Coming Home

I watch as Blair studies his hand. He arranges it and then re-arranges it, looking over his glasses at Rafe. Rafe winks. Blair quickly looks down at his cards. We've been playing all night. One of those Cascade nights of wet glaze, mist, and occasional window-tapping drops. Blair has yet to make a bet beyond the one to open. I know he's had some good hands, winning hands, but something holds him back.

Periodically he breaks away and serves up snacks and drinks. I keep telling him to knock it off, weíre all big boys here, but Sandburg seems to need to do this, so I let him. I funded him for the game and although he hasn't lost much, he hasn't won any either.

"I know you can beat this hand, Chief. Come on, put some coin on the table."

Blair looks at everyone at the table before his eyes settle on me. I see he's trying to gauge everyone's reactions, expectations, but everyone's in full poker face mode and he can't get a bead. His breathing starts to quicken.

Rafe cajoles, "Come on in, Blair, the water's fine."

The words are said cheerfully, so why do I feel a chill sweep over me?

Rafe is looking ever so slightly rumpled, a testimony to the long night. I can see he feels the strain of trying to make this a poker night like every other poker night. He pushes his dark hair from his face and tries again.

"Blair, the suspense is killing us here."

I have to hand it to Rafe, Ever since the altercation at the hospital he's been trying to connect with Blair, to reassure him that all's well between them.

Blair nods and carefully picks up two blue chips and puts them in. He looks at me, his blue eyes worried.

"Now we've got game." Simon takes another look at his hand and says, "I'm still in. I'll see your fifty and raise you ten."

Rafe pushes three blue chips in. "I see you and I'll raise you another fifteen."

Blair looks at me. He's a little panicked by the sudden flurry of bidding. I nod at him. "Put in another blue, Chief." I throw my own in.

H throws his cards down in disgust. "That's it, I'm out." He slouches down, interested in how this hand will play out.

"Sandburg? Are you upping the bet or calling?" Simon reveals no urgency or impatience as he prods Blair to make a move.

"I-I'll call." Blair says it as if he expects us to protest.

We all place our cards down.

Blair easily beats Rafe's pair, Simon's two pair, and my three of a kind with his straight.

Looking a bit perplexed, he studies all of our hands.

"Okay, so you won, Sandburg, don't gloat, take your winnings." Simon growls, his eyes twinkling.

Blair looks up at Simon, his face showing confusion. Blair seems to have no feel for teasing, no ability to distinguish real anger from mock, and consequently, much of Simon's way of communicating baffles him.

"Um, okay." Blair pulls the money towards him, his eyes scanning everyone at the table.

I realize then what the problem is. He can't believe it's all right for him to win. After months with The Tessuad, whose main aim seemed to be breaking Blair down, winning is an unusual place for him to be.

"Sure, Sandburg, lay low all night, get us all comfortable and then spring your trap. You got the highest pot, HaóBlair."

Brown can't get over the loss of Hairboy as his nickname for Blair. Blair still has more hair than most of us at the table. He got his haircut and they were able to even out some of the mess Smith had made of it. Now it curls, tight to his head, but heís far from the Hairboy of the past.

I chuckle and look at Blair. His eyes are darting around, and his breathing's accelerated, sure signs of distress.

"I didn't mean to. I-I.... you can have it back." Blair's pushing the money back into the middle, his hands almost imperceptibly shaking.

Simon glares at H.

"You won, Sandburg, fair and square. Take the money."

Simon pushes it back toward Blair, who once again scans the table and sees we're smiling. He tentatively smiles back, then ducks his head. When Blair smiles these days-- and it's altogether a much too rare occurrence-- it's not the old quick, light up his face, happy smile. These days his smile is slow to appear and shadowed.

The game breaks up. There's a certain awkwardness as we say our goodnights and the guys suit up for the relentless rain. They leave in a group, the usual banter and grumbling echoing up the stairs.

Blair and I start to clean up. The talk that used to flow from Sandburg so easily in the past, has dried up. I groused about his ability to go on and on, his hands in motion, the look on his face conveying his love of the subject, but I'd gotten used it, and now I miss it.

He had a way of integrating information. H'turi's downfall reflected in fashion, would be compared with the Catholic's change in how they garbed their nuns and the reduction of women joining nunneries. Always something and rarely anything you'd expect. Better than TV or talk radio. And now we've lost our programming. His hands no longer fly about, illustrating this and that. It's like someone pulled the plug. The bloody Tessuad pulled the plug.

I look over at Blair. Heís drying the dishes. He's better, he really is. He's gained some weight. The nightmares no longer come every night. Miriam's all set to start working with Blair in a systematic way, hoping to recover some memory. I haven't yet told Blair about the possibility of surgery.

At first he was in no shape for it. The week with The Tessuad had been much harder on him than Iíd realized as Iíd sat in my neat little room at the Compound, listening in. I remember my impatience with him, how quickly Iíd believed he would choose Jason over me. I'd been so clueless about the pressures they had brought to bear on him.

Then I learned what Smith had done; the infection that had set in after the shower, the damage to his lungs in the Sensory Depravation Tank. All that was compounded by his day in the cold and the snow.

Now, a month later, Sandburg has physically recovered. The hacking that had dogged him for weeks has subsided. The welts around his wrists have healed, leaving red scars that have begun to fade.

Simon was able to liaison with the Feds and create a firewall around Blair's involvement with The Tessuad Nation. He spun almost as good a tale as Blair would've, if Blair were here.

Simon told them that after the dissertation was released, The Nation learned of it. It really didnít matter to them whether I was a real Sentinel. They had their own and they needed someone who could act as his guide. Simon told the agents Blair's mind had been so tampered with that he has almost no memory of what happened to him while with Jason Rarick.

If and when Rarick goes to trial, we'll see if there's anything Blair can contribute. At this point it's doubtful. He couldn't see who Rarick hit, only report what Rarick told him. In the meantime, the Feds seem to understand Blair might be in some danger, but since he's of so little use to them, they aren't very motivated to send in protection.

Thinking back on last week when Blair came back to the PD, I could see then how awkward it was for him. Every time he turned around, someone wanted an opinion; about computers or colleges their kid was considering, or which form was needed on a 613. The old Blair would have tossed off his answers, fixed the computer, found the form. This Blair didn't know any of those things. Worse, it worried him that he didn't know this stuff. Having been asked, he clearly felt responsible. There was a constant underlying scent of fear on Blair. He was driven by a need to get things right, to contribute, to adapt to the expectations of him. I found him up late at night, the light from his bedside denting the darkness of his room and making a small circle for him to study computer manuals and college brochures.

It was all I could do to let it be. I wanted to go in his room, put him to bed, turn off the lights. Tell him not to worry. I didn't. After all Blair had been through, the last thing he needed was a John Wayne looming over him.

 

 

*************************************

 

I put the last dish away.

"You hungry at all?" I take every opportunity to feed Blair.

It's been a fight. At first I thought it was because he was so sick. Later it became clear he was still operating under some of The Tessuad's edicts. Mainly the one that said eating when you were hungry was giving in to the body's desires. Satisfying desire was never a good thing in their book, at least for a Guide. It amazes me, the discipline Blair maintains over himself and feels compelled to maintain.

I tried yelling at him. Usually my yelling is pretty effective, but now it just drives him deeper into being Eric. I cringe, remembering his reaction to the last time I lost my patience. Sandburg had eaten next to nothing and he still looked like crapÖ

"C'mon, Chief, eat your vegetables." The old Sandburg would have been stunned by those words.

"Thanks, Jim, but I'm fine, really."

"Dammit, Sandburg, you eat like a bird. You'll never get better if you don't eat more."

I meant it to sound kind of paternal, you know?

And it did. I sounded just like my father, pissed and impatient.

Blair looked stricken and pulled his plate back. I watched as he ate all his carrots, but it was a hollow victory over The Nation. He kept his head down and nearly gagged as he tried to finish.

"I'll get better, Jim." He looked up at me, the old Sandburg nowhere to be seen in his eyes.

"You are better, Blair. It's just that...wellÖyou like carrots," I finished lamely.

 

They'd been very clever. Those fuckers had somehow convinced Blair that if it tasted good, or satisfied in any way, it had to be a sin. And while Blair had fully accepted the falseness of the sect, the imprint remained.

******************************

When I met with Miriam, she'd explained it to me, "As far as Blair knows, this is it. This is life as he knows it. This is his culture, the structure by which he lives. And in his case, it's even more profound. Within that culture, he was a non-being. He had no voice, no choice, and no part of his life that was his own. He simply does not have either the intellectual pieces, or the self-worth, to fight their ideas about this. Or their ideas about Guides." She sighed. "God, I miss the old Blair. You must be going nuts." She pulled her long, dark back in a gesture I'd become familiar with.

"Is nuts a clinical description or is it being used in layman's terms?"

She laughed, and I smiled back. Blair doesn't seem to understand my jokes anymore. Hell, he doesn't understand anyone's jokes anymore.

Miriam replied, "Hopefully, when you come on Tuesday, we'll be able to start to dismantle 'Eric' and bring back Blair."

"I just want to fix this." As soon as I'd said it, I'd known what it sounded like.

Instead of jumping all over me, she said, "I know you do, but Blair can't be fixed. He has to be healed. He has to find a way to heal. And you," she pointed her finger at me for emphasis, "have got to learn patience!"

Miriam patted my arm and I pulled her into a hug. She's my best ally right now in the fight for Blair's mind and I'm grateful. She returned the hug briefly, and then pushed me away, primly straightening her blouse. I don't believe thereís a flirtatious bone in her body and after Joyce, that's another thing I'm grateful for.

******************************

 

As I watch Blair gather up the chips and put the cards away, I wonder if he's ready to start his sessions with Miriam. I don't think Blair has much hope for himself. But I do. He remembered me, sort of, he remembered Naomi's face, and he remembered Simon's office. If he can do that much, more is possible.

Okay, so Naomi's visit earlier this week was a bust. He recognized her from his dreams but he had no idea of how to relate to her. She'd swooped in, very Naomi-like. Her eyes, so like the old Blairís with their spark and fire, had smiled warmly at him. She knew his memory was gone but I'm sure she harbored the hope that as soon as Blair saw her, he'd snap back.

"Blair, sweetie!"

At those words, Blair's eyes had widened. She moved towards him and he backed away. She had the good sense to stop and hold out her hand, the way you would with a frightened animal.

"What is it, sweetheart? It's all right that you don't remember me." Her hands fluttered, and she giggled a little. Naomi's the only post-40 year old woman I know who can giggle and make it sound natural.

"Mom?" At that Naomi's eyes went wide.

"Yes, Mom, Sweetie. Naomi." I think she wanted Blair to know she's much more than a mom to him, that she's his friend, his comrade in arms.

Something flashed quickly through Blair's eyes, but I couldn't read it.

Naomi told stories about baby Blair that brought small smiles to Sandburg's face. I watched Blair watch Naomi talk. He seemed charmed, yet he didn't ask any questions, nor follow up on anything she said. He seemed curiously uninterested in the life heíd had before The Tessuad. It was if she were reading him delightful fairy tales. His face reflected the wistfulness of a man without a childhood.

The next time Naomi went to hug him, she approached him slowly, tenderly. He allowed himself to be enfolded by her, but his body never relaxed into her hold. It was apparent there was no comfort for him in her hug. She stayed for three days and by then it was clear what a strain it was for Blair. And for Naomi; she couldn't keep it up. On the third day, when she'd hugged Blair good-bye and he'd stiffly endured, she'd started to cry.

Blair had looked at me wildly. I shrugged. I didn't know what to do. Blair always knew this stuff.

"Naomi? What's wrong? Did you get some bad news?" Blair took a wild guess and patted her hand.

"Oh, sweetie," she'd hiccupped, "don't get me wrong, I love you in every form you take. It's just hard." Blair grabbed a tissue to hand her, taking the opportunity to untangle from her.

"I'm sorry." Blair had worn the look I see so often these days, a look of regret and defeat.

"No, no, don't be sorry." Naomi had taken his face in her hands. "You are the dearest, most precious gift I ever got and don't you ever be sorry. It'll all work out. You'll see."

She kissed his cheek and made her good-byes.

After she was gone, I'd tried to get Blair to talk about the visit.

"How was it seeing your mom?"

"Naomi?"

"Yeah, Naomi."

"It was good. Kind of hard. She loves hi- me so much and I don't remember anything about her, except her face."

"So she said she'd be back soon."

"Yeah, soon."

"Maybe it'll get easier."

"YeahÖmaybe."

 

*****************************

 

I shake off the memories of the last few weeks, and turn my attention back to the here and now.

"You hungry at all?"

"Nah, I'm fine, thanks anyway. Think I'll just get ready for bed." That's his usual answer to 'Are you hungry?'

Blair heads for the bathroom, and then stops. He digs around in his jeans and pulls out some money.

"Here, Jim. I still owe you $10.50." He hands me the four-crumpled dollar bills and the change he won. I know better than to argue for him to keep it.

"Thanks, Chief. Forget the $10.50. It was worth it to see Simon's face when you beat him."

Blair looks at me like I'm an alien. "No way, that was your money. I want to pay you back."

Sandburg's been trying to give me money for everything since he got a job last week at the corner grocery store. I tried talking him out of it, but he insists on paying his own way. The work schedule is easier than when he taught, went to school and helped me out on the job.

He no longer has an observer's badge, since he no longer has a dissertation to write. And the Academy is out, which is just as well. He has no defenses these days to any systemized education and I realize how much I don't want Sandburg to be a cop like me. Maybe before, when he was going to be a cop like Sandburg, it would've been all right. Maybe I delude myself that he could've kept his Blairness in the face of the Academy and the role of a cop.

I don't think I thought too much about what it would take for Blair to become a cop. I just expected the role of cop to graft to Blair the guide, Blair the scholar. I think I vastly underestimated what kind of transformation was occurring at the Academy and what I had to lose. I only saw what I had to gain. Blair, officially next to me, acting as my guide and friend.

It's about reduction. That's what The Tessuad did, in order to make use of him. They did it brutally, violently and without affection.

I, on the other hand, did it by seduction. I knew the kid liked the excitement of police work. He liked solving the puzzles. He liked having a place with Major Crimes. He liked having a home with me. And mostly, he loved that he had found his Sentinel and that he was a Guide. In the end, the results were the same. Blair for our use, at his expense.

I listen to Blair brushing his teeth. I find myself comforted by the smallest things, like the sounds of Blair puttering around, his mutterings as he looks for something. Those sounds are much the same as before, while our conversations have become awkward. Neither Blair nor I, quite sure how to be what the other one needs.

"Did you have fun tonight, Chief?" I ask, leaning against the wall by the bathroom.

"Oh, yeah, Jim. It was great to spend time with the guys, I think Iím getting the hang of Poker."

Blair exits the bathroom, toweling his hair and runs right into me, his forehead thumping my chest. It surprises me enough that I automatically put my hands on his shoulders to steady him and steady myself.

"Oh, man, sorry, didn't see you..." Blair's mumbles into my chest and I can tell he wants to put distance between us, but my hands hold him in place.

What happened? Before Rarick came and took Blair back, we'd achieved a certain closeness-- hell, when his nightmares were bad, we'd slept in the same bed. Now Blair skitters away when I come close. It's not exactly like he's afraid of me. I don't know what happened, but I miss the way we were.

Instead of taking my hands away, I start to massage his shoulders. At first he stands, unyielding, his head down. Then I hear a soft sigh and his shoulders slump and he rests his forehead on my chest where he'd run into it.

"Jeez, you're tense, Chief." Concentrating on touch, I feel the knots in Blair's muscles, and slowly the tightness eases up. He puts his hands on the wall on either side of me. He's getting so relaxed he's having trouble standing up. I tilt his head up, his blue eyes at half-mast, heís nearly asleep, but at the feel of my hand on his chin, his eyes snap open.

"I'm sorry, I..." Blairís mumbling, the effort to enunciate beyond him.

I don't want to let go. I don't to ever want to let go.

"C'mon, sleepyhead, let's get you to bed." Blair looks at me with confusion and nods. I nudge him into the bed and pull the covers down. He can hardly keep his eyes open but he does, watching me. Time to give him some privacy.

I move to leave. "Good night, Chief." I look back from the doorway. Blairís eyes are on me. Theyíre still his deep, blue eyes, butÖnot sure how to name itÖ his presence is skewed.

"Good night, Jim." His eyes slide off me and I let out my breath, nod, walk away.

***************************

Lying in the center of my bed, I listen to Jim in the bathroom. Sleep that was close as Jim rubbed my back, now eludes me. I wonder if Jim's backrub means he's starting to forgive me.

I wish I knew how to make it up to him. I feel...it's like having two lives. There's me as Blair Sandburg. Jim loves that person and puts up with Eric Kendall in hopes of bringing Blair back. Then there's Eric Kendall.

The actual person he's living with. The one who took his friend's place, who consumes his time, who puts him in danger, who does not fit. I don't know the things Blair knew.

That's not exactly accurate. I know some of what he knew. Not enough, though. Not enough to say the right things, or laugh in the right places. Rafe said something about paperwork and the nature of marriage and everyone but me howled. Maybe I can get Jim to explain it, but humor is so much a cultural by-product, requiring a subtle understanding of so many things; hierarchy, sexual mores, status...whoa.

Where did all that come from?

From Blair, you idiot.

Every once in awhile it's like this, like he's in here with me. I hold myself tighter. If he comes back, will I be gone? And who would mourn the loss of Eric Kendall?

I squirm around in bed, trying to shut off the fear.

My Mom- er, Naomi's visit, was disconcerting. I couldnít believe this woman was my mom. She radiated a kind of light and seemed too young to be my mother. For a moment I thought they had gotten it all wrong, theyíd pulled in the wrong mom-person.

When I called her Mom, she corrected me. I guess she doesn't like to be reminded I'm her son...but Jim says I didn't do anything bad when I was thirteen... -but she called me sweetie, like The Tessuad Mom and I can't help it, everything gets mixed up in my head. She talked about Blair, and he sounds like he was cute and smart and she loves him. I mean, *I* was cute and smart and she loves *me*. Is that right?

No. God no. Jason said I looked like a troll. He always made sure when we traveled that he was always far enough away from me so no one would think we were together.

I was trouble and I was a guide and guides are not smart, simply trainable and she left me, she left me with them. She took me to The Center and she handed me over, and walked away. I feel tears -- stop that.

STOP THAT.

She didn't leave you; can't you get it straight? Can't you remember one fucking thing? I put my arms around my stomach and rock a little. That helps sometimes. Come on now, get it together, get it straight.

After awhile I distract myself by thinking about some of the things Jim looks to me to do as his guide...I can do them, but I don't understand. Jason never needed anything from me, except my physical presence at his back as he sighted. Of course, Jason, for all his pride in being a sixteen, (where did that number come from?), never really tried to do much with his senses. While Jim pushes the frontier of what he can do just about everyday. It frightens me, the idea that he would push this hard when I'm not around.

I don't think the people around him realize just how vulnerable Jim is. Captain Banks really hates the whole thing. For one thing he's not comfortable with all these unknowns. But mostly, I think, he hates how the Sentinel separates him from his friend, from Jim. I don't think he'd want to be a guide, (now that's funny) but the nature of the relationship of the Sentinel/guide baffles him. It makes him angry that it's not simpler and I think it angers him that I don't seem to be replaceable. God knows I've taken up way too much of his time, and the time of his detectives. How much easier if Henri or Megan could step in and watch Jim's back.

Jim is going up the stairs now. I listen as his shoes drop and the bed creaks as he settles in. After being with The Tessuad Nation, always alone, it's a wonderful thing to me that Jim is above me. Sometimes I imagine we have gigantic bunk beds. He has the top and I can just bang my foot against his bunk and he'd whisper, "What? Sandburg, go to sleep."

Because that's what Jim would say, but that's okay, I'd know he was there and he'd know I was here, and we'd go to sleep. I close my eyes and will the dreams away.

 

********************************

 

The last of the frozen peas have been unpacked when Jim comes in.

"Hey Chief? Think you can get away? I could use your help."

Mr. Lee is a nice guy. He says I can come back finish later. I ditch the apron and follow Jim out.

"What is it?" The truck is in front and we get in.

"A case, just came in, a bloody mess at the Fitzgerald Mansion. Apparently a botched robbery."

Bloody. A bloody mess. Okay, I can do this; Jim needs me to do that. He's gonna be using his senses like a mini crime lab, and to do that he needs me to keep it together.

We get there and it is a bloody mess. The housekeeper from Santiago came home from the market and interrupted someone. The groceries are scattered across the floor, and the ice cream has melted into a congealed puddle next to a pool of blood. I start to gag, thinking about the woman... Suddenly I hear Jason's voice telling me I helped him murder a woman.

"You killed a woman?"

"Kendall, we killed a woman..." Jason had put his hand on my shoulder, a rare sign of good favor.

"You did good, Eric. It was a real sweet kill."

I open my eyes and look around for her body, maybe she's not dead, maybe we can resuscitate her...Jim must see me looking around. I don't know what I look like, but it can't be good because he guides me to a chair and pushes my head between my knees.

He kneels down next to me. "You all right, Chief? I know there's a lot of blood here but it's the dog's. They killed the German Shepherd. Forensics already took it away."

Oh God, thank God, not a woman, not dead, not a bloody mess. Pull it together now.

"Uh, okay, well, what next?" Maybe if I get moving I can outrun Jasonís voice in my head.

"I'm going to do a scan to see if the team missed anything. Stay close."

I do.

Jim finds a scrap of fabric the dog might have torn. Some hair and a drop of blood far from where the dog was killed. Perhaps the dog managed to inflict some damage. We finish up and go back to the station. Jim checks his find in at the lab, and then we go to the seventh floor and Jim's desk.

Before we get there, Captain Banks steps out of his office and motions to Jim. We separate; Jim to the office, me to the desk. I sit there, feeling a little foolish. Once upon a time I did paperwork at this desk, but no more.

Paperwork, I remember that flash I had at the compound about paperwork. I remembered Jim's voice talking to me about it. I close my eyes and in my mind I move a pen across paper. Form 97-A, robbery. Form 24-P, rape. Form 13-J- my favorite, larceny.

I open my eyes. I remembered that. That was a memory. I think back to it, how did it feel to be Blair?

It felt good.

Blair has favorite crimes.

I have favorite crimes.

I shake my head. No. Blair has favorite crimes.

It's a memory but it's Blair's memory.

Still, Jim will be pleased. He's in there a long time. When he comes out, his jaw is tight.

"Come on, Chief." Captain Banks doesn't come to his office door. Bad sign.

I follow Jim out. He's silent as we get in the truck and I wonder if I should ask. One never questions a Sentinel. They provide the information when, and if you need it. I stay quiet, watching Jim out of the corner of my eye. We take a corner so fast, I'm thrown against the door. Jim's hand comes across to steady me. His arm is strong and reassuring against my chest. I glance at him. His eyes are focused on the road and in a moment his arm drops.

Still no words.

It has to be about me. I've done something wrong. We reach the loft and Jim gets out, slamming the truck door. I start to get out on my side, but stop with my hand on the door, trying to push back the panic. Jim looks at me and starts back, I wasn't fast enough and he expects me to stick with him and instead I'm stuck in the truck. Quickly I yank the door open and scramble out.

When Jim sees I'm out, he turns and heads to the loft. I follow. He waits for me in the elevator and I get in.

This is going to be bad.

Jason would get like this and it would always be bad. The tension would radiate, the silence would descend and he wouldn't look at me, no, of course not, why would he? I don't have any memory of what he did, just the feeling of overwhelming fear and thenÖ

I think about running. Maybe to Mr. Lee.

I canít. Jim's in a state and way too vulnerable to a zone.

Opening the door, Jim waits for me to enter. Did he guess I thought of running? Oh God, I'm in for it now. He knows, he knows I thought about running.

"Sandburg...Blair..." Jim's speaking to my back; I quickly turn around and face him. Heís tense, his face tight with emotion.

"Simon can't allow you to accompany me on the job anymore. Without your observer badge, policy prohibits it." Jim looks shaken, not angry. I breathe a little easier.

It takes me a minute to push aside the feeling of doom.

Man, you are so self-centered. Here Jim is upset about being without his guide and you're all convinced it's about you. I can't believe you thought Jim would hurt you. Why do you do that? Confuse Jim and Jason? Confuse your life here with your life there? Why are you so stupid?

"What are we gonna do? You need someone. You can't be out there alone. Maybe Joel, he seems steady." I start going through potential candidates, panic coming back as I realize no one is really prepared to take this on. I'll just have to prepare them, that's all, I can do that, I can...Jim stops me, I hadn't even realized I was pacing.

"Blair, Joel's not going to do it." Jim has his hands on my shoulders.

"Megan? Maybe Megan, she's smart, you like her, don't you?" I look up at Jim and he's looking down at me, the look in his eyes telling me how much he doesnít want to have this conversation.

"I like Conner fine but she's not going to do it. I have a Guide. That's you." He drops his hands, and walks to the kitchen.

I know I should be quiet; Jim has spoken, but does he realize...does he have any idea? He canít do this alone, someone has to be in this with him.

"It can't be the end, Jim, we have to figure this out, there has to be someone..."

Jim leans on the counter towards me and says, slowly and deliberately, "End of discussion, Chief."

Now I back away, even though Jim's nowhere near me. I feel my pulse pounding, can he? Will he...no, just go, time to put some space between us, let him be.

"Um, I'll be in my room."

Sometimes that worked with Jason. If I removed myself from his sight, he'd calm down and forget about me.

Once in my room, I sit on the bed. I wait and listen. If there's the sound of a glass and bottle being found and used, I'm in trouble. I hear a beer being opened. It would take awhile, but he would drink and brood and remember me and find me and drag me out and take my...STOP THAT.

Suddenly the door opens. I jerk back.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

Jim looks concerned; he's studying my room, looking for the cause of my accelerated heartbeat, I suppose. I'm so stupid. I can't believe I let myself think those thoughts. Jim would really get angry if he knew sometimes I get confused, I get so confused....I stand up and try to look normal, try..... I try to look...normal.

Jim sits down on the bed, pulling me with him.

"Hey, no matter what happens, you're still my friend, and my Guide, and this is your home." Heís staring at me intently, trying to read my mind and I avert my eyes and try to hide myself, the little bit that is myself, from him.

Taking a shaky breath, I let it out slowly, willing myself to calm down. Jim said Ďno matter whatí. Can he really mean that? If he knew, would he say that? I sneak a look sideways. Jim is looking at me with concern and expects me to respond.

"Thanks, Jim."

"You know I'm not angry with you, right?"

What's the right answer? If I tell him I thought he was, he'll really get mad, but if I say I understood, I'll be lying.

I shake my head no. I can't lie to Jim.

Jim sits and says nothing. His hands lie quietly in his lap, his head drops down. I wait, consigned to his reaction.

Jim sighs and gets up. "What're you hungry for?"

I stare at him. What am I hungry for? He's asking me for dinner suggestions.

"Anything."

"Don't you mean nothing?" Jim prods, a small smile on his face.

"I'll eat anything." I know it's important to Jim that I eat more.

"Okay then, anything with everything on it, coming up." Jim heads back to the kitchen. Jumping up, I follow him.

"Can I help?"

Jim turns around, surprise in his eyes. "Sure. You can chop up the anythings."

 

 

***********************

Tuesday comes. Blair's appointment's at two and I was set to take the afternoon off. At noon, all hell breaks loose. The maid from Santiago comes in, confessing to the crime and then just keeps on confessing, her English halting; linking three other robberies. It seems she's part of a ring of a well-organized group of disgruntled green card holders who augmented their income by robbery. Simon's adamant; there's no getting around my need to be part of the arrests.

I put in a call to Blair to let him know and tell him to change the appointment.

"Jim, I want to go, I need to get on with this."

"Just put it off for one day, I can come tomorrow."

"I appreciate that but I can handle this. I want to handle this." There's steel in his voice and while I want to override him, I also don't want to shut down his newfound confidence.

"All right. I'll be there at four to pick you up."

"That's really unnecessary, Jim."

"Humor me."

There's a pause, "Well, okay, I'll see you at four," he says reluctantly.

 

****************

 

Miriam brings me out on the count of five, telling me I'll remember everything. I open my eyes and look at her, trying to see her reaction. She has her professionally calm face on, no hint of what she heard showing. I sit up slowly and she hands me a glass of water. I take it, my hands shaking enough to make it spill down my shirt.

What now?

So I know more of what The Tessuad did to make me Eric, I know more of what Jason did to me and I wish I didn't. I don't want to know; what good does it do to know? It just brings it back and I didn't want to be there in the first place and I don't want to be there now... I want to go home, let me outÖlet go of meÖ.please, please, let me go homeÖ

I hear myself, but it sounds far away, a kind of wailing and Miriam sits down next to me, putting her arms around my shoulders. I'm rocking us both back and forth in a rough seesawing motion. She's making vague hushing noises. I donít want her arm around me, I donít want her voice in my ear. She took me there. She opened the door and then she shoved me inside and I heard the door slam shut as she slammed it shut and left, left me with him....

No, no, you idiot, she simply allowed you to remember.

Not allowed, made me remember, and it was like being there and I push her away and retreat to the corner. Sliding down, I sit, hoping she'll leave me alone. I don't want to go back there and Miriam, with her sweet, low voice will take me back and I won't go, I don't care if I never remember anything ever again. I don't care if they, if they...I don't know what Jim will do if I refuse to be hypnotized. How will he get Blair back if I don't submit? He deserves to have his friend but I don't know if I can do this.

Miriam lets me be in the corner.

She's saying something but I'm not listening, I'm NOT LISTENING. I don't realize I have my hands over my ears until someone tries to take them away and I fight that. I hold tight to my ears so her voice canít get in and lead me back.

I'm pulled up and I know I shouldnít, you must never fight the hands, but I try to twist and get away. Strong hands hold me in place. Panic makes me want to continue fighting but I know I mustn't. I force myself to stand still.

I wait for the pain and the pain and the laughter....

A hand under my chin lifts up my face. The touch is gentle and a thumb rubs against my cheek. I wait for the thumb to find that spot and press in, for the sharp drill of pain to travel along all the nerves in my face. The thumb doesnít press. I open my eyes.

Itís Jim. He looks real and his hand feels real. He's making shushing noises and I realize I haven't stopped yelling. I close my mouth.

I hear him say, "That's better." His voice sounds harsh, like he's been screaming. I touch his neck, wondering if his throat hurts. He swallows and I feel his adam apple move up and down. I drop my hand away.

Leading me back to the couch, Jim sits me down. His arm is solid around me. He's saying something to Miriam, asking questions but I don't want to know; I'M NOT LISTENING.

I don't want her voice in my head, can't have it in my head. I put my hands back over my ears and a sort of muffled echoey silence descends. Ah, I'm not listening. If I stay here, with my eyes shut and my ears covered, no one will find me. He won't find me.

He always finds me. There's never anywhere to go to get away and he always finds me. He thinks it's funny that I even try and when he finds meÖ he willóno, not going to remember....

Jim's been trying to get my attention but I'm not coming out. I feel him lift me so I'm across him and his arms are holding me tight, but nice tight, not, uh, not... not like the hold Jason would put me in. I curve in closer to Jim's body, pressing my ear to his chest, letting the sound of his heartbeat fill my head and blot out the sound of Miriamís voice. I feel Jim's broad hand on my back, and his other hand is in my hair, his thumb tracing circles on my temple.

This is real, right? I'm really feeling Jim? His arms around me? His broad chest pillowing me? Sighing, I take my hand down from my ear. Miriam has stopped talking. The only sound is Jim's voice. Heís saying, "Itís all right, itís all right, shhh, everything will be all right."

Jim hasn't pushed me off and we sit there like it's the most normal thing in the world. Finally I push away, sitting up.

"Thanks. Sorry." I don't look at him, don't want to see his pity.

I make myself stand up. I'm embarrassed. How could I fall apart like that? Again? They're just memories. How can Jim stand it? His Blair reduced to this, to me, to Eric? His Blair wouldn't be cowering in a corner over something in the past.

Jim clears his throat. "Don't be embarrassed, Chief. The things they did to you, what Jason did to you-" I want to put my hands on my ears again but I make myself keep them down. Jim stands up and approaches me; I hadn't realized I was backing up until I hit the wall again. I slide down it, wishing the floor would open up and swallow me.

With a look of shock, Jim stops.

"It's okay, anyone would react the way you did. They set out to do this, to break you down and close you off."

Jim crouches down next to me and I both welcome and fear him being so close. He doesnít seem to notice my ambivalence.

"We're going to beat them, Chief. You're going to leave this behind." Really? We are? We can?

He pulls me up and away from the safety of the wall. Putting his arm around my shoulder, he turns me and starts to lead me out of there. My feet obey his bodyís command to move and we progress to the door. Miriam is in the outer office. She smiles and stays silent. I lift my hand up and wave, good-bye? Stay away? We leave that place.

 

**********************************

 

I get Blair home from the session. He's virtually asleep on his feet, and I steer him to his bed for some rest before dinner. The bed is neatly made, corners tucked in, very un-Blair-like. The whole room is un-Blair-like, all objects placed with precision and order instead of the usual enthusiasm and affection. I pull the blankets down. Blair sits on the edge of the bed, his eyes wide but unseeing. He doesn't protest when I gently push him down and take his shoes off. I look down at him, the tear tracks on his face belying his calm composure.

Before I'm even out of the room, his breathing changes to sleep.

Going into the living room, I sink into the couch. Miriam couldn't tell me much, but not because of confidentiality. Blair agreed that I would be privy to all information. She couldn't tell me because Blair was so upset. What she did tell me was enough. I don't need to know more. I don't want to know more.

Oh, God, the sound Blair was making as I entered the building. I took the steps three at a time, afraid I'd find Jason looming over him. In so many ways, that's exactly what was happening.

The rage that has bubbled along like an underground brook is starting to spill over. I need to go to the gym and do some one-on-one with a punching bag, I need to clean my gun, and I need to find Jason and take my time with him this time. Make sure every tooth is broken in that smug face. Break his jaw, snap his wrists, and put a bullet in his kneecap. I recite a litany of what I'd like to do to him and after awhile I start to calm.

I look at the clock, shit, it's been two hours. Blair still sleeps but he'll be hungry when he wakes, I hope. I should have gone grocery shopping, there's nothing here for dinner.

Going into Blair's room, I see that he's on his side, a fist under his cheek, his knees drawn up to his chest. Kneeling down, I give him a little shake. To my delight, he doesn't startle, just opens his eyes, dull with sleep, and blinks at me.

"Time to wake up. We're going out to dinner." Blair pushes up and looks around. His hair sticks up all over the place. It's growing out and has a mind of its own.

"How does ice cream sound?"

"For dinner?" Blair looks at me as if Iíd suggested we dine on cotton candy. Maybe next time I will suggest just that.

"Yeah, for dinner, unless you'd rather have broccoli."

"No, no, ice cream sounds great." Ya gotta love this version of Sandburg, no lectures about cholesterol and no algae shakes.

 

******************

 

In the middle of the night I hear him, he's thrashing around and making inarticulate sounds. I rush up the stairs, stubbing my toe in the dark and banging my knee in the process. It doesnít wake him or stop the noise heís making. I slow as I get close to the bed.

"Jim?"

He's still caught by the nightmare. I climb on the bed to reach him.

"Jim?"

Thereís a full moon tonight. It shines in through the skylight bathing his bed with a soft glow. Everything that is white looks florescent; the sheets, rumpled into aggressive mounds, and his pillows, tossed in a losing fight. His teeth flash white, theyíre bared and he growlsógrowls in a low, menacing tone that raises the hair on the back of my neck. I start to retreat and then there is another noise, almost a whimper, a sound caught in his throat, like an animal in a trap. I make myself move, move back to him, reaching out my hand to lightly shake him.

"Jim?"

His eyes open and he moves with unsleepy speed, flipping me over, shoving me down. He looms over me, savage tension rippling through him. His fist is cocked back to hit me and I wait for it, keeping myself still.

"Jim?"

He finally hears me and drops his fist.

"Sandburg?" He sounds bewildered and a little scared.

"Yeah." I breathe the word, not wanting to set him off.

He gets off me and pushes me to the side. Running his hands up and down his face, he says, "Oh, fuck, Sandburg, I just about decked you. Why'd you just lie there?"

I scoot to the edge of the bed. "I thought if I fought back, it might be worse."

Jim's kneeling in the florescent, white moonscape of his bed. He shakes his head, denying that.

"What were you dreaming about?"

A look of disgust crosses Jim's face and I know. He knows. Miriam told him. Knows what Jason did, what I am... what am I? He knows and how could he want me near, he couldnít want me near, heís having nightmares because of meóI start to carefully edge out of the bed. Jim's hand latches onto my arm, stopping me. I freeze, waiting, cold inside, the empty spaces in there shadowed and chilled.

"I was dreaming about Rarick." Jim recounts the dream, his eyes seeing his nightscape clearly. "I had my hands around his neck and I was watching him turn blue. He had this look in his eyes, it was one of disbelief and confidence and no matter how hard I squeezed, he just kept that look and kept breathing."

Jim runs his warm hand up my arm. "Jeez, youíre freezing, Sandburg. Get in here."

Jim shakes the quilt and opens it, inviting me in. The moonlight glows on the top of the blanket and under, where Jim has created a space for me, there is a dark cave. I dive in, immediately enveloped in Jim warmth, Jim smell.

"Your turn to keep my nightmares away."

He's referring to before, when I had them almost every night and it was less exhausting to sleep in the same bed than to have Jim running downstairs every two hours. My turn...I guess Iím good for nightmare duty. I can do this, be good at this.

Jim rubs my arm. He's so close I can feel his breath on my neck and it gives me goosebumps.

"Still cold?" He scoots even closer and it's like a giant heating pad has been placed at my back.

"No, man, I'm good. Thanks."

The warmth has turned to heat and I feel myself melting into sleep.

 

******************

 

Waking the next morning, I realize Blairís sleeping next to me. I've missed this, his body next to mine, being able to hear him, smell him, look at him without effort. So I look. With his eyes closed, it's easy to pretend Blair's whole. How can a man look so beautiful? Isn't that the wrong adjective? And yet, he is, he's beautiful, fucking beautiful. My hand comes up to stroke Blair's face before I've given it any thought. I snatch it back before making contact. Blair doesn't need this, he really doesn't need my fucked up feelings confusing him anymore than he is already. Lying on my back, I try to tell myself to be grateful for what I have. I am, I'm gratefulÖI'm gratefulÖI'm gratefulÖ

*************************

When I wake next, I remember the nightmare and the knowledge that brought the nightmare on. Blair trembling in a corner, Blair being willing to fight the dragons of my night. What was I going to do? This limbo we were living in is wearing thin. The dayís just barely begun, the morning light pearly gray on the walls. I lie in bed, listening to Blairís quiet snoring and consider just what to do about the mess weíre in.

Later that morning, I make my way to Simon's office. He doesn't look up from his pile of paperwork as I walk in.

"Look Jim, if this is about Sandburg, forget it. I tried, I really did, but I don't have any justification to offer to the higher-ups. It's not like I can say the kid wasn't lying, Ellison is a Sentinel." At that he looks up laughing at the absurdity of that.

"That's exactly what I want you to do, Simon." His laughter dies out, and his mouth hangs open.

"WHAT? After everything, you're going to come clean?"

I sit down. "Yeah, clean, that's the word for it. This whole deal's been dirty. Sandburg was no more at fault than you or I, and yet he's the one who took the hit. And I let him...."

Simon clears his throat. "Jim, you'll just open a can of worms."

I shake my head. "I've thought about this..." I get up and look out the window, I don't want see the resistance on Simon's face.

"He took me by surprise. Never thought heíd go and do something so stupid, so suicidal, and then it was done and I thought, well okay, this could work. Heíd go through the Academy and weíll be a team like always."

Simon peers at me, saying nothing.

"I mean, what were the options? Out myself? I didn't want to be labeled a freak. It was going to screw up future arrests and throw out past arrests. It was going to fucking complicate my life and I didnít want that. What I wanted was Blair with me as a partner for real."

I risk a look at Simon. His face is a study in neutrality.

"He would've made a good cop, Simon, you know he would've."

"That was never a choice he was going to make on his own." Simon says this almost gently.

"Yeah, I know. Sandburg loves to teach, loves anthropology. He needs to have it back. After everything that's been taken away from him, he needs to have that part of his life back. Because what I want isnít in the equation any more."

Simon looks at me, considering. "Even if you can restore his reputation, it doesn't mean they'll take him back, or that we can get his observer status reinstated."

"First thing's first, Simon. We give Blair some options. Tell the Commissioner; let him know I'll be talking to reporters tomorrow. See how he wants it handled but I'm going ahead with this even if it means I resign."

Simon doesn't try to argue but gets on the telephone and begins to pass on the information. I feel...lighter. I've been carrying this around way too long, thinking there were no options, content to see how it all played out.

In the meantime, as I wait for all the fuss to settle down and Blair to come back to me as my partner, I'll just keep my head low. I did it the whole time he was gone, I can do it a little longer.

 

*****************************

 

Simon calls the next morning. The Commissioner hated what Simon had to say. Hated to hear I really did have hyperactive senses, hated to hear I wanted to tell the world.

I don't really care if he hated it or not, just thought I should give fair warning, but the Commish had a position that I ended up feeling I had to respect. And it was that Sandburg was in no condition to fend off the media attention in his current state. If I was going to do this, I would need to do it when Sandburg could hold his own.

Which is irony in itself, since the whole reason I want to do it, is to give Sandburg something to hold onto. So a neat little catch-22 has evolved. I don't know why I haven't considered that angle, except I hate seeing him stacking cereal boxes, and with his lousy scores, the Academy had been on the way out even before he lost his memory.

Lost.

Not lost, ripped away.

In any case, gone. It's time to see the doctor again and see what surgery could do.

 

 

**********************

 

I take Blair to see Dr. Dominic Panatela. Rhonda's family knows him and she says he's good. I have hopes that being Italian would mean he might be a little more warm-blooded than that snake we saw last time. Walking into his office, I smile. It's just like Blair's office. Then I quit smiling, a room this messy seems like a bad thing in a neurosurgeon. He greets us with his own smile and zooms in on Blair.

"So, I read your file. Had a little nonconsensual brain surgery, did you?"

Blair nods, smiles a little. I can't tell if he gets the teasing or he's just responding to Dr. Panatela's infectious grin. I had talked to the doctor yesterday and told him a version of what had happened, editing just a little.

" I looked at the X-rays. They donít tell me much. I hear your main difficulty is with your memory?"

Blair nods again.

The doctor moves around his desk to approach Blair. Blair gets very still and watchful. Dr. Panatela puts his hands on Blair's head and explores, giving a small sigh as he finds what he's looking for.

"You have a small scar, here, by your right frontal lobe." He keeps his hands there, absently massaging the spot. Blair has a look of amazement on his face.

"Is that why I can't remember?" I must look a little amazed myself; Blair actually asked a question.

"No. Memory's not very well understood yet, but the latest research indicates it's not localized. It's spread throughout the whole brain, so while what they did might affect you a bit, it wouldn't be the cause of the wholesale loss of memory."

Dr. Panatela quits his massaging and walks over to a cabinet where he gets a little flashlight.

"I just had a scathingly brilliant idea." He beams at Blair and looks over at me.

"Research has also turned up an amazing link between the olfactory sense and memory. I just wonderÖ" He tilts Blair's head back and uses his light to study the inside of Blair's nose.

"Oh yeah, this is interesting. Want to look?"

He asks me that, clearly expecting me to say no, but I take the light from him and peer in.

"What am I looking at?" I see scarring and so I know what I'm looking at but I figure I'd better play dumb. Blair sits utterly still, his eyes on the wall behind me.

"There's scarring in there. Blair, have you ever had sinus infections or surgeries?"

I put the light down and answer for him.

"Blair wouldn't remember, but not in the three years we've known each other. And that scarring is pretty recent, isn't it?"

"Yes, I'd say it happened in the last six months. Blair? How well can you smell things?"

Blair thinks about this. "I don't really know. I have nothing to compare it to. I do smell stuff. Coffee in the morning. Captain Banksí cigars."

"This is fascinating. I'm going to set up a test and we'll see if you have a normal range."

At these words, Blair's eyes light up. "Oh yeah, we could do a test with diluted perfumes, going from one tenth cc to one cc and see what I can detect."

Who would have thought Sandburg would be just as thrilled to do tests on himself as on me.

"That should work. I'll see how soon we can make this happen."

"I can do this myself, Doctor. Save you the trouble and get it done faster." Blair's eyes are positively shining and I'm struck by how much they are *Blair's* eyes shining; the innate curiosity that defined him, surfacing.

Dr. Panatela registers his surprise at Sandburgís enthusiasm for testing. If the man only knew.

"C'mon Jim, let's stop at the drugstore on the way home." Blair's gathering his stuff, but I want to know more.

"So you don't think surgery is an option to bring back Blair's memory?"

Dr. Panatela has his hip on the desk. I think there's half a sandwich under it. He shakes his head no.

"I can see why Dr. Eagan wanted to go in, the man loves a mystery. He'd be in heaven if he were allowed to poke around and get answers, but in my opinion, there really is no hope of recovery that way. I'd hate to put you through something like that if I can't, in good faith, offer you some hope of compensation."

He rummages around on his desk, finds the other half of his sandwich and starts to eat.

"I think you might do well with a friend of mine. His name is Tobias Brahms. He's a Homeopath and then some. He has a wonderful grasp of the body/mind integration and I think you might find some answers with him."

I look at the doctor. Just a little older than me, he's pudgy everywhere but his hands. Those are long and slender instruments. He's as rumpled as his office, with crumbs on the front of his shirt and I wonder if they just strip him and hose him down when it's time for him to do surgery, but he's got a fierce look of intelligence in his eyes and he's telling me something.

He finishes his sandwich and looks around for the other half. When he doesn't find it, he stands up and looks at Blair. He takes Blair's hand and once again, Blair tenses up; he's afraid. I don't know what the doctor did to set this off and I make a move to get Blair away. Dr. Panatela seems oblivious but he lets go of Blair's hand and puts his hand back on the spot where he found the scar.

"They hurt you, didn't they?" He's back to the massage.

Blair's relaxing once again and the fearís almost gone. "Yes, the doctors alwaysÖ" he stops, unsure he should be telling.

"They always?" Panatela asks, like it's of no importance.

"Öthey would-- they needed me to pay attention, so theyÖpressed here." Blair points to a particularly nasty pressure point I'd been taught in the Rangers.

The Doc looks down and takes note. "Yeah, that would hurt. A lot."

Even the fucking doctors at the Center were in on it, taking away every possible place of safety.

"Well, I have other ways to get your attention." He winks at Blair. "Tell me what you think of Tobias. I want to be kept up to date."

We make our good-byes and leave the tornado-struck office.

 

**********************

 

Jim had such high hopes. The doctor ixnaying the surgery really hurt him. Ixnaying? What is ixnay? A Blair word, I suppose, learned on one of his wild expeditions to some far out jungle place. So the fast fix is out. I suppose I have to go back to Miriam. I have to.

Shhh. Don't cry, you big sissy. You can do this. They're just memories, not real. Not real, can't hurt, can't, can't can'tÖyou have to, Jim needs Blair back, and then there's his mo- Naomi, she wants him back, she certainly doesn't want you. I pull back from those thoughts.

The little store is dark, the dairy case casting enough light for me to work. It's quiet and I know all the shadows. Finishing with the dairy case, I step back and look at it, it looks good.

Maybe I'm not the Darwin that Blair is, but I like this job, I like Mr. Lee. I like being left to get things done. I move to the back of the store to unload the rice. Mr. Lee has a large Asian clientele and we move a lot of rice. I'm glad to see they haven't bowed to American ideas and gone for the Uncle Ben's. No, there's Brown, Basmati, Jasmine, Brewer's, all in rough-hewn bags fashioned in their native countries, each different, indigenous to the country where the rice was grown. I marvel at each one. Hefting the first of the fifty-pound bags, I move it to the bins that hold it. I work steadily and it feels good. Muscle instead of brain, impulse instead of memory, function instead of purpose.

I leave the store at 11:00, sweaty, tired and sore. The night air feels good and even though the city lights pollute the dark, the stars still shine with clarity in the early summer night.

It's odd to be alone. To be outside alone, to walk in the night alone. I don't remember ever doing that before and I feel good doing it. Jim is not Jason, but seems almost as reluctant to leave me on my own as Jason was. I feel like a surrogate mother who carries Jim's child in my body. Jim watches over me, waiting for me to give birth to his friend. I laugh, the image of that is funny. You in there Blair? You're an awfully big baby to tote around.

 

***************************

Sandburgís on his way home, about a half a block away, and he's laughing to himself. What makes Blair laugh? I want to ask him but I can't let on I heard. Blair needs to think he has some privacy. Mr. Lee's Grocery is close enough, that with just a little concentration, I can track on Blair as he works. His tread on the stairs sends me upstairs. For some reason he seems to freeze up if I'm right there when he comes in. I listen as he throws the keys in the basket and locks the door. I walk down as he's hanging up his jacket.

"Hey, Chief. Have a good night at work?"

"Yeah, got a lot done."

"Hungry?" I wait for the 'No, I'm fine routine.'

"Starving. Any leftovers?" Blair is opening the refrigerator and rummaging around.

I'm standing there with my mouth open. It's the very first time he's answered yes to that question and the first time he's opened the refrigerator on his own. He stands, bathed in its bluish light, hunting for something elusive.

"We have any of that pasta left over from last night?"

I can't help it; I have to do my own little test. "No, we're out of that. How about some ice cream?"

"For dinner? I don't think so, Jim."

I keep a straight face but internally I'm screaming, "YES!" and pumping my fist in the air.

"I'll make you a sandwich." I offer, but Blair has pulled out some things and is proceeding to make a salad.

"I can handle it, Jim, really. Want some? You're looking a little peaked there." Blair is sort of slouched and I realize it's a posture I haven't seen since before he was taken. Something is happening. I don't know what but I can see Blair around the edges of Eric and he's a damn welcome sight.

The rest of the evening passes quietly. There's no indication from Blair that he sees anythingís different and I start to doubt. They were little things. Very little things, but telling things, important little bits of Blair things.

Tomorrow we see the Brahms guy. Naomi would approve, I'm sure, and I'm desperate enough to try this and more. What I won't do is take Blair back to Miriam.

*****************

 

There aren't many parts of Cascade I'm not familiar with, but Tobias lives in one of them. When he greets Blair and me at the door, I see that Tobias is of such mixed race, one would be hard pressed to pinpoint any one characteristic that defines him. He appears ageless, his face unlined, and yet there is an ancient aura around him. We enter his small apartment and I smell medicinal herbs, teas, and a hint of sage burning. I expected something else, not this room, bright with sunlight, two cats entwined on a narrow windowsill.

Blair steps in and immediately starts to study the artifacts lining the walls.

"Oh man, this is so cool." He's pointing to what looks like a pottery fragment to me.

"Ah yes," Tobias' voice is deep and rumbles out of him. "My dooblay. I found it in a garden in Bolivia. It exudes a powerful pull, does it not?" He's watching Blair gently run his hands around the edges. Blair looks up at him and they exchange a smile of rapport.

"Blair, I know a little but I need you to tell me what happened to you. Can you do that?"

Tobias motions to the couch and sits down. Blair stops his examination and I think stops his breathing, to the point I'm about to jump up and whack him one on the back. Suddenly he lets out a massive sigh and says, "I can tell you some."

Blair doesn't sit on the couch but sinks onto the plush rug on the gleaming, waxed floor. He plucks at the fringe, idly braiding and unbraiding it. When he begins to speak, his voice is a monotone. At some point, he joins Blair on the floor. He nods a lot and makes encouraging noises. I watch as Blair shuts down, his shoulders hunching over, his eyes closing.

As he starts to tell about Mr. Smith, he brings his knees up and lays his head on top of them. Tobias listens with an intensity the best DAs have. That understanding of the way words are mere signposts to the real things being revealed. When Blair speaks of the first time he saw me in his dream, I can feel Tobias vibrate with excitement.

I lean forward. I'm in there; I've always been in there, in his head. Why that should be, and matter so much to me, I don't know. Maybe it's because Sandburg came into my life when it was falling apart, and knew me for what I was. Knew me, valued what had never had value, and stepped into my world. A world as different from his academic one as a world could be.

It scared him. Nothing in Blair's upbringing had prepared him for the life I led. Looking at Sandburg, his eyes wide with fright and astonishment, I should have felt disdain and shooed him back to his own playground. I didn't.

Not only is he younger than me, he is young. I'm not saying he's incompetent or immature. He's just so fucking surprised all the time. He never expects the ugliness and never really accepts it, either. You hand him a rock, all rutted, encrusted with mud, and say, "Here, this is real, take this in, make sense of this."

He'd gasp at the filth and the ragged edges and youíd think, "Now he sees it, now heíll leave." And instead, heíd take it in his hand, turn it over, his eyes getting impossibly wide and heíd say, "Hey, take a look at this!"

And sure enough, thereíd be a vein of pink quartz snaking through it, shining bright against the dirt.

The knowledge that, after everything The Tessuad had done to him, after everything that I had done to him, Sandburg still held fast to some part of us, is amazing.

Sandburg isn't tough in the same way Simon is or I am. We're strong more along the lines of a medieval castle. Well defended and equipped for any siege. We have hot oil at hand and a wary eye on the horizon. Sandburg keeps the bridge across the moat down, lets everybody in, shares so much; there never would be anything left if a siege ever came. And yet, there's always something left. He never seems to be afraid of running out, doesn't believe in scarcity. And through everything, he keeps me with him.

***********************

 

My dreams that night are vivid, and much like the dreams I had at The Center. Jim is in pursuit, and I'm with him. When I had these dreams before, I hadn't even known Jim's name and now the dreams are like visiting old familiar places. Jumbled, shifting places, but familiar.

I wake from them almost as tired as when I went to sleep, but also exhilarated. The feelings of connection and purpose linger in my head all morning. I spend it reading the journals. I'd read them before; well, I'd read a little before. I'd tried, but it had feltÖweird, like I was trespassing. This morning it felt like the dreams had given me the password, and I could get in the door.

I realize as I read, that The Tessuad must not've had access to these books when they put together the manual on Sentinel/guide relationships they used to teach me. Weird, my own-er,,,Blairís own research being taught back to him, erÖme.

What Blair describes is nothing like the relationship I had with Jason. The more I read, the angrier I get. The Tessuad got it all wrong. They had no idea what they were talking about. I slam the book shut and hug it to my chest. I feel dirty and ashamed.

What Blair had with Jim, the partnershipÖthe friendship, it was real. What I had with JasonÖwhat I did as his guideÖmy hands shake as I carefully put the book back where it belongs.

I was right. It is trespassing.

I lie down on the bed, repressing the feeling that I mustn't ever lie down during the day. I think about what I was taught at The Center and what I just read. It's clear they stole all their knowledge from Blairís dissertation and understood none of it.

Reading it, I can almost hear Blair's voice. The writing is filled with wonder, precision, and exasperation. Clearly he's unafraid of Jim. He records how Jim grumbles and protests, but there is lightheartedness in these recollections, an expectation and dismissal of Jim's resistance. It is nearly inconceivable to me that Blair pushes Jim to do the tests. That Jim lets him, actually allows him to lead.

Not for the first time, I wish I were Blair. The memories would be nice, his seem much better than mine, but that isn't why. I wish I understood his world. What to say, when to laugh, how to join in.

I think about everything Tobias and I talked about. He wants to do body work, some sort of healing ritual that he thinks will help.

Looking around my room, all the things in here give me a sort of comfort, a little ballast, even though I have no memory of picking anything out. I just don't know where I'll go when Blair comes back. Selfish bastard, eh? Wanting to stay, knowing I can't give Jim, or anyone, what they need from me, what they got from Blair. I know my time is growing short. The one consolation is I won't be back with Jason. I don't know where I'll be or if I'll be, but I can't be there.

 

**********************

Waking up, I realize I've made a decision about Blair. Going to Rainier, I track down Dr. Stoddard. He and Blair always seemed to have a rapport and I'm hoping he can guide me through the bureaucracy of this place. Calling ahead, I know he'll finish with his one class at 11:00. He seems less surprised to see me than I would have thought.

"Detective Ellison." Stoddard greets me with his Old World charm, but his eyes are cold and assessing.

"Dr. Stoddard." I find myself doing a small bow, as if he were my schoolmaster. He doesn't blink and it makes me think he gets that reaction often.

"I was hoping you could help me." Dr. Stoddard starts walking down the hall and I follow.

"How could I possibly help you, Detective?" His voice is formal, cool and testy.

I can tell the old boy knows exactly why I'm here. I'm betting it's his respect for Blair that has him making this as difficult as possible for me, and I can't help the wave of affection I feel for him.

I look at him; gray haired, erect, and dignified. The thousands and thousands of hours he's spent acquiring knowledge, and then teaching it gives him an aura of power and authority that is compelling. This is what Blair was going to become, what he should become.

I start to lay it all out for Dr. Stoddard, but he's way ahead of me.

"I knew Blair would never do such a thing. He believes too strongly in his dissertation, in anthropology, to make a mockery of what he loves by creating a fraud. I thought he must've had his reasons, wrongheaded though they undoubtedly were."

Stoddard comes to his office and motions me in. The room is nothing like Blairís miniscule office. It has windows looking over the commons. There are Gregorian chants playing softly. Every wall is lined with books, with colorful prints on the wall. Itís a curious mix of plentitude and order. I sit down in the shabby leather chair facing Stoddardís desk and wonder how many have sat in it before me.

"He thought he was protecting me. He was protecting me. But I can't let him do that anymore."

I tell Dr. Stoddard about what has happened to Blair.

"His brain works fine and even if he never gets his memory back, he'd still be able to do the academic work. I'm hoping he can come back and pick it up, finish his doctorate."

Stoddard gives me a skeptical look.

"You have no idea what it takes to do what Blair was doing, do you?"

He doesn't wait for my answer.

"Anthropology is a rich but difficult study, requiring a synthesis of one's intellect with myriad belief systems, all of which is supported by memory. Blairís unusually gifted, his openness and curiosity having created a fertile mind that made brilliant leaps and connections, which is at the very heart of what a good anthropologist does."

The professor steeples his fingers and points them at me. "His mind has been stripped of many of the important pieces needed to absorb cultural information."

Stoddard's right. I never really gave much thought to what Blair did, except he did it well and worked at it with dedication.

"Okay, I realize that where Blair is at would make picking up his life here at Rainier difficult, but there's every hope that his memory will come back. And when it does, I want him back where he belongs. Of course I realize he'll need to retake some classes but he could begin to rebuild if he had his reputation back. C'mon, tell me there's a way."

Stoddard looks thoughtful. "The restoration of Blair's reputation is an entirely different matter. That has value whether he wants to pursue his career or not. Whether he is even capable of pursuing his career or not. I've actually given this some thought. I believe if you sat down with the Chancellor and informed her of the truth of the matter, she would be forced to reconsider."

"Blair's had dealings with her before and I don't see her rolling over quite so easily."

"That's where you bring out the big guns. You go in there with a lawyer and protest the release of your personal information as a human subject. You threaten to sue, which believe me, the University dreads. That should force her to put into process the return of Mr. Sandburg's good name."

He chuckles; I guess he likes the idea of the Chancellor on the run. Standing up, he signals the end of our meeting by extending his hand.

"Good luck, Detective. With everything." He puts a lot of meaning into the word

everything.

 

********************

The afternoon flies by, filled with routine follow-up interviews on the Fitzgerald robbery. I've been doing this kind of work without Blair for months. I'm still not used it. I should be. I need to find a way get used to this because this is the way it's going to be.

Since Blair's return, I've become a clock-watcher. As it gets closer to seven, I file away the paperwork and shut the computer down.

Just as I'm getting ready to leave, Simon comes over to my desk, his face set in worry.

"What is it, Simon? Blair? Daryl?"

"No, well, sort of. Just got a call from the justice department It's about The Tessuad Nation. The good news is they're going ahead with the investigation. The bad news is that all the personnel arrested at the compound were released on bond two weeks ago, including Jason. They have a court day next month but at this point, no one is keeping track of them."

I look at Simon and reach for the phone and dial home. Blair answers.

"Hi Chief, just wondered if I needed to pick up anything at the store on my way home."

I'm surprised at how well I'm able to approximate casual.

"I don't think we need anything. Dinner's just about ready."

"I'll be home soon. Oh, and Chief, make sure the doors are locked. Just heard about another break-in down the block."

"Really? Okay, Jim. See you soon."

As soon as I walk into the building, I know something is wrong. As I take the stairs two at a time, I try to hone in on what's setting me off. Sound? Smell? I'm moving too fast to concentrate on any one element. All I know is something has set off alarm bells in my head and I need to get to Blair.

On the third floor, our door is still shut. I turn the knob, locked. I try to slow my breathing so I can tell whether he's in there and if he's all right. I can't,--Fuck! All I hear is the blood pounding through my head. I unlock the door, gun in hand. As I swing the door open, I'm met with a sight that turns my stomach.

"You."

"Yes, darling, little old me. I can tell by the look on your face I've managed to surprise you. You don't know how that delights me. You're not an easy man to surprise."

Joyce sits on a dining room chair. I study her carefully, trying to see what I missed before, hunting for any sign of the darkness I know lives in her. Even knowing itís there I canít see it. She looks as lovely as ever. Her voice is the only thing that hints at her other self. It holds a note of discontent and tension that sheís never revealed before.

"Looking for your guide, Sentinel?"

"Where is he?" I hate the note of pleading in my voice.

"Miss your roomie? I'm afraid Jason missed him too."

Joyce stands up. "I don't know what that neo-hippie has that makes him such a hot Sentinel commodity. He seems pointless to me."

"Just tell me where Blair is."

She keeps walking towards me. "Oh, Jimmy, you wouldn't shoot me. You'd never find Blair then."

"I planned to blow out your kneecap, not damage your mouth."

"I can't tell you what I don't know, sweetums."

Her body's relaxed but her heart gives her away. Then I scent her pheromones. She finds this arousing. I fight the urge to be sick. The familiarity of her body, voice and smell hits me. God, I made love with this--this woman. The gun goes off and I have the satisfaction of hearing her scream. The shot didn't come close to hitting her. I still have some control.

"You're gonna pay for that, Ellison. Or maybe I'll make Sandburg pay."

She looks like a cat that's just caught sight of a mouse and I struggle to keep my face devoid of any reaction. The phone rings and she immediately moves to answer it.

"Darling." She's simpering; this must be Joyce in her natural state.

"Oh, baby, don't worry, I've got everything under control."

I stop listening to her and concentrate carefully, filtering out Joyce's whine and Jason's clipped questions. I hear the sound of water against a hull; they're on a boat. I hear flapping; a sailboat. He could be right on the bay. Joyce hangs up with a frown on her face. I wish I'd heard the last part of that conversation.

"Give me your gun." Joyce holds out her hand.

I hang onto it for a moment, debating, knowing there is no choice here. I hand it over.

"Now the one in your ankle holster."

I reach down and remove that one.

"We're going downstairs and getting into the car thatís waiting there, which will whisk you to your little friend."

I say nothing, I'm tired of talking to her, tired of hearing her talk. The sooner we go, the sooner I'll see Blair.

The driver holds the door open and I get in the back seat. There's a partition between the front and the back and it's closed. Joyce gets in the front and I have a pretty good idea of what's coming next.

 

*********************************

I wake up predictably disoriented and aching. I'm lying face down on a hard floor that's gently moving. Boat. Moving to get up, I discover my hands are underneath me, cuffed to an iron ring set in the floor. I roll over on my side. I'm alone and although I push my sight, there's nothing to see except the slope of the boat.

I listen. The waves against the hull act as a natural white noise generator.

I conjure up Blair's voice in my head, latching onto the exact timbre that he uses when he urges me to go past barriers. Slowly I drop off the sounds that are clogging the airwaves, until I hear voices. I hear Joyce, her low moans and tiny gasps. Jason chimes in with his own guttural sounds. I cringe, the whole Joyce thing will be a source of nightmares for years to come, and now I've Jason added into the mix. I block those sounds and focus. I hear kitchen sounds; there's some kind of crew in place.

Then, faintly, I hear Blair. He's whispering, his voice sounds worn out.

"Öit's a 96 foot Ketch. We're about three miles off shore. There're two others here besides Joyce and Jason." I hear him cough and then a quiet moan. He continues. " I'm at the aft, in the hold."

Blair's voice, raw as it is, helps to center me and I quickly scan the boat again, skimming over the sounds coming from what must be the stateroom. I wish Blair could hear me. He knows I'm here but I'd like to tell him he's not alone. He's still talking; mixing up details he thinks can help, with random bits of conversation.

"Ö.no one else like you, and I'm not talking about Sentinel stuff here. I'm sorry I'm not Blair anymore, because man, you really deserve to have your friend back. There are two other crew besides Joyce and Jason and we're anchoredÖ"

He's gone back to giving out the details and I realize his voice is so spent because he's been repeating himself, hoping to get through to me.

"Ö will kill you. You have to get off. I know you don't like open water, but you have to get off. Don't try and find meÖI'll get away, Jason won't hurt me, he needs me and he'll get carelessÖI'll be able to get away, so you goÖwhen you get the chance and I'll meet you back at the loft."

Blair is babbling nonsense.

Of course Jason plans to kill me, but he's bound to want to have his fun and I'm pretty sure opportunities will ariseÖwait, Blair remembered about me and open water. Little pieces are breaking free from the hold The Nation has on Blair's mind.

Blair's coming backÖI've teetered for so long between longing for Blair and knowing I need to let go, that I can't quite embrace the knowledge Blair is coming back. It would be hard enough to let go of the Blair that's been with me this past month, that Blair who is a shadow of the real one, and yet still dear to me.

"Ö.fear what Joyce will do to you, she's like in the middle of raging hormones or something, really out of control. And Jason, oh, hey, he's vain, go for his face, he'll leave his middle totally unprotected in order to save the face and he fights dirty, don't play by the rules with him, but don't play at all, go, pleaseÖ"

His voice fades out; I think maybe he's falling asleep. Who knows how long he's been trying to reach me.

The cuffs connecting me to the floor are unyielding. As I yank at them, I realize Jason started without me. My ribs feel like I've already been kicked a few times.

Pushing the pain aside, I study the links attaching me to the floor. They're rusty and I look closely, trying to find a weakness.

 

****************************

The next thing I know, Jason is yanking me up by my shirt. I must've zoned. As he pulls me up, I debate the merits of trying to take him now, fast, but my stomach lurches and I heave. Don't know if it's the effects of being drugged, but when I hear Jason's disgusted snort, I will myself to stay limp.

"Look at your stud now, Joyce. Jesus, I hate vomit."

I maintain a posture of weakness.

He hands Joyce a key and says, "Unlock him. I want to reunite the boys."

"Ew, Jason, I hate vomit as much as you do, not to mention I've touched Ellison enough to last a lifetime."

She takes the key and tries to keep her body as far away as possible while unlocking the cuffs. They fall away. Jason still has a grip on me and I don't fight that. He pulls my arm back in a hold that makes me groan, which is all to the good. Joyce laughs.

"I told you he was a nothing. The guy was clueless the whole time we were together. Fucking clueless."

She's mostly right and I hope he believes her. They haul me up on deck. I slam my eyes shut against the brightness. My side burns from where I was kicked and my arm being twisted behind me aggravates it. None of that matters as I wait, a picture of pathetic misery, I hope. I listen for Blair, but he's still quiet.

I feel metal going around my wrists again and the clank as he attaches them to the railing.

"Where's Blair?" I slur my words and weave, keeping my head down. I've adjusted my eyes enough so I can see, but aside from a quick look, I don't open them.

"Where's Blair? Where's Blair? Joyce mimics. "Is that all you've got to say?"

Sheís is in front of me. Blair called it raging hormones, but I detect something else. I try to sort through the chemicals that would be present in the drug they used on me; the smells I woke to. Then there's the whiff I'm getting of something else: coke.

Before I can extend my senses to check Jason, I'm hit with a bucket of water. It's cold and the salt in it stings. Before I can quite catch my breath, he douses me with another one. I shake my head, trying to get the water out of my eyes. The water is icy and I immediately feel what had been a light breeze turn into a sharp wind. I start to shiver.

"Hey!" Joyce is wet, sheíd been standing a bit too close.

"You did that on purpose! Damn you, Jason, you never pay any attention! I swear, you treat me like Iím furniture!" Her voice rises to an ever higher pitch.

I open my eyes, not wanting to miss this. Joyce is throwing herself at Jason and manages to rake her fingers down his face before he can stop her.

"You bitch!"

His hands go to his face and it's clear he's in pain, Sentinel enhanced pain, I'd say. I pull on the handcuffs, cursing his caution with me, but there's no give.

"Oh baby, oh, baby, I didn't meant it, I'm sorryÖsorry." She's backing away, afraid and maybe coming down from her high.

"Get me Kendall!" He roars at her and she scrambles back down the ladder. Good, get Blair, bring Blair to me.

"You think this is funny, do you?" Jason advances on me and I wonder if he's stupid enough to have taken something too, something that's making him paranoid, because I sure haven't registered a reaction to the little scene in front of me.

He smashes his fist into my already tender side and I collapse to my knees. I tense, waiting for more, but Jason has his hands on his face and he's moaning.

I hear Joyce and Sandburg coming up from below. Joyce wears high heels and I hear the click, click, click of her shoes.

Sandburg is shuffling along and muttering to himself. "I'd better not find you up on deck, Jim. You'd better be halfway to shore by now. I'm telling you man, I'm really gonna be pissed if I see you when I get up there."

Blair's in for a disappointment, I'm afraid.

As Blair's head clears the deck, Jason grabs him by his hair and hauls him up the rest of the way. No sound comes from Blair, although he does grab on to Jason's wrist. He sees me right away and his eyes go wide but instead of anger, there's fear there. I shrug.

Blair's head is whipped back to Jason, who points at his face and demands, "Fix this!"

"What? Okay, yeah, where's the antibiotic cream?"

"Not that way, you idiot, make the pain go away."

Blair blinks owl-like at him and I wonder if he remembers how to do it. "Okay, first; breathe and calm down."

The words are right, but the tone is off, Blair's voice is pitched just a notch higher than his usual tenor. When he drops into his guide voice, it's always a notch lower. Jason doesn't seem to notice.

"That's right, deep breath in, hold it, now release. Visualize the dials. Bring the pain dial down, down. Bring it down to a one."

Jason breathes in, holds, and breathes out. He does it again. Jason's hand snakes out and he grabs Blair by the throat.

"This isn't helping, Goddamnit. According to the manual, this should work." He's squeezing and Blair is trying to get him to loosen his grip.

"You useless little punk. You know nothing, you're good for nothing." Jason has both hands around Blair's throat and his eyelids are starting to flutter.

"Hey, maybe it's you, it's always worked for me."

I figure, if I can attract Jason's attention, maybe I can deflect some of his anger. Blair is gasping and Jason shoves him away. Blair lands hard on the deck, panting, trying to get air back into his body.

Coming at me, rage contorting his handsome face, Rarick reveals the depth of his ugliness hidden by his fine breeding. I brace myself and he hammers me, starting on his favorite side and working over to the other. He's pounded the breath right out of me, and I can't quite contain my groans. I bend over, trying to protect my ribs and encourage oxygen intake.

"Jason!" Blair calls out to him, his voice just barely past a whisper.

"Give me another chance, I can do it." Blair is getting to his feet and walking unsteadily toward Jason. He latches on to Jason's sleeve and pulls him away from me. Jason goes, shaking Blair's hand away.

"Do it."

Blair begins speaking again; this time, his voice holds just the right timbre. As he guides Jason, I follow, letting his words and voice calm me and take the pain and cold away.

Jason nods, "That's better."

He pats Blair's head and then brushes the back of his hand against Blair's cheek in a curiously gentle gesture. Blair closes his eyes, his heart, accelerating.

"Ah, that's my good guide, my pet." Jason is looking at Blair with pride, affection even, and then he catches himself. His eyes glint, and he presses his thumb into a nerve, just below the cheekbone, that makes Blair scream. He pushes Blair aside and turns his attention towards Joyce.

"What're you on?" He's just realizing that she's on something now? This guy is seriously out of touch with his senses.

"Nothing, Jason, just a little pick me up, a little No Doz, that's all." His eyes narrow and he sniffs at her.

"That's not over the counter stuff I'm smelling, Joyce."

He goes to her and much to my surprise he tenderly cups her face and says, "We talked about this Joyce. You need something, you come to me."

Big tears spill down her face and I marvel at the performance. Jason seems to buy it.

Blair won't look at me and I can't tell if he's hurt or drugged or fully Eric right now. He's handcuffed too, and just keeps shifting his weight from foot to foot. Jason snaps his fingers and Blair immediately goes to him.

Jason shoves him next to the rail a few feet from me and attaches his wrist to the railing.

"You two enjoy your reunion in the fresh sea air."

He takes Joyce's hand and leads her below.

"Jasy, you are just too good to me." She's using her version of a guide voice and I know just where she's leading him.

I turn to Blair, who's standing there with his head down. Bruised and dirty, he looks like an angel to me.

"You okay, Chief?"

He finally turns his head and I flinch at the pain in his eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine, Jim."

"Sit down, c'mon, you don't look fine."

Pain dialed down or not, I feel washed out and let myself slide to the deck.

Blair follows. "I'm sorry."

His head is down again and I can't read his eyes. I really want to see his eyes.

"Look at me, Chief. What do you have to be sorry for?" He's still not looking at me.

"For getting you into this." He sounds utterly defeated.

"Don't tell me you look like that because Jason got the drop on us."

"On me. He got the drop on me. He never would have taken you, never could've taken you, if he didn't already have me."

"I like your confidence in me, Chief, but that's hardly the point. We're in this together. I'd much rather be here, cold, wet and handcuffed to this boat, but with you beside me, than back at the loft, worrying about you. Hey, it's all right. The guy couldn't even tell his girlfriend was coked up. Together we'll have no problem getting out of this just fine."

He finally looks at me, a small smile on his face and I think maybe he believes me. If he does believe me, it's because he's coming back, it's because on some level, he remembers about us and the way we were friends.

"Now what?"

"Now we wait for those two to quit fucking their brains out and come back up here. And maybe then we'll have a chance to re-align the balance of power here."

The sounds of Jason and Joyce copulating are hard to shut out. Between the grunting and the occasional baby words, I'm hoping Jason will say something that will ultimately help us.

Blair puts his head back. I see bruises coming up along his jaw and cheekbone and now that I can look at him, I see cuts and scrapes on both hands. He shivers and looks over to me.

"Oh, man, you must be freezing."

I look down. There are goose bumps and I'm shivering, but thanks to Blair's earlier guidance, I don't feel the cold. "Nah, I'm fine."

"No you're not. You're shivering, and your lips are turning blue. This is the problem with turning the dials down too far, man-- It's like you have leprosy. You know, it wasn't the disease that made them get gangrene and lose toes and hands and legs. It was the lack of sensation. They'd get a cut or a burn and they wouldn't notice it, or take care of it, and pretty soon it'd get infected."

I smile, oh yeah, Blair's coming back.

"What are you smiling about? This is serious."

Oh, God, I love the challenge in his voice.

"I'm smiling because you sound just like you. Relax, Sandburg, there are no gaping wounds here and no way I could get warm even if I were feeling it."

"Wait, try this."

He's in his *I've got a theory mode* and I hear the clank of the cuffs as he tries to gesture with his bound hands.

"Listen to my voice, Jim. Now imagine a new dial. This one is for your body temperature. Right now, I think it's set at 90. Let's bring that up to 100. Start slow and then move it up."

I close my eyes and do what he says. It's easier than fighting. Who am I kidding? I do it because he's almost always right about this stuff. I picture the dial in my head and crank it to 93. I wait. Can't really believe this one will work but if it makes Blair feel useful, I'll do it.

"There are these Tibetan Monks, who face a major rite of passage. They go outside in the winter--and Tibet gets mighty cold in winter, let me tell you-- and take their clothes off."

"Sorry to disillusion you Chief, but we have guys in Minnesota who get naked in the winter, chop a hole in the ice and jump into a lake. The only passage they face is the challenge of the six pack."

"Wait! There's more to this. The monks wrap wet sheets around them all night long and dry them by raising their temperature. Depending on how enlightened they are, they can dry anywhere from ten to twenty sheets."

Blair looks at me, and he has his teaching face on, the one that is part professor and part geeky kid who just discovered red fire ants. The one that can't believe everyone doesn't think this stuff is the coolest thing they ever heard.

"Well, gee, Professor, that's fascinating, but I'm no monk and my clothes are still wet."

"Give your body time to adjust, then push the temp a little higher."

I do what he says and in about ten minutes I'm up to 99 degrees. I feel the heat and see a little steam rising as my shirt starts to dry. What díya know, the kid came through again.

"Who knows what things we can find a dial for, Chief. Maybe a dial to help me tolerate the mess in the drain or drum music. Or how about a dial for processing the cholesterol in Wonder Burgers? "

Blair laughs a little and then adds, "Maybe a dial toó"

Before he can finish his thought, there's a change down below. Listening, I hear them getting dressed. Jason saying, "We can put you on an hourly schedule if that will help." I expect her to laugh, but Joyce says, in all seriousness, "I think that might make a difference."

I feel like gagging. What is she, a nymphomaniac?

Jason comes up on deck, still buttoning his shirt. I guess he's afraid I wasn't listening in and doesn't want me to miss the fact that he's boffing the alpha bitch. The time he spent with Joyce hasn't put him in a good mood and he ignores me, going straight to Blair.

He unlocks Blair and starts to drag him downstairs.

"Hey, where're you going with him? Why don't you leave him alone and show me what a sixteen's really got?" I feel like I'm throwing stones at a rabid dog, but if it gets Jason to leave Blair alone, it'll be worth it.

Jason pauses. He doesnít bother to look at me, addressing himself to Blair instead. He's holding Blair by his hair again, and has his head twisted at an awkward angle.

"Joyce showed me the bruise you gave her back at the loft, Kendall. I think you know how I feel about that."

Jason doesn't looking back as he takes Blair below. I bite back a scream; the sight of Blair in Jason's hands fills me with bitter despair that quickly turns to rage. I yank at the cuffs holding me until my wrists bleed.

I'm sure Joyce is egging Jason on, she can't bear that Jason, or me for that matter, could need Sandburg. And Jason is just stupid enough to buy into it.

I'm hit with an uncomfortable realization. I let her convince me of a lot of things concerning Blair. She fed my fears and I lapped it up.

God, what an idiot I was. Why was I so ready to believe Blair would fail, would fail on purpose and leave me? Thinking about that, I realize that those test scores must've been rigged. There just isn't any way Sandburg, the A+ student, would ever fail any of those tests. That too, should have been obvious. The thought that someone like Joyce could cloud my mindÖ. I swallow quickly, willing the bile back down.

Okay, there was that, but ultimately it was me, my lack of faith in Blair, hell, my lack of faith period. I lean back. Not much in my life prepared me to have faith, or to think I was worthy of faith. I understand loyalty attached to command from my time in the Military, but thatís an entirely different thing from personal allegiance. Blairís given me that.

Why? Why the hell did he have to go and do that?

I don't want it. I never wanted it. My life was simple; it worked. Well, it worked until my senses kicked in but then there was Sandburg. And he made my life work again, when I'd just about given up on it.

But it's no longer simple. Now he's in it. I realize I was relieved when he left. Not happy about it, but relieved. I thought he was off in a warm, sunny, safe place, leading the life that was his by right; never guessing the total opposite was true. And what if he had been sunning himself on some Florida beach? Well, then I'd've had the satisfaction of being right about people in my life.

And I wouldn't have Sandburg to worry about, and God knows, I did.

Worry. It's not like he didn't give me reason to worry. He has his own version of zoning, when he gets so focused on something and the world falls away. And he believes in people, a dangerous trait for a cop, or for an observer. And he has a real knack for ending up right in the middle of trouble. Thank God, he also has the brains to get himself out of it, most of the time. But there were too many occasions when brains didn't turn the tideÖand what if I hadn't gotten there on time? What ifÖ. I jerk on the handcuffs again and welcome the pain.

What if Sandburg died?

I pull my knees up to my chest. I'm not prepared to face a world without Sandburg in it. The world, my life, neither one would make much sense without Blair.

I recognize that just before Joyce made her appearance, I'd begun to look at this. Ever since the fountain, my feelings about Blair had started getting more and more confusing. I mean, hell, you live with someone, work with them, you bring them back to life, you're bound toÖ.

Cut the crap, Ellison. You've lived and worked with men your whole life and you've never had this kind of feeling. Maybe it's a Sentinel/Guide thing. Maybe it creates a bond that feels like this. A bond that feels like love. I did not want to go there. Now all of that has been thrown up in the air.

Joyce had been a godsend- or so I thought. I could lose myself in her; her dainty body, her boundless sexual energy, her much needed femaleness. Lose myself and reassure myself that I was as I had always been. Contained, detached, emotionally safe and most definitely heterosexual.

Now all of that has been thrown up in the air. No longer contained, detached or safe and I'm not even going to start to decipher the sexual piece.

No longer contained, detached or safe.

I listen, dreading the sound of Blair in pain.

 

****************

Jason's taking me below deck. We pause as we go by the galley. I still can't quite understand Mike being here. What happened to studying to be a guide? How come he's doing KP duty for Jason? Maybe he's Jason's new guide. That would make sense. Poor Mike, he has no idea what he's getting into. Mike looks up from scrubbing a pot as Jason pauses. His face is red from scrubbing pots. He looks at me as if he doesn't know me and then he scowls, like he doesn't like what he sees.

Jason shoves me ahead of him and the moment's past. I thought Jason was taking me back to the hold, where I was before, but he stops at the Stateroom. The bed takes up nearly the entire room. They must've built the boat around the bed. It's like something out of a gothic novel, with its dark headboard that peaks, like a church of debauchery. It's piled high with pillows and animal skins and on this Joyce is lounging in a black something or other. Jason handcuffs me with a length of chain to the wood at the foot of the bed.

"Brought you a present, love."

She looks up from her magazine. "Ugh. What am I supposed to do with that?"

"Oh, I think you'll find him very entertaining." Jason cuffs me lightly on the back of my head. Putting his hands on my shoulders, he pushes me to my knees.

I drop and stay very still, as I know that almost any little thing can set Jason off. Joyce flops down on her stomach facing the foot of the bed. She looks at me, her eyes narrowed in thought. She loops a finger through my hair and tugs, not very hard. She pulls harder, forcing my head back and comes closer. She kisses me, hard, and rakes her nails down my throat. Her teeth grind against my lips and I fight to disengage. She laughs and pulls back; wiping with her thumb at the lipstick on my mouth. The feel of her thumb on my face is almost as appalling as her lips.

When she's done wiping, she drops her hand away and studies me. Tilting her head, she says, "I start to see why you were so reluctant to let him go, Jason. Where I only saw the puppy, you saw the hound. You always did have a good eye." They chuckle, enjoying a little Sentinel humor.

To my horror she reaches for me again. I force myself not to cringe and hold steady as her fingernails trace the inside of my ear. Shivering, I squeeze my eyes shut.

"You like that, do ya?" She holds on to my face as I try and say no, and kisses me again, her tongue flicking against my teeth. She pulls back, her eyes are dilated, the green irises glowing like cat's eyes in the dark.

"Haven't you ever kissed anyone before?" Now she traces my mouth with her fingernail.

"No." Not that I remember.

"Not even Ellison?"

"No!" Kiss Jim, like that?

She yanks my head back again and says, "He kisses like this."

The kiss this time is gentle and she nudges her tongue against my mouth, trying to gain access. She reaches down and puts her hand up my shirt and when her nails rake across my nipple, I gasp. That's the opening she's been waiting for, her tongue darts into my mouth. I try and push it out and rather than making her angry, she seems to like that. Thereís no air, no light, just this struggle to clear my mouth of the invasion. Pushing her tongue out, I clamp my teeth shut. She starts to nibble at my lips and when I turn my head, she bites down hard. I yelp.

Chuckling, she puts her foot on my crotch. She watches my reaction and her eyes turn hard as she grinds her foot down hard. Pain shoots up and through me and I arch back. Caught by the cuffs, I have no where to go. She keeps her foot there but lets up on the pressure.

Looking back at Jason, she smiles. He's lying on the bed, his hands behind his head. Heís happy, heís always happy when a new game presents itself.

"He *is* fun." She turns back to me and he foot eases up. I scramble to my feet, trying to put distance between us. Sitting at the end of the bed, she crooks her finger at me and points between her thighs. I shake my head no. She points again and when I don't comply, she whines, "Jason, make him behave!"

"Kneel down." Jason says, in a voice that could be used to order pancakes.

I flinch, his tone doesn't fool me. Looking at him, one would think he's relaxed, but his eyes glitter with rage or excitement and I know he would gladly add to this game if I pushed him. I slowly kneel between her legs. She tightens her thighs around my shoulders, imprisoning me, then slowly tilts my head up. Her mouth descends toward me. I try to turn my head to escape it, but her fingernails dig into my scalp and pull me back. She holds my head still as her tongue comes out and begins to lick the blood from my torn lip.

I can't help it, I moan. She makes a sound like a purr and licks harder.

It hurts, but more; I feel panic. I flash on all the times Mr. Smith held me in place, all the times Jason contained and hurt me, and I can't bear being unable to get away. I can't bear the feel of her tongue cleaning my face. I'd rather she hit or bit me again, than endure this mockery of intimacy. Jerking my head back, I spit in her face.

She screams, shoving me. I fall back, my head hits the floor and I sense the bed move as Jason comes off it. Grabbing my hair, he pulls me up. His other fist smashes into my face.

*****************

It's cold and dark when I come to. I'm back in the small dark space that I assume is a hold. My nose and cheekbone hurt where Jason hit me and I'm glad, because it masks the pain of my lip. I shudder when I think of her doingÖthat. Better to be here, in the dark, away from her than submit to her, herÖor him, Jason would sometimesÖno, NO! I slam that thought out and wonder how Jim is.

"Jim? You okay? I'm okay. I'm in---." I stop talking, I can't think of anything to say that I wouldn't mind Jason hearing as well.

He must have heard me, because not two minutes later the door opens and Jason is silhouetted in the door.

"Up from your nap, Junior?"

Heís almost jovial and I know from past experience that itís going to get ugly. He unlocks the handcuffs, pulls me to my feet and drags me out of the hold. When we reach the galley, he pushes me down onto a chair.

"Sit. Stay. Good boy." He laughs at his joke; itís an old one between us.A glass of water is handed to me.

"Here, youíre going to need this." The words express some concern but I no longer ever believe that tone.

I'm surprised he's offering me anything and I drink it fast, wishing for another one. Jason moves to the stove and I hear the hiss of a burner being turned on. He takes off the necklace he's always worn. It's a Hawk, the emblem of The Tessuad Nation made out of silver. He looks through some drawers and pulls out tongs. Cranking the fire up, he places the emblem in it, held by the tongs.

He looks up from his work. "You mark my woman and I mark you, it's as simple as that. In fact, I should have done this right away, so you and Ellison know just whom you belong to. I'm about to rectify my mistake."

I jump off the chair and head for the door, realizing there is no out, but knowing there's no way I'm just going to sit there and let him do this. Jason seems unconcerned by my flight and I realize why when I run straight into Mike at the door.

"Mike!"

I want to ask him to let me go, to babble on about our friendship, to tell him Jason is a psychopath, but the hold he has me in and the look on his face tells me I'm not dealing with my best friend Mike.

"Shut up." Mike's voice doesn't sound the same.

He increases the tension on my arm behind my back and I groan.

"God, Eric, you were always trouble. I never understood why they picked you to be Jason's guide. Any one of us would've been better. And now look at you. Jason is about to do you the honor of showing the world you're his and you're acting like a baby."

He keeps hold of my wrist and turns me so Iím facing him. Mike pulls at my shirt, popping the buttons as he yanks it off. He yanks my T-shirt off next, and I shiver, though it's not cold in here.

Mike grabs both my wrists and says, "I'd hold very still if I were you. This is going to hurt no matter what, but it'll hurt a lot more if you move and Jason has to do it over and over again."

He swings me to face the counter and holds me there.

Feeling the heat, I try slowing my breathing and hold steady. Mike's watching all this avidly; this is not my best buddy Mike from The Center, but someone else entirely.

Jason sidles up behind me, his breath hot on my back. He takes hold of my neck and puts his knee between my legs, shoving them apart. Thereís a searing pain in my shoulder as Jason presses the hot metal against it. A stench of burning, and pain, oh God, it doesn't stop. Time fragments and telescopes as I try to ride it out. I canítÖI canítÖ hold still, I pant, trying to--I have to get away from it, I start to twitch and will myself to stillness, but I can't ÖanymoreÖI can'tÖ

The disk is removed. Jason keeps a grip on my neck, holding me up, studying what heís done.

His hand leaves my neck. My knees buckle and I fall backward. Mike catches me.

After so much pain, I feel nothing, but my body seems to think something happened because it's like I've entered a time warp or something. Everything's slowed down and gotten distorted at the edges. My vision grays and then brightens and then grays again. I hear them talking ("Get his shirt back on. Don't let him fall, you moron.") and I know I'm moving but it's all vague and dream-like as I shuffle along the narrow companionways.

Mike opens a door and shoves me inside. I trip on the threshold, falling into the room. Opening my eyes just before the door closes, I see Jim.

"Blair!" I've never been so happy to hear that name. I begin to crawl over to where Jim is shackled.

"Whatíd he do? What's wrong?" Jim's voice wraps around me, tugging me towards me.

Shame makes me want to say Ďnothingí, but itís not likely Iíll be able to hide this from Jim. "Jason bran-branded me."

"What! Jesus Christ."

Iím getting slivers in my hands as I sweep the floor, trying to connect to Jim. I know the hold is small, but right now, it seems vast.

"Iím to your right, Chief. Where?"

I crawl towards his voice, so full of outrage, so much my homing beacon.

"On my shoulder."

Finally I bump into Jim's chest with my head and sigh. I start to pull away and sit up but Jim says, "No, no, stay here, you can't lean against your back."

So instead I lean on Jim's chest and my arms go around him, savoring the warmth and the strength that emanate from him.

"You okay?" I ask and I feel Jim's head rubbing against my head as he nods yes.

I hear his voice but it sounds remote as I let the gentle thump of Jim's heart calm me and take me away.

 

****************

Blair's fallen asleep on me and I wish my hands were free. There are so many things I'd like to do with them, but primarily I'd like to see just what the hell Rarick did to Blair.

Branded? He branded Blair? Just one more reason in an ever-growing list of why that man must die. I smell the burnt flesh but his shirt covers his back and prevents me from seeing just how bad it is.

I adjust my legs so they cradle Blair. His extra weight is added tension to my arms and wrists and I dial the pain down. The pain is nothing compared to the relief of having Blair back. That gnaws at me, the fear that one of these times Blair will be taken away and he won't be coming back. For now he's here with me; his weight, solid and real on top of me, his heart; steady and strong in my ears.

Lulled by the steady whoosh of Blair's heart next to mine, I fall asleep and wake when I'm slammed against the hull of the boat. My arms are yanked taut by the violent tossing and my wrists feel close to breaking. Blair's been sent crashing to the floor and I hear him groan.

"Blair!"

There must be a storm. I see Blair trying to stand but unable to get his balance. I'm sure he can't see anything at all; the darkness in this hold almost complete.

"Jim?"

He can't tell where I am and I reach out and touch him with my foot.

"Right here, Chief." He stays down and crawls back to me.

Sitting down next to me, he says, "God, just what we need, a storm."

I expect a gasp of pain from Blair, but there's no indication of discomfort. "Doesn't it hurt when you lean on your back?"

Blair shakes his head and then says, "Doesn't hurt much, it's not too bad."

I decide not to tell him that's not a good sign in a burn. The hatch opens and weak light filters in. Joyce stands there, looking windblown and frightened.

"You gotta get on deck. Jason needs you." She gestures at Blair to come with her.

"No. I'm not going without Jim." Blair holds fast to my shirt, as if that will keep us together. " If something happens, he'll drown down here."

"Listen you little prick, you'll do as I say or Jason will make you very sorry you didn't." She doesn't move into the room.

"I'm not going without Jim."

Blair's voice is clear and strong and Joyce must know he means it because she throws him the key and says, "Fine, whatever. Just get your butt up there and do your job."

Blair fumbles around on the floor, trying to find the key.

"They're right by my left leg, Chief."

He finds them and releases me. My arms flop down on my lap; they're totally without feeling. Blair can see the problem and helps me stand up. He rubs my arms, trying to hasten the blood flow. I can't feel anything and curse the dysfunction of my hands right now. I might as well still be cuffed for all the mobility I have in my arms.

Stumbling, we make for open air, up through the passageway. The boat lurches, making us careen into the walls and each other. There's no time to care about adding to our bruised state. We're both well aware of the danger of being below deck should the boat capsize.

The ladder proves difficult for me; I'm unable to grasp the rungs. Blair stands behind and acts as my stanchion. Coming to the top, I flop onto the deck like a beached dolphin. Blair awkwardly crawls over me and helps me get my footing. The feeling in my arms is starting to come back and it hurts like hell but I'm delighted.

Rarick yells, "Kendall, get over here, now!"

He's at the wheel, trying to hold a steady course. The wind is whipping the ocean up and it washes over the deck periodically, making it slippery. Blair scrambles over to him, more than once he going down when the boat tilts. He manages to get to the wheel on his hands and knees. Rarick reaches down, pulls him up by his hair, screams "Anchor me!"

Blair looks over to me, conflict etched in his face. Rarick sees Blair looking at me and says, "Anchor me, or so help me God, I'll kill him right now."

I watch as Blair spreads his legs for stability and puts his hand on Rarick's back. Jason must be trying to extend his vision and find a safe harbor in the unrelenting storm. I extend my own vision and far to the left, I make out a flash of light.

I call to Rarick, "Look to the left!"

Rarick looks that way and studies the area for a good minute. "There's nothing there!" He screams to me, battling the noise of the wind, forgetting that I could hear him whisper.

He can't see it. So much for being a Sixteen. Even with Blair right beside him, he's unable to utilize his sight to my maximum and I tell myself to remember to gloat later. The wind is a brutal force threatening to sweep us all out into the inky dark maelstrom of the Pacific. There are loud creaks and the sharp crack of wood strained to its limit.

I've begun to feel my hands. It's excruciating, but the return of their function makes that a fair price. Joyce has stayed at the foot of the stairs, ready to bolt if she feels the boat start to go but safely out of the fury. I start to struggle across the deck. If this boat is going down, I want to be near Blair.

Rarick catches sight of me and yells, "Stay put. Don't come any closer."

"There's light to the left." I know he won't make a decision based on my judgment.

"The hell there is. You're trying to fuck with me Ellison and I'm gonna make sure Eric pays for that when we get out of this."

Blair looks at me, his face dead white, the effort of standing in the wind after all he's been through too much. He leans into Rarick's back and murmurs, "Steady there, you can do this. See the glint on the railing to our right? Track that and then push outward. See the glint? The way it shines?"

Blair's deliberately putting Rarick into a zone. I watch Jason, keeping my eyes away from the railing, knowing that I'm just as susceptible to zoning out on Blair's voice and that sliver of light as Jason is.

Soon, I see a vacancy come into his eyes and it's eerie, knowing that's what a zone looks like to an observer. I push him aside and take the wheel, piloting us to the left and the light. The winds are with us on this tack and the light grows stronger. Soon I make out the faint outline of the coast. The storm is starting to die down, although the rain still pelts us. Blair has one hand on my back, the other on my shoulder.

"I knew you could do it; knew you could bring us to safety." Blair puts his head on my back and I swear I can feel his exhaustion permeate me. I feel my own and know I'll have to fight dirty if I'm going to truly guide us to a safe harbor.

Looking over at Rarick I'm relieved he's still zoned. I don't have the strength in my arms to deliver a knockout blow. Before I can figure out an alternative, I hear a gun cock. I turn and see it's the guy who'd taken me below deck.

He's pointing the gun at Blair and he's saying, "Bring him out of it, right now."

"You're a guide, Mike, you do it." These are not the words Mike's expecting.

"No, Kendall, you're Jason's guide, you're the hotshot, you do it."

Blair stubbornly shakes his head and Mike changes the direction of his gun and pulls the trigger. I feel the white-hot impact of the bullet entering my thigh and go down.

Blair screams "No!"

"Get Jason out of the zone or I'll put the next one in his brain."

I lie there and work at containing the pain and the tendency to focus on the sound of blood pumping out of me. Blair's murmurs to Rarick, his voice low and commanding.

Rarick shakes himself out of his fugue and immediately smacks Blair, sending him sprawling onto the deck next to me. I feel Blair's hands on me; hear his gasp as he sees the blood. I reach out and give his hand a quick squeeze to let him know I'm playing possum.

Jason's yelling at the kid who shot me, "What the hell happened?"

Mike tells him he zoned and that I took the wheel and brought us here. I wish I could see Rarick's face. There's no doubt that he would hate hearing that, even if I did save our lives. Blair moves to cover me as I hear Rarick coming our way.

"Get away from him." Rarick's voice is cold, strung tight with control.

"Move, now, before I put a bullet through the both of you."

"Do it then, because I'm not moving."

I hear Rarick taking deliberate breaths. His attempt at calm seems to work because he says, "Mike, take them below while I decide what I want to do with them."

Blair gets his arm around me and I stagger to my feet. I lean heavily on Blair and manage to get down to the foot of the ladder. Joyce stands there. Something about the storm or Jason's ineffectual leadership at the helm has deeply disturbed her. There's a vacant look in her eyes and they fail to focus as we pass her.

Once again I'm amazed by my lack of perception. For months, Joyce was my lover. I felt affection for her and basked in her attention. Before the letter tainted with her scent came, I never tumbled to the darkness that bubbled in her, or the twisted agenda that dictated her every move. Now the she-devil vibrates with fear. My only regret is that I'm not the cause of her distress. I hope to rectify that at some point.

For now, I simply welcome the dark and quiet of the hold. I can tell the bullet's still in there but it was a .38 and I'd know if it had done major damage. Maybe it's blood loss that's making me dizzy, but I suspect it's also the storm, the vastness of the open water, and Blair acting as Rarick's guide that's making me feel lightheaded.

If I didnít have a bullet in my leg, I would be kicking something, someoneÖa series of violent images flash through my brain, so quick I canít sort them. Iím panting in the aftermath and Blair is looking at me with concern, thinking itís pain. Itís pain all right but not mine. Iíve been angry before, but never have I felt this kind of pressure. The kind of pressure that can only be released with destruction. Closing my eyes, I push it away. I want it far away from me, from us. Because God, help me, some of those images were of Blair.

Looking at Blair, I can see heís oblivious to the danger of his dual loyalties.He's tearing his shirt in order to make a bandage for me, his face a study of concentration and worry. I can't believe I feel this kind of anger towards him. Genetics brought him to me and genetics threatens him. If I'm feeling this way toward my dearest friend, what's Rarick feeling?

"Jim?" Blair is in front of me.

I lift my head. I hadn't realized I was so out of it. "Yeah?"

"Let me get this bandage on, okay?"

"Yeah, sure, go ahead." My voice sounds slurred. Get it together, a bullet through the thigh just isnít that big a deal. Blair wraps my leg tightly and I stifle a groan. Even so, Blair seems to tune into it.

"Take a big breath and hold, now slowly let it out. Again, yeah, that's good. Now work with the pain dial, turning it down, down, yes, that's it. Two is good."

Blair sits down next to me and pulls me toward him, fitting me under his arm and resting my head on his chest. His heart beats under my ear, accessible to me without effort and I take comfort in it as I slip into sleep.

********************************

I watch over Jim as he sleeps. I've never seen Jim hurt. He's hurt because of me; Jason might kill him because of me. I'm unworthy of the devotion Jim's shown me. He never should have come after me, doesn't he know by now that I'm not what he wants and needs? He's so damn stubborn and so damn sure that I'm going to magically turn into his Blair. I feel a rush of anger at him. I can't be what I'm not. His pursuit of Blair is quixotic and dangerous. My anger flares and then burns out. I have too many other feelings for Jim and they crowd out the anger.

I touch his cheek, rough with a day's growth of beard. I've wanted to do this for a while. I haven't actually touched many people in my life and very few have touched me.

At The Center, the longing to touch and be touched haunted me at first, until I understood my touch was unwelcome and how others used touch to convey disappointment in me. Jim's different. He touches me with no sign of disgust. I'm not sure he would accept my touch, even as generous as he is with his. I know I'm being a coward, touching him now when he can't object. I tell myself that touch is known to be healing and that I'm doing something good.

As I stroke my thumb over Jim's cheek, he stirs. I stop. He rubs against my hand as if he wants me to continue and I tentatively start again. He sighs, and I take that as permission. I hold him tighter to me.

There's a thump at the hatch. Not yet. We're not ready to face Jason yet. I must've squeezed Jim too hard because he groans and lifts his head. "Wha-?"

"Shh. S'kay. Go back to sleep."

The door opens and Mike stands there, framed in the light from the hallway. He kicks the door all the way open and approaches us, setting down a canvas bag.

Shoving it towards me with his foot, he says, "Here, Jason says, 'Bon Appetit'."

He turns to leave. This was one person I called friend for all the life I remember before Jim. I have to know how deep the deception went.

"Mike, wait." He slowly turns back to me. "Were you really studying to be a guide?"

"Yes." The look on his face, the raw hatred, almost makes me shut up. But information would be good.

"Will you be Jason's guide?"

"If he'll have me."

I debate telling Mike what Jason does but the hardness in Mike's face makes me think that maybe he already knows. How can he know and still want this? He doesn't know, he can't.

"Jason kills people, Mike."

"No. He doesn't. He simply renders them helpless and the Council's team moves in and kills them."

"That's just semantics. Jason's responsible for their deaths."

"They deserve to die. They're our enemies and enemies of the Good. It is a righteous act."

"It's murder."

Mike comes over to me and squats down. "Is it murder when a soldier kills? Is it murder when a jury sentences someone to death?" He pokes me in the chest for emphasis. "Societies have always found a way to protect themselves from those that would harm it. We do what needs to be done."

I shake my head. I want to say more, but I know Mike is way beyond listening.

Mike stands up and as he walks away he tosses back, "I'll do whatever needs to be done, Kendall."

After he leaves I pull the bag towards me. I'm grateful to find four liters of water and the pile of sandwiches in the bag. There are also two dry shirts. More evidence that Jason has plans for us and wants us alive. Jim had roused himself when Mike first came in, but now lists to one side, unconscious.

"Jim?" I give him a little shake and he mutters.

Moving him so he's cradled in my arm, I pour a little water in his mouth; just enough to wet what I know must be a painfully dry mouth. Jim takes it in and I add a little more, pleased when I see him swallow. It's a slow process and I feel a bit like a daddy Robin, but eventually the water he takes in seems to restore something in him, because I feel him tense. His eyes open, uncharacteristically confused, and dulled by pain. His control must've eroded as he slept.

He looks up at me and I realize he might find being in my arms rather odd. Perhaps even abhorrent. I hastily guide him to a sitting position.

"Water?"

"Yeah, Jason must've decided he didn't want two dead bodies on his hands." I hand Jim the bottle.

"Yet." Jim adds and I know he's right. It really isn't a matter of if, only of when.

Jim drinks and hands the bottle to me and I just about finish it. Had no idea I was so thirsty. Opening another one, I hand it to Jim. I scoot closer so I can take a look at Jim's thigh. Not being able to see, I gingerly touch it. No stickiness. Wonder if I should take the bandage off and clean it now that we have some water. I decide against it. It's only water, not soap, and removing the bandage might make the bleeding begin again.

"Let me see your shoulder, Chief."

"My shoulder?" I didn't get shot.

"I want to see what Jason did." Oh yeah, the brand. How odd that something that hurt so much as it was happening, hasn't hurt much since. Even without pain, I feel sick as I think about having The Nation's sign burned into my back.

My tee shirt is stuck to the burn. Jim pours water on my back and I can feel him gently trying to lift the material away from the brand. It still doesn't hurt. I suppose it helps that I'm in a haze of fatigue. I hear Jim's quick intake of breath.

"What? Jim, is your leg all right? Did the bleeding start again?" I try and twist around so I can see what caused him pain.

"It's not me, Chief. It's you. This is really bad." He pours more water on it.

"Don't use too much water, Jim. We don't know if we'll get any more." It seems pointless to use any water on it at all. Without soap, there's no disinfecting it anyway.

"It needs to be irrigated, Sandburg. There're fibers embedded in here and other crap." Jim sounds irritated. As well he should. He's in pain, Jason has the upper hand, and he has to be starving, I know I am. I grab the sandwiches.

"Quit squirming around."

"I'm not squirming, I'm foraging. Here, have something to eat."

He ignores my offering and continues to gently dab and poke at my back. With Jim's vision, there's no doubt he'll be able to detect every last foreign particle. I feel the boat tilt and I smack my forehead on the floor as I lose my balance.

"Blair!" Jim's hands are on me, pulling me off the floor.

"Whoa, man, is the storm re-gathering?"

"I think you fainted. How're you feeling?" Jim sits in back of me, his arm now anchoring me to his chest.

"I feel all right. Hungry. C'mon Jim, we gotta eat while we have the chance." Jim shifts me, until I'm leaning up against him on my good shoulder.

"C'mon, let's get this shirt on you." He peels away the rest of the damp cloth and goosebumps attack. They hurt. Whoever heard of goosebumps hurting? I start to shiver until I think I might break apart. The whole time Jim is trying to get my arms into the shirtsleeves and button me up.

"Y-y-yóyou t-t-too." I manage to get out.

Jim takes his soaked shirt off and gets the new one on. As soon as he does, he pulls me to him and starts to rub my arms, hoping I suppose, that the friction will create some heat. Between the friction and the warm expanse of Jim's chest, the shivering abates. Jim hands me a sandwich. As hungry as I am, I've only finished half when I feel sleep stealing over me. Jim catches my sandwich before it falls to the floor and settles my head on his chest.

 

***********************************************

Bloody hell. Blair's shoulder is a mess, the skin blackened where Jason branded him. There's no telling how deep the damage goes, but the absence of pain indicates it's at least a third degree burn. It's gonna hurt like hell when it starts to heal and in the meantime, an infection is almost a certainty.

I look at the brand and feel sick. Rarick has inflicted a circle of pain on Blair. A circle that radiates the Tessuadís disease. I can already see the beginnings of an infection, although the skin is so black I can't make out the symbol that now illustrates Blair's back.

I'm not much into the mysteries of life. I've never been superstitious; wouldn't recognize an omen if it crawled into my lap. The parts of life I've been able to get my hands around cause me enough trouble. Still, since Peru, I've had to acknowledge a world that operates in mysterious ways. Forces that protect; awareness that transcends; moments that have occurred but have no reality.

And now a symbol of immoral power has been burned into Blair and I shiver. It's fear, not cold.

I brush my lips against Blair's forehead, telling myself it's to check for fever, knowing it's a small gesture to ward off the evil that's invaded our lives.

We sleep. I have no way of knowing how long. I wake thirsty, hungry, sore and really needing to take a leak. Blair is still sleeping and warm. I narrow my attention-- yeah, fever, expected that.

"Hey, ChiefÖwake up." I murmur in his ear, hoping to make the transition to consciousness as gentle as possible. While we slept, he managed to rearrange himself so that his face is on my chest. I can feel the wet spot from his drooling, so he's been in this position awhile. I'm glad that he didn't end up lying on his back. The lack of sensation around the brand isn't going to last, but up until now it's been a godsend. I squeeze Blair's arm.

"Blair?"

He rubs his face against my chest and I feel his voice vibrate in my chest, as well as hear him say, "What?"

"I gotta take a leak."

He lifts his head off my chest and says, "'kay. I'll get offa you, hold on." Blair slowly untangles himself, the sluggish way he's moving indicating he's still half-asleep.

"There, you're free." He sits down, his eyes blinking as if he expects things to come into focus in the dark.

I reach down and take his hand. "C'mon Sandburg, join me."

Pulling him up, I bite back a groan. Pain flashes through my leg and I have to consciously turn away from the sickening awareness of flattened metal pressing against my femur.

I guide him to the farthest corner and there is a simultaneous sigh as we relieve ourselves. We make our way back to the corner and sit. Blair still seems to be in a daze.

"Shoulder hurting?"

"Yeah, I hurt all over." His voice is flat and I wonder just what happened beyond Rarick playing cowboy. Blair's lip is torn. Aside from that and the bruises that were there before and have now blossomed into Technicolor, I can't see any other damage.

I take another bottle of water out and offer it to Blair. There are two and a half sandwiches left. Blair drinks but barely touches his food. He sits hunched over, his arms wrapped tightly around his chest.

"C'mere, Chief. Get comfortable." Blair follows the sound of my voice and I feel him settle against me once again.

Tiny shivers begin, and I try to enfold him into my body warmth. He's asleep almost immediately.

I wonder why I don't mind Sandburg being in my space? That's been a surprise from the first, the easy way my body seems to accept his presence. I've always tensed up and shut down when people got too close. It wasn't a conscious decision. I suppose even before my senses kicked back in, I had an awareness of the pain and disorientation that could come with loud voices, sudden touches, odd smells.

With Carolyn, I had the inducement of sex to open the doors and even so, it took awhile before my body let down its guard around her. Sandburg just kind of breezed in past all the usual defense mechanisms. Was it that my body recognized him? Maybe he was simply short enough to get in under my radar.

Heat is building in Blair; his body's fighting the infection. Enough heat that I'm starting to get damp with his sweat. He's stopped shivering and I'm glad the fever is providing the comfort of being warm instead of cold. The infection worries me. I'd be worried if we were in a nice antiseptic hospital, but here, stuck in this dank hole with God only knows what germs and microbes, I'm terrified.

Blair's strong, he'll be able to fight this until we get some help. I repeat that a few times but it doesn't seem to want to take; I'm still afraid.

Fat lot of good my fear is doing Blair. I close my eyes and listen. Trying to hear on a boat is a challenge and if --no, when-- we get out of here, I'm going to give Blair a thrill and insist we do tests until I can do this better. The ocean does a bang up job of masking and distorting sounds. After a few false starts and a zone that I only come out of when Blair moves restlessly in my arms, I hear one of the crew.

"Ö.she didn't?"

"Oh, yeah, she did."

"Jason doesn't know, does he?"

"I wouldn't be standing here if he did."

"Shh, can't he hear you?"

"Well, theoretically he can, but aside from testing and in the field, I've never known him to use his senses."

"Man, if I had them, I'd be using 'em 24/7. Think of the stuff you could know."

"There's a cost there, you know, as well as the risk of a zone. Jason really hates going into a zone and needing a geek like Kendall to get him out. He doesn't risk that unless he has to."

"Hey, I'd pay that price. Have you brought him out of a zone yet?"

"No. We've tried working together but I don't think I can begin to take Kendall's place until he's dead."

"How soon will that be?"

"You think Jason shares with me? He tells me what I need to know, when I need to know it. Here, take it down to them."

"Why me?"

"I took it last time."

I hear them moving but theyíre quiet now, no more information coming from the galley. Scanning the rest of the boat, I try to pick up Rarick. I don't hear anything and relax back against the wall. Blair's held fast by a sleep that serves as battleground. His Body vs. The Infection. All indications are it's going to be a fierce contest. Blair's temp is up and every once in awhile he moans, the pain penetrating his sleep.

I hear the second crewmember coming towards our hatch. He opens it and I squint against the flashlight he uses to check on us. He tosses the bag in and says, "Aren't you two a cute couple."

I skip the niceties.

"Blair's sick and needs antibiotics. Tell Jason that. If he doesn't want Blair dead, he needs to do something."

"Blair? Who the hell is Blair?"

"Eric." I spit the name out.

My eyes have adjusted and I can tell this new guy isn't much more of a threat than Mike was. They're both young and cocooned in The Nation's ideology. Their only strength is the completeness of their belief in The Tessuad Nation. Having given themselves to it, body, mind and soul, they glow with the potency of their allegiance to the doctrine. It won't sustain them against me. I've had a lifetime of having my ideals assaulted and reshaped; of learning to actively create the doctrine I live by. Yeah, right, that and what gun's going to provide the magic I need to get us out of here?

The kid shines the flashlight on Blair. I turn Blair sideways so he can get a good look. The beam picks up the sheen of sweat on Blair's white face. There's tension in his face, marking the pain that haunts him even in his sleep.

"Tell Jason the fucking brand is infected. I need to clean and bandage it. And some aspirin to bring his fever down."

"Yeah, I'll tell him." He laughs, it's unpleasant. "I'm sure he'll be right down with a first-aid kit and to kiss Eric's boo-boo."

I want to smack the smirk off his face and if I get a chance, I'll do more than that.

"What's your name?" Maybe Blair knows this one too.

He looks puzzled. I doubt he's been asked that question much. "Truesdale." What the hell kind of name is that for a religious terrorist?

"Give Jason my message, will you, True? And thanks for the provisions."

He looks at us, and the contempt that's been on his face this whole time has been replaced with a look of puzzlement. It's hopeless to believe that confusion will last any longer than it takes for him to reach fresh air.

I pull the bag over to me. Another four liters of water and sandwiches.

"Blair? C'mon, buddy, time to drink some water." I feel Blair's eyelashes fluttering against my chest as he comes awake. He grabs hold of my shirt and starts to pull himself up.

"Just stay put, the water will come to you." I support Blair with my arm and hand him the uncapped bottle. His eyes aren't really open and his hand shakes as he brings the water to his lips. He drinks for a long time.

"You hungry?"

Blair gives a small shake of his head and leans back, his exhaustion apparent.

"It's really starting to hurt, isn't it?"

Blair nods his head in assent. "Yeah, like a son of a bitch." Blair's voice is tight. He needs something for the pain and there's nothing to give him.

"Okay, try this. Picture a set of dials. One is marked pain. It's at ten, move it to zero, Chief. "

"Easy for you to say, Jim." I'm gratified to hear the little laugh that follows.

"C'mon on now, work with me, take a deep breath." I'm surprised when Blair does.

"That's it. Let it out slowly. Now another. Now tackle that dial."

I hear Blair breathe in and out, in and out and then a sigh. Looking down I see the pain's eased up.

"It worked! Hey, look at me, I'm a Guide."

"Knew you had it in you." Blair smiles at me, leans his head back and closes his eyes.

This guiding business is interesting. It floats somewhere between issuing orders and cajoling. When Sandburg does it to me I only hear the sweet, compelling, suggestiveness of it. Never really tuned into the steel behind the words. Does he guide or command me? Does Blair even know? It's amazing it's taken me this long to tune into the subtleties of the Guide/Sentinel transaction. What else have I missed? I think back to giving and receiving orders and realize that between my upbringing and the military, I've experienced far more commands to obey than Blair ever has.

That's the ironic part. The Tessuad Nation took Blair and thought to use him through submission. But the weird truth is, if a Sentinel is ever to function as he's meant to, it's he who must submit. To the guide's voice and instruction, to the tribe's needs, to the challenges of his senses.

I remember the first time I saw Blair at Rainier. As soon as I entered the closet he calls an office, I realized he'd pulled a fast one at the hospital. He'd manipulated me into coming to him. I'd gone there with the last of my hope that this Sandburg guy would hold the key to understanding what the hell was wrong with me. And there was Dr. McCay, bouncing on his chair, oblivious to the gravity of my situation.

To him, I was a dream come true, a gift. To me, he was a nightmare. A kid who talked fast and cut corners, who wore garish clothes and had no sense of order. And this was my last fucking hope. My gut had twisted at that knowledge, and my body reacted, throwing him up against the wall. My last protest at the sick joke the universe seemed determined to play on me.

When I came out of the zone with Sandburg on top of me and a truck driver yelling, I realized I'd underestimated the kid. He might lack order and look like a hippie, but he had the heart of a soldier and I could work with that.

Whatever Rarick is, whatever genetic gifts he's been given, he'll never be a Sentinel. He lacks the capacity to obey. His arrogance will never allow that there's any value in submission. To him that's what women, children and guides do.

Thank God my time in the military had shown me the importance of command, both giving it and receiving it.

The hatch swings open and Truesdale is back.

"I brought some stuff to disinfect Eric's shoulder." Truesdale comes closer and hands me the box.

"Thanks. Tell Jason thanks, too, will you?"

"Um, yeah, sure." He nods his head and hastily leaves.

My spirits soar. The kid brought this stuff on his own. Jason doesn't know about it. I unpack the box, and when my hand closes on the small bottles I say a little prayer.

"Blair, wake up, I want to get some aspirin into you."

I give Blair a little shake; wherever he is, it's a long trek back.

His eyes open, shut, open again and with some effort they stay open. I put the aspirin in his mouth and hand him the water bottle. He swallows them and starts to give me the bottle back, but I urge him to drink more. When he's done, he seems to go back to sleep. I know he goes back to battle.

Given no cooperation from Blair, it takes me a long time to maneuver him onto my lap without hurting my leg. The shirt's stuck again, which I knew would happen. Burns leak and I'm grateful the burn is as small as it is or Blair would have gone into shock by now. I soak the shoulder of his shirt and gingerly lift it off the burn. It's as ugly as I remember it and oozing.

I pour on the hydrogen peroxide and almost zone as I watch the bubbles go to work. When I dab on the Bacitracin, Blair moans and stirs. I finish getting the gauze tapped on and roll him over and back into my arms. His eyes are open.

"Hey." It's nice to have some company.

Blair's hand reaches up and he strokes my cheek. I'm a little surprised, Blair has been decidedly undemonstrative since becoming Eric. His eyes have a look of wonder as if he's surprised to see me and I wonder if he's delirious.

"Jim?" His hand stays on my cheek.

"Yeah, it's me."

"I'm not in my room?"

"No, boat." I add, "Jason."

"Oh." There's a world of pain in that oh.

"You put something on my back." He squirms in my arms, rubbing his shoulder against me, like a cat with an itch.

"Yeah, a guy named Truesdale brought us some supplies."

"Truesdale?" His voice trembles, alerting me that Blair knows this guy.

"You know him."

Sandburg falls silent and I wonder if he's drifted back to sleep.

Blair surprises me by sitting up. "Your turn." He blindly gropes around until his hands come across the box.

Nurse Blair lays out the supplies.

"What's this?" He can't see the labels.

"Hydrogen Peroxide."

Blair's hands unwrap the shirt he used to bind my thigh. He can't see. His fingers search for the bullet hole in the fabric. He pours the peroxide on, and waits. He blots it dry, his touch tentative as he tries not to hurt me. I could do this easily, the dark's no barrier to my sight. But I don't. Blair applies the Bacitracin and puts the gauze square on. The whole time he's been working, he's been softly humming a tune, I can't place. He finishes by wrapping the ace bandage around my leg.

"Eventually Rarick's going to have to hit land. When he does, we're going to have to move fast."

I'd been looking around the space for something we could use against Jason. The hold's stripped bare. I flex my leg. It hurts but I have some strength and mobility. As I ponder different strategies, I hear Jason yelling.

"What the fuck do you mean they're in the same room? Who did that?"

I hear Truesdale's voice low and shaky. "I did. You never said to separate them."

I hear a slap. It's not good policy to point out the obvious to Rarick.

"Get them on deck, now. Here's the key."

"Rarick wants us on deck." I warn Blair.

"Just follow my lead." I quickly grab aspirin, and Bacitracin and shove them in Blair's pockets.

Blair looks dazed and scared and I wish I could tell him everything was going to be fine.

Truesdale and Mike enter a few moments later. Truesdale makes a point of avoiding my eyes, Mike has his gun aimed at Blair. Truesdale rattles the handcuffs, the ones Rarick assumed I was wearing all this time.

"Put your hands out."

I hesitate, calculating my options, but the look in Mike's eyes convince me he'd love an excuse to kill Blair and take over as guide, so I cooperate.

They escort us back on deck. I make a show of moving slowly and awkwardly. Mike keeps his gun on us, tense; Rarick waits, pacing back and forth. We seem to have stopped moving. There's a fog and I can see land a few miles away.

Rarick comes up to me and says, "We're going to play a little game." He's looking a tad worn out, and I can just imagine what's been distracting him from us.

Joyce is on deck, too. Rather than worn out, she's looking languid and sated. It would seem I have reason to be grateful to Joyce. She moves toward Blair, who seems to surface from the daze he's been in and backpedals closer to me. She laughs, her throaty, past-midnight laugh.

"You can't hide behind Ellison for long, my pet. I've just begun to see your appeal and I plan to explore all aspects of it."

Putting her hand underneath his shirt, she rakes her fingernails over his chest and growls. Blair yelps and tries to pull his shirt back down. She takes one of his wrists in her hand and starts to pull his shirt off his shoulder.

"Let me see Jason's handiwork."

Blair's trying to back away from her as Rarick comes from behind and seizes his neck.

"Yes, let us see your new beauty mark."

Rarick pulls Blair's shirt up and looks, seeing the bandage. His face congests with rage.

"Who did this? Who gave you this?" Rarick rips the patch away.

Blair gasps from the pain. The brand is a blackened circle, the tissue around it red, pulsing with infection. Rarick glares at Mike and Truesdale and then turns his attention back to Blair.

"Who gave you first aid?"

He's squeezing Blair's neck and forcing him to his knees. I lunge at Rarick and hear the crack of the pistol.

Blair screams, "NO!"

I pull up, unhurt, torn between wanting to smash Rarick's face to a bloody pulp and not wanting to leave Blair alone by getting shot.

"Who?" Rarick asks again, wanting it to come from Blair, knowing I'm sure, it's Truesdale. There's no blocking the rapidity of his heartbeat.

"I don't know." Blair mumbles, his head still forced down by Rarick. Jason curls his fingers in Blairís hair and pulls, bringing Blairís head up. There are tears of pain but no sound and Rarickís face twists with frustration.

Rarick hauls Blair back to his feet. He turns on Truesdale, finally tuning into his racing heartbeat.

"You!"

Truesdale has his hands out in supplication.

"Please let me explain, Jason. He was bad, real bad and I wanted to come and tell you but the door was closed and you said never to disturb you when the door is closed, so I couldn't and I didn't think you wanted him to die. Not yet anyway. So I justÖI mean, I guess I shouldn't haveÖI'm sorryÖ" Truesdale is reduced to babbling.

Rarick shoves Blair to the side. He drives a fist into Truesdale stomach, and as Truesdale doubles over, Rarick hits him with an upper cut. Truesdale staggers to the railing. This seems to satisfy Rarick. He doesn't follow up with more blows as I would have expected but returns his attention to me.

His face has taken on an eerie approximation of joviality. "Where was I? Oh yes, games, all sorts. The first one is called, ĎSee the Sentinel Sink or Swimí."

Rarick moves towards me. "Keep the gun on Kendall." He tells Mike, who obligingly switches targets.

I know just what's coming, but have no way to fight it; Mikeís way too ready to deep six his competition and I don't want to give him an excuse. Rarick eliminates the space between us in three long strides and then just keeps coming, his momentum propelling me over the railing and into the water.

 

*****************************

I'm standing on the deck, the bobbing of the boat challenging me to stay on my feet. Mike's swung the gun in my direction and Jasonís closing in on Jim. The lethargy I've been feeling seems to be affecting my brain because I can't think. I can't think what to do. I'm standing, stupid and docile, as Jason knocks Jim into the sea.

"JIM!" Thereís a laugh. It's Joyce responding to the sound of my scream.

My feet finally come unglued and I move. I make it to the railing where Jim went over. Truesdale's there, panting, but makes no move to stop me as I dive in after Jim. The cold of the water slaps the last of the lethargy away and I focus everything I have into sensing where Jim is. I have to find Jim fast; he's still handcuffed. Blocking the sounds of fighting coming from the boat, I continue to dive and surface. Going under again, I search frantically for Jim. There. A splash of color not three feet ahead of me. I snag it and pull. It's Jim's shirt and it's Jim. I haul him to me, giddy with relief, knowing if we're going to die, at least we'll die together.

We break the surface, Jim sputtering and hauling in great draughts of air. He's thrashing around, which isn't at all helpful, and it takes me a minute to assume a lifeguard's position.

I float on my back, arranging Jim in front of me, and begin swimming away from the boat. My legs hold Jim close to me while I do a backstroke. Hearing commotion behind me, I keep swimming, betting that whatever is going on will give us a chance to put some distance between us and Jason. There really isn't any hope, even with the fog, of getting away; not with Jason's eyesight.

Despair almost stills my swimming but then the solid, secure weight of Jim Ellison registers and I push that aside. As long as we're alive and together I won't let myself stop. Sounds from the boat are getting fainter.

I'm surprised Jason is letting the game go on this long. He loves his games; has a fertile mind for creating them. All of them ended the same way, me losing, me in pain. This one couldn't end that way because Jimís on my side this time. My side can't be the losing side, thereís just too much at stake.

"Blair."

"Yeah?" It takes a lot to get the 'yeah' out. My lungs just aren't up to this kind of exertion.

"Stop."

"Can't."

"Shh, stop. Jason's freaking out, he can't get a bead on us and we need to be quiet."

"Oh."

I stop our forward movement and tread water, keeping Jim's head above it. I try to quiet my breathing but I'm huffing like the little engine that could. Jim's listening and I want to ask what's going on but I wait, knowing he'll tell me when he can.

"Okay, let's start swimming but angle a little to the left."

I do as Jim says, hoping this doesn't take us too much farther from the shore. The boatís moving and in a few minutes, I see it slide through the fog not thirty yards from us. Jason at the helm, Mike serving as guide behind him. Evidently not too successfully, as he never turns our way.

The fog is so dense, I can't make out which way is land, but Jim steers me. We've worked out a system in which I keep our heads afloat and he provides the momentum by doing the kicking. It would work better if we weren't each handicapped in exactly the wrong area. The cold is deep and penetrating. I work at shutting the pain out, closing down the part of my mind that pays attention to that sort of thing. Jimís murmuring something and I wish I had the ability to turn up the volume. He seems to realize I haven't heard because he repeats himself, louder. "Almost there. We can do it."

I can't answer, I have nothing left to answer with. Fear has woven a trance around me and keeps me going.

Can't stop, can't let Jim sink to the dark bottom alone, without air or friend. Can't let Jason claim victory again because this time Jim will be the spoils. Can't stop, can't think, can't feel. Can't give upÖ.

Iím methodically plodding ahead when I'm stopped and I sink under the water. Immediately Jim's hands pull me up and set me on my feet. We've reached land. We clamber up to the beach. Once we're out of the pull of the ocean, all I want to do is lie down but Jim keeps a firm hold on my belt and keeps us moving.

"He's scanning the whole area, I can hear Mike trying to help him pinpoint us. We gotta keep moving, Blair, can you do that?"

"Yeah." I manage to gasp out. "Yeah, keep going, let's get out of here."

I say it and the next thing I know I've got sand in my mouth. Jim's pulling me up, dragging me awkwardly; desperation evident in every nuance of his body. I push off, finding it hard to get any traction in the sand. It's like those nightmares where you're trying to run as fast as you can but can't get anywhere. With much effort, we make it to some rocks lining the shore and get behind them. The boulders give us some respite from the wind for the time being.

Jim's hands are still cuffed and I look around for the kind of rock Jim used to get me free the last time. I sift through the sand, lookingÖdigging, gotta find somethingÖThere's nothing here to useÖthere has to be, how can there not be rocks?

"BlairÖBlair, calm down, shhh, come here."

Jim is lying on his side, his head at an odd angle in the sand. Stopping my search, I hurry over to him and kneel down. Heís in pain, his eyes shut tight, the effort to get us both to safety too much for his damaged leg. Pulling his head onto my lap, I brush the sand off his forehead.

Jim tries to bat my hand away. "Blair, I'm fine. Lie down next to me and be quiet." He sounds impatient and I scoot over and stretch out in front of him.

"Turn around so you're facing me." Jim's voice is a whisper in my ear and I do as he says.

The day is mild but the water soaking us brings a chill wind. I take Jim's hands in mine and pull them to my chest. I gasp, it's like embracing ice cubes but it doesn't take long for skin to skin warming to begin. Pressing in closer, I curve my body into Jim's meager heat. His chin is resting on my head. Although I hear nothing, the tension in Jim's body tells me that he's listening. There's nothing I can do and I find myself relaxing into the small cave Jim's body creates. I lose track of time, perhaps I lose track of consciousness; the next thing I know, Jim is talking to me.

He's so quiet, the only indication he's talking is the puffs of air between us and the vibrations of his chest. Jason must be near. Soon my pedestrian ears pick out the sounds of people on the beach. Jason's swearing. Mike is muttering implorations to Jason.

"Filter the waves out, just hunt for the sound of breathing." Jason responds with more swearing.

Jason had created a hierarchy of his senses. Sight stood alone as having infinite value, the rest were reduced to nuisances when they spiked. He never liked to work them, and once out of The Center, refused to let me test or train him.

Jason's swearing goes up a notch. Frustration is eroding what little control he's managed to corral. There's a grunt of pain, "Jason, please! Noó" and Mike's voice is cut off. The sounds that come next are ones I know too well. Mike's screaming in pain.

I'm sure if I looked, I'd see Mike on the ground, one arm twisted behind him, Jason's foot on his back as he systematically dislocates Mike's arm. There's another scream, two men panting; one in pain, one in relief. I feel an echo of pain in my shoulder.

Jason must have been hell on small things when he was young. I imagine there must be a mound of flies with wings plucked off and old cats missing tails, back at his old homestead. Jason watches as Mike flops around in agony. How long will depend on how high his frustration level has gotten.

I take a peek. Jason is facing away from us, fifty yards away. We need to move now. Jason will be letting his senses center on Mike for the next few minutes. It's a curious way to get grounded, but it seems to work for Jason. Tugging at Jim's sleeve, I motion to the scrub and beyond that, the woods.

"Go." I mouth to him.

He's staring at Jason, his face frozen in shock. I give him a little shove and he slowly turns his head away and looks at me. I can't read his face. I gesture to the woods and he nods. We stay low and literally throw ourselves into the scraggly forest.

"What the fuck was that?" Jim whispers.

"One of Jason's ways of regaining control."

"Jesus, Blair, did he do that to you?"

"Shhh, there's no telling how long he'll take to center. We need to get going."

We move deeper into the woods, the vegetation getting denser the further in we go. We walk steadily for a while. Hard to say how much time has passed. A lot. The day is warm. It's a blessing that's hard to hold onto in the midst of a host of other miseries. Jim puts his hand out to halt my progress.

"Whoa, break time."

This may be a mistake. My feet stop and then take root, my exhaustion cementing me to the ground. Standing there, I try to wipe the sweat out of my eyes and gather a thought in.

"Water?" That's a thought.

"Yeah, water would be good."

"Can you smell any?"

Jim obliges me by sniffing the air all around in a circle.

"Hmm, not sure, but I think there may be some this way." Jim points to our right.

"Great." I mean to move forward but my body, in protest to everything it's been through, has ceased to accept commands from my brain. I wish my brain would stop processing the agony and discomfort as well as the commands. I'm hot, and the brand is ablaze with pain from my salt encrusted shirt rubbing against it.

I look over to Jim and he's in much the same state. He stands favoring his right leg, his arm around his stomach, and I know the sea salt has reawakened his pain.

"Let's go. We can rest after we get to the water."

I like the sound of that. With Jim's words as encouragement, my feet move forward. Jim's nose is better than a dousing stick and we find water about a half a mile away. It's a nice-sized little stream and we drink upstream and rinse ourselves and our clothes out downstream.

"Get the aspirin out and take some, Blair."

"Hmmm." I'd been staring off into space, wet shirt in my lap, all energy gone.

I dig around in my pocket. The bottle stayed capped and the pills dry. I shake out four and hand two to Jim. He takes the pills and then comes up behind me.

"I think the swim might have done the infection some good." Jim comments. "Did the Bacitracin make it?"

I pull the tube out and Jim takes it, smearing a generous amount on my shoulder. "Keep your shirt off for awhile, it'll help the healing."

I take a closer look at Jim. His face is tight with tension; pain or worry? Both, probably.

"Let me look at your leg, Jim."

"It's fine, we have to keep moving." The clipped answers and orders are continuing and I'm starting to worry on a whole other level.

I want to ask, "What's wrong?" Besides everything, I mean.

Even when everything was wrong before, things were still right between us. Now I'm not so sure. Getting up, I almost take a last minute dip in the stream. Whoa, stood up a little too fast, but there's no time to take it easy. Jim is intent, scanning back the way we came as he heads out. I follow, determined not to slow him down.

I wish we had a clue as to where we were. There's no way to tell if a town is just ahead or miles away. Jim's limp is getting more and more pronounced. Sometimes the sweat in my eyes blurs my vision so bad, I just follow him by listening. Once I smack right into a tree that had moved. I swear it did. Night begins to fall and I wonder if that's good or bad. I'm not sure if Jasonís still in pursuit, Jim is always just enough ahead of me to make it hard to ask questions. Duh, stupid, the answer is obvious in Jim's determined stride, and the brutal pace he's setting.

The sun has dried our clothes and I'm glad when I can put my shirt back on. Maybe the air is good for it but having my shirt off and the brand revealed makes me feel more naked than when I was in the tank.

I don't know what Jim's reaction to it will be when we're out of this danger. It won't be good. Jason has marked me as his and the primitive hard wiring of Jim's brain will find that infuriating. He'll see it as an abomination. He'll see me as an abomination, marked as Jason's chattel. Jason will see it as further evidence of his claim on me and he'll do anything to have dominion over me once again.

In his quest to re-acquire me, I'm afraid he'll do anything. There's no way I'm letting Jason hurt Jim again.

My mind is a whirl of plans and ideas; thought of, considered, rejected.

I mentally list his advantages; there has to be a way to even out the playing field. Jasonís healthy. Heís armed. He didn't start out with a deficit in the food, water and sleep department but by now, all those things must be having some impact on both Jason and Mike. Mike's in pain that I know. Stupid of Jason to handicap his team that way. He knows where we anchored. That doesn't mean he knows where he is right now, however.

So he's as lost as we are. He's hungry and thirsty and tired. His eyesight is excellent, his other senses badly trained. He has a guide who's in pain, probably slowing him down. He's used to hotels, big beds, hot baths and room service. Being out here at night is going to really piss him off. When he's angry he has less control. His senses will be hair trigger, the discipline necessary to reign in his impulses: nil. A plan starts to come together. Not a very complete plan, but still, an idea that might tip the advantage back to the Home team.

As the dark deepens, Jim falls back so I can more easily keep him in sight. That works for a little while and then the dark completes its landing. I'm tracking on Jim by sound, with an occasional flash of white, and then the next thing I know, I'm alone. Can't hear him, can't see him.

"Jim?" I force myself to contain his name to a whisper even though a scream really wants to make a break for it.

"Jim?" A little louder. I edge forward. I've only gone about twenty feet when my toe nudges something soft.

"Jim!" I kneel down and run my hands over him. That tells me nothing. I pull on Jim until I have him between my knees, his head on my chest.

"Jim?" I whisper in his ear. It can't be a zone, he wouldn't have been lying on the floor of the forest if it were a zone. Still, I want to go into guide mode and beg him to come back to me. Unconsciousness isn't as easily breached, but I try anyway.

"Jim? Come on man, wake up. Please wake up."

His body feels chilled. I rub my hands up and down his arms, hoping I'm generating some heat for him. Jim remains unresponsive. I tamp down my panic.

I get systematic in my search for what brought Jim down. On his stomach, I find a hard lump, warm to my touch. Could that cause Jim to lose consciousness? Jim is stirring and he moans. I clamp my hand over his mouth. I have no idea if Jason is near or far. Jim struggles weakly against me.

"Shh. Shh. Please be quiet, please, please." I barely whisper but it doesnít seem to register with Jim, because I feel his moans against my hands. Heís trying to push me away and I hold him tightly to me.

"Jim, Jim." My mouth is right next to his ear as I try to get him to hear me.

He arches back and his head smacks my face. Little bursts of light dance around in my head. I let go and Jim scrambles away from me.

I canít pass out, somethingís wrong with Jim and I hold on to that as I push the gray away.

"Blair?" His voice booms out in panic.

"Jim, shh, I donít know if Jason is close."

"Close?" Jim looks confused but lowers his voice.

"Can you hear him? Are they nearby?"

Jim tilts his head, studying the audio information coming his way.

"No." His hands clutch his stomach and he jerks forward, caught by a spasm.

"Jim!" Freed from the worry that Jason might hear us and come out of the bushes, I allow myself to yell his name. Jimís locked into a fetal position. What the hell happened? Was Jim kicked and bleeding internally?

"Jim, you have to tell me whatís wrong. What can I do?"

The only response is a grunt.

"Jim?" I canít tell if I have his attention but I continue anyway. "Dial the pain back. Deep breath. Slowly release it. Another."

I rub Jimís back hoping my touch can help him to regain his control. After many long moments I feel a shudder go through his body. He unfurls and I help him to lie on his back.

"Stung. In the water." His voice is weak and he plucks at his shirt, trying to lift it. I ease it up but in the dark, I canít see anything. Jim can and I hear him hiss in pain and say, "There. Itís out."

"What, whatís out?"

"Some kind of stinger or quill." Heís gasping. Even with pain dials set low, the pain must be bad.

"Heatís the only thing that helps. And time. Iíll be all right in a little while."

Maneuvering Jim so his head is on my lap, I try and make Jim comfortable. His hand is on his stomach and I lay mine over his, hoping that the meager heat that generates will help. I do a lot of murmuring about breathing and dials in the next hour and eventually Jimís breathing evens out and I realize heís fallen asleep.

Setting him down on the ground, I start to dig a shallow trench. The ground is loamy and soft and it doesn't take too long. As soon as it's big enough for both of us, I drag Jim over and place him in it, covering him with leaves. This will both keep him somewhat insulated and hidden. If Jason's hearing is online, it won't do us any good at all, of course. I don't think Jason has the Sentinel equivalent of the fine motor skills to tune into a heartbeat. Breathing, yes, movement of any kind, yes, but not something as intuitive as a heartbeat.

I listen. I may not have acute hearing but if Mike and Jason were close, I'm sure I could tell. There are no sounds, except the ones nature makes. I crawl in next to Jim and rearrange the leaves over both of us. I hitch myself as close as I can to Jim and get my arm under his head. I think maybe I still have a fever. As soon as we come together, our body heat, trapped by the earth and the leaves, begins to build. I feel Jim's muscles relaxing, the tension easing. We are in our own world here, surrounded by moist darkness and the smell of earth and decaying leaves. Staying awake is important and I do; and then I don't.

 

**************************

 

Oh, God, I've been buried alive.

Wait.

By someone incredibly incompetent. I have no trouble digging myself out from the leaves and loose dirt that covers me. All the while I'm freeing myself, I search for signs of Sandburg. There are none. Dread holds me in place, as I turn in a slow circle, listening.

The last thing I remember was the pain in my gut getting worse, getting so bad it felt like a rat was trying to gnaw itís way out. My stomach is tender and sore but the fierce pain has eased. Rarick mustíve come. He has Blair. I temper my panic by reminding myself that Rarick needs Blair and wonít kill him. Not yet. Hurt him, but not kill. I have time to get him backóunless theyíve already made their way back to the boat. That thought galvanizes me and I lurch to my feet. I dial back the collection of pain messages all fighting to be heard.

Moving out, I set a pounding pace back to the shore. I haven't been running for long when I hear the first gunshot. It's followed in rapid succession by three more. At least a mile away, maybe more. Switching direction, I follow the sounds, trying not to zone on the echo.

It's awkward running with my hands still cuffed. My leg hurts and I feel blood starting to seep through the bandage. I've never been more grateful for the things Blair has taught me than I am right now. I dial the pain to zero and lengthen my stride. More shots. No groans, no screams. Faint sounds of movement, and harsh breathing; finally Rarick's voice, high with frustration.

"Get over here, Kendall and quit screwing around, or the deal is off."

Deal? I'm going to kill Sandburg.

Sounds of thrashing through underbrush and then, "Mike, cut him off that way."

Sounds of a thud, a yell; Rarickís, another shot fired. I try and center in on Blair, track his breathing, his heartbeat, anything; but I can't get a bead on him.

Moving toward the commotion, I'm stopped dead in my tracks when I hear another shot, this time followed by a scream; Blair. I make myself move in the direction of Blair's voice. As I get closer, I smell blood and hear labored breathing. Although I'm still too far away to be of help, I zero my sight in on the sound.

Blair's on the ground, his shirt open, lying deathly still. Rarick comes into view, gun in hand, panting. He kneels down beside Blair. I start to move again but something stops me. Transfixed, I watch as Blair's arm comes up in a blur of motion and whacks Rarick on the side of the head with a rock. Rarick falls over on top of Blair, who shoves him off and hits him in the head again. He looks down at Rarick and I see fear and determination in his face. He looks at the bloody rock he's holding and drops it.

I want to yell, tell him he did good, tell him to get the hell away from there, but the distance is too far for my voice to travel so I start off again, carefully keeping a bead on his breathing. He moves away from Rarick and I can tell he's headed back to where I woke up, which means we'll meet up shortly.

I adjust my trajectory to intersect with Sandburg, who doesnít disappoint but comes barreling along and runs right into me. He immediately begins flailing at me, his fist connecting a few times before my yelling, "Sandburg, Sandburg, it's me," finally penetrates.

"Jim!" He looks up at me and then surprises me by throwing his arms around me.

"What the hell happened. Sandburg?" I'm not forgetting Rarick's talk about their deal.

Blair looks up at me, his face reflecting a little shame, fear, and surprisingly, triumph.

"I got to thinking about Jason and I thought that if I could get him mad enough, he'd waste his bullets on me and that would even the odds between you and him considerably, soó" Blair's words are cut off by my shaking him. I'm gonna kill him.

"You deliberately inflamed Jason so he'd shoot at you? Are you nuts? The guy's a sniper, Sandburg, a sniper with Sentinel vision." I walk away from Blair, I'm so angry at his stupidity that I can't look at him.

"No, Jim. It's okay!" Blair's hands are on my back, patting me with some misbegotten idea of trying to soothe me.

I turn on him. He backs away, the rage I'm feeling at his actions clear on my face.

"When he gets frustrated, his senses go haywire. He's a terrible shot then. I thought this through, Jim, really." Blair's pleading with me to understand his logic and I can't.

He has new bruises on his face, his shirt is in torn. His lip is bleeding again. We don't have time for this. Any advantage Blair bought us is being squandered. I shove my feelings aside. I'll deal with this later.

"We have to get moving before Rarick comes to." I hardly recognize my voice, the effort to suppress my reaction to Blair's actions, making it sound flat and mechanical.

"How did you knowÖ? You saw?"

I nod.

Concentrating my hearing, I search for Mike. He's talking to Rarick and for a moment I fear there's no time left at all. Then I realize Mike is talking to Rarick in a guide tone, attempting to coax Rarick out of his unconscious state. That ought to keep him busy.

"Come on, we have to move."

"Wait, I got the keys." Blair digs out the key and approaches me warily, probably afraid I'll bite.

I hold out my hands and Blair frees me. I shake them out and enjoy having them liberated. Now to put them around Rarick's neck.

Moving back towards the beach, we remain silent. Every step sends a message of pain up my leg, but I push that information away. I'm in the grip of opposing forces. Blair made a plan, put it in motion, pulled it off. I should be happy. Proud even; hell, delighted. All of it points to Blair emerging. Emerging whole, capable, and inventive. I should, but all that's crowded out by overwhelming fear. What the hell was Sandburg thinking?

I want Blair safe. I need Blair safe.

So safe that I would see him leashed to me? Is that what I want? A child? A pet? Someone I control? Someone with whom I have the final say as to whether a risk is worth taking, an action sensible?

Yes, dammit.

Okay, not the child or the pet thing no, but me getting to assess the risks part, damn straight. I think about that. There isn't any risk I'd ever want him to take, there's the rub.

All right, he can cross the street outside of the crosswalk.

It isn't seeing Blair cowering in a corner, his hands over his ears that did this. Seeing Blair battered and broken by The Nation factors into it, sure. But I think I lost my stomach for risk and Sandburg when I realized he hadn't left me; he'd been taken from me.

He had gone to Florida and there had been that pain. He had left when we were out of sync.

He was lost to me, alone, and he never knew what he meant to me. That regret was the greatest pain. Because Blair deserved to know how much he mattered to me, how much I loved him.

Except I didn't want to tell him. Didn't want to give him that kind of power. And if I told him and he still left? Didn't want to have that happen. Better he should go not knowing.

Or so I thought, until he was taken; not knowing. Now all bets were off. I'd paid too high a price for my cowardice.

Still, instead of saying, "Blair, I love you." I plot ways to keep him safe and contained so I don't have to face the pain of Blair gone, everything still left unsaid.

Stupid plan. As if anyone has the power to contain Blair.

That's another story.

The main thing here is, does anyone have the power to keep him safe?

Well not if he's going to go off and make deals with the fucking devil, they don't.

I shudder when I remember the sound of the bullet and Blair's scream. His fake scream.

Clever plan really, and it worked.

We're in this mess because I failed to have the foresight to put Blair in a safe house.

Containment.

Would Blair be more or less Blair if I'd done that? This last month has gone a long way to breaking through the wall The Nation built around Blair's mind. I don't know what shape his mind would be in, but his body wouldn't be branded and he wouldn't be trudging through a forest, half-naked, hungry and thirsty.

And miserable, as I give him the silent treatment. I stop and wait for Blair to catch up. Heís walking with his shoulders hunched over, his focus on the ground in front of him.

"Chief." He looks up, alarmed, not expecting me to talk to him. His eyes dart around, trying to spot the reason I've broken my silence.

I broke the silence; now to mend it. "I was wrong to get angry. I still think it was a damn fool plan, but you pulled it off. It's just that when I thought you had been hitÖIÖ-- you don't know what that felt like and I, -- umÖ"

"Got mad."

"Yeah."

"It's okay. I understand. I shouldn't have done that."

"No. Yes, you're right about that. You shouldn't have done that. Promise me you won't risk your life again."

Blair hesitates. He ducks his head. "IóI can't prom--" Blair looks up at me, sees something, because he changes the course of his sentence. "I promise." He swallows hard.

I should ask him what he saw, what made him change his mind, but I'm too relieved to have his promise. I hold it to me, tight.

I hear something and concentrate. Rarick and Mike are on the move. Swearing and stumbling but moving.

"C'mon, Jason's conscious and I want to make the beach." Blair nods and follows as I hone in on the sound of waves breaking.

By the time we reach the beach, we're both panting. The boat's still anchored off shore and the dinghy Rarick used to come after us is high on the beach. We get it into the water and push off. Weíre about a 100 yards from land when Rarick and Mike burst out of the woods. Rarick is waving his gun around, but thanks to Sandburg, he's out of ammunition.

I take inventory of them. Rarick's head is bleeding freely and I see a bit of scalp has been torn. Score one for Blair. Mike's holding his arm to his chest and looks miserable. Rarick's screaming and although I'd be able to make out his words if I tried, I don't. I just enjoy the vision of Rarick's face; red with rage and blood and impotence.

I look ahead to the boat. No sign of life aboard but if I know Joyce, she and Truesdale are probably banging away in Rarick's big bed. Good. Be occupied, be very, very occupied.

I stop rowing and we drift up to the side. Getting up and over is challenging between my leg and Blair's shoulder, but we manage to gain the deck with only a small double thump. Pausing, I listen for a reaction. It takes me a moment to filter out the sounds of the ocean. Ah, there. Joyce, breathing heavy with small gasps, Truesdale huffing right along.

Blair and I move as one down the gangway. It doesnít take much to overpower Truesdale and secure Joyce. When a manís naked, his ability to defend himself diminishes considerably.

The Rangers had us spend a week naked. It had been an interesting experienceóall the everyday tasks had seemed ludicrous at first and the drills were moments of high hilarity. It was during the training exercises that I came to face many of my own hang-ups, as well the mythic qualities of defense we give to clothing. By the end of that week I swear I could've walked down Madison Avenue stark naked and not batted an eye. Now watching Truesdale hunched over, frozen with embarrassment, Iím grateful once again to the all the things the military took away from me.

Joyce is spitting mad, her nakedness in no way impairing her ability to strike out. Blair is showing an odd unwillingness to deal with her. She manages to land a blow to his jaw that sends him to the floor. I deck her, relishing the sound of my fist connecting with bone. She goes down and I just barely resist the urge to kick her for good measure.

Blair gets to his feet, rubbing his jaw, eyeing her like sheís a snake that might strike at any moment. He edges away from her. As he finds himself face to face with Truesdale, he backs away, a flash of fear crossing his face and Iím left to wonderóagainóabout what they did to Blair.

I finish tying Truesdaleís hands and push him back onto the bed. I secure his ankles and hands to the bed frame and then, because he helped us out, I cover him with the sheet. Joyce is still conked out and I unceremoniously pick her up and toss her on the bed.

"Find me something else to tie her with, will you Chief?" Blair rummages around in the drawers and comes up with a couple of pair of pantyhose. I lash her down, making sure the knots are good and tight. Truesdale hasnít said a word since his first, "What the fuck--" as we entered the stateroom. He glares at me and then switches his attention to Blair.

"Look, Kendall, Iím sorry aboutÖwell, I meanÖI justÖI never wouldíveÖthat whole rape thing was a set-up. God, Iíd neverÖthey set it up so Jason could come in and play the hero. Just so you know that IÖ" His voice trails off.

Rape thing? Rape thing?! Iím surprised by the look on Blairís face. Itís one of rapid processing as he takes in Truesdaleís confession.

"What else?" Blair asks.

"What else? Everything else. Well, we did study to be guides, some of us. But the only Sentinel is Jason, so when you came along we all got bumped down. Nobody was happy about that or the charade they made us put on for your benefit, but ÖÖÖÖwas adamant that it was all for The Good. Said that you were a heathen, unclean and wily in your allegiance to The Dark and this was the only way to lead you to The Good. And The Good needed you, Jason needed you. I canít tell you how much that pissed us off."

"I can imagine." Blair says this dryly, like itís not all about him. "You were glad to see me hurt."

"Well, maybe not so much glad to see you hurt as glad to see you fail and be put in your place. Weíd all had our moments with Mr. Smith. Not as many as you, of course. After what heíd done to us it was a relief to be on the other side, rooting for that old buzzard to break you."

Blair shudders and I close the gap between us. Blairís whole body is locked up, his hands in fists. I put my arm around him to pull him out the door, but he shrugs it off and faces Truesdale again.

"Why would you want to be Jasonís guide? Do you have anyóno, of course you donít. He kills people."

Truesdale rolls his eyes. "Well, duh. Thatís a given. Heís a Sentinel. He serves The Good."

"No, no, no! Sentinels donít, by some genetic imperative, kill. They protect. Their enhanced senses are all about detection, not destruction. Jason kills because it gives him pleasure to hurt and obliterate. Heíd kill if he wasnít a member of The Tessuad Nation. Hell, heíd kill if he wasnít a Sentinel."

Blairís speech has no power to penetrate the Tessuad shell Truesdale has protected himself with.

He sneers at Blair and says, "Oh, bravo. Youíre giving a nice performance for your new, domesticated Sentinel, I see. It doesnít wash with me. Iíve seen the vids, Iíve seen you guide Jason through a kill. You are what he is and you should be damn proud of it."

The color drains from Blairís face.

"Donít listen to him, Blair. The bracelet--" I donít get the sentence out before Sandburg pushes me aside and bolts from the room.

Iím slow going after him, my leg reacting to the tussle with Truesdale. I find Blair at the railing, his body convulsing with dry heaves. As I lay my hand on his back, I wait for the worst to pass. Slowly straightening, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. He refuses to look at me.

"Blair, come on. Remember the bracelet? The one that infected your arm? It short-circuited your brain. You werenít in control there. Hell, I donít think you were even conscious in the normal sense of the word."

"What are we gonna do, Jim? What are we gonna do?" The repetition of the question is delivered in an anguished voice as Blair stares unseeingly at the horizon.

Taking Blairís shoulders gently in my hands, I turn him to face me. "Weíre going to get out of here, weíre going to go home. Thatís what weíre going to do."

"What about Jason and Mike?"

"What about Ďem?" In the light of day, without the fog, itís clear the bit of land we were on is an island.

"They can twiddle their thumbs until we get the Feds to pick them up."

"No." My amazement at Blairís negative response mustíve alarmed Blair, because he flinches.

"No?í Iím sincerely curious here.

Blair takes a step back. "N-No. They could get off, they could get help and then theyíd be out there, waiting to take us andóno. I canítÖplease, we have to make sure." Blair says it in a rush, his body tense as if he expects me to pop him one.

Iím caught once again between pride and dismay. Heís right, of course. And Blairís readiness to face Rarick again, in the face of all heís gone through, astounds me. Frightens me, annoys me, humbles me. Because right now I just want to opt for Blairís immediate safety. He looks beaten and sick; the bruises on his face extenuating his pallor. He sways as he stands there, defying me, and itís not the boatís movement causing it. And yet Blair just said no to me.

No.

I know it took courage for him to stare down the conditioning that makes saying Ďnoí to a Sentinel a crime against God. I have to honor that, affirm the rightness of that, and acknowledge that Blair has a point here. Better to take Rarick down for good than to wait for him to come at us again.

"Okay." Blairís face lights up, surprise evident in the widening of his eyes.

"You agree with me?"

"When youíre right, youíre right. Iíll go back for them."

"*Weíll* go back for them." His chin juts out in a stubborn tilt I hadnít seen in a very long time.

"You gave me your word."

"What?"

"You said you wouldnít risk your life again."

"Oh, man, you canít hold me to that in this case. No way I'm letting you go back alone."

"You're not letting me. I'm telling you. I'm holding you to it in this case and every case. YOU are NOT going with me."

I turn the patented Ellison glare on, full strength, and am satisfied when Blair blanches and his shoulders slump. My satisfaction turns sour when he staggers back, his arm half raised in defense.

"Blair--"

"No, no, I understand. Iíll stay here." Blair keeps backing up until he hits the steps that go down. He skirts around them. "Iíll-Iíll just stay here. He sits down on the other side of the steps.

Iím a little alarmed at his reaction. The Glare has always served me well, but up til now, Blairís been relatively immune to it. Never thought heíd succumb to it, not like this. Must be the exhaustion and fever.

"Letís get you downstairs. Thereís an empty berth you can rest in." I hold out my hand but Blair just shakes his head.

"No, Iím fine right here. Iíll wait for you here. Take a gun, take ammunition."

"Blair, I know how to approach dangerous people." My exasperation seems to deflate his anxiety because he nods and puts his head down on his knees.

Finding dark clothing as the sun gets low in the sky, I dress and blacken my face. In the galley I find fruit, bread and cheese. Iím starving and I wolf it down as I walk back to Blair with his share. I locate a jacket and get it on Blair. Kneeling there, I try to reassure Blair that all will be well.

"See? Gun, ammo, knife, cuffs. Iím well equipped for this."

"I know. I didnít mean to doubt you."

"Eat, Blair. Rest. Iíll be back before you know it."

I give his arm a squeeze and swing over the boat, lowering myself into the dinghy.

*******************************

Jimís been gone an hour and Iíve stayed put. Joyce has been screaming to be released for most of that time and my head aches from the sound of her voice. I wish Jim had thought to gag her. She wants to use the bathroom. It would be the humane thing to do, to go down and let her use the toilet but I canít quite find the humanity in me to do it.

There hasnít been a peep from Truesdale. He saw me help Jason kill. Itís real, itís a real thing what I did. Because of me, people are dead. Jim doesnít seem to think Iím responsible and oh, I hope thatís true. But I know itís my very being that channeled Jasonís abilities to his dark purpose. I canít really blame Jim for not wanting me with him as he goes back for Jason. Iím not his friend, Iím a perversion of his friend. One who wears the mark of the hawk and whoís done the bidding of The Nation.

I understand about not risking my life. I understand itís not mine to risk. Itís Jimís to decide how to use, when to use, when to risk. Heís the Sentinel. Iím the guide. And beyond that, he still has hopes that his true companion will surface in me.

I sit, contained. I wait. I push back the anger I feel at being left behind and the fear that gnaws at me. He should have taken me. I know Jason. I could predict him. I couldíve been of use. Bitterness at not being able to make that call bubbles up.

This is no good. Mentally I gather all these errant emotions and push them down. Itís hard and feeling tears, I push harder. This is no time to fall apart. I need to be strong. I need to be what Jim needs me to be.

Joyce is yelling, yelling, her voice eating away at my containment. I try to blot the sound out with my hands, but it penetrates. Her voice is in my head. "Have you ever kissed Ellison like this? He kisses like this." How does he kiss? Like this. He kisses like this. I feel my lip, it's sore. Kisses, like this. Would he ever? Ever want to? Kiss me? You're a troll, a goddamned ugly troll. You are good for one thing and you're barely good at that. One thing. One thingÖ.

You are the Lord.

It exists when you say it exists.

I worship it when you create it.

You are the Sky

You are the Land.

You are my Lord, I am not myself.

Everything dies without your rule.

 

*There, better. You can do this, be this. Shhh, shhh. *

Use us in service, oh Lord.

We give you all that we are.

We are nothing except to your purpose.

Accept us and make us worthy, oh Lord.

The path to your dominion is long, make us strong.

The path to your dominion is dark, give us your eyes.

With your ears, we hear all we need to listen to.

Provide us with the means to penetrate the dark evilÖ

 

**********************

 

I beach the dinghy three-quarters of the way around the island. Moving across inland, I take them by surprise as they huddle around a pathetic fire on the beach. Waiting no doubt for Joyce and Truesdale to show up and rescue them. It might have gone worse if Mike hadnít been in such rough shape. As it was, it was just one on one. Iíll admit, Rarick surprised me. After our last few encounters, Iíd come to think he wasnít much in the hand to hand department. Heís well built, muscled and surprisingly graceful on the sand. He landed some solid punches in places that were already sore. The weakness in my leg made me less stable.

Twice I went down, the second time barely missing a kick to the head, taking it on the shoulder instead. He followed up with a body slam worthy of The Hulk. Air fled my body and I felt a momentís panic when I couldnít seem to get oxygen to come my way. About the time I knew I couldnít hold out any longer without taking in air, I managed to roll Rarick off of me and brought my knee to his groin, shoving him away. He recovered a lot quicker than I did. I watched as his boot came towards my head again. Maybe bringing Sandburg along wouldnít have been such a bad idea. The thought of Blair galvanized me and I moved with a speed I should not have been able to achieve. No way could I fail and leave Blair alone with this guy again.

 

Rolling up and away in one motion, I saw that Rarick was wide open. My guess is people rarely get up after an encounter with him, so he wasn't prepared for round two.

I pivoted and put all my rage into a sidekick. It connected with a satisfying reverberation through my body. Which was some compensation as it just about did Rarickís work for him. Pain radiated from my leg to the rest of my body, and I fought to keep the little bit of food I had in my stomach.

Rarick dropped, lights out. I checked to see if Mike was going to put up any kind of fight. He just sat there, looking oddly pleased, cradling his arm, his face a mass of cuts and bruises. I secured them to a tree, making Rarick as uncomfortable as possible.

It took me longer than I would have liked to make my way back to the boat. Hiking on the uneven ground made my leg ache with a new fierceness. Adrenaline had kept my exhaustion at bay, but now I felt it in every pore of my body. It was a monumental task to keep my pupils dilated enough to allow myself to see where I was going in the dark. By the time I returned to the tree where Iíd left Rarick and Mike, I was ready to simply lie down and wait until morning. Couldn't. I knew Blair would be waiting and worried.

Now as we close in on the Ketch, I decide to do this the easy way. I've never hit a defenseless man with such satisfaction before. Getting him on deck is tricky because of the need to favor my leg but I enjoy the thud of his body hitting the deck.

Keeping my eye on Mike as he struggles one handed up the ladder, I scan for Blair, hoping to hear his breathing in a sleep pattern. Instead I hear him mumbling and I focus in.

Oh God, heís reciting The Doctrine. Turning to the sound, I see Blair on his knees, head down, hands clasped fervently in front of him. The words all run together in his haste to get them out and he's oblivious to our arrival.

"Blair!" Rushing to his side, I grab his shoulders. Eyes fly open, blue and dazed.

"What happened? WhyÖ?" I touch his cheek, running my thumb over the beard thatís begun. He looks at me, but thereís a vacancy in his eyes.

"Come on, Chief, letís get you up."

I pull Blair to his feet. His knees buckle and I get an arm around him.

"Deliver me to your serviceÖ" He stops reciting and looks at me, smiling, just before he collapses completely in my arms. His unexpected weight and my weak leg almost topple us to the deck but I manage to shift and regain my balance. I gently lower him to the deck. His feverís up but not too alarming. Lifting each eyelid, Iím reassured by their reaction to the light and the familiar shade of blue.

What made him go into Ericmode? He didnít just flash to Eric, my God, he was down on his knees reciting the fucking Doctrine.

I set to work, securing Rarick and Mike to the rail. Rarick is still out and Mike does no more than mew when I shift him and attach his good hand to the boat.

Kneeling down next to Blair, Iím at a loss and suddenly itís too much. I just want to lie down, gather him close to me and sleep for a week. Sighing, I pick him up and stand. Staggering a little, I shuffle to the stairs and edge my way down. Blair doesn't stir as I carry him past the stateroom, where Joyce makes catcalls and Truesdale watches silently. I kick the hatch to the V-berth open and bundle Blair inside.

The room is minute but it feels like a haven to have a bed under Blair and four walls containing him. I pull back the covers and lay him down, removing his shoes and socks. He sprawls there, looking oddly fragile for such a sturdy man. His face is shadowed with myriad layers of darkness. Bruising, beard and a hollowed cast around his eyes from fever and fatigue. I smooth his hair off his face and run my hand through the damp curls.

Exhaustion alone could account for this state, as well as the infection. Just how long had he been kneeling there, reciting The Doctrine?

What set him off? Never knew how his mind worked when he was wholly Blair, sure donít understand it now, as it flickers like a half dead neon light, alternating between Eric and Blair.

The last thing Truesdale had said to Blair was about watching the vids of Blair guiding Rarick. Could that have done it? Yeah, maybe. It made him heave, I suppose it could make himÖnah, I donít see Sandburg going back there. Back to being Eric in the grip of The Nationís fanaticism. He would have fought to keep his distance. Hell, even though he had nothing in his stomach, he still needed to purge himself after being reminded about Rarick and what happened.

I put my hand on his forehead, though Iíve no trouble gauging his temp just standing here. I hope it comforts him, I know it comforts me. I unbutton his shirt and pull Blair up. Slipping his shirt off, I lean him against me as I try to do the same with his T-shirt. It sticks to the brand.

Rolling Blair onto his stomach I see the brand has oozed out around the bandage and Iím going to need to soak his shirt off. Locating that first aid box Truesdale had gifted us with earlier is the first order of business. I pull the covers over Blair and tuck his arm in close to his side. Iím curiously reluctant to leave him alone for the time it will take me to go back to the hold we were in and retrieve the box. Before I go, I wet a washcloth and lay it on the wound.

By the time I get back, the water has done the job and Iím able to get the T-shirt off without too much damage to the ravaged area. The ointment and bandage are next and then I roll Blair onto his side. I need to see his face. He seems to be merely asleep and I wonder if I shook him would he awaken? I hesitate. I fear he wonít. I sit down on the bed and watch the steady rise and fall of his chest. Realizing Iím courting a zone, I yank my attention away and apply myself to thinking through what else I can do. When I was in the hold, I snagged some water. Putting my arm under his head, I lift him up.

"Blair?" I give him a gentle shake.

"Blair, come on buddy, time to rise and shine." Blair turns his head into my chest, burrowing, reluctant to come awake.

Taking his chin in my hand, I tilt his head back and press the bottle to his lips. He swallows and seems to come to, a bit. Thereís eye movement behind his lids. His hand comes up and clutches at my shirt.

"Jim?" His eyes stay closed.

"Yeah, buddy. Right here."

"You were right, then."

"Right?"

"Right to not want to take me."

I donít like the way that sounds but I *was* right, so itís hard to argue.

"Yeah, well, allís well that ends well."

Blair sighs at that.

"Mind telling me what you were doing when I came back on board?"

"Doing?"

"Yeah, you were kneeling and reciting The Doctrine. Mind telling me what that was about?"

"Oh." Blair lets go of my shirt and starts to sit up. I help him get vertical.

"So?"

"Yeah, well, I donít know exactly. Joyce was screaming and I think maybe I justÖI dunno, I justÖ"

"Reverted."

"No, not exactly. Iíd have to be more Blair to justify the verb revert."

As soon as he says that, Blair gasps and claps his hand over his mouth. Itís almost comic, but the look in Sandburgís eyes tells me he is truly dismayed that heís let on how much he still thinks heís not Blair.

"I told you; Eric or Blair, or even Bette Midler, weíre friends."

Blair looks unconvinced. He looks unconvinced, tired and sick.

"Come on, drink up and then letís get some sleep. Weíll pilot the boat home tomorrow."

Blair accepts the agenda with a nod of his head and drinks the rest of the water. I lie him back on the bed and make sure heís warm.

"Just give a yell, you know, if you need anything."

Another nod, eyes close, breathing even. I shut off the light and go back on deck. I hear that Rarickís regained consciousness. Heís exhorting Mike to untie him, his voice choking on his rage. When I reach topside, I see that Mike hasnít made a move toward Rarick, but sits watching him squirm around.

"Come here, Mike."

Mike looks up at me. Thereís little of the arrogance left that he wore before. Instead itís easy to see that he didnít leave puberty all that long ago. Mike stands up, carefully skirting Rarick, never looking at him. The Stateroom bed is big enough for three. I settle my charges in for the night, threatening Joyce with a gag if she doesnít shut up.

I have other plans for Rarick. Heís stopped yelling, no doubt shocked at his inability to get his will carried out.

He begins speaking, sounding for all the world as if he were having a conversation in a drawing room, instead of cuffed to a boat.

"You know thereís no way for you to hide him that I wonít be able to circumvent. Heís mine. He was given to me by Divine Right and I will use him until he is of no more use." Rarick says this lucidly

I can tell he believes this. He believes this about Blair. All through Blairís disappearance and return Iíve experienced a multitude of emotions. Fear, anger, frustration, rage. Rarickís calm words fill me with horror. Itís as if there is a new level to my abilities and I can see-- I can-- I can actually see-- his greedy sucking soul. Reaching out to trap Blair, to use and then discard him.

Mike didnít last long. The look in his eyes had telegraphed that he was all used up. And in such a short time. Blair had lasted months with this monster and the monster wasnít done yet.

I consider doing to Rarick what he had done to me, toss him overboard, cuffs and all. I donít think anyone can convey in words the feeling of hitting deep water with their hands bound. The fear is primal, and there is nothing but a wail of despair in your mind as you sink toward your death, away from light, air and human contact. It felt like hours as I kicked my legs and struggled to keep myself from the terrifying darkness that awaited me.

In reality, it was only a minute, maybe two, before Blairís blessed hands connected and led me back to the surface. But they were minutes that would forever haunt me, a reminder of my dependence on oxygen, my need for light, and how fragile the link to living and breathing could be.

Tempting as the idea of Rarick coming face to face with his fragility was, I reject it. Iím not prepared to become the cold-blooded killer Rarick is. That means leaving Rarick to the system. Knowing it the way I do leaves me with little reassurance, but what choice do I have?

Iím not worried about prison. Hell, Iíd do life; Iíd go to the chair, if it meant Blair would be forever safe. But killing Rarick in cold blood would make me his doppelganger. And Blair would know, heíd see that Iíd become what he loathes and fears. I couldnít bear to see that look of recognition in his eyes. So itís an imperfect system and me doing everything I can to gather the evidence needed to put Rarick away. Iíll take Blair to Peru if I have to. He can study the Chopac for a couple of years. Whatever it takes.

Whatever it takes.

Rarick continues his rant. "You think your puny restraints can stop the Goodís messenger from his appointed destiny? "

I think he's actually foaming a little at the mouth and his eyes are glittering with a fervor I never gave him credit for.

"Blair Sandburg was taken, reshaped and rebirthed. He is now Eric Kendall and Eric Kendall he will remain. Blair Sandburg was nothing. Nothing! And then he made himself even less than nothing when he denounced his life's work. That was God, God giving him to us. Giving him to me." Rarick smiles. "And no mortal man will be able to take him from me, for God has shown I hold favor in his eyes."

It's pointless to argue with a madman, so I ask, "If he's such a gift, why do you hurt him?"

"Hurt him?" He actually sounds outraged at the idea. "I'd never hurt Eric."

He's sincere and now I'm really getting the heebie jeebies.

"I know what you've done to him, I've seen the scars, heard his nightmares."

Rarick shakes his head at the question. "Certainly you've noticed how willful Eric is? How he overflows with desire and energy? This must be corrected. God made guides so they could act as conduits for our gifts. He made them lacking in insight, intelligence and discipline. They aren't like you and I, God's treasures. They lack our sensitivities and highly attuned metabolisms. They are thick skinned and stubborn. I found Eric's resistance to my leadership quite a challenge." He smiles like a proud father.

 

"But he was learning. And he will learn again." Rarick's eyes get a faraway look in them and I shudder as I realize he's relishing how he will discipline Blair again. Over my dead body.

I say it out loud. "Over my dead body."

"I'm sure God will make the arrangements." Rarick's smug and convinced of his righteousness.

I move toward him, wanting to kick, to break his legs, his ribs, smash his teeth; wanting to dull the rage I feel with the sounds of blood vessels rupturing, bones snapping. Hear his screams begging me to stop, praying to his brutal God for mercy, the kind of mercy he never gave Blair. I flash to Mike, face contorted with agony, as Rarick dislocated his shoulder. Did it not to discipline but to dull his frustration, his rage.

I donít know if itís the realization that I am way too close to being like Rarick or if the toxin from the quill is working it's way out of my system, but nausea overwhelms me. I heave and spew Rarick with the contents of my stomach.

Ah, now these are sounds to soothe a manís soul. I listen to Rarick howling as I go below deck. He doesn't seem to have any control over the dial for smell or touch. He's in for a long night. The three on the bed are quiet and I reaffirm their state of unconsciousness with a quick scan of their vitals.

Moving along, I go to the tiny cabin where I left Blair. He sleeps, curled tight, hand fisted under his head. Tugging the covers up higher, I let his even breathing fill my head.

I remember the way Blair sounded as he asked on deck, "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?" his voice filled with defeat. Fuck, Blair, I donít know. The choices all suck.

I sink to the floor, the power to remain upright, gone. I settle down on the hard floor. Resisting the urge to catalog all the ways I ache, I shut down.

 

*****************************

 

"JIM? JIM?" I wake to Blair patting my face, his anxious eyes studying me. I must look bad because even though Iíve opened my eyes, Blair continues to pat my face gently and look worried.

"Iím fine." It comes out kind of slurred and when I start to sit up, the cabin tilts.

"I donít think so, man. Come on, let me get you up on the bunk." Blair puts his hands under my arms and gets me upright. I lay down in the residual warmth left by his body and try to get my head together. Iím having trouble getting my eyes to open. I drift. The next thing I know, Blairís urging me to drink the water heís brought. I drink but he seems determined to pour the entire bottle down my throat; I bat his hand away.

"Enough, thank you, but thatís enough." I need to get up, find a map, pilot this boat back to Cascade. I lie there, lethargy weighing me down.

"How do you feel? What can I do?"

All my senses seem to be oddly exaggerated. Not spiking exactly but delivering information to me in a more complex way than usual. I feel the heated knot in my stomach where the quill pierced me, its poison trapped under my skin. I touch it. There's a hissing sound and I wonder if Iím hallucinating. I look at Blair. I see him through the kind of haze one sees roiling off hot pavement in the middle of summer. He looks watery and I feel a jolt of fear that heís a mirage. Lurching off the bed, I collide with his solidly real form, sending us both to the floor.

"Jim? What is it?" Blair's anxious hands are once again doing an inventory and when his hands get to my stomach, I can't stop the groan that escapes me. Blair immediately lifts up my shirt and investigates.

"Oh man, this is so not good. Jim, the quill, the thing that stung you, what'd'ya think it was?"

"Some sort of sea urchin, probably. Not much to be done about it. Maybe some heat would help." I'm appalled at the sound of my voice. It sounds wobbly and for a moment I suspect my hearing until I realize Blair's voice was just fine.

"Jim, come on, man, let's get you back into bed." With Blair's help, I manage to get back into the berth.

"Hold on, I'll be right back." Blair strokes my arm and leaves. Without him in it, the cabin, which had seemed snug and safe, takes on claustrophobic dimensions. Heís gone a long time and I swear the walls inch closer. I hear Joyce.

"Hey Eric, bring those hot lips over here and give me a kiss. C'mon now, come and let me loose so I can show you what you've been missing."

I cringe, her voice scrapes over my over sensitized ears. I hear the raw need, as well as the malicious taunting. I visualize how I left her and breathe a sigh of relief. She's secured in such a way that she can't get loose or violate any one. I hear Blair hesitate outside the door to the stateroom. He can't be thinking of going in there. Sure, Mike's groaning and Truesdaleís begging to be allowed to use the head but Sandburg wouldn'tÖoh fuck, he is.

Getting off the bunk, barely managing to stay upright, I stumble to the door. I hear Blair bringing Mike some water, his yelp and Joyceís near insane shout of, "Gotcha." Blair yells and I hear the sound of fists connecting. I pinball down the gangway, grateful for the narrowness of the passageway, which keeps me upright.

I stagger into the room and see that Joyce has freed her hands, which are now buried in Blairís hair. Sheís kissing him. Blairís flailing about, his fists sometimes finding a target but unable to do any real damage from the position heís in. I hear his wild heartbeat, smell the fear and panic as she crushes her mouth to his.

Grabbing her wrists, I apply the kind of pressure one uses on psychos. I canít tell if her scream is one of pain or frustration at being forced to let go of her prize. As heís released, Blair stumbles back until he hits the wall. Thereís blood on his mouth and Iím not sure whose it is.

"Let me go, Ellison! Afraid of a little competition? Come on, he was just getting into it."

Blair staggers out of the room. Before I follow him, I retie Joyce. Thereís been no sound at all from the Mike and Truesdale. They each wear the same look of repulsion and I think what a fine and fitting punishment it is, to be trapped in bed with Joyce.

Blair is in the gangway as I come out, which is a good thing. I donít have a lot of energy left to make the trip back to the room. Hell, I donít have the energy left to take another step and more or less collapse into Sandburgís arms. He grunts as he takes my unexpected weight and maneuvers himself under me. We make chaotic headway back to the V-berth.

Blair keeps his head ducked as he helps me back into bed. I reach over and tilt his head up. He lets me and I see his lip is torn again and that itís his blood. He doesnít touch it or try to wipe the blood away. His eyes show his shame and I donít understand it.

"That bitch. Donít ever go near her again, Sandburg, I mean it."

He waits until I drop my hand before he ducks his head again and goes back to fussing with me.

"I brought hot water." Itís close to a whisper. I suppose he realizes what a dumb move it was to go in there. Good. He needs to know that, he needs to think more about his safety.

He has a backpack slung over his shoulder and he swings it forward. Opening it, he pulls out a thermos and a washcloth. He wets the flannel down. I see steam; he mustíve boiled water in the galley. He waits a minute for it to cool down and then lifts my shirt and gently applies it to the lump. I feel the heat sinking in, dissolving the poison. Blair takes the cloth off and pours more hot water on it, tossing it from hand to hand. He puts it back on.

After awhile, Blair peeks beneath it. "Itís working, I think. The swelling has gone down and it seems less hard."

"Yeah, Chief, it feels much better." He smiles a little at my reassurance. I hand him the washcloth.

"You should clean that cut, Blair." He takes the cloth and turns away. When he faces me again, the blood is gone and I see just how savagely Joyce bit him.

Diving back into the backpack he pulls out a bottle of water and hands it to me. Aspirin follows that. He nods approvingly as I wash them down. Last to be placed in my hands is a sandwich.

"Whereís your sandwich?"

"Iím not really hungry."

I break my sandwich in half and hand it to him.

"Eat. Gotta give your body something to work with as it fights the infection."

He reluctantly bites into it but finishes it in record time.

The pain has subsided and Iím feeling ready to get on with the tasks at hand. Iíd like to put Blair back into bed and let him sleep but I donít think I have what it takes to deal with the unholy four and set sail for home by myself.

"Think you can find the maps?"

"Yeah, Iíll get right on it."

"Iíll meet you on deck. Iíll just make our guests a little more comfortable."

"NO! I mean--" Blair stops himself. Heís blushing.

"What? What is it?"

"You canít do it by yourself. I can help."

"Chief, I donít want you anywhere near any of them. I can take care of them. Now go and find those maps."

Blair leaves the cabin reluctantly but without protest. I add that to my long list of worries and get going. The sooner weíre back in Cascade, the happier Iíll be.

Getting the three in the stateroom untied, watered, fed and retied takes way too much time. Joyce started in right away and I tell her to put a sock in it or I will. When she doesnít, I do, and am glad to have the excuse.

I share some of our aspirin with Mike and make sure he is secure but tied more comfortably. Truesdale continues his silence and I have no way of knowing what to make of that. I figured as long as I keep the upper hand, it wonít matter what heís thinking.

 

As I make my way topside, I hear Rarick talking to himself. Focusing, I realize itís Blair heís talking to. Shit. Why didnít I consider that possibility? Coming on deck Iím confronted with Blair, his back pressed against the bulwark and Rarick saying, "You are a guide whore, guiding whoever catches your fancy. Ellison will see what you are soon, and want nothing to do with you. You are less than nothing without me. We were good together. You were meant to be my--"

His little speech is stopped short by my fist impacting with his mouth, effectively shutting it. Blairís trembling, his eyes wide. Thereís no telling how long heís been filling Blairís head with his skewed take on reality and the purpose of Blairís existence. I have to pry Blair away from the wall. Heís staring at Rarick, fixated on him and the rage in me thatís been simmering all this time sears through me.

"Come on, Sandburg. Did you find the navigational charts?" My voice is harsher than I mean it to be and when Blair doesnít answer, I shake him a little. His head snaps up and he looks around wildly.

"I meant to. Itís just that JasonóI came up and Jason-- I know theyíre here someplace. Wait."

He falls to his knees and opens the cabinet underneath the wheel, hauling out papers. Pawing through them he finds the map and hands it to me. Heís peering around the wheel and I see heís trying to check on Rarick. Probably worried about the fat lip I gave his precious Sentinel. Probably the whole reason he wanted to go back to the island was to make sure Rarick was safe and sound.

"Worried about him?" Sandburg misses the sarcasm because he answers truthfully.

"YeahÖ" His voice trails off.

"Heíll be all right, a little less beautiful, maybe, but fine."

Blair looks at me in disbelief. "I donít want him to be fine." He backs away from me and then stops.

I mentally smack myself in the head. Why is it so easy for me to slip into thinking that Sandburg wants Rarick as his Sentinel? By now itís clear that Blairís terrified of the guy and yet it takes next to nothing for me to believe that heís bonded to Rarick.

Still.

Yet.

Did they do something to my brain when I was in the compound? Because generally Iím not this stupid. Maybe they did, because Iíll repeat myself, Iím not stupid. Iíve sure being acting like I am. If they could fuck up Blairís brain, why not mine? I donít mean anything as drastic as surgery but surgeryís not all they did to Blair. I wonder if a big piece of the puzzle just fell into my lap or if Iím grabbing at straws, trying to make excuses for myself.

I reach out to Blair and he freezes. He waits for my next move, waits for me to hurt him, I see that in his eyes. But he doesnít try to get away, he doesnít try to defend himself. I stopped myself from killing Rarick outright because I didnít want to see this very look in Blairís eyes. The look that tells me how very much Iím like Rarick.

"Iím sorry. Sorry I snapped at you, sorry I said those things. I didnít mean it." I realize the apology is a little weak. Iím not prepared to say what I was thinking or explain that thatís why I acted and sounded the way I did. Blair will understand. When weíre back home Iíll explain and ask him if he thinks The Nation might have done some subliminal brainwashing. When weíre home and warm and we donít hurt. Thatís when weíll figure this out.

"Iíd never hurt you, Chief, you know that donít you?"

He nods his head and turns away and I hear him muttering to himself. "A Sentinel never hurts a guide. He shows leadership, teaches discipline, correctsÖ"

Fuck. Damn, stubbornÖhow can he think that I would hurt him? Is he misreading me on purpose? I catch hold of my thinking, knowing I'm moving back into a rage just as I'm trying to reassure Blair that I would never hurt him. How sick is that?

I bite the anger back and reach out to Sandburg. "NO! No, noÖ I mean it. I would never hurt you."

There's no recognition in his eyes that he accepts the truth of my words. Oh God, he thinks that I think like Rarick. Rarick who believes *he* has never hurt Blair but has simply disciplined him, *taught* him.

This is Eric, this is what Eric believes and again the rage shimmers. Blair would know I would never hurt him. Heíd understand my apology. Eric doesnít and I feel my hand curling into a fist.

A FIST! I twist away and hold my hand to my chest, protecting Blair from this blind fury. Oh fuck, they did-- they did do something to me when I was there. Just now I wanted to hit Blair or was it Eric? Which one was I about to smack?

Which one?!

There is only one.

I see that BlairóEricófuck, HE-- believes it; it confirms everything heís been told about Sentinels.

I told Blair I accepted him no matter what, what a laugh.

I laugh. It sounds hysterical even to my ears and Blair looks doubly frightened. I'm scaring the kid, I have to pull it together. How can I explain, how can I make him understand?

"Blair, uhÖI think maybe, I don't know but maybe, when I was at the compound, they did something to me. Something to my mind to make me think that you want to be Rarick's Guide-- and when I think that, I feelÖI feel this rage--" I stop my garbled speech, sure that I've just convinced Blair of my untrustworthiness.

He says nothing, and I rush to continue, "I feel this anger but I would never hurt you."

"It's all right. I know youíd never hurt me."

Blair comes to where I'm standing and runs his hand up and down my arm. "It's all right." He speaks in guide tones and is trying to calm me down.

This is fucking unbearable. We've been reduced to a function, his Guide to my Sentinel. All he heard in that speech was that his Sentinel is upset and needs to be dealt with; soothed. My friend Blair is absent in this exchange, buried in all the garbage they dumped in his mind.

Back home, Blair was starting to exist again. We need to get back home. We'll deal with all this there and find our way back to understanding one another. I look at the map that Blair thrusts into my hands and study it. I really don't know where we are.

"Chief, come with me. We need to ask Truesdale if he knows where we are and then we need to set a course for home."

Blair follows me obediently. Truesdale proves to be quite the map-reader and pinpoints our location with little trouble. Blair stays in the gangway, well clear of Joyce. We head back on deck, ignoring Jason, who now seems to have gone to speaking only Russian for some reason. It suits him and Iím just glad heís rendered himself unintelligible for awhile.

The trip home will take some time and I find a deck chair for Blair. I do most of the steering, with Blair dozing off and on. Toward evening, I check on our guests. Rarick looks a little unhinged and I realize itís time to get him taken care of.

Handing the wheel over to Blair, I escort Rarick to the head. Having everyone centrally located seems like a good idea but Iím afraid that the demoralized band of three will be revitalized by Rarickís presence.

I shove him in the dark hole he had us in, along with some bread and water. That sounds punitive but itís really a simple reflection of the dire straits weíre in. Thereís almost no food left on board and the waterís getting low as well. I hope I can stay on my feet long enough to find a port to harbor in. According to the map we should see land soon. Blair is sprawled on the chair, looking the worse for wear. I kneel down and brush the hair out of his eyes, checking his temp. He stirs under my hand and sighs.

The rage is gone for now but I know the cage door could pop open at any moment. I can guess some of the triggers they planted. I can't guess them all as I realize this rage has snuck up on me over and over again. I feel an anger about that and this anger feels different.

Okay, I'm not given to analyzing my feelings. I don't turn them over and over and try to pinpoint their origins in my childhood. But I recognize that this anger, the anger I feel at not being in control of my reactions to Blair, isóclean. This gives me hope that I may be able to tell when what Iím feeling is a by-product of The Tessuad. I hate feeling like a puppet. Iím going to find the damn strings and rip them out.

***********************

I wake to the sound of snoring. Itís hard to get my eyes to open, the fatigue I feel is acting like a glue, keeping my eyes shut and my body caught in stasis. I lift a hand that feels as heavy as a sandbag, to my head. Which hurts like it got whacked with a sandbag. My hand encounters the source of the snoring and I realize that Jim has fallen asleep lying across me. I want to touch him but I don't dare. Wherever his body touches mine there is a comfortable warmth and the weight of him anchors me.

It's early morning, the sky just beginning to throw off the blanket of darkness. I don't know what I should do. Wake Jim? Let him sleep? The decision is taken out of my hands when Jim snorts and jerks awake. Sitting up, he's clearly disorientated, looking around confusedly.

"Wha? What?" His hands tighten convulsively around my arms, assuring himself, I think, that I'm here.

"You all right, Chief?" His eyes come into focus on me and he seems reassured. Although he looks like hell, Jim gets to his feet in one fluid motion. To me it looks like we are in the middle of nowhere, but Jim slowly scans to the east and seems satisfied with our position.

"Not too long now and we'll be able to make anchor in Grayís Harbor."

He hands me a half bottle of water. "That's just about all the water that's left. Drink some, we should be on land in an hour or so."

I take a sip and recap it. Sleeping helped, I think, though my head still feels backed with cotton and my back hurts. I get up off the chair where I spent most of yesterday, *not* in one fluid motion. Stumbling to the rail, I join Jim, who's had the same idea. The sound of our pee hitting the water goes on for so long it starts to get funny. I look over to Jim and he grins at me. I smile back, happy he's not mad at me.

"We'll get into Grayís Harbor and call Simon, call the Feds, call the local cops, call in the fucking cavalry, hand over these assholes and go home."

"Can't wait, man. Home sounds real good right now. Hot shower, hot food, and heatÖ"

"Sleep. Clean underwear. "

"Vegetables."

"The sound of you asleep downstairs."

That shuts me up.

I busy myself looking at the map, although I have no idea how to read it. When he thinks of home, he thinks of me. Home, not work, or using his senses. Maybe Jason was wrong after all. Maybe I'm not a problem Jim has to put up with in order to function.

Jason said a lot of things to me, reminding me of what I am and what I was born to be. Am I that and only that? There must be some part of me that is for me, that has a purpose outside of being a guide. I hear Jason's voice, his words in Russian.

"Would God have made Sentinels, made them so extraordinary, given them so many gifts, if he didn't love them best? And in loving them so, of course God would make them a guide for their use. A guide who would fulfill his own destiny by following the destiny of his Sentinel. Follow him, protect him, enable him to protect the tribe, obey him."

"Stay in the truck, Chief." And I waited.

Hold up. Jim. Jim had said that to me, to Blair.

Had God given me to Jim or to Jason? Which one was I meant for?

Jim had been furious with me for going to Jason on the island without his permission. He made it clear my life is not my own to risk, that I have no right to make a decision like that.

I understand, I do, but I had to do something. Jim was so out of it and Jason was sure to track us down once it was daylight again. Maybe it wasnít the best plan, but it worked.

I remember smashing the rock on Jasonís head. It had felt great that first time. The plan was working, Jim would be safe. The second time I hit him, I felt sick. I was hitting a Sentinel. I was hitting a human being. I might be killing him. Iíd dropped the rock, shocked at the blood on it.

Jim saw me do it. Saw me violent and out of control, out of his control. Itís no wonder heíd been so appalled at what Iíd done. Iíd taken what belonged to him --Blairís life-- and risked it. And in the process, showed I lacked faith in Jimís ability to handle the situation.

Jim takes the map out of my hands and studies it for himself. He seems to understand the maritime symbols and dashes and it doesn't take him long before he hands it back and takes the wheel. Jim's map reading proves dead on and we soon see land. It's not much more than an hour later when we pull into Grayís Harbor.

Jumping off the boat, he motions to me to follow and in short order he's arranged for the boat to stay in a temporary slip, called Simon, the Feds, the local police. We drink vending machine coffee and eat candy bars, waiting for someone to come and take thoseÖ.people away. And then weíll go home.

*************************

Not home after all. After the Feds make the scene, Jim insists on having the burn checked out. Iím okay with that because he still has a bullet in his leg. Heís not at all happy when I mention that to the doctors in the ER. Weíre both surprised when they pronounce that his leg is healing fine, bullet and all. Me theyíre less sanguine about. The brand is infected. They tsk tsk my lousy hygiene and give me a prescription for Cipro and Vicodan. They put a stitch in my lip.

I can't wait until thereís a bed under me. All the sharp edges keep blurring and then snapping back into place. I hold myself steady, the last thing I want is to be stuck in a hospital bed in Grayís Harbor.

I want to go home. Jim gets the prescriptions for us filled and leads me back outside. Simon insisted he would come himself to pick us up and now we wait. The bench sits facing the sun and I try to soak in the heat. Weíre silent, the energy it would take to converse is more than we have to spare right now.

*****************

The kidís just about done in. Almost insisted they admit him but I canít contain my uneasiness here. I need to get back to a defendable space. I watched the Feds haul Jason away, but somehow thatís failed to put my mind at rest.

I must be really out of it myself, because I just barely catch Sandburg before he takes a header right off the bench onto the sidewalk. I snag his jacket and pull him back up. He doesnít wake. I settle him against me and hold him close with my arm across his chest. I find myself relaxing to the motion of my arm rising and falling with each breath Blair takes.

An hour later Simon screeches to a halt in front of us. He gets out, slamming the door. "Jim!" I wince at the volume and tighten my grip on Blair. He doesnít stir.

Simon notices then that Blairís asleep and mouths, "Sorry."

"Itís all right. Donít think much could wake him at this point." Simon helps me get Blair up and into the back seat and I get in next to him. Itíll make it a little harder to fill Simon in but Iím not letting go at this point.

"Whatís wrong with him? For that matter, whatís wrong with you? You look like hell."

"Well, I feel like hell, so the illustrations match the text." I try and stretch my legs diagonally and take some of the pressure off my thigh.

The doc said it would do more damage to dig the damn bullet out and I believe him, but it pains me to carry Jasonís calling card with me. I look down at Blairís head on my chest. I feel the wet spot forming on my shirt from Blair's drooling. Who would of thought something like that would have the power to comfort?

"Blair got an infection and I got shot, among other things. Mostly heís just exhausted." I find myself unwilling to tell about the brand or what happened on that boat.

"The Feds got Jason and Joyce and two others. Iím hoping they manage to keep them this time."

Simon looks at me through the rear-view mirror. All I see are his eyes and heís looking at me with an intensity that makes me uncomfortable.

"You know you had us all worried? My God, the two of you just disappeared again without a trace. Your cars were still there, your gun was on the tableÖI donít mind saying these have been some of the longest days of my life."

I see the fatigue in Simonís face and I feel warmed knowing I have someone to watch our backs. And bring us home. The ride is shortened by sleep overtaking me.

Simon gently shakes me awake. Blair is waking also, his arms tighten around me. He opens his eyes and looks up at me, blinking and wetting his lips. I think he dehydrated himself by drooling so much. His eyes have the unfocussed fog of fever reflected in them and I push his limp, sweaty hair away from his face.

"Have a good sleep?" I ask him as I try to get him upright without hurting his back.

"Hmm. GaÖ yassÖ" His eyes may be open but I donít think his brain has plugged in yet. He sits up and slowly straightens from a slump. When he realizes weíre home, his eyes open wide.


"Come on, Chief, let's get inside." Blair nods and it's not long before we're back in the loft. It's been less than a week since we were taken but it feels like months.

"Sit before you fall flat on your faces." Simon picks up the phone and dials Wang Chun's, placing a delivery order that makes my mouth water.

"You want to take a shower, Chief?"

Blair takes a deep breath, and grimaces. "Man, I hope you've had smell turned down. I think for your sake I'd better go first." He beelines to the bathroom and soon I hear the sound of the shower and Blair's hiss as the water hits the brand. The water stops in time to insure they'll be some hot left for me. He's in there long enough to worry me but before I take action, the bathroom doors opens and Blair shambles out. Steam billows behind him.

"Your turn." He calls to me and goes to get dressed. After I shower, we eat and fill Simon in on our week away.

"I can't believe the Feds turned them loose. For the love of God, those people have money, international contacts and a total disregard for any government. Why kind of judge would grant bail?"

"The bribable kind, I'd say." I throw my napkin down.

Blair looks like he could nod off sitting up.

Simon tunes in and gets up, "Time for me to get out of here so you guys can sleep in your own beds."

After Simon leaves I go around turning off lights and locking up. Blair stays at the table making no move to go to bed.

I should put antibiotic on Blairís back. My gut clenches at the task. The design is starting to become more apparent. The lines that define it are still blackened, the red around it indicating infection.

I clear my throat. "I need to get this stuff on your back, Blair."

Blair looks up, his weariness making the task difficult.

"No, síall right. I can do it."

He puts out his hand for the tube, and I wonder if he could read my reluctance. I give him the tube, glad to be released from the task.

Blair takes it and stands up, swaying before he locks his knees.

"Goodnight, Jim."

"Goodnight, Chief."

I turn off the lights, soothed by the glow that comes in from the street. The utter darkness of the ocean added to my primal fear of the infinity of the water. Itís good to be on land again.

Looking out the window, I see cars moving along, a stray tom making his rounds, a man walking his dog. The ordinariness of it all feels surreal. I can tell Blair has yet to fall asleep though nothing should be able to keep him conscious. I long for sleep and the oblivion of sleep. I know itís not to be. Not for awhile.

 

 

**************************************

 

Waking, everything feels wrong and I push off the bed and look around, trying to figure out whatís spooking me. The room is stable where I had become used to the sway of the boat. Not much light penetrates my room, but the light that Iím seeing is wrong. Wrong color, wrong intensity. I look at the clock, my God, Itís four in the afternoon. Can that be possible?

I stumble out of my room, not bothering with a robe. Jimís asleep on the couch. Heís still dressed from last night and he looks as if he just flung himself down and fell asleep. Thereís no pillow, no blanket; his shoes are still on. Heading for the bathroom, I figure Iíll use it before he wakes. If heís in the same shape as I am when he comes to, his bladder will be ready to burst. That pressure relieved, I go back to Jim and give him a nudge.

"Jim?"

He bats my hand away and curls in towards the back of the couch. I give up and go to make coffee, knowing that the smell of fresh brewed caffeine will lure him from the depths. As predicted, by the time the pot is half filled with the brown liquid, I hear Jimís voice.

"Sandburg? What the hell time is it?"

"Itís 4:20, Jim." Iím struck by how odd it is to have a normal exchange of information after all weíve been through.

"4:20 a.m. or 4:20 p.m.?" His voice sounds socked in with fog. He must be really out of it to ask that question.

"Afternoon."

I come in with a cup of coffee and see why he asked. He hasnít opened his eyes yet. He sits, his head thrown back on the cushions. I waft the coffee under his nose and he blindly reaches out for it, zeroing in on it with uncanny accuracy.

"AhÖ.good." He slurps it greedily and I go back to get mine.

I sit across from Jim. He looks rumpled and haggard and he still hasnít opened his eyes.

"You slept in your clothes."

"Yeah."

"And your shoes."

"Yeah."

"On the couch."

"Yes, all that seems to be true." He opens his eyes.

"Why?"

He looks out the window and then lets his eyes roam around the Loft, finally coming back to me.

"Didnít feel safe. Still donít feel safe. I should have killed that son of a bitch when I had the chance." The fog in his voice has lifted, replaced with graveled anguish.

"Heís in custody."

"He was in custody before."

"But this time he kidnapped and shot a cop. Theyíll never grant bail, Jim."

"If the system works. But thatís not all." He looks down at the empty coffee cup in his hands.

Before he can get into that the phone rings. Jim reaches over and gets it.

"Ellison."

"Afternoon to you, too, sir."

"No, we didnít forget, we slept late."

"Yeah, this late."

"I appreciate it, Simon. See you tomorrow."

He hangs up the phone.

"Simon." He tells me unnecessarily. "A little worried and ticked that we didnít come in to do paperwork."

Standing up, Jim says, "Iím going to shower and get dressed."

I watch him walk to the bathroom, a residual sway from the boat in his walk.

Right now, the idea of crawling back into bed and pulling the covers up sounds good. Jimís mood has obliterated any sense of well being I had at being back home. As my anxiety increases, I feel the brand start to pulse and ache. I need the pain meds we picked up yesterday. I pop a couple and rinse them down with the cold coffee.

Dressed, I feel a little more armored against whatever might come next. Jim comes down from upstairs with an armful of dirty clothes.

"You got any to add to this?"

I guess doing the laundry makes some kind of Ellison sense.

"Yeah, just a sec, Iíll get them and go with you." By the time Iím out of my room with my armload, Jimís loaded the supplies into the laundry basket.

Coming out of the building, the air feels heavy with rain unspilled. I look up at the gray sky, comforted by the feeling of the clouds being so close. I start a mental to do list in my head.

I need to call Mr. Lee, explain and hope I still have a job. We never got to do the tests with the perfume; I need to think them through. Stopping by Mr. Leeís would make sense, as we need groceries. Iím so absorbed in my thoughts I donít notice that Jimís not next to me anymore. I look back and a neon sign has transfixed him. He stands staring up at the blinking letters.

Itís on the Comedy Club that sits on the corner of Prospect and Nile. I look up, trying to see what he finds so interesting and gasp. When fully functional, the sign reads ERIK JACKSON"S COMEDY CLUB. Now, with several letters burned out and a few flickering with the last of dying gas, it reads: ERIK JA SONíS COME C UB. I tug on Jimís sleeve. He jerks away with a snarl.

"You okay, man?"

Jim looks at me, his eyes narrowed and assessing. There is something alien in the way heís looking at me and I involuntarily step back. That seems to be the wrong thing to do because Jim drops the basket and makes a sound close to a growl. Latching unto my arm, he pulls me into the alley we passed a moment ago and shoves me against the wall with enough force to knock the air out of my lungs.

"Jim!" I say it halfway between a scream and a whimper.

"Youíre his." Jim grates out and puts his arm across my windpipe.

"N-n-no. Iím not." I barely get the words out but I trust Jim can hear me. He pulls me away from the wall, spins me around, and shoves me back against the wall. Jerking my jacket off my shoulder, he tries to rip the shirt but all heís accomplishes is my strangulation. I reach up and undo the buttons, sickened by his thinking. He yanks my shirt off.

"Youíre marked as his." He puts his palm on it and it sends a flare of pain through me, making my knees sag. Jim keeps me from going down with his knee between my legs and pulls my shirt and jacket back on.

"N-no." I want to scream my denial, but I only manage a whisper.

Jim lets go of me and I fall to the pavement, where I stay on my hands and knees, listening as he walks away. Slowly I sit back on my heels. The alley, pocked with shadows, is deserted, no one here to witness the end.

Getting up, I straighten and button my shirt, knock the dirt and bits of garbage from my knees. I stand there wondering what I should do, whatís left to do? I stand there for a long time, no answer coming to me. To be honest, Iím hoping Jim will appear and wake me up. When the darkness is so complete there are no more shadows in the alley, I move. I move deeper into the empty, concrete hallway.

*********************************

 

The noise ...Pounding in my head, pounding, outside my head. Eyes open. Floor? Pounding, yelling. Up, stagger...yank open. Simon.

"What happened?"

"Wha díya mean, wha happení?" Bright daylight. What? How?

I yell, "Blair?" Silence.

Simon, loud. "What happened? Itís 3:00 and you were due into the station at 8. Iíve been calling on and off since 8:30."

"Call?" Think. Think. Canít. Hurts. Where? No.

Hospital. Tests. Nothing. Nothing but pain. Gotta go, find Blair. Out. Out. NO! ...stop... donít....let me....GO...

 

****************

When I come to, the first thing I see is Simon, sitting with his head in his hands. The room is dark and quiet. Oh God, what happened? I try to sit up and Simon looks up, a world of weariness in his face. He stands and gently pushes me back down.

"Jim? Can you talk?"

I mean to say yes, of course I can talk but all I manage is a nod. Iím hooked up to an IV. I feel each drop as it hits my vein and spreads through my system. Some sort of narcotic and tranquilizer, I suspect.

Finally, my tongue obeys. "Blair?"

"Still missing. Can you tell me what happened? There was no sign of forced entry at the loft. They couldnít find anything in the tests, no drugs in your system, no trauma to the brain, no explanation at all for your incoherence."

"Donít know. Donít know what happened." My panic is starting to override the drugs. Why canít I remember?

"How long?" I croak

"Youíve been sedated for a day. There was nothing else we could do."

"A DAY?" Oh God, Iíve lost a day.

"Anything?" I know Simon would have said something if there had been.

"No. Jason and Joyce are still locked up. Thereíve been no sightings, no word." Simon looks gray and old. He scrubs at his face.

I pull the IV out, disrupting my pacification, and swing out of bed. Simon hand steadies me.

"You sure about this?" He looks worried but he knows and I know, he doesnít have what it takes to stop me.

"Yeah, sure." The pain is there, but bearable and better yet, I can think.

What the hell happened? My last memory is of walking to the Laundromat. Blair was with me. It was close to 5. Then...?

"Need to do a search on Prospect. By the loft. Last thing I remember."

Simon nods and picks up the phone.

"Come on, letís get the AMA papers signed and get you out of here."

 

 

***************************

 

Miriam agrees to see me. There's nothing left to do but hope I'll be able to remember something with her help. She counts down and tells me to remember walking to the Laundromat. I'm there, it's like being there, and Blair is with me, and we're walking. The sun is warm on my face and I marvel at the peacefulness of this street, this scene.

Lights flicker out the corner of my eye and I look to see what it is. Erik Jackson's Club. Been there since I moved in. The neon light that proclaims the name has seen better days. Now it reads: ERIK JA SON"S COME C UB. The letters swim before my eyes and I hear a voice droning in my head.

"Blair Sandburg is Eric Kendall, bound to Jason Rarick in body, mind and soul. He is for the use of the good. You have no claim upon him. He has chosen Jason with mind, body and soul. With all that he is, he has pledged himself to Jason. You have no claim."

The words go shooting through my brain and straight to my gut, which clenches with rage. I hear another voice in my head, tinny and small, trying to pull me back from my anger. Itís Ellisonís and he seeks to protect the betrayer, seeks to defend. There is no defense against this---this crime. I move to destroy Kendall. Dragging him into the alley, I smash him against the wall.

"Jim!" The traitor pleads.

"Youíre his."

"N-n-no. Iím not." He whispers it but his denial holds no power. I can prove he has betrayed me. Yanking his jacket down, I canít get to his shoulder. Kendall makes a noise and starts to unbutton his shirt, understanding my purpose. Once heís done, I pull the shirt off to reveal the brand of the hawk.

"Youíre marked as his." I put my palm on it, hiding it from my eyes, wishing I had the power to erase it. Kendall sags in my arms and I hold him up, pulling his clothes back up, covering the hated symbol. I press my arm against his throat, just a little more pressure and I will crush his larynx, snuffing out Kendall once and for all.

"N-no." Itís a plaintive whisper and something inside twists.

I let go of him and he falls to the pavement, where he stays on his hands and knees. I want to kick his ribs in. That damn voice is back. Ellison. Fuck it. I start to pull back my foot and find that I canít. The voice is louder now, telling me to back away from the Guide, telling me to leave the Guide alone. I listen to the voice and retreat, the rage nearly blinding me, filling my head with pain.

"5,4,3,2,1.... you will wake and remember everything." Miriam coaxes me back.

Oh my God. Oh, my God. I fall off the couch to my knees. "Noooo!"

Miriam is at my side. "Jim, it wasnít you. You were programmed. I know youíd never harm Blair."

What the hell is she talking about? Of course it was me, it was the fucking Neanderthal, throwback me, and thereís no denying my responsibility here. I almost killed Blair in a territorial rage. I came so close to killing Blair. I threw him away. I walked away. I left him on his hands and knees in the alley and I walked away. A part of me is grateful that I did, that I listened to the voice (MY voice!) and walked away before I hurt him any more. Where is he? Where did he go? Why didnít he go to Simon? To the station? I feel Miriamís hands on my arms, shaking me.

"Jim! Jim! Stop. Please. You arenít going to Blair any good in this state."

I let Miriam push me into a chair. Blair has been alone for two days, two days of thinking that I.... I donít want him. I knew something was wrong with me, knew theyíd fucked with my mind, but I still let this happen. I never even warned Blair, Iíd meant to. Meant to ask him what he thought and create a way to combat it. I didnít. I put my head in my hands, I canít.... think. What next? What can I do? What will he do? He doesn't remember his friendships, doesn't understand that Simon, or Connor or anyone at Major Crimes would give him a place to stay.

I call Mr. Lee, Tobias and Dr. Panatela. None of them have heard from Blair.

The real Blair had resources, this one doesn't. The real Blair. Perhaps this is as real as Blair will ever be.

 

*******************************

The telephone sits on my lap, silent. The loft is dark, as dark as I can make it, and quiet, very quiet. I sit on the couch. I sit. I wait. I've waited all day. Waited as the light crept in and waited while it crept out. The dark doesn't show its passage. Not the way the light did. Even with all the drapes closed, it was still easy to mark the sun's progress. Not so with darkness. It's in full glory tonight, within and without.

 

 

**********************************

I find a hole. Itís in a building I stumbled across as I wandered through the night. Kids or looters had broken the window. Crawling through, I land in a heap on the glass-strewn floor. The light from the window doesnít extend far; hard to tell how big a room Iím in. I know come morning, I need to be tucked away. I inch my way into the darkness, hands out, feeling along the rough wall. My hands sting where I landed on the glass. Thereís a door and I stumble through it, out into the corridor. I keep going, wanting a right angle to lodge in and find it in the next room. When my hands find a juncture, I slide down, pulling my knees to my chest.

Huddling there, I feel the hawk pressing into my shoulder, it feels like itís spreading its malignancy across my back. Thereís nowhere to hide from it. It stains my blood. Jim...Jim wonít have me. I understand that.

I ruthlessly push back a sob. No, I donít, I donít understand. What did I do? What set him off?

I push past my feelings, they are chaotic and useless, and try to think about what happened. We were walking to the Laundromat. He stopped and was looking at a sign. The sign that said my name and Jason's. It had held him in thrall and when he turned to me it was with eyes I'd never seen before.

That wasnít Jim. Jim wouldnít have done that, or said those things. That was no more Jim than I am Blair. We are the goloms The Nation put in place. We inhabit their bodies, moving them, speaking words out of their mouths, saying things weíve no right to say. Buying into the relationship that the real ones made, with no currency to back our transactions. The real Jim couldnít be as buried as Blair. The real Jim would fight his way back, and soon and then I would be able to go back home. The real Jim said he accepted me, no matter what. I intend to hold him to that.

When he comes back.

*******************************

A buzzing calls to me, persistent and annoying. I grope in the darkness and find the phone, dreading the call.

"Ellison."

"Jim?" A voice dull with pain and fear.

It's Blair. It's BlairÖ

"Blair?"

"Can I come home?" Hopeful, pleading.

"Where are you? Iíll come get you."

"IímóIím downtown. By the Post Office."

He sounds almost intangible, his voice, husky with exhaustion.

"Stay put. Donít move. Iíll be right there."

I ruthlessly shatter the quiet of the late night streets driving to Water Street. Itís not far and I pull up to the curb in front of the stately Post Office ten minutes after I got off the phone with Blair. I donít immediately see him and panic wells up. I cast about and see a figure in the corner on the stairs, slowly standing.

"Blair!"

He turns towards me and waits.

I let my senses sweep over him. His heart's beating strong. Heís cold, shivering in the damp night air. I smell blood and sweat and old fear. He doesnít make a move to come to me, I donít know if he can. I sprint the thirty feet between and pull him close to me in a hug.

He doesnít resist, rather he melts, and it takes me a moment to realize heís passed out. I hold him for another minute, grateful Iíve been given another chance to make it right. Lifting him up into my arms, I slowly walk back to the truck. I consider a trip to the ER but his vitals are strong. Iím pretty sure whateverís wrong with him can be dealt with at the loft. And I really want him back home right now.

The ride back is taken at a considerably saner pace, as I keep one eye on Blair and one on the road. I see that heís cut his hands; thereís glass imbedded in them. His temperatureís up, the antibiotics were interrupted and Iím worried.

Blair never stirs as I tug him out of the truck, back into my arms. Getting through the doors is tricky, his legs bump into the doorframe, jarring him, but not waking him.

The elevator takes us up, stubbornly methodical in its halting progress. My arms ache from the effort to move Blair back to where he belongs.

We enter the loft, still shrouded in the profound darkness in which I left it. I have no problem navigating to the couch, and I lay him down.

Getting my first good look at him, I see his hair is tangled, dirt and cobwebs matting his curls in clumps. He has the solid beginnings of a beard. It fails to hide the hollowness of his cheeks. His jeans are torn and thereís glass embedded in his knees and hands. His clothes are damp and the smell of sick sweat clings to him.

Brushing my thumb across his eyebrow, I place my hand on his forehead. Heat. I push off my knees and get the supplies I need to clean the glass out of his hands. Grabbing the pain meds and the ointment, I donít bother with the light. I prefer to use my senses in the service of Blair.

Taking his left hand in mine, I turn it palm up. With the tweezers I pluck the sharp pieces out, glad that Blair is still out. The right hand took most of the glass and it takes me awhile to get all of it. Dabbing antibiotics on both hands, I wrap them in gauze.

Clothes next. I get some clean sweats from his room. Stripping his jeans off, I see how banged up he is, bruises along his hips, scrapes on his knees. Getting his shirt and T-shirt off reveals more bruises along his ribs and back and of course, the brand. Itís starting to look like something and I see that itís a bird of some kind. It should be a buzzard but Iím sure that wouldnít fit with their ideas of high purpose. There is a stirring of something dark in me and I hastily put some gauze over the misshapen bird and tape it down.

The darkness ricochets around inside, seeking a handhold. Moving away from Blair, I try to get a handle on it, try to understand it, control it. Thereís a buzzing building in my head and before it gets any worse, I grab my keys and bolt out of the door, making sure it locks behind me. I stand there, panting, my back against the door and fight the urge to go back in. The darkness hasnít coalesced, so I donít know if I want to go back in and protect Blair or kill him. I canít risk waiting to find out.

Pushing off, I stumble down the stairs and into the dark morning.

***************************

I know Iím home even before I open my eyes. The familiar contours of the couch tell me that. I open my eyes and see the loft awash in the soft light of early morning. My hands are bandaged and Iím in clean clothes, though Iím not clean. Jim must be sleeping. Iím tempted to call for him, I need to see him, hear him. Need to know heís all right and that heís well and truly back. I donít want to wake him. I get up, taking a moment to steady myself and head for the bathroom. Being clean will make me more welcome, Iím sure.

Jimís careful bandaging all comes off as I scrub away the grime and dirt thatís seeped into every pore. My hands feel stiff and sting under the hot water. Washing my hair is a clumsy undertaking and Iím sure only moderately successful. I run out of energy way before I run out of hot water and have to stop before Iím really clean. At least Iíve replaced the stench with the smell of soap. I stagger back to the couch, glad I havenít woken Jim and sink back down. Wrapping the blanket around me as best I can, I fall asleep.

When I wake up next, the light has shifted to early afternoon. There is an unnaturalness to the silence and I know Jimís not here.

Not here.

The knowledge brings me to a totally wakeful state. I untangle myself and lurch off the couch, nearly colliding with the coffee table before I catch myself.

I check upstairs, no Jim, I knew that but also no sign that Jim slept here at all and I wonder where he could be, when did he leave, why did he leave? I stumble and half slide down the steps, propelled by a panic that has no intelligence. Where would I begin to look for him and would he even want to see me if I found him?

If he wanted to see me, he would have stayed.

I sit down on the coffee table and try to work out what I should do. When I woke up, I had different clothes on; Jim must have done that. He bandaged my hands. He took care of me. He sounded glad to hear my voice last night.

But heís gone now, without a word.

Something happened, something set him off. If thatís the case, I need to get out. What, whatÖwhere? I get a drink of water and then another. As I drink the third, I find my shoes and get them on. I scramble out the door, down the steps, out into the bright light of day.

It hurts my eyes, the sharpness of the sun, the saturated blue of the sky. I duck my head down trying to escape from the brilliance of the day. I look for shadows, for some cloak of gray to wrap myself in. I need a place to hide and wait because he will come back. I know he will.

 

**************************

 

For as long as the night stays dark, I walk along the waterfront. Every time I turn back to the loft, the rage skims along my nerves. As dawn comes up, I find myself miles from home. I know I need to get back there, but that thought brings the obliterating pain in my head. Mixed in with the agony are the voices, each screaming at me, each demanding my allegiance. All I know, all that I can hang onto, is the message to flee, to put distance between me andÖwhatever that thought is, never gets completed, no matter how many times I have it.

Iím picking myself up from the ground more and more often. The temptation is to go down and stay down but they wonít let me. Neither voice likes that option. One is fierce in its desire to go back and kill the defiled guide. The other is equally insistent on keeping the Guide safe and keeping me at a distance.

My vision has narrowed to the space immediately in front of my feet and Iím unprepared when I run into a giant of a man. Heís a good four inches taller than me and another fifty pounds. He grabs me and is spinning me around and before Iíve even orientated myself to the contact, he slaps cuffs on me and starts the drill.

"You have the right to remain silent. Everything you say, can and will be used against youÖ." I tune him out and battle the noise in my head, hoping to quell it enough to be able to identify myself.

"EllsomamiandiÖiÖpoópoódaÖIm..da..daÖ" The sounds coming out of my mouth are gibberish, even to my ears and I know what Iím trying to say.

SióSimmmoon." I wail but the cop ignores me, hauling me to the squad car and maneuvering me in, his hand on top of my head.

I lean back against the polyester of the backseat, trying to connect my brain to my mouth. We end up at the 7th. As Iím moved through the halls, I search for a familiar face. There are none I recognize, though judging by the shock I see, many recognize me.

Plopped down in a chair, my AO starts to ask me the usual.

"Name?"

"J-jj-imÖ"

"Yeah, Jim, Jim what?" Heís patient as I struggle to get my name out.

"Ell--"

"Hey, Ellison! What the fuck is the Detective of the year doing in booking? Whatídya do Jimbo? Smash your car into some unsuspecting victim?"

Itís Fredrickson, and contrary to my usual reaction, Iím delighted to see him.

"You know this guy? Heís a wacko." The officer says it as if heís been on the wacko run a long time.

"Wacko?" Freddy leans in and assesses my appearance.

"Whatís wrong with you, Ellison?" A little more aggression, a little less good olí boy charm.

"You on something? Tell me youíre not on something."

I know I canít explain anything but I have to try and get Bl---

I scream, the pain spike so intense it takes my sight away for a moment.

"What the fuck? He must be on something. Call the EMTís."

Freddy approaches me cautiously and lifts each eyelid.

"Ellison? Talk to me."

If I could, believe meÖ.

Freddy whips out his cell phone and I hear words that finally give me some hope.

"Give me Captain Banks."

 

************************

 

Hospital. Simon. Language starts to come back faster this time, and somehow, through the stuttering, Simon understands. Enough to send Connor to the loft.

I hear her report to Simon that Blairís not there. Oh God, not again. Simon is reluctant to let me leave the hospital before someone can give him answers. When it becomes clear that it will take physical restraint to stop me, he relents and takes me back to the loft.

I see Blair's showered, but he left his socks, why did he leave his socks? And where did he go? Where can he go? Where did he go before? Somewhere with broken glass. That doesnít narrow it down much.

Simon stands there, clearly as lost for a direction to go in as I am.

"Címon Jim, you online? Letís just start walking, he probably didnít go far."

I nod, itís as good a plan as any and Iím just glad to leave the loft with its encroaching shadows.

As we hit the streets Simon sticks close. After two episodes, itís clear someone needs to be with me at all times. I just want to find Blair and deliver him into Simonís safe hands and then get the hell away from him.

Itís dark by the time we find him. Heís huddled in the alley where I first assaulted him. He looks up when he hears us approaching and to my surprise, thereís no fear in his tired eyes.

I give Simon a little push and he understands. He steps forward. Blair slowly stands up, using the wall behind him. When I see that heís okay, I turn to leave.

"Jim!" His shout is no more than a harsh whisper and it fills my head. It doesnít hurt my head and I realize the voices are staying away, the pain is staying away. I keep going, the rage is unpredictable, and I must get away from him before it comes back.

"Jim?" The baffled tone of his voice almost makes me stop but I donít.

When I hear the scruffling noises behind me, I donít stop.

The sound of Simon grunting almost stops me, but I trust Simon to contain Blair and keep him safe. I shut down, no longer able to bear the sounds of Blair trying to connect with me. The next thing I know, Iím tackled from behind. I hit the pavement hard and twist, just in time to keep Blairís head from banging on the ground.

"SandburgÖ" I grip Blair by the shoulders. "What the hell are you thinking?"

I'm scared to have him so close to me, where the hell is Simon? Blair looks bone weary but he has a grip on my arms and he's not letting go.

"I'm dangerous to you right now. You have to let me go." I try to peel Blair's hand off my arm but he's holding me so tight there'll be bruises there tomorrow. Good.

He shakes his head. "No, you're not a danger to me right now, I can tell. You're back."

I don't know how he knows, how he's so clearly separated me from the man who almost killed him.

"I don't know what they did to me and I don't know what triggers it and I don't know how to control it. Until I do I don't want you anywhere near me, Chief."

I see Simon coming our way, limping.

"You have to go with Simon until I figure this out."

There's such anguish in his eyes, I almost relent, but good sense wins out and I give him a hard shove that breaks his hold on me.

"How will you figure this out?"

I shake my head at his quiet question.

"You canít figure this out. Only *we* can figure this out. You have to stay and let me help you." Blairís hand is out, as if he means to attach to me again, so I move out of his reach.

"Chief, you canít help me solve this problem. *You* are the problem." He flinches at that and although thatís not what I meant to say, if it keeps him away from me, itís all to the good.

"You go with Simon. Weíll stay in touch by phone. Weíll work this out." I start walking backwards, making sure Blair stays. Simon has his arm around Blairís shoulders. I turn and walk away.

 

******************************

Iím at Simonís, in Darylís bed. It feels like Iíve been in Darylís bed a long time, but I donít know. Iím waiting for Jim to figure it out and if he doesnít, wellÖI donít know. Every once in awhile Simon comes in and urges me to drink or eat. Sometimes he hauls me out of bed and makes me shower.

For awhile I was sick, the infection I guess. Now the brand itches as it heals. Simon has threatened to handcuff me if I donít stop scratching at it and making it bleed. Iíve stopped. Not that he wouldíve really handcuffed me. I just realized I canít make it go away. It has taken up residence.

"Blair, donít make me take you to the hospital."

I guess Simon has been talking to me for a while. Focusing, I see that heís brought me food. I sit up and try to think of what to say.

"Thanks, Simon."

Iím not hungry but Iíve learned not to say that. Simon started by cajoling and ended with the usual threat to take me to the hospital and so now I donít, I donít say anything, just take the food and eat enough to make him leave me alone.

"Ö.soon, Blair and then youíll seeÖ" Simon gives the same speech every day. I try to nod and let him know Iím listening, that I still believe everything heís telling me. He wonít leave until Iím done and I try to hurry, try to finish but I canítóI canít, and Iím gaggingóSimon pulls me out of bed and into the bathroom, where I vomit for long minutes and Simon is talking, saying what he says when this happens and I say what I say and Simon helps me up. He hands me a cup of water and the toothbrushÖ.

"Öshower?" Simon is asking and of course I must.

And the water's on and Simon helps me undress. The look in Simon's eyes is a mixture of affection and exasperation. After all this time, the awkwardness we once felt as he helped with these intimate tasks has dissipated. Water pours down and Simon slaps the bottle of shampoo into my hands. He stands there and only when he's sure I will manage, does he leave. Emerging from the shower I hear Simon on the phone.

"Jim, this is no good, you have to come see the kid."

Thereís a short silence and then Simon responding with, "I think he needs to be hospitalized to tell you the truth. Heís just fading out here and I canít do anything to stop it."

More silence, as Jim says no, he won't be coming. No, he doesn't want to see Blair. No, no, noÖ

"Look, are you any closer?"

Silence, long silence.

I go in Darylís room and climb back into bed. The sleep comes almost immediately and I dream. In that fuzzy place, Jim is here, finally.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Sandburg?"

He sits in the desk chair, legs sprawled out in front of him. His face is gray with fatigue and he rubs it as if to come awake. Thereís no anger in his voice, just exhaustion, maybe fear.

I say nothing; I have nothing to say.

"Blair? Come on, talk to me."

I would, I really would, but what is there to say?

"Sandburg, you have to understand. Come on, talk to me, tell me you understand."

I don't understand. I can't say anything. I hear his voice continuing with his end of the conversation.

I mustíve drifted off because when I blink my eyes heís gone. I donít remember him leaving. I look, I think about getting up and looking harder, but I donít. I drift off again.

********************

 

Sandburg is dying.

No, Eric Kendall is dying and heís taking Blair with him. Blair would not die because of this, because of me.

Tobias says we are close to a breakthrough. Itís taken him a long time and a lot of mumbo-jumbo to get us this close. If he werenít the only fucking hope, I wouldíve walked away. What can I say, the guy works in mysterious ways. He does something called Reiki and something I call witchcraft. Dr. Panatela has come in and out with his suggestions.

Weíve done hypnosis, only itís nothing like the kind Miriam practices. Their ways are different in the ways spear fishing is different from netting. Tobias searches for patterns of thinking not individual memories. He roots around in my brain, zeroing in on what he calls "the new patches". When he finds one he blocks it and moves on, searching for more. Itís frightening how many "new patches" he finds. We started with the obvious ones, the brand and the sign and weíve worked our way from there to the point where he thinks it may be safe to go back.

I'd made up my mind I wouldn't see Blair again until I could be absolutely sure that I wouldn't hurt him, but I canít wait any longer. Blairís state is too fragile. While Tobias was deep into a session of bodywork, I had another one of those dreams, the kind I had when Blair with the Nation. He wouldnít talk to me, maybe couldnít talk to me. He lay in Darylís bed, his eyes tracking me and then losing me. Heís looking less and less like Blair, like all that made him Blair is being leeched away.

He wouldnít talk to me. He didnít look angry. But no matter how hard I tried, he wouldnít connect. It almost seemed like he didnít hear me, like he wasnít truly in the room. I wouldíve stayed and tried all night. But whatever got me there, took me away after a couple of hours, and deposited me back with Tobias.

I sit up from the table, startling Tobias. Usually I am so deeply under during work that itís almost like a zone.

"I have to get to Blair."

Tobias is one in a million. He starts handing me socks and shoes and never asks a single question.

 

******************************

Jim's back. I blink a few times. The early evening light is bright and my eyes water. Someone is with him, not Simon. I should say something. I start to, but Jim puts his hand on my forehead and hushes me. He says something to the man behind him. The man steps forward and swims into focus. Tobias.

"Blairó" He looks at me with raw intensity and then he continues, "Eric."

I turn my head to him.

What can he have to say to me? To Eric? What does anyone have to say to me? Except go away and let Blair come back. I'm trying. I don't know how to disappear, I can only try.

"Eric, listen to me."

Of course I do, I must. I stare at his coffee-colored face and listen.

"Jim didn't want to leave you."

"I know." Itís hard to get any words out. "He didn't want to leave Blair." I want Tobias to know I understand, I know Jim wouldnít've left Blair.

I know Jim never felt angry at Blair. I know he would not send Blair away, even if it were for his own good.

"Eric, Eric, look at me." I must have drifted away again, because his voice is sharp, calling me to attention. I obey and turn my head back to look at Tobias.

When he sees he has my attention, he continues. "Eric, in order to use you, the Nation had to convince you that you were Eric and that Eric was a guide with a small g. They created a world in which you were only Eric and only a guide and only for a Sentinelís use."

Tobias surprises me by taking my hand in his and tracing the lines on my palm. "You were born for many things, to be many things. You contain multiple worlds in you. Worlds that include Eric and Blair, that include Blair as a baby, boy, manÖscholar, lover, son, friend, Guide. And it contains Eric and all he knows and learned, all that he brings to the worldÖ"

Tobias closes his hand around my hand and pulls me towards him. "And you bring much to this life, much to Jimís lifeÖyou have importance aside from Blair."

Looking over to Jim, I try to see how this is playing out with him. Heís nodding and smiling. When he sees me looking at him, the smile gets bigger. Itís so bright and happy I have to look away. My hand is warm in Tobiasí and the warmth spreads from my hand to my arm and then to my chest.

It doesnít seem possible that this could be, that *I* can be. I shake my head. No, donít do this. Iím almost gone. Donít bring me back with these words, the promise of a place and a reason to stay.

Jimís hand brushes away the tears that have spilled. Heís kneeling by the bed and he puts his other hand on my chest.

"Eric Kendall. Blair Sandburg. Bette Midler. The name can change, the memories can come and go, jobs changeÖ hell, I think even your gender could change; but nothing changes your soul. Nothing changes our friendship, or my need to have you in my life."

I expect Jim to look miserable; being forced to make that confession. Words are never his first choice. He didnít sound miserable; he doesnít look miserable. He looksÖat me. For the first time I see myself reflected in his eyes. I look harder; it must be the light.

No, itís there, in his eyes. He sees me. He sees Iím Eric and heís not mad. Not disappointedÖ.

 

"Blair?" I wake up to the sound of my name. Thereís a yellow cat on the pillow next to my head, meticulously cleaning himself. Tobias stands in the doorway with a cup of tea. Carefully I sit up, trying not to disturb Kaffka from his morning ritual and take the cup from Tobias. He sits down on the bed and looks at me. I busy myself drinking. The mornings are the hardest; the time when I feel the most scattered. Somewhat like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz after the flying monkeys have trashed him and he scrambles to gather up the pieces and shove them all back in.

Each morning I am immersed into Tobiasí methods of healing. I give no resistance; my earlier worries about the fate of Eric Kendall are gone. Now I just want to find a way to be me that works, that I can live with.

Tobias has a vision, he seems to be his own version of a Sentinel, except his head is cocked to one side hearing and seeing what doesnít exist. He sees what Jim and I are, what we were, and what we will be and he guides us there, one day at a time.

At first I tried to follow all of it, tried to grasp the way The Nation had infiltrated my mind. Tried to understand the way they had warped the threads of my thinking. It had been too big, too frightening and after awhile I had to let go, allowing Tobias free rein. It was a little like surfing, cresting waves of anger and despair, then shooting the tunnel back out into the open sky. Over and over again.

It helps that Jim stays near. His belief in Tobias is founded in the very practical reasoning that if Tobias could undo his rage, he can undo anything.

I get off the bed, earning a dirty look from Kaffka as I do. Tobias has retreated to wait for me in the room. Jim will be waitingÖwaiting. They give me all the space and time I need to get it together. The first week, waking had been particularly difficult. I felt exposed and raw by the process of undoing the Nationís hold on my psyche. Jim had tried to ease the transition but the truth was, his presence made the shame harder to bear. Somehow he understood, because I couldnít've told him that.

Dressed and fully awake, I go to meet them. The room we work in is tiny. The walls are painted a dark brown, making the room seem even smaller. At first, I felt claustrophobic and could barely contain my urge for flight, but now I've come to welcome the sense of enclosure.

Each day we get closer to the center, closer toÖwhat, Iím not sure. All I know is I feel a pressure building, like water behind a dam pushing to spill out and overwhelm a dry riverbed.

Tobias speaks in his low tones, the syllables rumbling out, perhaps forming words, perhaps not. I ride his voice to the vault inside. Jimís hand on my arm completes the energy circuit. Today the power in the room is tangible.

I am bathed in light, the kind of light thatís clear and contains the entire spectrum. It thrums with energy that crackles and sparks, racing through me. The light illuminates my synapses, forging new byways, scrubbing away the sticky muck The Nation deposited there to keep me from myself.

Through the light and haze, I see Eric, he's cowering in the corner, watching, feeling both afraid and exhilarated. He fights the vortex for a time, his hands up to ward off the inevitable.

I call to him. "Eric, join me."

"Blair?"

It registers with me then, that I am seeing Eric through my eyes. That I am. Seeing.

"Yeah, címon man, jump in, the waterís fine." I don't like seeing himÖmeÖ.separated and afraid. The words echo in my head. The last time I made this invitation, it was spurned. Jim's rejection left us each isolated, vulnerable, and ultimately ripe for the Nation's machinations.

I wait, knowing if Eric refuses I will never be whole.

His hands come down and with a look of despair he walks to me. To me and with the intent to go through me, but before he can exit, I hold him.

"Stay?"

"You want me?"

"I want you." His face lights up and I know he deserves the truth. " I need you."

The light shifts in the spectrum, from cool blues we flash into the warmth of the yellow-reds. The energy spins around us, capturing all the stray strands of who we are; together and apart.

We are knitted together, we are made one.

I lie in the oneness, shocked by the vastness, the fluidity of my being. The awareness that words like Blair and Eric are about as useful as calling a hurricane by name and as revealing. I wrap my wholeness around me, the relief from being fractured like a balm infusing me. I open my eyes and Jim has his hand in my hair and he knows, somehow he knows.

"BlairÖ" He breathes my name and I nod.

Tobias leans in and puts his large, square hand on my chest. His touch is light but I feel his aura pulsing through his fingers, asking questions without language, hearing the answers without words. His theory all along, was that was done to me was done without articulation.

I had been stripped and shoved into a new world to acclimate and function. And so it was Tobias' thinking that words had no power to heal what had been done. There were no breadcrumbs to follow back home. Instead he tapped into all the ancient ways of connecting life to body, body to mind, mind to soul. And he used those ways to recreate me, to give me back to myself.

Tobias smiles, his teeth flashing in brilliant acknowledgement of what has happened.

Jim puts his hand under me, pulling me up. His hand stays on my back and I look around the little room where so many hours have been spent, so much experienced. Humpty Dumpty got put back together in this four walls.

Oddly, Jim seems to have aged since the last time I really remember seeing him. That was close to a year ago. The fine lines around his eyes are a little deeper. His face, always a work of art, of planes and sculpted surfaces, is more stark in its beauty. Right now his face is lit with one of his rare full-blown Ellison smiles.

"Welcome back, Chief."

I start to answer and realize I have no words. I'm overwhelmed with images from Eric. It's as if he's transmitting the last nine months to me. The confusion and pain, the longing and fearÖ.it is a tsunami of information and it sweeps me away.

 

************************************

 

We've been chipping away at Blair's mind for a month. Or maybe it's Eric's mind. I can't separate them, though Eric seems to want me to, seems to need me to. Tobias is optimistic. I just know we must keep trying. When we started BlairóEric, was close to dying. Can someone will themselves to die? Can anyone just override self-preservation? If it could be done, Eric was doing it.

A month into the reclamation process and we've made progress. I'm waiting for Blair/Eric in the brown room. I hate waiting, but in the morning, before the first session, Eric/Blair is a mess. I don't mind the mess but he seems to mind me seeing him like that, so now I wait until he's ready for us, for me.

He comes in the room, his hair wild and tangled from sleep. He's almost shy in the morning, his eyes averted, his posture protective. Tobias guides him onto the table and I take up my position, my hand on his arm.

We spend hours here, like this. When the morning session's done, Blair usually sleeps. I run. I run as far and as fast as I can, knowing when I go back into that room I need to center and still my restlessness, my impatience, my desire to DO something.

Blair searches my face. He must find comfort there, because he sighs and the tension he brought into the room melts away. Ironically, I know my desire to have Blair back has let Blair down. Or let Eric down, hell, I don't know anymore. I'm ready to live with whatever version of Blair comes out of this. I just hope Blair is.

This morning everything seems wrong. The light, which is usually muted and dim, is harsh and hurts my eyes. There's a hum in the room that's driving me crazy. There's nothing electronic in here and I can't pinpoint the source. It seems to disturb Blair too, because he twitches, his muscles spasming at random moments.

As the morning wears on, the hum grows in intensity. It doesn't disturb Tobias' concentration. I want to cover my ears but I don't take my hand away from Blair. The light shifts from being harsh to looking like butterscotch. I feel Blair's muscles rippling under my hand, though he doesn't move. His eyes seem to be in a REM cycle, darting around under his eyelids. Something is happening.

And then I know. It's as if Blair just walked in the room. He's here. I stroke his face and thread my hand through his hair. His eyes open and he's back.

"BlairÖ"

He nods and smiles. Tobias steps in close, his hand on Blair's chest. He rests there, the butterscotch light sticking to him. Putting my arms around Blair, I pull him up.

"Welcome Back, Chief."

God, I'm glad to see him. He smiles and then the smile fades. Something skitters across his face. He opens his mouth to say something and I wait, wanting to hear him say my name. I want to hear my name said in Blair's voice. Before that can happen, he jerks, his eyes roll back in his head and he passes out.

"Tobias!" My cry ricochets around the little room, the panic in it filling the air.

I have him in my arms and instead of lowering him back onto the table, I pick him up. Tobias opens the door and we head for the couch. Sitting down with Blair across my lap, I study him, wondering what it is that makes it so clear that Blair is back.

"He'll be all right." Tobias reaches down and touches Blair's hair. "The re-entry's hard and he's been through so much."

Blair lies in my arms and I swear he feels heavier, denser. His breathing is even. His eyelids start to flutter, announcing his return. His eyes open and there he is.

"Jim." There he is, his knowledge of me all laid bare in the way he says my name.

"Blair." It's good to say his name without hesitation, without doubt.

I feel the air move as Tobias leaves the room. The cat stays, the circle of sun he sleeps in bright and hot.

Blair shifts in my arms but makes no move to get up. Instead I feel his hand creeping up on my chest. When it reaches my heart, he presses it there and I feel the pulse of his heart through the hand that contains my heart.

"Thanks." The word comes out wrapped in a sigh. He leans his head back and looks at me with half-open eyes.

"You're welcome. Anytime."

"Not anytime soon, I hope." His hand pats my heart.

"How do you feel?"

Blair closes his eyes and I feel a wild fear he's left me again. I want to pinch him and make his eyes fly open. I want to be reassured he won't disappear again.

I keep my hands to myself, not pinching, making myself wait. It's only a few seconds, his eyes open, he's still here and I place my hand over his hand, feeling my heartbeat through his hand.

"I feel full. Awake. It's really weird Jim. It's like I was buried alive in this body." Blair shudders, the vibrations sending tiny shocks through my body.

"You're back, you're back." It comes out like a chant, like an incantation. His hand leaves my heart and I let it go though I want to clutch it to me. The cold tries to press in but before it penetrates, Blair has shifted and covered me in a hug.

"Shhh. I'm back."

"You'll stay?" My hands are on his back, holding him close to me. We generate heat.

"I've got no plans to go anywhere." Blair is sinking, his hold on me loosening and his head comes to rest on my shoulder. He's asleep.

**************************

It's been a month since my re-emergence. I'm back at Rainier, thanks to Jim's intercession on my behalf. The look on Chancellor Edward's face when I came back told me volumes about the kind of pressure Jim brought to bear. There's a part of me that mourns the future I would have had as Jim's partner. I was ready to be cop, but there's no denying the thrill of being back in front of a class teaching, or the comfort of being in my office, my books and papers ready for play.

I'm back at the PD as a consultant, meaning I now draw a paycheck.

Each day has presented me a challenge of one kind or another and most have been met head on. Not all. For the most part Eric dwells within me, a new layer of personality being broken down to become organic. Mostly. There is an element of Eric that haunts me.

At night, I awaken, not from a nightmare but from a fog and for a moment I see my room through Eric's eyes and Eric's frantic search for his place tears at me. I lean back against the pillow and try to calm us both down. I hear Jim's tread on the stairs as he reacts to me. Did I make sounds? Or is it the sound of my heart wildly beating that woke him?

"Nightmare?" When he sees I'm awake he leans his shoulder against the doorjamb.

"Not exactly." I scoot over and pat the bed. Jim obliges me, sitting down with his back against the headboard.

"So what exactly?"

"More like Eric having nightmares." It freaks Jim out when I talk about Eric this way. He hates the duality, fears it, I think.

Jim pulls me forward and then puts his arm around my shoulders and leans me back. Closing my eyes, I savor the heat from Jim's body and lean in a bit more, wanting it all, heat, scent, and touch.

"What was Eric's nightmare?" I know what it costs Jim to ask that question. I love him all the more for his acceptance of how it is.

"The usual. Losing his place." There was that in the dream and then there was other stuff. Stuff I don't remember. I rub my back against the headboard, trying to relive the itch on my shoulder. The itch grows and I moan with frustration.

"Let me." Jim reaches under my undershirt and delicately scratches the brand. The fucking brand. That it itches seems wrong. The hurt seemed right. The itch seems frivolous, innocuous, benignÖso not what this is.

"Do you ever dream about Jason?" Jim has never asked that before and I try to see his face through the smudged dark.

"Not exactly. When I fused with Eric-- it's kind of hard to explain. There were images and information but not memories exactly. I don't think I even know what Jason looks like."

I try to remember. He was big, with the graceful physicality of an athlete. Blond and blue-eyed, but they had all been blond and blue-eyed. All big and healthy in a Teutonic sort of way. Even Ruth. It seemed like I always had to look up and they liked that. I remember looking in the mirror in Berlin, after Jason had called me ugly as sin. Wondering, again, why I had been chosen by Jason.

"Or what he did to youóto Eric?" Jim's voice drifts into my thoughts.

I start to shake my head no. I have no memory, no, I don't remember, no, I wasn't there, no, it didn't happen to meÖnone of that, nooooÖ

Jim's arms tighten around me and he's rocking me saying, "Shh. Shhh."

Nooooo, the scream in my mind breaks out of my mouth. "Noooooó"

I try to stop Eric, stop the flood, but he won't-- can't-- be stopped. He needs the comfort and he needs for me to know. All of it. It spins out. Waking to a new, unknown world. Taking on the disciplines of a guide, small g, the deprivation, the humiliations, big and small, the punishments, the sense of failure, the thrill of Jason, the fear of Jason, the horror of what I was, with JasonÖof all of it, the worst was how alone I was, the best, Jim being there, one way or anotherÖ

After some time-- a long time, the light coming in from the living room is now warmed by the dawn-- it stops. The memories, all that Eric understood, feared, and longed for are now with me. My chest is heaving as I try and get more oxygen into my lungs. I feel like I ran a marathon.

The day we became one, that day in the brown room, he'd tried to tell me. Very little got through before I overloaded and passed out. All this time he's been waiting to spill.

And that's what it is, a toxic spill. I'm waist deep in the crud of the Nation. Jim is talking to me, I see his mouth moving, concern in his eyes. I'm laying in his arms, a curious place to be, a place I seem to have been in a lot since this all started.

The words start to make sense.

"It's all right. It's all right. You're back, you're here. It's all right." Over and over he says that and it starts to work.

I relax against his chest. I realize with a start that Eric is gone. Well, not gone exactly, more like assimilated. I trace him but even as I do that, his tracks fade. The process begun in that small brown room has been completed.

It is all right. I am back. Jim is here. Eric? From that probe, comes back silence. He's found his place and he knows it's his and he knows I will never let him go.

"I'm all right." My words don't interrupt Jim's litany and I realize how freaked out he is. I reach up and cup Jim's face. At my touch, Jim stops his chant and the rocking comes to a halt.

"Blair?"

"YeahÖ present and accounted for. Just got bushwhacked by Eric downloading his memories." I shudder and Jim's grip tightens.

"Now if I could only find the delete key." I try to laugh but the shaking in my voice makes the sound grotesque, and a sob takes it place.

"HeÖhe, IÖaw, shit, Jim." I let my head fall back, too weary to keep it up.

"I know, Chief. That bastard was sick and twisted."

I close my eyes and images play over the inside of them. I realize the things that hurt Eric the most have no power over me. Jason's contempt, the way he rejected every real thing Eric had to offer, the way he extended his friendship only to use it against Eric, his constant angerÖall these things Eric took to heart. IÖI? I took to heart. But from here, I can see how they were just ways to control. The memories make me want to gather Eric in, put him behind me, protect him. I've done that; I'm doing that.

Jason was a master at inflicting pain, but those are old memories now, faded. The body has healed. My mindÖwell, it's not the same but at least it's because of more and not lessÖ

I must've fallen asleep. I open my eyes and the light declares the time late morning. Jim's head is on my chest. I run my hand through his short hair, knowing that if he wakes up I'll have some explaining to do. He doesn't wake up. It's a measure of what he's been through, this exhaustion, this vulnerability.

I let my eyes drift close and the dream that comes is exhilarating. Wolf and Panther lope side by side, tireless. The forest is pocketed with bursts of sun shining through the dense canopy of vegetation. We've been running for hours and will run for hours more. We run, not in fear or need, but because we can. Because we're free. We run in sync, yoked by our unlikely allegiance, our unexpected friendship. When I wake from the dream, I can still feel the exhilaration.

Today I have a doctor's appointment. One of those rare ones, one that I'm looking forward to. I should get up and get ready but I hate to wake JimÖand I'm comfortable, as comfortable as I can remember being in a long time.

It isn't long before Jim wakes himself up, coming awake with precision.

"Chief?" His voice is clear; no hint of sleep in it, but his tone is tentative.

"Who else would let you slobber all over him?"

"You okay?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. I'm way okay."

Jim pushes himself up and looks at me, a relieved smile on his face. It'll be awhile before Jim takes my presence for granted. That time can't come too soon for me.

"Sandburg, look at the time. You're going to be late. Get the lead out." Jim rolls off me and off the bed.

"I'll get the coffee going. You have to be out that door in twenty minutes."

"I know, I know. I'm going." I rush through my shower and am dressed and at the door in record time. Jim hands me a cup of coffee to go.

"Sure you don't want me there with you?"

"You've already taken enough time off because of me, Jim. I'll be fine."

He stands there, his forehead furrowed in worry. This moment occurs over and over, with each separation. All we can do is hope time eases the anxiety and the system puts Jason in prison, for a long time, and far away.

"I'll see you at the station. In like two hours." I sip the coffee; it's hot and brutally strong.

"Thanks, Jim, for the coffee andÖfor hanging in there with me last night."

"Hey, you're welcome. Anytime."

Since spending those months with Eric, Jim has taken to keeping communication between us simple and direct, still not trusting my ability to get his jokes, or understand when I'm being teased. I miss the old way, the guy way, the Jim way, of communicating, but figure it won't be long before it comes back. Lifetime habit, after all.

The doctor is one recommended by Dominic and so I'm not surprised to enter an office filled with birds. Little colorful finches peer out of straw huts and flit about large airy cages. Their sing song voices fill the air as Dr. McCallum has me take off my shirt. He studies the brand.

"This is quite recent. It's still healing in fact."

"I don't want it to heal. I want it to go away."

"This won't be a simple procedure, Mr. Sandburg."

From the way he's looking at me I'm guessing Dominic hasn't filled him in. He thinks I had this done on purpose and now I've simply changed my mind. I don't have it in me to tell him how I came to have a hawk branded into my shoulder.

"I realize that. I've read up on it and I've decided to have it lasered."

"You realize that'll take several visits. It's going to feel like you've been branded all over again? Not to mention the healing process, which is long and messy."

"I understand all that."

"And in the end, you're going to be stuck with a damn ugly scar there."

"I realize that, too. I want to schedule the first treatment."

"Well, it's your back and your pain. Very well." Dr. McCallum goes to his computer and brings up his calendar.

"How about the 16th?" At two o'clock?"

"That's ten days from now. Don't you have any time before that?"

"I don't, but even if I did, I'd still want to wait at least that long. You need to give it time to heal."

I'm tempted to argue but I save my breath. In ten days I will begin the process of erasing the Nation from my body, if not from my mind. It will have to do.

**************************************

 

Walking into Major Crimes, I see Jim. Megan's perched on the edge of his desk, reading to him from a file. Before I'm halfway across the room, Detective Vallencourt stops me.

He has a case file in his hand and that look on his face. The half-contemptuous, half-beseeching look I get from the new ones. They want my knowledge but hate the form it comes in. Old news.

We sit at his desk and I'm surprised he was the one assigned to this case. It's exactly the kind Jim and I usually get. A body found out in Lanioki hills. So decomposed it has yet to be identified. The site where it was found is considered sacred ground by the local tribes that lived there. There's evidence to suggest the death had ritual aspects to it. It's fascinating, both from a criminal point of view and an anthropological one.

"I'll get going on researching this, and get back to you as soon as I have anything."

"That's great, Sandburg, but I think you should come out there with me and see the area for yourself. I'm not in to all this voodoo crap, but the place gives me the willies. Maybe you can pinpoint some evidence the regular forensic team missed."

I have to admit I'm eager to look over the crime scene. There could be great deal missed if you didn't know what you were looking for.

"Yeah, okay, when?"

"Right now?"

"Sure." Jim's gotten up from his desk and is coming our way. From the look on his face, something is seriously wrong with his day.

"Hello, Chief, Dave, what're you looking at?" He's civil but the tension in him tells me something's up.

"I was just showing Sandburg the files on the Lanioki murder. He's going to do some research for me." Vallencourt flips open the report.

"Look at this photo Jim, can you see the carvings on that rock? They're pretty faint but I'm going to go out there now and get a better look at them."

"Now?" Jim raises his eyebrow at me as if I said I was planning a trip to the moon.

"Yeah, now, while it's still light outside. I need to get some close-ups of these to help me do the research."

"I can't go right now, Chief. I'm scheduled for a meeting in five minutes with Connor, Simon and the liaison from the Feds."

"You don't have to come Jim. I'm just going to go out there and take a few snaps. I'll be back by dinner."

"No."

"What?"

"I said, no."

I want to bat his words away, they're ludicrous, but they twist around inside me. "What the hell are you talking about? I didn't ask you for your permission."

"Look, I don't like the idea of you going out there alone, that's all."

"I'm not going alone. I'm going with Detective Vallencourt. But even if I were going alone, I think I can make this decision."

"It's not safe."

"Jim. It's 2:00 in the afternoon. I'm going to a park area WITH a first grade detective. It's safe."

"Someone was murdered there, Chief."

"Someone has been murdered in just about every part of Cascade. You going to stop me from going anywhere without you?"

Jim closes his eyes and then opens them. There's anger there but mostly fear. I'm torn. After what he's been through with me, his response is understandable. On the other hand, a pattern's been developing and I'm just now tuning in.

If Jim can't be with me, he somehow arranges it so I don't go until he can. The exception is school. Nearly every other destination falls into the file marked, Don't Go There.

I hadn't really noticed until now, since whenever possible I tend to want his company. But this was untenable. I'm an adult. I'm capable of assessing risks and planning according. As I think that, a wave of anxiety sweeps over me. I grab the edge of the desk to steady myself and Jim moves closer.

"What is it? What's wrong?" Jim is running his hands up and down my back and now his anxiety is threatening to push mine into a full-blown panic attack.

I step away from the desk and Jim. "I'm all right. Just forgot to eat breakfast."

I turn my back on him, trying to hide my fear. I'm swimming in the Doctrine, it's in my head like a toothache, grinding away every other thought. Oh God, I thought I was well past this. My knees want to bend and I make myself walk before I end up kneeling. I call over my shoulder to Jim, "I forgot a meeting I had at the University. I'll be home before 6."

I don't look back, can't look back, instead I keep making one foot go in front of the other. I can hear Simon calling Jim to the meeting. Good, he won't be able to follow.

Tobias is home and I barely make it in the door when I collapse and kneel. I clamp my mouth shut. I am not going to say those words out loud. Never again. Tobias kneels down in front of me.

"Blair?"

I nod. I'm afraid to speak.

"Tell what's going on." His voice is as commanding as any of those in my head and I'm able to turn away from them and focus on Tobias.

"I d--don't know. All of a sudden the Doctrine started to play in my head."

"What happened just before the Doctrine entered your head?"

"I was arguing with Jim about my plans to go into the Lanioki Hills to study a crime scene. He didn't want me to go, didn't think it was safe."

"And you did?"

"Yeah, it's safe, It's a park for crying out loud and I was going with an armed Detective." As I say that, my vision grays.

"And then the Doctrine came?"

I open my eyes wide and see Tobias, shadowed and getting darker.

"I realized that this had been going on for awhileóJim either escorting me everywhere I needed to go or his making sure I didn't go at all."

Tobias stands up so fluidly, it's as if he grew to a standing position. He reaches down and pulls me up with him. I get up stiffly, as if I'd been in that position for days and stumble forward. Tobias steadies me and leads me into the brown study. I sit in the battered armchair, Tobias at his desk.

"Blair."

"Hmm?"

Tobias stands up and comes over to me. He pulls my legs out from under me and takes my hands out from under my armpits.

"I know Jim's just worried, you know, aboutÖeverything and he's just trying, tryingÖ." I shudder, pull my feet back up and wrap my arms around my knees.

"He's trying to control you."

"No-- keep me safe."

"Control."

I shake my head. My head knows Jim just worries, but my body is reading it as control, that's it.

"I just get confused, you know? I overreact." I force myself to put my feet down and try to arrange myself in a casual pose.

"It's true that Jim is deeply concerned for your safety. But he is still asserting control."

"Jim needs control, you know? He needs order. He needs some peace."

"And what do you need?"

"Me? I. UhÖ.I just need to get my head on straight."

"Do you need freedom? Need to be trusted?"

"I am free. Now. And Jim trusts me."

Tobias cocks his head and waits. Damn.

"Yeah, well, it's just natural that Jim would want to keep close tabs on me."

"You're a grown man, Blair. Quite capable. Would you call yourself reckless? Thoughtless? Stupid?"

I gotta be honest, this is Tobias. "Sometimes."

"And Jim?"

"Sometimes."

"Would you stop him from doing his job?"

"As if I could."

"Would you want to?"

That had never occurred to me. No matter how often Jim has been late coming home or thrown himself on the top of a speeding car, or gone off without back-up, I've never thought of stopping him from doing his job, doing what he loves. And he never tried to stop me before eitherÖand I'd had some close calls. So why now?

"No. Do you think this is more of the Nation's mind games?"

Tobias thinks, his face a calm study of a mind sifting through information. Information received verbally, through physical cues, and I sometimes think, channeled through him.

"I don't think so. I suspect it's a lot of things but only Jim can get to the heart of it. You must talk to him."

I start to pace. "But why is the Doctrine in my head? Why do I feel soÖsoÖ.oh God, like I'm slipping, like I'mógoing back."

"Because this what the Nation did. They told you that you had to submit your will to theirs. That they had a divine right to your life, your movements. Now Jim is asserting that same right."

"NO, no. He's not asserting any rights, divine or otherwise."

"He is saying his right to comfort, to be comfortable, his right to know you are safe, supercedes your right to make your own decisions. You're right to do your job. Your right to make judgements."

Jim's not, he's notÖ. He's nothing like JasonÖhe doesn'tÖ. do that.

Except when he does. I stop my pacing, which, given the smallness of the room, is more like aimlessly milling around, anyway. Jim doesn't even know he's doing it, it's probably a Sentinel thing, all out of whack. I'll just talk to him about this.

Feeling better, feeling the Doctrine fading away, I take my leave of Tobias and head back to the loft. Jim's truck is there. I'm bone tired, but not ready to face Jim. I use the walk up the stairs to rehearse my speech. As soon as I cross the threshold, Jim is in my face.

"You went, didn't you?"

"Went where?" How did he know I went to see Tobias?

"You went to Lanioki Park." Jim's face is set, hard lines radiating from his mouth.

Oh, man, he thinks I disobeyed him. Even though I didn't go, I feel a flush of guilt.

"No, I went to see Tobias."

"Tobias? Why?" Jim relaxes a fraction, though it's clear the mention of Tobias worries him.

"Um, IÖ" I don't want to say this. It'll freak Jim out, it's freaking me out.

"What? Why did you go to Tobias?" Jim's voice is tight, now with anxiety.

I move past him, hanging up my jacket

"Today, when you told me I couldn't go to the crime scene, something happened." I glance back at Jim.

Jim folds his arms across his chest and waits. My throat closes up and I wonder if I can get the words out. A part of me recognizes that this response is whacko, seriously fucked up; and yet I seem helpless to shove it aside and react normally.

"Jim, you have to lighten up on this. You're triggering some sort of Eric response here."

"Well at least he listened."

I shut my eyes at those words. "Don't you mean, at least he obeyed?"

I open them to see Jim looking away. When he looks back his face is closed in, unreadable.

"I'm notónot Eric and IóIÖyou can't tell meówható" I'm shaking so hard, I'm stuttering and I know it won't be long before I start-- but I won't start, never again and I back up, hoping to get in my room before it's too late.

Jim expression flashes from unreadable to concern and he starts to follow me, his arm reaching out and I stumble back, desperate now, determined to get to my room. His hand latches on to mine and I drop, the words spilling out, spewing out.

"You are the Lord.

It exists when you say it exists.

I worship it when you create itÖ."

There's noise roaring from Jim but I don't look up and I can't stop. Hands grab my arms and shake me but I hold fast.

"You are my Lord, I am not myself.

Everything dies without your rule.

Use us in service, oh Lord.

We give you all that we are.

We are nothing except to your purpose.

Accept us and make us worthy, oh Lord."

 

There are hands on my face but no pain; odd that, and then wetness and I'm being held. Being held? Who would hold me?

And the noise is a soft rumble, Jim talking, Jim shushing me. Jim holding me. And as the Doctrine dribbles away, my mind crawls away from the seizure and oh God, I did it. I recited it out loud.

I look up at Jim but I don't think my silence has registered, because he's still making vague shushing noises. We sit tangled together in the doorway to my room. After awhile, Jim seems to realize I've stopped and he stops. Not having the will or strength to do anything else, we sit.

"I'm sorry." The voice is weary, almost without substance. He shifts so his back is against the doorjamb, he does this without letting go of me.

I lean my head back, feeling wiped out by the visitation.

"So. This is what you were trying to tell me."

"Yeah." My voice sounds raw, like I've been reciting for hours. I look around at the light. It wasn't hours, was it? No, no. Not hours.

"What did Tobias say?"

"That I had to talk to you."

"Hmm."

We don't move for a long time, the shock of what happened leaving us limp.

"You can't do that anymore." I don't know how to make it any clearer.

Jim's arms tighten around me and then relax.

"I know you just want me safe and it's probably hardwired in, but you can'tÖnot anymore."

Please, Jim, understand this.

Jim doesn't say anything for a long time and wait, wait, not knowing what I'll do when he says he can't, won't, change.

Jim threads his hand through my hair and his other arm tightens around my chest. When he starts to speak, his voice is just a whisper, like he doesn't want me to hear this.

"I've thought about this, trying to understand what's happened and why it happened. Why Joyce happenedÖ"

Joyce? What does she have to do with this?

"You see, uhóGod this is hard." Jim stops and now I'm starting to think I have more to worry about than Jim's hyper-protectiveness.

"You're scaring me here, Jim. Spit out."

"Yeah, okay. Might as well get this over with." Jim takes his hand out of my hair and his arm away from my chest. He gently pushes me forward and turns me, so I'm facing him. The look on his face causes my heart to skip. He looks so beautiful and so sad and I know this can't be good.

"I don't know when it started, exactly, maybe right away, but I only really became aware of it after you died and I thought I'd lost you." He sighs and looks away.

I tug on his sleeve. "Finish it." I need to know. I need to know how this ends.

"After the whole dissertation fiasco, I thought I could use my anger to purge my feelings. And that worked, a little, and then Joyce came into my life, I thoughtÖoh God help me, I thought she was the answer, that if I could just bury myself in her, I'd be fixed. I'd beómy feelings wouldÖBlairó" He stops again and my heart is pounding a slow dirge as I wait for this to finish.

"I found out I love you." He rushes the sentence. He looks at me and sighs again, as he realizes I'm still waiting to understand.

"Blair, I love you. And I was afraid if you knew that, you'd freak and leave. I mean, I expected you to leave, you had to leave at some point. And I didn't want you to know how I felt and still leaveóif that makes any sense."

"Didn't it ever occur to you I'd stay? That I'd want to stay?"

Jim shakes his head. I realize he thinks this announcement will make me bolt. I laugh and he looks at me sharply, annoyed.

"Oh, man, Jim. You have no idea, do you?" Now he's really pissed. He was ready for me to get angry, to walk out, but not to laugh. I move deeper into his space and take his face in my hands. His eyes widen and then close as he leans in. I touch his lips with mine, feeling his breath, heat, then teeth and a shy tongue. He groans and his arms come around me. His hands rove up and down my back and then under my shirt. The kiss goes on, interrupted here and there by our maneuverings and our attempts to get our bodies closer together.

"Jim.." I breathe his name, it is like a prayer and I'm answered by his own hallaleiuh chorus as he takes my hand and presses it against his hard cock. I break off the kiss, my need for oxygen overriding my desire to stay connected. Panting now, I start to unbutton his shirt. My hands are shaking and it seems like it's hours before I'm feeling the smooth skin of his chest under my exploring hands. Silk and steel, skin and muscle. I lean in, running my tongue across one nipple and Jim gasps and lies back, pulling me on top of him.

His nimble fingers have been busy. My shirt has joined his on the floor. It's hard to tell where his groans start and mine trail off. I'm thrusting against his leg, mindless in my need for friction, which grows as he pulls my mouth away from his nipple and brings it back to his mouth.

"J-Jimmmm, gotta, gotta, gottaÖ" words dribble out

He unzips my jeans, shoving them out of his way as he seeks my cock. Itís not hard to find, it has itís own agenda, and leaps into his hand as soon as itís free of my boxers. I feel Jimís warm, rough hand envelope my cock He pauses and I can imagine he is feeling it all, the soft skin stretched taut, the blood pulsing and insistent, the need that is alive between us.

"Chief," he says my name in a growl, and rolls me off. I donít want him to go until I see heís working his own pants off. When he's free of them, he pulls me back up into an embrace. Jim and I pause; our penises nestled together in a hot moist embrace of their own. Jim puts his hand on my ass and pulls me in even tighter and begins to rub against me in a slow sensual dance of movement. I groan Jimís name, as I feel buffeted by the whirlwind of longing that is spinning me into orgasm.

I try to hold onto the sensations, to hold this moment between us, but I can't, a rush like no peyote I ever ingested sweeps through me, making me scream, "JIMMMM!" coming, coming, coming. As I pull back to Jim he clenches me tighter, groaning my name, "Blaaiiir." I feel warm liquidity filling the space between us, mingling our DNA the only way it can be mingled.

Dropping my head on Jim's chest, I sigh and feel Jim's hand's thread through my hair.

"Hey."

"Hey, yourself." I like being so close to Jim as he speaks, his chest rising and falling, the sound transmitted through his body to mine. A drop of sweat falls from Jim's chin, onto his chest and as it nears me, I lick it. Salty and Jim-spiced, it makes me want more. Before I can put that thought into action, Jim stops me.

"Hold up, Chief. I need to know."

"Yeah, okay." I'll answer anything if it means I can continue tasting Jim. I strain against Jim's hands a little, seeing if I can lick while I wait for the question. Jim tightens his hold to keep me still.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" He asks it conversationally, like he's really curious.

That stops me and I push away so I can see Jim's face. Did I ever miscalculate.

He looks thunderous, face cloudy and dark, his mouth a thin line and I wonder if this has all been a dream. Did Jim say something or did I make this all up? Shit. I try to replay the conversation we had before I moved in and kissed Jim. I can't remember what he said. No, wait, he said he loved me. But maybe that didn't mean what I thoughtÖmaybe I made the wrong assumption. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuckÖ.before I can untangle my legs from his, the hand in my hair tightens again. Jim tilts my head up and looks at me, his beautiful blue eyes stormy and dark, almost no blue showing.

"You're straight, Sandburg. I know that. So where did this come from?"

"UmÖyou didn't like it?"

"I likes it, hell, I loved it, I've dreamt about it but that doesn't explain it. Tell me you didn't just pity fuck me."

"Did that feel like pity to you? Because if it did, I was doing it all wrong. But I can learnÖI did not just pity fuck you. Oh, man, that was so far from pityÖ."

"Yeah, well, it didn't feel like pity, it feltÖgreat. Just tell me you want this."

"Um, Jim, I think it's kind of obvious that I want this." Jim gets this look and I hold up my hand. "I am not brain damaged, Ellison, don't even go there. I love you. I've had feelings for a long time. Nowhere to go with them, I thought."

"You have somewhere to go with them now. I love you, too." Jim smiles, a smile I've never seen before, a smile that perhaps no one has ever seen before. It makes me shiver and heat up at the same time. "Bring 'em here, Chief, all of 'em."

I do. It's a long, long night and it's just the beginning.

The End