PART IV

ASCENT

Chapter 14


"Oh, man, I congratulate myself," Blair sighed contentedly. "This was such a good idea.

Jim glanced over and agreed mentally that the trip to the cabin was, in fact, a very good idea. Blair had declined to join Jim fishing, even though Jim wasn't doing anything more strenuous than the occasional long cast and idly manning a pole while sitting in the shade on the bank of the lake. The water was way too cold to even consider swimming, due to the cold nights, but the days were still warm. A few yards away, Blair had laid a thick blanket on the grass and sprawled there with his journal. In the warmth of the sun, he'd discarded sweater first, then shirt, then shoes, socks, and tee shirt. The jeans were the latest discard, and now Blair was down to boxers. Jim had watched the unlayering process with great interest; now, seeing the sunlight glowing on Blair's skin and sparkling in the highlights of his hair, Jim was fervently glad that Blair had suggested this trip.

They'd only been here two days, but already he could see a marked change in his Guide, and definitely a change for the better. Blair was relaxed, open, happy; he'd seemed to shed his cares as easily as the sun had coaxed him to peel off his clothes. Jim, too, had felt an invisible weight ease from his shoulders since they'd arrived, and he and his Guide talked intimately, candidly, with a comfort he'd never felt before. He was amazed that a simple change of scenery had made so much difference, and that had led to other thoughts, more serious ones. Maybe he should consider selling the loft, find them a place less cluttered with memories where they could start fresh as a couple. Little as Jim liked the idea, maybe it would be best to leave Cascade altogether. In a new town they'd be free of the lingering fallout from the publicity of Blair's dissertation, too. It bore thinking about, at least.

But Jim didn't want to think such serious thoughts right now, not when the day was so warm and pleasant, the air was so sweet, and Blair was just so goddamned beautiful.

Blair suddenly looked up from his journal and met Jim's eyes, grinning so brightly that Jim forgot to be embarrassed that his Guide had caught him Blair-watching.

"What're you looking at?" Blair said cockily, his eyes twinkling.

"The most gorgeous piece of scenery in these mountains," Jim answered saucily, returning the grin, with interest. God, how he loved that naughty expression in Blair's eyes. He'd missed the mischief and laughter in his Guide so much in the past few weeks.

"Sun's pretty strong," Blair suggested. "I could probably use some lotion so I don't burn. I don't suppose you'd help me out, so I don't have to, like, twist around so much putting it on?"

"Oh . . . I suppose, if I must," Jim said with fake reluctance. He propped his fishing pole in place with a few rocks and rooted in the picnic basket they'd brought their lunch down in, dredging up the tanning oil. He scooted over to Blair's side.

"You know – " Blair glanced over his shoulder at Jim, eyes wide and innocent. "I was wondering. Just how private is it up here?"

Jim got Blair's meaning and grinned as he squeezed some oil out into his hands. Flirting. His Guide was unabashedly flirting. Jim was in heaven.

"Pretty damned private," he said. "Steven owns the land most of the way around the lake; it's state forest on the other side, but nobody ever comes that far back because there's no access road. Steven's got an option to buy that last bit of property adjoining the lake, but I don't think he's ever gone through with it."

"Mmmm. Private enough that I can get an all-over tan?" Blair suggested, raising his eyebrows.

"Private enough that you can do just about anything you want," Jim replied just as suggestively. He smoothed tanning oil over Blair's back and shoulders, making his skin gleam. Blair arched up into the touch, purring. Then, to Jim's surprise, he pulled away.

"Hang on a minute," Blair said. He pushed his journal aside, then squirmed around, wincing a couple of times as he contorted to pull off his boxers. Jim got the idea and belatedly joined in to help. When he'd tossed his last garment aside, Blair rolled back over on his stomach.

"Okay, get back to what you were doing," he ordered.

Jim chuckled, rubbing the oil down Blair's back.

"Boy, bossy fellow, aren't you?"

"Yeah, well, while I'm being bossy, why don't you strip down and get some sun too?" Blair said innocently. "Or am I less entertaining than the fish hereabouts?"

"I think the fish would lose that competition," Jim admitted. "You're not only more entertaining, you're – " Jim leaned down and licked the back of Blair's neck, making him shiver. " – tastier, too. Hang on a minute."

Jim stripped quickly, then returned to the delightful task of rubbing suntan oil on his Guide's skin, using the application as an excuse to caress Blair's firm buttocks. God, his skin was so soft, so warm and inviting. He let his thumbs dip teasingly into the cleft between those beautiful buttocks, amazed and delighted when Blair didn't tense even slightly.

"Mmmm," Blair purred. "You're very thorough, aren't you?"

"Wouldn't want you to burn anywhere sensitive," Jim said stoutly.

Blair chuckled.

"As I think I once told you, there's a reason, you know, that they call that place 'where the sun don't shine'."

Jim stilled his hands.

"Want me to stop?"

"No." Blair rolled over, his eyes glowing up into Jim's. "I want to make love."

Jim slid down onto the blanket beside Blair, reveling in this appearance by the old assertive Blair. He took Blair in his arms, glorying in his warm, slick skin.

"Outdoors, in broad daylight?" he grinned. "How naughty of you."

"Oh, I can get a lot more than naughty." Blair laughed and rolled them over so that he lay on Jim, gazing down at him, his hair falling down into Jim's face. Jim thrilled to the glorious sensation of his Guide's naked body pressing full-length against his. Then Blair's face took on a rather distracted expression as he gazed down at the gauze patch taped over Jim's nipple.

"I'm going to take this off," he said softly, untaping the patch. He touched Jim's nipple very gently. "How's it feel?"

The nipple hardened obediently under Blair's fingertip, and Jim's breath hissed in.

"Strange," Jim said unsteadily, unaccustomed to the sensation of the presence of the metal stud as his nipple hardened. "Really strange."

"Sore?" Blair prompted.

Jim frowned.

"No," he said hesitantly. "Hang on a second, let me – " He pushed up touch daringly, then a little more. Surprisingly, no difficulty – and no soreness, either. He could feel that it was completely healed, the skin inside the piercing fully closed. He let touch return to normal, or such as it was. That nipple was a dozen times more sensitive than its twin.

"Not sore at all," Jim admitted. "I guess your theory was right." The revelation stunned him – and a burst of wild, wondering joy transfixed him. The conclusion was inescapable. They healed each other. Blair had healed him. And he -- he was healing Blair. Every moment, every touch, had lessened his love's pain. Healed his body.

"I'm trying," he whispered in astonishment, "and I'm – I'm helping."

Blair bent down and kissed him with his soul.

"You are," Blair said simply. "And you always have."

Jim stared into Blair's eyes, his arms tightening around his Guide in amazement. All this time, all these years –

"Oh – my – God," he breathed as the shape of his world changed around him, as reality remade itself to include the magic of their love.

"Hey, whoa," Blair gasped, and Jim hurriedly loosened his grasp at the note of pain in Blair's voice. "You're helping, big guy – you'll never know how much – but I think cracked bones take a little longer than a nipple, okay?"

"I'm sorry," Jim whispered contritely.

"I'm not," Blair murmured. He bent down and nuzzled Jim's nipple, then very gently tugged at the stud with his lips.

Jim cried out in amazement and arched upward as a bolt of lightning shot from his nipple straight to his cock. Hurriedly, before he could hurt Blair again, he released his Guide, digging his fingers into the blanket under him.

"Ohmigodohmigod," Jim gasped as Blair's tongue nimbly flicked over his nipple, tweaking the stud. "What the hell – "

Blair raised his head, his eyes twinkling.

"What, you thought I got the damned nipple ring to show off at the bullpen or something?" Blair chuckled. "Just wait till we put the ring in. Man, I'm going to have so much fun with you. We have so much to teach each other, so much to learn from each other."

Jim arched up against the furry belly rubbing so enticingly against his aching erection.

"What do you want to learn today?" he asked softly.

"Something . . . slippery," Blair purred. He reached over and snagged the bottle of suntan oil and squirted a liberal puddle onto Jim's belly. Propping himself up on one arm, he reached down and scooped some up on his fingers. He pumped his own erection briefly, then scooped up more oil, taking Jim's erection in his hand and slowly pumping it, smearing it with the slick fluid. "Oh, man, you're so fucking hard."

"You're telling me?" Jim gasped, arching up into Blair's hand. Blair's knees had fallen to either side of his hips, and he ran his hands restlessly up and down Blair's thighs, wanting to leave Blair completely free to do what he wished.

"You used to joke that I'd hump a table leg," Blair said a little breathlessly, spreading more oil over Jim's erection. "Right now this feels a lot like a table leg to me."

Jim took a deep breath, trying to contain his excitement and anxiety. He didn't know what Blair had in mind, but he was fully prepared to go along with it, or at least give it a good try. A part of him hoped that Blair wasn't going to try letting Jim penetrate him yet. Things were so good between them right now; Jim really didn't want to rock a boat that was sailing so smoothly.

But apparently Blair had something entirely different in mind, as Jim found out at the first delicious stroke of Blair's erection against his. The hard lengths slid over skin slick with oil and pre-come with nonetheless an utterly intoxicating friction, and Jim groaned and arched upward into the stroke, grabbing Blair's hips without thinking to press their bellies more tightly together. A moment later Jim realized that he'd seized Blair pretty hard and hurriedly modified his grip, but Blair apparently noticed neither grab nor release; he was too involved in his pleasure, thrusting against Jim, his eyes half-closed and almost glowing with arousal.

"Oh, God, Blair, baby, so good," Jim gasped, moving against Blair in time with the slow, intense thrusts. The sensation of Blair's hairy belly sliding against the sensitive underside of his cock was almost too intense, too good; Jim shuddered and prayed he wouldn't erupt in ten seconds like some horny kid.

"Woops – " Blair slid on their oily bellies, skidding off to one side, and hurriedly braced himself on his arms, grimacing faintly as his ribs protested the strain.

As if they'd rehearsed the maneuver, Blair pulled his legs up over Jim's and Jim spread his knees, bending his legs and putting his feet flat on the blanket, cradling Blair between his legs and pulling Blair down onto his chest. Then Blair was moving against him again, warm slick hairy armful of love; he wasn't quite tall enough to kiss Jim comfortably unless Jim craned his neck awkwardly. At last Jim let his head fall back and simply enjoyed it as Blair showered his neck and shoulders with hot, wet kisses, sensual little nibbles, and the occasional nip that made Jim groan with pleasure. Blair was moving slowly, but Jim was still going into overload way too fast. There was something about the sheer sensuality of it, of Blair rubbing all over him, marking Jim with his musky sweat, the heat of his body, that spoke to something wild and primitive in Jim's soul, and it was all he could do to hold himself in check.

Then Blair's mouth fastened on Jim's unpierced nipple, sucking wetly at first and then nipping carefully, and the needle was way over into the red now. Jim howled with pleasure, arching upward so strongly that he might have bucked Blair off were it not for the suddenly iron-hard grip he fastened onto his Guide's hips, pulling their groins together rhythmically, intensely as he ground up against the hard sex sliding over his belly. Blair cried out, a raw and naked sound that was in no way a protest, biting hard into the muscle of Jim's chest, and their bodies shuddered together wildly, pumping semen out between them in hard, almost painfully intense jets of pleasure. Long after the last spurts of hot fluid slicked their bellies, they kept moving, slower now, more gently, just enjoying the sensation, until at last, completely exhausted, they slowly stilled.

"Oh, wow," Blair breathed, his face pressed into the sweaty planes of Jim's chest. "Fucking wow."

Jim said nothing; he couldn't muster either breath or brain cells for coherent speech. He settled for a soft sated groan and lethargically stroked Blair's sweat-damp hair. He was completely overwhelmed. The residual pleasure echoing through his body, the slight pain where Blair had bit him, the smell of their sex sweat and their semen, the thrum of Blair's heart against him, the feel of Blair's slick hot skin against his, assaulted him with such potency that his brain was melting. It was like a reverse zoneout – he could feel his senses expanding outward, adding the sunlight, the hardness of the ground, the cool breeze over the lake, the sound of the birds, the smell of green growing things to their lovemaking, and suddenly Jim felt a pang of love so sharp, so deep in his soul that it was almost painful.

"Oh, man, are we ever a mess," Blair chuckled, starting to slide off Jim. Jim hurriedly pulled him close again, thwarting the attempt. Somehow he felt that if the contact between him and Blair was broken right now, he might simply shatter.

"Don't," Jim whispered. "Stay."

Blair raised his head slightly.

"Wow," he said again. "The king of clean wants us to lay here gooed together? Will wonders never cease?"

"We won't be any cleaner apart," Jim said practically. "We'd just be . . . apart."

Blair chuckled again.

"You have a point there," he admitted.

"Not at the moment." Jim craned his neck to kiss the top of Blair's head. "Where the hell did you come up with that? That wasn't in the movie or the books, either."

Blair raised his head, gazing at Jim disbelievingly.

"Come on, man! You mean to tell me you never did any dry humping in the backseat with a date when you were a teenager? I mean, we're talking common knowledge here!"

"As a matter of fact, no, I didn't," Jim said with as much dignity as he could muster in his sweaty, sticky, pinned-under-Blair position. "And I've gotta tell you, Chief, whoever named it 'dry' humping never did, either."

"Well, I've got to hand that point to you, semantically speaking," Blair grinned. "But, see, I cheated by dispensing with the clothes. Normally the clothes would stay on."

"In which case it would be 'wet shorts humping.'"

Blair snorted.

"I'm not gonna argue," he said. "I make it a point never to argue after fucking my brains out. It's a lose- lose scenario. If I lose, I lose. If I win, I may lose the chance for further brain-destroying sex."

"Smart decision." Jim cuddled Blair's head against his shoulder. "I can see we're going to have to start carrying wipes as a routine precaution."

"Wipes?" Blair chuckled. "Let's see – we have my sweat, your sweat, my come, your come, suntan oil. We'd have to carry a shower around in our pockets, big guy."

Jim sniffed. The mingled odor of their rut filled his nose, his mind, his soul. Before he realized what he was doing, he'd rolled them over so that he hovered over Blair, sniffing his way down Blair's torso, rubbing his face over Blair's skin. Blair raised his head, gazing at Jim with amazement even as his fingers gently stroked Jim's hair.

"Uh, Jim? Babe? What are you doing?"

Jim didn't, couldn't answer; he was too busy drowning himself in their mingled scents. Amazingly he was rock hard again already, achingly hard, and with every cell in his body he knew it was time to take his Guide, claim his Guide, turn him over and open him up and –

NO!

Jim pulled back from the thin line between thought and action by the barest of threads, shaking with the effort to hold himself back. Grimly he forced himself to remember the University, the smell of blood, his Guide's battered violated body.

That did it. His renewed erection wilted instantly and his expanded senses collapsed inward like a burst balloon. He rolled aside, covering his face with one arm as he struggled to get his breath back.

Blair sat up, pulling worriedly at Jim's arm.

"Jim. Jim! Come on, man, talk to me, okay? What's going on?"

"Nothing." Jim barely recognized that choked gasp as his own voice. "Just – give me a minute here."

"A minute to shut down on me, you mean?" Blair growled. "Uh-uh, no way, nohow. Take a nice deep breath, Jim, look at me, and tell me what happened, nice and slowly, and we'll figure it out together."

Jim took the deep breath, then another. He let Blair pull his arm away from his face.

"I don't know what happened," he whispered. God, how was Blair ever going to understand? But he couldn't lie, couldn't hide the danger he posed from his Guide. "I think – I think I just almost attacked you."

Blair was silent for a long moment.

"I know you don't mean that the way it sounds, big guy," he said softly. Jim wished he could hear Blair's heartbeat; sure it must be racing madly. But hearing had shut down again, at least to non-Sentinel levels, like everything else.

"I don't know," Jim said just as softly. "Maybe."

"Tell me what happened," Blair repeated steadily.

Jim shook his head, not in negation but in confusion.

"I don't know. It started when we were making love. It felt wonderful, sure, but more than that – I don't know, all my senses kind of – opened up. Suddenly they were all working so perfectly, better than ever before, maybe. It was like I was plugged into the whole world."

Blair grinned.

"The earth kind of moved for me too, babe," he said, taking Jim's hand. "I mean beyond the sex, which of course was mind-blowing in the extreme. I felt this – I don't know, sense of connection, I guess. Like for the first time in my life all the gears meshed at once."

"Connection?" Jim asked softly. "With me?"

Blair nodded.

"With you, yeah," he said. "And with me. Man, I don't know how to explain it. For just a minute there I could almost feel your senses – not as if they were mine, but feeling you feeling them. It was incredible, like nothing I'd ever felt before, and just for a second I felt more – more me, I guess, than I'd ever felt in my life. Blair to the Nth power. Utterly fantastic, like, I don't know, all the lights on the console were green for the first time ever."

Jim nodded.

"Exactly," he agreed. "I felt it too. That . . . connection. And afterward, I don't know, it felt so fragile, I didn't want to let you get away from me, like I might break if we pulled apart. And then when you made that comment about the shower, I took a good sniff and suddenly – "

He shook his head, frustrated. There were no words for the shift that had occurred then.

"Suddenly what?" Blair pressed.

"Suddenly I was just moving on instinct," Jim said in a low voice. "I wanted more of you, and more, and more and it wasn't enough and the only thing I could think of was – " He swallowed.

"Fucking me?" Blair finished quietly.

Jim nodded silently.

"But you didn't," Blair said cautiously.

"No, but it was closer than I'd like," Jim said. He couldn't meet Blair's gaze any longer. He sat up, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

"We need a bath," Blair said gently. "Come on, let's pack up this stuff and head back up to the cabin, get cleaned up. It'll give us both time to think, and then we'll talk some more, okay?"

Jim nodded miserably. God, he didn't want to talk about it. With all that he was, he didn't. But Blair was right; they needed to discuss it. Needed to talk about what steps they had to take to – to protect Blair from him. They bundled up their gear and walked slowly back up the path to the cabin.

Dear God, of all the problems I thought we'd face, I never considered that – that I couldn't be trusted. That I might hurt Blair, shit, might even rape Blair and not even be able to stop myself! What kind of monster does that make me? And what can I do about it? His heart contracted in a tiny, hard ball of hurt. Leave Blair? How can I do that? How can I not? How can I live without him? I don't want to. I can't.

I may have to, if it's that or hurt him. I won't hurt him, I won't. I'd die first.

Maybe there's some kind of drug I can take, tranquillizers or something. Or whatever it is they give sex offenders. I don't care if they mess up my senses, what does that matter? Without Blair I'm screwed anyway –

"Jim, don't," Blair said softly. Jim jerked out of his revery to find that they'd stopped in the middle of the path, Blair's hand on Jim's arm, Blair gazing intently into Jim's eyes.

"What?" Jim said hoarsely.

"I know what you're thinking," Blair said quietly. "Don't even go there. Don't panic, Jim. Remember the problem with your senses? You thought it was so bad that you were protecting me from it, and it turned out to be a really simple, obvious problem. We'll figure this out too. It's just a matter of understanding what happened and why. Trust me. I'm the Guide, it's my job to figure these things out. If it's something that basic, that instinctual, then it's something that Sentinels and Guides have been working out since the very beginning, okay? They found a way to deal with it, and we will too, maybe not as easily because we don't have anybody to teach us, but we'll figure it out."

Jim drew a deep breath, feeling a cautious relief.

Blair's right. It's not a catastrophe, it's just a – a problem. And problems have solutions, temporary or permanent. Maybe there's some kind of, I don't know, interim precautions we need to take, but we'll work it out. Blair's right, we always do find the answers – maybe not as quickly or easily as we'd like, but eventually we get there.

They were both silent as they put up the fishing gear and blankets and threw together a quick supper. Jim glanced longingly at the fireplace – they'd had all their best talks cuddled together in front of a fire – but it was still warm out and a fire would be too hot now. By mutual agreement they took their plates out on the deck, which was shaded now in the late afternoon, pulled the chair cushions down to the deck and had a deck picnic.

"So . . . " Blair cleared his throat. "I know this is a touchy issue, but, um, have you ever had that kind of impulse before?"

"What, an almost irresistible desire to fuck somebody in general?" Jim said wryly. "Or you in particular?"

Blair's eyes widened.

"I didn't know there were two separate questions," he said. "Has it happened before with somebody else?"

Jim grimaced and shook his head.

"No, not really," he said. "Alex to some extent. And remember the pheromone thing?"

"Well, yeah," Blair said slowly. "But even then you didn't, like, throw them down and attack them or anything. It was more like it made you vulnerable to them."

"Right," Jim admitted. "It was different."

"Okay." Blair took a deep breath. "So have you ever felt it before with me?"

"No." Jim answered immediately. "To tell you the truth, up until that moment I'd almost been dreading . . . you know. I really didn't even want to try. I was so afraid of hurting you or frightening you."

"Okay. We'd been close before, cuddled, even made each other come before," Blair said thoughtfully. "So all we've got to figure out is how that time was different, and why. Can you remember what happened right before that, what you were thinking or feeling?"

Jim grimaced again.

"The smell," he said. "The smell of my come and yours. It just seemed to go right through me."

Blair thought about that for a long moment.

"Yeah, but you'd smelled both our come before," he said slowly. "When we've jerked each other off. Granted, it wasn't actually mixed or anything, but do you think that made a difference?"

Jim shook his head.

"I don't think so," he sighed. "It was just – this was more intense, you know? It was like we, I don't know, we touched something there for just a moment, something so huge and important."

"Yeah, I know. I know what you mean," Blair said, sighing. "And to tell you the truth, I think it was one of those things – either the intensity, or whatever that was, that bond between us at that moment, if they're two different things, which I'm starting to wonder. I mean, we just touched something, but we lost it again. Something wasn't completed."

"You think we should call Gerard?" Jim asked hesitantly.

Blair sighed again.

"I don't know that he can help with this," he said regretfully. "Frankly I think it's a Sentinel/Guide thing, and what's good and right and normal in ordinary psychology just may not apply here." He chuckled. "Like accelerated healing and atypical trauma recovery."

Jim had to chuckle too.

"Got a point there, Chief," he said ruefully. "So what do we do about it?"

"I'm not sure." Blair shook his head. "I'm not sure if it's because I'm your Guide, or because I'm your chosen mate."

"You don't think it's the same thing?" Jim asked hesitantly.

"I don't know." Blair shrugged. "I can see the logic in a sexual relationship between Sentinel and Guide – they'd be together and alone for long periods of time, and there's the whole physical and emotional interdependence between them. But a Sentinel's genes would be really valuable to the tribe, so unless Sentinels and Guides were supposed to be of opposite sexes, it seems to me that Sentinels would be drawn to mate elsewhere, at least to reproduce." He glanced at Jim. "Maybe like you and Alex. Perpetuation of the species, maybe?"

"Yeah, but if a Sentinel – if I – ever had the instinct to just throw somebody down and fuck them," Jim said, blushing crimson, "wouldn't that be when? I mean, isn't the drive to reproduce supposed to be the strongest?"

"Maybe," Blair said, thinking about it. "But things hadn't, um, progressed that far with Alex." He glanced at Jim again. "Had they?"

Jim felt his face positively burning now. He shook his head.

"Just what you saw," he said.

"Then we're back to the Sentinel/Guide thing," Blair said resignedly. "Or maybe it was because you hadn't chosen Alex as your mate?"

"Or because Alex wasn't you," Jim said softly.

"Huh?" Blair said, turning to face him.

"You're my Guide," Jim said quietly. "That draws me to you instinctively, with a bond powerful enough that it influences even the rate we heal at. If loving you, wanting you, isn't purely instinct, then it's because I've also chosen you as my mate. Instinct plus all the rest. There's no way that instinct or pheromones alone could be as intense as the full package, right?"

"Mmm. I think you're right," Blair admitted. "I was able to snap you out of your fixation on Alex, and you got over the effects of the pheromones, so our connection was stronger." He nodded slowly. "Which basically means you need the whole package with me, and what happened happened because if I'm going to be all those things to you – Guide, companion, mate – then 'almost' isn't good enough."

Jim clenched his hands hard; he could feel them starting to shake.

"Then you think that until we – we take it all the way," he said tautly, "I could be dangerous to you."

"No, I don't think that at all." Blair laid his hand on Jim's knee, gazing into his eyes. "Nothing, not even instinct and frustration and denial, has made you attack me. You had me right there, naked and vulnerable. You outweigh me, God knows you're bigger and stronger, not to mention combat training I probably can't even imagine, and I'm hardly in fighting trim right now anyway. You could've done anything you wanted to me and I couldn't have stopped you. If you were going to – to – "

"Rape you," Jim filled in grimly.

Blair's lips thinned, but he continued, still meeting Jim's eyes squarely.

"If you were ever going to rape me, you'd have done it then," he said steadily. "But you didn't. And I'll tell you something else: It wouldn't have been rape, because I wouldn't have refused you."

Jim ground his teeth, turning his face away from that loving gaze. He couldn't stand the sympathy and warmth in his Guide's eyes. It made him feel even guiltier.

"You can't mean that," he whispered.

"I do," Blair insisted. "If you needed me that badly, Jim, I'd have let you have me. It wouldn't have been against my will. Against my inclination, maybe. I can't say I wouldn't have been afraid. I can't promise I'd have loved it. But considering how guilty you would've felt afterward, I bet it would've hurt you a lot worse than me."

Jim shook his head numbly. He didn't agree, but he couldn't disagree either, not without saying what went through his heart.

If I raped you, I'd kill myself.

"Jim." Blair touched Jim's face gently, turned Jim to face him. "Look at me. I know that you'll never force me, never hurt me. That's not faith or love or belief. It's a simple fact. I know for a fact that you'll never force me or hurt me, because you will never have to force me or hurt me to get what you need. You've worked so hard to give me everything I need, and that goes both ways. Whatever you need from me, whatever it is, it's yours. Got that?"

Jim wanted to disagree – very, very strongly. But he kept silent, only nodding reluctantly. He knew Blair meant it.

"And you're going to keep giving me what I need, right?" Blair pressed.

That one was easy. Jim nodded again.

"Good. 'Cause what I need right now is for you to hold me and cuddle me. I need you to not back off from this relationship, because it's the best damned thing that's ever happened to me. I need you to stay with it, stay with me, Jim, because a lot of the time you're the only thing holding me back from the edge."

For a moment the voice of Jim's fear was louder than anything – he was afraid to so much as touch Blair, afraid of that great red hunger that sprang up from somewhere in the dark depths of him. But Blair's need was a stronger force yet, one that no part of him could argue with. He put his glass of tea down and took his Guide into his arms, held him close, and once again felt the steady loving rhythm of his Guide's heart healing him.