Testament

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 another.

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 destiny?

Wait…

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 took him?

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 disciplined.

"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 far away.

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 not…here.

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 you."

"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 disobedience.

"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 cell."

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 gone."

"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 right."

"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 on."

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 know that?"

"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 carefully neutral.

"Warden?"

"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 interested."

"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."

"No."

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 being nice."

"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 it?"

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 door."

"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 conjured.

"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 here?"

"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 start."

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 trust you."

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 problem."

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 me."

"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 appalling."

"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 stay?"

"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 remember you."

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 a trap.

*****


"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 skinny dog.

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 fire.

"No, sir," he said, dutifully going along because he really didn't have a choice.

"You calling me a liar?" Eagles demanded, not missing a beat in the worn-out dialog.

"No, sir."

"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 obediently.

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 it.

"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 his senses.

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 literal."

"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 know that?"

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 unflinchingly.

Blair would be on Brackett's side.

Brackett's eyes went cold. "Get your ass to the kitchen, Ellison. Double shift."

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.

"Yes, sir."

Jim took some satisfaction in the fact that Brackett was shivering hard as they walked across the yard, rain streaming over its surface in small rivulets.

*****


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 worth it.

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 thoughtful stare.

"It's not much money, you know."

"I don't need much. Just a job."

"Why here?"

"I love books," Blair said. "I treat them well, I know how to handle them --"

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, not Blair.

"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 the undercurrents.

"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. That's it."

"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 cousin."

"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 Itza."

"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. "Nice view."

"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.

"Don't."

"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."

"Jim?"

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 connected."

"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."

"I'll try."

"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 read it."

"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 his tribe."

"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. "Thanks."

"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 there.

Jack closed the fridge, and passed over some ripe cheese and some striped, heirloom tomatoes, their spicy smell filling the space between them.

"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 behaved."

"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 problem."

"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 for it?"

"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 here."

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 misguided kid."

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 noise.

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. Just."

"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 back."

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 goddamned good.

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, oil-smooth.

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.

Which meant…

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 anticipation.

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 eyes.

"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 side.

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 choppy.

"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 much.

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 here?"

"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, boy."

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 deliver.

"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 little boy."

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 magnaminous.

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 sick?"

"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 him."

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 pull."

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 pain.

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 clue?"

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 go.

"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, fag?"

"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, message delivered.

(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 --)

*****


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 spitting curses.

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 freak."

"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 victim here."

"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 vanish."

"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 can do."

"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 that?"

"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 see him."

"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 nudge…

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 loving nips.

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. "No tattoo?"

"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 deeply content.

"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 other?"

"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 a choice."

"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 the stones.

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 surrender.

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, unforced.

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 now.

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 unexpectedly.

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 me."

"Ah."

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 threatened."

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 stalkers."

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 can't."

"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 good --"

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 that.

*****


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 justice.

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 hurt Blair?

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 father, sir?"

"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 son --"

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 everything up.

"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 possible."

Jim felt obscurely as if an apology were in order. "I didn't plan it that way."

"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 nodded.

"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, sir."

"Just doing my job, Ellison," Banks said. "Now get out of here and let me work."

*****


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 stomach.

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 over."

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 exact --

"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 his calm.

" 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 now.

"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 counter."

"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 of patience."

"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 numbers."

"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 voice.

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."

"Besides you?"

"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 moving out?"

"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 town."

"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 you want."

"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 about him."

"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 twice."

"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 issue

"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 had issues."

"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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