Chapter 13


The alarm woke them at four in the morning. Blair groaned in sleepy protest as Jim crawled out of bed, then subsided. Jim walked downstairs, poured a cup of hot coffee, and returned to the bedside, waving the cup under Blair's nose.

"Come on, Chief. Up and at 'em."

Blair's nose twitched; his eyes opened slowly.

"Coffee," he croaked.

"Sit up and you can have it," Jim promised. When Blair was more or less upright, he placed the mug in his Guide's hands and guided it up to his mouth. After a sip of the hot liquid Blair looked a little more alive.

"First shower?" the Guide muttered hopefully.

"Sure, and I'll make up a breakfast to eat on the run," Jim promised. "Go ahead."

Blair took his coffee and stumbled downstairs. Jim made the bed, threw the last of their necessities into the packs, and carried everything downstairs before starting breakfast. He had fried-egg-and-ham-on-toast sandwiches ready when Blair stepped out of the bathroom.

"Go ahead and eat if you want," Jim told him. "I'm going to grab a quick shower, then we'll hit the road."

"Don't forget, I'm taking care of your nipple," Blair said sternly, and Jim nodded.

Jim showered quickly, admitting to himself that his nipple was much less sore than he remembered his ear being the day after piercing, forceps and more sensitive area notwithstanding. He let Blair clean it and tape a new piece of gauze over it. They packed their supplies and equipment into the truck, and Jim let Blair drive while he ate his egg sandwich.

"Man, this must be true love," Blair chuckled as he drove the truck out of Cascade. "You letting me drive, I mean."

Jim grinned.

"Get used to it," he said. "You're my partner. That means sometimes you have to drive."

"Wow." Blair shook his head. "I can't get used to that."

"Well, I'll take over as soon as I finish eating," Jim said sternly. "You're should be sitting quietly on your cushion over here."

"I hear that," Blair said ruefully. "I can feel every pothole."

Jim stuffed the last of his sandwich into his mouth.

"Mmf uglmpf," he said.

"Huh?"

Jim swallowed.

"Pull over."

Blair sighed and obeyed.

"Man, Jim, don't go postal on me here, I didn't mean – "

"Maybe you didn't, but I do. Scoot over."

Jim took the driver's seat, waiting while Blair settled himself on the curved cushion that kept pressure off his tailbone.

"Better?"

"Yeah, yeah," Blair sighed with relief and embarrassment. "Man, what's next? One of those round inflatable hemorrhoid donuts for my chair at work?"

"Hey, there's an idea."

"Don't even think about it," Blair warned. He settled himself more comfortably, looked at Jim, and snickered. "You have egg on your face."

"With you, more often than not," Jim chuckled, wiping his face.

It was a two and a half hour drive from Cascade to Steven's cabin, and the last part was over rough gravel roads and, finally, rutted dirt tracks. By the end of the drive Blair was pale and thin-lipped, and though he didn't complain, he had his arms wrapped around his ribs. Jim realized guiltily that they hadn't brought his wrap, and his tailbone had to be pure agony after all the bumps. At last, however, the drive was over and the cabin came into view ahead of them. Blair sighed with relief.

"You go on in and lie down," Jim said sternly. "I'll get the stuff out of the truck."

"I can carry," Blair protested. "I mean, the light stuff."

"Fine, you can carry the keys and unlock the door. I'll get everything else."

Blair grumbled but Jim was adamant, and Blair's annoyance quickly gave way as they settled into the cabin. Jim hadn't seen it for years, and Blair had only heard about it, so they marveled together at the improvements Steven had made. The original cabin, set into the mountainside, had been small, a large living area with a huge stone fireplace, a kitchen and a tiny bathroom. Steven had added a second floor which was a single huge bedroom, with its own stone fireplace, and spacious bath; he'd also added the carport and the large deck at the back, taking advantage of the breathtaking view of the lake and the pines.

"Oh, man, this is so great," Blair said, awed. "Man, I wish I'd thought of this a couple of weeks ago. I could've been doing my recuperating here."

Jim snorted.

"Yeah, and driving over that bumpy road every time you had a doctor's appointment. I couldn't have worked from here, either – no phone line for a modem. But don't worry, Chief. I'll arrange for vacations here anytime you want."

Jim relented enough to let Blair stow his own clothes in the closet and dresser and help Jim put up the food. Blair gaped at the huge bed in the upstairs bedroom and the spacious tub.

"Wow, man, this is like a resort or something," he said. "Hey, I thought you liked showers. I didn't see a shower anywhere."

"That's because there isn't one," Jim sighed. "Steven's like you, a tub man. Doesn't matter." He laid his arm around Blair's shoulders and squeezed gently. "The idea of you in that big tub with me sounds better than a shower."

"Can we make a fire when we go to bed?" Blair begged.

"We pretty much have to," Jim chuckled. "There isn't any other heat here except a couple of space heaters stored in the lean-to, and warm as it is right now during the daytime, it gets damned cold at night. The water heater and the stove are electric, and there's no furnace. Steven never bothered because he doesn't come out here in the winter."

Blair grinned and leaned against Jim.

"Isn't that your job, to keep me warm?"

"You know, it just occurred to me," Jim grinned. "I don't know if those sleeping bags will zip together. And I don't think I could sleep now without my Blair body pillow."

"Well, geez, man, we'd better find that out right away," Blair said stoutly. "I mean, I've definitely got priorities here. And if those bags can't be combined, then we're hitting the next town for a truckload of blankets."

Fortunately the sleeping bags zipped together nicely, and Jim looked forward to a week of happy snuggling, if nothing else. Still, he remembered Gerard's advice and refused to view the week as a cram course in sexual recovery.

"How about we throw together some kind of lunch?" he suggested. "Then, unless you're tired out and need a nap, I could give you the grand tour of the property. Steven drew me up a trail map. These woods are so big, and it's been so many years since I've been here, even I could probably get lost. Which means no solo hikes, Chief. I mean it," Jim added sternly.

Blair laughed.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Laying out on the deck or the lake shore is more my speed right now. And I'm not in any hurry to wander off on my own." He ducked his head. "I'm just starting to get used to how good it feels not to be alone. Hey, how about I make lunch and you chop up some firewood? Then I can enjoy the view of all your muscles gleaming with sweat," Blair added, wiggling his eyebrows.

Jim laughed and agreed; there was a huge pile of firewood, but it did need to be split for the fireplace. He split the logs while Blair worked in the kitchen, and carried in a few armfuls to pile beside both the upstairs and downstairs fireplaces, stacking the rest in the back lean-to where, to his chagrin, he found a good stack already split and waiting. He sighed. Trust Steven to take "be prepared" even further than Jim Ellison would.

Blair had made a tasty pasta salad with chicken and Chinese vegetables, and they carried their food out onto the deck to enjoy the warm sun. Blair shed two layers of shirts, hiking boots and socks and lounged bare-chested and barefoot on the picnic bench, a vision of such beauty that Jim sighed.

"What's the matter?" Blair asked, opening one eye at the sigh.

"Nothing," Jim smiled. "Just admiring the view."

"Oh, yeah?" Blair raised an eyebrow, then jumped up from the bench and ran into the cabin. He returned with the digital camera. "Why don't you take my picture?"

They looked over the instructions and finally figured it out. Jim took the camera and Blair posed against the deck railing, against the background of the mountains and lake, the wind blowing his hair, the sun winking off his nipple ring.

"My god, you're so beautiful," Jim said reverently, snapping another picture.

"If you like that – " Blair said mischeivously. To Jim's amazement he started to unzip his jeans.

"Uh, Blair – " Jim began.

"It's okay," Blair grinned. "There's nobody around but us, right?"

"Uh – right," Jim said, a hot excitement growing in the pit of his belly. God, it was so good to see Blair like this, free and happy and uninhibited. He watched spellbound as Blair peeled off jeans and boxers.

"Oh my god," he croaked at the vision unveiled before him. Blair in the sun. Blair naked in the sun. Blair naked and hard in the sun.

"Well?" Blair said innocently. "Aren't you going to capture the moment?"

"Uh – " Jim hesitated. "You know we can't get this stuff developed, don't you?"

"There are places that do that kind of film," Blair corrected him. "In fact, I know somebody absolutely discreet, and you know him too. Peter."

"Peter who?" Jim said, wrinkling his forehead.

"Peter in our support group," Blair reminded him. "He's a professional photographer, remember? Got his own darkroom and everything. But even if we don't want to get the film developed, it doesn't matter. We just download the pictures to the computer, remember?"

"Oh, yeah," Jim realized. "Right." He took a picture.

"I wasn't ready, silly," Blair chided. He sat on the railing, wincing momentarily at the pressure on his tailbone, and draped himself artfully over it. "Okay. Start shooting."

"God help me, I just might," Jim said helplessly, almost dropping the camera. After several minutes he watched, stunned, as Blair posed for him like a professional – but there was no doubt that he was doing it for Jim's eyes only, and loving every second of it. He posed on the railing, lounged on a lounge chair, draped himself over the picnic table like the most luscious entrée Jim had ever seen, toying with his nipple ring, gently teasing his erect cock, fingers in his mouth or – Jim froze, stunned, as Blair pulled his legs up and back and slowly circled his anus with moist fingers, timidly running his fingertips over the puckered opening. Apart from bathing, it was the first time he'd seen Blair touch himself there.

Then Blair looked directly at Jim.

"Jim?" he panted. "Want to, like, put the camera down and get involved?"

Jim put the camera down before he dropped it. Instantly he was at Blair's side, kissing the swollen lips, stroking his Guide like the vision he was, tasting his breath.

"What do you want?" he murmured against his Guide's fragrant skin. "Tell me. Anything. Anything."

"I don't know," Blair panted breathlessly. "Something. Touch me, kiss me, taste me, something – " He drew in a big breath of air. "Put your finger inside me."

Jim raised his head to look into the heated blue eyes.

"Are you sure?" he asked softly.

"You've done it before," Blair said, just as softly. He was trembling.

"Not like this. Not in a sexual way." Jim kissed Blair gently. "If you want me to, we'll try. Just a minute. I need to get the lube."

He dashed into the house to fetch the lube, then back out, laying the little bottle on the picnic table. He resumed his slow tactile and olfactory worship of Blair's body, working his way slowly down. He kissed Blair's nipple, licked it warmly, and Blair shuddered under him.

"More," Blair whispered.

Jim sucked at the tight little bud, nipped at it very gently. Blair moaned, arching up against Jim's mouth. Jim moved to the other nipple, tugging at the ring with his lips. Blair cried out, shuddering, and Jim felt the hot erection leap violently.

Jim's head spun in the intoxicating rush of being able to give, to give Blair so much, to please his Guide, his love, his friend, his partner. The knowledge that he, Jim Ellison, could do all this was almost too much for him. He kissed and licked his way down Blair's furry belly, loving the taut skin, the musky scent that intensified as he approached his goal.

Then the jutting erection was in front of him, the pheromones and scent consuming him, and with no hesitation whatsoever he took it in his mouth, his taste buds exploding with the flavor of Blair, pure and unfiltered.

Blair howled and almost came up off the table, but Jim grabbed his hips firmly, preventing a hard thrust up into his mouth. He hadn't let himself think too much about this act, afraid that he'd talk himself out of it when the time came, but now that he actually had part of another man's cock in his mouth he understood why Carolyn had usually demurred when Jim had wanted this from her. It wasn't disagreeable – in fact, the taste of Blair would be driving him crazy – but it was complicated. It was difficult to try to coordinate the movements of his lips and tongue, keep his teeth away from Blair – and then there were the logistical problems. Suck? Lick? Nibble? Where? How long, how hard? Jesus, this is hard. Well, why should it be easy? In years of marriage to Carolyn he'd apparently never gotten good at going down on her. How the hell had Blair done such a good job on his first try?

But apparently Blair had no complaints about Jim's technique, because the smaller man was moaning and whimpering, writhing as much as he could in Jim's grip, and, inasmuch as he could, rocking his hips up toward Jim's mouth with every indication of extreme pleasure.

Blair's obvious appreciation gave Jim the courage to get a little more adventurous. He sucked a little more of Blair's cock into his mouth, lashing the underside with his tongue, fingers caressing the rest. A daring brush of one finger over Blair's anus apparently sparked nothing but pleasure; Blair howled again and tried to pull Jim's ears off in an effort to force more of his cock into Jim's mouth. Jim got the unsubtle hint and took a little more of Blair's length in, working his way up and down it now; thank God, Blair released his ears. Jim released Blair's erection despite the moan of disappointment that followed; he was feeling really daring now and had another idea entirely.

Blair scrabbled breathlessly for the bottle of lube, pushing it at Jim.

"Go on," he panted. "It's okay."

"Shhhh, relax," Jim murmured. "I'm going to do something else first. Relax, let me please you."

Blair started to protest, then moaned as Jim brushed soft little kisses over his balls, licking them, sucking gently at the taut skin. When Jim's tongue flickered over his perineum, Blair froze, his entire body screaming pleasure.

"What – what – " Blair gasped.

"Shhhh," Jim whispered again. He pushed Blair's thighs up and apart, his gaze fastening on the tight little opening. Clean and pink-brown, the same color as Blair's nipples, smelling of Blair's body shampoo and perspiration and the saliva from Blair's fingers. He bent down and kissed it slowly, softly.

"Oh my god," Blair moaned, a profound shudder shaking his body.

Jim kissed the fever-hot skin again, teased it with little cat-licks of his tongue. Blair was shaking helplessly now; he pulled his knees almost back to his chest and spread them wide. The sight of Blair opening himself wide for Jim's attentions almost made the Sentinel come in his pants. He licked harder as a reward, pressing the little pucker slightly open, kissing it wetly. Blair was breathing in little whimpering moans now, his fingers digging into the back of his knees so hard Jim knew he would leave bruises.

"Ohgodohgodohgodohgod," Blair chanted, his hips rocking ever so slightly against Jim's mouth. "Moremoremoremore – "

And Jim gave him more. He licked and nibbled and teased until Blair was wet and hot and relaxed, and then he speared his tongue into the relaxed opening. Blair arched his back and screamed, but it was a scream of pure pleasure and Jim didn't hesitate. He'd never done this to a man, but Carolyn, who'd never been all that interested in sex either, seemed to like it when he went down on her, and how different could it be?

He quickly found out how different – Blair was a million times more responsive to him than Carolyn had ever been. It was like comparing a nuclear explosion to a half-dead AA battery. Blair moaned, panted, whimpered, begged and screamed while Jim tongue-fucked him. He dug furrows into the backs of his own thighs, then let the hell go of them altogether, grabbed his own buttocks and spread himself wide, trembling all over. He rocked his hips against Jim's mouth, arched his back, writhed like a snake having an epileptic seizure. Jim pulled back before Blair could come, then grabbed the lube. He lubed his finger and slid it into Blair without the slightest resistance. He raised his head to meet Blair's heated gaze.

"You're unbelievable," Blair panted hoarsely. "Fucking unbelievable. You're driving me insane, you know that? But, God, don't stop."

"I wanted some of those good feelings too," Jim whispered, wrapping his free hand around Blair's erection and pumping it slowly, lightly. He grinned. "And I wanted to show you a little something my Guide taught me."

He moved his finger carefully, exploring until –

"JIIIIIIIIMMMMMMM!" Blair screamed. He arched up off the table so hard Jim could hear his vertebrae crackling, clawed the wood surface violently, and came all over the place, still screaming his ecstacy. Jim released the thrusting cock but continued to rub Blair's prostate softly, slowly, drawing out his climax until Blair was all but unconscious. Then he let him spiral slowly down, shuddering with aftermath. It was only then that Jim became aware of the sticky warm mess in his boxers, rapidly becoming a sticky cold mess. He'd come when Blair had, without even noticing it. He'd have been embarrassed if Blair hadn't done the same thing last time.

"My sweet beautiful baby," Jim whispered, stroking the hair out of his Guide's sweaty face.

"Love you," Blair croaked, barely keeping his eyes open.

Jim couldn't help it; he had to snap one last picture of sated, sleepy Blair, covered with sweat and spattered with come, splayed wantonly over the table, the most incredible drowsy smile on those full lips. Then he picked up his Guide and carried him up to the bedroom.

"Nap," he murmured firmly when Blair's eyes fluttered.

Blair was already asleep when Jim laid him down. Jim fetched a warm damp cloth from the bathroom and cleaned his Guide gently, then eased him inside the joined sleeping bags. He stripped and made a sketchy toilet, then crawled in beside his lover. Blair gravitated toward him in his sleep, draping himself over Jim's chest, and Jim folded his arms around the smaller form, his heart aching with joy. He wasn't the least bit sleepy. He'd watch over his Guide while he slept, holding him close and smelling the musk and sweat of their love.

And he'd love every minute of it.

Blair woke a little before sunset, yawning and stretching, then settling down again on Jim's chest, his eyes opening sleepily. Jim smiled. God, was his Guide ever more beautiful than when he just woke up, eyes muzzy with sleep, crazy hair everywhere, draped soft and warm over him?

Well, maybe right after sex.

"Hey," Blair murmured drowsily.

"Hey," Jim said, kissing his forehead. "I think the walking tour's out, at least for today."

Blair smiled.

"Got my exercise anyway," he said. Then he frowned. "Oh, man, I didn't even think, I just left you hanging – "

"Relax, relax, Chief," Jim chuckled. "I came, and if you don't believe me, you can wash the sticky boxers yourself. And I needed the rest as much as you did.

If the house hadn't taken on something of a chill, they wouldn't have bothered dressing. Jim lit a fire in the upstairs and downstairs fireplaces while Blair started a light supper of soup and sandwiches, neither of them hungry for more. Blair was moving a little stiffly – and no wonder, the way he'd been twisting around on that hard picnic table – but he waved away Jim's concern.

"So what do we do this evening?" Blair asked.

"Well . . . " Jim glanced out the window. The sky was cloudy, too much so for stargazing. "I suggest a nice hot bath in that big tub upstairs with some cold wine while we soak, lounge around in front of the fireplace with some music, and either chat or read to each other, your pick, then bed."

"Chat," Blair chose. "Sounds wonderful."

The tub was as big and comfortable as it looked, and the warm fire was pleasant afterward. Jim combed Blair's hair dry, and they snuggled in the warm glow.

"Man, this is so romantic," Blair sighed. "Back in my 'hump a table leg' days, I couldn't have planned a better seduction scene if I'd tried."

"Hey, this isn't a seduction," Jim protested. "Remember what Gerard said? Concentrate on the love, not the loving."

"Yeah, so we keep saying," Blair chuckled. "And every time we say it, we end up doing something sweaty. It's okay, Jim. I don't feel pressured or anything. I feel – " He flung out his arms, narrowly missing Jim's nose. "Free. Free to explore. Free to enjoy. You make me feel that way."

Jim laughed.

"Gerard told us that a change of scenery might be 'liberating'," he said. "I didn't expect the effect to be quite so drastic."

Suddenly Blair sobered and rolled closer to Jim, wrapping his arms around him.

"Are we going too fast for you?" he said softly. "I never think about that. Somehow it's always about me, and then I realize this isn't exactly old hat to you, either."

"It's scary," Jim admitted. "Not so much the sex, though. It's more like . . . "

He thought before he continued; he wasn't good at expressing himself like Blair. Blair waited patiently while Jim word-shopped.

"Before – you know – "

"The rape," Blair supplied.

Jim nodded.

"Before you were raped," he said quietly, "you were important to me, okay? And I knew it. I knew how important you were to me. You were important to me as my partner at work, as my Guide, as my best – hell, my only real friend besides Simon. There've been times I took all that for granted, but not since Alex, at least, I can tell you that. I knew how important you were to me, and – sometimes I kind of resented it, you know, knowing that I couldn't really get through the day without you. Knowing that if you decided to go on some expedition to Borneo or Bangladesh or wherever, you'd have every right to go and I'd have no right to stop you, but I'd be – I don't know, a shadow of myself, my senses all over the place, nothing anchoring me, if you understand what I mean. Helpless, hopeless. It scared me that you had that kind of power over me, over my life."

Blair nodded silently, his eyes on Jim, letting Jim continue uninterrupted.

"I've been attracted to you for a long time, if I admitted it," Jim said, swallowing. "I'd have dreams, or sometimes it'd be – well, I'd see you coming out of the shower or something, or maybe just the sun would catch your hair the right way and I'd feel – but it was so damned frightening how much power you had over me already, how much I already needed you, it was like – I don't know, if I go another step I'm going to fall off the edge. So what I felt for you couldn't be love – not that kind of love, I mean. I could love you, and I did, as a friend, as a partner, I don't know, as a soulmate. But it couldn't be that kind of love, first of all because you're a man, okay. But most of all it couldn't be that kind of love because you already owned so much of me, if you owned that, too, then there's nothing left of me, of the Jim Ellison I knew, nothing left that's me anymore, just the Sentinel that you owned. Does that make any sense?"

"Oh, God, Jim," Blair whispered, his eyes full. His hand cupped Jim's cheek. "Yeah, it makes sense. I never thought about how it was for you when I told you how I felt. I mean, I'd just laid my heart on the line and, God, I just expected you to burst out with, 'I love you too, Chief' just like that, like some fairy tale. I know what you felt, God, don't I ever know it? I felt the same way the first time I walked into that firing range. Who the hell is the man with that gun in his hand? Who's that man wrestling his practice partner to the ground and snapping handcuffs around his wrists? Who's that man being fitted for a uniform? Not me, uh-uh, no way, that can't be Blair Sandburg. I don't know that man. Who's that man staring out at me from the mirror? I didn't know anymore."

"I know." Jim pulled Blair close. "God help me, I know."

"The hardest part was – " Blair swallowed. "When Simon offered me that detective's position, I thought, Hey, great, I love Jim, I can be with Jim, we'll be partners, we'll be together and that's all that matters. That made it kind of, I don't know, all worth it. And then I told you how I felt and – " His voice trailed off.

"Chief, you'll never know how sorry I am," Jim whispered into his hair. "You'll never know how much I wish I could go back in time and make myself tell you right then how much I loved you."

Blair sniffed hard.

"When I thought you didn't love me back," he said, very softly, "then I kept wondering, what the hell am I doing this for? God, what am I even living for? But I always got the same answer. Because you needed me. You needed me there, you needed me as your friend and your partner and your Guide, and if that's all I ever had, then it would have to be enough. Because you needed me. So the same thing that scared you to death was all that kept me going."

"Oh, baby." Jim felt tears stinging his eyes and kept his face buried in Blair's hair. Blair held him just as tightly.

"Jim . . . " Blair stroked his hair softly. "Tell me the rest. About how you felt. How you feel. If you can, I mean. I don't want to push."

Jim pulled back and wiped his eyes roughly on his sleeve. He lay back on the pillows they'd arranged in front of the fire, closed his eyes. Blair resumed stroking his hair; the sensation was wonderfully soothing.

"After you were raped," Jim said quietly, "I had plenty of time to think. Too much, maybe. I realized that the parts of me I'd been clinging to were the sad, lonely parts, the angry parts, the parts that wouldn't let anybody get too close but hurt all the time because of it. I realized that all the best parts of me had always been the ones that were all tangled up with you, that maybe the man you loved – and who loved you too – was the real Jim Ellison after all. Or at least the man I wanted to be the real Jim Ellison. And that maybe it was time that I stopped lying to both of us. So I did, and here we are."

He opened his eyes and reached up to trace the curve of Blair's mouth with a gentle fingertip.

"It's still scary," he said simply. "I don't think anything but time and love will cure that fear. I still ask myself who that man in the mirror is. And I tell myself, That's Jim Ellison, the cop, the Sentinel, the man, all of whom love Blair Sandburg with all their heart."

Blair smiled, kissing Jim's fingers.

"That's a good answer, man," he whispered. "I'm going to have to try that one out on the guy in the mirror. It's the cop, the Guide, the man who's going to stand beside Jim Ellison at work and at home and love him the rest of his life."

"Mmmm. I like the sound of that," Jim admitted, cuddling Blair close. "You know, I could really get into this kind of fireside chat."

"Well, that's good," Blair said after a moment's hesitation. "Because there's something else I want to talk about."

Jim opened his eyes, alerted by his Guide's tone, which had become decidedly serious.

"Uh-oh," he said. "This doesn't sound like much fun."

"It probably isn't." Blair turned in Jim's arms so he half lay on Jim's chest. "Were you ever going to tell me about your senses, Jim? How long have you been having a problem?"

Jim grimaced. He'd hoped he could keep it from Blair a little while longer. He'd also hoped that out here at the cabin he wouldn't have a problem, but Blair must have seen him wince as he stepped into the hot bathwater and his sense of touch flared.

"I would've told you pretty soon," Jim sighed apologetically. "It wasn't a big thing while we were just staying home together, and you had enough to deal with. It doesn't happen all the time, just intermittently."

"Yeah, but what's happening?" Blair asked quietly. "Is it just touch that's spiking?"

Jim shook his head guiltily.

"No, it's been everything, one time or another," he admitted. "And it's not like a normal spike, either. Actually it's more like one sense goes out, partially or completely, and then the moment I concentrate on it, it switches back on, but at maximum sensitivity. I can get it back under control almost right away, but I don't know what's going on to shut it down in the first place."

Blair sighed, shaking his head.

"Man, I wish you'd told me from the start," he chided gently. "I could've used something productive to work on, you know? Hold on a minute."

Blair got up slowly, grimacing as sore muscles protested, and vanished upstairs. He returned with one of his notebooks and a pencil, and made himself comfortable on the cushions again.

"Okay," he said resignedly. "Start from the top. Everything you can remember."

Jim started recounting the incidents he remembered; Blair stopped him and prompted him for the circumstances surrounding the events, what he was doing, what he was thinking – Jim had listed less than a handful of events before Blair stopped him, chuckling.

"Jeez, Jim, this one's a no-brainer," he said. "You'd have figured it out yourself if you'd actually taken the time to look at it instead of trying to put it out of your mind as fast as you could."

"Oh, yeah?" Jim said, torn between chagrin and relief. "So give me the benefits of your wisdom, O Guide and Shaman of the Great City."

"Well, just look," Blair repeated. "Each time one of your senses failed, you were completely focused on – dramatic drum roll – me. You didn't hear Simon at the door because you were tending or comforting or talking to me. You didn't smell the potty chair because you were busy taking care of me. You poured hot tea all over your hand and didn't feel it because you were worried about Gerard upsetting me. An hour ago you were completely focused on getting me safely into the tub without me slipping and hurting myself. I mean, there's a pretty damned clear pattern here."

"Yeah, but then why the flareup?" Jim argued.

"Elementary, my dear Ellison." Blair grinned. "You realize one of your senses isn't working and you focus on it, thereby taking the focus off of me. Boom, instant flareup, because – guess what? You've been keeping your senses pushed up, monitoring me 24/7, without even knowing you're doing it. I can see it on your face a hundred times a day – you're listening to my heartbeat, smelling my moods, feeling my body heat, listening to my organs working, who knows what. You've set yourself up as a living biomonitor all the time you've been taking care of me. The only reason those pushed-up senses haven't been driving you crazy is that you've fixed all of them on me as the only stimulus. So then when you switch your focus, you have to turn your senses back down again."

Jim grimaced.

"If I don't even realize I'm doing it, how the hell do I stop?" he asked.

"Well, you start by realizing that you are doing it," Blair said gently. "And then you stop doing it by working on all that damned guilt you're carrying around."

Jim forced a grin.

"'I'm trying, and I'm helping'," he recited.

"That's not cutting it, Jim," Blair said quietly. "I know you're having nightmares. You're not a screamer and a thrasher like me, but I can tell sometimes. You think I don't know what you're thinking? You're thinking that if you'd gotten to the campus on time, you could've found me with your senses, you could've saved me. That's what this whole Blessed Overprotector guard-him-with-every-sense routine is all about. You weren't there using those senses to keep your Guide safe, so now, by God, that's all they're good for. Just like the rest of your life. Everything for me now, the rest of the world can go hang. That's about the size of it, isn't it, Jim?"

Jim swallowed heavily.

"Blair – "

"No, Jim, come on, let's get this all out in the open," Blair pressed, gazing intently into Jim's eyes. "If you hadn't been late, if you'd been on time and doing your job, I wouldn't have been raped, right? That's what you think, isn't it?"

Jim clenched his jaw.

"It's true."

Blair shrugged.

"Maybe."

Jim froze in sheer amazement. Blair chuckled mirthlessly at his astonishment.

"You expected me to say that no way was it your fault, right?" he said. "Nah. I can't do that. If my crystal ball worked that well I'd have been rich a long time ago. Maybe if you'd been on time it wouldn't have happened. I kind of doubt it, though. Okay, you get there on Jim Ellison Mean Time, which instead of 9:00 means about 8:45 to make sure I don't try to carry a box downstairs by myself. You unload the handtruck and – guess what? The room's dark, just like it was, because I took off way earlier. Okay, you check the other side of the building next, the offices. Then you go inside to see if I left a note somewhere. Fifteen minutes. Say another couple minutes checking the loft's answering machine, then calling the PD to see if I'd called there. No go. If you turned up your hearing then, you wouldn't hear a damned thing – I was still in the union building then.

"Okay, next logical assumption – you try the library. I'm not there, but you give it a good walk-through anyway and ask the staff if they've seen me. I'm nowhere and they haven't. Now you're probably past 9:30, and you still don't find me. If you tried your hearing again, you'd get nothing – the struggle between the buildings was over by then, and I was in the auto shop which was built to keep sound in. So what do you do next?"

Jim hesitated, confused.

"Never thought about that, huh?" Blair said patiently. "My guess is you check with some of my friends on campus, the ones I said I might stop by and visit. That'd be the logical thing to do. But you don't know their phone numbers. If the idea occurs to you while you're at the library, you can look them up in the student directory, but your chances of actually finding most of them in their rooms on a Friday night is pretty close to zero. So you go back for your truck, so you drive all the way across campus to their dorms and see if they're around. Three separate buildings, Jim, even if you don't have to track any of them down, which would probably take you all night. Wow, none of them have seen me.

"Then maybe you think of calling Jessie. Him you'd definitely have to track down because he does tutoring on Friday nights. But say by some miracle he picks up the phone. He hasn't seen me either. Assume that he doesn't give you five or six more leads to keep you running around campus for another couple hours. By now you've still burned at least a half hour, 45 minutes, probably closer to an hour, Jim. More if you have to hunt around for any of the guys. Which puts you back to Hargrove even later than you got there that night.

"So maybe you could have stopped it, or maybe you could have just run around campus looking for me for a while longer. I don't know, you don't know. There's all kinds of what-ifs, and boy, Jim, I'm here to tell you I've thought them all over. What if I hadn't been running late? Well, I wouldn't have taken that dark shortcut. I'd have gone around the front of the union building where there's plenty of students out hanging around, and those guys would never have dared grab me there. What if I'd just called you when I got finished sorting instead of going to the union building at all? Maybe you'd have picked me up early, or maybe I'd have just waited for you at the union building. What if I'd called your cell phone and told you, 'Shit, Jim, I'm running late, I'm on my way back from the union building right now.' Maybe you'd have come to meet me, or at least been watching out for me. What if after I finished sorting I'd spent the extra time with some of my friends, the way I'd said I was going to, instead of reading alone? I'd never have gone near the union building. Do you think I haven't kicked myself around the block a few times on all those possibilities?

"So there's all kinds of maybes, Jim," Blair said softly. "But there's only one thing I know for sure. I know it wouldn't have happened if it weren't for four very sick, mixed-up boys who had it in them to abduct their teacher, rape him, and beat him half to death. I know I can lay blame there, Jim. Whatever you or I did or didn't do, it all comes down to them. They made it happen, not you, not me. They chose for it to happen, they chose to hurt me, and by extension they chose to hurt you. All you and I can choose is to survive it, to not let it beat us. And as long as we walk around still hurting inside, we're choosing to let those guys win. I choose not to let that happen. I choose to thank the gods I'm not paralyzed or crippled or castrated or brain damaged or dead or infected with AIDS instead of glooming over what I've gone through. I choose to get well instead of focusing on pain and fear. I choose to be glad that at least this has brought us together. I choose for us to win. Don't you?"

Jim groaned and pulled Blair close, burying his face in his Guide's fragrant hair.

"God, Chief, how do you find room in that head for so many brains and hair follicles at the same time?" he chuckled shakily. "Do you know that I've never met anybody as strong as you in my life? Incacha was right. You are a shaman. You should tell Gerard to take down his shingle, make a bid on his office."

"No thanks, man," Blair grinned. "Keeping your head on straight is a full-time job by itself. Now. I want something from you."

Jim sobered, meeting Blair's intent gaze.

"Anything."

"No psychobabble, no tricks, just one trade," Blair said softly. "I'll try to forgive myself for all the choices I didn't make, that look so clear in hindsight – if you'll do the same. Deal?"

Jim swallowed. No trick. It was all out in the open now, the wounds laid plain and bare for them both to see. Blair was right. They'd festered long enough in the dark. Time to let the healing begin.

"Deal," he said, very quietly. Yes, enough time in the dark, under pressure.

Let the ascent begin.