by Jane Davitt
Many thanks to Wesleysgirl for beta reading this in record time and to
all who contributed to Moonridge 2010. The beautiful art is by 1orelei
for the Sentinel Big Bang; many thanks!
Jim watched Blair walk away, flanked by Brackett on his left and Warden
Banks on his right; a devil and an angel on either shoulder, whispering
in his ears.
Banks always walked a released prisoner out, sending him on his way
with a few gruffly friendly words or a grunted warning not to return,
depending on the prisoner. Brackett's presence was less routine, but
not entirely unexpected. Jim could sense the quickening expectation
behind Brackett's outward complacency and gloss of efficiency as he
chivvied Blair out of the cell. Not hard to guess the reason why.
Brackett thought that with Blair gone, he'd have Jim all to himself. No
competition for Jim's attention or his mouth, no scruples to overcome,
no loyalty to subvert.
Think again, asshole.
Blair reached the end of the corridor, a chorus of catcalls from the
cells serenading him. Some of the farewells were frankly envious but
few of the farewells were hostile -- Blair was reasonably well-liked
these days, though Jim knew that for some, Blair's past connection to
King would always be held against him. He'd bent over for King, knelt
and obeyed him, taken the abuse and begged for more, all in the name of
survival. Jim saw that as pragmatic, if desperate and ultimately
self-defeating. Others took a more simplistic view, and dismissed Blair
as a cock-sucking fag who'd been lucky enough to swap one protector for
Blair turned his head, caught Jim's eye, and smiled, his mouth,
still warm from the final, snatched kiss Jim had given it, shaping a
single word: wait.
Jim could see every detail of Blair's face, from the shadows thumbed
under his eyes -- sleep had come late for them both -- to the bite mark
showing dark on Blair's neck. His mark, made with
Blair clinging tightly to him, his body plastered against Jim's, his
head turned, offering his throat to be bruised with a kiss. The ardent,
avid lover of the night before had vanished. Blair, his smile fading,
looked subdued, his natural elation at his release tempered by regret
at leaving Jim behind.
Jim went back into his cell when Blair had gone out of sight, and sat
down on the lower bunk, his legs like water. He could still hear Blair,
each footstep, each ragged breath, and part of him was listening to
Banks' jovial platitudes and Blair's mechanical responses, but most of
him was lost in a sudden, crippling fear. Twenty months. Almost two
years. He could survive the days to come, but what would he find
waiting for him when he finally followed Blair past the gates and the
walls of Starkville? Would Blair be waiting?
If Blair had moved on… Jim's hands closed into fists, his chest tight
with panic and helplessness. The bed was still warm from Blair's body,
the sheets damp with sweat and come from a night spent glutting
themselves with sex, storing memories. Blair was still within earshot,
for God's sake.
It didn't matter. Jim felt desolate and abandoned.
Fuck. He'd lasted about a minute before he'd fallen apart and begun to
doubt Blair's fidelity and commitment to a relationship that had its
roots in a forced connection between them. Sure, they'd fallen in love,
but initially, Blair had loathed the idea that he was destined to help
Jim control his senses. How long would it be before Blair decided that
freedom should include his right to choose a lover and the hell with
Had he heard that for real, or was he just playing back the word Blair
had repeated so often, begging, commanding, reminding Jim as the mood
It didn't matter. He couldn't allow himself to doubt, not if he was
going to get through the next two years. He had to trust Blair and he
had to be strong himself.
He closed his eyes. God, it wasn't going to be easy…
"Ellison?" A voice from the doorway brought Jim out of his haze of
misery. He jerked his head around, the snarl that rose to his lips
remaining unvoiced with an effort of will. His savage expression was
more eloquent and Johnson flinched.
"Jesus, don't take it out on me."
"What do you want?"
"Laundry day; you need to fill your bag." Johnson nodded at the bunks.
"Sandburg left you with his bunk to strip as well, did he?"
The thought of taking the sheets off the bed they'd shared, sheets
redolent of sex, stale and fading through the scent was, didn't appeal
to Jim, but sleeping in a bed that smelled of Blair without Blair
actually being present would be an ordeal, too. He stood and began to
take the bedding off the thin mattresses, his movements efficient and
"They'll probably be moving someone in with you soon," Johnson
commented, his tongue passing over his lips as he eyed Jim with a
mixture of wariness and spite.
Jim shrugged. "I can put in a request for you, if you want." He allowed
himself a smile, thin-lipped enough to be more menacing than a scowl.
"I'm sure we could have a lot of fun after lights out."
Panic curled off Johnson like smoke, acrid and choking. God, was he
really that stupid? Jim was resigned to jerking off for the next two
years, but even if he'd been looking for a replacement for Blair, an
idea too ludicrous to be considered, Johnson wouldn't have made the
list. Even if he changed his habits and began to shower more than once
every third day.
Jim took a single step forward, still smiling, his gaze flickering over
Johnson's scrawny body, and Johnson scuttled back into the hallway, his
eyes wide. "I'll -- I'll come back for the laundry."
"I'll be waiting," Jim said and pursed his lips in what might have
looked like a blown kiss, saving his derisory snort until the man was
out of earshot.
He turned his head, but he couldn't hear Blair now. Blair had gone too
He was a sentinel with no shaman nearby again, but this wasn't like the
dreadful days after Incacha had died. Blair was still alive. Just
Jim closed his eyes, his nostrils flaring as he took in the scent
traces hanging in the air. They would fade soon, too, all of it would
fade, except his memories and his trust. They were what he had to keep
bright and alive.
Jim fixed his eyes on the wall behind Warden Banks' head and tried not
to look at it too closely. If he let himself fall into the shading of
the cream paint, the bumps of the plaster, he ran the risk of losing
himself. The last thing he wanted to do in front of Banks was start
drooling. He put his hands behind his back, grateful that Banks had
ordered his shackles removed, and said politely, "I'm fine, sir, thank
"Somehow I doubt that." Banks sighed. "Look, Ellison, it's been three
days since Sandburg left and to be honest with you, I was expecting
more in the way of a reaction. I was sure you'd get into a fight, and I
was prepared to cut you some -- not much -- slack. That won't hold true
a month from now."
Jim let his lips twitch in a small smile and met Banks' gaze for the
first time since walking into Banks' office. "Sorry to disappoint you,
sir, but I'm not in a fighting mood."
Banks stared at him, dark eyes contemplative, and didn't reply
immediately. A silence grew between them, not uncomfortable, but Jim
began to feel curious about the purpose of this interview.
Banks' attitude had changed during the last three years or so,
his repressed anger and grief over his young son's death fading to a
sturdy toughness Jim respected. Gradually, Banks had begun to concern
himself more with the prison he ran, ruthlessly weeding out the most
sadistic guards and operating an open door policy when it came to
listening to the prisoners' grievances. Not that Banks was the kind of
bleeding heart who could be manipulated and fooled. He had a way of
cutting through the bullshit to the truth that could be disconcerting
and he'd shown himself more than capable of dealing with rebellion and
"Did you ever wonder why I let you and Sandburg share a cell for the
last three years?"
Startled, Jim blinked twice and then shrugged. "Not really, sir. I'm
just glad that you did."
"I didn't want to," Banks said. "I don’t really like relationships
between prisoners. They usually cause more trouble than they're worth
and we both know how much abuse can be involved."
"King abused Sandburg," Jim said flatly. "Not me."
"If I'd thought you were picking up where King left off, Sandburg would
never have set foot in that cell," Banks told him. "Not that the two of
you picking out china patterns is any better."
Jim flushed, his temper rising. "We kept it quiet. King was blatant and
no one stopped him; what went on between Sandburg and me stayed in our
Banks shook his head. "You really believe that," he marveled. "Sure,
you weren't grabbing his ass or sticking your tongue down his throat in
public, but anyone looking at you two would've seen a couple."
Tired of the subject, Jim shrugged. "Doesn't matter now, does it? He's
"Planning on hooking up with him when you're released?"
"Is that any of your business, sir?" Jim countered.
"I'm making it my business," Banks said. "See, right now, Sandburg's on
parole. He screws up in the next six months and he's back in here."
Longing, fierce and sharp, arrowed through Jim's gut. He didn't want
Blair back in here, but God, he wanted him. "That's
"But you've got nearly two years left in here." Banks pursed his lips.
"Long time to go without seeing him. Visits won't be enough, assuming
he wants to make them. Long enough for him to forget about you and move
Abandoning the attempt to keep his feelings from showing on his face,
in his voice, Jim snarled, "What the hell do you want me to say? That I
miss him? That I'm worried he won't wait? Yeah, both of those, but I'm
dealing with it. I'm not causing trouble and I won't; do you think I
want to do anything to mess up my release date? I'll be a model
prisoner if you just get off my back. Sir."
Banks sat back in his chair and smiled. "That's better," he said
affably. "Let off some steam. Yeah, I'm pushing you, but I need to know
how easy it is for you to get needled into responding."
"I want out," Jim said, willing Banks to believe him. "I can control
myself when I know it'll get me released on time."
"How about earlier?" Banks said unexpectedly.
Jim shook his head. "No chance. Not with Ventriss at every parole
hearing telling them how I gunned down his baby boy."
"I've read the report on that night," Banks said, massive shoulders
shrugging his dismissal of that version of events. "You just did your
job. That boy was a stone-cold killer and he'd have taken you out in a
heartbeat. Just because he was young doesn't change the fact that he
was twisted. The guard he put in a coma died two months ago, do you
"Yeah, I heard, but it changes nothing," Jim said, cynical through
certainty that the world was set up to work for the wealthy. "Nineteen
with a rich father; you can sin a lot with millions on your side."
"Be that as it may, the next time you come up for a parole hearing,
assuming you've kept your nose clean, I'm going to personally recommend
that you be released early, to serve the remainder of your sentence
outside on parole," Banks said, sending a shock of disbelief through
Jim. Banks' support would carry a lot of weight with the parole board.
"That won't be immediately, of course, but it'll give you time to prove
to me that you're ready for this." He pressed the intercom on his desk.
"Rhonda? Send in the guard to take Ellison back to his cell, please."
Jim couldn’t allow himself to feel much hope, but he savored the little
he allowed himself, its rich tang heady and sweet. His next hearing was
in nine months. Nine. If Banks threw his weight behind an early
release…God. He could feel the endless time apart from Blair shortening
to something bearable already.
Banks cleared his throat and Jim gave him an inquiring look. "Sir?"
"You want to thank me?"
"Yes," Jim said. If Banks had shown the slightest interest in him as a
man, he'd have thanked him any way Banks wanted and considered it fair.
"Save it until it happens," Banks advised him, not unkindly.
The door opened and Brackett walked into the room, his expression
"He's all yours," Banks said and Jim held back a shudder at the
predatory glint in Brackett's eyes. His wrist cuffs were replaced and
Brackett led him out of the office and past Rhonda's desk. She was busy
typing, her head down, but she glanced up long enough to give Jim a
look that was sympathetic. Jim didn't know her well, but she'd always
been pleasant enough. He guessed the sympathy was for Blair's release;
he couldn't think of anything else that would've prompted it. He gave
her a small nod and then stumbled as Brackett grabbed his arm, urging
him forward with a rough impatience.
Getting manhandled into an empty room, the door locked behind them,
didn't come as much of a surprise.
"Not in a hurry to get back to your cell, are you?" Brackett asked, his
breath warm against Jim's face, his hands greedily roaming Jim's body,
arms to ass to groin.
Jim stepped back, shrugging out of Brackett's hold. "Forget it," he
said flatly, not bothering to dance around the issue. "I'm not
"Because you only went along with it before to keep your pet safe?"
Brackett laughed, a short, scornful sound. "You're such a hero. Ever
think that it might be in your best interests to
keep me happy, too? I can be nice to you, if you're nice to me."
"I've never been nice to you," Jim said with more truth than tact.
"Oh, fuck this." Brackett waved his hand impatiently. "Just get on your
knees and blow me."
Brackett's lips tightened. "I left you and Sandburg alone the last few
weeks. Let you cry on each other's shoulders, let you say your
goodbyes. In case you didn't notice, that was me
"I never realized you had such a romantic streak," Jim said, not
troubling to keep the sneer from his voice. In some ways, being with
Brackett was a relief; there was no need to pretend about anything like
there was when Jim was with his fellow prisoners. Brackett knew how Jim
felt about Blair's loss, had seen them together and gauged the strength
of their connection with reasonable accuracy. "So, what, I'm supposed
to be grateful?"
"Wouldn't hurt." Brackett rubbed his thumb across his mouth. "Okay, you
won't go on your knees through choice; how about I make it simple for
you and take away that choice?"
The cuffs clinked as Jim instinctively tried to widen his arms and
prepare to fight, but the metal held. No surprise. He was a sentinel,
not the Incredible Hulk, after all. Breathing fast, his skin prickled
with sweat, he took one step back and then another, trying to put some
space between them until he could find a weapon, responding to the
implicit threat in Brackett's words. The room was used for classes,
furnished with desks and chairs, but if he tried to pick up a chair and
swing it, Brackett would be on him instantly, using the baton at his
side to beat Jim down.
"Relax." Brackett sounded unnerved and Jim wondered just what he looked
like to Brackett right then. Menacing? He hoped so. "I don't want
anything more than what we had before. That arrangement worked and now
that there's no Sandburg to complicate things, it'll work even better."
Arrangement. It was such a polite word for what had felt like a
betrayal every single fucking time, even if Blair had known what was
happening and understood the reasoning behind it. For the past three
years, at intervals, Jim had used his mouth on Brackett's cock to tear
moans from Brackett's throat, wrapped his fingers tightly around
Brackett's wrists to give the illusion of control. He'd allowed
Brackett to indulge his submissive side safely, the delicate balance
they'd negotiated wordlessly never referred to, but accepted by them
both as the foundation to what was, in its own way, a relationship.
Jim had loathed every moment on his knees, but it had been worth it to
keep Blair safe from Brackett's inventive malice. Now and then, a new
prisoner had caught Brackett's attention and provided Jim a respite,
but the man always came back eventually, a shamed hunger in his eyes.
"It won't work better. It won't work at all," Jim said, laying it out
as plainly as he could. "I'm not doing it. Want to get your men and
beat me up? Try it. I'll bring you down."
"How?" Brackett inquired, a flush staining his cheeks, though his voice
was level. "You think you can go crying to Warden Banks about the big
nasty man who wanted you to suck his dick? He's not going to listen."
"I can fight my own battles."
"That's going to look good on your record," Brackett said with a soft,
insinuating smile and a nod of his head. "Fighting an officer. Medical
records of my injuries read into your file…the parole board will tut
and frown and shake their heads -- and you won't get to play with your
toy for a really long time. Is that what you want, Ellison? No, I guess
I can call you Jim. After all, it's not like we're strangers, now is
Jim felt as if the world had lurched sideways and left him staggering,
off balance. "You heard," he said slowly. "You were listening at the
"Always had good hearing," Brackett said matter-of-factly. "Yeah, I
heard. I'll even help you by smoothing the way. I'll speak up for you
when the parole board wants to know if you've been a good boy. "
"Why would you do that?" Jim asked, forming the words with difficulty,
his mouth sand-dry. "Don't you want me in here for as long as possible?"
Something darkly supplicating shone in Brackett's eyes for a moment.
Oh, yeah. He did.
"All good things have to come to an end," Brackett said lightly. "And
in a couple of years, who knows how bored I'll be of you. Let's end on
a high. So, do we have a deal?"
Jim shook his head without giving the offer more than a cursory
consideration. "Fuck you. No. No deal."
"Going to keep yourself pure for Sandburg?" Brackett chuckled, not as
annoyed as Jim had expected. "Why do I think the same won't hold true
for him? Do you really think a kid like that is going to be a saint
when it's so much more fun to be a sinner? He's out there in the world,
Jim, and sure, he has to keep his nose clean for a while, no drinking,
no drugs -- but no one cares who he screws and I bet he's bent over
squealing like a fucking pig right this second, with a thick cock
rammed so far up his ass he'll taste it when the guy comes."
The crude words scraped Jim's skin like shards of glass, but he kept
his face blank and his mind away from the images the words had
"You know, I was never really sure that he was gay,"
Brackett mused. "Maybe he's balls deep in some sweet young thing who
had to take her bubblegum out before she kissed him, trying to forget
all the filthy, depraved shit he had to wade through in here to get out
in one piece."
"I think he knows exactly what he is and who he wants," Jim said
evenly, and made himself believe it.
"Well, you'd know," Brackett said with an indifferent shrug. "Doesn't
really matter, does it? He's out there, and you're in here; you don't
know what he's doing and who he's doing it with. I guess you could ask
him when he visits -- if he visits -- but you won't know if he's lying."
Yeah, I will. So he won't even try. No, he
won't need to try.
Jim licked his lips, tasting his own doubts, bitter, sour. "Are we done
"No, but I'm not gonna push you," Brackett said. "It's too soon. I was
impatient." He grimaced apologetically, insincerely. "What must you
think of me? You're still heartbroken and I'm asking you to -- well, we
both know what I want." He stepped closer to Jim and patted his cheek,
hard enough to sting, but not mark, one of his little tricks. "Let's
see; it's Wednesday. Suppose we make a date for Monday? New week, new
Jim turned his face away and let that be his answer.
Blair walked into Cascade's main library and could practically hear the
heavenly choirs kick in as his heart soared to match their high notes.
Books. Lots of them, new and old, carefully shelved and cared for, the
air redolent with their scent. After years of nothing but the skimpy
prison library to browse around, this really did feel like coming home.
Even if, right now, home was a tiny room in a boarding house with a
bathroom down the hallway that he shared with three other men. His cell
didn't suffer by comparison. Hell, it'd had Jim in it, lounging on the
bunk bed, all power and grace and quiet, knowing smile; it won by a
country mile. Blair was reveling in his freedom, giddy with it, dizzy
from the ability to wake and sleep and walk and eat whenever he chose,
but if he could've snapped his fingers and been with Jim, bars and
walls included, he would have done just that.
He needed to find work, of course, but that was the ostensible reason
for his visit to the library. They had a large selection of newspapers
and he planned to hit the job listings with a view to finding something
to keep his parole officer, Jinny Debenham, happy. Jinny was buxom,
late fifties, and had big hair, teased and sprayed until it looked like
cotton candy. Blair, awed to a rare silence by her ability to talk to
him, everyone passing by her desk, and whoever was on the end of the
phone, without missing a beat, hadn't tried to charm her with more than
a smile. In some ways, she reminded him of Warden Banks; they could
both sniff out bullshit without needing to try. She'd told him to come
back in a week unless he was working, in which case she'd come to him,
and given him the address of the boarding house.
"It's a dump, but it's cheap," she said with a shrug. "It'll do you for
now. How are you for cash?"
"I've got enough to get by," Blair said without volunteering more than
that. He'd had money squirreled away before he went to prison and he
was also able to access one of Jim's accounts, his name officially
added to it over his unavailing protests.
"You're my shaman," Jim said eventually, impatience bright in his eyes.
"Do you think I want you out there starving? I've trusted you with my
life; why would I care about a lousy few thousand dollars?"
"Fifty thousand dollars," Blair corrected him, unease curling in his
gut. Jim had told him that the money was back pay from the army,
sharing that information as readily as he shared everything else with
Blair. "Jim, it's too much."
"Do you plan to use it to run away? Or to blow on drugs or whatever you
do for fun?"
"I've been known to bet on the horses," Blair said, "but I know my
limits, and drugs? No." He took a deep breath. "Running away sounds
good when you're running with me, though."
"A fresh start?" Jim hunched up his shoulder. "They're no easier to
find over the rainbow than at the nearest street corner, Chief, but we
can do that if you really want. Use the money, though, I mean it. All
of it, if you need to. Find somewhere we can live and get it ready. I
He'd drawn Blair closer then, his breath warm against Blair's throat as
he kissed it, his teeth marking the place his lips had brushed over,
making Blair moan and arch up against Jim's busy, distracting hand,
counterarguments and proposals forgotten.
An hour into reading the papers, with a guiltily indulgent foray into
the Anthropology section just to touch, just to see,
Blair was feeling discouraged and his stomach was growling. Somehow, he
didn't think his prison record was going to open many doors for him --
not ones that he wanted to walk through, anyway. He glanced up at the
clock on the wall, serenely ticking away the seconds, and sighed. Jim
would be in the exercise yard now, slouching against a wall, moody and
brooding, or maybe taking out his frustrations on what passed as a
basketball court, the ball behaving beautifully for him, his long,
strong legs covering ground with effortless grace.
Blair closed his eyes, willing his thoughts to travel to Jim. There had
to be some way that they could communicate; what the hell was the point
of being mystically connected if you still had to rely on a phone? He
thought that he'd done it, a momentary flare of heat, a tingle, Jim's
voice saying his name, loss and longing behind the word -- okay, maybe
it was imagination, but it didn't feel that way -- but something
knocked into the back of his chair, jarring him physically and mentally.
Scowling, he jerked his chair around, ready to snarl and bite. Three
years of having Jim at his side had made him less passive, more
aggressive. Call it a backlash after the months of submitting to King.
However much Jim disapproved, he would never have refused to back Blair
up in a confrontation, though the few times that Blair had tangled with
a man who'd treated him like shit, Jim had given him hell in the
privacy of their cell, pointing out tersely that fighting might get
them split up and thanks, but he couldn't deal with that, so could
Blair lose the hair-trigger?
Blair could. He just didn't want to. And the sex after he'd gone head
to head with some hulking bruiser, spitting out sarcastic insults
faster than bullets, knowing that if a single punch got thrown at him,
Jim would materialize, grim-faced and deadly, well, it was always so
fucking hot… Nothing like rewarding a man for being a hero by sucking
him dry or riding him until the bruises Jim's hands left on Blair's
thighs burned darkly for days.
Blair could fight his own battles, too, though, and with his moment of
connection ruined, he was primed for a fight. A quiet one, of course;
they were in a library, after all.
He turned and found himself already at eye-level with the person
responsible for interrupting his reverie, a middle-aged man in a
wheelchair, mild, intelligent eyes filled with a weary resignation.
"I'm sorry. I misjudged the turn around the table."
Blair let his momentary flash of annoyance die back, irritated with
himself for his lack of control. He smiled and shook his head. "No
The man didn't move on and Blair frowned as he was given a once-over
that left him feeling like an oyster without a shell.
"Don't I know you?" the man asked, the doubt draining from his voice,
so that by the time he'd finished asking the question it really wasn't
one anymore. "Blair. Blair Sandburg, right? I attended a lecture you
gave at Rainier, what, five or six years ago?"
Blair bit at his lip, wondering how to play this. "Uh, yeah, that's me.
Sorry, I don't remember you?"
"Jack Kelso. I wanted to talk to you, but --" Kelso gestured ruefully
at his wheelchair. "You were surrounded by some remarkably enthusiastic
young ladies who didn't look like they were going to leave you alone
for quite some time and I decided my questions could keep."
Blair rested his arms on the back of his chair. "Which lecture was it?"
Rainier. His time there, before his funding ran out and so did his
welcome, seemed longer than six years ago. He did a swift calculation;
yes, it was coming up to seven this month.
"I don't recall the main topic, but at one point you were comparing the
intelligence gatherers of the CIA with social networking and it amused
"Why?" Blair asked bluntly.
"Before I took the bullet that put me in this chair, I worked for the
CIA. These days, I'm at Rainier, teaching foreign affairs. I'd only
just arrived when you left, so we never got the chance to talk." Kelso
raised his eyebrows. "What're you doing these days?"
"I was released from prison a week ago after serving a few years for
insurance fraud," Blair said, knowing that he wasn't being truthful and
frank as much as an asshole, wanting to wipe the friendly, eager look
off Kelso's face as payback for the surge of memories the man had
released. "I was trying to raise money for an expedition to Peru after
my funding was yanked and things didn't go according to plan."
Distress, not disapproval, was plain on Kelso's face. "My God, that's
"Which part?" Blair asked, hearing how cold he sounded but unable to
shake off his sullen mood.
"All of it," Kelso said and didn't elaborate. Instead, he nodded at the
papers strewn over the table. "Are you looking for work or a place to
"Work," Blair said. "I've got a roof over my head, even if the location
does make living in a cardboard box in an alley seem like a step up."
"I doubt that," Kelso said. "I lived as a homeless man on the streets
for three months undercover once; it's not a lifestyle I can recommend.
Where are you staying?"
"Why do you care?" countered Blair.
Kelso returned his hostile gaze calmly. "I can find out," he said. "I
still have friends in my old life, not many, but some, and by tonight I
can know more about you than you do."
"I'll ask again," Blair said evenly. "Why do you fucking care, man? I'm
nothing to you. You want to salve your conscience with a handout, don't
bother. You want to talk to me about a lecture I don't remember, well,
I don't remember it, so I guess we can check that one off the to-do
list as well."
"I don't remember much about that lecture either," Kelso said, leaning
forward, his hands gripping the arms of his wheelchair. Chewed-down
nails and strong, square hands, Blair noticed. Capable hands. "I do
Panic chewed at Blair's gut. King had looked at him like that, an
appraising, detached stare, before declaring his intentions. They'd
included plans for Blair's ass and mouth that still featured in some of
Blair's nightmares, even years later. Kelso, to be fair, wasn't giving
off the air of cold menace that King had, but the sense of being
trapped by Kelso's interest in him was still there. It made his voice
harsh, challenging. No way was he rolling over for anyone again. "Why?"
"You're memorable," Kelso replied. "Intelligent, enthusiastic…"
"Nice ass?" Blair inquired as nastily as he could.
Kelso blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Good to know you can still get it up, but sorry, I'm in a committed
relationship and he doesn't share."
Kelso's gaze remained steady but a flush -- anger or embarrassment? --
bloomed on his face. "I can't, as it happens, but I still have a sex
life and contrary to what you've assumed, I'm not gay or in denial, so
my partners are always women." His face showing pity Blair both
resented and craved, Kelso added, "I know what it's like to feel
helpless, but believe me, that's not what I see when I look at you."
Shame replaced panic, but sweat was still damp on Blair's back and his
heartbeat was a painful lurch in his chest. With a few muttered words
that were meant as an apology, he left, brushing past Kelso without
looking down at him, needing to be outside with a sharp, fierce
desperation, even the high, vaulted ceiling of the library feeling like
"Ellison. Over here."
Jim turned to stare at the guard calling his name, squinting against
the rays of sunlight showing fitfully through heavy rainclouds, their
light turning the clouds a livid purple. The summer air was humid and
he could taste the storm coming, hear the far distant rumble of
thunder. The concrete yard was dusty and dry but soon it would be awash
with rain, the drops striking it forcefully. He looked forward to it in
some ways; his cell was stifling and if a storm cleared the air even a
little, he might be able to sleep.
Eagles was a big man, his gut hanging over his belt, his shoulders
wide, but he moved quickly when he needed to. Jim knew him as one of
Brackett's clique but he'd never tangled with him so he walked over to
the man without hesitating, even though an inbuilt caution was warning
him to be alert.
Brackett had let the days go by without making a move but his gaze
never strayed far from Jim when they were together and Jim could sense
Brackett's impatience. If he was waiting for Jim to come to him
unbidden, he'd be waiting a long time, and if he'd realized that and
was trying to speed things up…
"When I tell you to come, you come running, boy, you got that?" Eagles
said softly, his pale blue eyes disconcertingly blank, as if he were
distancing himself from what was about to happen. Jim had seen that
look in the eyes of a soldier whose knife was wet with blood from the
young boy he'd gutted, a boy who'd been holding an unloaded gun on him,
the barrel wavering because the boy's pipe-stem arms weren't strong
enough to hold it. Turned out that the hut the boy had been guarding
hadn't contained drugs or weapons, just his dying grandmother and a
Jim felt a belated identification with that boy to go with the anger
and regret he'd felt at the time. The boy hadn't stood a chance and if
Eagles had brains to match his size, neither did Jim.
Pinning his hopes on the fact that they were in a public place with
only a handful of minutes left before yard time was over and fat
raindrops starting to fall, he nodded. "Yes, sir."
Eagles backhanded him, a smooth, casual blow. "Didn't hear you, boy.
When I tell you to get your ass over to me, what do you do?"
Jim licked blood from his split lip and kept his voice even but clear.
"I come running, sir."
Power games. He'd played them in Basic with some sadistic sons of
bitches in uniform who'd eat Eagles alive and he'd survived; he could
get through this.
"Bet your ass you do." Eagles nodded as if satisfied and turned away,
only to whirl back around, his face tight with an anger that didn't
reach his dead eyes. "What was that, Ellison? Did I just hear you mouth
off to me?"
Jim controlled the impulse to roll his eyes. No cunning plan, no
imagination; just a ploy so old it probably pre-dated the discovery of
"No, sir," he said, dutifully going along because he really didn't have
"You calling me a liar?" Eagles demanded, not missing a beat in the
"Maybe saying I'm deaf or stupid then?"
Jim kept his face studiously blank, his hands behind his back, and his
gaze fixed on a point somewhere over Eagles' left shoulder. "No, sir."
"I say I heard you call me a mean son of a bitch," Eagles said. "You
want to argue with me about that?"
"No, sir," Jim repeated, the two words all that he had left to use.
Around them, the yard was falling silent, but he could hear the mutters
and whispers. Prison whispers that were like shouts to his ears. The
general consensus was that Ellison was fucked. Hard to argue with that.
There didn't seem to be any help coming from prisoners or guards.
Brackett was around, but on the far side of the yard. Jim couldn't pick
him out of the crowd. Brackett wasn't saying anything and if his breath
was coming quick and excited, he wasn't the only one.
"Well, then, you admit it?"
Jim hesitated. This was the part where it all went to hell no matter
what he said. With a fatalistic inward shrug, he said nothing. Let this
play out however Eagles -- no, Brackett -- wanted.
"Dumb insolence won't get you any points with me," Eagles said.
"I don't know what you want me to say, sir," Jim replied.
"I heard you call me a mean son of a bitch," Eagles said again, the
words weighted and slow. "Say it."
Jim sighed quietly. "You're a mean son of a bitch, sir," he said
Eagles grinned, showing surprisingly white and even teeth. All
the better to bite you with… "You got that right, boy," he
said. He took his baton out of his belt, a wicked looking column of
steel, and smacked it against his palm. "Guess a smart mouth can't do
much talking if it's busy."
Before Jim could react, Eagles pressed the rounded head of the baton
against his lips. "Open up, boy. I hear you're good at this. Bet you
used to love going on your knees for that little faggot, huh? Miss him,
do you?" Jim didn't answer and Eagles huffed out an insulted breath. "I
said open, boy."
Humiliation drenched Jim, hot and sour like vomit, but he parted his
lips reluctantly as the bell rang, signaling the end of the break. The
baton was forced deep, making him choke and gag, and then withdrawn
slowly. The metal scraping unpleasantly against his teeth somehow
prolonged the discordant ring of the bell so that his ears ached from
"Make some noise," Eagles said, his eyes gleaming now, a sick arousal
chasing away the emptiness. It wasn't much of an improvement. The yard
was emptying slowly, prisoners whispering, glancing back, only Jim left
behind with Eagles and Brackett and the clean, warm rain. "Tell me what
I am, boy."
"You're a mean son of a bitch," Jim said around the baton, the words
garbled nonsense, a mess of grunts.
The baton slid in and out slowly, a parody of fucking that left Jim
shaking with the need to fight back. His eyes were watering, the back
of his throat sore from the forceful nudges it was getting. Throwing up
was a very real possibility. He kept his eyes open; if he closed them,
even for a moment, to shut out the sight of Eagles' face, swimming in
and out of focus so that sometimes he could see every pore in sharp
detail, sometimes nothing but a blur, then the tears in his eyes would
spill. Eagles would love to think that he'd made Jim cry, but he
hadn't, not in the emotional sense of the word. The moisture in his
eyes was from gagging on the baton, no more.
"Yeah, I heard you loud and clear," Eagles said. He drew the baton out
of Jim's mouth, a thread of drool hanging off it, and drove his fist
into Jim's stomach, making Jim double over, the breath leaving him.
"Guess I need to shut you up better than that."
Jim spat out blood and saliva and fought to catch his breath. Eagles
grabbed him by the shoulder before he'd gotten more than a few gulped,
gasped breaths and hauled Jim upright.
"You got my baton messy," Eagles said and wiped it across Jim's face,
smearing the spit and blood around. Jim endured it. The rain was
pelting down now; when Eagles left, he could turn his face up to the
gray sky and let it clean him.
Eagles studied him for a long moment and then nodded over Jim's
shoulder before turning to walk away, hurrying to get out of the rain.
"He's all yours."
Jim flinched as Brackett walked around him to take Eagles' place. He
hadn't heard Brackett's approach and even through the low rumble of
thunder and the rain, he should have. Blair had only been gone a week
and already Jim's control was slipping, stress and longing fucking with
There was a shamed guilt in Brackett's eyes, but a stubborn set to his
jaw. "That was just a taste, you know. That was nothing. I left you
alone, I tried to be nice --"
Jim spat again, the metallic taste in his mouth as strong as if the
baton were still in it, forcing his lips wide. "The carrot and stick
approach. Yeah, I get it. I just wasn't expecting the stick to be that
"It could have been worse," Brackett said. His eyes flickered and Jim
saw himself held down, his legs pulled wide, the baton cold between the
cheeks of his ass, probing, pushing, tearing him open -- oh, yeah, it
could be worse.
The rain was darkening Brackett's hair to black and making it look
slick and shiny. Jim felt the weight of his soaked clothes tug at him.
He wanted to sit down, lie down, sleep, but he had duties to attend to
and no time to even get changed into something dry.
"I should be in the kitchen," he said, forcing the conversation away
from what had happened.
"You'll get in trouble for being late," Brackett said, nodding. "That
doesn't matter too much on your record, but it all adds up. I can make
your life hell and we both know it. You want out? You want Sandburg?
Give me what I want."
Jim didn't reply. There was nothing that he could say to change
Brackett's mind and really, in some ways, he could see the man's
confusion. What he was asking for was something that Jim had given him
in the past, often. The way the game was played between them had rules
set by Jim more than Brackett, the unspoken, understood dominance that
Jim exerted choreographed to suit them both.
Brackett had just forgotten, or chosen to ignore, the fact that Jim had
only ever gone along with it to keep Blair safe.
"It's visiting day for your section soon," Brackett said, raising his
voice over the wind and the rain. "Is he coming?"
Was he? Jim hoped so, trusted that Blair would, but it was so soon;
would anyone want to walk back into this place less than two weeks
after leaving it? Blair would be busy setting up his life, maybe even
already in a job that wouldn't permit him time off to make the long
journey to the prison and back. Jim was allowed visitors once a week,
though he'd never had any, but he'd told Blair to skip the first
available visiting day. Blair needed time to adjust and former
prisoners weren't encouraged to return after their release to see
friends they'd made inside. Banks had told Blair privately before his
release that he'd turn a blind eye to the usual rule of staying away
six months if Blair came back to see Jim but Blair's parole officer
might be less understanding.
"Maybe," he said and left it at that.
Brackett nodded. "He'll come," he said with more certainty than Jim
had. "And you can tell him -- ask him what he wants
you to do."
Distaste twisted Jim's mouth. "You really are a sad little fuck, you
Offer Blair the choice between getting Jim back sooner, if a little
used, and later, and Jim knew what Blair would say. Blair had survived
by playing King, crawled and begged and sucked him with that pretty,
lying mouth of his. Blair had done what was needed to survive, done it
Blair would be on Brackett's side.
Brackett's eyes went cold. "Get your ass to the kitchen, Ellison.
That meant that Jim would be shivering in clammy clothes for hours but
there wasn't much point in appealing to Brackett's better nature when
the man didn't possess one.
Jim took some satisfaction in the fact that Brackett was shivering hard
as they walked across the yard, rain streaming over its surface in
Blair pushed open the door of Looking Bookward with
a sense of déjà vu. This was where he'd picked up his
copy of The Sentinels of Paraguay -- no,
Jim's copy. This was where it'd all started for him,
his life already starting to twine around Jim's.
It hadn't changed much. Shelves and stacks of books, the smell
concentrated here far more than it had been in the library, rare books
displayed in a glass fronted cabinet deep enough into the store than
the sun's rays couldn't fade the covers, and behind the counter a
pleasant-faced woman in her late thirties, pushing her glasses higher
on her nose as she read a book. She'd been doing that the last time,
but she'd been eating a Rainier apple, a sweet, juicy Honey Crisp. They
wouldn't be in season for a while yet but what Blair was craving was a
bowl of the Rainier cherries, that were available now. Expensive, but
He gave the shelves a longing look, but that wasn't why he was here.
He'd been walking along Prospect, drawn to it by a need to connect with
a place where Jim had once lived, and the small 'Help Wanted' sign on
the bookshop door had caught his eye.
Impossible not to wonder if this was more of the synchronicity that had
brought Jim and he together; equally impossible to walk on by.
"I was wondering about the job," Blair said when the woman behind the
counter glanced up from her book. She was reading The Princess
Bride. Last time, it'd been…Blair tracked down the memory
while he waited for her to focus on him: an English mystery with a prim
woman on the front cover knitting, not Agatha Christie's Miss Marple,
but someone he'd never heard of. He'd asked her who the woman was and
she'd tapped the cover, pointing at the title, Miss Silver
Comes to Stay.
Blair brought his attention back to the woman who was giving him a
"It's not much money, you know."
"I don't need much. Just a job."
"I love books," Blair said. "I treat them well, I know how to handle
She laughed, a mellow laugh, rich and warm. "They don't bite! Okay,
there's an application form around here somewhere, but before we get to
that, tell me about yourself. What was your last job? Why did you
leave? I need someone to look after the place so that I can get out on
the road more, and that means someone reliable; are you going to leave
me in the lurch?"
Blair rode out the fusillade of questions, his heart sinking. He was
going to have to tell her. Where he'd been, what he'd done…and her face
would change, the friendliness becoming mistrust. He dumped it on her
in a spat-out, unchewed mouthful.
"Look, I might as well save us both some time. I'm fresh out of prison.
I used to be at Rainier, studying for my doctorate in anthropology, but
that ended -- nothing I did wrong, just a funding issue -- and I, I
made some bad choices trying to raise money for an expedition I hoped
would get me what I wanted. It didn't work out. I served three years
for insurance fraud instead."
"Ooh," she said slowly, a frown puckering her forehead. "I see."
"Yeah," Blair said flatly, unable to summon even a faint smile. "I
wouldn't employ me, either. Sorry to have wasted your time."
"You haven't," a voice said. "You've just given her the information she
needs to know that she can trust you to be honest."
Blair turned and watched Jack Kelso edge his wheelchair out of an
alcove, a book open in his lap.
"Do you know this guy?" the woman demanded. She was looking at Kelso,
"I knew him at Rainier," Kelso said. "I vouch for him, if it helps." He
gestured between them. "Kate, meet Blair Sandburg. Blair, this is Kate
Monroe, a good friend of mine."
The exasperated, affectionate look Kate gave him spoke volumes, but
Blair was too caught up in his own issues to spare much attention to
"Look, I don't know what you're doing, but you can't vouch for me
because you don't know me," Blair said. He looked at
Kate. "He doesn't know me. Really. One lecture I gave that he attended.
"Mmm-hmm," Kate replied. "The job's yours. Fill out the form and bring
it back. I open at nine, but I expect you here half an hour before that
and if you want to impress your new boss, bring me a large coffee from
the place on the corner. Just coffee. Nothing fancy. Double milk, one
sugar. You don't have to pay for it; I run a tab there. The owner's my
"Wait," Blair said, a leaf tumbled and tossed in a tempest --
again. "I've changed my mind."
Kate snorted. "My ass."
Kelso closed the book in his lap and leaned back, slotting it into
place on a shelf. "You're so succinct, Kate. Blair, why don't we go to
that coffee shop now and have that talk I wanted. Or we could get a
coffee to go and drink it at my place; I live on this street. I've got
an interesting Mayan urn I'd like you to see; 12th century from Chichen
"He has," Kate put in helpfully. "I've seen it. I'm not sure about the
interesting part, though."
"You live on this street?" Blair asked Kelso, tuning out Kate. The
tempest was a flood, a torrent raging down the mountainside. Not again,
shit, fuck, no, not again. Whoever was pulling
strings, Blair hoped that he or she strangled on them. Kelso was living
in Jim's old loft; had to be. Which meant that all of this, the
meeting, the job offer, all of it, was part of some plan to piss him
off. "Let me guess; 852? Third floor?"
"Yes. You looked me up?" Kelso said hesitantly, clearly taken aback by
the harshness of Blair's voice. "I suppose you're wondering why I'm
living that high up when I'm in a wheelchair?"
"No," Blair said and sighed, overwhelmed by the futility of fighting
this battle when he knew how it would end. "Not really. Okay, I'll let
you buy me coffee and we can drink it at your place and yes," he said,
rounding on Kate, "I'll work for you, but if you regret it, don't blame
me, okay? Because none of this was my idea. And I'll need time off each
week to visit a friend in prison."
Kate blinked at him, looking a little stunned by Blair's hostility.
"Fair enough. I'll bear it in mind that it was all my fault if it
doesn't work out." She shook her head. "Why are your friends always
weird?" she asked Jack and then picked up her book again. "Hang on; I'm
one of them too, right? So don't answer that."
Jack Kelso's loft seemed huge, but most places did after years in a
cell. Blair stood just inside the main space and looked around, getting
a feel for it. The furniture wasn't Jim's; he'd rented it empty and
paid someone to put his belongings into long-term storage when he'd
been sentenced. Jack had adapted basic furniture to suit his needs; a
kitchen table at the right height for his wheelchair, a coffee table a
little higher than usual and other small tables scattered around. There
was a single couch, pushed against a wall, for the use of a visitor.
The space was easily navigable for a man in a wheelchair, the single
room opening off the main room having double doors. Blair could see a
bed in there, the quilt rumpled casually, a T-shirt and some pairs of
socks on it.
Stairs led up to an empty space, fenced in with railings.
"I can't get up there," Jack said, following Blair's gaze.
"Now are you wondering why I rented this place?"
"If I say that you didn't have a choice, it's going to sound weird, but
you didn't." Blair sipped from his coffee and wandered over to stare
out of the patio doors at the city and the sparkle of water beyond it.
"I didn't have a choice?" Jack repeated. "Of course, I did. It's
just…well, there's an elevator so it doesn't matter that I'm not at
street level --"
"It would matter if there was a fire," Blair said. He turned. "You
can't use part of the space, it's not particularly safe or convenient
for you, and yet you rented it. Why?"
"It's handy for the university," Jack began.
"Not really. You could've found somewhere closer."
"I like the view."
"Sure, but you can't stare out of the window all the time."
"I wanted to be near Kate."
"Does she live in the store? No? Then why not move to where she lives,
not where she works?" Blair shook his head. "Man, you're blind. You
rented this place after the man who lived here got sent to prison."
"That's right," Jack said. "I forget the name, but he got somewhat of a
harsh sentence. I followed the case because Ventriss, the father of the
victim, was connected with Rainier and the landlord told me about it
when I viewed the loft." He tilted his head inquiringly. "Did you come
across him in prison? Is that what this is all about? You know him?"
Did he know Jim? Blair started to laugh and found that he couldn't
stop. Kelso's face creased with concern and he moved over to Blair,
took the coffee from Blair's hand and put it on the nearest table.
"Can’t -- stop," Blair jerked out, gasping for breath and falling to
his knees. This wasn't his pain, but Jim's; he knew it without being
able to explain why it would be so. His stomach hurt and he could taste
blood and salt. It wasn't real, but it didn't matter when his nose was
running and his eyes smarting with tears. It was real for Jim. "God,
this is just too fucking much. Jim. Jim --"
The room was swirling around him, a chaos of color and light. If this
was what it felt like for Jim when he zoned…He found himself with his
head resting on Kelso's knee, a hand stroking his head clumsily and
took a shaky breath.
"Better?" Kelso said, his voice muted and calm.
"Yeah," Blair said and sat back on his heels. Hs face was damp and his
head ached as if he'd been crying for hours. "Sorry."
"Don't be," Kelso said. He fumbled in his jacket pocket and took out a
folded handkerchief, pristine and white but falling in soft,
well-washed folds. Blair took it with a grimace of apology and thanks
and used it to mop up his face. Snot and tears. Gross. "I've seen far
worse breakdowns than that from both sides, believe me."
"Yeah," Blair said vaguely, weariness robbing him of eloquence. This
room... Jim had walked its floor, chopped vegetables at the counter,
pissed in the toilet, got clean in the bath or shower. He could almost
see Jim standing out on that balcony staring out at the ocean if he
squinted just right. The fantasy brought him peace of a sort, but also
an aching loss. Jim wasn't here and this wasn't his home now anyway. He
gave Jack a look spiced with an unearned resentment and then sighed,
realizing how unfair he was being.
"You're wondering why I lost it."
"I can imagine it's difficult readjusting to life outside," Jack said
cautiously, as if he were feeling his way across a darkened room with a
floor scattered with tacks.
"It's not that," Blair said, "though, yes, it is harder than I'd
thought it would be. I'm still on the prison's schedule; can't lie in
past the time the bell would've gone. That's not why, though." He took
a deep breath to steady himself and then stood. He gestured at the
couch. "Can we go over there so that I can sit down?"
Jack nodded and wheeled his chair over to the couch, positioning
himself so that Blair could look at him and not be dazzled by the
sunlight flooding in through the long, glass doors.
"You're not going to believe this, any of it," Blair began. "I wasn't
planning to tell anyone, ever, not without discussing it with Jim, but
you're involved, too; you have to be."
Blair met Jack's eyes squarely. "Jim Ellison. I met him in prison. He
saved me from the man who was, uh, protecting me and we shared a cell
for three years. We're lovers and when he gets out in two years, I'll
be waiting for him. You think I'll change my mind, you think that I'm
conditioned, abused, brainwashed, whatever, but I'm not. Jim and I are
"I -- okay," Jack said after a long moment. "I'm sure everyone in love
feels that way. I admit I feel a little worried about you committing
yourself to waiting that long for someone who might not seem the same
when he's released, but I can see the futility of arguing with you." He
smiled at Blair. "I grew up with two sisters who had love lives that
would make a soap writer reach for his pen. Nothing I could say would
ever change their mind about their current boyfriend; I just made sure
I was there to pick up the pieces."
Blair sighed. "You think you're being reasonable and
non-confrontational and deep down you're sure that you know better than
me. Look, open your mind and listen."
"My boyfriend, Jim, he's the one who used to live here," Blair said.
"He's the one in prison for --"
"My God," Jack said, genuine surprise showing. "Your partner's the one
who killed Brad Ventriss and lived here before me? The same man?"
Blair nodded. "That's a fact that you can check on," he said, "and I
suppose you could call Warden Banks if you wanted proof that Jim and I
met the way I said and that we're in a relationship."
"Say for now that I accept it as true," Jack said, visibly regaining
his calm. "It's quite a coincidence that we bumped into each other --
twice -- and that there's this link, yes, but they happen more often
than you'd think."
"In my life, that's so true," Blair told him. "I told you that I needed
the money to fund an expedition. Do you know what its purpose was?"
"I heard some people --" Jack sighed. "I'd like to say that they were
discussing it, but if we're being honest, they were laughing. Said you
wanted to find Superman or Tarzan."
"Jerks," Blair muttered. He shook his head. "No. A Sentinel. Someone
born with a sensory range off the charts in every sense. You come
across snipers with incredible eyesight or chefs who can tell you every
ingredient in a dish and how many grains of salt were added, but a
sentinel has that edge across the board. There are documented cases of
them protecting tribes in primitive cultures and I wanted to find one.
And I did, just not in the jungle."
Jack was quick to fill in the blanks, which was a relief. "You're
telling me that you found a sentinel in prison? This Jim?"
"That's right," Blair said. He felt exhausted but he kept talking. "The
book I found that told me about sentinels -- it used to belong to Jim
as a child. I bought it from the bookstore we just met in. You. Me.
Jim. All connected, though I don't know how you come into it."
"Nor do I," Jack said frankly. "Do you still have the book? I'd like to
"It went into storage with all my other stuff," Blair said. "I'm going
to leave it there until I have somewhere safe to live."
"I'd keep it safe," Jack said.
Blair eyed him. "Maybe."
Jack frowned, a light in his eyes that Blair found familiar, a man
hunting down answers. "So you wanted to study a sentinel? Did you get
the opportunity to study Jim?"
"Not much," Blair admitted. "I got to see him do things that were just
incredible, but I needed baselines, controlled environments... God, I
barely had a pen and paper in there." He stared down at his hands. "It
was complicated, too. I wasn't exactly an objective observer."
"Because you were, uh, lovers?" Jack asked tentatively.
Blair shook his head. "Because I'm his shaman. Delivered to him by
whatever the hell is pulling our strings to help him control his senses
when they flare up. I'm his mystical fucking circuit breaker."
Even after all this time, he still felt resentment flare at the thought
of it. If only someone had asked.
"Okay, I'm not saying -- it's just that this is a lot to take in --"
Jack looked bewildered, his hands tight on the arms of his wheelchair
as if he needed to cling to something solid. Blair couldn't blame him.
The senses were one thing; difficult, but not impossible to accept.
Soul mates and shamans, on the other hand…
Blair took pity on Jack and opted for a reassuring smile and some
creativity with the truth to smooth over what had become an awkward
moment. "You know what, forget it. It's not as if it really affects
you, no matter what I thought at first. I mean, you might bump into me
and Jim when he gets released in two years and you can compare notes on
how the faucet in the sink leaks or whatever, but other than that..."
"I don't entirely accept all that you're telling me," Jack admitted,
"but it is intriguing in some ways."
"That wasn't the word I used when Jim threw all this destined to be by
my side crap at me," Blair said. "I fought it. Hated it. I don't like
being pushed around or bullied and this felt like both. It's just...he
needs me. I saw him choking on paint fumes, overwhelmed because his
senses were out of whack and I touched him and he snapped out of it. He
wasn't faking it. And I couldn't hold a grudge for too long. You don't
know what he did in there to keep me safe. You don't
want to know."
"He sounds like quite a guy," Jack said.
"Sentinels protect the tribe," Blair said flatly. "I'm numero uno in
"He got a long sentence for what most people would have seen as a
justifiable shooting," Jack said thoughtfully, his forehead creased.
"I'm cynical enough to think that it wasn't the young man's age but his
father's influence that was a motivating factor."
"Jim doesn't complain about it," Blair said. "I think he feels guilty
because he shot to kill when he could've wounded, but he heard Ventriss
shoot the other guard, the one who died recently, and he heard Ventriss
say that he planned to kill Jim, too. Jim's ex-army; he's trained to
take out a threat and when you mix in the sentinel impulses, he's the
person you want guarding your building or you." Blair grimaced. "But
he's pretty much a lethal weapon, too."
"I honestly don't have a problem with what Jim did," Jack said. Blair's
surprise must have shown on his face because Jack smiled. "I'm former
CIA, remember? Do you really think I was never in a situation like
that? Don't let the chair fool you. Underneath this mild-mannered
exterior, I'm a killing machine too."
Blair gaped at him, unsure whether to laugh or not. Jack saved him from
his dilemma by chuckling himself. "Don't ever play poker, Blair. You
don't have the face for it."
"I didn't mean --"
"Forget it." Jack waved Blair's attempts to apologize away. "Blair, I'm
too much an agent not to want to check this story out for myself, as
much as I can --"
"Be my guest," Blair said. "Though I don't know why you're bothering.
When I leave, I can't see why we'd see each other again. There's
nothing connecting us apart from a lot of coincidences, so maybe this
time I'm just reading too much into it."
"Maybe," Jack said, "but it seems to me that the main connection, well,
it's right here." He gestured around him. "From what you say, a
sentinel is territorial and this was part of Jim's territory. His nest,
his lair. I don't know how attached he was to it, but given the way
that it's really not at all suitable for me, I have to wonder why I
felt so compelled to rent it. I think I'm beginning to see why."
He turned his chair with an easy, practiced push. "I'm going to make a
sandwich to go with the coffee. Want one?"
"Sure," Blair said, his stomach reminding him on cue that it was empty.
"While I make it, why don't you go upstairs and take a look around?"
Jack called back to him from the kitchen. "If you move in, that's going
to be your room, after all."
"Huh?" Blair got to his feet and covered the distance between them in a
few quick, long strides. "You want me here? Living with you?"
Jack didn't take his head out of the fridge, the cool air streaming
from it and making Blair's skin get goose bumps. "Do I have a choice?"
"Yes, of course you do," Blair said hotly. "You're not -- this isn't --"
"Blair, if there's ever a fire, I'm going to die," Jack said
matter-of-factly, holding out a head of lettuce and a cucumber to Blair
who took them automatically and placed them on the counter. "I won't be
able to use the elevator or the stairs. It's madness for me to live up
here, when I can't even use part of the space. Yet here I am. I think
I've been holding this place for you and Jim when he gets released."
"That's a huge leap," Blair objected. It felt right in one way, an
almost audible click of something slotting into place, but there was
still a gap in the pattern. Blair couldn't quite work out what went
Jack closed the fridge, and passed over some ripe cheese and some
striped, heirloom tomatoes, their spicy smell filling the space between
"Do you want to sleep in Jim's old room or not?"
When it was put to him like that, there wasn't much that Blair could do
but say 'yes'.
Jim sat at a table in the visiting room and waited for Blair with his
heart pounding. He knew that Blair had come to see him because the
moment that Blair had stepped off the bus bringing the visitors from
town, he'd said soft and clear, "Hi, Jim" and Jim, every sense
straining to capture the first trace of Blair, had heard him. So unlike
Stone to his left who wasn't sure if his girlfriend would bring their
child with her or not, because she was furious with him after
discovering that before his arrest Stone had dropped five thousand
dollars on a horse race, or Ben in the corner who might not get anyone
at all if his elderly mother wasn't up to the trip, Jim knew that he
wouldn't be sitting alone at his table.
It didn't make waiting any easier.
He caught Blair's scent a moment before Blair appeared and felt himself
harden, his body responding blindly, hopefully. Jim was, for the
moment, still alone in his cell, but that wouldn't be the case for much
longer. Night after night, he got to sleep after jerking off, Blair's
name on his lips as he came. Someone in the bunk beneath him wouldn't
mean that he had to stop jerking off, of course, hell, no, but if Jim
was indifferent about the idea of someone hearing the act itself, he
wasn't happy about sharing his feelings about Blair.
He was in lockdown, moving through his days in a detached haze, his
only concern the need to be a model prisoner.
None of which meant that sitting across from Blair, not touching him,
was going to be easy. Most of the men in here, the ones waiting for
their partner to walk in, anyway, were giving off a pungent reek of
sexuality that fed into Jim's own arousal and was coming perilously
close to sending him into a frenzy of need. To sit across from Blair
and watch his mouth move without being able to kiss it, or Blair's
hands gesture without feeling them on his skin would be torture.
Blair walked in, crossed the room without a single searching glance,
homing in on Jim immediately, and sat down.
Jim swallowed dryly, lost for words. It had only been a couple of weeks
since he'd seen Blair, but he'd changed already and it felt as if each
change took Blair further away. Blair's hair had been cut, not much
shorter, no, but it framed his face in a way that suited him and his
cheeks had a healthy, tanned glow to them now. He smelled different;
his own scent was unchanged but it was layered over with unfamiliar
soaps for skin and clothes and the tantalizing hint of fresh air.
Something else, too…something both new and yet known.
Jim frowned, the puzzle occupying his mind so much that Blair had to
kick him gently under the table to get his attention. "I said 'hello',
Jim. Did you hear me?"
Just like that, the oddness dissipated. Jim grinned at him, a teasing
smirk concealing his pure joy at seeing Blair again. "Yeah, I heard
you. Hello yourself."
"Yeah," Blair said softly, his face alight with the same happiness that
Jim knew was shining in his own eyes.
Around them, couples were settling into place, chairs scraping over
linoleum, voices raised in a noisy chatter that would die down to a
buzzing hum. Jim and Blair sat in silence, both smiling.
Jim roused himself first. "So did you find somewhere to stay? A job?"
The prosaic questions needed to be asked and answered, after all.
Blair chuckled. "I was living in a dive but now…Jim, you're not gonna
believe where I ended up and yeah, I got a job as well on the same
street as my new digs. My boss wasn't too happy about me needing time
off on my second day, but she's making me pay for it in donuts. She's
addicted to Boston Cremes."
"Sounds great," Jim said and meant it. Knowing that Blair was adjusting
was a huge relief. "So what's the big deal about where you're staying
and why did you move?"
"I couldn't pass up the chance to live there, even if it does mean I'm
living with another man."
The words registered with Jim somewhere deep and dark even before they
reached his brain. He leaned across the table, his face twisted in a
snarl, and inhaled deeply, trying to identify that contradictory smell,
break it down into an identity.
"Jim! No, not like that," Blair said forcefully, urgently, his voice
low as placating words poured from his lips. "Shit, I'm sorry. It was a
stupid joke and I'm a fucking idiot. I'm staying with a man who knew me
from Rainier. Jack Kelso. Ex CIA, then a bullet put him in a wheelchair
for good and he's working at the university now. He's not interested in
me that way and even if he was, it wouldn't make any difference. I'm
yours. All yours. Only yours. Jim, are you listening to me?"
Jim settled back in his chair, his cheeks burning with embarrassment
and nodded stiffly. He hated it when his instincts took over and
reduced him to the level of a rutting animal. He was more than that.
"Good. Because this is going to blow you away." Blair relaxed, his eyes
sparkling in a way they rarely had during the time that Jim had known
him. Blair was fully engaged in his story, animated, excited. Jim had
to admit that it looked good on him. "Jim, he's living in your old loft
on Prospect. I'm actually sleeping in your old bedroom and man, after a
cell, it feels really weird being up there, all open to the air."
His loft? Blair had ended up there? There was no
doubting it was true. The familiar part of the puzzling smell had been
identified now. The scent of home was never forgotten, not by many
humans, let alone a sentinel. Jim could have been taken, drugged,
blindfolded, and dumped in the house he'd been born in, a place he
hadn't been back to in years, and know it with his first conscious
breath. It shouldn't have taken him this long to pin it down but that
was probably because he was operating at something less than peak
efficiency. Jack Kelso had to make up the rest of the scent cloaking
Blair, but Jim admitted grudgingly that it was faint enough to be
unthreatening. Kelso hadn't hugged Blair or kissed him, hadn't been
close to him for long, or at least not recently. "What?"
Blair glanced around without making it obvious, then leaned in. "Jim,
it's another of those freaky meant-to-be deals like the way we hooked
up. I bumped into him at the library and then in the same bookstore
where I found the sentinel book -- hell, that's where I'm working now!
The owner knows I'm an ex-con and she was going to blow me off when
Jack appeared and said I was okay. I think they've got a thing going on
or something, because she took me on as a favor to him. Tell me all of
that is just coincidence? It's not. Can't be."
Jim tried to focus his thoughts. "It could be, but I doubt it," he said
slowly. "I don't get why he asked you to stay, though -- and why is he
in my loft if he's in a wheelchair? That elevator isn't all that
reliable, you know."
"Well, I, ah, I might have told him about us," Blair said, a trace of
wariness in his eyes. "The sentinel thing? I wouldn't have spilled to
just anyone, but Jim, he took your place because something made him and
he's connected, he has to be."
Jim brushed aside Blair's misgivings. "Chief, I trust you to know who's
safe and who isn't. Don't worry about it. I'm just trying to wrap my
head around it all."
"Tell me about it," Blair said fervently. "I still haven't worked out
the big picture, but it feels like, I don't know, like someone's
looking out for us?"
"Yeah," Jim said skeptically. "They must've taken a day off here and
there, if you ask me, but whatever."
"Never mind me and my micro-managed life," Blair said after an awkward
pause. "What's going on with you? Anyone giving you grief now that I'm
not around to kick their asses?"
"They still talk of you in awe and fear," Jim sad solemnly. "Everyone's
been okay. Few comments, nothing I can't handle. No one in my cell with
me yet. I think that's down to Banks. He called me in and gave me a
talking to about keeping my nose clean."
"Really?" Blair chewed on his lip. "Why?"
"He thinks without you providing stress relief, I'll go nuclear," Jim
said bluntly. "I told him it wasn't gonna happen and then he -- Blair,
he said he'd push for my early release at the next hearing in nine
months. Really push. He seemed to think it'd be a done deal if I
"Nine months?" Blair said, his voice shaking. "You could get out in
nine months? Jim, that's --"
"Yeah, I know," Jim said, wishing that he could at least reach over and
pat Blair's hand. The guards stationed around the room seemed to be
giving his table a lot more attention than usual, though and he guessed
that they were just waiting for an excuse to cut his visiting time
short. Couples were allowed to hug and kiss at the start and end of a
visit and hold hands across the table, but Jim knew with a sour
certainty that if he even tried to hold Blair's hand, it would end the
visit. The guards on duty today weren't big on equal rights. Touching
Blair that fleetingly would be like a sip of water to a thirsty man,
anyway, maddening, not satisfying. "It's great, but there's one
"Huh? What problem?"
"Brackett," Jim said succinctly. "It's like we thought; he's looking to
get cozy with me now that you're gone. I told him to shove it and he's
started this campaign to get me into trouble. He was listening when
Banks told me about the parole deal."
Blair's eyes widened. "So tell Banks!"
"Tell him what?" Jim asked tiredly. "Brackett hasn't done anything yet,
just started to needle me, and the sex, well, I think Banks knows
that's been going on for a while. Hard for me to act violated now."
"It's not right," Blair said, his anger bitter and dark. Jim could
taste it, like stale coffee, scalding hot and acrid. "Jim, what're you
going to do?"
"I thought you'd tell me to do it," Jim said. "What's a few blow jobs
if it gets me out of here early?"
"You thought I'd -- Jim, you fucking asshole, this destined to be soul
mates crap works both ways, you know," Blair hissed. "And, yeah, I know
you did it with him when I was in here to keep him off our backs, but
this is different."
"Why?" Jim asked, the question blunt enough to leave Blair with his
mouth open, whatever he'd been about to say stemmed. Playing devil's
advocate sucked, but Jim could still taste that fucking baton rammed in
his mouth. "This time it would keep him off my back
and get me out of here and back with you in half the time."
"So why didn't you say 'yes' right away?" Blair asked, his voice quiet,
his anger gone. "God, Jim, you really thought that I'd tell you to go
"After what you did to survive in here, this isn't much," Jim said. "It
felt like a betrayal so I said no but I'd do more than he wants from me
with an early release as the payoff. If the idea really bugs you
though, I'll keep on saying no and the hell with the fallout."
A grimace twisted Blair's face. "I can't tell you to do that, Jim. I
won't. I know it's killing you being in here."
"I can handle being in here, " Jim corrected him. "It's being apart
from you that's breaking me."
Blair stared at him, misery and doubt clouding his eyes. "I want you
with me more than anything I've ever wanted before but not if it means
you turning into Brackett's bitch for the next nine months. And I
wouldn't put it past him to pull the rug out from under you at the last
minute. He's got no reason to want you released, after all."
"I thought of that," Jim said. "I couldn't work out why he seemed to
want to help me but I know him, maybe better than anyone, and he sees
the way he is as a weakness."
"Oh, that's so wrong," Blair said, sitting up straight. "I've got some
friends into the D/s lifestyle and the role of sub is --"
Jim held up his hand. "Spare me the lecture, Blair. I'm talking about
his mindset and he hates what he is. He's one screwed-up, sick son of a
bitch. So part of him wants me gone, because every time he gives into
me, he sees it as a failure, but what I can give him tempts him too
much to turn down. He needs the choice made for him. He needs me out of
He watched Blair mull that over and then nod. "I guess I can see that,"
Blair said reluctantly. "God, Jim, you're gonna have to play him really
carefully, especially near the end."
"Yeah," Jim said, heartfelt and gloomy. He tapped his finger on the
table. "Don't go thinking that it's a hundred percent certain I'll be
released, though. Banks is good, but Ventriss has a lot of pull."
"The guard his son shot has died since the last hearing," Blair
reminded him. "That might sway the board. You shot a killer, not a
Jim shrugged. So little could make a huge difference; a burst of tears,
a smile misread as cocky…"Maybe."
Blair sat back and exhaled, a long, drawn-out breath. "Do it. If you're
sure it won't leave you as screwed up as him. If it gets us both what
we want, I can live with Brackett thinking he's won and I promise it
won't make a difference between us."
"He has, from where he's standing," Jim said. It won't make a
difference, Chief? Are you sure about that? When you can't see me
afterwards and know how much I hated it, when you can't wipe him off my
skin with your hands, kissing me clean again…
"So he's wrong," Blair said, his mouth set in stern lines. "And I know
where he lives, and I mean that literally. I looked him up. If he
screws things up for you, I’ll --"
"Blair!" Jim kept his voice down from habit but it took everything he
had to keep it level. "You do something stupid and I'll lose
everything. You, my sanity, everything. Stay away from him, keep your
head down, and just wait, okay? Wait for me."
Blair met his eyes, a bright challenge in his own, and then reluctantly
caved under the pressure Jim was exerting. He nodded and changed the
subject. "I'm gonna get your bed out of storage," he said. "I'm
sleeping on an inflatable bed right now and by morning it's lost its
air and my ass has a new bruise."
"Take anything you want from there," Jim said. He'd added Blair's name
to his on the list of people with access to his storage locker a few
months earlier. "Just remember, we're going to need a place of our own
when I get out, so don't get too settled with this Kelso guy."
"It's the view I'll miss," Blair said. "You really picked a good one."
"I know," Jim said. He could picture it when he closed his eyes, smell
the faint tang of the ocean over the equally precious stink of the
city, rising from the sidewalk like fog, cars and hotdogs, concrete and
They spent the last few minutes of the hour as they'd begun it, staring
at each other in a silence that deepened to something like contentment.
Blair walked away without looking back, though Jim knew without needing
to see that there were tears in his eyes -- and threw in a wiggle of
his ass that left Jim grinning.
Brackett didn't waste time. Two hours after visiting had ended, he
intercepted Jim on the way back from the prison library. Jim had
borrowed a book about the Sahara desert for the simple reason that it
would contain nothing that would remind him of his surroundings. One
look at Brackett and he revised that opinion; there was bound to be a
reference to scorpions and snakes, after all.
With the same mindset that had always meant that he ripped Band-Aids
off in one go, he allowed himself to be taken to the room Brackett used
most often for times like this and heard the windowless door lock with
a faint click.
"So you saw him today," Brackett said without turning, replacing the
key in his jacket pocket.
Just the thought of that hour with Blair made Jim shiver with a
pleasure rooted partly in lust, mostly in love. Not that they were easy
to separate. He resented the fact that he was standing a few feet from
Brackett, half-hard from a memory of Blair. He'd wanted to jerk off
that night with nothing interrupting the flow of desire that had sprung
from his first sight of Blair, but if he had to take care of Brackett
that wasn't going to be possible. Brackett was a filthy stone flung
into a clear pool.
"Yeah," Jim said.
"And you told him how you're fixed. What you need to do so that you can
get out of here early." Brackett's voice wavered on the last words,
confirming what Jim had thought. The man wanted him and wanted him gone
at the same time. When it came to the crunch, Jim just hoped that the
latter emotion was strongest.
"It came up in conversation," Jim said drily.
Brackett closed the distance between them. "He told you to do it,
didn't he?" Jim's expression must have given Brackett the answer that
he wanted to hear because a smile appeared. "Well, well, well. That's
very selfish of him, isn't it?"
"Not really," Jim said, refusing to be drawn. "Lesser of two evils.
"Is it really that bad?" Brackett sounded genuinely curious. "I shower
daily, I don't mind if you come, too, and I don't hurt you. Is it
really that bad?"
"It's not my choice," Jim said, giving back honesty for honesty. "And
you know how I feel about Sandburg."
"Hearts and flowers," Brackett said with a nod, "but neither of you are
blushing virgins and it's not as if you're screwing around behind his
Jim shrugged. "Whatever. We do this and you get off my case, you
and your friends, so that I can get out earlier. I
know you'll miss me, but we can exchange Christmas cards."
"I like ones with glitter and fat Santas," Brackett said.
Jim gave him a half-hearted smirk and walked over to the nearest wall,
waiting for Brackett to join him and lean against it, waiting to go to
his knees and open his mouth.
Brackett took a condom and a small bottle of lube out of his pocket. "I
thought we'd do things a little differently today."
Shock froze Jim in place. Stupid of him not to have expected this.
Brackett wanting more than a blow job wasn't exactly unexpected but
Jim's mouth and hands had been enough for a long time.
It was just as stupid to feel an instinctive rejection. He let Brackett
fuck the mouth he used to kiss with, talk and breathe and eat with; why
was letting him inside a hole he used for a far more prosaic purpose an
issue? Let Brackett's dick slide in to the place Jim shit through, let
him have it. Who cared?
It didn't matter how much he tried to convince himself in quick,
flashing thoughts. Blair could fuck him and make it seem like an
affirmation of their intimacy, the driving thrusts, the slow gliding
pushes in and out, back and forth, bringing Jim to a point where his
world narrowed to his ass and the way Blair was making it feel so
Brackett fucking him would make Jim feel used, dirty, violated. He felt
sweat break out across his back and forehead and heard himself make a
protesting grunt of denial.
"Oh, I think so, don't you?" Brackett said, his voice insinuating,
Jim's thoughts came down to a single certainty, which was that if he
let Brackett take control now, it would change their relationship -- if
what they had deserved the name -- more than Jim bending over would.
What did Brackett always want? The illusion that he was in control with
the reins silently handed over to Jim.
There was a table in the room, and a stack of chairs in the corner. Jim
walked over to the table, and snatched the lube and condom packet out
of Brackett's hand as he passed him.
He expected a pro-forma protest, but Brackett followed him to the
table, pushed up against a wall, its surface scratched but reasonably
clean, and waited in silence.
Jim closed his eyes for a brief moment and felt his awareness shift,
expand, so that he could read Brackett's responses. Heart beating
quickly, already hard…no nervousness, no doubt, just a swelling
He met Brackett's gaze and then leaned in and deliberately licked a
line from Brackett's throat to under his ear, a long, wet swipe of his
tongue, contemptuous and yet possessive.
"Take down your pants and bend over," he said evenly.
"Not the way I'd planned it." Pure bluster and bluff.
Jim smiled. "You need to be more adaptable, sir."
Brackett chewed his lip. "I don’t --"
Jim didn't let him finish. With unhurried movements, he set what he
held on the table, out of reach of Brackett, and unzipped his pants.
"If you're not bent over and waiting by the time I suit up, I'll take
the rubber off and jerk off in front of you. Leave you hard and aching.
And we do this once a week, no more. Piss me off, and you won't enjoy
it. Behave and I'll make it good for you."
"Good for me, what?" Brackett said, a gleam in his
"Good for you, sir," Jim said, giving Brackett just
enough jam to swallow the pill.
Brackett got into position without discussing it further, his pants and
briefs tangled around his ankles, his pale ass up and waiting. Jim
finished unzipping and took out his dick which was halfheartedly
interested, if that. Fuck. That was a complication that he hadn't
considered. Despite Brackett's condescendingly given permission to
come, Jim never had. Oh, he'd gotten hard sucking Brackett sometimes,
sure, but he'd let his arousal simmer down, knowing that Blair was
waiting for him.
Using a memory of Blair to get hard enough to perform seemed like the
worst kind of betrayal, but it was about the only option Jim had in the
few minutes before an insulted Brackett showed off his less reasonable
It wasn't as if getting turned on by Brackett would have been the
lesser of two evils, either. Jim wasn't romantic enough or young enough
to think that Blair was the only man who'd ever make his body react
with a quick flush of warmth, but he never planned to follow that
thought to its logical conclusion and cheat. Blair was it for him. The
golden apple at the top of the tree. To allow his body to react
physically to what was on offer would leave Jim feeling as ashamed of
himself as using a memory of Blair to get aroused. Blair, his hair a
tangled damp mess on the pillow, his breath candy-sweet and warm on
Jim's fact, Blair gritting his teeth, the tendons on his neck corded as
he grunted and shoved deeper inside Jim, staring down at him with a
feral, primal intensity…
"Are we doing this sometime today?" Brackett asked, his tone making it
clear that yes, they fucking were.
Jim set the lube and condom down on the table, toed off his shoes and
kicked out of his pants and shorts. His cock stirred, habit serving to
harden it enough to give the condom something to wrap around, the touch
of his fingers as he rolled it over his dick sending small shocks
through his body like alarm bells ringing. He put his hands on
Brackett's ass and split it wide for him, letting his vision sharpen
and fuzz at one and the same time, so that Brackett's back (too long,
too narrow) was out of focus and the dark whorl of his hole, (not
Blair's, but close enough in appearance; an asshole was an asshole) was
distinct and clear.
There just wasn't any way to sugarcoat this or make it better. He was
going to fuck another man. With Blair's grudging, half-hearted
permission and full knowledge, yes, but did that help? Jim was inclined
to think that it didn't.
He didn't want to put his fingers inside Brackett. Too intimate given
how much data Jim could garner with a touch. He didn't want to feel
Brackett's blood pulse hot and quick through the thin skin, or the
tight cling of greedy flesh.
Jim doused his erection with lube and pushed into Brackett with a
reasonable amount of consideration -- no viciously deep hard thrust to
leave Brackett grunting as a sickening wave of pain swept through him,
just an unrelenting series of shallow jabs until Brackett was yielding,
open, his hands scrabbling at the surface of the table, his breathing
"Please," Brackett groaned eventually. "Fuck me. God."
Jim switched off every emotion and let his body take over. Ram in, pull
back, rinse and repeat. Coldly, dispassionately, he noted Brackett's
reactions. When he felt that Brackett was close to coming, he reached
around and grasped the jerking bob of Brackett's cock, rigid and full,
and worked it with the rhythm their bodies had created. The sound torn
from Brackett's throat came close to piercing his indifference. So
desperate, so pained…
Jim felt Brackett start to come, the surge and pulse swelling the thick
cock he held. He loved to hold Blair's cock when Blair climaxed,
charting each minute change and doing all that he could to draw the
pleasure out. With Brackett, he released the man as soon as the climax
was underway, unstoppable as a sneeze, and concentrated on fucking
Brackett through it without following him over.
Withdrawing, still hard, was a struggle. Jim was human enough to feel
hollow and vaguely irritable at being denied his own climax, even if
he'd wanted it that way and Brackett was too out of it to cooperate
Jim peeled off the lube-slick condom and wrapped it in a torn-off piece
of kitchen towel from his pocket, shoved there after he'd used it to
wipe jam from his hands earlier. The sweetness of strawberries mixed
uneasily with the musk of rut and spilled spunk and he wrinkled his
nose. He palmed his cock, unable to resist touching it, shivers of need
racing over him. God, he was so close…but not here, with Brackett
watching. With gritted teeth, he pressed his erection against his belly
and yanked his pants into place.
Brackett groaned, heartfelt and sated, then straightened. He had come
prepared; he drew out a small package of tissues and used a few to
clean himself and the table with casually efficient swipes before
handing them to Jim, who took them with commenting on being relegated
to garbage disposal.
"That was fun," Brackett said affably, fastening buttons and drawing up
his zipper. He noticed Jim's uncomfortable state of arousal. Impossible
not to -- Jim was easing his zipper up in slow increments. "Oh, for
fuck's sake!" Irritation and what could have been hurt flared up.
"What's your problem, Ellison? Too good to come in my ass, but you
don't mind fucking it?"
"Something like that," Jim said evenly.
"No, it's not," Brackett said, his voice dangerously soft. "You think
it doesn't count if you don't enjoy it. You're keeping yourself pure
for him. How sweet." He jabbed a finger into Jim's chest. "Save the
self-deception. We both know you got off on that."
"Just as long as you did, sir" Jim said, refusing to
be drawn, the insincere politeness in his voice slick as oil. He
sharpened his tone, needing to get away from the man. "Are we done
"No, we fucking aren't," Brackett said. An angry red flush stained his
cheeks "It's over when you come. You think you can hold back? Give me
less than he got?"
"You don't want what he gets," Jim said and meant it. "You want me to
come? I'll jerk off right now. But if you want me to pretend that this
is what I want and that it comes close to what I had -- have -- with
him then I can't. I don't lie to you. Don't make me start."
Odd that both of them were avoiding Blair's name, as if it might
conjure him up if they did. Neither of them wanted that.
"Get out," Brackett said, his mouth a thin, stark line. He walked over
to the door, unlocked it, and held it open. "You've got work to do,
Jim nodded and fitted himself back into his role, as difficult a task
as cramming his erect dick back inside his pants. "Yes, sir."
Brackett came into his cell an hour after lights out, with two of his
friends. Jim struggled out of dreams where Blair was always just out of
reach, disorientated and panicked for just long enough to make his
defense ineffective and belated. He was aware of the danger of fighting
back against a guard, but he was unable to quell his instinctive
response to having rough hands on him, pulling away the sheets that
covered him and the shorts he slept in and so he lashed out, growling a
defiance that cost him. A fist struck his temple, stunning him
sufficiently to take the last of the fight out of him, and he was
theirs for the taking.
They blindfolded him and cuffed him to his bunk, on his back, legs
spread wide, his wrists and ankles clamped by cold metal, a rag stuffed
into his mouth and tied in place with another strip of dirty cotton,
and left him with Brackett in the dark. He couldn't recall a single
word spoken by any of them, but he knew who they were from their scent.
Eagles was the one who'd chuckled as he'd forced the balled-up rag deep
into Jim's mouth, and the other was Shaw, a quiet man with empty eyes
and a mouth that twisted with distaste whenever Jim walked by. Jim
guessed that his homophobia didn't stop Shaw from helping Brackett to
indulge his penchant for forced sex.
Jim found some relief that whatever was about to happen would only
involve Brackett, whose sadism was a known quantity. It was a small
relief, but at this point he was taking what he could get.
"I can't let you win," Brackett whispered in his ear, regret roughening
the words. "You know that. You pushed me too far today. I wanted you to
come in me."
Jim lay still, passivity his version of an upraised finger. He couldn't
speak or plead his case; he couldn't even apologize, not that he had
the slightest intention of doing that. His dick lay limp and spent
against his thigh. He'd jerked off as soon as the lights had gone out,
filling his head full of memories of Blair, building them solid to the
point where he could feel the sweep of Blair's fingers across his
chest, light and demanding, and the tickle of Blair's hair against his
belly as Blair's tongue traced love notes in an alien language on the
column of Jim's cock.
He had nothing left to give Brackett physically or emotionally, but a
shamed, scared part of him, hating the helplessness of his position,
wished that he did. It was a fleeting thought and Jim quelled it
ruthlessly, disgusted with himself. Let Brackett have his fucking fun.
He wouldn't beg even if he were given the opportunity. Not unless a few
abject words were the only coin Brackett would take to leave him alive.
Death had lost its horror for Jim but meeting Blair had made him fear
it all over again.
"You're going to come for me now," Brackett said with a vicious tug at
Jim's hair that left his scalp burning. "I want you squirming for me,
giving me a show."
The blindfold was too thin to steal Jim's vision completely, but there
was nothing that he wanted to see. He closed his eyes.
Brackett bent over him and nuzzled into Jim's groin, the action as
unwelcome as a dog nosing a visitor and about as erotic. "You stink of
sex," Brackett whispered, the words hot against Jim's flesh. "Dirty
boy. You didn't wait for me, did you? I'll punish you for that."
Jim tensed, part of him wanting to roll his eyes, part of him uneasily
aware of just how good Brackett was at inflicting pain in ways that
didn't mark or bruise. He'd never bothered to ask, but he suspected
that at some point, Brackett might have been trained by the same
military that had shown Jim how to kill.
"Oh, I'm not going to hurt you," Brackett said, the words soothing,
terrifying. "Pain's not really your thing, is it? Your little slut
liked getting his ass paddled raw, but not you…"
Jim clenched his teeth around the soft, wet folds of the rag gagging
him. King had loved spanking Blair, but Blair hadn't gotten off on it.
At least… Doubt acid-etched a question mark into his mind. Had there
ever been a time when Blair had pushed his ass up, pleading wordlessly
for a sweetly stinging slap, the heat and burn of a spanking? Jim
didn't think so, and it wasn't a kink of his, but it galled him to
think that Blair might have wanted something and he'd failed to
"You're going to get hard and come for me. For me,"
Brackett said with an edge to his voice. "That's your punishment and
I'll do this every fucking night if I need to until you beg me on your
knees to stop and tell me you'll be good from now on, sir, my good
Don't put your words into my mouth, you spineless, screwed-up
son of a bitch Jim wanted to yell at him. You want
to be dominated, I'll do it, but give me some fucking space to work and
stop trying to do my job for me.
He jerked his head from side to side in an unmistakable rejection and
Brackett gave a frustrated, furious grunt before grabbing Jim's dick in
a shaking hand.
What followed wasn't much fun. By the end, Jim had stopped actively
resisting, but his chafed, sore dick was stubbornly refusing to
cooperate and even the gentler caresses Brackett was giving it were
having no effect.
Jim blinked against a rush of air as the blindfold was pulled down and
found himself staring up at Brackett. The gag wasn't what was stopping
him from speaking; faced with the torment in Brackett's eyes, Jim had
nothing to say.
"I should leave you like this and open Sawyer's door, Dixon's,
Peterson's," Brackett said, the threat dulled by the flatness of his
voice. "Let them fuck you dry and leave you bleeding."
Those three would do it without hesitating, but Jim didn't feel any
apprehension. Brackett wouldn't do it. The man didn't share his toys.
With a slow deliberation, he crooked his finger, beckoning Brackett
closer. Brackett caught his breath and leaned in, unwilling, but drawn,
a plant turning to the sun. Jim lifted his head from his pillow and
rubbed his face against Brackett's in as comforting a gesture as he
could make, pity prompting the gesture. In the three years he'd known
Brackett, it was the first time he'd felt that emotion, but he knew
who'd won this battle and it wasn't Brackett. Jim could afford to be
Brackett drew back, his lips parted, an uncertain frown creasing his
forehead. He fumbled with the gag binding Jim's mouth and tugged the
smothering material away.
Jim licked at dry lips with a tongue that felt furred over and forced
saliva into his mouth by the old trick of picturing himself biting a
lemon and feeling the thin, sharp juice trickle over his tongue.
Brackett reached out and Jim froze him with a look. "Why did you do
that?" Brackett asked, his hand going up to hover an inch away from the
cheek that Jim had nuzzled against.
Jim didn't answer him directly. "You got what you wanted," he said
tiredly. The gesture had been one he'd used with Blair in the past. It
wasn't one he'd ever use again without remembering Brackett's haunted
eyes. "Now get these cuffs off me and get the hell out of my cell."
Brackett removed all the cuffs and stood, holding them as if they
weighed more than they should. Jim stayed in the same position he'd
been cuffed in, legs apart, his arms over his head, hands clasped. He
waited for his cell door to be closed and locked before he permitted
himself to curl in on himself, cramped limbs protesting. After a minute
or two, he found his shorts and pulled them on, shivering from reaction
as much as anything else. A concerned, friendly voice from the cell
opposite called out softly, and Jim answered with a grunt, reassuring
him and quieting the low murmur from the row of cells, cells that had
been deathly silent during Jim's ordeal.
He got back into bed and forced himself to sleep. The rules had
changed. He was going to need to be alert, quick-thinking if he wanted
to get through what was to come.
It was going to be a long nine months.
"There's something wrong with him," Blair said flatly.
Jack gave him a thoughtful look and raised his eyebrows. "He's not
"No." Jim had been working out and his arms and chest showed it at
Blair's last visit, powerful muscles straining against the prison
coveralls he was wearing.
"Still heading for that early release?"
"Yes." Blair exhaled, frustration demanding a release. "Yes, he's
behaving and the warden is pushing to have his parole hearing moved up
to as soon as possible. God, he could be out in a month if Banks can
make it work. It's all good, but there's still something wrong with
Five months apart. Five months of visits that tormented as much as they
soothed and sometimes Blair couldn't make it and three times in the
last couple of months -- three ! -- Jim had called and told him not to
come, the bleakness in his voice chilling Blair.
He eyed Jack uncertainly. He needed to vent to someone, but he knew the
root cause of Jim's apathy and it was Brackett and the demands the man
was making on Jim. Blair had shared a lot with Jack but that was one
secret he'd kept back.
"If you don't tell me everything, I can't help you," Jack said gently.
"Man, I would, but this is --" Blair shook his head. "It's complicated
and it's something I thought we could deal with, but it isn't easy. I
need Jim out of there and yes, I know it's not long now, but he's
just…he's slipping away."
"Let me see if there's anything I can do," Jack offered. "Strings I can
Blair sighed and sat down on the couch. Pacing wasn't doing anything to
clear his mind and his lunch hour was half over. "You already did and
it got you nowhere," he said dispiritedly, remembering how hopeful he'd
been when Jack had started making calls and how difficult it'd been to
let that hope shrivel away. "When it comes to strings, Ventriss holds
the whole freaking ball."
"He's not all-powerful," Jack said. "Just rich."
"Same thing," said Blair. He stood, shaking off his mood which these
days was as gray as Jim's, the two of them mirroring each other
emotionally. "I'd better go. I need to shop for groceries and Kate will
kick my ass if I'm late back. Anything I can get you?"
Blair paid rent, but he was acutely aware of the fact that it was a
token rent at best. He supplemented it by taking over the cleaning of
the loft and as many mundane tasks as Jack would allow him to do.
"I've lost the use of my legs, not my hands," Jack had pointed out with
some asperity. "I can still wipe down a surface or peel a potato."
"Yeah, I know, but let me do this, okay?" Blair had begged him. "Let me
give something back."
Jack had stared at him for a while and then said firmly, "We
compromise. You can do the dishes tonight, but I get to make the
stir-fry. Tomorrow, we switch."
"We're low on eggs," Jack said now and turned his attention back to his
computer and the article he was working on.
Later, Blair was to take a small satisfaction from the fact that he was
attacked on the way to the store, not on the way back. The eggs would
never have survived.
The three men jumped him a few yards past the bookstore, dragging him
into the alley that ran alongside it with a casual efficiency that
spoke of experience. If anyone noticed, no one came to help. Blair felt
the cool grittiness of a wall against his face as he was slammed
against it and then the warm bloom of pain and blood as the inside of
his mouth began to bleed, cut by a tooth. He gagged and spat, the
reddish drool puddling on the ground, an inch from a shoe, black, the
toes scuffed, one lace longer than the other. Blair took in the details
with a detached part of his mind, then everything snapped out of
slow-motion into a flurry of speed as he was turned, slammed against
the wall again, this time striking the back of his head.
A fist took him in the gut, robbing him of air he'd breathed in. He
tried to double over, tried to suck air back in to fill the void, but
strong hands held him pinned, butterflied to the wall.
(Jim paused, his face blank, his hands flat against Brackett's thighs,
his mouth wet with come.)
They let him catch his breath before hitting him again, two of them
holding him, the third, the only one whose face Blair could focus on,
standing in front of Blair, doing the punching. He wasn't much taller
than Blair, wiry and hard-muscled, mud-brown eyes sparkling with
malice, fair hair buzz-cut short. There was a swastika tattooed on his
neck, a prison tattoo, the ink faded and the edges fuzzy.
Blair strained against the hands holding him, but the men at his sides
were big, taller than Jim, heavy-set and too much like King in their
careless brutality for Blair not to feel old habits slipping into
place. Don't resist. Don't fight back unless he wants it.
Don't be a bad boy. Be good for Daddy, be good, and maybe this time
won't hurt much, not too much, not more than you can take…
He stood still, tears wet in his eyes from being winded, his breath
coming in odd whoops, the sound ridiculous, shaming.
Buzz-cut grinned, exposing teeth that needed brushing, and let his bony
fists meet Blair's ribs, using Blair as a living punching-bag and
showing no emotion beyond that unrelenting grin when Blair cried out in
Blair didn't try to offer them money. If they wanted it, they would
have taken it from him and been gone by now and men like this didn't
mug people in daylight, on a busy street. There was more behind this
than random street violence.
He pinned his hopes on someone passing by who might at least call 911
and felt a rib crack. Oh God, that hurt --
(Jim grunted in pain, his hand going to his chest, hovering uncertainly
before pressing against his left side. He sat back on his heels,
ignoring Brackett's startled question.)
"Want to know what you did to earn this, faggot?" Buzz swayed from side
to side, a snake with no charm, rubbing his hands together. "Want a
A gay bashing? Someone who thought Jack was more than a landlord and a
friend? That didn't make a lot of sense and not because Jack was in a
wheelchair. Most people on the street knew that Jack and Kate were
involved in a quiet, unhurried courtship that seemed to suit them both.
Anyone who cared enough to investigate would have only needed to ask a
question or two at the coffee shop to discover that.
Blair settled for making a puzzled sound and waited for more
information to work with. Each breath was a small piece of agony
chipped off a mountain of pain; not talking was definitely the way to
"Picked the wrong boyfriend, didn't you?" Buzz gave Blair's jaw a
reproving slap. "Bad enough that you bend over for a guy, you sick
piece of cock-sucking filth, but you just had to go for Ellison. Now,
my boss is a tolerant man. He gave you the chance to find someone else,
but no, you keep visiting that murderer and I guess when Ellison gets
out you'll be waiting, pants down, ass up." Buzz pursed thin lips and
shook his head slowly. "My boss doesn't want Ellison to have that. Not
when his boy never will. Ellison's going to get his when he gets out,
no doubt about it, but he dies alone, knowing you left him, you got
that? Or you'll die first." Buzz leaned in, his hand scrabbling at
Blair's crotch, finding his balls and squeezing them viciously. "You
know, I like that idea even more. Maybe I'll suggest it to him."
The man to Blair's left spoke for the first time, his voice cool and
impatient. "Finish this."
(Pain ripped through Jim, borrowed pain, dull and distant. Not his.
Blair's. God, why was it Blair's?)
Buzz licked his lips. "Yeah, I guess we should." He rocked his head to
the side and back, cracking his neck. "Want to hear the message again,
"I got it," Blair croaked out.
Buzz shook his head. "No, I don't think you did." Each word punctuated
by a fist to Blair's ribs or face, he said slowly, "You stay away from
Ellison. Let him rot."
Blair let the hammering fists push him blow by blow into the darkness,
(Jim screamed, thin and high and felt Brackett's hands on him, touching
his face, his hair, the wrong hands, the wrong voice babbling
questions, all wrong, everything wrong --
Blair tried to roll over in bed after sleeping the afternoon away with
the help of some industrial-grade painkillers proved by a concerned,
but thankfully calm in a crisis Jack, and winced. Okay, no rolling. He
got up, moving with a care that made the most trivial action an
undertaking, and headed for the stairs. Walking down them was enough of
an ordeal to make him consider sleeping on the couch for a few days,
but he knew that he'd miss the comfort of sleeping in Jim's bed, using
Jim's sheets, too much to do it.
"Should you be walking around?" Jack asked, wheeling his chair to the
kitchen to pour Blair a much-needed cup of coffee.
"Two cracked ribs and a lot of bruises doesn't make me an invalid,"
Blair said through swollen lips. The coffee was warm, not hot, and he
blessed Jack's forethought in topping it up with extra milk. It didn't
taste as good, but it was easier on his tender mouth.
"You should report what happened," Jack said, not for the first time
since Blair had all but crawled through the door, dripping blood and
Blair shook his head. "I'm not supposed to get into trouble; I’d say
this qualifies. Thank God I saw my parole officer yesterday and I've
got a month to heal; if I had to meet with her looking like this, she'd
"Blair, your life and Jim's were threatened and you were attacked,"
Jack said, a rare note of anger sharpening his voice. "You're the
"And Ventriss feels the same way," Blair said with a sigh. "Got to love
the way he's given that asshole of a son a halo now that he's dead."
"He's wondering how much he's to blame for the way his son turned out,"
Jack said. "That kind of guilt eats away at you and he's too weak to
cope. Hurting Jim is his only crutch."
"Insightful," Blair said and raised his mug in an ironic toast. "I
don't really give a shit. When Jim gets out, I'll be waiting and we'll
"I can help you with that if you're serious," Jack said, "but I still
think that you should give the police a chance to --"
The phone rang and Jack clicked his tongue impatiently at the
interruption and went to answer it. "Kelso here. Oh, you want…yes, he
is, but…Wait a moment."
Blair put the pieces together that the call was for him and was already
moving to take the phone when Jack held it out to him. "This is Blair
Sandburg," he said, trying not to mumble the words. The painkillers
were wearing off but he still felt underwater, his surroundings hazy.
"This is Warden Banks."
Fear closed Blair's throat and he felt the room begin to spin lazily.
He fought to push the dizziness back. He couldn't pass out, not before
he knew --
"Jim. What's happened to Jim?"
"No injury that we know about, but he's in some kind of comatose state
and since you're listed as his emergency contact, I'm advising you of
his condition." Banks' voice softened from its clipped, official tones
into something more human. "Sandburg, normally we wouldn't permit
sickbay visitors -- this is a prison, not a hospital -- but if his
condition doesn't improve, I'll transfer him to a hospital and I'll see
about letting you visit him there."
"What? No! I need to see him now!" Blair took a deep breath. Jim had
tripped every fuse, by the sound of it. "Warden, did this happen
around, uh, twelve-fifteen or so?"
"I don't know exactly, but I suppose it would've been around that time,
yes," Banks replied, sounding puzzled. "He was found by one of my
guards and brought to the hospital wing."
Brackett, Blair thought with a savage burst of
dislike, untempered by gratitude. It wasn't a guess. "Warden, I know
what this is and I can bring Jim out of it, but it's something only I
"I really doubt that," Banks said with stony politeness. "I've read
your file and I don't recall you having any medical training."
"This isn't a medical matter," Blair said through his teeth. "Look,
check with Brackett and confirm that time. Jim went into this state the
same time I was getting beat up by some thugs Ventriss hired."
"I didn't say that it was Brackett who found him," Banks said.
Blair grinned, thin and fierce, not caring that his split lip stung
hotly. "You didn't need to."
Banks wisely ignored that gibe. "And you say you were
attacked? And at Ventriss' orders? Can you prove
"Not really, but who the hell else cares that I'm with Jim? Ventriss is
pissed that Jim's got a future with me when his son's got nothing but a
hole in the ground," Blair said tersely. "Look, none of this matters.
He'll come out of it when he knows I'm okay. I need to
"Out of the question," Banks said flatly. "We'll keep him under
observation, and if there's no change, he'll be moved to a hospital,
under guard, but it's too soon to permit visitors wherever he is. I let
you know his condition as a courtesy. I'll call if there's any change."
"Warden Banks, you need to listen to me!"
"I need to get back to doing my job!" Banks growled
and hung up.
Blair whirled around, his injuries forgotten. "Can you believe it?
Jim's lying there, dead to the world and he expects me to -- to --"
"What happened?" Jack asked, his face creased with concern.
"I told you that we were connected but it goes deeper than I thought,"
Blair said, his brief burst of energy fading. He retrieved his coffee
and swallowed some thirstily, trying to take the bitter taste of
gut-wrenching fear from his mouth. Stupid of him. If Jim had died, he'd
have known about it when it happened. "Jim must have, God, I don't
know, tapped into what I was feeling. Intense emotion, the pain…it
formed a bridge or something. Shit, I don't know! I'm guessing here.
The state he's in is normal, for a sentinel, anyway. If his senses get
flooded, he just...goes away. Like a crashed computer, he reboots. But
he needs me there to push the on switch again by touching him, talking
to him, and Banks won't let me do it!"
Jack frowned in thought and then met Blair's eyes. "Where does he go?"
Blair opened his mouth to snap out angrily that he didn't know and then
paused, giving the question some thought. "I don't think it's anywhere
physical," he said slowly.
"Well, no," Jack said drily, "but bridges can be crossed in either
direction and buttons can be pressed remotely. Think about it."
Jim tried to push aside a branch blocking his path and growled low in
his throat when the wood resisted, the branch too thick to bend out of
his way. Ahead was a clearing with a pond. He was thirsty and he could
smell the water, cool and fresh, but he couldn't get to it. He'd been
trying for what felt like hours, his thirst maddening him.
Part of him easily accepted the truth that this world wasn't real;
leaves came in green and brown for the most part, rarely blue, yet the
jungle he was pushing through, trees, grass, animals alike, was all
washed with blue, a shade that reminded him vaguely of Blair's eyes.
He'd been in this jungle before in the days when Incacha had been
training him, but only in drugged flashes after chewing muddy tasting
roots or sipping a bitter tea brewed by Incacha's grandmother. His
parched mouth felt real enough, though, as did the utter conviction
that this wasn't a dream an alarm clock could wake him from.
An answering growl had him freezing in place, every sense -- and they
felt acutely tuned-up in here, quiver-ready -- investigating the source
of the challenge.
Except it wasn't an unfriendly growl…more of an impatiently amused
Giving way to an impulse, Jim dropped to his hands and knees and
crawled under the dipping branch, finding his way into the clearing
with an ease that made him wonder if the change of height was
responsible or his new companion.
A wolf stood by the pool, head tilted to the side, eyes shining. Jim
stayed on all fours, a smile splitting his face.
Blair. Here. Blair.
With a yelp of joy, a rumbling purr, he leaped forward, unsurprised to
find himself in his jaguar form, and spent the next few minutes in a
wild tumbling frisk of greeting that left the two of them panting,
breathless and smarting here and there where teeth had administered
Jim touched his nose to Blair's, wanting to talk now that the first
joyous frenzy of greeting was over and as if the thought were all that
were needed, felt them both change form back to human, naked, sprawled
on the soft, thick grass, their bodies close.
"Hey," Blair said softly, and Jim took that smiling mouth with his in a
long, needy kiss. Maybe he didn't want to talk, after all.
He'd filled his dreams with Blair during the months that they'd been
apart, but this was different. The skin his hands roved over was warm,
damp with sweat that his tongue licked at, tasting salt. The pool
waited, but Jim had found what he needed to slake his thirst.
In the five months since he'd been able to see Blair naked, there had
been small changes. Blair had gained a few pounds, but away from the
starchy food of the prison, it was all muscle, and he looked healthy.
Jim let his hands relearn every line and curve, distantly aware that
his own body was being explored and reclaimed by Blair.
When he cupped Blair's ass, he found the first significant change.
Frowning, he rolled Blair over onto his belly and tapped Blair's ass.
"Oh, it's there," Blair told him, glancing back over his shoulder, his
hair falling over his cheek. "Can't afford to get it removed yet. I
guess it's just not here."
Jim didn't like the reminder that whatever this place was, it wasn't
the real world. He leaned over and bit the place where the tattoo of a
crown, King's mark, should have been, leaving a deep red blotch. Blair
yelped and squirmed without actually moving enough to dislodge Jim and
chuckled when Jim stopped.
"God, I've missed you being a possessive asshole," he said, sounding
"I've missed you, period," Jim said. "Not long now…"
"Not if you snap out of this," Blair told him.
"Out of what?" Jim asked, not really caring about the answer. With his
mouth this close to Blair's ass, why stop with a bite? He began to
press teasing tickles of kisses in a line across each cheek, parting
Blair's thighs with his hands and kneeling between them. Urging Blair
to raise his hips with a tug, he turned the kisses to licks, still
close enough to cat form in his head to see this as grooming as much as
foreplay. He didn't do more than flick his tongue over Blair's hole
from time to time. He fully intended to rim Blair until Blair was
begging for more than a tongue in his ass, but there was no rush.
When Blair groaned and reluctantly but firmly moved away, Jim felt a
spurt of annoyance, but it faded. He couldn't sustain it with Blair
sitting across from him, his cock jutting up from a thick cloud of dark
hair, his mouth lush and inviting.
"Jim, I want this as much as you, but don't you have any questions?
Like why I'm here, hell, why we both are?"
"Can't they wait?"
Blair reached out, his hand warm against Jim's face. "You're scared
that once you know why, this will end," he said. "That makes two of us,
but Jim, we can't stay here forever and I don't know how it works; is a
minute here an hour out there or the other way around? Maybe this takes
no time at all -- I just don't know."
Jim pulled him close for a hug, willing -- maybe -- to give up on the
idea of sex, though his cock sure as hell wasn't, but unable to sit
this close to Blair and not hold him. "So let's talk," he said into
Blair's hair, feeling the strands shift with each word, rising and
falling. "I've been here before with Incacha. He said it was the spirit
world where I could connect with my inner sentinel or something like
that. I've never been here for this long, though, or had company, and
it's never felt this real."
Blair moaned. "More shaman stuff? Where's the freaking handbook?
Where's the map? How am I supposed to have a clue what to do here?"
"You're doing just fine," Jim said soothingly, sneaking a hand between
them while Blair was distracted, his goal predictable.
Blair pulled back and glared at him, knocking Jim's hand away. "Like I
can think when you're groping me."
"Like I can think when you're in groping range," Jim countered. Blair's
diamond-hard stare didn't melt into a lust-drenched haziness and Jim
sighed. "Okay, how did you get here and why?"
"I couldn't risk drugs when I'm on parole, so I went for meditation. My
body's in your old bedroom, sitting sukhasana with a candle burning."
Blair reached back and rubbed his ass. "I think my butt's numb."
"My body…" Jim hesitated, searching his memory and failing to grasp the
last event before he'd found himself in the jungle. "I don't know where
it is." He clutched Blair's arms, fear sweeping through him and a cold
regret. "Am I dead? Is that what this is? A last chance to see each
"What? No. And ow." Blair eased out of Jim's grip, a hold that had
slackened as soon as he'd realized that he was hurting Blair. "You went
into one of your spaced-out states and you're in the hospital wing
freaking everyone out. Banks called me but he wouldn't let me see you,
even when I told him I could fix it, so Jack
suggested we try this way." Blair waved his hands around and pulled a
face. "In woo-woo land."
"Kelso came up with this?" Jim wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Kelso had visited him once when Blair was sick with a stomach bug and
the hour had been enlightening if awkward. Jim had liked the man well
enough but he couldn't shake the jealousy he felt that Kelso got to be
with Blair most days. He'd set it aside as an issue that would
hopefully cease to matter once he and Blair were reunited. He'd done
that with so much shit…
"He's not entirely convinced any of this mystical crap is real, but
he's good at problem solving," Blair said. He cleared his throat.
"Okay, brace yourself, I'm going to do this quick just in case we don't
have all the time in the world. Banks wouldn't confirm it, and don't
freak on me, okay, I'm fine out there, just bruised and a few cracked
ribs which is why I hope to God this isn't real time, because they're
going to be killing me if I meditate for long, but it looks like you
went walkabout when I was getting worked over by some thugs Ventriss
hired to scare me off from seeing you. And, uh, he plans on killing you
when you get out. Me, too, probably. Can't stand the thought of us
getting a happily ever after."
Jim followed Blair through his long, breathless explanation with his
emotions chaotic and spiking at the news of Blair's ordeal but when
Blair reached the end, he felt nothing but a pure, empty rage. "I'm
going to kill that son-of-a-bitch."
"Yes, because killing members of that family worked out so well last
time," Blair snapped. "It's cool, Jim; we know now,
don't you see? We can plan for it, take precautions --"
"We can run," Jim said bleakly. "Not for long and we won't get far, but
we can run. That's it. No other options."
"There are always options."
"Yeah? How many did you have when King was reaming your ass daily?"
"Enough of them." Blair's face was flushed with annoyance now, the way
it got whenever King came up in conversation.
"Every path led to the same place; you dead," Jim told him. "That's not
"I didn't die," Blair said. "I'm here. I made it."
Jim didn't reply and Blair scrambled to his feet. "God, look at you
being polite and not pointing out that I got my ass saved by the big,
noble sentinel. That I'm only alive because you wanted to nail me as
much as King. Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot to say thank you again, huh?
Forgot to bow and scrape to the fucking pimp in the sky."
"Don't," Jim said quietly, rising to face Blair but not touching him.
Blair laughed scornfully, working himself up, insult by insult, riding
the high of his bad temper. Jim had seen him do this before but not for
a long time. This was the rebellious, resentful Blair of the days when
King's bruises still lay dark on his skin. "God, it must kill them to
see you with Brackett instead. Totally screws with their plans, huh?
He's the one who took you to the bed you're lying in, you know.
Carrying you in his arms, maybe, really fucking romantic."
"I can remember being with him," Jim said slowly, flickers of memory
darting through his head. "It hurt. Everything hurt."
Blair nodded, bobbing forward and back, twitchy, flushed, furious.
"Yeah? So just what were you two doing? Did you zone out with a
mouthful of dick or were you giving it up some other way? Is it just
him, or do his friends get a piece of you, too?"
Jim sighed and resigned himself to the inevitable. With an economy of
effort that had been trained into him, he swept Blair's feet from under
him and followed Blair down to the ground. He was hampered by an
unwillingness to injure Blair further, even if what happened in here
didn't count in the real world, and from what he remembered, it didn't.
He'd rolled down a steep hill in here once and woken without a scratch,
even though he could clearly recall his back and hands being gouged by
Blair wasn't holding back at all.
Jim bore the blows and spat-out curses patiently -- Blair had one hell
of a vocabulary from the filthy and crude section of the dictionary --
until Blair's knee clipped his balls, sending a wave of pain through
him. Okay, time to end what was rapidly making a toddler's tantrum seem
mature. He didn't bear malice for any of the punches and he didn't
judge; it could just as easily have been him doing this, if months of
servicing Brackett hadn't dulled his sense of worth to the point where
he didn't feel entitled to anything, least of all an epic display of
anger. Still, enough was enough and even fighting Blair when they were
both bare of anything but a layer of sweat was arousing given that
Jim's hard-on had never quite gone away.
He used his body to smother Blair's flame and pinned Blair's wrists to
the grass. Blair continued to fight but the wildness left him, bit by
bit, with Jim easing off on his hold in reward for each small, partial
When Blair lay under him, his chest heaving with sobs, his face slack,
Jim sighed and let go of Blair's wrists, raising his body so that he
was on all fours over Blair, framing him, not caging him. He could feel
the weight of his aroused cock and full, tight balls, heavy enough
symbolically, if not physically, to drag him back down to meet Blair
skin on skin, but he held himself away, not touching.
Let Blair come to him, not in surrender, but peace.
And Blair did, his sobs quieting to ragged breaths, his hand swiping at
the wetness on his face as he sniffed back snot and tears that had lost
their way. When he'd reached the point of calmness he'd set for
himself, he reached up and cupped Jim's face in his hands. "Come here."
Jim let himself be pulled back down, bending at the elbows,
straightening out his legs. They ended up pressed as close together as
layers in rock, following each contour, but by degrees Jim slid to the
side, wanting a more equal footing.
"I lost it back there," Blair told him, as if Jim hadn't been around to
see that for himself. "I guess I should say I'm sorry."
"You never say you're sorry," Jim said with some truth. Blair tried to
sometimes, but in the long loops of his sentences (the two simple words
were never enough) justifications and blame shifting were juggled so
deftly that often it was Jim who ended up apologizing. "There's no
need. This is hard on us both."
"Hard…" Blair said, switching to seduction and a sultry purr with an
abruptness that left Jim blinking. "Yeah, I can feel how hard it is."
Jim gasped, his body shaken with desire from nothing more than the
promise implicit in Blair's voice and the light brush of Blair's
knuckles, grazing over his belly and pausing just before the tender,
exposed head of Jim's cock, red and hot with blood and want.
"Do you want to suck me?" Blair asked and when Jim nodded dumbly, not
caring that the last thing he'd done that he remembered was to lick
Brackett's erection from balls to tip, Blair smiled. "Yeah, me, too, so
how about you hold that thought and I just do this --"
Confusion lasted for just long enough for Blair to twist around and
then Jim curved his body into the classic shape needed and took a deep,
preparatory breath. Sixty-nine. Not his favorite position -- too easy
to get distracted, and if he drifted off, skimping on his side of the
bargain because what was being done to him felt so fucking good, the
chances were that the other guy would do the same, and they'd both end
up shooting annoyed glances at each other.
Of course, there'd been times when it'd turned into a competition, each
striving to out-do the other….
With Blair, it became a jam session, a duet. Jim wasn't sure if it
would always be this way; if the next time they did this, on a bed,
with the sheets rumpled beneath them and the mattress creaking in time
with the gurgle of Blair's belly, up close and personal with Jim's ear,
it would be the usual awkward three-legged race to the finish line, but
he didn't care.
He sated himself on the smooth glide of Blair's cock between his lips,
completing him, as if his mouth were empty and hollow for one reason
only, and found that he could still appreciate every loving, inventive
attention from Blair. More than anything, it proved that this place
wasn't real, but Blair's teeth were biting with exquisite care at Jim's
shaft and the time for philosophical, metaphysical explorations of his
condition sure as hell wasn't now.
Blair was talking to him, not in words but in breathy gasps around what
filled his mouth, and the clutch and caress of his hands as they cupped
Jim's balls or clawed demandingly at Jim's ass, leaving stinging trails
that smarted and inflamed something that was already burning hot.
Jim, free of watchful eyes staring down at him, in an unfamiliar, if
not unknown position, went to town. He appreciated more of Blair's body
than this jutting thrust of flesh and the heavy, rolling pouch beneath
it, but right then they were his focus. He worshipped them with his
mouth, fervently adoring, longing to please. He let his senses guide
him toward his goal of getting Blair to pause, just for a moment, and
make that 'ahh' sound, the one that always made Jim's gut clench with
satisfaction and pride, a guttural, ecstatic sound, unstoppable,
He got it with a swirling lick of his tongue and a nudge, no more, at
Blair's hole, the tip of his finger pressed against the furled iris,
entering just enough to send shock waves of arousal through Blair,
electric, vivid as a flash of lightning. Deeper could be good too, but
right here at the entrance, oh, that could feel intense. Jim had
brought himself off that way often when there was no lube around (spit
only took you so far).
Blair gave it up, that sound, the spurting gush of come, the wild
jerking of his body as he came, and Jim waited him out, swallowing,
lapping with careful gentleness at the slowly softening cock, his own
need banked down to embers, waiting, waiting.
Blair rested his forehead against Jim's leg, murmured something that
Jim didn't even try to decode because Blair's general state of mind --
blissful -- came over clearly, and then swooped down on Jim's neglected
cock, still damp with Blair's spit and took it deep into his mouth.
Jim grunted, and began to move, fucking that welcoming liquid heat and
soft curl of tongue, with ever-increasing urgency as his climax built.
God, it was hard to forget the habit of months and allow himself
release with the taste of come still acrid and strong in his throat,
but Blair wasn't giving him much choice in the matter. He felt it build
-- then he felt it implode, taking him with it, a whiteout of pleasure
close to pain because there were limits to everything and Blair always
knew how to push him past them.
When the world had steadied around him, Jim hauled a right-ways-up
Blair into his arms and fell asleep.
He dreamed of blue and rustling leaves, a jaguar's coughing growl and
the mournful howl of a wolf. Dreamed and woke to someone telling him to
do just that, but the face staring down into his wasn't Blair's, but
Brackett's and God, did Brackett look like shit. Hair that was lank and
too long, dark-circled eyes and bitten-raw lips.
Jim gazed up at him, wondering why he hadn't noticed the slow
disintegration of a man he saw every day, knew intimately. Maybe that
was why. Too close to see the wood for the trees…but he was seeing it
Brackett smiled with rusted-closed lips and nodded as if Jim had
spoken. Jim closed his eyes and slept again.
With a week to go before Jim's parole hearing, Blair was sleeping
fitfully and eating poorly. His work would have suffered if it hadn't
been so easy as to be done automatically. He worked the cash register,
looked up books for customers who regarded Google with deep suspicion,
and fetched Kate coffee, all without thinking about anything but Jim's
chances of an early release.
He wanted to fast-forward to a happy ending, but his time inside had
disabused him of the notion that they existed. Oh, sure, Jim had saved
him from King, but part of Blair still chafed against the idea of his
life being arranged around Jim's abilities and always would.
"They're your abilities, too," Jim had pointed out one night in the
recreation room, a chess board between them. "You're part of this.
We're a team. You're not --"
"Robin to your Batman?"
Jim had muttered something about latex costumes and pointy ears not
suiting him, then grinned, the smile that promised payback later in the
form of Jim taking an excruciatingly long time to make Blair come.
Blair didn't mind that, but he remained unconvinced. There was only one
shining hero and one loyal sidekick. The myths didn't work any other
way. He'd stopped holding back and taken Jim to checkmate in three
moves just to show what he thought about that.
"I'm looking forward to meeting this Jim of yours," Kate said
Blair had soon discovered that he'd been hired to further Kate's
ambitions. She wanted to write a book and the customers were a
distraction -- or so she said. If they were, it didn't explain why her
laptop was here, at the store, not at home. Blair didn't think she'd
make it to the shelves of her own store any time soon, but he hadn't
been allowed to read any of the words she'd written so that was based
purely on her inability to stay focused for long.
"It's a classic, Golden Age mystery," she'd told him. "I wanted
to see if I could come up with something Christie and all the rest of
them missed in the way of ideas."
"How's that going?"
Kate pursed her lips. "Bunch of selfish plot hogs, if you ask
He'd stopped asking questions after that.
"Jim?" Blair scratched at his nose. He couldn't see any scenario in
which Kate and Jim would ever meet. When Jim walked out of the prison,
soon or a year down the line, he'd be doing it with a target on his
back. Blair's job would end that day; they'd be running. Jack knew
that, but it didn't look as if he'd shared that information with Kate.
A man who could keep secrets was a good friend to have. Though Kate
qualified, too; she'd seen Blair limp into work the day after his
beating and accepted his and then Jack's assurances that Blair wasn't
in trouble and didn't need help with a minimum of fuss. "He's just a
guy, you know?"
Kate smiled. "Sure he is."
"You didn't tell me."
Jim glanced up from the book he was reading. He'd been staring at the
pages, turning them at intervals, but his mind wasn't on the printed
words. He was practicing replies to the questions the parole board
would ask, bracing himself for the coldly inimical glare of Norman
Ventriss, hatred, implacable and relentless, radiating from him.
"Tell you what?"
"Sandburg. He got beaten up. Threatened. You got
Jim set the book down on his bunk and stood. "How did you know about
that?" he asked genuinely curious and oddly wary, as if Brackett's
interest was a threat when really it was just puzzling.
Brackett licked his lips. He'd cleaned up some, probably under orders
from Banks to shape up or ship out, and he hadn't touched Jim since
Jim's trip to the jungle. The doctor had slapped a label on the
incident that Jim hadn't bothered to argue with -- stress, body coping,
fugue state, allergic reaction to lime Jell-O, whatever -- and Jim had
been placed on lighter duties for a few days then tossed back into the
mix when he showed no signs of drooling or talking in tongues.
"I know people. I hear things, okay."
Jim stared at him, putting the pieces together. "You've been watching
him. Keeping tabs on him."
Brackett didn't bother to deny it. "Yeah. So? And like I said, I know
people. You're not going to make it a week out there." He repeated it
wonderingly. "Not a week. I should do you a favor and fuck up this
hearing for you --"
Jim was on him before he'd finished speaking, not touching Brackett,
even in the depth of his panic, but looming close enough that
Brackett's back hit the wall of the cell as he gave way, his eyes going
wide, imploring. "Do that and it's all over. Everything we do. Because
I'm not gonna make another year in here so I've got fuck all to lose by
beating the crap out of you."
"Why does he matter so much?" Brackett whispered,
his voice shaking. "If you -- if you love him -- well, fine. Everyone
in here's got someone they miss, but they can wait. Why can't you?"
"It's different," Jim said, knowing that he was just setting himself up
for more questions. "And back the hell off Sandburg. You and your paid
He really didn't need it rubbed in that Brackett had a life, could walk
out of here after his shift and just…go. Anywhere. If 'anywhere'
included Tahiti or Tibet, Jim didn't give a fuck; if it meant standing
on Prospect staring up at Kelso's loft, he had major problems with it.
"I'm watching out for him," Brackett said. "You
"Why are you?" Jim said. "You don't even like him."
Something flickered in Brackett's eyes and Jim felt a pang of insulted
hurt, followed by stark disbelief at how far he'd fallen that he didn't
want Brackett fixated on anyone but him. He wanted to think that he was
trying to protect Blair, but he knew that the roots of this particular
weed went deeper than that. Brackett had tried to get Blair included in
his sessions with Jim at the start and finally stopped asking when Jim
had shut down on him, giving him a slack, bored mouth to fuck and
distant, indifferent eyes. Not asking wasn't the same as not wanting.
"You sick fuck," Jim said, not troubling to hide his outrage.
"That time with both of you," Brackett said. "It's never -- that was so
Jim screwed his eyes closed tightly enough to see stars, red against
the blackness and then opened them to stare directly at Brackett. "You
need to leave. Before I lose it. And if I do, if I screw up this
hearing, I'm gonna make it count. They can't get guards in here fast
enough to save you."
"You wouldn't do that."
"No?" Jim inquired pleasantly, with a thin smile. "Sure about that?"
"You want him more than you want to hurt me," Brackett said.
True enough. Jim didn't think that Brackett would ever forgive him for
Jim was led into the hearing room through a different door than the one
used by the other interested parties. Like Norman Ventriss. It fostered
the illusion of what was about to happen being a fair fight, trial by
combat, but he knew that it was nothing of the sort. More like a bear
baiting, with himself tied down, unable to fight back.
He sat quietly in his chair, noting Brackett's presence as one of the
two guards on duty without surprise. Brackett would have made sure that
he was here, no matter how many favors he had to call in.
Jim had no lawyer present. The one from his trial had been useless, not
that Jim had been much help, and today Warden Banks would be speaking
for him. This wasn't a trial, after all. This was about mercy, not
Looking at Ventriss' expression, Jim couldn't see any of the former and
as far as Ventriss was concerned, the latter had been only partially
served when Jim was sentenced.
He wondered if it would occur to Ventriss to push for Jim's release. If
Ventriss wanted Jim dead, keeping him in prison delayed the
accomplishment of that goal. Oh, sure, hits could be arranged inside,
though Jim was less vulnerable than most given his senses and
Brackett's double-edged protection, but Ventriss would want him to
taste freedom first, if only for an hour, just to make snatching it
away hurt more.
Jim sat through the mumbled jumble of recited facts and opinions,
speaking when spoken to and trying to make his answers polite,
responsive, and genuine. It wasn't easy when what he really wanted to
do was scream at them to let him out so that he could be with Blair.
Truth wasn't wanted here, just the pretence of repentance. The prisons
were full and it cost money to keep him inside. If they could release
him without guilt, they'd do it.
If Ventriss would let them.
As expected, just when the three people on the panel -- a woman and two
men, all of whom looked bored but conscientious -- seemed likely to
agree to Bank's quiet but forceful recommendation for Jim's early
release, Ventriss said his piece.
It was eloquent, emotional, viciously so. Jim watched Ventriss deliver
it out of the corner of his eye, unwilling to engage the man and
provoke him further. Phrases like 'a young life cut tragically short'
and 'bloodthirsty, trigger-happy gun for hire' didn't appear; Ventriss
avoided the worn clichés and did it well enough to make Jim
think cynically that he'd gotten someone to write it for him and been
coached in how to deliver it.
"You're thinking of releasing this man," Ventriss said as he wound up.
"He's no risk to my son. Brad's past hurting now. I just wonder what
happens the next time Ellison's in a position to kill; will he remember
how easy it was to pull that trigger and how little time he spent in
here? I wonder. Please give it some thought. I don't want anyone else
to go through what I have these last few years." He sank back in his
chair, covering his eyes with his hand.
Jim watched him thoughtfully, giving him a more thorough observation
now that nothing he did would affect what Ventriss had to say. Ventriss
really did have tears in his eyes. Jim could smell them, saline and
bitter. He could also smell something less easy to describe; a sense of
wrongness. Frowning, he focused on Ventriss not as a foe but a subject.
Ventriss was sweating more than the temperature dictated, his face
pasty, gray. His heart rate was fast, jerky, as if he'd been running,
not talking. Stress could affect the body like a drug, but Jim felt
anxious without knowing why. Stupid, really. Let Ventriss work himself
up; why the hell should he care about the one who'd given the orders to
Banks rose to his feet. "Mr. Ventriss, you will always have my sympathy
for your loss. It's one I share. My young son died in a terrorist
attack and I'll carry that loss to my grave."
Ventriss nodded without giving the impression that he gave a shit about
Banks' bereavement, but there was a sympathetic murmur from the panel
that could have been directed at both of them.
"Having said that," Banks continued, his face set in stern lines, a
teacher with an unruly pupil, "if your son had lived, he'd be in
Ellison's seat right now and your place would be taken by the wife of
the guard he shot in the process of trying to steal millions from his
own father. I wonder if you'd be supporting her cause in the interest
of keeping the people of our city safe from a reckless, wanton killer?
How much of your rhetoric is based in guilt about your failings as a
"Don't you dare," Ventriss shouted, surging to his feet as the panel
exchanged surprised, slightly shocked glances at Banks' frankness.
"Don't say he deserved it -- don't you dare -- He was my son, my
Jim's head was filled with the gallop and thunder of Ventriss' heart as
it raced toward -- oh God, toward the finish line. He left his chair
and headed for Ventriss, ignoring the barked-out warning from Banks and
the approach of the two guards. Ventriss stared at him, a puzzled,
inward look replacing the contorted fury of a moment earlier, and
collapsed to the floor.
"He's having a heart attack," Jim said as Banks grabbed him by the
shoulders. He shrugged free and met Banks' eyes, willing him to listen,
to trust. "Let me go -- I know what to do." He dropped to his knees by
Ventriss' side and reached for the nearest chair, turning it onto its
side and raising Ventriss' legs up to rest on it.
"Call for the doctor," Banks said, whirling around to Brackett, who was
nearest. "Hurry, for God's sake."
Brackett nodded, and headed for the phone on the wall by the door.
Jim concentrated on performing CPR, long-ago training as a medic
kicking in. Ventriss was making garbled, choking sounds now that Jim
didn't try to interpret. He didn't think that imminent death would stop
the man from being an asshole, so Ventriss was most likely telling him
that he'd sooner die than have Jim save him.
Jim could give him that wish. Even as he worked on Ventriss, the
temptation was there. Let him die. Get rid of the threat to himself and
Blair, get payback and resolution in one.
He couldn't do it. Pity didn't keep him laboring to force air and life
back into a failing body but something did. He was a sentinel; he could
taste the panic and fear from Ventriss and there was nothing in him
that wanted to savor that taste. He shared his breath with a man who'd
made his intention to kill Jim plain and he was giving everything he
had when Ventriss died.
Through the minutes that followed, as he was dragged off Ventriss by
the doctor and led to a chair in the corner, guarded by Brackett whose
hands were rough and shaking as they cuffed Jim's wrists, the only
sound that reached Jim was the echo of the silence that followed the
final beat of Ventriss' heart.
"I was worried," Banks admitted to Jim in his office the day after. The
hearing had been abandoned in light of events and Jim had been led back
to his cell, not by Brackett, but the other guard who'd been moved to
an unwanted volubility by Ventriss's death. Jim had closed his ears the
best he could and tried not to think about the ways this could screw
"It could've swung either way," Banks went on. "Releasing you might
have seemed like an insult to Ventriss' memory, but bottom line, the
board wasn't there to be nice to him; they were there to do their job
and you showed you weren't a risk in just about the most dramatic way
Jim felt obscurely as if an apology were in order. "I didn't plan it
"How could you? You didn't know he was under orders not to get excited
and waiting for bypass surgery -- but he did, and that room was the
last place he should've been." Banks shook his head, his expression
somber. "It's sad to see how a man can let an obsession drive him."
It was Brackett's face, not Ventriss', that came to mind, but Jim just
"Anyway, they reconvened in private this morning and made their
decision to release you." Banks nodded at the door. "Rhonda's got some
paperwork for you and I don't see why we can't expedite this and get
you out of here tomorrow morning around ten. You'll get the usual phone
call to arrange transport and I'll start the ball rolling on assigning
you a parole officer."
Jim locked his hands together to stop them from shaking. Tomorrow? He'd
be with Blair tomorrow? He watched his fingers twist, his knuckles pale
where the skin was stretched taut, then glanced up to meet Banks' rare
smile, his body relaxing in a rush of released tension. "Thank you,
"Just doing my job, Ellison," Banks said. "Now get out of here and let
Saying good bye to Brackett wasn't on Jim's to-do list. Mindful of the
resentment an early release could stir up, he wasn't saying a fond
farewell to anyone else either, and he was edgy as hell, anticipating
anything from the board changing their mind to a knife slid into his
If Brackett took him aside, backed up by some of the guards, and had
one final session with him, Jim wasn't sure where it would end but none
of the paths his mind followed took him to a place with sunshine and
rainbows. He made sure that he stayed in a crowd, surrounded by people
he trusted to a certain extent, and kept his head down.
He'd told Blair what had happened in a brief call, angling his body
away from Rhonda's sympathetic smile. She'd offered the use of her
phone, but privacy wasn't hers to give. Blair had drawn in a deep
breath and Jim had braced himself, waiting for a stream of joyous
babble, interspersed with acid asides about Ventriss -- Blair held
grudges -- but it hadn't come.
"That's good, Jim," Blair had said finally, his voice tight with
emotion. "That's -- God, I can't believe it. Not until I see you."
"Don't come here," Jim said. He didn't want them to meet as free men
for the first time with the prison buildings behind them and Blair
didn't own a car so the journey back to Cascade would all be in public.
Jim didn't want public. He wanted Blair and a bed. Maybe they could go
to a hotel or something. Kelso seemed like a nice guy, but Jim didn't
want an audience for what he planned to do with Blair and he was pretty
sure that Kelso would agree. "I'll see you at Jack's place and we'll
take it from there, okay? Are you working tomorrow?"
"Not anymore," Blair said, which took care of that.
In the end, though, when Brackett came to his cell that night, Jim
didn't do more than sigh and get out of bed.
"I don't think you could convince Banks that I'm stupid enough to get
into a fight hours before my release."
"I convinced you to fuck me," Brackett said. He'd regained the air of
arrogant confidence that Jim had never believed in, but which was
reasonably convincing even so. "But, yeah, it might be a stretch. Don’t
worry, I'm not here looking for a farewell fuck. That's done. It's
Jim waited. There had to be more to it than that.
"And you won't see me on the outside," Brackett said, piling good news
on top of better and making Jim hair-trigger wary. "I put in for a
transfer to a prison in Seattle a while back. I start there next month."
"Keep in touch," Jim said insincerely and flashed Brackett an empty
smile. He would've put money on the transfer request being recent.
Anger flashed bright in Brackett's eyes and his mouth tightened. What,
had he expected Jim to beg him to stick around so that they could meet
up for a beer, shoot some pool?
"I never expected you to agree to our little arrangement, you know,"
Brackett said smoothly, closing the gap between them. His forehead
creased in mock bewilderment. "I was in it for the sex and I got a kick
out of making you do something you hated -- see, I can be honest -- but
you…why were you doing it, Jim?"
Jim kept his breathing even and unhurried. Not a knife or a punch, not
a gang rape. This conversation would end soon and Brackett would walk
away. He just had to hold it together for a few more minutes.
"I think we both know why," Bracket said into the silence. "You needed
me as much as I needed what you gave me. See the difference there, Jim?
Anyone would have worked for me. I can find men like you in a dozen
bars. But you needed me. You can't control Sandburg,
no one can. That one goes his own way. He's a survivor. You though…you
need people to look after and you picked me to be your bird with a
broken wing. I owe you for that. I owe you big time."
From the way he said it, it sounded like what he owed Jim was pain and
blood, not a thank you, but Jim curbed his need to step back, away, and
held his ground.
Brackett's breath was warm with coffee, sweet with sugar, his lips
shiny from the grease of a donut. Jim focused on the tiny smudge of
frosting in the corner of Brackett's mouth, mapping its shape, the
"No," Brackett said, his voice a prod as painful as a jab from his
baton would've been. "You don't get to do that. You stay here, Jim.
With me. And I'm not broken and you didn't fix me. I'm a sadistic
bastard with a kink and yeah, sometimes I hate that about myself, but
mostly it's what keeps me going. I'm never going to change. You,
though, you're helpless on your own, you know that? Without Sandburg,
without me, you just switch off. You don't exist. You need us."
It could have hurt. Parts of it even made sense, looked at from
Brackett's limited point of view, but Jim shook his head, maintaining
" I need him," he said. "You were just a hobby. It
beat doing jigsaws with most of the pieces missing."
It was a cheap shot and Jim felt some shame at going for the easy gibe
because Brackett had been honest with him, but he'd never made the
mistake of thinking that Brackett was tame and he wasn't going to do it
"You should turn pro," Brackett said snidely and smiled. "Hey, look at
me giving out career advice. Or does that make me your pimp?"
"Are we done here?" Jim asked, tired of the back and forth. A fist in
his gut would've been a cleaner ending. This was just painful. The need
pouring off Brackett was like heat, invisible but tangible.
Brackett hesitated, his gaze searching Jim's face for some softening,
some acknowledgement of the handful of moments when what Jim had given
to him had been unforced.
Jim held his face expressionless, still. He had to see Blair tomorrow
and he had enough to confess as it was.
Brackett drew in a sharp breath as if he'd been struck, his lips
pinched shut. He left without a word and Jim followed him with his
senses as Brackett walked away, listening to the uneven beat of
Brackett's shoes on the floor, waiting for them to stop at another
cell, for Brackett to choose a replacement for him, someone to take
care of the hard-on Brackett hadn't tried to hide.
He wasn't sure why he was glad that Brackett just rejoined the guard on
duty at the end of the corridor and ate another donut, this one with
sprinkles that crunched and gritted as Brackett chewed.
"I owe you," Blair said fervently. "Man, I owe you so much."
Jack laughed. "I'm not moving in with Kate to make you happy, Blair.
It's the right time for us to do it and though I'll miss the view,
living at street level is going to make my life easier."
"I know, but --"
"And I'm not leaving immediately, you understand," Jack said. "You and
Jim can, uh, celebrate -- I'll make myself scarce until tomorrow
afternoon, but I still live here. Kate's going to need to make some
changes to accommodate my needs and you know what it's like getting
contractors in. I could still be here in six weeks time."
"Jack, you don't have to do this," Blair said, guilt overriding his
desire to leap up and punch the air, screaming 'Yes!'. "Jim and I can
find a place of our own without kicking you out. Forget all that crap
about destiny; your name's on the rental agreement."
Jack looked around the loft, flooded with early morning sunshine, no
regret showing on his face. "Not for much longer. I want to do this,
Blair. I like the loft, but I haven't lived here long enough to mind
moving out and I'd rather look at Kate over the breakfast table than
you. No offence."
"None taken. God, Jim's going to love you for this," Blair said.
Jack laughed. "Sorry to break his heart but I'm spoken for."
"No, seriously, you don't know what he's like if he thinks he owes you
something. Friend for life." Blair brightened. "Maybe we can do the
work at Kate's place for you, get things moving."
"No ulterior motive, of course?" Jack said drily. "That's not
necessary. I won't say no if you want to help me box up my books,
though; that's one job I'm not looking forward to."
"Anything," Blair said and snuck a look at his watch, trying to make
the movement casual.
"I'm going, I'm gone," Jack said, rolling his eyes as he moved toward
the door. He glanced back. "I almost forgot. Kate says you can take
tomorrow off as well as today, and then she wants you back behind the
"I'll be there," Blair promised, already planning on buying Kate the
biggest muffin in the coffee shop by way of thanks for the extra time
off. He could feel Jim getting closer, like a storm coming, a summer
storm, all warm heavy rain, soaking into thirsty soil.
Jack left, still smiling, an unlikely looking Cupid, and Blair left the
door ajar and went to the balcony to stare down at the busy street. He
caught sight of Jim in a single fleeting glance before the angle took
Jim out of sight again and had to grip the railing hard because his
legs felt as if they'd turned to jelly. Jim had been moving
purposefully, a man on a mission. As the target, Blair felt that he was
entitled to have his heart pound and his hands slippery.
He couldn't move from the balcony. He stood, breathing in the warm,
dusty air and let himself follow Jim's steps into the building and up
the stairs, almost convincing himself that he could hear each footstep.
When the door was pushed open, he turned and smiled and watched Jim's
face lighten as Jim smiled back at him.
"You remembered the way?"
Jim dropped a backpack by the door and walked over to Blair, his gaze
never leaving Blair's face. He paused, just out of reach, which was the
wrong place to stop in Blair's opinion. "I always know where you are."
"I'm right here," Blair said, with emphasis and
spread his arms. "So come and get me."
Jim smiled at that, a small twitch of his mouth. "Are we going to be
interrupted any time soon?"
Blair shook his head, frustration building as he waited for their first
hug but needing Jim to make the first move. "Just us until tomorrow
afternoon. We've got the place to ourselves."
As if that assurance was all that he'd been waiting for, Jim sighed and
finally moved closer, gathering Blair to him in a hug that left Blair
feeling like a drop of water meeting another drop. Total merge time.
"I'm not feeling very controlled right now," Jim whispered against the
side of Blair's head. "I've been hard for hours and the closer I got to
you, the more I wanted to run, but I held it together and now I'm out
"Jesus, Jim," Blair said and started to tug at Jim's jacket. "Lose
this, lose everything you're wearing and let me show you just how much
control I've got right now. We're talking negative
"Enough to let us get upstairs? I've been dreaming about you spread out
on my bed."
Blair tossed Jim's jacket aside and started in on the T-shirt Jim wore.
With a forethought he felt smugly proud about, he'd dressed in
sweatpants and a T-shirt and nothing else. If Jack had noticed the lack
of underwear, he hadn't commented. "Your bed? Possession is
nine-tenths. I've been sleeping in it for months and let me tell you
about some of the ways I've been picturing you."
"Show me," Jim said and stepped back to get out of the rest of his
clothes by himself.
Blair closed his eyes to avoid the temptation to tackle Jim to the
floor and do just that. He was perfectly happy to postpone the
amenities until after they'd taken the edge off the lust five months
apart had created, but they'd always had to work around the limits of a
bunk bed in a cell and it had been like giving Van Gogh a single red
crayon to work with. Keeping them closed, he stripped in a matter of
seconds and when he opened them Jim was naked and already walking to
the stairs, his tight butt holding Blair's gaze until he realized that
the distance between them was increasing. With a yelp of protest, he
took off after Jim, reaching the top of the stairs a moment behind Jim.
"I had the bed over there," Jim said, gesturing at the railings.
"Pillow kept falling through," Blair said briefly. "Put the goddamn bed
where you want afterwards but right now --"
"Yeah," Jim said and turned to kiss him, his mouth wet and hungry, a
messy, complicated kiss that Blair answered with his tongue, taking
possession of Jim's mouth, their bodies straining to get closer as they
stumbled toward the bed, falling onto it without losing their hold on
each other though prudence broke the kiss.
Blair put his hand up to his face. "I'm crying," he said incredulously
and felt fresh tears well up and spill, coming not from sorrow but a
deep, intense relief. "God, Jim, I'm -- shit, I'm losing it. You're
here." He punched the rock-solid arm nearest to him and grinned when
Jim raised an inquiring eyebrow. "You're really here."
A surprisingly tender look in his eyes, Jim brushed at the tears on
Blair's face, not doing much to dry them, but Blair appreciated the
gesture. "I'm having trouble believing it, too." Jim glanced around the
room. "Never thought I'd ever see this place again. It looks bigger."
"Everywhere does," Blair said, remembering his own experiences after he
was released. He sighed and turned to grab a handful of tissues from
the box on the night table. When he'd dried his face and blown his
nose, he felt better.
"Am I rushing you?" Jim asked, feathering a touch across Blair's
erection as if to reassure himself that Blair was still in the game.
Blair could have told Jim that that part of him most definitely was. He
hadn't jerked off since the night before Jim's parole hearing, half
offering up his sexual frustration to whichever god wanted it in a bow
to superstition, half just wanting to feel his excitement mount so that
when Jim arrived they could both benefit from the meltdown.
Emotionally, though, that first rush of lust had given way to something
more complex, less pure.
"No," Blair said and heard the uncertainty in his voice. He shook his
head. "Jim, we can get off. It wouldn't take much. Maybe we should,
just to take the edge off, but I don't have to walk your dreams to know
there's something you're not happy about." He put his hand on Jim's
chest, the smooth skin warm against his palm, and spread his fingers
wide. "Something you want to tell me."
Jim tried to close down his expression but he didn't stand a chance of
hiding anything today. Not with Blair studying him, drinking in every
twitch, hungry, avid for Jim in a way that would have scared him if he
didn't know that Jim felt the same way about him. Loving someone --
needing someone -- this much was a leap of faith
that Blair had never taken for anyone but this man glowering down at
him like a toddler deprived of a toy.
Jim's toy. He'd been called worse.
"Suppose I tell you after we fuck?" Jim suggested with an edge to his
Blair shrugged, the sheets shifting under him. "Go ahead. Nail my ass,
take my mouth…or roll over and get your ass in the air if that's what
you've been missing."
Jim eyed him suspiciously and then sighed. "Forget it. I'm waited this
long, I guess I can wait another few minutes." He rolled to his back,
staring up at the ceiling, his dick half-wilted, which was a sin and a
shame. Blair stared at it longingly. Right there where he could curve
his hand around it, or get its taste deep in his throat. Right there
waiting to be slicked up and slid in. Blair felt the muscles in his ass
tighten and relax, a reflex rehearsal.
"Maybe we can talk later," he said, his voice rough and shaky. Oh, he
was weak. No shaman worth his salt would ignore the shadowy ghost
hovering over the bed and get down to the mind-blowing sex.
"Will you please make up your fucking mind?" Jim said sounding
dangerous, his jaw a tight clench of annoyance.
Blair sat up, cross-legged beside Jim, and leaned over to drop a kiss
on sulky lips that didn't respond until he made the kiss more emphatic.
"Okay. Tell me what's holding you back."
"You're the one with doubts," Blair countered. "You walked in and tried
to distract me with sex -- great plan, just about guaranteed to succeed
-- but we're not just two men with an itch to scratch. Hell, Jim,
you're sitting on your own bed, in your old place and I was saving this
up to tell you, but Jack's moving in with Kate and letting us take over
the lease. And if you wanted more proof that Cascade's ecstatic about
having its sentinel back, the rent hasn't gone up a fucking cent."
Jim absorbed that with a frown etched between his eyebrows. "He's
"In a month or so. Kate's place is going to need some renovations
first, but he said you're welcome to stay here in the mean time as long
as we don't, uh..."
"Do what we're doing now with him awake and downstairs?" Jim looked
pleased but bemused. "How come he's being so nice?"
"He likes me," Blair said simply. "He thinks I had a raw deal and
though it's not his field, he's really interested in what you can do.
So am I and now that I can do something with you, I'm going to go to
"I don't like the sound of that."
"When I was planning my expedition to find a sentinel, I had all these
ideas for testing his abilities," Blair said reminiscently. "Now that
we're, well, connected, some of them won't work, but there's nothing
that says I can't adapt them and I will."
"Suppose I don't want to be tested?"
"Suppose I tell you that your shaman thinks it's essential?"
Jim closed his eyes. "It's Brackett."
The change of topic was so abrupt that Blair was left floundering. He'd
allowed himself to get as distracted by the idea of testing Jim's
abilities as he had been earlier by Jim's naked, enticing ass.
"What I want to talk about," Jim continued. "Well, I don't want to, but
if there's one thing three years in a cell with you got over loud and
clear, it was that you never fucking stop nagging until you get what
"That's not entirely --" Blair paused. "I don't nag," he said with
dignity. "I just don't give up until I win."
Jim rolled to his stomach , his head on the pillow, and reached out for
Blair's hand, holding it in his. "You were always gonna want to know
"I wouldn't -- not if you didn't want to talk --" Blair faltered. Jim
was right. Jealousy, suspicion, the urge to go to where Brackett lived
and get every fucking detail out of him -- Blair had felt them all.
Knowing that Brackett was using Jim had hurt. Thinking that at least
Jim was getting some had been a shamed, dirty little thought around
three in the morning at least once a week.
"You want to know," Jim said tiredly. "What we did, how it made feel,
if I enjoyed it."
"Jim, please. Don't. "
"No. We talk about it now or it'll fester. I learned that coming back
from missions where everything got fucked to hell and back. Report
right away and get it off your mind." Jim went to his side and tugged
Blair's hand. "Lie down. Let me hold you. It's easier that way."
The desolation in Jim's voice was chilling; Blair went into the loose
hug seeking reassurance as much as giving it.
"I blew him. Often. Never let him do it to me, though he wanted to. I
even fucked him, though I didn't come if I could help it.
Sometimes…sometimes I couldn't. He hated it when I didn't come, but it
wasn't like he could make me, though in the beginning he tried once or
"God, Jim." Blair could see Brackett's face, good-looking if the
coldness in his eyes was overlooked, twisted with temper and
frustration. He could only imagine how Brackett might have forced the
"It was this constant fight for control. It wasn't easy -- you know it
wasn't easy." Jim kissed Blair's shoulder, nuzzling it. "I want to kiss
you more than I want to fuck you, because that's something I never did
with him. I'm seeing myself with my mouth on you realizing that I'm
blowing you the way he liked it, not the way you do
and it feels like I'll never scrub the memories away."
"I felt like that after you took me from King," Blair said slowly.
"He'd trained me too well. Sometimes, you'd say something or you'd
touch me a certain way and I'd feel it all surging back and I'd -- God,
Jim, sometimes I'd get hard, just because if I hadn't, he'd have hurt
me, and I didn't want to. I hated you then for reminding me and I hated
myself for not being able to shake off what he'd done."
"God, we're both so fucked-up," Jim said, his voice breaking on what
might have been planned as a chuckle.
Blair ran his hand down Jim's back in slow, soothing sweeps.
"Better this way," he said. "It could've been just me or just you who
"How is it better?" Jim said.
Blair felt the tattoo on his ass as clearly as if it were a fresh
brand, remembering how much it'd hurt when it was inked into his flesh
by King. Maybe he'd leave it there as a reminder of how much he'd
suffered to get to this point in his life. Maybe not.
"Because when we say we know how it feels, we do, no bullshit," he
said. "Because it makes us equal. I don't want pity and we can't afford
therapy; we're all we've got."
He found Jim's mouth and kissed him, long and sweet and slow. If this
was all that Jim wanted, that was fine. And if that was all that Jim
wanted to tell him about the last few months, well that was fine, too.
They had time to kiss, time to heal.
They had all the time in the world.
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