if anything occurs to you about Mr. Letier..." Blair stopped listening to the standard spiel. He'd heard it enough times already. He stepped to the door and put one hand on the knob in preparation for their departure, chewing the inside of his bottom lip and wondering whether he was right, whether she really did know something.

If she did, well, she could just hang onto it for a while longer. Blair felt woefully unprepared for this kind of frustration-- it had, after all, been a long time since he'd been through this. Whether she knew something or not, Jim was about to walk away from her because his senses had had a hiccup, and while that was not Jim's fault or Blair's fault or anybody's goddamn fault at all it was still just totally stupid...

He suddenly found himself caught in a jaw-cracking yawn, exhausted even though it was only late afternoon. He felt all the pressures of the day and the scene and the case and the Sentinel situation bear down on him; taking up his attention in a way that usually started sparking thoughts, but right now only made him tired. He would talk to Jim about it, really-- he'd put on his miner's helmet and go spelunking for Jimnuggets just as soon as he'd had some rest and some food and some time to let it all settle. In the meantime, it would be academically interesting to see how Jim responded to not being prodded at.

He studied Jim's profile, still aggressively locked into his 'just the facts; ma'am' face. Probably take me to the emergency room on general principles, he thought, relieved as inroads of amusement helped to leaven the flavor of exasperation that had soured on his tongue. Could be cool, actually-- oh man, that nurse, Sheila, was her name Sheila?...

When they finally emerged from the building into the hazy sunlight, Blair blinked in sleepy appreciation of the brightness and the clean air, and had to forcibly stop himself from talking about it. He would have bet money that Jim would say something to him, some jibe about his silence, but Jim never said a word all the way to the station, only drove with an absorbed concentration that betrayed nothing about what might be going on behind those shuttered, intent features.

Blair sighed. It looked like Sheila was going to have to fend for herself this evening.

The next day he'd meant to cut over to the station right after his noon meeting, but he'd ended up in an unfortunate wrangle over budget cuts and textbooks and about ten million piddly-ass stupid details, all because Dr. Milner had snapped his femur while skiing during Christmas break.

Dr. Milner's leg was pretty tragic for Dr. Milner, since apparently there were complications; but it was no fucking picnic for Blair either, because with Milner gone, Dr. Hauntauk took the vacant seat on the approval and review boards. And, apparently, for no real reason (but obviously acting according to the dictates of some arcane logic only decipherable by ancient professors who looked like a shriveled and mean version of Mister Wizard), Dr. Hauntauk hated his guts.

He arrived home chilled to the bone, soaking wet, irritated beyond belief and with barely ten minutes to spare before Jim was due home. In the five seconds it took him to get the door unlocked and toss his keys in the basket, he made a lightning-quick calculation, negotiated with himself about it, and closed the deal. He would light a fire first, then start dinner prep, then he would run for the shower. By the time Jim walked in the door the loft would be warming up and dinner would be cooking; and Blair would be out of the immediate vicinity and well on the way to getting the icicles out of his blood. It was a good plan. A fine plan. A plan simple enough to keep his mind focused on the small details of action when every particle of him just wanted to haul ass for that shower and start boiling himself.

As if to reward him for his maturity and benevolence the fire caught at the first match, his memory of a crock of beef-and-lentil stew stored in the back of the fridge proved to be authentic rather than wishful, and he managed to avoid biting the tip of his tongue off between his wildly chattering teeth until he got himself ducked into scalding water, at which point the immediate threat of permanently rendering himself mute diminished significantly. He was out and dry and dressed when the door opened and Jim walked in.

"Hey," Blair called over his shoulder as he rummaged in the cupboard for bowls; "dinner's almost ready. Sorry I didn't get to the station today; but man you would not believe the day I had. You remember that professor I told you about a couple months ago? Last semester? Hauntauk-- the guy who I thought was gonna have an embolism right in my office when I told him what I thought of his theory on the evolution of language and its bearing on modern ideologies... Jim?"

His mouth had been moving a mile a minute when he turned around with the bowls in hand, but Jim was already gone. Vague shuffling noises came from the room upstairs. Other than that the only sound was the faint crackling of the fire, and a muted 'whuff' from the burner under the pot of stew.

"Jim?" He didn't yell it. He just said it. There was no answer.

He took the stairs slowly, making sure to create plenty of noise on his way up. Jim was sitting on his bed, barechested, a wet sweater piled in a crumpled ball at his feet. His saturated workboots had been untied and loosened, but not removed.

His face was utterly, completely blank.

Blair's hands tried automatically to curl into fists, but couldn't-- he realized belatedly that he was still carrying the bowls. He set them down carefully and then walked towards Jim, something cold and fearful knotting in the pit of his stomach. Sound or smell-- it had to be. When Jim zoned on sight or touch or taste he didn't look like this-- hell, Blair couldn't think of a time when he'd ever seen Jim look quite like this. This was bad. Whatever it was, it was bad.

Sound, then. Sound first. "Hey, Jim," he began quietly; "looks like you got pretty wet out there. Don't tell me-- all the boys in blue are out sick, and Simon had you directing traffic all day..."

He reached out, an unconscious behavior. Nothing he said made a single bit of difference to Jim's vacant look until Blair's hand settled gently onto his shoulder. Even then Jim didn't snap out of it, but his eyes fluttered once and he dragged in a deep, slow breath-- eerily reminiscent of a stalled machine starting up again, sluggish and unwilling.

"Jim?" He heard the note of alarm in his own voice and stopped there. Calm-- he had to be. Nothing else would do any good for either of them. "Jim," he began again, soothing this time and easy; "hey, man-- come on back now, okay? I've got--"

He broke off abruptly. This wasn't Jim working his way out of a zone-- his face was twisting, filling up slowly with something that looked terrible, some unknown, cold horror that looked like a nightmare was working on him from the inside out. Blair gasped.

He hadn't even realized that he'd backed away, but when Jim shook his head and looked up at him Blair found himself already by the stairs, one hand curled around the banister in a deathgrip.

"Chief?" Jim was Jim again, blinking a little but definitely all there. "What the hell happened to you-- Jesus, Sandburg, you're dead white--"

Blair was able to let go of the banister, but he couldn't quite bring himself to step forward. Not yet. "Jim, you just had some kind of... it wasn't a zone, you weren't zoning, but you... you were gone, man, just plain gone. And then you looked like you were having a bad dream--" He couldn't continue. The shock and terror of that moment couldn't possibly get moved past his vocal cords-- if it did, it would come out as a scream, and neither one of them needed that.

Jim's eyebrows went up, and he looked around in apparent confusion. "I came up here?" He sounded almost affronted. He turned to Blair. "I don't remember coming up here."

Blair's fear deepened, but he kept his features carefully clear of anything but concern as he finally moved forward, went to Jim, and sat down gingerly next to him. "Something's going on, Jim; and there's... we've gotta make sure we figure it out, but we can-- we can deal with it. You'll be okay--"

"Take it easy, Sandburg," Jim interrupted, sounding so grumpily normal that Blair felt momentarily lightheaded. The switch was that fast. "Just because I had a deeper-than-average zone out doesn't mean you need to start getting ready to put me in a home."

Blair bit down on an angry expostulation, reminding himself firmly to stay calm, at least for the moment. Of course Jim would think that he was overreacting-- as far as Jim was concerned he'd just zoned his way up the stairs, nothing more to it. Blair would have to tread carefully, or they'd just end up arguing and nothing would get resolved. "I'm not going to put you in a home, Jim, but we have to talk about it. We'll just... talk about it." He wasn't about to bring up the idea of tests, not at this particular point.

Jim rubbed his face with both hands, and for the first time Blair noticed that the other man's arms, back and chest were rashed with goosebumps. "Can we talk about it after I've had a shower and some food? I feel like I haven't eaten in a week."

This earnest question brought the stew back to his mind, probably boiling away to sludge down there even as they spoke. He stood. "Yeah-- like I told you when you came in, I've got dinner under control. Ready when you are."

It was amazingly, astoundingly difficult to just pick up the bowls and go, to leave Jim alone when only minutes ago he'd looked like a man lost in the depths of a private hell. Blair comforted himself with the knowledge that Jim certainly wasn't about to go anywhere except to the bathroom for a shower, and that once Jim was clean and warm and fed and relaxed he'd be much more malleable.

As soon as Blair reached the kitchen, he turned the stew down to a bare simmer. Malleable. Yeah, he was going to need all the malleable Jim could give him, and then some. The kitchen was warm with steam but his own hands were ice-cold, shaking a little with the residual traces of his own reaction.

He ignored it, and buried himself in the business of dinner preparations with desperate determination. His own mind was too quick to judge in this case, too unsure and uncertain not to make an immediate, cognitive leap to possible explanations and causes-- and, quite disturbingly for one usually so optimistic; the places his mind wanted to leap to were dark with fear and apprehension.

His hands would not stop shaking. He sighed.

Very dark indeed.

Jim passed the tests.

Every one of them. No sweat.

Blair didn't want to think about what that meant. Not just yet.

"Are you done with me now, Chief?" Jim sounded a little tired and of course slightly annoyed, but that was normal-- normal Jim, with no recurrences of anything unusual all through dinner and through the tests after that-- nothing since what had happened upstairs. Blair sighed.

"I want to cover all the bases, Jim," he began. Jim rolled his eyes but sank back into the couch cushions, arms crossed defensively, mouth wry with that weary and long-suffering tolerance that sometimes made Blair want find a stick and start beating him with it. "I need to know what you did today, where you went and what happened-- I'm... you're gonna have to tell me everything, Jim-- there might be something there; you never know."

He chopped his own words off at that point. His head was pounding, and he suddenly feared that he'd stop making any sense at all if he kept babbling. So-- Jim's turn to talk. His turn to think. There had to be something, some clue or signal, anything to indicate what had gone wrong earlier, what had sent Jim into the black.

"I went to the station," Jim commenced diffidently, apparently resigned to the program at this point. "I swapped insults with a couple of flatfoots who had the gall to ask me where the missus was, and then I had a donut. Then I got some coffee. Then I had another donut. Then--"

"Jim," he muttered warningly, and Jim turned to him, maddeningly polite, mock-inquisitive. "Will you please stop yanking my fucking chain over this? I'm worried, man; I mean, you didn't see what you looked like before--"

"Yeah, Sandburg, okay," Jim capitulated tersely, one hand raised; "don't talk about it anymore-- you're gonna rupture something. Okay." Another sigh, and he leaned back, staring intently at the ceiling. "The Letier case-- there is something going on there, Chief; I'm pretty sure about it. Forensics swept his bedding and found a total of five hairs that definitely didn't belong to him-- strawberry blond, not one of them under twenty inches long. That's where I spent this morning-- I was with Serena down in the lab, asking her all the questions I could get her to answer. Then I did some paperwork and ate some lunch, talked on the phone with Serena again. In the afternoon I went back to Letier's apartment building, asked around to find out if anybody'd seen a long-haired strawberry blond around. No soap. Then..."

Blair's jaw clenched as Jim trailed off, anticipating another possible zone-out, but the other man was apparently just thinking, blinking curiously up at the ceiling as if he'd just seen it move. "What is-- what happened, Jim?" The back of his neck prickled.

Jim turned his head and looked at him, that questing, introspective stare that meant something, somewhere, was cooking. "When I stopped in to see Ms. DeLuca, she gave me some tea." His mouth twisted. "It was terrible tea-- some Venezuelan shit, she said, I think, or something like that..."

"You think?" Blair found himself gripping the couch cushions too tightly, and he made his fingers uncurl. "Jim, first of all, unless you're tucking into a big dish of egg fu yung, you hate tea. Secondly, when you're interviewing someone in the course of an investigation, you don't think they said anything-- you always know! I've seen you report word-for-word to Simon--"

"Cool your jets, Sherlock," Jim mumbled dryly; "She insisted on the tea as a thank-you gesture, and then I just stopped listening to her for a minute because I was busy trying to force my tastebuds into vacation mode so I wouldn't puke on her kitchen table."

Blair shook his head. "The other day, when we were there and you decided to leave so suddenly, I swear it seemed to me that she knew something-- that woman is just too strange, you know?"

Jim shrugged, and went back to staring at the ceiling. "I got kind of an idea that maybe she'd angled for a chance to offer Letier a reason not to be so depressed, and he hadn't taken her up on it. Other than that I doubt that she's dyed her hair black and lopped ten inches off it in the recent past, so I'm not really interested in her."

Exactly the same impression he'd gotten, as far as Gustave. Blair's neck prickled again. "Yeah, but-- I don't... why didn't you tell me about the tea right away? I mean, Jim, we don't have any idea what could have been in there. What if that's what caused it-- what happened upstairs? There could have been anything in there, man."

Jim swung around to him sharply, almost an accusatory look. Blair leaned forward. "I'm not saying that she, like, did it on purpose or anything," he continued, "just that-- well, Venezuelan tea, who knows what could be in it? We don't know what you're allergic to, Jim, or what any given substance might do to your senses--"

"Yeah, well, I didn't tell you about it right away because I didn't even think about it at first." Jim sighed, and Blair felt something tighten in his chest-- that wasn't like Jim, not at all. He was wondering exactly what he should say, if anything, when Jim continued. "No need to worry about it now, Chief-- I didn't swallow more than two sips of that crap, and I'm certainly not going to go begging for seconds." Jim sounded incredibly tired, and even in the dim light Blair could see deep shadows, smudges almost like soot under his eyes.

Time to wrap this up. He had a headache that felt suspiciously like an adrenaline hangover, and that broad, flat feeling of tension in his shoulders that he got every time he had to try to pry information out of Jim. He'd ask for a more detailed picture tomorrow. "So, nobody had seen a strawberry blond around..." he prompted.

"No. Not that they'd admit to, anyway; although there's a couple people who just might be worth talking to again. I finished up the interviews, went back to the station and made some notes, and then I came home." Another sigh, this one the deepest yet. "Are we done now?"

"Yeah." Jim was done, that much was true. Jim was done, and Blair needed some time alone to think. He stood up ready to head for his room, intent on taking some notes and checking some references while the details were still fresh in his mind.

"G'night, Jim."

Jim nodded in his general direction, getting to his feet in a gingerly way that seemed to have more of an arthritic old man in it than Jim 'Rambo' Ellison. Blair frowned. Jim must be really exhausted, if he was moving like that.

But then the other man was up, staring down at Blair from his customary height advantage; even smiling a little, the magnanimous bastard, now that Blair had put his fun-with-science kit away.

"Good night, Chief."

Blair blinked worriedly into the darkness, and listened to the faint swish-squeak of Jim going for another marathon round of tossing and turning. His thoughts spun like a panicked rat on an exercise wheel, as if somehow, if he just put out enough energy, the magic pellet of a solution would appear to him and all would be well.

Mindrat. Running its ratty little ass off without ever generating an ounce of forward momentum, terrified to stop.

Blair pushed his head deeper into the pillow, trying to put the brakes on that particular line of thought since it was worse than useless, and too close to the bone to be amusing. His own fucking analogies were beginning to scare him.

He didn't manage to slow it down, not really, but at least he was able to start at the beginning, put together a fairly linear list of all the things, large and small, that added up to this one big family-size serving of dread that was currently sitting in his stomach on top of the stew, keeping him awake.

Jim had passed the tests. All of them. Flying colors.

That was when theory number one went out the window.

Well, not really out the window, not totally, but definitely removed from the top contender spot. It was a relief because he didn't want to have to go with theory number one, but it was also somewhat distressing because... well, because he didn't really have a theory number two.

Now he was just lost.

And he couldn't talk to Jim about it-- there was too much that Jim didn't know; too much that Blair didn't want Jim to know about the link between heightened senses and insanity. He'd actually mentioned it once, casually; and now he was thankful that Jim hadn't pushed for details, because he probably would have given them.

He could have given quite a convincing little outline, in fact; the data was there, culled in bits and pieces-- spotty, definitely; but presenting a pretty disturbing picture when taken altogether. The darker side of his research, his clandestine little sidebar that he'd hidden from everyone, even mostly from himself. He made the notes and checked the source material and drew the conclusions because it was part of the picture and he wanted the picture to be complete, but he'd never wanted it to be part of his picture, not his deep, thorough, and essentially loving (despite the inevitable academic aridity) portrait of Jim.

So Blair knew the score-- insanity was a common occurrence, whether because the heightened senses drove people insane, or because insanity itself somehow bred an increase in sensitivity. Either way it seemed frequent enough to be almost an innate conclusion, but...

But every instance on record that he'd been able to track down had been very clear on one thing-- when the insanity sets in, the senses go totally out of control. Usually enough to utterly incapacitate the subject. Out. Of. Control. Permanently.

And there was Jim, passing test after test with dismissive calm and barely-veiled impatience; Mr. Control himself, poster-boy for the control freak brigade. It was a relief, for sure; Blair knew he'd probably be shouting hallelujahs right now if he hadn't been so weighted down with the memory of Jim's haunted, tormented face and the terrifying knowledge that Jim was counting on him--

His throat tightened. Jim was counting on him, and there was no theory number two.

Sure, there was the tea thing; but the more he'd thought about it the more implausible it seemed. There was nothing, nothing in any of his research-- it was just a blank, a frigging ton of words and reports and black squiggles on a white page that all came down to the same thing-- namely, that he was lost.

Now there was only this dread, perfectly centered in the middle of a big amorphous mess of the unknown, just to make it show up better.

Blair burrowed deeper underneath his covers, bringing himself as much comfort as he could. He listened with unhappy concern to the restless movements above, so similar in nature to the restless squeaks and shuffles that spun on inside his own head.

Restless running, running, running. Never get to sleep. Not like this.

Fuck you, rat.

Sandburg's Law: the best laid plans of mice and men are frequently fucked up beyond belief due to circumstances way beyond anyone's control.

As mantras went, it pretty much sucked the root. As an apt description of the events of the day, however; it was almost poetry.

First thing this morning he'd told Jim that he wouldn't go in today, that Karen Ferguson could handle his morning class for him so that he could be with Jim in case... in case of something, but Jim had pulled out The Voice of Command and informed him that no, he did not need a nanny; and no, Blair was not going to play nursemaid at the expense of his students; and finally, if anything went wrong that he would call.

Of course Blair had fought him on it, and of course the more Blair argued, the more stubborn Jim got.

In the end Blair had given in-- if he'd kept at it, it was very likely that Jim would get so entrenched in his obstinate groove that he'd fall back on the 'surly and silent' treatment-- and that seemed like too high a risk to take for the comparative return. And, after all, it was only one class; one class and then Blair could cancel the rest of his meetings and his office hours, and arrive at the station by 11:00 at the latest.

That was the plan, anyway.

And he'd been damn proud of his plan at first; he'd almost smiled while watching his students file out quickly-- every face bore a stunningly similar look of repressed delight as he let them go a whole ten minutes early. He packed up while he watched them go, got his jacket and his materials and his backpack and his keys ready to hand while he surreptitiously checked out all those happy faces.

But then there had been another face, the last face; and there was nothing happy about it, nothing at all. Courtney Gier waylaid him as he was about to sweep out of the room and book for his car, stopped him cold with her pinched, nervous, and very unhappy face.

She was a good student, usually-- she'd missed the past two classes but normally she was right on top of it (in a shy and hesitant kind of way); one of the brightest he had. He didn't want to brush her off.

And so he didn't, but he wasn't exactly patient with her either; and that made the fuck-up even worse because when she finally spilled out what she needed to see him for it came out in a torrent, in a flood; and he'd ended up holding her hair with one hand and rubbing her back with the other while she leaned over his deskside trash barrel and vomited up a story about date rape and the terrible reason behind those missed classes, along with a plentiful quantity of bile.

Not an unheard-of situation, by any stretch. Not something he hadn't seen a dozen times before, unfortunately (not that it ever got any fucking easier to deal with, however). Not even something that should have kept him for any length of time, considering that the campus had a staff of people whose job it was to deal with situations just like this, except...

Except for the fact that in the aftermath, when he tried to help her and she tearfully explained to him that she had no parents, no siblings, no family to call at all; no real friends because the other girls thought she was weird because she studied so much; and yes she would go to the student clinic and the counseling center and everything else she was supposed to do but she just didn't want to feel alone anymore; Blair realized with a horrid, sinking sense of dismay that he couldn't just ditch her.

As soon as they hit the clinic he left her in the hands of a nurse and excused himself for a moment, mouthing soothing promises in an attempt to assuage her sobbing panic about how he'd be back right away. He had a bit of panic of his own by then, pulled so awfully in two different directions and wondering who the hell he was going to blame if something bad happened to Jim while he was otherwise engaged-- besides Courtney's rapist Tom Attersley, of course; who was going to be in a world of fucking hurt if he had anything to say about it...

He tried Jim's cell-phone first, but there was no answer. His subsequent call to the station served two purposes-- he reported the rape, first of all, and got that ball rolling; but his inquiry into Jim's whereabouts wasn't nearly as satisfactory. Out investigating the Letier case, hadn't checked in, currently not answering the radio, that was about the sum of it.

Blair switched off his phone and stood quietly for a moment with his eyes closed tight, fighting off the urge to hurl the instrument into the nearest wall in frustration. Damn Jim for being off-line, for being unreachable, for being so fucking insistent about Blair not staying with him-- it was all very well for Jim not to take it seriously but there was something wrong, alright, something badly, dangerously wrong, he had seen it... and he could feel it. His heart was pounding almost out of control.

He tucked the phone into his pocket to remove himself from temptation, and just breathed for a few seconds. He could do this. He could take care of Courtney for a while, keep on the station to keep hailing Jim on the radio, and keep trying the cell at twenty-minute intervals.

For a moment, for a tight, craven, terrible moment of self-pity he wished with all the power in his heart that he'd never heard of Sentinels, or Rainier U., or even fucking Cascade. He should have stuck to driving a rig-- nothing on him but the horizon and the road, and responsibility for a burden that, even with ten tons dragging at his axles, would be easier to carry than this.

And of course, he questioned himself. He questioned himself as the afternoon stretched out and time after time he failed to get in touch with Jim. He questioned himself and felt pressure in his mind, pressure in his fingers as Courtney squeezed down on them. After a while, his hand went numb. The rest of him didn't.

The only thing that allowed him to keep on keeping on as things went from bad to worse, as Courtney eventually had to be sedated and Jim still did not answer his goddamn cell, was his conviction that as soon as Jim materialized once again out of the ether, he would get some answers.

Blair emerged from the campus counseling center at a little after six p.m. He stopped outside the doors, looked at the sky, and breathed. At this hour there was nobody around to see him standing there like someone gazing at imaginary flying saucers, but even if there had been he didn't think he would have been able to bring himself to care. His hand ached, and his heart ached, and worry had chewed itself a nice, vicious hole in the pit of his stomach; and he was just going to stare up into freedom and blameless blue for a few moments, doing what he needed to do.

He didn't feel much better for it when he finally brought his head down and headed towards his car, but at least he didn't feel worse. Nausea seemed to be developing into a theme, here-- no food and too much terrible coffee, too much of someone else's pain blended with the acid of his own apprehensions, too much everything.

He got in the car and closed the door, and had a silent, serious debate with himself over whether the possibility of reaching Jim was really worth the risk of disappointment and increased fear if he once again got no answer. He grimaced, but reached for his phone.

The moment he touched it, it rang.

"Jim?" His breath caught in his throat.

"Hey, Chief; I tried you at home, but there was no answer." The world swam in front of his eyes for a moment-- fine, Jim sounded fine. "I just called to tell you not to hold up dinner for me-- I'll be late."

"Is it the case? Is everything okay?" He wanted to trust the relief that had swept him, but his mind clung stubbornly to an image of Jim's face melting into terror, and the cold, creeping awfulness of it refused to be dispelled entirely.

"Calm down-- I told you, everything's fine." Abruptly Jim's voice dropped to a soft murmur. "It was just a couple of zone-outs. I know what you said you saw, but really-- everything's been normal since then. Been working the case all day, and no problems. It must have been a blip on the radar, Chief; that's all."

Yeah, like he'd ever take Jim's word for it about his state of existence. "Are you still at the station? I'm in the car right now-- I can be there in--"

Jim cut him off with a chuckle. "No, I'm not at the station, Ms. Nightingale. Just go on home."

"But Jim--"

"Look, Sandburg;" Jim's voice slid pretty quickly from amusement to testiness, something so essentially normal that for a moment relief clambered back on top of the pile of emotions wrestling inside him. "I don't need you cramping my style. I told you-- I'm fine. Now you just go on home and take full advantage of this golden opportunity to play that shit you call music, and I'll see you when I get in."

Cramping his style?

Blair felt a sharp, burning pain blossom deep in his chest, and just like that he knew, he knew exactly what was going on, without having a single clue about where the knowledge came from. "You're with Constanza DeLuca, aren't you?"

Jim whistled softly. Blair felt it as stinging pressure against his ear. "I'm impressed. You must have passed that correspondence-school detective course while I wasn't looking."

Blair closed his eyes.

"Don't worry," Jim continued, back to a murmur. "I told her if she ever tried to make me drink that tea again I'd bust her for possession of unlicensed toxic materials. We're just going out to dinner."

And even though he'd known about it, still, it stunned him with how much it didn't make sense. She was... there was nothing about her at all that... out to dinner with... what the hell?

A stray thought occurred to him, a bright, slender hope. He worked hard to keep the optimism out of his voice. "Jim, I know you can't talk right now, but I gotta know-- is this part of the investigation? Are you trying to get her to cut loose with more information on Gustave?" He took a deep breath. Even that would be unlike Jim, but not anywhere near as much as the thought of... the alternative.

A moment of silence, and his hopes rose. When Jim spoke again, however, the curt warning in his voice put an end to all thoughts of Jim playing Mata Hari. "I told you last night, Sandburg; there's nothing there. Nothing."

Blair's hand curled so tightly around the phone that for a moment he thought it might snap. He'd worried himself sick today, and he'd been through hell, and he might not have proof but he knew danger when it pulled on his pantsleg and suddenly he was furious, ready to let go of all this benefit-of-the-doubt crap and just let Jim have it. He took a breath in preparation for informing Jim exactly how much their definitions of 'nothing' differed, but Jim cut in before he could speak.

"Look--" the tone of warning was gone, but all that was there now was something strange and cool and not even remotely friendly. "It's practically six-thirty, and I've done what I could for the day. I'm off the clock. I'm going to dinner. Don't wait up."

And then Jim was gone.

Unbelievably, but indubitably. Gone. Hung up. Off to dinner.

With that... weird woman.

Blair dropped the phone in his lap and covered his face with both hands.

Gone in every goddamn sense of the fucking word, apparently.

Keep an eye on Jim. Watch him. That's the ticket.

Nothing else he could do, really. What did he have, after all, but a memory of one horrific moment and a bunch of vague, unrealized fears?

He had his eyes and ears. Normal issue, true; but perfectly serviceable nonetheless. He knew how to pay attention and gather data, and he knew how to work with whatever he gathered. He had a brain and he wasn't afraid to use it.

He had all these things at his disposal, no question. His 'keep an eye on Jim' plan maybe wasn't the best he could have hoped for, but it was essentially sound.

Except for one small but critical flaw: there was no Jim to keep an eye on.

Not after dinner, not after the cleanup of all dinner materials. Not after the game, not after he'd tried and failed to get interested in three different books; not even after several stultifying hours of grading.

It would have been enough to make him suspicious, if he hadn't been pretty firmly entrenched there already.

It was all very well to remind himself that Jim didn't really get hung up on looks, or that one man's meat was another man's poison-- all these arguments got whacked off at the knees when he reflected on her eerie lifelessness; the way the ominous non-impact of her dull gaze contrasted with that quick and furious glitter... and the way the thought of her with Jim just made his fucking skin crawl.

Blair slept on the couch-- despite Jim's 'don't wait up' directive, it was easy enough to explain away as having fallen asleep after the game. He reinforced the subterfuge by leaving the lights on, by neglecting the pens, highlighters and ungraded papers scattered over the coffee table, and by keeping the TV on with the sound muted-- a poor form of company, but perhaps better than none.

He got himself settled-- as settled as he could be, anyway, since exhaustion and agitation were busy battling for supremacy, and let his eyes roam aimlessly for a few minutes. Soon enough he zeroed in on the TV and stared blankly at the flickering screen; sleepily surprised at his own resentment when he found himself detesting the charmed smiles of the late night movie's happy ending.

He was very grateful to Karen Ferguson's libido. Three months ago she'd gotten itchy pants and flung herself into a whirlwind affair with some businessman she'd met (with a cabin, in the mountains, she'd confided to him gleefully;) and persuaded Blair to teach her classes for two weeks. Now she owed Blair big-time.

The last he'd heard the businessman was busy nursing a broken heart, but Karen was still fairly perky and bristling with sacral energy and happy to work off some of her debt. He gave her the details quickly over the phone, got his keys and his pack, and headed off to the station.

He felt better. Even though Jim had not come home, even though the situation remained the same, even though he'd woken up with his neck muscles locked into one hot and unforgiving nodule of pain; the brilliance of the morning sun on his face seemed to dispel the worst of what he'd gone through the night before. It had occurred to him as he showered that perhaps most of his reaction had been spillover from the stress of what had happened with Courtney, but honestly, he found himself uncharacteristically indifferent as to why he felt better; he only cared that he did.

Like bred like, and the relief of being out of yesterday's gloom (in combination with a cresting wave of cheer that lifted him when he saw Jim's truck in the station's parking garage) was enough to loosen his neck muscles to the point of only vague stiffness by the time he headed for the elevators.

And at first, at his first sight of Jim slumped at his desk-- unshaven and nodding over his morning java, looking about ten percent awake and dressed in the same rumpled clothes Blair had seen him in yesterday morning; he actually wanted to laugh. He would have bet Jim's pension that there'd been some serious ribbing going on-- there was no way the guys would have passed up such an unheard-of opportunity. He'd have to manufacture a chance to pump Taggart about it--

The humorous elements of the situation faded, however, as shockingly fast as if they'd been slapped out of him, the moment Jim looked up and met his eyes.

Jim saw him, and flinched.

"Sandburg." Jim's voice sounded rough, the way it sometimes did when he'd spent too long in the interrogation room bellowing at someone. Just the sound of it made Blair's throat ache in sympathy.

Jim's raw reaction to his presence had surfaced and vanished all in an instant, but the substance, the impact of it was enough to shove a cold splinter deep into Blair's chest as all the fears of last night came flooding back, crawling up his throat to lie bitter on his tongue like old, overcooked coffee.

"Hey, Jim," he said calmly, determined to keep everything as serene as possible until he had some idea of what he was dealing with. He sat down and busied himself with some of the papers and notebooks in his pack, knowing that if he didn't keep himself occupied he'd end up staring, and that probably wasn't the best idea right now. Peripheral vision was enough to tell him that Jim hadn't looked at him again, had in fact decided to put down his cup and hang onto the edge of the desk and stare straight ahead. Blair could see his hands, muscular and prominently veined with tension, shaking just a little. "How was your dinner?"

"Fine." Terse, but no longer unfriendly. Not anger, then.

From the corner of his eye he noticed Jim picking up his cup again, and he lifted his head.

Now there was a man trying desperately hard to keep it all together, to make it all look normal.

Not doing the world's greatest job, either.

"Jim," he heard the sorrow in his own voice, heard it and regretted it because it was a pretty sure way to make Jim clam up, but right now he couldn't help himself, "what's wrong with you, man?"

And with liquid, scary speed Jim got it all together, eyes shuttered but lit with a false warmth that went no deeper than the bright surface, smiling gently. "Just tired, hotshot. Need my coffee." He took a sip to demonstrate.

There was a goddamned ocean of pain and fear behind that mellow shine in Jim's eyes. And Jim was asking him to stay blind to it.

Right. Uh-huh. Every fucking day.

At that moment the tense, grudging pain in Blair's chest shifted and re-formed, and an ugly conflict smoothed away and vanished as he finally stopped fighting himself.

He was on his own. The ease of it surprised him. He smiled back at Jim, smooth and eager. "Well, drink up, then; you've got to fill me in on everything I missed." He grabbed his own coffee cup and stood, backing towards the pot while he let that smile just sink into his face, just like it was natural. "I want my money's worth out of that correspondence course, Jim."

He got his coffee. His own hands didn't shake at all.

Mrs. Giroux had the same fair hair as her brother, and the same large build. Her long face was tense and drawn; something that Blair didn't find surprising, under the circumstances.

"I let go of him, sometime about a year after he left." Blair had brought her a cup of water, and her hand shook with a faint but visible tremor as she took a sip. "Before that, I thought, maybe, that he would recover-- that he would see things and go places, and then come back... well, not healed, you know; but sound."

Jim shifted a little in his chair. "I understand that the loss of his wife was a severe blow to him."

She frowned. "Terrible. To all of us." Her voice had thickened, and for the first time Blair could hear a trace of French in her accent. "Leila was my best friend, my dearest friend since childhood; and losing her like that-- so senselessly--" She cleared her throat. "Terrible to all, but of course for Gustave it was the worst. She was... Leila was everything to him."

Her face tightened and she bowed her head. Jim telegraphed to him with a silent look, and Blair stood immediately and went to the back of the interview room to get a box of tissues. He put them down next to her wordlessly, then sat down one chair over, ready to move in if she looked like she needed it.

Jim leaned forward, and his voice dropped to an oddly gentle register. "Mrs. Giroux, I only have a few more questions for you-- you've been very patient and I'm sure you'd like to move on with your arrangements, so I'll be brief. The last time your brother called you, did he happen to tell you that there was anyone new in his life?"

She appeared to be flatly puzzled by the question. "Anyone new? A woman? You mean a new woman in his life?" Jim nodded. "Oh no--" her voice thickened again. "That... is not possible. When he spoke on the phone to me, all he ever said about himself was that he missed her, that he couldn't paint because the canvas was too permanent-- more permanent than Leila had been, and that cut him. Why do you... what is it that makes you think that?"

Jim shifted again, and Blair made a mental note to put a bug in Simon's ear about requisitioning some more comfortable chairs for the interview room-- Jim always ended up looking like a grade schooler denied bathroom privileges if he had to sit there too long. "Some evidence was found in his room-- in his bed, actually. A few hairs-- very long and light red in color. They weren't--"

Jim stopped abruptly. Mrs. Giroux had crumpled in on herself, and Blair guided the tissue box into her groping hand. "I didn't know..." she began, but all that followed were a few quiet sobs.

Blair got up and refilled her cup of water. By the time he got back to the table, she'd gotten herself together; and looked unhappy but resigned. "I didn't know-- wait; here, I'll show you." Her large hands winnowed through her purse, and surfaced with a small gold object that looked almost like a pocket watch.

"She was my dearest friend, as I told you," her hands shook as she fumbled with the clasp, "and before her funeral I took some of her hair-- I asked Gustave if he wanted a keepsake as well, but he never answered me. He must have taken a piece, and couldn't tell me. Of course he would have." The round box opened to reveal a small picture fitted into one side, and on the other a delicate thin coil of pale copper. Blair drew close, mesmerized by the snapshot-- two little girls, probably five years old or so, smiling in the sun with their arms around each other. One was blond. One was red-haired.

One of them was now dead.

Sorrow and fascination backed up in his throat. He tried to imagine what it would be like to know somebody from childhood, to know their whole history as closely and intimately as your own, only to see them die in a pointless accident. That would be... awful, was the sole and insufficient word that echoed through his mind. Just awful.

It often hit him like this, the hidden advantages of a life lived on the move. Isolation over intimacy, singularity over belonging, yes; but-- look how much pain he'd saved himself. Unimaginable-- he had no frame of reference. Even despite his advantages, despite the protection of his lack of roots, he still felt dangerously compromised-- just the thought of how he'd feel if he lost Jim, for example...

He glanced over at Jim, and his breath caught audibly. Jim was so white his eyes almost seemed to glow, and his lips were pressed together in a thin and bloodless line. "Jim?" It came out before he could stop it-- not the best thing to do in the middle of an interview, but Jesus, Jim looked like he was going to have a heart attack...

"Blair!" one word, spoken loud and on the edge of panic, and Blair opened his mouth to start dealing, to probe the wound and damn what they were supposed to be doing right now, but before he said a word Jim was up and out of his chair, headed toward the door. Blair jumped up so fast that his chair toppled backwards.

Jim turned when he reached the door. "Excuse me for just a moment." The panic was buried now, locked down tight but Blair knew it was still there. "Chief, stay here. Take care of Mrs. Giroux. I'll be right back."

And with that responsibility laid on his shoulders, Blair only watched as Jim slipped out of the room. He felt numb, his fingers were numb as he picked up his chair.

"Is he... is the Detective alright, Mr. Sandburg?"

He turned to her and smiled, hoping that it was a reassuring sort of smile and not a fucked-if-I-know sort of smile. "Well, he's been... I'm sure he's fine. We're handling lots of cases right now, you know? I'm sure he'll be back soon."

She still held the open locket in her hands. It caught his eye, and without thinking, he spoke. "Mrs. Giroux, I want to make sure that we cover all the bases--" His mind was suddenly leaping, dashing, darting from possibility to possibility while his voice stayed low and calm and modulated. "May I have a few, like maybe, three strands of hair from that piece in your locket? I just want to be sure..."

She looked puzzled again, but she nodded warily. "Yes, if you think it's really necessary..."

He kept his smile in place. "If you don't mind." He felt terrible, keeping her blind like this when it was her brother who had been lost, but what could he tell her, after all, except a bunch of suspicions that sounded like lunacies?

There was a plain white envelope on the back table with 'receipts' scribbled across the front, discarded next to some loose papers and pens abandoned after some earlier meeting. He scooped it up and opened it while she picked out a few long strands from the coil, then thanked her and put the hair in the envelope and the envelope in his pocket while he watched her put the locket away.

Then he sat with her and encouraged her gently to talk, listened to her stories and her reminiscences and her sad memories while he counted the seconds until Jim came back through the door. It didn't take long. The man who walked into the room appeared to be about as far from panic as it was possible to get. Mrs. Giroux looked relieved.

Blair kept his silence as Jim apologized and muttered something about a bad lunch, told her he had no further questions and thanked her for her time, and told her that he'd walk her out.

Blair listened carefully as he trailed along behind them, but neither Jim nor Mrs. Giroux mentioned anything about hair or evidence.

He didn't mention it either.

Jim stuck to the 'bad lunch' story, and remained fixed at his desk in dismal silence, scowling at various pieces of paper with every indication of having settled in for the day. In some ways, it was a relief. It gave Blair a chance to 'take a walk'.

He wandered the hallways aimlessly for a few minutes; planning, theorizing, testing out stories and fabrications and ideas-- he needed help, there was no question about that, but there was also no question that he'd have to be fairly creative in going about getting it, if he didn't want to end up either out of a job or in some psycho ward.

A burning sense of low-grade panic welled up in his chest-- the inner directive to find the answers, solve the problem, to make things right. He ducked into the men's room and locked himself in a stall until it passed-- he couldn't possibly hope to be effective with that flaming gilt-edged grail of 'help Jim' itching in his blood. He breathed deeply until he was calm, promising himself that sometime soon he'd sit down and think over exactly what all this shit meant.

But not right now. Blair left the bathroom and made his way to the forensics lab, and sighed with relief when he saw Serena there, communing with something under a microscope. He cleared his throat and reviewed his story one more time, checking for holes.

He'd prepared a busy-but-friendly smile for the occasion, and he offered it as soon as she turned around and saw him. "Blair? I was just about to come looking for you."

Her eyes were concerned. His smile slipped a bit. "Looking for me? Why?"

She glanced around, but everyone else in the lab was on the other side of the room, gathered around some machine that hummed and clicked and whirred. She waved him closer, and he stepped forward until he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her at the microscope.

Her gaze bore into him, dark and anxious. Her voice was low. "What the hell is going on with Jim?"

He kept his face under control with difficulty. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, he just called me and told me that these hairs from the Letier crime scene are supposedly from a woman who died four years ago, and have nothing to do with the case. I tried to explain to him but he cut me off, and told me to close the file."

Blair kept his own voice soft. "Explain to him? Explain what?"

She studied him for a moment, and Blair suddenly knew how her evidence slides felt. "He told me some story about Gustave Letier having taken the hair from his wife's head as a keepsake," her voice had dropped to a whisper. "But these hairs weren't cut off, they were pulled out. Because of that, they've still got tissue attached at the root. Fresh tissue; at least, relatively fresh. I can't be totally precise on that, but I can tell you for sure they weren't pulled out four years ago."

That sent things spinning in a new direction. He thought about it for a moment. Obviously, the approach he'd intended to take was now superfluous, but just because Serena had noticed Jim's odd behavior didn't mean that she was ready to listen to a bunch of wild theories. He assessed her, solid and staunch in her white coat, a believer in science, as he was himself.

As he had been, before all this shit started.

He returned her gaze levelly, and mustered up all the truth he could earnestly tell. "Look, Serena; I don't know what's wrong with Jim-- he's... well, he's not talking to me, you know? But I want to help him-- I'm trying to help him. I came down here because I wanted to ask you about something--" he pulled the envelope from his pocket, fighting off the rising tension in his stomach. So far she only looked concerned and maybe a little inquisitive-- and he had to take this chance.

"These are from that woman Jim was talking about-- the one who died four years ago. I want to know if they're the same as the ones from the crime scene--" he trailed off as she took the envelope out of his hands eagerly, opened the flap, and groped absently for her tweezers. He kept his silence and resisted the urge to shift from foot to foot while she withdrew one strand at a time and held each up to the light.

"These were cut," she murmured decidedly, "but that means there's no root, of course. Because of that I can't do a straight DNA comparison-- the most I'm going to be able to give you is whether the blood type matches up, and I'll have to do a mitochondrial DNA test to determine that. It's going to take me a few days."

He sighed quietly, and muscles magically unknotted themselves as relief flooded through him. Almost home free-- now if he could only get away without having to answer a lot of pointed questions...

As soon as she'd laid out the hairs on a clean sheet of white paper she turned to him with a look of careful scrutiny, and his hopes for an easy getaway evaporated. "Simon doesn't know about this?"

He just shook his head. There was no real way to lie about that.

To his amazement and renewed relief, she only nodded and turned away, saying quietly, "Give me your cell-phone number. I'll be in touch." She slid a small piece of paper along the worktable without looking at him, and he scribbled down his number and a scrawled 'thanks'.

He put the paper on the counter next to her elbow, and left the lab without looking back.

Jim wouldn't look at him. Except for that, it might have been a typical evening at home; dinner, dishes, some shared congenial downtime watching the game while Blair graded and Jim cleaned his gun-- standard recreation in the Ellison/Sandburg household. Jim talked to him normally enough-- not about the case, no; but about everything else that made up the general gist of their conversation-- Brown and Rafe's current scheme to slip Taggart an Ex-Lax milkshake; the Jags' chances of going to the playoffs; Simon's latest strategy for getting Darryl interested in something besides police work-- topics so mundane that Blair might have been persuaded to believe that the problem was all in his mind, except...

Except that Jim wouldn't look at him. Jim talked to his dinner plate, to the TV screen, to his gun; mouthing words to the ether while Blair struggled with the urge to insert himself irrevocably into Jim's line of sight-- a struggle he lost, but when he insinuated himself directly between Jim and the TV, Jim only talked to the wall above his head, and told him that he made a better door than a window.

By the time the game was over Blair felt fairly desperate, but as he watched Jim zap off the television he was favored with a sudden inspiration.

"Hey, Jim?"

"Yeah?" Jim's gaze remained firmly fixed on the cleaning supplies he was gathering up.

"I'm, um... I'm all caught up on my grading-- how about a few hands of poker? You'll need the practice if you want to make good on those threats the next time you play Simon." An excellent plan-- Jim would have to look at him, unless he wanted to get taken to the cleaners as a result of the patently outrageous Sandburg bluffing program.

Jim never even paused, but replied in a perfectly calm voice as he headed to the cupboard to replace his materials. "Can't, Chief-- maybe another time. I'm going out."

Out? Out? Blair winced as a soft feather touch of dismay brushed light pain at his temples. "Uh, Jim, man, it's like, eleven o'clock-- you're going out now?"

No answer. Blair waited for Jim to come back from the kitchen, pondering the best way to ask the questions that had suddenly filled up his throat, but when Jim returned he bypassed the couch entirely and headed up the stairs to his room.

Blair sat, cold and uncomfortable and burdened by nameless fears; listening unhappily to the sounds of Jim changing, to vague shuffles and clicks, to the quick, cutting zip of what he guessed to be Jim's travel bag. He closed his eyes.

What could he say, after all? Even at the best of times Jim didn't take Blair's remarks about his love life very well-- and this was more like the weirdest of times. It was one thing to offer tentative observations, or to record his private conjectures about Jim's unerring instinct for self-destructive relationships; but it was another thing entirely to consider the possibility of confronting Jim with the full extent of his suspicions-- and Blair didn't much care for the thought of being evicted. Not right now.

And so he said nothing. He opened his eyes when Jim came downstairs, automatically registered the evidence of tense, white knuckles clenched around the handle of the travel bag, and pressed his lips tight together to keep in all persistent but treacherous remarks.

Jim paused and nodded at him, a gesture that might have been amicably casual if it were not for the fact that he never looked up from the floor. "Bye, Chief. See you tomorrow."

Blair didn't answer. He curled his empty fists closed on nothing while Jim walked away, ice in his veins and a tight restless dread in the pit of his stomach. No, Jim wouldn't see him tomorrow-- unless Jim got over whatever it was that made him think that Blair had suddenly transformed himself into Medusa, that is.

The quiet snick of the closing door sounded like a confirmation.

Within the boundaries of the small, spare room, things shifted in and out. Empty air took up what space it could, whickering around amorphous objects that surfaced and vanished, each one a momentary flicker of suffering. Once a twisted, black shape crawled across the ceiling, but it too vanished quickly enough, leaving only a faint mist and a dim echo of a forlorn whisper.

One thing, one shape remained, small and squat and compressed into a vacant corner, melting freely and chuckling to itself. Claws clicked together like the rattle of dried bones.

And aside from that, silence: no heartbeats with which to measure timeless time. The shape remained, huddled under folded layers of shadow, tracing a blurred, greasy mark along the wall over and over in idiot redundancy.

Waiting for darkness to fall.

Three days of limbo. Blair did his best to keep it together. There really wasn't much for him to do other than watch Jim avoid looking at him, and say a polite goodbye every evening when Jim took off for his nightly dose of Constanza. Maddening.

Fear crept up incrementally, stealing upon him one small piece at a time until the morning of the third day, when he walked into the station and saw Jim's pale, harrowed face. All of a sudden Blair felt like fear had swallowed him whole and was now slowly digesting him; soft, squeezing fingers of some loathsome, invisible hands wrapped around his temples as he realized with an abrupt shock that Jim was not 'going through a bad patch', Jim was not 'having a few weird problems'; Jim was actually fading away. No doubt about it. There were deep, livid shadows under his eyes, his cheeks looked sunken, and his skin had a strange, greyish tinge that contrasted horribly with the wine-red color of his shirt.

As usual, the shirt collar was open. As usual, Blair did a quick visual scan for any evidence of marks. It always made him feel ridiculous and slightly guilty, but he looked every morning now-- he couldn't help it, really.

And as usual, there was nothing. Nothing at all. So much for all those Vampirella comics he'd hoarded in his youth.

He was almost to the desk when his cell-phone rang. Blair stopped where he was and fished it out of his pack, never taking his eyes off Jim. He knew that Jim knew that he was there, but also as usual, Jim hadn't looked at him.

"Blair Sandburg."

"Blair, it's Serena. I got those test results back-- different blood types, no question about it. The crime scene hair is A positive, the ones you gave me are O negative. Two different people, but in color and texture they appear to be identical." Her voice dropped to a murmur. "I don't know how long I can sit on this-- obviously, a crime has been committed somewhere. Are you any further along--"

A spark of thought whirled through his mind, and he interrupted her smoothly. "Hey, man-- that's great news. I think we're finally getting somewhere, you know? I'm ready to go."

A moment of silence, and then she cleared her throat. "Okay, so you can't talk. I get it. I'll hang onto it for a while, Blair; but you be careful, okay? I'm worried about you."

All kinds of worry going on-- at least he was in good company. "Yeah. I'm sure we'll be fine. Thanks for all the work you put in on this-- I'm looking forward to it. See you soon."

He hung up, and walked the rest of the way to the desk. His heart pounded a little, but he hoped that Jim would put it down to excitement, if he was even listening. "Hey, Jim." He slid his pack to the floor and sat down.

"Chief. Morning." Jim handed him his coffee cup without looking up from the file he was studying. Blair noticed with a strange, deep, twisting pain in his stomach that even Jim's hands were different now- more spare, and the fingernails that had always been kept so neatly clipped now looked as if they'd been bitten. He had a sudden urge to take one of those hands with his own, to hold on and not let go until Jim gave it up and told him what the fuck was going on here, to grab on and somehow squeeze the truth out of him--

He took his coffee cup, instead. "Thanks, man." He kept his voice calm with an effort. "That was Karen-- Karen Ferguson? From the University? She's been trying to put together a meeting of all the student teachers, sort of a retreat-and-meet thing. So she actually pried some money out of the administration, and we're all going up to a lake in the mountains for the weekend-- most of us are future faculty anyway, so we might as well get started drawing battle lines now, you know?"

Jim nodded absently, and turned a page. Blair could see a pulse beating behind the skin of his temple. "Sounds wild, Sandburg. Academic overachievers let loose on an unsuspecting patch of nature-- this is one of those things where you're going to come home and squirm for a straight week because of the mosquito bites on your ass, right?"

Stupid as all hell, but it actually brought a lump to his throat-- he missed Jim; missed his smile and his annoying comments and his steady, unshakable gaze; he even missed his scowl, as weird as that was. Blair swallowed. "Yeah. You know how it is-- women in the woods; they must reconnect with their Aphrodite roots or something--"

"Right." Jim sniffed, and tapped his own coffee cup three times with a bitten nail. "Well, have a great time-- and do me a favor and try to stay out of the way of any stray terrorists or drug czars or mad bombers who might be running around up there, okay? I've got one hell of a cold that's settled in, and all I need is to go slogging off into the forest to look for you."

Blair felt his eyes widen, but of course Jim was still deeply enraptured by his file. "You have a cold?"

Jim sniffed again, pointedly, as if presenting evidence. "Yeah. A cold. And don't try to give me any of your weird remedies either, Sandburg. Simon still hasn't let go of that whole peyote thing." He turned another page. "So-- you're off to the woods?"

And just like that, Jim expected him to drop it. Blair bit down on his bottom lip, trapping the words that wanted to rush out, and stood. "I'm leaving tomorrow, right after class. I won't be back until late on Sunday." He hesitated, coffee cup in hand, trying not to fidget with it. "You didn't... did you have any plans for this weekend? Did you need me around for anything?"

Jim shook his head minutely, running his finger along a line of text. "Nope. Go get bitten. I'm doing fine, here."

"Right." He didn't imbue the word with all the sarcasm he would have liked to. He just said it, and walked away.

Funny-- when he'd come up with this scheme, there had been certain parts of it that his mind just glossed right over, as if the actual execution would somehow magically take care of itself, if only he kept all the rest of the details handled. Ridiculous.

Like climbing this fucking building, for one thing-- as if that would just kind of happen, as if he'd somehow find himself standing triumphantly up on the roof just as long as he made sure that he'd packed his flashlight and the proper number of sweaters.

Blair looked up at the fire escape, and then looked very quickly back down at his shoes. He took a few deep breaths.

And he was supposed to be so brilliant. Right. Darwin meets Dirty Harry. Christ.

In the end it was the dual spurs of curiosity and protectiveness that got him moving, that sank their provoking little needles deep into his stomach and overrode the flutters already there. Blair settled his pack firmly on his shoulders, wiped the fear-sweat from his palms, then climbed gingerly up onto the closed lid of the dumpster he'd rolled into position. He had actually taken hold of the bottom rung of the ladder when it occurred to him that his hair was blowing wildly into his eyes, so with a sigh of relief he let go, and slid back down to the ground. He unshouldered his pack and dug around for a rubber band, ignoring the way his hands were shaking.

When he'd left the loft some five hours ago, Jim had been camped out on the couch, once again cleaning his gun-- something he seemed to do with alarming frequency these days. He'd barely acknowledged Blair's farewell noises. Blair had been much too pumped to do more than get his stuff and go, and the rest of the evening had passed in a haze of doubts and fears and frenetic, unprofitable activity-- he'd gone to his office and tried without success to settle down to the routine of essay review, tried and failed to eat dinner, and finally ended up pacing the stacks at the University library.

And even that familiar haunt had provided no real relief. The smell of old books, usually so comforting to him, had actually been unnerving-- a dry, arid smell, one that reminded him too much of locked rooms and secrets. He hung on grimly until the library closed at half-past ten, and then drove slowly home, making sure to park on the next street over.

And now it was a bit past eleven-- pretty much the witching hour for Jim, if the pattern remained true. Jim's truck was still parked in his spot, and he'd seen lights on in the loft when he'd circled the building.

His hair wasn't going to get any more secure. It was time. Blair reshouldered his pack and climbed back up on the dumpster, and grabbed for the ladder before he had any time to think about it.

"Jim. Jim. Jim... Jim." It was his mantra-- the only one he could come up with in this tense, paralyzed moment, the only one that seemed to do the job. Before he knew it he was on the roof, an alien landscape of gravel and strange, jutting shapes and dizzying gusts of icy air. He had to force his hands to move to pull his pack off, fighting all the time against the urge to crouch down as low as possible-- it felt like at any moment the wind was going to slap him off this roof like a piece of confetti.

The night sky above him was deep, velvet black, a huge expanse that seemed to weigh on him, making him struggle for air-- no romance in these heavens, not here; not for a speck lost on a cold and windy rooftop in the middle of an ocean of small and indifferent lights... Blair looked down and gasped for air, stared at his shoes until the feeling passed.

It took him a few minutes to get his bearings, to work out exactly where to find what he wanted; and he was hampered by the dire imperative to move quietly-- an imperative entirely at odds with his feet, which seemed to want to stumble around senselessly every time he took a step. By the time he approached the skylight above Jim's room, he was almost crawling.

He came to a complete stop five feet away and sat down, huddling into his jacket for warmth. This was the sticking point-- if Jim had his senses up he'd know Blair was there, no question; and this was pretty much the last possible chance to turn back and slip away-- unless of course Jim had already sensed him.

Blair closed his eyes for a moment, and waited until his teeth had stopped chattering. Then he took one last, quick glimpse of the unforgiving sky overhead and inched forward, doing everything in his power to modulate his breathing to normal levels-- he couldn't do much about his runaway heartbeat. He tried to prepare himself as best he could-- for this kind of intrusion, for the maddeningly blank possibility of what he might see, for the potential chance that he'd end up staring straight into Jim's accusing eyes.

He touched the glass before he did anything else. The chill bit into his fingers, a forceful and sharp reminder that this was all real, that he had brought himself to this place. He welcomed the frozen pain as some bizarre form of expiation, and pressed his whole hand flat into it before he edged up the last few inches, and looked down.

One quick glimpse was enough to assure him of a few things-- that Jim was definitely at home, that apparently Jim had company, and that Blair himself had somehow neglected to consider the effect of looking down through a skylight, or the fact that doing so might make him a little queasy. He pulled away and sat up and fought with his breath, eyes closed. Over and over he saw a brief flash of shapes under blankets, slow-moving; one hand raised up into the pillows-- Jim's hand, raised and questing as if it were the hand of a drowning man. He had to work to stop himself from shivering, cold with half-reasoned fears even though he was warm with mortification of... well, spying like this.

He got his breathing under control, curled his fingers tight around the sharp edging of the skylight frame (won't fall, you won't fall, you're not gonna fall...), and looked back through the glass.

And froze in utter shock right where he was, unaware of his icy hands or the wind or even the height he looked down from as the blankets rolled back, thrust by an impatient arm.

Jim wasn't in bed with Constanza DeLuca. Jim wasn't in bed with some stranger with a storybook-romance cascade of strawberry blond tresses.

Jim was in bed with Blair.

With hellish, arctic clarity he absorbed everything in one staggering moment-- the look on Jim's face; a look of mixed terror and ecstasy on those well-known features, so strange-- so very strange... Jim's head thrown back as he rode, impaling himself on the unseen organ, moving faster every moment. And under that, under Jim, the strangest thing of all; the thing that made Blair feel like his heart might just give up and burst under the strain-- himself; sweating and shivering and arching upwards, staring at Jim with a flat and malevolent hunger that masqueraded as a travesty of lust.

It was killing him to watch; his whole body shook with the panicked pain of it, and yet he couldn't look away. The shock was universal-- it defined his world. Above that was only dull surprise at himself for watching so calmly, for sitting anchored to this rooftop as if shrieking off into the night wasn't even an option.

That thing down there, the thing that looked like him-- eerily, exactly like him-- the reality of it shook in his bones, chewed at his heart as he watched Jim seize up and spasm-- even through the glass he could hear horrified and desperate moans that made his testicles crawl back up into his body. That thing. That thing was fucking Jim's ass and wearing Blair's face.

He choked, and suddenly knew for a fact that he was going to do it, was going to scream bloody murder after all, but suddenly that terrible, rapacious face was mercifully shielded from view as the thing rolled Jim over as easily as if he were a ragdoll. Blair gagged on his own cry, shocked again into utter immobility as all the excruciating clarity of the scene was lost under a black, shifting mist; something that emanated from the mockery of his own bare spine and shoulders, unfurling like some indistinct insectile wings, spreading like poison over the expanse of the bed.

And then he couldn't watch any more. His vision seemed to be going dark, and with one last-ditch thought of what might happen if he passed out and tumbled through the glass into that ghastly blackness below, he pushed himself away. He stumbled a few steps, far past any attempt to quiet his movements, and then was totally and convulsively sick, falling to his hands and knees in the gravel with a distinct sense of gratitude that he was still here to feel this pain, to feel the agony of his stomach ripping free and his palms shredding away because it meant that he wasn't there, not there in that dark room below, suffering... Suffering what Jim was suffering.

When the sharpest pains were over there was a long, quiet interval where the only sounds were his own terrified sobs and the high, keening whistle of the nighttime wind; a dreadful sound that made him think of wings, dark wings spread to catch the cold air, black feathers dry as dust.

He put his head down under his arms and closed himself away from it, and waited for the world to come back.

The world didn't really come back for a long, long time. Not while he made his shaky and precarious way down from the roof (totally unfazed by the height now-- after all, he'd seen scarier things, right?), not while he ran for his car, not while he drove blindly and without direction, not until he ended up at a Super 8 motel on the outskirts of town and realized that, yes; he was still really alive, yes, he was going to spend the night here, and finally yes, in the safe light of morning he would do... something.

It was, perhaps, the worst moment of all, to realize that he wasn't going to run. It made him feel like his blood was curdling in his veins.

For the first time ever he made use of the credit card he'd gotten from Naomi on his birthday (just for emergencies, honey)-- well, if this didn't constitute an emergency, he didn't know what did. His hands shook as he signed the slip.

The room they gave him was simple but functional-- he'd had to take a double because there were no singles left, but that turned out to be a blessing because he was able to pile two sets of bedding onto one of the beds. He curled up under the heap with all the lights in the room on and the heater going full blast, wincing every time an ice-shard of terrible memory lanced through his mind.

The thing.

That thing.

That thing had Jim-- had him somehow, had him hauled in and locked up tight, and if somebody didn't do something then someday very soon they would all be standing over Jim's bed and shaking their heads sadly-- but by then the thing would have slipped quietly away, leaving behind only the part it couldn't use. The dead part.

And that was what finally broke the grip the horror had on him-- no way was that thing going to get away with it, no way was Blair ever going to be part of that sad and solemn circle around Jim's bed. The thought was tinged with such passionate fire that he took his first full breath in what felt like forever, and his hands closed into strong fists as terror faded into certainty.

He no longer felt like he was risking imminent heart failure, but despite that he didn't seem to feel any calmer about the whole thing, because underneath the fear there was only deep, utter shock-- whatever happened, even if he managed somehow to get Jim out of that thing's clutches, nothing would ever be the same again.

Jim's face, pained and haunted, flashed across his mind, and he pushed the picture away resolutely before it could lead to other images.

Nothing would ever be the same again. A bone-deep truth.

Moving as slowly as if underwater, Blair pulled the blankets all the way up to his chin and turned towards the light of the bedside lamp. He felt Jim with him-- very present and yet very far away; that which had been known all crumbled to dust, that which was unknown loose inside him, finding room in the interior space of his awareness.

Jim-- a comfort and a threat. Too close and too far. The need to connect and the need to be distant, the need to protect and the need to run-- Blair couldn't pick and choose, not when all his nerve endings were still sizzling, stunned with new knowledge and a low, dismayed feeling that maybe, just maybe, he should have somehow seen this coming.

Blair sighed and huddled deeper under the covers, ducking questions as he tossed restlessly.

He closed his eyes on a mystery. Trouble followed him down into darkness.

"Do you see?" The voice was not quite right but it was close, and it was easy enough for him to ignore the smaller differences as soft tones came at him from slow shadows moving, coalescing like a negative aura. It was always somehow both better and worse when he couldn't see its face.

"Yes." His chest hurt terribly, as if someone had reached inside and tugged ferociously at his heart.

Subtle whispers as it leaned forward, shining conviction from borrowed eyes. "Do you despair?"

Looking into those blank pits, so similar in everything except diamond-hard where they should be soft, there was no question. "Yes." He choked on the word, and the truth that came out with a deep shudder afterwards. " I despair. I want..."

Dark curse of a kiss, hot and wet and rough with a tight, mindnumbing edge to it-- wondering how many teeth there were in there. And then whispering, whispering; endearments rotted away with endless hunger, lips against his ear with the right shape but the wrong touch, burning him with strains of discordant melody. "Happiness is a warm gun."

He stopped breathing for a moment. Stopped altogether. He thought about it, saw it all the time now.

The ritual of care, the focus of attention and reverence required-- his mind was pretty much quiet in those moments; smoothly, blankly silent and free from everything except mellow appreciation of how well everything fit together, how silky the alloy was under his fingertips, how it gleamed in the light. Time passed around him unnoticed; hours drained away and funneled down into a nine-millimeter hole.

Occasionally, he thought of Sandburg. Independent and discrete and entirely disconnected from any of this-- which was as it should be, since it had nothing at all to do with him. Better that he was gone.

He hoped Blair was looking out for himself.

"Yes." Raw in his throat. Raw everywhere, now.

Then a feeding hush, rippling out into the empty air; only muteness, and quiet, and dark.

Incubus. Succubus.

The words sounded more tinged with romance than really seemed appropriate-- fantasy-fodder for some, apparently; but Blair would have bet that those people had never gotten a really good look at one of those goddamn wormy things in action.

He found that his natural abilities blessed him in two ways-- first of all, it got Ms. Lettinger to allow him into the University library significantly before the official opening time (the warmest Sandburg smile and a liberal use of her first name did that); and secondly, his long-established pattern of requesting bizarre reference materials spared him any strange or inquisitive looks-- just the usual amused smile and a complaisant 'don't you lead an interesting life!'

Yeah-- right now maybe just a bit too interesting. Blair sighed heavily as he settled into a chair at his normal corner table with a stack of books about two feet high.

And immediately proceeded to get frustrated-- this wasn't science, after all, it was myth; and myth was all fine and good and fascinating enough in its own way when you were talking about tribal mythology, but not when you were looking for answers to a problem that could probably open some weird door into hell and then shove you right through if you didn't play your cards right.

He'd felt hope at first-- succubus, incubus-- a sexual vampire that didn't drink blood, that drained 'life-force' instead of blood-- just naming the thing felt like some kind of accomplishment. Succubus females, incubus males-- the thing he was dealing with seemed to be both, but apparently that wasn't such a rarity on the 'cubus side of the question. An old-world excuse behind unexplained pregnancies, behind good boys being led astray from their doting sweethearts-- a spiced-up and slightly nastier version of the Siren myth.

He found stirring tales and chilling tales, tales of woe and heartbreak and obsession, tales that would have made very good reading around the fire on a tenth-grade campout-- but facts? Even pieces of facts? Anything he could base even the flimsiest theory on? Nope.

If it hadn't been Jim's life and maybe his own life on the line, he would have had a fine time. As it was, after three hours of increasingly hurried paging he was ready to scream.

The victims, the 'thralls', those held spellbound by nighttime orgiastic visits; died. They just wasted away, or sometimes took their own lives.

He read the words, and he considered it... and then his whole body twitched spasmodically as his mind showed him an all-too-vivid picture of Jim's tight, stern face-- Jim and his gun, cleaning, grimly cleaning-- wiping and polishing for hours without seeming to be aware at all of the world around him...

He'd accidentally jerked the book off the table when he'd twitched. He scooped it up off the floor quickly, almost guiltily, and paged through until he found his place again. If he wanted to help Jim, he needed to do this. He bent over the text with renewed resolution.

The thralls died, or killed themselves. True, they often reappeared later as lost, wailing apparitions; but somehow the idea of seeing a ghostly Jim fluttering vaporishly above his bed failed to pacify him. He finished another book without learning anything remarkably useful, and started on the next.

He'd requested 'everything pertinent', and that's what had been given to him. Currently he was whipping through an oversized, dusty tome written in Spanish, complete with terrible charcoal drawings of large-bosomed women in filmy dishabille being threatened by amorphous and extremely phallic shadows. His diligent fingers leafed through page after page; his eyes caught and translated the occasional word, but the sense he got of it was that it was just more of the same, except maybe rated 'NC-17' instead of 'R'. It occurred to him that if he'd found this particular book back when he first started college, he might have kept on with his Spanish classes.

All at once, a dark scribble under his blurring eyes snagged at him. His breath caught, but he'd already flipped ahead several pages and so he had to turn back, scanning faster and faster until he found the picture.

A chapter heading, done in the same heraldic and ornate script as the others. Under that another dreadful drawing-- but this one looked almost like a woman being crucified until he confirmed what his first glance had suggested-- that her outstretched arms were actually transfixed against a backdrop of wings. Black wings-- her own wings. Partly feathery and partly leathery and mostly vague except for the clear and cruelly drawn claws that sprouted from the ends. Her face was a cipher, blank and unemotional except for the suggestion of skull-like greed in the inky vacancies of her eyes. Blair felt a dull throb of pressure low in his stomach, and his mouth suddenly seemed as dry as the paper under his fingertips.

The chapter title was 'La Dragóna'. The Dragon.

He started to read, but it was slow going-- the language seemed to be more formal and archaic than he was used to, and there were several words he couldn't translate at all. Despite the difficulty there was a hot, burning, itching sensation behind his eyes-- standard response to being close on the heels of some piece of information he needed, knowing that it was out there, the fiery tangibility of an answer.

But of course, he was dealing with a myth-- seemingly a very old one. He didn't get the illuminating solution he'd been hoping for, but for the first time there was a whisper, a suggestion of other things. A break in the pattern.

"The Dragon is subject to the laws of the physical shape she inhabits. A nobleman who had been in thrall to the Dragon, and had become sick unto death, was saved when a servant-girl trapped the Dragon with a ring of salt, and cut its head off right as it entered his bedchamber. For this good service the nobleman married her, thus she enriched the honor of her family and rid the land of a perilous scourge at the same time."

Subject to the laws of the physical shape it inhabits... Trapped it with a ring of salt? Cut its head off? He blinked, and in the instant of darkness he saw himself stalking... well, himself, maybe with that machete he'd never gotten to use on his last expedition...

Cut its head off. Oh right. Blair could see himself trying to explain that to Simon. He wiped a trace of sweat from his forehead, and kept reading.

"The Dragon thrives on darkness. What draws her to her victims is the food and drink she finds within the darkened soul. Without the necessary melancholy and anguish, she is unsatisfied. For this reason, she does not prey on the innocent."

Jim? A darkened soul? Blair wouldn't really have thought so, but then, apparently there were lots of things he didn't know about Jim. The thought of it shamed him as much as it embarrassed him. It pressed at his heart like an unwelcome touch.

There was little more of value, just a brief story about how the thing bushwhacked a man of God who had fallen from his faith. Not really a Jim kind of dynamic; at least, not so far as Blair knew.

And that was the end of the chapter. A quick review of the last three books yielded nothing more than what he already had. So-- the final result: just tidbits, scraps of information. A starting point. The problem was, where this would normally be the first step in a long, long process of researching, winnowing and tracking down the knowledge he wanted, he had a sneaking suspicion that if he went through the customary steps it would be way too late for Jim by the time he'd gotten all the pieces together. Like, say, three months too late.

So-- what was he supposed to do now? Go buy a jumbo bag of salt? Go home to Jim, tell him to sit tight, and then grab the biggest knife he could find and wait for eleven o'clock to roll around? He bit his lower lip in frustration-- he needed to know, he needed something to hang a plan of action on besides vague theories and information gleaned from a book of fairy tales. If he went into this without sufficient preparation, it was very likely that both he and Jim would have to pay the price.

Blair sighed deeply, closed the book, and put his burning head down on its smooth leather cover. There had to be something else. Time. Time and information-- the two things he needed, the two things that were in short supply. The time factor he couldn't really do anything about. The information part of it...

And then it hit him, with that strange, flipping sense of reversal that came whenever he managed to see a problem from a whole new angle-- he might not have much information about the thing, but he did have a fair amount stored up about Jim.

At first, he dismissed it out of hand-- the events of the past day had proven to him beyond the shadow of a doubt that he didn't have much information about Jim; in fact, from all appearances, he'd been missing some chunks of Ellison lore that were pretty goddamn huge.

But... that wasn't really true. He knew it-- his face flushed hot under the burden of that awareness. He had some new information about Jim, yes; but he hadn't been... he hadn't yet... he hadn't really contemplated that new knowledge, had he? He hadn't considered what use could be made of it.

No, he hadn't. In fact, he'd kind of tried to ignore it, at least, everything except the basic fact, which he'd accepted, but hadn't thought about. Not really.

His face felt like it was on fire. He'd seen Jim being... taken by... he'd seen something he never expected to see. Never. Jim-- that way. Oh god...

Even his recent research hadn't quite brought it home to him-- the hook, the snare, the appeal of the incubus lies in its ability to take on the appearance of your heart's desire, the one person the thrall can't turn away from. Pretty much everything he'd read had mentioned it, but somehow his mind had managed to sort of gloss right over that without a second thought.

Until just now.

Jim's heart's desire. Imagine that. His own heart was pounding so hard he could feel it in the frozen tips of his fingers.

Blair shook his head a little, let his hair fall down around his blazing face, and closed his eyes tight; trying to shut it away, trying to hide.

And it occurred to him, with the solidity of an impossible yet unavoidable conviction, that if he hid himself away from this, Jim would die. His stomach folded in on itself.

He didn't want Jim to die.

He wasn't going to let Jim die. No way. He pulled himself upright, stared into the warm, streaky sunshine slanting in through the tall library windows, and tried to stop himself from shaking. He was not going to let Jim die. End of story. And that meant... that meant...

That meant, when he left this place, that he'd better be ready to do more than just buy a bag of goddamn salt.

Salt. Tears in his eyes. Fear in his belly. And conviction.

To give Jim... the one thing he couldn't turn away from.

The sunshine prismed, kaleidoscoped, became a washing shift of brilliance, easily diffuse, at once terrible and beautiful. Light. Naomi had always told him he was 'a light soul'. A light soul.

And an old lesson; perhaps the first he'd ever really learned-- he didn't need to keep it all to himself, did he? Good things were meant to be shared freely.

Friends share.

It took the last of his cash to get the ten-pound bag of salt, but, as of last night, 'better safe than sorry' had taken on a whole new meaning. He bought the salt, and dug through his pockets for pennies at the checkout stand.

Even with his new conviction, he couldn't help but feel the lack of certainty-- was he doing the right thing, here? There was no way to know. Just the thought of it created what felt like electric current running under his skin-- unavoidable and comprehensive, jittering through him like an incessant alarm. He felt... too much. Much too much.

It occurred to him as he walked to his car that probably, knowing Jim, he'd have an uphill battle all the way. A struggle he didn't want to have, and a hoped-for result that he couldn't count on. He'd have to push, and probably push hard, and still he didn't have the faintest clue whether it would work or not...

But, as much as he didn't want to admit it, it felt right. It felt right in his bones, regardless of how it felt in his mind. His mouth was dry as dust, and his heart pounded in his throat, and he had to keep swallowing, but messages were coming in from lower centers in his body, the places of instinct; telling him that he needed Jim with him, with him and freed from whatever hold that thing had gotten on him. And that he could do something about that.

When he reached the loft and saw Jim's car parked in its usual spot, his stomach unknotted itself a little even while his heart sped up-- he'd been afraid that Jim might be gone, but of course the fact that he wasn't meant that there was nothing else to do but... go ahead.

Go ahead. Just those two words alone, without even contemplating what he was about to go ahead with, were enough to make his breath catch in his throat.

And still, part of him felt like he should have known. Surprise wasn't really a factor. The scientist part of him was fascinated, even as the friend part of him wished desperately that this particular fact about Jim had never come to light. Truths and lies, secrets and revelations. Low, fluttering fear in the pit of his stomach.

Truths and lies... he was ready to take on both; to face Jim with the truth of what he knew, and to (please god) lie convincingly enough that this would be easy, that they could just get it over with and then both of them could be on the same side again, could work together on some way to put an end to this terrible situation.

He was ready to do whatever he had to in order to get Jim through this. He was ready for this whole mess to be over.

He was... at the door.

Which was unlocked-- another unheard-of Ellison deviation. He let it go, and walked in.

And, for the first time in days, met Jim's eyes. Surprised eyes, wide with astonishment even though they were more deep-set and hollowed than he'd ever seen them. The sight of it twisted something deep in his chest, seeming somehow much more important than the fact that Jim was sitting on the couch cleaning his gun (again), and was stark naked.

He tried a smile. A gentle smile, nonthreatening. "So, Jim-- is this generally what you do when I'm not around? Weapon comparison?"

Blair saw the shutters beginning to slide into place, saw that Jim was about to go AWOL on him again-- reaching hurriedly for the blanket across the back of the couch, his gun still clenched tight in one hand. "Jim-- stop. Stop right there."

Not a request or a game, but a demand. Jim did stop, but even from the other side of the room Blair could see fine tremors in his musculature, and a deep flush that stained his skin all the way down to his chest. Blair empathized. Deeply. He put the bag of salt down on the counter, and then looked as calmly as he could into Jim's haunted, panicked eyes.

"Just put the gun down, Jim." He watched as Jim obeyed him, never looking away as he leaned forward gradually and placed the gun on the coffee table. Blair nodded and started walking forward slowly, shedding his jacket as he went. "You don't need the gun. I know, man; I know what you're thinking about doing with it, and it's just not gonna happen--"

"Sandburg--" Jim's voice was strained, and even so it was almost too low to hear. Blair shushed him absently.

"Don't even bother." He had no idea where any of this was coming from, really; but he had his eyes fixed on Jim and was running on instinct from moment to moment; animal response. "I know everything, Jim; and this is where it ends--"

"Chief, stop it." Blair had started on his shirt now, stripping off as calmly and casually as if he wasn't shaking himself to pieces inside. He ignored Jim's words, and just kept moving closer. "You don't... you don't know what you're doing..."

"No," Blair agreed, keeping his voice down to keep the tremors out of it as much as possible. "But you can help me with that." He dropped his shirt on the floor and opened his belt, directly in front of Jim now; his heart pounding fiercely when he saw the terrified and hungry way Jim was staring at his hands.

A sight he'd never thought to see-- Jim actually afraid of him, shrinking back into the couch cushions as if he was trying to disappear into them. That gave him the strength to go on, somehow; that old dynamic between them that insisted that one of them be strong whenever the other couldn't be.

Blair let his pants drop to the floor, and kicked them aside. He'd been fully, almost painfully erect since the instant he started removing his shirt, and with only his boxers on and Jim's eyes glued to his groin, there was pretty much no guesswork left to do. It was an odd, terribly strange moment of confrontation-- the look of longing on Jim's face meant triumph, and while that was good, that was a good thing; it still made him sting and itch with sweat, every inch of him prickling with awareness of what he'd walked into, here.

"Jim." That, at least, was still easy-- the soft, caring tone he used to soothe, to comfort. He reached out and took Jim's hand, surprised and moved at how much that simple touch meant to him, how much reason it gave him for what he was doing right now. He pressed the hand to his naked chest, and only barely refrained from a hiss of surprise at how hot it was. "This is me-- the real me. Really me, man. I'm right here."

"Really you..." Jim echoed softly, and Blair knew (without knowing how he knew), that somehow he'd managed to slip right under Jim's radar; that instinct had led him true, and he'd found the right words, the right manner, the right way to sneak past all those ferocious guardians that Jim usually kept in such vigilant watch around himself. For the first time ever Jim was utterly, totally open to him-- and the weight and awareness of how priceless that was, how incredibly extraordinary it was to see Jim Ellison without his defenses keeping him carefully shut away-- that pulled at him, tugged him right past the place where fear would have made him hesitate, drew him right down onto the couch and around Jim like there was nothing easier in the world.

He covered Jim's body with his own, put his arms around him and rested gently in the hollow of his neck, hugging; pressing close. "Really me," he repeated softly, feeling Jim's shivers even more keenly than his own; "really me and you, Jim. Right here."

"Blair..." Jim said it softly, wonderingly, like a man held suspended in awe, gazing at some great mystery revealed. Blair felt a soft, hesitant stroke against the back of his head. "Are you sure?"

And then Blair was glad of their closeness, glad that he had someplace to hide his flushed, burning face as he clung to Jim with all the fervor that friendship and love could muster, the most earnest truth he could bring to his voice as he answered, "Yes."

Throughout the course of his adult life and his manifold, headlong laps through the dating pool, Blair had (upon rare occasions) found himself in a situation at the end of a date, where for whatever reason his own interest in gratification had waned significantly, but his companion's hadn't.

Standard protocol for these infrequent episodes was that he'd go through with it anyway-- it was simpler, after all, than having to explain why he didn't want to. He would perform as thoroughly and enthusiastically as if his heart had really been in it (easy enough to do; mind-over-matter and all that), make sure that his partner had a good time, and then say his final goodbye with a light heart and the mellow satisfaction of a job well done. He didn't think of it as lying. It was for a good cause, after all, and a way to turn a possibly unpleasant situation into something where everybody got to go away happy-- just like magic.

And he had intended, with a few minor changes, to work that same magic on Jim. There was absolutely no question about the fact that he loved Jim. There was no question that Jim was dearer to him than anybody else on the planet, with the possible exception of Naomi. And Blair had thought, with a little of that mind-over-matter magic and a continual recollection that he loved this guy, that he'd be able to take this last step without coming apart at the seams.

His intention, however; for all that it was important, shattered like a windshield under a hail of bullets the very first time that Jim placed tender, gentle hands on either side of his face and drew him into a kiss that brutalized his mouth with an unbelievable intensity of need. It hit him like an enormous weight dropping solidly onto his chest that this was not somebody who he could just say good-night to afterwards and then forget; this was his best friend and partner, somebody who didn't need Blair Sandburg's patented let-me-show-you-a-good-time bullshit, but needed Blair Sandburg.

Jim moaned softly against his tongue. Blair just held on, stripped of everything except his conviction that, no matter what, he loved Jim.

His eyes burned at that. How could he have thought that he'd get away with this? Good god, the Martyrdom of Blair Sandburg-- never mind the thing they had yet to face, he'd be damn lucky if Jim didn't kill him afterwards.

He kept his eyes closed as Jim eased out from under him, as Jim's hands guided him gently onto his back. Those hands were his touchstone, his connection with the real world as his heart speeded to a frantic pace and his own rushed breathing made him dizzy. He got even dizzier when his boxers slid away under the influence of those hands. Strong hands-- he needed that. He would touch them with his own, encourage them-- in a moment...

Wet, scorching heat enveloped his erection (that perfectly serviceable erection that he'd summoned into existence), and his whole body twitched convulsively. He gasped, and before he could stop himself he let go of a low cry of surprise and then Jim groaned, a deep vibration of mouth and throat while the heat around him sank lower and took more and then-- and then-- oh...

Then, he had a problem. Blair went from trembling to frantic shivering to uncontrollable shuddering and he couldn't stop the sounds coming out of his mouth because this sure was a 'voyage of discovery', all right, and one of the things he was currently discovering was that Jim was very good at this-- whether it was years of practice or just natural aptitude he didn't know, but he'd have to put his money on practice because this went beyond aptitude and straight into genius, oh god... Jim was wet and welcoming and way down on him, and stroking him in a way he'd never felt before-- he would have remembered... he would have remembered this... he would have remembered this... because this was unforgettable.

And he needed something to do with his hands besides try to tear apart the couch cushions so he rested them on Jim's head-- not pushing; there was no need to push because Jim had all the up-and-down details covered, well, well covered; and Blair was losing himself, losing everything, losing awareness of every fucking thing in the universe that didn't have to do with Jim's stunning, incredible, beautiful mouth. He heard himself sobbing, from very far away. He sincerely hoped that Jim knew that meant he was having a nice time.

Those hands, the hands that had kept him anchored only minutes before, he'd thought he'd known the strength in Jim's capable hands but here was another bit of discovery for him-- Jim's hands were warm and firm and cupping his ass now, lifting him up to get more of him, pulling him deeper and deeper, rougher and rougher into that wicked, blinding pleasure-- which was very considerate of Jim, because Blair sure as hell couldn't move a single muscle on his own.

He had never, in all of his life, felt anything like this before, and that was extremely distressing because in about four seconds he was going to come, and given what the buildup had been like, he thought coming in Jim's mouth just might kill him. Not that he was going to let that stop him. Oh no. Oh yes. Oh yes. Oh yes oh-oh-oh...

He didn't die from it, but he got about as close as he cared to get until he was about, say, ninety or so. He did scream loudly enough to hurt his own ears-- Jim's name, the only prayer he knew in that moment, over and over as Jim drank him down and he kept coming, spurting hot blissful wet release deep into that welcoming place, into Jim, straight down Jim's throat until he was so goddamn empty and he felt so fucking good that he hurt.

He opened his eyes and found that it made no difference, either way everything was just one blazing, shifting whirl of color. He couldn't get enough air. He hurt ecstatically, his body had given up on solid form and had melted into liquid that was going to be absorbed into the couch any moment now, and he still had a problem.

The problem was, he managed to think with the part of his brain that hadn't evaporated yet; that just a short while ago he'd been ashamed of himself for being a martyr. But most martyrdoms don't consist of suffering through having your best friend give you the blowjob of a lifetime, right? The beneficiary of that particular happenstance wouldn't exactly be called a 'martyr', would he? You couldn't really call him a 'martyr'. You'd have to call him something like...

He sighed. Petted Jim's head. Felt his bones melt a little more.

Fucked. Irretrievably and irrevocably fucked. Or, possibly, the luckiest bastard on the face of the earth.

He sighed again. Gave up on petting altogether and just pulled Jim's head as close as he could get it.

One of those two. He wasn't sure which. He didn't really want to think about it right now.

But, whichever it was, either way, he was pretty sure he had a problem.

Jim was gasping-- no, that wasn't gasping, that wasn't what gasping sounded like. Jim was whooping.

At first, that seemed perfectly understandable. After all, Jim had just done his level best to throttle himself on the biggest, hardest eight inches Blair had ever managed to produce.

But it went on for a while.

"Jim?" he asked softly, wondering if he'd done something... or if Jim had somehow managed to really hurt himself. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Jim's arms snaked in out of nowhere and circled his waist, and he touched Jim's face where it pressed hard against his sternum and there was wetness there, and mild fear became alarm in that split second and so he just held Jim close, as close as he could.

"You taste..." Jim murmured into his chest, very low, "and smell... like you. It's right. It's you-- you smell like you."

Perhaps not the most erudite explanation, but he pretty much got the gist. He had to swallow around the lump in his throat. "Oh. Yeah."

And after that, he didn't really know what to say. 'Thanks' seemed... well, insufficient. 'Your turn now?' seemed wrong too, and anyway-- how could he possibly measure up, even if in this particular moment the very idea of it wasn't exactly distasteful?

So he just let the quiet be for a few moments, soaked it in while he pondered the fact that now, not only would he never see Jim the same way again (like, understatement of the century), but actually nothing seemed to be the same. A life seen through a lens of change-- a subtle, but global difference. Pretty amazing. If he wasn't so busy tripping out on afterglow, he'd probably be taking notes.

Words floated through his mind, and he realized with sleepy surprise that they were the right words, that these were the words he'd been looking for. "Jim?" He could barely hear his own voice, but he knew that Jim would hear him. "Jim... I'd like to touch you."

A chuckle drifted up to him, and he absorbed it like water into hot sand-- how long had it been, anyway, since he'd heard Jim laugh at all? "Well, Chief, okay; but I've got to tell you-- if you're looking to reciprocate, you're going to be flogging a dead horse. So to speak."

Hmm. Interesting. A dozen questions immediately occurred to him, but he didn't think he could ask any of them without blushing or possibly even stammering, so he just held onto them. They led, however, to the one question he really needed to have the answer to. "You're not... I need to know... you're all done with thinking about... that whole... gun thing, right?"

Just saying it out loud brought it truly home to him, how one day very soon he might have come home to find Jim with his gun in his hand and his brains spattered everywhere. His hands tightened reflexively, pulling Jim's solid weight hard against him. (Alive. Jim's alive, right now.)

"We'll talk about all that," Jim said slowly, not sounding anywhere near as sure as Blair needed him to be. "First I'm going to take a shower-- I'm pretty much a mess, here."

Blair was pleased to find that his days of backing off from Jim's reticence were over. "Oh no you don't," he said calmly as Jim tried to pull away, yanking the other man back to him fiercely. "Just tell me that we're together on this-- just that much, man; you can tell me that." He wondered vaguely if he was going to make a new career out of pushing Jim around. He seemed to have a natural aptitude for it.

"On this--" It sounded almost as if Jim begrudged the words. "Yeah, Chief, we're together on it. Can I have my shoulders back now?"

"Asshole." He meant it affectionately. Jim chuckled again. Blair let go.

"Sweet-talker. Always thought you'd be a romantic bastard." The words and the fact that Jim was standing over him naked and streaked with sweat and various other fluids made his mind jump tracks once more, and he felt himself blushing. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

But apparently Jim could take a hint, just from a blush. "We'll talk. Don't sweat it, Sandburg. See you in a few."

And then he was gone. Blair surprised himself yet again by managing to sit up, just so he could watch Jim walk away. Well, a certain part of Jim, anyway. When he realized what he was doing his whole body blossomed with renewed heat, and he ducked his face down into his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees. The sexual obsession problems were mounting up, here-- as if he didn't already have enough of those on his hands...

The sunlight coming in through the windows suddenly seemed too hot on his skin, and it was abruptly just too weird to be naked and sticky on the couch while Jim was... after Jim had... Blair got up; wobbling a little on legs that still hadn't quite remembered the concept of vertical movement, and gathered up his scattered clothing on the way to his room to get a bathrobe.

Jim had done what Jim had done. Blair hadn't exactly found it to be an ordeal. He would figure out the rest later.

Blair pushed his empty plate away, shifted restlessly, and wondered why he'd never found the kitchen chairs uncomfortable before. He then promptly ordered himself not to answer that question.

Damn. He thought he'd be relieved by this, by the fact that finally, they were going to talk about it.

And he was, a little.

He'd been relieved when he came back into the living room after his turn in the shower, and found Jim scarfing down some leftover Chinese-- Jim looked much better than he had before; almost like his old self. There were still shadows under his eyes, but overall he looked no worse than he did after, say, a twenty-four hour shift during which the coffee machine had been on the fritz.

And Jim had saved some leftovers for him, and Jim was ready to talk, and all of that was good, but the problem was that they had lots of things that needed to be discussed, and the whole mess couldn't really be separated out into component parts so that maybe they could leave the uncomfortable bits for later. It was pretty much all or nothing.

And Blair had had his fill of nothing, thank you very much.

"So," he began, watching as Jim used his fork to draw idle patterns in a stray pool of soy sauce; "you want a beer?"

Jim looked at him. Not quite his old self. That haunted look had resurfaced, although it wasn't as bad as it had been before. "Yeah. That'd be good. Thanks."

He got two. While he was standing in front of the counter and wrestling with one of the caps that would not come along quietly, Jim spoke again.

"It actually started that first time we talked to her, I think."

Blair broke out in goosebumps. It wasn't the words themselves so much as the fact that they'd been spoken-- that this was it, the two of them, finally talking about this together. He hadn't even had to drag Jim to the point-- which made him wonder, with sudden dismay, whether he was really ready to hear all this. "Yeah?" He handed Jim one of the bottles and sat down.

Jim took it without looking at him. "Yeah." He sighed; the sigh of a man about to shoulder a heavy burden. "Everything was fine, but then, when I looked in her eyes, all of a sudden it was like she was talking to me, just to me, inside my head. And I didn't know what she was talking about but I knew it was something I wanted, something important."

Blair nodded, unwilling to interrupt, but Jim never looked up from his contemplation of his empty plate. "And then you were shaking me," he continued quietly, "and then I was out of it but I felt like I wasn't, if you know what I mean. I felt... embarrassed, and kind of like I'd missed something, but I never connected it with her at all-- I thought I'd just zoned out a little, like you said."

Jim shrugged. "The next day, when I saw her, I had nothing on my mind except to ask her if she'd seen anyone around with long reddish-blond hair. She asked me in, and I said no--"

Jim looked at him then, and Blair felt the weight, the caution in his gaze. "I'm sure I said no, Chief; but then it occurred to me that I needed to talk to her, that we'd had some kind of conversation that wasn't finished." Blair nodded again. His fingers were tingling against the icy bottle he held.

A small, sad smile from Jim. "It's funny, but-- I think, if it hadn't been for the weird shit I've been through with my senses, I would have been a lot more suspicious. I mean-- I know I lost time that day, but I just put it down to a glitch in my senses, and left it at that. Now, I can remember just a little..." The smile vanished all at once, and Blair saw a shadow, just a hint of that deep terror that had scared him so badly before. His stomach turned over uneasily. Jim looked away.

"I thought I was hallucinating." His voice had deepened but lost almost all volume; Blair had to lean forward to hear him. "I remember that I thought I must be hallucinating, because something was crawling over me; crawling all over and prying, picking, digging inside me..."

Jim shivered, his knuckles white where they wrapped around the neck of his beer. Blair's mouth was suddenly sour with horror.

"But after, after it was over, I didn't remember any of it. I didn't want to remember." Jim looked at him again, and Blair suddenly understood that at least part of what had driven Jim towards thoughts of suicide was that violation, that terrible and unstoppable rape of what was inside him. Given who Jim was, it seemed almost inevitable. "And that night I couldn't sleep-- I kept feeling like someone was watching me."

Blair opened his mouth to speak, but Jim shook his head. "Let me get this out, I... I just need to get it out of me." Blair subsided and watched Jim sip his beer. He put his hands in his lap so that Jim wouldn't see the way they were shaking.

"The next day, I kept feeling like... like I'd forgotten something, but I didn't know what it was. I went to Letier's apartment, and when I came out she was there, and then..." Jim rubbed his eyes briefly. "She started talking to me, and it was just like before-- like there was something she had to say that was important for me to hear. Then she suggested dinner, and that was totally not what I had in mind but I just... I don't know, I kept waiting for it, for what I was there for, you know? And then I called you, and I remember being annoyed with you about something but by the time I hung up I didn't remember what it was anymore. And then she said that she'd make dinner, and I didn't want to go into her apartment but I told myself I was being stupid and I just went--"

Blair saw Jim's throat work convulsively, and he wondered if he maybe should get a bowl or a trashcan or something, but he stayed put. His head was swimming.

Jim had scrunched his eyes shut tight, and he was holding onto his temples as if he was afraid he might fly apart. His voice was a raw murmur. "I just went in. She told me she had something to show me and then I knew that was it, that was the thing I'd been waiting for; and I followed her into her bedroom and she told me to close the door and I did, and by the time I turned around she was naked, but she wasn't her anymore, she was... she looked like you."

Jim buried his face in his hands. Blair understood. Easier maybe, for right now, if they didn't look at each other. "And the hell of it was that I was right, I had been waiting for it-- God, it felt like I'd been waiting my whole fucking life, to see you like that and to have you put your arms around me-- that first moment I felt... I felt like I would have killed for it, just to have you there like that, wanting--"

The flow of words were interrupted by a sharp gasp for air, and Blair jumped. His stomach was a mess of dismay and pity and terrible, terrible grief; and he hoped Jim was almost done because, really, he didn't know how much more of this he could take.

"So, when she... he... it started to change on me, started... hurting me, I had nothing left, you know? I mean, there was nothing, nothing in me that could stand against... whatever it wanted."

Jim surfaced, eyes red-rimmed and bleary, and Blair found that after all this time of trying hard to keep himself quiet and let Jim go through it, he'd reached an awful moment where he didn't know what to say.

But as it turned out, Jim wasn't finished yet. "And that's why, the next morning when I saw you, when you came into the station, I didn't-- I couldn't look at you. I couldn't look at you when just an hour before I'd been... with... someone who looked just like you."

Jim sighed, and put his head down on the table, and Blair saw tension seeping out of him-- his shoulders lowered perceptibly from their previously hunched, knotted mass. The first of it (and maybe, if they were lucky, the worst of it), had been said.

So why did he still feel so scared?

Even as he asked himself, he knew it for the stupid question it was. He was scared because the next part, the next step, was up to him.

He got up out of his chair quietly, went to Jim, and held him. He had to make himself do it-- Jim's story had terrified him, the idea of what Jim had been through with that thing, but the admission, the need Jim had for him, terrified him more. He couldn't remember anyone ever needing him that badly. Ever.

Jim allowed himself to be held easily enough, but standing above him Blair could see lines of unease marring his face. The words in the book he'd read about a 'darkened soul' came back to him, and for the first time it wasn't so very difficult to connect them with Jim.

"It's okay," he began softly, feeling like any words he had to offer were lame and futile against that kind of darkness. "It's okay, Jim. I'm here. I'm here for you, man." Jim was warm and heavy in his arms, a welcome weight against his stomach; and Blair sighed a little as he realized that no matter what, no matter what happened between them now or in the future, it would always feel good to hold Jim like this.

"Yeah," Jim mumbled, words muffled since his face was pressed tight against Blair's t-shirt, "I know. I know you are."

Blair couldn't think of anything else to say, so he just held Jim a little tighter. Between the new relief and the new increase in his own tension he felt terribly conflicted-- afraid of Jim, afraid of himself; and all along he'd felt so sure that if he could just get this problem out into the open between them everything would fall into place. All he could do was feel Jim's giving presence in his arms; Jim relaxing into him, resting on him, trusting him...

And then, in a moment of clarity very similar to the one he'd had earlier in the library, a moment where everything suddenly seemed to stand forth before him in a perfectly simple and elegant path, he knew what came next. He stood up straighter, smoothed his hands in a gentle slope down to strong, muscular shoulders. "Jim, I want you to come with me." The words were heavy, falling from his mouth. His ears were full of the low, hissing thud of his own heartbeat.

Jim's dark soul. Jim's need. Jim had been carved open, had had a dark thing from outside mesh with his darkness within-- Blair saw the hook in his mind, rusted and barbed and bloody, buried deep, almost impossible to extract.

But not entirely impossible. His hands were shaking again.

"Go with you?" Jim had tensed up again under his touch, just a little. "We can't... I don't think running away is going to work, Chief--"

"Do you trust me?" He didn't know he was going to ask the question. It had come straight from that gut-deep place of instinct-- he had hooks of his own, after all.

Jim's arms came around his waist, an immediate answer. "What kind of asshole question is that?" Whispered soft against his t-shirt.

Blair smiled. He couldn't help it. He felt the connection between them at moments like this-- always tinged with surprise, that he would do this, that he had somehow managed to find this in his life. He'd always known that it meant something, but he'd never known what. Now he knew. "The kind of asshole question I'd ask before taking you to bed."

He'd been afraid that Jim might balk on him, but the arms around him only tightened a little, and he felt a soft kiss against his sternum. It made his stomach flutter madly. "Well jeez, Casanova-- as hard as it is not to get swept off my feet by your charm, there; it seems to me that maybe there's a little problem we should take care of first--"

Despite the ease of the words he felt Jim's fear, heard it in a soft whisper of tension behind the casual response. His hands moved automatically, worked at unwilling muscles, tilted the other man's head back until their eyes met. Jim's eyes were... deep. So very deep. "That's just it, Jim;" he said softly, hoping desperately that his own fear didn't show on his face. "I believe... I think... this is it-- this is the way to take care of it. The first step. I think we need to do this--"

"Look, Sandburg;" and just as fast as that Jim had shuttered himself away again-- still meeting his eyes but so distant, so careful, so reasonable that Blair felt icy tendrils of dread slither through his chest and leach out the warmth that had been there. "I don't know what kind of point you're trying to prove here--"

"Oh, you don't?" The sense of cold apprehension vaporized immediately under a wave of righteous heat. As quickly as Jim had shifted, now Blair felt himself slipping with the same terrifying speed, skidding headlong into the anger that was born of fear whenever Jim shut him out like this-- that anger he'd been carrying for what seemed like years. He clamped his jaw shut tight for a moment before he spoke, almost relishing the warmth of it. "You don't know? Well, then I'll have to clarify a little, man."

He let go, pulled free of Jim's arms and whirled, strode purposefully to the coffee table and snatched up Jim's gun. It felt cold and oily and deadly in his hands, and he hated touching it-- it made his mouth flood immediately with the sharp flavor of panic.

He swallowed, wincing, and brought the weapon back to the kitchen table.

Placed it resolutely in front of Jim, and stepped away.

"Look at it, Jim," he insisted, feeling all the fierceness of his own frustrated pain; "take a good look at that fucking thing and then tell me whether or not it still has a hold on you-- tell me the truth about it-- is it calling you? Do you want it? Do you want to touch it and hold it and just fall right into that goddamn trance you go into every time you pick it up?" He was out of breath, panting, shaking; watching Jim stare at the gun as if it were some kind of venomous snake.

A moment of silence, in which he listened hard for the sound of Jim's answer.

No answer.

"Do you?" He almost didn't recognize his own voice, he sounded so furious.

And then Jim breaking, shaking visibly, covering his face with his hands again, shutting out everything. "Yes." Coughed out soft and sorry. Very sadly sorry. It sent a lance of fear straight through him.

"Right. Over my dead body, Jim. Like hell." It amazed him, how easy it was to fight when the enemy was a known quantity. How clear and simple it all was. And on the heels of that an echo of his earlier faith; a bright flame of conviction deep in his chest that said this was right.

He reached out, touched Jim's shoulder. Jim leaned away from him, twisted away, but he held on.

He held on.

"Come with me."

The first sign he had that maybe he wasn't quite as in control as he thought he was came five minutes later, when he peeled Jim's shirt slowly away from broad, muscular shoulders and realized abruptly that his own dick was as hard as a rock.

No command performance, either-- just pure body-memory, a memory that felt like it was threatening to overwhelm him. Jim did this to him-- his mind might be unconvinced, but as far as his body was concerned, the loveliest long-stemmed co-ed had nothing on Jim Ellison.

He pushed that thought down; pushed it down hard. This was about Jim, for Jim, not himself. He'd deal with his own mess later. Much later. Some time later when he didn't have to worry about all these different varieties of fear.

Jim didn't make it any easier; but, Blair had to admit, he didn't make it as difficult as he could have if he'd really put his mind to it. Jim was mute and shaky and not ostensibly unwilling; he followed Blair's lead easily enough-- something that had the flavor of a bad joke, or would have had if it weren't so goddamn scary and sad. In Jim's tightly controlled breath, in his clenched hands, in the way he shuddered every time he was touched, Blair sensed Jim's need of him-- like some big animal inside Jim that was leashed but straining, howling crazy and ravenous and held at bay by only the slenderest margin.

And actually, that didn't scare him quite as much as maybe it should have-- after all, if Jim snapped, if Jim bore down on him with all the urgency bred of what was chewing him to pieces inside... well, that would take matters nicely out of Blair's hands, wouldn't it?

That would make things much simpler.

But Jim, in his naturally infuriating way, didn't snap. In the meantime, Blair felt the current responsibility on his shoulders as an nebulous but cumbersome burden, a burden he largely tried to ignore as he moved forward with solemn, insistent precision. It wasn't easy. He kept getting distracted by the scholarly part of his brain, which was utterly fascinated by the way his body got turned on and stayed turned on, even while his mind was blurring between frustration and dire apprehension, both of which were light-years away from anything he thought of as arousing.

He sincerely hoped that his external performance betrayed none of this. He worked hard to maintain the appearance of deliberate, affectionate calm-- he got both Jim and himself gradually out of their clothes, made sure to touch Jim and tell him how beautiful he was (not a stretch-- Jim was, after all, beautiful); and kissed Jim deeply, deeply-- with all the passion that his heart and body could come up with, for all that his mind was otherwise engaged.

And Jim took it, took him, silently; accommodated his tongue and breath and touches with none of that frantic desperation that had made it so easy last time. Trembling and inert he began, and trembling and inert he remained as Blair took one methodical step after another.

Blair's mind, when it wasn't busy hovering on the edge of panic or taking notes on some of the more interesting ramifications of what he was doing, was busy recalling in acute detail a conversation he'd had two years ago with a T.A. who had only stayed at Rainier for one summer session. Kyle Anderson had been bright, possessed of a wicked sense of humor that made him very easy to get along with, and openly gay. One sultry night under the dual influences of knowledge of Kyle's impending departure and overindulgence in cinnamon Schnapps, Blair had asked and Kyle had answered; questions that began generally enough but eventually circled down to specifics as Blair went about his usual system of information gathering, and confirmed Kyle's hooted conviction that he was 'a nosy little fuck'.

One conversation. One very silly, very drunken conversation, that had happened over two years ago. The sum total of his data. He hoped to God that Kyle had known what he was talking about.

So of course, when Jim gasped out "Blair, wait;" Blair immediately stopped what he was doing, even though he was at that very moment mentally congratulating himself on having finally geared himself up to what he thought of as 'the sticking point'.

"What is it, Jim?" he asked quietly in response, holding his newly sheathed erection in one hand as if it might fly away from him if he let go of it. He wasn't afraid at all of losing his hard-on, however; just his nerve.

Jim looked at him, stared up at him from flat on his back, laid out and vulnerable, his body shaking, his voice shaking. "I don't think I can do this."

'Oh good, me either' was what Blair meant to say, just back off from this idea and try something else, something sane, but what came out of his mouth was, "You can do this, Jim. I want... I want you with me. Be with me."

And Jim's face gentled just a little, melted a little at the words he apparently needed to hear, and his hands came up, up, slowly up; and cupped Blair's face; and Blair's heart lurched at the tenderness of that, at the reverence in it, at the trust.

And he felt Jim's tremors fade away even as his own began, and Jim's voice didn't shake at all as he answered. "Yeah, okay."

Yeah, okay-- there was this fact, right? Just a fact of life. In fact, the fact of life, when he stopped to think about it-- discovered sometime in his eleventh summer, and pretty much his constant companion ever since: if your dick gets hard and you put it someplace and move it around, it feels good; and if you keep going then it feels really good, and then you're done and then you get to change the sheets before your mom finds out.

Just a fact of life. Of course, a new wrinkle or two had shown up since then-- like adding other people into the equation, which led to the discovery of several new and wonderful places to put a hard dick-- but the basic principle remained the same.

And yes, as an adult he'd come to think of himself as fairly sexually sophisticated, as someone who clearly understood that there were forces at work during sex beyond the dick/place to put it dynamic. The spiritual side of sex (linked forever in his mind, though he didn't know it, with the 'grown-up' side of sex); the mystical-human-connection sort of stuff. Yeah. Okay. Basic principle with some human connection thrown in for good measure. Got it.

But--

But, for all that he'd fucked around with Tantric sex and kundalini yoga sex and the Kama Sutra and the Joy of Sex and the wonders of hard dicks and all the miraculous places you could put them, he'd somehow managed to entirely miss out on the fact that part of him, given the right set of circumstances, had the capacity to be a totally out-of-control, fucking ravenous sexual beast.

It was, needless to say, quite a surprise. A surprise immediately overwhelmed by the even bigger surprise that, apparently, the 'right set of circumstances' involved being in Jim's ass. What he'd expected was nowhere to be found-- he'd expected that he'd put his dick someplace that would feel good, and then he'd try to make Jim feel good, and then it would be over. As simple as that; he'd been prepared for that. Nervous, but prepared.

He was not prepared to go from thinking 'I don't believe I'm doing this' to 'hey, I think I can do this' to 'I never, ever ever want to stop doing this' in the space of about thirty seconds. Which is what happened.

The first time that his head rolled back and he lost it, lost control of the rough, urgent groan that had been suffocating him, the first time his hips snapped hard and he thrust deep into that place he was suddenly so desperate to be, Jim came under him. Jim came, in fact, all over him; something that he might have amused him or annoyed him or even repulsed him at some other time, but which right now just made him fucking crazy.

"Oh--" was pretty much all he managed at that moment, too busy watching Jim, watching Jim give him this lifesaving thing he'd never known he wanted. Jim gave, offered, so beautifully, moaning his name, and that stirred something deep within him, something powerful, and he suddenly understood exactly what Jim meant when he'd said that he felt like he would have killed for this.

His hands slid of their own accord, found Jim's shoulders and pinned him there.

He didn't even try to find a pace-- he didn't have to; the pace found him. Jim's heartbeat, his own heartbeat, his throbbing, aching cock which absolutely couldn't get enough-- it was all his rhythm, their rhythm; something he made to beat down any barrier between them while he ploughed into Jim's body, rocked himself as deep as he could go. Every time Jim arched up into him it made him gasp, made him push a little harder, a little faster. When he couldn't stand it anymore he leaned down and devoured Jim's mouth, tonguefucked him hard until the lips under his were slick and swollen, conquered.

"I'm not-- done with you-- yet." He said it because it was the closest approximation to 'Hey, Jim, don't make me stop, okay?' which is what he would have said if he hadn't been out of his fucking mind. Jim only heaved under him and groaned in response, which was good enough for him.

A deep and unsuspected vein of delight ran through him-- his whole body, his whole being had pulled together seamlessly in the service of redefining pleasure, redefining power. Jim's skin thrilled him-- to touch, to taste; Jim's strength and solidity provided a bulwark against which he loosed the frenzy of everything he'd ever held in check-- Jim was strong, Jim could take it, Jim was loving it, loving everything Blair did to him. Give and take, contract and release-- Jim was with him through all of it, right with him all the way-- delight. Oh yes.

He let go of Jim's shoulders and then worked backwards, slowly and carefully until he was kneeling, until he had the hot and muscular weight of Jim's lower body solidly in his lap-- a weight he felt like he could support forever. He was greedy for touch, and the moist slide of Jim's thighs, hips, chest-- anywhere and everywhere he could reach; anything he could lay hands on and mold in his palms and claim-- he absorbed it, soothed himself with it, let it feed the pulse in him.

Jim's cock-- Blair stopped thrusting, ignored Jim's deprived gasp and just focused in on it, touching and stroking softly, feeling a shudder run from his own body into Jim's and back again. Growing, lengthening, hardening in his hands-- smooth and oddly, infinitely desirable, it fit to his hand like perfection and made him break out in a sweat as he watched Jim get taken by it, giving again; giving and moaning and lost as Blair slowly stroked him.

"I want you to come again." His own voice was dark with surety. Jim reached for him like a drowning man, and Blair captured one of those groping hands and fisted it tight around the hot, slick satin of Jim's shaft. He needed his own hands now, needed them to spread Jim open wide around him, needed them for leverage as he fastened onto the muscles of Jim's hips and started pounding into him.

And that animal in him was loose again, the groan and strain and sweet coppery tang of triumph-- of going deeper, harder; taking what he needed while he watched Jim's wanton response through a damp, swinging curtain of unruly hair. Jim bucked in his hands, slippery with sweat; but Blair just tightened his grip and kept pushing. The hunger in him, the desire to take Jim over was the only thing that stopped him from giving in to the demand in his own body to just surrender and come already-- every thrust into snug, luscious heat seduced him towards that edge, made him growl and pant and squeeze his fingers tighter into the flexing muscles that tempted him so dangerously.

Despite his savage pleasure in it he might have lost the struggle, might have just let it finish him, if whatever limbic signals he was using for instinct hadn't told him that Jim was close, very close. Jim's strokes on his own shaft were slow, but there was a tense, helpless edge to his continual moans that told a different story.

"Blair," Jim was suddenly heavier, somehow; utterly rigid across his thighs, locked open and shuddering. "You feel... I'm..."

The rest was lost in a low, almost agonized groan. Blair tossed his hair back impatiently and gasped at the force he brought to bear, the short, fierce plunges of his hips and the strength that burned in his muscles and his own desperation to make Jim let go. "That's it--" he gritted through his teeth; and then everything in him flashed to incandescence as Jim did let go, arching up and spilling out and coming for him-- because of him. So beautiful.

He watched Jim hungrily through all of it, soaked up every twist and shiver, breathed deep of the raw, sensual smell of sweat and come. He sacrificed his grip to reach for Jim's now-lax hand and pulled it to his own mouth, taking what was there into himself; the pungent, musky salt of it exploded on his tongue and made his mouth water.

And when Jim's fingers slipped free from his lips and slid moistly over his cheek and around, pulling, pressing against the back of his head, he went where they guided him. He lowered down on Jim with the last snapping threads of his self control, and then his face was buried in the hollow of a warm, damp throat and one deep breath brought it crashing home to him that this was Jim; that right here there was infinite strength and devotion and he was about to come in the arms of his best friend, the man that he loved.

His ferocity dissolved, the need for mastery diffused all in a moment into melting, aching tenderness that was so powerful he had to squeeze his eyes shut.

"God-- Jim-- oh jesus..." he gasped the words and they sounded incoherent to his own ears, but whether Jim heard him or not Jim gave him what needed; held him tight, held him close, kept him safe and sheltered while he cried out softly over and over, rocking gently into sweetest perfection. Jim was whispering 'yes' somewhere close to his ear, and everywhere things were spilling over; merging into liquid, endless bliss that he was happy to drown in. Slow and potent and unstoppable, ecstasy held him in a steadfast grip for a long, long time-- Jim held him, Jim's strong arms and warm body welcomed him in, and there was nothing he needed to do except let himself melt away.

Then there was quiet; what seemed like measureless, untold quiet. Blair just went with it.

He didn't feel like he had much of a choice-- what the hell do you say after something like that, anyway? The strongest candidate was 'marry me'; but there were certain difficulties there that far exceeded his current capacity for rational thought, so for the moment he just let it ride and sank a little deeper into the lush, sensual haze.

Jim kept petting him-- one hand moving in slow circles on the small of his back, the other sweeping gently back from his forehead to the nape of his neck, over and over. Nice. Loving. Easy. It was easy-- yet another surprise in this day of staggering surprises.

He was still wondering what he should say, when Jim spoke first.

"Hey." Soft, near his ear. It made his nipples harden.

"Yeah?"

"I really... I don't think I can tell you how much I needed that."

And then he had to smile, and try not to laugh since he still felt too tingly to bear laughing; because it was the kind of thing that Jim might say at the end of a hot and exhausting day after Blair handed him a beer.

"Yeah." He rolled his smile into Jim's throat and took a little taste, and then rubbed his salty tongue over his teeth to see how that felt. Yeah.

It all felt pretty good.

Good to know that his innate talent for getting himself into complicated situations hadn't deserted him in the crunch.

The dilemma: he'd started the whole thing as a way to bring himself and Jim together, led by nothing more than his own intuition. He'd succeeded... well, he'd succeeded a hell of a lot more spectacularly than he'd planned to, and he was pretty sure that if he and Jim were any more together their molecules would actually be fused. But... he needed to ask, to be sure; and the motive he'd begun with seemed terribly shallow now, and he didn't really know how to ask the questions he needed answers to. 'So, Jim; you've given up that stupid suicide idea since I fucked you raw, right?' just wouldn't cut it.

In the end, he had to settle for: "Jim, are you okay?"

Jim shifted in his arms and looked at him, and he had his answer. That was Detective Jim Ellison lying there next to him, focused laser eyes and every inch crime's worst nightmare even though his hair was all in dorky spikes and he was wearing only a layer of sweat and Blair's leg. "You bet, Chief. Just thinking."

Thinking-- Jim was back on-line, Jim was thinking; and that acute, speculative look suggested that he was thinking about matters slightly more pressing than when he might possibly be able to get it up again. It brought Blair back to the matter at hand with an abrupt jolt, and new fears rushed in to fill the vacancies left by the ones he'd just wrestled into submission. It was hard-- damn hard-- to switch gears like this, to put away the momentous event that had just transpired between them and get his mind back on business, but, tactically speaking, it was probably pretty damn important. "Yeah-- I guess we should do some of that."

But... before he did, he took one moment-- one last little clandestine time-out-- just to make sure he had it all down. One silent breath pulled deep to establish that, yes, this had really happened-- this is what he and Jim smelled like, felt like, looked like...

New fears indeed. They had a job to do; Jim was focused on the job-- but one of Blair's new fears had to do with the fact that, somehow, Jim didn't need him anymore. Based on nothing more than simple emotional intuition, he felt that the rift, the schism in Jim had closed tight-- and that's what he'd wanted, what he'd worked for, after all, but... But, Blair had all these new fears to deal with, and whether he liked it or not the thought that Jim had transcended need was the stupidest and saddest of them.

So, he breathed. Memorized. Learned it all by heart.

And then he felt ready to close the door on that; to just put all that shit aside and deal with it later (if, indeed, there turned out to be a later), and put his mind squarely on the fact that they still had an incubus to deal with.

But it was damn hard.

He looked at Jim again, saw that Jim was staring resolutely at the ceiling, his forehead furrowed into deep lines of concern. "Hey-- what's up, man?" The job, and his place in it, would have to be enough for now.

"It's a weird situation, Sandburg," Jim's 'going over the case' voice. "I mean-- it's not really going to do any good to arrest her, you know?"

The results of his morning's research came back to him in a rush of speculations, frustrations, ideas. "Um... no, I guess not. I tried to look into this at the library, but there wasn't a lot there. I mean-- we don't really know what she can turn into--"

Jim sat up abruptly, leaving Blair with a view of his back. It was a very nice back... he scolded himself silently and forced his attention back onto Jim's words.

"--pretty much anything, Chief. The things I've seen her turn into would... would straighten your hair."

Blair decided that this wasn't the time to tell Jim what he'd seen-- he put that firmly in the 'later' pile. "So, you don't arrest it... her. What then?"

Jim smiled at him from over his shoulder. "Why don't you tell me?"

Blair hesitated, wondering if he was still too post-coital to make sense of things. "Tell you what?"

Jim tossed his head a little, that movement that either meant 'get off it, Blair' or 'jeez, my neck hurts'; something Blair had never really been able to tell for sure. "Oh come on, Chief; you mean to tell me you haven't scraped together a bunch of herbs and crystals and shit like that, all ready to 'cleanse' her right back to the underworld?"

He sincerely hoped that Jim was kidding him. "Uh... I have some salt."

Jim blinked. "You have... salt."

Blair nodded. "Ten pounds of it. Downstairs." Jim still didn't look convinced. "In a bag."

Jim's expression was pure Skeptical Ellison. "You mean salt, as in, 'yanking it out of my hand whenever I try to eat steak' salt?"

Blair sat up, and tried not to pay attention to the weird fact that they were having this conversation naked in bed together. He pulled the sheet into his lap. "Yeah, man-- salt. I had a hell of a time trying to find any information at all-- there were just, like, fairy tales, mostly; and not many of them lived happily ever after, if you know what I mean." He cleared his throat a little. "It was all myth and no hard facts, but yeah-- the salt thing-- someone trapped one in a ring of salt. So I got salt."

Jim blinked again. Blair wanted to ask him to stop it, but didn't. "Trapped it in a ring... of salt."

"Yeah."

"Then what?"

Blair's turn to blink. "Then they cut its head off."

Jim squinted at him. "Sandburg..."

Blair shrugged. "Like I said, man-- fairy tales."

Jim scrubbed at his face with his hands. "I don't even believe this--"

"Hey--" A chill shook him, and he pulled the sheet up higher around himself. "You didn't... did you really think I had this whole thing figured out? That I actually knew what to do about it?"

"Well why wouldn't I?" Jim gestured in the air, a suggestion of futile frustration. "You came in here and started giving orders like you had it all figured out-- like you had this thing dissected on a lab table somewhere, ready to start compiling your friggin' notes--"

"Whoa-- Jim-- Jim; I came in here like that because I was determined not to let you blow your head off, man." He hated it when he felt defensive, when Jim made him feel defensive. No matter how clearly he understood that some things were not in his job description, Jim's failed expectations could always be counted on to make him feel like he was responsible for everything. His previous chill returned, and he wished he could feel casual about getting up and pulling on his clothes. He burrowed deeper underneath the sheet instead, wondering dimly where all the heat had gone.

Jim looked like he had plenty of heat-- in his eyes, at least. "Yeah, well-- good job, Chief; I'm still in one piece." Blair watched a muscle flex and clench tight at the edge of Jim's jawbone, fascinated despite himself. "Although how long I'm going to get to stay that way--"

"Look," his best Voice of Reason, guaranteed to either calm Jim down or totally piss him off, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Either one would be acceptable-- either one he could match easily. Anything would be better than the tight, divisive tension that resulted from this low-grade sniping. "We'll figure something out, okay? I mean-- it's not like we're totally helpless here--"

"Sandburg," Jim interrupted him, and Blair clamped his teeth together hard. Jim's voice was just as reasonable as his own had been, but where Blair's was meant to soothe, Jim's Voice of Reason seemed to exist for the sole purpose of assuring the listener how phenomenally stupid and wrong they were. "I'm a Detective. An officer of the law. I can't arrest this thing, and now you're telling me that my only way out is to cut its head off? How'm I supposed to justify that to Simon, when he asks me where the decapitated body came from?"

For once, the guarantee had fallen through. Jim hadn't shifted into full-blown anger, and he certainly didn't seem any calmer. He just kept on looking... disappointed. Blair's muscles ached with the threat of his own temper; a flare-up that did nothing to drive the cold from his bones. His stomach knotted with a sudden twist of nausea, and he swallowed reflexively. "Well, Jesus-- I wish I had all the answers to give you, Jim. Wish I could just, like, wave some sage at it and make the problem disappear." He heard his own volume level creeping toward the high side, and he paused a moment to force his vocal cords into some semblance of composure. "But I don't-- I can't. I've been in the dark on this since it started, going nuts just trying to figure out what the hell was happening-- God knows I didn't get any help from you--"

He had to stop there. His throat was perfectly arid. The very air in the room weighed on him, and he suddenly knew that he couldn't handle this; couldn't handle the combined threat of Jim's recriminations and his own anger and his own terrified desire to just pull Jim back down to the bed and move him irresistibly beyond reason. Blackness existed in him; as if somehow he'd sucked it out of Jim but forgotten not to swallow.

His body tingled-- anger? Fear? Untimely lust? He didn't, couldn't know; he lacked the reach and resources to nail it down-- he only knew he felt abruptly on the edge of panic, on the edge of some unforeseen and monumental mistake-- and, God, what if it was too late? What if he'd already made the mistake and this was only the beginning of paying for it?

That thought drove him from the bed, icy and shivering and amazingly sore as he bent to scoop up his pants and struggled into them. Something pressed at his eardrums, and he had a sudden, terrible realization that he'd neglected his own internal barometer for too long-- something was happening here, like he was about to throw up or pass out or maybe just plain old start screaming...

But he made it into his pants and over to the top of the stairs without doing any of those things. He took one last, fleeting look at Jim-- an impression of a gathering storm there, confusion and wrath and that awful, maddening sense of disappointment that made him feel like he was being shredded from the inside out-- burning with the unfairness of it, except that he was still fucking  freezing. He shivered.

And he thought that Jim might say something, but evidently that was way too much to hope for under the circumstances. Jim said nothing, nothing at all, and Blair stalked down the stairs without giving him the satisfaction of another word.

He kept straight on, moving with dedication and purpose, and he almost walked out the door with no shirt or shoes on until his attention was snagged by the challenging question of what the hell he thought he was doing.

His heart pounded. His eyes burned and he found it very difficult to pull in a complete breath-- something had just happened up there, something he probably should have seen coming, or should have some understanding of except that right now it was very hard to think clearly. Everything seemed to have a jagged edge to it; harsh or unforgiving or just plain dangerous, and that threat of panic hadn't dissipated at all but still sat low and solid in the pit of his stomach, making him queasy.

He rolled his neck until it cracked satisfactorily, and forced himself through a deep breath. Of course he was panicking-- he'd just gone through an utterly overwhelming experience; an experience he'd tried to brush aside immediately without considering his own feelings, the enormity, the profundity of what had happened. He had tried to simply put it aside to be addressed later, but evidently that wasn't going to work.

He would have to try to deal with it now.

And, to do it right, he'd have to deal with Jim at the same time.

He stood motionless by the door, his gaze locked and unseeing until his brain registered the fact that he was staring at the bag of salt.

The big bag of salt.

The really, really big bag of generic salt.

And suddenly, he could see the funny side of it.

Funny and sad and scary, God yes-- because he really didn't have a clue, here, not at all; and if he wasn't very careful or very lucky or very both then either or both of them could wind up dead-- but really...

He was mesmerized, captivated, by that massive fucking bag of badass salt-- what all the fearless incubus hunters were toting this year. De rigeur.

It was too sad and scary to laugh about it. But he couldn't help a smile. Really, truly ridiculous-- it was almost nine o'clock, for God's sake-- this wasn't the time for him to be--

At that moment his thoughts were interrupted by a loud 'thunk' from upstairs. He looked up, trying to place the sound. Jim throwing something, possibly-- one of his workboots? He kept listening, but there was nothing more beyond some vague shuffling, then a few soft creaks from the bed. Just Jim, going through god knew what-- Jim upstairs by himself, probably hurting and angry and still confused as all hell...

And suddenly, all he wanted was to go upstairs and mend his fences; get them back to that 'together' place before it was too late. Deal with what could be dealt with. Do what he could.

Share what should be shared.

In the interests of sharing a smile, he took the salt upstairs with him.

Jim didn't look like he was confused or angry or hurting-- he just looked neutral.

Well, Blair amended mentally, as neutral as a guy could look while lounging in bed naked. With-- his eyes were drawn, helplessly; and suddenly he wasn't cold anymore-- with a full-blown erection.

Maybe that wasn't very neutral at all.

"Jim," he began, not sure what he could follow it up with, not sure where to start. "I think--"

"Don't." Jim interrupted blandly. "Don't think. Don't think, Sandburg. Just put that down and come here."

"Uh, Jim..." Blair didn't move, but his heart started to pound and his whole body flushed warm as Jim stretched out on the bed, staring at him intently, one hand. absently massaging his own shaft.

Blair swallowed. Well, this was an unexpected development. And probably an unwise development. He couldn't look away. Jim stroked slowly, arched into his own fist, but never took his eyes from Blair. Focused. Resolute.

Blair swallowed again. Not, exactly, an unwelcome development. He realized abruptly that his legs were shaky.

"You're hard right now," Jim said matter-of-factly; and as a matter of fact, he was. "Bring it on."

And there were so many words, so many arguments, so many rational logical reasonable reasons for him to persuade Jim that they had a job to do, but... but Jesus! Jim was just... just kept jerking off, staring, waiting for him.

Blair pulled at insufficient air, dizzied all over again. He watched as Jim's other hand slid down his torso, lingeringly, a torment Blair seemed to feel himself; and then dipped under his busy fist to cup his own balls. He never looked away. " Do you know how long I've been waiting for you? I want your ass, Sandburg."

Fear and desire crested to one white-hot pulse, and when he opened his eyes again he found that he'd drawn closer-- he didn't remember moving, not at all, but here he was at the edge of the bed-- feeling lost already, lost in the rush and spark and spreading waves of his brand-new addiction.

A heavy weight dragged at his shoulders, and belatedly he realized that he was still clutching the bag of salt. Glancing at that instead of Jim cleared his mind for a moment, and he found the words that had eluded him before. "I want to-- I really, really want to, Jim; but we've got to talk about this-- the incubus, I mean. We're running out of time--"

He heard a gasp, and looked up. Just Jim, shivering with pleasure that made Blair feel like he was starving. "Do you trust me?" Jim's eyes were dark and deep.

And then it all made sense to him-- a sudden click of comprehension that was almost audible. They'd been through this before, after all; only this time it was Jim's turn to do what was needed, to breach that barrier between them. His breath caught.

"-- asshole question, man--" was all that Blair managed. The bag slipped from his arm and thudded heavily to the mattress.

Jim smiled. "Right," he agreed solemnly, and then stopped what he was doing and reached out and got Blair firmly by the waistband of his pants, and the moment those hot hands touched his skin Blair pretty much stopped comprehending anything beyond the miracle of touch.

He thought Jim might kiss him, but he didn't. Actually, he wasn't entirely clear on what Jim did do, but there was no question that his pants had been removed, and even less question that Jim's hands on his body were wonderful-- wonderful; strong and compelling and undoubtedly powerful. Almost fierce.

It was a profound relief when Jim shoved him to the bed, because then he was able to let go of the fear of simply sliding to the floor in a heap. He gasped, and closed his eyes. Knees... knees... Jim wanted him on his knees, apparently; and he could do that-- he had help, Jim's tight and ruthless grip to help him, good... good... this was all very well and all very good...

He groaned loudly enough to hurt his own throat. How could he have lived this long without figuring out that the backs of his thighs were just two erogenous zones waiting to happen? Jim's nails were sharp and demanding on the skin there-- and maybe it would have hurt, except that he seemed to have lost the ability to feel pain and all that happened was that he almost came all over the bed... "Jesus fucking Christ, Jim--" the words rushed out of him helplessly, followed immediately by another throat-shredding groan.

"Don't move." Adamant voice from behind him, adamant hands on his ass, spreading him open. He knew what was coming next, knew somehow but didn't know if he was at all ready, didn't know if he could stand it but then it was too late-- Jim's tongue touched his balls and then up and up and up and he could feel his own pulse there, a hot, eager pulse of wanting, and wanting broke apart around him in a million pieces as Jim licked, flicked, and then just dove in.

He'd been told not to move-- Jim had said that; he remembered-- but in order to follow directions you have to have some kind of control, some kind of discipline-- and he had none. He skidded down flat onto the bed until his head hung free right over the edge, his body so sensitized and electrified that the slight burn of the smooth sheet across his nipples made him cry out, stunned with pleasure.

Jim stayed right with him, in him, hands almost brutally tight on his buttocks; the only sign of reaction a low growl that could have meant anything. Blair gasped at the new allowance of air afforded to him, panting for it; feeling razor-sharp ecstasy glitter fast across every nerve while his hips lifted instinctively and he wondered dimly if he was about to set some kind of record for speed.

He hung in space, writhing, lunging; felt another agonized groan torn from him as Jim pushed his thighs wider apart...

And then he froze solid as pair of hands appeared from under the bed. From under the bed. Bloody hands. Gripping onto the edge, and pulling.

His lungs were completely empty; he had no breath with which to scream. His chest, limbs, even his heart seemed to be locked into complete immobility-- nothing more than one massive cramp of terror as he watched the hands struggling at the bottom edge of the bed. He felt nothing-- he was beyond feeling. Beyond everything. All he could do was stare in horror, fascinated by the hands-- familiar hands, shockingly familiar hands; streaked with blood, blood splashed across familiar lines, blood grimed deep around ragged, bitten nails.

Bitten nails. Jim had bitten his nails.

A swooning wave of crawling revulsion swept him as he remembered being on his knees; head down and dying of pleasure as sharp nails tormented the backs of his thighs. Still... still... (right now!) just vaguely, with the part of him that could still try to clutch at reality he could feel them-- sharp nails digging into his hips, right on either side of that spear of heat and muscle plunging... inside him...

He opened his mouth, finally; finally seizing some air-- his vision widened like a panoramic vista as the encroaching gray of failing sight disappeared into clarity. Everything seemed to have slowed down-- he drew in breath forever while the rest of him was still held immobile, pain and loathing building in his stomach like bile as he had all the time in the world to remember the irrational dread he'd felt before he came downstairs, and the noise he'd heard when he was there... Jim losing his temper, he'd thought. Jim losing it.

Everything in him stood still-- everything perfectly motionless and still pulling in the same breath, balanced at the peak of panic, but outside his frozen, ice-locked world he saw Jim, Jim; Jim dragging himself out from beneath the bed-- and he'd thought it couldn't get any worse but he was wrong because Jim had bled from his eyes, from his nose and mouth and ears; Jim had oozed blood from his pores like sweat. For one split second he wondered what would do something like that; but the answer was clear and plain and perfectly simple-- and buried deep in his ass right now.

His shriek seemed to split the world. He didn't know how he got himself turned over, how he managed that little miracle of self-preservation, but the fact that he knew he'd go insane if that thing remained inside him even one more second probably had something to do with it. He lay on his back, every exhalation of breath another painful screech, choked with nausea. He'd kicked it fairly hard in the flipping-over process, apparently; because all he could see was a vague shape of something huddled near his feet, fuzzy and hard to identify until it uncoiled and flew at him, so fast he barely even saw it coming.

It landed on his chest with enough force to drive all the air from his lungs once again, enough force that around him he heard things toppling, shattering, breaking. It was Jim on top of him, yes; but this Jim had a mouth that stretched from one corner of his jaw to the other, so that the whole bottom half of his face was simply a deep-hinged and hellish trap of terrible, pointed teeth-- Blair's hands came up in reflex, a spontaneous action born of the fact that this thing looked like it could rip his entire throat out with one well-placed bite.

His eyes told him that he was struggling against skin-- Jim's smooth, muscular flesh. His fingers, however, felt something leathery and hard, much harder than any human flesh should be, pitted and ravaged to the touch, and yet immune to the clawing of his hands-- he might as well have been fighting a chunk of rock. It weighed on him, pressed him down so heavily that if he hadn't been lying on the forgiving mattress he would have collapsed, his bones crushed to fragments.

Something dark teased the edge of his peripheral vision-- he couldn't look, couldn't look away from the snapping, lunging maw that all his strength barely held off; but as the shape rose up it resolved into Jim, dragging himself one handhold at a time up onto the bed-- still fighting; still trying to fight even though it looked like there was nothing left of him but blood and pain. Blair gasped and held his focus, held that hot and hungry thing away from the vulnerability of his throat-- but God Jim had bled so much, so much! The smell of it, rich and reminiscent of memories of death, mixed with the raw animal smell of the thing on top of him, and he would have screamed again if he could have drawn any but the smallest amount of breath into his battered lungs.

Jim loomed; Jim's bloody hand groped towards them-- and Blair was convinced that Jim was about to lose a couple of fingers-- but the thing on top of him only reached out, swiped one hand with lightning speed across Jim's skin; and Jim howled and fell back, bleeding again, almost fountaining blood; and disappeared from view.

The part of Blair that still had hold of his mind, the part of him dim and somehow removed from this moment-to-moment battle for survival, took that information and ran with it. He wasn't bleeding-- whatever it was that gave this monster the power to force blood at a touch-- it lacked that power over him. And that meant...

He tried to follow, tried to trace the theory to its logical conclusion; but his vision was beginning to gray out again, and his heart stuttered in his chest as the weight and heat and vile savage smell bore down on him. That mouth-- that mouth was going to unzip him, tear him right to the bone if he didn't... if he didn't...

He closed his eyes. To surrender? To remember? He didn't know.

...vulnerable...

He snagged the word, seized it, forced it into life within his own consciousness. Vulnerable. It was vulnerable to him-- not to Jim; Jim had been compromised long ago, but to him.

As if the thought were strength itself, he found that he could breathe-- he sucked air in, gagging a little at the smell/taste of lunatic beast, but snatching breath greedily nonetheless.

"Gotcha."

He barely whispered it; his throat was too raw for any volume, any force, but he said it.

And decided that he could roll over.

By the time he had the thing pinned, it had started to change. Inky rays of blackness oozed out of it, and he pulled his hands away with a hiss at the awful, searing cold that bit deep-- cold that felt like it would freeze him to the bone. It squirmed, shuddering and twisting up from underneath, squealing what sounded like victory-- and without thought Blair slammed himself full-length down on top of it, sacrificing the skin and muscle of his naked body to that hideous cold.

He was stuck, locked frozen to it while it changed around him; he felt nails-- claws-- skittering over his spine, digging at his skin there, razoring him open with slow, agonizing gouges of pain that somehow weren't worse than the cold blackness coalescing around him. He realized his mistake, his irredeemable mistake in thinking that he could beat this, in thinking that he could do anything except get himself gutted in a spectacularly grisly fashion...

Hot, stinging pain hit his back, pain that actually felt like a blazing, fathomless relief because the burn of suffering negated the cold, erased it, and blackness dwindled under a suffocating cloud of white-- a shower of white; coming down over him, over them like a blistering snowfall.

He sucked some in and choked on it, tasting the sea.

Apparently, Jim had found the salt.

He blinked furiously; hot tears ran down his gritty face as he struggled to see. When he finally blinked his eyes clear he saw piled drifts of white clotted and dotted with red-- his blood, Jim's blood, blood everywhere; and underneath him only Jim-- no mouth filled with razors, no blackness, no claws-- just Jim, his face dusted with salt through which liquid tracks left behind clear patches of blameless skin. Blair's breath snagged in his throat.

"Help me," Jim's voice, cracked and lost; a clear echo of Jim with the gun in his hands, hurting silently. But this Jim wasn't silent. "Hurts..." Jim whispered to him, eyes bloodshot and brilliant with pain. "Blair, it hurts..."

Even through the layer of salt between them he was intensely aware of Jim's body under his-- a temptation, a distraction; a taste his hands were hungry for. He gasped, and pulled his hands away like they'd been burned-- it seemed like he could feel love coming from Jim, like something tangible that could touch him-- comforting, seductive; it soothed all pain, put to rest all fears; Jim needing him, wanting him, Jim wanting only him.

"No," he muttered, trying to pull away, feeling things in his own mind go soft and yielding. His heart felt like it was splitting, tearing, rupturing into useless pieces deep in his chest.

"Please, Blair," Jim touched his face, tugging at him, pulling him close to that strong and yet terribly defenseless throat. "I need you--"

Blair burrowed in, helplessly, his eyes closed, his breath slowing. The words went on, but he didn't hear them. One of his outstretched hands was touched by something weak and shaking--was taken, lifted; and then something sharp glided against him with a keen, stinging bite as his hand was wrapped around... around...

Slick and hard and fragile in his hand. Glass. Had to be. A heavy, knife-edged shard of glass. He shivered.

He didn't stop to think about it. He drew in a deep breath, nuzzled eagerly at Jim's throat until Jim's head went back and back, exposing that long span of lovely skin and muscle.

"Yes, Jim." He put his heart into the words. What was left of it. Jim sighed under him, whispered his name.

He drew back only a little, only barely enough to make room for his fist as he brought the glass down in a brutal, furious arc. It sliced into Jim's throat with a whickering and yet fleshy sound, and somewhere he found the strength for one last scream as it carved his palm-- slicing deep and becoming immediately slippery, but he just tightened down on it, bit his own tongue fiercely, and kept pushing.

A hot rush of blood spurted into his face-- he wished it had blinded him, because through burning tears he could see a terrible rawness gaping; open wet red horror of Jim's neck, Jim's life being severed-- but no blindness intervened to save him, only a lens of eye-watering pain. Jim uttered a choked, gargling sound, and Blair caught an image of deep blue eyes wide with terror above bloody teeth-- hands touched him, fluttered delicately over the flayed skin of his back, pulling at him, mutely demanding to know how could he, how could he do this awful thing...

That last was too much and he closed his own eyes, laid his head down on the gritty curve of Jim's shoulder and pressed himself close, murmuring senseless sounds of grief while he sawed deeper into the wound he'd made. He heard voices around him, gentle whispers of recrimination and miserable reproach, a host of accusations that told him wordlessly that he'd done this, he'd brought on this pain; it was the flaw buried deep in his own heart that had forced this darkness into being.

He was no longer in control of his hand-- it was numb, everything dropped into numbness right below his shoulder-- and that was a relief; because his hand just kept on cutting while the rest of him shook with remorse, clinging desperately tighter and tighter even as Jim's body lost solidity, lost the cohesive tangibility of touch and began to slip away from him, becoming immaterial, leaving him behind; leaving him forever.

He heard a growl, low and infuriated, fading as quickly as if it were being hauled off into the distance. He refused to open his eyes. There was a ragged, tearing sound, a loud crack, a thump... and then his cheek had nothing to rest against, nothing except a wet, viscous, gushing wound where there used to be a head...

...Because Jim (Jim?!) had just lent another hand, had just...

...had just finished the job, had just...

...ripped Jim's head off...

The body beneath him went utterly stiff, one brief moment of convulsion that seemed like some sort of high-pitched earthquake. He heard more things shattering, a din of crashes and clatters all around, and as if from a great distance he heard Jim, screaming. The thing under him rose up-- he kept his eyes tight shut but he could feel its blackness, feel its fury and wrath as something loosed itself and spun crazily around him, spiraling and trying to pull him in, suck him into that great lunatic darkness of hunger that never ended, never stopped craving feeding shrieking terror terrible empty want...

...and for one horrible moment he felt very small, a speck before the raving madness of something that spread out and up, towering; something so huge that it could eat the sky-- hold on, he held on, all he could do was hold on...

... and then he collapsed with a muffled whoosh into the bed, because there was nothing underneath him, nothing at all. All at once the clamor became only the harsh sounds from his own throat that would have been wails if he'd had any voice left, and the wet mess underneath him was only a pile of bloody, salty bedding, a slick piece of guilty glass. He let it drop from his fingers, shuddering.

He never realized that he'd been praying for unconsciousness until the darkness closed in, and everything in him welcomed it as a miracle. He went gladly, knowing that there was mercy in the world, after all.

When he opened his eyes, it was dawn. Light came down from above, from the side, pink and gold and perfect. It made everything look unreal, a construct too sharp, too clean to be anything but imagination, or maybe a dream.

Oh, but his dreams had been dark. So dark.

His nose itched. He tried to move his hand to scratch it, and hissed. He hurt. He hurt so badly that he wondered for one vague moment why he seemed to be in Jim's bed and not in the hospital--

Jim's bed--

"Jim?" No sound-- he had no voice. He cleared his throat, winced as he coughed up what felt like a huge wad of sandpaper, turned his head to the side, and spat.

More blood. Not that it made much of a difference; Jim's bed looked like the scene of a slaughter...

Which, of course, it was. Memory slammed into him with such force that he shivered, and moaned silently at the pain that tore through him.

"Jim?" He tried again. Nothing. Mute. He closed his eyes, and reminded himself that mute was better than dead.

He sat up, and made a voiceless sound of agony. The worst part wasn't the dizziness or the nausea, but actually feeling the salt-encrusted cuts on his back tear open again-- that was the worst. He lowered himself cautiously to the floor (he didn't trust himself to stand, so he'd have to crawl), and crept around the corner of the bed.

And stopped dead while the pink and gold leached out of the day, leaving only grainy pinpoints of muted color. Jim was sprawled on the floor, looking somehow dusty and gray, dried maroon smears over gray skin-- no movement, not even breathing; just a fallen man who had given what he could, and then given up.

"Oh Jesus--" Silent. His stomach clenched.

He crawled forward, and his first touch of the skin at Jim's neck was awful, because Jim was icy and unyielding under his fingers, not feeling like Jim at all-- and he didn't really need any more of that, no, he didn't-- but then his fingertips picked up the thready, faint thrum of a pulse. Only barely, but it was there. Right there.

The relief was so great that he sagged forward, let himself go boneless and face-down onto the cold, still breadth of Jim's chest. He turned his head to the side and took in gasp after gasp of air, staring intently at Jim's throat-- Jim's streaked-bloody, gray-skinned, but whole, blessedly whole throat.

"Mmmph..." Jim slurred. His eyes didn't open, but his hands came up and around, slid solidly over Blair's shoulders, cold and weak, but alive.

Blair reached out slowly, carefully-- with his mangled hand; he couldn't really feel anything in that hand except a dull ache, but that was probably for the best-- and touched Jim's cheek. He wished he could have said something.

He watched Jim open his eyes. "Blair." A croak.

He nodded.

"God, you're-- are you alright?" Blair nodded again and held Jim as best he could, tried not to hiss with pain when Jim's hands slid searchingly over his skin, over his back. He just held on.

Jim peered at him through maroon-rimmed eyes. "Tell me. Tell me you're okay."

"I'm okay," Blair said, nothing more than husked air. He frowned in frustration.

He did what he could, cradled Jim's head in his good hand and pulled him close against his neck, breathing deep, encouraging Jim without words to breathe deep.

Jim obeyed, and the hands on him tightened perceptibly. Jim breathed him in, touched him, pulled him higher and pressed one ear to the hollow of his throat.

When Jim let go, Blair sank back onto his knees, wincing.

Jim cleared his throat. "Can't talk, huh?"

"No." Silent. Blair shook his head.

Jim covered his own eyes with one hand, groped around with the other until Blair felt his fingers taken in a feeble grasp. Jim sighed.

"Well, this has just been one phenomenon after another, hasn't it, Sandburg?"

He sighed, and squeezed Jim's fingers gently. He didn't know what to say to that.

Of course, that was kind of a moot point.

Even after he'd had a shower and some food, Jim didn't seem inclined to go back upstairs. Blair didn't really blame him. When they first got downstairs Jim had asked quietly if Blair had any clothes he could borrow, and Blair just shrugged, nodded, and then sorted carefully through one of his bottom drawers until he found his biggest pair of sweats and an oversized T-shirt. He handed the items over without even attempting to speak.

He took the shower first at Jim's insistence, and muddled through it to the best of his ability, given that he could only use his left hand. He took care of his right hand first thing, in the sink; trying not to think about how much it looked like a shredded claw, and not really a hand anymore. Stitches. He probably needed stitches-- but that would entail doctors and hospitals and questions, not to mention going outside the confines of the walls of the loft; something he found himself amazingly unwilling to do.

He bound up the cuts as best he could, and then gritted his teeth through the duration of the shower. He would have liked hot, pounding water to ease the ache from his joints, but given that even the tepid trickle he stood under made him weak-kneed and shaky with pain, it looked like it was going to be a while before he and hot water had more than a nodding acquaintance.

When he was done he wiped the mirror clean of condensation, dug out another small mirror from the left-hand drawer, and took a few deep breaths. It took some time, and a great many deep breaths, before he felt prepared to look. In the meantime he kept busy-- he fumbled in the medicine cabinet for Tylenol, removed the cap with his teeth, and made a great production out of shaking six tablets out onto the counter. He swallowed them one by one, each accompanied by lots of water, but in the end it didn't really take too long to get down six pills, no matter how leisurely he was about it. Eventually, he had to pick up the mirror again.

After all that, what he saw was almost anticlimactic. He counted seven cuts, some short, some medium-length, and one long one that ran from the back of his neck down to the top of his right buttock. Only one of them; a short, almost curlicued sweep to the left of his spine, appeared to be still bleeding, and that was nothing more than a watered-down, pinkish trickle. Not as bad as he'd expected, then.

The mirror trembled in his hand. Not as bad as he'd feared, no; ...but it sure did hurt.

As if his mind had been satisfied as to the state of his own existence and now felt free to move on to other matters, Blair found himself wondering, even as he dismissed the wounds on his back, what should be done for Jim.

He assessed the question dispassionately. The answer, after all, was easy enough. Jim had bled from every orifice in his body, so Jim should go to the hospital. Blair should probably push him into it.

Strangely, even the thought of it made his teeth ache. Doctors and questions, again-- he couldn't, just couldn't do it; and apparently, he couldn't make Jim do it, either.

An unexpected situation, and not one he'd planned for in the least-- even his worst imaginings about this eventuality had counted on a dead body as a factor in the equation, something that demanded outside interference, and the doctors and questions that went along with it. There was nothing he could recall in any of the literature about incubus bodies just evaporating-- although he seemed to remember that he'd read something along those lines about vampires-- but there was no question about what he'd felt, right before he went under.

Of course, he couldn't rule out hallucination, not in the state he'd been in. For all he knew there was a body up there, perhaps stuffed conveniently under Jim's bed.

He shivered again. Right. If there was a body stuffed under Jim's bed, it was just going to have to stay there. There was no amount of mythological or scientific curiosity that was going to motivate him to go up there and look. His curiosity, in fact, seemed to be at an all-time low. All he wanted was...

He blinked. Cleared his throat. Winced.

Was...

Blair swallowed, grimacing; sighed, and began the painstaking task of brushing his hair with his stupid hand. He didn't know what he wanted-- he was probably in shock, he guessed; and right now he couldn't think beyond the possibility of tea and his room and his bed. Simple enough. It would have to do.

He'd planned to accomplish the 'tea' part of the process while Jim was in the shower, but when he emerged, he found that Jim had already done it. He helped himself silently, proud to see that his hand was steady. He stood at the counter, stirring, sensing Jim's presence behind him; wondering in a sort of low-key way why he didn't want to turn around, didn't want to look at Jim right now.

"Hey," Jim murmured. Blair stopped stirring, but that was all. There was a fairly long pause.

"I just... thanks. Thanks for the clothes, Sandburg. I appreciate it."

Blair nodded, but apparently Jim hadn't waited for any response-- he caught Jim out of the corner of his eye, walking towards the bathroom with his head down, his borrowed clothes bundled loosely in one hand.

Later, from behind his closed bedroom door, when he was warm and sore and exhausted and absolutely unable to fall asleep, he heard Jim rooting around in the kitchen for a while-- quiet sounds, but unmistakable; Jim using the microwave, eating on the couch, setting dishes in the sink to be washed later. It was almost as if his own senses had heightened; it was so very easy to track Jim's actions. When Jim came and stood silently outside the door of his room after dropping off the dishes, Blair just kept watch, waiting, wondering what came next.

It didn't occur to him to open the door. He knew Jim wouldn't disturb him.

And of course, Jim didn't. Blair just kept breathing, kept his eyes fixed on the doorknob. After a while, Jim went away.

When he heard Jim settle back onto the couch with a low sigh, Blair's eyes finally became heavy, drifting shut of their own volition. Sleep sucked him under so suddenly and so fast that his last thoughts were of drowning; drowning somehow inside his own head-- reaching for some ambiguous shape of safety that remained eternally right beyond his grasp, feeling the soft tickling squeeze of impending panic telling him, no matter what he argued to the contrary, that he was hopelessly, terrifyingly out of his depth.

The problem, he decided later-- much later; like about thirty hours later, according to the clock in his bedroom-- was inertia.

Not normally a problem for him. It was, after all, hard for inertia to get a foothold on any object that kept zinging off in different and unexpected directions on a fairly frequent basis-- his customary lifestyle simply precluded it.

But, he'd been in this room for a long time now, and with each passing hour the thought of leaving it became more and more intimidating. Inertia. Imagine that. If it wasn't so disturbing, he might be fascinated.

He snuck out occasionally, of course. When everything was totally silent and his intuition told him that Jim was asleep, he crept out and went to the bathroom.

Everything else was provided.

The first provision, the initial delivery heralded by a soft rap on his door, very soon after he woke up for the first time, was oatmeal and juice and water and tea and Tylenol. On a tray. On the floor. With no Jim around anywhere. The breakfast fairy, apparently; and his amusement at the sight of it felt like the first thing that had really touched him, really gotten through to him, in a long time.

He took the tray, polished off the contents, and then put it back outside the door. After that, every five hours or so as long as he was awake, there would be a quiet knock, a brief awareness of Jim's presence-- and then nothing but silence; nothing but another tray waiting for him-- an offering he no longer found amusing, but couldn't quite manage to resent.

Along with the various items of food, drink, and medication, the trays also often bore first-aid supplies: bandages, ointments, and the occasional box of butterfly strips. He made use of them as best he could, always careful to remember not to put any blood-soaked old bandages back on the tray with the rest of the garbage-- those he threw right into the trashcan in his room, vaguely ashamed in a strange way that he didn't really understand. His room quickly took on an odor very similar to a late-night emergency room, but after a few surprise moments of panic at wondering where the smell of blood was coming from, he stopped noticing it.

He didn't really think, much. At least, he wasn't aware of the conscious process of thought. He pondered inertia for a while, as the hours went by and the trays kept coming and he still showed no signs of leaving the room; but other than that his mind seemed to be occupied with nothing more than how bad or not-so-bad his pain was in any given moment, and a continual, but weirdly mellow, low-grade buzz.

In the end, there was nothing in particular that moved him past his point of reclusiveness; only some shuffling, unobtrusive noises that told him that Jim was once again fumbling around in the kitchen, and the knowledge that very soon there would be another knock, another discreet tap at his door, another tray-- another excuse not to do anything.

Stepping out of his room was like emerging from deep water-- the light and the air dazzled him; rarified with sound and sensation. He took a deep breath, tingling at the touch of fresh air over his skin.

Jim was indeed in the kitchen, standing over a simmering pot on the stove. He wasn't gray anymore, but he was very pale, almost ghostly; pallid and looking like he was trying to keep worry out of his expression, which of course just made him look... well, worried.

Blair met his eyes, and something turned over inside him, some huge and unexamined thing-- probably everything he'd spent all this time not thinking about, he guessed. He suddenly felt aware of every single inch of his body, and wondered dimly if his hair was standing on end.

"Hey," Blair began. He was pleased to hear that his voice had come back, a little-- he sounded like a frog, but at least an audible frog.

"Hey." Jim looked away, picked up a spoon, and started stirring the pot. "Dinner's soon. You hungry?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask how he could possibly be hungry when Jim had been shoving food at him every few hours, but then he closed his mouth when he realized that, amazingly enough, he was hungry. "Yeah."

Jim met his eyes again. They stared at each other. Blair was suddenly, inexplicably, cold.

"Yeah," he repeated, just because he couldn't stand the silence. "I guess I am."

Jim nodded soberly. "Dinner's soon. Have a seat."

Blair did.

He tolerated the silence until Jim was actually seated across from him, glancing at him occasionally and spooning soup. Blair tried some, but if it had any flavor, it was lost on him. The grating normalcy of the environment gnawed at his stomach-- it might have been the end of any garden-variety, challenging day; a touch of the mundane that seemed utterly ridiculous, utterly at odds with the realities of the situation. It made him shift in his chair a little too often, and pay a little too much attention to the particulars required by dining with one hand. Most of all, it made him terribly, terribly conscious of a sincere and fervent desire to bolt for his room and slam the door behind him.

But he didn't. Creative in adversity, he determined to see if the colloquial atmosphere could work for instead of against him.

"So," he began casually enough, wishing his voice could produce more than just a faltering rasp, "you, like, ripped that thing's head right off, didn't you?"

Jim swallowed and put his spoon down, his face intent, deliberate. "Yes." He paused a moment, and then continued quietly. "Is that really what you want to talk about?"

As if Jim's question had punctured some inner barrier, suddenly Blair felt like he was drowning in unspoken words, submerged abruptly into a state of near-panic by all that was yet unsaid. His own spoon tumbled to the table. He opened his mouth, frighteningly unsure of what was about to come out of it.

"I--" he stopped, took a breath. "I had... it got some kind of hold over me, Jim; at the end. Like it was telling me, yelling at me that I was killing you."

Jim looked at him-- a questioning, almost hesitant look that didn't really seem to fit his face. "It was good at that sort of thing, Sandburg," he said bluntly. "Anything and everything that might get to you-- that's what it did." He stared at Blair for a few long, uncomfortable moments, shrugged, and then picked up his spoon.

"Right." Blair manhandled his water glass with one-and-a-half hands, managed to drink some and then put it down without causing any major calamities. Apparently, for whatever reason, Jim was being careful. Careful he could do. Questions-- if he asked questions, then he wouldn't have to worry so much about his own answers. "When did it... how did it get to you? Upstairs?"

He watched Jim press his lips together. A faint flush stained his pallid cheeks, and Blair took some small consolation in the thought that perhaps he wasn't the only one who was uncomfortable here. "After we... when you left, when we were talking about what to do... you left. I think it was there, somewhere close, watching-- the sense of it was there; the... I don't know... influence, I guess. I was just sitting up in bed and feeling sick, and crazy, and angry, and not sure why. I rubbed my eyes for a second, and when I took my hands away it was just there, it was you, lying next to me."

Jim seemed to be studying his soup. Blair waited. "I tried to... grab it, I think. I tried to do something, I don't know; and then it touched me and there was this pulling, like it was... trying to pull me inside-out or something--"

Blair could hear the muted echo of pain behind the calm words, but he kept quiet. That hook-- the thought of a hook sunk deep in Jim-- his own imagined metaphor apparently hadn't been far off.

"But it was... different," Jim said softly, now looking off to the side, as if trying to find the right words. "Like it didn't-- it couldn't get all the way inside anymore; all it could do was... pull." Jim glanced at him, a faint, rueful smile on his lips. "I thought, when I felt that, that I could beat it. Thought I had its number for sure." He shrugged again. "I was wrong."

Entangled. Intertwined. Blair looked down at the table, took another untasted spoonful of soup. His head was swimming. The same problem he'd had before-- he couldn't really pick out the 'safe' bits for discussion, because the whole thing was one big convoluted knot. His empathy for Jim tugged at him-- he remembered all too clearly his own erroneous conviction that he somehow had that thing on the run, but he couldn't talk about it without alluding to... well, to the fact that before all the nastiness started, the monster had almost fucked him while Jim bled to death under the bed, for one thing.

His breath caught, and he forced himself into calm; put his spoon down again and laced his fingers together, determined not to let his hands shake. Influence. Right.

The silence stretched out. Jim didn't seem to mind; he just kept eating his dinner, as if he'd said all that was necessary, as if once again everything was normal.

But Blair didn't feel very normal. Blair was back in that place that had so unnerved him before, when he'd felt like, whatever happened next, somehow it was up to him. It was pressure, pressure and confusion; and he honestly didn't know if he could stand it. For the life of him he couldn't seem to find the words to relieve the one, or articulate the other.

Heart's desire. That kept circling back to him, burdened with too much meaning. He knew now why he'd locked himself away, why he'd pulled back the way he did. Unfortunately, comprehension didn't seem to be doing him much good.

With the incubus dead, his duty was finished. All of his energy, all his focus had been directed towards that resolution, and once it had been achieved, he had automatically disengaged-- from Jim, from himself, from everything. His contract with himself was complete; the threat nullified. Neutralized. The end.

Except, of course, that hadn't been the end at all. No neat wrap-up, no tipping his hat and riding off into the sunset knowing that his job here was done. There was, after all, the 'heart's desire' factor to contend with, as well as the 'influence' factor. He remembered... he remembered everything, but what he didn't know, what he couldn't be sure of, was how much of what had happened between them was real, and how much of it was... influence. He'd lived with Jim for years, after all, without feeling anything like... what he'd felt. Which left him...

Undone. Which left him still somehow sitting in the middle of a big mess of salt, and blood, and utterly ruined sheets; surrounded with evidence that neither he nor his life would ever be the same. Just when he thought he'd finished with fear. Yeah, right-- the only thing scarier than the things he'd learned he was capable of, was the thought of thinking about the things he was apparently capable of-- a contradictory dynamic so fucking perverse that he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

In the end, he did neither. He just sat there; feeling afraid, feeling trapped by his own reluctance to answer the questions he was similarly unwilling to ask, feeling undone. When Jim finally stood and began clearing the table, Blair left his chair before he knew he was going to do so. He moved quickly enough to make himself dizzy; towards the one place he knew it was safe to go.

He didn't go back into complete seclusion, however. He went back to bed, but he left his door open.

He left a few other doors open, as well.

Up to him. The raw knowledge of it pressed against him like an invisible weight, heavy and unavoidable; a tale told by silent, labored breath. It was up to him, now.

He listened to the quiet noises from the other room, absently tracking Jim's progress as he slowly and methodically put the kitchen to rights. The sounds were somehow tranquilizing without making him feel at all tranquil, and before he knew it he drifted away on them; drowning once again in the gloom that swarmed up to claim him, pressed deeper by the burden of awareness that he could no longer avoid.

//...dark here. Dark all around and a touch he knew intimately, knew too well, perhaps; rose up from below and cupped his face. There was no hiding from it because it was all around him; it was everywhere and he thought maybe he couldn't stand it, to be touched like this, to be known--

The touch was gone. Cold, and dark still, and in a strange room until he recognized it and saw Gustave there on the bed, Gustave with clouded, marbled eyes, eyes that had gone dim looking at something black and terrible. The thought of that was somehow worse than the fact that all of a sudden those eyes moved, that Gustave rose up and came to him silently, touched him with stiff, frozen flesh. He closed his eyes and tried not to breathe, but the smell of death was all around him anyway and couldn't be denied when Gustave took his hand, guided his hand to the fat, dusty lump of chalk, to the white wall--

Pain comes out like this-- you can still see its shape even with your eyes closed. Always. No element can overwrite it, no stroke or line or shade obliterate the stark truth that guides, that moves the hand from within--

Jim's face. Half lost in darkness. Half there. He smelled gun oil and sweat, and he leaned close because his heart was pounding so hard, because he was coming apart and coming together, and his hands knew the way, yes; his hands knew exactly what they wanted and where to go--

When he touched Jim's face, it paled. Drained to pale, drained to white, white fine-grained texture under his fingers, and then a silent rolling shock of horror as Jim crumbled to salt under his touch. He tried to hold on but it was impossible, there was no shape or form or substance to be had except for white, drifting white, and when he dug all the way down he found only more white-- a flurry of white pages, closely written with words that made no sense, that told no real truth but only repeated facts and statistics that avoided the heart, there was no heart, no heart under his hands fluttering flying slipping away from his grasp//

Blair staggered awake, gasping, both hands pressed to his pounding chest. For a moment all he could do was try to get enough air-- he shook his head from side to side, a silent refusal of the pain that clutched at him, and panted for breath through gritted teeth.

He got up without further thought, and stumbled to the living room. Jim was there; stretched out on the couch but struggling to sit up, his eyes wide and troubled.

"Don't," Blair rasped insistently. He walked towards the couch as if he were being driven to it, barked his shin on the coffee table, and went blindly to his knees. "Jim--"

He reached out and Jim was there, slightly damp with night sweat under the thin fabric of his shirt, solid and real and not fading away, not at all. Blair breathed him in greedily, pressed his suddenly hot face into the center of Jim's chest while his hands groped on their own, renewed their acquaintance with the feel of smooth skin over hard muscle. The immediate, nearly furious response from his own body overwhelmed what little bit of equanimity he had left, and he started to shake.

"Blair--" That was as far as he let Jim get before he descended on the other man's mouth, stopping any and all words, questions, or other possible difficulties. It was pleasure, yes; but it went beyond that-- right past any pleasure he'd known and over the edge into compulsion. He pulled Jim to him hard, squeezing them together with frantic desperation until Jim groaned against his lips.

And still, it wasn't enough. He straddled Jim's body, ignoring the flare of pain in his back, and stifled Jim with his tongue while he shifted, slid down until they fit, snugged against each other like they were built to touch that way. Jim gasped.

Blair pulled his head back just a bit. "Put your hands on me-- touch me..." Jim's hands obediently cupped his knees, then skidded up his thighs to curl over his buttocks. Blair pressed closer, seeking proof of vitality; clinging to the heat that built between them, and rested his damp forehead against Jim's. "You know what to do." His voice was low and unsteady, but it was all he had.

No influence here-- no influence here at all except his own; the fact that he wanted this, needed this, needed Jim like this. He held on tighter, utterly oblivious of his mangled hand, and spread himself out while Jim arched, lifted under him, pushed up against him while pulling down-- yes, Jim knew what to do, alright; Jim knew just how to touch him, how to please him, how to be with him in this dark warm place where nothing else existed.

He met and held Jim's eyes, pupils dilated to wide blackness, almost velvety in the dim light. When he swiveled his hips tighter into hardness and heat he saw the soft flicker of reaction there; the connection between them open wide and shifting back and forth-- moving as Jim moved under him, flowing as he flowed over Jim. He shuddered, and Jim groaned again.

"You... want this..." Just saying the words illuminated him. He held on tighter.

"God-- yeah." Jim's voice was almost as indistinct as his own, but that was okay because Jim's eyes carried all the proof of emphasis he could have wanted. He took Jim's mouth again, licking deep into hot wet silk, trying to satisfy an appetite that only seemed to be growing in several different directions at once, spreading like a fever. Craving spiraled through him, and he bit Jim's lip until he tasted blood.

Jim's answering moan pulsed through his body, and Blair's eyes fluttered closed-- moist, coppery heat; life, alive-- so alive around him, against him, against his heart, Jim's heart. He listened for it, found it, and like before he followed the rhythm, let it take him over while he pressed them even closer together. Jim arched towards him and he pushed back, over and over and dangerously fast, it seemed, but this was what he had to have, what he needed, and he could no more have stopped than he could have stopped breathing.

Jim gasped around his tongue, and the grip on his ass grew nearly brutal as Jim pulled harder, bucking up against him. His cock throbbed painfully-- this was panting, writhing ecstasy; at once tender and merciless, and utterly, totally irresistible. Blair had thought, once upon a time, to offer Jim some of his own light; but the truth of it was far different; the truth of what they gave to and took from each other was a complete reversal of every expectation. Instead, he'd discovered his own darkness, an unsuspected reserve of fierceness and passion that had nothing to do with his usual humanity. It lived in him, arcane and voracious; a darkness that meshed seamlessly with Jim's inner shadows.

Blair groped for and found Jim's shoulders, pressed him hard into the couch, and groaned as loud as his raw throat would allow. Darkness. Darkness had brought them to this point and now darkness was what held them together, wrapped up in each other in a private intimacy that was both piquant and terrifying. He kissed Jim softly, relishing the touch of bruised, yielding lips under his own.

"With me--" the best he could manage was a whisper, but he couldn't stop the words. "Do this with me-- be with me-- come on, Jim-- come on-- come..."

...And he felt himself lifted right off the couch-- lifted and squeezed as Jim shuddered convulsively beneath him, thrusting against him, crying out his name. A wicked spike of pleasure and pain and tenderness tore through him, and then they were right together, coming together-- wet everywhere, sliding in wetness. Jim tasted like tears. A throbbing, thundering rush spread through him, through all of him, and Blair somehow found Jim's face with his hands and pulled him close, swallowing the violent sounds Jim made, feasting on them, knowing they were all for him.

Jim remained arched in that rigid, bowed position for a long time, still shivering, still holding tight. When he finally, slowly eased back down to the couch, Blair managed to loosen his own fierce grip-- he stroked Jim's face softly, pressed a line of gentle kisses from Jim's swollen lips down the angle of his jaw to the slick, salty skin of his throat. Jim sighed.

Blair closed his eyes at last, and let his hands range freely over what he could reach without actually having to move. His fingertips discovered a racing, thudding pulse, clearly palpable at Jim's temples-- it soothed him, anchored him; a tangible reminder of the quintessence of connection, of existence, of good things. The images of his dream recurred, but they seemed very faint and distant, drained of their power. All there was really room for was this; Jim with him. Right now.

"Jim." Talking was a huge effort. He relaxed further, let Jim hold him up.

"Mm-hm."

He sighed. "It's over."

Jim's hands traced a line of warmth down his back, and there was no pain. "Mm-hm."

He heard Jim's bones creak, and then a quiet indrawn breath. A sense of protectiveness lit him from within, and he cupped Jim's face, traced the swollen lower lip with his thumb. "I'm here." He wasn't sure why he said that. But he did.

Jim squeezed him gently, and Blair felt a soft kiss on the top of his head. "Really you. I remember." Almost a whisper.

Blair flushed with renewed heat, remembering Jim that way, with all defenses put aside. He buried his hot face deeper in the hollow of Jim's throat. "Right. Really me and you."

Jim stirred under him, stroked his back once more. Sighed. "Finally."

Blair smiled, marveling even as he began to drift away-- awed gratitude or brusque exasperation; it was hard to tell which there was more of in Jim's one-word response. It sounded like a pretty perfect blend of both, actually, which was just... well... just very Jim.

He surrendered to the inevitable, but this time he welcomed the darkness that rose up to claim him-- he was drowning once again, yes; but he was no longer out of his depth. Not at all. He snuggled closer, and spoke one more time, sleepy and slurred from the extravagant comfort of being held like this.

"Yeah, Jim; finally."

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